Hi? I'm not dead...probably. I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone that 2020 sucked. 2021 hasn't started off all that great, but...will a new chapter make it at least a little better?

Honestly, this was such a tricky chapter. I've been slowly working on it on and off as I got inspiration/motivation. There were so many little things I wanted to set up for this arc, but it wasn't flowing the way I wanted it to so I had to rearrange and re-write multiple times.

"Why is it, every time we talk we end up arguing?" The man said while he rubbed his hand over his face.

"You're the one who argues with me. " Naruto crossed his arms over his chest as a frown tugged at his lips. "I don't see what the problem is."

"Problem? Oh, I don't know, maybe the fact that the kid is unstable? Or the fact that he's currently a political prisoner? Or maybe because he's the one who crushed your leg?" He threw his hands up in the air. "Anyone one of those things would turn a regular person off."

"Well, I'm not a regular person and I want to talk to him." Naruto rolled his eyes. "Besides you're the one who said you fixed his seal, so he shouldn't be unstable anymore."

Jiraiya sighed heavily. "Brat, even if the Biju is properly sealed that kid has been through hell…"

"All the more reason to befriend him!"

"I...you…" The older man spluttered and Naruto grinned toothily at him.

(He tried to tune out the muttered: "So stubborn, just like Kushina". He wanted answers. He wanted answers so bad, but this old guy was so rude he didn't want to ask him what he meant by that.)

The door opened. "Alright, that's enough arguing you two."

A doctor, with light brown hair, pulled back in a sloppy ponytail and thin-framed glasses perched on his nose appeared with Sasuke a step behind him.

"Hi, Yasu-san!" Naruto greeted cheerfully. "Can I go home yet?"

The man chuckled. "I'll have to check out your leg again."

Sasuke slid around the man and plopped himself down on Naruto's bed. "Told him that you were in need of a rescue."

Naruto grinned at him. "Thanks!"

Jiraiya rolled his eyes as he stood. "Honestly, I'm the one in need of a rescue here. Alright, I'll leave, but the answer is still no, okay?"

Naruto stuck his tongue at the mans retreating back.

"Now, now." Yasu-san chided as he tapped Naruto's knee. "Settle down so I can check you."

Naruto leaned back in the bed, making himself comfortable as he watched the man's glowing hands hover over his leg. It wasn't really comfortable per se. The healing chakra kind of made his skin itch, but Yasu-san said that was normal.

(He wondered how Natsuki's wounds were doing. Did they even bother to address them, or was Natsuki still in pain?)

His hands curled into fists at the thought.

"You're doing better than anyone thought you would given the extent of the damage." Yasu-san pulled away and picked up the clipboard hanging on the wall next to Naruto's bed to write a few notes. "The number of fragmented bones...well let's just say for your average shinobi, this would have been career-ending. But, it looks like you are making a good recovery."

"Yup! Kurama is helping with that!" Naruto rubbed his belly and tried to send some positive emotions to that virtual furnace of chakra inside him.

"Ah...yes. I suppose." Yasu-san gave a shaky smile. "The Kyuubi's chakra is doing most of the heavy lifting in regards to healing."

(That's why he liked the man. He was uncertain and a little nervous about the whole thing, but he didn't completely freak out whenever Naruto referenced Kurama.)

Yasu-san sighed. "I just wish I could replicate that with…"

Sasuke frowned and Naruto felt his heart drop a little. "Is Lee still…?"

The man nodded silently, his eyes clouded with worry. "He's starting to wake up a little more, but he's still in critical condition. We just don't have the skills to help…"

Yasu-san shook his melancholy off and pushed his glasses up his nose from where they had slid down. "In any case, let me worry about that, as for you Naruto Uzumaki, you are free to leave. I'll fill out your discharge papers as soon as I get back to the front desk."

"Yes!" Naruto pumped his arms in the air.

"Kami help us all, he's been released," Sasuke muttered as he dodged Naruto's flailing arms.

