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Servants, Sparring, and Summons
Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
Six months. A little over a hundred eighty days. Jiraiya sighed as he and his new apprentice made their way down the forest trail. It wasn’t nearly enough.
When he first entertained thoughts of taking Naruto on a training trip, he was picturing a sabbatical of three or so years. Enough time to work at a reasonable pace. Enough time to introduce new subjects one at a time, to let the brat work at his own pace. He didn’t want to be rushed. While it wouldn’t hurt to have time for some leisure activities and maybe a bit of writing, he also wanted a chance to get to know his godson.
Three years also might give them time to disappear from Akatsuki’s radar - or at least figure out what the hell they were up to.
Instead, he asked for a fraction of the time he really wanted. Naruto was hesitant enough to leave the village for six months, and Jiraiya knew he would balk at longer. As it was, he was surprised Tsunade agreed as easily as she did. Maybe it worked out with her plans for the Hyuuga girl. It also meant being back just in time for the next Chuunin Examination, and maybe get the boy the promotion he’d been cheated out of. Finally, Hinata would be busy training under Tsunade, and more importantly, isolated from her father. Knowing that kept the brat agreeable. The Toad Hermit knew heartbreak well enough not to wish it on anyone else.
Jiraiya shook his head. There was so much he wanted, no, needed to teach the brat. Of course, the list was a little shorter than it might have been, he mused sourly, ignoring the stab of disappointment in his gut. He’d hoped to convince Naruto to go ahead and sign the toad contract anyway, now that he wasn’t on a team with the Aburame anymore. That hope was dashed less than an hour away from Konoha, when he first broached the subject. It was irrational, but he couldn’t help but feel betrayed when the little snot announced that he’d signed the turtle contract. He ground his teeth. Turtles!
That sense of betrayal dulled a little when he realized that Naruto still considered himself a part of Team 8, and probably always would. He couldn’t really resent that… it’s not like he didn’t still have feelings, unresolved or not, for his own teammates. Tsunade could have anything from him if she asked sincerely, and Orochimaru… that betrayal still burned in his soul. Worse, if Yuuhi Kurenai was correct, Team 8 were Naruto’s first friends his age.
And that was his own fault, he supposed. He’d accepted Sarutobi-sensei’s assurances and done what was best for Konoha, instead of what was best for his godson. Not that it was all the old man’s fault either. His own grief made him far too quick to accept a long term assignment. Watching over a baby was far beyond his skills, let alone a baby with Minato’s hair color and Kushina’s mouth and jawline. But he could have done it. The boy survived, but he could have personally made sure Naruto had someone to turn to as he grew up. Instead, he failed him just as badly as the Hokage and most of the other villagers. Like all the other so-called fucking adults in Konoha, until his last Academy instructor and that kami-sent jonin-sensei. With an effort, he worked to let go of his regrets and focused on the positives.
Yuuhi Kurenai was one of the most irritating women Jiraiya had ever met, and he considered Tsunade a friend so that was saying a lot. But damned if she wasn’t exactly what Naruto needed. Her students didn’t exactly worship the ground she walked on, but it was close with Naruto and the Hyuuga girl, Hinata. When she called him onto the carpet after discovering he was Naruto’s godfather, he let her do it because she was right. She’d done a better job of godparent than Naruto’s own godfather, so she earned that right. No matter Hokage’s orders or the threat of Akatsuki, she was the one who stepped up and put his godson on the right path. There was no telling how messed up Naruto would be now if not for her.
That was why he was going to honor her requests. Every single silly one. No sake for six months might very well kill him, in which case her afterlife was going to be a constant litany of “I told you so”, sung by a celestial toad chorus.
Shizune wasn’t quite sure what to make of her new kouhai, or junior student. She’d been impressed that anyone, let alone a Hyuuga, was willing to give up so much for a teammate. She knew Tsunade would never hold her to that vow. Managing herself, Shizune, and Ton-Ton was as much responsibility as the Sannin could bear, but Hinata had no way of knowing that when she bargained for Naruto’s treatment.
Of course, that surprise was dwarfed by a recovered patient tricking her master into returning to Konoha. Well, the Legendary Sucker losing a bet wasn’t surprising, but a genin maneuvering her into a situation where her horrible luck, or horrible temper, played against her? That was new. And now she would be working with his best friend. Eldest daughter of the leader of the prestigious Hyuuga clan. Who willingly placed herself in indentured servitude for six months to heal a clan-less orphan? She was still trying to wrap her head around that one.
The first day of anatomy review, Shizune was surprised by how focused the younger girl was. The lack of squeamishness she supposed might have been fostered by the stoic Hyuuga upbringing. Genin that hadn’t been blooded in warfare usually showed more reaction when viewing internal organs for the first time. Maybe she was used to seeing them with her Byakugan. But that didn’t explain how Shizune was the first to call for a break after five hours of intensive review. She fully expected Hinata to show some signs of fatigue or wandering attention before then. But the girl was eerily calm and focused on her words the entire time. It was unnerving. And when it came time to review, Hinata repeated everything back, nearly word-for-word. And then she asked questions. They were good questions, building on what she’d been shown, but not the kind of questions Shizune was expecting so soon.
After a week of this, she spoke to Tsunade. Whatever reaction she was expecting from her sensei, and now Hokage, it wasn’t an aggravated frown and a long-suffering sigh.
“Hokage-sama?” she asked in as respectful a tone as possible.
“I’m going to kill Jiraiya,” she growled.
That was far from the first time Shizune had heard those words, but for once she couldn’t see how this could possibly be the Toad Hermit’s fault. “What did he do?” she finally asked.
Tsunade sighed. “It’s karma. I made fun of him one too many times when we met up after he started teaching Minato fuuinjutsu… I laughed at how perturbed he was to realize that he was teaching someone who would surpass him. Now it’s going to happen to me. Eventually, anyway.”
Shizune blinked. “Uh, what makes you say that?” While Shizune herself had a lot of expertise with poisons, Tsunade was widely acknowledged as the foremost medical expert ever born. Even people that hated her acknowledged her skill.
Tsunade opened her desk drawer and fished out a bottle. “It’s practically a perfect combination. Hinata has developed ridiculous stamina for her age and gender, her chakra control is in the top percentile, and it’s water-natured. Those damn eyes of hers are a diagnostician’s dream, and now you tell me she has the brains for it as well. And as for motivation,“ she grimaced as she broke the seal on the bottle, then continued, “I asked her, on the way back to Konoha, why she agreed to be my servant. Do you know what she said?”
