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Endings and Beginnings
Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
“Standing out in the rain, getting soaking wet, was the last thing you needed in your condition,” Tsunade said with a frustrated sigh.
“It was necessary,” her old sensei replied. “We cannot afford to show any weakness until your position is secure.”
She ground her teeth, but didn’t let her concentration falter as she laid a hand, glowing with green healing chakra, on the old man’s back. The jutsu was designed to boost his immune system, even as it reduced the inflammation in his lungs. He still wasn’t fully recovered from the hypothermia and loss of his arm, and after the memorial service, he’d come down with a cough. It was mild enough at the moment, but she wasn’t about to take any chances. Her sensei was an old man, and he’d abused his body one too many times after coming out of retirement. From an objective point of view, retiring was the only logical course of action, and as a physician she applauded his good sense.
If only it hadn’t meant saddling her with his job. Damn, she needed a drink.
After a minute, she released her jutsu and stepped back. The old man straightened and took a deep breath. He smiled. “You haven’t lost any of your skills,” he said.
“Flattery might get you somewhere with Shizune, but not me,” Tsunade replied. “I artificially boosted your immune system, but it’s only temporary. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be a lot sicker when it wears off. That means no strenuous activities, lots of clear fluids, and a minimum of twelve hours of sleep every night.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that much sleep in a night since I was a chuunin.”
“Get used to it old man,” she snapped. “You aren’t a teenager anymore, and your body needs time and rest to recover.”
“I suppose that means we need to move up your assumption of the office then,” he said quietly.
Tsunade didn’t like it, but she nodded anyway. As much as she didn’t really want the responsibility, it didn’t change the facts of her prognosis.
Naruto stood, hands clenched into shaking fists, staring at the gate.
“Go ahead and open it,” Ero-sennin grumbled behind him.
After a moment, he bowed to the inevitable and opened the gate. A gravel path led to Sensei's... what used to be Sensei's house. He still felt a little numb as he walked, his sandals making almost no noise. The gravel was tightly packed, and endless hours of practice made it a habit to move without disturbing the ground more than necessary.
Yet another thing she'd taught him. Something else he'd never have a chance to thank her for.
Naruto took in a deep breath through his nose, and held it for a moment before letting it slowly puff out his cheeks as he exhaled. This was a lot harder than he imagined, and he didn't think for an instant it would be easy. The Hokage acted as the official executor for the wills of any Konohashinobi that did not specifically assign one. He was a little surprised when Jiraiya showed up at his apartment with a sealed scroll, but he knew Oji-sama was still recovering – not to mention buried in paperwork.
Then the old pervert really knocked things askew when he bluntly told Naruto he'd asked for the chore. “I'm going to make sure you don't do anything stupid while you are still getting your act together,” he'd said. Naruto bristled a bit at that, but went silent when he learned that Sensei had left him her house . Her home .
His first impulse was to say he didn't want it. He wanted no profit from her death. But before he even opened his mouth, he knew that was one of those stupid things Ero-sennin was talking about. Just his luck he'd have gotten someone assigned to the will who wanted revenge on the fox, and would have found some way to cheat him. So he'd held his tongue, and gave the white-haired old perv as respectful a nod as he could manage.
The keys were loud in the lock as Jiraiya opened the front door. The air inside was so still. Naruto knew it was his imagination. The house hadn't stood empty that long at all. But, nonetheless, he felt like an intruder here. His stomach grew leaden as Jiraiya spread the papers on the table in the kitchen.
Showing an unexpectedly sensitive side, he turned away to fuss with the tea... and let Naruto read Kurenai's words with no audience.
If you are reading this, then something has happened to me. Hopefully, whatever happened to me did not harm your teammates... but if that is the case, then you may alter my last instructions to you accordingly. Your teammates will do the same with the packets that are to be delivered into their hands.
Her words were surprisingly formal. But that actually helped. It was like a mission briefing. No emotion, just information. And the mission. He felt his jaw set in a determined line. If she had one last mission for him, then Uzumaki Naruto would make damn sure it was a success.
I have no blood heirs, and am the last of my line. As such, I have free reign with respect to the disposal of my material assets. My home, the land, and all associated assets will pass into the possession of Uzumaki Naruto, upon the condition that this home always remain a safe haven for his squadmates, HyuugaHinata and Aburame Shino, and their heirs. When you became a team, I gave you a charge, perhaps unfairly, to look out for your teammates. That is because I recognized your potential, your strength... the Will of Fire that the Hokage speaks so highly of. I can only say in my defense that I was proven correct to believe in you, Naruto. My last request is that you continue to do so. I will leave you most of my material assets to make this possible.
I freely admit that in writing this document, I have laid a very heavy burden on someone who is just getting ready to test for Chuunin. However, I am also making similar requests of the others. Together, the three of you have become a remarkable team, one I am humbled to have had a part in creating. Stay true to each other, and I will rest content, knowing that the legacy I leave to Konoha will be greater than I could ever have imagined.
Naruto swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. She was... proud... of him, and his team. So proud. Her legacy... to Konoha? That's how she saw Team Eight?
Naruto stared through a window into the approaching twilight as the smell of brewing tea filled the kitchen.
Naruto slowly moved into his new home. He wasn't reluctant to leave the apartment – he just didn't know what to do with Sensei's things. Fortunately, Hinata volunteered to help him pack her things away without even being asked. Whether it was her own thoughtfulness, or Sensei thinking ahead one last time, it didn't matter – he was grateful.
Shino helped with the garden out back. Naruto enjoyed gardening himself – Mr. Ukko was thriving far better on the back porch than he ever had in his pot at the apartment. But Shino was an Aburame – and they cheated. As his colonies swept the yard for inimical insects, Shino mentioned that most of Konoha's farmers paid a small retainer to his clan to keep their harvests pest-free. As he watched his friend's kikai bugs march off to battle, Naruto could believe it.