Naruto stuck his tongue out at him.

"Now…" Yasu-san clapped his hands, catching their attention. "Listen. Just because you're released from the hospital doesn't mean you're completely in the clear. You still need rest! So, absolutely no shinobi training or missions for at least a week, maybe more depending on how you're doing on your next check-up. A nurse will come by in a little with the discharge forms that you need to sign, she'll walk you through the exercises and stretches I want you to do with that leg."

"I thought you said no training." Naruto pouted sullenly.

Yasu-san merely raised an eyebrow. "Be grateful you heal quickly or I wouldn't even be letting you out so soon. Alright, boys, I better not see either of you in one of these beds any time soon. Take care of yourselves, ok?"

"Yes, sir!" They chorused as the man left with a wave of his hand.

Naruto flopped down on the bed as soon as he left. "I wanna leave now!"

Sasuke punched his shoulder lightly. "Next time be faster and don't get caught by the jinchuuriki going rabid."

"So unfaaaaiiirrrrr."

Sasuke only chuckled at him before standing. "Alright since you'll be here a little while longer I'll head out. Kakashi-sensei promised to teach me this new jutsu he says works well with the Sharingan, but knowing him I'm going to have to track him down."

Naruto snorted. "Sounds about right. Tell him I want a new jutsu too, so he better start thinking of a really awesome one for me!"

"Alright, alright." The other boy waved him off and leaped out of the window.

Naruto rolled his eyes. Kakashi-sensei was rubbing off on him. He'd make fun of him later for it. He spent the next hour or so trying to read a trap guide Kakashi-sensei gave him to pass the time. It was interesting, especially since it had step by step pictures showing what the traps looked like at various stages, but he kept losing focus to check the time and grumble to himself. When the nurse came in with his release papers he almost leaped from the bed in joy.

(The only reason he didn't was because of the woman's glare. It was a little terrifying.)

He almost made it out the door when his name was called. He glanced over his shoulder.

"Oh hey, Danzo-sama."

He'd seen the man around more often lately, though maybe it was because he actually knew him now. He wasn't always the most observant. Natsuki usually had them both covered, so he didn't have to worry too much. He paused and waited for the man to slowly make his way towards him, leaning heavily on his cane. Naruto probably would have been annoyed if he wasn't struggling in the walking department himself right now. His hand tightened on his crutch almost unconsciously and his eyes drifted to the boy walking alongside him today.

The boy kind-of looked like Sasuke if you only had a vague description of the Uchiha, with his dark hair and eyes, but his skin was paler and his hair laid flat instead of spiking up. Naruto met the boys' gaze with a friendly grin.

(His gut curled slightly at how blank those eyes were.)

"I see they've finally released you then," Danzo commented when he finally made it over. "That's good to see."

Naruto tore his eyes away from the blank-eyed boy and tried to push the unease to the back of his mind.

"Yeah, hehe." He rubbed the back of his head. He didn't really know how to act around Danzo. In some ways, he reminded him of the Hokage, but he was a bit more formal and stiff.

The older man nodded and gestured to the boy beside him. "This is Sai, one of my students and a genin like you. We were just here for a check-up."

"Hi, nice to meet you!" Naruto tried for another grin and nodded his head at the other boy. He was given a stiff formal bow in return.

"It's nice to meet you too." His voice was just as blank and emotionless as his eyes. Sai glanced at Danzo and the older man nodded approvingly.

Naruto laughed awkwardly as those eyes returned to him with an intensity that seemed to pierce into his very soul. There was something really off about the boy. Danzo started walking towards the door and Naruto followed after, wondering what excuse he could make to leave them without seeming really rude.

(Natsuki was always the mediator between the two of them. The polite one. Naruto would usually take his cue from how Natsuki interacted with someone. Without him, Naruto felt like he was floundering when he talked to other people.)