Shizune shook her head.
“She said that some of the worst moments of her life were watching Naruto suffering when she couldn’t help him,” Tsunade said. “That is not the answer I would expect, given some of the things I’ve heard about her father, but there it was… best damn motivation to go into medicine that I ever heard of.”
Shizune silently watched her master take a drink, but shook her head when offered a sip. She didn’t really even have the heart to remonstrate her about it. It was late, and she did not often hear Tsunade so engrossed in the problems of others. It was, she felt, a change for the better.
A clash of metal sent sparks dancing before Shino dropped back into a guard stance, kamas at the ready. Tenten grinned as she spun the butterfly swords in her hands.
He had seen the weapon specialist from Team Gai perform in the preliminary matches of the last chuunin examination. Unfortunately, she had an extremely poor match-up with a Suna wind-user that resulted in a quick elimination. He hadn’t thought about her again until Hinata brought it up during one of their ‘team lunches’. It was not the same without the presence of Uzumaki Naruto, but he had no desire to lose contact with his remaining teammate.
His absence also allowed for a slightly more varied choice in lunchtime fare.
Hinata was still getting up early each day and working with Gai and Lee on both physical conditioning and taijutsu. The improvements in both strength and agility were subtle, but the expansions to her chakra capacity were clearly evident to his allies. Merely sitting in close proximity would stir his hives as they sensed the foreign chakra. In idle moments Shino sometimes wondered, if circumstances were different, if this might have translated into a physical and/or emotional attraction. Not that this was in any way a fruitful topic to pursue.
It was during one of these morning sessions that Tenten arrived for a little live target practice with Lee and Hinata. As they were cooling down afterward, Tenten lamented a lack of qualified sparring partners. Hinata knew from previous conversations that Shino was also seeking more weapon stylists to practice against. It wasn’t long before the two met with live steel in their hands.
While Tenten wanted to master multiple weapons, Shino was only interested in practicing the kama techniques he had learned from his mother. It still worked out well for both, since his time was split between weapons practice and working with his kikai bugs. Tenten got to work out with a variety of weapons, and Shino got to practice defending against a variety of weapons.
Not that this was in any way easy.
After replacing his jacket for the fifth time, his mother insisted Shino be fitted for a reinforced model. Ikitaro of Wave, the tailor that improved Naruto’s uniform, was more than happy to have Shino try out some new concepts for his new Shinobi-Wear ™ line. Now his jacket had leather strips sewn under the outer edges of his forearms and upper arms, with a single link of fine chakra-treated chain imbedded. It would likely part under a direct hit, but it might slow the hypothetical blade down enough to prevent amputation. Shino did know that it cut down on the nicks and excessive wear and tear that free sparring was placing on his wardrobe. It was also light enough to not slow him down, so he asked for similar treatment on his trousers. The material being fire-retardant was a further bonus.
He could also say, with some veracity, that he could make it exceedingly difficult for anyone to score a direct hit on him.
Practicing with Tenten also yielded a secondary benefit. It gave him a much-needed distraction when he was assigned to work with Team Gai for a mission. It was disturbing to discover that Naruto’s depictions of the assorted Fires of Youth antics were not actually exaggerated in any way. When there was sufficient leisure time for Gai and Lee to start exclaiming, the rest of them quickly sought any possible form of distraction.
To be honest, things were rather tense at first between himself and Hyuuga Neji. Unlike Naruto, Shino had been denied any cathartic release from the issues that arose during the chuunin exam. Initially, the only thing staying his hand was a desire to remain professional and bring no shame to the teachings of his former sensei. The second was Hinata’s testimony during a shared luncheon that her cousin had turned over a new leaf.
The final factor was Hyuuga Neji himself. He was unusually taciturn during their first mission together. It was a simple D-rank requested ‘so they could all get to know each other’, as Maito Gai put it. However, Neji’s behavior lacked some of the haughtiness that Shino had expected. Furthermore, at the end of their day, Neji bowed and asked Shino if he was in contact with Hinata. When Shino nodded, Neji asked, in the most humble manner possible, if he could delay leaving for a moment and do him a favor. Shino acceded to this request mainly out of curiosity. He was intrigued when Neji pulled out writing supplies and penned a quick note to his cousin, then asked Shino if he would mind giving it to Hinata at his earliest opportunity.
Hinata herself was very happy to receive the missive, and was nearly reduced to tears by the news from her home. She asked Shino if he minded relaying a reply, and of course he agreed. Curiously, Neji read the reply twice over, then set it alight with a regretful frown and composed his own missive. There were three repetitions of this cycle before Shino broke down and asked Neji why he destroyed Hinata’s messages. The somewhat chilling answer was that Neji could not afford for Hiashi to see one of them and know he was in contact with Hinata.
Fortunately, Shino’s missions with Team Ten were less stressful. While Sarutobi Asuma was far more laissez-faire than Shino was used to, Chouji continued the friendliness displayed after their match during the chuunin exam and Shikamaru was a stimulating conversationalist. The less said about Ino the better. While superficially attractive, Shino found himself comparing her to Hinata in a singularly unfavorable fashion. Sometimes, he wondered if he was measuring the blond genin by an unreasonable standard.
Team Seven was another matter. They had worked together well in the Forest of Death, under very adverse circumstances. However, Uchiha Sasuke displayed signs of intense unease when Shino was around. Finally, Sakura took it upon herself to explain that Sasuke tended to take responsibility for events far beyond the scope of his capabilities. Specifically, he felt uneasy because of his brother Itachi and the role the rogue ninja played in Kurenai-sensei’s death. Shino was somewhat offended that he was believed capable of such irrational blaming behavior and made that clear to the last Uchiha. After that, they settled into an uneasy détente, united in their mutual desire to end Itachi, but ultimately competing to see who would have the honor of achieving that goal.
It also did not help that their sensei appeared to derive no small pleasure in pitting him against Sasuke or Kiba whenever the opportunity arose. At least his… observations. Not rants. Rants were irrational. His observations, shared with Hinata during their shared meals, seemed to provide no small amount of entertainment for his teammate.
And they were far more appropriate meal time conversation than her studies of various diseased internal organs.
