Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 146-A "Lesson"
Patron Release 2021.10.07
"Karura, I need to speak with you for a moment." Technically he could speak to the Karura in his head at any time and there was nothing really stopping him from entering the seal to talk to her face to face but there was something about being able to sit down here in the physical world that just seemed right.
The Biju in question looked up from Gaara to give him a curious frown but it quickly melted into a soft smile. "Of course, beloved." She glanced over to Temari but the Kunoichi was already offering a reassuring smile.
"Go, it's fine." Temari continued where Karura left off, working to bring Gaara's hair into a braid. It didn't come down very far like that- which was a shame- but Temari and Karrua had agreed it looked quite dignified.
Isobu just liked that her brother had a braid like her.
While he had been initially tempted to bring her to his office, Naruto eventually decided in favor of his sitting room. He liked his office but it was a bit formal for this discussion and while the library had served him well for similar discussions in the past the smaller, more intimate sitting room.
Naruto helped Karura to her seat first- and was rewarded with a brilliant smile- before closing the door- not that it tended to stop anyone within the palace from seeking him out anyway- and taking his own seat.
"What did you want to talk about, Naruto-Kun?"
"About you and….Kushina."
One sandy brow rose. "Is there something wrong?"
He took a second to consider that while formulating his answer. "Nothing...wrong," Naruto assured her. "If you want to spend time with Kushina that's fine. I'm not about to stop you from making your own friends. I would, however, prefer if you stopped committing me to spending more time around her."
Like tonight, the visit Kushina had extracted a promise from Karura to bring her family that first time. Naruto was aware that she was using it to be able to spend more time with him- and his children- and he didn't blame her for that but he didn't like it. He had other things to be doing, all of which he considered to be a better use of his time.
He would go this time, of course, he wasn't about to make a liar out of Karura, but he wanted to establish an expectation now that this wasn't going to keep happening. If Karura wanted to go- and if she wanted to bring the children- that was perfectly acceptable and he was glad they enjoyed it.
"Why?" Her question was genuine and understandable, really. Kushina was- had been- his mother and Karura was all about expanding their little family. Having what was more or less a mother in law- and one that seemed to like her, even- must have been quite the novel experience.
"While my mother meant well, she made some rather large mistakes in my youth that had a very large impact in my life. I have moved past that-" For the most part. "-but I have no intentions of building any sort of relationship with her. As far as I'm concerned, we should remain no more than casual acquaintances."
Karura's head tilted to the side in thought. "But if what she did made things the way they are today- isn't that a good thing?"
"That's not what this is about." It wasn't a bad point for her to bring up and overall he would say he was content- if not happy- with the way things had turned out in the end which, to be fair, was in part due to Kushina's poorly planned actions. But they weren't there to talk about the merits of her mistakes. "What she did became a….divide...between us. We were separated and lived our own lives. I don't see her as my mother-" If anyone was his mother it probably would have been Yugao, though she probably fit better into the role of an elder sister. "And we don't have any sort of relationship anymore. I don't plan on changing that."
"She still likes you." Pointed out the Biju. She was going to say 'loves' but thought better of it. "You don't have a lot of people who like you-" He was about to bring up the Wolves when she continued. "-without worshiping you."
"...No." He agreed. "I suppose I don't." He didn't think that was entirely a bad thing. He was surrounded by loyal, trustworthy people who would harm themselves before trying anything against him. That felt like a pretty good position to be in.
"I think it would be good for you to have other friends. People who care about you but aren't so devoted they can't tell you when they think you should do something else." She was guilty of that too, actually, so her point actually put her in a bad light but she also knew that he had been entrusting that Mai girl to disagree with him when he was making a mistake.
She also knew things were strange between the two of them, so it was probably a good idea to have others capable of performing similar roles.
Naruto had to pause at that. He couldn't say she was wrong when he had already extolled the benefits to having someone who wasn't blindly loyal to him and would do what would be best for the Wolves instead of just following his orders to Kakashi. It was good to have people with other perspectives united by a common goal and, to be perfectly honest, Naruto really couldn't say he had many people he could genuinely consider friends.
Comrades absolutely, family certainly, but no one with an outside view who was still vested in his well being because of their mutual closeness.
Naruto frowned deeply, trying to come up with even a single name of someone he could consider simply a friend. The closest he could come up with was Danzou and even the warhawk was more an ally than a friend, maybe even a mentor. Who the hell was he friends with?
No one was coming to mind and he pushed the thought away to be pondered over at a later time.
"I understand where you're coming from, Karura, I can see your point-" She started to smile. "But I don't want to be friends with Kushina." The smile dropped.
"But she's so nice."
"You can be friends with her, Karura." He repeated. "But I don't want to be and I'm not sure she could keep it at friends without trying to push for a more familial relationship."
"So you aren't coming with us?" She looked genuinely distressed so he reached over to take her hand in his, squeezing gently.
"I'll be with you tonight, Karura, you already promised the whole family would be over, but I don't want to keep spending so much time around her."
"Once a week?" She proposed, indigo eyes full of hope.
"I'll consider once a month." She pouted but nodded, knowing that was still probably more often than he'd like.
"Okay, I'll let Kushina know."
Naruto shrugged. "You could, or you could just not promise anything tonight and when I don't show up next time you can tell her I was otherwise occupied."
"I'll try." She still didn't look too happy. "I really liked getting everyone dressed up and spending time together." He squeezed her hand again.
"We still can," He promised. "We can get Naruko's help to get us to Konoha-" And he was wondering if he shouldn't try to put a seal somewhere on Kakashi tied to his own seal in order to accomplish the same thing- "and we can always go somewhere here in Hanahime. There are plenty of restaurants that have been opening up in the city and I've never been to any of them. We could try a new one each week."
That would only last until they moved the Wolves over to Yu no Kuni and, judging by Katsuri's presence, that would probably be soon. With Mai and Hanabi overseeing the Wolves, though, he supposed he probably could stay here in Nami instead.
No, his plan to create friction between Iroh and Asuma required him to vanish.
