A Drop of Poison
Chapter Thirty-two: Setbacks
Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto. Ramen belongs to Naruto. Enough said.
Thanks go to Essex, Ordo Hereticus, Speaker4thesilent and Archeo Lumiere in SpaceBattles for using ortillery on all the errors they found. This chapter wouldn't be as good without their support.
Prank Day 223
Naruto blocked the first blow, then dodged the second. A simple step back took him out of the third's range, and gave him a perfect opening.
Which he didn't hesitate to take.
"Point!" The clone playing referee yelled. The two fighters then stepped back.
"I have not even managed a glancing hit on you yet, Naruto," Gaara said with a sigh. "Are you sure this is helping?"
"Yeah," the clone said. "You are getting better."
The worst thing was that this was true. Since they'd started working together on his Taijutsu, he'd made large strides forward. His defences were a lot tighter, his attacks flowing better, and even his speed had improved.
It did help that Gaara had pulled another trick from his bag. He'd come one day with large gauntlets made out of sand, copied from another Sand jōnin. Normally, something like that impaired the practitioner and required quite a bit of training, but Gaara's sand control made that a non-issue.
No, the main problem was that Gaara was too… mechanical in his fighting.
He followed the academy katas he'd been taught to the letter, not deviating in the least from the pattern. While this didn't cause much of an issue on the defensive side, his attacks were uninspired and easily anticipated.
And then dodged.
"You just need to be more creative in your attacks. Right now, you're too easy to predict, and that's a big flaw," the Naruto clone continued. "I'd recommend finding other styles and incorporating what works for you in your own personal style."
Gaara nodded, letting his gauntlets crumble into desert sand. He wasn't even winded, even though the two of the had been training for the past hour.
"Apart from that, exercise, exercise, exercise," the Kage Bunshin pointed out. "You're still slower than you should be, and there's unfortunately no two ways to go about it."
Gaara sighed again. "Is there not something that would give… Faster results?"
The Naruto clone raised an eyebrow. That wasn't like Gaara at all; the Ichibi Jinchuuriki had only been training his sand before Naruto had arrived in Suna, and that was more because he found such exercises restful than anything else.
Something was clearly up.
"That's not the way you usually think," Naruto pointed out. "Why the sudden change?"
Gaara lowered his head. "I was sure you would pick up on it," he sighed.
He then sat down. "Ever since the captured sand ninja returned from Konoha, the Suna Council has been planning and preparing to select a new Kazekage. I found out yesterday from Baki that I am on the short list of those who might get the post, and a number of the others on the list are clearly not interested in this rank."
The Naruto clone's eyes went wide. "Really! Congratulations!" He said, clapping Gaara on the shoulder.
"You do not… mind?" the sand genin asked.
"Why would I?"
"Being leader of your own village has been your dream, from what you have said repeatedly," Gaara explained. "I was afraid you would take it badly that someone as young as you achieved the same before you did."
Naruto shook his head. "I'm not in the same situation as you are. The current Hokage is still alive, and I wouldn't want anything to happen to him just so I could have a chance at the job. And I suppose the fact that you're the son of the previous Kazekage had some impact, am I right?"
Gaara nodded. "The traditionalists are very much on my side because of exactly that. Also, the fact that my father's magnet release and my sand control have similar uses reinforces that link."
"Well," the clone said, "that's clearly not an advantage I have. Given that the last two Hokages weren't of the same family line, I'm not too worried by the blood issue. And anyway, I want to be chosen for the role by everyone through my own merits and not because of whom I was related to. No offense."
"None taken," Gaara said with a slight smile.
There was a moment of silence as Naruto thought. "So, you're planning on taking the role if it's offered to you, and you want to make sure you're ready for it, correct?"
The sand genin nodded. "I want to prove that what I am right now is not all I can be. Most of the other candidates are much older, and I want to show that even as young as I am, I can still compete with them."
Naruto nodded sagely. He understood the feeling very well.
So, something that could be learnt quickly. That ruled Taijutsu out completely, given that it was endless rote repetition that had an impact in that domain. Genjutsu might have been a possibility, but Naruto only knew a single one of those, and not one that would be useful for a Kage.
