Senju Naruto by Baal of Yarns
Summary:  
You'd think being brought up by his mother instead of as an outcast would make Naruto's life a little easier, but nothing comes that easily for a guy with a demon trapped in his belly, even if he's genetically predisposed to handling it.. Eventual Mokuton!Naruto No pairings.Story and Artwork by Baal of Yarns
Categories: TONFA Award Category, General Fiction > Character-Centric, General Fiction > Pre-Series, General Fiction > Naruto Characters: Jiraiya, Naruto Uzumaki, Tsunade, Minato Namikaze (Yondaime Hokage)
Genres: Action/Adventure, Drama, General, Humor
Warnings: AU
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 24 Completed: No Word count: 103806 Read: 78799 Published: 01/05/08 Updated: 14/08/08
Story Notes:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

All your ninja are belong to Kishimoto.

Spoilers for everything up to, and including the newest manga chapter.

A/N: This is NOT a pairing oriented fic.

1. Prologue: Life Altering Events by Baal of Yarns

2. Chapter 1: Dealing with It by Baal of Yarns

3. Chapter 2: A Little Over a Year Later by Baal of Yarns

4. Chapter 3: Terrible Twos by Baal of Yarns

5. Chapter 4: Not as Useful as it Might Seem by Baal of Yarns

6. Interlude: Training Day by Baal of Yarns

7. Chapter 5: Progress by Baal of Yarns

8. Chapter 6: Into the Deep by Baal of Yarns

9. Chapter 7: Rescue at the Beach by Baal of Yarns

10. Chapter 8: Out of the Deep by Baal of Yarns

11. Interlude: I Wanted a Kitty! by Baal of Yarns

12. Chapter 9: Homecoming by Baal of Yarns

13. Chapter 10: Meeting New People by Baal of Yarns

14. Chapter 11: Tsunade's Wrath by Baal of Yarns

15. Interlude: The ROOT of the Issue by Baal of Yarns

16. Chapter 12: Catching the Wave by Baal of Yarns

17. Chapter 13: Into the Sand by Baal of Yarns

18. Chapter 14: Brotherhood by Baal of Yarns

19. Chapter 15: The Two Sides to Every Coin by Baal of Yarns

20. Chapter 16: Making Headway by Baal of Yarns

21. Chapter 17: Cardboard Heroes by Baal of Yarns

22. Interlude: All Good Things Must Come to an End by Baal of Yarns

23. Chapter 18: The Beginning of the Middle by Baal of Yarns

24. Chapter 19: Unlucky Number Seven by Baal of Yarns

Prologue: Life Altering Events by Baal of Yarns
Author's Notes:

Now with title art.

Currently, I have no beta, and I'm kind of more of an artist than a writer. It's been a long time since I tried to write fiction so er, this chapter is a little rougher than the other 10 I've got written. It gets more polished after this! ;)

“Tsunade-hime! What are you doing here?” The newly appointed Yondaime Hokage greeted his sensei’s old teammate. Beside him on a bar stool, the Toad Sage was slumped over and softly snoring. He’d been out just long enough for a small pool of drool to start forming under his gaping mouth. It was relatively disgusting. The Yondaime was careful to keep the sleeve of his flame-trimmed coat from touching the slobbery mess.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” She quipped, while taking a slightly unsteady seat on the other side of the unconscious sennin. She casually tossed her long blonde ponytails over her shoulders. “After all, this dump is nearly a day’s travel from Konoha. Don’t you have a village to run?” She quickly snatched what was left of the bottle of sake Jiraiya’d been working on when he passed out – rescuing it before it could be tainted by the growing puddle.

“Eh, heh,” Minato scratched the back of his head in slight embarrassment, “well, the old man’s got it covered for now. Ero-Sensei thought we should go out and celebrate my appointment to Yondaime, and wouldn’t stop badgering me about it even though he knows I don’t drink. I finally had to agree on the condition that if he was going to get drunk and make me look bad, we do it where no one we know will see us.”

A sheepish grin spread across his face, a sweep of his hand taking in the water glass in front of him and the multitude of empty bottles surrounding his mentor like tiny cylindrical soldiers guarding his drunken sleep. “I’m kind of a role-model or something now, you know. On the upside, he agreed to lay off the peeping for the next few weeks if I came along and had at least one cup of sake. This way I’ll have one less nuisance to deal with while I settle into the job.”

Tsunade’s grin slipped a bit as she offered him the now slightly more empty bottle from which she’d just poured herself a drink, “Well it doesn’t look like you’ve held up your end of the bargain very well, Minato-kun. Don’t you feel like celebrating the achievement of your dream?”

He blinked in confusion for a minute, thrown off a bit by the odd note of grief in her voice, before realizing her comment was in regards to the lack of a sake saucer in front of him. “Oh, well – It’s a little embarrassing, but I really can’t hold my liquor.” He blushed a bit, then continued, “I figured I’d just let him drink himself stupid, and he’d never know if I’d actually had any or not.”

His sheepish grin reminded her of Dan - Dan and her brother both, whom she had loved, and who wanted to become Hokage, but their dream had died with them, and Minato had achieved it instead.

“You know, a man should never go back on his words,” was all she could think to say around the growing lump in her throat. Her grief was still as sharp now as it had been when she’d left the village. She hadn’t really thought about how she might feel seeing someone else given the title of Yondaime when the two she’d loved and supported so much would never be the leaders or protectors of anything again.

Minato stared on in unmitigated horror as the lower lip of the usually ridiculously strong, drunken woman beside him began to tremble and her eyes got big and damp. If there was one thing that really disturbed the Yondaime, it was a ninja – especially a kunoichi (or a kitten, but that’s an entirely different story) in emotional distress. He could take down whole armies of rock ninja single-handedly, but tears he just could not deal with. His usually sharp and strategic mind always short-circuited at the first signs of watery eyes, and then he’d begin to babble whatever random crap came into his head. This frequently made the situation worse instead of better, as the words weren’t going through his brain for proper vetting, and Namikaze Minato wasn’t naturally the most tactful person in the world.

On top of that, crying things made his insides wibble, and a man’s insides should never go wibbily. It wasn’t manly. If Stone or any of the other Hidden Villages ever learned of his ultimate weakness, all of Konoha would be doomed. When he’d talked it over with Sarutobi-sama (he couldn’t, in good conscience, let himself be named Hokage with such a huge and easily exploited Achilles heel without disclosing it to the Old Man first), he’d seemed to think it wouldn’t affect his ability to function as the village’s leader.

Unfortunately, while diplomats and enemies on a battle field weren’t likely to turn into sobbing, emotional wrecks in front of him, it seemed as though his sensei’s former teammate – at least when she was heavily inebriated, which was pretty frequently now - had no compunctions about it. She’d begun to sniffle alarmingly on top of the trembling lip and doe eyes. Immediately his mind turned off in self-defense, and his mouth started emergency tactics to try and curb the impending emotional Armageddon.

To his future woe, he had no idea why his unwillingness to drink alcohol had made her so upset, so he had to do the only thing he could think of to alleviate his perceived reason for her sudden mood shift. He immediately accepted the bottle she was still offering. Before he could think about it any further, he found himself quickly downing it while alternately sputtering in distaste, babbling about how he’d never go back on his word ever again, and waving his free hand desperately in a fending-off sort of gesture.

Completely forgetting her troubles at the strange sight before her, Tsunade immediately broke into drunken giggles. “Slow down boy-o! You’re going to choke. I thought you didn’t drink?”

“Er, but you said-!” Minato blinked at the now empty bottle in his hand and shook it a little in bewilderment as his brain kicked back in. “Whew! Crisis averted!’ “I don’t, but-“ he cut himself off again with a slightly confused frown, the previous few moments having been blanked from his memory to reduce the trauma to his psyche.

Tsunade’s grin turned a bit predatory, “Don’t worry about it Minato-kun. Here, have some more. Maybe that will jog your memory.” She ordered another round and poured for him before he could really think of a good protest. “Now, how about some cards?”

“Cards, huh? I don’t think you want to do that.” Yondaime said, talking around the sake cup he hadn’t taken from his lips since he’d picked it back up – it was easier to sip that way, after all. “I have completely weird luck with cards.”

“Weird luck huh?” She frowned a bit jealously. How good could it be? She’d just have to get him good and soused before broaching the topic again. “Well – I know! Let’s play a drinking game instead!”

Alarms immediately went off in his head, but unfortunately, he couldn’t hear them over the happy humming of the “I love sake” song he’d just made up. Tsunade’s grin turned a bit shark-like when her cute, blond new drinking buddy nodded happily, the most adorable alcohol flush spreading over his nose to kiss his cheeks.


Several bottles later, Tsunade decided Minato–kun looked awfully cute in the particularly seedy bar’s dingy lighting, and he’d had the same dream as her other precious people, AND he was already Hokage so he couldn’t be hit by the curse if she got just a little close to him…right?

Minato got progressively more and more Jiraiya like as he drank. He hadn’t been lying about his tolerance level – the alcohol hit his system like a small, underfed, little girl from the poorest regions of Mist Country instead of like the manly warrior he was. He thought Tsunade-chan had awfully nice breasts and certainly didn’t look anywhere near 40 with that awesome genjutsu of hers. Luckily, his words were so slurred by that point that she couldn’t tell what he was saying so his skull remained intact.

An hour later, they left Jiraiya completely passed out at the bar and went back to Minato’s room. In the morning, they both freaked out and agreed never to speak of, or even think about it again, as anything more specific than “The Incident” just in case someone developed some weird mind reading jutsu and decided to try it out on two of the strongest ninja of the era.



That might have been the end of it if Tsunade hadn’t shown up a little over a month later in the village she vowed never to step foot in again and immediately knocked Konoha’s newest Hokage through two walls and a convenient stack of empty crates. There’s always a stack of crates when you need one. It’s a law of the shinobi universe.

Sandaime blinked and looked back and forth between the new holes in Hokage Tower and his wayward student. Fires of unholy rage were burning around her form and licking away at the ceiling. Shizune-chan was begging her to calm down and tugging ineffectually at her sleeve to keep her from following the Yondaime’s trajectory to lay down more Wrath of the Heavens on his poor confused head.

He looked across his desk at Jiraiya, but the Toad Sage seemed even more baffled than his mentor was. Probably because he couldn’t believe he wasn’t the target of Tsunade’s violence for once. “Tsunade-chan, as happy as we are to see you back in the village, maybe you should explain what you are so angry about before you go after Minato-kun again. The ANBU get very nervous when the Hokage gets beaten up. They are supposed to be protecting him, you know.”

Minato had impeccable timing. His abused successor climbed back in through the wreckage his body had made of the tower, while holding his ribs as if they pained him quite a bit. His unruly hair was even more ruffled than usual and his coat had torn in several places on the crates that had broken his fall. It was pretty clear he had no idea why he’d just been Convenient Crate no jutsu-ed.

Unfortunately for him, it was obvious by her single-minded focus on the subject of her rage that Tsunade hadn’t even heard her mentor. “YOU! You complete and utter BASTARD!!” Her hands shot out in terrible claws ready to strangle the poor fool who looked just as confused as the rest of them.

Shizune managed to slow the advance of her master enough to let Jiraiya interpose himself between his teammate and his student. Jiraiya was never one of his brightest pupils. Sandaime sighed.

“Hey, calm down and tell us what’s going on! I don’t know what you think Minato did to you, but I really think he’s got to be innocent – he’s been here the whole time and—“

“Here the whole time, EXCEPT for the NIGHT he spent at that shitty bar and even shittier inn with ME! The bar and inn YOU dragged him to!” The medic-nin verbally plowed over the top of Jiraiya in her rage, “-the night he got me PREGNANT!”

The heavy silence that fell over the five of them was perhaps only slightly lighter than the weight of the entire tower. Sandaime blinked. ‘Well…this is surreal.’

“…” Even Jiraiya had nothing to say to that, his jaw hitting the floor just like the other men in the room until, “I guess I should have known you liked younger men. There had to be a reason you never seemed to fall for my manly charms.”

Sarutobi smacked his palm to his face – partly out of embarrassment and partly so he wouldn’t have to see the dismemberment of someone he considered something like a son.

“Y-you can’t mean-” Minato stuttered, “The Incident? I-we-there’s no way-“

“Tell that to my UTERUS you complete and utter BASTARD!!”

Minato spared a small part of his mind to feel sorry for his sensei as Tsunade continued to take her anger out on the resident super pervert while she screamed at him.

“Tsu-Tsunade-sama, please calm down. All this stress can’t be good for the baby.” Shizune begged.

Surprisingly, it seemed to get through to her understandably violent mentor who made a monumental effort to try and control herself, her fist clenched and white knuckled, held trembling before her chest.

Minato looked ready to faint and slowly lowered himself to the floor against the ruined wall of his office. “A-are you sure? I mean-well, of course you’re sure, you’re a medic-nin, but how-I mean, well, of course I know HOW technically, but don’t you have-er-do, or…well-By all that’s holy, what are we going to do?!”

Tsunade’s hard won sliver of control seemed to be quickly evaporating, “You’d better not be thinking beyond, ‘who’s it going to live with’ and ‘how are we going to explain it to the council?’ because if you’re thinking I’m going to get rid of it-!”

“NO! No, of course not!” she seemed a little soothed by his quick and vehement reply.

‘Minato-kun is an orphan after all,’ Sandaime thought, ‘and so he places a high value on family.’ He’d frequently talked about it, though the old man rather thought he’d been planning to start it off with that hot red-headed ANBU from Whirlpool rather than the hot tempered blonde Sannin looming over him like holy retribution. Tsunade, herself, had lost every family member she’d ever had, baring Shizune who would have been her sister-in-law if Dan had lived. She wanted family like people trapped in the Suna desert wanted water, but her fear of loss and overwhelming grief wouldn’t normally let her get close to people anymore. That was probably the only thing that had saved Minato his membership card in the male club. She and Dan had planned to have kids right away, both really wanting children, and she’d probably thought that chance lost to her along with her lover.

The old man grinned. While this certainly threw a wrench in the works of both of their plans for the future, it just might prove to be a really good thing for both of them. On top of that, what kind of children would two power-house-shinobi like them produce? They’d be little monsters! Sandaime had visions of dandling amazingly strong warriors with god-like chakra control on his knees. He hid his growing smile behind his hand.

This time the silence was thoughtful. Minato was smart enough not to suggest Tsunade move back to the village right away, and for him, leaving was out of the question. Tsunade was no doubt dealing with warring emotions. She’d probably wanted him to say she could have the kid, no strings attached, but the growing brightness Sandaime saw in the young man’s eyes wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the expectant mother even if she’d managed to overlook his reputation as the most honest and responsible man alive. Her child was going to have a loving father if Minato had any say in the matter, and if he knew her at all, she wouldn’t be able to bring herself to be resentful of that – regardless of the circumstances of their child’s conception.

Finally, the old man cleared his throat, breaking the tableau, and drawing the attention of everyone in the room, “Well, you’ve got over seven months to think it over. You don’t have to make a decision today. Why don’t you all go and think about it a little more? Give the news time to settle in and the shock to fade a bit.”

Tsunade frowned. Sarutobi knew that look. It was her ridiculously stubborn one. “I’m not staying in this Cursed Village one minute longer than necessary!” she spat. “I’ll be at Grandfather’s retreat on the border, but don’t think this lets you off the hook, Bastard!” The two current Hokage watched her step on the slowly rousing Jiraiya on her way out.

Shizune winced and hurried to follow her mentor, scooping TonTon up so the little pig didn’t fall behind.

“Wow, I just had the most bizarre dream! You’d had a torrid one-night affair with Tsunade for some reason and managed to accidentally knock her up!” The Toad Sage exclaimed, sitting up and rubbing at the large and painful lump on his head. “Wow, Minato, those ribs look bad, maybe you should get them looked at.”

Sarutobi sighed again. It was a good thing his pupil had an amazingly thick skull, or he’d have been killed ages ago; after all, it was hard to dodge monstrously strong punches and thrown pieces of rubble the size of one’s head while simultaneously trying to yank your own foot out of your mouth.



End Notes:
Japanese Notes:
-hime: suffix like “san” or “chan” meaning princess.
Ero-: Used as a suffix here to mean ‘perverted’
Kunoichi: female ninja
Eh, I think the rest of them are common enough in fanfiction for you all to know the meanings, come to think of it, I doubt any of you needed these either, but please let me know if I’m mistaken and I’ll add to the definitions.
Chapter 1: Dealing with It by Baal of Yarns
Author's Notes:

Chapter 1 - Dealing with It:

Tsunade ended up spending the entire duration of her pregnancy in the small cottage her grandfather had built with his Mokuton jutsu for when he needed to get away from the bustle of a growing Konoha. Shizune stayed with her, and Minato made it a point to visit at least once a day to bring them supplies and check up on the baby. His trips became more frequent when Tsunade took to throwing one of his Hiraishin kunai (left with them for emergencies) every time she had a craving or just wanted to chew him out really good. The ingenious little seals inscribed on the three-pronged weapons let him know every time one was thrown, and he always showed up just in case *this time* it was important.

 

Tsunade seemed to be entirely ignoring the fact that it took two to Tango and was taking all of her frustrations and fear for the future out on Minato, but he couldn’t work up the nerve to point that out to her. Her mood swings made rabid hungry weasels seem predictable and rational and his manhood was already threatened more times than he was comfortable with as it was.

 

Despite his predecessor’s obvious hopes for them, Yondaime was pretty sure he and Tsunade would never get past a platonic sort of relationship. He frowned and idly tapped a pen against his desk as his shadow clones industriously read and signed off on paperwork throughout the room. There was the age gap to consider, but that was surmountable. It was Konoha, itself that he was sure would always be their hurdle even if they could find some sort of common ground for affection, and he couldn’t see any way around it.

 

Regardless, his life was kind of on hold until they could figure out how to deal with all of this. He was really looking forward to being a father, but the situation constantly weighed on his mind. He was a man of action – charging in and getting things done. He’d never been forced to really put something this important on the back-burner before, but he dreaded the confrontation that would resolve it, especially since he had no idea where he should really stand and what he should fight for out of the many issues surrounding this situation. He was a completely confused mess, and he knew it.

 

If that wasn’t enough, before all of this had happened, he’d been all set to finally go out with Whirlpool’s Uzumaki Kushina, but he didn’t really feel comfortable doing that when he couldn’t be completely honest with her. Impending fatherhood is not really something you should start out a relationship hiding from your girlfriend, so he’d put her off with excuses about being busy with Hokage duties. Understandably she was getting impatient and not a little bit pissed since he’d been chasing her pretty hard until he’d found out about the baby. She’d probably decided he was a complete ass and moved on.

 

He sighed.

 

He couldn’t really blame her, if she had, especially since he wasn’t willing to risk a relationship with his child over anything, let alone a romance that wasn’t even guaranteed to work. He had no delusions that Tsunade wouldn’t bring it up romantic entanglements when they finally couldn’t put this particular fight off any longer. She was a brilliant woman and he really felt like he needed to have all his ducks in a row if he wanted to get along congenially with the mother of his son or daughter and have any hope of convincing her he deserved access to the child just as much as she did. If he had to give up Kushina to be a parent, then so be it. It wouldn’t really be fair to her to drag her into this mess anyway.

 

That being said, he’d be damned if he let Tsunade run off with his son or daughter, but he was sure she’d never agree to stay. Despite the lack of death and destruction during her most recent stay in the village, she was still adamant that she would never raise a child that close to Konoha, and he was sure she’d never be happy staying in Shodai’s Retreat. The Hidden Village of the Leaf would forever be associated with taking from her everything she ever cared for, and she’d never feel comfortable with her kid so close to what she perceived as a cursed death trap. Especially if the kid was to frequently visit his father there. She was already going stir crazy in that small cabin. Minato sighed. He’d be lucky if she even managed to make it through the next few weeks until the birth.

 

If Tsunade were to frequently take the baby out of the village, as much as it hurt him to even think of it, he had to consider that it might be best for the kid if his or her paternity wasn’t even known to the general public. He had no illusions as to how safe a child of his would be without him there to protect it. He’d never forgive himself if some Stone ninja went after his child in some twisted plot to get revenge on the Yellow Flash for his part in the Third Great Ninja War. Tsunade’s reputation might serve to keep them off, but it might also make them even more determined not to let a child with that kind of pedigree reach an age where he could be dangerous.

 

He wished he could talk to Kakashi about it. His student had grown up under the shadow of the White Fang and on more than one occasion had to deal with grief-crazed shinobi bent on revenge for things his father had done. He wanted to know how he dealt with it and how often it happened, how easily the plots were thwarted – that sort of thing. He couldn’t confide in the boy though. He couldn’t tell anyone until he and Tsunade could talk it out, and at this rate, the kid would be Godaime by the time they both could even decide what it was they WANTED.

 

Yondaime’s pen snapped at that thought and ink went spattering over everything. He cursed loudly then waved away the ANBU that came to investigate the commotion. Morosely he cleaned up the mess as best he could before turning back to the window and sinking back into his thoughts.

 

He’d probably be getting along better with Tsunade if she hadn’t taken to abusing the Hiraishin kunai. He’d fallen off the ceiling once, been neck deep in one of Jiraiya’s swamps TWICE (despite his occasional lack of self-preservation instincts, the Sage knew when to just shut up and do it without asking questions). He’d been summoned under Giant Slugs, in piles of garbage, and on one memorable occasion, halfway in the oven. Which was on.

 

For the most part, he was a good sport about it – she was carrying his baby, and he’d known better than to let her manipulate him into drinking that night, but it was getting really old and he’d had to come up with a lot of excuses for why he kept needing to procure new hokage robes. Additionally, it was hard to have a rational conversation with someone when you were dealing with second-degree burns over the lower half of your body, even if they were letting their apprentice heal you right away.

 

If that wasn’t enough, he’d also been dealing with his Hokage duties, and someone had been setting the tailed beasts loose on various villages over the past few years. He’d had a side project going for a while now on something to counter it if it ever happened to Konoha, but he hadn’t had a chance to work on it in months. It would probably work, but it would definitely kill whoever tried to use it, AND it still required a sacrifice to seal the demon in which was absolutely unacceptable in Yondaime’s mind.

 

He was unceremoniously jerked out of his thoughts when the tower began to shake a little and off in the distance, in the exact direction of the Shodaime’s retreat, the sky burned red.

Oh please no.

 

Fucking Kyuubi had the nerve to go rampaging through her grandfather’s cottage -- a small house that had stood testament to her ancestor’s amazing skill with Mokuton jutsu since the founding of Konoha. She’d had a lot of fond childhood memories of that place. What’s more, the damn Nine Tails had the utter gall to do it when she was just over 8 months pregnant and miles away from any defenses aside from Shizune whose poisons wouldn’t do squat against a several stories tall monster made entirely of the chakra embodiment of pure malice.

 

Tsunade growled through the shooting pains in her back. She really did have the Worst Luck Ever™ and this sealed it, Konoha was definitely out to get her.

 

“We’ve got to keep going Tsunade-sama.” Shizune urged her, doing her best to support her staggering mentor as they fled the destruction Kyuubi was causing behind them.

 

They’d gotten away from the house and started heading for the dubious safety of the village’s walls in what had seemed like plenty of time. The giant oppressive cloud of hatred that preceded the demon along with his huge ass body, made it kind of hard to miss when he headed towards you. Unfortunately, the stress of his presence and the panicked flight from their refuge towards the last place in the world she’d ever feel safe had kicked the Slug Sannin into premature labor. This, understandably, slowed them down quite a bit.

 

“Fucking Minato – bastard couldn’t make his jutsu work two ways could he? How much harder could that have been, huh?” She gasped. They’d been outside when they’d felt the first waves of the Bijuu’s killing intent and had been more focused on escaping than going back to the house for the Hiraishin kunai, so even if the Yondaime HAD the foresight to make them work so they could summon other people to him, it wouldn’t have done them much good.

 

That bit was lost on Tsunade though, as she had very little room for rationalizing through a haze of pain and fear. Especially when her legs gave out from under her during a particularly strong contraction only moments after her last one had stopped. “DAMNIT, we’re not going to make it to the village, let alone the hospital.” She gasped, “You’re going to have to deliver this brat here. It’s got to be a son. No girl would be this rude and pushy. He’s going to take after that bastard of a father, I can tell!”

 

“Try to stay calm, Tsunade-sama. If the baby’s ready to come now, then there’s nothing for it. Remember to breath!” Shizune said. She’d been afraid something like this would happen.

 

“#@$#@ of course I’m going to remember to breath!” Tsunade gritted out through clenched teeth. “Why do people always tell women in labor to do that?! If I ever say that to someone, I want you to kick me!”

 

Her apprentice ignored her with practiced ease, as she did her best to clear a spot on the forest floor, and laid out her outer robe to try and make her mentor more comfortable. Together they managed to get Tsunade arranged as best as possible, but the situation was definitely less than ideal. The baby was early enough that he’d be small, so despite the fact that this was her first child, the birth was likely to be fast.

 

They were fortunate that Tsunade was as far along as she was; the baby had a good chance of being healthy even if he was a bit early. There were medical jutsu which would have it set to rights in no time as long as he or she was developed to a certain point.

 

 

The baby was crowning by the time Minato managed to find them. He’d ditched his ANBU guard, sending them to the front, while he went to find out what had happened to his unborn child. He assuaged the waves of guilt he’d been feeling for letting his personal concerns trump his duty to the village, by telling himself that his baby might be the solution to all of their problems. The idea of what he would do if they could manage to force the child to be born before it was too late made him slightly ill, and the horror of what would happen to his precious village and everyone inside it if they couldn’t warred for supremacy in his mind. He refused to think about how he’d convince Tsunade it was necessary if they had to induce labor, just as he refused to believe the high probability that he might not find her alive.

 

When he arrived in their little clearing to be met by the cries of his first born son and lack of resistance from his already very protective mother, well, that was it then. It had to be fate. There were no other women in the village due to naturally give birth soon enough, and all the current infants were older than a few hours into the world and so were unlikely to survive the process. His face was a mixture of sadness and the reflexive joy of all new fathers when he accepted the bundle of squirming infant from Shizune while the girl continued to work on her now unconscious master. It was easy to slip away and join Jiraiya and Gamabunta at the front lines. In the end, he supposed it didn’t matter that they’d not made any concrete plans for their son’s future before he actually arrived. There’d be very few choices now.

 

He’d have to be satisfied with getting to hold and name and see the tiny wonderful face of his legacy before he gave his life for a village he knew very well might grow to hate their tiny savior, but what choice did he have? “Forgive me, Naruto.” He murmured.

 

As he lay dying after performing the massive sealing, he carefully kissed the top of his sleeping son’s head and passed the baby to his sensei. He thought there might have been tears in Jiraiya’s eyes, but his own vision was getting too hazy and he was too far gone for his usual panic response. “You’re a godfather, Sensei.” He gasped. “Make sure they know your godson’s a hero.” And with those final words, the Yondaime died.

 

 

By the time Tsunade got her first look at her baby, he’d already been given the unfortunate name of a hero from Jiraiya’s new book, lost his overly noble father who didn’t even have the decency to build up a respectable alcohol tolerance, and been saddled with the most perverted, free-loading, horrible godfather in the history of perverted, free-loading, horrible godfathers. She hoped this wasn’t a sign that her son had inherited her luck.

 

Shock from seeing blood of which she was phobic and giving birth less than a mile from where the most powerful of the tailed beasts had been tearing through the village’s defenses hadn’t been very good for her health, and she’d passed out rather quickly near the end of the ordeal. On the upside, she thought she’d somewhat come to grips with the blood thing, as this experience with it had brought her the most perfect, precious, bundle of blond joy she’d ever seen.

 

She’d managed to sleep through the trip back to Konoha, which had probably been pretty uncomfortable both for herself and Shizune, who’d had to carry her, and she’d also managed to miss the anxiety of knowing what that crazy bastard was doing with her poor Naru-chan before she knew he’d come safely out of it. There was no way in hell she’d have agreed to it if she’d known, but she was happy to be spared the worry during the whole ordeal.

 

This and the lingering discomfort of having just given birth no matter how good your healer happens to be probably saved quite a few lives in the aftermath of Tsunade learning just what she’d missed while she was out. An enraged Tsunade was something the shinobi of Konoha had learned to deal with, but an enraged Tsunade protecting her son was on an entirely different level, and something they wouldn’t witness for many years to come. As it was, she was grumpy, but holding her small, but perfectly healthy-but-for-the-demon-sealed-in-his-belly son kept her from completely flying off the handle. In fact a strange sense of contentment and peace had settled on her despite what Minato’s actions might mean for their kid’s future.

 

The baby in her arms opened and closed his tiny fists and moved his head a little. It was the most adorable thing she’d ever seen. Tsunade quietly cooed at her son from their place on a rather uncomfortable cot in a little forgotten room in Hokage Tower. After the stunt his dad had pulled, there was no way she’d let herself be seen with an infant anywhere near Konoha for a rather long time. People might put two and two together and get Kyuubi-vessel, and she wasn’t having any of that, so her only option was hiding out for the duration of their stay here.

 

Come to think of it, she was really glad they hadn’t told anyone about the baby for a variety of reasons. A) no one was supposed to know Kyuubi had been sealed into a kid, and therefore everyone knew and wanted to kill it, and B) letting the world know the greatest medic-nin in history and granddaughter of the Shodaime had procreated, however accidentally, with Konoha’s infamous Yellow Flash, directly relating the boy to all but one of the Leaf’s, (known for its strong ninja) strongest ninja and one of its Sannin was probably ranked pretty high up there on the Bad Idea Scale™. Really Strong Ninja tended to collect Really Strong Enemies like old men collected stamps.

 

Tsunade inwardly cursed Minato, despite the fact that it wasn’t good to think or speak ill of the dead. He might as well have painted a giant bull’s-eye on poor Naru-chan along with the fancy-ass seal.

 

Hopefully, if she played her cards right and managed to get out of Konoha without anyone the wiser, everyone would just think she had became another one of the many kunoichi who decided to have a kid of her own without unnecessarily tying herself down to someone else. That kind of thing wasn’t exactly an oddity in a world full of highly independent women who were trained to have illicit affairs for information and infiltration purposes or hold on to clan positions which needed heirs without the complications of marriage and possible loss of political power to a spouse not of their blood. It wasn’t uncommon at all for high ranking and politically powerful women to have children and give them the maternal family name, so if they played their card right Senju Naruto shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.

 

For the second point, ideally most people would just assume that the Kyuubi kid was just some random brat pulled off the street rather than the son of two of their most prestigious heroes. When he failed to make his presence known, they’d no doubt think that he disappeared, probably killed by someone who didn’t want to take credit for it and get himself executed for breaking the soon to be announced Fourth’s Law of secrecy.

 

No one knew his name or what the infant had looked like, bundled up as he’d been on the battle field. So as long as they didn’t have to see him and be reminded of the terrifying force of nature held at bay in such a tiny, fragile body, human nature dictated that they’d probably be quick to forget about him. Out of sight, out of mind. Celebrate Naruto-kun’s birthday on his original due date, and presto – no one the wiser. After all, everyone knew Tsunade had a huge aversion to returning to her home village so it would seem unlikely that she and her newborn son would have been there during the attack.

 

If her kid happened to look a great deal like Konoha’s favorite martyred hokage, well, his mother was blonde too, and she’d been through lots of places with predominately blue-eyed people in her travels. Maybe his father was from Lightning Country. The coloring wasn’t that uncommon over there.

 

Her fierce grin slipped a bit as she took in all the ways her baby obviously took after his father. Though still a bit red, it was evident that his complexion would be darker than hers, and that bright shade of yellow hair was all Minato. She’d be willing to bet his eyes were going to brighten up rather than darken when they settled into his adult color. If you ignored the whisker-like birthmarks on his cheeks, he’d probably end up being a tiny Yondaime clone. She sighed, ‘well, at least those aren’t likely to give him away either. Lots of ninja families have weird markings. Just look at an Inuzuka.’

Looking at Naruto, it was hard to believe the Yondaime was gone and her sweet little baby was the jailor for a massive, malevolent demon. The cheeky blond punk had been a constant annoyance and source of anxiety for her for the last several months, but she had faith in Minato’s ability with seals, and even more faith in his love for his son. After all, she’d had to deal with his constant cooing at her stomach, babbling of possible baby names (including the one he’d stuck the kid with – damn that Jiraiya, it was somehow his fault, she was sure!), and for the sake of little Naruto, now sleeping so peacefully in her arms, he’d even put up with her messing with him by summoning him in as many different, uncomfortable, and embarrassing situations as she could think of with that trick kunai of his.

 

She’d never given him a chance, she realized, too worried about him demanding to keep their baby and with his village behind him, having the power to take yet another bit of her family away from her. It was extremely ironic that now, he was the one who’d never get to see his little boy grow up.

 

Looking out the window at the city Minato had sacrificed himself to save, the same city all her loved ones gave their lives for, as it struggled to deal with its devastating losses and revive itself from the wreckage, she couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy about her decision to totally alienate herself and her son from Konoha. She’d never seen before what was so great about it that they all had felt it was worth their lives to govern and protect. But both she and Minato had been born here, grown up here, been ninja here, and though many of her loved ones had died here too, this village had given her Naruto and in a way, her loses had been a part of that. If she hadn’t been feeling so sorry for herself that night, she’d never have fallen into bed with Jiraiya’s prize pupil.

 

Maybe someday, if he wanted it really badly, she’d let Naruto come back long enough to become a ninja of the Leaf. Knowing her luck, odds were the kid would be genetically predisposed for obsession with hokage-hood anyway. What was the point of fighting against inevitability?

 

…But definitely not until he could properly defend himself – at least chuunin level…maybe jounin, or ANBU. No, he’d definitely have to be Sannin level first. She nodded to herself, yeah, that was reasonable; no one could fault her for that logic. “What do you think Naru-chan?” she whispered to her sleeping son, “should we go wake up Shizune and get out of this hell-hole?”

 

Naruto slept soundly in reply, after all, he was a newborn – they really only had three modes at that stage of development. She took this for tactic agreement.

 

Tsunade levered herself up off of the cot, careful not to jostle the tiny bundle in her arms, and padded silently towards the door. Jiraiya, when he’d had a chance to stick his head in earlier, had informed her that her apprentice had fallen asleep almost as soon as she’d drug them into the tower. She’d been exhausted from stress, the birth, and healing Tsunade in its aftermath – not to mention the amount of effort it had taken to be stealthy while trying to get them to hiding without being seen by anyone in the general confusion. She’d been given the room next to Tsunade’s so she wasn’t too hard to find.

 

Once informed of the situation, Shizune was extremely apologetic about the whole, ‘handed your baby to a man who sealed a demon in him’ thing, but in her frantic efforts to save her master she hadn’t really thought twice about giving the baby to his father to hold. Who could blame her? Well, Tsunade could, and it would have been ages before Shizune lived it down enough to be trusted to babysit her precious Naru-chan if infants had been allowed in bars and/or casinos. As it was, in the years to come she got plenty of one on one time with her beloved adopted nephew.

End Notes:

Japanese Notes:

Hiraishin – the name of the Yondaime’s famous teleporting technique

Bijuu – one of the tailed demons.

Again, I think those are the only words some people might not know, but if I missed anything, please feel free to inform me. I’m trying to use English whenever possible, but some things just don’t translate well – like honorifics, and the names of things like Jutsu. “Flying Thunder god Technique” just sounds hokey.

Chapter 2: A Little Over a Year Later by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 2 - A Little Over a Year Later:

Naruchan1.jpg

 

No, no, Naru-chan! Don’t chew on that. That’s Kaa-san’s lottery ticket.” Tsunade scolded her precocious toddler. The kid had a knack for physical things and getting into trouble. He’d rolled over early, crawled early, and started walking almost immediately after. From the way he was eyeing the tops of the shelves in the convenience store they’d stopped in to buy supplies, she knew it wouldn’t be long before he was scaring the shit out of her by seeing how many things he could fall off of without breaking his head.

He undoubtedly took after his father. There wasn’t a self-preservation bone in his little body.

Shizune liberated the now soggy bit of paper from her nephew’s mouth and frowned to see he’d managed to scratch off a bit of it. The poor guy was teething like mad and nothing was safe from his tiny fangs. He had, oddly enough, gotten his canines in before his front teeth.

Tsunade juggled her purchases while trying to put her wallet away and stared fondly at her apprentice and son. Shizune was taking a closer look at the ragged ticket while trying to keep Naruto from grabbing it back in chubby fists. Suddenly her eyes grew large and she exclaimed, “Tsu-Tsunade-sama! You won!”

“WHAT?!” she nearly dropped the bags of groceries she’d just paid for. “Let me see!”

“Technically, the kid just won.” The amused store clerk pointed out, “he’s the one that scratched it off. You’ve got quite a lucky little guy there, yes, you do! Who’s a lucky little guy?”

Babies turned most people into even larger idiots than they normally were. It was Tsunade’s Rule of the Universe number 46. She was working on a theory that the maternal or paternal instincts in adult humans overrode at least 20% of their normal brain function when in the presence of miniature versions of themselves. The vocabulary centers were the first to go. No one was immune.

“Orange!” Naruto cheered, that being his favorite all-purpose word. He used it for everything for which he had no existing vocabulary and sometimes for things he just thought were more “orange”, than whatever the rest of the world felt they should be named. He’d even called Jiraiya “orange” until his mother had taught him the word “pervert.”

Finally able to set the bags down without upsetting anything, the Legendary Sucker snatched the winning ticket from Shizune’s hand and stared at it. “I’ll be damned.” Well, it was only fair, she supposed, in the cosmic scheme of things, if the kid got his dad’s recklessness, it should be balanced out with proportionally good luck.

Somehow, this didn’t make her feel better.

Probably because Naruto had begun eagerly pointing to the tops of shelves again, and yelling “Orange!” excitedly.

Tsunade handed the ticket back to the clerk to cash it out and wasn’t surprised when the woman didn’t even flinch at its kind of disgusting state. She would have had to stop cooing ridiculously at a dumbfounded Naruto in order to notice.

She and Shizune always made it a point to talk to the kid as if he were a real person whenever they could free themselves from the Baby Effect. This caused Naru-chan to be supremely confused when other adults babbled in length at him in high-pitched, nonsense phrases for great lengths of time as the store clerk was doing. He got the most adorable look on his face and those huge blue eyes blinked several times as if he were trying to puzzle out what kind of strange disease she had and if it were contagious.

“What that?” he asked, pointing at the starry-eyed woman as his mother pocketed his winnings and picked up the bags of groceries again.

“That’s a babbling moron, Naru-chan! Can you say, ‘moron’?”

“Sensei!! Stop teaching my nephew to insult people!”

“Orange!”

They left the store to the indignant sputtering of the offended woman behind the counter.

Back at the small house they were renting by the month, Tsunade took Naruto from her apprentice while Shizune went to put the supplies away. With a somewhat steady income generated by the lack of a blood phobia preventing Tsunade and Shizune from privately hiring out their healing services or working at local hospitals or clinics whenever they needed ryo, they’d taken to staying in places for much longer than they’d been used to because all the parenting books said kids needed stability.

She was pretty sure the authors of the books had never seen a baby thrive on absolutely everything like Naruto did.

He wasn’t scared of a damn thing and absolutely loathed routine. Every time he had a new experience, or they went somewhere he’d never been before, he damn near wet himself in excitement. He was the single most vibrant and simply alive thing she’d ever run across. There was no way something as terrible as the Nine Tails could be influencing the brat. He wouldn’t know hatred if it walked up to him and started making faces and babbling like that store clerk.

She hadn’t seen a single sign of the Kyuubi influencing her son’s actions, and she’d been looking. She wanted to be ready if they had to track down Jiraiya and get him to look at the seal.

So far, the early teething and whiskered birthmarks were the only things that even showed her son wasn’t a normal, unpossessed, baby. The seal was always visible, which worried her a little since Jiraiya had seemed to think it should only show up when his chakra was active, but his energy flow was really steady for a toddler’s, something that ran in her family, and she hadn’t ever sensed the demon at all. Of course, that also contradicted Jiraiya’s theories about the seal. He’d seemed pretty sure the fox would manage to throw Naru’s control all to hell by constantly throwing bits of his chakra into the normal coils, a downside to the seal’s natural, built in ability to slowly merge the power of the Bijuu with the boy over time.

If that were the case, Tsunade’s medic senses should have been able to feel it, at least every now and then, but she’d hadn’t noticed even the normal, spurts and starts most children – at least those not directly descended from the Shodaime – seemed prone to. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a Hyuuga, so she couldn’t be sure what exactly was going on, but a few of her jutsu could give her a pretty good picture, and it seemed to her that the toddler’s body was dealing with his prisoner much better than expected.

Nevertheless, she’d put the word out that she wanted to see her old teammate about something important, and she expected him to show up looking for free food and board any time now.

Naruto yawned as they padded through the house and she decided to put him down for a nap. He usually balked at naps like you had suggested he bathe in filth instead of rest for an hour or two, but he was still only a baby and he got sleepy in the afternoons. They’d found if they didn’t mention the word “nap” and just sort of wandered around the house holding him until he dozed off, it saved everyone a lot of accusatory exclamations of “Orange!” and heart-wrenching pouty faces. It was something about the too large blue eyes and sun-colored hair. No one was cold hearted enough to resist that face.

It had been really useful in getting away from debtors, actually. “You don’t need the money right now, do you?! Look at that face! You can’t take money away from me that I could be spending on him!” The Baby Effect definitely came in handy, despite its inherent annoyances.

Naru-chan’s eyes had closed now and he’d begun to chew on her shirt absently in between soft snores. Tsunade grinned. He was just too damn cute, even when he was drooling all over her favorite green gambling coat.

She gently laid him down and smoothed a few locks of blond hair out of his eyes, frowning a bit at the odd emerging birthmark on his right cheek. If it continued to darken, it might obscure the whisker marks somewhat on that side, but it was kind of strange. She wondered if Minato had been related to some Inuzuka after all.

The quiet mother and son moment was broken by the sound of the outside door slamming open and a cheerful greeting of, “Hey, Shizune-chan! What’s for lunch?” ringing through the hall.

Naruto’s eyes immediately popped open and he snapped up like a jack-in-the-box, hands making grabby motions to his mother to be picked up and carried to see the visitor, “Ero-jiji!” he begged, practically vibrating in happiness and Tsunade sighed. It was nice that the two got along so well, Jiraiya was his godfather, after all, but she swore on the blood of her ancestors, if that bastard influenced her son into being a pervert, she’d make sure he’d never be able to enjoy those tasteless books he wrote EVER AGAIN.

“Where’s my little godson?!” said pervert boomed, strolling into the room like he owned the place. Tsunade couldn’t begrudge him when she saw Naruto’s eyes light up even more, if that were at all possible.

Jiraiya’s brows furrowed in thought as he studied the seal on the toddler’s stomach. The little tyke had been all too happy to ditch his shirt. You couldn’t keep clothing on the kid to save your life unless you reminded him that big, strong ninja always wore their shirts for their mommies and didn’t argue about eating their peas.

For a moment, he was baffled. The seal seemed to be working absolutely perfectly and just how it had been designed to function. The only explanation he had for its constant visible state was if the kid were constantly molding chakra for some reason, which even his age aside, was pretty much impossible. He’d heard that some of the rarer blood limits dealing with elemental manipulation could cause a constant, small drain on the bearers, but Yondaime and Tsunade weren’t carriers of any special traits that he was aware of aside from the usual flavors that ran through certain ninja family lines - advanced chakra control in Tsunade’s case, and speed in Minato’s.

The kid was too young for the speed, even if it had developed into something on the level of a bloodline in his father. While his chakra flow was a little steadier than most kids his age, that could be explained by practice and the small natural aptitude males of the Shodaime’s line inherited – he was always using it for whatever the hell it was doing so it made sense that he’d be pretty good at it. Jiraiya doubted this was a sign of his mother’s godlike control.

Besides, control didn’t explain what the chakra was doing, or why Kyuubi’s essence was entirely undetectable in the kid. The fox was in there – he knew that, he’d seen it sealed with his own eyes, and the kid had the whiskers to prove it.

Idly, he tried to brush what looked like a large smudge of dirt off of Naruto’s cheek while he thought.

Hmm, the damn spot was kind of stubborn.

He rubbed harder and Naruto began to wiggle in protest.

“What the hell have you been playing in Naru-chan?” the older man frowned, squinting at the stubborn stain – it almost looked like it was underneath the skin…and the shape was kind of weird.

Tsunade was shocked speechless when she came in a few minutes later. “Jiraiya, are you drawing on my baby’s face with a marker? That had better be non-toxic! …and washable!” her fist clenched and began to rise slightly.

“Wait, wait! I can explain!” he hastily backpedalled, babbling in his haste to avoid dismemberment and change the subject; in truth, he didn’t know if the marker was washable, but he wrote himself notes on his hand with it all the time, so he was sure it was safe. Sometimes he didn’t have paper on hand when great inspiration for a novel happened to strike. “I think I figured it out, and you’re not going to believe it!”

“You figured out what’s wrong with Naruto’s seal by drawing a weird floral design on his face?” He could tell she didn’t believe him because her face wasn’t looking any less thunderous, and the heavy threat of violence still hung in the air around her.

“I didn’t draw it, I TRACED it, and it’s not really that floral – I think they’re more like vines and leaves. It’s not clear enough to tell, yet.” He hurried to explain.

It didn’t take her long to connect the darkening spot on Naru-chan’s cheek with Jiraiya’s stint at face painting. She leaned down and squinted at the design, though it was hard to get her son to cooperate and turn his head properly so she could see it in the light. He seemed to have given up on understanding adults some time ago, and decided they must be playing a new game that involved grabbing each other’s faces.

“Shit.” Tsunade finally agreed, “What the hell?”

“You’d have to do a bloodlimit test to be sure, but from what I can tell, there’s no other explanation.” Jiraiya grinned, “Shodaime’s Mokuton and Bijuu controlling abilities have turned into a properly inheritable kekkei genkai. The sort of one that acts at least somewhat subconsciously, and is always at work keeping the Kyuubi in line.”

Tsunade frowned and licked her finger to rub at the marker on her little boy’s face in the kind of utterly gross gesture only mothers can get away with, “That would explain why Grandfather’s techniques weren’t copyable and hadn’t presented themselves until now. It’s not uncommon for something like this to go dormant for a generation or two while it transforms from a specific individual’s genetic predilection into a family trait. Many of the clans started that way.”

“Yeah, well – I don’t care about the specifics. This is great!” Jiraiya exclaimed, “He’s got a natural talent for dealing with the Fox! It might not ever bother him at all! He might not even know he’s got it! The natural drain might even act like chakra pool training. The kid’s capacity will be HUGE before he ever even learns to use it”

Tsunade didn’t seem to be sharing his enthusiasm, “Well, I guess, but it would probably make his Mokuton jutsu harder to use, the kekkei genkai would almost have to multi-task to keep the fox’s raw chakra from leaking out with the assimilated chakra; on top of that, what if he ever does use Kyuubi’s power? His natural system is built almost as its antithesis. There’s no telling what kind of effects that would have.”

Jiraiya frowned, “Good point. Well, I can’t say one way or the other. All I can tell you is that the seal is working exactly as it was designed to do, and that birthmark on his face looks an awful lot like plant-life to me. I’d put money on it being the physical manifestation of a bloodlimit, and something’s keeping Kyuubi’s chakra from only getting into the kid’s system after it’s been completely changed over into his own chakra type. Signs point to Mokuton.”

Naruto seemed to have sensed the seriousness of the situation and instead of squirming around and trying to grab their faces; he’d taken to chewing on a lock of Jiraiya’s long white hair. His huge eyes stared up at them solemnly.

“I’ll use the kekkei genkai testing jutsu,” Tsunade stated, “but I’m inclined to agree with you. I guess we’ll just have to see what kind of effects this has on him in the long run.”

“Want Orange.” Naruto complained as Jiraiya tried to deprive him of his current chew-boy.

Confusingly, but not surprisingly, ‘Orange’ was also the name of the boy’s favorite stuffed toy – a red frog with stylized black lines running over its plush body. He always wanted it when the adults around him had him upset, though he wasn’t nearly as attached to it as Jiraiya’d heard some kids got to things like that. He’d bought it for the brat’s birthday because it reminded him of Minato’s favorite small summon, and he wanted the kid to have as many small bits of his father as he could manage to give him. The sage was surprised to see it was still in pretty good shape when they finally managed to find it under the bed’s dust ruffle.

“He loves this damn thing.” Tsunade muttered, attempting to knock some dust-bunnies off of it before giving it over into Naruto’s grabby hands. “You and Orange go help Shizune in the kitchen.” She commanded the little boy, lifting him up and tapping his butt in a playful swat to get him moving. The kid giggled like a lunatic as he took off on short, chubby legs, dragging Orange by large plush flipper, and yelling for his ‘Zune.

“Were you ever that cute as a kid?” He knew he shouldn’t have said it as soon as the words left his mouth, but he’d never been very good at not saying the wrong things around her.

Later that night, with Naruto safely tucked into bed with his ironically fluffy frog toy, the adults sat around the kitchen table with sake (in Jiraiya and Tsunade’s case) and tea (for Shizune).

“Well, the jutsu confirmed it.” Tsunade said, taking a small sip from the saucer in front of her. She’d cut back a lot since she’d had her son, but she still really liked to indulge. Gambling just wasn’t the same without sake, after all.

“So Shodaime-sama’s ability to perform Mokuton jutsu has become a kekkei genkai in Naru-chan?” Shizune fiddled with her cup, “I never would have expected –“

“Well, we don’t know exactly how it’s going to manifest now that it’s a bloodlimit rather than just a natural proclivity. It could be more or less powerful and controllable. It might even have entirely different effects. Odds are it’s still plant-based, and it definitely effects demon chakra. That’s about all we know for sure.” Tsunade clarified.

Jiraiya nodded in agreement. “You can never tell with a new bloodline limit; that’s why a lot of ninja families never try to develop their natural skills into more advanced genetic ones through breeding and stuff, like established clans with known bloodlines do.”

“I see.” Shizune looked thoughtful. “This isn’t going to be unhealthy for Naru-chan, is it? I know it hasn’t hurt him so far, but if I understand what you told us about Yondaime-sama’s seal, it’s built to let him use the Nine Tail’s power to some extent. What if it reacts violently to his system?”

Tsunade nodded, she’d picked well in Shizune. The girl had real talent and the smarts to back it up, “We already talked about that. There’s really nothing we can do about it until we have more information. It may never come up. It could be that Naruto’s body will simply not allow that part of the seal to activate.”

“-What if he’s really hurt, or runs out of chakra?”

“…Well…then, that could be bad.”

“If it comes to that, there’s always a five point seal. It should block off Kyuubi’s chakra completely, but it could also throw his system out of whack so I don’t want to try that unless it’s necessary. He’s managing the fox much better than I ever dreamed possible as he is, and I’m a big fan of ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken.’”

Tsunade had to agree, she just hoped it didn’t come back to bite them all in the asses later. She’d never forgive herself if Naruto died and they could have done something to prevent it.

Chapter 3: Terrible Twos by Baal of Yarns
Chapter 3 - The Terrible Twos:

“Naru-chan, it’s time to put on your shoes and get ready to go to the clinic with your Kaa-san, and me!” Shizune said. Her cute adopted nephew/brother figure had recently had his second birthday and was already well into his “terrible twos” stage. Tsunade claimed if she heard the word ‘No’ one more time, she was going to go completely insane and start setting fire to things. Shizune decided it was probably best if she took over the majority of the Naruto-related duties until he grew out of it a bit.

Speaking of her mentor’s currently least favorite word…

“No.” Naru-chan said. His face set in an adorably obstinate little pout. He had a hold of TonTon’s vest and seemed to be trying to hide behind the small pink pig.

“You know we do this every day Naru-chan! Kaa-san and I have to go to work so we can buy you things and pay for the house. Now, let’s get your shoes on you…” She leaned down and reached over TonTon, but Naruto sidled around the pig. Shizune frowned and turned to catch him, causing TonTon to turn, causing Naruto to giggle and dance sideways as well. This went on for several minutes until she finally lunged over the poor traumatized pet to snatch the toddler up.

He squirmed and protested, but she finally got him sat down on the couch and started to put his shoes on him. She was stopped from putting his left shoe on after his right one had been fastened, by his shirt hitting her in the face. “Naru-chan!! NO! We don’t take our clothes off except for baths and sleeping! Remember? If you do that, you’ll have to wear the onesies again!”

“No!” He looked horrified. “Bad ‘Zune!”

She scrunched the shirt back up and pulled it back over his head, helping him get his tiny arms through the holes. “Don’t call me ‘bad’, Naru-chan! You know you’re not supposed to do that! Be a good boy and wear your clothes and let me put your shoes on you, and you can have a treat later.”

“Orange?”

“Yes, you can take Orange with you too.”

“K.” He stuck his thumb in his mouth and looked up at her with his angelic little face. Seeing him like that it was hard to believe he’d been terrorizing the house all morning.

She stood up and turned for a second to get his jacket when she felt something hit her in the back of the head. “Ouch!” she spun around to find no toddler on the couch and a tiny pair of shoes laying discarded on the floor, one of which had just be used as an impromptu projectile. The imp had good aim for a baby. She had to give him that.

She sighed and followed the trail of discarded clothes to find her charge attempting to scale a tree naked but for his diaper in the backyard. This was going to be a long day.

Tsunade cursed as they tried to make their way through the busy streets of Grass Country’s capital city. This move had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Grass country was plagued by easy to deal with things like allergies. It was mostly flat, relatively dry plains, so there wasn’t a lot of rain or standing water, so sicknesses didn’t really stick around or get carried by bugs too often. Add to that the fact that the boring terrain made injuries minimal, and it was a lazy medic’s dream. She figured that the most a medic would have to deal with was the occasional mauling by a predator hiding in the thick vegetation to ambush random passersby. Best of all, without any significant geographical features to bring in tourists, the whole country was dotted by world famous casinos and other attractions in order to compensate.

What she’d failed to take into her calculations when deciding on their current relocation, was the fact that everyone else thought it was a good idea to move here too, or at least visit really often. The place was PACKED. Idiot cart drivers were everywhere, cursing at each other and proving a danger to themselves and pedestrians. She saw more cart accident victims than she’d dealt with sunstroked people in the month they’d lived on the border of Sand before Naru’d been born. It was Rule of the Universe Number 34 that people automatically lost 10 I.Q. points the second they got behind the reigns of a cart, and some people just didn’t have 10 I.Q. points to lose in the first place.

After five minutes of waiting for a gap in traffic so they could cross over to the space they’d rented to set up a small clinic, Tsunade had finally had enough. “Naru-chan, what Mommy is about to do it Very Bad. When you’re old enough to demolish things, don’t try it, okay?”

The little boy nodded solemnly. Shizune quickly opened her mouth to protest, but it was too late, she’d already put a fissure in the road upsetting two carts and causing a complete stand-still in the traffic. There were loud curses and screams of outrage everywhere.

“Bad Kaa-san.”

“Yes, Naru-chan. Very bad Kaa-san.” Shizune thought about covering his ears so he wouldn’t hear the expletives being hurled between his mother and the irate drivers around them, but figured it was probably way too late to keep him innocent of curse words. He did live with Tsunade, after all.

“What a cute little boy!” Tamizawa-san exclaimed, spying Naruto playing with his stuffed frog on a blanket in the corner on the clinic. Tamizawa-san was a hypochondriac, Tsunade could tell. He’d come in complaining of malaria and he hadn’t been to Ame in his LIFE.

“Naruto-chan recently turned two.” She informed the older gentleman who knelt down beside the toddler and was reaching out to ruffle his hair.

“OUCH!” The man exclaimed, hurriedly pulling his hand back.

“Be careful,“ she sighed, “he bites.” Great, now he’d probably be convinced he had tetanus or something.

Shizune dug out a piece of poster board and a marker and plopped it down beside the blanket. It read, “Beware of Baby.”

“Good idea.” Tsunade grinned.

“That’s why you pay me the big bucks.” Shizune deadpanned.

What had started out as a perfectly average day took a surprising turn after that. Shizune and Tsunade looked up at the sound of the bell over their door tinkling a welcome to see an ANBU with long red hair tied back in a low ponytail and an Otter mask stumble into the clinic, practically dragging her blood covered partner.

Tsunade’s eyes widened, the man looked pretty bad, and even with the mask, the girl looked familiar. The only way that was possible was if they were residents of her old home village. ‘Crap.’

“Tsunade-sama, please help us!” the girl gasped.

“Put him down in there!” The medic barked, pointing to the examination room behind her, “You’re Konoha ninja, aren’t you? Are you hurt anywhere? Where is the rest of your team?”

The woman laid her partner down as carefully as she could on the table. “We’re from Leaf, yeah. That’s why I brought him here –the mission we were on went totally to crap. We were cut off from the rest of our team and trying to hide on the western edge of the city. Lucky for us, I heard people talking about you being in town after the huge cart wreck this morning. It’s taken me this long to get us here. I’m not hurt, but we can’t risk being seen – this is black ops, and Lion-kun is practically hamburger! I couldn’t move him very quickly without messing him up even more.”

“Alright, get out of the way and let me take a look at him. Shizune! Bring Naru-chan in here so we can keep an eye on him! I’m going to need your help with this one.” She cast a glance at the tired and dirty looking ANBU woman, “Sit down before you fall down, even if you’re not hurt, you’re obviously exhausted.”

The woman nodded, “I’ll be out in the other room…if you want, I can keep an eye on the kid for you, while you work.”

She sighed, hearing Naruto’s protests. He obviously didn’t want to pause in his playing to relocate in there, “Well, you can try, but in your state, I doubt you’re up to it. We’ll just leave the door open in case you need help.”

Otter-san blinked. How hard could it be to watch a baby? He’d seemed to be playing pretty quietly when they came in. She went to relieve Tsunade’s apprentice of Naruto-sitting duties, and got a sinking feeling when she saw the ‘Beware of Baby’ sign.

Naruto looked up at her when she slid down the wall to sit beside him on the floor. He seemed to be attempting to completely cover a large red plush toy with as many plastic bandages as he could tear out of their packaging. He was doing a damn good job of it too.

“Well, Naruto-kun, are you playing Med-nin and patching up your frog?” Otter asked. She figured she might as well start up a conversation with the kid, as much as you could with a toddler. Maybe it would keep her awake. She hadn’t slept in over 48 hours. They’d been on the run and she’d been worried her partner would die if she stopped giving him first aid.

“No.” The little blond boy said. “He Orange.”

“Oh…Okay…” Well, he was a toddler, who knew what went through kid’s minds at that age. “He looks kind of red to me.”

“Orange red.” He agreed, covering up one huge bulging eye of the toy with a large gauze pad.

“Um, well, not really. He’s a pretty bright red.” ‘Why am I arguing with a two-year-old about what color his plushie is?’

“Orange, no Orange?” He looked distinctly suspicious now, and not a little upset.

“Um, whatever you say, kid.”

“K.” He went back to clumsily wrapping the frog in medical tape.

Otter sighed and slid off her mask. It was technically a breach of protocol, but who was this little guy going to tell? Besides, the string was frayed and about to break so she’d have to find something else to fasten it with soon, and it was hot under there. She pushed her long red bangs off her face. She needed to get them trimmed; even her Whirlpool forehead protector wasn’t holding them back much anymore and her hair clip was proving useless.

She leaned back and closed her eyes for a moment, only to startle them open again when she felt a weight on her lap. The kid had climbed up on her crossed legs and was reaching towards her face menacingly with a band-aid. “Er, thanks, but I don’t need one.” She gently caught his hand a for a moment their eyes met. The kid had really rare colored eyes. She’d only even see that shade on one other person. Come to think of it, they had the same shade of hair too.

She frowned and he mimicked her expression. Just to see if he’d keep it up, she threw him a cheeky grin, and her breath caught when he returned it, he looked just like – well, minus 25 years or so, but still –

“I must be more tired than I thought, Kid.” She groaned and lifted him off her lap, “For a minute I thought you looked just like this jerk I used to be in love with…Ouch!” She glared at the baby beside her who was now frogless, “What the hell? Aren’t babies supposed to be cute? Who do you think you are, throwing shit at me?”

“Lady bad!”

It was probably good things hadn’t worked out between her and Minato. If they had, she might have found herself stuck with a little monster like this someday!

It was a few more hours until Tsunade strolled out of the medical room and scooped up her little demon spawn. “Your teammate is going to live, but it’s a good thing you got him to us when you did. He wouldn’t have made it all the way back to Leaf without medical help, and I’m guessing whatever mission you are on is off the books.”

