They could hear the dull tapping of hammers and grinding of saws before they reached the top of the hill to view the village. The tiny villagers moved within, earnest in repairing the damage that Pain had inflicted.
'There is still more to be done…,' thought Naruto quietly, not feeling much of anything since his encounter with Sasuke.
As if the three companions sensed each other's need to pause, they simultaneously stopped at the top of the hill to survey the activity below.
Sakura glanced at Naruto. His shoulders drooped and his eyes were heavey. She had never seen him this serious and this distraught before. Was it because now they knew for certain that Sasuke was their enemy? She wanted to comfort him, but words seemed insufficient and empty. She wanted to touch his shoulder, but that would not help either. The last time she touched him she had lied about her love. How could she reach him now? How could she help him now? He kept his thoughts to himself as he looked down on Konoha—the village he would soon need to protect from Sasuke.
Kakashi met her eyes. It was the same calm, cool-headed gaze. Only for a moment they exchanged their mutual concern for Naruto, and then he looked away.
"Well," said Kakashi in his monotonous, feigning-indifference tone. "My nose tells me Icharaku is serving fresh bowls of ramen…"
Naruto didn't seem to hear.
" Let's go. It will be my treat."
The three friends began the long descent into Konoha. The closer they came, the stronger the smell of salty, soupy, seasoned ramen. The earth flattened out, and they turned into the gate of the village. The usual guards stood up and gave a warm greeting, but Sakura and Naruto forgot to respond. They were both preoccupied—Naruto with Sasuke, and Sakura with Naruto. Kakashi accepted the greeting with a wave and a light smile (only seen by the upturn of his closed eye), then continued on his way.
It soon became evident why the air was so thick with the smell of Ramen. It was in the middle of the afternoon and the cooks of the village were bringing large bowls directly to the work sites. One of the cooks carried a large round tray of ramen to the three arriving ninjas.
"Oh, hello Hinata," said Kakashi.
Sakura saw that it was Hinata. She wore the standard apron of a waitress, and she was offering the tray to them. Her eyes shifted from Naruto to the tray, cowering a little while she explained in a soft voice, "E-everyone is being served f-free ramen, paid for by the Hokage. P-please, take one."
Hinata offered a shy smile. Naruto looked up at the sound of her voice.
"The Hokage?" said Naruto softly.
Hinata's cheeks reddened. She looked down as she clarified, "While you all were gone, Tsunade woke up. Just yesterday."
Naruto's eyes widened. His mouth followed, broadening into a smile, causing Hinata to blush and stare at the bowls of ramen on her tray, which began shaking slightly.
Sakura also brightened. "Master Tsunade is awake?!"
Without another word, Naruto was dashing down the street, weaving past the people in the crowds, toward the Hokage's office. Sakura followed after him. One hardly noticed the sigh of relief that Kakashi expelled, or the silent pang of sorrow that radiated from Hinata's eyes as she watched the boy disappear down the street.
"Thank you," said Kakashi with another one of his one-eyed smiles, accepting a bowl of ramen from Hinata's tray.
Hinata blinked and refocused her attention on the Jounin, smiling shyly. "I'm happy our Hokage is back," she said meekly. "The village celebrated a long time last night."
"I'm quite relieved myself," said Kakashi, thinking about the extra time he would have to read his book now that he wasn't the Hokage anymore.
Naruto stopped abrubtly and turned to see Ino. She was also wearing an apron and holding a tray, her eyes emanating worry. "You are probably in a hurry to see the Hokage but—"
Sakura caught up and stopped next to Naruto. She only had to look into Ino's eyes to know her question, and the elation from hearing about her master's recovery was swept into an ocean current of troubles from before. She did not want to tell Ino, and she could tell that Naruto had no desire to talk about it, either. She could see how much it pained him.
Yet that changed almost immediately. Naruto forced a smile and reached one of his arms over his shoulder to rub the back of his head. "Hehe, well, you know—you know Sasuke. He is really stubborn, isn't he?"
Ino tried to smile, but she couldn't hide her anxiousness as well as Naruto. "Yeah…"
Sakura's chest tightened at the sight of his bravely masked sorrow. She realized abruptly that she had the opportunity to carry a little of the burden for her friend.
"Naruto," she said lightly, "Tsunade is probably waiting for a report. You know that she can get very impatient."
His eyes focused on Sakura and softened, showing her silently that he knew what she was doing. His lips tightened, and he gave her an appreciative nod with serious eyes before running ahead, disappearing into the crowds.
Sakura approached Ino.
"Ino… we weren't able to get him back this time but…"
Naruto opened the door of the Hokage's office and beamed. "Glad that you are back to normal, Old Lady."
"Heh, did you doubt me?" She said with a wry smile, her hands folded on her desk, stacks of paper and folders piled there, untouched, as they usually were. Shizune was not with her. "It will take more than that to finish me. I'm a Sannin, after all. So show some respect."
Naruto released a large grin. "Still, it is good news."
"So I heard that you went to talk to the Raikage about Sasuke?"