Maybe he could convince that Haku girl to get a seal? Then he could take the family out in Namihime where news was unlikely to circulate back to either of the Hi no Kuni men. The fact that Haku was likely one of the few agents Mei had in Mizu no Kunis' capital only made that more likely as long as he could convince her to keep it from reaching Mei.
He would look into it. There was always the option of trying to Henge the Kage Bunshin or visiting places without Shinobi- and the idea of going out for nights on the town in Yu no Kuni without being recognized did tickle his fancy- so it wasn't like he was limited in ways to keep that promise.
"Really?!" She was out of her seat and very quickly on his lap. "That would be wonderful, beloved!"
"We'll pick a day you don't visit Kushina and that will be our weekly family outing. I'll keep my schedules clear those evenings."
He found his face covered in brief kisses as the Ichibi tried to express all her appreciation and affection without words and he knew he had done well. He liked it when she was happy and if he was completely honest he would have continued to visit the Uzumaki compound in order to keep her happy but this way he got the best of both options.
He only needed to stop by the compound once a month and he had a very happy tanuki on his lap. He glanced over to the clock that hung on his wall.
He also had a bit of time to spare before they needed to head out. Judging by the way Karura's hands had started to wander she may have known that too.
Or, just as likely, she was completely oblivious at the moment and simply wanted a better way to express how pleased she was.
Either way, he wasn't about to stop her.
"Uh, Sakura, honey?" Her mother's voice called up the stairs to her. "I think you have….guests."
Slipping the Kunai she had been meticulously sharpening into her outfit- she'd never tell where, that defeated the purpose of hiding something- Sakura frowned on her way out of her room and down the stairs.
She only really associated with team seven and she knew Naruto was out of the village so that left Kakashi- who wasn't likely to stop by for any reason ever and who shouldn't make her mother sound so unsure- and Naruko who likewise shouldn't surprise her mother. Even if they were together it shouldn't be any big deal.
The only other person might have been Ino, now that she thought about it, but the Yamanaka heiress had been working with Naruko's mother in running her clan and Sakura hadn't spent any time with her in, well, it had been years now.
Skipping the last few steps with an easy jump she was greeted to the sight of her mother holding the door partially open and a group of a dozen or so Wolves looking curiously into the house as much as they could. They were only a step away from trying to push their heads through the door or from sniffing along the doorway.
Sakura thought they may have reached that point if she had taken a minute or two to answer her mother's call. Strange, maybe, but those were the Wolves.
She had spent enough time in Naruto's apartment to have been plenty exposed to them and their antics.
Her mother, on the other hand, had not.
"Genin Haruno?" One of the Wolves asked, lifting up her mask as if it was going to make the pink haired Kunoichi easier to recognize.
The Wolf nodded. "Good. Father gave us permission to hunt, said you might want to join."
"Father?" Naruto had shared the fact that he was Nami's Daimyo before he left- though that fact had been widely outshone by the collection of books that took the place of honor in her bedroom wall. "And he thought of me?"
The Wolf gave another nod. "We were planning on stopping by Kirigakure after the hunt. We have some-" The Wolf glanced at Sakura's mother for a split second. "-Siblings who would benefit from the extra food. I understand Kirigakure's in a pretty rough spot at the moment when it comes to supplies, even with Konoha's help."
Sakura didn't need to see the faces of the other Wolves to know they were all grinning wildly, the fact that the unmasked Wolf had to expend visible effort to keep her twitching lips from pulling upwards made that clear enough. What Sakura didn't know was why anything that was just said would be found so funny by the Wolves.
Then again, she really didn't care in the end.
"What are we hunting?"
The first Wolf was silent but from her position Sakura could see one of the Wolves in the back of the group shoot a pointed look towards some of the pedestrians on the street. That Sakura understood just fine.
"I'll have the chance to paint some flowers, then?"
The Wolf didn't seem to follow. Subtly retrieving one of her Kunai so her mother couldn't see it she tapped it against the bare skin between her skirt and her leggings to catch their attention before gently sliding it across. Her Kunai vanished again and she dragged one finger against the cut to collect what little blood had already escaped and brought it to her lips.
Her mother was oblivious, too busy shooting nervous looks to the group of deadly Shinobi that seemed intent on gathering on her doorstep, but the attention of the Wolves all snapped to her lips and continued to watch with an intensity that caused shivers to tremble down Sakura's spine.
The unmasked Wolf, in particular, seemed like they were trying very hard not to lick their lips- or Sakura's.
Where had this group of Wolves been when she was spending time in Naruto's sitting rooms?
They already seemed like her kind of people and so far the only other one to match that description had been Anko.
She was only a little jealous that Naruto had stolen the woman away with him when he left. It was never really a question if she'd be going with him but Sakura would have liked to have someone she could go to here in Konoha while he was gone.
Sending Wolves to take her out flower-picking, though, that about made up for it.
"Oh yes," The Wolf gave a weaker nod, her attention still locked on Sakura's lips. "We'll have...plenty...of opportunities for that."
"And am I going with you to Kirigakure?"
"If you like."
Sakura thought about it for a moment- the Kirigakure part, it was a foregone conclusion she was going to go paint some flowers with the Wolves- and then gave a nod before spinning around and heading back up the stairs.
The Wolves- and her mother- stared after her and when she was out of sight the Wolves turned their attention to an increasingly nervous Mebuki. They didn't say anything, they just….stared.
Somehow that was worse.
Mebuki was contemplating just shutting the door and pretending the Wolves weren't there- though as she looked down at the base of the door she noticed a boot very purposefully stopping her from performing that very action- when the sound of a window opening reached her ears. A second later her daughter had jumped down to Konoha's dirt roads and was giving the Wolves a curious glance.
"Well?" She asked, shifting her backpack in an effort to make it rest more comfortably on her shoulders. "Are we going hunting or not?"
The unmasked Wolf grinned almost hungrily and removed her boot from the doorway. "You heard her, let's get going."
"Bye mom, I'll be back at some point. Maybe." Sakura waved back and turned before Mebuki had any chance of responding- or objecting.
"O-oh. Okay…." The Wolves abandoning her doorway brought some relief but she didn't know how she felt about her daughter going along with them. "S-stay safe? Please?"
Her daughter didn't respond to that but Mebuki was certain she had been heard.