Naruto glared at the barely-stable spinning ball of chakra floating above his open palm. He couldn’t believe it had taken over a week to get this stupid jutsu to work right. Okay, the Rasengan looked kind of cool, and it was sort of neat to learn one of the Fourth Hokage’s techniques, but it was tricky as hell to get right. He normally wasn’t this slow getting a jutsu down, and Ero-sennin looked pretty perturbed when he showed him he’d finally got it right.
To his credit, Jiraiya didn’t blame him out loud, or call him out for slacking. But Naruto didn’t want the old guy to take it too easy on him. There were only a few months before Hinata’s “apprenticeship” was over and he needed to be back in Konoha. He ground his teeth as he walked. He needed to be ready for anything. The next chuunin exam, like Jiraiya had hinted about, Itachi, who could show up tomorrow…
The Rasengan began to spin faster, expanding and contracting in time with Naruto’s pulse. He scowled and focused his will, feeling for any fragments of red chakra circulating into his arm. The spiraling sphere spun even faster, but stabilized, forming a glowing blue aura as a barely perceptible whine filled the air.
“Is there anything else I can do with it?” Naruto asked.
Out of sight behind his student, Jiraiya rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation. There was no way in hell he was letting this boy miss the next chuunin exam. He said the Hyuuga girl had helped him with his chakra control, but he hadn’t expected this. He’d picked up other jutsu, like Swamp of the Underworld, with unnatural speed, but the Rasengan… well, that was on a whole other level. It took a conscious effort to downplay the surge of triumph he’d just experienced.
Kumo wasn’t going to know what hit them.
Training with his new summons was interesting, but not as straightforward as Naruto originally thought. From the way Jiraiya talked, he thought he’d be expected to present himself to the boss turtle as soon as he could summon the chakra. He learned a few things were different after his first night on the road.
At Jiraiya’s suggestion, Naruto worked with his summons mainly between eating dinner and going to sleep. The old man still seemed a little miffed that he’d accepted Gai-sensei’s contract, but to Naruto this seemed like the ideal solution for everyone. Gai got to pass his contract on to someone acceptable, and Naruto didn’t need to worry about his summons eating Shino or his bugs.
Naruto twisted his fingers into the appropriate seals, and then focused the smallest amount of chakra he could manage into the technique. There was a poof of smoke, and when it cleared he saw a small blue turtle about the size of his hand. He frowned. This didn’t match the description of any of the first tier summons that Gai had described. Naruto carefully picked up the blue turtle and peered at its face as it retracted. “Do you have a name?” he asked, “er, can you talk?”
His response was a face full of water blasting out of the turtle’s shell. Naruto flinched back, sputtering, aiming the deluge away from his face, but still being careful not to drop the summoned turtle. He ignored the guffaws coming from Ero-sennin’s direction. “Sorry, sorry, I guess you don’t like being picked up,” he stammered. The flow cut off as soon as it was pointed away from Naruto. He put the turtle back down and wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket. The legs and head slowly re-emerged and the turtle began slowly walking around.
Naruto frowned as he ran his fingers through his wet hair. Jiraiya was still laughing. “Very useful. I don’t think the toads ever managed to spit in my face.”
Naruto smiled. “There’s too much water,” he exclaimed.
“What do you mean?” Jiraiya asked, still chuckling a little.
“That’s more water than he could possibly contain inside that shell,” Naruto clarified. “It must have used a jutsu, like that condensation one I know, to generate all that water.” He watched as the summons chewed on the leaves of a small shrub near Naruto’s bedroll. “Even the smallest ones can use chakra and some jutsu,” he added.
“That’s a bit of an assumption,” Jiraiya objected, looking skeptical.
“Maybe, but it’s possible,” Naruto allowed. He smiled as the turtle spat out a half-chewed leaf and promptly disappeared in a puff of vapor.
Naruto fed a lot more chakra into the technique the second time. This time, when the mists cleared he saw a small, vaguely turtle-shaped figure with a bright green shell that came up to his knee at the highest point. “Genji?” Naruto asked after a moment.
“That’s me,” a low voice replied as the shell slowly pivoted. “You must be Uzumaki Naruto, the new summonerMaitoGai told my cousin about,” he said after a moment.
“I’m glad I got you this time,” Naruto admitted. “My first attempt I got a small blue turtle that wouldn’t talk and spat water at me.”
“Ah, we call him Squirtle. He’s new.” Genji replied. “He doesn’t talk yet.”
“Oh,” Naruto said, ignoring the snickering coming from Jiraiya’s direction. “Gai-sensei said there might be additional requests made by the first summons I spoke to. He said he could not tell what they would be, just that they were not always the same.”
“Ummmm,” Genji murmured, his head half-retracting into the shell. “I have no secondary stipulations. I’m not allowed.”
“Why not?” Naruto asked.
“Errr… well, it did not turn out well with the last summoner,” Genji admitted after a long pause. “I really thought I was doing him a favor, he was so serious…” the voice trailed off into hollow echoes as the head pulled back even further. Then Naruto heard a soft sigh, and Genji’s head re-emerged. “I do need to warn you, however.”
“Warn me about what?”
“We turtles are a tribe that prize wisdom above all else. When it says in the contract that we will be summoned in honor, it hinges on your true motivations, Uzumaki Naruto.”
“In what way, Genji-san?”
“Think about your worst enemy, Uzumaki Naruto, the one you despise above all others.”
Naruto briefly considered Orochimaru, the way he’d hurt both Hinata and Oji-sama… but then he froze. Itachi. He couldn’t completely suppress a burst of killing intent that silenced all the nearby nightlife.
“I see you are thinking of them,” Genji continued. “If you were to summon one of us to fight them, to kill this enemy, could you do it dispassionately? Could you truly say that you did so with no hate in your heart?”
“No, but Itachi has a lot of blood on his hands,” Naruto growled. “He killed almost his entire clan, even the children. He killed Kurenai-sensei!”
Genji’s dark eyes blinked and he let out a mournful sigh. “I do not say that your hate is without cause, Uzumaki Naruto, but be wary. Hate and anger can also warp your perceptions of right and wrong. They can help you rationalize actions you normally would not take. If you embrace them too closely, they can turn you into a monster.”
Naruto clenched his fists, but didn’t say anything. Genji’s words were similar to something Kurenai-sensei had once said. He would think on them, even if it was painful. He nodded.
