Naruto Fan Fiction!
"A Song for Them"
A/N: I really hope you all are staying safe out there. There's crazy everywhere you look. If it's not one thing it's another. I have excess of anxiety and other shiny new things but I know for a fact I'm not alone in feeling this though, so I busted my ass into gear and got this out to share some goodness in these times. I promise, there's not nearly any trauma in this! I hope this helps you to find a smile, enjoy.
—just came back from editing. The word count is over 21k... I am so sorry. Hoo boy. Gonna sleep now.
DISCLAIMER: I do not own 'Naruto' or any of the canon characters! If I did then it's likely the arcs, both filler and canon, would have extended to a ridiculously long length and filled with fluff, mental scarring and relationship building! Not in that order either!
WARNING! RATED M! Do I even need to? We have a, uhm, well. Ikari makes things weird. Sora is pretty tame for once though. Well, depending on one's definition of 'tame', really. She's still cray.
Chapter Fifty-Three: "Cram Sessions"
"I don't need an inspirational quote — I need coffee." -My People/Me/Every day I'm Shufflin'
(3223 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
I saw Kushina today.
With the end of the War, I had entered Konoha in hopes of attempting another trial of the Parturition experiment despite Orochimaru-sama's doubts to it's chance of success. Then, by chance, I had seen her.
Kushina had been conversing with an Uchiha woman, who I later confirmed was the Clan's Matriarch, her young child close by. She looked happy. Her smile bright, cheeks flushed with cheer and vivid with life, just as I remembered her. It's been years since I last entertained the hope that she had outlived Uzushio — That she had been hidden away by the Leaf and had survived our Clan's downfall.
I… am unsure how I feel.
Despite her healthy and cheerful appearance, I could sense the Seal residing on her stomach, one that contained a great and terrible chakra inside that was so very much unlike Kushina's own.
It made me wonder about the disquieted whispers that used to pass around the Guards of the Coast. The whispers of how though the Senju was our treasured ally, Konoha held no loyalty to our people. To our Blood. That after the death of the Second Hokage, all love shared between our Villages were waylaid to mere formalities and politics.
I suppose such an idea had not rang more true than when Uzushio was burning into the ocean, abandoned by her so-called ally.
(3226 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
I've moved on from attempting to acquire a specimen from the Uchiha Clan. After observing them in their home environments, I've found them to be a surprisingly bountiful source of pride and arrogance that stem from a systematic superiority complex handed down through the generations. Orochimaru-sama was wise in his desire to no longer pursue them as a biological donor.
In the shadows, I had listened as Father's taught their children of their clan's faded glory, speaking as if they still matched the warriors of old that my own Grandfather would scare us with tales of before bedtime with. No, the clan that I have observe stood as a watered down imitation of what they once were. Their Sharingan still held the desired strength to the dwindling few that possessed it, but the choice to lay themselves under the boot of the Leaf has debilitated the clan as a whole.
It is fortunate that while inspecting the private Archives of the Uchiha for information that Orochimaru-sama might deem interesting, that I have found a possible replacement for the Sharingan. In a mission statement made nearly a century ago, the Uchiha clan encountered a Bloodline limit described to rival the Genjutsu prowess of even their precious Sharingan.
I plan to investigate the last known report of this Chinoike clan and will do further reconnaissance once I locate them in order to establish whether or not they actually possess this Bloodline limit and the extent of it's abilities.
I leave for Hot Springs in the morning.
Also, I… have decided that I would not reveal myself to Kushina.
At least, not yet.
If I were to speak with her now then I would have to reveal to her my connection with Orochimaru-sama. How he had given me a new life. A purpose to live. But with Orochimaru-sama's defection from the Leaf, I am concerned with the possibility that she would report back to her superiors.
It has been many years since she departed from Uzushio alongside Lady Mito. I do not know how deep Kushina's ties run with the Leaf, but I cannot risk my Lord for such a selfish and thoughtless act.
Not even for Kushina.
(3237 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
I found a male that should suit the physical qualifications for being a biological donor. I have confirmed that he possesses the Bloodline limit and also appears to have talent in sensory.
I do not know his name.
Due to the apparently paranoiac isolationist beliefs of the Clan I do not have as much freedom as with my previous targets. However, after two weeks of reconnaissance I have discovered that the target along with a few other young men from the clan will leave the Valley under the cover of the New Moon and visit a brothel at the nearby town, to relieve themselves without repercussion, I assume.
When the target leaves tomorrow night, I will already be in position as one of the women at the brothel and extract the genetic material required for the insemination. Then I will remove every trace of my presence in this country before returning to the Northern Base, to where Orochimaru-sama is expecting me to rejoin him.
…I hope this will be the key that I have been searching so long for.
(3342 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
It has been four months since the insemination and there have been nothing but signs of progress. The fetus in my swelling stomach is growing stronger every day.
It gives me indescribable joy to know that it will one day become the perfect host for Orochimaru-sama.
Sora, June 23rd—Outskirts of Konoha
(Days Until Invasion: 9)
The next morning started bright, warm. It was nice.
I found myself in some casual clothing at the riverside where Jiraiya would hunker down in the bushes while Naruto would curse out his adorable tadpoles. It was empty, safe for the sounds of the wildlife. A good place to do morning stretches and have a moment to meditate in peace. Nothing but a sweet chorus of birdsong and a gentle rippling from the river to float through the air.
It should've been a perfect time to meditate.