Was it too late to rush over to the mission office and get a team assigned to protect Sakura, just in case? Probably, and there was no telling if a team would be able to offer the protection they needed. The Wolves moved like those ANBU that were always around the Hokage and even as a civilian Mebuki could tell the Wolves would be on a similar level. There was no one she could hire who would be able to really offer any protection to her daughter- not from a group that big.
….Maybe if she hired the Wolves to be the ones protecting her? Was that an option?
Scratch that- was it a good option?
She probably wouldn't ever know.
Katsuri stood at sharp attention before his desk, perfectly still, and if Naruto hadn't been staring directly at her he may not have even been able to tell she was still breathing. She had taken the time to get dressed in her uniform again so it looked more like she had just come from a mission rather than his infirmary- or whatever passed for one here in the palace.
A guest room where Shizune kept her rope, he supposed.
It was pretty much the same thing around here.
She hadn't said anything yet and since the clone he had been discussing some of his plans with had taken its leave Naruto hadn't broken the silence.
His purple eyes took in her form almost languidly, as if she was some sort of specter he was gazing through rather than flesh and blood. His attention slowly swept up to the painting hanging on the wall behind her and he took a few seconds enjoying the scene of himself surrounded by Gaara, Isobu, Karura, and Temari.
Sai had really done an amazing job and Naruto considered himself very fortunate to be in possession of that piece. The first one Sai had done only contained those with physical bodies which Temari and Karura immediately fell in love with. As only one of them had a room it could be hung in Temari won on that front and it now hung proudly over her- Gaara's- bed.
Karura had been quick to pester the Wolf Commander for another picture that featured all of them and Sai had relented with little- no- resistance. He had seemed eager for another project- or to get away from his usual work- and Naruto found himself wearing his suit again and surrounded by his family.
He had been quite pleased with that outcome.
Karura and Temari had been pleased with the new picture but he'd managed to hang onto this one and he had no intention of letting it go. He was not, however, about to put it in his own bedroom. He knew the sort of things that happened in that room, thank you. He did not need an image of his family bearing witness to any of that.
Especially considering it wasn't always him in there doing that.
Or maybe because sometimes it was. He couldn't determine which was actually worse.
As long as he kept it out of the room entirely it probably didn't matter.
His private library had been another good option but he liked being able to look up and see it while working. He couldn't think of any motivation better than their smiling faces.
Thoughts had, he turned his attention to the right wall. Three bookcases broken up by two windows stretched the full length. A clock had been set on one of the shelves of the middle bookcase, kept meticulously wound by Tsunami every day. He glanced at it for a bit, watching seconds tick softly by, and tried to ignore the gold in the corner of his eye.
Having picked the far corner bookcase to hide behind- for whatever reason, Naruto hadn't bothered to even address the serpent let alone ask what they were doing- Naruto had no issue seeing below it and the brilliant golden color of healthy scales didn't do them any favors in their quest to remain out of view.
They were keeping quiet and out of the way, however, and so he let them be.
It wasn't as if Au couldn't see everything he was doing anyway, what was the harm in having one of his children around watching him work? Of course the second they caused any issues Naruto would personally turn them into a belt and give away to the first merchant he could find in Nami.
He didn't want them to find some sort of honor in being worn by him, his family, or anyone else he surrounded himself with. Let some merchant's wife wear the gaudy belt, he'd like to see them spin that in their favor when he next came face to face with Akishi or any other child of Au.
There was another serpent who came into his office, too, he had noticed. They were never in here at the same time for long, switching off in regular shifts, but the other snake was much smaller and would have an easier time hiding- if they didn't seem to be trying to make themselves visible in their new spot to mock the larger one.
The childishness reminded him of Aya though the mocking quality was much more reminiscent of Ashun.
There were some days he missed exchanging biting words with that arrogant golden worm, it was a pity he had been replaced by someone less ready for the position. Naïve and trusting was not the sort of messenger he was going to be utilizing in delivering messages to Konoha's most wanted criminal. Nor did he want her around to hear things she might share with anyone who asked nicely enough and claimed it was for him.
Karura probably would have loved her, now that he thought about it, and he wasn't sure a child of Au would die from not being fed- it, at least, could go tell people what it needed- so maybe she would have been a good option for Karura's pet.
…..Maybe if Naruto allowed her to eat Hinata-Usagi the little snake would agree to hang around the Ichibi? Then again, if by some miracle Akishi did manage to secure him Yu no Kuni and he took the mantle of High-Priest he'd probably want those closest to him to have a way to quickly get a hold of him.
He could think of worse ways than assigning them all a serpent companion. Orochimaru in particular was sure to absolutely love the idea- and get some manner of satisfaction seeing lesser Kami used in such a way, he was sure.
Naruto spent another second just staring at the clock before returning his gaze to Katsuri. She still hadn't so much as twitched.
"I take it Kato-Sensei has released you from her care, High-Captain?" The question only came with the slightest accusatory lilt and that time she did flinch.
"Yes, Tsukuyomi-Sama." She gave a single, solid nod. "I have the discharge paperwork if you would like to review it."
He didn't need to, Shizune had already informed him that she would be releasing Katsuri this afternoon. She had a strange blush when she did so but he tried not to think too much into that. As he was already well aware, his head physician had a very dirty mind locked away behind her usual polite professionalism.
Those last two words being something he personally never experienced from her these days. No, she cut straight to the glares and rope when it came to him but to be perfectly candid he probably deserved it.
And, really, it just wouldn't be right to have something normal when talking about the Wolves.
He was surprised Shizune had gone so far as to write up the proper paperwork for her but maybe that was just so there was record that she stayed until fully recovered. Or Shizune was going to be having a stack of medical paperwork dumped on his desk for every Wolf he had in retribution for making her keep Katsuri in her care when all the High-Captain needed was to rest and any bed would have been sufficient and this was his only warning.
Probably not likely but also not completely out of the realm of possibility.
"That won't be necessary." He waved her off. "I understand you have a progress report for me from Ganju and his team?"
"Yes, Tsukuyomi-Sama." She slipped a scroll from her pouch and stepped forward to place it gently on the end of his desk before retreating to her previous position. Naruto's brow rose. A scroll? The Hidden Villages liked to use them still, maintaining tradition and all that rot, but the Wolves didn't usually make use of them.