The redhead nodded, “we aren’t sanctioned to seek outside aid, but you’re still technically a Konoha shinobi, so…”

Tsunade nodded, “Sensei wouldn’t mind you getting our help. Even the council wouldn’t be able to complain. I won’t ask what you were doing way out here; I know you can’t tell me. You’ll have to stay with us overnight, though, because Lion-san isn’t going anywhere until at least tomorrow night. Shizune and I are good, but we aren’t that good.”

Otter sighed, but she’d expected something like that. “Thanks for putting me up, Doc.”

“No problem.” Tsunade frowned down at the woman who had forgotten to put her mask back on. “You’re Uzumaki Kushina, aren’t you?” She swatted at Naruto’s hand when he attempted to grab one of her ponytails to chew on.

The ANBU looked stunned for a moment, before realizing her face wasn’t covered. “Oh, shit. Yeah. I’m Kushina. I saw you around a lot when I was growing up. You hung out with Minato’s sensei, Jiraiya, a lot.”

Tsunade dodged a wildly flailing Orange with expert ease. She felt kind of bad for the girl in front of her, almost like she’d stolen the life she was meant to have. She jiggled the son that could have been the redhead’s on her hip, then chewed on her lip for a minute. “Well, come on. Shizune’s got a spare set of clothes in the back. You can shower and change back there, and then Naru-chan and I will take you to get something to eat. You look like you could use a good meal.” ‘-and it’s the least I can do.’ She mentally added.

“Really? Great! Can we get ramen?”

Tsunade blinked. She must really like ramen to want something like that after what she’d obviously just been through. “Eh, sure. It’s not exactly the best thing for a kid as young as Naru-chan, but it won’t hurt him to eat it once or twice.”

The woman levered herself up gracelessly and threw the mother and son a grin, “Awesome! Thanks, Doc!” she scampered out of the room in the direction Tsunade had indicated.

“It’s a good thing that weirdo tomboy isn’t your mommy, isn’t it Naru-chan? You’d probably grow up to be a mannerless, ramen eating freak!”

“K!” Naruto cheered.

“What? NO, I didn’t mean you should try to do that!”

“Kaa-san, Bad!”

“ARGH!!!”

It didn’t take long for Kushina to wash up and change and before Naruto and Tsunade could really get into it, they were on their way to the nearest ramen stand. The Sannin found herself unsurprised that even half-dead with exhaustion and worry over her partner, the kunoichi had made a mental note of the stand’s location when they’d passed it on their way to get medical help.

Tsunade grimaced as they slid under the curtains and grabbed stools at the counter. Naruto wouldn’t have stood a chance with this girl as his mother. He’d have had ramen eating genes coming at him from both directions. He’d probably have eaten instant ramen for BREAKFAST if they’d been his parents, and knowing Minato, he’d probably have let it happen.

Kushina noticed the look on her escort’s face as she motioned for the cook to get her two bowls of miso noodles, “Don’t you like ramen, Doc?”

“Huh? It’s not my favorite food, but I like it well enough. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, it’s just that you made a face when we sat down.” The ANBU watched the toddler in Tsunade’s arms delicately sniff the air like a cat, his eyes getting bigger and shinier with each breath.

“Ah,” the Sannin settled the kid a little more comfortably on her lap and pointed to the pork ramen on the menu when the chef looked in her direction. “It’s not that. It’s just that ramen reminds me of Naruto’s father…He used to eat it a lot.”

‘Jeeze, Kushina! Way to stick your foot in your mouth!’ She berated herself. Everyone was always telling her she needed more tact. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up a subject that’s painful for you or something.”

Her comment was waved off, “it’s not that big of a deal. We weren’t all that close, though he definitely had his good points, and at times I admired him quite a bit. In the end, he was a complete moron.”

“Er? I’m sorry?” She had no idea how to respond to that.

“Yeah, me too…”

Kushina thought the look Tsunade was giving her was a little strange, but before she could comment on it, her food arrived, “Alright! Itadakimasu!!”

“WANT!!” Naruto exclaimed, madly trying to wiggle onto the counter and claw his way towards the kunoichi’s ramen.

Tsunade groaned. This was DEFINITELY a bad idea. She had a feeling she’d be paying for this one for YEARS to come.

Kushina grinned and playfully flicked her chopsticks at the kid, spattering him with broth. Maybe the little brat wasn’t so bad after all.

Nothing else very eventful happened during the rest of her stay with the Senju. Once Tsunade had shown her back to their little rental, she’d fallen asleep on the couch pretty much as soon as she’d seen it, and slept until her partner woke her up the next day. They were both eager to get back to Konoha and find out what happened to their other two teammates.

“Take care of yourselves, and don’t push it on the way back.” Tsunade lectured her patient. “If you reopen those wounds and Otter’s got to drag your ass back here, I’ll let Naru-chan be the one to stitch you back up.” She warned the poor man.

Kushina winced, that was harsh! She adjusted the cloak on her shoulders and knelt down in front of the toddler standing beside his mother’s apprentice and playfully tweaked his nose. “You take care, Naru-chan! Eat lots of ramen and grow big and strong so you can come back to Konoha one day and join my division! You’ll be a terror on the battlefield, I can tell!”

“K.” Naruto grinned and pulled a bandage off of Orange and stuck it over one of the eyeholes on her mask before she could even register what he was doing. She chuckled – the kid had a nice set of reflexes for his age!

She straightened up and peeled the plastic off her mask while Shizune scooped Naruto up off of the ground. “Wave bye-bye to Otter-san, and Lion-san.”

One chubby fist opened and closed rapidly in their general direction and both hardened ANBU internally ‘awww’-ed. He was just too cute.

They returned the wave, and Kushina couldn’t help but smile under her mask. She was definitely interested in seeing how that little guy turned out. She really hoped he ended up back in Konoha!

Japanese Notes:

Itadakimasu - Traditional phrase said before eating.

Chapter 4: Not as Useful as it Might Seem by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 4: Not as Useful as it Might Seem

It wasn’t until Naruto was three and a half that they managed to find out for sure in what ways Kyuubi could still affect its host through the bloodline limit.

As predicted, once he’d really gotten a handle on the whole, “being ambulatory” thing, it had become impossible for someone who wasn’t a highly trained ninja to keep up with him and prevent him from falling from one prospective death trap or another. Luckily, his guardians all were highly trained ninja, but even they had to sleep sometimes and no one can keep up that kind of vigilance 24/7. The kid seemed hell bent on sending himself to an early grave, or at the very least, scaring his mother and Shizune there. You couldn’t keep him out of trees or off of roofs to save your life and they’d all quickly learned to immediately look up whenever he’d managed to pull a disappearing act.

 

Unfortunately, looking up wasn’t always a good idea, even if he was up there, because he also showed an early penchant for practical jokes and pranks, so you were likely to get a face full of muddy water.

 

It was one such time, when he’d given all three of his frequent guardians the slip, that he discovered the horror that were bees.

Huge fuzzy monstrous bees of stinging death. For the first time in his short life, Naruto learned the true meaning of fear.

The first few stings hurt a bit and confused him. He hadn’t done anything to the noisy bugs to cause them to bite him. Sure, he’d thought about trying to pet one since it was so oddly fluffy for a bug, but he hadn’t had a chance to yet. He just wanted to get a closer look at their weird house.

Before he knew what was happening the strange structure had emptied itself of its inhabitants, and with a loud scream of terror the little boy jerked backwards to escape his small black and yellow assailants. This of course, caused him to go tumbling from the tree, and he’d really been quite high up. His cheek tingled oddly and he hit several branches he didn’t remember being there on his way down, but they didn’t do much to slow his fall. The forest floor rose up to meet him alarmingly quickly, the vast horde of devil bugs following him the entire way down. He lost consciousness as soon as he hit the ground.

Tsunade and Jiraiya were immediately alerted to the fact that Naruto had managed to slip out of their care by his terrified yell. The Slug Sannin had never felt something quite so horrible as the terrifying jolt that particular sound sent through her as her instincts as a mother and a medic immediately clamored together that something was Very Wrong. Neither adult even stopped to look at each other before taking off in the direction of the noise.

It took them only seconds to reach the little boy; in fact, she almost managed to catch him before he hit the ground as his fall seemed to have been slowed a little by some suspiciously conveniently swaying branches.

A quick suiton jutsu from Jiraiya managed to soak mother and son, but dissuade Naruto’s crazed pursuers from further tormenting the boy.

Tsunade quickly forced the mother in her down in favor of the medic. She knew Naruto wasn’t allergic to bees (she’d done allergen tests on him as a matter of course), but multiple bee stings could be extremely dangerous, especially on smaller or weaker people like the elderly or children, and Naru-chan was already beginning to swell up with what seemed to her panicked mind as hundreds of angry red bumps. He’d also landed pretty awkwardly on his arm, and though it hadn’t broken completely, she’d be willing to bet it was at least fractured.

“How is he?” she could hear Jiraiya’s voice, but she tuned him out, concentrating solely on completing a jutsu to pull out the chemicals from the bee’s stingers. She had to be fast or his already closing airways would seal and he’d suffocate.

Before she could apply her glowing hands to Naruto’s body, his breathing suddenly became easier and tiny wisps of red chakra began to trail up from the deflating swellings covering his body. The wounds looked like they were burning away, and Naruto’s arm no longer felt broken to her medic senses, though more of the red chakra was coming from that area than the rest of him.

“What the-?” she murmured.

“Kyuubi.” Jiraiya answered, crouching down to get a better look and be nearer if he needed to intervene.

Before the process could quite finish, the red chakra abruptly cut off, and Naruto began to tremble and retch. He immediately developed a fever, and soon coughs wracked his tiny body, flecking his lips with blood. To Tsunade’s horrified medic’s senses it looked like Naruto’s chakra system was attacking everywhere the Kyuubi’s lingering essence had pooled, re-damaging tissues in its zeal to push out the malicious energy. It didn’t take long for the large pockets of red chakra to be broken up, but the little bits splintered off when they shattered like shards of glass from a broken window and they drifted through his system, chased by enthusiastic blue bits of his body’s natural energy. This process was much slower and looked like it might take a while to complete, but Naruto’s reaction had become less violent and while he was still running a fever, the violent retching and coughing had stopped.

“What the fuck was that?!” Jiraiya exclaimed.

“Shizune and I were right. Kyuubi’s regenerative powers seem to have been passed on to Naruto, and they kicked in when he was weakened enough for his defenses to fall. Once it had taken care of most of the damage though, he had a secondary reaction to the Bijuu’s powers caused by his kekkei genkai attacking the fox’s power in his system. His body seems to be treating it like an infection.” She frowned and carefully cradled the boy against her chest, feeling some of her residual panic subsiding at the heat of his body through their soaked clothing and the familiar weight of him in her arms.

She continued stroking his suiton and sweat-soaked bangs away from his forehead. “I imagine he’ll be pretty sick for a few days at the rate things are currently going.” She sighed and deactivated the monitoring jutsu she’d reflexively started as soon as she’d reached him. “As long as there are no other complications with it, I think he’ll make a full recovery, but we’ll have to be careful and watch out for this in the future. Something similar will probably happen every time his body is weakened enough to have to draw on his chakra system, and next time it might be even worse than this.”

Jiraiya frowned and gnawed on his lower lip for a few minutes. “Do you think we should go ahead and completely seal off the Kyuubi? The kid probably won’t need the chakra boost from the assimilation. Not with you and Minato for parents.”

Tsunade stared down at the face of her baby, but then raised her eyes to meet her teammate’s gaze. “No. No, I think we should leave it. It’s kind of like my Sōzō Saisei (Genesis Rebirth) technique. It’s dangerous, but it should only kick in when he really needs it. It’s never done anything about scraped knees or anything minor. Unless we discover any really bad side effects, I think it may be worth it to leave things as they are.” She looked back down at Naruto as she started to shake a bit in delayed reaction to how close she’d just come to losing the most precious thing in her universe, the only thing that had given her back her reason to really live and not just exist. “We came so close to losing him forever, Jiraiya.”

“I know. He’s so damn hard to keep track of.” The other Sannin murmured. “I don’t know how he can be so damn loud one minute, then just POOF, disappear, the next. Maybe I can invent some sort of tracking and communication seal – work it into jewelry or something.”

Tsunade nodded and gave him a tentative smile, one far gentler than he’d seen from her in years – since they’d been kids, in fact. “Something like that would definitely be useful. Let’s get him home now and dried off. He needs to be in bed. He’s not nearly as bad off as he originally was, but he’s still a very sick little boy, and I don’t think there’s anything Shizune and I can do to make this better. It’s going to have to run its course.“

The Toad Sage nodded, “Sure. Do you need help getting up?” She looked a little shaky with reactionary nerves.

She started to automatically disagree, but then looked up at him with that weird smile again, and lifted the hand she wasn’t using to cradle Naruto against her. He took it and pulled her up with ease. Together they started back to Tsunade and Shizune’s most recent little rental. Jiraiya took off his coat and wrapped it around mother and son.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.” He easily replied, then frowned a bit and peered closer at Naruto’s face, “your son’s girly clan marking is nearly black now.”

“What the-“ Tsunade tilted his face a bit to get a good look, “huh, well, I thought I saw the tree – HEY! There’s NOTHING GIRLY ABOUT MY SON!”

Jiraiya grinned and took off running. The only safe time to tease Tsunade of the monstrous strength was when she had her hands full with Naruto and couldn’t hit you or chase you down.

It didn’t take them long to get Naruto back to the house, into clean, dry clothes, and bundled into bed. He was still running a high fever and hadn’t yet woken up. Tsunade briefly activated her diagnostic jutsu again to see what was going on, and after determining that nothing was getting worse, she got up to get a bowl of cool water and a cloth from the bathroom.

Jiraiya sat himself on the edge of the bed and smoothed the kid’s hair away from his forehead, a frown creasing his face and pulling at the red lines which ran down either cheek. “He’s still really hot.”

“I know.” Tsunade answered, shoving the bowl at her former teammate. “Make yourself useful.”

He easily caught the cloth she threw at him after taking the water, and began gently bathing the child’s face and neck with it. Tsunade walked over to the trunk she stored her medical books in, and began looking to see if she could find any reference to treating chakra induced infections.

The room was silent for quite a while aside from the sounds of water dripping into the bowl and pages turning. Jiraiya caught himself running the damp cloth over the much darker mark on Naruto’s cheek for the millionth time. “You know – if the mark darkening means his bloodline has fully awakened, we’re going to have to start training him.”

Tsunade slammed her book shut and tossed it back into the trunk, then flopped down in the chair she used when reading to Naruto at night. “Absolutely not! He’s not even four yet! He’s just started to learn to read!”

“Most kids don’t start to train at 3, true, but most of them don’t learn to read then either. It’s not unprecedented. Hatake Kakashi started way early, and I hear the Uchiha’s heir was trained from a really young age and has advanced really quickly.”

“You’re not helping your case any, Jiraiya! I don’t want my kid to be some super ninja freak with no social skills. He’s a kid. He’s going to do kid things.”

“I don’t know if he’ll really have a choice, Tsunade.” He rewet the cloth and folded it up, before placing it on the sleeping boy’s head. “If his kekkei genkai is active, then his chakra system must be advanced enough for it to function on some level. He’s going to need to be trained or there’s no telling what could happen.” He hesitated to go further, but he felt it needed to be said, “Besides, it’s not exactly easy for him to connect with his peers if you keep dragging him from place to place. As he gets older, he’s going to have even less in common with normal village kids than he does now. It might help him to have a constant focus in his life.”

Tsunade got up and sat down on the bed opposite him, where she could see Naruto’s face flushed with fever. If they didn’t get a feel for his limits and how chakra use was going to affect his situation with the fox, things like this might happen more often and in less predictable situations… She bit her lip. “Okay, we’ll train him, but he’s going to be a Med-nin when he grows up!”

“Are you kidding me? Have you MET your kid? He’s hell on legs! There’s no way you’ll ever get him to sit through boring med-nin lectures. It takes way too much bookwork. Aside from that, you’d give him a complex trying to get out of your shadow! The kid’s like his father. He’s going to kick ass and take names. Besides, I can tell already that he doesn’t have your natural control. It’s not bad mind you, and likely to be better than most of us, men, but I’d wager it’ll be nothing to write home about. He doesn’t have the concentration!”

“He’s not even FOUR, of course he can’t concentrate yet!” She replied heatedly. “Being a med-nin is less dangerous than a stupid tank like Minato was! He’ll need to avoid injury even more than most people if this is what happens to him when he gets seriously hurt.”

“All the more reason to focus on teaching him to defend himself! We’ll toughen him up properly before he ever sees combat!”

“The hell you will! I’ll give him my special dodge training, and that’ll be plenty!”

Jiraiya looked aghast, “You’d put your own son through the torture you call “Dodge Training”? That’s child abuse! I thought the idea was to PREVENT serious injury!”

“It’s not that bad!”

“Shizune STILL flinches if you even mention the word, ‘dodge’!”

“Er…Well, I’ll go easy on him until he can take it, but he’s learning to be a med-nin, and that’s that.”

A cleared throat from the doorway made them both stop arguing and turn in that direction. A frowning and worried looking Shizune stood in the doorway, cradling a pig in a red vest and necklace. “Um, not to step in here, but what happened to Naru-chan, and don’t you think you ought to let HIM decide what he wants to be when he grows up?”

Tsunade looked indignant, “Are you kidding, he’s a little boy. All he’s likely to want to do at the moment is learn how to smash things, blow things up, and look cool doing it.”

“See, I win!” Jiraiya cheered.

“No one smashes things like I do!” Tsunade snarled, raising her fist to demonstrate.

“You still haven’t told me what happened to Naru-chan!” Shizune interjected, “don’t fight over his poor sick body!”

Tsunade and Jiraiya immediately halted their escalating argument and sat down looking like chastised children. “Sorry,” they muttered in chorus.

“Good, now, start at the beginning and tell me what happened!” She snapped, setting TonTon on the floor and marching over to them.

After they’d filled her in, all three sat silently, deep in thought. “Well, I agree that it would probably be best to start his training.” Shizune, ever the voice of reason, piped up, “but until he’s old enough to make an informed decision about his future based on facts, and his strengths and weaknesses rather than an arbitrary, ‘coolness’ factor, I say we teach him the basics and work on his physical skills. The stronger he is, the less likely he’ll get hurt badly enough for his defenses to fall…Besides, giving him something constructive to do might make him easier to keep track of and less prone to getting himself into this kind of mess again.”

The other two reluctantly agreed.

Interlude: Training Day by Baal of Yarns

Interlude: Training Day

Naruto woke up before dawn and stared at his ceiling sleepily for a few minutes. Life was definitely getting more exciting for him now that he was grown up enough to learn how to be a ninja.

 

He’d been back on his feet and good as new within a week of the Bee Incident, due mostly to the diligence of his two highly skilled medic-nin relatives who hardly left his side the whole time.

 

He was no worse off for his little adventure, except for a new unholy fear of bees and a greater respect for staying near Kaa-san, Ero-jiji, and ‘Zune when they were supposed to be watching him, and he’d become a little more attentive when they told him not to do something.

 

His bloodlimit had definitely woken up and become more active. Plants started acting very strangely around the boy. To say their yard had a dandelion problem would be a monstrous understatement, and while most little boys had puppies follow them home, last week Naruto had been trailed by a tenacious vine of poison ivy. He hadn’t asked if he could keep it.

 

He seemed to have absolutely no conscious control over his new abilities, and it was annoying as well as embarrassing. On top of that, whenever Ero-jiji showed up, he teased him mercilessly about the mark on his cheek. It wasn’t girly! No matter what the man said, the mark looked like ‘stylized vines and leaves’. Not like flowers. His kaa-san dutifully assured him this was so, and his kaa-san was ALWAYS right, unless there was money on the line, then you always guessed whatever was the opposite of what she said.

 

Naruto had been training for almost a year now, and they’d settled into a decent routine relatively unchanged by their frequent moves from village to village. His guardians were sticking to the “let him make up his own mind about his future” decision, at least on the surface. None of them were above attempting to pound their specialties into his head when the others weren’t looking and/or in creative or manipulative ways.

 

They also weren’t above trying to sway him to their way of thinking. Recently ‘Zune-neechan had launched a pro-medic-nin campaign proclaiming that medics were the natural enemies of bees, but he’d seen Jiji’s toads eat all sorts of bugs and never seen her eat even one, so he was pretty sure she was lying.

 

No matter what they tried, it was pretty obvious that being a medic-nin required a lot of stupid bookwork, and Naruto was having none of that, so he was leaning pretty heavily towards Jiraiya’s side of the argument. Besides, Jiji offered to teach him a FIRE jutsu if he agreed to be a fighter, and everyone knew that setting things on fire was way cooler than healing burns.

 

Naruto climbed out of bed and started his morning routine. No one else was up yet, but that was nothing new. Everyone else seemed to need more sleep than he did. As soon as he got his shoes on, he stood on tiptoe to open the door, and then slid out silently for his morning run through the village. He loved this time of the day. No one was up and everything was creepy and empty. It was pretty cool.

 

So far Naruto didn’t feel like he’d made much progress in his training. His Kaa-san was really careful to monitor his chakra use. If it got low enough, Kyuubi’s untransformed energy might leak through and make him sick, and she told him that if that happened he might not be able to leave his bed for weeks and he’d lose all that training time on top of being bored out of his skull! He still shuddered to think of all the crap they’d made him do while recovering from his first bout of Kyuubi-sickness. He’d written all the characters he’d learned so far like three bijillion times, and they’d started him on MATH and HISTORY. He HATED math and history!

 

That was also when he’d been introduced to The Chart. The Chart was a diagram of the human body with labels in various colors, and Kaa-san had told him in no uncertain terms that he’d better have all the things she’d highlighted in blue memorized by the time he was healed or she’d make him stay in bed even longer as punishment for slipping away from her and Ero-Jiji. The Chart had been used for creative punishments like that every since.

 

He finished his stretches and patted his tummy over the Fox’s seal indignantly before taking off in as brisk a jog as his little legs would allow. Stupid Kyuubi made everything harder! He’d been really surprised to learn he had a living thing in his stomach and that his dad had put it there. It seemed really kind of gross to him, and he didn’t quite understand how it worked. He’d had bad nightmares for MONTHS of the demon bursting out and eating off people’s faces after they’d told him the truth. He had a pretty gory imagination for a kid his age. Kaa-san called him “creative.”

 

He waved cheerfully to an old lady who was putting out her cat as he ran past her house. He loved the feel of really pushing himself to the limits, and he was starting to get into his first wind. Training was a million times better than watching ‘Zune read poison books or practicing making his letters. Sure, he hardly had time for tricks and pranks anymore, but he’d only really turned to them when he was bored anyway, so he didn’t need them like he used to.

 

The old woman waved back. She opened a bakery every morning and often saw him pass by on his daily stint. The child seemed to have inexhaustible energy; she wondered what kind of mischief he’d get into without his physical outlets? He was a sweet thing, but she was glad he had something constructive to do with his time! “Swing by on your way back, Dearie, and I’ll give you a sweet-bun!” She called. She’d always firmly believed in rewarding hard work.

 

“Yosh! Thanks Baa-chan!” he called over his shoulder.

 

‘Well, he was sweet, but that lazy no-good-mother of his should really teach him some manners! Poor Shizune-san, to have to put up with that lay ‘about gambler for a mentor!’ She shut her door and went to start preparations for the day with a huff.

 

Naruto continued on his circuit, now in even better spirits. The Old Bakery Lady made AWESOME sweet buns! Not as good as ramen, but Kaa-san wouldn’t let him eat that more than once a day, anyway. If he somehow managed to wrangle ramen out of someone for a pre-breakfast snack, she’d definitely make him eat with Yuhei-san, the village babysitter, whose husband owned the clinic they were helping at, instead of grabbing the tasty noodle-y food with Ero-jiji later in the day, and THEN he’d have to put up with the other village kids. They were just plain STRANGE.

 

Training was way better than any dumb game the village children here played. The seemed to have a weird obsession currently with a game involving pointy metal bits and a rubber ball in a circle. They called it “Jacks” he called it “Stupid”. The jacks weren’t even sharp, you probably couldn’t even kill someone in their sleep with one, and they certainly didn’t explode.

 

He reached the end of his route and turned around to head in the other direction, feeling the pleasant pulling and tingling in the muscles of his legs. As he ran he tried to make his mind stop wandering, so he could go over the list of plants in his head that ‘Zune had given him to memorize. As soon as he could identify each one and tell her what parts were good and what parts were bad – which ones made people better and which ones made people sick, she’d promised to buy him a set of these cool new training straps that had just come out on the market which acted like weights. If you put chakra in them, they got heavier, and they helped you with your control too, because you had to always concentrate a little to make them work!

 

They only got so heavy and you couldn’t wear more than one set at a time, so they’d only help so much, but Naruto still thought they sounded really cool…and they came in ORANGE!

 

That occupied him for the rest of his run, interrupted briefly for the enjoyment of delicious bakery goodness.

 

Once he made it home he ran in to get a quick shower, then grabbed “real” breakfast with his ‘Zune. Growing up he’d had a bit of confusion over what he should call his ‘Zune. Kaa-san got really sad looking when she tried to explain how Shizune-neechan was related to them so he mostly called her whatever he felt like, but he’d first called her ‘‘Zune’, since that had been his first attempt at her name and that’s how he usually thought of her in his head.

 

While he ate his cereal, ‘Zune grilled him on her plant lessons. She wasn’t supposed to teach him stuff when it wasn’t actually her turn. It was some kind of agreement the adults had come up with to try and torment him into playing with the creepy other kids more, but none of them stuck to it so he didn’t mind, much. He just had to be careful not to tattle on them to each other. Mommy always woke up late in the mornings, so she never knew that he usually spent the time before and during breakfast on ‘Zune’s extra lessons.

 

They’d just put the books away and Shizune was cleaning up the kitchen while Naruto finished his milk when Tsunade finally wandered in looking like she was still half asleep. Naruto hopped up and put his glass in the sink, accepting the mug of Kaa-san’s morning coffee from ‘Zune while he was there, and carefully carrying it over to the table.

 

Jiraiya said coffee was like a henge jutsu that turned zombie!Kaa-san into normal!grumpy!Kaa-san. Naruto didn’t know about that, but it did make her raise her head off of the table and make grabby hands in the direction of the cup, and after she’d consumed half of it, you could usually tell what she was trying to say if she talked to you. They never worried about Kaa-san noticing them studying at the table, because ‘Zune said she wouldn’t know if TonTon tap-danced on her head until she’d had at least one cup of coffee.

 

After all of them had managed at least a little breakfast – the amount Tsunade consumed dependent on how late she’d been up the night before and if Shizune had let her go to the casino – it was time for chakra-control lessons. He was only allowed to work on that for a couple of hours and he was only supposed to do it with his Kaa-san’s supervision. This didn’t stop him from sneaking out at night to keep at them on his own. He had to be really careful to stop practicing when his coils started to burn even a little; he’d be caught for sure if the Nine Tails made him sick again. If that happened, he’d probably have to memorize even MORE of The Chart before he was allowed back into his normal routine.

 

“Alright, Naru-chan! To the wall!” He’d originally been given a tree-climbing exercise, but that had turned into wall climbing instead when the trees kept cheating.

 

“Hai, Kaa-sensei!” Tsunade rolled her eyes at the stupid nickname and blatant abuse of the language and watched him get to it. He was a determined little bastard; she definitely had to give him that! She let him work on it until 10:00, and then called a halt so he’d have time to re-energize before his lesson with Jiraiya in the afternoon. The old pervert wasn’t around very often or for very long stretches, but he always insisted on training time when he was in town.

 

Naruto sighed and reluctantly stopped charging at the wall. He hated it when chakra lessons were over because then, he had to practice his normal people lessons. This was stuff ‘Zune insisted everyone, even future awesome ninja like him, had to know like letters, numbers, and history. He hated them now just as much as he’d hated them when they’d first been introduced to him, so he usually turned them into stealth and evasion lessons instead. He was getting really good at evading, but his ‘Zune kept cheating and having TonTon help her find him. TonTon was a traitor and he wasn’t ever again giving that pig scraps from his plate if she kept it up. She wasn’t even going to get his peas!

 

He somehow managed to slog his way through a chapter of his Konoha-centric history text. It was big, and he didn’t always know all the words, but he got quizzed once a week, so he had to try and learn it. Luckily, they only made him do history once a week. It was almost as bad at Kaa-san’s medic lessons, which didn’t even need a place in the rotation because he got in trouble enough that he ended up studying those really frequently as it was. He didn’t know why they bothered to make him learn this crap, he always just forgot it later, but they were adults and you had to humor them sometimes.

 

Kaa-san liked to try and motivate him by telling him that she’d show him how her strength thing was done if he didn’t complain about the schoolwork, but she’d gone and ruined it by telling him he’d never be able to do it as well as she could because he hadn’t gotten her natural chakra control. She seemed to think there was some magic in having to sit down to pee that gave you more natural aptitude for that kind of thing. He totally didn’t get it. He’d show her though! As soon as he could weasel the basics out of her, he’d try it over and over and over again until he could do it just as well as she could through PRACTICE and hard work! He didn’t need any pansy ass short-cuts like she did! Bah! ‘I’m so cool! I’ll show her!’

He was allowed to put his books away before lunch, which was always a hurried affair. “Hurry up and eat, Naru-chan! We’ve got to get over to the clinic by 1:00.” Shizune said.

 

Tsunade rolled her eyes, “Give the kid time to digest. If there’s an emergency they’ll come get us.”

Naruto ducked under the table. It was time for a Responsibility Lecture with a side helping of, Don’t Be a Bad Example for Your Son. ‘Zune’s eyes always sort of glowed demonically, and she seemed to grow about ten feet when she laid into Kaa-san about those things, and he couldn’t make himself watch. It was just too horrible.

 

“Naru-chan,” Tsunade eventually stuck her head under the table and winked at him. She was really brave to be able to withstand ‘Zune’s lectures like that, “Crawl out from under there and go get Orange. It’s time to go over to Yuhei-san’s until the Pervert comes to pick you up.” Jiraiya wasn’t allowed over to the house until well after lunch so he could only mooch one free meal a day from them at the most.

 

Naruto blanched. “No!” He hugged her legs. “Don’t make me to go!” He made his eyes really big and felt a faint zinging sensation that he’d learned to ignore zing through his face and chest. They had this conversation every day that Jiraiya was in town, and he always won. He didn’t know why this worked, but it definitely did. It was a good thing too because He was supposed to be babysat while playing with Yuhei-san’s twins at the park, and waiting for Jiji, but when they weren’t playing “Jacks” they liked to pretend they were ponies, and he had no idea what that was about and wanted no part of it. Besides, he wasn’t a baby anymore, so he definitely didn’t need ‘sat. He was sure his plushy frog, Orange agreed.

 

The little monsters tried to dress Orange up as a kunoichi sometimes, and he hated that. He’d told Naruto so.

 

Tsunade predictably melted. It was completely useless to resist Naru-chan when he used The Look. If she didn’t know better, she’d think it was some kind of secondary kekkei genkai or some element of his original one, but people weren’t Bijuu, so that was impossible. She sighed, “Alright, Naru-chan…go get Orange and your books and you can study at the clinic while you wait. I don’t’ know why you don’t like to play with the Yuhei girls. They’re perfect little angels with decent manners…unlike some rude, grungy, brats I could name.”

 

“Ha! Yes!” He cheered, ignoring her jibe and ran off to get his stuff.

 

Bookwork was bookwork, but he didn’t mind more of it so much if it was a choice between that and death by dresses for him and Orange.

 

Luckily for him, Jiraiya had caught on to their routine and he’d been chased out of the local bathhouses earlier than usual that day, so he was waiting for them when they finally arrived at the clinic. “You ready for training, Gaki?”

 

“Don’t call me a Gaki, Ero-jiji!” he scowled, marching over to the much taller man and glaring up at him, his ragged toy frog clutched tightly in his fist.

 

Jiraiya chuckled, “I’ll stop calling you a brat when you stop announcing that I’m a pervert in public!”

 

Tsunade rolled her eyes and strolled past them. They had a variation of this argument every day. “Shizune and I will be home around the usual time, unless something comes up…again.” Jiraiya had to train Naruto at their house because if he were allowed to pick the spot, he’d inevitably find somewhere with naked women within spying distance.

 

“Alright. We’ll see you then. Come on, Brat,” he grabbed the back of Naruto’s favorite bright blue jacket with the orange froggie hood and began towing the kid back the way he’d come, “we’ll see you when you get there.”

 

“Bye ‘Zune-neechan! Bye Kaa-san. Try to do your share of the work today!”

 

A vein in Tsunade’s temple throbbed painfully as he screamed that out at the top of his lungs for the whole street to hear, “If his father weren’t dead, I’d beat him senseless. There’s no way he gets that mouth of his from me.”

 

Shizune sighed and preceded her mentor into the clinic. Sometimes she didn’t know who the more childish one was.

 

 

Jiji was only supposed to train him for couple of hours, then turn him loose, but he never did. This was fine with Naruto, he’d probably just keep training anyway. What else was there to do? If he pulled more pranks, he’d just end up having to study more boring biology, and it just wasn’t worth it when he wasn’t bored.

 

Orange watched him from the porch as he kicked the log. He loved the kicking the log game. Jiji had introduced it to him as a reward one day after he’d shown “initiative” by asking a billion questions after practice a week ago. He’d set it up near the target practice dummy especially just for Naruto. It was so great! Naruto wasn’t sure what initiative was, but it must have something to do with asking ‘why’ a lot and bugging the old man to tell him what the whole point of standing on one foot on one of the thin clothesline posts was during the endurance portion of their session.

 

He’d also been ‘initiative’ during the taijutsu portion that day, he guessed, because he’d asked a lot of questions behind the stupid taijutsu form he was having trouble getting. He couldn’t seem to set his feet ‘just so’ all the time, and it felt awkward. Jiji had been pretty sidetracked and kept brushing him off while he worked in his notebook and giggled a lot, and hadn’t SEEMED to want to answer, but since he’d given Naruto such a great reward, he guessed it was some kind of test.

 

When Jiji wasn’t wherever they were currently living, Kaa-san took over the afternoon sessions and made ‘Zune go to work and heal people by herself. She called it her “prerogative” because ‘Zune was her apprentice. It didn’t sound like much fun. Naruto was pretty happy he was her son instead, but he definitely wanted to get him one of those prerogatives so he could make someone else do his maths.

 

Kaa-san always made him do the normal things like laps and sit-ups and pull ups, but when Jiji would usually have him work on Taijutsu afterwards, she liked to throw things at him. She called this dodging practice because she said a good medic-nin should never be wounded so they could always heal their teammates. The kids in the last village had a variation of this training but both sides got to throw things and try to dodge, and they usually used balls instead of whatever random things they could quickly pile up and lob at you when you weren’t ready for it, so it couldn’t possibly be as much fun as Kaa-san’s version.

 

 

When the girls finally got home from work, Shizune always oversaw his senbon practice. He really liked throwing the needles at the target dummy. It had been especially made to look like a person’s insides, and as he threw, ‘Zune barked out different targets he was supposed to be trying to hit. It was kind of annoying because then he had to remember his anatomy lessons at the same time, and sometimes she’d forget what he’d been taught and hadn’t, so she’d tell him to aim for the Hypopottamus or something, and he had NO IDEA where that was.

 

Naruto was pretty thrilled with the overall arrangement. He got to spend one-on-one time with all of his family members, and even if it was really exhausting and painful sometimes, it was way better than running around on his own or playing with stupid dolls like some of his peers had to do because their parents wouldn’t put up a log in their yards for them to kick. His greatest dream was to be a really cool ninja like the stories Ero-Jiji told him about his dad, and if he had to learn a few wimpy medic-jutsu to get him there, he was willing to make that sacrifice. He absolutely loved loved loved loved LOVED training for the most part. It was super fun, and he was really getting stronger.

 

Someday he’d be strong enough to make a name for himself and become a hero! He’d protect everyone, and make Kaa-san, and ‘Zune, and Jiji really proud of him. Jiji said that when he was old enough he’d take him back to Konoha to become his apprentice, and that they’d be really surprised to see him, (but they couldn’t tell his mom about The Plan until he was older, or she might not agree to it).

 

He didn’t know how he felt about that, because there, everyone would know his as “the Legendary Tsunade’s Son”, and they WOULDN’T know about his dad or Kyuubi. He thought it might be kind of hard to deal with not letting his secrets out, and it would really piss him off if everyone in the whole village expected him to be a super med-nin or something. It really made him mad when people did that. He was Naruto and his Kaa-san was his Kaa-san!

 

They’d see how awesome he was though, and it wouldn’t be an issue. He was sure of it!

 

He grinned, put the leaf back on his head, and set it to spinning. It still had a habit of falling off when he started to gloat mentally, but he was sure he was getting better at it. He threw another handful of senbon at the target dummy and whooped when they all hit it. Now he just had to fine-tune his aim so they all hit the specific targets and not just the dummy itself!

 

“How’s it going kiddo?” Naruto glanced over his shoulder to where he’d heard his mom approaching. He didn’t know why she wore such stupid shoes with high heels on them; she definitely wasn’t as sneaky as Jiji when she was wearing them, and HIS shoes were those weird platform sandals with the name that reminded Naruto of cheese. Geta weren’t very sneaky. “Ready to quit for the night?”

 

“It’s good!” He slipped his remaining senbon back into the neat ninja pouch shaped like a frog that Kaa-san had gotten him for a New Year’s present and ducked his head a little when she insisted on ruffling his wild blond hair. “Do I have to go inside now? I wanted to kick the log some more before bed time.”

 

“Aren’t you getting sick of practicing, Chibi, and what’s your obsession with that stupid log?” He looked up at his kaa-san while she spoke, “why don’t you ever want to go play with the other brats?” She frowned a bit as she caught sight of his knuckles from the variation on Kick the Log Ero-jiji had shown him today after seeing the neighbor’s niece sunbathing in the next yard over. He called it Punch the Log. Jiji SUCKED at naming things. She immediately took his hands in hers to heal them for him.

 

“No! I keep telling you, the other kids are WEIRD. They all want to pretend they are mommies and daddies instead of ninja, and even when I can get them to play ninja, they don’t want to run laps or throw senbon or even play the original version of Kick the Log! It’s MADNESS!”

 

“Er, sweetie, kicking a log isn’t really much of a game. What about hide and seek? You love hide and seek!”

 

He nodded enthusiastically, but then his expression fell a bit, “They don’t let me play that one anymore because they all suck at hiding AND seeking. They can’t even find me by my chakra, and you and ‘Zune and Jiji can ALWAYS find me by my chakra. ‘Sides, they all use smelly soaps that make them really easy to track.”

 

Tsunade frowned, “I’m sorry, Kid. I wish I could get you some other ninja brats to run around with, but your dad had a lot of enemies, and I’m worried they might notice the resemblance in most Hidden Villages. Maybe we can try Hidden Mist or Sand. They’re on decent terms with Konoha right now. I know it’s not very fair of us to keep moving only to these larger civilian villages.”

 

Naruto hated more than anything to see his kaa-san looking sad. “It’s okay, Kaa-san! I really love training. I gotta keep at it or I won’t get strong!”

 

“Being strong isn’t the most important thing in the world, Naru-chan.” His mother knelt down in front of him so she could look at him on his level. Kaa-san was really tall. “You know we’ll love you and be proud of you no matter what you do or how strong you get, right?”

 

Naruto nodded solemnly, “I know, but I really want to be a really strong ninja like Great-Granddad and Tou-san so I can protect you and ‘Zune and Jiji someday. I’ll even be able to tell people who Tou-san was, because *I* won’t need protecting anymore! I’ll be really cool, and no one will give us shit. Not even debt collectors!”

 

She winced a bit at that. “Wouldn’t you rather be a medic-nin, Naru-chan? You can save people and take care of them, without worrying nearly as much about having to kill or getting hurt on missions.”

 

He closed his eyes as she threaded her fingers through his bangs and into the rest of his thick hair. It always felt awesome when she did that so he didn’t mind even if it made him seem a bit like a baby to so visibly enjoy it. “I know, but I still want to be a protecting type ninja. I’ll still learn the medic-jutsu if you want, even though I really suck at it, but more than anything I want to be able to take care of myself and protect people like Tou-san did – even dumb kids who only want to crawl around pretending they are puppies all day! Watch me, Kaa-san! I’ll be a hero and everyone will know me for me instead of you and Jiji! I’ll be so cool that they won’t even care about Kyuubi! Even if I have to train every day until I fall down, or learn to kill, or whatever! I promise, Kaa-san, someday I’ll be really great like Tou-san and Uncle Dan, and we won’t even have to move around all the time anymore unless we want to, because no one will chase you out of race tracks even if you can’t find me to pick horse names for you after you lose all of our money.”

 

He paused to take a breath, “I’ll make sure everyone knows they can still chase Jiji out of bathhouses though, ‘cause he’s a pervert.”

 

Tsunade felt a little ill as a sense of maternal pride warred with her instinctive terror of her son someday returning to Konoha and trying to become Hokage and summarily being stolen away from her like everyone else she’d ever loved who had the same dream. She had an instinctive hatred for the term ‘hero’ and it made her a little sick to think of her son wanting so badly to become one. She knew most little boys wanted to be like their fathers, but most little boys didn’t have a father stupid enough to throw themselves in front of giant demon kings.

 

“It’ll be okay, Kaa-san. I know you worry about it, but I’m going to be even better than Great Grandpa Senju and Tou-san so I won’t die. It’s a promise, and you said a man can’t ever go back on his words.”

 

She sighed. This was all Jiraiya’s fault, she could tell. He was always filling the kid’s head with stories of Konoha and its great ninja, especially his father. Looking at her son’s determined face and seeing how hard he’d been working, though – her fear subsided, just a little.

 

“I’ll tell you what brat. You promise to become as strong as you can, and let me put my Sōzō Saisei (Genesis Rebirth) seal on you, AND don’t argue about wearing the monitoring seal the old pervert is working on no matter what the charm ends up looking like, and when you’re old enough that the other kids your age will be graduating from the Academy, I’ll let your godfather take you back to visit Konoha and get your forehead protector.” She didn’t trust the Kyuubi to always take care of him, and sometimes it might be better to lose a few years off of his total life span than to be sick in the middle of a fight so she was putting the Sōzō Saisei seal on him whether he liked it or not. She poked him in the head, right where her seal’s diamond shape would go, and her frown finally turned into a bit of a grin.

 

“You’ve got to prove to me that you can handle it though. I’m not letting you out of my sight until I know you can take care of yourself. That means mastering my super strength as far as you can and being able to take a hit from it. You’ve also got to be fast enough to dodge everything Shizune and I can throw at you, so you’ve got to get a lot faster and a lot stronger.” There, that was a good way to hedge her bets, there was no way he’d be able to achieve the chakra control necessary for the strength, at least during combat. With the Kyuubi taking up an unmeasured portion of his chakra at all times, he’d never had the pinpoint precision it took, and his ability to concentrate quite frankly sucked.

 

What she failed to take into account was how well he could commit something to reflexive memory if he tried it often enough so that he wouldn’t have to concentrate on it – and he wasn’t at all adverse to trying something as long and often as he had to in order to make it reflexive.

 

Japanese Notes:

Sōzō Saisei - Genesis Rebirth. This is Tsunade’s seal on her forehead that lets her regenerate but takes time off of her total lifespan to do it.

A/N: I have a qestion for you guys! After the next chapter is a mini-story arc of three chapters which my beta recommended I cut out because he thinks they seem a bit like filler. He's usually right about these things. ;) The problem arises in that I need something to fill that time gap, and I don't have anything else planned out or written for it. Also events from it will effect the plot later and be refered back to occasionally.

So, my question is, would you prefer to wait longer between updates until I figure out something else to go there, or would you like to read the three-chaper long mini-arc? Some of the information is kind of important, but it could be referred back to in things like flashbacks (which I hate ;_; but may be willing to do, just for you, my precious readers! ^.~)

Chapter 5: Progress by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 5 - Progress:

“If I had half your brat’s energy, I really think I could take over the world.” Jiraiya told Tsunade one day. They were currently staying in a sort of ninja retirement village on the edge of Wind Country. It was her compromise with Naruto. Old people liked to bet on things because there wasn’t much else to do, and they absolutely LOVED playing cards. Tsunade called it Rule of the Universe number 27. She was pretty sure you got handed a deck and some Bingo cards along with your gold watch no matter from what job it was you were retiring.

This sort of place worked out great for all of them. Naruto got to bug ninja for training tips even if they were too old to really show him how they were done, Shizune and her could make a lot of cash because old people were always sick, and the gambling was as good as it ever got even if the stakes were a little lower than what she preferred.

The fact that there was no one here worth peeping on, so Jiraiya tended to visit not nearly as often was just cake, really. It was extremely good cake. Heh.

This was one of his rare trips, but she hadn’t seen him for a little over three months prior, so she could deal. They were currently sitting out on their porch at a small outdoor table and chair set. The breeze was pleasant and played with her long blond ponytails. “What would you do with the world that wouldn’t have the entire female populous rising up in arms and relieving you of your dick within the day?”

“Well, okay. You have a point, but it was hypothetical anyway.” He quipped, barely fazed by the threat to his manhood anymore. He’d been known as the world’s premier Super Pervert for four years now, ever since he finally put out his third little orange book. “That reminds me, have you seen my newest title? After the flop of the first one, I almost gave up on the whole author thing, but wow, the Icha Icha series has really taken off!”

Tsunade raised an eyebrow and took another drink of her sake. There was nothing like good sake on a hot day. “Jiraiya, if you still have your genitals, it’s a pretty good bet I haven’t picked up the latest piece of garbage you’re trying to pass off as literature.”

“Good point.” He crossed his legs a bit self-consciously and grabbed for the bottle to refill his own drink. “What the hell is Naruto doing anyway? I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.”

“Oh, well, I was sick of him coming to me for new chakra control exercises every three seconds, so I told him to try combining the ones he already knew.”

“So he decided to cover himself in leaves, while walking on a tree floating in a lake?”

“It’s good balance and agility training too, but well, the leaf thing is kind of accidental. He’s still got no control over his bloodline abilities, and it’s gotten worse since he started getting another mark on his shoulder to match the original one on his face. A bush reached out and grabbed him on his way through that brush there on the edge of the lake, so he must have decided he might as well use the leaves too. Shizune and I have tried everything we can think of to help him out with his botanical problems, but nothing works.”

“Well, he’s just shy of six. Maybe it’s a maturity thing? The fact that he’s getting another mark could mean that the kekkei genkai has stages like the Sharingan, and he’s just got to level it up or something.”

“Level it up? My son isn’t a video game.”

“Yeah, well, you know what I mean.” Jiraiya frowned and fiddled with the bit of metal in his hands. He’d been tinkering with this seal since Naruto’s Bee Incident, but he just couldn’t get it to do quite what he had in mind.

“If it keeps going much farther than this, I might have to scrape up enough to hire a mission out of Konoha, and ANBU are expensive, so if you’ve got any suggestions that don’t require feeding him coins, please let me know.”

“You mean hiring Tenzou to come train the brat? Sensei’s not likely to go along with that, not even for you. I know he’s the only other Mokuton user currently living after what that bastard Orochimaru did to him, but ANBU don’t grow on trees, and he’s really been moving up in rank lately. With Danzou around, they need him there.” He glanced up through his spiky bangs at his frowning teammate, “you may have to send him to the village if you aren’t willing to move back there, yourself.”

Her grimace turned feral and she slammed a fist down on the table, cracking it but not breaking it in half. Shizune only bought reinforced furniture for her mentor if she could possibly help it, and it was much cheaper and easier to find in a town like this dominated by ninja, retired or not. “I’m not sending him back there by himself! He’s still a baby and that place is cursed and a deathtrap!”

“Hey, I was just saying! Besides, you know I’m right. Tenzou could be the only one that might be able to help him.”

“Well, we’ll just have to hope it doesn’t come to that.” She growled, forcing herself to calm down and unclench her teeth before she gave herself a migraine.

“No point in worrying about it right now. If he can hold off on it for a few more years, I really think he’ll have met your requirements by the time he’s 10 or 11 – he only got hit twice in Dodge Training today, and you looked like you weren’t holding back much on speed. When he’s ready, I can have Sensei and the Mokuton kid look at him when I take him back to get his headband.”

“Che, the dodging’s impressive, but I can’t believe he’s made so much damn progress on that strength technique!” she fumed.

“You should know how determined he can be when he really wants something.” Jiraiya pointed out.

“Yeah, well how could I have known that it was possible to achieve perfect control of just one technique when your natural level is almost completely average?” She growled, “It shouldn’t be possible to learn something like that through nothing but repetition and sheer force of will!”

“Well, you didn’t tell him it wasn’t possible, so of course he could do it.” Jiraiya grinned, “He’s going to break all sorts of rules of possibility, if for no other reason than he’s too stupid to think it through and realize it’s impossible before he starts, and he won’t give up once he begins trying something until he can do it flawlessly!”

He should have expected her fist to the top of his head, but somehow, he never saw it coming.

“BAKA! My son is NOT stupid! He’s just got too much damn energy to sit still and learn things! It’s the damn Kyuubi’s fault for jacking his chakra levels so fucking high! I’ve assigned him two hours at the Shogi parlor every day as part of his training, so hopefully that’ll teach him patience and a little strategy. If he pisses the old guys there off too much by running around, they won’t give him pointers or show him jutsu anymore.”

“It’s got nothing to do with the fact that people bet on Shogi, and he absolutely can’t lose games of chance, is it?” Jiraiya grinned, as he picked himself up off the ground and regained his now kind of wobbly seat. “You know that kid will never be good at planning and conventional tactics. He’s too much of a natural genius at improvisation and unpredictable creative strategy in the middle of battle to ever slow himself down and apply People-that-aren’t-Naruto logic to a situation.”

Tsunade sighed, “I know. He’s absolutely hopeless at long-term analysis. He can’t think, ‘what would I do in this situation’ to predict other people’s actions because no one else would ever think of half the shit he does, and more than half the time his answer to the question would be, ‘I’d just wing it’ anyway.”

“I’d say he’d have to grow out of that if he wants to be Hokage someday, but it always seems to work out for him so it’s hard to criticize.”

Tsunade groaned and buried her head in her arms, “I know! The kid can’t lose if probability is involved. It’s not fair!” Impulsively she stood up, knocking her chair over in the process and pointed accusingly at Naruto, “Hey Brat! Stop stealing all of my luck, you little bastard!”

The yell broke Naruto’s concentration and all his leaves went fluttering into the lake while he wobbled frantically on the now unstable log before catching his balance, “Hey, you old hag! You almost made me fall in!” he screamed back.

Jiraiya chuckled and went back to fiddling with his new seal, ignoring Tsunade’s grumblings about ungrateful little brats with no respect for their mother’s suffering. “I wouldn’t complain too much, if I were you.” He said, turning serious. “I’m pretty sure he’d be dead by now if he had your luck instead of Minato’s with some of the trouble he gets himself into and the way he pushes himself training with new jutsu and chakra techniques without anyone watching him.”

Tsunade sighed, but had to agree. When it came to getting stronger, the kid just loved it and refused to fail at anything he set his mind to. She’d done everything she could think of to curtail his chakra use without supervision, but he was the most headstrong and independent little bastard ever. He had to get it from his father. That jerk had a lot to answer for when she met up with him again in the Afterlife. No way did he get his stubbornness and willingness to take chances from her side of the family.

“So, want to play another hand of cards? Double or nothing?”

“Hell yeah! Now you’re talking!” She eagerly agreed.

Naruto glared down at the floating leaves that he’d been dutifully holding with his chakra while balancing on the log which he was keeping stable in the lake with a great deal of concentration. He was getting kind of frustrated. He seemed to have reached a plateau in his training and it was really pissing him off. He was pretty sure if he could just etch out another little bit of control, he’d be able to perform a Bunshin, and from there, it was just another small step to his kaa-san’s freakish strength. Technically, for him, the strength and Bunshin should be about the same difficulty because Freakish Strength required a lot more chakra.

Every night he stayed out late hitting boulders, blocks, and logs until they shattered, but it was still taking two or three hits instead of just one, and he frequently had to heal his arm afterwards. He’d gotten to the point where he didn’t have to think about how to mold and release the chakra anymore when it used to take him ages to prepare himself for a single attempt. He was even pretty sure he could use this much of it in battle since it was coming so naturally to him, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Kaa-san’s and when he messed up and hurt himself – well, that wouldn’t be good in a fight.

He’d narrowed down the possible problems to one or two things. He was pretty sure he was building up enough chakra in preparation, or at least as much as he was capable of at his size and age. He could feel the pressure on his chakra coils whenever he did it, and he knew if anything, he’d been able to gather more of it than he used to do, so the solution wasn’t to use more chakra. (He was really glad to have ticked that one off the list because his aunt was always on his case that ‘all problems can’t be solved by applying more chakra to them!’ - she’d had a field day with that rant when he’d originally begun having so much trouble with bunshin.)

No, he had to be either not narrowing and condensing the point down tiny enough, or not releasing it at the right moment. He knew he wasn’t releasing it way too soon because his arm never exploded off of his body, but he thought there might be an interval between ‘way too soon’ and right on time. It was also possible he was letting it go too late. He had tried all sorts of combinations, but the answer still eluded him. Either way, it was a chakra control problem because he just couldn’t make it do exactly what he wanted it to, but he was a lot closer with that one, than the chakra scalpel jutsu. That one required a small, precise, and sustained amount of chakra, and he kind of thought it might always be beyond him.

He figured that since he’d never have the natural control his mom and aunt had, he’d just have to treat each jutsu like another chakra exercise as well as a technique. He may not be able to intuitively know just exactly the right amount to use, but if he tried it often enough, he was sure to stumble on it eventually. He did have excellent senses, and he knew when he did it correctly because it just felt like it was right. It was an uphill struggle because while most people just had a decent sized puddle to feed through their chakra coils, he had a damn lake. When the valves were open, the pressure was higher. It made it much harder to regulate. It was like trying to get exactly a liter of water from the floodgates on a dam verses the taps on a faucet. To further complicate things, his proverbial faucet was always leaking power to his seal to keep Kyuubi back, and therefore, throwing off the flow.

He plopped himself down on the log, and being sure to keep his chakra flowing around it and down to the bottom of the lake so it stayed stable, he carefully took off his sandals and threw them on the shore so he could dangle his feet in the water without soaking his footwear.

Idly he swished his legs back and forth, tracking the underwater movements he was causing by the way the submerged leaves moved. He tried to get them moving farther away or to go in specific directions by hitting the water harder, and using more forceful movements, but that just made them swirl around a lot. They hardly ever even hit the log he was sitting on as the currents pushed ahead of them and bounced off of the wood before they got there, repelling them back. He found that if he got closer to them before plunging his foot in, it was a little easier to get them to do what he wanted because there was less room for the water to spread out and make the leaf do other weird things. Also, they obeyed a bit better if he approached them slowly and sped up gradually to disturb the water as little as possible outside of the main movement.

…wait a minute.

Eagerly he jumped off of the log and sprang the distance between it and the shore, sprinting for the old wall behind their house that was his favorite target for super-punching practice. Instead of focusing the chakra just generally ‘in his hand’, he’d try to put it on the very edge, right on the knuckles. If he was lucky, maybe that would even protect him a bit from the force of the hit! ‘That must be how Kaa-san does it, she puts the chakra point at exactly the right distance from her knuckles so that there’s enough room for a slight buffer around her hand, but releases it as close as possible so all of the force is directed into the target except for that tiny protective bit! She builds it up slowly and then BAM at the right moment, SMASH!’

Jiraiya watched him run past as he raked in his winnings while Tsunade dealt the next hand of cards. “I think you’re in trouble. He’s got that ‘sudden epiphany’ look on his face his father used to get when he finally figured out the trick to something like the Rasengan.”

Tsunade growled, “Well…he might figure out the punching part, but the kicks are much harder because chakra is so much more difficult to mold in the feet.”

“Bet you 100 ryo he’ll have the whole thing mastered AND combat ready within two years.”

“Ha! Deal! There’s no way even MY kid is that brilliant! Maybe if he only had that to focus on, but I bet you didn’t know how hard Shizune’s working him on senbon accuracy! He bet me 50 ryo last week that he’d be so good at it in a year that he’ll be able to safely throw them during dodging practice and hit any target with at least 90% accuracy! AND he’s got to learn a basic medical jutsu and memorize the biology behind it every other month until he’s seven as punishment for purposefully giving me the wrong numbers on last week’s lottery ticket and selling the right ones to everyone else in town.”

“What’s with the sudden interest in weapons? He can hardly throw a kunai or shuriken to save his life, and while he’s never really complained about senbon practice, it’s never been his favorite.”

“Heh, well, he saw Shizune temporarily disable a pervert’s *ahem* ‘equipment’ the other day when they caught him trying to peep in the changing rooms at the department store where she had to take him to replace his jacket after the Cake Incident.”

Jiraiya swallowed nervously, crossed his legs again, and made a mental note not to mess with Tsunade’s apprentice, “Cake Incident?”

“You don’t want to know. Think of the Beach Ball Debacle only about three times worse and involving more old men in golf shirts.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. We’re not allowed back at the dog park anymore. Poor TonTon, she really liked the dog park here.”

A/N: After this is a small time skip, then the mini-arc. Most people don't seem adverse to the idea of it, so I've decided to go ahead and post it along with the rest of the story. Loads of thanks to everyone who reviewed and gave me their opinions! :)
Chapter 6: Into the Deep by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 6: Into the Deep

 

The day was hot and the water was cold, and best of all, there wasn’t a plant within petting distance! This was definitely Naruto’s favorite place of everywhere they had lived so far. They’d come here right after his eighth birthday and were still here several months later. He grinned, constantly adjusting his chakra output to keep him on top of the madly rolling surf, then leapt up in a nimble flipping maneuver when the waves pulled him too close to the rocky shore. This was heaven! Why hadn’t they moved to the seaside much sooner?

His smile threatened to spilt his face as he plopped himself down on one of the large black rocks that jutted out into the ocean on his favorite training beach. Not so far off in the distance he could hear other children laughing and playing over the sound of the constantly moving surf. He liked to sit and watch the families when he ran out of usable chakra or just needed a break. Some of the kids had pets to throw Frisbees to, or siblings to dunk in the water…and almost all of them had fathers.

He sighed and shook his head to clear it of those kinds of thoughts as well as to shed some of the moisture that had gathered in his hair from his romp. It didn’t help the later problem much, his blond mop stayed pretty much soaked from the ocean’s spray, but it did get his mind off of the former and he eagerly stood back up and stretched, ready to have another go on chakra surfing. This was such a cool technique, and he thought if he worked on it enough, he might be able to change it up so it worked on other unstable surfaces like snow or sand! How cool would that be?

Before he could hop back onto the water and make a mad dash for the deeps – he had to be careful to time the jumps correctly and get out of the way fast or he’d be smashed against the rocks – he heard a sudden shout and the rumbling of falling stones. His head shot up and his eyes darted in the direction of the noise – over towards the formerly laughing family that had been playing in the sand. The dog was missing and so was the littlest kid – a daughter who’d been wearing a bright yellow sundress. Without thinking about it further, he took off towards the remaining two adults and older sibling.

When he got closer, he saw that the mother had tears running down her face and a hand over her mouth. The father was leaning into a small crevice barely larger than Naruto’s shoulders.

“Nina!” The man yelled, but there was no answer.

“What happened?” Naruto asked the slightly older boy who was standing beside his mother and looking kind of guilty and very worried.

“My sister! I, well, I threw the ball for Muffy, that’s our dog, and it accidentally went into the rocks there. Muffy went in after it, and when he didn’t come out right away, Nina followed him in, and then the entrance collapsed a little, and now she won’t answer us!”

“Damn!” Naruto scampered forward over the sand and rocks to look at the little cave beside the frantic father. He bit his lip in thought. Kaa-san had warned him that this area was riddled with tunnels and caverns made by the same volcanoes that had left the huge chunks of rocks lying all around, and volcano rock was pretty full of holes to begin with, even without the ocean working on it for years. She’d told him to be careful if he practiced making craters with his newly mastered freakish strength, because you could never tell if you were on top of something like that, and you could open up a hole that went much farther down than you expected.

It looked to him like Nina and Muffy had found one of those little caves and were probably trapped now.

“What are we going to do! Oh, Nina!” The woman behind them wailed and the father cringed, looking helpless.

The man began to twist the large ring on his finger, deep in thought. “Calm down, darling. I’m sure she just slipped when the rocks here fell and now she’d too scared to come out. We’ll get some men here to move the rocks and have her out in minutes.”

“That will take too long. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it!” Naruto quipped, “I’ll go in after her and bring her back! I think I’m small enough to squeeze in. One of you can just run to town and find my kaa-san in case we need her to move these rocks. She’s a really strong ninja and a medic.”