As it is, I spent all of five minutes in my head before paranoid thoughts of being ambushed at any given moment by a Devil woman had me back to being alert and spreading my senses out. Ruining any plans for meditation or relaxation. Goddamn, I miss training with Neko. He'd never let me get bit by an oversized belt!
The turn in thought had me slumping into the grass, depressed and annoyed. Denoyed. Anpressed? It was one of those.
What was Neko doing right now? I wondered, unable to stop myself.
He said he was going to be in the Village for a while, right? He didn't get deployed on a mission right before the Exams, did he? I thought I had sensed him yesterday but I didn't get confirmation or anything. It could've just been my feelings of wanting him to show up influencing my senses? I mean, it's never happened before but that didn't mean it couldn't. My sensing isn't perfect. I could just have imagined it.
Maybe to disprove my point, a chakra presence flickered at the edge of the field.
Familiar. White-Hot. With an unmistakable pull to it.
I glanced up as Kakashi casually sauntered over to my patch of grass with a '101 Ways to Become a Basket Weaving Guru' book in hand. He stopped in front of me, looking down over the book, and tilted his head to the side in that considering puppy-dog way that I've actually grown to miss.
I frowned a little in realization.
Ahhh... that sucks. I could do without reasons to miss Scarecrow after only two weeks. The boys are bad enough, but him too? I don't know if I could take it. Especially considering the man's track record of disappearing without explanation. I'm just not that much of a masochist to encourage this affection any more. Nope. I could find solace in my newly acquired Kakashi-doll.
"Something wrong, Sora?" he asked, probably noting my overall air of depression.
I exhaled deeply and waved his question off with a limp wave.
He hesitated a moment, chakra fluctuating.
Silently, he took a seat on the grass beside me. Not pressing me further than that.
I won't lie, I was touched. The gesture from the emotionally stunted, socially inept man was so sweet that I almost considered forgiving him for saddling me with the Devil Woman while he took off with Duckie for weeks.
As it is, I needed amusement and was just petty enough to use this man for that purpose. I bit down on the smirk pulling at my lips and rolled onto my stomach, pulling out my pad and honestly sharing one of the problems I've been having.
"My breasts are getting too big for my bra. I have to buy a new one in a bigger size, but I'm having issues finding the right brand with enough support and flexibility in the size I need." It read. "So you were right about me getting heavier."
He blinked once. The 13% of his expression I could see was neutrally blank. An impeccable poker face, really.
Then there was such a long silence that it was nearly painful. It was worse than last night with the Sex Ed, at least he could still function as he turned different shades of mortified. But right here, right now, I could see the truth in his eye. I have done the impossible and finally, successfully, broken this poor man by making him imagine my sports bra.
God, did I savor this moment.
Kakashi solemnly lifted his gaze to the morning sky. "Seriously," he asked someone that wasn't me. "What did I do?"
I buried my face into my arms as I snickered, indulging myself in the pull and lull of his White Hot chakra. I let my eyes close as I began to unconsciously relax. Just what was it about this man that could put me at ease like this? Whatever it was, it was very unfair because it made it very hard to stay mad at him for a prolonged time.
I peeked up, he was looking down at me patiently.
'Neko and I fought.' I signed, pausing a beat. 'Have you seen him yet?'
"I have." he confirmed easily.
He didn't elaborate further though I felt a sort of unnamed weight lift off my chest. I always feel a bit braver knowing that Neko was there, somewhere. Even if that place was in the shadows.
'Did you talk about anything interesting?' I prodded. The 'Not planning on even trying in the Finals' part was left out. Not that I was overly worried in Scarecrow giving me a lecture - Hell, he'd probably be in favor of me dropping out altogether - but it'd give me a good idea where Neko's head is at. Help me plan on how to interact with him the next time I see him.
There was a split second before when his chakra did a little twist and shimmy before he promptly smothered it, answering me with his lazy tone.
"Just about you being as stubborn and opinionated as usual." he said.
It was truthful, just not the whole truth. There was something important that he's holding back, but I couldn't be sure what. Odds are Neko probably is still mad about how I wasn't giving my all for the sake of the Village. Maybe Kakashi picked up on that is Neko was talking about me passive-aggressively. Which, that sucks.
I broke eye-contact and began to pluck at the grass, feeling the dew on my fingers.
"He's not upset with you." he offered, reading me as easy as his wicker booklet. "He's just got his hands full right now."
Now, that was the truth. But, it was still uncomfortable to hear. Also frustrating when I think about how needy I am. I shouldn't be so selfish—Tenzō has an entire life and his own responsibilities to focus on. I just have to stop with all this useless self-pity and accept the fact that I don't rank that high on his list and get on with my plans. I had better things to do than wallow. Things like finish my Barrier Buster formula and, well, the list of other things that need getting done. I just wish I had grabbed my Storage Book before I left the room, then I'd be able work on it now.
'Why did you stop training?' I asked, stealing the rare moment of Kakashi's attention before heading back to grab my papers. 'Duckie isn't happy about it. Did you get called back by Hospital to get scolded for stealing him too early?'
He looked at me blandly, like I was a particularly dull kunai.
"You asked me to."
Oh. I mean, I had asked him to come and check up on us but…
My eyelids fluttered, mouth opening slightly in surprise.
It's always such a strange to find out that men that have probably taken more lives than there are hairs on my head can be so gentle. It almost hurts to think about how much pain people like Kakashi and Tenzō's have had to go through to keep that part of their heart alive, to keep caring and not become totally apathetic.