Ninjutsu it was going to have to be.
The Kage Bunshin technique would have helped in this situation, but it turned out that Gaara couldn't use it. Sure, he could perform the jutsu perfectly, but each clone Gaara generated reflexively armored himself in its own sand skin, which was unfortunately enough interference to force it to dispel.
It was still a work in progress.
Naruto then turned his thoughts towards Gaara's sand. It was what the Ichibi Jinchuuriki could use the most easily, and new ways to fight with it could very well help them in a relatively short amount of time.
"Let's focus on your sand then," the clone said and Gaara straightened. "How well can you feel through your sand?"
"I can feel every single step your clones are taking back there," Gaara explained, pointing. "I have never measured my range exactly, but I know it is more than a kilometer."
That was pretty epic, Naruto had to admit. "How about when it's in the air? Like in a sandstorm or something?"
Gaara's face turned pensive. "I have to say I am not sure," he finally replied.
"Then let's try!" Naruto exclaimed.
It turned out that, yes, Gaara could feel someone in a sandstorm. It wasn't as efficient as his normal sand sense, but it was more than good enough for valid targeting.
The next hour was spent refining that. Gaara maintained a cloud of sand twenty meters wide, and Naruto sent in clones from various directions. Before the hour with halfway done, none of the clones got in more than a meter deep without getting hit by a sand bullet. And that only got better as time went on.
Then Naruto had another idea.
"How about a sand tornado?"
The clones had to perform one themselves to provide an example, but Gaara picked it up pretty quickly.
It was also, based on his words, pretty tiring.
"Keeping that much sand airborne and moving requires constant effort," Gaara pointed out. "And uses my chakra a lot quicker."
The two of them tried various configurations to no avail. Making the funnel bigger didn't help; the farther he was from the moving walls of sand, the slower they went. At a couple of meters away, it wasn't much more than a breeze, and impaired Gaara's sight too much to be useful.
In close range, it was at least fast enough to deflect attacks and make it difficult to reach him, but not much else.
Gaara let his latest tornado go. "This will still require much more training before it is usable in combat," the sand genin decided. "Let us move on to something else."
The Naruto Kage Bunshin was pensive, though.
"Does something come to mind?" Gaara asked.
"You can make a simple disk of sand, right?"
Gaara nodded, and created one, a simple two handspans wide, just above his fingers.
"How fast can you make it spin?"
Quite fast was the answer. It was difficult to put an exact number on it, but it was clearly blurring.
"Try hitting a rock with that," the clone suggested.
Gaara did so. "I will admit it is better than my sand bullets," he remarked. "A good trick, but nothing groundbreaking."
"Try from close range instead," Naruto asked.
That had a lot more impact. The sand disk shaved through the rock in an instant, leaving a disk-shaped hole in the desert stone.
The Naruto clone grimaced. Given what that had done to stone, he didn't want to see what it could do to flesh. "That's… pretty effective."
Gaara, however, wasn't finished. He extended a single sand armored finger of his right hand toward the rock face and poked.
There was a great grinding sound as Gaara's finger sunk right into the stone with a spray of powdered rock. When he removed it, a polished hole was left behind, several centimetres deep.
Seeing that, the Kage Bunshin had a flash of inspiration. "Can you do that with your gauntlets while you fight?" He asked.
Gaara generated his gauntlets once more and focused. First one, then both of Gaara's arms became covered with a spinning vortex of sand.
"It does require some concentration," the sand genin pointed out. "And I do not see how this is better to attack with than using a disk." He slammed his forearm on the rock face, where it ground into the mineral. "It is not very practical."
Naruto simply smiled. "For attacking, no, it isn't better. For defence, though…" Naruto grabbed a rock from the ground and tossed it straight at Gaara's shoulder.
He reacted as he'd most recently trained, and made a picture-perfect block in the Konoha academy style.
And the rock ground itself to dust on his gauntlet.
Gaara looked at that and grinned a little. "I see. Defence and offence at the same time."