Eventually, though, his teammates returned to their homes, and Jiraiya went to do whatever it was he did at night. The quiet inside his former sensei's home was palpable, leaving Naruto to fidget nervously. He couldn't help feeling like an intruder – or worse, a thief. He repeated Kurenai-sensei's words in his mind, trying to focus on the last mission she'd laid upon him. Finally, he sat at the hearth in the kitchen, heating water for tea. He wasn't really thirsty – it was more in the way of needing something to do.
As he shifted to put the kettle over the fire, Naruto felt one of the hearth stones shift slightly under his weight. Frowning, he stood up, wondering if the mortar needed to be patched. Pulling at the stone, he was surprised when it shifted slightly to the side and abruptly came entirely loose from the hearth.
Frowning, Naruto laid the stone to one side and inspected the hollow beneath it. Inside was a tightly-wound scroll. He swallowed as he unrolled the first few inches and saw it was addressed to him.
Please try to read this when you are alone. The information on this scroll is potentially dangerous, especially if certain parties were aware you knew it. If you are reading this, I am more than likely dead. If that is not the case, please return this scroll to it's hiding place and ask me about it the next time we are alone.
If I am no longer available, then I will gift you with all that I know, and let you make what use of it that you will. As you will soon discover, this is not a pleasant gift. The truth never is, which is why so many would hide it given the chance.
We've spoken before of looking “underneath the underneath”. There are times that is very, very hard to do – especially if it means confronting uncomfortable truths about one's home. By the time you finish reading this, you may wish to burn this scroll and forget it ever existed. I would not blame you. But I would not rest easy in the afterlife if I died without making provisions for you to have everything you might possibly need to keep yourself and your teammates safe.
Most of this deals with a cautionary tale from my own past, and a great deal of guesswork as to how things happened the way they did. If I had concrete proof of everything I suspect, I would have gone to the Hokage with it long ago. Unfortunately, some charges cannot be made without iron-clad evidence. Do not blame Hokage-sama for this – it is for the good of the village.
The focus of this sorry tale is my genin squad under Kobaru-sensei. My teammates were InuzukaNomaru and Fukuda Mattai. Nomaru was a member of the Inuzuka clan, and embodied their best... and worst traits. He was brave, loyal, brash, and a little conceited. Still, he was a good friend, and I'd like to think that, if he'd had a chance to mature a little more, he would have been a credit to his clan.
Mattai was raised in a farming village outside Konoha, but while bringing their harvest to Konoha, his family was killed in a bandit attack. A chuunin patrol chasing down the bandits arrived in time to save Mattai and brought the orphaned boy back with them. He applied to join the Ninja Academy and was accepted after they discovered he had the potential to channel chakra. He was a couple of years older than I and the rest of his classmates, but he was very focused and quickly caught up to the rest of us in his studies.
He was a little unusual looking. His eyes were almost as pale as a Hyuuga's, but his deeply tanned complexion and messy black hair betrayed his “peasant” origins. A few children raised in various clans sneered a little at the 'country bumpkin', but Mattai ignored them. If anything, the taunts made him work even harder.
I'm proud to say that Nomaru and I never had any part of that.
As he trained, Mattai displayed a true talent for Taijutsu, and was one of the best in our class by the graduation exams. In time, the three of us were assigned to Kobaru-sensei and began taking D-ranked missions. Mattai's work ethic and unrelenting good cheer made the insufferable tasks all the more bearable. In time, I came to consider him my best friend, with Nomaru a close second.
In time, we eventually progressed to C-ranked missions and began performing reconnaissance missions outside the village. Our team, with an Inuzuka's nose, my talent for Genjutsu, and Mattai's ability to move stealthily and disable enemies quietly with Taijutsu, were eventually groomed as a scouting team. As we grew older, Nomaru began dating a village girl and I started wondering if my feelings toward Mattai might lead to more than just friendship.
It was a couple of years after you were born that we first ran into serious trouble. The attack of the Kyuubi left Konoha's ranks depleted for years, and Iwakagure began pressing our borders, confident now that the Yellow Flash was no longer around. We were patrolling the border, not unlike the first mission of Team Eight – only with Iwakagure clearly spoiling for a fight.
Our team ran into a heavy ambush. The opponents were either extremely competent bandits bribed by the Iwa ninjas, or simply Iwashinobi out of their uniforms. It was clearly an attempt to make us 'disappear' while on our mission, and perhaps torture some information out of us regarding Konoha's forces in the region.
We were trying to fight free, but it was heavy going. Nomaru was wounded early in the struggle, and Kobaru-sensei was half-carrying him as we tried to disengage. The enemy was using a lot of smoke grenades, which suggested they were really Iwakagureshinobi – most Iwa ninjas mastered the ability to locate their enemies from the vibrations of footsteps in the earth.
We were surrounded by billowing smoke, with enemies leaping out of the murk, trying to kill us, then leaping back. Some nights, I still dream about that fight. As we were about to break into the clear, I saw the smoke part and a bandit with a spear leaped out to spit Mattai like a game bird. I was glancing back at him as this happened, and I suppose something in my expression gave it away. The instant before the blow landed, Mattai's eyes turned fully white and the veins all around them began to bulge outward. He twisted forward at the waist to evade the spear-point, even as his right hand reached behind him and grabbed the spear shaft just past the blade. He yanked the spear forward as he spun and slammed his left fist directly into the surprised bandit's jaw, dropping him to the ground. We eventually made it back to Konoha, though Mattai suffered from headaches most of the way.