It also gave me hope.
The silver-haired man narrowed his gaze at me warily as I sat up with my overtly mooney-eyes, very much metaphorically melting over my sensei. I made sure to keep my hands innocently by my sides, within view, as I scooted across the grass.
Now sitting right beside him, I pressed my face into his sleeve, trying to be considerate of his hug allergies. I felt the craving for an actual hug, but this was as far as I'll go. For today.
Kakashi sighed like I was being a terrible bother to him, but…
"Spar with me."
I looked up from my drafts, seeing Duckie standing over me. He was standing in my light, arms crossed over his chest and staring down at me with an air of impatience about him. I arched my brow at his demand — because it was a demand. Not polite request, like a civilized being would issue, but an order like he was some kind of privileged prince and I a mere pauper.
…I pretended not to give a damn about how accurate that described our respective social standings.
I glanced around the area. We were in a vacant corner of the Hot Springs, the diner hall a short walk away. Ideally empty of other distractions so that I could have a moment alone. It even had a cute little bench and everything! I had slipped away here after breakfast to get some work done on my Seals, but now it looked like I wouldn't be getting much done.
With a sigh I shucked off my sandals and took off my shirt. Lastly sweeping up all my notes into my Big Red Book and sealing it away in the back of my little Storage book, wrapping the black book up and making sure nothing was about to get unexpectedly wet. Sasuke seemed to perk up and stepped out to the water, still fully clothed? Interesting choice. I had on a modest sports bra but I was still half-tempted to shuck off my shorts. Moving around with wet clothes suck.
Unless of course, he had no expectation of his clothes getting wet?
Giving my spine a quick stretch, I went to step out onto the water across from him. Only, I had been sitting cross-legged for the last hour and could barely feel my legs, so I more like stumbled out onto the water. Duckie was giving me a very unimpressed stare as I acted like nothing happened.
We faced each other, making the Seal of Confrontation. There was a single beat before I dashed forward, bringing up my leg for a round kick. He lifted his arms in a block, taking the hit and twisting his wrist, grabbing tightly onto my ankle. He arched his brow at me, curious.
"That's a first," he commented, then smirked very smug-like. "What? Tired of taking it lying down?"
Twisting my body, I dropped my chakra-coated hands to the water's surface to keep my balance as I swung my other leg in a kick, which he caught with his free hand. Meeting his confused look, I bit my lip and grinned impishly. With a flick of my wrists I whipped a jet of water from under me and into his exposed face. He cursed and released his grip in surprise, I took that moment to close my legs around his head and pull—using my weight to take him off his feet and headfirst into the water with me, making a big splash while I was at it.
Water enveloped my body in a rush, hot but not nearly scalding. I reached my hands out and grabbed the surface again, pulling myself back up just in time to see Sasuke's wet mop of hair resurface. I was still grinning as we both climbed up and faced each other, equally soaked from head to toe. Hah! Hey, the wet cat look works for him too!
'Looks like your clothes got wet,' I signed, finishing with an exaggerated: 'Sorry.'
Duckie gaped a little bit, brow furrowing in disbelief as he realized my entire strategy revolved solely around dunking his smug ass. Because yes, I really was that petty.
"Fine," he scoffed, peeling off his shirt and arm-warmers. "Let's see what you've got, klutz."
Changing tactics, I took a defensive stance, holding out my arms as I shifted my weight onto the balls of my feet. His chakra reacted with something akin to disappointment when he saw me take up my position, but he made the first move anyways. He came in fast and his eyes widened when I dodged his strike, feeling my blood pumping as I deflected a kick. I stopped playing defensive and feinted a punch to brought my leg straight up to catch him in the jaw, he leaned back, narrowly avoiding it. I blocked a jab and deflected a roundhouse kick, returning with fast strikes, keeping Anko's well-beaten lessons in mind as I kept moving my feet and aiming for his joints. He dropped down for a leg sweep and I hopped back, out of range of his legs.
Somewhere in the middle of that I had began to grin wickedly wide. The dark-haired Uchiha smirked, his eyes looking strangely bright.
Then he moved and we resumed trading blows and deflecting each other's strikes like the world's most demented game of patty-cake. Unfortunately I couldn't stop all of his hits from getting past my defenses, he began to successfully lay blows on my sides whenever I went to attack. I was quickly losing ground. His fist sunk into my chest, effectively punching my boob. I cringed from the strike, but it hadn't hurt all too bad. I braced for his follow-up strike, but something unexpected happened.
Uchiha Sasuke, natural-born genius and no-nonsense Duck, froze — His entire body seemed to lock up, stunned. A light flush coming on around his cheekbones. Interesting reaction.
Not thinking too much on the screw-up, I took the opening and shoved my foot into his gut. Hard. He coughed, wheezed, stumbling backwards from my blow and I pushed forward. Hand out, fingers extended and straight, aimed to jam into his shoulder joint — Sasuke knocked my hand away and jumped back, putting distance between us. He looked surprised. I snickered, feeling awfully proud of myself in that moment.
Of course, that was the exact moment that he stopped playing around.
With what came next, it's not that I did anything particularly wrong, but my fatal mistake was thinking I had actually achieved anything in the last few weeks of training all while forgetting the simple, little fact that…
…Ducky had been training his Taijutsu, too.