Regular paper, generally, was just much easier to utilize.
His eyes flickered over to the scroll and he gave a shallow nod before returning his attention to Katsuri. "Very good, I'll go over it later. For now, give me a brief rundown on the situation."
"We have a habitable base ready for you, Tsukuyomi-Sama. They're still working on getting Orochimaru's original Yu no Kuni base ready but with his help we were able to relocate another base of his to the same area for you and the team to occupy in the meantime."
Oh? He moved a base? Naruto was going to have to check out the report to see how that had been accomplished. He also needed to see why Orochimaru hadn't suggested that earlier, though he supposed the man had probably been distracted by some of the other projects he'd been given.
"Excellent. Were there any issues with the original base or with the personnel Orochimaru provided for us?"
"No, the base was...passible in some areas but Ganju didn't want to risk it and he doesn't seem to trust the integrity of Guren's crystal release for anything more than a temporary plug while they address potential problem areas."
Naruto nodded in understanding and agreement. He wasn't sure if he would trust Guren's crystals on a permanent basis either simply because there was no telling how long they actually kept that- wait.
He had some of Guren's crystal, didn't he? Collected by the Wolves who had joined Chunin Nara's team 'trying' to rescue Sasuke from Orochimaru's agents. It wasn't super old but it had been several months. If it was still around then Ganju could probably relax and allow Guren to fix what she could for the meantime.
He'd have to figure out where that bag had ended up in the move.
And with the matters of Nara brought up, hadn't they wanted to talk to him about some sort of alliance or something? He was pretty sure Shikamaru mentioned it not long before they left Konoha. Hopefully he had written something down because he couldn't remember what he had told the young man.
Probably something slightly condescending about those allied with the Wolves not making the terms of the alliance or something. That sounded about right.
It was also a bit more important than Guren's crystals at the moment.
Neither, however, was more important than the High-Captain currently in his office so he set those thoughts aside.
"I see. Thank you for your expedient delivery of this news. I'll begin making plans to fully utilize the situation."
"Of course, Tsukuyomi-Sama. Was there anything else?"
"Yes, just a question."
Leaning back he allowed a single red brow to slowly rise. "Have we learned our lesson, Katsuri?" he asked.
"And what lesson have we learned?"
"Not to push ourselves too hard in your service, Tsukuyomi-Sama."
Frowning lightly, Naruto's thin fingers drummed against the dark wood of his desk. "No," He sighed after a few moments. "That's not the lesson. It's close, but you're missing a very important part."
"I don't want any of you hurt, Katsuri, by others or by yourself and regardless of if it's in my service or in your downtime. I. Don't. Like. When. You're. In. Danger." He stressed. "Don't be the one to place yourself there, especially when it's completely unnecessary."
"I-I understand, Tsukuyomi-Sama." It was almost hard to speak with the sudden warmth growing in her chest. Tsukuyomi loved all of his children, they all knew that, and he did his best to show it but it wasn't often he expressed it so vocally.
His expression softened and he seemed to sag into his chair. "Good. Don't do that again, Katsuri. I don't want to think about what might have happened if it wasn't a Wolf patrol to find you after you collapsed."
"I'll- I'll try not to." It was the best she could honestly promise and Naruto's lips cracked into the faintest of smiles.
"I supposed that's all I can really ask for." Despite the amusement he tried to portray there was still noticeable worry in his gaze as he stared across the room into nothing. It wasn't hard for Katusri to guess what he was thinking. After another second or two he gave a quick exhale and shook his head. "You're dismissed, Katsuri. Enjoy your time as you wish, I may call on you to return to Yu no Kuni for me soon."
"I- yes, thank you, Tsukuyomi-Sama." She hesitated. "Was there anything else you needed?"
"No, thank you. I should be fine."
She rephrased her question. "Is there anything I can do for you?" He stared at her for a while as if trying to make out what was standing in the middle of his office but once he had found it he nodded slowly several times. He had obviously understood what she was really asking.
"Ah, I see." His fingers tapped against his desk again. "There's nothing I need done," he repeated. "But as I said, you are free to enjoy your time as you wish."
She cocked her head to the side. "Where I wish, too?"
"Within reason, of course."
"Then I think I might stay in here for a while."
"If you like."
Yes, she very much did. Time in the presence of the Father, as all Wolves knew, was beyond precious when there were so many of them and he was often busy ensuring they were taken care of. She was going to take every advantage of this opportunity she had been granted to spend as much time as she possibly could with him.
That was, after all, why she had rushed back in the first place.
She did wonder if Shizune was still up for what they had discussed earlier- and if Naruto's rather open invitation extended to Katsuri bringing in a plus one- or two. If it didn't, well, she was pretty confident the sight of Tsunade in that outfit might help her change his mind on the matter.
Sealkeeper: He Who Binds
Chapter 146-B "Alliance"
Patron Release 2021.10.15
Yaiji whistled as he leaned over- well, beside, really. His...apprentice, for a lack of better word... was too damn big- Juugo's shoulder to observe his work. "I thought for sure this time it was really fucked." Admitted the senior crew lead. "How in the hell did you manage to resurrect it?"
Juugo shrugged- nearly hitting his former supervisor- and ran his eyes over the gently rumbling machinery. "I've always been good with my hands."
"No shit, I watched you fucking bend that breach sealed again." Yaiji's eyes flickered to the crumpled bit of pipe. It was a bit shorter now but the hole was gone. He didn't know how long it would last without proper welding- probably not long- but hopefully it would be long enough for them to get the necessary replacement parts. Or at least parts they could make work. "That's beyond fucking useful, but I can't get over how quickly you were able to get this old engine to go from being a brick to running again."
By the gods, over the last day- well, night, technically. Juugo had been helping the teams on the track during the day- he had practically rebuilt the engine. Yaiji tried very hard not to compare the way this engine now looked to some of the glimpses he'd managed of the newer train models so he wouldn't be tempted to ask questions.
If Yaiji was a betting man- and considering his job was more or less a bet against his life almost constantly that was a pretty fair assessment- he would put his last check on the fact that this was one of those newer engines.