Needless to say, after our report, there was a lot of interest in a genin that suddenly manifested a working Byakugan. The Hyuuga clan demanded an investigation of how their bloodline had been spread outside the clan. Some of this was understandable, as there had recently been an attempt to kidnap the clan head's daughter. However, Mattai had no idea where it had come from, and his parents had both been killed while traveling to Konoha. After several 'interviews' with the Hokage's office, Mattai was cleared of any wrongdoing.
At this point, the Hyuugas 'graciously' offered Mattai a position within the branch family.
However, Hiashi had not made a very favorable impression on Mattai when he first demanded to know how 'some peasant' had acquired their precious Byakugan. Also, it was whispered throughout the village that the clan leader's own twin brother, and member of the branch family, had been sacrificed the previous year to placate Kumo's demands for the life of Hiashi. Either fact was enough to make Mattai politely decline the 'honor' he had been offered. I myself was pleased with his decision – for reasons I wasn't quite ready to admit to myself.
Later, Kobaru-sensei told us that a motion had been filed within the council to either forcibly remove Mattai from active duty, or require him to receive the Branch Family seal - “for the good of Konoha”. The measure was voted down by the rivals of the Hyuuga's, including the Uchiha and other clans. The Hokage himself would not support the motion, citing that Mattai was not a Hyuuga, and in no way answered to the clan. Forcing a non-clan shinobi to join a clan or submit to their will was not a precedent he wanted to set.
So after a couple of months of recovery and doing D-missions while the politics played out, we were finally cleared to leave Konoha again. Tensions with Iwa had eased after a series of escalating skirmishes depleted their border guards without any measurable gain. Therefore, a simple courier job was an ideal mission to test Nomaru's recovery and allow us to work the rust from our skills.
We never saw the ambush coming - one moment we were traveling along a mountain path, the next moment it seemed like the entire world blew up in our faces. From the lack of warning, I think the path was mined with explosive tags.
The initial explosion left us scattered and wounded. I had fallen back slightly to adjust my sandal. That loose strap saved my life. Unfortunately, it also meant I had a clear view as half a dozen kunai trailing ninja wire wrapped around Kobaru-sensei. Half-stunned as he was, I don't think he even saw the explosive tags attached to the wire before they detonated, tearing Sensei to pieces.
That same combined explosion hurled me backwards off the path, knocking me out. But as I flew backwards, I clearly saw Nomaru decapitated by a large sword, and Mattai...
Mattai had volunteered to take point that day, hoping to gauge the effectiveness of his altered eyes. The explosion hurled him forward, straight into the blades of a trio of swordsmen that erupted from the ground. All three blades ripping out through his back was the last thing I saw before the darkness took me.
I awoke hours later at the bottom of a ravine, filthy, bruised, and quite obviously concussed. The explosion seemed to have thrown me halfway down the mountain, and that mad tumble is probably the only reason I survived. It took me hours to find the path and make it back to the ambush site. It wasn't until I saw for myself that I accepted that my teammates were all dead.
My memories of staggering back to Konoha were rather disjointed, owning to both my head injuries and my grief. At first, there was a lot of suspicion about what happened to my team. However, the majority of the suspicion was aimed at myself for being the sole survivor.
It was a long time before the Torture and Interrogation Unit cleared me of any wrongdoing. In the process, I came to know my principal interviewer well enough to share my suspicions regarding the attack.
Make no mistake, this was no ordinary ambush. Overwhelming force was used to intercept a courier packet of limited value. Furthermore, the precise nature of the ambush revealed a detailed knowledge of both our route and my team's composition. Finally, more men were detailed to kill a single genin than his jonin-sensei. These circumstances suggested a foul betrayal at the highest levels of Konoha's government. The courier mission was funded by the Village Council – an ordinary update typical of those sent to the Daimyo. The list of people with sufficient knowledge to have set us up was as short as it was disturbingly distinguished.
Privately, the man I confided in agreed with my assessment. However, he also concluded that I lacked sufficient proof to make any accusation stick. Worse, if I revealed my suspicions, it would likely only be a matter of time before I too suffered a tragic accident and was killed in action. So I held my tongue and kept my ears open, seeking the other pieces to the puzzle, hoping against hope to someday have justice for my slain comrades. Justice for a friend who might have become more some day.
But justice for the slain is not why I have told you of my suspicions, Naruto. My debts are not yours, and I would not see you spend your life addressing those wrongs – if that was all that this was about.
Ever since I returned to active duty, I kept my eyes and ears open for any hints of conspiracies or treacheries within the Leaf. Recently, those efforts have finally borne fruit. You are aware that we have noticed a pattern of villagers seeking to circumvent the Hokage's law regarding your prisoner. What you may not be aware of is that some of this seems to stem from a faction within the Village Council that seeks to isolate you and place you at odds with the rest of Konoha. This is in direct opposition to the Hokage's directives regarding how you are to be treated. At best this is an attempt to undermine his authority – at worst, it is blatant treason. If you were not the type of person I am honored to call a student, they would have turned you against Konoha long ago.
Of course, a group willing to commit one treachery likely has committed others – such as murdering a genin to spite the Hokage for ruling against their demands.
I recently shared my observations, scant as they are, with one other. UminoIruka is an eminently sensible man, and clearly has your best interests at heart. He has been assisting my investigation, and will continue if something happens to me. Please confide in him if you learn anything that you think might help.
Aside from seeking justice for yourself, the other reason I wish to tell you of my past is as a cautionary tale. The forces that arranged Mattai's death are quite formidable. Even with your incredible progress, it will be years before you can do much to confront or confound their schemes. Worse, you, and more importantly your teammates, are likely more vulnerable in some ways.
