The first thing he noticed was his chakra flow. Sluggish was the initial sensation. Utterly beyond his control was the second. He could still feel it but could not exert influence over it, mold it as he'd done countless times before. The next was his former team as he sat up in the brightly lit cell. Every wall stone except the one in front of him. Transparent but not glass, nothing obscured the three severe faces watching him in judgment.
"Kukuku, the reunion I've always hoped for. Wishes do come true."
"This cell has a series of fuinjutsu enabled security measures," Hiruzen said, ignoring his traitorous student. "If needed, I can cut your oxygen supply. Heat the room hot enough to incinerate you. Or turn you into a fine mist."
"Naruto-kun's been busy," Orochimaru said, recalling how one of his subordinates had experienced such a change in matter.
"If by some miracle you could escape this cell, there are seals placed on you all designed to deliver instant death. If you stall in giving us information, you die. If you try to escape, you die. If you displease me in any way-"
"I die?" Orochimaru said mockingly.
"I'll open your cell and show you why I'm the Professor and you're the student," Hiruzen answered.
"It'd almost be worth it, Sensei. Just to see you do it. Could you really beat me to death?"
"If Danzo had not been present when I found you, you'd already have an answer to that question."
"Well, you've certainly laid out the stick but where's the carrot?"
"You must have lost your mind, Sensei isn't going to give you anything," Jiraiya stated. He frowned when Orochimaru rolled his eyes, knowing what was coming next.
"Stupid Jiraiya, always a little slow on the uptake. Sensei may want me dead but he needs me alive. Especially if you want the information I have about the Akatsuki. And sure, he could have me tortured but he has to know I can survive anything he'd do to me or in the case of Anko-chan, piss her off so much she goes too far. I'll die just to spite you and then you'll get nothing."
"You have a little leeway but don't push it."
"My list is short and shouldn't be a problem. One, a library. If I'm going to be stuck in this cage then I need something to occupy my mind lest I go insane."
"Done. What else?"
"Oh, just access to Naruto-kun," Orochimaru said and swiftly felt the burn in his lungs associated with suffocating. He didn't falter, though, he refused; instead, he stared at his sensei, daring the man to go to the edge. Time marched on, he felt his vision narrowing but he still smiled. Soon, the game of chicken was over and he could breathe again.
"What do you possibly hope to gain from speaking to him? He isn't like you, isn't twisted nor malicious," said Jiraiya.
"Isn't like me? He's more like me than any of you could ever hope to understand. And whatever you think of me, at least I'd have protected him from what sensei is doing to him, what he did to me."
"What did I ever do to you other than support you?"
"Support? Even now you don't get it. It wasn't enough you had someone that could kill the wolves. You needed me to see myself as a protector of sheep, one of you. Before your ideology wormed its way into my head, corrupting me, I was pure. I sought not to be anything other than what I was. You made me believe I was something else. And because I lied to myself, I got to watch my students blow up in an Iwa ambush. The sole family of my friend died in front of me.
If I had remained pure then not only would Nawaki's death have not been my fault, I wouldn't have cared. You tainted me and when the inevitable happened and I, from your perspective, turned into a monster you laid it squarely at my feet. And you're doing the same to Naruto-kun.
A gift maybe even purer than my own, greater than his father's and you'll corrupt him too. Because it isn't enough for you that we be effective or powerful. It doesn't count unless we have the will of fire in our hearts. But he'll lose someone he can't afford to and it'll break him. That void will be filled with a wrath you can't imagine. And it'll be your fault, sensei."
Hiruzen simply looked at his fallen student, his emotions unreadable. He didn't know if this was Orochimaru trying to manipulate him, an ad hoc justification or if he truly believed he'd been corrupted by a belief meant to give aid, comfort, and purpose. Hiruzen resigned himself with never knowing and that triggered a pang of guilt. On some level, he never truly understood his student and while that was no excuse it was another failure. But he'd never let those words make him think differently about Naruto-kun. He knew his grandson and had no doubts about that.
"You're mad," Jiraiya said as Tsunade no longer looked angry but remorseful. She ranted and raved when Nawaki died, blaming Orochimaru for not being there. She apologized but the damage had, clearly, been done and she vacated the village soon after so could do nothing else.
"Am I? Tell me, Jiraiya, why isn't Minato alive?"
"The Kyuubi killed him."
"Oh, I thought the Reaper Death Seal did that. Though, it isn't the only way to seal a bijuu, not even the strongest. Theoretically, he could have chosen another sealing method and lived. He chose to die, why do you think that is?"
"Shut up. I don't care what value you have, if you bad mouth Minato I'll kill you."