“I can sense your pain,” Genji added in a softer tone. “This Itachi has hurt you deeply and the wound still aches. I won’t tell you to discard your anger, but instead be on guard against it. In the past, our summoner forgot this, to their sorrow.”
“What do you mean?” Naruto asked cautiously.
“In the act of summoning,” Genji explained, “a link is formed between us. Through that link, we can see into you, to know why we are summoned. Summoning a turtle for an evil purpose goes against our very nature. We are wisdom. We are patience. We are enduring strength. But we will not see that strength misused.”
“So if I was to summon a bigger turtle so I could… say… spy on the women’s baths?” Naruto asked speculatively.
Genji’s head turned so he was staring directly at Jiraiya. “I would not advise it. The misadventures of the Toad-Sage are well known, but Gamabunta and his spawn indulge him because Jiraiya of the Sannin gives them more respect than he gives to anyone else. The Toads have not always been… esteemed… among the Others, so naturally they value respect above all else. Drinking with their leader is symbolic of this.”
Naruto nodded, ignoring the outraged scowl on Ero-sennin’s face.
“But as I said,” Genji continued, “that is not our way. In ages past, an arrogant summoner ordered our leader to destroy a small fortification occupied by a rebellious clan. He did not care that the rebel’s cause was just, only that his leader had ordered their destruction. The youngest clan member was a small child, innocent and pure. The summoner’s wicked demands broke the contract and the Friend of All Children turned upon him and destroyed his entire army. That child then inherited the contract and began the lineage that ends now with you, Uzumaki Naruto.”
“Heh, maybe I was right,” Jiraiya muttered, “maybe they really were originally an Iwa contract. I’ll have to ask Fukasaku if he knows…”
“How will I know if my motivations are pure enough?” Naruto asked. This was a lot more complex than he thought it would be. He hoped he hadn’t made a mistake accepting Gai’s offer.
“You must weigh your options in battle dispassionately, Uzumaki Naruto,” Genji replied. “Passion isn’t always dangerous to thought, but it often impedes clear thinking. When you are centered and focused you will know if you are on the path of wisdom. Remember that we are enduring patience. Calling upon us for defense is usually more easily justified.”
Naruto nodded, a little relieved. This wasn’t too different than some of the things Kurenai-sensei had tried to pound into his head.
Jiraiya had them travelling slowly in order to keep a low profile, but it was not without purpose. The Toad Sage was still a Konoha spymaster, and he needed to check up on his network of contacts. Naruto didn’t want to be left behind wherever they were camping, so he made a point of keeping his ears open and his mouth shut during these meetings. He also didn’t object to hair dyes or any other sort of disguises Jiraiya said their cover story required. It was actually kind of fascinating how the old man dropped his normally flamboyant persona and donned a new one like he was changing clothes. He also felt grudging respect for the old pervert. No one familiar with his “normal” behavior would think to associate his alternate identities with the infamous Toad Hermit.
Of course, that begged the question of who the old man really was. Was the man he called Ero-sennin, just another mask?
When he worked up the courage to ask one night on the road, Jiraiya just set his supper aside, threw his head back, and laughed. “What the hell kind of question is that? Who cares which one is the real me? Who knows if there even is such a thing? I’m having fun with it and I’m not hurting anyone that isn’t an enemy of Konoha. What more can you ask from life?”
Naruto stared at his teacher and realized that his simple joy was not a ruse.
“Look kid,” Jiraiya continued in a slightly more sober tone, “I figured out long ago that I needed to make peace with myself and accept who I am. My teammates didn’t, and look where it got them.” He grimaced. “One tried her damnedest to drown her sorrows in a lake of sake and the other one turned into a monster.”
“You don’t have any regrets?” Naruto asked, his throat threatening to close for some reason.
Jiraiya grimaced like he was in physical pain. “Of course I do, you ignoramus!” He sighed. “Especially you… well… Look. You can’t live without any regrets, because no one can live a perfect life and make nothing but correct decisions. But you have to accept that mistakes happen. Learn from them… and then let them go. Don’t let them eat you up inside. Don’t let them make you live a life of hesitations, because that’s no life at all.”
“How do I let them go, sensei?” Naruto asked. It was probably the first time he’d used the term with Jiraiya and meant it so much.
“That’s not so easy,” the man replied after a moment. “What is your biggest regret?”
“K-kurenai-sensei,” Naruto choked out.
Jiraiya’s eyes widened in surprise.
“N-not having her as my sensei,” Naruto added quickly. “It’s just… the last time I saw her… alive. I didn’t say anything.”
“What should you have said?” Jiraiya coaxed.
“I… how much she helped me. How much I… appreciate her teachings. How much I will miss her.” Naruto choked out. “Hinata said losing her mother was the worst pain she can remember… but this… I feel like…”
“Like she’s the closest thing to a mother you ever had?” Jiraiya asked in a tired voice.
Naruto nodded. He hunched over a little as he sat in front of the campfire, arms folded across his aching stomach. He didn’t even notice Jiraiya standing up, and jumped a little when the larger man plopped down next to him in front of the campfire. He jumped even more when hard knuckles rapped the top of his head.
“You’re an idiot. You know that, right?” Jiraiya asked. It was evidently a rhetorical question because he didn’t wait for an answer. “Do you really think she didn’t know? The way she talked about you… I’ve seen mothers less into discussing their children. She was always talking about her team. She took the expectations for Jonin-sensei leaders and blew right past them… well, not in objectivity, maybe. I don’t think she could have cared more if she was your biological mother.”
“Do you really think so?” Naruto asked.
“That you are an idiot?” Jiraiya clarified. “Absolutely. You are one screwed up kid.”
Naruto scowled. “Is that why you regret bringing me on this training trip?” he asked sarcastically.
“What?” Jiraiya asked. “No! Wait, you mean my regrets? When I said you, I meant I regret how you grew up.” Jiraiya sighed and scrubbed a big hand across his face. “Let me explain. I knew your parents long before you were born. Before you ask, I can’t tell you too much about them. Not yet. Hokage’s orders. But there is a reason.” Jiraiya paused and took a sip of his tea. Naruto thought he looked like he wanted something stronger. “I knew them well enough that they asked me to look out for you if something happened to them. I’m your godfather, Naruto.”