I suspect that the chief architect of Mattai's death was the same man that was stymied in his attempts to force Mattai to join the Hyuuga Branch Family and be branded with the caged bird seal – HyuugaHiashi, Hinata's father.
I do not know the man well, but nothing I have learned suggests he possesses any scruples that would have stopped him. His thirst for the Hyuuga to maintain a monopoly on their bloodline is boundless. On several occasions he has displayed a degree of ruthlessness that makes me think the worst of him.
At one point, Naruto, you asked me if there was something... wrong... with Hinata's family. At the time, I was bound by promises of confidentiality, and furthermore had no desire to break Hinata's trust. But with my death, I can do no more for her, and so I will answer your question. Yes, Hinata's home-life is at best abusive. I will milk her convalescence for every day that I can keep her from returning to that poisonous environment. The way Hiashi treats his daughter is monstrous, and I would like nothing better than to see him rot in hell for that alone.
As best I can tell, her missions with Team Eight, and especially her training with you, are the sole bright spots in her existence. Please look out for her Naruto. I know you are devoted to both your teammates, but Shino has a supportive family and a girl I would be proud to call daughter has nothing. If you are reading this, then I am dead, and can do nothing further to help her. It is not fair of me to do this, to lay this geas upon you, but desperation makes tyrants of us all. My only solace is that I can see how you care for her, even if you do not realize it yourself. You may not be able to recognize it because of how you have been treated all your life (and I damn the Council once again for that), but she is just as clearly devoted to you. She loves you, Naruto, like she loves no one else in this life. Treasure that, and treasure her. Please.
Protect her from her father. Protect yourself from all the forces arrayed against you. These are nigh unto impossible tasks. But you do have a few allies. The Hokage cannot show overt favoritism, but he has displayed a willingness to assist you when he can. I've already mentioned Iruka. Your oafish Godfather, while he has done things I disapprove of, does have his reasons. He will help you, within his own limitations. Finally, your teammates will give emotional support, even if they are unable to help in more tangible ways. I would give anything for five minutes with my lost friends. I only hope to see them again some day.
Again, I apologize for the burdens my death has forced me to shift onto your shoulders. I am comforted by the knowledge that the future Hokage of Konoha will have the strength to do what I was unable to manage. You convinced me of your destiny the first time we talked at Moritake's, Naruto. But know that I am already proud to have had you as a student, and as a friend. I am sure that you will become one of the greatest Hokages.
Tsunade's inauguration as the Godaime Hokage was a relatively subdued affair. The village was still repairing damage from the aborted invasion, and the guest of honor didn't exactly feel like celebrating the assumption of a job she didn't really want. To Tsunade, becoming Hokage meant dealing with a series of headaches... such as the clan leader raising his voice in her office.
“I understand your concerns, Hiashi, but the bargain was struck before I ever agreed to return to Konoha,” she began in what she hoped was a placating tone. Obnoxious as he was, the fool wielded a lot of influence with the council and the Daimyo. “Furthermore, her duties will now facilitate plans I and my predecessor have devised to improve medic-nin training.”
“While my heir is needed to fulfill certain duties within the clan,” Hiashi began smoothly after making a visible effort to calm himself, “I doubt she would be of much use in such a... sensitive capacity. You would do far better to utilize someone with natural ability in that area.”
“I think you misunderstand me, Hiashi-sama,” Tsunade replied with a smile. The old fool had stepped right into her trap. “That's precisely what I don't want. I have been away from Konoha for many years, and I understand that the... quality... of the Academy graduates may have changed over the years. Hinata's efforts to learn medical jutsu, no matter how fruitless, will give me a yardstick with which to calibrate the training times for the actual program. If I used someone who actually possessed any talent, it would skew all of the results. No, Hinata's 'all-around mediocrity', as you have described it, is exactly what I need.”
“I... see,” Hiashi said after a long pause. It was clear that he really didn't. It was also clear that he didn't want to admit that fact. “And after she fails the program?” he asked.
“That won't be allowed,” Tsunade answered in a firm tone. “I'll work her into the ground if I have to, but I will get my full six months of service. If nothing else, it will teach her to bargain with greater care in the future.”
“I suppose it might,” Hiashi allowed in a slightly approving tone. “I have already expressed my displeasure with her actions, but I will leave it to you to demonstrate the true foolishness of her offer.”
“As you wish, Hiashi-sama,” Tsunade agreed. She didn't quite simper – not even this fool was egotistical enough to fall for that.
No sooner had he left than the side door to Tsunade's tower quarters opened and a scowling Shizune strode in. Anticipating many late nights working, Tsunade had asked her apprentice to unpack there, rather than airing out the Senju clan residence. She raised an eyebrow at her senior apprentice's thunderous expression... right up until she saw Hinata shuffling in behind her, eyes downcast.
“Oh hell,” she groaned internally. Their voices must have carried through the door. From what Jiraiya had passed on, she was sure the girl's hopes had been crushed.
Might as well brazen it out, she decided. “Now that the idiot is gone,” she began, “I can tell you my real expectations. I am going to work you hard, and you are going to be an incredible Medic-nin, understand me?”
Now the girl looked confused, but that was at least an improvement. And Shizune didn't look at her like she'd crawled out from under a rock anymore. “I told your father what he wanted to hear in order to get him out of my office. Killing a clan leader in my first week as Hokage sets a bad precedent,” she announced breezily. “Your chakra control is almost as good as mine when I was your age, and you have at least twice the stamina I did. What the hell kind of training did Hiashi have you doing?”
“Ah,” Hinata began, looking like her head was spinning from having her expectations flipped around, “I, uh, believe most of that was from training with N-Naruto.”
“Really?” Tsunade asked, smirking, “and what kind of training is that?”