"I'm not insulting Minato, the exact opposite really. He was gifted with a greater degree of self-awareness than I was at his age. He saw his wife about to die and knew he didn't just have to protect the village from the Kyuubi but from himself. He really thought it was safer to leave his only son an orphan, knowing there was someone after the Kyuubi he'd just sealed inside of Naruto-kun than a world where he existed but Kushina did not."
"You're wrong! Whatever Minato did, he thought it was for the best. He wouldn't have left Naruto alone if there had been another way," Jiraiya said in a raised voice, fist clenched and knuckles white.
"Sure, sure. Are we done now?"
"C'mon, Jiraiya. This is what he wants, don't engage," Tsunade said, patting him on the shoulder. He nodded and relaxed.
"No, you will not have access to Naruto-kun."
"That's a shame as I'll only give my intel to him."
"How far do you think you can push me?" Hiruzen asked.
"Your mistake is thinking that's the goal. Just because this upsets you doesn't mean I'm trying to be upsetting. I simply wish to converse with the young man that handily defeated me. I am the leader of a Hidden Village which makes this quite the feat. If he doesn't have a million ryo Bingo Book entry by month's end I'd be disappointed, kukuku."
"No, you will not be speaking with Naruto-kun," Hiruzen said. If his student was confident in his resistance to torture then he would demonstrate it for as long as necessary. Any affection the aged Hokage held for his student died in the Forest of Death. The trio departed without another word to Orochimaru, the heavy metal door slamming behind them as they entered the hallway.
"Where is the gaki? I need to talk to him about challenging S-rank ninja." Jiraiya was not pleased when informed of Naruto's exploits, not at all.
"I'll direct you to him but do keep in mind he was protecting a comrade," Hiruzen cautioned his student.
Kakashi walked through the village, head buried in Jiraiya's latest manuscript. The Copy Ninja felt good. It'd been so long he'd almost forgotten how it felt to be anything but hollow. It was a welcomed change and he managed to feel only slightly guilty he hadn't sought treatment sooner. As he giggled at the hijinks of Akio his mind also turned to his students. All three had impressed him during the first and second part of the exams and while he'd have been delighted for all three to make it to the finals, ultimately Kakashi couldn't complain.
Sakura may have drawn with Kurenai's student but Kakashi could tell she'd also learned a lot about herself up to that point. She fought really well against an opponent that should have overpowered her and Kakashi was glad she was learning how to apply her intelligence in combat. In truth, Sakura was always the most challenging of his students. She wasn't going to be a natural in ninjutsu nor tracking, his specialties, due to her small reserves. Where she may have talent, due to her chakra control, would be the medical and illusionary arts but one teammate was being trained by Tsunade and the other had the Sharingan. She deserved to shine outside of her teammates but the Hatake wasn't sure how he'd manage it.
Next was Sasuke. Kakashi had been most impressed with the boy's emotional growth, his sessions seeming to pay dividends as well. Kakashi could see a reality where Sasuke would have gone with Naruto to face Orochimaru out of a confusing mixture of rivalry, jealousy, and loyalty. Instead, he heeded the advice of his teammate and got Sakura and himself to the tower. It was the kind of decision a Chunin would be expected to make and Kakashi knew that choice would benefit the Uchiha during final assessment. Now, he just had to figure out how to keep his student alive against a nihilistic Jinchuuriki.
A part of Kakashi wanted to pull Sasuke from the fight. It wasn't mandatory, it wasn't a mission and Kakashi had little information on Gaara's abilities outside of sand manipulation. That suggested he had some version of the Magnet Release and if he were in any way proficient with it Sasuke would be in for a tough fight. Then add on what effects the Bijuu could have on Gaara and he may be walking his student into a deathtrap. But he knows Sasuke wouldn't back down, not before even trying. And if he'd known Naruto didn't just survive against Orochimaru, progress or no, Sasuke would refuse to yield to anyone in a show that he wasn't that far behind his teammate.
"Hey, Kakashi," Asuma called out, interrupting the Copy Ninja's thoughts. He was with his team, the lone kunoichi still sporting bandages on her shoulder all standing outside a food stand.
"Team 10, good morning," he greeted. "You seem to be faring well, Ino-chan. I'll have to let Naruto-kun know."
"You know where he is? Is he ok" she asked, hopeful he'd have the answer.
"I do. He is. In fact, he'll be on special assignment for the month so don't be too surprised if he's not around much."
"Oh, ok. Thanks for letting me know. Hinata and I were worried," Ino said. Kakashi almost scoffed. Ino may have been worried but he was certain that Byakugan wielding honey badger would have killed him if she'd had the skill to do so. He remembered those dead, lavender eyes when he refused her access to Naruto. He knew when someone was sizing him up and she had.