He tried to ignore the familiar ache in his chest and turned his attention to Danzo as he started to speak once more.

"As we walked in, we passed by Jiraiya. He seemed quite upset." Danzo's eye slid over to him, a hint of amusement in its depths. "Another fight?"

"Ugh," Naruto rolled his eyes. "Yes. He just doesn't listen to me."

Danzo chuckled. "Yes, he is rather stubborn. He always has been. What did you fight about this time?"

"I wanted to go see the Suna Jinchuuriki," Naruto muttered, half wondering if Danzo would tell him off too.

(He just wanted more information. Whatever he could get about jinchuuriki and Biju. Kurama was still hesitant around him, scared of opening up and Natsuki was gone, who knows where. And maybe, maybe he just needed to talk to someone who was like him.)

"Hm, yes, I can see why he would get upset over that." Danzo nodded solemnly. "But, even so, I believe I could be swayed with a logical argument for why you think you should be able to see the boy."

Naruto paused and glanced at the old man with wide eyes. "Really?"

Danzo nodded with a faint smile. "Of course, if you have a good reason then I don't see why not."

"Oh, um."

(He nearly forgot. Logic. Reasoning. Answers without emotions. That was Danzo's big thing.)

In a way, it was like a game. Say the right words and you get a prize.

It was a game he wasn't very good at. Danzo's nearly inaudible sighs and vaguely disappointed looks made that very clear during their previous encounters. It made him wonder why the man even bothered continuing to seek him out.

(But, this was important.)

"Well," He drew out the word and tried to imagine what Natsuki might say. He glanced around at the crowded street.

(The glares never went away. What was it like for you Natsuki? Feeling all the hate all day every day? Was that why you left? You couldn't take it anymore? Did you think I'd treat you like that?)

He shook the thoughts away and took a deep breath trying to come up with a good answer.

"Jinchuuriki are feared because of the power we hold. So, for me and Natsuki we were kind of isolated. No one wanted to talk to us or be near us. Well some people, but most people didn't. It was probably the same for Suna's jinchuuriki too." He snuck a glance at Danzo. He didn't look impressed. Naruto winced and hurried to continue. "But, jinchuuriki can be powerful allies too. I mean we're chakra powerhouses, we can throw around more chakra at one time than your average shinobi..."

He chanced another glance at the man. He was met with a leveled stare and a raised eyebrow.

(More. Dig a little more, you almost have it.)

He swallowed. "Not only that but the Suna Jinchuuriki is the son of their Kazekage. So, he'd not only make a powerful ally in a battle but also politically. If I can talk to and befriend him he might listen to me if, if I needed or wanted his help sometime in the future. Especially since our village's relationship is really strained right now with, well you know, the almost invasion and all."

'That's your goal, isn't it? That's why you approached me. The Old Man is dead. Natsuki is gone. Two people who would have seen through you in an instant. You only approach me when Jiraiya and Kakashi-sensei aren't around. You want something from me.' Naruto thought silently, glancing nervously at the older man. Waiting for his verdict on the matter. 'But, that's okay, because I'm using you too.'

(Maybe he wasn't as smart and his brother and Sasuke, but he wasn't stupid either. He grew up with Natsuki after all.)

Danzo nodded thoughtfully, his eye sharp.

"Yes, that is an acceptable argument."

The elders droned on, probably making a very convincing argument if he was actually listening. But, he wasn't. He had stopped immediately after he realized their intentions, which was very early into the conversation.

(He knew if he listened then he'd be drawn in and if he was drawn in then it would be worse for everyone involved.)

He stared up at the clear blue sky, silently mourning losing a perfect day for his research.

"Jiraiya," the old woman snapped. "Are you even listening?"

He rolled his eyes. "You know I'm not. I've told you before that I don't want to be Hokage and that's final. No amount of long-winded speeches are going to change my mind."