Hinata blushed suddenly, and Tsunade felt a twinge of guilt. This kid was really too easy to wind up. “Mostly Taijutsu sparring. S-some chakra control exercises too. We also w-work with Gai-sama and his student Rock Lee.”
Tsunade vaguely remembered hearing Maito Gai's name some years ago. Something about a genin who passed his Jonin-sensei's personal test by the simple expedient of wearing him out to the point of acute exhaustion. “Well, whatever you're doing you should continue if you can.”
The shy Hyuuga's expression immediately brightened at that.
“You'll spend the afternoons working with Shizune at first, and assisting her with her rounds at the hospital,” the Hokage continued. “At some point, provided you are progressing adequately, you will be assigned to other teams or to ad hoc groups for support. This will give you experience working with a variety of personalities and skill-sets.”
“What about Team Eight?” Hyuuga Hinata asked with a frown.
Tsunade sighed. “Officially, it was dissolved with the death of Yuuhi Kurenai. However, all three of you are performing at or near Chuunin level already, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to re-assign you to genin teams that have lost a member. You would unbalance them, and they'd just have to replace you again when you were promoted.” She paused. “I'll be working out individual solutions for your teammates, just as I have for you. Understood?”
“I appreciate you and your wife's flexibility on this issue, Shibi,” Tsunade said with a smile.
“Your request was only logical,” the Aburame replied in even tones. “Shino's personal development is best served by specialized instruction, but his professional advancement is best served by working with a group. And what better group than individuals he is already accustomed to working with?”
“I agree, but with the scheduling issues he may not be able to complete missions with them as frequently as before. It might also be good to get him used to working with some of the other genin teams.”
“Your point is well taken, but financially, he is not as dependent as others upon his mission income.” A pause. “He has also invested a good portion of his earnings, with an eye toward long-term returns.”
“That's... prudent,” Tsunade nodded, slightly taken aback. How much had those brats made on missions already? “But from what I understand, very typical for Shino.”
“We are pleased with his development as well,” Shibi agreed.
“Look Tsunade, I'll get right to the point,” Jiraiya began. “I want Naruto as my apprentice.”
“I know I haven't been here for him growing up like I should have been,” the old lecher admitted with a grimace, “but I'd heard some ugly rumors that needed chasing down, and I thought the Old Man had things under control. Well, now I know better, and I can't leave him alone.”
“I've got a lot of things I can teach him, things he needs to learn,” Jiraiya continued, clearly not listening yet. “His father's jutsu, for one thing. And maybe how to get a handle on the Fox's chakra without hurting himself.”
“Okay,” Tsunade replied, her teeth starting to grind.
“I know you don't think much of my sense of responsibility,” Jiraiya plowed on, “but he's my Godson. And I made a promise to his Jonin-sensei as well. I-”
“DAMMIT JIRAIYA, I SAID YES! NOW SHUT UP BEFORE I KILL YOU!” Tsunade yelled.
The Toad Hermit was gone before the Chuunin guard even got the door open.
Naruto looked up from his instant ramen. “Could you repeat that again, please?” he asked in a subdued voice.
Jiraiya frowned as he leaned back from the kitchen table. “I said, the Hokage has assigned you as my apprentice.”
“Exactly what does that mean?”
Jiraiya's frown deepened. Most genin would give their left arm to train under someone as awesome as the Toad Hermit. Why would his godson act like it's a punishment detail? “It means, you will be getting one-on-one instruction with me. I have a lot to teach you, things I doubt you've even heard of. We'll be doing some missions together, and I'll show you what it takes to develop and maintain the biggest covert intelligence network in the elemental countries.”
“Missions?” Naruto asked, “but what about Team Eight?”
Jiraiya let out a sigh. “Naruto, Team Eight officially ceased to exist when... you know.”
Naruto scowled. Jiraiya noticed a muscle twitching along his jawline... just like Minato, on the rare occasion when his former student got really angry.
“That's the official rule,” Jiraiya continued. “You can't have a genin team without a jonin-sensei. Unofficially, you three are as much genin as I am a celibate monk. Anyone reading your files knows how well you three work together, so you'll probably be called together for missions on a regular basis.”
Jiriaya took a sip of his tea as Naruto subsided a little. He hadn't promised, not explicitly, but he wasn't comfortable drinking what he really wanted to... not in front of the kid. She may have had a stick up her ass, but he didn't want to dishonor what was effectively a last request. Too much bad karma, especially for someone in his line of work. “You know, if the exam hadn't been interrupted, you and maybe Shino would have made Chuunin for sure – and your genin team would have been split up. That said, most Chuunin have mission profiles they are better at, and people they are used to working with. That's why you tend to see the same shinobi working together from time to time, no matter what their rank is.”
Naruto looked thoughtful. “So... this kind of thing would have happened anyway. But we'll still end up working together a lot. That's why she asked me to promise...”
“Promise?” Jiraiya asked.
Naruto looked down at his steaming cup. “To look after my teammates.”
Jiraiya squelched a flash of irritation. Kurenai really had no business laying that kind of burden on a genin. He wondered if she'd done it for other reasons. Maybe to focus someone who was a hell-raiser in the Academy, according to his files. He'd never know. “She knew how the system works, Naruto. I'm sure she meant when you all were on missions together. Anyway, it looks like you've got everything here squared away, so we're going on a training trip in two days. Pack for an extended mission with resupply en route.”
“Extended mission?” Naruto asked. “How long?”
“About six months,” Jiraiya said. “I need to introduce you to my contacts, so we'll be moving around a lot at first. I also have some advanced jutsu for you to work on...”
“Six months?” Naruto exclaimed. “But... I can't...”