"Of course," Kakashi replied and favored her with his eye smile. "Well, I must be off, I wouldn't want to keep Sasuke waiting too long," he said as he walked away. And while he would eventually get to Sasuke, he had one stop to make before he could begin training the Uchiha. He faintly heard Ino mention she had to hurry as well.
It was a short trip to the aviary and as he predicted, two of the visiting Jounin Sensei were sending messenger pigeons to their respective villages. He wasn't as confident in allowing people to spread the information about Naruto being Minato-sensei's son but the only way to stop it would be for him to kill a lot of people. Kakashi didn't necessarily have a problem with that but he was too smart to ignore it would be a declaration of war on Konoha's part. War = bad so the intel would spread across the nation.
"Good morning, all," he greeted and while the blond Kumo kunoichi simply turned to him but remained indifferent. Baki, on the other hand, tensed. 'Good,' Kakashi thought. Oh, he knew about Baki. Minato-sensei said the man had the gall to hit on Kushina-sama right in front of him. It was only the desire to avoid an international incident that Minato-sensei didn't disappear him. The man made Kakashi's chidori hand itchy.
"Hatake-san," Baki said gruffly.
"I hope you are both enjoying your stay in our lovely village," Kakashi continued.
"It's cool," Samui said. She seemed to be a well-endowed lady of a few words. Kakashi could appreciate that. Twice a night and once in the morning if she were down.
"Such luxury makes a ninja soft," Baki answered and Kakashi eye smiled at him. The man was confident he was safe until the end of the Chunin Exams, Kakashi reasoned.
"I don't know, Baki-san. Our forests are lush, yes, but you could get lost for days, if not, years in that sea of trees. And who can say what lurks there? Why, some sand rat could find himself off the beaten path and never be found again." The trio became silent and Kakashi appreciated that Baki didn't ask if he were threatening him as he clearly was. Unfortunately, he was here in an official capacity so he couldn't screw with the Suna Jounin for too long.
"Now, you two know some information that you shouldn't and are no doubt sending back to your villages. Hokage-sama has decided to allow it. But, and this is especially salient for you Samui-san, should either party ever act on said information in a deleterious manner Hokage-sama wanted to let you know he won't be nice like he was with Kushina nor demonstrate the understanding he showed with Hinata." Kakashi didn't wait for their reactions, didn't really care. He'd delivered his message and departed with a shunshin.
"YOU'RE LATE!" was his greeting when he arrived at the team training grounds. He waived off Sakura's outburst. He was only a little late.
"What excuse is it this time, Kakashi?" Sasuke asked.
"I got distracted by two impossibly round cantaloupes."
Ino composed herself as she walked into the training area with numerous Hyuga members gathered. Hiashi, Hinata and the rest of Team 8 were in the center of the room and by all appearances they hadn't started yet. She slid to the side as to be out of the way but saw that Hinata knew she was there. The Yamanaka hadn't known why Hinata wanted her there, even if she could guess, but she hadn't predicted a family gathering.
"Today," Hiashi spoke with authority, "we acknowledge my eldest daughter and clan heiress for making it to the final round of her first Chunin Exams." There was some polite clapping but it was short lived. "The only way to do it truly is for me to also acknowledge I was wrong. I pushed you hard when you were younger because I believed it to be the one, true way. I faltered and lost hope when you didn't respond. When you told me you wanted to be a Hyuga your way I only thought you were simply avoiding tradition."
Hiashi walked toward his daughter and put his hands on her shoulders, "I was wrong. I am glad I was wrong but sorry I needed you to prove me so." He let go and began addressing the room once more. "Hers is but one future path for the Hyuga, the first change of many I suspect. I request you all to aid her, push her, and be open as she is only at the beginning of a very long journey but one that will benefit the clan if we let it.
For the duration of the month her Jounin Sensei, Kurenai Yuhi-san, will be her primary trainer. As the person most responsible for Hinata's progress I wouldn't intercede but any resources you need from the clan will be made available." Kurenai nodded. "If there is nothing else then you are dismissed."
Ino waited patiently as several members congratulated or otherwise made offers of support to Hinata. Once they were all gone and it was just Team 8 and her, she approached the lady of the hour with a wide smile. "Who knew you could earn so much from a well-timed kick in the nuts," Ino joked. Hinata giggled.
"I think Neji will hate me for the rest of life," she lamented.
"He'll get over it," Ino dismissed. She didn't know much about the older boy but he was considered a prodigy and just shy of a raging asshole to those he felt beneath him. Really, that was enough. "So what can I do for you? I'll be healed up in a few days but I don't know how much help I'd be."