He blurred from my vision and I sensed him appear behind me, I moved — too slow, I was too slow — I gasped for air when his knee collided into my ribs, OUCH—there was a pain in my wrist as he bent my arm backwards and an ache from my ankle as he kicked out my balance and shoved my head underwater, filling up my mouth, quickly followed by the rest of me.
He pulled me back up after a moment of my limp flailing and I accepted my defeat as gracefully as one could while coughing up spring water. After gathering myself up, we made the seal of reconciliation and headed back over to my stuff. Unsealing a couple of water bottles from my Storage book and marking the page for refill, I tossed one to Duckie before popping the cap of mine and chugging it down. I also took off the hitai-ate from around my neck and wrung out the excess water from the cloth.
Without a word, Sasuke took a seat beside me on the bench and opened his bottle.
Even though I had lost, I was still feeling high on the exhilaration from the spar. A nice sort of adrenaline caused by a non-life threatening situation. I had to wonder if this was the high that my trainoholic teammates were always chasing? This rush that kept them fighting, even when there was no real need for it. I chewed on my bottom lip as I thought, screwing the cap back on my water.
'I have a question,' I signed. 'Why are you training so hard?' His brow furrowed instantly, a dark look storming over his features. I quickly waved my hands, backtracking, clarifying; 'Why are you training so hard for the Exams?'
Duckie narrowed his eyes at me but a lot of the previous hostility tapered back down. "Because, I want to get stronger."
I rolled my eyes at such a basic answer.
He sneered at me, flicking the cap of his water at my head out of sheer pettiness. "Why are you even asking? What does it matter what someone else's reasons are?"
I forced out a sigh, annoyed myself. What did it matter what someone else's reasons were? I already knew them well enough. Sasuke had his eyes on a goal that was much farther than this. Naruto wants to prove himself to everyone and epically kick Stick's ass. And Gaara and his sibs were here to kill us all. Yanno, totally normal motivations. Then there was everyone else… Lee, Lee had avoided getting brutalized in sand and moved onto the finals, but at the cost of another life.
People have died for this. More people were going to die, all for some stupid promotion that probably didn't mean jack shit in the scheme of things. Yeah, I understood that there are other agendas in this particular Chūnin exam, but doesn't make the exams any safer or more dangerous than the year's before this. People—adults and children, are pit against one another in what is essentially a job performance review and then sold to the rest of the population as a great and awesome battle of talents between the nations.
It was stupid.
Sasuke was staring intensely at the side of my head.
"How stupid." he scoffed, shaking his head. I frowned. He was looking at me like I was an idiot now. "You're the one that wanted to continue in the Exams after we were attacked, and now you're questioning why everyone else is invested in seeing it though? Make up your damn mind."
Mean! We were in a life-or-death situation, and the only option was to get to the Tower where all the big-names were! I pulled my legs up, bringing them closer to my chest and began to sulk.
Sasuke scowled in my direction before turning his eyes out at the water. His chakra stirred, swirling about in a way that was almost thoughtful.
"My reasons for competing are my own, but for some of those other guys," he paused, leaning over and resting his arms on his knees. "They're fighting for themselves. From what I've seen everyone seems to have some kind of personal battles they're dealing with. From thick-brows and that Hyūga to the guy from Sand."
I arched my brow in surprise. Huh. I might have to reevaluate Duckie's observational skills if he's noticing other people's sub-plots. There really is more to him than a single-minded devotion to the total destruction of his brother.
"Whatever it is, everyone has got something they're fighting against," he said. "Same as you."
I blinked dumbly. His onyx gaze bore into me, critical, judging, expectant.
I felt like laughing in a way that was almost certainly self-disparaging. Instead, I pressed a hand to my eyes. I could practically hear the eye-roll that Duckie was giving me as I caught up to him.
—'I don't want to lose myself'
I keep forgetting he was there when I told Naruto that back in the Tower. I'd been a hysterical mess of tears and self-loathing. But, he was there and knew about my darkness. Not to mention the state he had caught me in the night before with Kabuto — Man, Sasuke just really has a knack for catching me at the worst of times, doesn't he? And then doesn't even have the decency to be loveably oblivious to the cracks in my foundation like some Heroes. It's kinda not fair of him to do that.
I placed my hand over the Brand, tracing the inky lines with my fingertips. Everyone has something they're fighting against, huh? I wonder if he was talking directly at me, or if some of that was meant for himself? If that is how his brother makes him feel? Like he is just some sort of tool being built up over time to knock down once he was adequate enough, and he felt like he had to fight to prove that he's not just what his murderous brother expects of him.
…has to fight, and keep fighting even today.
Hm. Every human being has their own inner demons to face. Not just the Jinchūriki.
What about me? Isn't that how I kind of feel when it comes to Orochimaru and Kaa-chan? I was, supposedly, created as an experiment and for a purpose I have no idea about. These eyes in my head, this Brand on my arm—What did they mean to me? And not on a canonical, plot-screwing level, but on a personal level? These things aren't going to just up and disappear, I had to live with this now, with all of it. I actually had to live with IT. But the million-dollar ramen question is: Was I going to live in fear?
…or was I going to fight for myself?
The answer seemed reeeeaaally obvious when put that way, huh?
I buried my face in my hands. Dammit, Duckie. I rubbed my face, feeling a smile coming on. When did you get wise and crap? I thought you were supposed to be self-absorbed and emotionally stunted, solely focused on one goal? Not giving Life advice—
Sasuke spoke up again, voice lighter than a moment ago.