“If this has anything to do with the Hyuuga girl,” Jiraiya continued, “You wouldn't be seeing much of her anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember that six months of service she owes the Hokage?” Jiriaya asked. “She still owes it, and Tsunade's going to get her money's worth. Between making her learn medical jutsu and working at the hospital... well, she's going to work her so hard that she'll be sleeping on a cot in Shizune's room at the tower.”
Naruto scowled at first, then his face cleared as he made the connection. Jiriaya couldn't fault the kid's reasoning ability, but his poker face needed a lot of work. “I see,” the blond said after a moment. “And Shino?”
“He'll be working with his mother and father on their techniques, when he's not doing missions. Tsunade said something about socializing him, so I think he may tag along with some of the other teams on missions to get him used to working with more than just you and the Hyuuga.”
“Two days from now?” Naruto asked. His expression indicated acceptance, if not agreement. That would have to do.
Naruto sighed. “All right. That will give me time to say goodbye.”
Naruto wasn’t specifically looking for Iruka-sensei when he ran across him in the business district, but he had been going around and making his goodbyes to the few people that would actually miss him. Ikitaro the tailor even sold him some spare fabric he could use to patch his uniforms if he managed to damage the tough fabric in the field.
He was about to call out to his old Academy instructor when he noticed the slightly furtive air about the chuunin as he hurriedly made his way down the street, rifling through a stack of papers.
Naruto paused, wondering if this had something to do with what Kurenai had mentioned in her letter. He hoped not – especially if it was supposed to be secret. Fortunately, Iruka wasn’t dumb either.
He was, however, very distracted, and didn’t notice Naruto tailing him through the crowded streets of the district. The little lessons he’d picked up from Kurenai-sensei were second nature by now. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t maintain a constant distance. Do vary your course so it only roughly parallels the target. It was too bad he didn’t have anyone else to switch off with to better avoid detection. Fortunately, detection wasn’t an issue. Normally, Iruka-sensei was more on the ball than this, so Naruto knew he had to be pretty worked up over something.
This was a good thing, because Naruto completely broke his tradecraft when he saw Iruka duck into a store… that sold fancy ladies underwear.
Naruto immediately checked himself for signs of a genjutsu – even pulsing his chakra for a bare instant at the lowest power he could manage. No resistance. Shaking his head in disbelief, Naruto ducked into an alleyway and henged into the form of an attractive younger woman, who then sauntered up to the shop and lingered near the doorway as she inspected the display models in the window.
He felt vaguely perverted staring at the lacy bits of fabric on display. None of it looked even remotely comfortable, and he didn’t even want to think of what Jiraiya would say if he could see him now. But for the most part, his attention was focused on his hearing, and the faint voices drifting from within.
An older female voice was winding up the end of a formal greeting to… Iruka-sama? What the hell?
“I, uh, received a flyer in the mail, regarding the… you-know,” Iruka began hesitantly.
“Oh yes, Iruka-sama, do not worry, we will have workmen here tomorrow to replace the sign.” Naruto glanced up at the sign over the door. Pandora’s Secret. “I have completed all of the other paperwork, including renewing the business licenses with the new name.” There was a rustle of paper. “I will have everything taken care of for our grand re-opening next week.”
“No! I mean, I think you misunderstood, Hotako-san, I meant that it was supposed to remain a secr-“
“I’ve already mailed flyers to all our regular customers,” the old lady continued, giving no sign of having heard Iruka at all. Maybe she was hard of hearing?
“Oh no,” Iruka gasped.
“Oh, it’s all right, Iruka-sama,” she consoled the chuunin, “none of those I’ve talked to seemed at all upset. This has been Pandora’s Secret for over twenty years now, it was time for a change. And the new name… it’s just a little hint of naughty, you know, it makes the older women smile and the younger women blush. You should make sure you are here for the grand re-opening sale, Iruka-sama. A nice young man like yourself, it’s a crime you don’t have a girlfriend or three… maybe that’s why when you lowered the rent you wanted the shop to become Iruka’s Secret?” She asked in a sly tone.
“No!” Iruka burst out, “I meant it was supposed to stay a secret… I… Oh, uh, nevermind, Hotako-san, I, uh, need to get to my appointment. I’ll see you later!”
“Oh, I need to get a picture! For the sign, you know…”
Naruto had to step quickly to the side to avoid being bowled over by the fleeing chuunin. Feeling merciful, Naruto followed the fleeing shinobi for half a block before calling out his name.
Iruka froze in place as Naruto dropped the henge. The chuunin had an embarrassed smile on his face as he turned around.
Naruto didn’t say anything. He just raised an eyebrow. The fact that Kurenai-sensei would do the same thing when she caught him doing something foolish gave him a pang, but thankfully the pain was starting to dull. He’d like to think she’d appreciate how he was handling this.
“This is all your fault, you know,” Iruka blurted out.
Naruto just looked at him silently.
Iruka sighed. “I probably should explain,” he finally said. “You want to go to Ichiraku’s?” he asked.
Naruto nodded happily.
“My treat,” Iruka added.
Naruto froze as a chill went down his spine. Something was wrong.
Of course, all things are relative, especially when you are wrapped around several warm servings of miso ramen.
“Wait,” Naruto interjected, “I knew you made a lot of money betting on the finals. Did you invest in an underwear store? And you called me a pervert for Sexy no Jutsu when I was your student!”
Iruka sputtered. “It wasn’t like that at all! We just… ah… well, nearly bankrupted several of the Hyuuga Elders.”
Naruto’s eyebrows went up. “They bet that much?” he asked.
“We got very, very good odds,” Iruka explained with some satisfaction. “And they definitely didn’t want it to get around that they couldn’t pay their debts. So some of the compensation came in the form of assets.”
“Assets?” Naruto asked.
“Liens, debts owed by third parties, and the deeds to various properties around Konoha,” Iruka explained.