"I was going to ask you to help me but in a more official capacity," Hinata explained as she handed Ino a mission scroll. "I was hoping you'd do a little information gathering for me." Ino considered the offer. It was the best way for her to help, she trained hard but she wasn't near Hinata's level of combative skill yet. Besides, it could be treated as training for herself. She was under no illusion that sneaking up on Jounin would be simply so the heiress smiled as she gave her answer.
"Of course," Ino said. Asuma-sensei had already said they wouldn't be taking missions during the month so she had the free time and the money could go to some new threads for the upcoming season. "Oh, I saw Kakashi-sensei right before I came here." Ino watched Hinata's face turn sour.
"Any word on Naruto-kun?"
Ino nodded, "He said he would be on special assignment for the month so we shouldn't expect to see him much but he was otherwise fine."
"That's good. Besides, I know Naruto-kun will get in contact with us as soon as he can."
"Oi, Hinata. We're burning daylight," Kiba yelled.
Hinata got a mischievous glint in her eyes as she turned to her teammate. "I didn't realize you were in a rush to lose to another girl so soon, Kiba-kun," she said. He sputtered excuses about it being a tie but Shino argued tying when you were expected to win was basically a loss. Ino laughed at their dynamic as it was much more lively than what she had with Shika and Choji.
Karin couldn't overcome the feeling of strangeness that swelled within her. It started when she arose from her death that wasn't, it continued with the really nice hospital staff that attended to her as she regained full mobility. The oddities continued when an aged woman, one claiming to be an advisor to the Hokage, explained what had occurred, that she was free from Kusa and could reside in Konoha safely.
Without shame, Karin broke down in front of the stranger. It wasn't what a good kunoichi would do but she was never really trained to be a kunoichi at all. She was just a thing to be passed around, kept alive long enough to eventually be bred before dying like her mother. She hated Kusa, she hated everyone that resided in that accursed village and even if it were a cruel trick the Uzumaki let her tears flow for even the illusion of freedom.
The older woman had placed a comforting hand on her back, rubbing it gently and offered words of comfort and encouragement. Once Karin regained control, it was explained fully that she owed her liberation to one Uzumaki Naruto, the boy she'd seen in the forest. A boy who shared nothing with her but a clan name had gone through such trouble. For one unused to kindness or consideration it was overwhelming.
That sense of being overwhelmed, of the innate strangeness of her new reality didn't abate as she walked through the village. People smiled at her, greeted her, treated her like she belonged. It was a struggle not to tear up at the treatment as she didn't want to make her escort feel acquired. Her escort, another peculiarity, had to be the prettiest girl she'd ever seen by a wide margin.
"We're here," said the angelic beauty.
"Huh?" Karin asked and internally lamented the undignified response.
"This is where you'll be staying, at least until you can arrange your own lodgings."
Karin took a good look at the apartment tower, clearly newly built or renovated. It was beyond anything she expected, at least from the outside. "Are you sure?"
"Of course," said the older girl with a smile. "Now, please, follow me," she requested and Karin did without second thought. She was led to a corner apartment on the top floor. And again Karin was thrown for a loop at the fully furnished, one bedroom apartment.
"I'm sure Naruto-kun will show up to set up your security seals but the key is sufficient for now. You have vouchers for the grocery store on the grounds and money for any necessities you may need to buy. If you can wait a few days I may be able to wrangle a friend to go clothes shopping with you, she knows where all the best deals are. And should you need anything else I'm just two doors down."
Karin took in all the information, it was on its face easy enough to understand but she was gripped by the most sincere confusion. "Why?" she asked. Why any of this, why all of it? Why?
"You'll have to ask Naruto-kun as while he is very straightforward he is not the easiest person to understand but know he expects nothing in return."
"No ninja is that kind," Karin rebuffed. She didn't mean to sound ungrateful but this simply wasn't how the world worked.
"Several months ago I would have agreed. Then on a mission gone bad I was captured by the enemy and held hostage to stall my master from completing his tasks. The same person that captured me went on to become my best friend and gave me a chance to live here for no other reason than I was his friend."
"You mean you weren't born here?"
"No, I was not. I do not know what you have endured and will not pry but believe me when I say that you can trust in this." Karin nodded and flopped onto her couch. It was blue and comfy and hers. The older girl let herself out knowing it took time to adjust to such disparate treatment.
Yugao Uzuki, known to comrades and victims alike as ANBU Neko, was having a great day. Hayate was having the rare good morning and actually felt well enough he made her breakfast. Then, once she reported for duty she got to train with Naruto-kun by introducing him to some of the basic routines ANBU recruits are subjected to. He did well, she thought, though wouldn't deny a measure of bias. She even convinced (read demanded) he keep the Kusanagi and started him on beginner katas to wield a Jian.