Naruto realized his fists were clenched when the nails dug into his palms hard enough to draw blood. He bit back the angry words that wanted to fly from his mouth. “Why am I only just now meeting you?” he asked in quiet voice. He didn’t think he’d given voice to the sense of betrayal he was feeling right then, but Jiraiya still flinched.
“When the fox was sealed in you,” Jiraiya replied, “you stopping being just my responsibility. You became Konoha’s responsibility and the Hokage had the final word. A lot of people wanted you killed as soon as it was safe, but he would have none of that. He convinced me you would be safer as a ward of Konoha, just another orphan to our enemies. Obviously things didn’t go like they should. I don’t think he anticipated so many people trying to work around his secret law.” Jiriaya sighed. “He sent me out to check on our enemies, to make sure no one planned to capitalize on our misfortune. Fortunately, most of them were too busy trying to figure out what happened to the Kyuubi to start any mischief.”
“And then?” Naruto prompted.
“You seemed to be doing okay without me,” Jiraiya said. “Hokage sent word you were well and had joined the academy. They can teach the basics as well as I can, and I still had enemies. Still do, as a matter of fact. Only now Akatsuki seems to be after you, so it’s either in the wok or in the fire.”
“Akatsuki?” Naruto asked.
“The ones in the black robes with the red clouds that I’ve been asking about. Itachi is one of them.”
Naruto vaguely recalled the robes Itachi and Kisame wore, wondering why a secretive order of rogue ninjas would choose to wear such an obvious uniform. One chilling realization was that maybe they did so because they were just that good. He shuddered a little.
“Anyway, yes, I regret not doing things differently,” Jiraiya continued after another sip of tea and a grimace. “But I’m not going to wallow in it. And now I have an opportunity to make up for it a little by turning you into the scariest little bastard Kumo has ever seen.”
“What’s that about Kumo?”
“That’s the village hosting the next Chuunin Examination,” Jiraiya explained. “I intend to have you ready to win the damn thing if Tsunade sends you, er, your team.”
Naruto blinked. “Do you think she will?”
Jiraiya leered. “I think I can talk her into it if she can bet on the outcomes.”
If there was one thing Naruto learned from being friends with Hyuuga Hinata, it was that talking about upsetting things tended to make them less upsetting. He needed to talk about what he’d learned from Jiraiya, and Genji was a good listener. That thought brought its own stab of guilt as Naruto realized why Jiraiya was so upset about him not signing the toad contract.
The next time he summoned Genji for their post-dinner lesson, it was in a clearing a short distance away from the campfire. The turtle nodded solemnly as Naruto explained what he’d learned and tried to articulate what he felt about the whole mess. After he was done, Genji hummed to himself for a while before standing up.
“Turtles do not have godfathers,” Genji began, “it’s not a custom amongst our kind. But the Toad Hermit told you of an obligation he accepted toward you before you were even born, yes?”
“But, perhaps due to the events surrounding your birth, he was not able to meet that obligation. Before today, did you even know you had a godfather?”
Naruto shook his head.
“Then you are richer in some ways than you were yesterday, even if you are only enjoying that wealth belatedly. Your Godfather is a master spy, yes?”
“Such a person does not reveal secrets by accident, do they? He wanted you to know of this obligation, and willingly told you of his own failure. That speaks better of him than his reputation would suggest. I think the course of wisdom is to count your blessings, Naruto. You are better off than you were yesterday by the amount of one godfather. Even if he is of questionable character.”
Misato frowned as she expertly twirled the baton in her hand, her fingers little more than a blur. “It doesn’t appear to have affected the balance any,” she said. She squeezed a concealed trigger and a razor-sharp blade folded out of the haft, locking in place with a click. Nodding, she picked up its mate and spun the pair through an extremely complex kata. Air whistling past the blades was the only sound for more than a minute.
Finally, she stopped and carefully folded the blades back into the batons, before handing them to her son.
“The necessary modifications were minute enough that any reduction in structural integrity should be minimal,” Shino said as he accepted them with a slight bow.
“Your girlfriend’s father does good work,” she observed in an approving tone.
Shino merely raised an eyebrow in response.
“What did she think of your little idea?” Misato asked curiously.
“I was informed that if I ever used it during one of our spars, she would render me incapable of future reproduction,” Shino replied.
“Wow!” Misato gushed, “I can practically hear the wedding vows now!”
Shino sighed as he took his weapons and left for training.
“Must you?” Shibi asked his wife.
“I must,” Misato replied. “He’s never going to get a girlfriend at this rate.”
Naruto continued getting to know more of the Turtle Clan. Many of them were like larger versions of Genji. Mostly slow and thoughtful, but kind and equally slow to take offense. But there were some exceptions…
Some of the more advanced ones seemed to be as comfortable standing upright as the others were on all fours. The first of these he met was named Kabuto, no relation to the weird Konoha genin from the chuunin exam. He appeared to be named for the elaborate helmet he wore on his head. It matched the lacquered samurai armor that protected his unusually long limbs. He was close to Naruto’s height, but carried a naginata, or sword spear, with a shaft longer than Jiraiya was tall.
“I am honored to meet the new summoner,” he said. “I am Kabuto!” he proclaimed as he bowed.
“I am Uzumaki Naruto, genin of Konoha,” Naruto replied, bowing back as he’d been coached by Genji.
Kabuto eyed Naruto as he straightened back up. “Do you study a weapon, Uzumaki?” he barked.
Naruto shook his head. “I was told I should wait until I was near my full growth to select a proper weapon. Until then, I study taijutsu so my hands are free to form seals, and I know how to use kunai and shuriken.”
“So taijutsu is your current focus,” the turtle observed in a thoughtful tone. “That is… acceptable. I understand that you trained taijutsu under the other summoner?”
“Good,” Kabuto said with a chuckle as he dropped into a ready stance. “We shall spar now.”
What followed next was, for Kabuto, evidently a light workout. For Naruto, it was an advanced seminar in dodging and not getting skewered by that really sharp-looking naginata. After 30 minutes he felt like he’d spent the afternoon sparring with Lee. Fortunately, Kabuto was adept at twisting the haft at the last instant so Naruto would get slapped by the flat of the blade, rather than cut by the edge. Just as Naruto was about to drop, Kabuto stopped and fell back into a guard stance.
“That was acceptable,” Kabuto declared after a moment. “We should continue this every day, until…”
“Uh, until what?” Naruto replied, afraid to ask.