“Ah, so that’s why you now own a panty store?” Naruto asked in a loud voice, making Iruka cringe visibly.
“Hush Naruto,” the chuunin snapped, “or I won’t pay for your ramen.”
Naruto grinned. “Okay, okay,” he agreed in a quieter voice, “but if you are so embarrassed, why did you have that old lady change the name?”
“I didn’t,” Iruka protested, “I saw how she was getting overcharged a little on her rent, especially compared to the other shops on that block, so we renegotiated.”
“Ayame and I don’t have time to worry about other businesses,” Teuchi added as he refilled Iruka’s bowl. “Iruka-san was nice enough to take on most of the non-liquid assets as part of his share.”
Iruka looked down. “It’s only fair,” he protested. “I’m the one that didn’t think to stipulate cash only when they settled up.”
Teuchi waved that off with a ladle. “From what I understand, that would have just made you look suspicious in their eyes.”
“Besides,” Ayame added as she carried a stack of dirty bowls to the sink, where a short girl with long, curly brown hair was up to her arms in soapy water. “Shinobi acquiring a business get a small tax break on the purchase.” When they’d arrived at Ichiraku’s, Naruto had learned that business had increased so much since the invasion that Teuchi had to hire Ayame’s friend, Aldraia, to help part-time with the cleaning.
Iruka shrugged. “The law is supposed to make it easier for ninja to retire when they get too old for active duty or if they are permanently injured.”
“So you gave her a break on the rent if she named the store after you?” Naruto asked, getting back to his original question.
“No, no,” Iruka protested. “I just asked her to let it be our little secret. I didn’t think her rent was fair, but I didn’t want every business owner trying to renegotiate their lease. But I don’t think she understood me. Her store was originally named Pandora’s Secret and instead of leaving me out of it, she renamed it to Iruka’s Secret.” His shoulders slumped as Ayame doubled over in peals of laughter.
Naruto smiled as he looked away. He had just the picture to make a copy of for Hotako-san.
The former Team Eight met at Moritake's the night before Naruto and Jiriaya were to depart. Surprisingly, Naruto had suggested the more up-scale restaurant, having bid goodbye to Ichiraku's the day before. The owner was quiet when the genin entered, but he accompanied the server that brought their food, carrying a small bottle of sake. The bottle of high-quality rice wine contained just enough for four saucers and a toast to absent friends. One saucer was left, untouched, in front of an empty chair. Naruto was a little startled when the retired shinobi poured out the fourth serving, but his silent nod was all it took for him to make the connection.
Naruto barely noticed the taste.
The conversation over their food was awkward and stilted. There was a lot that needed to be said, but no one seemed to be able to find the words. Finally, Shino broke the silence that had descended.
“I find myself surprised at how uncomfortable this meeting has become,” he observed. “Prior to graduating from the Academy, I would not have considered this interaction strained, since it served little true purpose. However, since joining Team Eight, my standards for social interaction have risen accordingly.”
Naruto shrugged. “In other words, you've gotten used to dealing with us.”
“That is factually correct,” Shino allowed, “but insufficient. I have... raised my expectations for what would constitute a satisfactory interaction, and I find the current situation less than acceptable. This is especially true given the company in which I find myself.”
“We are usually... more comfortable... around each other,” Hinata agreed.
“It's hard to find something to talk about,” Naruto admitted, “at least without bringing up...”
“Kurenai-sensei's death.” Shino finished for him.
“Yeah,” Naruto replied as Hinata frowned a little.
Shino nodded. “I am of two minds regarding this issue. On the one hand, I feel privileged to have known her. On the other, I find her absence most disturbing. I expected to go through the normal grieving process and arrive at a nominal psychological equilibrium. Instead, I find myself snapping back to earlier stages at seemingly random times. It is most vexing.”
“I'm doing the same thing, Shino,” Hinata added quietly. “This... happened... after my mother died. I think it's normal to be this way.”
“It doesn't help that they are splitting us up,” Naruto groused.
“The Hokage's reasoning is sound,” Shino replied. “Our development would best be served by individual instruction at this point.”
“Maybe I don't care about that!” Naruto snarled. “I don't want to follow some path like a puppet. I want to be packing up for another extended recon patrol. I want to look forward to Hinata's deer skewers. I want to get bored and spar with you after we set up camp for the night. I want to meet new people that don't... look at me. I want...”
“You want to sit around the fire and listen to one of Kurenai-sensei's stories and try to pick out the hidden lesson,” Shino finished for him.
Naruto closed his eyes as they prickled with hot, un-shed tears. He just nodded, not trusting his voice.
The silence dragged on until Hinata softly cleared her throat. “M-maybe when you return from your trip, Naruto, we can request a patrol mission together. We would need practice working together again, right?”
“It would be wise if we were allowed an opportunity to incorporate any newly-acquired skills into our teamwork,” Shino agreed. “And we will likely have stories of our individual tasks to share.”
Naruto opened his eyes and smiled at Hinata. “I think that's a great idea.”
When told about Naruto’s new assignment, Gai-sensei had requested they meet briefly before Naruto left with the toad hermit. Naruto was used to getting up at the crack of dawn, and Jiraiya most decidedly was not – so it wasn’t really any imposition at all.
On the other hand, given the green-clad jonin’s eccentricities, Naruto was bracing himself for a battle royale to “test the fires of his youth before he left on his youthful training trip”.
The fact that those very words sprung to mind with no effort worried Naruto more than he cared to admit.
Instead of seeing Lee, or maybe even Ten Ten warming up, Naruto found MaitoGai alone in the clearing. His mood was unusually somber, which also put Naruto on edge.
“Thank you for coming,” Gai said in a formal-sounding tone that was at odds with his usual diction. “There is something I wish to discuss with you.”