Built on a base of an ancient engine- well, it was only a few years old but compared to the new ones it was ancient- and upgraded with ¥12000 worth of material from a hardware store the next town over.
By a single man.
In the night.
Yaiji didn't even want to think about the fact that Juugo shouldn't even have access to any of the modern designs. Hell, they didn't even have the plans for the engine they had been using.
The whole situation brought up a host of uncomfortable questions.
Like how much did Juugo really know?
"It's not hard if you know what you're doing."
"I'm not sure if I should take that as an insult to my skill or point out the fact that you shouldn't know how it works in this sort of detail."
Juugo shrugged again. "I'm good with my hands." This time Juugo raised one of his grime-covered hands and, wiggling his fingers, that sentence took on a whole new meaning.
"Ah, yeah, let's not say anything like that close to anyone else, shall we?" Yaiji shuddered. "Just hearing that is likely to make me an accessory to….whatever you've done."
The only response he received was another shrug while Juugo finished rebuilding the engine's housing. If there hadn't been such a risk of rust damage Yaiji was sure Doto's treasury would have never shelled out for the materials and the engine would have been left exposed.
He wasn't sure if the convenience of such a setup would outweigh the possibility of pieces falling off and being lost along the track or poached by opportunistic locals to be sold for scrap.
Probably not, though getting to the engine over the last year and a half he had been a crew lead had been a monumental pain in the ass and had cost him no small amount of sleep. Those other crew leads with the newer engines were lucky sons of bitches for not having to deal with the same.
After a few more minutes with the silence only broken by the sound of Juugo's work Yaiji dismissed it entirely. "So what are the chances you'll still be here when this resort idea of yours is complete?"
The man had already learned more about the trains than Yaiji ever had and it was obvious Juugo had come here to Yuki no Kuni for a reason. One didn't wander into the snowy lands of this country- especially because you had to reach it by boat, which usually required very deliberate intentions- and get onto a railroad crew just because they needed work.
The railroads didn't pay that much and with the miracles Juugo seemed to pull off it was clear he could be doing much better for himself.
Juugo paused, considering, before he frowned. "I like it here." He answered. "I like the work, I like the people, I've really been enjoying myself."
"I shouldn't still be here." He admitted. "I had what I came for weeks ago." The large man gestured to the train he'd been working on. "I know this thing backwards and forwards. I could probably build one from scratch now." His hand moved to the tracks it was resting on. "And I've known the tracks for even longer, training a crew to make them wouldn't be an issue."
Yaiji kept quiet, torn between wanting to know more and wanting to remain blissfully ignorant of Juugo's sudden admissions. He really wanted no part in what was looking to be reminiscent of corporate espionage.
"I've thought about leaving several times already but I don't want to abandon my team and I don't know if I'll ever be able to come back once I leave so I've been putting it off."
"Couldn't you just send the information to...wherever...and stay here?" He really shouldn't be providing any suggestions of this nature but Yaiji liked Juugo. He'd been the most valuable member of his crew even before he broke through a mountain and now he was his Kouhai. There was some part of Yaiji that felt responsible for Juugo and that meant helping him out, even with….this.
"Some, yes, but it's hard to share everything I've learned in writing. You and I have been elbow-deep in these things-" He tapped the engine with the back of his hand. "It's completely different from reading about it."
"...Is that what you're supposed to be doing?"
Juugo paused. "No," He frowned. "I guess not." He was just supposed to get information on the trains and get it into Jirobu's hands. Anything else was just extra.
"So what's the problem? Send them whatever those hands of yours managed to get and don't worry about it."
It was tempting, very tempting, but at the same time he was here- indirectly- on the orders of Orochimaru and Kimimaro was still back in Oto. Staying here felt like abandoning him and one didn't cross Orochimaru- even if his 'brother' spoke so highly of him. Orochimaru simply wasn't a man to trifle with.
"It's...not that simple." He voiced. "Some of the people I work for, they aren't the kind you turn your back on. I keep wondering if I'm going to have one of their agents show up to find out why I'm not back yet. I don't think I want to bring that sort of thing here to you guys."
"You could send what you have back and ask to remain here?" Yaiji didn't know what else he could suggest.
"...Maybe." Juugo didn't think it was likely. Jirobu might not care but Orochimaru would want the information directly from the source- or so Kimimaro had told him- and that would mean returning to Otogakure.
"You could try to offer...whoever it is-" And Yaiji would not be asking, thank you. "Something else so they don't need you to come back."
A quizzical look was sent Yaiji's way. "Like what?"
"...I mean...if you've already gone above and beyond to the point where you've backed yourself into a corner you might as well go a bit farther, yeah?"
Juugo blinked. He wasn't- Narrowing his eyes Juugo asked a very important question; "You're not suggesting what I think you are, are you?"
Yaiji raised both brows challengingly, arms crossed. "Am I?"
"You really think I can manage to steal an entire train?"
The look he got in return was utterly flat. "Juugo," Yaiji stated blandly. "You punched a hole through a fucking mountain."
That was a fair point.
"Come on, Mito," Karura prodded. "Naruto already gave me permission to have guests and it's not like you aren't already in here."
The fox Biju gave her a rather unimpressed look. "I'm in Naruko's seal." She specified. "That is nothing close to already being in your seal or Naruto's sealscape."
"Not close?" Karura tilted her head. "They're right next to each other." To prove her point she stepped through the bars into Mito's seal. "See? I'm in Naruko's seal." A step back. "Naruto."
"Naruko. Naruto. Naruko. Naruto-"
"Knock it off already!" With a huff Mito's fists came to rest on her hips. "Yes, you can move between them easily enough but just because you're able to traverse space within the seal doesn't mean that me being in Naruko's seal is the same as being in Naruto's."
"Bah, Tomato, turnip." Karura dismissed Mito's argument with a negligent wave of her hand. "It's the same thing."
"Those are nothing alike!"
"Sure they are." Karura frowned. "They're both vegetables."
"You don't even eat vegetables," Mito scoffed. "And tomatoes are a fruit."
"What?! No way!"
"This is why Naruto doesn't trust you to take care of anything living. I'm surprised he let you go to a pet shop first instead of starting with a potted plant."