“Until you can take the naginata away from me without getting hit once.” Kabuto clarified.
Naruto winced, but slowly nodded his agreement.
Hinata inhaled sharply as she left the apothecary. Her studies had branched out into pharmaceuticals, including how to prepare refined medicines from the basic herbs. But she was not prepared to run into a group of branch family Hyuuga picking up supplies. A few widened their eyes when they saw her, but then they immediately looked away. Even worse were the ones that looked through her like she didn’t exist.
She knew from Neji’s notes that her father had made a declaration. During the period of her service to Senju Tsunade-sama, Hinata was to be treated as a Senju. Ideally, no shame would fall upon the Hyuuga for having a member of the main family as a servant to another clan. It was one thing to read about this in Neji’s letter, or even understand why in her head. But in her heart… she felt like she’d just been stabbed.
It was only long experience in hiding her true feelings that kept Hinata from breaking down. She would not shame herself with a public display of weakness. Not now.
She felt even worse when she realized that there was another Hyuuga in the group, trailing behind the others. Neji. She felt her cheeks begin to burn with shame. He could read her far better than any branch family member, perhaps better than any other Hyuuga. He would know her shame and despair like she’d shouted it from the rooftops.
Unlike the others, Neji gave the smallest fraction of a nod as his eyes locked gazes with hers. She doubted anyone else could see it, but the barest hint of a smile curled the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t a smirk of derision, either, just simple pleasure in meeting his cousin.
The pain faded like a mirage, and Hinata returned his smile with one of her own. Just as small and discreet, but no less heartfelt.
She passed her cousin, finding her steps lighter than they were before.
As Genji slowly introduced Naruto to the more senior turtles, the chakra requirements for summoning them began to mount. He also began to notice that the jutsu he practiced for Jiraiya were becoming steadily more energy-intensive. After their second month on the road, Jiraiya produced a piece of chakra-treated paper and asked Naruto to focus his chakra into it, making sure to exclude any of the Kyuubi’s chakra. After taking a moment to make sure his hands and arms were clear, he did so and discovered that his primary element was actually air.
“Huh,” Naruto said. “I would have thought it was water or earth.”
“What makes you say that?” Jiraiya asked.
“Well, I can do Condensation and Swamp of the Underworld pretty well.”
“That’s because you practiced them,” Jiraiya shot back. “I lost track of how many times. And you have stupidly huge chakra reserves. Air being your primary element means that you will find it easier to learn air techniques, and they will work better for you. It’s actually pretty rare in Konoha.”
“So, do you know any air techniques?”
Jiraiya gave a long-suffering sigh. “Of course I do. One of the easiest is called Great Breakthrough. Now watch these seals and repeat them without molding chakra…”
Aburame Suba asked his nephew to stay a moment after the meeting of the clan elders concluded. That this was done through delivered pheromones and not speech was itself interesting. Shibi lingered over his papers, shuffling their order as the other members filed out. As the most junior member of the council, he was often stuck with the majority of the filing and record-keeping, so this was far from unusual. His fellow council members were not likely to linger in the council chambers after a three hour meeting regarding budgetary allocations. It seems that some things are, in fact, truly universal.
When they were alone, Shibi stilled his papers as Suba re-sealed the room.
“I received your message last night,” Suba said without preamble. “The room is secure.”
“Shino received a message a week ago from a discreet courier service, based in Grass,” Shibi began without preamble. “Using circuitous language, it directed him to a cache hidden by a genjutsu keyed to Shino’s chakra signature. Inside the cache was a sealed scroll that required his blood to open.”
“Those are rather elaborate precautions,” Suba observed. “Do we know the origination of this communication?”
“Yes,” Shibi replied. “His jonin-sensei.”
“The deceased one?” Suba clarified.
“Ah, yes, elder,” Shibi confirmed. “The courier had orders to send out the message if they did not hear from her by a certain interval.”
“You are well informed.”
“It was explained in the scroll,” Shibi explained. “She wished to avoid giving any false hope that she was still alive.”
“That is… unusually well thought out. I am starting to understand some of Shino’s rapid development. I understand he may be prepared for a third hive in the future?”
“Yes, Elder,” Shibi agreed, “but her precautions made more sense once one considered the contents of the scroll. In it, she details what she has uncovered and what she has surmised regarding an active conspiracy working in part through the village council.”
Aburame Suba did not show surprise, but he stared at his nephew for a curiously long period of time. “Does this have anything to do with the actions described by Bataru?”
“In part,” Shibi confirmed. “But there are also hints of further attempts to subvert the Hokage’s authority, as well as the elimination of certain undesired parties.”
Suba went still again. “Tell me everything,” he commanded.
The Toad Hermit slowly revised his opinion of the turtles, or at least some of them. Kabuto proved to be damn useful. Jiraiya talked Naruto into training with the little armor-plated menace first thing each morning as a warm up. That gave him a few more precious minutes of sleep, and usually slowed Naruto down enough that keeping up with his godson wasn’t killing him.
Jiraiya knew going into this that keeping Naruto fully occupied would be a challenge. That was actually good, in a way. They could squeeze the maximum amount of intensive training into the six months they had, working one-on-one. What he didn’t realize was just how intensive. He’d gotten a taste in Konoha, preparing him for the chuunin exam, but he’d clearly underestimated how hard Gai was working the brat. Maybe Kurenai’s death was making it worse… someone his level trying to catch up to Itachi was crazy. Damned if he wasn’t trying though.
Jiraiya knew he was clearly getting too old for this crap.
It wasn’t just the physical side either, though they were doing an hour every day on advanced taijutsu forms and some sparring. He was constantly having to revise his estimates of Naruto’s progress and devise new training techniques. His apprentice was already clever enough to see the advantages of shadow clones for certain types of training, and he wasn’t afraid to use them. And by use, Jiraiya meant “use them in ridiculous numbers”. He was picking up the Air techniques Jiraiya knew at a frightening rate.
It didn’t let up, even when they were travelling. Unless they were trying for best possible speed, Naruto needed his mind occupied. And going all out was not a good way to stay under anyone’s radar. The boy was used to Yuuhi Kurenai giving them problems to mull over while they walked, so if Jiraiya said nothing, the questions started. Questions about everything. Jiraiya knew that he should not wish for a less motivated student, but damned if it wasn’t exhausting. And discussion of some topics was not something he wanted to do while strolling on a road to nowhere in particular. So he tried to give Naruto problems and lessons associated with what they were actually doing, namely tradecraft and how to run a spy ring. It was a little gratifying to see someone soak in all the little things he’d picked up on over the years.