"I don't care what you decide, but I'd advise you drop out before you get humiliated in front of everyone by losing to the Hyūga and Thick-Brow's teammate," he threw in. The dark-haired boy then turned to me and gave me a look a thinly-veiled contempt. "You won't be embarrassing just yourself by getting your ass kicked, you know."
'You think I can't win!?' I signed, in shock at this utter lack of support. He leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest and giving me a patronizing look. This little brat—
"Maybe if it was a fight of handwriting and cheap tricks," he drawled, snarky as hell. "As it is, I don't think you could even beat the Idiot in a real fight. If you went up against the Weapons Specialist and let her get into close-range, you're definitely screwed."
I punched his shoulder in all the offense I had just taken. He flinched in surprise and then cuffed me upside the head. I grabbed my ear and gave him my best scowl, a grin threatening to surface beneath it.
'You are the worst teammate ever,' I signed. 'You are supposed to be supportive and give me a pep talk.'
He looked at me like I was stupid.
"Are you stupid?" he then asked.
I signed something very unladylike in response.
He rolled his eyes at me and got up to collect his shirt and arm-warmers. All traces of cheer washed out of me when I saw his back. To the scar arching across his skin. The pink, raw flesh that had been knit together flawlessly by a Medic. You almost couldn't tell he had had forty-seven shakily sutured stitches running down from his neck to his ribs.
I took a deep breath, steadying myself.
Sure, I'd fight for myself… but I wouldn't stop fighting for him either.
Before I'd realized it, that ice under my skin had sparked into fire.
Without further distraction, I grabbed my left sandal and pressed my face to the sole, inspecting the material. When Duckie turned back around, face was a cross between exasperation and being creeped out when he saw me. "I'm not sure I want to ask what you're doing." he announced.
I looked up at him, cracking an impish smile.
'Looking for an application zone.'
It was too soon.
I stared sullenly at the BBQ-flavored chips on the shelve, pulling the arms of my Kakashi-doll tighter around my shoulders. I heaved a weighty sigh.
We'd only spent one night as a team again.
Lunch came and went and with it, Naruto had ran off to resume his summoning training with renewed vigor after getting some tips on summoning from Kakashi. The man in question poofed away with the promise of being back in twenty minutes to take Sasuke away to train again. Of course, that was already an hour ago, but who was counting?
Oh, right, Sasuke was.
Currently, I was in a convenience store helping the moody boy pick up some last minute food stuffs for the last leg of their training excursion. I swiped a couple of instant soba and tossed them at Duckie, who caught them without any heads up and set them on the check-out counter beside the rest of his unhealthy goods. I grabbed a couple granola bars before I joined him and scrunched my nose up at his supply of energy drinks. Yeuch. Seriously, did Duckie consider these chemical cocktails to pass as a substitute for actual liquids? Maybe I should get him some juice boxes just to balance this out…
I hiked up the Kakashi doll hanging on my back and ignored the weird look the clerk was giving me as she rung up Sasuke, following him out onto a quiet side-street in the Market District of Konoha proper. He didn't really stop me from following him and well, I might've been stalling for more time with one of my emotionally stunted boys — but honestly, I was just waiting to Anko to show up and ambush me and maybe not get caught with my breeches down for once!
Haaah. I missed the days when I wasn't dragged by the ankle into a training ground. As they say: You never know what you've got until it's gone.
"Hey," Duckie said, disrupting the relatively companionable silence that had hung between us. "Can you do something for me?"
I arched a brow, openly curious and wary. Since when does the Uchiha Sasuke ask for things from other people?
Without looking at me, he held out a crisply folded paper. I hitched my Kakashi doll over my shoulder took it with a freed hand.
"Stick that in the doorframe of my apartment," he said, followed with a warning side-eye. "And don't read it, either."
Frowning, I pointedly looked at him for more elaboration but he had already dismissed my further existence and was walking down the road. Without so much as a half-assed goodbye. He walked off back towards the direction of the Hot Springs, plastic bag in hand and left the alley. I watched the fan on his back get smaller and farther until his fluffy head disappeared into the late afternoon crowd.
To help me ignore the stupid twinging in my chest I opened up the note Sasuke had asked me to deliver — because if you want someone to do something for you then you better have the decency to at least say goodbye. Plus, I already had a good idea what was in it.
It was short, written in an impeccable hand, and confirmed what I had already guessed.
Thank you for the provisions - Uchiha Sasuke
I smiled, just a little. Last time I left him a lunch, I had thrown in a bunch of overnight rations with the excuse that I wouldn't be able to make him lunch as much now that he was a Shinobi. Seems that he just accepted the excuse as well as any other.
After our mission to Wave it was obvious that I wouldn't be able to keep it up every morning. Not when we'd both be out of the Village at the same time. Not to mention the fact we might start getting sent on different missions. He would've eventually figured it out that I'm the only who has been supplying him with proper nutrition all these years. He can be as dense as Naruto when it comes to the things right in front of him sometimes, but he's generally pretty sharp for a brat.
Still, it was sweet of him to leave a Thank You note. He's never signed his name on it before though, which is adorably awkward in itself.
With a sigh and the knot in my chest eased a little, I placed the note in my pocket and took my Kakashi-doll home. With no plans to meet up with Neko and no sign of Anko yet, I might as well work from the comfort of home and out of this heat — At least, that was the plan. It was after I scaled the staircase of my apartment building that I noticed a particularly lanky and silver-headed man leaning on the wall next to my door.