Naruto nodded. "Even better, this forces opponents to be a lot more careful about what they do. It gives you another advantage in close range, which is where your enemies have the most chance of hurting you.
Gaara nodded, and launched himself in the first kata of the academy style, keeping the grinding edges of his gauntlets going all the while.
"Want some opponents?" The clone offered.
"Please," Gaara replied, not deviating from the combat pattern.
A wave of Kage Bunshin joined the fight not long afterwards.
The clone smiled as Gaara fought and eliminated clone after clone.
Being a Kage's teacher? He very much liked the sound of that.
Prank Day 225
The Naruto clones in the village had done what they did best.
That is, they'd spread.
When they found no more information at Ichiraku's former insurer, they went and repeated the same process in all of the other businesses owned by the Konoha Merchant Council.
Sure, they didn't succeed everywhere; some places weren't hiring, or had requirements that were difficult to fake. Those they left for later if necessary.
But the many places they did infiltrate meant they had piles of data to go through.
They did as their teacher had taught them. 'Follow the money' was one of the main precepts that Jiraiya had brought up in regards to seeking out information. This was because someone either paid for something to happen, or profited from it in some way.
And profit was very often money.
Of course, a couple of dozen businesses had piles of money coming in or out, so it would take a determined army days going on weeks to find anything in all of that.
Unfortunately for the Konoha Merchant Council, armies were exactly what it was facing.
"Got something," one of the many clones said.
A few other clones turned around, but most kept on their work. It wasn't the first time a Kage Bunshin thought it had found something, only to be wrong. And it probably wouldn't be the last.
"Show it here," Niko said. As leader of the spy network, he was in charge of this part of the investigation as well. He, like all the others, passed his time poring over the documents recovered by the infiltrators. At least, when he wasn't having class with Jiraiya.
The document the clone brought was nothing special, simply the confirmation of a payment made by this insurance company to one of its clients. A sizeable payment, true, but outside of that nothing that drew flags.
"So," Niko asked, "What's special about this one?"
"This client doesn't exist," the clone pointed out. "And that's not all."
"Continue," Niko said, looking the document over once more. Other clones around them stopped, also curious.
"The address seems valid, but it isn't. The check number doesn't match to anything else, even though it seems to be in a valid format. And this isn't the only payment made to this 'customer'," the Kage Bunshin explained.
"Show me," Niko said.
The clone came back with a pile of documents. A bigger pile than Niko had expected, actually.
Niko and said clone went through the entire thing, and were quickly joined by other Narutos that had abandoned their own documents.
There were no inspections attached to those supposed insurance payments. No requests, no internal paperwork. Niko would have pegged it as an error or a test document if he'd found one.
Only this error had happened dozens of times.
Worse were the dates. The original document the clone had found was dated the very day after the Ichiraku arson, and there was one paper dated the very same day the warehouse they'd been using had burned to the ground.
It was more than suspicious at this point.
"That business directly belongs to a council member, you said?" Niko asked.
The clone nodded. "Councilman Yoku, yes."
"How many people do we have inside?" The spy leader asked everyone in the room.
"Only one," a clone in the back replied.
"Try to get some more of our people hired," Niko ordered to answering nods. "Put the place under surveillance as best we can. Find out more about this Councilman Yoku… I want to know everything he does."
"And if he makes contact with anyone, I want to know. This is the best lead we have, and we're not gonna let go until we shake something loose."
All the clones nodded grimly. Like every single Naruto, they wanted blood over what happened to old man Ichiraku.
And they'd make sure they were going to get it.
Prank Day 227
Tsunade stepped out of Shippou's room, wiping sweat for her brow. While she was still a better healer than her apprentice, there were some things she couldn't do.
And surgery was one of them.
She cringed just at the thought. The idea of all that blood, of those…
Tsunade shook her head. That was in the past, not the present. And she had better stuff to do.
"Everything fine, Senju-sama?" her ever-present shadow asked.