"Hey!" Protested the racoon. "I told you that in confidence!"
"I'm confident that you'll either end up killing that bunny or one of Naruto's little Wolves will step in to save it from you."
"I'm going to take good care of Hinata-Usagi, you'll see!"
"No, I don't think I will." Mito gestured to the seal around her.
"...You could just leave the seal, you know." The Ichibi again demonstrated how easy it was to pass through the bars. "You don't have to be stuck in there."
"Even if I did trespass into Naruto's sealscape I still wouldn't see you fail to care for that stupid rabbit."
"Did you want to meet Hinata-Usagi?"
"...Maybe for dinner."
Karura drew back, scandalized. "How dare you! Hinata is a precious, fluffy bundle of adorableness and love." She broke her affront to stifle a small giggle. "And Hinata-Usagi is the same in a smaller package."
Mito rolled her eyes. "It's a rabbit. I'm a fox. What do you really expect, Karura?"
"For you to be a good auntie and not eat your niece."
"It's a rabbit"
"That rabbit is as good as my child which makes it Naruto's child as well. Don't talk about eating his daughter."
"That is not how this works, you can't keep adopting children and making them his."
"I don't know why I'm having this conversation with you." Mito was just going to blame it on boredom because otherwise she was going to have to start worrying about the state of her mental health. Last time she had checked- which was never- there weren't exactly any psychologists taking new Biju patients.
"Because you wanted to be difficult and not join the rest of your family over in Isobu's seal."
The rest of her family? Karrua had always spoken as if they were just one big family- and in some ways she was related to a few of them- but Mito had never really considered them family. It did sound nice, though, and she had spent time with both Gaara and Isobu that hadn't been horrible - in fact, she'd quite enjoyed it.
Most importantly, Naruto was part of that family, wasn't he? That alone would be worth being considered a part of it. But was this Naruto's family she was joining or would she just be a part of Karura's family that Naruto happened to be a part of?
It might not sound too different but the key part was whether Naruto would be seeing her as family- as anything more than a responsibility, even- or if things would remain the same between them.
….Did she lose anything if they did stay the same? Even if Naruto didn't change how he interacted with her she would still be gaining others. She didn't particularly want anyone other than Naruto but Mito couldn't honestly say she didn't enjoy having company to break up the boring solitude her existence otherwise was.
And, truthfully, she didn't think Karura cared what she thought. The Tanuki had already decided that Mito was a part of her family and Mito knew there was very little chance of actually changing the Ichibi's mind.
"...Why are you gathering in Isobu's seal?"
"Because she finished her exact replica of Hanahime, of course." Karura said it like it should be obvious. "She's been working on it for weeks."
"She did what?"
"She made an exact replica of Hanahime out of sand." The Ichibi repeated. "It's really quite marvelous."
Mito had never seen this Hanahime but she knew it was both a city and was currently serving as Naruto's home so that did sound mighty impressive and a hell of a lot more interesting than Mito's little cage here.
"Well, maybe just a quick visit would be alright…."
Karura cheered in victory. "Alright! You're gonna love her city and I can't wait to show you my gardens." The racoon paused to glance conspiratorially to either side even though they both knew there was no one else present. "Maybe we'll even sneak down into my palace and I can show you the dungeons Naruto made for me."
"I- uh, I think we can skip those." Mito really hoped her face had retained her usual color but she was too busy trying not to imagine the sort of sordid things that might take place in those dungeons to maintain much control over the appearance of her physical form.
Why on earth had she ever decided that her form had to be a perfect replica? Surely just the general appearance would have sufficed.
She blamed it on a perfectionist streak and many, many years of boredom. She'd been quite pleased with what she had managed to accomplish but now she sort of regretted it.
"Skip them?" Karura seemed to take personal offence to that suggestion. "Those dungeons are the greatest part of the combined seals!"
"Are you just saying that because of what you've done in them?"
Mito rolled her eyes but she couldn't deny she was just the teensiest bit curious as to what Naruto had created down there.
She also couldn't help but think her own punishment might be better in that sort of dungeon, but that probably wouldn't qualify as punishment at all.
"I'll come see Isobu's city," Mito relented. "But no promises about the dungeon."
Karrua shrugged. "Your loss."
"You're taking the blame if Naruto doesn't like it."
"That's fair." Karrua agreed. A second later her expression was a mix between mischievous plotting and hopeful daydreaming. "Maybe he'll even take me down to the dungeons to punish me for it."
Mito rolled her eyes again and desperately tried to convince herself that she wouldn't try to follow them down for the chance to watch.
"...You said it was a model." Mito's tone clearly expressed her disbelief.
"No," Corrected Karura. "I said she made an 'exact replica', it's different."
"A replica implies it was a model of the city, not a city."
"Replicate is the same as copy, she made an exact copy."
"That's 'replicate', a replica is an exact copy usually at a smaller scale."
"'Usually'" Karura grinned as she took the opening she had been provided by her sister. "That doesn't mean it always is. If you assumed something else that's not on me."
"Why didn't you just tell me she had made a lifesize city?"
"I did," The racoon defended. "You just didn't understand."
Mito looked up at the massive sand palace that hung in the distance over the skyline of Hanahime, making note of the perfectly formed trees that encroached upon its sides, and then turned back to her sister Biju. "You didn't say anything that would have let me expect this."
"What else would you expect?" Karura spoke as though it should have been obvious. Perhaps to her it had been. "I said she had been at it for weeks, after all, and Isobu is the absolute best at making sandcastles."
Rather than continue the argument about Karura's description, Mito cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes slightly at the Ichibi as if in deep thought.
"What? What is it?"
"Oh, nothing." Mito returned her attention to the perfect replica of Hanahime, waving her hand to dismiss the matter. After a second she offhandedly commented; "I had always thought sand was your thing but it's understandable you're not even the best at that, either."
"Wha-?!" Karura's eyes widened significantly. She'd never even considered that.
"I don't know what I should have expected there. Of course the turtle whose domain is the ocean would be better than you at your own element." Mito continued.
"Not what?" Mito arched an elegant eyebrow in challenge. "Not true? Really? The evidence speaks otherwise."
