"Hokage-sama," a voice called and broke Hiruzen from his paperwork. His finely honed mind picking out details that didn't seem to fit the situation. His longtime assistant was nervous, clutching a package to her chest that she was likely there to give to him. The package itself couldn't have been distressing, she wouldn't hold it so close to her which led her to believe it was his reaction that concerned her. He couldn't blame the poor woman, he'd been snappish for days and looking for a fight that never came.
"Tamano, please come in," he welcomed her with a friendly tone. "What can I do for you?"
"A package arrived late last night from the Raikage. We submitted it to all security checks and it came back clear," she explained.
"Ok," he said. Tamano allowed her greying locks to cover her eyes as if she were bracing for impact.
"It's a new Bingo Book, Hokage-sama."
'Oh,' Hiruzen thought. The new editions were to be released today, if Ay sent one specifically to him it meant he had an entry he thought Hiruzen wouldn't like. It was a tradition started by the second Mizukage. Sometimes it was a veiled threat, others a sign of recognition but there was always a motive behind it.
"Just leave the package with me, it'll be fine," Hiruzen assured her. The woman did as instructed and departed a little faster than the aged Hokage felt necessary. He'd been surly but he wasn't some fire breathing dragon. Opening the package, Hiruzen snatched a falling item before it could hit his desk. Unfolding the piece of paper the Hokage realized it was a letter from his Kumo counterpart.
Hey Old Monkey,
Thought you could hide Minato's boy from me, eh? You had a good, little run but that's over now. Tell him to get faster, I haven't had a rival in speed for over a decade and I will judge if he's fit to replace his father. Don't worry, it won't be at the finals, I'm sure you'd love for me to have an accident on my way to your village. Who knows, maybe the overbearing tree will become too limiting and he'll want to know what it's like when the sky's the limit. Besides, I hear he may have a taste for a flavor of kunoichi only found in Kumo.
Only time will tell,
Hiruzen fought the urge to scramble a platoon of ANBU, his desire to remind Ay that most accidents happen at home not befitting his position. Finally getting to the latest Bingo Book, Hiruzen thumbed to the section marked with a yellow tab. He opened it and read his grandson's entry as he lamented his failure to well and truly keep him hidden before he was ready.
Name: Uzumaki Naruto
Alias: Konoha's Kiroi Goustopeppa
Affiliations: Konoha; Toad Clan (Jiraiya of the Sannin; Master), Uzumaki Clan (Kushina Uzumaki; mother, deceased)
Skills: Fuinjutsu, Bojutsu, Katon Jutsu
Bio: Son of Minato Namikaze and Kushina Uzumaki, student of Hatake Kakashi and Jiraiya of the Sannin. Single-handedly killed over sixty ninja during a solo raid of a base belonging to Orochimaru of the Sannin and his Otogakure ninja. Also managed to defeat and capture Orochimaru in a separate engagement, killing eight more ninja in the skirmish. Possibly specializing in infiltration and mass exterminations. The shinobi is silent, calm, and analytical. A threat to even experienced ninja if they are not careful. Engage only if mission critical: Jounin or Chunin teams. Genin, flee.
Bounty: 1 ryo
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Hiruzen chuckled at the alias; the yellow ghost pepper would have sent Kushina over the moon. He could see the animated woman bragging to Biwako and him about it and then the pair having to spend the next hour talking her out of going to kill Ay. It brought a pain to his chest, thinking about his wife and Kushina. On what they were deprived of, of who'd been deprived of them. It hurt and while he had plenty of work to do and needed to inform Naruto's teachers about this, Hiruzen took a moment as not even Hokage were free from grief.
"You seem in a good mood, Tsunade-sama," Shizune observed as she took a seat across from her mentor.
"You say that like it's a rarity, Shizu-chan," Tsunade responded but never took her eyes off her work. The two were in her temporary office, Dragon having made some space for her as a concession for stealing her student. When Shizune didn't respond, Tsunade took it as confirmation that was her exact position. She couldn't deny the truth of it so didn't take offense. "Well, it's nice to cut again. It's nice to be doing medicine again and if I can figure out my part of this stasis solution we'll have a dramatic impact on in-mission fatalities."
Shizune smiled and nodded, "what are you leaning toward?"
"Foam. Some kind of cryo foam but knowing where I want to go doesn't necessarily get me there any faster. I'll figure it out, eventually," she said. She was the Queen of Elixirs so it would be a blow to her pride to be stalled. "How about… your little project?" Tsunade asked, though her tone was anything but encouraging.