And asking Naruto to flesh out imaginary life histories for him to use wherever they were heading gave Jiraiya a little peace and quiet.
Hinata resisted the urge to worry at her lip as she concentrated on the chakra flowing through her hands. She did not flinch as the fish under her hands gave a feeble twitch. Any mistakes now and this fish would be just as dead as the last one. She felt bad for the fish, but Tsunade-sama insisted that this was the best way to learn the Mystical Palm healing technique.
Also, part of her duties included preparing dinner for Tsunade-sama and Shizune-sempai… and she was running out of new fish recipes.
It was really just a matter of chakra control, something she normally excelled at. But chakra control good enough for academy jutsu, or even jyukken strikes, was one thing. Medical techniques required a whole new order of precision to avoid disaster. Minute fluctuations in the flow of chakra could disrupt the healing process, or even inflict more damage. The first few fishes Hinata worked on were not even edible by the time she was done.
Still, she seemed to finally be getting the hang of this. She could feel the fish slowly reviving under her hands. She bore down, forcing the chakra to flow as she willed, not allowing an instant of deviation. So focused was she that the timer ringing almost did not register.
She looked up to see a smiling Shizune-sempai holding a bucket of clear water.
All of this training was slowly increasing his chakra reserves, but this latest summon left Naruto feeling a little light-headed. He wasn’t sure if he had ever expended that much chakra on a single technique before. He wondered if this was how other ninja felt when they got chakra exhaustion. It kind of sucked, to be honest. Fortunately, his head quickly began to clear. He waved his hands, trying to disperse the summoning fog that surrounded him. As much chakra as that took, he expected to see a turtle the size of his apartment building. Genji and the others were a little vague on the details regarding ‘The Old One’.
But nothing loomed out of the rapidly clearing wisps of vapor. There was a muffled cough and Naruto looked down.
The latest summon was an upright, if slightly stooped, figure only a little taller than Genji. His coloration was various hues of faded green, but what really grabbed Naruto’s attention were the huge spectacles perched on the bridge of the turtle’s beak. He could not figure out what was holding them in place, and they made the already protuberant eyes look huge. Adding a little height was an old-fashioned sleeping cap made of striped fabric. The pointed top had a rounded piece of fluff that dangled down the side of the turtle’s head.
The turtle opened its mouth twice, making a smacking sound, and then let out a yawn as it stretched. The motion made the tassel brush against the side of its head, and one hand quickly swept the sleeping cap off its head. The other hand reached down and tugged on a section of the shell plates covering the torso. Naruto blinked as the shell pulled away to reveal a disturbingly deep drawer. The cap was stuffed within and it was closed before Naruto could confirm what he thought he just saw.
“Sorry, sorry,” the old turtle rasped. “Fell asleep doing a bit of bedtime reading, young Genji said you might be contacting me soon. Bit of a night owl, eh? Almost as bad as old Pog, back in the day. Oh well…”
“Yes, Old One, my apologies, I am Uzumaki Naruto, genin of Konoha,” Naruto introduced himself, bowing.
“Old One?” the weathered turtle asked, “is that what they are calling me now?”
The old turtle snorted. “I am Clothahump, and that is all the name I will ever need. I am, however, too old to stand on formalities. Let us sit and speak of things. You wouldn’t happen to have any tea, would you?”
Naruto shook his head and created shadow-clones to fetch fresh water and the tea pot.
“Ah, useful spell, that,” Clothahump said approvingly. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but we have much to discuss and I find that my throat tends to go dry if I speak too long. A blessing, by Mudge’s reckoning.”
Soon the ancient turtle was warming his feet by the campfire and complimenting whoever purchased their supply of green tea. Clothahump reminded Naruto a little of the old people he sometimes saw around the former Hokage, a little stooped and fussy. On the other hand, he was a lot nicer to Naruto, and appreciated everything that was done to make him more comfortable. It was a little disconcerting, how kind he was for such a senior summons. Maybe it was just a reflection of the nature of the Turtles – most of them seemed to treat Naruto like a long-lost cousin. Even Kabuto, when he wasn’t sparring… maybe Naruto was just too used to Gai.
“I can tell,” the old turtle began, “that summoning me severely taxed your energy. It may be a while before you can summon The Four, or The Friend to All Children and his offspring. But there are also certain spells, er, I mean, techniques you can learn because of your link to us. In time I may even be able to initiate you into the greater mysteries… but that is many steps down the road.”
“I am still working on improving my chakra control and my reserves,” Naruto admitted.
“I can tell,” Clothahump replied. “You have a lot of power for one so young. I don’t doubt you could summon one or two of The Four already, except they refuse to be separated. You have to have enough energy to summon all four, split into four equal streams.”
“Is that why they call them The Four?” Naruto asked.
“Yes. Well, and they have occidental names that are ridiculous and difficult to pronounce,” Clothahump admitted. He frowned. “I wonder if that’s why they call me… nevermind. Yes, continue working on your energy. I think the current Chief Summoner chose wisely when he selected you as his successor, but it will still require much effort to realize your full potential. In the meantime, I will teach you the beginnings of turtle magic…”
Four months away from Konoha saw Jiraiya leading them into a remote corner of Wind Country. The Toad Hermit hadn’t briefed Naruto on who they would be meeting way out here, but the genin held his tongue. He knew his godfather well enough now to realize that Jiraiya would tell him when he was ready, and acting disinterested would probably get him to reveal his plans the soonest.
Finally, the old man called a halt when they were in the middle of a wide but shallow depression. Naruto looked around, eyeing ripples in the stony ground that seemed to have been carved from resentful earth by the wind itself.
“So… where are we?” Naruto finally asked.
“The middle of nowhere,” Jiraiya answered.
Naruto sighed. “Okay, why are we out here?”
Jiraiya smirked. “Better question. We are miles and miles from any outpost, any sign of civilization. If I am right, we are the only ninja for one hundred miles in any direction.”
Naruto swallowed. No, this didn’t sound ominous. Not at all. “What do we need that much privacy for?”