"I'll show you!" Karura's declaration was paired with a huff as she stomped off to find a place to create her own art in the sand and behind her Mito smiled wickedly.
Now, to go find those dungeons.
In the end there was only so long Orochimaru could be reasonably expected to stay away from Naruto. It came at little surprise that he was soon back in Namihime.
Not that he had come alone, exactly.
He had quite a few projects he had to work on, after all, so there was quite a lot he needed to bring back with him. So much, in fact, that he'd given up on sealing scrolls and simply collected a caravan of equipment, aides, and….pseudo-willing volunteers.
It stood to reason that if they didn't have a choice and couldn't be willing then they couldn't be unwilling either, right? That's how Orochimaru saw it, anyway.
He couldn't keep them in the palace, of course, and unfortunately the Oto outpost was mainly serving as Nami's Shinobi Academy but if there was anything Nami had in abundance it was warehouses. Most of them tended to be full but considering how much everything fluctuated as it was brought in and shipped out it hadn't been terribly difficult for a man of Orochimaru's character to convince one of the owners to stop using one of them for some time and move his own things in there after it had been emptied.
Granted, he probably could have just had a new warehouse built for that purpose- and he didn't necessarily need one by the ports because he wasn't moving goods about- but that sounded a bit too boring for the Snake Sannin. It had been quite some while since he'd had any excitement, he needed to enjoy what he could.
Terrifying property owners in the body of a Genin wasn't the best substitute but it would do.
Like his volunteers, he didn't have much of a choice but to accept it.
But that was fine, one of his projects was specifically to fix that issue. He'd be lying if he said he didn't consider it to be the highest priority.
More importantly, however, was that he returned to Naruto to inform him he was back. Not that Naruto would be unaware, his Wolves had probably notified him before Orochimaru had even reached the docks, but it was only polite for him to present himself in person. Well, and Orochimaru wasn't about to pass up on the opportunity to spend even a second around his beloved godson.
That had been the plan, anyway.
Things hadn't gone quite as he'd expected, maybe that's what he got for wanting excitement and tempting the universe. It had a cruel sense of humor.
"What are you doing here?" There was no mistaking the venom in those words, Orochimaru was simply momentarily confused who would be directing that at him here on the lowest floor of Naruto's palace. Then he turned to the source and only found himself more confused.
"...Uchiha Mikoto?" One of Sasuke's eyebrows rose as Orochimaru voiced her name like a question. "Aren't you supposed to be in Ame spying on Akatsuki?"
"And what would you know of that?" If her voice didn't properly convey her displeasure at his presence then her expression certainly did.
Orochimaru hadn't the faintest idea what he'd done that had in any way affected this woman in particular but he couldn't exactly say there wasn't the possibility he was at fault for something.
He really was a busy man and he had ruined many, many lives. He could hardly be expected to keep track of the consequences of all his projects now, could he?
The brow only raised a bit more. "That you're supposed to be in Ame spying on Akatsuki." Was his flat reply. He spoke slowly, as if explaining to a child. It probably lost a lot of its usual effect considering he practically looked like a child these days.
Well, not a child, but certainly no adult.
Orochimaru tapped a finger against Sasuke's lips. There had to have been something he'd-
Well, yes, he supposed his current body could have been the reason she took offence to his presence.
The thought that she might be angry with Sasuke rather than Orochimaru absolutely never occurred to the man.
Figuring he might as well ask before assuming- and he was never going to know just guessing- Orochimaru cut straight to the heart….-ish.
Okay, so that was a lie. Still, he decided to ask what the issue was and that was better than just carrying on.
"What has your panties in a twist?" He asked. "Has Naruto not been giving you enough attention lately?" Okay, maybe he was projecting just a bit but considering the other women usually around Naruto it was still a valid educated guess.
"That's none of your business." She continued to stress references to him, adding as much venom as she could, and Orochimaru was getting a little tired of it.
"What you do, maybe, but I was his first so I do have a vested interest in who he's been sleeping with." her horrified recoil at his words and the look of revulsion that settled over her gentle features more than made up for the annoying way she had been speaking to him.
"You?!" This time Orochimaru could genuinely feel he deserved that and it was strangely comforting….and not just a bit odd, admittedly. "That's- that's the most disgustingly vile lie I've ever heard!"
Orochimaru shrugged. "It's been a while since I was able to….enjoy his company like that, admittedly, but you can ask him yourself."
"I knew I had failed when I saw you in Konoha but I didn't imagine it had been this bad."
Orochiamru blinked. "When did you see me in Konoha?"
"During the invasion, of course." She scoffed. "I saw what you did to those Suna Shinobi."
"...I snuck into Naruto's apartment during the invasion and stayed there the whole time." Orochimaru pointed out, brows raised. "I certainly didn't see you there."
"Well," He corrected. "I did send out some summons first, but that was on my way there so I don't know how much that counts. I wouldn't have been wasting my time killing Suna Shinobi of all things." The whole notion was ridiculous.
"I watched you! You were beating a Kunoichi with her own arms!"
Orochimaru blinked. "...That does sound like something I'd do, actually, but I wasn't going to be wandering around Konoha doing that when Naruto's been very clear about me being discreet since I first started visiting him."
Why Naruto would ask for discretion from her son was something Mikoto really didn't want to consider.
"You're a monster."
"...Yes?" Was that supposed to be news to him? Orochimaru of the Sannin? A man who, at this very moment, had a half dozen individuals in cages down by the docks for his experiments? "You're, what, forty?" Orochimaru guessed. "I think I've probably been committing crimes against humanity since before you were born."
Well, the youngest she could be was thirty so forty was being perhaps a bit stingy considering how good she still looked. Orochimaru just didn't feel like being generous by guessing closer to thirty-two.
"I gave birth to you!" As much as it pained her to admit that fact to herself some days, that was the unfortunate truth. The face of her son- not that she would ever willingly call him that again- twisted up first in confusion and then in understanding and amusement.
"You- You think I'm Sasuke?" he guffawed.
Now it was her turn to feel confused. "You're not?"