While Tora hadn't left the room Shippou was in (to her knowledge) since she got here, Raion had appointed himself as her own bodyguard. He was never too far, though never close enough to be in the way. If you forgot that she was one of the Sannin, it even made sense; as Shippou's healer, she was the second most important person in the building. And Tsunade knew Shizune had her own samurai following her around.
"Yes, Raion-san," she replied. "Just tired."
And then she stumbled.
Raion was at her side instantly, fast enough that if he was a ninja she'd have bet on a Shushin. "Thank you," she replied, placing her hand on his back for balance.
He didn't see her hand flash green for an instant.
Tsunade instantly straightened. "So, you're the mastermind of all this," she spoke, staring straight in Raion's eyes. It might have been only a low-powered scan, but it was enough to tell the difference between a clone and a real person. His chakra was also similar to one of the clones, which clearly revealed he was the summoner. There was something bizarre in said chakra, something she knew she should have immediately pegged, but which currently evaded her.
Said samurai blanched.
Tsunade glared. "What's the plot here. A takeover of the country? Did you assassinate the rest of her family? Did one of your men cause those wounds?" One thing was sure, this was something big. Her scan had been enough to get a good idea of Raion's reserves, and he was clearly high jōnin, if not better.
And not anybody could use Kage Bunshin freely like this man was doing.
"Not here," Raion countered. He quickly walked out, going straight for a building Tsunade knew was used as barracks by the samurai group.
Still, she followed. They needed her skills as a healer, that was certain given the amount she'd been promised, and she didn't feel endangered by a simple group of samurai whose majority were Kage Bunshin. If it came to fighting, they wouldn't last long against one of the Sannin.
Raion led her to one of the smaller rooms, where another pair of samurai were resting. She would need to scan them personally to be certain, but she was pretty sure those two were also clones.
"What's the issue?" the first asked. Tsunade seemed to remember his name was Kuga, or something like that.
"She knows," Raion said, voice grave.
The two residents of the room tensed instantly. "How?" the second asked.
Raion was silent for a moment. "I have no clue, actually."
Everyone then turned toward Tsunade.
She had no real reason to hide what she'd done; nothing had been any form of secret art. "I'm a medic and a chakra specialist; I can tell when something's not right in someone, given enough time. After that, a quick scanning palm was all I needed," she explained with a grin. "Now, explanations. And remove that Henge, too."
"You noticed that as well?"
"Let's just say I'm very familiar with the technique." Not to mention her short scan had given her enough information to know his form was false. "Now!" She then exclaimed.
She was surprised to see the tall and wide Raion shrink into a kid. Based on what she knew of her home village, he had to be at least eleven, given the leaf hitai-ate visible on his brow.
One thing was sure, it wasn't the powerful jōnin she'd expected.
"So, talk," Tsunade said, deciding to ignore the fact that she was in front of a kid. "Name?"
"I'm Naruto Uzumaki."
Tsunade forced herself not to react. She knew who that was, and now that it had been pointed out, she knew what it was in his chakra that she should have recognized.
What the hell was the container of the Kyūbi doing in a place like this?!
"And what is a Leaf ninja doing this far from Konoha, in San no Kuni? What's the mission here?"
Naruto looked at the two samurai in the room, then nodded. "This isn't a ninja mission, Senju-san. This is a mission for the Torasen. And getting Shippou healed is the entirety of that mission."
"I'm sorry to say, but most of these Torasen are clones like those two." She pointed to the two samurai still seated, who tensed. "Shadow Clones even, so you can't tell me this isn't ninja business. Why would you pretend to be a group of samurai?"
Naruto sighed. "I just can't say no to someone in need."
That was clearly not the answer Tsunade had been expecting.
The entire story came out then. Why he'd created the Torasen in Wave, and what they did there. The request from Shippou's retainer, and the long march to this country. The weeks of tense patrols, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Shippou's kidnapping and her subsequent rescue, along with their failure to keep her safe.
"... I knew of no other medic I could trust her with, and I knew where you could be found. For a while, I was afraid she wouldn't last until you got here. And that's where we're now…" He was silent for an instant. "Shippou will make it, right?"
