Through no fault of his own, Naruto's first official mission was marked a failure.
He was not even sure why this debrief was taking so long. How much was there so say about "The eyes are gone" that could not be summarized in this very sentence?
Yet, he still waited obediently in the room that had been assigned to him until it was his turn to report.
Apparently, it was customary in highly sensitive missions that all participants had to report separately to avoid distortion of each other's observations.
Since Tobirama was currently in the debriefing room relaying everything he deemed noteworthy, this measure was quite pointless in Naruto's case.
Well, they could hardly take precautions against a ghost and their shared connection.
He played absently with the acorn around his neck.
'Prepare yourself,' Tobirama's voice sounded over their link, 'they will call you next. Stay to everything we discussed, do not acknowledge my presence, and - '
'don't give up more information than I need,' Naruto finished, slightly amused. He had heard this at least ten times now. 'Got it.'
He jumped from his chair and walked towards the door, reaching it just as it swung open.
Naruto looked at the mask standing inside the doorway. "Lead on, please."
Wordlessly, his guide turned and led him down the hallway. The first rays of the morning sun already broke through the window front, leaving bright dots on the floor.
After hours of seeing only darkness, the light stung in his eyes, and he averted his gaze.
In front of him, the ANBU stopped and knocked on a door. "Hare has arrived."
The door swung open, and the mask motioned for him to go in.
Naruto nodded at him and took a step inside. "Thanks."
He could feel eyes lingering on his back, before the door closed behind him.
"Please sit down, Hare."
Naruto looked at the two men sitting behind two tables that had been pushed together. He recognized Blank and Nara Shikaku. Tobirama was standing behind them.
His eyes flickered through the room, absently counting two windows, a wooden crossbeam and zero adjoining doors.
Naruto fully entered the room, walked to the only chair before the tables and sat down.
Shikaku's eyes scanned quickly over a paper before they settled on Naruto. "Report," he ordered curtly.
Naruto took a second to order his thoughts, before he began. "When we arrived at the hut at about zero two hundred, nothing seemed unusual. The shack looked exactly as we had left it. Weasel's traps had not been triggered, and the entrance was still secured. I deactivated the Rokku array by placing the key, and after coordinating with Blank, Owl, Weasel and I took point. We encountered zero hostiles on our way to the target area. The lab door was still camouflaged, and the sound barrier was unbroken. After I undid the array, which took about five minutes, Blank ordered the raid, and we discovered the hole in the wall. The eyes were all gone." Naruto was proud of the many difficult words in his report. Deciphering Tobirama's lectures really had paid off.
"Hm," Shikaku tapped against the paper. "Did you notice anything unusual about this hole?"
"I took a look inside," Naruto replied, "the area behind it wasn't very big. Maybe just about the size of a man. The walls looked very rugged. It was completely dark in there, so the entrance got probably closed up again. But there were no cracks to let the moonlight in, so it had likely been sealed with an earth plate made by some jutsu."
He paused before adding Tobirama's contribution. "I also think that whoever made it must have done it in one go, or they would have fixed the hole properly. Also, they must have had access to a map showing the lab, or they wouldn't have been able to calculate the area so well. And I think they have good chakra control and reserves, or they wouldn't have been able to dig so deeply."
Shikaku leaned back and regarded him with an intense look. "And what makes you think it was one person, and not multiple?"
'Several people could not have made such a straight line in that time. Besides, it would have taken far too long to remove it piece by piece. Most importantly, however, massive ground movements can always be felt. It would have been too conspicuous to do it bit by bit. But a single tremor after a lightning might have passed for thunder – or a lighting strike in a close vicinity,' Tobirama supplied, 'thunderstorms always make for a good cover.'
Naruto repeated his words.
Shikaku's eyebrows went up. "Well reasoned. We did have a thunderstorm rather recently."
"Three nights ago, sir," Naruto offered. "Well, four now," he corrected after looking out of the window.
"That would mean we missed by four days," Blank commented. It was the first time he had spoken up.
"Yes," Shikaku agreed, and sighed. "Thank you, Hare. Now, it is customary to be given a week's leave irrespective of the outcome. So, use the time to take some rest. I suggest you start by going to bed. At least someone should get a bit of sleep in."
The blank masked turned towards him. "Looks like I won't have to punish you this time, kid. Remember that nothing about last night's mission must leak out. So, keep your mouth shut, or you will suffer the consequences. Understood?"
"Yes, Blank," Naruto confirmed.
"Good. You are dismissed."
"An interesting child," Shikaku remarked once the door had closed behind Naruto. "Did you notice the way he occasionally changes his pattern of speech? It seems to become more sophisticated when discussing more complex topics."
"Indeed," Blank agreed.
Shikaku side-eyed him. "You know the Hokage will not allow it."
"We have time," Blank answered matter-of-factly, "he is still young."
Tobirama felt a flash of protective anger and glared at the man through narrowed eyes. He flared a tiny amount of his chakra and felt slightly vindicated when Blank shuddered faintly.
Only afterwards did he realize that he had done exactly what Hashirama had always done whenever he had deemed his little brother threatened.
Tobirama smiled wryly as he remembered teasing him about this habit. "This point goes to you, brother," he whispered softly.
Naruto did not go to sleep. Instead, he headed straight for the ledge, where he promptly gave another, much more personal report to the Shodai's tree. Well, actually, it was more of a tale, than a report.
"That really sucks, you know?" he grumbled after he had described the empty lab in detail. "We went through all this for nothing. The eyes are gone. Really, we should have done this way earlier."
Naruto yawned and squinted into the rising sun. He was suddenly feeling very exhausted. "I didn't do that much," he mumbled sleepily, "but," another yawn, "I am really, really tired." He curled up between the mighty roots, and his eyes dropped shut.