Kakashi looked up from what seemed to be a second edition of his wicker basket making book as I approached.
'Two check-up's in one day?' I signed, grin a little lopsided. 'I knew I was your favorite.'
Kakashi gave me a dull look before turning a discomforted eye towards his stuffed doppelgänger. I held on tighter to his stuffed arms. I'll be damned if he tried to reclaim what was rightfully mine now. It was way too late and he should've just taken my hug like a man in the first place.
I walked past him and into my apartment, gesturing towards the table if he wanted a seat. I quickly tossed the Kakashi-doll into my room and turned to find human-Kakashi standing in the arch of the front door, shoulder leaning on the frame. Okay, striking off offering tea from the list. He wasn't planning on lingering long enough for the water to boil.
Instead of interrogating the Jōnin, I pulled out my Storage book and unsealed all of my Fūinjutsu materials and the revised drafts of the Barrier Buster to work on. Jiraiya said he'd do a little scroll digging in the parts of the Konoha Archives I wasn't allowed in for some reference materials regarding my inverted Seal Housing theory, so I was gonna work on strengthening the Buster formula and applying some tricks I've learned over the years about chakra conduction efficiency.
Scarecrow was quiet as he seemed content to just watch me lay out my work. Before I got too into it, I looked him over as I leaned on my countertop, curious and a little wary.
'Sasuke is probably sulking.' I point out.
"You think?" the man asked lightly, sounding like he really couldn't care about ever being on time. I smiled, probably much too fondly. Already guessing his answer, I asked out of politeness if he wanted some tea and he declined with a shake of his head.
"I'll be out of your hair in a second. Just wanted to ask something of you as your teacher before I went."
I perked up at that, looking up at him as he straightened up and took a couple steps inside. His eye traveled from the pile of paper and research notes neatly organized on the table back to me and his brow seemed to furrow a bit. I couldn't tell what he was thinking but his chakra felt somewhat contradicted about something.
He closed his eye and gave a sigh.
The next thing I knew, a gentle weight landed on my head. I blinked rapidly, looking up between gloved fingers. His eye was creased a little and I could imagine a lopsided smile on his far-too pretty face.
"Just… try to remember not to go overboard." he asked, not unkindly.
I nodded obediently as my cheeks warmed, my eyes falling to stare at the details of his flak jacket. I couldn't quite look him in the eye anymore. How odd. Was his flak jacket always to ratty looking? I could see the signs of hemming all along it, like he's repaired it dozens of time.
"Eat your meals. Make sure to rest. You know, healthy stuff." he drawled. I smelt sandalwood, detergent and — weirdly, tuna. "You have people that worry about you, too. Okay?"
'Trying.' I signed, my cheeks very hot and probably very red by now.
"That's all I ask for."
He gave my head one soft pat and it felt like my head was filled with stuffing now.
I didn't get to enjoy the feeling very long because I had blinked and then there was a stirring of leaves on my kitchen floor. He was gone again. I stared out my open door for a moment as an internal battle of emotions waged within me.
Kakashi was gone with Sasuke again, but he had come specially to check in on me, to make sure I ate and slept.
Giddiness won out over the melancholy and I giggled, combing back the hair he had mussed up from the head-pat. There was still a silly smile on my face as I pulled up a stool and began the work on my formulae. I had a week left to work and plan before I had to face the music. I turned to my papers and brandished my brush with a renewed vigor!
I could do this.
The air is dry,
(3368 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
Today, Orochimaru-sama returned from his most recent survey of the Land of Water with a child.
His name is Kimimaro, last of the Kaguya Clan. I doubt he has even seen his sixth winter yet.
Orochimaru-sama says the boy will one day become his perfect host. He has also asked that I personally oversee his training and share my knowledge of histories, biology, and the sciences.
The Parturition experiment has shown nothing but progress in recent weeks.
I confess that I am bewildered by this sudden shift in plans. But… I will trust in Orochimaru-sama's judgment and trust in the believe that Orochimaru-sama has another plan for our experiment.
Ikari, Age 21—Northern Base, Land of Stone
The child had a wide look of wonder in his green eyes as he gazed from the outlook across the rocky expanse of the countryside. The arid and steep scenery was a jarring change from the humid and flat climate of Mist, I was sure. He was almost too thin, as if he would break in half with the barest of touches…
"He reminds me a lot of how you were, Ikari."
I looked behind me at Orochimaru-sama, my hair falling over my shoulder. I turned from my observations of the child and bowed my head in greeting. His golden eyes glided from me to the child, his voice was thoughtful.
"I had found him alone, his clan lying dead at the gates of the Mist village and he, on the cusp of meeting the Shinigami himself. You could almost call it Fate, if you believed in that."
Orochimaru looked back at me and brought his hand to my cheek, I leaned into the contact.
"Won't you accept him, Ikari?" he asked gently. "For me..."
My gaze softened as I looked at his kind smile.
"Of course, Orochimaru-sama."
He charged at me with his ulna protruding from his wrists. I raised my niichirō, the blades still in their sheath, and swept it under his feet. He landed on his back but was quick to stand and continue the attack, his attempt to gouge my legs was met with a swift strike to the back of his skull with my grip. He crumpled to the ground, disoriented. I watched him with a critical eye as he grit his teeth, chest heaving with exhaustion and shakily stood back to his feet, looking up at me with the intent to kill.