"Really now, Tsunade-sama," Shizune admonished, "this is as valid a topic for medical treatment as anything else."
"I know, I know; sorry. Really, how are things coming along?" Tsunade asked more sincerely.
"Good. We have years of data and can say with a high degree of confidence that kunoichi experience a higher percentage of lower back injuries, the rate only increasing as activity diminishes."
"Because the diminished use of chakra no longer buttresses the lower back muscles?" Tsunade asked. She had to admit, she was a little embarrassed she had never considered the problem. She'd heard of civilian women complaining of lower back pains and they all assumed she suffered the same but they were wrong. Subconsciously, she and all other kunoichi had a way to avoid those pains but it also left the muscles tense and easily strained in comparison to shinobi.
Her main problem was it strained credulity that her other student came to this insight because that idiot Kakashi gave him a bra. She knew his mind didn't work like other people's and could accept it but even that had its limits. She refused to accept that medical advancements would come via the boy's labido. Refused.
"And potential treatments?" Tsunade asked, pressing on.
"I've been in touch with our physical therapy team and they are working on it."
"Uh huh. And the other thing?" the Senju questioned, looking down at Shizune's chest.
"Oh, it's wonderful. I almost forget they are there sometimes," her student beamed. Naruto hadn't reinvented the wheel but a seal that can calibrate to and redirect the same force that the breasts exert in each cup… it was inventive.
"I still don't see why you had to be the test subject," Tsunade stated.
"Because Neko-san and you scared most of the female ANBU away from Naruto-kun when he just wanted to help."
"Uh huh," the blonde medic said but not at all buying it as the only reason.
The effects of the newest edition to the Bingo Book rippled throughout the village. Three men gleamed in anticipation of finally upholding a promise over a decade in the making. Two foreign kunoichi lamented the Raikage's reveling in his man-crush on the Yondaime Hokage, and his delight in thumbing his nose at the Sandaime Hokage. And one Chunin instructor jumped at every shadow, terrified the ANBU would snatch him up at any moment.
None of that had reached Naruto yet, the rookie Chunin having been summoned by Kakashi, via Pakkun, to meet him at Team 7's training grounds. As it was Hound making the request, Commander Dragon allowed Naruto to depart. So, here the blond sat, Pakkun on his lap as he gently patted his head as he watched his teammate train with Kakashi. They hadn't sparred for long, not even thirty minutes but Naruto already saw some problems.
Sasuke was shaky and his body had clearly hit a wall well before he was accustomed. Sweat poured from his brow and he was breathing through his mouth. It was time for him to go to work.
"Stop," he called out as he approached sensei and teammate. He retrieved a bottle of hand sanitizer and gestured for Sasuke to sit. The Uchiha did just that. Naruto activated the diagnostic jutsu and mentally recorded notes. Within twenty minutes he had reached a conclusion.
"Your nutrition isn't adequate for the level of training you're doing. Your body is forcing your chakra to compensate but the increased usage means you aren't recovering as fast at night which requires more chakra to compensate. Had you continued the cycle you would have gone into shock from chakra exhaustion within three days." Sasuke nodded, masking his discomfort with the emotionless tone that provided the explanation.
The Uzumaki handed Kakashi a list while Sasuke digested what was said. He was unhappy with the news but relieved to know there was a reason he hadn't felt like he'd progressed in the last few days. He thought he had a well balanced diet so that was concerning.
"What did you hand Kakashi?" Sasuke asked.
"A list of vitamins and supplements. You could get with a nutritionist as well but if this is just for the exams then the supplements would be adequate. No more training today and none tomorrow." Sasuke nodded and elected to wait on going to see someone as it'd just take time out of his training. Sasuke wanted to argue for the sake of his pride but he felt like crap and could use the rest so he nodded.
"Why didn't you give the list to me?" he inquired.
"Hatake-sensei handles the team's expense account," Naruto answered.
"Oh, ok…. The what now?" Sasuke asked with a little heat. Naruto looked at him in confusion.
"The expense account," he repeated slowly,
"Mah, mah, Sasuke-kun. Greasing the right palm can take you further than violence in many cases but it wouldn't be right for ninja to lose money while in service to the village. So for that and other various outflows, we are reimbursed. And thanks to Naruto-kun bribing Ibiki, I've hit my cap for the fiscal which means I can request a limit increase."