"Right," Tsunade replied automatically, her training coming to the fore. "She will most probably require a good amount of physical therapy to recover full mobility, and she might have issues breastfeeding in the future, but her survival isn't in question."
The three others in the room released a happy sigh at that.
Tsunade's mind, however, was going over everything as fast as it could. She knew very well he hadn't told her everything, especially given he hadn't said how he'd known where to find her. As a medic, however, she knew body language, and the boy before her had given her the truth as he knew it.
"Give her the scroll," the samurai whose name she didn't know said.
"Right," Naruto exclaimed, running towards a set of bags. He came back less than a minute later with a rolled scroll bearing the insignia of Konoha, which he then offered to her.
Tsunade realized something instantly. "This… This isn't a real scroll."
"Yeah," Naruto said, scratching the back of his neck. "The real thing's still in the village. This is only a shadow clone copy."
Keeping one eyebrow up, Tsunade unrolled the scroll and read.
This was another thing she hadn't expected; a simple genin with S ranked orders on his person?
"You… are a genin correct?" She asked.
Naruto simply nodded.
Thing was, if these orders were fake, they were a better fake than any she'd ever seen. Sarutobi Hiruzen had been her jōnin teacher, and she knew his signature and his way of writing better than most anyone. And unless Naruto had been fooled himself, and believed something false, he was clearly telling the truth.
As such, she decided to play along.
"And, what are your orders?" Tsunade asked. She was curious about what a boy like him could ask with such papers. Anyway, if worst came to worst, she'd just ignore him and continue on as if nothing happened.
"Just… Don't tell anybody about this, okay?" He waved around the room as he spoke. "Nothing about the Torasen being clones or me being there, right?"
"The third… does know about this, right?"
Naruto nodded. " I told him myself about the Torasen, and he was present at the last meeting where we went over what was happening in San no Kuni."
There was a little evasion here, but Tsunade was still reading everything he said as truth. Which put her in a dilemma.
She was technically not a missing-nin simply because her sensei had decided not to pursue her. Sure, he sent messengers every few years to try and bring her back to the village, but there was never the threat of force behind those.
Tsunade knew that there were some lines she wasn't supposed to cross, and that was why she'd not involved herself in any ninja business. Just to make sure that the third wouldn't push too hard to bring her back.
And now something like this fell into her lap.
"You're not… Under any order to bring me back, aren't you?" Naruto shook his head negatively. "I heal Shippou, get my payment, and everything is square between us, right? No bad blood, and I can leave anytime I want after that."
"Sure," Naruto exclaimed. "That's a promise, and you can believe it!" He extended his hand to shake.
Tsunade sighed. However he'd found her, he'd done it at least twice, of that she was certain. While she was pretty sure she could escape at any time, she'd be leaving behind the biggest payoff she'd had in a long time.
And she hated leaving some of her work half done. Not to mention how much Shizune would complain about leaving someone like Shippou without her services.
She would have to take the risk.
She grasped Naruto's hand and and shook twice, not using any of her super strength. "You have a deal," she said. "Just know that if you betray me, you'll find out what it is to fight one of the Sannin."
He shook his head quickly. "I already had a Sannin fight against me once…" he said, shuddering, "and that was more than enough for a single lifetime."
Tsunade wanted to push for more information about that, but unfortunately a voice rang through the Torasen's barracks. "Tsunade-sama, I'm done with the surgery. Please come and do your checkup as soon as possible."
She sighed and turned to leave. "We'll discuss this later. Is that fine with you?"
"Right," Naruto replied. Then he made a single hand seal, and Raion was back in the room.
Tsunade simply left. She was one of the greatest medics in the land, and one did not become so by leaving things to chance. While she trusted her apprentice to have done good work, the longer she waited before checking, the worse any subsequent issue would be.
And she had to agree, that noble kid was slowly growing on her.
Prank Day 230
"No, Naruto, I will not be sending your team to the chuunin exams," the Hokage exclaimed, sighing.
"I had told you so, Naruto," Ebisu pointed out.