Her unit seemed to warm up to him, too. Boar showed him some tips to improve his fire jutsu and walked him through the nature change exercises. Bear sparred with him for a bit and gave him pointers on how to better transfer his natural strength into his blows without sacrificing speed. Even Tenzo took him to the side to train him in something secret. It was great and while she didn't think the Commander's hairbrained scheme would work it wouldn't be due to lack of effort on her part. And the best part? He agreed to call her Yugao-nee when she was off duty. Oh, she was going to enjoy rubbing that in Kakashi's face.
So, as she escorted the two, loyal Sannin to Naruto's temporary room she didn't think anything could undercut her mood. That belief should have been a warning that something was amiss but in her excitement in connecting with what should have been her little brother and relief in paying Kushina-sama's time and effort forward Yugao was overly optimistic. It all came to a halt when she opened the door.
Initially, she didn't believe what she was seeing. It just didn't translate, that's how unbelievable the vision was. Jiraiya's wolf whistle brought her back to reality. One Naruto sitting on his bed writing something down. That was fine. What was not fine were the three clones standing around the shirtless ANBU agent. In her sudden onset of bloodlust she couldn't even remember the agent's codename; Antelope? Gazelle? Dead bitch? That was the one. With lightning speed her hand was on the hilt of her sword.
"What are you doing, agent?" she asked and watched as her fellow ANBU paled. Good. Fear makes the kill more satisfying, more real.
"Completing Hatake-sensei's training. I think I figured out the hidden lesson, too," Naruto said as if that explained anything. Then Neko remembered the garment she confiscated because her idiot former Captain gave a twelve year old a bra. She was going to kill him next. Nearing a complete surrender to her bloodlust she didn't pay much attention to the real Naruto walking over to Tsunade and handing her his notes.
The Sannin read over it quickly, though she wasn't any more accepting of what she was seeing it was written in her contract she was only allowed to assault Root ANBU in fits of rage. She wanted to admonish her student. She didn't teach him the medical arts to scam on chicks but quickly realized he wouldn't know what scamming on chicks meant. Besides, despite herself, he was onto something with this preliminary report. Damn genius pervert.
"Look, Naruto, I'll let you run with this under Shizune's supervision but no more half dressed ANBU in your room." Tsunade took a beat as she looked into those unnaturally blue eyes and remembered who she was speaking to. "And no fully undressed ANBU in your room either. Got it?"
"Yes, Sensei," Naruto answered.
"And you, scurry along!" Tsunade barked at the agent. True she looked to be only sixteen but that was old enough to know better. Said Agent grabbed her shirt and hastily retreated but heard the threat Neko hissed at her as she passed.
With the harlot gone and the clones dispelled, Yugao thought the trouble had passed but Jiraiya stomping into the room suggested otherwise. Without warning he picked Naruto up and slammed his fist on top of his head.
"What the hell were you thinking going after Orochimaru alone?" Naruto didn't answer verbally but wasn't going to take an, to his perspective, unprovoked assault without response. As fast as he could he launched at Jiraiya. The Sannin stood firm thinking the boy was trying to tackle him but he was wrong. Using the surface sticking technique Naruto scaled the Sannin ending up on Jiraiya's back. Naruto wasted no time applying a choke to his godfather and squeezing as hard as he could.
Yugao went to stop the scuffle but Tsunade stopped her and shook her head. The ANBU was confused but Tsunade said, "They need this and the idiot won't go overboard." Yugao wasn't completely convinced but did not intercede.
Jiraiya hadn't responded to the choke but could acknowledge his godson had some good squeeze applied and a fair bit of natural strength. Still, he wasn't anywhere near Jiraiya's physical strength and the Toad Sage peeled Naruto off him with minimal effort. He slammed him on his bed hard enough to undo the sheets, which Jiraiya used to wrap Naruto in and swung him around his head several times before, once again, slamming the Uzumaki on his bed.
Maybe it was overconfidence or underestimation but Jiraiya never expected the immediate response to his juvenile attack. He certainly wasn't prepared for the Dynamic Entry Naruto performed near flawlessly. Jiraiya dropped to the floor, Naruto following him as the dizziness overcame him. The only response the Sannin could muster was to his teammate.
"'Nade... h-he kicked me.. In the DICK!" Tsunade ignored him and picked Naruto up, they had work to do.
I know I promised Naruto's moniker but chapter ran long so it'll have to wait until next time. Sorry, peeps!