Jiraiya couldn't let them change his mind. He knew. He knew that he would make a terrible leader. He was too blunt. Too rash. Got angry too quickly. And most of all he was terrible at the backstabbing and politicking.

He watched the two suck in a breath, preparing for another bout of lecture and persuasion. He cut them off before they could get a word in edgewise.

"Look, I'll tell you what I'll get you a better Hokage than me."

That got their attention. He grinned smugly to himself, now all he needed to do was get the kid and he was sure he'd be able to convince her to return.

"Absolutely not."

Jiraiya tried not to groan, but his shoulders slumped. The elders went along with it because of the sheer fact that he was willing to try and drag Tsunade back. Anything he thought would help convince her, they were willing to give him. Desperation was a powerful thing. Of course, while the elders were fine with it, he should have expected resistance from Naruto's sensei. If it were any other jounin he might have been able to roll over them, but Kakashi…

"Look, I know he's injured, but we won't be traveling too far and I'll make sure he doesn't aggravate the healing process. Not to mention the woman we're meeting is the best of the best as far as medical-nin goes!"

A flash of recognition and within half a breath Jiraiya was sure that Kakashi had figured out the gist of his plan if not some of the details. He could see Kakashi's mouth tighten behind the mask as he took in the implications.

Geniuses. Honestly, they made things both easier and harder.

"I can go."

Ah, the Uchiha.

The boy glanced at his sensei, still breathing a little heavily from the training Jiraiya had interrupted. "I'm not injured like Naruto and it's not like our team is going to be sent on any missions any time soon."

Dark eyes darted to him, calculated and cold. The boy definitely didn't like him.

(The familiarity was a little uncanny for someone who wasn't even remotely related to Orochimaru, and he had to force himself not to tense noticeably. Kakashi wouldn't take well to that.)

"Unless you had another reason for choosing Naruto specifically…?"

Urk. If that wasn't a dig for information he'd eat his manuscript. It was a bit clumsy, but a decent enough ploy for a twelve-year-old.

He sighed and ran a hand down his face.

He did have a reason for picking Naruto specifically, after all, he was Minato's son and he acted so much like Nawaki it was a little jarring at times, especially when the brat talked about becoming Hokage. It was a low blow, but one he hoped would help him convince her to return and protect the village he knew she loved deep down.

But, like hell, he was going to tell this brat that.

He glanced between the Uchiha boy and his teacher. Kakashi merely rocked back on his heels and watched with an amused glint in his eye. The Traitor.

"Look, kid…."

The Uchiha scowled and his chin came up in defiance before Jiraiya could even finish his excuse.

It was a familiar motion.

(Less like Orochimaru, more like…)

He paused and looked the kid over again.

(Maybe it wasn't a bad idea after all.)

Gaara had no idea how to hold cards. His hands were loose and uncertain allowing the cards to tilt in such a way that Naruto could see them. He glanced over the other boy's hand noting how he could have easily won...if the redhead had any idea how to play. Even after Naruto's explanation before they started, it seemed like the other boy was still struggling to keep up with the rules.

Over the last few days he learned that without the influence of a deranged Biju clouding his thoughts, Gaara was left as an awkward thirteen-year-old who probably never had a positive conversation with someone his own age in his entire life.

Naruto watched as Gaara's hands twitched minutely, too well trained as a shinobi to tremble, but it was definitely a close call.

He sighed and set down his own cards.

Gaara's head jerked up from where he was frowning in confusion over his cards and slowly copied his movement.

"We don't have to play if you don't want to," Naruto said, propping his cheek on his palm.

"I..." Pale green eyes darted around as if searching for an answer that'd please Naruto somewhere on the blank walls around them.

The room was typically used for questioning prisoners, but with Danzo's permission, Naruto repurposed it to chat with Gaara. He glanced at the mirrored wall behind Gaara, wondering vaguely who was on the other side, monitoring this conversation. One of Danzo's people? He was definitely the sort of person to have people who followed him. Maybe it was Sai.