The woman began wailing at the prospect of her daughter needing medical attention.

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think it’s safe for you to go down there, you could end up trapped too. You stay up here, and I’ll go to town for help. Where can I find your kaa-san?”

“She’s a tall woman with blonde hair and ‘Gamble’ written on the back of her coat. My neechan will be with her with a little pig. Neechan has dark hair and a black yukata! If they aren’t at the hospital, they’ll be at the casino. You’d better check there first, since it’s closer. Kaa-san’s name is Tsunade.”

“Tsunade?! The legendary medic-nin?!” he gasped, hurriedly standing up to go find her.

“Yeah! She’ll definitely be able to help.”

He nodded and took off towards the town as fast as he could while his son attempted to comfort his mother.

Naruto looked back at the hole and bit his lip again. The man was probably right…he shouldn’t go down, but the little girl could be hurt or something, and it must be scary to be trapped down in a hole. He was sure he’d be okay with his chakra. If he needed to, he could just walk up the wall or something to get out. Thinking things through before acting would never be his strong point.

Without further ado, he used his own strength to toss aside the main stone blocking the entrance and then began to squeeze himself through what was left of the opening.

“Hey! Dad said you should wait for help from town!” The other boy gasped, his hands twisting nervously in his silk beach robe.

“Don’t worry,” Naruto called, “I’ll be fine! I’m practically a ninja already, too!”

It was a tight squeeze between the rocks for what seemed like ages. It took him quite a while to worm through, and he scraped his knees and elbows several times before the tunnel suddenly opened up into an area wide enough that he could comfortably stand up, then seemed to widen even more up ahead as it sloped down a bit into uncertain blackness.

“Nina?” he called, coughing a little on rock dust in the air and looking around. It was really dark in there. He wished he’d thought to bring a flashlight or something, but he hadn’t packed anything but weapons and a few bottles of water into his ninja pouch that morning. The light from the opening was getting smaller and smaller and further and further away as he walked on. Nina wasn’t answering, but he thought he heard a dog whimpering somewhere up ahead. The noise was echoing oddly, so he couldn’t be sure.

There was a sudden rumbling and before he could even scream, the ground fell out from under him, sending him tumbling into a quickly widening hole he hadn’t seen in the floor several feet away.

Tsunade tuned Shizune out as she put another coin into the machine in front of her and pulled the handle. Who cared if she blew a few ryo on the slots? It wasn’t like their work wasn’t in high demand! She was the best medic-nin in all of the Five Countries! They weren’t in debt like they’d been before she’d gotten over her phobia of blood. She could always make up the cash she lost by saving some rich bastard’s wife from a splinter or something. Nobles would pay the stupidest prices for fixing the lamest things, and they wanted only the best. This place was teeming with rich people on vacation some in disguise, and some not, but half of them hypochondriacs.

The little wheels in the machine turned and clanked and Shizune lectured on and on. Cherry, Cherry, Cherry…Oh crap, something horrible must have happened! The last wheel stopped on Cherry too. Lights and buzzers went off, and coins began clinking into the tray in front of her.

Shizune stopped and stared at her mentor, a look of horror on her face, “you won.” That was never ever, ever, a good sign.

“Damn….where’s Naru-chan?!”

Just then, a man ran up to them, panting and looking worried. “Are you Tsunade, the medic-nin? Your son said you could help me! My daughter is lost in some rocks on the beach!”

Tsunade stopped collecting her coins and immediately jumped up from her stool. “Where at? Show us!”

Together the three – plus one pig – ran towards the shoreline.

Naruto groaned and struggled to open his eyes. There was an odd pressure on his left side and everything hurt like he’d just got done with a dodging practice gone horribly wrong. He had no idea where he was or what had happened, and even when he finally managed to pry his eyelids up, it didn’t help. Wherever he was, it was pitch black in there. He could smell rock dust and hear water dripping somewhere, but couldn’t make out anything else about his surroundings or remember quite how he’d gotten there.

His arm and ribs hurt so badly he could hardly think, and he could feel the Kyuubi trying to get at whatever was wrong in order to heal him. If that happened, he’d be in trouble because he couldn’t do much to get himself out of this mess, let alone a scared little girl, if he was seizing and coughing up blood. He had to figure out where he was and try to stop it.

The ground beneath him seemed to be made of uneven, porous rock, and there were smaller stones digging into his back. He felt along the object pinning him, and judging by the texture and the way it curved around and to the side, he realized it had to be a larger version of the stones he was laying on. Similar boulders seemed to be wedged all around him, and by the feel of his headache, one of them had become acquainted with his skull at some point. He couldn’t hold back a groan of pain and a little whimper as he tried to wiggle experimentally to see how stuck he was. Nothing budged.

Memories of what had happened began to trickle through, and he knew he had to free himself before too much of the fox’s chakra entered his system. He was already beginning to feel a little feverish – the first sign of chakra sickness. It was hard to concentrate, but he managed to summon up enough energy into his coils to use some approximation of his freakish strength and move the boulder holding him down. Kyuubi’s power must have already mixed enough with his system to cause some problems, because instead of just pushing the rock aside, it exploded on impact, splattering him with sharp splinters of stone, and his tenketsu burned like nothing he’d ever felt before. He nearly screamed with the pain of it. ‘Oh, not good. Not good…I want kaa-san!’

He forced himself to calm down and take a few breaths. Panicking wasn’t going to help anything! He’d never before tried to use his chakra much when Kyuubi’s energy was leaking into his system, and he made a mental note not to try it again if he could help it, but he managed to fight down the lasting ache to clear his thoughts enough to function again. He gripped his wounded shoulder and was disconcerted when his hand came away wet and sticky with blood.

He forced himself into some semblance of a meditative pose, gasping through the pain as he struggled into a sitting position. He slumped against one of the larger rocks, and pulled his legs up. This was so not good! His stomach tingled more urgently, where the seal sat, and the mark on his cheek began to burn. He frantically sent as much chakra as he could towards the site to try and keep the filter intact. If he could only strengthen it enough to hold for a few minutes…there!

Quickly, while he was able to use his chakra for other things, he tried to summon up one of the few healing jutsu he knew, a basic ‘heal light wounds’ sort of thing, but it was the best he could manage at the moment. His left arm didn’t want to work right to form the seals, and It took him four tries with even the small amount of Kyuubi’s power in his system throwing off his control. He usually had about a 75 percent success rate with basic healing jutsu, but he’d never had to try it under these kinds of conditions before.

He silently promised himself that he wouldn’t argue with Kaa-san and Shizune about augmenting his training with medic-nin skills anymore, if he managed to survive this.

He finally succeeded in activating the jutsu. A light green glow sputtered around his right hand, and he immediately held it over the large, bleeding gash on his shoulder and ran it down over his aching ribs. As he worked, it got easier to keep back the fox’s power, and the jutsu flowed more smoothly, but there was only so much he could do.

By the eerie green light of his glowing hand, he could see that the rock that had fallen on him had been sharp and heavy enough to make several small gashes along with the larger slash he’d been healing, and he was bruised up really good, but he didn’t think his shoulder was dislocated. It evidentially hadn’t damaged anything too important because the bleeding was sluggish and he could still move his fingers. By the feel of his head, he’d probably had a concussion at one point, but he guessed that’s where Kyuubi’s chakra had been heading because he wasn’t dizzy enough to be newly concussed.

He took a few more deep, painful breaths and tried to remember what Shizune and Kaa-san had told him to do if he were ever hurt by himself somewhere. Emergency medical care? Check. Assess the surroundings? Check. Figure out as much as he could about the rest of the situation? Well, he guessed that was next.

He killed the power to the healing jutsu and started up the diagnostic one he’d just learned last month. He didn’t like what it told him, but it could have been much worse. It looked like two of his ribs were cracked, but the bones in his arm were whole and he’d been right about his head - it wasn’t a full-blown concussion anymore. All in all, he needed more medical attention than he could give himself, but he didn’t need it right away. He had water in his pouch, not much but enough to last him a few days if he rationed it.

Now that he knew where he was, what was wrong with him, and had determined how long he could stay that way, he needed to figure out how to get out. He knew he couldn’t afford to burn the chakra it would take to keep a light going indefinitely, but if he fell down again or something, having chakra left wouldn’t do him much good. Besides, he had to find the little girl, and see if she was hurt, and then see if he could get them out of there. This was proving to be a much tougher task than he’d thought when he climbed into that hole. Hopefully his kaa-san was on the way…He didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, but he was only eight, and he was scared and hurt and wanted a hug.

Okay, calm down, calm down! He closed his eyes and concentrated. He’d been trying to learn the chakra scalpel for ages, but the control at that amount of small-required output was still beyond him. When he’d begun learning it, it had been a sort of compromise between himself and his kaa-san. He’d wanted a cool offensive jutsu, and she’d wanted him to learn how to ease inflammation. They’d settled on the chakra scalpel because it could be both a medical jutsu and used offensively.

Unfortunately, his scalpel was more like a chakra butter knife. It worked really well in this situation though because instead of coating his fingers in a sharp, thin layer of energy, it lit up his hand in glowing blue waves. He levered himself upright and staggered along the way a bit until he could see the ceiling of the area he’d tumbled in with the jutsu’s light. It looked like the floor of the smaller cave up above had given way, sending him down in a shower of rocks into this cavern, which stretched on in an undeterminable distance in front of him.

Studying what he could see of the area above, he thought it ended in this hole. He hadn’t seen any other offshoots when he’d been up there, and the walls rose on three sides of the chasm. That meant Nina and Muffy had to be down here with him somewhere. What remained of the ledge was about 20 feet up at a sharp incline and bits of sand and small stones fell down between the rocks piled up making a sort of really steep ramp. He figured he must have at least partially rolled down that because if he’d fallen from that height with the boulders littering the floor, he doubted he’d have survived.

If he weren’t hurt, he thought he’d have been able to climb back to the main tunnel easily, and he could probably still make it up there if he absolutely had to, but he hadn’t found the little girl yet, so he couldn’t just abandon her here.

He chewed on his bottom lip, a habit he’d picked up from Ero-jiji, and looked from the hole in the ceiling towards the forbidding darkness of the tunnel in front of him. He didn’t want to go, but Nina couldn’t be much older than him, if she was even his age yet, and she wasn’t a ninja, so she was bound to be even more scared. He’d told her dad he would go get her, and he never went back on his words…

There was nothing for it. He gasped in pain, even breathing hurt with the damage to his ribcage, but began to stagger down the tunnel, his chakra lighting up the pathway in front of him. He used as little as he could, but it still showed him the uneven path a good five feet ahead. Hopefully it would be good enough to keep him from falling into another pit. He wished he’d thought of it sooner; it might have prevented this mess.

It wasn’t too long before Shizune and Tsunade reached the beach where Nina’s mother and brother were waiting anxiously. The Slug Sannin felt her stomach drop when she didn’t spot Naruto with them. Knowing her son’s penchant for getting into horrible situations, there was little doubt he’d decided to play hero. She had hypothesized that the gene for stupidly risking your neck for other people must be hardwired into the particular blue of his eyes because his father’d had the same eyes and the same problem. Damn that man!

It had taken about ten minutes for them to arrive on the scene, traveling at the fastest speed their guide could run, and Tsunade mentally cursed all non-shinobi as she quickly strolled forwards to assess the situation. A small opening in the rocks was the only clue to where the children had gone.

“He-He followed Nina in there.”

She turned to face the sobbing woman, holding tightly to the boy beside her that could only be her son and staring unblinkingly at the rocks. “The little blond boy went in after her, but neither of them has come out yet, and we heard more rumbling a minute ago!”

Tsunade thought she was going to be sick. No, no, no! Not her Naru-chan! He was fine. He was the strongest damn brat she’d ever seen, and she’d made sure he was well grounded in medical basics. There was no way a few rocks were going to kill her stupidly heroic son.

Shizune caught her wrist before she could send a chakra imbued punch into the rock pile to enlarge the opening. “No! This area must be really unstable if there have been minor collapses twice in an hour, and this sort of rock is extremely fragile! Destroying more of the structure could bring it all down and crush them!”

“You’re right…” Tsunade sighed; she needed to get it together. She obviously wasn’t thinking clearly. Worry and fear were clouding her judgment. “We’re going to have to do it the hard way.” She picked up a boulder the size of a small pony with one hand and threw it aside. The worried father, now comforting his wife and son, gaped on, completely stunned, then hurried to help them widen the opening.

“Shizune, go back to town and get us more help. Bring ropes and lights too – this cave must be pretty deep if they can’t hear us calling to them, so we’ll need a group of workers.”

“Yes! Of course!” The younger woman scrambled to obey. The rest of Nina’s family came forward to help move debris as best they could.

No Japanese notes this time! :)

A/N: This begins the mini-arc.

Chapter 7: Rescue at the Beach by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 7: Rescue at the Beach

 

Naruto felt like he’d been walking for ages. His chest hurt with every breath and even using his good arm to pin his bad one against his side wasn’t killing the ache each jarring step sent through his injured limb. He’d stopped calling out to the lost Nina several minutes ago, when it got harder to catch his breath.

He paused a moment, thinking he heard a whimpering from up ahead, and the sound of soft crying.

“Nina? Is that you?”

“Hello! Yes! Is someone there?” a high, raspy voice choked with tears, cut through the darkness, and he strengthened his light in response, “I see you!” she called, and he heard shuffling sounds from the tunnel in front of him as well as cheerful yipping. A tiny, furry white blur came tearing into his small circle of light and jumped around happily. He couldn’t make her out yet, but it hadn’t taken the dog long to get to him, so she must be pretty close. His light ruined his night vision or he was sure he’d have been able to see her.

“A-Are you hurt?” He called, inching forwards. The sounds were getting closer, but he couldn’t make her out yet. It was even harder to keep putting one foot in front of the other with Muffy dancing around his ankles.

“Yes! I tripped in a hole in the dark after I slid down here, and I hurt my ankle! It was so awful, and I was so scared!” A miniature version of the dark haired woman he’d seen on the surface before this adventure began, finally limped into his light’s small oasis, and the little girl gasped, “Your hand is glowing!”

“Huh?” His head was a little foggy from the light chakra-sickness Kyuubi had induced in him before he’d tried to heal himself after the cave-in, so it took him a minute to think of why she’d think that was odd. “Oh…yeah, it’s a jutsu. It’s the only thing I have for light.”

“A-Are you a ninja? Can you get us out of here?” She looked so hopeful even with her dirt and tear streaked face that he couldn’t bring himself to be anything but entirely optimistic with her…

“Of course I can! We’ve just got to get back out the way I came in. If we don’t take any of the branches off of this tunnel, we should be fine.” He tried to give her his best grin, but she seemed to sense he was bluffing.

“Um, aren’t you kind of young to be a ninja? You can’t be much older than me, and I’m only 7!...and you look kind of hurt.”

“Well, I’m still in training, but this is nothing I can’t handle. My Kaa-san is a legendary medic-nin, you know!”

She frowned, beginning to sniffle once more as the prospects of sudden rescue seemed to dim, “If your mom is such a great medic-nin, why haven’t you healed yourself?”

Naruto sighed and slumped back against the wall. So much for downplaying his injuries, “My jutsu aren’t that good yet, but I could probably heal your ankle some, and take away most of the pain!”

“Really?” She brightened up a little again.

“Help me sit down here, for a minute, and I’ll take a look at it.”

“Okay.” She gently took his arm and aided him into a sitting position, then lowered herself down beside him. “Should I take off my shoe?”

“No! These rocks are sharp, and you’d never get it back on again if it’s swollen. Just let me see it.” He’d had lots of practice with sprained joints. It was a really common injury during training. He’d even eventually gotten the trick of the inflammation reducing jutsu his kaa-san had wanted to teach him instead of the chakra scalpel. Unfortunately, it involved a few more hand-signs than the jutsu he’d used on himself, and he was pretty sure he couldn’t manage it in the state he was in.

“The light’s going to cut out for a minute, so don’t be scared okay? I gotta stop this technique to start up the healing one, but I’ll get it going again as soon as I’m done.” He saw her nod in understanding, and he tried to give her a reassuring grin. She looked pretty scared, “My name’s Naruto, by the way.”

“Th-Thank you for coming to find me, Naruto-kun.”

He nodded, and painfully fumbled through the hand-signs to activate the diagnostic jutsu. He had to make sure her ankle was the worst of it. Unfortunately, this one didn’t give off any light, and Nina whimpered again in fear, “I want my Daddy.”

Naruto knew the feeling, “He’s up top, but he couldn’t fit down here…Your family is waiting for you when we get out.” She was really being braver than his former experience with civilian kids had led him to expect. Her dad had been pretty calm too. He wondered if the guy had a high-stress job.

Aside from the ankle, she was covered in cuts and bruises. If he had to guess, he’d say she probably stumbled right to the edge of that nasty drop off and rolled down because she couldn’t see it in the dark. Her fall probably caused the rocks at the opening to come loose as well as weakened the floor enough to cause it to crumble on him when he’d gotten there, and she’d probably run in fear from the sound of his fall, ending up here. Her shins and hands were cut from feeling her way along the walls and bumping into rocks in the darkness.

It only took him three tries to get the healing jutsu working this time, and when his hands began to glow green, he could see Muffy pressed comfortingly against his mistress’s side. The dog’s presence was probably why she wasn’t as scared as he thought she’d be. She hadn’t really been all alone in the dark like he had. “It’s okay, I’m going to heal you now.” She nodded and he placed his hands on her ankle. The swelling went down a little and she stopped whimpering so much, so it must have hurt less.

“That’s the best I can do when I’m like this.” He murmured. “I’ve got to switch back to the other technique now, so the light is going to go off again.”

“Okay, thank you, Naruto-kun. It really does feel a little better, now.” She hugged her puppy and squintched her eyes shut when the green glow stopped.

After a few moments, she felt him touch her arm and peeked open an eye to see he’d gotten the blue light back. “It’s alright.”

She impulsively lunged at him in a hug, and he did his best to stifle a cry of pain.

Back on the beach a whole crew of men were working with Tsunade to clear the rocks from the entrance to the cave. It wasn’t easy going. The second collapse had caused most of the downward tunnel to fall in, so there was a long stretch of boulders to clear, and they had no idea how much farther they had to go before it opened back up. On top of that, they had to be extremely careful not to cause further damage to the area as they worked or everything they’d done so far could be undone in moments.

None of them were giving up hope because they hadn’t found any bodies yes, but the families of both missing children were getting more and more frantic by the hour. Each rock they moved that only lead to more rocks felt like another ton of weight on Tsunade’s heart.

Naruto didn’t know if he could get up so soon after those jutsu, so they sat huddled in the blue glow of his chakra. Nina leaned against him along the cave’s wall, shoulders touching, with her little dog sitting quietly for once in her lap. The ninja in training had his head back and his eyes closed, not looking forward to trying to get them all the way back to the hole they’d fallen down, let alone back up to the surface. He could only hope that his kaa-san would find them before that became necessary. He almost joined his companion in sniffling, but he was a shinobi and crying wouldn’t help anyone.

He decided to distract them both with conversation. Talking kind of hurt with his ribs like they were, but it would be worth a little pain to dispel this shitty atmosphere!

“If Daddy were here, everything would be fine.” Nina whispered obviously having been thinking along the same lines.

Naruto was pretty sure his kaa-san would have been a lot more help in this situation than some richly dressed civilian tourist, but who knew, maybe dads had some special super power to make everything better. It’s not like he’d know, he thought bitterly. “I’m sure they are on their way. You probably didn’t notice since you were running in the dark, but we covered a lot of ground between here and the opening.”

“I don’t care! I want my mom and dad! I’m hungry, and wet, and cold, and I want my daddy!”

Naruto’s eyes shot open, now that she mentioned it…he was wet too and it wasn’t the lingering dampness from his training that morning. He lowered his hand a bit to better see the cave floor and found a thin layer of water seeping up from the pores in the stone. “Fuck.”

Nina turned to glare at him, “Don’t use that kind of language in front of a lady, baka!”

From hero to ‘baka’ in under an hour. Naruto was pretty sure his life sucked. “The cave is getting wetter, which means the tide must be coming in or something, making it fill up. We’ve got to get back to higher ground as fast as we can.” He gritted out through clenched teeth.

“Oh…fuck.” She repeated him. He refrained from commenting.

Nina had a much easier time standing up than he did, despite her still slightly injured ankle, but he eventually managed to make it back to his feet. Little Muffy went scampering up back towards the entrance, his tiny paws splashing in the rising water. “Muffy! Wait!” The little girl gasped, “You’ll get lost again!” She grabbed Naruto’s good arm and drug him off in that direction must faster than his injuries were comfortable with, but at least they were headed in the right direction. If they kept going uphill, he figured they’d have to find their way to the surface eventually. It was just a matter of moving faster than the water could fill the cavern.

After about 100 yards they caught up to the little dog and Naruto’s ribs were really burning. He wondered if he’d managed to damage them more with all of his movement. His chakra scalpel was starting to waiver and water was leaking in through the walls as well as the floor. Both children were shivering and soaked clear through. Muffy whimpered and backed up against Nina’s legs, tail tucked firmly underneath him, and Naruto got a really bad feeling about this…

There was a snapping noise and one of the side tunnels they’d passed through earlier suddenly spewed a wave of frigid saltwater into the main passage. One of the walls in that direction had obviously been weakened and worn through. “Run!” He gasped, forcing himself to scoop up Muffy, and he and Nina took off as fast as they could away from the rising water.

“We’ve got to hurry.” One of the workmen said, “It’s getting late and the tide is coming in. Most of these caves flood to one degree or another whenever that happens! We haven’t seen signs of flooding in this passage yet, but there’s no telling what those collapses earlier might have caused. This igneous rock is never the same two days in a row, anyway. It’s so porous the ocean washes it right away half the time.

Shizune tried to keep her calm, and nodded, glancing over to where Tsunade was doing the work of three larger men with her chakra-enhanced strength. It didn’t look like she’d heard the worker’s comment, and that could only be a good thing. Her hands were already bloody from the sharp edges of the stones and she was currently only stopping to heal herself when she was cut deeply enough to slow her down. The workmen had only brought enough gloves for themselves. There was no telling what this news might do to Shizune’s emotionally fragile mentor. She didn’t think any of them could work faster than they already were.

“We’re through!” Someone called from the front of the line, and both medic-nin took off down the passage like their feet were on fire. Nina’s father was as tight on their heels as a civilian man could be. Behind them, the gathered crowd from the village that had come to see what the excitement was all about, and then stayed to find out if they could help and see how things turned out, began to buzz with the news.

“Pass us some more light! The worker called, while Tsunade took over for him, shoving stones out of the way, and passing them backwards to teams of men behind them. The tiny hole grew bigger and with the added light sources, they could finally see a room of rock opening up on the other side of the piled barrier.

Two more large stones shuffled back to be carried clear, and the passage was large enough to squeeze through. “Go on ahead! The worker said, we’ll shore up the entrance and send more people in after you.”

“Good. Make sure there’s food and blankets waiting up here. They’ll be tired and hungry, and probably dehydrated when we get them out.” He nodded and passed the word along as the two women and one worried father crawled head first into the cave clutching flashlights and carrying ropes.

They hadn’t gone very far when Tsunade, who had been in front, suddenly called a halt, “There’s a big hole here leading down! There’s nothing on the other side of it! They must be down there!”

Shizune inched forward and looked over the ledge, shining her flashlight down the nearly vertical incline.

“My poor Nina! Do you think they fell?!”

Tsunade looked grim, but years of stressful medical work dealing with life and death situations let her regain some semblance of calm now that it felt like they were making progress towards saving the kids. “Yes, and there’s water down there, which means at least part of the tunnel system is flooded. Find something sturdy to tie the rope to, and then you’re going to stay up here to haul us up once we find the children.” An untrained man would be useless down there and probably get them all killed.

“O-Okay.” He jumped to do as he was told, desperate to do something to help his daughter. Shizune gave her mentor a look, and then easily leapt down into the water below. 20 feet wasn’t anything for a well-trained ninja as long as they were expecting it. The water came up to her waist. Tsunade easily leapt down beside her and after exchanging quick glances, they took off down the tunnel.

The water got higher and higher on them as they walked, but the ceilings were high too. Hopefully the children had found a ledge or something to climb on and wait out the worst of it since they hadn’t made it this far.

“N-Naruto! Naruto-kun! Please wake up.” He felt someone shaking his shoulder and a sudden urge to throw up made him turn away from the voice. He nearly fell off the side of a rock ledge, but a hand caught at what was left of his shirt and kept him from going over while he emptied the contents of his stomach. A horribly painful coughing fit took him right afterwards and by the time the person with him managed to ease him back onto his back, he kind of wanted to die. His good hand fumbled for his ninja pouch, hoping to wash the taste of blood out of his mouth with one of the bottles of water he kept there, but it was missing.

“If you’re looking for your water, I think you lost your pouch in the flood.” The voice said. He thought she must have heard him searching for it. It was too dark to see, but his fuzzy mind provided him with a picture of a girl just younger than him with dark hair and eyes in clothes ragged from her impromptu spelunking trip and a fuzzy white puppy.

“N-Nina?” He managed to gasp. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” She sounded really worried and fumbled to touch his forehead in the dark. It was the only thing even slightly warm in the entire place. She shivered and wrapped her arms back around her freezing body, pressing a bit closer to Muffy.

“We didn’t make it out of that part of the cave before it flooded! It was really scary, but you grabbed me and we followed Muffy! We were underwater for a long time, and I thought he’d drowned, but he got out before the opening was covered. We swam through it into this cave where the ceiling is higher, but the currents down there are really bad and we kept banging into things! Y-you seemed to be trying to keep yourself between me and the walls. Eventually we finally surfaced, and I heard Muffy barking. I was so tired and couldn’t swim anymore, and it was so dark. I was sure we were going to die, but you pulled us over towards the noise and found some ledges after you got your hand to glow again! There’s littler ones all along the walls and we managed to get all the way up here, but now we’re trapped and it’s still dark and I don’t think we can get any higher! I felt around the wall after we reached this one and you passed out, but I couldn’t find anything.”

He heard tears in her voice, and it was shaky with fear. “After you stopped moving, I thought you were dead! This weird red smoke started rising up from your body, and after a while, it stopped, but then you started shaking really badly and acted like you couldn’t breathe! You’ve been coughing like that ever since.”

“Chakra-sickness.” He gasped his Kaa-san’s name for what Kyuubi’s energy fighting with his own did to his system. He must have had to use chakra to reinforce his body to get them through the currents and take the hits against the cave walls when the currents she talked about had taken them. Now that he knew what had happened, flashes of stone and water and pain flooded back into his memory. He’d cushioned them against several pretty bad hits. It was no wonder Kyuubi had had to step in, but this was really really bad timing…

“Umm, okay. What can I do?” She whimpered. “Can you make the light again?”

“N-n-no.” His teeth had begun to chatter. “S-s—s-sorry…g-get-closer – warmth.”

“Oh! Oh, of course!”

He felt her arms go around him and even though she wasn’t careful of the injuries the Kyuubi hadn’t been able to fully heal before his system had pushed it back, he felt a little better for the tangible human presence and what little warmth she could give him. Muffy whined softly in the darkness.

A/N: The pic this time isn't a title art, but I hope you'll forgive me even if it doesn't match the chapter. ;) I hope you are still enjoying the fic, and the image of Naruto in Senju armor with a coat based on his father's! :)
Chapter 8: Out of the Deep by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 8: Out of the Deep:


Tsunade and Shizune treaded water, their hair plastered to their heads and their bodies freezing. “I think the water stopped rising.” The younger woman gasped, looking over at her mentor in the light of their waterproof flashlights.

“True, but this room dead-ends here. We’re going to have to find the entrance to the next one under the waterline, or wait until it goes back down, and who knows how long that will take?”

“A-At least we know he’s still alive. His chakra signature is still more or less coming from that direction.” She gestured towards the blank wall. They’d begun to be able to sense him almost as soon as they’d entered the cavern before this one. Actually, they weren’t really separate caverns but one long tunnel with walls of rock near the ceiling currently blocking it off into sections. Shizune thought this shaft was probably created by air bubbles in molten rock back when this whole part of the country had been a massive lava flow.

“He is still alive, but he’s getting weaker. We don’t have time to wait for the water to go down. There’s no telling how long that will take.” Tsunade argued.

Shizune nodded in agreement and both women took deep breaths, immediately submerging themselves. There was so much dirt and other debris in the water, that their lights were useless down there. The found themselves feeling along the wall, looking for an opening. Fortunately, they were ninja and could hold their breaths for several minutes before needing to surface for fresh air, but it still took them three tries to locate the hole connecting this ancient bubble in the stone to the next one.

Tsunade found it first and was able to lead Shizune to it once they’d surfaced again. Some of these connecting ledges where thicker than others and there was no telling how long it would take them to get to the other side. At least with the water receding, they weren’t fighting the currents quite so badly anymore. That made it much easier.

As they neared the surface, they could both hear an excited voice echoing around the room, “Light, Naruto-kun! Wake up! There’s light in the water!”

Tsunade broke the surface and sucked air into her burning lungs. She quickly unfastened the light from her belt where she had stored it for the swim and hurriedly directed it towards the sound. Beside her, Shizune did the same.

“Over here! Please help us! Naruto-kun is really sick!” The lights landed on a small girl leaning over a ledge on the wall, and a small white dog began to run back and forth yapping excitedly.

“You must be Nina.” The Sannin gasped, still trying to catch her breath from the swim, but pulling herself up out of the water with no visible sign of effort. Shizune followed after her with similar ease.

The blonde woman didn’t spare the little girl another thought before kneeling down next to the shivering and moaning little boy laid out along the wall of the cave. Her apprentice paused to look Nina over and a quick medical jutsu soon had her healed of her most serious scrapes and bruises, though there was nothing they could do about the cold just yet. “Why don’t you tell us what happened while Tsunade-sama works on Naruto-kun, Nina-chan?” Shizune murmured, pulling the girl into her lap. Tsunade would have told her if there was anything she could do for Naruto other than get in the Sannin’s way.

Nina snuggled into the woman’s comforting arms. Finally, adults! These had to be Naruto-kun’s aunt and mother! They were all but saved, “C-Can’t we get out of here first?”

Shizune shook her head, hating to disappoint the girl, “No, not until the water goes down. You both have been through a lot and the trip back will be tough like this. It’ll be much safer to wait.”

“Okay…but I’m so hungry and thirsty, and I want my Mommy and Daddy!” Her voice caught on a sob again, but she calmed down to the feel of a warm hand rubbing her back.

“Shh, Nina-chan! It’ll be fine now. We won’t have to wait too long. Tell us what happened, okay?” Shizune pulled a bottle of water out of her pouch, wishing she had food, but everything got soaked during the swim.

“Well, it all started when my stupid brother threw the ball at the rocks, and Muffy followed it down here! I went in to get him, because I didn’t want him to get lost, but it was dark, and I didn’t see the drop off! It was so steep that I practically fell down it! It was awful, but Muffy was waiting for me at the bottom. He must have slid down too because he was all dirty and limping a little.” She paused in her tale to sniffle and pet the dog’s fur. It jumped up into their laps.

“That’s when the rocks started to fall. I could hear them at the entrance and things were shaking, so I ran away as fast as I could. I had to follow the walls because it was so dark, but I knew I had to get away from the rocks! Muffy came with me and we got pretty far. I made sure not to go into the side tunnels so I could find my way back, but I fell and hurt my ankle when the second rumbling happened! Naruto-kun found me and healed my ankle a little after a little while, but then he seemed really tired and he was hurt so we rested some more.”

Nina stopped to take a breath and gather herself for the rest of her tale, “When we noticed the water, we had to run, but we couldn’t! It was so scary and soon Muffy had to swim. I held onto him as long as I could, but the currents got bad and we ended up swimming too! THEN the water filled the cave and we couldn’t find Muffy so we swam towards the entrance, but with the currents and the dark, I didn’t think we’d get there! Naruto-kun saved us, but we were all banged around the whole room! Muiffy was barking, but we couldn’t find the surface of the water! I thought I was going to DIE, but then Naruto-kun pulled me up to the air again. He wasn’t swimming so well anymore, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to go on, but we went where we could hear Muffy, and found a ledge! Naruto-kun managed to get his light working for a little while, and somehow we climbed up from shelf to shelf until we got here, but that’s when he got really sick. I was so worried!”

Tsunade listened to the story with half an ear as she worked over her son. He was nearly completely covered with bruises and gashes of varying depths and his chakra reserves were low. He must have been using it for the light she talked about. He’d obviously been bashed against the walls on top of whatever damage he’d taken getting to the girl in the first place. It was hard to tell what had happened and when, with the varying levels of healing that had been done by his sloppy medical jutsu and Kyuubi’s power. There was nothing life threatening left to heal, but the girl had it right, he was very sick. She hadn’t seen him with chakra-sickness this bad before. His breath wheezed in and out of his lungs and blood flecked his lips. He was freezing, but she knew he’d be feverish once they got him warmed up enough for that.

He hadn’t even opened his eyes when she started working on him, and with his chakra senses being as good as they were, he ALWAYS woke up when someone started working on him. He said other people’s chakra tingled like the Kyuubi’s did so he could always feel it working through him. He’d gotten so used to keeping track of his own chakra and any of the fox’s that might try to get through, that he was very sensitive to anything that didn’t naturally belong there.

“How fast is the water going down?” She asked, not willing to pause what she was doing to check herself.

Shizune craned her neck to look over the ledge, “We’ll be here for another few hours, I’d guess.”

“Damn. We’ve got to get him warmed up.”

“Her too…and us. We’re all freezing.” Tsunade frowned and picked Naruto up to cradle him in her lap like her apprentice was doing with the little girl. She accepted the water bottle from her and gently tipped some of it into Naruto’s mouth before taking a few swallows of her own and passing it back. “Do you have enough chakra left to burn it high enough for the both of you to warm up?”

Shizune frowned, her browns furrowing, “I don’t know. I’ve got enough for a little while, but not for two hours.”

“Well, do what you can.” Their little corner of the cave lit up in brilliant blue as their auras flared.

The light show had definitely begun to waiver a bit by the time they heard voices. All four of them had been lulled into near dozing states by the lingering cold and constant high chakra expenditure of the two women.

The water was still too high to show more than a sliver of the flashlights’ beams from the people on the other side of the divider, but help was definitely on the way. The two women immediately perked up, hearing the sounds of oars as well as voices. They’d brought a boat! “We’re in here!” Shizune called.

“Nina!!” The distinctive voice of her father rang out, only slightly muffled by the rock and echoing around the caverns.

“She’s alright, or will be as soon as we get her warmed up! How fast is the water level going down? We’ve just gotten them dry, so it would be a bad idea to swim them over, but they need to get out and into beds as quickly as possible!” Tsunade let Shizune do the talking. She was much better in these kinds of situations. Now that the adrenaline had worn off and she knew they’d all be safe and warm in a little bit, reactionary nerves were starting to kick in, and she found herself clutching her little boy to her like death would reach out to steal him away at any moment.

“It’s falling fast now! We should be able to get through in a half hour or so! Will they be alright until then?” A scuffle was heard, as someone obviously had to keep Nina’s father from jumping into the water and swimming through the still very narrow gap to get to her.

“Yes! That’ll be fine!” Shizune called back, then glanced over the sleeping little girl in her lap to get a look at her mentor, “we should move down to the lowest ledge above the waterline.”

Tsunade nodded and levered herself up with her precious burden. The two women easily leapt along the niches in the cave wall down to the lowest un-submerged rock ledge.

 

A small wait, a boat ride, and a lift up a 20 ft ledge in the same boat on a pulley system later, and they were back in the open air. There was a loud roar of a cheering crowd when they made their way out of the newly opened tunnel system, but Tsunade ignored it, swearing if she ever saw another cave, it would be too soon.

They quickly bundled both children up and accepted blankets for themselves while hurrying over to one of the fires that had been started on the beach. The sun fell lower in the sky as the moon got higher. The adventure had taken nearly a whole day, and the kids had been wet, battered, starved, and freezing for most of it. They’d both be lucky if they came out of this without pneumonia. Leave it to Naruto to get Pneumonia in the subtropics.

Nina’s family surrounded her in a crying hugging heap of people passing her back and forth, and she was smothered with affection and all the blankets and clean dry clothing they could acquire before they even made it over to the fire pit. “Get some of that soup into her as soon as you can!” Tsunade barked across the excited crowd.

This had turned into a pretty big spectacle. It looked like the whole town had turned out to see how the disaster ended. Taking her own advice, she accepted a bowl from a smiling woman and immediately began to spoon it into Naruto’s slack mouth. His cheeks were flushing now with fever, but at least he was warmer. His head lay limply against her shoulder, but he swallowed on his own, and his breathing was a little easier.

One of the nurses they worked with in the hospital crouched down to see if they needed anything else and Shizune shook her head after a quick glance at her mentor, “No, he was hurt pretty badly, but he’ll be okay now. How is Nina?”

“She’s fine, Shizune-san. Chattering her adventure to everyone who will listen! It sounds like your nephew there is a real hero.” The woman grinned. “I’m so glad everything worked out alright!”

Shizune winced, glad Tsunade was too busy with Naruto to pay attention to their conversation, “I’m glad it worked out too, but don’t let Tsunade hear you call Naru-chan a hero. She’s kind of touchy about the ‘h’ word.”

The nurse blinked, but wasn’t really surprised. Tsunade-sama was a brilliant woman. Really strange, but brilliant. “Um, okay. Will you be taking him home, or should I go make up a bed at the hospital?”

“Tsunade-sama will want him at home. Better count on just one of us taking shifts for the next few days. This illness is somewhat chronic, and it takes him about a week to get over the really rough part of it.”

She nodded and stood up, “I’ll talk to the shift manager, but I’m sure it will be fine. Take care of him, and let me know if there’s anything, any of us can do! We’re all eager to help.”

Shizune smiled in gratitude, “Thank you, I appreciate it, and I know Sensei does too.”

Three days after they’d been pulled out of the cave, Naruto finally woke up. It was the middle of the night, and with the blinds pulled, for a moment he was afraid he was still in the cave. The dim light in the room eventually began to make things take shape for him, and he realized the weight on his legs was TonTon, and the breaths he could hear were his Kaa-san’s. She’d fallen asleep in the chair beside the bed again. She did that a lot, even when he wasn’t sick. She never wanted to talk about it, but it wasn’t rare for him to find her dozing there sometimes if he woke up especially early in the mornings.

He was achy all over, and his breath burned in the way it always did when he was chakra sick. He could hardly keep his eyes open; he was so weak, so he let them fall closed, secure in the fact that everything would still be okay when he woke up.

The sweet smell of ramen roused him the next morning, and he found a tray of his favorite miso flavored noodle-y treat sitting with a glass of milk over his legs. His kaa-san’s smiling face greeted him, and she kissed his forehead. “Welcome back to the land of the living, Squirt. Think you can eat something for me?”

He paused a moment to think about it. It smelled soooo good, but sometimes he couldn’t choke anything down for a while after an attack like that. Finally he nodded, his assessment of himself telling him he was better enough to fill his stomach without losing his cookies.

“That’s my boy!” She gently ruffled his hair, careful not to jostle him too much and set off a headache that could leave him incapacitated for hours, then scooted the tray closer to him and pulled him up into a semi-sitting position so he could eat it.

His hands shook a little, but he was strong enough to work the chopsticks on his own, so she let him have at it, watching him like she was afraid he’d disappear at any moment if she so much as blinked. “We’re putting the Sōzō Saisei (Genesis Rebirth Seal) on you tomorrow, Brat.”

He paused with a glob of noodles halfway to his mouth and raised an eyebrow at her in question. He knew better than to talk until his throat healed from all the coughing he’d no doubt done in however long he’d been asleep.

“You could have died in there because Kyuubi had to heal you. If you’d had my seal, you could have prevented that. It’s too dangerous for a ninja to be incapacitated so quickly after a wound. Times like these may happen on missions where you won’t be able to get medical help but need to keep going.”

He sighed and finished taking the halted bite of noodles.

“Don’t argue with me. It’s for your own good.”

He rolled his eyes

“I’m your mother, and I know what’s best!”

Now he stuck his tongue out.

“Why you!”

Shizune groaned from the doorway. Even when Naruto was too sick to speak, they still managed to have arguments! She cleared her throat, and the Senju stopped tormenting each other to look in her direction, “Naru-chan’s got a visitor.” She grinned and stepped aside to let a little dark haired girl and her fluffy white dog barrel excitedly through the doorway and bounce onto the bed. Nina’s father watched protectively from behind Shizune and carefully set a loosely wrapped gift on a side table just inside the room.

“Naruto-kun! You’re awake! I was SO, worried! Muffy was too! We brought you a present, and I picked it out myself!” The little dog barked at the mention of his name, and Tsunade reached over to steady the tray of food before the children and pet could upset it.

Nina’s father leaned over to Shizune and whispered, “The gift is an ivy plant – it symbolizes affection, and it reminded her of the designs on his face.” He grinned a bit, “I think it’s very cute.” Shizune looked shocked for a moment, and then had to stifle giggles. She couldn’t wait until Naruto opened his gift. Hopefully it wouldn’t try to strangle him.

“Nina’s been to visit you every day since we got you out.” Tsunade said with a grin, unaware of what was going on in the doorway, and then she leaned over to whisper in her son’s ear, “I think she likes you.” Naruto made a horrible face, and she burst out laughing. “I’ll just take this away for now. You can have the rest when Nina-chan goes home.”

She stood to carry the tray to the kitchen past the two other adults now standing in the hall. Shizune went into the room to make sure Nina didn’t get Naruto too riled up while he was still so weak and sick, and the girl’s father followed the Sannin.

“We don’t know how to thank you.” He murmured when he’d gotten Tsunade’s attention. “Your son saved our Nina’s life. She’d have drowned for sure if it weren’t for him. If there’s anything I can ever do…” he stuck his hand out to her, and she accepted it nonchalantly.

“That’s just how Naru-chan is. He can’t help it. It’s a genetic defect.”

The man looked confused for several moments, then grinned a little and scratched at the back of his neck, “Well, anyway, if you’re ever in Water Country and need help, just ask for the Daimyo’s brother.” He grinned, “This is the last time we take a vacation at the shore like normal tourists.”

Tsunade blinked, “Daimyo’s brother?” ‘Damn…Naru-chan knows how to pick them…’

“Yes, well, the pleasure is all mine, Senju Tsunade of the Legendary Sannin.” He winked, and then spun on a heel. “Nina-chan! It’s time to go! Naruto-kun is sick and needs his rest, and we have to meet up with our guards for the trip back to the capital!”

“Coming, Daddy!”

They were gone without further fanfare.

“Guards?” Shizune came out of Naruto’s room, blinking in surprise.

“Naruto-kun’s little friend is the Daimyo of Water Country’s niece.”

“…Oh. For some reason, I’m not surprised.” Shizune laughed, and then reached for the oddly shaped package their guests had left behind and carried it over to her grumpy looking nephew.

“Here, Naru-chan! Open up Nina’s present.” Naruto accepted the gift with a weird look at the two adults and tentatively began to unwrap it.

As soon as he had the paper opened at the top, a vine of ivy came streaking out and wrapped itself around his arm, curling up to his face to affectionately nuzzle his cheek. The boy made a strangled ‘Erk’-ing sound of surprise and Shizune began to giggle.

Tsunade rolled her eyes and went to help untangle her son. The vine was tenacious though, and seemed extremely upset about being pulled away. How she could tell that the plant was upset, she wasn’t quite sure, but it just sort of felt that way. Naruto looked pleadingly up at her from his entangled state and she couldn’t help but join her apprentice in laughing. “I’m afraid it likes you, Naruto! You’ll just have to keep it.”

He sighed and glared down at the delicate leaves now laying innocently against his chest, though he could feel a second tendril sneak up to pet his hair. He scowled. Why did this always happen? It was so thoroughly annoying, and his guardians got far too much amusement out of it. They’d begun clinging to each other because they were laughing so hard at the petting! It wasn’t fair. Ivy nuzzled his neck in sympathy.

‘This is all your fault,’ he mouthed silently at the plant, but it didn’t seem chastised in the least.

Japanese Notes:

Sōzō Saisei - Genesis Rebirth. This is Tsunade’s seal on her forehead that lets her regenerate but takes time off of her total lifespan to do it.

Interlude: I Wanted a Kitty! by Baal of Yarns

Interlude: I Wanted a Kitty!

 

“Well, Kiddo, what do you want for your ninth birthday?” Tsunade asked her son one night as they were sitting on the couch in the living room. He had worn himself out with dodging practice, and she’d made him heal his own bruises since he’d been slacking off on practicing that particular jutsu. Though his interest in medical jutsu had increased since his rescue, and he didn’t complain about it nearly as much as he had in the past, he still favored the more flashy things. Bruises evidentially didn’t fall into that category for him.

Naruto had his eyes closed and his head cradled on his mother’s knee, nearly asleep. She let herself revel in the quiet family moment for a while. He was growing up and wasn’t so keen on maternal affection anymore – not like when he’d been younger, anyway. The sound of leaves rustling caught her attention and a thin tendril of ivy snaked out of one of the armholes in his shirt to stroke through his hair. “I want a kitty.” He murmured sleepily. Naru-chan frequently asked for a pet, but she’d never relented. They already had TonTon, and they moved around so much that it wasn’t really practical. Besides…

“You already have a pet. You don’t need another one.” She grinned.

Naruto opened his eyes and scowled up at his mother. He didn’t see what was so funny about this situation. He did, sort of have a pet – though there was sometimes a question of who belonged to who; the problem was that he’d always thought it would be something cuddly, like a kitten, or cool, like a frog – at least something in the animal category! TonTon didn’t count because she was really ‘Zune’s, and more a member of the family than an animal. TonTon certainly got more new clothing than HE did, and in his mind, that made her more like a sister that didn’t talk much. The family’s pig wasn’t what Tsunade had been referring to, anyway. “Ivy doesn’t count!” he protested.

In the days that followed his little cave adventure, he’d found himself an unwilling companion; unwilling on his end, anyway - because the creature definitely wasn’t cool OR cuddly! He didn’t know how it was surviving, because he certainly wasn’t feeding or watering the damn thing (except when he showered because sometimes it wouldn’t leave him alone even THEN), but Ivy the plant didn’t seem at all neglected – it rarely even rooted itself in soil! In fact, she was getting bigger and stronger all the time, and seemed to be able to change her thickness and length to some extent. She could pick up PEOPLE now, if she wanted, and she sometimes DID, which caused him no end of trouble. Sure, it got him through crowds easier, but the displaced person always thought HE’d done it. He’d been smacked upside the head by more old women’s purses in the past few months than he cared to remember. It wasn’t fair!

Ever since he’d opened the package Nina had given him, Ivy had made herself the bane of his existence. She curled around his arm under his clothes when he was awake and wrapped herself around his waist or wrist when he was sleeping. It was THOROUGHLY annoying. It was one thing to wake up tangled in the sheets. It was entirely another to wake up hog-tied by an affectionate plant. The only time he could be rid of her presence was when he was in a situation that was uncomfortable for her; he could sometimes persuade her to plant herself for a while, but she always came back!

She also had a complete mind of her own, and he hadn’t made any progress with his bloodline ability, so she did whatever she pleased. At least with a dog or a cat you could play with them and teach them tricks, but Ivy never listened to anything he said. That was probably because he always told her to let go and go bother someone else, but the fact remained that he seemed to be stuck with the most stubborn and strong willed plant in existence! The only good things he could come up with about Ivy, were that she seemed to like to torment Ero-jiji, and she could help him reach things on high shelves – if she felt like it, of course, because she certainly wouldn’t do it when he asked.

She did seem to do an okay job of keeping other vines away from him though – he hadn’t been trailed by poison ivy in weeks. It was just a shame she hadn’t been around to dissuade it earlier, before he had to develop a tolerance to the itchy chemical in the plant!

“I think Ivy does count.” Tsunade grinned, “You carry her around with you everywhere, and you feed her, so she’s yours. Besides, she was a gift.”

“I’m so going to chew Nina out in my next letter! This is just not cool, and what do you mean, ‘I feed her?’ I never feed her!” His scowl grew and he rolled off the couch to sit petulantly on the floor, his arms crossed, and his cheeks puffed out. Ivy twitched and withdrew from his hair at the movement, as if he needed ANOTHER reminder of her presence!

“You mean, you haven’t figured it out yet, brat?” Tsunade grinned, and crossed her legs now that they were free of his weight. “She’s feeding off whatever it is in your chakra that makes plants like you. You don’t think normal vines can deflect weapons thrown at you, or catch you when you slip out of trees, and get longer or shorter on a whim do you?”

Naruto’s eyes got huge, “She’s EATING me?” He started frantically trying to shuck off his shirt and remove the plant for the billionth time. That was just GROSS.

Tsunade busted out laughing, “She’s no more eating you than your jutsu do. You haven’t even noticed a drain on your chakra levels, have you? I think she’s just absorbing what you naturally put off.”

“How do you know?” He frowned, still seeming a bit squicked, but he let his clothes settle back into their usual places.

“Well, plants don’t bother you as much when you are lower on chakra, do they? And you DID manage to detach her that once, when the pervert taught you that Kage Bunshin jutsu, and you overdid it.”

“Yeah, but she came right back!” He protested.

“So did your chakra!” She pointed out. “Suck it up. She could be useful someday, and she’s protective of you – she might even eventually develop other useful properties because she’s growing on your weird chakra instead of normal nutrients in the soil and sunlight. I like her.”

Naruto reluctantly lowered his shirt, looking petulant, “easy for you to say! You don’t have a plant wrapped around you all the time!”

“True, but I also have to watch my own back from sneak attacks.” She grinned and pointed behind him where Jiraiya had been creeping up on the kid. The large man was completely wrapped in vines from ankle to nose.

“Holy--!” Naruto gasped, “now that you mention it, I do feel a weird chakra drain when she does something like this – I guess I just thought it was the seal acting up!” He reached up and brushed back his bangs, briefly showing the still relatively new blue diamond inked on his forehead. “I guess it could be kind of cool.”

Jiraiya didn’t look liked he agreed with the sentiment. He finally managed to free an arm and used it to pull the leafy appendage away from his mouth so he could speak, “Okay, brat. Call off your goon. I’m sorry for sneaking up on you!”

“You’re just sorry because Ivy caught you!” Naruto grinned, “-and you know she never does anything I say. You’ll just have to stay that way until she decides to let you go!”

“Yeah, well – What kind of dumb name is ‘Ivy’ anyway!” Jiraiya growled, “Couldn’t you have been more creative than that?”

“Says the man that named my son after a ramen topping.” Tsunade quipped, enjoying the show.

“Shut up!” Both boys shouted. She couldn’t keep in a laugh.

“I still want a kitty.” Naruto muttered.

You know, that ivy could be really useful if he’s ever able to control it at all.” The Toad Sage frowned later that night as he, Shizune, and Tsunade sat around the kitchen table with drinks. He absently rubbed at a vine burn on his arm. “It’s not like an ultimate defense or anything, ‘cause it’s still just a plant, but it doesn’t sleep, and it’s damn good at binding things – with his Mokuton able to heal damage done to it, it would be awesome in combat situations.”

Shizune nodded, “I’ve been saying that all along. He protests a lot, but I think he actually likes her quite a bit, now that he’s gotten used to her.”

“I have to agree. He’s just at that stage where he doesn’t want to be babied anymore, and Ivy’s pretty affectionate.” Tsunade quipped.

“Speaking of that – don’t you think it’s weird? I mean, it was one thing when your yard had dandelion problems, and it was kind of strange, but no big deal when bushes slowed him down a bit more than most people. Ivy seems *sentient*!” Jiraiya frowned and leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on the table.

Tsunade made a disgusted face and knocked them back down, nearly sending her former teammate tumbling to the floor when he became unbalanced. “I have some theories, actually. No one’s ever been able to explain Mokuton’s ability to effect Bijuu AND plants. On the surface, they have little to nothing in common. It seems really strange.”

Shizune nodded. Tsunade had a lot of crackpot theories, including being convinced that all non-shinobi medics were amateurs because they willingly called what they did “practices”. Her mentor was under the impression that you should never work on someone when you still needed practice and was utterly appalled that anyone would seek medical attention from someone who so openly admitted that their techniques still needed work! Come to think of it, she might have a point with that one…anyway!—“What’s your theory, Tsunade-sama?”

“Well, I’m sure you are all aware of the Naruto-effect.” The blonde healer continued. The other two adults nodded their heads, “It’s just impossible to say ‘no’ to him sometimes, and it’s not just plants that naturally seem inclined to like him, is it?”

Jiraiya scratched at the back of his head and frowned, “I always wondered about that, but then what’s that got to do with Bijuu and plants?”

“I’m getting to that!” She growled, “Despite what some freakish outliers—“ here she gave the Toad Sennin a significant look, “would make us believe, people are natural things, just like animals or plants or Bijuu – they are just less effected by their natural instincts or biological imperatives than say, an ivy vine.”

“Wait – so you’re saying that Naruto has a subtle effect on all living things, not just plants, but that the more evolved they are, the less it influences them?” Shizune asked.

Jiraiya blinked, trying to follow the logic, “Okay, so say I buy that, animals don’t automatically like him – though they don’t shy away from him either, and your theory doesn’t explain Bijuu. I thought you were going to explain how Bijuu and plants were related.”

Tsunade rolled her eyes at her teammate’s thick-headedness. “With animals, I think their instinctive reaction to the Kyuubi inside of Naruto mitigates the effect somewhat. When he gets older and can completely suppress it, they may be more affected – or his absorbing of the Kyuubi’s chakra may give him a smell or something they don’t like that cancels the effect. I don’t know for sure, but what I DO know, is that above all, the Bijuu are considered forces of nature. The strongest forces of nature – its embodiment.”

Shizune and Jiraiya looked at her in stunned amazement for a moment, “Damn…so you think Mokuton effects nature on a basic level, so plants and Bijuu, being the closest things to whatever ‘nature’ actually tangibly, is, can’t resist the user’s will or are just drawn to them?” He asked.

Tsunade nodded smugly, “Yes. Humans and animals have minds to overcome their basic instincts to certain extents. Plants don’t.”

“—but Bijuu have minds too!” Shizune hated to shoot down what seemed like a well thought out theory, but that was a pretty obvious hole in the hypothesis.

“Well, that’s why it’s still a theory, but I think I have an explanation for that too. I think the Bijuu just take on the traits of what creates them which SEEMS to give them personalities, but that they actually have to follow the same sorts of rules of all natural things. After all, Ivy seems very much like she’s got a mind of her own, doesn’t she, but in fact, she’s just reacting to Naruto’s chakra and maybe the chakra of the other people around him. Surviving like that for long enough – like the thousands of years Bijuu have been around, might be enough to create a sort of mind – different than a person’s, but thinking and remembering all the same. You have to remember, they don’t have physical bodies, so they definitely don’t have ‘brains’ in the technical sense.”

“I don’t know about any of that; I’m still floored by the fact that Naruto’s plant has a personality to begin with!” Jiraiya griped.

“You’re just pissed because she doesn’t like you.” Tsunade refilled her sake saucer while her teammate scowled at her and her apprentice lapsed into thoughtful silence.

“I don’t see why you both insist on referring to it as a ‘she.’ Personality or not, a plant is a plant.” He pulled out a deck of cards and began to shuffle them. They always ended up playing at some point and he felt it was past time to lighten the mood a little – enough serious talk for one night.

Tsunade scoffed, “you say that, but it’s painfully obvious that Ivy is a woman.” Shizune nodded in agreement.

“I don’t see why! You women just think you have to humanize everything! Plants are genderless! They reproduce with SEEDS.”

“It’s easy to determine that she’s a girl, Jiraiya-sama, if you just think about it.” Shizune giggled.

“HA! Why? I bet you don’t have one good reason!” He pointed accusingly at her.

Tsunade joined her apprentice in giggles, “She instinctively dislikes you, Jiraiya! She’s got to be a girl!”

His jaw dropped, “The ladies LOVE me! They swarm me all the time!”

“They swarm you to try to be the first to kick you in the junk.” She reminded him.

He just growled, “Just because YOU’VE always been freakishly immune to my charms—“ his speech was cut off by his face meeting the tabletop after Tsunade’s open hand met the back of his head.

“I’m ‘freakishly immune to your charms’ too.” Shizune pointed out helpfully.

He picked himself up and rubbed at his aching head. “You guys are mean.”

In the bedroom down the hall, an ivy vine tenderly stroked the hair of a sleeping little boy who sighed comfortably and snuggled further into his blankets.

No Japanese Notes this time. :)

Next chapter is the return to Konoha!

Chapter 9: Homecoming by Baal of Yarns
Chapter 9 - Homecoming:

“Are we there yet?”

“No”

“Are we there yet?”

“…no.”

“How about now?”

“NO.”

“Are we-“

“Yes, we’re just looking for a parking place.”

“Huh?”

Jiraiya sighed, “Never mind, look kid, when we’re there, you’ll know. It’s got huge gates and a wall around it. Do you see huge gates or a wall?”

Naruto kicked a rock out of his way and glared at the surrounding forest, sidling a little farther away from the edge of the trail. The vine at his waist tightened momentarily in comfort. “All I see are these huge, dumb trees!”

The trees felt very unloved and wept sad wilted, leaves down on his head. Ivy rustled smugly and petted at his stomach where she was curled.

Naruto scowled some more. This bloodline thing was ridiculous and it tickled when she did that!

“Hey, it’s not my fault we have to take the slow way. If it weren’t for your little ‘problem’, we could have run through the trees. That’s the fastest way to get around in Fire Country, hands down.”

“I’d change it if I could!” he snarled, showing off his slightly larger than normal canines. “Do you think I LIKE getting petted by all these plants?!” He patted the tendrils wrapped around his stomach to placate them. If they took offense, it wouldn’t be comfortable.

“We’ll look up some of your great-granddad’s scrolls if Sensei can’t help us out, or if we can’t find Tenzou when we get to the village. We should be able to curb it a little, if nothing else. But, HEY, if we can’t, I’ll just take you for training in Wind Country. Very little foliage there. You’ll love it. Of course, if you DO happen to get too close to a cactus, it’d hurt way more than a peony bush, but you can’t win them all.”

Naruto grumbled and made no further complaints, his thoughts drifting back to his Kaa-san and how pissed off she was going to be when she discovered Jiraiya had snuck him off without telling her. He was 11, nearly the same age as most new genin, and she HAD said he could go get approval to be Jiji’s apprentice once he was able to use her strength well enough for battle situations, and his dodging was up to snuff. He’d focused on almost nothing but improving his speed and ability to sense danger for nearly two years to try and reach her standards, and he’d even let her apply the Genesis Rebirth seal thanks to that cave debacle.

She hadn’t planned to let him go for another year, and she’d wanted to come with them, but the “wild” plants (Not you, Ivy!) really were getting out of hand, and he doubted his kaa-san’s ability to deal with their home village just yet. Jiji had shown up while she was on an extended losing streak at the local casino. She hadn’t even come home in two days. Shizune had been called off to the Hidden Stone Village to try and heal their Kage’s brother from some weird petrifying disease that seemed to be affecting their ninja population, so he hadn’t really felt too bad leaving a note to let his mom know he was going off with his godfather.

He did feel a bit guilty knowing she’d probably blow all their money on the slots and end up living in a cardboard box by the time ‘Zune got back with whatever it pays to cure a plague that turns people into rock. He also knew she was going to worry herself sick about him, but he kind of thought she needed to face the weird fear she had of their birth village, so maybe she’d follow them, and everyone would win.

Except Ero-Jiji. Kaa-san would probably kill him a lot, but like the old pervert had just said, ‘you can’t win them all.’

Naruto had no illusions about his own wisdom, well, okay he had quite a few illusions about his own wisdom, but he was pretty sure he knew the best way to deal with irrational fear, and that was to face it and deal with the consequences. (This applied to everything but bees. When you saw a bee, it was just best to run like hell.) His mom had a lot of issues with Konoha, but she’d never be able to move on until she went back there and put her demons to rest. He’d come to realize that if he left it completely up to her, she’d keep them running away from it forever, and he’d never see where he was born, the village his father had loved enough to sacrifice himself, and where all of his adult role models had been raised into the people he loved and respected.

…Also, he would never become a ninja of Konoha, and he was pretty sure you had to be one of those to become Hokage eventually. He sort of thought he’d like to do that – it would be cool to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps.

So when you thought about it, it really was for his mother’s own good. He was pretty sure she’d follow them as soon as she realized they were gone, and maybe she’d be able to take those last few steps and get over her past.