Sasuke found it weird how happy his sensei sounded about mundane administrative tasks when he was near impossible to get a rise out of for anything else. The Uchiha just shook his head even with his analytical mind demanding to reach a conclusion, he decided Kakashi was unexplainable. It was just simpler that way. Kakashi performing the summoning jutsu broke Sasuke from his thoughts.
"Ok, you lot have fun with Naruto-kun," he said and then turned to Sasuke, "let's go," with no more prompting as he took off. Sasuke could faintly hear the ninken barking in the distance. It didn't take much effort to catch up to Kakashi and the Uchiha was curious.
"Why did you summon your dogs?"
"They needed exercise, Naruto likes playing with them and I was taking time away from his own training. Seemed like a fair trade," Kakashi explained but the need to needle his student pushed him further, "Are you jealous? You want to play with them?"
"What? No," Sasuke denied.
"Oh, ok," Kakashi said. "You know, Hokage-sams is thinking of pulling Naruto from the team."
"Why?" the Uchiha asked.
"Officially, both of you are high profile targets so it would be safer to have you separated in case another village tries anything. Unofficially, I think Hokage-sama believes Naruto's team with Jiraiya is better for him since he actually gets along with Haku and Sai."
Kakashi was hardly being subtle but Sasuke got his point. "We can work together and not be friends."
"Hmm, that is true. You could also accept that he's not Itachi and open up a little," Kakashi pressed. Sasuke's shoulders dropped. Yes, he could; except no, he really couldn't. He knew Naruto wasn't stoic but impaired, he really couldn't help being that way but his manner constantly reminded him of the person he hated most. That Naruto seemed to be better than him didn't help matters.
"I'm sorry, Kakashi… I can't."
"It's fine, Sasuke," Kakashi said. "I'm not asking for an overnight turnaround. Besides, we need to focus on Gaara, everything else is secondary."
"Hn," Sasuke grunted in agreement.
He was jumping at everything. Every unsuspected shadow, every creeping sound. That one entry in one book reduced him to this… that the Kyuubi reduced him to this nearly pushed was enraging. But there was no time for rage. Rage would scare the brats, the brats would alert Iruka. Or maybe a couple of Jounin. Or, Sage forbid, the ANBU.
He didn't know why he even bothered with the new Bingo Book. Sure, it was causing a stir at the check-in station but he'd gotten used to ignoring the weak fools of this village. But today was different. He engaged and learned. In black print, submitted by Kumo therefore cleared by the Raikage himself. Uzumaki Naruto, the demon in human form, looked back at him. Those dead eyes judged him just like the little bastard did in real life. Mizuki hated it. The judgement. Hated it. The beast. Hated it. This village that allowed the beast to judge him.
'How?' he asked himself. How could the Kyuubi capture Orochimaru? And how long before the man gave him up? Mizuki didn't know but couldn't wait to find out. He needed to escape, to put as many miles between him and the Land of Fire as he could. His life as he knew it was over, he had no doubt. And while he was filled with panic, even fear could override his true nature.
Mizuki was a man gripped by resentments, large and small. He resented never becoming more than a Chunin instructor. He resented the Hokage's lack of trust in him. He resented having to rely on Orochimaru to get stronger and gain some recognition. A nuke-nin only free because of the Sandaime. In that resentment a foul idea was taking seed. His life was over.
His life. What few friends, what paltry relationships he allowed himself would end. He'd be on the run for the remainder, ducking cutthroats until his last days. It was to be a miserable existence, he knew but he couldn't picture giving up. A terrible life was better than no life by Mizuki's estimation but it didn't mean he couldn't get a little satisfaction.
"Alright, everyone, head out for target practice," Iruka ordered. The children put away their things and rushed to the door. Mizuki watched as his chance for a taste of revenge was one of the last out. Luckily, Iruka had run off to catch up with the others.
"Hey, Konohamaru, wait," he said in his friendly voice.
"Yes, Mizuki-sensei?" he asked, turning to the man standing at the back of the empty classroom.
"Iruka asked me to pull you back. Since you've doing so well, I'm going to teach you how to throw a fuma shuriken; it's my specialty."
"Really?" he asked, excitedly. Mizuki smirked, it'd be too easy.
"Yes, really. Thing is, the fuma shuriken is large and powerful so we'll have to go somewhere else to practice." Konohamaru nodded and followed along, Mizuki making sure to chart a path out of Iruka's eyesight. Mizuki led the little bastard to a shed that contained a go bag. He chopped the Sarutobi on the neck and stuffed him into it and then fled. He knew he had to be breaking personal bests with how fast he was moving but he had to create as much distance as possible.