I will admit, what the child lacks in finesse he makes up for with tenacity.
"That is enough for now, Kimimaro." I announce, turning my back on the child and sitting on a large nearby stone. He all but collapsed on the ground in exhaustion. White hair sticking to his sweaty pale forehead. Even after such physical exertion, his complexion was not even the slightly flushed. I wonder if his blood is circulating properly?
Wordlessly, I set aside a water bottle for him and began to watch the perimeter for possible trespassers.
"Ikari-shishō," Kimimaro called, his tentative voice echoing off the large walls of the base's library. I set aside the advanced Raiton ninjutsu scroll I was researching and questioned why he was not practicing his throwing technique in the training area. His pale green eyes shone up at me, a trickle curiosity lying in them.
"I was, uhm, wondering if maybe," he stammered. He anxiously wrung his hands together, slowly, lifting one up. His eyes shifted from my face down to my stomach. "…can I?"
I studied the child's face. He shrunk under my gaze but he did not turn away from it, looking very small and very fragile in that moment. So timid and vulnerable.
In some ways… it reminded me of Tōdai.
Gently, I took his small hand in my own and placed it over my bulging stomach — Then, of course, baby had decided that this was the perfect moment to remind us that they were there, and kicked.
I twisted Kimimaro's wrist upwards just as a bone shot outwards, clearly in instinctual alarm. His eyes were as the moon as he looked up at me, reminding me of a startled rabbit in that moment. I gently detached the protruding bone and laid his hand down just as the baby kicked again. He was prepared for it this time though.
As if under a genjutsu, he moved closer. Pressing his ear to my stomach to hear the tiny, rapid heartbeat of the innocent inside. He let out an astonished breath at the musical little sound.
A ghost of a smile grew on his lips, and oddly enough, I found myself smiling as well.
The winds are high, cloudy,
(3392 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
These days I feel weak. Disoriented, as if I am afflicted with a constant vertigo. Symptoms that do not tend to correlate with a pregnancy in it's second trimester.
I do not know what has come over me.
Orochimaru-sama says that the pregnancy is simply taking it's toll on my body. That I will recover return to full functionality in no time. I trust Orochimaru-sama's diagnosis implicitly, of course, but... I cannot help but feel that there is something wrong. With each day that passes… I as if I am fading, like ink being washed away by the tides.
I can only put my faith in Orochimaru-sama's expertise and trust that everything with turn out as it's meant to.
I've just had a strange dream.
I dreamt of the ocean and of Uzushio. There, I saw my unborn child dancing under the bright sun in the shallow waters of the beach. They had red hair that was the same deep scarlet shade as Tōdai's. They shared a smile that was as beautiful as Hitode-neesama's, with Father's kind blue eyes. I could've sworn that I had heard them sing as well. A sweet, gentle song about the moon and her lover that Grandfather had recited every harvest festival.
I had awoken from the dream to an oppressive darkness. For a moment, I had forgotten that I was in the base, and I was instead in a cage. Bound and beaten. Being trafficked by men that stank with the blood of my clan.
Fear stuck me, turning the blood in my veins to ice. I was terrified — but not for myself. I was terrified of the thought that my child would one day know the same despair as I had.
I do not remember the last time I have cried so much.
Sora, June 25th—Outskirts of Konoha
(Days Until Invasion: 7)
I reran the logic over in my head, coming up with a positive flow throughout the string. It all was go. Then I pulled out my notes and triple-checked all the parameters of the seal against the final theory. Again, it came out positive. I even re-wrote out the formula and re-checked it against the drafts sitting on the smooth river stone between us. Then I did another check on the limiter string, making sure it was set only to take the chakra from the tenketsu points in the shoulder down, and nothing more.
"34, 25, 37..." Jiraiya mumbled. I looked up at his voice, noticed he was staring at me with a scrutinizing expression. I scrunched up my nose, wondering if he was referencing the outer perimeter of the seal. But, after remembering who it was I was working with, I came to the worst conclusion of what those numbers were and promptly threw the nearest stone at his head.
"I WILL CASTRATE YOU," I threatened in writing. It didn't matter if I didn't stand a chance of ever getting even close. I would still try.
This man has been whittling my last fiber of patience down to it's bone. I was so close to being as done with this man as I was with Anko, who was probably somewhere on her way here to beat my ass firmly into the dirt. I don't have the faintest idea what that sadistic Scarecrow had told her the other day, but since then she has been an absolute menace.
Which, I had honestly had a hard time believing that she could get worse. But that was before I had found Irabu sitting in my kitchen and had I literally wrestle the 13-foot reptile out of my apartment with only a minimal amount of damage to my couch and coffee table.
I was still pissed about that, so maybe there was a slight chance I was being extra testy with Jiraiya because of that but I couldn't really manage to care if I hurt his feelings.
"Jeez! Calm down, I was only making a joke!" he said quickly. Then he frowned like a scolded child and crossed his arms over his chest, muttering irritably. "You really need'ta learn to lighten' up, you know? You'll get frown lines if you keep that up, and that isn't very attract — OUCH! OKAY, I GET THE POINT ALREADY! ENOUGH WITH THE ROCKS, YOU BRAT!"
"Focus!" I wrote for the literal dozenth time that morning. I began to recite all the reasons why this phase of last-stage testing was so important. We had to get this right. And that meant tedious and mind-numbing amounts of checks. Even the smallest screw up would mean —
I stopped writing as Jiraiya of the Sannin, wizened Toad Sage, veteran Shinobi, a man with a solid decade more experience with life than even me — rolled his eyes.