It was pretty likely that dodging lessons would be put to practical use when she managed to catch up with them, but that was nothing new, and it would be worth it not to see that haunted look in her eyes quite so often and to stop feeling guilty whenever he talked about his dreams with her. He absolutely sucked at watching his mouth, and every time he got frustrated, or excited, or made a breakthrough in his training, he inevitably motivated himself by spouting off about what a great ninja he’d be some day and how much it would be awesome to be Jiji’s apprentice and an official genin of Konoha. It always lifted his mood, but it never failed to lower hers. He frowned – he hated it when he was accidentally a jerk to Shizune or Kaa-san.

He was jerked out of that rare moment of introspection by the rising buzzing of his chakra sense. There were a lot of people up ahead. He grinned over at his godfather who matched him with a wide smile of his own.

“NOW, we’re here, Brat. Welcome to Konoha. You’ll be able to see the gates around all the trees when we get past this bend in the road.”

“Alright!” he cheered, jumping up and punching at the air. He was officially going to be a ninja!

He promptly tripped over a root that had risen up to greet him, and had to spit out dirt after landing face-first on the path. Ivy snaked out from under his shirt to smack the root like a mother stopping a kid’s hand from reaching into a cookie jar. He hoped the Sandaime or this Tenzou person could help him here. He really needed to get a handle on these #ing trees!

Kotetsu yawned and kicked his feet up on the counter at the gate guard’s station. He hated this duty. Nothing exciting ever happened. It was hot, and dull, and he’d almost rather be doing D-ranks. Beside him, Izumo imitated his posture and threw an arm over his eyes to block out the sunlight. This sucked.

They cracked open their eyes and glanced at each other when they felt two chakra signatures slowly approaching from beyond the gate and righted themselves in their chairs without getting their hopes up. It was probably just another genin team returning from some uneventful mission that was at least twice as exciting as what they had to keep doing for the next three hours and 45-no, 44 minutes.

The bandaged chuunin was pleasantly surprised to see the figure of an older man with extremely long spiky hair and eccentric hermit’s clothes walking down the lane with a blond kid. “Hey, Izumo! It’s Jiraiya-sama and he’s got a chibi with him!”

“Really?” his cohort leaned over the counter a bit to get a better view as he was at a bad angle. “I wonder what he’s doing back, and who’s the gaki?”

“I dunno, judging from his height, he’s way too young to be a ninja in peacetime, but he’s kind of dressed like one.”

The kid wore black cargo pants with orange stripes down the sides and a multitude of pockets. His shirt was a tight, high-necked sleeveless black affair with orange panels on the shoulders to match the pants over the top of a standard net shirt with only one sleeve. The right side was sleeveless, like the over shirt and even at that distance he could make out a dark blotch of a tattoo or something on the kid’s bicep and what looked like a healthy green vine curling down the limb. His forearms were covered in black fingerless gloves reaching nearly back to his elbows and crisscrossed with thin orange colored buckled straps-probably meant to inflict damage during blocking rather than to be decorative. That or they were some of those fancy new seal inscribed leather straps that could act like training weights. The blond boy had a similar set of straps on his calves over standard leg bandages. Black ninja sandals and the usual weapons pouches and kunai holder strapped to the thigh completed the rather brighter than normal, but otherwise unremarkable, ninja attire.

“I’ve never seen clan markings quite like that. Do you think Jiraiya-sama found him on the road?”

“Who knows? I’m sure we’ll find out in a minute.”

Kotetsu shoved his forehead protector up a bit higher and ruffled his own spiky hair before nimbly leaping over the counter to go and greet their guests.

“Yo, Jiraiya-sama! Welcome back to Konoha! Who’s this you’ve got with you?”

“Hey, it’s bandage on the nose-chuunin, and his partner, bandana chuunin! Naruto, these are two of Konoha’s newly promoted ninja. I was here a couple of months ago for the tournament. It was a pretty decent show. New chuunin guys, meet Senju Naruto.”

Naruto grinned while the gate guards sweat-dropped a bit at their part of the introductions, “Nice to meet you!” He could tell the moment his name sunk in rather than what they’d been called, because both of their jaws nearly hit the ground.

“Sen-Senju? Like the Shodaime?” Kotetsu was speechless so he was glad Izumo seemed to have kept his voice.

“Yup! This is Tsunade’s kid.” The big man fondly patted the boy on the head while the blond scowled in annoyance. “He’s also my godson! We’re here to get him approved as a gennin so he can officially be my apprentice.”

“Wow, I didn’t know Tsunade-sama had a kid! Holy crap, that’s huge news! Hey, Gaki, did you inherit your mom’s monstrous strength?”

Naruto was looking a little annoyed at being talked down to, “Do you want to find out?”

“Er, heh, heh. Better get going!” Jiraiya put his arm around the kid and began steering him towards the Hokage Tower so he couldn’t cause a scene before they even got in the gates. It wouldn’t do to have the 11-year-old not-even-a-ninja-yet, take out two chuunin when they were trying not to make a big deal about their return, and Jiraiya had no doubt he could do it. Naruto let himself be lead away without much fuss.

“So much for gate duty being boring! Who do you think his dad is?”

“Not Jiraiya-sama, that’s for sure! I have no idea who it could be.”

“I’d never even heard rumors of Tsunade-sama having a kid. Do you think he’s adopted?”

“No way, he definitely looked like he had her temper, and he’s blond too. That hair color is pretty rare around here…”

“I dunno. It seems a lot brighter than hers.”

“I couldn’t say – I haven’t seen her since I was a little kid, but one thing’s for sure – things are going to be more interesting from now on!”

“You think so?”

“Come on, Jiraiya-sama mentoring Tsunade-sama’s son? That’s comedy gold.”

“If you say so. I have a feeling it’s going to mean a lot of extra work for us in the future.”

“Hey, that reminds me, did you remember to check their paperwork before we let them in?”

“Oops…”

“I thought I was supposed to keep my head down and not broadcast who I am while we’re here!” Naruto growled at his godfather.

“Heh, I know I said that, but I just couldn’t help myself from messing with those chuunin. Anyway, we shouldn’t be here for longer than a day or two. If I timed it right, the Academy graduation test should be tomorrow, and then we’ll just have to get your paperwork filled out, your picture taken, and your files sealed so no one but the Hokage can read the classified bits. It shouldn’t be hard to convince sensei to give his stamp on me taking you on, so we might even get out of here before your mother shows up and starts breaking people while looking for you!”

Naruto gulped a bit nervously and reminded himself that he had gotten really good at dodging whatever his Kaa-san could literally throw at him, so he’d probably survive. Probably. Ivy would help protect him! Unless she sided with his mother…she did that sometimes too…

He quickly pushed that out of his mind again in favor of looking around at the village. He’d been in other Hidden Villages a time or two, but they’d never stayed long, and his Kaa-san had always tried to keep people from noticing him while they were there. She’d have avoided them all together, but ninja were often in need of elite medic-nin and they were usually willing to pay really well.

Over all, his first impression of Konoha was that it was much bigger than any other ninja village he’d been through, and the Land of Fire had an acceptable amount of orange in their building materials. There were a lot more civilians bustling about than he’d seen in the other villages, and everyone seemed less stressed-out. The non-ninja smiled and nodded respectfully when they met shinobi in the street and definitely weren’t afraid of them. As they walked by a fruit stand, he saw the vendor give the jounin buying apples there, a complimentary bag of oranges.

The village was obviously prospering. There were stalls, carts, and stores all over the place catering to both ninja, and non-ninja specific needs. There was a Ninja-Mart right next to a fancy clothing boutique. There were weapon’s smiths, pet stores, and most importantly, ramen stands! It wasn’t the largest city he’d ever visited by far, but it seemed to have everything a ninja could ever need. It was really neat. Naruto decided he really liked it here.

The ninja themselves seemed like a different breed than what he was used to outside of his family. They weren’t all grim-faced loners. They’d passed several groups of chuunin or jounin playfully teasing or scuffling with each other instead of attempting to kill off the competition with Death Glares. It was pretty refreshing. He felt a stirring of warmth in his chest that a place like this could exist. Even if they hated him when they found out about his prisoner some day, he vowed to always remember this feeling and committed his first impression of Konoha onto his heart. His father had died to preserve this way of life and Naruto could definitely see why.

That’s when he caught sight of the Hokage monument.

He stopped dead in the streets and gaped up at his relative’s faces. He immediately recognized his great grandfather and great granduncle from his mother’s descriptions of them, and his father too, though he thought the likeness was pretty far off. Jiraiya had several pictures of his former student and had no compunctions about sharing them with his godson. His mother had said once, that he looked more like the Nidaime’s side of the Senju clan, and he could see where she’d get that idea. “Wow….cool…”

Jiraiya had immediately noticed Naruto’s sudden stop and paused as well. Having been born there and lived in its shadow most of his life, it wasn’t often that he really stood and took in the sight of the village’s leaders carved several stories high into the side of the mountain. He grinned. ‘I suppose it IS pretty damned impressive looking.’

“Come on Kid, pick up your jaw, and stop staring like a tourist. We’ve got to get you introduced to Sensei, and processed for the graduation test tomorrow.

“Uh, yeah. Sure.” Naruto blushed a bit and started walking after his godfather again. “Hey! My face is going to be up there someday, you know! I’m going to be the best ninja, ever, so they’ll definitely want to give me the title!”

“Yeah, yeah – I’ve heard it before, Brat. Save it for someone else.”

Jiraiya lead the way to the tower as fast as he could without actually drawing attention to the two of them by hurrying. He couldn’t wait to see what the old man thought about Naruto. He wasn’t worried about the kid’s ability to pass any of the ridiculous Academy exams. With his mother’s overprotective streak having turned her into a scary drill sergeant during his training for the past several years, he’d probably be able to pass the chuunin exams already if not for the hindrance plants always caused him. With the kid’s strength, speed, and accuracy with his senbon, the Sannin would put his money on his godson vs. almost any chuunin in the village, in an arena fight.

He was definitely crafty and sharp enough to pass the psychological portion. They’d spent years pounding strategy into his skull with shogi and mahjong, and there was no one faster at thinking on his feet and looking for the opening in a situation. Shizune has pointed out early in his training that, that particular trait might one day be more useful than any of his more concrete skills, and the two Sannin had to agree. They’d cultivated it in him ever since.

The second part of the test would give him trouble…He’d have a hell of a time in the Forest of Death – the trees would love him to pieces, and he’d probably not even make it ten feet in. Nevertheless, the kid was turning into a damn impressive ninja if he did say so himself, and he was extremely proud of him.

They entered the building through the main entrance, though Jiraiya generally preferred the windows. Naruto stuck close and did a surprisingly good job at blending in and not calling attention to himself. Competing for his mother’s attention with gambling and her patients when she wasn’t training him, made the kid unusually prone to loud outbursts and a love of making a spectacle of himself. Well, maybe he was just being an eleven-year-old boy with a bombastic personality. Either way, his restraint was pleasantly surprising.

The Toad Sage grinned and nodded to the people he knew as they wove their way through the bustle of the tower, but didn’t stop to chat. In this way, it didn’t take them long to make it up to the Hokage’s office. “Here we are, Brat. Sensei’s right through here.”

“Cool! I can’t wait to meet him.” Naruto grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets, a habit he had when he was trying to restrain himself from jumping around like an idiot. He’d always had more energy than he knew what to do with – a side effect of the Kyuubi’s chakra being absorbed into his system at a much faster rate than his father had intended. Tsunade’d had a hell of a time trying to keep him relatively still and standing in one place until they’d developed the pocket thing. If his hands were mildly restrained it reminded him to keep himself in check, at least a little.

Jiraiya strolled over to the chuunin at the reception desk, and they were immediately waved in. Evidentially word of their coming had already reached the Hokage – probably from that crystal ball he had, or the guards had managed to get word here before they arrived. The old man was no fun. He never let you surprise him.

Sandaime had indeed followed their progress through the village with his spying crystal. He couldn’t get over how much the boy looked like Yondaime. There was hardly anything of his mother in his features, but then, Tsunade and Minato did have similar bone structure, so he supposed the roundness in his jaw might be a little more from his mother. Either way, the resemblance was almost uncanny. He’d had a bad moment when Hatake Kakashi had passed by the travelers and turned around to stare at them for a moment. He’d even lowered his book briefly, but he’d quickly gone back to reading and weaving his way through the crowd, so he’d probably not made the connection. Hopefully he’d just been surprised to see Jiraiya back in the village again and hadn’t focused on who the boy was trailing him around.

His student pushed the large doors to his office open and held back the left panel for young Naruto so Sarutobi could get his first really good look at the boy. He looked even more like Minato in person. The markings on his cheeks, both whiskers and leaves, saved him from being a true copy, but his hair was blond and shaggy, and his grin was definitely the same, beaming at the world through the same tanned face and shining from identical blue eyes. He carried himself with Tsunade’s cocky self-assurance, but he’d be willing to bet he’d inherited his work ethic from his father. If half the things Jiraiya told him about Naruto’s training regimen and natural stamina were true, the kid could go forever if you let him.

He levered himself up from his desk and walked around its impressive bulk to great his guests, “Jiraiya! Always good to see you again, and this must be Senju Naruto. Welcome back to Konoha, your godfather never stops talking about you whenever he is here, so I admit, I feel a bit like I know you already.”

Naruto dipped his head a little in embarrassment at that comment, but his foxy grin was definitely pleased. “Ero-Sennin was probably just bragging and taking credit for all my hard work while he was peeping instead of training me!” He quipped.

Sandaime chuckled as Jiraiya took a playful swat at the boy. He definitely had his mother’s sense of humor.

“See if I ever say good things about you again, you ungrateful little bastard!” The Sannin grabbed a squawking Naruto in a headlock with one arm. Interestingly the plant behind Jiraiya seemed to be reaching out towards the Toad Sage in an attempt to help the boy, and a strange looking vine had snaked out from around Naruto’s waist to join the fray, forcing the Sannin to keep his other arm occupied in fending it off.

The Hokage cleared his throat a bit to break it up before they forgot about the purpose of the meeting in the fun they were having. “I’ve gotten all your paperwork put together, Naruto-kun, and you are set to take the exams tomorrow with this year’s batch of graduating students. As you know, it is a year earlier than the other children your age, but I’m sure you’ll do fine. Do you have any questions about it?”

Naruto neatly extracted himself from Jiraiya’s grip and straightened his shirt that had rucked up a bit in the scuffle. He had to physically wrestle Ivy back into place – she never let a chance to antagonize Ero-jiji go easily. “Actually, I want to know about the jutsu portion. Aunt Shizune said I’d have to perform a bunshin, and I was wondering if it were any type of clone or if I had to do the Academy-ranked one.”

Sandaime cocked an eyebrow and tapped his unlit pipe thoughtfully against his thigh. “There is nothing in the rules stating you have to perform the most basic version of the jutsu, though for obvious reasons, most choose to do so. That being said, I’d recommend it, since it is not wise to give away your skills and secrets if you can avoid it.”

“Heh,” Jiraiya snickered, “it’s not that he’s a show-off - well not in this case. Just the opposite really. He’s totally crap at bunshin. He can do it, but it’s hard for him to use that small amount of chakra, even with all the control training he’s had. I had to teach him Kage Bunshin when he was eight, and he had to work backwards through other clone types from there before he finally was able to manage it.”

Sarutobi felt his eyebrows attempt to launch themselves off his face and into his hat. He glanced at Naruto to see the boy scowling at the floor but not arguing the pronouncement. How interesting. “In that case, feel free to try one of the other clone types. I doubt your instructor will specify, as your classmates have only been taught the basic form. I’d advise you to use the most rudimentary clone you are comfortable with, and they will probably assume you just weren’t aware of your peer’s curriculum.”

Naruto nodded; his aunt was always berating him for showing off. Usually he couldn’t help it, he just felt a burning need to prove to the world that he wasn’t just his mother’s kid; he’d someday be as strong as her in his own right. At least no one expected him to struggle through Yondaime’s shadow too. It was the one good thing he could think of about keeping his dad a secret.

“Thanks, Old Man! I’ll definitely do that.”

Jiraiya rolled his eyes, “He’s the Hokage, Gaki! Show some respect!”

“Yeah, yeah!”

Sarutobi smiled. It was good to have his student back in the village, if only for a little while, and Naruto was already livening things up. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Actually, the brat’s got a bit of a problem with his bloodline limit, but we can’t for the life of us figure out what his deal is. Usually once they manifest they’re almost instinctive to the user, but Naruto’s is far more trouble than it’s worth.” Jiraiya sat down in one of the free chairs and propped his geta-clad feet up on the desk.

“Oh really?”

Naruto nodded, “It’s awful. Kaa-san says Great-grandpa could make trees do anything he wanted, but all I can do is dodge when they try to pet me. Ivy won’t even listen to me, and I spend more time with her than anyone else I know – I can’t get rid of her - she hardly ever leaves my waist!”

Sarutobi covered his mouth to hide in a chuckle at the mental image that gave him. If the kid was as similar to his mother in temperament as he appeared, he definitely wouldn’t appreciate it. “How strange. Neither of the other Mokuton users had similar problems that I am aware of. However, the Shodai’s gifts were also useful in controlling Bijuu. I know from Jiraiya’s reports that they are constantly being used that way in you. It is possible that you can’t split their attention to consciously make them do other things while they are keeping the Nine Tails in line.”

“We’ve thought of that, but if that were the case, why would the plants react to him at all? They are obviously still able to do something besides keep tabs on Kyuubi. There’s no logical reason for him to be completely unable to access them consciously, or at least turn the damn things off.”

“Hey!” Naruto clenched his fist, “Don’t think I haven’t tried! Because of Ivy, I try ALL THE TIME.”

“Hmm…I have a theory.” The Sandaime, once known as the Professor for his vast knowledge of, well, everything, said slowly. He reached into a drawer in his desk, pulled out a bit of paper, and handed it to the boy. “Run a bit of chakra through that, if you would.”

He blinked a moment in confusion, but did as he was told. The paper split neatly in half. Jiraiya fell out of his chair.

“Well, there you go. Use of Mokuton-jutsu requires the user to have both water and earth elemental affinities in equal amounts, and Naruto… is a wind type.”

“But-How? That shouldn’t be possible!” Jiraiya gaped, snatching the bits of paper out of his soon to be apprentice’s hands and studying them carefully; maybe the paper was broken? “Aren’t equal amounts of water and earth affinities kind of the whole POINT of the Mokuton kekkei genkai?”

“Yes, well, technically it IS impossible. I suspect, before his kekkei genkai was forced to manifest to control the Kyuubi’s chakra, he WAS a water and earth type. However, what little elemental chakra abilities he has developed at this stage in his life are being used to direct that bit of his system into Yondaime’s seal, effectively sublimating them from conscious use. Wind is likely his secondary affinity, or even tertiary if you think of it like that, but it’s the only one he currently has access to, and until he learns to manipulate it and convert his chakra efficiently into other elemental states, he will probably have no luck with Mokuton.”

“Well, damn.”

“Umm, can someone explain that to me, using smaller words? I don’t even know what ‘elemental affinity’ is!”

Jiraiya sighed. He loved the brat to death, and he WAS only 11, but book smarts just weren’t his forte. He had an undeniably brilliant mind, but he learned much better by doing, than telling. It was a wonder his mother and aunt had been able to pound as much of an education into his head as they had. He considered it the truest sign of their dedication to the kid.

Chapter 10: Meeting New People by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 10 - Meeting New People:

Naruto trudged along after his godfather on the way to the old sennin’s favorite inn. Jiraiya glanced back at his glum face every now and then, but he didn’t really know what else he could say to cheer the poor boy up. It hadn’t been difficult to explain exactly what elemental chakra was to Naruto and just how hard it was to go about mastering it – the kid was bright, if not book smart. Jiraiya was sad to see his godson looking daunted by a task for the first time in his, admittedly, rather short life.

There had to be a way to speed up the learning curve. He’d think about it and get him started on the basic wind training, and Sarutobi-sensei had promised to work on the problem too. The bright side was that as soon as he got this knocked out of the way, the Mokuton abilities were likely to pop back into place as immediately and instinctually as they were meant to do in the first place. Instant power boost.

“Hey, Kiddo, it’s not so bad, hey? It’s no better or worse than it was yesterday, it's just that now we know what the problem is and can start fixing it! It’s not uncommon for most people to have multiple elemental affinities by the time they are Jounin, and you’re still going to be an official ninja tomorrow. Don’t be in such a hurry, kiddo. You’re only 11. So what if you have a bit of a handicap with your kekkei genkai, you're still light years ahead of the other kids. You work three times as hard as they do, and because you’ve been doing it for so long while they’ve been playing with dolls and stuff, there’s really no comparison. Just wait until you meet the other brats tomorrow. You’ll see what I mean.”

He perked up a little at that, “Really? They’re not all going to make fun of me because I’m the only ninja ever to come out of Leaf who has to watch out for trees getting too friendly?” Ivy chose that moment to poke herself out of his shirt sleeve and wipe a spot of road dust off of his cheek. He growled irritably and batted her away. She was worse than his mother sometimes!

“Uh, well…they won’t know, will they? Because you’ll be leaving with me right afterwards!”

“…you really suck at this whole ‘comforting’ thing, Jiji.”

“…Er, how about I take you for ramen? Konoha has the best ramen stand in the Five Countries.”

“REALLY?! Awesome! Let’s go!”

Nothing else eventful happened that night, and the next morning Naruto drug Jiraiya up and out of bed in time to eat at Ichiraku Ramen again before he had to go take the test at the Academy. Usually, students were given three tries to pass, but this one was the last test to be held for this batch of prospective graduates, so Naruto knew he’d need a good breakfast so he could do his best.

Eight bowls of noodles and a new best friend in the guise of a ramen chef later, his godfather lead him to a large, busy building with ninja kids of various ages milling around in the yard. Several clumps of them stood together talking or trying to frantically cram for the end of year skill evaluation tests each level was being given that day. Even the littlest kids were only using the playground equipment to lean on while they read over their notes instead of running around like hooligans.

In the far corner of the schoolyard, a dark haired boy with an interesting haircut sat in a tree, rather obviously trying to ignore a a gathered chattering crowd of girls around his own age including one with long pink hair. Naruto had never seen naturally pink hair before, but even if she did give off vanity vibes, he doubted an eleven-year-old ninja in training dyed her hair. It was pretty impractically long though. Come to think of it, a disturbing number of the girls he could see that looked to be around his age had stupidly long hair. Was it part of some secret kunoichi training thing they taught here? Maybe Ero-Jiji’s Hari Jizo jutsu wasn’t as exclusively his as the old man thought?

As they crossed the yard, he almost tripped over a boy lying on his back, staring up at the clouds, and two other boys chasing a dog who had a obviously stolen bag of chips in his mouth. Naruto really wished he’d been allowed to grow up here instead of in all of those dumb civilian villages and retirement communities. It looked like it would have been a lot more fun, or at least more exciting.

“Well, this is it, Punk.” Jiraiya said, turning to face Naruto and putting a hand on his shoulder. “Go to room 204 and give your paperwork to the teacher there. Sarutobi-sensei said some chuunin named ‘Umino Iruka’ was subbing for the normal teacher for that class today.”

Naruto nodded, he’d been there for that conversation. Jeeze, he wasn’t dumb enough to have forgotten it so soon! Jiji seemed more nervous than he was!

“Do your best, and don’t give Iruka-san any trouble. He’s used to teaching as one of a pair and hasn’t given these tests before. His own class doesn’t graduate until next year.”

“JIJI! I’m ELEVEN, not TWO, and I’m about to take a test to officially become a ninja! It’s not like I’m going to sneak off and paint inappropriate things on the Hokage monument when his back is turned. What kind of guy do you think I am?”

“…but you THOUGHT about it, didn’t you?”

“Well…they’re big and no one could miss a prank on that kind of scale.” He sheepishly replied, toe digging into the dirt and hand automatically reaching up to scratch at the back of his neck.

“Baka!” Jiraiya swatted him, and then playfully shoved him towards the building. “I’ll be out here when you get done!”

“No you won’t!” Naruto rolled his eyes and yelled over his shoulder as he jogged towards the school’s big double doors, “I’ll meet you at the bathhouses we passed yesterday, just like always!” He knew his godfather really well, after all. He threw the old hermit a wave without looking back again, and stepped into the foyer.

Wow, there were a lot of ninja kids in this village! He knew there were several classes, all made up of students of different ages who moved up along with the same teacher each year. He wasn’t quite sure how many kids there were per class, or how many years it was typical for someone to attend, but he thought there were probably somewhere between 50 and 100 people in the halls, including instructors, and it was still a little early, so this probably wasn’t all of them.

Despite the press of people and the size of the building, he had no problem finding the room Jiji had mentioned. There were already several people in the seats, including a long haired boy with some kind of weird doujutsu that made his eyes light purple – nearly white, a weird nervous looking kid whose eyebrows were obviously trying to put him out of his own misery by eating his face off, and a girl with a cute Chinese dress and buns on the top of her head who was spinning a kunai rather skillfully. No one else really stood out.

Naruto took in the room at a glance, and then trotted up to the man in the green vest with the prominent scar across his nose who looked like he was trying to memorize a roster at the desk in the front of the room. That had to be the teacher. He seemed like a nice enough guy.

The man frequently fiddled with the strap of his headband and muttered to himself as he read, but he noticed Naruto’s approach right away and looked up at him as soon as he got close. “Yes? Can I help you? If you’re going to ask where your usual sensei is—“

“Huh? Jiji’s probably peeping at women by now—OH! You mean the guy who usually teaches this class? Er, I already know he’s not going to be here. The Old Man said his girlfriend had caught him cheating and fed him bad sushi so he wasn’t going to be out of the hospital for a few days.” Naruto unabashedly revealed.

Iruka blinked in confusion for a moment and reached a hand up to smooth down his dark hair, “that’s – a bit more personal information than I was told. I thought he was just sick. I guess that means you’re not one of his usual students?” The chuunin gave him a look that said he’d thought Naruto looked a little too short to be the same age as the kids in this room, which kind of pissed the blond off. He was only a year younger! His mom said he was just going to hit his growth spurt a little later than most kids his age! Ivy patted his head comfortingly, but the chuunin had glanced down at his papers again and hadn’t noticed.

Naruto shook his head and handed the man the paperwork he’d been given. “I live with my mom and aunt outside of Konoha, but now that I’m old enough to be a ninja, Jiji brought me back to get my headband so I can officially be named his apprentice! It’s my first time in the village.”

Iruka frowned, obviously confused about why a kid who had never been in the village before was being allowed to test into its ninja ranks, especially since it was a year early. He glanced down at the papers he’d been handed and quickly skimmed the information. “Your last name is Senju?” His eyes locked on the first line on the document, “Holy--! That means you must be the legendary Tsunade-sama’s son!”

Naruto grumbled. Why did everyone here have to say it like that? He knew who his own mom was. Jeeze. “Yeah, the old hag’s my Kaa-san. We kind of snuck out on her while she was out gambling though, so she’s not here.”

“Er, well, I guess you can go sit down by Hyuuga-san. My roster says that seat is usually empty. We’ll start the tests as soon as everyone is here.”

Naruto’s respect for the teacher rose a bit when he didn’t press the whole, ‘your mom is a celebrity’ issue. He frowned and turned to look back at the rows of tables behind him, “Which one is Hyuuga?” Ivy curled into a vaguely question-marked shape above his head which drew some curious stares from the kids in the class as well as their substitute teacher.

“Oh! I’m sorry, I’m a little flustered today, I’ve been preparing my own student’s end of year exams for weeks, and now I have to give the graduation test for this class instead while my assistant proctors their test, so I’m a bit nervous for all of them. I guess you wouldn’t be familiar with the Hyuuga clan, if you’re not from around here would you? Hyuuga Neji is the boy with the white eyes in the back row. You can always tell a Hyuuga by the eyes.” Iruka pried his own eyes away from the seemingly sentient plant waving protectively above the boy's head, (as a ninja he’d seen stranger things, though not very many – he’d definitely have to tell his fellow chuunin about this!) and pointed to the boy in question.

Ah, the guy with the doujutsu! “Cool! Thanks!” Naruto bounded over desks and chairs and into the seat he’d been pointed to. He bet Iruka was a pretty awesome teacher. He almost wished he’d had a chance to be in his class – he obviously cared about his students and had managed to tell him something really useful in addition to the answer to his simple question. That was always a sign of a good teacher.

Naruto’s first impression of Hyuuga Neji, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as favorable. The boy didn’t even open his eyes to look at him when he sat down, and his face seemed set in a permanent blank scowl. It was actually kind of neat. He’d had no idea it was possible to look blank and scowl at the same time. He had to reach out to prevent ivy from poking the boy in the face, so he took the opportunity to tuck her back into his shirt.

Deciding the prick beside him probably had a stick shoved so far up his ass he’d never be able to speak around it; Naruto looked around for someone else to talk to. Nervous, Hungry-Eyebrows-Kid looked like he needed a distraction, and he was sitting right in front of them.

Unfortunately, before he could strike up a conversation with the boy, a rather unremarkable looking girl came over to him and planted her hands on her hips while putting out an impressive amount of killing intent. Naruto lived with his mom though, and no one could do killing intent like his Kaa-san when she’d been provoked. This was doubly true because she could back it up by putting you clear through a wall with a casual flick of her finger. He was kind of impressed with how nondescript this girl looked though, that would be really useful on infiltration missions.

“What are you doing in that seat? You’re blocking everyone’s view of Neji-kun!” she growled in what she probably thought was a menacing way, but just made Naruto want to laugh at her. She should cuss in front of ‘Zune if she wanted to hear what menacing sounded like.

“Okay, so I’m not from around here, but I’m pretty sure the front of the class is up there.” He gestured towards Iruka-sensei, “Does Hyuuga do tricks or something? Why do you need to see him?” he asked, as if genuinely confused. Hungry-Eyebrows snorted in amusement and turned around in his seat to see what was going on. Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto saw Neji’s face looked like it was struggling to form an expression, but being so out of practice, it didn’t know how, or at least couldn’t decide between amused or annoyed.

Irrationally Angry Girl stomped her foot and growled again, “He’s the number one rookie of our year! Don’t disrespect Neji-kun!”

Naruto’s jaw dropped a bit, “HOLY CRAP!” she started to look smug for a minute, thinking he’d been enlightened to the error of his ways, but then he continued, “You must be what Kaa-san calls, a ‘Fangirl’! I’ve been warned about people like you!” He immediately made evil-warding signs with his fingers, and now the Hyuuga was definitely shaking from trying to hold in his laughter. Hungry Eyebrows was grinning like he’d just seen the best jutsu ever created.

Irrationally Angry Girl looked like she was going to explode all over them in completely average and unremarkable looking bits.

“Alright class, please take your seats!” Iruka-sensei broke it up from the front of the classroom.

“This isn’t over, Blondie!” the girl hissed and went back to her desk.

“Was that supposed to be an insult? It’s not like I’m NOT blond.” Naruto mused aloud as people shuffled to end their conversations and settle into their usual places.

“Wow, that was an amazing display of courage! I’ve never seen anyone face down a fangirl quite like that!” Hungry Eyebrows said, “I’m Rock Lee, by the way!”

“Hey, Lee. Nice to meet you. I’m Senju Naruto, and before you ask, yes, Tsunade is my Kaa-san.” Lee looked confused, but the Hyuuga was shifting in the seat next to him, and when he glanced over, he was frowning speculatively in his direction.

“That’s enough class, do you want to take the tests and become gennin or not?” Iruka growled. Everyone immediately shut up and sat down.

“Good. We’ll start with the written tests. Please get out your pencils, and there is to be NO CHEATING. If I catch you cheating, and I WILL, not only will you not become gennin this year, you’ll not leave these grounds until the training yard is cleaned for the break, and I can see my reflection in the bathroom fixtures. Am I clear?” Naruto revised his opinion a little. This teacher wasn’t mild-mannered at all. He just hid it well.

Jiji had been right, the Academy tests WERE ridiculously easy – Iruka-sensei had been pretty impressed with his three perfect mizu-bunshin created from the liquid in his drinking glass. Come to think of it, that might have been a little too showy. He mentally winced, Sandaime had warned him not to flaunt his strengths. Maybe he should have done an Earth clone? He tended to forget that not everyone could do things like make water clones from a single glass of water. It just came so naturally to him.

Naruto couldn’t believe a bunch of kids who’d had a whole year more than him to practice and didn’t have his natural handicap with his bloodline ability could be so ridiculously bad at the ninja arts. Many of them couldn't even hit the bullseye of the target more than 90 percent of the time during the throwing weapons examination. Didn’t they ever train?! Iruka-sensei hadn’t looked too happy with the results either. Naruto bet that next year a lot more people ended up passing than from this class. Iruka-sensei seemed like a much better instructor than Bad Sushi-chuunin must have been.

He tied his forehead protector loosely around his neck as he walked out into the sunlight. He’d been warned not to wear it traditionally since that’s how his dad had always worn his, and they didn’t want to encourage people to make connections between himself and Yondaime. His mother was always threatening to make him grow his hair long enough to pull back if people started comparing him to Tou-san.

He was about to start wandering through the crowds of parents there to congratulate their graduates and consol their failures, when he heard his name being called. He paused and turned around a bit, but couldn’t spot anyone through the crowd.

“Senju!” Oh, it was Neji. How’d he see him through all those people in the way?

“Oh, hey Hyuuga, what’s up?”

“We weren’t properly introduced before.” The stoic boy slowed until he stood the perfect, polite distance in front of the blond boy and bowed slightly in greeting, “the Hyuuga are an old clan who were close with the Shodaime, but no one has ever spoken of there being a remaining heir to your family besides Tsunade-hime of the Sannin.”

Oh Jeeze, not another one! “That’s my Kaa-san. I’m here with Jiraiya-sensei,“ wow did that sound weird to say, but he supposed he should get used to it, “I’m gonna be his apprentice until I make chuunin.”

He almost thought the other boy looked disappointed for a moment, “so you will not be joining a gennin team with the rest of us?”

“Nope! At least, not for a while. I’ll probably be out of the village again by the end of the week.”

“Oh, “ Neji sounded kind of disappointed too. Weird. “Well, in that case, thank you for providing me a buffer from the fangirls earlier, and it was not unpleasant to meet you.”

‘What a strange kid.’ “Yeah, no problem, and same to you. Er, I gotta go meet Ero-jiji now, so I guess I’ll see you around Hyuuga-san. Jiji and I should be in and out of the village pretty often, and I’ll eventually have to join a gennin team for the chuunin exams.”

The other new gennin brightened up a little and nodded once, curtly, “Please, feel free to address me as Neji, Senju-san. I look forward to possibly working with you in the future.”

Well, Naruto couldn't fault that - he wouldn't have wanted to work with most of the losers from the few who'd just graduated either. “Neji, huh? Well, okay, but only if you call me Naruto!”

He threw a wave over his shoulder as he trotted off to find Jiraiya, but he clearly heard, “Farwell, Naruto-san, I hope it is our Fate to meet again,” from the direction of the other boy. He wondered if all the other ninja around his age were this strange, or if he’d just stumbled upon the weirdest ones.

Chapter 11: Tsunade's Wrath by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 11: Tsunade's Wrath:

“Jiraiya! Where the hell are you and what the fuck have you done with my SON?!” Civilians quailed and children wet themselves in terror at the waves of indirect killing intent rolling in all directions from one seriously pissed off kunoichi.

Naruto could hear his mom bellowing before he got anywhere near the bathhouses. ‘Uh, oh. Looks like she found us! At least I got my forehead protector before she got here! Oh man, am I doomed…she’ll probably ban me from ramen for LIFE!’ he whimpered at the mere thought.

“Psst, Brat! Over here.” He looked towards the bushes that seemed to be talking to him and watched as his godfather’s Henge fell, revealing the crouched Toad Sage gesturing frantically for the boy to join him in his hidey-hole.

“Jiji? You know it’s no use hiding from her. You’re just putting off the inevitable.” If there was one main lesson his mother had pounded into him growing up, it was that hiding just gave her time to build up a good head of steam while she was looking for you. Also, it gave her time to think up creative punishments, which was NEVER a good thing…of course, she’d had the whole trip here to stew in her violently creative juices, so they were probably totally screwed no matter what.

“I don’t see you running over there to ‘take it like a man’.” Jiraiya growled in an exaggerated whisper. “You are a man now, you know. That forehead protector makes you an unofficial adult in Konoha and other Hidden Villages.”

“Really? Wow! This is probably not the time to be discussing the benefits of being a ninja, but I can’t wait to show my new headband to ‘Zune! Erk!” He squawked as Ivy protectively covered his mouth, and the Toad Sage unceremoniously pulled him into the bushes as his mother stormed past their hiding spot, only to spin around on her heel and stomp back to their position at a seriously pissed off growl from her son.

Jiraiya sometimes forgot that introducing Naruto to plants was a bad idea. Even Ivy, as possessive as she was, could only do so much when he was pulled into relatively dense foliage. Even in his Tsunade induced near panic state, he couldn’t really blame the kid for yelling as he was currently being lovingly smothered in botanical affection.

“You two have a LOT of explaining to do.”

Now THAT was killing intent. The bushes even stopped molesting Naruto momentarily at the feel of it, and Jiraiya found himself preparing to wave a very fond farewell to his testicles. This definitely wouldn’t be good.

“Hey Tsunade, look, I can explain!”

She didn’t look like she believed he could.

“See, the kid’s been ready for months, but you keep tacking impossible tasks on to what he had to be able to do before he could become a ninja! If we left it up to you, he’d be way behind his peers instead of ahead of them. You’d have him become a genin when everyone else his age was making jounin! It’s not fair to the brat! He works really hard and he deserves it. As his godfather, it’s my duty to see to things like this!”

That disturbing red fire in her eyes hadn’t faded yet so he knew he was still in trouble, but at least she hadn’t begun to beat on him. Yet. He kind of wondered how she managed that particular effect, was it a genjutsu? “Let me get this straight. You decided it was your ‘godfatherly duty’ to kidnap my precious Naru-chan, drag him across two countries, and make him a ninja to a village he’s never visited…without letting me, his loving mother, know about it, let alone condoning it.”

“…We left a note?”

“Oh, well, that’s okay then.” She growled menacingly.

“Really?”

“No.” She grabbed the Sage’s shoulders and unceremoniously kneed him hard in the groin.

Naruto knew his mother was pissed when she didn’t even give him a glance when the bushes pulled him back into their loving embrace. She just dragged Ero-Jiji off for his punishment.

It took him a good fifteen minutes to claw himself and Ivy free of the foliage, and both of them were worse for wear afterwards. He staggered towards the strangling and gurgling sounds, punctuated by blood curdling screams until he entered the swiftly emptying bathing district.

The boy winced as he watched his mother shove his godfather’s head into the near boiling water of the pool outside of the hot springs for about the 15th time. The old pervert sure could hold his breath for a long time.

“Tsunade! Urk!” Back under he went, “Look, the kid’s fine!” splash! “Nothing bad happened to him! He did a great job, even! He passed with flying colors!” gurgle, gurgle.

Naruto wondered how his godfather knew that. He hadn’t had time to tell him. Maybe he really DID have a spy network from which he gathered information that wasn’t perverted? He’d always sort of assumed he was making that up as an excuse to go whoring.

He knew he should intervene, but he was kind of hesitant to draw his mother’s attention to himself. It had been a while since he’d seen a bubble hit the surface though, and his godfather had stopped thrashing so he guessed he’d have to man up…”Kaa-san, you might want to let him go…er…I think you killed him.”

“GOOD!” she yelled, but she couldn’t have still been THAT mad because she heaved him out after a moment and began to shake the life back into him, “If you EVER take Naru-chan ANYWHERE without telling me about it first, LET ALONE here, I won’t pull you out next time!” Jiraiya’s head wobbled back and forth like a rag-doll’s, and his eyes had a weird swirly pattern in them.

Kaa-san was a little irrational about Konoha. It wasn’t like his godfather didn’t take him on brief trips to other places all the time since he’d turned eight – granted, they usually told her about it before they left, or at least discussed it with Shizune if she weren’t sober enough to pay attention. On top of that, it had been understood since he was seven and she’d finally given up on turning him into a non-combat oriented medic-nin (he’d tried to sink all of his medical textbooks in the ocean) that he would someday become Jiraiya’s apprentice like his father before him.

Well…when worse came to worst, there was only one way to deal with a murderous Kaa-san, though it was really embarrassing and he hated doing it. It also felt like kind of a shitty thing to do, but it was best to put a stop to this before she gutted his godfather and remembered that this was pretty much equally his fault too. He sighed and made his eyes huge, forgoing blinking until they began to water a little. Then he put out his bottom lip a carefully calculated distance and gave it a slight tremor; a familiar tingling started in his cheek and shoulder, “Kaa-san…aren’t you proud of me? You’d been away and we didn’t know when you were coming back. We had to get here before the exams…besides I made genin and everything…”

Tsunade abruptly dropped the pervert. His head made a kind of comical hollow ‘thunk’ing noise when it hit the rocks, but self-preservation had made Naruto an ace at this, so he managed not to break character, turning his brief flash of amusement into a sniffle.

His mom stared at him in horror, and he almost felt bad about this, just a little. It was his ultimate technique, the powerful Guilt Trip no Jutsu, not to be used lightly. He was genetically predisposed to it, Jiji had assured him – it was almost another bloodline limit. Not many people had the huge blue eyes to pull it off. He wasn’t sure about that. He’d been pretty sure if that were the case, it would become less effective as he got older, but so far, it hadn’t failed him. Naruto thought it was far more likely part of his actual kekkei genkai, rather than his appearance. Kaa-san had said something to that effect once.

Tsunade felt her desire to kill dropping at the sight of her poor, suffering, son – oh, no! She hardened her resolve. He wasn’t getting off that easily…even if he had been horribly influenced into it by that irresponsible pervert…just look at those soulful eyes! The kid tried so damn hard, nearly killing himself training every day since his kekkei genkai had developed, and she knew he wanted nothing so much as the approval of the adults in his life. How could she try to hold her baby back like that?

Naruto didn’t know whether to cheer or sigh. He definitely had her, but now came the REALLY embarrassing part. In moments, he found himself being smothered in his mom’s arms as she babbled how sorry she was and of course she was proud of him, but he was still not getting any ramen for a month, young man!

“Amazing…” Jiraiya murmured from his prone position on the ground. He was pretty sure his spine was broken since he couldn’t feel his legs, so he didn’t want to try getting up. Fortunately for him, his head was dropped backwards over the rim of the pool at the perfect angle to watch the master at work. “The power of the Guilt Trip no Jutsu is truly invincible.” He’d known he was doing the right thing naming that kid his successor.

“You know this doesn’t mean you can just run off with him whenever you want to. I don’t care if he IS your apprentice now, he’s still MY son, and I expect to see him at least as often as you do.” Tsunade poured Jiraiya and herself each a saucer of sake. “And don’t think your punishment is over yet either. I have plenty of plans for you, and I’ll add to them if you push me on this issue.”

“It’d be easier to promise that if you stayed in the same place for more than a couple of months at a time, or agreed to travel with us.” Jiraiya replied, ignoring the further threats with practiced ease – though his neck still felt pretty stiff from the earlier beating, and it was kind of hard to sit with an ice bag placed strategically between his legs.

She bit her lip, and then determinedly downed her drink so she could get herself another, “Sensei wants me to move back here…he’s offered me the position of Godaime, though he hasn’t cleared it with the council yet.”

Jiraiya nodded, “I’m not surprised, and with you as a candidate asking the council is pretty much just a pleasantry. There’s no way they’d disagree. Besides, Sensei’s been trying to retire for over eleven years now, and you’d be good at it.”

“Are you kidding?” she snorted, “It would be a disaster. I’m definitely not cut out for that kind of position, and I’m not all that eager to die. Putting on that hat is a death sentence, and you know it.”

“So, what’s stopping you from just telling him, ‘no’?”

“…I keep thinking about what Naruto would say when he finds out I turned it down. What Dan, or Nawaki would say.”

“Ouch.” He sipped at his drink, “So…when are you going to accept it?”

She shook her head, “I can’t do it, Jiraiya, not yet. Maybe in a few years when the kid makes chuunin and has to hang around here for missions. Maybe I’ll feel better about it if I’m picking where he’s going and what he’s doing. I had to tell Sensei that I’d think about it.”

“I hate to seem like I’m pushing you into something here, but Naruto might be a lot safer here in a village full of loyal ninja than out on the road with us after the stuff I’m hearing about that new Akatsuki organization. Now that he’s getting older and making a name for himself, it’s also only a matter of time until that bastard, Orochimaru learns about him. After what he did with that batch of kids Tenzou was part of, I wouldn’t write off his possible interest in Naruto outside of Akatsuki’s agenda. Even if no one knows about you-know-what right now, it’s going to come out eventually, and if his bloodline isn’t enough to make a target out of him, then THAT definitely will.”

She slammed her saucer down on the table and growled low in her throat, “What do you want me to do, Jiraiya? I won’t lose him like I did Dan and my brother! All I can do is try to keep the world from finding out about the Nine Tails and try to make him strong enough to keep himself safe from everything else.”

“You could start by supporting him instead of trying to drag him kicking and screaming away from here. The kid was meant to be Hokage someday. It’s in his blood. Any fool can see that. If you want my advice, I say give him the necklace – it might help him a little with his plant problems until we can get wind out of the way so he can access the other elemental affinities. You’re only making it harder for him—“

“What are you saying?! I’m not giving my precious son this necklace! It’s cursed!” She stood up, nearly knocking over her chair in agitation.

“IT’S NOT CURSED! You wear it all the time! The position of Hokage isn’t cursed either – look at Sensei! It was WAR Tsunade! People die in wars, and it’s awful, and it hurts and you’ll never really get over it, but at least you HAD people to lose! Stop wallowing in your grief and living for the dead and move on for the sake of the precious people you have that are still alive!” He roared. “They wouldn’t want you to keep on like this. You know they wouldn’t, and they certainly wouldn’t want you to punish Naruto for their sakes. Stop being such a selfish bitch and depriving your son of growing into a man with the support of his village!”

“Jiraiya-“

“No, Tsunade. Not tonight. That boy’s all I have left too. If they knew about his prisoner, it would be one thing, but they don’t, and a ninja needs a village or he’s just a worthless traitorous bastard like Oro-teme!”

She couldn’t meet his eyes at that, and carefully retook her seat. “…You two were always really close…I know it hurt you when he left.” She tentatively reached out and placed one of her hands over his on the table.

“We weren’t as close as I thought we were.” The old man muttered, gratefully accepting the gesture.

“He fooled all of us, Jiraiya, not just you. He betrayed us all.”

“I’ll make you a deal, Tsunade-hime. You try to get over the whole ‘cursed Konoha’ thing, and move on for the sake of Naruto, and I’ll do the same with my issues about that snake faced bastard.”

She was quiet for a moment, her gaze locked on the moon outside of the window. “Okay. Deal.”

“I’m going to hold you to that. Sensei says the next batch of graduates, the ones Naruto should have been schooled with, are going to have uneven numbers for teams if they all make it, and they’ve got a hell of a teacher, so he thinks they will. It would do the kid good to be part of a unit, especially if he ever wants to make chuunin, and if Akatsuki keeps on going like it is, I’m probably going to have to spend a lot more time with my spy network soon. I won’t have enough time to devote to his training then, and it would be too dangerous for him to travel with me - too much potential for them to mark him as a target when he’s not even currently on their radar. If we’re really lucky they’ll never realize the Kyuubi container’s still around if he’s never brought to their attention.”

“I’ll meet you here around the next graduation then, in time to get him put on a team. I’d better still see a lot of him between now and then though, or I’ll kick your ass.”

“Yes, Tsunade-hime!”

“You’d better…and I know it’s important for you to keep up your spy network, but I don’t want you taking Naru-kun anywhere he might be discovered by the Akatsuki.” She threatened.

“I’m not completely stupid, and I care for the brat’s well-being as much as you do!” Jiraiya sniped with a frown, “I’m not going to put him in any danger that can be avoided.”

“Good…because I’ll make what I did to you earlier seem pleasant if anything happens to him on your watch.”

Jiraiya found himself crossing his legs over the sudden increased throbbing in his groin. One didn’t cross Tsunade when she used that tone.

That night, Tsunade followed Jiraiya back to the room he was sharing with Naruto and crept in while her teammate was in the bathroom getting ready for sleep. She was as quiet as she could be; even though her son was definitely familiar enough with her presence that her chakra wouldn’t cause him to wake, she didn’t want to risk it.

The past week had really shaken her up and she couldn’t get rid of the urge to just watch him and hug him and coddle him as much as possible, instinctively knowing that she wouldn’t get the chance to do those kinds of things for much longer. She really was proud of the kind of man he was turning into, but she’d loved and been fascinated with everything about him since the first time she’d held him, still bawling and covered in crud after the ordeal of sealing the Kyuubi into him.

There was no doubt in her mind that she’d done the best thing in her life the night she’d spent with Minato – no matter how huge of a mistake it had seemed at the time.

Naruto was her most precious bond. He was her reason for living. She gently pushed a few locks of wild blond hair out of his eyes, and rearranged Ivy so she wasn’t wrapped quite so many times around his neck or twisting his hands together. She couldn’t figure out how he could possibly be comfortable sleeping like that, but maybe he felt comforted by plants as much as they seemed to seek him out for solace? He didn’t have near the nightmares he used to, since he’d gotten Ivy…almost like he felt safer with her.

The moonlight streaming in the window painted him in shades of blue and silver, and she smiled gently down at him before leaning over to drop a kiss on the diamond shaped seal mark on his forehead. He’d grown up so fast, and he wasn’t her little boy anymore – now he was a ninja of Konoha who wouldn’t want his mother slobbering all over him when he was awake.

Before she could think about it some more and change her mind, she carefully removed Shodaime’s necklace from her own throat and fastened it on Naruto’s without waking him. Maybe it was her imagination, but something in him seemed to relax just a little bit more, and Ivy almost appeared to thrum slightly.

She gingerly got up and started to slip out before Jiraiya got back and caught her being all mushy. She’d never live it down…then again, it was a mother’s sacred duty to be as embarrassingly protective and soppy as she wanted to her kids, wasn’t it? Heh, well, it’d serve him right for growing up and drifting away from her if she smothered him all she wanted, whenever she wanted. She’d start first thing in the morning when they went their separate ways at the gates. That would teach the little bastard to grow into a man when her back was turned.

Interlude: The ROOT of the Issue by Baal of Yarns

Interlude - The ROOT of the Issue:

“Danzou-sama” a masked ANBU in the usual black and white armor entered the ROOT leader’s compound and knelt, awaiting acknowledgment.

“What is it, Rat?” The heavily bandaged man asked, his single eye gazing down at his subordinate. If he remembered correctly, Rat was assigned to collect information on the happenings surrounding the Ninja Academy and its graduates this week, a rather inglorious task, and usually completely uneventful, but Danzou hadn’t gotten to where he was today by discounting the little things.

“The rumors about Tsunade’s son are true. He entered the village yesterday with the Sannin, Jiraiya, and I was able to confirm his identity at the genin graduation tests today.” Rat’s voice emanated from behind the mask sounding only slightly muffled.

Danzou’s eye widened and he frowned at the news. He’d nearly discounted the bits of information he’d received the previous day as wild tales. The source had supposedly been two gate guards only recently promoted to chuunin on their third time attempting the test. Neither of the two were known for taking their positions particularly seriously, and he doubted they’d ever advance in rank again. The data he’d gathered on them said they were generally unmotivated and not well suited for information gathering or much of anything else, as far as he was concerned. They weren’t nearly serious enough to make it far as shinobi.

Besides, the rumors had it that the boy had the Mokuton and possessed his mother’s freakish strength, and everyone knew those techniques were unique to the originating individuals. He’d certainly tried to have them replicated in his own troops often enough.

“Were you able to determine the veracity of the rest of the rumors surrounding the boy?”

“Not all of them, sir. He does have some sort of animate plant, but it doesn’t react in any way like the Shodaime’s Mokuton was said to work. If I had to make a guess, I’d say it was somehow influenced to act by his moods, taken in through the ambient chakra around him. It seems to react automatically to the environment without his conscious will; other than that, I can’t say. All of his shinobi skills were far above the rest of the graduating genin, but he did not over-play his hand in the exams aside from the jutsu portion, so I cannot be sure the extent of those skills. Though he may have some of the Nidaime’s talent with water jutsu as he was able to produce three mizu-bunshin from a single glass of water, instead of the required basic clone.”

The old soldier frowned and paced a few steps across the yard, deep in thought. If there WAS some truth to the rumors, especially if he had any of his great-grandfather’s Mokuton skills, it would be well worth his time to make a play for control of the boy. He still regretted letting himself get out played for the Tenzou child – he’d foolishly believed the Hokage’s reports that all of that batch of Orochimaru’s experiments had died, the entire group unsuccessful in gaining the first Hokage’s abilities, and had subsequently lost him to the general ANBU ranks instead of gaining him for his own. It was a mistake he wouldn’t make again, especially when the genuine article was the new prize.

He took a few more moments to mull over the best course of action before asking, “Is that all?”

“No, sir. Tsunade-hime was seen entering the village this morning; she and Jiraiya-sama had some sort of altercation over the boy’s training that all but emptied the bathing area for several hours, then she met with the Hokage in the afternoon, and later rejoined her son and Jiraiya-sama at their inn. They seemed to have resolved their differences as there was no further property damage or civilian casualties.”

Damn, the boy’s mother could be a difficult obstacle. Jiraiya was considered somewhat of a buffoon by the council with his tasteless books and lack of decent breeding, but Tsunade-hime had a good bit of weight to throw around, being the closest thing Konoha had to royalty, especially if she were willing to trade on the council’s desire for her to return to the village with her heir. By all accounts, she was a shrewd and protective woman. He’d make a play for the boy, and if that failed, he’d have to make due with closely following his progress and perhaps persuading him directly. It would be a dangerous gamble, but with a child of that potential and political power under his thumb, his options would be nearly limitless.

“We may be able to monopolize on the Sannin’s argument about his training. What exactly was the issue, and are you certain it was resolved?” He asked aloud.

“I couldn’t tell for sure, Danzou-sama, on either count. Tsunade-hime's killing intent cleared everyone out, so I could not blend with the crowds, and I did not want to get close enough to be seen or sensed by either Sannin. The conflict was a violent one. From what I could gather, Tsunade-hime was not pleased at Jiraiya-sama’s preempting her authority by returning her son to the village.”

“Hmm. Thank you, Rat. You may return to your duties. I expect a formal report on this later.” Maybe Tsunade-hime wouldn’t be returning permanently to Konoha, after all? That would fit his plans much better than if she were to stay. If he remembered her personality correctly from when she was a girl, she was more likely to throw wrenches into his works than to be helpful, especially if she still held a fondness for her old sensei, which it would seem she did if her visit to him was any indication. He’d have to fish for a bit more information to be sure before making a move. "You are dismissed."

The rat masked ANBU silently stood and bowed politely before disappearing in a swirl of leaves.

When the master of ROOT made it to the Hokage’s office, the chuunin doing reception duty informed him that the old man could be found in his private library located down the hall. He politely thanked the boy, a Hyuuga of good breeding – main branch, and then made his way in the direction of the specified room. Very few were allowed into that section of the tower; in fact it was sealed so that only the Hokage’s blood could access the wing. It was only reachable by other people when the Leaf’s leader was using the facility, and it automatically alerted the man of each entrant.

Danzou nodded at the two ANBU guarding the doorway, noticing one of them had the red hair and otter’s mask of Uzumaki Kushina, another he’d lost to the old man’s manipulations. The last remaining warrior of Whirlpool’s most prominent family would have done well in his ranks with some emotional conditioning. As it was, she was far too undisciplined for his tastes and she knew it. To say they did not get along would be a gross understatement. Nevertheless, he maintained his expressionless mask and didn’t acknowledge her further as he knocked on the library’s door and opened it without waiting for an answer. The members of the senior council were allowed to seek the Hokage out in this chamber, after all, so the ANBU could not really stop him, regardless of the impropriety. After all, what harm could a crippled old man do to the supposed greatest ninja in Fire Country?

The room beyond the portal was extremely impressive. He’d tried to get operatives into this sanctuary on multiple occasions to copy the information housed here, but its protections were vast, and he wasn’t willing to tip his hand to the Hokage just yet; he still had hope of replacing the old fool when he finally kicked off. If not with himself (he knew his injuries would probably preclude him from the running), then with someone of his choosing that would be more…amiable to his ideas for the future direction Konoha should take. Perhaps the Senju boy would fit that bill? Whomever he ended up choosing, when everything came to fruition, he intended to be the power behind the throne, and then he’d have all the access he desired. Sandaime was old; it was really just a waiting game now.

He might not even have to wait that long to get at the walls lined with priceless scrolls and tomes. If the Senju were really to return to Konoha, a good portion of this may very well be leaked back into the private sector. Much of this knowledge had been amassed by the Shodaime, and even the Hokage wouldn’t dare keep it back from his legitimate heirs should they make a bid to the council for its return. Knowing the sentimental old fool, he might even turn it over without a fight out of some misguided sense of honor – Tsunade-hime had been his student, after all, and it was no secret the Professor held a deep fondness for all the members of his original genin team. Danzou happened to have it on good authority that he’d even been unable to kill the traitor Orochimaru when he’d had a chance.

The Hokage shuffled out from the dusty stacks to see who had entered and found himself completely unsurprised to see the partially crippled council member. He knew it was only a matter of time until people learned of Naruto’s existence, and the vultures began to circle. It was hardly a shock that Danzou had turned up first. He was a particularly large vulture, after all. “What can I do for you, Danzou?”

“Hokage-sama. I will be brief, as I’m sure you have already deduced what I’ve come for.” They were polite to each other in public for the sake of their respective images and because they weren’t really able to further damage each other yet, but in private they made no qualms about the politeness being merely a veneer. The Sandaime had managed to discredit him once, but he’d clawed his way back into power and wasn’t going to go down again so easily. “I want to exercise my right as a senior council member to make a recommendation about the training of one of the new genin.”

Despite his injuries, the man was still a formidable shinobi, though he was good at playing the innocent cripple when he had too. A council member’s right to request input in new genin teams had been instigated for situations such as when clan heads wanted to make sure the next generation of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation stayed intact. Leave it to the old bastard to warp that courtesy for his own designs.

The Sandaime raised an aged eyebrow; that was a tactic he hadn’t exactly expected the man to take. Surely he wasn’t about to admit to the continued existence of his supposedly secret ANBU squad? They’d been ordered to disband into the regular ANBU troops, but the council was inclined to look the other way when he continued to take a hand in their training.

Danzou was not that foolish, “I have heard rumors of Tsunade-hime’s son passing today’s exams. I feel his breeding and abilities qualify him for immediate fast track training into one of the ANBU squads. As you may have heard, I have a proposal ready to go before the council about a mentorship program for shinobi who show early ANBU potential, and I think he would be a perfect candidate for the first batch of such shinobi.”

“And you would, of course, volunteer to direct that new movement? That proposal will never pass the council. and his mother would kill you. Your methods are barbaric, and your request is transparent.” The Hokage put his pipe between his lips and frowned at the other man, surely he didn’t expect for him to agree to that request?

“My former soldiers are nearly twice as effective as the average new ANBU recruit. The council knows that. My original unit would never have been dissolved if it had been up to them. Besides, it’s only fitting that someone of Senju’s status receive the best tutoring possible…I’ll be requesting the Uchiha as well, by the way, when he graduates next year.”

“Your request is denied. I am the Hokage, and I get final say in all ninja related decisions, INCLUDING team assignments - the council's input is merely a courtesy, as you well know. Even if it weren't, Senju Naruto has already been assigned.”

“To who? The council has not even SEEN any of the team rosters yet! We don’t even convene for another hour!”

“My student, Jiraiya, has exercised his right to accept an apprentice outside of the usual team assignments, a right granted to him by the council that he never traded on, unlike the other two Sannin.” Jiraiya had taken a whole team, but as a reward for their services, they’d been offered the opportunity to take single students instead, in hopes that the one-on-one mentorship would generate more shinobi of their own superior quality. Orochimaru had gotten Mitarashi Anko, and Tsunade had taken Shizune. The offer had never been rescinded. He had every right to “first dibbs” on Naruto. It wouldn’t go up in front of the council for approval, and that decision was looking more and more like an especially wise one. He was sure Danzou was just the first of many who would be all too eager to collect on the Shodaime’s legacy.

The old soldier frowned and bowed slightly, conceding the field, for now. He hadn’t been prepared for that, but he wasn’t willing to give up yet. He was sure another opportunity would arise. “Very well. If you’ll excuse me, I have a few issues to attend to before tonight’s meeting.”