Naruto nodded slowly.
“Immediately after the Chuunin examinations,” Gai began, “I asked your teacher about your training. I noticed you using a technique, Swamp of the Underworld, to great effect in your victory over Neji.”
Naruto felt rather uncomfortable now. He and Neji had not spoken since that confrontation at Ichiraku’s, but Hinata had hinted that her relations with her cousin had changed in a major way. That didn’t mean he was comfortable discussing the fight with the boy’s sensei – especially with how viciously it seemed to end.
But Gai continued on heedlessly. “It was not hard to realize you had learned that from Jiraiya-sama, but I was curious regarding any other techniques you might have acquired. Jiraiya is best known as Konoha’s Toad Summoner, and I was curious if he had taught you that as well.”
Naruto frowned in confusion.
“Since the exams were concluded, she confided in me that you had declined to sign the Toad Contract, due to concerns regarding how they might… interact… with your teammate, Aburame-san,” Gai continued. “Is this still a concern?”
Naruto nodded slowly. Jiraiya hadn’t brought it up again, but Naruto still felt it was a possible issue if he ever took missions with Shino again in the future.
“I see,” Gai replied, smiling a little. “That brings me to my current situation. Certain contracts have non-youthful requirements. For example, in Konoha, the Toads are well known for requiring a prospective summoner share a drink with the Boss Toad, Gamabunta. This is quite the spectacle as you can imagine.”
Naruto’s mouth dropped open a little. For MaitoGai to consider it to be… He shuddered.
“I hold the Turtle Contract, as the Chief Summoner,” Gai continued, not noticing. “One of my youthful duties, as outlined in the contract, is to make sure that each generation includes at least one Chief Summoner with the ability to summon their leader. The turtles have legends of the end of the world, and the role they will play in it, so they must always be capable of coming here to prevent it.” The last was said with a more normal Gai gusto to it, snapping Naruto out of his shock.
“I have worked extensively with my youthful students,” Gai admitted sadly, “but none of them show a strong desire to master the summoning arts. Lee is, of course, dedicated to taijutsu and becoming a Genius of Hard Work ™. Neji is focused on perfecting the Hyuuga Way of the Gentle Fist, and Ten Ten is walking the path of the marksman, and dedicating herself to weapons mastery. Therefore,” he concluded, “I will have to seek elsewhere to find a fitting Chief Summoner in the next generation of Shinobi.”
“You have nearly equaled Lee’s fires of youth when it comes to your dedication to training,” Gai continued, “and you have the chakra reserves necessary to someday summon the Friend of All Children.” Gai abruptly held up his hand as Naruto opened his mouth to speak. “I have also made inquiries regarding the other issue. Most of the turtles are herbivores, and the ones that do eat insects do not do so in quite the… reflexive… way the toads do. There should not be an issue, and I myself have worked with Aburameshinobi in the past with no… un-youthful… issues.”
Naruto blinked. The normally overenthusiastic jonin had really thought everything through. He also realized the great honor he’d been offered, especially after Kurenai had made him apologize profusely to Jiraiya – even if Naruto wouldn’t change his mind. “I would be honored to sign the Turtle Contract, Gai-Sensei. What other requirements should I be aware of?” he asked delicately.
He just hoped green leotards weren’t part of the deal.
Naruto practiced the seals in his mind as he waited for Jiraiya next to the gate. The sequence wasn’t particularly long for summoning. It was more the chakra flow and how it was modulated that determined who you pulled.
There was also a lot of memorization to connect chakra signatures with names and abilities. Such details were far too sensitive to be committed to paper, so Gai-sensei verbally gave him a list of the basic tier to memorize, and suggested he summon the higher ones individually and meet with each one. They could tell him about their immediate superiors, and this would also help fix them in his mind, as well as let him get used to their individual quirks. It seemed that almost every summon creature was an individual, no matter the contract. Just some contracts had more individual variation than others.
Of course, the Turtles were as individualistic as they could get – especially since they were, by nature, usually solitary. On the other hand, almost all of the snakes were cold-blooded jerks, at least according to Jiraiya.
It wasn’t too long before the white-haired shinobi ambled up to the gate, but he wasn’t alone. Shino stepped forward first, clasping Naruto’s hand firmly. “I will await your return,” was all he said. Naruto nodded.
Hinata was a little hesitant, but inside Naruto was proud of how she straightened up and squarely met his eyes. He thought about what Kurenai had written about his teammate and swallowed. Without a pause he stepped forward and hugged the girl, closing his eyes as he squeezed and pressed his face into the side of her neck. He inhaled a little, to remember the faint smell of sweat, kunai oil, and medicinal herbs coming from her jacket. “Stay strong,” he whispered into her ear, his lips unmoving.
She was frozen, seemingly in shock, but his words must have registered because she locked her arms around his shoulders with surprising force, almost squeezing the breath out of him. She held on for a moment before she released him, stepping back self-consciously.
Naruto smiled at them both as he stepped back as well. No more needed to be said.
“All right, Naruto,” Jiraiya demanded in a rough voice. Naruto was pretty sure he had a hangover. “We got a long way to go before it gets dark.”
Naruto nodded. With a last wave to the rest of Team Eight, he joined Jiraiya and slipped through the village gate.
Greetings and salutations! Circumstances allowed me some time to actually make some progress, and work out some of the issues in this tale, not the least of which is a gag that was planned since chapter 1. Some backstory is revealed and readers will likely have a better idea of where this AU diverged from canon. Thanks go out to Runsamok for awesome beta work, and Tempest Kitsune and Torbin for additional commentary and encouragement.
Discussion thread on the Viridian Dreams forums here: http://www.viridiandreams.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=5481