“We need to see if you can put the nine-tails to work,” Jiraiya answered in a serious tone.
“Uh, sensei, I really don’t think that’s a good idea,” Naruto protested.
“It probably isn’t,” Jiraiya agreed, “but I need to teach you how to best use every advantage you’ve got, and a bottomless well of chakra you can draw on is definitely an advantage.”
Naruto shook his head. “Kyuubi’s chakra messes me up more often than it helps, I think it does that on purpose. Besides, I want to succeed using my own skills, not borrowed power. I don’t want to owe anything to the demon fox that tried to destroy Konoha.”
“Look,” Jiraiya argued, “I understand your feelings on this. Under normal circumstances I’d honor you for them. But this is far from normal. A bunch of serious S-class nukenin are after you, probably because of your prisoner. You need to use every advantage, every skill you can master, if you want to get through this.”
“It’s not safe though,” Naruto protested. “Every time I’ve drawn on it’s chakra, I think it’s influenced me. It’s made me really, really angry before. I almost forget myself.”
Jiraiya frowned and scratched at his jaw. “Maybe you need to explain a few facts to your prisoner.”
“How do I do that? It only spoke to me before when I was unconscious.”
“Meditation should work,” Jiraiya replied in a speculative tone.
Naruto let out a groan.
Fortunately, it did not take as long as Naruto expected before he found himself in the damp basement mindscape again. Naruto sometimes wondered how aware the fox was of what was going on, and this just fueled his suspicions. He stood and locked gazes with the massive face behind the seal. Again, Naruto was struck by how real it all seemed. He could hear condensation slowly dripping from a vent. It mostly smelled like damp socks, but there was an underlying musk Naruto remembered from before.
“What brings you here, jailor?” the kyuubi snarled.
“We need to talk,” Naruto said.
“So talk, monkey,” the fox declared dismissively. “It’s not like I have any interest in your petty lies.”
Naruto clenched his jaw, refusing to be baited. “I know you’re at least partially aware of what’s going on, so why would I lie? And I think you have an interest in our mutual survival.”
“Maybe you’re not quite as stupid as you look. But just because I removed that one seal, don’t imagine I care what happens to you.”
“…and I’m sure a bunch of S-Class missing-nin want to capture me just so they can set you free. No ulterior motives there, I’m sure,” Naruto shot back in a sarcastic drawl. He was starting to understand why Shikamaru did that. Fun and effective at getting your point across.
The kyuubi seemed less impressed. “That still sounds more like your problem than mine,” it growled. “You humans have sought to use my kind as weapons for centuries. Why should I care about trading one master for another?”
“The Fourth didn’t seal you to make a weapon!” Naruto shot back. “You were attacking our home. What was he supposed to do, stand back and watch you do it?”
“My grievance with Konoha is older than that pathetic cluster of hovels you call home!” the kyuubi roared, muzzle slamming against the seal. “I have been used and sealed away in turn by your hokages, and I would enjoy nothing more than to piss on the ashes of your cursed village.”
The wind from the nine-tails’ rant pushed Naruto back several feet, his sandals grinding across the damp concrete. “Okay, fine,” he shouted back. “I wasn’t there, so I can’t dispute your grievance. But I didn’t do anything to you. Hinata and Shino didn’t do anything to you. We were babies the last time you were out. Even if you do have a right to be angry, taking it out on people who didn’t hurt you is just wrong. And it’s stupid, and you are not stupid.”
The kyuubi’s eyes narrowed, but when it spoke, it was without the gale force winds. “I still don’t see any benefit in helping you, monkey.”
Naruto decided to go for a different approach. “And here I thought you didn’t want me embarrassing you.”
“What are you jabbering about now?”
“Before,” Naruto replied, “with the seal. You said you didn’t want anyone else marking up your den. Lots of people know you are sealed inside me now. If I get taken out because you won’t lend me any extra chakra, do you know what they will think? Guess that kyuubi wasn’t as powerful as we thought. Maybe he isn’t really the strongest of the biju. Shukaku got huge when he manifested through Gaara… now that was a real threat.”
“Are you actually trying to manipulate me?” the nine-tailed fox asked incredulously.
“Not very well,” Naruto admitted. “But no matter what happened in the past, we are stuck with each other, aren’t we?”
“Not if you open that seal,” the fox reminded him.
“Which would probably kill me, and would definitely endanger my friends, I’ll pass on that,” Naruto replied. “It’s not like I’m asking for so much, am I?”
There was a pause as the fox seemed to mull over Naruto’s words. “You will only use my power to destroy your worst enemies?” the kyuubi clarified.
“I’ll use my own skills whenever possible,” Naruto vowed. “I don’t want to be too dependent on your power, and you deserve better than to become a glorified crutch.” The last bit was added on a whim, but if he was getting any sort of concession, a little flattery wouldn’t hurt.
“Very well,” the kyuubi growled. “I will allow it in emergencies, and against truly strong opponents.”
“Well,” Naruto added, “it would probably be a good idea to practice with it a little bit. We’re out in the middle of nowhere and I have no idea what I can do with your chakra. I’d rather do my trial and error now, and not in the middle of a fight. I have no wish to make either of us look foolish.”
The fox’s glare was back. “You are a pushy little monkey, aren’t you? Then I want something in return.”
“What can I give you in here?” Naruto asked curiously.
“Well, you can clean it the hell up!” the kyuubi snarled.
“Wait, what?” Naruto asked confused. “I don’t know anything about fuuinjutsu!”
The kyuubi no kitsune, whose tails could wreak havoc and create cataclysms with but a wave, actually sighed in disgust. “Stupid monkey. The seal is the only real thing in here. The rest of this place is a projection of your so-called mind! And I am sick of sitting in this damp, stinking mindscape of yours!"
Naruto winced. That had never occurred to him. He didn’t need a mirror to know his face and exposed neck were reddening. “Uhm, I’ll talk to Jiraiya and get right on that. As soon as I know how.”
“Go,” the kyuubi spat.
Author’s Note: Yes, I am back. And yes, I intend to update much more often now. How long I’ll continue to do so depends on some real life things, like finances, Patreon, my original fiction, and other stuff. I’m back to work on Nightmares of Futures Past now.
Thanks as always to Runsamok, Tempest Kitsune, and Torbin for awesome beta work. You three rock! This chapter would be much poorer without you.