"Why?!" Naruto countered, ignoring his sensei. "We're ready! We're more than ready! We did all the missions we need, and even more than Team Seven had when they took the exam!"
"That's not it, Naruto."
"Then why aren't we good enough?" the blond genin continued, waving to his team. Both Muremaru and Ariko were looking intently at the village leader, also awaiting an answer.
"The next chuunin exam is in Iwagakure," Hiruzen sighed once more. "I know you followed the last exam. Tell me, how many teams from Earth Country were present for that exam."
Naruto stepped back to think for a moment. "I... don't remember any, actually."
The Sandaime nodded. "Correct. There wasn't an Earth team in the last exam, nor in any of the previous for the last ten years. Do you how many teams I'm planning to send to the exam in Stone?"
"I don't know… Four, I suppose?" the blond answered. That was the number of Mist Village teams there had been in Konoha's exam.
"What?" Naruto replied, shocked. The two other genin in the room had similar reactions.
"I am not sending any genin team to Earth country," the Hokage repeated. "Not for this exam, nor for any in the future. There hasn't been a genin team sent there in a decade, at least."
"Why?" Naruto whined, face dropping.
"May I, Hokage-sama?" Ebisu asked, stepping forward.
"A little more than a decade ago was the time of the last Great Ninja War," Ebisu recited. "The Third Shinobi War, to be exact. Many villages fought each other, but none more viciously than Konoha and Iwa. The latter invaded Grass Country, hoping to lay siege to the Land of Fire. The fighting was long and hard, but Minato Namikaze, the man who would become the Fourth Hokage, broke the stalemate. Using his legendary speed as the Yellow Flash, he led counterattacks that inflicted heavy casualties against Iwa, crippling or eliminating half the Iwa force."
He then looked at all three genin in turn. "And Iwa has not forgotten their loss."
"Indeed they haven't," Hiruzen said. "And that is why no genin teams are sent to Earth Country. Similarly, we do not send team to the exam in Lightning country, given the still recent fighting between Konoha and Kumo."
"But, that could mean..." Ariko started.
"No," the Sandaime countered, knowing full well what she was thinking of. "The next exam after this one is in Water Country, followed by Suna's exam, and I will be sending teams to both. You need not fear for chances to prove yourselves; You will have as many as you need." He smiled. "I wouldn't have given your Sensei a task he couldn't accomplish, after all."
Naruto was silent for a moment. "You promise, Jiji?"
"I promise. Your team will be one of those sent to the Kirigakure exam, and to Suna if it becomes necessary."
"Right!" Naruto said, once again all smiles. "What did you want to see us for, Jiji?"
Hiruzen echoed Naruto's smile. "I have here another C-rank mission for your team. This one isn't like the last one, being a..."
Jiraiya shook his head. Clearly, there was something bothering his student tonight, and it made for an unproductive jutsu training session. "What's bothering you, Naruto?"
The genin scowled. "I should be a chūnin already," he answered.
Jiraiya sat down in front of his student. "What brought that on?"
"The Third isn't sending anyone to the next chūnin exams," Naruto pointed out.
"In Earth? Thank the gods!" The Sannin exclaimed. "He'd be a fool to do so. The village has enough problems with Earth teams during Mizu's exam, I wouldn't want to see how bad it would be on their home ground." He paused for a second. "I mean, why do you think that?"
"Hinata started years after me, as did Shino; both are now already chūnin. That's not counting those of the previous class, or the one before" the blond explained. "There's people I went to class with that are now at their fourth exam, while I have to wait another six months for a chance? That's not fair!"
"Unfortunately, life is rarely about fair," Jiraiya countered. "And while the fact that it took you years to get where you are is sad, it is better than the alternative."
"Well, let's say you passed on your first attempt. Let's even say you passed your jōnin's test…" The Sannin said.
"Normally, jōnin have the right to refuse the team they've been given," Jiraiya continued, "and they test the genin that fall under their umbrella for the values they find important in a ninja, and fail them if they don't make the cut. I understand Kakashi was famous for doing just that before he passed Team Seven. You were a special case, given that you were promoted outside the exams directly by the Hokage."