(Dark eyes flashed through his mind briefly. Eyes so incredibly blank they could have been painted on and Naruto probably wouldn't know the difference. He really hoped he wouldn't have to interact with Sai again.)

"I just...don't really know…"

Naruto turned his attention back to the redhead.

"Know how to play?"

Gaara nodded hesitantly. His face was still very blank, but after a few days, he was starting to get a read on him. The little twitches and tells that gave away his true emotions.

"You could have said something!" He smiled brightly, trying not to let it falter when Gaara shifted his eyes away from him once more. Naruto figured that they didn't tend to have children locked up here, because Gaara and his siblings' prison garb were too big on them. It made Gaara in particular look incredibly small.


They were both silent for a moment. Naruto bit his lip as he glanced at the one-way window again. He was hesitating, wasn't he? It had been several days and he had yet to ask Gaara anything related to Biju or jinchuuriki.

(How useless of him. His leg made him unfit for missions, but he didn't have an excuse for his hesitation here.)

He really needed to hurry and get the information he wanted. Sasuke promised to find any information he could about Natsuki and Biju while he was traveling with Jiraiya. They could return any day now and he still had nothing.

Naruto sighed and thumped his head on the table.

He ignored the soft intake of breath from Gaara.

"Do you even know who...what I am?" He muttered into the table.

(He wondered vaguely if anyone would burst in to stop him from revealing certain information. He wondered vaguely why this all felt like an experiment. A test. Like he was caught in a web as the spider watched carefully, waiting till the right moment to strike and drain the blood from his body.)

He grimaced at the mental image.

"You introduced yourself as Uzumaki Naruto…" Gaara answered in his usual monotone, though Naruto could detect the faint question.

He lifted his head and looked, really looked at the other boy across from him. Deep, bloody red hair, pale blue-green eyes. He held himself with a stillness that Naruto was almost jealous of. But even with the stillness, the blank expression, there was a vulnerability that wasn't there before the forest.

The One-tail was a real monster of a beast, but for Gaara, the Biju must have also been a shield. A blanket he could wrap himself in and ignore the world with its cruel eyes and even crueler words.

And now that shield was gone and Gaara seemed to still be reeling from it even two weeks later.

(Naruto could understand that. Natsuki had been his own shield.)

"I'm…" He took a breath listening for the rapid pounding of footsteps. "I'm a Jinchuuriki too."

Blue-green eyes blinked slowly in shock. Naruto plowed forward in a rush of words.

"I'm the host to half of the Kyuubi, the nine-tails, power. My brother is...well he is the other half of the Kyuubi. I'm not sure how that happened or how it's even possible. Um, I don't know how much you remember, but he was the one that stood up to you...well to the One-tails at the end there. I just...I just want to know if you know anything about Biju or their power…"

He broke off, blinking away tears.

(The absence of Natsuki in his life was still a jagged hole in his chest. It was healing slowly, but it still hurt.)

"I want to help him. He's my brother..." He glanced beseechingly at the redhead. "If there is anything you can tell please…"

For a moment he thought he had overstepped. That he had pushed too far, too soon. That Gaara would remain silent, still as a statue. Then he opened his mouth.

"I have never met another person like me."

It was the same soft monotone. The same blank expression...but there was such weight behind those words. They echoed with sorrow and loneliness so deep and profound that Naruto could scarcely breathe for a moment.

(He had never truly been alone had he? He had been with Natsuki nearly every second from the day he was born. He wondered...what kind of person he would be if Natsuki hadn't been there. If he had truly been alone.)

He took a breath. Then another.

(He was reminded of the sterile hospital room and the boy with the Hyuuga eyes. Hoarse words whispered almost like a prayer, a confession. A story that made Naruto's stomach twist with disgust and anger. A confession of all the wrongs done to him. A crack. He knew...he knew Gaara's story would be another crack, but he needed to know. He needed to understand.)