“By all means.” He’d barged in without permission; Sandaime found it a bit ironic that he bothered with the polite formalities on taking his leave. He’d have to assign a few more ninja to keep an eye on the man. He knew this wasn’t over, and it would be unspeakably disastrous if he discovered Naruto’s secrets before the time was right to reveal them to the world.

ANBU were incredibly discrete as a rule. Most shinobi were, and ANBU were elite shinobi. It was something of a requirement for the job; still, only the most trusted were assigned to guard the Hokage because they were often present and therefore unable to avoid overhearing the occasional delicate political discussion. Kushina was frequently given this duty because while she was known to be a bit boisterous, she definitely knew when to keep her mouth shut, and she hadn’t risen so quickly and highly in the ranks by making use of privileged information. Ninja that did that never got very far in Konoha. As such, she knew quite a bit about the current political climate in the village, and always had the latest gossip.

She couldn’t deny that she was rather curious to hear Senju Naruto was in town. She’d thought of him often in the past several years and was pretty eager to see what kind of a ninja he’d grown into. It’d be over her dead body that bastard Danzou would sink his filthy claws into the kid. Kushina owed Tsunade a debt for healing her teammate, and an Uzumaki always repaid their debts.

--The good kind, and the bad. It was just rare that fulfilling both kinds ran together so well as this. If Danzou knew what was good for him, he should definitely be watching his back.

Her musings were cut short by the arrival of Hyuuga Hiashi looking like a man on a mission. Unlike the previous visitor, he waited politely for permission to enter, but he certainly didn’t wait for the door to even close completely before assaulting the Hokage with his Naruto-related request.

The kid had been there for two days and already he was stirring up the council more than anything else had in a decade. Kushina grinned; she knew there was something special about that brat from the moment she’d seen him as a toddler.

“Sandaime-sama, forgive the intrusion, but I wished to discuss something with you prior to tonight’s meeting.” The Hyuuga’s clan head spoke in his normal formal monotone. Sandaime hated it. There was very little more boring than listening to a Hyuuga speak.

He sighed. Sometimes he hated his job. Dealing with the council was more trouble than the paperwork sometimes, “Of course, Hiashi-san.” And of course, he had to be polite no matter how annoyingly predictable they were being or how ridiculous the request…

“I have heard Tsunade-hime has revived the Senju clan by bearing a male heir and that he has returned to be a Shinobi of the Leaf.”

“Indeed. You have heard correctly.” Sarutobi reluctantly replied; it would be pointless to hide it. He wished Jiraiya had been a bit more discrete.

Hiashi cleared his throat and straightened his clothes a bit before speaking, though his face remained it’s normal stern mask, “As you know, the Hyuuga clan and the Senju clan have close ties dating back to even before the great Shodaime founded Konoha; as such—“

“Forgive me, Hiashi-san, but if you are about to suggest a political marriage alliance, even for the noble purpose of bringing the Senju clan more firmly back to the village - which I'm sure is your intention, you know you should be talking to the boy’s mother, not to me. Also, Naruto-kun is only 11, as is your oldest daughter, with little Hanabi-chan being even younger. Don’t you think you might wait a few years to bring this sort of thing up?”

Hiashi looked affronted at the interruption, and a bit embarrassed that he’d been that transparent about the request. “Of course, I merely wanted to remind you that we have the oldest claim and preempt any other agreements. I thought perhaps you might be persuaded to speak with Tsunade-hime—“

‘Sometimes it really sucks to be Hokage. Nidaime-sama never told me there would be days like this,’ Sandaime sighed, resolving not to mention it to Tsunade-chan either, should she agree to be Godaime. She’d probably change her mind. He reluctantly settled in for the second of what he knew would be many long-winded Naruto related discussions. The council meeting tonight could only make it worse. He firmly believed the social elite of this village had too much free time. As the Hyuuga droned on and on about the merits of his youngest daughter and her suitability for an older boy he’d never met, Sarutobi wondered if he should suggest they all take up hobbies…he’d heard a game called “golf” was becoming quite popular in Grass Country…

The sun rose as usual into clear skies over Konoha and the Yamanaka Flower Shop the next morning. Yamanaka Ino had been given the early shift by her mother. “What a way to start my vacation from Academy classes.” She grumbled aloud. “I’ve done nothing but study all week, and now I’ve got to work. This sucks. I can’t even go track down Forehead Girl and tell her the newest bit of juicy gossip!”

As luck would have it, the fates weren’t completely against her that morning. No sooner than she’d wished she could go find Sakura, than the girl walked into the shop causing the little bell over the doorway to jingle merrily in greeting. “Good morning, Ino-Pig! Mom sent me to get her weekly flower order.”

“Your mom’s got a weekly order now, Forehead Girl?” Ino opened up the box containing little cards with the shop’s orders written on them, and flipped through to the ‘H’ section for ‘Haruno’.

“Yeah. She’s into this Feng Shui thing now, and convinced that fresh flowers improve the ‘energy’ of the house.”

“Cool. I’ll go get them; Dad did the order this morning before he left to go training.” Her dad was one of those weird ‘morning people’ freaks.

“I’d better come help; there’ll be a lot of them.”

The two girls headed into the back room. Ino flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder and then started gathering the things listed on the card, “I’m actually pretty glad you came in here this morning, Billboard. I wanted to officially let you know that I’m withdrawing from the Uchiha Sasuke fanclub.”

Sakura was so shocked that she dropped the lilies she was holding, “What?!”

“Well, he’s so yesterday, you know? Now that Tsunade-sama’s son is going to be around more there’s no reason to drool over such a boring and cold boy like Sasuke-kun. They say he’s got Shodaime’s kekkei genkai, and that’s way more ‘in’ than the boring old Sharingan.”

“Blasphemy!!”

“You wouldn’t say that if you saw him! I got a glimpse of him yesterday as we were leaving school. You know he came to Konoha just to take the Academy tests a year early. He’s our age and already he can pass the tests without even attending a class even ONCE. He’s a genin now, and they say he’s not joining a team because he’s apprenticed to the great Jiraiya-sama of the Sannin. On top of that, he’s the last descendant from the founding clan of the village, AND both the first and second hokage! Rumor has it, he’s even got a killer attack plant that obeys his every whim like some super defense!”

“W-wow! But still, there’s no way he’s as dark, handsome, and mysterious as Sasuke-kun.”

“The tall, dark, handsome thing is way out of style now. You’re always so behind the times, Sakura! As for mysterious, this guy’s got it in spades! His mom’s raised him outside of Konoha for his own protection, and they say his father was such an awesomely powerful ninja with so many enemies that there’s a law or something about saying his name! He’s definitely a prince or sultan or something.”

“That’s stupid! There’s no way a prince or sultan or whatever would be allowed to be a ninja! It’s too dangerous!” Sakura planted her hands on her hips and glared at her rival.

“Hey, I’m just telling you what I heard! The Senju founded this village, you know, that makes him as close to a prince as we’re ever going to get! Besides, he’s definitely exotic looking – he’s got these cool clan markings or tattoos or something on his arm and one side of his face, with dark tanned skin and impossibly blue eyes!” she sighed dreamily.

“Well, okay…you can join his fanclub if you want too, but we’re definitely not letting you back into Sasuke-kun’s if you change your mind! There’s no room for the fickle minded in the race for Sasuke-kun’s heart!” Sakura tossed her hair and nodded decisively.

“That’s fine with me, as long as you promise not to change YOUR mind and go after Naruto-kun later!”

“Deal!”

“…so does this mean we can be friends again?”

“Sure, why not? Oh! You should come over to my house tonight! We can do each other’s hair and discuss the relative merits of broody dark ninja boys and mysterious and exotic blond ones!”

“Awesome! I’ll bring low-fat ice-cream!”

Naruto had started sneezing last night and hadn’t stopped sneezing all morning. Ivy wouldn’t stop writhing about his head protectively as if she was trying to fend off whatever was bothering him. Tsunade was loathe to leave him with Jiraiya if he was coming down with something – heaven forbid he was becoming allergic to his leafy pet. He didn’t get sick very frequently unless it was excessive chakra use/Kyuubi related, though probably more often than he would have if his bloodline didn’t prevent Kyuubi from completely controlling his body’s defenses and immune system, but he was overall pretty healthy. “Are you sure you’re okay, Kiddo?”

Naruto ducked out from under his mother’s reaching hands and angrily stuffed Ivy back down around his waist for what felt like the millionth time – at least she was staying where he put her longer than usual since he woke up. He tucked his new necklace into his shirt while he was at it, and then had to dodge Tsunade again. She was being so freaking GRABBY this morning! She’d tried to feel his forehead to take his temperature three times already and hugged him TWICE! You’d think she had some kind of weird new resolve to embarrass him in public or something. “I’m fine mom! There’s probably just some weirdoes talking about me!”

“Well, okay, but come back here and give me a hug and let me fix your hair. It’s sticking up in all directions.”

“Moooooooom! I’m a NINJA now!”

Jiraiya grinned happily. It was so refreshing not to be the target for once…

Shizune opened the door to the little house they’d been renting when she left for Earth Country, “Tadaima!” She set TonTon down and turned on the lights. How strange. Where was everyone? They couldn’t still be asleep. Both of them weren’t exactly morning people – unless Naruto was on a larger than normal training kick. He got his sleeping habits from his mother, but his natural inclinations were usually over-ruled by his impressive drive to better himself, besides, it was almost time for lunch!

Everything was pretty much as she’d known she’d come home to find it. Laundry was on the floor, extra pairs of shoes thrown haphazardly near the door instead of lined up neatly, a box of cereal left sitting out on the table next to a new stack of I.O.Us... “Tsunade-sama! Naruto-kun? How strange. Where is everybody?”

“Bye, Mom! Tell ‘Zune I’ll miss her and give TonTon some scritches for me.” Ivy rose around Naruto’s back to wave farewell with a leafy tendril.

“Oh, crap.” Tsunade groaned.

“What?...You forgot to leave her a note telling her where you were going, didn’t you?”

“It’s not my fault! I was frantic, wondering where YOU were!”

“HEY, I left a note!”

“Tsunade-sama!! Where IS everyone?!” Shizune wailed.

Chapter 12: Catching the Wave by Baal of Yarns
Author's Notes:

This chapter is total crack. It's intended to be kind of a fun filler before the story takes a turn for the serious in the next several chaps. I wanted to send off the majority of the comedy as well as Naruto's childhood with a bang, and I felt like the Wave Arc is so overdone in fanfiction as to be ludicrous, so if I were going to attempt it, might as well go all out. :P

This is as silly/fourth wall breaking as it's going to get guys, so just chill out and go with it for a chapter XD. In my opinion crack is better than a boring rewrite from canon. ;) You're either going to totally love or completely hate this chapter if the reviews I'm getting elsewhere are any indication. XD

Chapter 12: Catching the Wave:

“So, where are we headed first, Jiji?” Naruto asked, adjusting his new forehead protector as it draped loosely around his neck. He glanced aside at the oddly dressed old man he was walking with, and grinned, “Are we going on a cool mission? Are you taking me somewhere awesome to train? Am I going to have to spar with you while standing on the back of a shark?! Oh, that would be cool! Do the sharks have lasers on their heads, and will they be fighting with each other for the ultimate supremacy of all shark-hood while we heroically battle on top of them?”

“…Um…No.” Jiraiya gave his godson a look, “No more caffeine for you today - where do you come up with these things?...and what are lasers?”

Naruto blinked and shrugged. “Well, where are we going then? We’re heading towards the coast.”

“I’ve heard some funny rumors about a little country called, ‘Wave’. You’ve never been there because it doesn’t have any good gambling locations or anything, though it used to be a pretty hot tourist spot. You’ll like it, the scenery is really nice and there’s not a lot of trees because everything is built on or around the water.” Shrunken for ease of carrying around Naruto’s bicep, Ivy rustled happily to hear she wouldn’t have much competition where they were going. Ever since he’d gotten his great-grandfather’s necklace from his mother, she’d been a lot more convenient to have around – almost like they were communicating on the same wave-length sometimes instead of her just doing whatever-the-hell she felt like doing or acting instinctively to his moods as sensed through his chakra.

Jiraiya tugged at his red jacket aimlessly as they walked, then pulled a few bits of metal half-covered in what looked like tiny intricate seals out of his pocket and started fiddling with them to pass the time.

“It sounds pretty, why isn’t it a tourist spot anymore?” The genin mused aloud.

“Huh? Oh, well, that’s one of the things I’d like to check out. My contacts say the businessman, Gato, moved in, and completed his monopoly on the shipping industry, choking the funds out of the whole country. It’s kind of a shit-hole now. Really poor.” The hermit muttered, half lost in his project as they walked.

“Wow, sounds…awesome…I can definitely see why you’d want to go there.” Naruto drawled in his mother’s sarcastic monotone as he rolled his eyes. “If it’s such a hell-hole, why don’t they hire ninja or something to clean it up?”

“Did you not hear me? They’re all poor! Even the daimyo doesn’t have a pot to piss in.” Jiraiya whapped him upside the head, “use your brain. Jeeze. As for the main reason we’re going there, I’ve heard there’s a weird organization called Akatsuki setting up a base nearby, and I’ve been trying to track them for a couple of months now. It’s a perfect spot for them since they don’t have to worry about officials or anything near a place like that.”

“Great. I suppose you’re just going to set me some stupid training task and go off to investigate, leaving me on my own again, aren’t you Ero-Jiji?”

“If this organization is who I think it is, with the goals I think they have, then yeah. It’s way out of a rookie genin’s league, and especially dangerous for someone like you.” He grinned sheepishly at his godson, “besides, your mom would kill me if she knew I was even taking you anywhere near these guys. You’re lucky I’m not leaving you in another country while I investigate here.”

Naruto sighed, “yeah, yeah – whatever. If it weren’t for the fact that you said this place was so poverty stricken, I’d be tempted to accuse you of ditching me to go peep at girls again!”

Jiraiya looked indignant. “I’m a master of my trade! The world depends on me for that research! You should show some respect brat! You’re lucky to have such an awesome godfather and mentor! Maybe if you’d give me my due, I’d even consider passing on to you my secrets of the trade!”

“I’m telling Kaa-san you’re trying to corrupt me!”

“No, no! You little brat, you can’t tattle; what are you, 4? She’ll KILL me!”

“Hahahahaha! Loser! Perverted Loser! You are so dead!”

“Just wait until you hit puberty you little…”

Naruto wandered aimlessly through the streets crowded with homeless people and the unemployed begging for work. Everywhere he looked there were kids younger than him trying to con a few coins out of passers-by so they could afford a bit of bread or rice. It was really sad. He had to keep a sharp watch on his gama-chan or the frog-shaped wallet was likely to be stolen. He’d seen three people get pick-pocketed in the last two hours.

Ero-jiji had dumped him off on the outskirts of town with directions to an inn he’d thought would probably still be open with the directives to stay out of trouble and try to cut a leaf in half with his chakra until he came back in a week or two. Unfortunately, he’d been wrong about the inn. It looked like it had been closed for at least a couple of months, and the old guy he’d stopped to ask about other lodgings had laughed in his face. This totally sucked.

He was just passing by the only sign of progress he’d seen in this lousy city – a huge, partially completed bridge – when he noticed a scuffle seemed to have broken out among the workers. He heard upraised voices and the clash of falling building materials, and hurried over to investigate.

He was short and ninja trained, so it wasn’t really any problem pushing his way past the people gathering in a small crowd in order to see what was going on. Ivy was her usual “help”, nudging taller adults out of the way or outright lifting them so he could worm through. Surprised “eep!”s followed his progress towards the front of the throng.

Out on the newest section of bridge, a couple of wannabe thugs with delusions of samurai-hood judging from their weapons, looked like they were trying to intimidate the work crew. The workers were lined up behind an old guy in a hard hat who Naruto guessed was the foreman, and the bad-guys stood facing them about three feet away.

“Look, Gramps! We told you, you’d better stop working on this bridge! Construction sites like this are dangerous for people your age.” The jackass on the right said, pausing to kick in a crate filled with bars of some sort. The metal tubes spilled onto the bridge’s surface in a painful clanging racket that lasted for several seconds.

The other guy’s hand slid down to his katana and the weapon clicked slightly as he thumbed the guard, sliding it out an inch, “if you don’t listen to us, Tazuna, I can definitely foresee some…accidents…happening around all this hazardous equipment…”

“Jeeze, where do you guys get your lines? From the back of a cereal box?” Naruto’s eyes got wide as soon as he realized he’d said that aloud. “…crap.”

The first thug immediately turned around and took a menacing step towards the little punk who dared speak up to them and made a quick grab at the front of his shirt, but the little bastard easily skipped backwards, and a strange vine uncurled from around his arm, beginning to sway protectively in front of him.

“Hey! So, you guys even pick on little kids now?” The old bridge builder evidentially didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut either. That made Naruto feel a little better, even though he’d called him both ‘little’ and a ‘kid’.

Up to that point, he’d just been evading Thing 1’s swipes and holding Ivy back with a great deal of concentration, but Thing 2 made a move towards the old dude, so there was nothing for it. Naruto leapt straight up, landing on his assailant’s head, and using it as a spring board to deliver a freakish-strength kick right to the face of the other guy. Thing 2 went spinning comically over the edge of the partially finished structure to land several feet out in the water. It took him a long time to surface.

Naruto landed nimbly in front of the foreman, pivoting cat-like to face the attack he expected to follow from Thing 1, only to see the thug hadn’t even managed to peel his face off the pavement yet. It looked like Ivy had added a good bit of force to his face plant after Naruto had jumped off of him, and everyone in the crowd was staring at the ninja with gaping mouths and hugely wide eyes.

“…What the hell are you, kid?”

The statement from random observer number 3 seemed to set off the rest of them and suddenly the silence was broken by loud chattering speculation.

…maybe he’d over done it a little…He glanced at ivy and wrestled her back down to drape loosely around his waist. She always made everything seem so flashy!

“Wow, thanks kid! That was super cool!” Naruto felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder, and he turned to face the beaming old guy and his work crew. “I’m Tazuna, the Bridge Builder, and this is my bridge! You just saved us a lot of time and money! It always takes ages to repair and clean up after these punks get done with us. What’s your name, kid?”

“Er, no problem!” Naruto scratched the back of his head and grinned sheepishly. He had a feeling Ero-jiji was going to kill him for this. “I’m Senju Naruto – genin ninja of Konohagakure!”

Naruto heard one of the workers turn to whisper to the man beside him, “Holy crap – a ninja that can do that, so young? What are they feeding them in Fire Country?”

“I dunno, maybe it’s something in the water? Did you see how far he kicked that guy, and what about that whippy vine thing?”

Naruto sweat-dropped. So much for staying out of trouble.

“A Ninja huh?” Tazuna rubbed his chin and stared down at the blond punk in front of him, before nodding definitively, “I guess that explains it. All ninja must be able to do stuff like that, huh? If even runts like you are that strong. HAHAHAHAHA!” he threw his head back and laughed boisterously. “We sure are lucky you were passing by!”

“Must. Resist. Urge. To Kill…” Naruto muttered.

Tazuna slapped him on the back in a friendly manner and somehow managed to pull it back without ivy ripping it off. He didn’t even seem to notice how close he’d come to losing a limb. “You’re pretty far from home, aren’t you, kid? All the way from Konoha! You got a place to stay?”

He knew he would regret this later, but the genin tentatively shook his head, “No, your inn was closed and—“

“SUPER! You can stay with me, my daughter, and cute grandson! HAHAHAHA!”

“Er, no, that’s okay—“

“Nonsense! I insist! It’s the least I can do, right boys?”

A sound of general agreement rose up behind Tazuna, and he grinned. Naruto had a really bad feeling about this. Somehow, he knew he’d be spending a lot of time at this freaking bridge until Ero-jiji decided to show back up.

A short balding man in a business suit stormed into the hospital room of Faceless Minion(FM) 1 and Faceless Minion 2 flanked by FMs 3 through 4. “What’s this?! How the hell did you get beaten by that pathetic old man and his cowardly workers?! What am I paying you for?! You didn’t even manage to slow down the construction on the bridge! They’re back at it and working even faster after seeing you get so thoroughly crushed!”

FM 1, as FM 2 had his jaw wired shut, decided the question was directed at him and tentatively answered, “It wasn’t like that, boss! The bridge builder and his men didn’t lay a finger on us! It was all that dorky looking blond-kid—“

“You got your asses handed to you by a ‘DORKY LOOKING BLOND KID’?!”

“NO!...well, yes, but it’s not what you think! He had a leaf forehead protector and some weird jutsu that animated a vine he carried around! He was definitely a ninja! No normal brat could have beaten us!...and he was HUGE, right?” He turned to his cohort who groaned in pain to show his agreement. “big as five-no, TEN normal guys. Definitely.”

“A large ninja kid, huh? Maybe it’s time to bring in bigger guns. Pathetic thugs like you don’t even deserve NAMES, there’s no way you could be expected to beat a title character.” Gato muttered in disgust.

His minions blinked at him in confusion. ‘Title character? Has the boss lost it?’

“There’s nothing for it. You need ninja to fight other ninja. I’ll have to hire some missing-nin.”

Naruto paused and hurriedly turned away from the table as he was suddenly taken by a sneezing fit. Man, what if he really WAS becoming allergic to Ivy?!

“What’s the matter, Naruto-kun? I hope you aren’t having a bad reaction to something in the food!” Tazuna’s daughter asked in concern.

“No way! This stuff is great! You’re an awesome cook! Someone must be talking about me.” He muttered, setting his bowl down where it would be safe if he had to sneeze again.

“Well, it’s no wonder after you did such a totally great job saving us at the bridge today!” The bridge builder chuckled. “You should have seen it, Inari. He sent that thug flying and planted the other guy’s face right into the ground!” he poked his grandson who was sitting beside him in a fisherman’s hat and overalls.

“I’m glad I missed it. It’s stupid to fight Gato! He’s just going to get himself killed and make everything worse!” The little boy erupted. “No one can stand up to him! It’s just dumb to try!”

Naruto blinked, “Er, if you don’t try to get rid of him, how are things ever going to get better? You think he’s going to get distracted by something shiny and wonder off someday, forgetting about you?!”

The kid’s whole body trembled and his fists clenched and unclenched in his lap, bunching up the fabric of his clothes. “You’re such a moron! Just like him! Stop trying to be a hero! The only things heroes are good for is dying!” His voice shook and tears began to fall from his eyes.

“Inari—“ the boy’s mother reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, but he quickly shrugged it off. He was about to stand and storm from the room, when Naruto began to giggle.

The rest of the table turned to stare at him like he’d lost it, but his giggles just turned into full fledged laughs.

“Umm, Naruto, are you alright?” Tazuna asked. He hoped the kid wasn’t going to go crazy and kill them all in their sleep. He’d heard ninja did that sometimes.

“Huh?” the genin struggled to calm himself down and wiped a tear of laughter from his eye, “Oh, yeah. Sorry about that…it’s just, tee hee, he sounded just like my kaa-san for a minute there, when she tells me not to be like my dad. I couldn’t help but laugh because I was picturing her in that dumb hat!”

“You-your D-dad?” Inari stuttered, shocked.

“Yeah.” Naruto’s grin turned sad, “he died sacrificing his life to save a village from something really bad. He was a really great hero.”

Inari burst into tears all over again and fled the room.

“…was it something I said?” Naruto blinked, baffled. He’d never understand civilian kids.

Tazuna told him Inari’s story the next day, after dragging Naruto to the bridge to ‘see how it’s done’ and not for anything like protection, because they’d have to pay for that, ‘shut up and learn something, gaki! It’s educational! You never know when you might have to build a bridge!’

“Damn! No wonder the kid’s so upset. That Gato killed him right in front of everybody, huh?”

“Yeah. It hit us all really hard. No one has had the nerve to stand up to Gato or his men since it happened until you came along yesterday.” The old man sighed and used the towel around his neck to wipe at the sweat that had gathered under his hat. Naruto was pretty comfy – Ivy had taken to fanning him. She was occasionally good for more than getting through crowds. “Being hungry and poor has sucked the hope right out of the whole country…but this bridge will fix all of that if we can only get it done.” He grinned and looked around at the men hauling and hammering and constructing. “Since your stunt yesterday, I’ve got three times the usual amount of workers, though! I thought it would take another eight months or more to finish it with my old crew and that’s if we hit no major snags and I lost no one else, but if this keeps up, it’ll be done in two!”

“What do you mean, the Demon of the Mist isn’t available!?” Gato slammed his hand down on his desk in frustration and glowered at his secretary.

“Um, well, sir – he’s currently employed by a man named Gates who is trying to keep a hold of his monopoly in Apple Country…His assistant Haku – a really nice boy – said he should be available in a few months if you’d like to be put on his client waiting list…”

“Damn it! Did you SEE the bridge this morning? They’ll be done by the time he can get here! Who else is there?”

“Well…It seems it’s a very busy time for nuke-nin, sir. Most of them are already booked…The only people who I could get to return my calls were the Shark of the Pool Table, and some guy named Tobi who I was assured is also very good boy. Tobi-san is currently interviewing with another organization though, and may not be available long term.”

Gato sighed. It was impossible to find good disposable help these days. “What about Zabuza’s flunkies, the Marks Brothers?”

“Demon Brothers, sir. I didn’t inquire about them. Would you like me to call back?”

“Yes, they’ll do for now. We’ll just have to step up FM recruitment. If worse comes to worst, we’ll just mob him. How hard can it be to defeat one dorky looking blond kid, no matter how big? I want you to find out everything you can about him. Maybe we can just pay him off or something.”

“Um, yes, sir…er, you do know Senju Naruto is barely 4 foot tall, don’t you?”

“WHAT?!”

Elsewhere, Uchiha Madara chuckled and pulled Tobi’s swirling orange mask back on his face. It was hard to use the phone with it on – it muffled his voice too much. It was bitterly ironic that one of the most feared shinobi in history was reduced to this, but oddly amusing at the same time. He really hadn’t had this much fun in decades.

On top of the amusement factor, he’d also learned something very interesting from the conversation with Gato’s secretary…The Senju clan wasn’t gone after all; Tsunade had a son with leaf markings on his cheek and shoulder… Could it be possible that Hashirama had a true heir in the boy? It would bear looking into. If this ‘Naruto’ could be useful for his plans, it would be a huge coup against Senju’s memory to turn him and make him his own loyal soldier the same way that bastard had tried to turn Madara’s own family against him. He had always been fond of irony, and the Shodaime was beyond any other type of retribution now. Besides, Konoha didn’t deserve ninja of that caliber. If the boy had Mokuton, he could be extremely useful to his plans with Akatsuki.

If nothing else, the child might eventually prove to be an adversary worthy of respect, something else Madara had been lacking since Senju’s death. It would be unbelievably satisfying to crush the last legacy of the Senju clan.

“So…did anything exciting happen while I was gone, brat?” Jiraiya asked, sipping from his sake cup while Naruto happily munched on dango across the table. He’d been gone a little over two weeks, and had found very little that might prove useful except a small time-sensitive lead that could be extremely dangerous, so they were moving on.

“Well, you know that Gato-jerk you mentioned?” The kid looked a bit sheepish, bringing that up; it couldn’t be good.

“Yeah…you didn’t piss him off did you? He could be a powerful enemy.” Jiraiya frowned. Tsunade would kill him if he’d gone and got her son a bounty on his head already.

“Um…well…he’s sort of dead.”

“He’s…dead.”

“Yeah…it’s kind of a long story, but hey, they’re naming that awesome bridge after me!”

“So, basically, while I was gone, you overthrew a criminal organization, killed its boss, freed a country from economic ruin, and got a major landmark named after you.”

“Well, I didn’t technically kill him! He tripped after the Shark of the Pool Table bet me 30,000 ryo that he could beat me at 9 ball, or I’d have to leave and stop interfering with their faceless minions! We were playing on the end of the bridge, and the Shark threw his pool cue when he lost. Gato tried to dodge it, but he fell over the Demon Brother’s chains! I think Ivy might have nudged him a little, but I didn’t tell her too! That was it! Whoosh! Right over the edge.”

“Er, that’s kind of anti-climactic. Why the hell would he try to get you to leave on a BET?”

“It wasn’t that anti-climactic when his army of goons attacked me afterwards for killing their meal ticket! I had to make like a gazillion Bunshin, and poor Ivy-chan was all bruised up from blocking weapons by the time we got done! I guess he did research on me or something and found out about Kaa-san’s reputation. Maybe he thought being the biggest loser in the universe was genetic? I don’t know.”

“Your luck should be another bloodline. It’s not natural. When you get listed in some county’s Bingo Book someday, they’re going to list that under ‘special abilities’ and there will be warnings to flee rather than wager with you.”

Naruto shrugged. What could he do?

Jiraiya sighed, “Well…let’s just not mention this to your mother.”

End Notes:
A/N: Eh, heh...that was a lot of forth wall breakage. Sorry about that. It's just that I always find myself a bit disappointed when Naruto doesn't get a bridge named after him, but I couldn't bring myself to write the Wave Mission seriously because it's so overdone. XD Compromise!
Chapter 13: Into the Sand by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 13: Into the Sand

“So, what’s the deal with this country? Why do they call it “Wind” when it’s so fucking HOT?” Naruto muttered in sweaty frustration. “Maybe if there WERE wind, it would be less miserable!” Ivy tightened pathetically around his waist, obviously unhappy with the arid environment. She hadn’t been nearly as active or annoying since they’d entered the desert and was pulling on his chakra enough that it was almost hard to ignore.

“Don’t mope. At least there’s no trees or anything here to jump you out of the blue.” Jiraiya quipped, his head turning to follow a skimpily clad kunoichi as she walked past them down the sandstone streets.

“Yeah, but that’s gotten a little better since Kaa-san gave me her necklace and there’s nothing else here, either! First there were nothing but dunes, and now there’s nothing but buildings, and guess what, everything is made of SAND.” Naruto flailed his arms around a bit to emphasize his point. “On top of that, you STILL haven’t told me what we’re doing here and why we had to creep in past the guards. Kaa-san never has problems getting into Konoha allied villages. I don’t like that we were all sneaky, sneaky about it! You didn’t let your paperwork lapse, did you?” His eyebrows furrowed, “You need to be more responsible!”

“Whoa, kiddo! You’ve been hanging around Shizune way too long.” Jiraiya glared. “I’ll have you know my passport is in perfect order, and I’ve got my reasons for being sneaky here. Besides, we’re NINJA. We’re supposed to be sneaky. Do you want to learn how to run a spy network or not?”

“Umm, actually, that’s not really my sort of gig.” Naruto answered honestly. “I like smashing things, mostly.”

His sensei sighed (11 year-old boys could be impossible sometimes – they never had their priorities straight), and pulled him into the lobby of the nearest shady looking inn. “Look, let’s get a nice room since we’ll be here a while, and then I’ll explain it all to you when we’re away from prying eyes and ears, okay? Don’t worry about the passport thing; I just want at least a day to look into things before making my presence known and as a very high ranking ninja and his apprentice of a closely allied nation, we’ve got 24 hours to turn in our paperwork. It’s a perk of being a Sannin. I can’t help it if your mom is too uncreative to use it occasionally.”

“Whatever.” Naruto muttered, “That rule makes no sense. You probably just want more time to come up with a good excuse.”

“Sometimes things need hand delivered to Kage in alliances with each other. Top secret stuff that needs as few paper trails as possible, and it helps to keep the allied parties honest if they don’t know for sure that there’s no one from the other village around. Ninja shouldn’t trust each other even in alliances. That’s why the rule’s there.” Jiraiya ignored his student’s grumblings of disbelief in favor of flirting with the pretty clerk behind the counter. She didn’t seem too impressed.

Normally, Naruto hated it when Ero-jiji went all flirty, but it actually expedited things in cases like this because the women were always really eager to get rid of them. Within five minutes, they had their room key and were headed up to the third floor to settle in. Though the inn had looked pretty shady from the outside, it was actually not that bad on the inside, and they’d gotten a pretty decent sized suite.

Naruto flopped limply back onto the bed closest to the window and next to the fan. It felt really good on his overheated skin. He shifted a bit uncomfortably to settle Ivy into a better position. She was kind of dried out and itchy and made disturbing crackling noises when she moved. “Okay, Jiji. Spill it.”

Jiraiya sighed and looked indecisive for a moment before sitting himself down opposite the brat and resigning himself to a guilty confession. He supposed he would’ve had to come up with something to tell the gaki sooner or later, anyway; he wasn’t going to like being left out of the action as it was. “Alright. I’ll tell you, but you’re not going to get involved, okay? You hang around, chase a few girls, learn a few wind jutsu, I don’t care, but if I tell you what’s going on, you’re going to promise to stay the hell away from it.”

The kid frowned and sat up. He’d rarely heard his godfather sound so serious about something. “What is it, Ero-sensei?”

“When I said I didn’t learn anything in Wave Country, I wasn’t being completely honest…My contact there said one of Orochimaru’s minions had been spotted in this area.” He winced, knowing he’d told Tsunade he’d try to let this sort of thing go, but he just couldn’t just yet. Not when information like this might be useful.

“O-Orochimaru?! Like the guy who got pissed off because Tou-san was named Yondaime and turned traitor to the village? You and Kaa-san’s old teammate, the mad scientist Orochimaru?”

“Yes. I’ve been keeping tabs on him whenever I could since he left, but he’s a slippery bastard. He’s a part of a missing-nin organization called Akatsuki that’s becoming more active lately after a long period where they seemed to sort of stall out. They want to collect the Bijuu for reasons I haven’t figured out yet but can’t possibly be good. Turns out Suna has a Jinchuuriki, and I think the bastard is trying to gather information on him.”

“There’s a Jinchuuriki here? Someone like me?” Naruto stood up so fast his head spun a little.

“Sit down, Brat!” Jiraiya barked, “Your secret is NOT to get out, understand? So you’re not going to go looking for him! Besides, rumor has it that he’s crazy. His Bijuu’s driven him completely nutso.”

Naruto frowned and began to pace, “You’re telling me that there’s someone in this city that could understand me and what I go through, and I’m not allowed to TALK to him? That’s completely not fair! How do you know he’s insane? Maybe his seal is just crap! We might be able to help him! No one else is as good at seals as you are or half as good as Tou-san was!”

“You’ve got NO IDEA what it’s like for a normal Jinchuuriki, Naruto. You have some chakra, problems? Big deal! Your mom, Shizune-chan, and me have managed to keep you safe from what being a vessel really means, and even if we hadn’t these people aren’t like Leaf Ninja! I’m sure his seal IS crap, but they probably did it on PURPOSE! That’s the kind of people most ninja are! Times haven’t been good here, and so these people don’t care about each other, only about power or keeping themselves alive. This is a harsh country with harsh rules, and you’re going to keep your head down while we’re here, or I’ll send you right back to your mother in Snow Country on my fastest toad! I should probably do that anyway!”

Naruto cringed. His godfather almost NEVER seriously yelled at him. He’d never heard him so stern before.

“I never intended to bring you here, but by the time I’d have found someone else to watch you, I’d have missed the operative, so this is how it’s got to be. The working window is too small for comfort as it is, but I’m not leaving this room until I’m sure you understand the dangers here, Naruto. This isn’t a game. If just ONE person aside from us finds out about the Kyuubi, your name could very well go onto Akatsuki’s list and BOOM, you’re looking over your shoulder for a pair of S-class nukenin for the rest of your fucking life – WHICH won’t be very long if they have any say in it! On top of that, one of those nukenin is Orochimaru, a man who killed scores of kids to study the bloodline YOU are the last to inherit.”

He jabbed a finger at Naruto’s chest, and continued, “Even without the Kyuubi, you’re in danger where that Snake is involved! Hell, the Akatsuki are collecting Bijuu; they may try to recruit you for the Mokuton if they’re trying to control that kind of power; they may even NEED you. You could be on their list already! We just don’t have enough information, and I’m not going to risk you more than I have to until I get it! The crap your mother would do to me would be nothing compared to the guilt I’d put myself through if they got their hands on you!” he raged.

Naruto had never seen his godfather so riled up about something. When he put it that way, it was hard to argue with the logic…“I-I’m sorry, Jiji. I didn’t realize…” He sighed, “I’ll stay in the room and won’t poke my nose into anything while you’re out. I’ll even only eat delivery food so I don’t have to leave.” Naruto wasn’t really used to feeling anxious about things, but he was smart enough to know when he was in over his head – at least if you pounded it into him for a while. Anything that got Ero-jiji so worked up had to be worth the caution.

Jiraiya sighed. He didn’t want the kid to start living in fear, but he needed to have some healthy respect for this situation, and honestly, he was a little soft for ninja life yet. He’d never had to make tough decisions or survive against adversity – the kind of thing that really makes a person strong on the inside as well as the outside. Jiraiya firmly believed in trial by fire and sink or swim, so maybe it was time to let go of the kid’s hand for a while…once they were somewhere safer. It was vital for a ninja to learn to harden themselves sometimes, and he’d be damned if his godson died because he’d been too soft on him.

He’d never said as much to Tsunade, but he had always wondered if that had been a contributing factor in Nawaki’s death. He’d never learned to make the hard decisions. A lot of Konoha ninja were just kind of thrown onto the battlefield, far too green in the head even if their physical skills were excellent. That was the one area where the harsher life of the other villages turned out much stronger ninja earlier on in their careers. Konoha genin were typically almost useless for a year or so. He sat down on the bed beside his godson and ruffled his hair affectionately. “You know I’m only so worried about you because I care, right?”

“Yeah,” he threw the older man a tentative smile, “I love you too, Ero-jiji.” He impulsively hugged the sennin like he used to when he was much younger. “Be careful, okay? It’s got to be dangerous for you too.”

Jiraiya returned the hug, fighting down an upwelling of fatherly affection for the brat. How the kid could turn someone’s emotions around so quickly, he didn’t know. It was almost ridiculous how easy it was to care about him – maybe there was something to Tsunade’s crackpot theory about Mokuton’s effects on people. “I’m not going out until a little later. Not much goes on around here during the day, and it’ll take some poking around to find out exactly who I’m looking for and where to find him.”

“Okay, but you still have to promise me you’ll be careful.”

“I promise.”

Naruto climbed off the bed and headed for the bathroom to see if soaking Ivy for a bit would perk her up or if he’d have to deal with her like this until they left. He wasn’t willing to put out the kind of chakra she needed to constantly keep herself in top condition in this heat, especially not if things had a chance of getting dangerous. He’d tried it a few times on the way here, but without knowing how to change his chakra into Mokuton chakra, the process was really inefficient and wasteful. Mostly he just flared his energy and she caught what she could, with a large part of it just seeping away whenever he tried to “feed” her, so he was stuck letting her pull what was absolutely necessary but no more than that.

When he reached the door, he had a sudden thought that kind of bothered him. He paused for moment and turned back, “Hey, Jiji…didn’t you promise Kaa-san, you weren’t going to go after Orochimaru anymore?”

Jiraiya’s eyes snapped up to meet his, and he frowned, “I promised I’d try to get over my issues with him, if she got over hers with Konoha. We all have different ways of getting over our issues. I have to know what he’s up to brat, especially if it could be dangerous for you.”

“Okay.” Naruto nodded, “I trust you…and I won’t tell Kaa-san, but I kind of agree with her that your obsession with him isn’t healthy.”

“You’re a good kid, Naruto. A really good kid.” The older man sighed, and then smiled, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. I’ve just got to put my mind at ease here. I hope you never have to understand how I feel someday, because there’s nothing worse than having a comrade betray you like this. It’s not something you can just move past, but this is necessary, I promise.”

The sun was just starting to set when the hermit strapped his geta back on his feet and slipped his jacket back onto his shoulders. Naruto was dozing in front of the fan, a happily more damp Ivy curled around him protectively. The spritz down had seemed to help a bit, and she wasn’t as itchy on his skin anymore. Jiraiya sat down on the kid’s bed and shook him awake, deftly avoiding the plant’s attempts to slap him away. The damn thing was worse than Tsunade.

Naruto opened his eyes and blinked sleepily at his sensei, “Are you going out now?”

“Yeah. Don’t open the door for anyone but the delivery guy. Don’t leave the room, and work on that leaf cutting exercise I gave you for the wind chakra.” He ruffled the boy’s hair and stood up. “When I say stay out of trouble, I really mean it this time.”

“I will, Jiji!” Naruto sat up, “You be careful too. I won’t be there to save your ass, and when you start slacking off and whoring, make sure you use protection!”

“Why you little—“ Naruto laughed and dodged into the bathroom, slamming the door before he could be grabbed and properly noogied.

Jiraiya grinned and pounded on the door a few times for good measure, “Brat! I’ll be back before morning, and I’ve got a key, so don’t worry about letting me in.”

“Okay!” He called through the dividing wood. “Bye!”

Naruto was bored. Bored, bored, bored! He’d been trying to cut one of Ivy’s leaves (kindly donated) in half for the past two hours, but Jiji had suggested he approach it from a sort of meditative angle, and he wasn’t used to being this inactive for long periods of time. He’d ordered food a little bit ago, but it hadn’t arrived yet, and he was getting nowhere with this exercise. He just couldn’t seem to figure out how to make pure chakra cut things without molding it around something like his fingers for a chakra scalpel, and he’d never completely gotten the hang of that one, anyway. There had to be something he was missing.

He decided to take a break and went over to the window. There were way more people moving around down there than he was used to seeing active at night, but the desert environment was so hostile during the day that businesses stayed open later when the weather was cooler and much more inviting.

He started playing the “Who’s a Ninja” game where he tried to pick out which people passing below were civilians and which were shinobi without using his chakra senses. They wouldn’t have done him much good anyway since this was a Hidden Village full of people with active chakra. This was a game ‘Zune had come up with for him for endless boring stretches of road on their travels, or times when he had to sit quietly in a clinic with nothing to do but stare out the window while she and Kaa-san worked. It had variants like, ‘who’s a businessman?’ and ‘who’s a parent?’ but he liked this version best because there were rarely enough ninja around to use it and they were typically sneakier than a civilian. Well…in theory anyway…truthfully, ninja sometimes were way flashier than any “normal” people. Anyway, the game helped him be more perceptive and kept him busy instead of sneaking off to cause trouble, so it had always been highly encouraged in his youth.

It was also less destructive than “Kick the Log” and its variants.

Some ninja were harder to spot than others were. The pretty blonde girl on the corner was relatively inconspicuous, but the four ponytails in her hair were a little eccentric for a civilian, and she had a large metal thing with her that was probably a weapon of some sort and not a package from the nearby market. On the other hand, the boy on the other side of the street trying to blend in, was dong a horrible job of it. How could anyone not notice kabuki paint and a onesie with a cat hood? And that ‘don’t mind me, I’m just reading a newspaper!’ thing was so overdone…

Wait a minute…it almost looked like they were staking out this hotel.

The door exploded in a blast of sand.

“Have you found anything yet, Kabuto?” In a dark alley in a deserted part of town, a young man with silver hair and glasses knelt in front of a wavering, semi-transparent-red image. The only steady characteristics of the figure in front of him were the snake-like yellow eyes.

“Nothing concrete that we weren’t already aware of, Orochimaru-sama. The boy is the son of the Kazekage. Shukaku was placed in him during his birth, killing his mother, just as we had heard. I have not been able to confirm if he is insane, but it seems likely as that was the fate of the previous two human vessel attempts.” He paused to push his glasses up on his nose before continuing, “He has recently been named a genin and begun missions, but other than that, I am unsure. The people fear him to a great extent and are tentative to even speak his name. It’s as if they fear he will hear and kill them if they draw the slightest hints of his attention to themselves.”

“Worthless. We need to know his strengths, weaknesses, and what abilities he possesses. Sasori seemed very confident in your ability to infiltrate Suna and discover the Jinchuuriki’s vulnerabilities. Perhaps he overestimated your capabilities as a spy.”

“With all due respect, Orochimaru-sama, the Leaf has yet to discover my true loyalties, nor has my supposed master.”

“True.” The image flashed with colors and the man’s tone turned colder, “you have one more day, Kabuto. Do not fail me.”

“Of course not, Orochimaru-sama. You can depend on me.” Without further fanfare, he found himself completely alone once more, the apparition gone to wherever it had come from. “I will do all I can to help you achieve your goals.” He whispered to the night air.

“WHOA! What the HELL?” Naruto screeched. ‘Not cool, not cool!’ He gasped to himself, frozen at the killing intent radiating off of his visitor.

The boy standing in the wreckage of the doorway had red hair, dark rings around his eyes that Naruto would have recognized as marks of possession even if the newcomer’s chakra HADN’T raked across his nerves like nails on a chalkboard, and the kanji for ‘Love’ scarred into his forehead. In addition to that, his expression was as dead as he seemed to be trying to make the leaf genin.

Sand abruptly shot out of the gourd on his back, flying at the Konoha shinobi with incredible speed, forcing him to stagger back away from the deadly cloud. He instinctively knew it would be very bad if he let it grab him. It immediately lunged again, thick tendrils chasing Naruto around the room at the slightest gesture from the other boy, keeping him on his toes, destroying furniture, and damaging the walls and floors. “You are in Suna illegally.” The Suna-nin muttered, “I must feed your blood to Mother.”

‘What the hell? Was his mom some fucked up vampire? Naruto was aware he was being irrational, but he’d never been in a REAL life or death sort of fight before where he actually felt threatened, and he was a little panicked. He’d grown up his whole life knowing he had two of the most powerful shinobi in the world over-protectively watching his back, and as he was forced to scamper madly around the room, avoiding it’s other occupant and his threatening attacks, fear and adrenaline scrambled his mind too much to come up with a counter strategy.

He took a deep breath and jerked his mind into the game, pushing aside his fear and forcibly roping in his scattered thoughts before they got him killed. A flash of grit blew past his face, abrading his cheek before he could completely jerk out of its path. ‘You can do this. You are well trained, and he can’t touch you if you concentrate.’

Once he fought the panic down, it wasn’t too hard to keep ahead of the tendrils of sand; Naruto was fast and while the sand was too, he’d spent YEARS learning to avoid blows, it was completely reflexive or he’d no doubt have been dead in that first wave when he’d frozen up. Unfortunately, while it did seem to sputter oddly for some reason if it got near him and the Sand genin was starting to look a little frustrated at his prey’s constant escapes, the sand didn’t get tired and momentum was a powerful force. He did have more stamina than some small villages combined, but despite what his guardians liked to think when he was smaller, there was a limit to his energy levels. He wasn’t tired yet, but it was only a matter of time. He could see this “fight” playing out in his head, and he knew he’d have to try to go on the offensive soon if he couldn’t talk the other demon vessel down. He hoped Ero-jiji hadn’t been talking out of his ass about that 24-hour rule...

“I’m a Konoha shinobi!” he gasped, “We’re allies, and I’m here with a Sannin, there’s a 24 hour grace period!” ‘This is so not like training or beating up hired thugs! Damn it, his sand's so fast and he's hardly BLINKING – I-I could really die here!’ he thought, ducking under one long tendril of sand, and then back flipping to avoid another one. He landed hard in a low crouch and purposefully slid forward across the floor, covering his eyes from the spray of sand splashing against the wall above his head. He let himself fall flat on his back for the leverage he needed to kick his bed up on its side for some cover. This would be a lot easier in a more open space! “Aren’t you supposed to try and find out why we’re here and stuff before you start the killing?”

“…” the boy said, making it completely obvious he didn’t care.

Well, there was nothing for it; this was really dangerous, and if his calculations weren’t perfect, it would either be ineffective or the other boy would die, but he was having problems coming up with any other solutions in his current state of mind. ...He really didn’t want to hurt him. The other boy was a demon vessel just like him, but turned into this monster- so eager to kill, by the people in his own village!

He swallowed hard, and forced himself not to think about it too much because if he didn’t do something soon, the dead one here was probably going to be him. In that moment, his mind completely cleared and in one fluid motion he rolled away from his dubious cover and poised himself for a throw. A senbon slid out of one of his wrist sheaths hidden by his loose elbow length gloves - open at the knuckles for just this purpose - and was launched at the other sand genin faster than he could blink, even as the bottom half of his bed splintered into nothing at a particularly hard blast of sand, spraying the room in splinters, scraps of cloth, and grit.

The slim senbon flickered through the air faster than sight, either the touch of freakish strength behind the throw or the fact that his chakra just had that strange dampening effect on its power seemed to have made the redhead’s sand underestimate the force it would take to stop the weapon’s progress. It rose to block the needle but only managed to slow it down. The senbon continued through and pierced the boy in the neck, making his eyes roll back and the sand crash to the floor in a gentle hissing wave as his knees gave out.

Naruto fell ungracefully back on his ass, and sat panting on the floor for a moment, staring at his fallen opponent in disbelief. He could hardly believe that had worked…the amount of things that could have gone wrong if he’d missed the pressure point!...’Zune was getting a really big hug for the senbon training next time he saw her…

Oh, it suddenly hit him…Fuck, fuck, fuck! What if he’d killed him?! ‘Stop it, you’re a ninja. Calm down, and think rationally! It was him or you, and ninja kill people. Even if he’s dead, you were bound to kill someone sometime!’

Cautiously he approached the slumped figure and knelt down at his side to make sure he was okay. Fuck, if the shield had thrown off his aim…

If he’d hit true, the sand-nin should just be temporarily paralyzed until the needle was removed. He felt a sort of morbid gladness that he’d caught the kid off guard. There was no way that trick was going to work twice, and any ninja worth his headband should have been able to dodge that senbon after it had been slowed by the sand, but he’d seemed to put all his faith in that weird automatic defense technique, or he really HADN’T seen it coming. In the other Jinchuuriki’s defense, the sand wave would definitely have been hard enough to stop a normally thrown needle – Shit, it looked like it had sunk in much farther than he’d intended…

Sand flaked down from the wound in the boy’s neck and odd cracks spread out from around the puncture. Naruto’s frantically beating heart started to slow, and a rush of relief washed through him. His opponent was still alive. Holy fuck, he wasn’t ready to be a killer yet; he was only 11! His mother had said he was too young, she'd wanted him to be a mostly noncombatant medic-nin…His eyes closed briefly, maybe this whole ninja thing…NO, this was no time for doubts, there were still at least two more out there!

From his awkward position on the floor, the defeated kid’s eyes were wide and frightened, but he couldn’t move or speak. Naruto worried at his bottom lip. It was sad that he showed more emotion with his face paralyzed than during the entire rest of what to the blonde genin had been a terrifying and emotional ordeal. “Damn, you have no idea how lucky you are! It’s a good thing you’ve got this weird armor.” The Senju brushed at the sand around the wound, “I’m sorry, your sand block wasn’t fast or thick enough to stop that throw as much as I thought it would.” ‘-and if I hadn’t thought to correct the trajectory at the last minute to adjust for that--!’ He shuddered again. A little to the left, and the boy would have been paralyzed for life, not just until the needle was removed.

The adrenaline from the encounter started to go stale in his system. He forced himself to take calming breaths and not to shake. Ninja killed people, he reminded himself again…but if his first kill have been over a stupid misunderstanding? No use worrying about what hadn’t actually happened yet. He would have to get over this if he wanted to fulfill his dreams. Still, he wished his Kaa-san or ‘Zune were here to talk to about this…He just…hadn’t been prepared!... He’d wanted to be a ninja to save people and help them, not kill over stupid shit…

The redheaded shinobi apparently wasn’t dealing well with his near death encounter either, now that the action was over with. Naruto’s comforting words didn’t seem to reassure the other Jinchuuriki at all, but it was hard to tell since he couldn’t move to change his expression.

“Wh-What happened here? G-Gaara!”

Naruto spun to the window to see the black suited boy with the kabuki paint crouched on the ledge, he’d been too focused on his own inner turmoil and worrying over his opponent, that he hadn’t even noticed the other boy approach, ‘Stupid! Stupid!’ Don’t let your guard down in enemy territory!’ He was fucking this whole ‘first real ninja fight’ thing up in all directions. Wordlessly he prepared to defend himself again, promising mentally to be stronger and do better this time around.

“How-HOLY FUCK, you beat GAARA.” The strange new boy gasped.

“Er?” Naruto blinked, wasn’t he going to attack too? Tensed muscles began to relax again, as he rushed to explain. He knew he could take on another fight, physically at least he was almost completely unharmed, but he really wanted time to think all this stuff through before he was forced into another life or death situation – he was beginning to see why most shinobi were said to kill their emotions in battle, “He’s okay; I-I was really careful! He just won’t be able to move for a bit! It was all a huge misunderstanding; see Ero-jiji-er that’s Jiraiya, one of the Sannin-he wanted to wait a day to turn in our paperwork, and-“

“Gaara! H-How did you--?” The blonde girl he’d seen from the window appeared in the hallway and gasped at her first sight of the room. All three sand shinobi looked terrified now.

“He’s FINE!” Naruto reiterated, completely confused by their reactions and a bit annoyed at the repeated interruptions, but at least it was taking his mind off his almost first-kill. Both newcomers looked a weird mix between awed, relieved, and scared shitless. “Everyone calm down! I-I’ll let him go, see?”

He reached to remove the needle, only to be stopped by a shouted chorus of “NO!” from the sand shinobi.

“Okay, I’m confused.” He admitted, “Isn’t he your teammate, or something?”

“Um, well, yes – actually he’s our brother and our teammate, and we did have orders to capture you and the old guy you checked in with for illegal entry into the country but –“ The girl looked at Kabuki Boy who shakily pulled himself and a bandaged wrapped package the rest of the way inside the room.

“You beat Gaara…” was all the package bearing boy could contribute to the conversation. His mind seemed stuck on that one note. His expression had settled on ‘stunned’ and didn’t look like it was going to change anytime soon. “No one’s ever beat Gaara. No one’s ever even TOUCHED Gaara.”

The way he said ‘touched’ made it sound like he didn’t just mean he’d never been hurt in a fight. Naruto was relieved that it didn’t look like he’d have to fight again, but their attitude made him feel a little sick inside, well, sicker than he was already feeling, anyway. He…really didn’t like the picture this was adding up to. If people had known about the Kyuubi, that could have been him. This guy’s own siblings were treating him like he had some highly contagious and deadly form of the plague and trusting a suspicious foreign ninja over him. His village had turned him into a tool and a weapon and didn’t even have the fucking decency to treat him with basic human respect for it! ‘That could be me. If not for Kaa-san and ‘Zune and Ero-Jiji, that could be me…If MY own family treated me like that…’

He shook his head to clear his thoughts and forced his mind away from that for the moment and back to the issue at hand. “Umm, well, I’m sorry about the paperwork mix-up…if you’ll just wait here until my Sensei gets back…”

The other two looked at each other and tentatively shrugged, they had no idea what else to do in this situation, their minds almost unable to wrap around their brother’s seemingly simple defeat. Gaara actually LOSING, and to someone so young and relatively INNOCENT looking….well, that changed their entire WORLDVIEW. It was a complete paradigm shift. It was like hearing a fluffy bunny had kicked the ass of the boogieman under your bed that had terrorized you for years!

“Okay, now that that’s settled, do you think I can let him up?”

“NO!” They hurriedly chorused again.

“…I don’t like the way you treat him.” He frowned unable to reserve judgment anymore. He could understand their fear somewhat - Gaara did seem legitimately psychotic after all, but he was also FAMILY and it was no wonder he was murderous if this was the way he was treated! Nothing was more important than family, and leaving someone paralyzed like this for too long was really dangerous! He just couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that they seemed more scared of their brother than the "enemy" who had taken him down.

It was then Naruto noticed Kabuki Boy DID sort of look like he was going to wet himself after he'd criticized them, but that fear didn't make him feel any better, so he hurriedly continued, “-but I’m not going to hurt you over it! Jeeze! Take a breath! It was a lucky shot!”

“If his sand hadn’t seemed to lose a little of its power when it got really close to me, he probably would have won.” He mused more quietly, replaying the fight over in his head. Wow, that was kind of weird, come to think of it, and now that some of the adrenaline rush was gone, and he was starting to get a grip and regain control of his senses, he couldn’t help but notice his cheek and shoulder were tingling like when he had to deal with the Kyuubi’s power. But--his OWN seal was quiet…the back of his hand was kind of itchy too. He sighed, great – more girly leaf markings. Hadn’t this been a tough enough night for him already?

Chapter 14: Brotherhood by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 14: Brotherhood:

Naruto looked around at his current companions. The two mobile ones were sitting nervously on what was left of his bed, only glancing up occasionally as if afraid of what he might do. Gaara was just as he’d fallen except more sand had seemed to slough off of him since he didn’t have access to his chakra reserves anymore. The senbon in his neck prevented him from anything but the most automatic body functions, breathing and heartbeat mostly.

Random medical facts floated through the chaos that was Naruto’s current emotional state of mind - it wouldn’t be safe to leave the redhead like this for long or it could do some pretty bad damage to his internal organs. ‘Zune had grilled the dangers of this kind of thing into his head as soon as she’s given him his first set of needles.

He carefully scooped the other boy up and carried him over to Jiraiya’s bed. The two awake sand-nin watched him like he was handling explosives instead of their brother and the boy even sucked in a sharp breath of fear, but Naruto couldn’t bring himself to leave the other Jinchuuriki on the floor like that. Jiraiya’s bed was in a little better shape than his own was, since he hadn’t been sitting on it when he’d been attacked. Naruto was careful to set the boy down so his limbs wouldn’t be in painful or awkward positions. Impeding blood flow in this state was a good way to lose limbs if prolonged, and he wasn’t sure Fan-Girl and Kabuki-Boy would let him free the Jinchuuriki any time soon.

The awkward silence drug on for several more tense minutes before Naruto couldn’t take it anymore. “Okay, so you guys want to at least introduce yourselves before the hotel staff comes in, and I get hauled off to wherever it is you put people with stupid, lazy, irresponsible, sensei who don’t turn in their paperwork right away?” He offered, hoping to at least get the conversational ball rolling if they were going to hang around until Jiraiya got back.

“Um, you probably don’t have to worry about any of that – The lady at the desk didn’t say who you were in her report – at least not the one we saw.” Fan-Girl looked a bit suspicious for a moment before continuing, “You’d have just been put under surveillance until your time was up to turn in your credentials if she had, and no one is going to come see what happened here because of Gaara – they probably already assume you’re dead, and he’s bathing in your blood by now. They’ll be too scared. We’ll file a proper report stating the actual circumstances, and you shouldn’t have any repercussions as long as we can verify your papers.”

“Well, that’s really strange, but I’ll buy it since they really should have been here by now…but that still doesn’t tell me who YOU are.” Naruto replied. “I’ll go first. I’m Senju Naruto – new genin of Konoha.”

“You-You’re just a rookie genin?” Kabuki Boy seemed stunned.

“Of course! I’m only 11, and non-wartime graduating age is usually 12!” Naruto frowned, though it was kind of nice to be taken for older instead of younger for once – he really wasn’t THAT short for his age!

“Um, he didn’t mean any disrespect, Naruto-sama!” Fan-Girl slapped her hand over her teammate’s, brother’s? - Whatever - Kabuki-Boy’s mouth.

“N-Naruto-sama?! What the hell? It’s just Naruto!” These were two of the most confusing people he’d even encountered.

“Er, yes – Naruto-um-san. I’m Sabaku no Temari, and this is my younger brother, Kankuro….I guess you already ‘met’ our other sibling…”

“Yeah, well, look, it’s nice to meet you guys and everything,” Naruto replied, distracted by checking Gaara’s pulse, “but I’ve really got to let him up now, or he’ll be really hurt. You can leave if you’re scared.” Naruto wasn’t going to let their issues make him cause this guy irreparable harm when he had been lucky enough not to kill him in the first place…actually, now that he was calming down and standing back a little from the fight, he was starting to put it into perspective and feel a little better about it.

He knew he kicked ass with senbon, and the fact was, Gaara HADN’T died, and neither had he.

Kankuro blinked. Who the hell WAS this guy to say, ‘you can leave if you’re scared’? He takes down Gaara with a fricken tiny sliver of metal, and then he acts like it was NOTHING and talks down to them about being frightened? The puppet user wondered if he’d fallen into some strange alternate universe where up was down and plaid was fashionable. Was he being pranked? Surely, Gaara wouldn’t participate in some weird sort of practical joke? Gaara wasn’t exactly the ‘playful younger brother’ type.

“Er…yeah. We’ll just go then.” Temari knew that look; she figured they’d better make their retreat before Kankuro dug them into a hole with his bulldozer sized-mouth. She grabbed the back of his collar before he could say anything to piss the guy off and drug him towards the window. “We’ll just…umm, not say anything about this. Right, Kankuro? No one will question Gaara about it…just…er, show him your passport before you send him off, and we’ll put that in the mission report.” With that, they were gone.