Those words seemed to hex Naruto. His face fell into a serious frown, like a lighted window that was shut abruptly.
"Yamato brought a fellow accomplice of Sasuke into the village not too long ago, one named Karin," Tsunade continued, her tough expression softening slightly as she said, "He told me you met Sasuke." She looked him over, surprised to see that he wasn't injured. Last time the two met he was in the hospital for quite some time.
Naruto looked at the floor. It pained him to say, "He told me he killed Danzo."
Tsunade's eyes widened and her mouth parted slightly to take in a quick breath. "Danzo…" she whispered. She leaned back, dazed, and then stood up and stepped behind her large chair to look out the window.
"I don't think he was lying…" Naruto remembered Sasuke's crazed expression while he told team 7 the elation he had felt in avenging Itachi. "We talked, but then…then Madara intervened."
"Sasuke… he…he is not himself right now…he wants to attack the village…"
Naruto couldn't see Tsunade's reaction to this, for she kept her face toward the window. "I see," she replied quietly.
Naruto's voice changed to a determined, purposeful tone. "I have a couple questions that I need answered."
Tsunade hesitated for a moment before saying firmly, "More importantly, we must consider Sasuke's accomplice that we have in custody."
"Yes. Karin Uzumaki."
The air in the room suddenly turned cold. Naruto stumbled on his feet. "Karin…Uzumaki?"
"That is her surname, Naruto. She is the younger sister of your mother, Kushina."
"K…Kushina?" Naruto had to remember to breath. The Hokage's words entered him like paralyzing electricity and jumbled his thoughts.
"You probably don't remember," Tsunade continued, "but she was one of the Chuunin candidates."
She turned to face Naruto, a serious and haunted expression on her face. "Blood bonds are a strange thing, aren't they?"
"But—But she was—she was in league with Sasuke!"
Tsunade smiled at the floor sardonically. "Yes, she betrayed the five nations. To avenge your mother."
This information froze him where he stood. "H…How…?"
Tsunade returned to her large seat and sat, leaning her elbows on the desk, using her folded hands to rest her chin. She gazed into Naruto's eyes with hard resolve. "Sasuke wasn't the only recruit that Orochimaru had his eyes on. He knew all about Karin. All of us Sannin knew about her before her identity was concealed after your birth and your mother's death. But more than that, Orochimaru knew of the resentment she felt toward the Leaf Village for taking her beloved older sister away. He knew that he could use that hatred for his benefit."
"But it wasn't the Leaf's fault—it…"
"Karin, of course, did not pass the challenge in the forest. So while she was returning to her village in defeat, Orochimaru seized the opportunity. He sent Kabuto, and Kabuto used the right words to coax her into joining him."
"He wanted to use Karin's power for more experiments. Her healing abilities were actually brought on by a lucky accident during one of his sick experiments."
"What healing ability? What do you mean?"
"Oh, so you haven't found out about that yet." Tsunade closed her eyes and inhaled slowly.
"How do you know all this, Old Lady? You weren't even here during the exams!"
"Yes," she breathed as she exhaled slowly, opening her eyes again with a penetrating, steely expression. "There is something else you don't know. Your Master, Jiraiya, was also in league with Orochimaru at the time."
Naruto erupted, his entire body immediately thawed by these absurd words. He strode foreward and slammed his fist on the desk, glaring at her fiercely.
"Don't say such irresponsible things!" he growled.
Tsunade didn't even blink. She remained calmly at her desk, returning Naruto's rude outburst full force with the look in her eyes alone. "I would not lie to you, Naruto. But I am not suggesting that Jiraiya is a criminal. He joined Orochimaru—"
"He would never join—!"
Tsunade raised her voice above his and stood up from her chair, pressing her fingertips into the top of the desk. "He joined Orochimaru with good intentions. How else could he have known about the reanimation jutsu so well? How else could he have learned about Akatsuki? How else could he have known about Karin's situation there?"
"But he wouldn't—"
"Jiraiya loved Kushina as if she were his own daughter. He couldn't stand by while her younger sister was taken advantage of by his old friend. And so he had to do it, to make sure that Karin was safe. He had to convince Orochimaru that he needed his services, and that he could be trusted. He couldn't just force Karin to come back. Once her village heard of her betrayal, they wanted her dead—she was too powerful to take chances with."
"It was easy to hide, of course. The village was used to his long periods of absence—to his traveling. And so he watched over Karin while helping—"
Naruto punched the desk headed for the door. "I can't listen to this anymore."
"Naruto!" shouted the Hokage authoritatively.
Naruto gripped the doorknob and stiffened, gritting his teeth.
"Of everything I've told you, at least believe this: Karin is your family…" she closed her eyes and swallowed. "Actually…she is the last of your family."
"I don't know what youre babbling about, Old Lady," he murmured through clenched teeth. "I have a family."
With that, he passed through the door and slammed it shut.
Tsunade sighed and sunk back into her chair, rubbing her temple with one thin finger. "Naruto…" she whispered, "Blood bonds are a strange thing, aren't they?"