Taking to the trees, passing through training areas, his only thought was to reach the wall. He repeated it like a mantra. 'Reach the wall, reach the wall.' He timed it with his breathing and running motion. Every step a word. 'Reach the wall. Reach the wall.' He was focused and felt more like a shinobi than he had in years. 'Reach the wall. Reach the wall.'
In all his focus, in the pleasure of possibly getting revenge, the fear of getting caught, Mizuki stopped thinking about his hostage. One he hadn't restrained, just knocked out. A little boy, afraid yes, but not unschooled in the ways of the ninja. A boy who took his surrogate brother's words to heart so when Naruto told the young Sarutobi to always have a cutting instrument on him, he complied. The fabric of the travel bag was no match for Kono's dagger.
Mizuki heard the rip but even as it broke him from his internal chant it still took him a few beats to realize what happened. Just long enough for Konohamaru to engage the emergency protocols. Firstly, one of his fuin beads was a flash bang and the boy tossed it toward his sensei before running off. The next step would take time so in his panic'd excitement he simply took off in the opposite direction.
"Ugh, little shit!" Mizuki yelled. His vision was slowly returning but his hearing was still compromised. He could still track the brat's trail. He took off. He, initially, was going to send pieces of the kid back to his grandfather but now he'd just kill him outright. Mizuki retrieved his collapsable fuma shuriken. His hands were shaking. He felt like a wild animal driven mad with bloodlust and it spiked when his sights landed on his prey.
He let loose his weapon of choice, delighted when he heard it cut through the air. But he didn't hear the squelch of blade penetrating flesh nor the screams of pain that would follow. Not even the thunk of the projectile hitting a tree. No, somehow the little shit ducked at the exact right time. Mizuki wouldn't stand for that. He appeared above the boy and picked him up, punching him in the gut with his free hand.
Spittle flew, and his eyes tightened. Yes, that was the look of pain he wanted to see. But maybe he could heap on some additional agony before he offed the boy. To get his attention, Mizuki slapped Konohamaru twice, front then back of the hand.
"You must think you're so special being the Honorable Grandson. Walking around with your chest puffed out. Even more so because of your precious niisan and yet you don't know that they are lying to you. Naruto Uzumaki may have been born human but the Yondaime, his own father, sealed the Kyuubi into him. He's the fox now, that's why he isn't like us. A filthy demon couldn't mimic human emotions."
"Mi… Mizuki-sensei," Konohamaru spoke.
"Shut up," the boy answered as he placed his fuin bracelet on Mizuki's wrist. The man felt his body seize as the shock seal went into effect. He dropped Konohamaru before he hit the ground and the boy ran off, Bruised and battered but still able to move.
Mabui was tuning out Omoi and his particular brand of speculation. She, too, was curious about the fuma shuriken that landed on their training area but as it was nowhere near any of them chalked it up to an accident. Karui demanded the lone shinobi shut up, Samui was doing an excellent job of ignoring them. Mabui didn't fault Karui, Omoi could be vexing, his fantastical paranoia an ever present attribute. The prudent choice was to wait for the owner to arrive, to be calm about the whole thing and not make up grand stories about someone being abducted and making a hasty escape.
Until she saw a small boy, bloody nose and swollen cheeks running toward her like he was being pursued by the embodiment of death. She stood and slowly approached, the boy was clearly panicked and didn't seem to notice they were foreign ninja as that would have only made things worse.
"What happened?" she asked but the answer never came. As soon as he heard the landing of the man behind him, the boy instinctively got behind her. Shivering, he was too terrified to do much else.
"Oho, it seems you have found my wayward student," the man said with fake sincerity. She could see the tightening of his eyes, the repressed fury. No instructor should be that mad at a child.
"Aren't you a little far out for an academy student?" Mabui asked.
"Ah, this one likes to skip and spy on ninja to learn cool techniques. It is my job to get my back to class so if you would. Come on, Konohamaru, we've wasted enough time and any further delays will make your punishment worse."
Mabui felt the boy clutched at the back of her top. Things weren't adding up and she could tell her team had reached a similar conclusion. It wasn't a leap to conclude the fuma shuriken belonged to him and he'd somehow managed to miss the child. As a moral being, she couldn't let the child return to his custody but if Kumo harmed another Konoha ninja outside of the exams it would do irreparable harm to her village and its relationship with Konoha. But, once again, Mabui's internal deliberations were interrupted by the arrival of another party.