"Oh, gods no." He looked disgusted at the idea. "This is just a temporary...arrangement. I needed his Sharingan, you see. As soon as I can I'll be back in something Naruto will be a bit more partial to." Orochimaru paused, dragging her son's eyes up and down her form in a way that made her spine crawl. "Now that I think about it, my last body looked quite similar to yours. That's the one I took his virginity with, if it's any consolation." From his tone it was clear he really didn't care how she took that information but he was certainly amused by it.
Or maybe just the extra chance to rub that fact in.
Her hostility dropped quite significantly at that, much to his own surprise.
"Oh." The last Uchiha blinked. "Who are you then?"
He really didn't think he'd needed to introduce himself in several decades now, his reputation usually preceded him. It was a novel experience.
"Yashagorō Orochimaru of the Densetsu no Sannin, Naruto's godfather."
Mikoto just stared but she wasn't the only one who was caught by surprise.
"Orochimaru?!" The two turned to find Tsunade dressed in only a bathrobe holding a plate of food. It was quite obvious she'd come down to raid the kitchens and hadn't felt she'd be spending enough time down here to bother getting dressed.
Or she felt comfortable enough in Naruto's palace that she just didn't care. Both were equally as likely.
"Tsunade?" Orochimaru raked Sasuke's eyes over her attire and one brow rose. "...Are you sleeping with Naruto too?"
"Wha-?!" Tsunade flushed slightly. "Where did that come from? That's not the matter that needs to be discussed here!"
Orochimaru didn't seem to be paying as much attention anymore, instead mumbling to himself.
"...Maybe I need to find a way to turn Jiraiya into a woman now so he'll have the whole set."
Mikoto wasn't sure what he was talking about but whatever it was made her distinctly uncomfortable.
Or maybe that was just the fact that she was standing near Orochimaru of the Sannin.
This was not how she expected her day to be going.
The room was dimly lit only by candlelight and even that would soon end as the wicks steadily burned down. They'd been going for many hours already and they weren't the first to serve this purpose.
They would, however, be the last.
Laiyo shifted on his pillow, his eyes moving away from the visiting Shinobi to glance about the room. It wasn't the usual place for meetings, that was usually done in the modest building that served as their academy and mission office but things like this were better kept away from there. Tsume no Kuni was not an especially large country and their Shinobi village was undeniably small even compared to other countries like Taki no Kuni. Honestly it was a miracle they even had a Shinobi village and he was very proud to be the second leader- he'd like to say Kage but unfortunately that was a title reserved for the five greater villages- of their small community.
His people, however, would not need to know about the presence of these visitors until after things had been decided. There was no point having them speculate if it had turned out that no accord could be reached but that too was a thin excuse.
He had already been tentatively in favor of their suggestion when they first reached out. The meeting had been mostly a formality and a chance for them to solidify his confidence in this idea.
Meeting the eyes of his advisor Jiya he received a nod of agreement from the young man. His ties to the Daimyo had afforded him a solid education and some experience dealing with the lesser courts but unfortunately those same ties became an issue when his cousin became Daimyo five years ago. Laiyo considered himself fortunate to have him here in his village.
His gaze moved slightly to the right where Laiyo's uncle Fujima sat perfectly still, his face a mountain of stone. He had been the first leader, appointed by Jiya's grandfather the Daimyo to build up a Shinobi force of their own. As far as Laiyo was concerned the man had done a fantastic job when he had never really been a Shinobi himself.
Of course, Shinobi were hardly the only sorts of warriors to exist within the world. They were simply- and ironically- the most prominent. Some much for their past discretion but that was to be expected. It had been quite some time since Chakra had become a thing and Shinobi- the greedy bastards- had been the first to get their hands on it. Their ways had been bound to change after that.
Just as Jiya had, Fujima gave a nod. It conveyed a solemnness Laiyo doubted he would ever be able to replicate. There was more power in that simple gesture than he'd ever managed to express in one of his own speeches to his people. Still, Laiyo took the council gracefully, reminded that he still had much to learn.
His own grandfather was next, his eyes nearly fully closed as he was supported by a small pile of pillows. His eyesight was hardly affected- he'd gone blind nearly three decades ago. His hearing was still sharp as ever, though, and so was his mind. His advice was just as valuable as Fujima's and, indeed, he had been the one to serve as his uncle's advisor while the village was founded.
It took longer for the elderly man to take action but in time he too gave a brief nod.
It was decided, then.
Laiyo's attention returned to their guests, three Shinobi sat across the table from him on pillows of their own. Two of them were merely bodyguards- escorts if you preferred- and they had taken places slightly behind their village's spokesman and remained completely silent throughout the duration.
Laiyo appreciated that, it reminded him of how his own Shinobi had been taught to behave. More like the Shinobi of old than those of the present. He and his uncle hadn't had much of a choice considering they didn't have decades of Jutsu to provide to them. The other villages were hardly about to share any of theirs either, not to direct competition.
"Have you come to a decision?" Asked the Shinobi, scratching lightly at the stubble that covered a strong jaw.
"We have." Laiyo nodded. "The Shinobi of Tsume will stand by you in this."
His guest nodded seriously and offered his arm. "A fine choice." Really, it hadn't been much of a choice at all. Kaze no Kuni was their neighbor to the south, currently crawling with her Hi no Kuni conquerors and Nami no Kuni was a smaller country already taken over by the Wolves. It was no secret the Wolves were a noble house of Hi no Kuni, a member of the Imperial Fire Courts.
It was only a matter of time until they also expanded along other small countries and with a supply of allies already in the nearby sands the chances Tsume no Kuni would be targeted were simply too high to ignore.
Laiyo reached out to grasp the forearm, trying not to wince as the much larger man wrapped fingers around his own. He didn't even seem to be trying to exert pressure, it was simply the weight of his hand.
With a single shake of their combined arms the pact was struck.
The alliance of Tsume and Iwa had been made.
It was unlikely to be the last.
Yes, I gave Orochimaru a last name. Yashagorō was his original name in 'Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari' from which the inspiration for the Sannin was taken. As it was already his name, I saw no reason not to include it. It always felt weird that Jiraiya and Orochimaru never had last names so I figured I'd correct that.
It also felt better giving him a longer name for the introduction, though I can't say exactly why.
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