Naruto blinked. He hadn’t known they could move that fast. He turned back to the prone guy beside him and gently placed his fingers on the senbon in his neck, “I’m going to take this out, and you’ll be able to move again. Don’t panic or anything, okay? And, er…please don’t attack me again or whatever.” He had a feeling another attack wouldn’t be very successful anyway, because Ivy was dead weight around his waist, but SOMETHING was sure using up the ambient excess chakra produced by his bloodlimit around Kyuubi’s seal – it only made sense that it was Shukaku.

He carefully slid the needle out the way it went in, and the sand around the room immediately flew back onto the kid, reforming his armor like it had been magnetized. Gaara scrambled frantically away, until his back hit the wall, and he could go no further, his previously blank face and body projecting nothing but panic. Odd little whimpering noises came out of his mouth and his hand kept convulsively clutching at the blood trickling from his neck. “You hurt me!” He gasped, “I’m BLEEDING, – this is MY blood!”

“Whoa, whoa! You’re hyperventilating! Take a deep breath! I’m not going to hurt you; I’ll even heal your neck if you let me.” Naruto started to edge forward, but had to throw his arms up in front of him to protect his face from flying sand, “GAARA, STOP IT!” A huge rush of power seemed to leave him from the hand he’d noticed itching earlier and the grit suddenly just dropped, covering the ruins of the room in a light blanket of sand.

Gaara sat in a pile of what had been his ultimate defense, his armor once more sliding off of him. His eyes grew large and round and he immediately began producing a high-pitched, panicked whine, his face set in absolute horror at his total lack of power. He was obviously trying to make the sand move as it had before, but it refused to attack the blond boy in front of him; it almost felt like it didn’t WANT to – which was just ridiculous! It wanted to attack EVERYONE.

Naruto could tell every time he tried to draw on the power because it physically HURT, as if it was pulling something out of him instead. It was like when Ivy demanded more power for something stupid she wanted, but about three millions times worse. A familiar stirring under his seal told him Kyuubi was taking an interest in whatever was happening, and the blood seemed to be the main issue preventing the other boy from calming down. He needed to stop him from trying to draw on his Bijuu’s power as soon as possible, because the sensation was like thousands of bees flying through his veins and there was nothing he hated worse than bees.

Impulsively Naruto flew through the hand seals for a basic medical jutsu and lunged, catching Gaara’s wrists in one hand – Shukaku’s jailer was surprisingly physically weak for a shinobi with that kind of power, the leaf genin noted - he obviously depended too heavily on his sand attacks. Before he could try yet again to attack with the sand or wiggle his wrists free, Naruto quickly touched the minor injury with the healing jutsu on his free hand. The green glow of the technique cast the frightened boy’s face in eerie relief, but the wound was a tiny, insignificant thing now that the needle was gone, and it was quickly closed. “Look, look, no more wound! I healed it, you’re not bleeding anymore!”

As soon as the pain stopped and the warm glow of Naruto’s chakra seeped into his neck, Gaara completely froze, his eyes staring unblinkingly at the kneeling ninja’s face.

Gaara couldn’t process this situation. He’d experienced very little in the way of feelings aside from emotional pain to this point in his life, but he’d never experienced the cessation of any kind of pain, either. He had no frame of reference for how to react to something like this, especially since his fall back reaction for unknown situations – use extreme violence – seemed to be right out, and Mother wasn’t pushing for the kill. He couldn’t even be 100 percent sure he was correctly labeling the sensation; it had been so long since he’d let himself feel anything but hate and anger.

“You-you made the pain stop.” He gasped, giving in to the weird feeling of comfort and drawn to trust the other ninja . He was too emotionally exhausted to fight that instinct – even the being inside of him seemed to be soothed at the sensation of the blond boy’s power.

“Well, yeah! I never wanted to hurt you in the first place.” Naruto said.

Not…wanted to hurt him?...“M-My sand—“ This was unreal – like one of Mother’s visions, only without the horrors, but he was so VULNERABLE. He’d NEVER been vulnerable before! Even before he’d been betrayed by that first assassination attack--

“Um, sorry about that – I think it’s my kekkei genkai. It keeps back and sometimes calms the Kyu-er, other Bijuu, too, as well as neutralizes their power.” He knew he shouldn’t say anything; he knew where Jiji was coming from with that bit of advice, and he’d certainly never even CONSIDERED doing something like this before, but sometimes Naruto just got feelings about people and situations – sometimes he just knew what he had to say. Fuck it, if this guy’s siblings were any indication of how people normally reacted to Shukaku’s vessel, what harm could telling him do? They all thought Gaara was a crazy psycho, so they probably won’t believe him, Naruto reasoned, besides, they’d have to stay around him for more than three seconds to listen to what he had to say. The sand Jinchuuriki obviously needed to be able to connect with another human being, and this was the only thing he could think of to build that rapport, “I’m a Jinchuuriki too.”

If possible, Gaara’s unblinking eyes got even bigger. “You—“

“Yup – me too.” He pulled up his shirt revealing the completely quiet Ivy curled around his waist and his always-visible seal.

Gaara’s hand rose, as if it had a mind of its own, to touch the black markings. “Mother…” he gasped, “I can’t hear Mother.” She wasn’t just soothed, she was almost GONE, like that ‘sleeping’ other creatures did. ‘—wait, no…maybe, was that, purring?’ This was just too much – first the new sensation of physical pain, then the pain LEFT, and now the constant whispers in his mind were stopped on top of his sand failing him?! His thoughts were spinning so fast he couldn’t keep up with them.

Naruto caught the hand and stared hard into the face of the boy in front of him. “The demon’s not your kaa-san, Gaara. It’s Shukaku. It’s just something that’s controlling you by making you think that. Gaara is Gaara, and I’m me. We’re not them.”

Gaara flinched back violently, huddling in the corner again and cradling the hand Naruto had touched like it had been burned, “NO! My existence, Killing! I have to prove—“ His hands rose to clutch at his hair, and he whimpered, his nails digging into his scalp and raking down over the mark on his forehead, unprotected by its usual sand armor, which began to bleed. “NO!!” He couldn’t process all of this! It was just too much!

Naruto yanked his hands away to prevent him from causing himself anymore harm. It figured Ivy would finally be quiet when he really needed her. The extra set of “hands” would have helped out a lot here. “Stop it! You feel that, don’t you? You feel pain, don’t you? That shows you exist!” He once more applied the healing jutsu to the new wounds, causing them to close and scar over slightly, marring the kanji a little, “-and now I’ve stopped the pain and that proves you exist too, right?”

“You—you stopped it.” He gasped. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.” His mind desperately clutched at the words, desperately trying to make things make sense again.

“Right! Now you get it!” He grinned, though all he could think about was how but for his kaa-san, this could be him.

“How? How does it work?” Gaara begged, his voice a pleading and raspy whisper. He didn’t get it at all. Pain didn’t stop – Yashamaru had said his pain couldn’t stop! Heart pain didn’t heal except with love, and he wasn’t capable of receiving that from others! Mother told him so…but his uncle had lied about things…lots of things…

Naruto wouldn’t have claimed to know exactly what was going on, or exactly how his words were affecting the other boy, but he knew they were. “Humanity, Gaara. Feeling pain, and stopping pain. No pain is better, right? You said you killed and caused pain to prove your existence right? I guess to put it in a way you might understand, I’m kind of proving my existence by making yours better.”

He nodded like he’d been given the greatest treasure in the world or just been told the secret of the universe. He was willing to accept any sort of explanation that might give his thoughts another foundation to build on.

“Do…do you think they killed each other?” Kankuro whispered to his sister from their spot on the roof of the building across from Naruto’s hotel, which had pretty much emptied as soon as the Gaara related commotion had started. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that odd for something like this to happen with the youngest son of the Kage.

Temari smacked Kankuro upside the head.

“Ow, what was that for?!”

“If they’d started fighting again, we’d have been able to see it! Gaara’s not exactly SUBTLE.” She reminded him. Down below people were beginning to move on the streets again, having taken refuge for the duration of the ruckus – no one wanted to be collateral damage in what, for all they knew, was another assassination attempt on their Jinchuuriki. Temari didn’t know for sure that they were entirely wrong. What were the odds of their team picking up this mission when one of the ninja who were supposedly here illegally just happened to be one of the Legendary Sannin?... and that other boy – he was amazing! Gaara hadn’t even met the Toad Sage - he’d been defeated by the guy’s genin apprentice!

“…so you want to go see what’s happening?” Kankuro asked. The curiosity was killing him. It had begun to overrule the fear he’d lived with since he’d first been told about his little brother and that his mother was dead. He’d always known his father was a cold and cruel man, but the kinds of choices he was making lately weren’t making his oldest son feel very sure of his sanity. It didn’t help that he was always with that strange woman... If he didn’t know better, he’d think the Kazekage wanted all his children dead, not just his failed experimental weapon. Why else send them out with GAARA and conveniently reassign their Jounin sensei to border duty on a night they just so happen to get sent up against some super-chibi-freak. No way was that a coincidence.

“Yeah.” Temari nodded decisively – the two boys had been in there a long time after all. She started to stand up, but Kankuro caught her arm before she could start jumping down.

“What if it IS bad? What if Senju killed him instead?”

“Well…Gaara’s our little brother, isn’t he? We shouldn’t have left him in the first place…and if this mission and the last couple we’ve been “specially assigned” are any indication, we can’t afford to let a chance like this pass us by. It could get us ALL killed.”

“But—“

“No buts! Sure, he’s a scary psychopath, but he’s OUR scary psychopath! He’s still our otouto, and Otou-san’s getting worse!”

“Otouto?”

They spun around to the voice that had spoken from behind them. Gaara stood there with Senju Naruto, and he actually looked…really young, and vulnerable even though there was still no expression on his face. There wasn’t even a single glint of murderous intent in his eyes! His arms were wrapped around himself, and he looked like he’d been through the wringer.

Temari couldn’t believe the difference. Her own fear warred with her sisterly instincts for several moments before she decided it was worth the risk. She tentatively took a couple of steps forward and reached out a hand to place it on Gaara’s shoulder. “Yeah, ‘otouto’. You’re my little brother, right?”

He flinched away from the contact at first, but a nudge from Naruto stopped him, and his mouth fell open in shock at her words. His head seemed to nod on its own. “Yes.” He rasped.

Naruto grinned foxily and gave him a nudge towards his siblings – he thought he could really get to like the kunoichi. “Don’t tell anyone what we talked about, okay?” He put a hand on his own stomach to remind the other boy of what he meant. “Come talk to me some more tomorrow.”

“Hn.” The redhead seemed to be regaining his calm and equilibrium. The talk they’d had about being Jinchuuriki and human had definitely helped and now Temari—‘My sister’ he reminded himself... “You have my word, Senju Naruto.” He took several steps away and suddenly paused, his eyes going wide as Shukaku rushed up into his consciousness again becoming agitated and active once more.

Naruto noticed and figured out the issue when his own chakra stopped pulling harshly toward the other boy, and Ivy twitched a little like she was just waking up – it was evidentially a proximity thing. “Hey, you can handle it, can’t you? Don’t let it push you around.” He frowned. It would suck if Gaara could only be himself when he was within a few feet of the Mokuton user.

“I can…” Gaara murmured, his eyes rising to lock in turn with each of his sibling’s, “my will is my own, and honestly…the purring was very creepy.” His sand hissed in the gourd on his back, but quickly settled down. He set to ignoring the whispering madness in his head as he’d once tried to ignore the rest of humanity. It was surprisingly effective, but then, he’d had a lot of practice.

Chapter 15: The Two Sides to Every Coin by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 15 - The Two Sides to Every Coin:

Jiraiya made it back to the hotel just in time to see Naruto climb back in through the ruined window. He hadn’t found Orochimaru’s spy, but he HAD learned that the hotel clerk had turned them in. He thought he’d done a pretty good job of distracting her from noticing the lack of a stamp on their passports and most of these inn-running types were more of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell variety, but evidentially he’d misjudged that one. He’d returned as soon as he heard, beside himself with worry, but judging by the look of the room, he hadn’t been fast enough. Anxiety curled in a hard knot in his belly.

Before he could say anything or start frantically looking him over for wounds, Naruto noticed him in the doorway and started to babble, “It wasn’t my fault! I know, I know, and I really TRIED to stay out of trouble! I PROMISE! This guy just busted down the door! It’s actually YOUR fault! I told you about the paperwork!—It was absolutely HORRIBLE, I almost KILLED him, and--“

“Whoa, Chibi!” Well, Naruto certainly SEEMED fine, a little shaken up, and dealing with the aftermath of his first real ninja battle, but relatively fine-ish. He nearly grinned a bit at the flood of relief in his system and the scowl that nickname could still produce, even in a situation like this, on his student, “I know, I heard about it, and got back here as soon as I could. Are you okay?”

Naruto sighed in relief that he wasn’t going to get blamed for this and nodded. “I’m fine – a few sand burns, but I already healed them. Eh, heh…I kind of met Gaara on accident though. I know you told me not to, but he’s the one that showed up!”

“Gaara?” Jiraiya blinked. He couldn’t immediately place the name, but it sounded familiar.

“Yeah! He’s the Jinchuuriki you warned me about! It was his team that was sent to get us….I - er, kind of had to take him down for a while, but he’s actually really cool once you get past the whole ‘insanity’ thing, which was ENTIRELY Shukaku’s fault! I was right about that, and you wouldn’t BELIEVE what Mokuton does to outside Bijuu, and Ivy acted really strange too…”

Jiraiya smacked his palm to his face and shook his head. How did this stuff always happen around the brat? “Well, stop babbling. it’s too late to change anything now. Let’s go get a different room – there’s no point in changing hotels;, we’d just look suspicious and like we had something to hide, and then you’re going to tell me everything so I know what kind of damage control we need to run.” There was no way the mission office and/or the Kazekage didn’t know from a description who had checked into this inn. Jiraiya knew he was pretty distinctive looking. They had to have sent the Jinchuuriki here on purpose; the only question now was, why? Assassination attempt, maybe? But if so, who had they been trying to kill?

Naruto told his godfather everything he could remember, including the conversation he’d had with Gaara. Jiraiya didn’t look pleased.

“Damn it Naruto! This is EXACTLY what I told you NOT to do! I hope to hell he’s as trustworthy as you seem to think he is, because if he’s not, there’s no telling what this could do! Forget Akatsuki and Orochimaru, if he tells even his father, you’re screwed! There’s even a small chance that the alliance with KONOHA could be screwed since they might think we were hiding a weapon from them! The Kazekage is NOT a nice man, and there are rumors lately that he’s not playing with a full deck--“

“They’d never believe him anyway, and it’s not like they sent a memo to our Kage when they put the demon in him, so what could they do?! Besides, the Kazekage is a bastard that’s running this country into the ground! Do you think Gaara’s going to go running to him after what that asshole did to him and his mother?! I can trust Gaara, I can tell! He’s had it worse than me, no question about that, but we’re still the same. You didn’t see him, Sensei. No one had ever even touched his real actual skin before I healed him – at least not that he could remember, and when the Mokuton stopped the sand and pushed his demon back he looked like I’d just yanked his whole world out from under him, only to put it back right side up when he’d never even noticed it was wonky before!”

“I’m not doubting your ability to change people here, Brat! I’ve seen it first hand, but you can’t always put your faith in that! You are too trusting, and as a shinobi, that can get you killed! Your Gaara is a cold-blooded killer. Naruto, you’re a ninja now, so you have to think of Konoha first, and what you’ve told him has the remote possibility of endangering the village as well as seriously risking your own life! What if this had been a mission; would you give privileged information to a ninja you just met just because he ‘felt’ trustworthy to you? People won’t always live up to your expectations of them; sometimes even your best friend can betray you – do unspeakably horrible things, and you’ve GOT to be prepared for that or it will KILL you inside, even if you manage to physically survive!”

He swallowed hard and shook thoughts of his own past out of his head. He had promised the brat’s mother he’d try to get over that. “Besides, the rumors I heard about Gaara would chill your blood, and you’re basically asking him to put loyalty to you before Suna when he’s the damn village leader’s SON.”

“Of course I wouldn’t give away Konoha secrets! This is MY secret, one I SHARE with him; it’s not the same thing at all, and that man has NEVER been a father to him! I TOLD you what he told me about it after our fight! His father kept trying to have Gaara killed for YEARS! I’m the first friend he’s ever had. After the way they’ve treated him, he doesn’t owe this stupid village ANYTHING. He’s not going to betray me, and Konoha won’t be affected! Besides, I can TELL he’s okay Jiji, I can’t explain to you--”

“Don’t play the bloodline card with me, Brat! You were expressly told that giving away that information would be dangerous and you did it anyway. If this were a mission, you’d lose your headband for that! I KNOW about betrayal, and you’ve got no clue! Besides, you aren’t a seer so you can’t know what kind of impact this will have, and you didn’t grow up in a shinobi village, you don’t know what it’s like to—“

“I know more about loyalty to a village than he does! I LOVE Konoha, and Gaara doesn’t even know what love IS. And you DON’T know what my bloodline tells me about someone with a Bijuu in them!”

Jiraiya took a few steps back and forced himself to calm down before they turned this into a full-blown fight. He was willing to concede that Naruto had a connection to Bijuu, and through that to their vessels that he, as someone without that, couldn’t understand. It didn’t excuse his actions, but it did explain them, and if he was right, then probably the sand kid could be trusted…only time would tell.

“Okay, I can see we’re not going to get anywhere arguing about this tonight, and what’s done is done. From what I’ve heard about him, you may be right, but I’m still going to have to tell Sensei about it so he can prepare for the worst. Don’t think you’re off the hook though, because you can’t just go around doing whatever the hell you want Naruto. Someday there are going to be lives on the line here that aren’t yours and sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice one person’s happiness for the sake of your village. That’s ninja life. You got a taste for that in your fight, I know that, but now you should realize that being a shinobi DOESN’T mean being a hero all the time. You’re considered an adult now, and men have to do some horrible things sometimes. There’s a much darker and dirtier side to ninja life than the stories of your old man I used to tell you at night, and your mom and I probably haven’t done you any favors by protecting you from that. We’re essentially tools, and right now, you’re a really lousy one for all you won that fight. You’re not Hokage yet, brat – you’re a genin, the lowest of the low, and you can’t make those kinds of decisions on your own.”

Naruto winced. His godfather sounded really disappointed with him, and he supposed he had a right to be. He hated more than anything to disappoint his precious people, but ninja as just tools? What kind of world could those kind of people build? He’d read it, of course, but what about underneath the underneath, and should he totally disregard what his Mokuton senses told him about people? Those instincts had never led him astray before…his godfather didn’t know what those felt like to him, and he didn’t know how to explain them. He just…sort of connected to people and things sometimes. He couldn’t believe it was the right thing to do to just let Gaara keep suffering, to let him keep going around making OTHERS suffer, because he didn’t know any better and no one could tell him differently. He just couldn’t see how the greater good was served by that.

Jiraiya could see Naruto was thinking hard about the issues; that would have to do for now. “Get some sleep; you’ll need it if your friends are coming back tomorrow. You’ve GOT to stay out of trouble from now on kid, and I MEAN it this time! You’re drawing all kinds of attention to yourself and with secrets like yours, that’s NOT a good thing.”

“Fine – I’d never put Konoha in danger though, Ero-jiji! You know that. You’ll see what I mean when you meet Gaara. It’s sickening how these people treat him. Can’t you look at his seal if nothing else? Shukaku constantly torments him. I had to get through to him somehow, and his main problem is that he thinks he’s alone! I had to prove to him that he wasn’t. That’s why he killed all those people, and now he’s not going to do that anymore. Doesn’t that count for something?” Naruto stated, not willing to back down on this. If he couldn’t help one Jinchuuriki though, what was he going to do when people found out about HIS prisoner?

“It doesn’t matter, Naruto! Gaara is a tool for his village, just like I am, just like YOU are, now! He HAS killed before, and he’ll do it again if he’s ordered too. The sooner you wake up to that reality, the better off you’ll be. Your mother’s lack of a sense of loyalty aside, YOU’RE not her, and you DO owe Konoha first! He owes Suna first!”

“Don’t bring Kaa-san into this! She’s plenty loyal even if she hates the village! They aren’t mutually exclusive! Besides…I don’t like that Sensei.” he murmured uncertainly, “I don’t want to live that way.”

Jiraiya sighed, he had to give it to him, and at least he was sticking to his guns. The kid still wanted to BELIVE in people, and he had this rose-colored view of the world that somehow made people want to conform to it to make him happy, but he didn’t know yet that it couldn’t last. It almost physically hurt to know he’d have to be the one to disillusion the boy and ruin that innocence. But, his job now wasn’t as a godfather anymore, it was as a sensei and idealistic ninja didn’t live very long.

Still, if he could survive this life with some of that heart intact, and someday harness that charisma of his and ability to make people believe in an ideal, he’d make a leader to put to shame to all his famous ancestors.

Unfortunately, that didn’t make it any less frustrating to deal with from the point of view of someone who had to teach him to be a killer and harden his heart to harsh reality until he grew out of this stage and learned to stand on his own despite the shit the world could throw at him. Someone was going to have to beat that idealism out of him someday, and though he’d mourn for it as his godfather, he couldn’t argue for its lack of necessity because he DID love the damn brat more than anything in the world. The sooner he learned you couldn’t put your faith in most people and got burned by that particular fire – the longer he’d live, if a little less happily, then that’s how it had to be… He sighed. We all have to grow up sometime.

“Whatever, Chibi. We’ll talk more about this in the morning.” Jiraiya finally growled, giving up for now. If this came back to bite the kid later, well, maybe he’d learn a lesson from it, but it was too late to really stop it at this point. He’d just have to do all in his power to keep him safe for a little while longer. Minato’s son didn’t do anything by halves and with Tsunade’s stubborn streak, well sometimes you just had to hold on, endure the ride, and hope everyone survived. He had a forbidding feeling he’d have to get used to this sort of thing now that the kid was unleashed on the world and able to change it.

“Are you going back out?” Naruto frowned from his bed in their new room, he’d kind of hoped he could talk to his godfather about how he’d felt during the fight…he wasn’t used to doubts like that, but it had all been totally railroaded by the Jinchuuriki discussion...

“Yeah, I haven’t found any of the information I was looking for, yet – and now I have a few other errands to run.”

“Okay, but can we talk when you get back? I—er, I almost killed him, Jiji…I KNOW ninja do that, but—I’m not feeling good about it…” he inadvertently glanced up through his lashes.

Jiraiya immediately felt like a total heel – damn The Look™ - there was plenty of time for the kid to grow up, he was only 11 and hadn’t even been a fully-fledged shinobi for more than a month, and of course, he’d still be idealistic and make stupid mistakes! That was part of being a genin, after all. That was why they were given stupid D-ranks and forced to work together most of the time. Naruto didn’t have that advantage. The old sennin had forgotten how hard it was, breaking in a new student. Minato had been just the same – bright smile and no sense of how the world really worked… He suddenly felt far too old and jaded for this.

“Of course, kid. Take a while to yourself to think about things and get your own thoughts in order. You might find that helps. Everyone has doubts and a hard time with these things at first. It’s perfectly normal, and no, it doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out to be a ninja. It just means you’ve got to learn how to deal with those feelings and learn to trust your training and battle skills – which are far better than mine or your dad’s when we were your age, by the way – we were just more battle tested by then, and most importantly, we could FOLLOW ORDERS. You’ve got nothing to worry about on that end, Chibi – except the ‘doing what you’re told’ part. You really will be one of the greatest shinobi ever someday, if you can keep from letting that big heart of yours get you killed before then. No matter how much I have to scold you sometimes about things like this, I want you to know that I’m really proud of you.”

Naruto felt the knot in his chest loosen a little bit, “Thanks, Jiji.”

Jiraiya found one of the men he was looking for on the roof of one of the many sandstone buildings near the Kazekage’s tower. He’d tried to get general information of all known Bijuu vessels over the years in case Naruto ever had problems, and he’d heard this Jinchuuriki didn’t sleep. He guessed it was probably true because the boy was sitting with his knees hugged to his chest, staring up at the moonlight even after the emotionally wrought night he’d just had. A huge gourd was strapped to his back, and his red hair shown like blood in the weak light from the city below.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even seem to notice the older ninja approaching until the Sannin sat down beside him. The fact that no sand rushed out to engulf him when he finally was noticed, eased a doubt or two in Jiraiya’s mind, but he was far from satisfied.

Gaara noticed and processed the other man’s presence. With that clothing and demeanor, he perfectly matched the description of Naruto’s sensei from their mission report. “Why didn’t he kill me?”

The Toad Hermit was kind of surprised by the rasping quality of the kid’s voice, but with all the sand he dealt with constantly, he supposed he shouldn’t have been.

“You’re his sensei, aren’t you? Why didn’t Naruto kill me?” Gaara repeated when it became apparent that the old man would rather stare at him than answer his questions.

“Naruto’s not like that. Ninja life hasn’t hardened him yet. He wants to protect people and be remembered, and dead people’s memories aren’t worth much.” Jiraiya replied after another silent moment of contemplation. He had to admit, he wasn’t getting the vibe he expected to from this kid, and he was a pretty decent judge of character. A spymaster had to be good at that or he might get had by double or triple agents.

“How-how can he want to help people, when they instinctively fear and hate people like us? I don’t understand… Nothing is the same anymore.” The kid blinked blankly and buried his face in his knees, but his words were clear enough.

Wow, Naruto HAD really done a number on the boy… Jiraiya almost felt bad about berating him for it. The last vestiges of his doubt in Tsunade’s theory about Mokuton’s effects on naturally occurring things were quickly slipping away. The boy looked so lost and alone like that, made somehow worse by the fact that he hadn’t lost his stoic expression, and with the moonlight playing tricks on the Sannin’s eyes, he could easily imagine that hair blond and whisker and leaf marks on those cheeks…

‘Well, in for a penny, in for a pound….’ Jiraiya thought. How could he forget that Naruto was always a smart bet? The kid couldn’t lose, so what would it hurt to throw in the rest of the kitty? “Where his family’s from, Konoha – it’s not like here. If you ever go there, you’ll understand it, maybe. He didn’t grow up there, but everyone who’s ever meant anything to the kid did. Naruto’s father sealed the Bijuu in him, himself. He even did it for the village, just like your old man probably claims he did, but the difference is that Naruto’s father was willing to die to protect everything he cared about. His sealing, as terrible as it is to have a demon locked away inside, was an act of love and about protection, not status or power. He honors his dad’s memory by continuing along in that vein – doing his best to make people’s lives a little better, a little safer. He wasn’t created to be a frightening weapon and no one expects that of him. Hatred doesn’t get you anywhere, kid, except deeper and deeper into your own hell. All those lives you took, all that pain, and the respect you might have gotten through fear – what did it get you?”

“Nothing.” Gaara replied after a moment, “Mothe--Shukaku always claimed the blood would prove my existence – my right to live just like they had, but I was still empty…then Naruto calmed her—it, and I could think for the first time. I felt human again…and Temari called me her little brother.” He swallowed heavily, not sure how to go on. He blinked again out at the night sky. He hadn’t spoken so much in years, maybe ever.

Jiraiya placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and for a moment, the sand in the gourd rattled, but it settled almost immediately. “Keep thinking about it. It’s something you’ll have to come to on your own or it’s meaningless.”

Gaara nodded. He’d expected nothing else. Very little in his life had been easily handed to him.

“Look kid, I’ll take a look at your seal tomorrow, and do everything in my power to help you for Naruto’s sake, but don’t get your hopes up. I doubt there’s anything I can do. Demon seals are tricky and messing with them when you don’t know what you’re doing can make it worse. You’d be best off trying to get the original sealer to look at it.”

When the boy nodded again, he continued, “There’s an organization after people like you – a really dangerous group of S-ranked missing-nin. They wear black cloaks with red clouds. I have a feeling at least a few of their members are messing around with your village pretty heavily right now. Keep your eyes open and don’t mess with them. You may be pretty badass with your sand, but they’re on a whole different level. You’ve got to keep Naruto’s guest a secret too, okay? If you appreciate anything he’s done for you at all, you won’t tell anyone. Not even your family. Konoha doesn’t even know about him, but if your dad did, it would only be a matter of time before other people did and there’s a chance it might start a war.”

“Hn.” He agreed, “I don’t owe this village anything – certainly not Naruto’s secrets.”

“You might not always feel that way. Hell, maybe you SHOULDN’T feel that way. They’ve treated you badly, but it’s not exactly their fault they were prejudiced against you, and you’ve never given them any reason to think they were wrong.”

The kid’s head finally rose out of the circle of his knees and his eyes narrowed on the Sannin, “Do you wish me to betray Naruto after all? I will not.” His sand rose and began to hiss inside his gourd, but the cork stayed firmly in place. Jiraiya’s respect for the brat grew a little bit to note that he was capable of having faith in ANYONE after the childhood he’d had, though if anyone could garner that kind of loyalty in just one night, it would be his godson.

“NO! Hell no. That kid is the most loyal friend anyone could ever have. You stay true to him, and he’ll be there for you, even if it kills him. You betray him, and it’s not him you have to worry about – I’m not his only powerful relative or friend, and from what I hear, you’re a one-trick pony. Naruto stopped you. If you had run up against his mother or I, you wouldn’t have survived.” Jiraiya’s expression matched the boy’s for seriousness, “I’m just saying that you might give the people around here another chance. That’s not mutually exclusive. Keeping the kid’s secret won’t hurt Suna at all. I’m just saying it’s not like you’ve got anything to lose, but you’ve got a whole village’s respect to gain by giving them a chance and proving them wrong about you. You might be surprised how that would feel.”

It was said ninja needed to kill their hearts, but there was such a thing as balance. Still – it was kind of surreal to be arguing on the opposite side of the debate he’d just had an hour earlier with Naruto. These two would be good for each other. Gaara needed a little of Naruto’s light in his world, and Naruto needed some of that pessimism.

Gaara had been so hurt though – it would take a lot to rebuild his humanity. Learning to believe in something and setting a positive goal would be a good start. Jiraiya’s gaze roamed across the sky and settled on the point of the horizon beyond which he knew Konoha lay, “Shinobi are connected to our homelands in ways most of us never even understand, but it’s stronger than you think, and we need it. That’s why it’s considered such a horrible thing to become a missing-nin. We cut out a part of our souls when we completely desert our comrades and homelands. Don’t sacrifice Naruto or any of your precious people to do it – nothing is worth that – but take it from a wandering hermit who knows what it’s like to have to cut some of those ties for the village’s own good - you’ll be surprised what you find if you try to explore your bonds to this place. I guarantee it, and the best revenge you could have against all those idiots who made you into a monster, is to prove to everyone that you’re a better human being than they’ll ever be and do something constructive with your life.”

“I found the Jinchuuriki, Orochimaru-sama.” Kabuto murmured, his master’s image once again in the empty air in front of him.

“Well? Don’t make we wait all night. Planning a village’s downfall while trying to keep your partner’s interest away from your secret outside doings is time consuming, you know.” The image’s eyes narrowed into slits.

“Forgive me, Orochimaru-sama. Sabaku no Gaara was meeting with Jiraiya of the Sannin. The insane fool of a Kazekage learned of his presence here and that woman evidently convinced him to send his children after him in some sort of trial by fire exercise without so much as a jounin-sensei. She has her own ambitions, and her jealousy may prove detrimental to your plans. I do not trust her, but the Kage is progressing just as you hoped he would in all other respects.”

He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, and then continued, “I could not make out what the vessel and Jiraiya-sama were saying, but it appears that Akatsuki might not be the only ones interested in the containers. Also, the boy doesn’t appear nearly as blood-thirsty as the villagers rumor him to be. He might not be as perfect a fit for his part as you had hoped. I have been tailing him since he and his siblings returned to their building, and he’s done nothing but sit on a roof and stare into the sky, ignoring everyone but your old teammate who came anywhere near him in that time. Even then, he made no threatening gestures”

“Jiraiya – that pathetic fool. What could he want with the Bijuu?”

“I don’t know, sir. I couldn’t hear them from where I hid, and with a Sannin there, I didn’t dare to get closer.”

“Hmm. That was wise. He may be a bumbling idiot, but he’s still better than you. I don’t like this news about the agent, but we’ll get to that in a moment.” The figure sneered. “Kabuto, what have you learned about the vessel’s abilities? We are convening in an hour, and I should probably have something to tell the rest of this pathetic bunch.” It was very trying to run all of his side projects as well as thwart Konoha at every possible turn while keeping up the pretense that he was a loyal member of Akatsuki. In reality, he was just using them for the resources they could provide. They didn’t usually require much of his time since their progress was a bit stalled by the uncertainty of the Kyuubi’s fate, but they were finally in the process of creating the vessel that would hold the demonic presences once extracted from their hosts, so they were taking up more of his attention than usual.

Sometimes he thought he should have left ages ago and started his own Hidden Village or something. Surely running a country couldn’t be as difficult as splitting his attention in so many directions. At least then he wouldn’t have to keep most of his bases and minions off the books. He probably would have done so, if Akatsuki had kept him this busy for the earlier portion of his membership. Getting close to Itachi in hopes of stealing his Sharingan in his next body jump wasn’t really worth it, especially when there was another option.

“He is gifted with sand,” Kabuto broke into his musings, “Rumor says he is able to make it do nearly anything he wants, and that it acts like a sort of automatic, ultimate defense – entirely independent of his will.”

“Hmm, interesting, but we’d already heard of those skills. You said he was a genin, earlier, didn’t you?”

Kabuto nodded, “He is.”

“Good – feel out the Jounin sensei for our cause, but don’t give yourself away. Stay there and observe the vessel for as long as you need to, as long as you don’t get caught by Jiraiya! See if you can make any headway with the Kazekage and our little side project, and motivate the agent. You have my permission to persuade her to leave her own ambitions at the door in any way you see fit as long as you don’t compromise her ability to do her part. I’m not happy with her progress on the Kage, since she’s supposed to prevent the man from doing anything that might call his competence into question or endanger our plans and instead seems to be encouraging it! If I find out she’s also mishandling the drug I will PERSONALLY see to her. See to it that she understands that. It’s too late to replace her with someone else – if the Jinchuuriki isn’t what we hoped, we may still be able to salvage something from this if my experiment is successful and that fool will only play her part.” He hissed.

“If you can see the vessel in action while you are there, all the better, but as far as I’m concerned Leader can get the information he wants at the upcoming chuunin exams. I’ll ask for us to be assigned there to observe. It will be a good way to make sure I can be present without the rest of Akatsuki’s interference. There’s no way that arrogant bastard who styles himself as the leader of Suna will be able to resist showing off his precious weapon at the first opportunity, considering.”

“Of course, Orochimaru-sama.”

“One more thing, Kabuto.” He raised his bowed head in response to the odd note in the Snake Sannin’s voice, “when you return to Konoha or while Jiraiya is still in that village, see what you can learn about an apprentice his… I’ve heard he’s taken on a new student, and my sources say he could be Tsunade’s son and a true heir to the Shodaime. I want to get my hands on that kekkei genkai again which means I may have to move before certain…other interested parties get a chance at the boy. My research went uncompleted last time.”

“As you wish.”

Chapter 16: Making Headway by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 16: Making Headway:

“Orochimaru. Report.” A full contingent of weirdly lit Akatsuki projections gathered in a lose circle around a partially constructed sculpture rising macabre from the rough stone floor. Even in its most basic shape, it was obvious the figure would be massive and entirely hideous when completed.

“My spy was unable to determine much about the Ichibi’s Jinchuuriki or observe him in action. Suna’s citizens are too fearful to speak of him openly, therefore, I have nothing concrete to add.” The Snake Sannin hissed, his tone flat and vaguely uninterested.

Their Leader’s figure flickered, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. Orochimaru had been growing more and more distant from the group, branching out into his own projects far more than he liked, but certain…other…interested individuals approved of his movements against the Leaf so Pein had reluctantly allowed him to continue as long as his plans didn’t run counter to their goals. Pein’s patience only extended so far though, and Deidara had already been brought in to pick up his slack. He wasn’t inclined to tolerate much more from the man. “Sasori – what can you tell us about Shukaku’s previous vessels?”

The figure to Orochimaru’s left, a hunched and deformed looking creature with a large scorpion’s tail was quick to reply, “They were ineffective and didn’t last long. I never had the chance to personally observe one, but they say that Shukaku’s vessels do not sleep and live only to kill. They were also entirely insane.”

“Very well. Both of you are to continue your observations.” They nodded and Leader continued, “What of the rest of you? Any further news on the other Bijuu?” No one spoke.

Orochimaru sighed. These meetings were pointless and there were many other things he’d rather be doing with his time. His sharp eyes caught a slight movement from Leader’s flickering apparition, his eyes canting to the side in a peculiar way, as if he were listening to someone else in the room with him back in Ame – perhaps even puppeting orders to them like one of Sasori’s lifeless creations. How interesting. Was there another power behind that throne?

It wasn’t the first time he’d noticed something off in the inner workings of this organization. Ever since they’d begun getting a bit too curious about his personal projects that were none of their concern, he’d been looking for such things…there was a lot about Akatsuki’s motives Leader didn’t see fit to share with mere underlings, and it didn’t sit well with him. Orochimaru didn’t like working towards other people’s obscure goals, and he didn’t like not being in on the secrets. He especially didn’t like being unsure who else he was working with. He wanted to be the master, and the idea of having even one, let alone more than one person, thinking themselves above him, rubbed him entirely the wrong way.

“What of Kyuubi? Itachi, Orochimaru, you are from Konoha. Tell us again what you know and if you’ve heard anything further from any contacts you might have there. We must determine the Nine-Tails’ state before we go forward in our plans. The construct’s design will vary greatly for eight Bijuu as opposed to nine, and I will not settle for the lesser number if we can have all of them. The existence of one outside of the matrix could throw off the energies rendering the whole thing worthless, and we’ve been held up long enough by the uncertainty of the Demon King’s fate.” Pein’s projection, standing in the central most position of the circle, continued the meeting.

The two former Konoha shinobi’s flickering projections exchanged glances. Orochimaru had been trying to think of ways to acquire the Uchiha’s magnificent bloodline ability, but he wasn’t willing to make a move on the other Akatsuki’s body until he was ready to leave the organization. He had a feeling it wouldn’t garner him any points with his peers and there was no reason to make things more difficult on himself before it became necessary.

True, the Sharingan was the ultimate bloodline ability for someone with his aspirations, but he already had a decent vessel lined up for his next body jump; the Kaguya’s abilities were definitely worth having, and with the rumors of a true Mokuton user as well…well, he didn’t exactly have to rush and possibly make stupid mistakes in his haste. Careful planning now could save him a lot of trouble in the future, and Itachi had a little brother who was showing a great deal of promise.

It wouldn’t do to take an inferior body. He liked to window-shop a bit so he wouldn’t regret the purchase later. Having to wait three years for the next jump made good choices rather vital. If he played his cards right, he’d be able to casually set the remaining Uchiha against each other when the time became right, and then waltz in and claim his prize in the aftermath while the victor was still weak from the battle. It shouldn’t be hard at all; Itachi had done over half the work for him.

“I think we must deal with the reality of the Kyuubi being gone, Leader-sama.” The Uchiha muttered, when it became obvious his fellow former Konoha-nin was too absorbed in his own thoughts to answer. “The Fourth sealed it away, and it is presumed dead with its vessel. I do not believe we should continue to let it delay our movements.”

“Assumptions are useless. I want facts. Find it.”

“But—Un, if it’s gone—“ Deidara sounded confused. He exchanged a glance with Sasori who he’d been brought in to work with whenever Orochimaru managed to weasel out of his share of the work with whatever it was the snake-faced bastard did on the side.

There was that slight glance to the side again, Orochimaru noticed, before Pein cut Deidara off, “We have new reason to believe the greatest of the nine is not gone. Its energy has been sensed recently. I want its fate discovered. I’m upping this priority for all of you. It is likely not in Konoha anymore, but it IS alive.”

Orochimaru carefully surveyed his peers for their reactions and noted that Itachi was the only one among them that didn’t seem overly surprised by that revelation, but then again, the Uchiha had a unique link to the Kyuubi. Perhaps he was the one that had sensed it? It would explain Leader’s odd phrasing, ‘it has been sensed’ rather than, ‘I have sensed.’ But no, that couldn’t be right either – the Uchiha hadn’t seemed to be aware that the container had survived, and he was rather naturally stoic which would also explain his non-reaction.

Maybe he was just being his usual emotionally dead self…or maybe he’d only been aware that some part of the demon still lived, but not known the extent? That didn’t explain Leader’s knowledge though; could there be another Uchiha alive? One more powerful than Itachi, and therefore with a greater connection to the demon? …This definitely brooked looking into…He’d set Kabuto on it. His future body needed to be the best, after all. If there were three of them, it would make it a bit more difficult to orchestrate finding out whose eyes were the best, but he was sure he was up to the challenge.

“Un - You wanted us to hang back, Leader-sama?” Deidara spoke up once all of the other Akatsuki members besides him and Sasori-danna had flickered out of existence in the darkened cave.

Pein nodded, his many ringed eyes narrowing as he surveyed the two men before him. “I have a secondary mission for you…one that you cannot reveal to Orochimaru under any circumstances…it is a bit of a side project, and one in which I feel his own interests would conflict with ours. While my patience with him is growing short, there is no reason to tip our hands to him while he may still be useful to the organization.”

“You can count on us – Un!” The taller and slimmer of the figures affirmed with an enthusiastic nod.

Sasori remained silent, but his eyes remained firmly on Leader’s figure, his attention and commitment to the organization unwavering despite the fact that his new part-time partner was anything but subtle and so green it was painful. He repressed a sigh. Why did he have to break in the new ones? He’d almost be a little sad to see Orochimaru go, actually – but at least he’d still have his spies to keep tabs on the snake-faced bastard. He didn’t trust him, and hadn’t since he’d caught the man looking over his favorite puppet a bit too closely the first time he’d had him out for maintenance in his presence. He’d been careful to keep his precious trophies to himself after that and immediately put his own agent into Orochimaru’s ranks. No one touched the Sandaime Kazekage but himself.

“Excellent.” Pein said, “There is a boy who may be of use to us. You have heard of the Shodaime of Konoha and his unique power over the tailed beasts?”

That caught Sasori’s attention.

“His heir has inherited his kekkei genkai, though how well he is able to use it yet, is unknown. If he has the Bijuu controlling power of his ancestor, he would be invaluable to our organization. If you run across the boy, you are to attempt to determine his potential, SUBTLY – Deidara, that means, YOU – no explosions! - and determine if he is recruitment material.”

“What if I—“ Sasori started.

“No turning him into a puppet – his corpse might not retain the powers we’re looking for that way. We don’t know what exactly it is about Mokuton that affects the demons.”

“But-“

“No.”

Deidara and his mentor exchanged a glance that for once was kind of understanding…sometimes Leader-sama was no fun at all. He had no appreciation for either of their Arts.

Pein killed his own projection jutsu and allowed the rest of his consciousness to settle firmly back into Ame. “Are you sure it’s wise to give Orochimaru such reign?” He frowned at the orange-masked man lounging casually at his side. Konan drifted off to pour all three of them tea. She had no idea why, but that communication jutsu always had the side effect of making the users of it thirsty.

“For now, yes.” Madara’s visible eye flashed. “He thinks he is a much larger snake than he really is. It’s almost cute. He is certainly no threat to us, and it would be a mild annoyance were he to start working against the organization’s goals. I won’t tolerate him ruining the Senju, though. I haven’t firmly decided where that boy will fit into our plans, and until we discover how his bloodlimit will fully manifest, it’s pointless to make anything concrete. It’s best to just put the Sannin off for now.”

“Kankuro. Temari. Come.” Gaara had patiently waited for his siblings to wake up and dress. He’d even decided to try taking their feelings into consideration, and had let them eat breakfast before making demands, but they’d woken up much later than they usually did and wondered around the shared living room between their suite and Gaara’s in a daze half the morning. They acted like they didn’t know if they were dreaming or actually awake every time he failed to threaten them for some perceived slight. It was exceedingly irritating, and now it was nearly time for lunch with nothing accomplished.

“Erm…Sure, Gaara.” Kankuro reflexively agreed from years of asking ‘how high?’ when his little brother said to jump. “Uh, where are we going?” He slung his bandage-wrapped puppet over his shoulder and then straightened his black suit where the strap had pulled it up a bit. Temari looked curious too, but she wasn’t about to argue either.

“We are feeding Naruto lunch. He likes ramen. You will show us where they serve it.” Gaara wasn’t a big restaurant goer. He seldom left the building that held their respective apartments, actually. What would the point have been? He decided it was past time he got to know his own way around the sorts of things other shinobi enjoyed if he were going to give this whole “humanity” thing another try.

Kankuro wasn’t sure he wanted to eat with the scary shortie from last night and his ‘maybe-reformed-but-who-really-knew?’ homicidal little brother. The idea of it nearly burst his brain. You weren’t supposed to calmly eat with people who could kill you with a thought, were you?

“Ramen…?” Temari blinked – being the much more practical and open of the older siblings. “I didn’t know you liked ramen, Gaara.” She nudged Kankuro with her elbow to remind him to stop gaping like an idiot, and opened the door after slipping on her sandals.

“Hn.” The Jinchuuriki explained.

Well…that didn’t really clear it up, but at least he was talking, and it wasn’t a threat.

The boys echoed her movements, putting on their shoes and following her out the door. “Do you think they changed hotels, or just got a different room at the same one?” Kankuro tentatively asked, deciding to just go along with it for now, and pray it wasn’t his day to meet the shinigami. He had to admit, Gaara had been weirdly….normal-ish, since getting beaten by Senju, but he wasn’t sure if he trusted that yet. Surely someone couldn’t make that kind of drastic turnaround in just one night – striking epiphany or not.

“He is at the same one.” Gaara said in his usual monotone.

His siblings exchanged glances, “Okay…er, did you go check on him last night or something?” Temari fished for elaboration.

“No.”

They continued to stare at him expectantly and he growled, causing his brother to flinch slightly. This whole thing might be more trouble than it was worth. Getting what he wanted was definitely less time consuming and irritating when he didn’t stop himself from threatening to kill whoever was holding him up. “The old man he travels with told me they hadn’t moved.” The sand Jinchuuriki made himself continue when it became obvious they weren’t going to come along until they had more details.

Temari sighed. She supposed that was the best they were going to get out of him, but she’d have liked to hear how he and Senju’s sensei had met up and when it had happened. Probably best not to push their luck yet. “Right. Well, we’ll pick him up first, and then show you to a decent ramen stand. You eat ramen sometimes, don’t you Kankuro?”

“Yeah…I know a good place.” The boy said, a bit bemused and settling into the idea of eating ramen with his homicidal little brother…if this worked out, and they all came out of it alive, he guessed they’d have a lot to thank Senju Naruto for in the future.

The walk across town from the building that housed their apartments was pretty quiet. Gaara was never one to talk much, and his siblings were a little leery of doing anything that might snap him back to his old self. The other pedestrians, as they always did, quieted down and cleared a path for the Jinchuuriki so as not to draw his attention to them. They were also careful not to look at him, though they could be seen making evil warding gestures after he’d gone by. Gaara ignored them from long practice, staring straight ahead and walking calmly as if they were beneath his notice. His usual glares were entirely absent.

Temari bit her lip, noticing their actions from an outsider’s perspective for the first time. How lonely must that kind of life be for her brother, constantly getting nothing but negative attention? It was no wonder he lashed out. She had the sudden urge to hug him, but refrained. If he freaked out at the unexpected gesture, that wouldn’t help his image with the rest of the village. She’d save the physical contact experiment for when they were under less public scrutiny.

Still, she really thought she could get to like this new Gaara, and Kankuro was extremely happy that his life hadn’t been threatened for a whole morning. He was feeling better and better about this situation with each passing moment. The puppet user felt like he’d lived in constant fear since his father had taken in that bitch from Iwa, and Gaara had been made a genin and put on a team with them. He’d never had to interact with his little brother before Temari and him had been moved into Gaara’s building from their old rooms in their father’s tower.

This new attitude felt a little like a stay of execution. Sometimes Kankuro had thought it was just a matter of time before the kid snapped and killed them all. Now there was a chance he’d be the main thing that kept them all alive with all the strange crap happening in the village as their father continued to lose it and caused fractioning in the shinobi ranks.

Of course, with the way Gaara was treated, Kankuro wouldn’t have even been able to blame him, really if he had snapped and killed them all. That was the hardest part. He didn’t know how to be an older brother to the kid, but he was kind of looking forward to figuring it out now that his fear was slowly trickling away. Wasn’t it an older brother’s job to introduce the younger sibling to things like the wonders of girls?

Wow…that would be awkward.

Temari and Gaara both looked at their brother when he started snickering to himself. Gaara wondered why everyone thought he was the only crazy one in the family. It was patently obvious that it was genetic. His glance slid over to Temari who proceeded to bop the puppeteer over the head – well, at least genetic along the male line. She seemed relatively sane…not that he was a good judge of sanity.

It was kind of nice to see people act normally when he knew that they knew he was there. Usually he had to spy on others to get an idea of what normal, genuine human interaction looked like. He’d often felt like an observer of wild animals when he was younger, before the betrayal - like he had to stay hidden like a scientist studying rare animals to see ‘the Human in their natural habitat’.

It was actually much more amusing than he thought it would be to have front row seats to his older sister whapping Kankuro repeatedly with her fan for being stupid in public. Shukaku insisted he was enjoying their suffering and should cause more, but he pushed the voice aside. ‘Hmm…it seems my sense of humor runs towards the slap-stick. Who knew?’ He thought bemusedly.

“We’re here.” He pointed out to his squabbling siblings in his normal monotone, his face as blank as ever.

Temari casually affixed her fan to her back again and stepped on Kankuro to get to the inn’s door and open it for her littlest brother. “After you, Gaara-kun.”

Kankuro made an “oof”ing sound when her foot hit his back and nonchalantly pulled himself to his feet, dusting off his black jumpsuit. He was relatively used to such treatment. Why were girls so violent?

Gaara blinked at being referred to with the ‘kun’ suffix. That hadn’t happened to him in a very long time.

Both boys stepped into the lobby, followed by their sister, and made their way to the desk to ask after Naruto’s new room.

Naruto had spent the morning coming to terms with what had happened with Gaara and the heated discussion he’d had with his godfather over it. He’d come to the conclusion that the old man had some good points, but that he also couldn’t really put himself in Naruto’s place in a situation like this – affected as he was by his own hurt and jaded by his past. He loved the man dearly as his only living male role model, but he wasn’t blind to his faults – in some ways, he was just as tormented by his past as Kaa-san. Just because Orochimaru had betrayed his village and his teammates didn’t mean all shinobi were willing or likely to do that.

Naruto knew that when you trusted someone you opened yourself up to hurt, but he didn’t believe that was a good reason not to trust anyone, even if you WERE a ninja. That kind of lonely existence wouldn’t be worth living, and he didn’t think he could condone the shinobi lifestyle of necessary killings and violence if everyone who called themselves a ninja were just heartless and mindless killing machines, never considering their actions beyond their orders. He had a feeling that was what had Suna in trouble at the moment; if what Gaara had said about the Kazekage were true…he was going mad, if he wasn’t already, but no one was saying anything or going against his orders just because he was the leader.

A leader was only good and entitled to that position while his or her decisions continued to improve or preserve the lives of those under them. Leaders who became irrational and failed to do their duty needed to be removed just like anyone else who couldn’t do their job. Sanity was a pretty important part of making decisions that could affect the lives of everyone in a whole village, let alone a country.

The Senju couldn’t be the kind of ninja that would continue to follow a ruler like that, and he knew his godfather wasn’t either. He’d just been speaking in absolutes. Still, he got the message; he couldn’t let his feelings stop him from his duty, and he knew his duty would be pretty ugly sometimes. That didn’t mean he had to let the life kill his soul. He didn’t think he could ever completely be someone else’s tool, even if it meant fulfilling missions and following orders hurt him a little more inside than the average shinobi.

He promised himself right there that he’d take responsibility for everything he would ever do as a ninja. “Following orders” would never be his scapegoat, so he wouldn’t have any regrets. He wouldn’t let his feelings affect his duty, but he wouldn’t let what he had to do completely close off his heart, either. He’d be utterly ruthless if he had to be and deal with his own feelings about it afterwards. A shinobi’s duty was to his village, not himself.

He sighed and looked out the window at the hot desert day. After a morning of quiet contemplation like that, Naruto was more than ready for a distraction from his troubling thoughts, but the old pervert was still sleeping. Wordlessly he snuck up onto the bed and loomed over his godfather who failed to so much as mutter or stir.

Pbft, some elite shinobi, sleeping through someone getting that close to him. Where were the vaunted hair-trigger instincts? If the old man wanted to go on about the role of a ninja, he could at least act like one, himself. “Hey, Jiji. Wake up. I’m hungry.”

No response.

“Ero-Sensei!” He poked him in the cheek. Still nothing.

Naruto commenced poking Jiraiya’s sleeping face at precise two-second intervals. Now that he’d sufficiently dealt with his issues, he was quickly getting bored and the Sannin had stumbled in just before dawn smelling of booze and cheap perfume. He’d been so loud getting ready for bed that Naruto hadn’t been able to go back to sleep, so he’d ordered breakfast from the downstairs kitchen before tackling the less literal of his internal demons.

It was almost lunchtime now, and he wanted to go out to get food. The room service here frankly sucked, but he wasn’t about to head out on his own without letting his godfather know where he was going. Not after yesterday’s fiasco.

Now if he could only wake the sennin up! What kind of ninja slept until noon, anyway? It was disgraceful! Even Kaa-san usually drug her ass out of bed by 10:00 every morning—not that he would be any different if he weren’t so eager to train every day, but that wasn’t the point!

He added a litany of “Pervert” after every poke. Jiraiya just mumbled and turned over.

“ARGH!!” Sometimes he really got irritated with the old man. He didn’t really want to aggravate him after the argument they’d had last night, but he wasn’t going to put up with his shit either.

A knock on the door drew him out of the elaborate prank he was just beginning to draw up to teach Jiraiya a lesson for sleeping through being poked a few hundred times. He leapt up and sprang to the door to look through the peephole, only to see the Sand Siblings arguing on the other side. From what he could hear of their conversation through the door, it seemed like Temari was trying to explain to Gaara why a person had to politely knock before barging in or obliterating an obstacle with the power of one’s horrible bloodthirsty sand demon. Gaara remained expressionless, but Naruto thought he looked like he thought Temari was being a killjoy.

The Leaf Genin grinned and threw the lock so he could let the visitors inside. “Hey guys! I didn’t expect you this early! Want to help me wake up the pervert? I haven’t had lunch yet, and I’m going to smash something if I have to eat this inn’s crappy food again!”

“I’m awake.” A grumpy voice muttered from the huddle of sheets that was the Sannin. “Who could sleep with all the racket you’re making?”

“I poked you 356 times before they knocked, Ero-jiji. You’ve got a nice bruise on your cheek if you don’t believe me.” Naruto snipped.

“Eh?” The old man raised a hand to feel his cheek and grinned sheepishly. It was a little sore. Knowing Naruto’s penchant for tricks, he actually felt pretty lucky that was all he had if his student had gotten that bored waiting for him to crawl out of bed. He wondered if the restraint was due to any lingering feelings of confusion from their discussion. He’d have to pull the kid aside later and talk to him some more about it. He didn’t like the idea of having any sort of rift between him and his godson. He had too few precious people left to let something like that fester, so he wanted to make sure the brat knew there were no hard feelings as long as he’d learned something from it and would at least think about things more. “Eh, heh…sorry about that. I had a hard night of information gathering, you know! I must have been pretty deeply asleep after all that work.”

None of the kids looked like they were buying it.

“Well, er…I’ll just get dressed and stuff then, and we can go grab breakfast.”

“Lunch!” Naruto growled, pointing out the window at the angle of hot sunshine to emphasize his point.

“Er…right…Lunch then.” Well, the kid didn’t ACT like it was still bugging him. That was good; maybe the talk would be unnecessary. They were men after all, and men didn’t need all that ‘talk about your feelings’ crap.

“Kankuro is feeding us ramen.” Gaara announced.

“What?! I’m not treating you! I said I’d show you where a good stand was!” Kankuro protested.

Everyone pretended that they couldn’t hear him over Naruto’s exuberant cheers.

Lunch started out a bit roughly when the ramen chef looked utterly petrified to see Gaara among his newest batch of customers. Naruto looked ready to leap to his defense, but the redhead just held out a hand to keep him back and gave the man his usual blank stare before very politely asking for a menu.

The cook was so shocked to hear something other than death threats come out of his mouth that he automatically did as asked, mechanically taking their orders and beginning preparations before he even processed the situation further. After serving the first round of ramen bowls without so much as a violent eye twitch from the Jinchuuriki, he began to loosen up considerably.

It helped that Gaara seemed to take to ramen like Naruto had. Jiraiya wondered if it was a demon vessel thing. They were both on their fifth bowls. He had a feeling that if Tsunade were here she’d start ranting about starches, carbohydrates, and unnatural metabolisms. They were both sort of eating for two, after all.

“I like ramen very much.” Gaara announced. It was the only thing he’d added to the conversations since they’d made their lunch selections.

Temari and Kankuro stared at him with gaping mouths. He almost seemed…enthusiastic!

The old ramen chef was definitely thrilled. He could see the new marketing campaign now, ramen so good it tames the savage demon! He’d be RICH!

Gaara and Naruto each accepted their sixth bowls and eagerly dug in. “We are eating ramen all the time.” The sand Jinchuuriki informed his siblings.

“Er, but Gaara, that’s not really healthy to eat the same thing all the time…and there’s lots of other types of food you haven’t tried yet.” Temari tentatively tried arguing with him. He hadn’t snapped back at them yet, so maybe this change was here to stay? She was definitely willing to give treating him like a normal person a fair chance.

He blinked, “I like ramen.”

“You think ramen’s good? Wait until you try ice cream!” Kankuro decided since Temari was still alive he’d give it a go too.

“Does ice cream taste like ramen?” The redhead’s eyes narrowed at his siblings who looked a little frightened for a moment at the expression, but bravely rallied themselves.

“No…but you CAN get it in lots of other flavors. Even coffee flavored!” Temari said the magic word.

“…coffee?”

And so the four gennin drug Jiraiya off to the ice cream stand. This time Temari paid because Kankuro had blown way more than he was comfortable with on lunch. Gaara got a sundae as big at his head, and the ice cream parlor would be advertising ‘frozen treats guaranteed to make even the surliest creatures happy!’ for years to come.

It didn’t hurt their business that they were open 24 hours because of the weird schedules people in the desert village tended to keep; though they did have to stock up on mocha chunky chocolate chip far more often than most other flavors from then on. Shukaku’s Jinchuuriki often got ice cream cravings when normal people were sleeping.

When they finally made it back to the hotel room Gaara’s head was practically spinning with all the new experiences. Once they’d been reassured by his behavior that he wasn’t going to crush them on a whim, the proprietors of both food stalls had been extremely respectful to him, if a bit tentative. The ramen chef had even grinned and shook his hand when he left, telling him to come back any time! That probably had something to do with the eight servings he’d consumed, but still…It was surreal.

He’d given up on restaurants ages ago because it was extremely difficult to get good service when the staff kept wetting themselves, and Shukaku might have appreciated the taste of blood, but his jailer certainly didn’t…besides, having to kill people like that got sand in the food. Eating by himself had been much preferable all around. It had the added bonus of not provoking his demon into grisly diatribes about what he should do to the other humans around him, which occasionally got graphic enough to churn even the homicidal Jinchuuriki’s stomach.

“Okay, Gaki – take off the shirt and let’s see this seal of yours.” Jiraiya said after carefully locking the door behind them.

That was another thing he had to get used to. The old man seemed to have lumped him into the same category as Naruto after they’d left the ramen shop, at least verbally, because he’d started calling him the same derogatory nicknames. No one had ever dared to give him a nickname besides “monster” or “demon” before.

He carefully removed his gourd and slipped off his short-sleeved black tunic and the netted t-shirt he wore underneath it. He felt a bit self-conscious with Temari and Kankuro there, staring at him, but Naruto grinned and slapped him on the back in a friendly gesture he’d often seen others use with their comrades. For some reason, that made him feel better even though he barely registered the contact through his sand armor, which began to flake off annoyingly where the Senju had touched him.

Shukaku hummed happily in the back of his mind in the aftermath of the contact. He wasn’t ever going to get used to that part. Naruto made his demon far more annoying than it was naturally inclined to be. He’d gotten used to the insane bloody ramblings after all these years and could easily ignore them now, but this was just CREEPY.