"But, no matter. You passed that test too. How good a shinobi would you be?" The Toad Hermit asked. "Would you be as good as you are now?"
Naruto had to admit he couldn't be sure. Sure, having a couple more years under a good jōnin-sensei might have made him good enough to be chūnin, but he wouldn't be the same person. He wouldn't know the Kage Bunshin, that was certain, and that was such an important part of everything he did that he had no clue what he would be without it.
"What do you think?" He asked his teacher.
Jiraiya shook his head. "No chance. You're a one-of-a-kind shinobi right now, and there's no way you could have ended up the same. Sure, it took you a while to get there, but do you regret what happened? Meeting Iruka, the rabbits, all the people your clones got close to?" He was silent for a moment. "Not to mention Konoha might not be standing now if it wasn't for your clone army."
Naruto cringed at that. He had to agree with Jiraiya that Konoha's fall might have been a possibility. Nobody but he managed to take that barrier down, and his clones had eliminated dozens if not hundreds of opponents. Even if Konoha had still stood without him, the damage would have been extensive.
"On average," Jiraiya continued, "a genin is promoted during his third or fourth exam. Most that break this pattern are promoted at home, which is where they have the most advantage."
Jiraiya nodded. "Yup. Those that do it in less usually skipped an exam or two. Think about it; how many of the Konoha teams even reached the third exam last time?"
"Three." Hinata's team, Rock Lee's team, and Shikamaru's team.
"Out of how many?"
A lot. More genin teams than Naruto had known Konoha had, actually.
The genin didn't have to say anything; his face was more than enough. "Think about it this way: it's another six months to get ready to pass. Are you a better ninja than you were six months ago?"
"Then I don't doubt at least one of your identities will pass in Mist. And that's if you're unlucky and end up fighting yourselves early," Jiraiya exclaimed, sure of himself.
Naruto shook himself, and rose. He wasn't someone who liked focusing on the sad side of events.
Not when there was something he could do about it.
He rose. "So, what's the best way to ensure I pass?" Jiraiya had been a jōnin-sensei once, and a genin himself at one point. He had to know what a genin faced.
"Well, I can't say much about the first two exams, since they change every time, but the last is always a one-on-one fighting tournament," the Sannin explained. "Winning isn't necessary, though it sure helps."
"Pulling out new techniques seems to help the most, as well as effective strategy and tactics." He paused. "Which actually brings me to a subject I was planning to talk to you about."
"New techniques. From what I heard, you haven't had much luck with the scroll of forbidden seals in finding new things to train in, correct?" Jiraiya asked.
Naruto nodded. Most of the jutsu that could be found in the scroll were there for a good reason, and those that were safe weren't any real improvement over what they already had.
"Right. So I had two things in mind. First, this," the Sannin raised his hand, and a spiralling sphere of chakra appeared there. "The Rasengan."
"That's the technique you used to defeat Shukuen," Naruto replied. "I'm not about to forget it."
"Exactly. It's a powerful piercing technique, and always a crowd pleaser," Jiraiya explained. "You'd have to only use it as Naruto, since I'm pretty much the last person who knows it, but it would be a big help if you're ever stuck in a situation like before."
Naruto smiled widely at the idea. "And the other point?" He asked after a moment of silence.
"Creating your own jutsu," the Toad Sage said. "Every great ninja ends up doing that, and is pretty much a given at higher ranks. Most don't start this early, but with the numbers you have it'd be a waste not to."
By that point, Naruto was nearly salivating. His own techniques! He knew the previous Hokages had created many of them, and it was a great step on that path. "How does that go?!" He exclaimed, creating a clone the very next instant. Said clone disappeared then reappeared with pen and paper in hand, sitting down right beside its creator.
"I see you're interested," Jiraiya pointed out with a smile. "Well, first you have to start with…"
Prank Day 232
To most, Kusako was a newly arrived merchant, who'd fled the big city to make money in the very deepest parts of Grass. Some said that she was escaping an unwanted marriage, others thought that her beau had spurned her, and she had left the capital in tears only to make the best of her situation in the deep prairies.