"I think...I think we should start at the beginning."

Gaara nodded and even if his face never showed it, Naruto knew deep in his bones that the redhead was grateful. Grateful to be heard.

Sadao squinted as the mist pressed down on the world like a blanket and stifled a yawn. He hated guard duty. Especially early morning guard duty. He was going to feel damp and miserable for hours in this weather. He groaned and stifled another yawn.

Yumi better follow through with that promise to buy him a drink or two for covering her early-bird shift when he had barely gotten home from his previous late night one. He maybe got two hours of sleep last night before she had frantically knocked on his door asking him to cover so she could take her two-year-old daughter to the doctor.

(He knew he'd do it anyway even without the promise of alcohol. Yumi could ask him to walk on hot coals and he'd do it just to make her smile.)

He rubbed his eyes.

It was a really bad time for the little Ami to be getting a fever. Everyone was already so tense and security had been hyped up to a ridiculous degree after the whole disaster of a Chunin exam and the Hokage's recent death. They needed Chunin like Yumi, who were skilled in genjutsu, to watch the gates for any fool trying to make a pass at Konoha while they were without an official leader.

Jun said that everything that happened during the Chunin exam was being kept secret from the other Villages, but Sadao knew better. All it took was one slip up or one betrayal and the info would be out.

(If it wasn't already. After all, that little Jinchuuriki brat went running off with Orochimaru. Konoha's current weakness was probably widely known by now with those two traitors on the loose.)

He nearly missed the first chime of the bell. It was so soft, so gentle and the silence of the mist was so heavy. Like a physical weight that seemed to mute all sounds. He glanced around nervously.

No one should be trying to enter this gate. He knew for a fact that they were re-routing civilians and returning shinobi to the main gate, which was more heavily guarded. In fact, there were at least two other shinobi stationed further up the road who should have stopped and redirected anyone.

The bell chimed again.

He squinted into the distance, trying to determine where the sound might be coming from. His hand drifted toward his weapons pouch. He couldn't see very far. The mist was too thick.


Was it just him or was it getting hard to breathe?


He could see the blurry shape of two people meandering down the road as if they had no worries in the world.

How did they make it this far? What happened to his fellow guards up the road?

His tongue felt heavy. Hell, his whole body felt heavy. Like he was wading through deep water.

The bell chimed again.

Now he could see it was attached to the shorter figures straw hat.

"Y-you're not…"

Why was it so hard to make himself move?

The figures were nearly level with him now. He could hear nothing from them. No footsteps, nor the rustle of clothing.

All he could hear was the bell.

"Wait…" He staggered forward. Trying to block their path, his hands fumbling clumsily with a kunai. "St-stop."

The last thing he heard was the soft chime of the bell.

The last thing he saw was a pair of cold Uchiha eyes.

Ok so I've got basic outlines for the next several chapters, but I've been puzzling over how I want to pace the story from there. Definitely going to have to take some liberties timeline-wise. Already did this chapter by moving up the Akatsuki involvement. Speaking of, I realized that there are a lot of character/plot points to juggle when the Akatsuki get involved, especially with some of the reveals later in the series. Some of which...well let's just say I'm not particularly fond of and am still not sure how I want to portray them. Eh, I'll just tinker with it.

I hope y'all don't hate Jiraiya too much. He's really tough to write and I think I made him a little unlikable? Not intentionally, mind you. I don't remember if I talked about this before, but I hate to just bash on canon characters. I like him well enough as a character, but you have to admit he was kind of an a-hole at first. He had his reasons, but still, he was definitely a character I grew to like rather than one I liked from the initial introduction. I guess I was trying to emulate that here. Keep in mind, he didn't have the same experience/interaction with Natsuki as the others, so he is genuinely confused/frustrated with team seven sticking up for him, and his judgment is a little clouded by Orochimaru's appearance and his sensei's recent death. So, he's just all around in a bad place right now and feels like no one is listening to him.