“Don’t worry about Jiji! You get used to it after a while. He’s always wanting to get a look at my seal too.” The blond boy whispered to him behind his hand, too soft for his siblings to hear.

Gaara nodded and molded a little chakra into the seal to make it visible. He stared blankly ahead while the old man scrutinized him, occasionally making a full circuit study of his torso for some reason, and making ‘hmm’ing sounds.

“Well?” Surprisingly, Temari’s patience cracked before Naruto’s. “Can you help him out or what?”

Jiraiya straightened up. “Nope! Not a thing I can do!” He grinned a little sheepishly.

“You spent all that time staring at him, only to tell us there’s nothing you can do?” Naruto exclaimed.

“Well…it’s really interesting! Total crap at holding back the demon, but well calculated crap…and hey! I think I finally figured out what’s missing from that sealing sequence I’ve been working on for years! Your Mom’s gonna be thrilled!” He proceeded to ignore them and whipped out his notebook and the small metal bits Naruto had become so accustomed to seeing him fiddle with on occasion for as long as he could remember.

Temari’s eye began twitching erratically.

Gaara calmly put his shirts back on and re-shouldered his gourd. He hadn’t expected anything else. The old man had warned him this was the most likely outcome, and he wasn’t one to get his hopes up about anything.

“There’s got to be something you can do.” Naruto snatched the pencil out of his sensei’s hand so he couldn’t keep making notes.

Jiraiya frowned and pulled another one out of his jacket without even really looking up, “Nope. It’s a two point seal – hardly good enough to hold Shukaku back at all. Unless I had the original diagram and notes, I wouldn’t mess with it for anything because there’s absolutely zero wiggle room. It’s almost genius how it’s got the exact right amount of power. Even a little less and the Ichibi would be the one in the driver’s seat, and there’s certainly not a speck of extra strength in it. Whoever did it knew what they were doing and had some spectacular chakra control.” He sketched out a tiny row of symbols on one of the countless diagrams in his book and compared it to what he’d already inscribed on the trinket in his other hand.

Kankuro sighed and Temari placed a tentative hand on Gaara’s shoulder. “We’ll figure something out, Gaara-kun.”

He nodded. “I will go see Chiyo-sama.”

“S’good idea.” Jiraiya mumbled. “She was most likely the mastermind behind that thing.” He made some more notes.

Naruto sighed, “I’d really hoped Ero-jiji would be able to help you. I LOVE sleep. I can’t imagine never getting to do it.”

“It isn’t hard. I do not know what it feels like, so I don’t miss it.” The other boy stated.

Temari and Kankuro exchanged sad glances.

Naruto wanted something to cheer everyone up and clear out the oppressive atmosphere. “Hey, if there’s nothing we can do here, why don’t we find someplace to spar? It’ll be fun!”

Kankuro frowned. He didn’t think he wanted to take on a kid who could take down Gaara with a needle. He just couldn’t get over that. Temari looked kind of interested though. Her wind attacks made most weapons useless, after all.

“Okay. We can use Gaara’s private training ground.” The kunoichi grinned. It would be fun to wipe the floor with that little snot no matter how grateful she was to him for what he’d done for her little brother. He looked like the kind of sap to go easy on people during spars out of some stupid fear of hurting them, so despite a healthy respect for his skills, she wasn’t scared.

“Yosh! Come on Ero-jiji – you can mess with your seal at the training ground.” Naruto jumped up and started to drag the older man out of the room by the arm.

“Hey! I’m working here! I don’t mess with you while you’re trying to figure something out!” He whined.

“That’s why you’re such a shitty teacher!” Naruto retorted, “You’re not supposed to make me just figure stuff out! Besides, you’re the one that said I wasn’t to wonder around without you!”

The Sand Siblings exchanged glances and Kankuro shrugged, “After you guys?” They followed the squabbling duo out the door.

Gaara, Jiraiya, and Kankuro sat on a stone bench away from the huge clouds of sand Temari was kicking up while trying to defend against Naruto’s attacks. Kankuro kept craning his head to try and see what was going on, and Jiraiya kept fiddling with his bits of metal. As far as the puppet user could tell, it was only a matter of time before the younger kid wiped the desert with his bossy sister, and he definitely wanted to see that!

Gaara frowned and gestured casually with his hand, clearing the sand from the air that had been blocking their view. Temari eep-ed – the low visibility had been a huge advantage for her since her attacks weren’t exactly precision based like her opponent’s were. “Hey! Not fair, GAARA!”

Naruto laughed and sent a wave of senbon-bearing Kage Bunshin after her. His clones were just as good at dodging attacks as he was, but her jutsu had cutting area effects they couldn’t always avoid. He kept making them as fast as she could dispel them, challenging himself to exactly keep up with her and no more, in order to drag it out. In light of that, the fight seemed pretty even until the kunoichi suddenly felt something wrap around her ankle and tug straight downwards. She instantly found herself neck deep in the sand with a grinning blond Jinchuuriki looming over her. “HA, how do you like my Doton: Shinju Zanshu no Jutsu – Mokuton-style!” He crowed.

Ivy slid out of the ground and looped loosely back around his waist, looking a little worse for wear at so much of her being away from his body in these conditions. His great grandfather’s necklace really had helped with his control, but he hadn’t exactly expected that to work, especially not here…He thought the new markings on his hand must mean his kekkei genkai had gotten another boost.

Temari growled and pulled herself out of the soft sand easily with a bit of chakra. “Best two out of three, Punk!” She peevishly shook the large bits of dust out of her loosely draped top. Kankuro practically rolled on the ground at seeing his sister taken down a notch.

“You’re on!” Naruto grinned. He was technically at a huge disadvantage in this environment, especially since his offensive (i.e. non medical) repertoire was pretty much only a couple of offensive water and earth jutsu – his teachers had assumed he had an affinity for them after all – and neither element worked really well on shifting sand in the desert! With her wind’s huge area effects, she was about the worst match-up he could ask for if he could only use normally thrown senbon. Distance fighters with excellent defense were a pain in the ass.

In these conditions, he had decided to take a page out of Gaara’s book and stand back himself while sending in waves of attacking clones. He probably could have just overwhelmed her with massive numbers of Kage Bunshin, or waited her out since she didn’t have near his stamina, but what fun would that be? This kind of challenge was just the sort he liked best! Ivy tightened in irritation around his waist and he grimaced a bit. Ivy wasn’t as fond, but she could deal!

Deciding to take a different tactic this time around, Naruto leapt at Temari again with an energetic laugh. The kunoichi frantically took off trying to get some distance between them. The little bastard was way too fast! If he’d bothered to figure out the trick to sand walking, she’d never have gotten an attack off even that first time!

Kankuro eagerly cheered his sister on in the second, more prolonged match even though she kept cheating by floating around on her fan until a rain of senbon convinced her that wouldn’t be a good idea if she wanted to keep her precious weapon intact.

Gaara quickly grew bored with inactivity. He thought about challenging Naruto again, but his sand was useless against the other boy’s kekkei genkai in close range, and he didn’t have any other shinobi skills worth mentioning. He never thought he’d need them. He glanced for a moment at his brother, but he didn’t want to frighten his siblings by practicing with them, and they decidedly weren’t a good challenge. He’d never really cared to hold back, even in training before, so he wasn’t sure he trusted himself not to hurt them even if they were willing to give it a try.

“Bored?” The Sannin had put whatever strange project he’d been working on back into his jacket – probably afraid the flying sand would damage the delicate looking work.

“I am unused to simply watching a battle.” Gaara murmured.

Jiraiya struck a thinking pose, and then grinned. His idea was a little sneaky, and maybe a little mean, but the old hag deserved it. With that stoic attitude and a will stubborn enough to survive the kind of hell his childhood had been, the Sannin was willing to bet Gaara would be a veritable pit-bull once you got an idea in his head. If that bitch, Chiyo was anything like he remembered her from the war, she could probably use the shaking up, and it would be good for Gaara too. No matter how scary he thought he was, there was no way she’d take his shit.

“Here, kid.” He passed a basic book of sealing techniques he’d taken to carrying while he worked on his project, over to the redhead. “Read that if you want something else to do. You might learn something, and if the old hag has questions when you go ask her about your seal, you’ll be able to answer them better.”

“Hn…” Gaara frowned a little, but he had just been thinking that it would be a good idea to branch out his talents…He opened the book and immediately became absorbed in the ordered world of seal making.

“Heh, heh…” Jiraiya chuckled. That would teach the isolationist old bag to fuck with a kid’s life. She’d have to personally deal with the consequences!

Chapter 17: Cardboard Heroes by Baal of Yarns

Chapter 17: Cardboard Heroes

“Jan, Ken, Pon!”

“ARGH!!” Kankuro looked ready to pull his hood down so he could tear his hair out.

“This game is really dumb. I don’t see the point.”

“Shut up and throw again!”

Naruto sighed and shrugged, “It’s not going to do any good you know.”

“It’s not natural! I said throw again!”

“Jan, Ken, Pon!”

“ARGH!!”

“What are you guys doing?” Temari asked; they’d agreed to meet Naruto after their own training, but she’d had to stay behind and ask Baki-sensei some questions. He’d been grumpier than usual – not at all thrilled to be just getting back from a boring stint at the border when he was supposed to be exempt from that sort of thing now that he had a team. Naruto had gotten her thinking about wind affinity and how exactly that worked. Her teacher had seemed to think she was jumping the gun a bit, but he’d given her a book on elemental chakra, just the same.

Afterwards, she’d stalled him just a little longer, debating asking her sensei if he knew what was going on with their father and the high-ranked sloppy missions they’d been sent on recently. Frankly, she didn’t know who she could trust at the moment, and she wasn’t willing to do or say anything that might separate Gaara from them at this point, so she’d chickened out. With her sensei being affected by these crazy decisions, it seemed logical that he wouldn’t be part of the conspiracy, but she didn’t think it was bad enough yet to risk it. Her brother’s humanity was a fragile thing and something like that could very well kick him back into the monster he’d been up until he’d had his run in with Naruto.

“We’re playing some dumb game called, ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ but this is even lamer than jacks or Kaa-san’s slot machines. At least it’s possible to lose at jacks.“ Naruto mumbled.

Temari blinked, “How many rounds have you guys been playing this?” She’d been in the Kaze Tower somewhere around 20 minutes while she explained things to Baki-sensei and he found the book. Their teacher wasn’t very organized, really.

“Eighty-three!” Kankuro shrieked, “And he hasn’t lost once! It’s just not RIGHT!!”

Temari blinked, “Baka! You must be using a pattern or telegraphing what you’re going to throw!” Her brother was such an idiot sometimes. She didn’t know what she’d done to deserve a moron and a psycho as siblings. “Let me try…and close your eyes, Naruto! Just to be sure.”

“Well, okay…but it won’t do any good. I’m telling you, this game is completely stupid!”

“Jan, Ken, Pon!”

Temari blinked, his flat hand representing “paper” very obviously covering her fist of “rock”, and his eyes had stayed firmly closed the whole time. “That’s…that’s not definitive! People statistically choose ‘rock’ more often to start out with! We’ve got to go again!”

Naruto whimpered. “Come on, can’t we go find Gaara and train together? You said we could train when you got done for the day, and I’ve GOT to get this wind thing down! Besides, you promised me Kankuro would let me have a go at Karasu!”

“WHOA! Wait! Not my precious puppet! You’ll KILL him!” Kankuro wailed.

“Shut up and play the stupid game Naruto!” Temari growled.

“Fine.” He muttered petulantly…and promptly won again.

Kankuro snickered, but when she turned to look at him, his face was completely blank and there was no sign of his amusement. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

“No ma’am!”

“Can we train now, please?”

“NO! One more time! Besides, Gaara went up to see Chiyo-baasama earlier this morning, and hasn’t come down yet, so it’s just us, and I am the one with the wind book!”

“…Can’t we just…I dunno…go up and get him?” Naruto tentatively asked. Temari could look pretty scary when she wanted to…

“We’re not supposed to go there. No one’s supposed to go there.” Kankuro spoke up.

“Gaara’s there!”

“Well…no one’s going to tell him he can’t go somewhere, are they?” The puppet user replied.

“Less talking, more playing!” The kunoichi barked.

“I don’t get it! How is this even a game?” Naruto whined. He got a lot of flak for his “Kick the Log” game when he was a kid, but at least that had had a point. He couldn’t believe he’d wasted a Look™ on Ero-jiji to let him go meet his new friends while the old hermit worked on finishing up his sealing project just for this crap.

“Okay,” Temari frowned down at the book open in her lap and chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip for a moment as she skimmed the page, “It says here that Wind is one of the most uncommon affinities, and that it’s really good for offensive things because its main purpose is cutting.”

“Cool! Maybe this won’t be so bad! It’s hard to slice a leaf with it though. I’ve been trying that for weeks.” Naruto leaned over her shoulder to scan the page, himself. He was a pretty fast reader from all the tutoring ‘Zune and Kaa-san had given him through the years. The book was almost all theory because ninja were possessive of their techniques, but he could infer a lot from what it did say. “So, if I’m reading this right, you should be able to coat things in wind chakra to increase their sharpness. That would be pretty cool on weapons! I wonder what kind of damage that sort of thing would do, and what happens if you coat other things in it?” He looked at the vine around his waist speculatively…Ivy was chakra conductive… Hmm, how did you coat things in it without cutting them up though?

Temari shrugged, “I don’t know. Wouldn’t do me much good to use it that way, anyway. My fan’s for distance attacks.”

“Well, sure – but if you figure this out you could carry a smaller fan or two with blades or something. Get it made out of that chakra metal some of the Jounin use and you’d have a pretty devastating weapon there.”

“I dunno…you get a lot more wind out of a big fan. That’s why it’s big. I don’t carry around something that unwieldy for fun, you know.” She frowned, her mind turning with the possibilities.

“Well, you wouldn’t need the extra boost of more wind if your chakra was charged with elemental affinity! It would be more potent that way.”

Kankuro frowned and worked a little more oil into one of Karasu’s joints. “What’s it say about water types? Can’t believe I’m a water type in SUNA…of all the shitty luck…”

“We haven’t gotten there yet, but don’t be so down about it.” Naruto grinned at his new friend, “My great-uncle could make Tsunami out of thin fucking air, EVEN in the desert! Can you imagine what kind of a surprise that would be to an opponent around here? When you think about it, training water jutsu in a place like this is kind of perfect actually – the lack of water would act like resistance training. You’d have KILLER jutsu in places WITH water if you can get them to work even here.”

Kankuro blinked; he hadn’t thought of it that way. He’d sort of resigned himself to having a useless affinity since they’d been tested at the Academy. Suna kids learned about elemental affinities in their last year and got to test for them when they passed so they could know what to focus on. He and Temari had had private tutors on top of the usual classes, of course, so they’d probably learned even a little more about it than the average rookie Suna genin. Around here, wind was definitely more common than water.

He went back to working on his puppet with a more thoughtful look on his face, and the two wind affinities went back to reading the elemental chakra book until Naruto’s inability to sit still evidently kicked in and he couldn’t take the inactivity anymore.

“Okay, so I’ve got the gist of this, I think. I’m pretty sure I’ve been picturing the whole process wrong.”

Temari shrugged, still lost in the theory. She loved this kind of stuff, and after rereading a few of the passages, she thought Naruto was probably right about smaller battle fans. It had a lot of potential, and they would be easily hidden as opposed to the monstrous thing she carried around now. She’d still use it of course, but back-ups wouldn’t hurt…

“Hey, hey! I’m bored, and if Gaara’s been up there all day, don’t you think we should go check on him? Make sure he’s okay and everything? From what you said about the old geezers, they don’t sound all that friendly.”

The sand siblings both stopped what they were doing and looked at him for a few moments, their minds processing the idea of Gaara not being able to take care of himself and just sort of coming up empty. For all that they’d made progress in the last few days, it was still hard to think of their younger brother as someone who wasn’t invincible…and scary as hell.

“Naruto.” Kankuro deadpanned, “I think Gaara can take care of himself with a couple of extremely old people.”

“Hey, old people can be scary! You haven’t met my mother!”

Temari sighed and closed the book. She did feel sort of like it was her duty as an older sister to check up on the kid… even if she didn’t really know what to think of Chiyo-baasama and Ebizo-jijisama… Both she and Kankuro had been pretty young when Gaara had been born and their mother had died, so she didn’t remember the woman very clearly, but the older Sand Siblings had been responsible, at least partially, for most of the bad shit that had happened to their family. Intellectually, she knew her father had ordered it, and that he’d have had someone else do it if they hadn’t agreed – probably someone who would have made an even bigger mess of it without Chiyo-sama’s skill. That didn’t make her feelings any less ambivalent, though. Chiyo and Ebizo were considered heroes of Suna, but like so many other things that were lauded for their strength, they’d caused a lot of pain to a lot of people. They had retreated from the village after what they’d had to do to Gaara, so she supposed that counted for something…

If she were going to start trying to fix the wreck that was their family, barring their father, she thought it would be good to do her best to put those feelings behind her and act like a good older sister, even if Gaara definitely didn’t need their concern or even probably WANT it yet. Little kindnesses could go a long way with her otouto, she’d quickly learned. He just didn’t know how to deal with them. “Okay…it couldn’t hurt to go check. If they let Gaara in, they must not care about company as much as the stories say they do.”

“Well, Gaara might be a special case for them, and it’s not like he would have necessarily given them a choice. He IS having some trouble with the whole, ‘knocking’ concept.” Kankuro pointed out.

Temari smacked him upside the head, “He’s learning! Give him a chance! Jeeze. Besides, he’s gotten much better about that since the Shower Incident.” They’d moved him into their shared apartment a few days ago on a sort of trail period. Temari was sure it wasn’t good for him to live alone, and they were all still alive, so she counted it as a success. That’s not to say everything had gone smoothly… Teaching someone who’d never been afraid to go wherever he wanted whenever he wanted about the concept of privacy was kind of tough, and kicking him in the shin like she usually did to Kankuro when he was being too much of a boy only caused her to painfully stub her toe. He hadn’t even felt it through his sand armor.

That was another thing…since he’d moved in there was sand EVERYWHERE. If she had to sweep out the bathtub one more time before she used it…

“Temari-chan! Suna to Temari-chan!” Naruto waved his hand in front of her face.

“Oh! Sorry…I spaced out there for a minute.”

Kankuro rolled his eyes, but he knew better than to say anything to his violent sister. He’d grown up scared of Gaara, but the past few days had taught him who the real psycho in their family was. Gaara threatened, but Temari went through with things.

“Yeah, well, anyway, I’m going! Are you two coming or not?” Naruto said, standing up to stretch the kinks out of his back from sitting so long.

Kankuro and Temari looked at each other and shrugged, then did the same. If they got in trouble for it, they’d just blame it on Gaara. No one ever called Gaara to task for anything. Hardly anyone had cottoned on yet to the fact that he no longer wanted to kill everyone he saw on a whim, but that probably wouldn’t last long since it looked like ice-cream stands selling “Soothing Demon Raccoon™” brand frozen treats were going to start cropping up everywhere. They’d seen new construction for one already beginning on their way to training.

It was a long trek up to the older set of Suna Sibling’s Retreat. Naruto was hot, sweaty, and dealing with a very peevish Ivy who refused her show herself outside of his shirt by the time they finally reached the doors. She had evidently decided she wouldn’t dry out as fast if no part of her was in direct sunlight. She was probably right, but she was really, really uncomfortable on his skin in this heat.

To the three genin’s surprise, Gaara wasn’t inside the building, but sitting quietly in a meditative posture outside the doors. He cracked an eye open, then looked up to check on the time. “Hn.” It was later than he thought. He’d been studying his newest sealing book, and hadn’t even noticed. He tended to mark time a little differently than normal people at the best of times since he didn’t sleep.

“Gaara…” Naruto deadpanned, “Don’t tell me you’ve been sitting out here all day, waiting for them to let you in?”

“Alright.”

“Well?” Temari got a bit sick of waiting for him to elaborate. They were going to work on his conversational skills if it was the last thing she did…and with Shukaku, you never knew.

“Well, what?” He asked, looking genuinely confused…which wasn’t too hard for him without the eyebrows. In fact, unless he kept his face in its usual blank stare, the natural set of his features was a slightly baffled expression. Naruto thought it was no wonder he kept the mask up all the time. It would be pretty embarrassing to go around looking clueless constantly, especially for someone as intrinsically badass as Gaara.

“You HAVE been sitting out here all day, haven’t you!” Kankuro groaned.

“No. I send some sand to knock occasionally, so they know I’m still here.”

Naruto shook his head, “You’ve got a lot to learn about annoying people into acknowledging you.” His lack of instincts for irritating people was so sad! So sad…

Gaara frowned, “But Temari-nee said—“

“That’s for the bathroom, baka! Not for when people are just being rude assholes! Especially not if those same people are the rude assholes who locked a DEMON inside you before you were even properly BORN.” His sister clenched her fists, marched up to the door, and began to bang persistently on it. NO one treated her little brother like this anymore if she could help it! The old hag would at least acknowledge their existence or she’d pound on their fucking door all night long!”

“T-t-Temari, look, Chiyo-baasama is a LEDGEND among puppet-users, don’t you think we should respect their wishes to be alone?”

“NO! She did this to Gaara, the least she could do is LOOK at him once!” The kunoichi yelled, making sure to be loud enough to be heard inside.

“That’s the spirit!” Naruto cheered.

Kankuro looked horribly embarrassed. He wondered if it was too late to sneak back down into the village without losing face in front of the woman currently considered to be the forefront of his field…

Too late, the doors banged open with a crash, causing all four ninja kids to leap back or get whapped with them. A tiny old lady with fading lilac hair and a dark maroon cap stood there seething. “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU BRATS WANT!?”

Gaara blinked, the only one unaffected, or at least unaware that he was supposed to be afraid of the epic power of Scary Old Recluse Lady. Such beings were legendary and not to be trifled with. This was doubly true if they came equipped with the ‘hordes of cats’ accessory as that tended to give them a positive modifier to “old people smell”; luckily this granny hadn’t gone that route, but it was worth noting.

“Well?! WHAT are you WAITING for? GET OFF MY LAWN!”

“Er…” They all stared down at the barren rock face that was her front stoop.

“Chiyo-sama.” Gaara stepped forward, looking brave and chivalrous in front of the wrath of Crazy Old Lady. Temari was very proud of her little brother in that moment. “Teach me about seals and how to adjust them.” He looked thoughtful for a moment as he tried to remember the exact phrase he’d heard the other day when Jiraiya had looked at the markings on his body, ah, that was it, “Mine is total crap.” He calmly stated.

Temari slumped and smacked her forehead with her hand, and Kankuro mourned for the little brother he’d only just begun to know.

“CRAP?! THAT seal is NOT crap! It took me AGES to make those calculations, you little!” She lunged, hands extended into claws.

Gaara just blinked and folded his arms in his usual “battle” stance. He wasn’t sure if this was how the teaching thing was supposed to work, but he’d seen Jiraiya go after Naruto many times, so he thought it might be part of the ritual. A hand formed of sand snaked up from the ground and planted itself on the old lady’s forehead, keeping her at arm’s length as she swiped at him ineffectually for a moment.

She jumped back nimbly from the range of the sand, her quick movements belaying her age. “SEE?! It works perfectly!” She began cackling madly.

Naruto’s eyes narrowed as he watched her. She’d let herself get caught by the sand. He was sure of it. What the hell was WRONG with this old bag? He KNEW boredom was the devil! Now he had empirical proof for Shizune-neechan! She’d obviously gone completely batty up here with just her brother for company and nothing to do.

Speaking of brothers…”Close the door Chiyo-nee! You’re letting in a draft!”

“Oi…Look, Baa-san, It’s not right to go just sticking demons into people without regard for their sanity!” This was a topic Naruto knew well, after all; he wasn’t inclined to be charitable about it, especially not with his recent decision to take responsibility for all of his actions, even those he was ordered to take. “The least you can do is hear him out! You’ve completely ruined his life!” Crazy or not, she owed this to Gaara. She owed him more than she could ever repay – all of them really! --Turning him into a hated weapon, and what had happened to their mother because of it! He couldn’t stand it!

“Who the HELL do you think YOU are, gaki!” Chiyo pointed at him threateningly.

“I’m Senju Naruto!” He barked “Not that it’s any of YOUR business!”

A weird tick started up in Chiyo’s eye and her entire demeanor changed from Average Run of the Mill, if slightly psychotic Crazy Old Lady, to You Won’t Like Me When I’m Angry!Crazy Old Lady. “Sl-sl-SLUG GIRL!!”

“WHA?!” Naruto suddenly found himself being chased by the surprisingly nimble geriatric psycho. Without a thought he immediately created a Kage Bunshin and preformed a kawarimi with it, letting her chase the clone all over the mountain instead of the real him. What the fucking HELL?!

“Well, Gaara…this looks like a bust…she’s obviously lost her mind.” Temari noted in disgust as all four of the genin watched the clone continue to narrowly evade a grisly end.

Kankuro looked like you’d just told him his favorite childhood superhero still wet the bed.

Naruto nodded, a little disturbed by the threats the old bag was throwing at his double. “I’ve seen this sometimes in the old folk’s homes my mom sometimes visits as a med-nin, though usually not this extreme or, er…violent. Anything she used to know, it’s obviously gone now.” He sighed.

“I heard that.” The real Chiyo spoke up from right behind him. She’d obviously used a clone too. “I’ll have you know my facilities are still PERFECTLY intact!”

“AAAHHHHHH!!” Naruto, Temari, and Kankuro shrieked in surprise. Gaara sighed.

“You!” She grabbed Gaara by the ear, faster than his sand could react so close to Naruto – Shukaku wasn’t exactly on the ball when the Senju was standing close. On top of the purring, it sometimes hummed…which was even more disturbing – especially when it got going on sea shanties. When that happened he was tempted to step away a bit to get back the violent screaming for the blood of innocents. “Get in here and let me look at you! I can tell you’ll be even more trouble than you’re worth if I don’t deal with you now, so I’ll teach you on ONE condition!”

“Hn?” He humored her since he couldn’t actually feel her grip through the sand. Being drug around like this was kind of a unique sensation, but Kankuro never put up a fight when Temari did it to him, so he supposed it was customary to go along with women when they grabbed at you without the intent to kill.

“The condition is…as soon as we find a way to strengthen that seal of yours…you all GO THE HELL AWAY!” She screeched, turning around to glare at the other genin’s slack jawed expressions, “and YOU!” She pointed at Naruto again, “I don’t know how you’re related to that flat-chested medic bitch, but I don’t want you anywhere near MY mountain EVER, got that!”

“Fl-Flat -chested?...Uh…right.” It wasn’t like Naruto wanted to spend any time around the old hag anyway. He wondered what had made her change her mind? He hoped it was that she felt bad about what her actions and directly and inadvertently caused his new friends, but who could tell with that weird attitude of hers? It was more likely she was so bored she’d do anything to alleviate it. The only thing he COULD tell was that she was playing up how crazy she was, but that in itself seemed pretty insane. Who WANTED to seem senile?

He’d kind of pity Gaara, except that he knew the guy was so new to normal human interaction that he probably wouldn’t even notice how mad she was acting. Hell, for all he knew, maybe Shukaku sounded like an angry senile old geezer? Maybe all Bjiuu did? He patted his own belly for a moment and thought in its direction, ‘You better not be a ranting old bag, Fuzzy! Kaa-san said there might come a time you can talk to me, and I’m not putting up with that crap!’ Kyuubi, of course, couldn’t answer him, if it heard him at all, but he felt a bit better afterwards.

Chiyo used chakra strings to slam the doors closed behind her and Gaara, but they could hear her muttering about messing up a perfectly balanced seal for the sake of a little sanity and the ability to socialize with other people. Who needed those things? Fucking kids these days…

Temari and Kankuro exchanged a look, wondering if it was really okay to leave Gaara here with someone like that, but Naruto’s stomach rumbling broke them out of the moment.

“Sorry. I guess I’m kind of hungry…I’ve already had the only meal of ramen I’m allowed to have today, so…dumplings?”

Temari rolled her eyes, “Sure, why not.” She sighed, casting one more quick glance back at the closed doors before stomping off back down the mountain. Sure, she was Gaara’s big sister and everything, but that duty only went so far. If he was so dead set on braving a dragon’s den, she couldn’t really do anything else to help him.

Naruto quickly jogged to catch up, picking up their conversation on wind-chakra where they’d left it off on the way here. Kankuro followed them looking pretty devastated…it was hard to see the reality behind a hero sometimes…his childhood visions of Chiyo-baasama were totally ruined forever. Well, at least he still had Sasori of the Sand to look up to, even if he was a missing-nin, he was undisputedly the greatest puppet-master that ever lived, and he was still young enough that he couldn’t possibly have degraded that far…right? Who could blame him for leaving this village anyway? He mentally mumbled, when Kankuro was little, he’d loved his father – he really had, but he knew their Village had taken a nosedive and was continuing to do so…getting to know Gaara and their father’s new bitch had made him completely rethink his loyalty to their dad and village. Any guy that could order that done to his own son and make the kinds of decisions he’d been throwing out lately on that woman’s whim…

They passed the two clones still chasing each other around the rock face on the way down…Naruto decided not to dispel his yet, just in case the old lady’s clone didn’t go with it and decided to come after them again.

“Kazekage-sama.” A demur woman dressed in the loose wraps favored by highborn women in Suna, worn just a touch too open to be considered proper, glided into the Kage’s office carrying a tray of tea. Her straight hair slid down her back like a slick black waterfall, softening her harder features and making her look gentile if not conventionally beautiful. Her jaw line was rather stronger than was fashionable, and her shoulders a bit too broad for a courtesan but were the norm in her homeland of Iwa. Despite the fact that she hadn’t been in the desert country long, she wore their garb and carried herself like she owned the place, no trace of awkwardness in her demeanor at all.

“Oudoukou,” The Kage greeted her, his voice much warmer than it would have been in the presence of anyone else. She only came to him like this when he was alone, acting the perfect lady at all other times. He appreciated her discretion. “Have you brought it?”

“Of course, Kage-sama…” she purred, setting the tray down on his desk and sliding between its hard surface and his body to settle herself facing him, straddling his lap. “I am just as eager for the fruits of our little project as you are, after all.” A coy smile and a look through her lashes completed the illusion of masterful seductress.

The Kage drew his eyes away from her bountiful cleavage and reached around her to snatch up the cup of tea on the tray. Looking into the vessel, he frowned. “This is only half-full.”

“In looking over the latest data, my lord, it would seem you are progressing perhaps faster than we anticipated…the changes must be more gradual or they may not settle into permanency.” This was a lie, of course…really she’d been trying to hurry her true master’s plans ahead of schedule for purposes of her own, but she’d been sloppy, and people had begun to notice the Kage’s erratic behavior. That side effect was well documented and unavoidable, symptomatic as it was of other, deeper problems that had eventually caused other experiments of this type to fail before becoming useful. They’d hadn’t been able to think of a way around that, of course, but the original plan had been to make the changes occur so slowly that no one would question it. When all was said and done, it would hardly matter when the man died a mindless shell, his synapses burnt completely out by the changes. They’d have what they wanted from him long before that happened if everything went according to plan.

“I will not be pleased with slower progress!” The Kage snapped, nearly crushing the cup in his hands and looking ready to do the same to her.

She swallowed her irritation at the setback Kabuto had caused her with his little unscheduled visit, reminding herself of her goals and the amount of power she’d have when this was all over if she could just pull it off. Damn that sniveling sycophant med-nin for ratting her out to their master! Her conversation with him hadn’t been…pleasant…and she’d been told in no uncertain terms to stick to the proper dosages from now on. She sighed; time for damage control.

“Kazekage-sama! Forgive me, my lord! It won’t slow your progress at this stage to lower the dosage, only give your body more time to adjust and integrate the changes until it is unnecessary to take it at all. The power will be all yours then with no such crutches…” She leaned into him a bit, raising herself up on her knees to bring her chest more up to his eyelevel and let her thick hair fall forward to curtain them both in an ebony sheet of inky black decadence. “You deserve this strength, Kage-sama…don’t you? It should be all your own…not aided by anything other than your magnificent self…”

“Of…of course…” he murmured, mesmerized by her deep smoky voice and physical assets. He immediately drank the full contents of the cup she’d given him, then tossed it aside to grip her hips. “My Oudoukou-chan…” he murmured, his eyes going glassy, and his grip immediately slackening off for several seconds before tightening painfully again. Around the room several things rattled in their places and the necklace around his mistresses neck twitched as well, drawing his attention back to her breasts.

“See, my lord? It works already…you will have more power than your predecessors in no time, and then all of the Five Countries will have to bow to your might…even arrogant Konoha.”

“Their Kage will be the first to fall.” He muttered.

“Yes, then you will be Kage of TWO kingdoms.” She purred leaning down to nuzzle at his neck a bit.

“Two…”

“Two. There are other things we have to take care of first though, my lord…We must remove the weaknesses from your own land to make way for stronger things…” a smirk curved her lips as her fingers trailed delicately over his chest and into his robes, but he couldn’t see it as her face was still buried in his neck. “Things that can be born already holding the strength you are even now gaining…things that won’t question you or your orders or your missions…things that won’t defy you with their very existence…” She gently took his hand and placed it under hers on her abdomen. “Things that are superior for being yours and mine.”

He swallowed heavily, his eyes still glassy, “…and Iwa will rue the day they cast you out, and gave your brilliant scientific mind to me.”

“Mmm, yes. Yes they will.” She’d have to be a little more careful with her actions from now on lest Orochimaru or his minions continued to be displeased with how she was handing this assignment, but she wasn’t about to abandon her own ambitions entirely.

Is anyone here besides yvorazz3986 still reading this? XD

Interlude: All Good Things Must Come to an End by Baal of Yarns

Interlude: All Good Things Must Come to an End

Jiraiya had eventually decided that it was safe for Naruto to wonder around Suna as much as he wanted as long as he was in the company of the Sand Siblings. He’d gotten to spend a lot of time with them, and they had all gotten to know each other pretty well. Gaara was proving really trustworthy, much to Jiraiya’s relief. Even though he was slowly growing closer to his older brother and sister, he hadn’t given away Naruto’s secrets. This combined with what was arguably the best poker face on the planet, made him the ideal confidant for the Senju. Naruto was really glad to have someone his age he could actually TALK to about this stuff that would understand. It had really helped him a lot, and though Gaara didn't say much, he thought Shukaku's vessel was appreciative of that too.

“Pack up, Chibi! We’re leaving tomorrow.” Jiraiya told his student late one morning, two weeks after they’d arrived. The trail of Orochimaru’s servant had gone completely cold almost immediately after the Sannin’s presence had become well known, just as he feared it would. He’d stuck around this long hoping to find out if the man was still in the area and what he’d been up to, but unless the guy was in the Kazekage tower – the one place Jiraiya’s spy network was a little weak, there was no sign of him in Suna.

“Do we have to? I really like it here!” He’d been making progress with his wind affinity, and he and Temari had hammered out some decent fuuton jutsu. He thought he might be able to try combining what he’d learned with Ivy soon, and that would be REALLY badass, especially since his experiments with her and earth jutsu seemed to be working...sometimes.

On that note, Ivy snaked out from under his shirt and tried to throttle him for questioning Jiraiya’s new travel plans. She was obviously eager to leave, and willing to get violent about it. He managed to wrestle her back into place after only a few moments. She didn’t have the energy in this environment to put up much of a fight if he denied her anything but the chakra he was subconsciously exuding, which was her primary nourishment. He’d figured out how to keep her from drawing from his actual reserves once he’d gotten the Shodai’s necklace from his kaa-san, and it had been one of the most useful and practical discoveries since he'd gotten her!

“Yes. We’ve been here too long as it is.” The older man affirmed, greatly amused to see someone ELSE, especially NARUTO, get assaulted by that bitchy plant for once, “so you’d better see if you can drag Gaara away from Chiyo’s retreat and say goodbye to his pretty sister – women hate it when you leave them hanging.” He winked suggestively.

“Jeeze, you’ve such a pervert! I’m only 11 and she’s only 13!” He pointed out. “We’re not like that!”

“Hey, that’s not much of an age difference, and let me tell you, mature women have the advantage of experience! Also, at your age, the older ladies have more curves, which is ALWAYS a plus! Besides, she wouldn’t be spending all day, every day she's free, with you if she weren’t interested.”

Naruto sputtered incoherently, his cheeks tinged pink. “I’m telling Gaara you’re perv-ing on his sister! He’s going to have a Sabaku Soso with your name on it!”

“Hey now! I’m not the one who’s spent the past two weeks crawling all over the girl!” Jiraiya pointed out, not too keen on a Desert Funeral.

“She’s teaching me WIND jutsu, and we’ve been sparing! You said I should practice using my wind chakra, and I AM!” Naruto sputtered, “There’s nothing inappropriate going on!”

“Sure…that’s what you say, but you forget! I’m a man too, I know how we think!”

“I don’t think like that!” the boy wailed. He was young enough that he wasn’t quite sure yet that girls really didn’t have cooties, though Temari-chan was a bit less annoying than most kunoichi, and she could kick ass which was always a plus…an inexplicable blush crossed his cheeks, tinting the dark green markings on his face slightly purple where it touched them.

“Heh…my godson, the ladies man!” Comical tears dripped down the Sannin’s face, “I’m so proud! She’s the Kazekage’s daughter, you know! With her and Nina-chan, you’re almost collecting princesses!”

Temari and Kankuro let themselves into the visitor’s hotel room just in time to see Naruto kick his sensei in the shin with a touch of freakish strength.

“Er, are we interrupting something?” The older boy asked. His sister just snickered at the pervert’s yowl of pain.

“No.” Naruto grinned, coming over to join the siblings. “Come on, let’s go get Gaara! We have to have a going away ramen eating contest!”

“Going away?” Temari asked, sounding a little disappointed. “You’re leaving already?” He’d been such a good influence on Gaara-kun, and he was much more fun to spar with than Kankuro. Besides…he was a little less pathetic than most of the other men around the village. She had to be honest with herself…she’d miss him – at least a little, and deep down she was kind of afraid her little brother might revert back to his old self without the other boy around.

“Yeah. Ero-jiji says we have to leave tomorrow.” The blond leaf-nin led them out of the hotel and towards the retreat where Chiyo-baasan and her brother hid themselves away from the world – at least until Gaara had waltzed in and refused to be removed. To say he’d become obsessed with the art of seal making was like saying Tsunade sucked at gambling. He said he liked how orderly seals were and that they were interesting to study while everyone else was sleeping. He hadn’t learned enough to alter his Bijuu seal yet, but he was working on something simpler involving keeping ice cream cold in a scroll, and he’d been inking strange characters on a ramen bowl all week. Temari was afraid to ask.

Even though the old crone had promised to help him devise a way to strengthen his seal if he swore he’d leave her alone afterwards, Naruto was pretty sure she secretly liked his visits. As far as he could tell, the most exciting things that ever happened to the two geezers before they’d shown up were the pranks Chiyo-baasan pulled on her brother by making him think she’d died. Naruto had come to kind of like the old biddy, even if she had flown off the handle a bit after she’d learned that he was Tsunade’s son. He shuddered at the memory and made a mental note to get the story out of his mother later. Chiyo-baasama was carrying a pretty big chip around for the Slug Sannin.

They finally reached the building perched high in the rocks, and Naruto opened the door without bothering to knock – they wouldn’t answer anyway, and then instinctively ducked the book the old bag chucked at his head. Unfortunately, Kankuro didn’t have his dodging reflexes, and Temari’s hand on his collar was the only thing that saved the puppet-wielding genin a painful tumble back down the way they’d come. She rolled her eyes – boys were pathetic sometimes.

“Get out of my tower, BRAT, and take that slug-girl’s filthy son with you!” She screeched, pushing Gaara towards the exit. His expression didn’t change, but he allowed himself to be strong-armed to the door. Chiyo-sama just couldn’t get used to having visitors.

Naruto looked critically down at his clothes; he wasn’t dirty! He’d showered that morning, and just gotten his laundry back from the maid service the night before. Well, maybe a little sand around the cuffs…

“You’re fine, baka!” Temari cuffed him upside the head like she often did to her siblings – well, more Kankuro than Gaara, but her youngest brother had earned his first one just yesterday when he’d innocently asked her if all women felt the need to rage at men like harpies or if it were just her and Chiyo-baasama. He hadn’t quite gotten the hang of “tact” yet, but she was sure she’d be able to beat it into him eventually.

“I will return after lunch, Chiyo-sama.” Gaara stated, experience making him quickly close the door as he exited. The sound of miscellaneous objects thumping against the surface moments later proved his action prudent. His sand would have defended him effortlessly, but Kankuro had almost fallen to his death once already this morning, so he thought he’d spare the rest of the party the indignity of dodging various household goods.

Naruto rubbed his head where Temari had hit him and grinned at the other Jinchuuriki. “Kankuro’s treating me to ramen for my last day in Suna!”

“WHAT?! NO I’M NOT!” The black suited boy wailed.

Gaara’s face twitched into a slight frown, “You are leaving already?”

“Yeah, afraid so.” Naruto put his hands behind his head and started walking back down the way they’d come. He was pretty hungry. “We can write each other and stuff, though! You’ll have to keep me updated on the whole seal thing.” Seals were way too boring for him. He had enough complex studies with his medic texts.

The redhead slipped between his siblings to walk close beside his first and only real friend, “You will visit sometimes?”

“Of course! Suna and Konoha are allies, after all! I’m sure we’ll get to see lots of each other.” He gave the other boy a friendly slap on the back. “Besides, you probably won’t even miss me now that a few of the villagers are starting to get over their fears!”

Gaara stopped so suddenly at that, that Temari and Kankuro almost ran into him. It took Naruto a moment to realize they weren’t following him anymore, and he spun back to see what the problem was. Gaara’s head was down, and his messy bangs shadowed his eyes, “Hey-hey! What’s wrong?”

“Do not say that.” He slowly looked up, and there was more emotion on his face than Naruto had seen him display since his revelations following their fight. “I will never forget you and what you have done for me, even if I am Kazekage someday and all of Wind Country acknowledges my existence!”

Naruto’s attitude immediately changed to mirror his seriousness, and he nodded, extending his hand to the other boy, who tentatively took it. “I won’t forget you either. It’s a promise.” They shook on it, hands clasped firmly. “-and hey! You can become Kazekage, and maybe I’ll be Hokage, and Suna and Konoha can be even better allies!”

Gaara blinked, he hadn’t really meant to imply he wanted that position, “But—“

“Nope! We shook on it!” The blond grinned, the humorless demeanor slipping back into his more light-hearted one. “It’s the job of the strong to protect our precious people, and it’s having precious people that makes you strong! That’s why a Kage is the strongest ninja in a village, because everyone is precious to them! If we work hard, we’ll get everyone’s respect and together, we could easily become Kage!”

Gaara blinked as that idea settled into his head, “Hn…”

“Like everyone doesn’t respect you already, Naruto. It’s not like you have a furry little parasite like Gaara.” Kankuro rolled his eyes and shoved at the two of them to get them moving again, not seeing the look they shot each other. Temari sighed at the slight bought of roughhousing that ensued.

“You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you if you’re going to be Kazekage, Gaara!” His brother continued once the scuffle had ended, grinning at him and throwing an arm around his shoulder. Kankuro was happy to notice that the sand in Gaara's gourd didn’t even react that time. It was becoming more used to friendly contact, and the Jinchuuriki was getting much better at controlling its reactions.

The younger boy’s face remained stoic for a moment, then a very tiny wistful smile quirked one side of his lips. “Hn…but it will be worth it.” He murmured quietly.

Something had to be done about their father, after all. While Gaara was extremely confident in his ability to protect himself – his defeat at Naruto’s hands was a fluke of the Senju’s bloodline – his siblings were normal, fragile humans, and since they’d been getting along better, he’d been privy to their conversations about how difficult and dangerous they had found their recent missions. He had to agree with them. It looked like someone fairly high up was trying to quietly get the two older Kage’s children killed along with their formerly unstable little brother.

He hadn’t found the news shocking in the least - actually, he'd been a bit surprised that he hadn't NOTICED, but then, it wasn't exactly a new scenario for him. He was used to thinking of their father as someone willing to assassinate his children without dirtying his own hands. That said, Gaara would do everything in his power to protect his siblings from their father and whoever else was involved with this, if anyone. He wasn't about to lose any of the few precious people he'd managed to procure against the odds of his birth.

That night as Naruto was gathering his crap together that had somehow been strewn all around the hotel room despite the short length of their stay, Jiraiya called him over to stand in front of him while he settled on the bed. “Turn your head to the side, Brat, and hold still.”

“Why?” Naruto asked, curious.

“Because I’m your sensei, and I said so!” Jiraiya quipped, grabbing his jaw and tilting his face the way he wanted it until Naruto held it there himself. The sennin reached into his vest and pulled out the project he’d first started thinking about 8 years ago when Naruto had fallen out of a tree after being stung by bees. Before the kid could see what he was doing or lose patience with him, he jabbed one end of the seal covered hoop earring into his ear, quickly piercing the lobe and locking the hoop together.

“OW!! What the HELL!” Naruto squealed, jumping backwards.

Jiraiya frowned, “Get back here, Gaki, I’m not done yet!”

“No WAY! You just stuck a piece of metal through my ear!” He reached up to try to pull the thing out, but it almost seemed to slip through his fingers.

“It’s the tracking seal I’ve been working on for your mom, now let me put the cuff in and activate it so I can do mine!”

“What?!”

Jiraiya rolled his eyes, “Can’t you just trust me on this one? You hate it when I try to explain seals to you. You’d rather stick your nose in those medical texts of your mother’s!”

“That was before you started putting bits of metal through my body without my permission!”

“Hey, it was part of your deal with Tsunade-chan that you’d wear this once I figured it out, if she let you become a Konoha ninja, or have you forgotten?” The old man pointed out. "Now get back here."

Naruto’s eyes narrowed, “Not until you explain it to me!”

“Fine.” Jiraiya sighed and held out his palm, which held an ear cuff, carved intricately with seals and a short, dangling jewelry chain. “I put this in the top of your ear, like any other cuff, then I connect it to the hoop I just put in. That will attune the two. I wear an identical hoop – and give one to your mother – and they sort of connect us to your earrings.” He wasn’t about to go into the theory – it was one of his best pieces of seal work and the brilliance of it would be totally lost on his godson.

“If we want to know how you are, we just feel the hoop, putting a little chakra into it, and it will pulse with your heart beat to let us know how you’re doing. This can’t be tapped into like other tracking methods, and only the people these monitoring earrings are specially attuned to can use them. Even if someone else got a hold of mine or your Kaa-san’s, they wouldn’t be more than pretty pieces of jewelry to them.”

“That’s it?” Naruto narrowed his eyes, “it took you almost 8 years to come up with an individual specific heart monitor?”

The Sannin growled and lunged at his pupil, wrestling him to the bed and attaching the cuff, though he nearly lost a limb to Ivy in the process. “No, that’s not all! It will also give us a sense of what direction you’re located in, AND it can’t be ripped out or broken! It’s got its own little barrier once it’s activated. This way if you go blabbing your secrets to the wrong people and manage to get yourself grabbed by Akatsuki or the Snake Bastard, we’ll be able find you. Besides, it’s not like that’s the ONLY thing I was working on all these years! I’d have had it done much more quickly if I’d focused on it exclusively, Brat!”

Naruto sat up and glared at him petulantly while rubbing his now throbbing ear. He quickly activated a healing jutsu to seal off the tiny wounds. Cartilage piercings HURT, and he definitely didn’t want an infection. “Hey, even YOU admitted that Gaara was trustworthy. You know I don’t just go around singing out my secrets to random people on the street. We’ve already had that argument so it’s not fair to bring it up over and over!”

“I’ll bring it up as often as I think is necessary to keep you from risking yourself like that again! Even if you only tell other Jinchuuriki, that’s still six or seven other times you could be overheard or betrayed. I’m deadly serious about this.” The older man growled.

“I know, and I promised not to do it again! Jeeze. I’ll never live that down.” Naruto muttered.

“Not if it saves your life someday, you won’t.” Jiraiya agreed, “—but your mom and I will feel much better with this precaution in place.” He reached over and flicked at the hoop, causing Naruto to flinch away and scowl at him some more.

“It’s not going to spy on me or let you talk to me in my head or something stupid like that, is it?” He grumbled.

Jiraiya rolled his eyes, “Don’t be so paranoid, and give Kankuro back his freaky science fiction books. They're obviously giving you strange ideas.” He calmly exchanged his normal earring for one identical to the genin’s, then sent a pulse of chakra through the whole set-up which had been primed by Naruto’s blood when his ear had been pierced. A glance at the boy told him he didn’t feel a thing, but the Sannin could distinctly get a general sense of the kid’s well-being through the small bit of metal, almost like a tiny medic-nin’s diagnostic jutsu. It was a little more extensive than a ‘heart monitor’, but the brat didn’t need to know that. Learning that medic-jutsu and figuring out the seal sequence for a similar effect was actually what had taken him the most time on this thing!

Naruto was still pouting, so the older man scooted over to him and roughed up his hair, “Don’t be like that. If Akatsuki or someone nabs you, don’t you want us to be able to get you out before they can dig the fur-ball out of your belly?” He poked the kid in the stomach right over the seal making him squirm off the bed.

“Stop it!” Naruto straightened out his shirt and calmed Ivy down. She had gotten used to the sennin over the years, but he’d never be her favorite person, especially if he kept dragging her energy supply off to horrible places like this desert! Luckily for Jiraiya, she didn’t really want to move in this heat to punish him for touching her chakra source again.

“It’ll make your mom feel a lot better about you being a ninja if she can know when you’re hurt and quickly track you down to help if she needs to.” The old man pointed out gently, when Naruto showed no signs of coming out of his pout.

The kid sighed and reached up to itch at the new jewelry. “I guess, but It’s not fair that you guys can know when I’m safe, but I can’t keep track of you, and this feels like it’s just begging to get caught on things.” He pointed out.

“Well, now that I know how to do it, I might be able to make more of these things eventually. We might talk about getting your mom one, alright? As for getting caught on things, that chain is short for a reason, and that’s what the protections on it are for.”

“Well, okay. If you can make a copy for Kaa-san, can you make one for you too?” Naruto asked, looking up at his only real male role model.

Jiraiya felt weirdly touched, though the idea of a genin, even one as talented and battle-genius as his student was, someday needing to protect a Sannin of his caliber was kind of laughable. He wanted to flat out tell him ‘no’. It would be ridiculous and dangerous if Naruto thought he needed to come charging in every time Tsunade or he had a paper-cut, or were involved in a fight that was out of his league.

He could understand where the kid was coming from though. “We’ll see, but it’s the job of the adults to look after the kids – not the other way around – and sometimes things are necessary and you shouldn’t be poking your nose into them, so you hardly need to know about them. I’ll think about it, though, if it’ll make you feel better.”

“Thanks, Jiji. That means a lot of me.” Naruto grinned, and then reluctantly resumed packing. They’d be leaving really early in the morning because Jiraiya wanted to put some miles between them and Suna before the sun got too high and it got too hot to travel. He’d already had to say goodbye to his friends, though he had a feeling Gaara would see them off at the gates anyway. He wished he could keep track of them somehow too. It was too bad these earring things seemed so hard to make – it would be awesome if he could keep track of all of his precious people all the time. Losing someone close to him was his greatest fear – even more so than bees.

Long before the sun rose the next day, Naruto and Jiraiya cleaned out their room and checked out at the front desk before trekking their way through the quiet streets towards Suna’s main gate. At the Sannin’s side, Naruto let out a soft sigh that wasn’t missed by his godfather.

“Hey, cheer up, kiddo. You’ll see them again.” The older man reached over and affectionately ruffled the blond’s hair.

“I know, and I’m really excited to see Kaa-san and ‘Zune again… but these are the first really close friends my own age that I’ve ever met, and I’m pretty worried about them with all the weird stuff happening here.”

“Gaara will take care of them, and your girl’s a spit-fire! She can protect of herself.” Jiraiya pointed out. “She’d hit you if she knew you were talking like that.”

Naruto rolled his eyes, “She’s NOT my girl; she’s my friend! You can have girls that are just friends, you know!”

“Hmm….” Jiraiya, rubbed his chin, “Well, maybe until you hit puberty, but after that, it’s definitely impossible.” He grinned. “I’d bet you I’m right, but with your weird luck, you’d have to win the bet so it might turn you gay. I’m not risking it, because then I’d definitely have no one to pass my secret research techniques on to!”

“ERO-JIJI!”

“Hey, hey! I’m just kidding. Jeeze. Kids are so sensitive now’a’days.”

“Naruto.”

Jiraiya and the named genin both jumped at Gaara’s sudden voice out of the darkness. ‘Damn that kid is sneaky.’ The Sannin thought.

“Gaara! I thought I told you not to DO that!” Naruto gasped, grasping his shirt over his frantically beating heart. That damn sand teleportation jutsu was just plain cheating.

“Hn.” Shukaku’s Jinchuuriki apologized. “I wished to see you off.”

Jiraiya walked a few paces ahead to give them some space to say their goodbyes.

“Thanks, Gaara.” Naruto smiled at him, “I’m going to miss you, but we’ll definitely keep in touch.”

The other boy nodded, and rummaged around in the pouch at his waist for a moment before pulling out two items; a book, and an oddly painted bowl. “These are for you.”

“Huh? You got me something?” Naruto accepted the objects and looked them over closely. The book was actually hand-written and seemed to be filled with tons of low to high-level wind techniques in Temari’s sharp, confident scrawl.

“The bowl is from Kankuro and I. The book was made by Temari.”

“Hey! How cool! These are all the wind jutsu me and your sister have been talking about!” He flipped through the pages for a moment, scanning the names of each attack or defense. Temari had taught him some of them already, like Fuuton: Daitoppa, the Great Breakthrough technique that let you level most things with a huge blast of wind. Some of the stuff in there wasn’t very useful for someone without a fan, but still, it was a really precious gift from one ninja to another. It showed a lot of trust for Temari to give him a copy of one of Suna’s technique books, especially a technique book with her own special moves listed inside. “This is—Gaara, are you sure she meant for me to have this?”

“Hn. She said you would need all the help you could get to match her next time when she will have her new hand-to-hand battle fans.” She’d taken the chakra-conductive weapons discussion to heart and requisitioned a set of fan-shaped blades that very week.

“Wow…well, tell her thank you. I mean it. I’ll take really good care of it.” He fit action to words and slipped the small book carefully into his pack so it couldn’t be damaged by the blowing sands just outside the gate. With that done, he began to look over the bowl from Gaara and Kankuro. It was shaped like a ramen bowl, but the inside was covered in the extremely neat and precise symbols Naruto could already recognize as Gaara’s painting of fuuinjutsu. “Seals? What’s this do?” He asked, unable to fathom what you’d need a seal on a ramen bowl for.

“Boiling water.” The red-head answered. “I was distressed to realize instant ramen would not be practical rations on missions in the desert.”

Naruto gasped, hearts appearing in his eyes as he gazed raptly down at what was likely the coolest gift EVER. “You mean--?”

“Hn. My first original seal. Kankuro purchased the pottery. When you activate the array, you will instantly have hot water for noodles.”

Naruto almost felt like tearing up, but lunged at Gaara and gave him a big hug instead. Ivy crunched irritably between them, and Shukaku began whistling ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.’ Gaara winced, but he was becoming used to it.

“I don’t know how to thank you! This—This is SO cool!!”

“Remember us when you use it.” Gaara said, not daring to mention in public like this the things he had to thank the other boy for, instead placing his own hand discreetly over his own navel, where Naruto’s seal was located on the other boy’s body.

“I will. I promise.” Naruto grinned hugely and wiped at his eyes. “Chiyo-baasan must be really proud of how far you’ve come with seals in such a short amount of time!”

Gaara decided not to reply to that one. He was fairly certain Chiyo-baasama wouldn’t be at all impressed with his first practical application of what she was teaching him, so he hadn’t exactly told her about this project.

He had to agree though, it was very ‘cool.’ He’d made two of them for himself, just in case one of them broke.

Seals were very useful.

“Whew!” Shizune climbed down the ramp from the ship onto the icy shore of Snow Country, absently adjusting her chakra output to keep her warmer while smoothing down her nice, toasty parka. An evil and slightly malicious smile curved her lips until she turned around to face her very uncomfortable looking mentor with her usual sweet expression planted firmly on her face, “Isn’t it beautiful, Tsunade-sama?”

The blonde Sannin stomped down after her, TonTon shivering miserably in her arms. “No. It’s cold.” She flatly stated, already starting to shiver slightly in the below freezing temperatures despite her equally warm manner of dress. “I said I was sorry! Don’t you think this is going a little too far?”

“Too far? Tsunade-sama, I’m ashamed of you. You said we could go ANYWHERE I wanted for the year to make up for you heartlessly leaving me all alone when you went to Konoha, cruelly not so much as scribbling down a note to let me know where everyone had gone! I was traumatized. This is only fair…and I LIKE winter. You don’t get to complain that we’re doing what I want to do for once. That was the deal.”

Tsunade whimpered, “but…it’s cold… I hate snow.”

“I know.” Shizune smiled in a disturbingly innocent manner. “Isn’t it wonderful? I don’t think they even have casinos here.”

Tsunade hadn’t ever realized her mild-mannered apprentice had such a fucking huge cruel streak… She made a mental note to never do anything like that again, or at least if she did, not to say anything to the tune of ‘What can I do to make it up to you?’ afterwards. She really should have known better.

The wind blew so hard against them that ice crystals stung her cheeks, and she had to glue her feet to the ground with chakra to keep from staggering. Trapped here, in the horrible land of eternal winter for a YEAR? Tsunade was sure she’d go insane within the WEEK. There was nothing to do but heal ice-fishermen, and nothing to see but endless stretches of snow and ice covered rocks. If she knew Shizune, and she did after all these years, no amount of whining was going to get them back to warmer climates, so she supposed she’d just have to suck it up. They’d be stuck here until moving back to Konoha since they had promised Jiraiya they wouldn’t move around so that he and Naruto could easily find them.

Even TonTon was giving her dirty looks over this one. It wasn’t fair that the pig blamed her for this predicament. This DEFINITELY wasn’t her idea! Grr. Stupid apprentices taking advantage of the kind-hearted and generous nature of their sensei to maliciously drag them to such god-forsaken places where there was literally nothing to do but shiver and work all day. She really did have the worst luck.


A/N: Well, there you have it. No more Suna for a while - that particular plot needs some more time to bake before it's ready to come out of the oven. ;) We're back to Konoha in the next chapter!  Thanks to everyone who let me know you were still out there and reading!  I really appreciate it. :)

Chapter 18: The Beginning of the Middle by Baal of Yarns

A/N: I somehow got behind by a chapter on this site, so I'll be putting another part up in just a few days.  I apologize for the mix-up!  Also, the art for this chapter isn't really a "title art" just a silly doodle I did a while ago.  I didn't have time for title art this time around, but I wanted to leave you with something.  ;)  


Chapter 18: The Beginning of the Middle

Jiraiya and Naruto were in and out of Konoha several times during the period between their departure from Suna and the promised permanent move back to the village. Naruto didn’t improve nearly as much as he’d have liked within that time – his standards were pretty high, but his mother’s necklace and the non-stop leaf-cutting chakra exercise he was doing to get a grip on his wind ability had made it possible for him to be in a forest without getting molested by the greenery. …if he were really careful not to draw the attention of the plants.

He’d actually been really confident when he’d left Suna that the wind training was already paying off, but the extra marking on his hand he’d gotten in his fight with Gaara, while still not fully dark, had given his annoying kekkei genkai enough of a boost to throw his estimations off once he got out of the desert. Sometimes he felt like he was getting kicked two steps back every time he managed to stagger forwards a little. Intellectually, he knew that power boosts were never bad in the long run, but he wished he could stop getting them long enough to get control of what he already had. This was ridiculous!

Despite that, he WAS making progress. He still couldn’t cut a leaf entirely in half, but he was beginning to get a “feel” for the difference between the elements. It was just a few more steps until he could separate out the wind affinity and consciously access his bloodline limit. It felt like it was on the tips of his fingers, just out of reach. Like if he could just learn forwards a little bit more, he could grasp it in his hands.

He’d noticed a hyper-awareness of botanical things lately, like a muted sixth sense, and sometimes Ivy actually seemed to anticipate what he needed her to do instead of just acting on her own. He COULD run some chakra through her now, but he hadn’t gotten up the nerve to try elemental chakra. He didn’t want to end up shredding her to bits instead of performing a jutsu…

Aside from the wind training, and practicing the jutsu from Temari’s book, he hadn’t done much else. Jiraiya felt it was too important for him to have control of his kekkei genkai to muck around with other things, but he was dying to work out some other combos with Ivy. The leaf cutting exercise was pretty convenient as far as training techniques to be stuck on though, with all the travel the old sennin had made them do. Naruto could practice with a leaf as they walked, as Jiraiya talked to his contacts, or while the old pervert was performing his perverted ‘research’ for his latest novel.