Of course none of them had it right.
Kusako was a Naruto clone, one that was part of the merchant network. She was the only clone in this particular city, trading mainly in Kusa tobacco and a few medicinal herbs that could be found close to her place of residence.
However, she had also a second, very important role.
That role was why, every Friday of the year, rain or shine, she went for a walk through the city's park. She took her time doing so, and often took her lunch at the foot of the statue there, an ancient carving of a former daimyo of the country.
Only those who knew the Naruto clones well would've noticed Kusako's reaction that day. Still, she acted as she did usually, eating her sandwich with her back to the stone. Then she went back to work, and nobody saw anything abnormal about what had happened.
But that night at midnight, when everyone was asleep in the town, she was back in the park and in front of the statue.
That was her second role. Here in Kousou-cho, deep within Grass, was the spot given by Zabuza as a contact point. The sign indicating awaiting message was very simple and very easy to ignore, a single blade of grass stuck between the stone fingers of the statute. On one side to give a message, on another if an answer was awaiting.
And a message was waiting.
She snuck to the back of the statue, easily finding the slit in the stone that had been carved there. She slid out the piece of paper therein, slipping it into the pockets of her suit.
And then she rushed back home, closed the door behind her, and lit a single candle to read the message.
Only, there was someone with her in the room.
"I was starting to wonder if I would have to wait another day," the voice said.
Kusako had no clue how this person had managed to slip inside unnoticed, especially in the subdued floral kimono they were wearing. The clone did, however, recognize them from the memories of their mission in Wave.
"You're… Haku, right?" The Kage Bunshin asked, just to confirm.
The androgynous figure nodded. "And, based on the fact that you are a clone, I suppose you're another member of the so-called Hidden Spirit Village, as rumour would call it?"
Kusako nodded. The network was well-aware of the name they'd been given by the few survivors who escaped, and had seen no reason to quash it. It was another layer of misdirection that kept people from looking for them in Konoha, and that was fine.
Haku seated themselves at the table. "You may read the message now."
The clone had nearly forgotten about that. Kusako snuck the message out of the pocket it was in, and quickly read it. It had all the necessary code words, but outside of that it had very little content.
'Haku will have your message,' it said. It also gave an encrypted password to recite to the contact.
The Kage Bunshin turned back to her visitor and did so. "You're my message, then?"
"Indeed," they said. "I have a request from my master, and from my master's master. They are wondering if the forces that took down Gato's soldiers could be hired for a mission."
Kusako was surprised by that. Haku, from what little the clones knew, was high chūnin at the very least, and their master was stronger than any regular jōnin for certain. And that was not even counting the two other members of their group.
She couldn't see what mission these two would have that they couldn't do by themselves.
Still, protocol had to be followed; this was way above Kusako's mandate, and as such was a question for a meeting of those in the know.
"I'll need more information than that if you want to get a positive answer," she explained, "because I'm pretty sure that, as it is, you're gonna get a simple 'no'."
Haku nodded and invited Kusako to sit, which she did.
"The Water Rebels are looking for help," they started. "You are aware of the situation in Mizu?"
"Well, ever since the last Mizukage has been..."
Like I said to my Betas, this has been too long a time.
I could give you plenty of reasons to explain myself, but those would simply be excuses. Suffice to say I was busy, and when I was not writing was a chore more than anything else. ADOP wasn't the only story who suffered; all my stories did.
Needless to say, I'm back, and you can thank the Nanowrimo for that. It managed to break through whatever block I had, and I'm putting words down more effectively since then. Those who follow my other stories can expect a new chapter at the regular time, and possibly more beside.
You can also be sure that, whatever happens, I will not be giving up on this story, not until I reached the goal I set for myself. While I understand this chapter has been a long time in coming, it is still not the longest period between chapter. And, no, I will not be going back to that.
Special thanks also go to my gaming group, who didn't hesitate to push me back and help me bounce ideas. You know who you are; thanks for everything you did.
Anyway, as always, thank you for reading and commenting, and see you for the new year!