This one, however, had no interest in talking. She saw the gleam of a blade before she could fully make out the newest arrival and wasn't sure of who she was seeing until said figure executed a kick to the throat of the falling man. Then she heard and saw the dogs as they surrounded the much smaller attacker and his victim.
Even with his orange hood up she could see the distinctive blond hair of one Uzumaki Naruto. The way Konohamaru darted toward him made her believe the two had a preexisting relationship, the flying tackle into a hug all but confirmed it. She watched as the blond said something to the boy and then several of the dogs departed with him. Only the one with sunglasses stayed as Naruto tied up the unconscious Chunin.
After securely binding the man and picking him up and playing him across his shoulders, the Uzumaki made eye contact with Mabui. "Mabui-san," he greeted, or she assumed it was a greeting.
"Uzumaki-san," she replied back.
"You look nice today," he offered, and she hadn't been expecting it.
She tried to deflect as to not encourage any teasing from Samui later. "Thank you but this is just my standard outfit while on duty."
"Oh," he said and paused, "then you must look nice everyday." He said no more, disappearing in a shunshin with the dog hot on his trail.
Sitting at her table and sharing a pot of tea with Karin-chan had become an enjoyable feature of Haku's days. Getting to know the girl over the last few weeks was a delight. The two had a lot to bond over and Karin-chan seemed to warm up to Haku's gentle prodding. She thought the girl was a little fixated on Naruto but given her utter devotion to Zabuza-sama she could hardly judge.
It was nice making another friend and having someone fawn over Chappy-kun as he was a hard working bunny and deserved it. A heavy knock on her door surprised the pair, she hadn't been expecting company. That Konohamaru was there with three of Kakashi's summons further confused her, though that was overridden by his injuries. The largest dog, Bull, gave her a rundown of what happened but she could tell there was more as she escorted Konohamaru to her couch. The boy hadn't spoken much beyond a pat greeting and wouldn't even meet the Yuki's eyes.
"Kono-kun, what's wrong?" she asked. She could tell he was torn and whatever it was he needed to share. He shot a quick look at Karin. "That's Uzumaki Karin, she's going to be staying in Konoha for a bit."
"Niichan has a clansman?" he asked in genuine wonder. Haku nodded.
"They met during the Chunin Exams. I'm sure she'd tell you the story sometime if you're interested."
"Sure would," Karing reassured. "But why don't I give you two some alone time for now," she offered.
"No… Niichan would say it's rude to make your guest leave because I showed up."
"I think he'd understand given the circumstance," Haku stated. "And if you don't feel comfortable talking in front of Karin-chan that's fine."
Konohamaru shook his head in the negative. He looked down once more and his body started shaking, "I… I did everything wrong. I was so scared. I dropped Niichan's dagger and would have been killed if I didn't trip on a tree root. He wouldn't have been too afraid to even think. I'm a coward!" the boy bellowed.
"Konohamaru," Haku said as she tilted his head up, "being afraid doesn't make you a coward. And you're comparing who Naruto-kun is now to who you are now, neither of us know how he'd have handled this. But what I do know is a Chunin tricked, betrayed and abducted you. His goal was to flee with you. Your goal was to escape. You're here, he's captured. That's a win."
"But I didn't do anything."
"You escaped. You stalled. I'm assuming Naruto-kun gave you something to signal him if you were ever in danger so you called for backup. You did everything that could be expected of you, Kono-kun."
"Then why do I feel like a failure?"
"Because when someone makes you afraid it can also make you feel weak and small. All the stories we have show courage as overcoming our fears but I think survival takes its own kind of strength. And for ninja, for those who endure, the ability to survive is central to our being. And sometimes a part of that survival is sheer dumb luck. We can't control luck. But that's partially why we train.
Being faster, stronger, smarter doesn't guarantee victory but they tip the odds in your favor. But you should never think any situation presents you with an absolute chance of victory. That Chunin did and now look at him, defeated by an academy student."
"His goal was to abduct you. Yours was to escape. While all the rest matters, in a fight between ninja the one that achieves their goal is the victory, the one who doesn't is the loser. This is your win, Konohamaru. You understand?" The boy nodded and graced her with a hesitant smile. She left to get her first aid kit but upon her return she saw the boy sleeping, Chappy-kun faithfully keeping watch.