Tobirama found him an hour later, peacefully asleep under a blanket of fallen leaves. He smiled in fondness at the young child, and settled down next to him, lightly flaring his chakra to keep them warm.
Tobirama rested his hand on Naruto's head and addressed his brother's memory. "I saw her name on one of the labels today, brother. They took Ryo's eyes."
Despite the calm, the leaves rustled.
"Sometimes I remember," he mumbled, "this child was always so gentle, and yet we could not keep our oath."
He stared into the sun. The light shimmered in front of him, and for a flicker of a second, he thought that he saw his brother's sad face looking back at him from behind a misted veil.
"Who are you talking about?" a tired voiced suddenly asked next to him.
Tobirama turned his head and saw Naruto moving under his leaf blanket. Blue eyes blinked tiredly at him.
"A child who was very dear to me," Tobirama replied after a moment of silence. "Back when our clans were still enemies, she saved me once. For that, she would probably have paid with her life if Madara had not exercised his authority as clan leader to protect her from their furious kin. But after he betrayed us, her clan turned on her, and my brother and I made her our ward." He brushed a stray strand out of Naruto's eyes. "You would have liked each other. She was very gentle and abhorred violence."
Naruto glowered. "We will get them back," he declared fiercely, "your brother's body and her eyes. We'll get them both back." He glared at Tobirama, as if trying to say, 'you better agree with me now.'
Tobirama's lips twitched at Naruto's attempt to look imposing because the child was still covered in leaves and reminded him very much of an angry squirrel. Or a hedgehog. "We will," he confirmed, and his voice only carried slight laughter.
Then, he rose. "Now, back home with you. I still fully intend to give you an intense workout later today, so you better get a few hours of sleep in."
Naruto grimaced. "Mercy?" he asked hopefully, blinking up at the man with wide eyes.
"No," Tobirama shot him down immediately.
"Mean," Naruto decided, but stood up anyway.
The next day, a very exhausted Naruto walked towards the Senju compound. Tobirama really had not joked about working him hard. He yawned slightly and stopped to let a cart pass that was loaded with fresh vegetables. It was the fifth time he had been forced to wait because of a delivery. Somehow, everyone seemed to be busier than usual. Was some kind of festival coming up?
Shrugging to himself, he finally made his way to the clan head's house.
Naruto blinked as he saw the messenger bird in front of the window. Curiously, he put down the sealing book he had been studying and opened the window to let it in. "For me?" he inquired.
The bird nodded.
Naruto carefully untied the letter and inspected his unexpected correspondence, half-expecting it to be another bill, and mentally made a note to finally send the notice about the allowance cut.
But the envelope was heavy and thick, clearly indicating the high quality of the paper. There was a slight bulge to it, and he could hear something moving when he turned it.
Naruto stared at the address written on the front of the envelope in ornate strokes.
'Jiisan,' he called urgently, 'there is something you should see.'
'What is it?', the ghost demanded as he phased through the wall, alerted by the urgency in Naruto's tone.
"This," Naruto answered, and held up the letter. "It just came with that bird over there." He pointed in the direction of the pigeon that was perched comfortably on the window sill, preening its feathers. "It's addressed to Lord Senju. Should I open it?"
A glint appeared in Tobirama's eyes. "Yes," he agreed.
Naruto did not have to be told twice. He opened the envelope and pulled out a single piece of paper.
The sun will shine
Naruto frowned. What was that supposed to mean? He threw a confused look at the Tobirama. "Seventy-seven?"
Tobirama's reply came delayed and carried a hint of contemplation. "I suppose he is talking about Konoha's seventy-seventh founding anniversary."
"So, that's why everyone is so busy!" Naruto exclaimed, "they are preparing for the celebration."
"It is an auspicious number," Tobirama agreed, "and likely to be celebrated in a grand way. Which means it will be easier to meet without being noticed."
Naruto nodded slowly and turned the envelope over.
Something fell out and hit the desk with a metallic clang.
It was a golden pin in the shape of a sun.
Naruto tilted his head. "Am I supposed to wear that?"
"It is probably meant to serve as a means of identification," Tobirama picked it up, and turned it between his fingers. His eyes scanned critically over the jewellery, searching for anything that might be amiss.
Just as Naruto was wondering whether Tobirama perhaps might want to melt the pin down just to see if there was anything contained in it, the latter handed it back. "There is no chakra residue on it, so it should be safe to wear. But I recommend you wait with that until the actual day of the festival."
"And when is that?" Naruto inquired as he tried to reach the shelf by standing on his tiptoes. He huffed when he realized he was still too short to even touch the compartment.
"In five days," Tobirama answered, easily picking up the wooden box Naruto had been aiming for and handed it to the child.
Naruto nearly dropped it in surprise. "Already?"
"Yes," Tobirama waited until Naruto had stored his pin away before he continued. "That is why we will be reviewing formal language intensively over the next few days, and finalize your attire. I will make sure that you will represent us properly."
Naruto gulped at the glint in Tobirama's eyes.
A/N Have fun with the lessons, Naruto! *xD* Do you know what a nightmare it is to make some sense of the Naruto timeline? *sighs* I spent an entire hour calculating in Excel just to come up with a timeline that fits for this story. So, yes, here Konoha is going to be 77 years old.
Just a bit of a heads-up: Sometime during the next 2–3 days, I am going to do a major overhaul of the earlier chapters to get them up to date with the chapters on AO3 (I still suggest you read this story over there ;) ) This will mostly include spelling corrections or fixes of minor irregularities. Nothing big, though.
So, if you are reading on the app, I strongly advise turning off notifications for this story because otherwise you'll probably be swarmed with edit notifications. To anyone who complains to me later, I will reserve the right to say: I told you so. ;)