As far as the Toad Sage was concerned, with this regimen everyone was a winner, though he knew Naruto was thoroughly SICK of it. So what if it was kind of the lazy way out? Jiraiya hadn’t had an actual apprentice since Naruto’s father was a cute little genin; he grudgingly had to admit to himself that he was a little out of practice and maybe a little too old for this. Training the kid here and there, every now and then, whenever he was in town had been fun, but there was just so much he needed to do that he was afraid to drag Naruto into for fear of the danger to an genin in general and someone in Naruto’s peculiar position in particular.

Nevertheless, it was in much better spirits than the first time that the Legendary Jiraiya of the Sannin and his newest protégé reentered the Village of Hidden Leaves. The kid was practically bouncing to see his mother and aunt again. It had been almost two months since they’d caught up with the women in a comparatively large tourist and trading town near the southern shore of Snow Country. This had been the longest the brat had ever gone without some contact with the female portion of his strange little family and he was getting antsy.

“Calm down, Gaki. They probably aren’t even here yet. If they got caught up in helping out with the avalanche victims – there’s been an unusually high amount of those lately, they may not get here for a while.” Jiraiya chided his apprentice as he riffled through his pockets for their paperwork.

“Really? Damn it.” Naruto sighed, “I knew they were bad this year – there’d already been a few last time we were up there – but I didn’t know they’d gotten worse. I wonder what’s causing them? The weather hasn’t been any harsher than usual according to the ice-fishermen I talked to while we were waiting for the boat.” He pouted for a moment, then began to tap his foot impatiently as Jiraiya continued to dig unfruitfuly through his various scrolls and books. What was taking his sensei so long? The old pervert insisted that Naruto couldn’t be trusted with the paperwork, but they went through something similar to this every time they tried to enter a ninja village.

Jiraiya finally found the wayward things tucked between the pages of his latest manuscript right at the part where Haruko confesses to Taku that she—

Naruto cocked his leg back and sent Ero-jiji sailing into the wall, forming a nice sized crater slightly larger than his body and sending messily scrawled pages of erotica floating gently on the breeze. He wasn’t about to wait for the pervert to giggle over his own crappy writing when he could get getting inside the village and finally settling in to one place. A year of traveling had seemed like fun at the time, but it had gotten old. He wanted to just be with his family again. Hearing that they probably weren’t waiting for him put a huge damper on his mood.

“Hey Ero-sensei! Stop perving over your own dirty novels and give the men the papers!” He snipped, patience gone, as he bent over to snatch up a random sheet from the small stack now fluttering by.

Jiraiya peeled himself out of the stonework with practiced ease and dusted himself off, “Meh, so impatient! Can’t you show some respect for your poor Sensei?”

“Poor? Those dirty books make you richer than some of the smaller countries’ daimyo! Give the chuunin the damn papers!” Jiraiya was willing to swear the kid got more and more like his mother every day.

“Jeeze, don’t rush me!” The manuscript was quickly gathered back into a messy stack, and tucked back into his vest with habitual ease. Jiraiya straightened up and sent a glare at his student before turning back to the gate guards.

The chuunin with the spiky black hair and loose bandage over his nose – the Toad Sage never could remember his name – looked torn somewhere between his job of verifying their passports and gaping at the 4 and a half foot tall brat that could put a Sannin through a wall with a single hit.

Kotetsu guessed that answered his question from last year as to the kid’s ability to use his mother’s strength.

“You’re scaring the poor gate guards, Brat!” Jiraiya pointed out.

“Eh?” Naruto blinked at Kotetsu and Izumo, his whole attitude doing a 180 as a grin split his face, “Oops! I guess I’m so used to fulfilling my promise to Kaa-san that I don’t even notice when I have to beat you up.”

“Che’ Brat.” The Sage growled and swatted at the boy’s head. It had been Tsunade’s contribution to Naruto’s training that she’d made him promise to hit Jiraiya with freakish strength every time he was perverted or stupid. He got in a lot of practice, and his chakra control had become pretty damn good. When he stopped putting chakra through those weight straps of his, he was actually nearly as physically strong as his mother was without chakra enhancement, and definitely a good deal faster. “As if you could beat me up. You’ve got about a 100 years to go before you get that good.”

Izumo tentatively inched forwards and took the paperwork from Jiraiya so he could start validating it while they continued to banter.

“That’s only because you’re about 100 years OLDER than me, PERVERT – OLD PERVERT!” Jiraiya was going to strangle that kid someday, godson and Minato’s legacy or not. He couldn’t wait until the brat got through puberty. No mature man could deny the awesomeness that was his Icha Icha series!

“I’ll have you know your precious ‘Kaa-san’ is three months OLDER than I am! And how many times do I have to beat it into your head before you show your sensei some RESPECT?”

Kotetsu watched the proceedings like a spectator at a tennis match.

“Yeah, well I’ll respect you as soon as you start respecting women! AND at least Kaa-san doesn’t look all wrinkly and gross like you do! It’s no wonder you have to stalk girls all the time. If they saw you coming, they’d definitely run away!”

“Er, your paperwork looks fine Jiraiya-sama, Naruto-sama. If you want to go on in now…” Izumo bravely attempted to interrupt after clearing his throat.

“LADIES LOVE ME YOU LITTLE BRAT! Every man wishes he were as charming and handsome as I am! I’ll have you know, I score ALL THE TIME.”

Kotetsu looked a little like he was going to be sick.

“Paying for it doesn’t count! If being a man means aspiring to be like you, I’m more than happy to be a BRAT!” Naruto took their papers from the nervous looking chuunin without even glancing in his direction.

“Good, because with an attitude like yours, you’ll probably be a gaki forever! Someone’s definitely going to kill you for your mouth one of these days you stupid punk!” They turned and started into Konoha proper.

“I get the feeling that happens a lot.” Kotetsu told his partner. They could still hear the arguing pair going at each other as they got farther away.

“Yeah. It might be cute that they show their affection like that…you know, if there weren’t as many swear words and crude references to anatomy involved.”

“And the threats of grievous bodily harm.”

“Oh yeah, those too. I think they’ve been traveling together just a little too long.”

“Here are the keys to your apartment, Naruto-kun.” The Sandaime handed them over his desk. Jiraiya and the boy had arrived with their usual fanfare and immediately been shown in so no one else had to put up with them while they waited. Naruto had done a lot of growing up in the past year aside from the obvious physical differences. His hair was a bit more spiked back at the front, probably as a concession to his mother to try to look a little less like his father while in Konoha, and he’d gained several inches, though he was still rather short.

Sarutobi privately thought Jiraiya was having a hard time dealing with the fact that a child he’d had a hand in raising was trying to gain more independence and growing away from his mentors, as all children eventually had to do. Sarutobi was very familiar with the consequences of not knowing how to let go and trust one’s son. In the end, you could only give your children the tools they would need to strike out on their own, and have faith in them to use those tools well.

He hoped the Toad Sage learned to deal with their new roles before it developed into a rift they couldn’t easily bridge as it had between he and Asuma. He had no doubt that Jiraiya thought of the boy like his own blood, and as such, was a little too close to the situation to see the whole picture. Naruto was turning into a fine ninja, developing a careful balance between efficiency on the battlefield and not losing himself or his values. Still, some time apart would undoubtedly serve the two rather well.

He wondered how Tsunade was dealing with her ‘precious baby boy’s’ changes? The thought almost made him chuckle.

“I know your mother and aunt will be moving here as well rather soon, but I’ve received word that they were caught up with an emergency in Snow Country and may not make it back until the season changes enough to cut back on the occurrences. Their weather has been harsh, as I’m sure you know, with several strange disasters. They’ve been caught up in helping to aid the victims and can’t in good conscious, leave right now. That’s why I’ve taken the liberty of finding you a place to stay near the training grounds where many of our shinobi live. If you like, you can move in with Tsunade-chan and Shizune when they return, but I thought a smaller flat might suit you better for now.”

“I’d recommend you keep your own place, Kid.” Jiraiya said. “You and your Mom are probably going to be keeping pretty different hours if she accepts a position here as Sensei’s successor or at the hospital. You’ll be gone for missions and training with your new team. Besides, this might be your only chance short of getting hitched. If it were up to Shizune-chan and Tsunade-hime, you’d NEVER be allowed to move out.”

“I dunno, Ero-Jiji. I was really looking forward to seeing Kaa-san and ‘Zune again,” he sighed, “but thanks for the apartment Old Man. Hmm, if it’s just me,” A sudden notion seemed to strike him, and his demeanor did another turn around, “…this means I can get a CAT!” Naruto grinned. Ivy wouldn’t be pleased, but she’d have to deal because he’d always wanted a cat. His mom had just never let him have one. Cats were awesome and mean, and he’d heard they sometimes ate bees. Also, they slept on your feet and kept them warm. Naruto shared his mother’s hatred of the cold, and while he had grown grudgingly fond of Ivy and now found her pretty useful, she wasn’t a good bed warmer.

Jiraiya and Sarutobi sweat dropped. “Um, yes, Naruto-kun. The apartment complex does allow small pets.”

‘He’s grown up a lot, but he’s still very young.’ The Hokage thought with a slight smile. It was good to see it. He had grown fond of the child the few times they’d met, and he always felt a little guilty at the lost childhoods of ninja like Kakashi. Naruto showed similar promise, but he seemed to have retained some of that bright spirit. He was truly a remarkable boy.

“Awesome!” Naruto did a little victory dance. Ivy rustled in irritation.

“Er, well. I’ll let you go and get settled in. Iruka can show you where it is. Do you remember him?”

“Hmm,” Naruto thought, “OH, yeah, he was the teacher who gave me my Academy tests!”

Sandaime nodded, “Yes, he was. His students graduated two days ago, and since the teams have been finalized, he is helping out at the Tower until school goes back in session in a few weeks. Maybe he can tell you about your part-time teammates and their Jounin-sensei. Sasuke-kun and Sakura-chan passed their genin test earlier today.”

“Wait a minute, their Jounin-sensei, and part-time teammates? How’s that work?” The blond frowned a bit.

“Well, I’m sure he and the other Jounin around the village will be happy to teach you things as well, but Jiraiya is still officially your sensei. According to the progress reports he’s been sending me, you are a good deal more experienced than a typical academy graduate, as you should be after officially being a genin for a year, so we are treating this more like a team transfer and loose assignment than a permanent position as sometimes happens with ninja after their first chuunin exam. Kakashi will be more like your captain than your sensei, when you work with Team 7, and they will be working as a three-man cell instead of the typical four when you are assigned other things.”

He puffed a few times on his pipe, and then continued, “You will have a short introductory period with your ‘official’ team before we start giving you other things to do. Learning to cooperate with small groups is a large part of being a rookie genin in Konoha, but they will do just as well with three instead of four for lighter missions, and you will get to learn to get along with a variety of groups rather than a single unit. I talked it out with the Jounin sensei of teams around your age group, and they agree with me that it wouldn’t necessarily be good for any of you to lump someone with you r experience permanently in with a greener team, nor would it benefit the village to restrict your skills to rookie missions. Specifically, Konoha is rather low on battle trained medic-nin at the moment, and while I understand that isn’t your forte, you may be called on in that capacity.”

He exhaled a ring of smoke and threw Naruto a grin, “I know I would sleep better at night knowing there was someone with medical experience along on some of the rookie’s first C-rank missions.”

Jiraiya nodded in agreement. It made sense to him, and he was glad he wouldn’t have to give the kid up to someone else for good, even if it was someone he genuinely liked and trusted like the Copy-nin. Speaking of…“Hatake Kakashi is his new captain?” The Sage raised an eyebrow, “I never thought he’d pass a genin team!”

Naruto looked confused.

“He was your dad’s student, you know. He’s never passed a team before now, though he’s been given several to try out. Remember the stories I told you about the bell test? ”

“Oh yeah! I’m really glad I didn’t have to do that.” He grinned sheepishly. He had no idea if he would have been able to figure out the trick in time.

He wasn’t disappointed in the Hokage’s choice of a captain for him, even if it sounded like he wasn’t too fond of the idea of being a Jounin-sensei. “If Tou-san taught Hatake-taicho, he must be pretty good.”

He was a little disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to really get to know one team and bond with them after all of the cool stories he’d grown up hearing about his dad’s team, but over all, this didn’t sound too bad. It was almost like a promotion, really, and he’d be able to learn a lot about and get to know many of Konoha’s ninja instead of just a few. That was something he had been a bit worried about, not having grown up in the village like the rest of the rookies. He had very little practical idea of what his peers were capable of. “Do you think he knows any of Tou-san’s old moves that he could teach me?”

Jiraiya rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “Well, he does have a Sharingan, so it’s possible that he knows how the Hiraishin works, even if he can’t perform it. He definitely knows Rasengan, but I don’t want you getting started on that until you get a grip on your kekkei genkai.”

“I’ll never learn anything cool again at this rate. I’m so sick of trying to cut that leaf in half.” Naruto sighed. He knew it was important to learn to access his Mokuton abilities but he felt like he’d stalled a bit, despite the huge spike in skills he was likely to get once he could control plants , “at least teach me to summon!”

“Maybe after you take the chuunin exams if I can convince your Mother you’re more suited to toads than slugs. I should be back in town by then. I’ve got to check in with my contacts in the places that were too dangerous for me to take you, so I won’t be staying long in the village.”

“Ergh, if I’ve still got to wait for you two to fight it out, I might never learn it, but at least I’ve got a timeframe now. The exams are every six months, right? When’s the next one?”

“Hey, I said, ‘maybe’. Your best bet is to convince your mom on your own that you want to call up toads. She never listens to me! Besides, if Team 7 isn’t ready for the tests, you can’t enter, Gaki. It takes a three-man cell to test to become a chuunin when Konoha is hosting, so even then, it’s not a sure thing.” Jiraiya burst Naruto’s bubble.

The boy sighed, “So…back to the leaves then?”

“You got it, but hey, at least you’ll have cool missions to work on now.” Jiraiya grinned a little evilly and Sarutobi snickered behind his hand.

Naruto had a bad feeling about that. “Is there anything else I need to know?”

Sandaime shook his head, “No. Take a few days to settle in and meet the other members of Team 7. As I mentioned before, I’ll give you that long to get to know them and learn your way around the village before I start sending you out on other things.”

“So! Tell me about my new teammates Iruka-sensei! Are they pretty bad-ass?” Naruto walked along beside the chuunin with his hands interlaced behind his head. He was hoping they’d be able to keep up with him, at least a little bit, since they’d managed to pass Hatake’s bell test, but he didn’t want to get his hopes up. He hadn’t been too impressed with the other rookie genin from last year.

“Bad-ass? Er, not exactly…they DID just graduate from the Academy, Naruto-kun.” Iruka found himself feeling oddly guilty when his companion’s face fell a bit at that, “Sakura-chan is very smart though, and Sasuke-kun was the number one rookie of their year. I’m sure you’ll do very well with them.” He hurried to reassure the boy.

“Really?” That didn’t sound bad, but not particularly good either, “Er, first in the class…does that mean they’re nerds?” He hoped they weren’t nerds. He’d get enough lectures about bookwork once his mother found out he was behind on the reading assignments she still insisted on giving him.

“Um, no. I definitely wouldn’t call either of them nerds. Sasuke-kun is very dedicated to improving himself as a ninja because of a tragedy that happened in his past, and Sakura-chan, well, she’s not really very interested in getting stronger, but she’s definitely not a nerd.” Iruka opened the door of a large and relatively nice apartment building and gestured towards the stairway. “You’re on the top floor Naruto-kun.”

The boy started up the stairs, his brow furrowed, “Why’s she a ninja if she doesn’t want to get stronger?” He asked. “Hey, this place is pretty close to that awesome ramen stand Ero-Jiji and I visit whenever we’re here! Have you been there, Iruka-sensei?” Iruka was glad to see some of the enthusiasm he remembered in the blond ninja returning to him, and he instinctively found himself returning his grin. He’d never met a kid quite like this one. He was glad Naruto would be sticking around this time.

The chuunin instructor struggled with how to describe the fangirl aspect of Sakura. He didn’t want to give Naruto a bad impression about her from the start, especially since he’d been warned by the Hokage that Naruto didn’t have much experience with dealing with others his own age. He didn’t want to bias the Senju against the kunoichi right off the bat. She really did have quite a lot of potential. In the end, he just avoided the question, attempting to steer the conversation in a different direction. “You mean Ichiraku’s? Yes, I go there often. Maybe I’ll treat you sometime since it will be a while before your family can join you. I know what it’s like to be alone.”

Naruto glanced back at the chuunin as they reached the top of the stairs with a sympathetic look in his eyes, “I’ve never really been by myself before now, and I already miss Ero-Jiji, Kaa-san, and ‘Zune. Do you live alone, Iruka-sensei?”

The older ninja knew he let his face slip for a moment, but he really couldn’t help it. “Yes, I’ve been alone as long as you’re been alive, Naruto-kun. My family was killed in the Kyuubi attack.”

He was unlocking the door, so he missed Naruto’s sudden look of horror; it had changed to one of sick guilt by the time he got done opening the way into the new apartment.

“I-I’m so sorry, Iruka-sensei…” the boy murmured.

“Ah, no, Naruto-kun! Don’t feel bad for asking, I brought it up, after all.” Iruka rushed to reassure him, utterly aghast at the distress on Naruto’s face. The poor thing was much more sensitive than he’d originally thought; you’d almost think he felt responsible for the disaster.

A subdued Naruto followed him into the main room and slipped off his shoes reflexively without looking up from the floor. His windswept bangs obscured his eyes, but Iruka was sure they were still shining with sympathy. “Oh, um, yeah… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. It was really rude.”

Iruka frowned, wishing he could get back the cheery mood they’d started with. “Well, don’t worry about it, alright? Let’s get you settled in, then I’ll take you to Ichiraku’s and buy you some ramen. How does that sound?”

Naruto raised his head and a small smile replaced the sad look on his face, “That sounds great. Thanks, Iruka-sensei.”

The chuunin felt an upwelling of something akin to brotherly affection for this boy for reasons he couldn’t understand. Naruto just seemed to have a quality about him that made Iruka want to mother him a bit. He thought he’d better look out for him while Tsunade-hime and Jiraiya-sama were out of town. The kid obviously had burdens he wasn’t sharing, and he’d be willing to bet a paycheck that the boy could really use a friend. His plant seemed very protective, but there was only so much companionship you could get from something like that. He’d definitely have to take care of him. He wondered if Naruto liked lasagna – he’d been planning to make one sometime this week...

“Great! Well, your bedroom is through here – we’ll have to buy you some furniture, but this futon will do for now, and over there is the kitchen. Sandaime gave me money to stock it when we found out you’d be arriving today. I’m glad you like ramen; I bought lots of that, but you’d better eat other things too! And this is the bathroom…”

Naruto knew he was bound to run into the Nine Tails’ victims, but he hadn’t really prepared himself for how he’d feel knowing that a part of him had caused nice people like Iruka-sensei so much pain. He was so caught up in his own thoughts about it, that he only ate three bowls of ramen that night. He could tell Ichiraku and Iruka were both kind of worried about his subdued attitude, but he’d never been good at the blank face all shinobi are supposed to be able to pull, and the prospect of an uncertain amount of time without even Ero-Jiji around wasn’t helping his darker mood, much.

He envied his godfather and mother being able to tell how he was doing whenever they wanted through the complex seal array on their earrings. It would be much easier not to feel quite so alone if he could use a bit of chakra and know his loved ones were okay. He’d have to write to the Suna Siblings later. They were really good about writing back and Temari always seemed to know what to say to make him feel better.

Ivy petted his stomach consolingly.

As he lay in bed that night, all alone in his room with all of his guardians miles away and not returning any time soon, he had to wonder if this loneliness was what Iruka had felt for the past 12 years. Was this the pain people might blame him for, when they discovered his secret? He’d only known the chuunin for a little while, but already he knew he’d find it way too painful if the man suddenly started to hate him. That would be nothing though, to the pain he must have felt all those years ago when he lost his mother and father to the demon. Naruto absently stroked Ivy, taking comfort from her presence.

He couldn’t even imagine suddenly not having his Kaa-san, ‘Zune, and even the old pervert to eventually come home to. He already had nothing but respect for Gaara, but thinking about being that alone and hated…he was amazed his friend had survived it. He didn’t think he’d have been that strong in his place. He knew there was a difference between never having something to miss, and losing something you’ll never have again, but he still couldn’t even fathom what that pain would be like.

Naruto sighed. He knew he wasn’t the Kyuubi, just as much as Gaara wasn’t Shukaku, but how easy would that be for the Nine Tails’ victims to believe? He’d known about the fox since the Bee Incident, and his family had been very adamant about reassuring him that the jailor and the prisoner were two entirely different beings, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of unease and shame he’d felt, hearing Iruka say he’d lost his whole family that night, the very night he’d been born. When people found out about the fox, would they understand or hate him or fear him like they did the sand’s Jinchuuriki?

Naruto rolled restlessly over onto his other side and blinked into the quiet darkness. Several dogs barked in one of the apartment below him, but he didn’t feel any less isolated for hearing his neighbor’s noise. He thrived on human interaction…the thought of these people ostracizing him someday for something he’d had no say in…

He carefully lifted up his shirt to stare at the seal on his stomach. It was as dark and innocent looking as always. Looking at it, no one but a seasoned seal master would be able to guess what it did; it was simply too complex – too layered. His dad had been a master among masters of the craft. There was hardly any danger of people learning about what he contained just from looking at it, but Naruto could feel it sometimes, a stirring presence just behind his navel, and he hated it.

Kyuubi had never caused anyone anything but pain. Himself included. It was the fox’s fault that he’d been a sickly kid and had to watch his chakra use so closely until his reserved had reached their currently huge level. If it weren’t for his prisoner, he wouldn’t have so much trouble with his bloodline, and he’d have lots better control. He wouldn’t have to work so hard to keep up to his family’s expectations.

Sure, he had more chakra than he would have had without it, but it was a constant drain on his resources, so who’s to say he wouldn’t have been just as strong? Also, there was no telling what the thing would do to him as it continued the merge into his system.

He bit his lip and continued to brood. These were things he’d thought often about since meeting Gaara, but he never really found any answers.

His bloodline was forcing the drain much faster than the Yondaime had intended, and though he hadn’t told anyone about it, he’d had a sort of, well, an attack the other day even though he hadn’t been using much chakra. He’d felt the Kyuubi stir a little, then a gotten slightly dizzy. The pervert had been busy watching girls at the stream and hadn’t even noticed him sit down with his head between his knees until the beast had settled down a few minutes later. He’d had a mild headache for the rest of the day and overloaded every jutsu he tried for the next hour and a half. He had no idea what it could mean, but he didn’t like it.

He rolled over again and forced himself to stop gnawing on his lip, instead burrowing under the covers and settling Ivy more comfortably around him. There was no use worrying about it anymore right now. He’d just have to take things as they came. That’s what he’d always done, and it had worked out pretty good so far. It was probably a fluke anyway.

He closed his eyes and forced himself to meditate until he began to fall asleep. He had a big day tomorrow, so he forced the negativity down and focused on the positive. He was excited to meet his Tou-san’s surviving pupil. Being taught by someone who his dad had turned into a great ninja – it was sort of like indirectly learning from his father. That was pretty damn cool.

“Danzou-sama.”

The war hawk turned away from the impressive fire in the hearth in front of him to acknowledge the masked ANBU who had appeared so unexpectedly in his private quarters. He frowned. It was seldom good when they came directly to him, here. “What is it?”

“You asked to be informed immediately when Senju Naruto returned to the village.” The kneeling boy answered.

“Ah. Wonderful.” That was much better news than he’d been expecting. “Have you been able to determine what team he’s been placed with, and his living arrangements?”

“Yes, sir. The Sannin, Jiraiya-sama, was seen leaving the village by himself shortly after the boy was shown to one of the empty apartments in the Jounin housing near the training grounds. He has been assigned tentative placement on Team 7 since there was an uneven amount of rookies this year, though Hokage-sama does not intend to make him work exclusively with them. He is to be assigned missions like a more experienced genin.”

A small smile curved Danzou’s lips. This was better than he could have hoped for when his initial plans had fallen through a year ago, as he’d mostly expected them too. He knew he lacked political power right now after his disgrace at the hands of the current Hokage just a few years ago, but he was making progress, regaining connections, and the time was ripe to start taking more risks behind the scenes again. The last Senju would make a good ally if he could be persuaded to Danzou’s point of view. If this worked, there was a still a chance to salvage the village which had grown far too soft under Sandaime’s reign. They could return Konoha to the splendor of its earlier days under Naruto’s ancestors.

“Excellent. Very good. Keep me informed.”

“Yes, sir!” The masked ninja spoke respectfully.

“Ask the boy to see me when you leave, please. I have a task for him that his current commander cannot know about, but may be unwittingly useful in making happen. Also, check in with Owl and find out how we are coming with locating Nidaime’s relic. We may need it soon, to further the plans.”

 

Chapter 19: Unlucky Number Seven by Baal of Yarns

A/N:  There we go.  :)  All caught up now!

Chapter 19 – Unlucky Number Seven:

6:00 o’clock came around very early the next morning. Naruto had been up nearly all night listening to the sounds in his apartment building, missing his family, and thinking about Kyuubi, the worries nearly eclipsing all of his excitement for this new stage in his life. Consequently, it was later than he would have liked before he finally managed to fall asleep.

The shiny new apartment felt very big and empty to his sleep-fogged mind. No ‘Zune around to make him eat breakfast. No Kaa-san to stumble in and demand coffee hours after she should have been up. No Ero-jiji to kick him out of bed early to train only to constantly try to sneak away to spy on pretty girls. “At least you’re still here, Ivy-chan.” He muttered, rubbing one of Ivy’s leaves thoughtfully between his fingers and noting she felt a little dry.

He crawled out of bed and pulled off the sleeping cap he’d had as long as he could remember, then dragged himself into the shower. After a quick wash and spritzing Ivy down, he found his traveling bag from where he’d dumped it the night before and dug through it for his extra set of clothes. Now that he’d be staying in one place for a long time, he thought he’d better go shopping to put some variety back in his wardrobe. He’d gotten far too used to living out of a single bag. Jiraiya had been promising to teach him how to make sealing scrolls so he could carry more, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe he could let Gaara show him how next time they met?

After dressing and running his fingers through his hair to straighten it out as much as possible, while spiking it up a bit out of its natural state, the blond settled his leafy pet around his hips and sleepily stumbled his way into the kitchen to see what Iruka-sensei had stocked his cupboards with. He found milk in the fridge and cereal on a shelf he could reach without a stool, so he decided to stick with that.

His mom had a strict ‘no ramen before 10:00’ rule, and even though she wasn’t around and Gaara’s parting gift of the Magical Ramen Bowl™ sat temptingly in a place of honor on the countertop, he knew enough about nutrition from growing up with two medic-nin that he thought he’d better try to keep to the rule. He’d never hear the end of it if he fell off the ramen wagon on his first day on his own.

Besides, he was short enough already without stunting his growth on bad nutrition, even if it was plainly obvious to anyone with taste buds that said innutritious food was proof that the gods loved them and wanted them to be happy.

After breakfast, he felt a little more awake, so he sat on his bed and meditated, trying to tap into his earth and water affinities without much luck. It didn’t help that Ivy seemed jealous of the acorn he carried around to practice on, but he was thoroughly sick of the stupid leaf cutting exercise and figured trying to get a feel for the other affinities as opposed to the now familiar wind chakra, couldn’t hurt anything. After an hour, he gave it up with a sigh.

It was nearly time to go by then, so he taped his thigh, attached his kunai holder over the top, and then fastened on his weapons pouch after checking to make sure it was full of senbon and the other necessities he always carried with him.

Deciding he was as ready as he was ever going to be, and feeling eager to meet his teammates and captain, he quickly slid his sandals on and headed out towards the bridge Iruka-sensei had pointed out to him yesterday on the way to his apartment. A lot of ninja were early risers so he wasn’t surprised to see a lot of people out and about already.

As he walked, his thoughts wandered a little. As the number of days until he could move to Konoha permanently had steadily decreased, he’d found himself thinking more and more about it what it would be like to finally make a home there. He‘d grown up thriving on tales about Konoha. When he was very little, Ero-jiji had tucked him into bed with stories about the wonderful things his father and great grandfather and great granduncle had done, all of the fun adventures his mother and Ero-Jiji had within these walls, and the ideals and strength that this place his ancestors had founded really stood for. It was in his blood, his heritage. His forefathers had bled and sweated, and died for this land and way of life.

All of his life, his family had moved around so much that he had never been able to form an attachment to any one place before. Even having never seen the Hidden Village of the Leaves until he turned 11, it had always FELT like home to him, and he’d always known that it was where he belonged. It stood in his mind like a shining ideal off in the distance, and in a way, he felt like all of his travels had always been leading him here. All of his roots were here and settling here now, for good, was an amazing thing to the lonely little boy who had never been able to connect with civilian kids and their civilian cities.

He’d always yearned for the CONCEPT of Konoha and loved it in the same way he loved the father he’d never known. Walking these streets and meeting these people where his father had once lived made him feel a little more connected to the man he’d always strived to emulate – much to his mother’s frustration. He deliberately ran his fingers through his hair and had to stop himself from smoothing it back down a little into his old customary style. He understood the need to offset his physical resemblance to Tou-san, but he’d always secretly been kind of comforted by looking in the mirror and seeing his father’s face staring back at him, just like in Ero-jiji’s photographs.

He sighed; maybe he’d just grow his hair out like the Toad Sage’s so he could learn Hari Jizo. At least that way his mother would stop bothering him about stuff like that, and he’d get a cool defensive jutsu out of it.

His gaze rose to the face of the Yondaime carved into the mountain and a small frown tugged at his lips before he pushed away more thoughts on his father and Konoha. Subconsciously he knew he NEEDED to believe that Konoha was the idealistic place of his childhood dreams, but he didn’t want to analyze that need too closely. The Yondaime had died and made Naruto a sacrifice for the sake of this village – depriving his son of a father and sentencing him to a Jinchuuriki’s existence in one swift stroke. To know that in some ways, that meant the father he’d always yearned for as a little boy had loved Konoha more than him, well intellectually he could reconcile that with the importance of duty and the high cost of lives if he’d chosen differently, but that didn’t stop it from hurting a little…

He had to believe that the Leaf deserved his being deprived of his father or he might start to resent it and the man who had sired him, and he’d seen what blaming a village for its dead did to a person. His mother was getting better about it, but he knew how much hurt and bitterness she still carried around, and he knew as her son, he probably had that same capacity somewhere within himself. It was a trap and a mindset he didn’t intend to fall into.

With those negative thoughts firmly tucked away, he threw the past Hokage’s visages a cheeky grin and a wave as he continued on his way. Even taking the long route, he’d started out with plenty of time and managed to make it to Team 7’s meeting spot with five minutes to spare before the scheduled 8:00 a.m. meeting. A dark haired boy and a strangely pink haired girl were already there, leaning casually against the railing of the bridge. He thought they looked kind of familiar, but couldn’t really place them. ‘Maybe I saw them at the Academy the day I took the graduation tests?’

The pink haired girl was so busy casting obviously adoring sidelong looks at her silent companion that she didn’t notice the Senju approach, but the dark-haired boy must have been more aware of his surroundings because he straightened up right away, though he didn’t deign to greet the blond with more than a serious and considering stare.

The girl followed her companion’s intent gaze at his sudden change in posture and immediately spotted Naruto, “Oh! Good morning! You must be our other teammate!” She greeted.

Naruto nodded and flashed them his best grin, his earlier contemplative mood evaporating completely, “Yup! At least, whenever you need me for missions! You must be Haruno-san, and Uchiha-san. Nice to meet you. I’m Naruto.”

Sasuke’s lips twitched into a bit of a frown, his eyes considering and cataloging every detail about the unknown ninja he and Sakura would have to work with from now on. In his perusal, his attention briefly focused on the vine wrapped around the boy’s waist and the strange leafy markings on the side of his face and shoulder.

“Naruto? Like Senju Naruto?” Sasuke had heard the rumors about the last heir to the Senju clan; everyone had. The gate guards hadn’t been able to keep their mouths shut the night he’d first arrived, and he’d made a pretty big impression on several of chuunin instructors in the Academy on his only day there. He hadn’t been in the village very often since then, but his visits were inevitably gossiped about for days afterwards. Rumor had it the boy was an extremely talented prodigy and had somehow inherited the Mokuton abilities thought to be specific to the Shodai.

The last Uchiha had no idea what to think about the other genin. He thought he should be thankful to have the village’s scrutiny occasionally turned elsewhere, but at the same time, he got an odd twisting feeling in his gut every time he overheard someone speak glowingly of the Senju. It was achingly similar to the feeling he’d had every time his father had talked about Itachi, but he WANTED Konoha to leave him alone, so he didn’t know where that feeling was coming from. In the end it didn’t matter, so he chose to ignore it as he did most of his emotions. He couldn’t afford to let anything, especially something as ridiculous as that, distract him from his path of vengeance and the revival of his clan.

“Yep. I’m Senju Naruto. My sensei thought it was time I got some team experience before the next chuunin exams, so I’m being added into your unit when you need another person for missions. Is your Jounin-sensei usually late?” he frowned, glancing around at the training field as if expecting the man to pop up out of nowhere.

“Well, we’ve only met him twice, ourselves,” Sakura frowned too, glancing at the boy next to her as if for affirmation. Ino had told her all about Senju Naruto, of course – she rarely spoke of anything else – but Sakura hadn’t realized he’d be their fill-in teammate. She guessed he was sort of cute, but nothing compared to Sasuke – Inner Sakura agreed with an enthusiastic “Cha!” -- “but he’s been really late both times, so I’d have to say, ’yes’. Are you really slated to take the chuunin exams already? ”

Naruto nodded, “Jiraiya-sensei says I’m ready for them if I can get the requisite team experience.”

“Hn.” Sasuke frowned and turned away.

Naruto felt his hopes for team bonding sink a bit. He knew, of course, that not all teams got along really well, look at his mother’s genin unit, but he’d hoped they might have something in common to build on if they would someday have to depend on each other with their lives. He mentally sighed, and reminded himself that these two were rookies, just days out of the Academy, and couldn’t be expected to take things like that into consideration.

He hoped they matured quickly. He didn’t really relish the thought of fighting and trusting his life to a fangirl and a loner prodigy with a bad haircut, not to mention an obviously chronically tardy captain. He supposed it could have been worse…he could have been stuck with them full-time. He shook his head to clear those thoughts out of his mind. That was a horrible attitude to have! They’d shape up once they got some field experience, they’d just gotten off on a bad foot! He knew ninja life had certainly matured HIM.

Sasuke cast a sideways glance at Naruto under his lashes so the other boy wouldn’t know he was looking as they all continued to wait in awkward silence. He’d found a few mentions of the Senju in the Uchiha family records when he’d decided to look them up one rainy afternoon after hearing old ladies gossiping about Tsunade-hime’s son in the market place. Unfortunately, all of the accounts from just after the founding of Konoha seemed incomplete and patchy at best. Nothing had been recorded well until the birth of the Military Police in the Nidaime’s time, and as the founding clan of Konoha, by that time, every Senju not very closely related to the Shodai or Nidaime by blood had sort of integrated themselves into the village as a whole and so were rarely mentioned as a clan unit.

What he had discovered was that the Senju were supposed to be excellent shinobi – the Shodai and the Nidaime had been the heads of that family, after all, but reading between the lines, he thought there might have been some sort of rivalry between the two clans at some point. Whatever it was, they’d obviously gotten over it since his clan had joined up with Konoha at its inception. He was mildly curious to know how they had all ended up under the leadership of the Shodai, though. The Uchiha line was obviously the stronger one since they had thrived much longer than the Senju, but even if they hadn’t been, he couldn’t really see his entire clan of ancestors signing up under someone else’s banner. Even within Konoha, they’d always kept themselves separate, and all of his memories of his father and older Uchiha men were of proud and noble figures – second to no one.

Well, that was the past, and it had no bearing on his current situation or his goals, so he decided it was unimportant. He let his eyes wonder over the still Jounin-less training field and then over his two silent companions – though Senju had started to fidget impatiently and looked like he’d die if someone didn’t say something soon.

Sasuke hadn’t been feeling very hopeful about his team when his number one fangirl had been called as his teammate. He had been sure she would hold him back. He’d felt a little more confident when they’d been told a more experienced genin would be filling out their ranks since someone like that shouldn’t need their hand held or protecting as much as someone who cared more about their appearance than about being a serious ninja.

Now knowing that the more experienced genin teammate was to be the much talked about Senju made him feel a bit ambivalent. It was obviously good to have strong people around to test your strength against – the strongest weakling was still weak, after all, but at the same time he couldn’t help but think it said something that they’d let someone else his age graduate a year early when he hadn’t been offered the same consideration. He didn’t want to be constantly reminded of that fact. It felt too much like a failure. He owed it to the memories of his family to be the best.

A flash of his father’s disappointed eyes floated through his head, quickly morphing into his blank dead gaze from the night of the massacre, and Sasuke clenched his fist hard enough to make his palm bleed a little, so he turned his thoughts to the rest of his team.

His opinion of Sakura had been cemented when he’d had to practically drag the pink-haired girl through their sensei’s Genin Test – a sensei who had shown up three hours late. Ironically, he had to admit he might not have passed if he had been teamed up with anyone else when they’d learned the object of the test was teamwork, but he hadn’t expected her to perform well, and she certainly hadn’t. True, in a way they owed their passing to her obsession with him, but that was hardly an accomplishment to be praised.

That being said, he’d never had occasion to feel grateful to a fangirl before, but she’d immediately suggested working with him and offered to let him keep the bell. If he’d known all he had to do at that point was offer her part of his lunch once she’d been tied to the post at noon, he wasn’t sure he’d have put so much effort into keeping Kakashi-sensei’s attention away from the much weaker girl. Something inside him had compelled him to do it, even though it had definitely been confirmed that she’d be nothing but a burden when she’d fainted dead away at a rather pathetic genjutsu.

Naruto at least seemed to carry himself well and was from a prestigious clan with a strong bloodline limit. If all of the hype was true, he was already as strong as some of the chuunin in the village. Some of Sasuke’s tension faded a little. It was a bit of a relief to know he probably had at least one capable teammate. They’d be stuck together for a long time, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to get strong enough to beat Itachi if he constantly had to babysit two incompetents. If everything went well, NARUTO could be the one stuck watching out for Sakura.

“ARGH, I can’t take this broody silence anymore.” The object of Sasuke’s contemplations finally exploded. “Do either of you want to spar or something while we wait?” Iruka-sensei had said Sasuke was some kind of genius obsessed with getting stronger; looking at Sakura’s impractical outfit and hairstyle, he had no delusions from that direction, but he couldn’t stand the thought of just standing around and waiting. Naruto hated inactivity.

For a few moments, the Uchiha genius seemed to be sizing him up again and thinking hard about something, but in the end, he nodded sharply and pushed himself off of the railing. Without looking back to see if he were being followed, he shoved his hands in his pockets and made his way over to the clear area around the training logs.

Naruto rolled his eyes, “Mah, so stoic!” He muttered under his breath. This kid needed knocked down a few notches. Even Gaara was more talkative than this. Maybe he’d try out how well he’d managed to sink up with Ivy during combat – though his brute control of her movements when his chakra wasn’t running high from fighting was still almost completely null, sometimes he could get it to click, and she almost seemed like an extension of his body when they fought like that. The technique had really thrown Shizune last time they’d been in Snow Country and he’d shown her what they could do.

Sasuke watched Naruto’s approach with clinical eyes. His gait was smooth, and he moved, in general, like he knew what he was doing. The bright, “kill me” orange was a little disconcerting, but there wasn’t that much of it, so maybe it was just this kid’s ninja quirk. In the 12 year-old Uchiha’s limited experience, every ninja eventually developed a stupid quirk sooner or later to cope with the lifestyle – none of the older shinobi he knew were completely sane anymore – just look at their sensei.

“No chakra, just a friendly spar.” Naruto stated.

Sasuke nodded, settled himself into the first form of his taijutsu stance, and watched as his opponent did the same. Naruto’s form was a little different, balanced up on the balls of his feet, but nothing too exotic. Sasuke found himself completely unsurprised when the other boy made the first move, lounging with a feint, but he was completely thrown off balance when the feint turned out to be a straight out dodge with nothing to follow it up even though his instincts had screamed at him that it was an attack and automatically thrown him into a defensive position. What the hell was that kind of move for?

He didn’t have time to think about it as he nearly tripped over the vine that shot out from Senju’s waist while he was trying to slide out of the guarding stance and back into an offensive one. Since he didn’t know what Naruto was up to with that weird tactic, it only made sense to throw him off by becoming the aggressor.

Sasuke quickly made a sharp jab of his own where his instincts told him the blond should have gone after that opening gambit, but of course, the kid wasn’t there. He sensed a leg coming towards his back in a high arcing kick that was a little clumsy on technique but that was more than made up for by the flowing way Naruto moved. He barely managed to duck and nearly lost his balance, having to change direction midway through to avoid an elbow to his face. He felt the sharp sting of the vine slap against his back as he spun, but quickly disregarded it because the other boy was already coming around again.

He’s fast!‘ He danced backwards to avoid another swipe from the vine at his head, smoothly following the sweep of its master’s fluid movements, both of them flowing together like water – it took all of Sasuke’s speed to keep ahead of the plant’s snapping tendrils. They did little damage when they hit, but left stinging welts in their wake.

They exchanged hits for a few more moments, Sasuke blocking extensively and taking the occasional strike from the vine, and Naruto moving so quickly he avoided all retaliatory blows, but hardly taking a swing of his own. The more experienced genin seemed to almost be playing with him, but his weird taijutsu was throwing Sasuke off so much that he couldn’t take the time to really be sure. His style was almost completely unstructured like a weirdly acrobatic street thug’s, but unlike the rough free-form fighting styles favored by brawlers, it seemed to focus on nonchalantly avoiding all contact initiated by the opponent.

It’s like…aggressive defense or something…Is this how medic-nin are taught to fight?’ He had the extremely disconcerting feeling that Naruto could have taken him out before he even knew what had happened if he started utilizing that quickness in more offensive blows.

As frustrating as it was to be so easily beaten by someone with such SEEMINGLY rough taijutsu, it was absolutely infuriating when he found himself playing a demented sort of jump rope with the bastard’s vine whip!

For some reason, he couldn’t explain, he felt himself smiling a little.

He couldn’t grow stronger without a challenge, after all, and the rest of the genin in this place were complete jokes. If Senju was just playing with him, then so be it. He’d enjoy forcing the bastard to take him seriously! He felt an odd rush in that.

‘THERE! Finally, an opening!’ He lunged, in textbook perfect form, every inch of his body completely aligned for a hard strike to his opponent’s kidney. Before he could blink, Naruto brought an arm around in a quick sweeping motion to block and Sasuke gritted his teeth as his whole forearm seemed to go temporarily numb from the power behind the defensive move.

It was fairly obvious what Naruto had been putting time into training in place of learning a formal taijutsu style. ‘Who needs offense when defense causes this much damage?’

Senju had to be crazy strong on top of that speed. Sasuke would lay money on him being the most physically fit of all of the ninja their age, and while he didn’t appear to have been tutored well, if at all in a formal fighting style, Naruto seemed to have an almost a preternatural sense of where blows were coming from, and Sasuke’s arms and legs were really starting to ache and tingle unpleasantly from the force of the blond’s blocks as he seemed to slowly start using the plant a little less and his own body a little more.

The Uchiha flipped backwards, desperate to get a little space, his legs spinning up after him to catch his opponent in the chin, but again, Naruto almost seemed to see it coming – like he could sense the blow before it fell, and his vine was there to meet his kick instead, nearly succeeding in tangling him up in its length.

He needed a plan if he wanted to finish this soon, and he knew he had too, or his own speed would begin to slip from the punishment his arms and legs were taking when his attacks were blocked. His straight taijutsu STYLE was definitely better than the blond ninja’s, but it decidedly wasn’t enough to keep him from getting his ass handed to him if the boy went all out.

Seeing that Naruto easily let him have the space he’d been vying for even after neatly and efficiently dodging his maneuver, it was obvious Senju could have avoided all of his hits and was only blocking at all for the damage it caused. Sasuke gritted his teeth a bit in frustration. Senju didn’t even look WINDED yet, but the Uchiha felt like they’d been sparring for hours instead of minutes. It felt a little like going up against Kakashi-sensei yesterday, and he KNEW the Jounin had been holding out of them or he and Sakura would undoubtedly have been hurt or killed in that stupid bell test.

Naruto’s vine seemed to get impatient and snapped out at the Uchiha again, and the spar was back on. They whirled across the training ground in a graceful dance, but Senju still wasn’t even breathing hard and hadn’t been hit once. Sasuke wondered where all that energy was coming from! His stamina was unbelievable! Could this boy really be the same age as him? Did having a Sannin train you really do that much to increase your strength?

They continued to exchange blows until Sasuke saw his chance. He blocked with both arms crossed before him, purposefully tangling the vine up around his wrists and simultaneously lunged, forcing the other boy back and making prolonged contact for the first time since they’d begun this spar. He was determined to make the Senju take him seriously, if it was the last thing he did.

Naruto neatly slipped aside and flipped backwards to give himself more space, Ivy nearly tugging him off balance as she tried to match his speed while untangling from around the Uchiha, but before they could rejoin the fight, they were stopped by a masculine throat being cleared from the direction of the bridge.

“Hn.” Sasuke huffed, crossing his arms and turning away in an attempt to hide his heavier breathing, and his gaze slid over to rest on Naruto. He was disappointed in himself. He’d NEVER been out-classed like that by a peer, but he couldn’t protest the outcome. The differences between them were plain to see. He could only hope that his own progress would now increase at a faster rate under a proper Jounin instructor. The other genin did have a year in the field on he and Sakura, and therefore a year of advanced instruction, so he would just have to work harder so he could close the gap. He had to gain the strength to kill Itachi.

He decided to be tentatively optimistic about the situation. He couldn’t help but be a little pissed off at not being taken seriously by someone his own age, but he couldn’t deny the current difference in their levels. Once he managed to awaken his Sharingan things would even out, and all the Sannin training in the world wouldn’t prevent the Uchiha from holding his own or wiping the floor with Senju, Sasuke thought, but until then, more spars like this one were bound to make him stronger.

…and the results of this fight might have been different if they’d been using chakra. The Uchiha was fairly proud of his arsenal of fire jutsu. Naruto had to have been putting all of his training time into building up his strength and speed; surely there was no way he’d know very many techniques.

That being the case, maybe he could figure out how Naruto got so strong so quickly if he got to know the other boy.

If nothing else, he at least now had hopes that he’d found someone he could use in his quest to improve enough to take out Itachi, and he’d been validated in the hope that he could leave Sakura to drag down Naruto so he wouldn’t be held back in completing their missions. He further consoled himself that if he’d had a Sannin or two to train him all his life instead of having to do everything on his own for the last several years, he’d definitely be even more skilled than Naruto currently was since he knew enough to balance out his taijutsu and physical conditioning while training.

No matter how hard people tried to hold an Uchiha back, they always came out the best in the end. It was in their blood.

Hatake Kakashi had been visited yesterday by his number one idol, the great author, Jiraiya-sama. He’d been eagerly expecting the man to pop up since the Hokage had told him he’d only be testing two genin this time around because his third had already passed. There was only one new but un-teamed-up non-rookie genin in Konoha at the moment after all, and Kushina always let slip a little more than she thought she did after a sake or two.

The Copy-Nin had seen Jiraiya around more than usual the past year or so and had been pretty curious about the familiar looking blond kid he’d always had in tow, but no one seemed to have any RELIABLE – rumors were certainly rampant - information on the gaki aside from his name and that he was evidently Tsunade-hime’s son by an unknown father. Among the rumors were those that he was the bearer of a genuine Mokuton bloodline, somehow inherited from his grandfather, the Shodai, and that he had a killer attack plant, but all Kushina-nee would say up front was that he’d been a “damn impressive toddler.”

If nothing else, Kakashi figured having someone like THAT on a team with two green rookie genin ought to be pretty amusing.

So it was that he hadn’t been at all surprised to have a run in with his favorite author in his favorite reading spot. He knew enough about his hero to know the Toad Sage wouldn’t turn the first pupil he’d taken an interest in since the Yondaime over to someone else without having a chat first, especially if the story about Tsunade’s fit of madness in making him the godfather was true.

Sure enough, not even two hours after he’d turned in the results of his team’s Genin Test (which he was fairly sure they’d passed on a fluke, but what could he do?), he’d been tracked down at the memorial stone where he’d been indulging in some quality smut time with his favorite series.

“Hey, volume 4, huh? If you like that one, you’ll love the one I just sent out to the publisher.” The older man giggled perversely and settled himself on a log near Kakashi and his ever-present orange book.

“Oh?” the silver haired ninja’s visible eye widened happily, “Do the twins make a comeback?” he asked through the mask covering the bottom half of his face.

“You bet they do, and they’ve become NUNS!”

Kakashi wasn’t the least bit embarrassed by the stars he could feel sparking in his eyes. “Jiraiya-sama! You are my god!”

“Heh, heh, heh,” the pervy sage chuckled. “I know.” He patted Kakashi on the head, ruffling his spiky silver locks, like he’d done when he’d first found the kid moping here after Minato’s death and given him his very first copy of ‘Icha Icha Paradise’. Kushina had been trying to steal the books from Hatake ever since. She had sort of taken Hatake in. “But I’m really here to talk to you about Naruto. There’s some stuff I think you should know if you’re going to work with him.”

“Is it about his kekkei genkai? I’ve heard he’s got Shodai’s Mokuton skills – They really should pull Tenzou from ANBU for the kid if he’s having problems with that. It’s only fair if I have to teach the Uchiha because of the Sharingan.” He eye-smiled.

“Er, well – it’s sort of about that, too, but mostly it’s about Minato.”

Kakashi felt his heart stop for a moment, all trace of teasing gone, his eye sliding towards the stone. He spent so much time staring at it that he could immediately focus on the Yondaime’s name without having to scan through the others at all. “Sensei--?” he breathed.

Jiraiya nodded, “I can’t tell you everything, but hey, you’re a smart kid, you’ll figure it out. Tsunade cleared me to tell you some of it so you can keep him out of trouble. Once you fuss out the rest, we’re both trusting you to keep it to yourself.” The sennin privately thought it was pretty stupid to expect Kakashi not to figure out Naruto’s paternity right away. It was easy to forget sometimes, that the perverted and laid back attitude of the Jounin cloaked the sharp mind of a genius, and with Naruto’s appearance and the fact that he was already following in his old man’s footsteps, it was only a matter of time before those who were close to Minato started putting two and two together. Tsunade wouldn’t be convinced of it though – she’d thrown around every disguise suggestion from elaborate masks to just making him wear glasses.

Yeah…like that would work – about as much as messing up the kid’s hair a little differently than it usually fell would do, but if it appeased Tsunade’s paranoia a little, he and Naruto were willing to let her have her delusions.

Kakashi nodded, though he was completely confused about what his more experienced genin could have in connection to his own dead sensei. He supposed it would make more sense when he finally met him.

Jiraiya brought his mind back to the matter at hand. “Well – You were there that night. You know the Kyuubi wasn’t killed…Minato had to seal it away, as much as he could of it, anyway.”

Kakashi’s eye widened, and he was glad he’d tucked his book away or he’d have surely dropped it, “Naruto’s not--? Surely even Sensei wouldn’t have dared turn Tsunade-hime’s son into a demon!” …Although that did explain his willingness to use a suicidal jutsu. He wouldn’t have survived her wrath anyway, once she’d found out what he did.

“NARUTO isn’t the demon!” Jiraiya barked, his face going quickly red in anger, causing the silver haired man to flinch back in shock, “He’s the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet! Every bit as stupid and noble as his father, and if I EVER hear you infer that again, I’ll never publish another novel ever again, just to spite you!”

‘Were Jiraiya-sama and Tsunade-hime’s secret lover that close?...’ Kakashi wondered before the weight of the threat hit him like a kick to the gut, “No!—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean – well, I’m very confused. If he’s not the demon, why did you bring it up?” He hurriedly back-pedaled. Seals weren’t his strongest point – one of the few ninja skills of which he didn’t consider himself a master.

“Because, well, you were on the right track, but he’s not the Kyuubi. He’s the Kyuubi’s jailor.” Jiraiya sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He had known getting acceptance for Naruto would be hard when the truth came out, but he’d hoped people wouldn’t automatically jump to the worst conclusions. If even Minato’s own student automatically assumed the brat was the Kyuubi, how could they expect the rest of the village to take it any better, and how hard would that rejection be on his godson?

Well, he could only hope that maybe by that time the people of Konoha would have gotten to know the boy. There was no way you could spend five minutes with the little punk and not realize he didn’t have a malicious or even selfish bone in his body - the weird Naruto-effect, Mokuton driven or not, had a universal influence on people, that definitely wouldn’t hurt the situation.

And if they didn’t take it well, well, then he’d just have to MAKE them take it well. Jiraiya had found himself sometimes regretting lately, that he had to shatter Naruto’s childish naiveté, to turn a kid who had once followed him everywhere dragging a huge plushy frog into a tool for killing and espionage. Ninja life would’ve inevitably broken that part of Naruto, and the Toad Sage knew it was his responsibility to try to mold him into that mindset, but it was still hard to see the changes it was making in the brat, and he’d do anything in his power to protect him from unnecessary pain…

He hadn’t understood, at the time, why Tsunade had cried the night she realized there was no hope for keeping Naruto stuck to a noncombat medic-nin’s life, but now, well – there was no point dwelling on it now. Being a ninja was in Naruto’s blood, he’d very likely have become one even without his godfather’s help and guidance, and his initiation into their ways could certainly have been a hell of a lot rougher. Somehow, that didn’t really help Jiraiya sleep any easier at night when he occasionally lay awake thinking about it.

Seeing Kakashi looking a little impatient, he sighed and continued his explanation. There’d be time to beat himself up over this kind of thing later, just like there’d been time before. “Yondaime sealed the fox into the kid, but the demon doesn’t affect his mind or personality in any way. His bloodline sees to that. As for how he got a hold of Tsunade’s son for it, well, I can’t tell you that part, but Naruto inherited the Shodai’s gifts, especially his ability to control Bijuu chakra, and it’s made the seal really efficient.”

“Hmm, Wow…I thought the Kyuubi-vessel was dead. I think we all did.” Kakashi murmured, the wheels spinning in his head to try and put the pieces together. “Does it hurt him, having the demon there? I’d think his native chakra wouldn’t get along well with the demon’s.”

‘He figured that out pretty quickly. Guess that genius mind is still working.’ Jiraiya’s face fell and he sighed, “Yeah, that’s why I’m telling you about it. This whole business is an S-class secret, but you need to know, especially if you’re going to fight and train with him. You’ll find he’s not that jutsu based yet, though he’s constantly working on his chakra control. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he knows quite a few tricks including a fair few of his mother’s basic medic skills, her strength, and Kage Bunshin, but it’s his aim, speed, and stamina you’ve got to watch for. Well, that and Ivy. That little vine is a total bitch. Back before his chakra reserves got freakishly high he got in the habit of being extremely conscious of his chakra output, so he used to have a tendency to fall back on his physical conditioning and senbon.”

Kakashi nodded to show he was listening, and Jiraiya continued on, “The energy conflicts were rough for him growing up, but it’s given him excellent chakra senses – he can tell how much and how many nin there are around him at any given moment, and oddly enough, that makes him extremely unpredictable. I think his senses have got the potential to develop to the point where he could blind fight, though I wouldn’t be surprised if part of it comes from his connection with the plants around him. They might be giving him feedback to his surroundings without him noticing.”

There were lots of implications of that, Jiraiya suddenly realized. With the kid’s chakra capacity, if his connection to the plant life around him kept increasing, and he was sure it would since the brat didn’t even have conscious control of it yet, there could come a day when he’d be able to sense nearly anything happening in a huge area around him, maybe all of Konoha! With a Hokage like that, no enemy armies could so much as step foot --

“Impressive, but you still haven’t explained WHY he’s got to monitor his chakra so closely or how the Nine Tails adversely affects him, though I have no doubt the two are connected.” Kakashi interrupted his thoughts to get him back on topic.

The Sannin nodded, “sharp as ever. Naruto’s kekkei genkai doesn’t like Kyuubi’s power. When he’s got enough chakra to reinforce the seal, none of the fox’s energy can leak past it until it has been converted into his own chakra. Minato designed it so it would constantly drain the Kyuubi into Naruto until they eventually merge, leaving the fox just a powerless mind trapped inside his body with no chakra of its own. The thing is, he didn’t know about Naruto’s bloodline limit when he made the thing. Originally, bits of the fox’s chakra were supposed to leak into Naruto’s system to be naturally converted as it circulated. The Mokuton acts like a filter, purifying those chakra bits before they hit his system. This is also speeding up the merging process much faster than it was supposed to, but that’s a completely different concern.”

“So what you’re saying is that when he doesn’t have enough chakra of his own left for this ‘filter’ layer, the seal acts as it was originally intended and lets Kyuubi’s power through. I take it this has an adverse effect on the kid?”

“You could say that. He’s kind of allergic to it. It makes him sick.”

Kakashi’s eye widened again at that. “Sick, how?”

“Seizures, muscle cramps, internal hemorrhaging, fever, the whole works. It’s not so bad when he’s run his own chakra down as when the filter layer falls due to injury, at least not right away because then the seal just acts like it was originally intended to do. I would bet he could even use the demon’s chakra for a little bit at that point if he had to, but as soon as he’s got enough of his own strength back, it gets bad. As he regains his own chakra it attacks Kyuubi’s residual chakra in his system, and his body gets caught in the cross-fire.“

“I think I understand, but how is it worse when he’s injured?” Kakashi frowned. It seemed like there wouldn’t be very much extra chakra for his system to fight off if Naruto hadn’t been using any of the demon’s power or just had his own levels drop far enough to let it through.

“If Naruto dies, the fox dies. That’s how the seal was made. When the kid is hurt badly enough, the filter is weakened and the kitsune can force its regenerative power out as a sort of self-preservation technique. It can heal him of almost any wound. It does a damn good job of it too, until he’s well enough for his own system to get the best of him for it. It usually doesn’t have time to complete the job before the filter goes back up, and sometimes tissues are redamaged in the resulting chakra clash. Since those clashes happen most often close to the already weakened or wounded areas being healed by the Bijuu…”

“Ouch.” Kakashi winced, “Double edged-sword.”

“Yeah, but the best part is the kid can’t control his Mokuton abilities yet because they’re tied up with the fox which has pushed his secondary elemental proclivity into being his primary one instead. He is, in fact, a WIND type!”

The new Jounin-sensei sighed, “Why couldn’t you have left me with a nice, even tempered Hyuuga if I had to deal with another kekkei genkai kid?”

“Shut up, you.” Jiraiya scowled. “Just watch him in the woods. He’s getting better with at least keeping his excess Mokuton energies in check with all the work he’s been doing to learn elemental control, and I think he’s near to a breakthrough, but he had another power boost a while ago, so any control he might have gained was sort of mitigated. Plants get a little friendly if he’s distracted, and you might find him being molested by a shrubbery.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“Nope! But once he gets the wind chakra under control, his Mokuton ought to come naturally to him as it should have from the beginning. My prediction is a huge and almost instantaneous upswing in his arsenal then.”

Well,’ Kakashi thought, watching Sasuke and Naruto break it off and come trudging back to him, one with an exhilarated grin and a madly thrashing vine waving happily in the air behind him, and the other with his customary blank expression, but a very thoughtful look in his eyes. ‘At least the boy can fight, even if his technique is really strange.’

Sasuke looked winded, though he was obviously trying to hide it. ‘And it doesn’t’ look like Jiraiya-sama was exaggerating about Naruto’s stamina.’

His genin team was so going to kick Asuma’s team’s asses. Things were looking up.He’d been a bit worried when he’d been forced to pass the rookies on a technicality. What were the odds he’d get a fangirl willing to sacrifice her chances to be a ninja for her precious Sasuke-kun?

If only he could figure out why Tsunade’s kid looked so damned familiar and what it was about him that he was supposed to be able to figure out. He’d bet his Icha Icha collection the two were connected.

This story archived at http://www.narutofic.org/viewstory.php?sid=8015