The look I gave him was withering.
I set my face in my hands in exhaustion and he scowled at me, waving his hand in irritation, pointing towards the sheafs of expertly inked vellum laid out in front of the two of us.
"Look, kid, we can spend all day going over what-if's and possible failure scenarios — Hell, if you were a little older and I had a bottle of some good sake, it even sounds like a good time — ey, ey, what did I say about the rocks!? Okay, but seriously. The only way we're ever gonna know for sure if this thing is going to work is if you actually start it up!"
Tossing the stone in my hand up and down contemplatively, I stared at Jiraiya him with palatable distain, for his lack of basic respect towards a female of the species and for a fellow Fūinjutsu user. He did not make it very easy to be around him. Unluckily for the both of us, I had a lot of experience being around difficult people.
"Sometimes," he said, not unreasonably. "You just have to hold your breath and dive in."
I made a face. Because, the old letch actually had a good point.
Snatching up one of the Seals, I squared my shoulders and breathed deeply. Mirroring me, Jiraiya picked up the other one, pulling up his left sleeve.
"You ready for this, kid?"
His brow was furrowed, but there was a sort of sparkle of excitement in his eye. Not a letcherous kind of excitement that was there every time his gaze wandered towards the sounds of giggling in the distance — but an excitement that I knew intimately well. The kind of excitement that only comes from testing out new ways to bend the rules of Life that Fūinjutsu can give you.
I held the paper, suspended, over my arm and nodded. Time to dive in.
He counted down. "Three… two… one—!"
We both slapped the seal on our arms, the ink flared to life on contact. Lighting up a pale plum color, flashing, before settling down into a deeper shade of maroon and I immediately began to feel the drain. Within seconds I had lost almost all feeling in my arm except for a light tingling along my skin. Could it be? Did it really — I looked up, breath stuck in my chest, and saw Jiraiya's wide-eyed look as he picked up his limp arm with his other hand and began to inspect it.
"I'll be damned," he said under his breath.
He looked up, meeting my eyes.
I suddenly remembered to breathe again as we both gained face-splitting grins.
It had worked.
The Siphoning Seal worked.
Sora, June 26th—The Golden Treat Dumpling Shop
(Days Until Invasion: 6)
A dango stick was hanging from the corner of my mouth as I printed out sheet after sheet of high-grade explosives tags. Terra's voice idly commenting on the lack of my wrist flick coming back to bite on the overall BOOM factor of the tags, which, I had to keep reminding her were not supposed to be lethal.
'There is only so much BOOM you can put into something before someone loses a limb.' I thought firmly.
Terra snorted sardonically. Yah, TAGS are what we're worried about taking off people's limbs. Okay…
I shuddered a bit, shifting around on the bench. Reminding myself that IT had taken to sulkily - and very much creepily - staring unblinkingly at the sealed well in my mindscape since the boys left again, probably hoping for a kindred spirit or maybe just something to maul for fun. Whatever, As long as I could use the extra brain space to finish my work, I didn't really care if IT was streaking around naked.
From somewhere deep within me, Terra gagged.
I continued to print out tags and enjoy my dango outside of the shop, feeling a bit warm as the weather got hotter. I had gotten another ten done before a particularly cat-eared shadow fell over my shoulder, shading my plate of dango and explosive tags.
"Yo, Ponytail." Kankurō of the Sand Siblings greeted, puppet-shaped backpack absent. He snorted. "Nice hair."
I blinked, one hand self-consciously coming through my hair as I made a note to do a double shampooing tonight. There was still enough dye to notice it. Internally, I went about deciding how to go about this interaction.
This was a dangerous enemy shinobi that has already demonstrated his thing for poisons - Tenten, I'm sorry! I won't forget again! - and creepy pointy puppetry. Both of his siblings are entered in the same tournament as me, so there's the potential he's here to do reconnaissance on their competition. By all reasonable and practical accounts; we shouldn't even be within fifty-feet of each other right now.
But, yanno, he probably wasn't here to do recon because of his faith in Gaara to utterly destroy all of his opponents. And really, when have I ever been one to adhere to reasonable and practical standards?
"Nice eyeliner," I responded, earning a smirk. Then I offered him to take a seat with me.
I swear, I could practically hear his ANBU babysitter curse me out from the next rooftop over.
"Finding your way around Konoha easy?" I asked, starting with common small talk.
He snorted, sitting down. "Hell no. This place has a weird amount of plants — how can you people even keep a half-decent perimeter when you can't go five feet without running into a bush or tree?"
"It's easy enough when you get used to it. Wind country can't be all expansive sand and oppressive sun, right?" I asked, ignoring the fact he's probably trying to use me as a helpful source of information. I was genuinely interested in his home country. I knew that the place was a desert but even deserts have a little reprieve now and then, right? I mean, my experience with deserts was limited to books and the occasional movie from Before, but still.
"Right," he agreed. "We have all that and a shit-ton of dust, poisonous snakes, poisonous scorpions, sandstorms that'll knock you off your feet, poisonous spiders, poisonous flora, some mildly toxic scrub-brush, poisonous camel—"
Okay, now I'm calling bullshit.
"Oh, I guess the camels spit their poison?" I wrote sarcastically, even giving him a sassy eyebrow arch.
Kankurō smirked, and his facepaint made it look quite unfriendly, even though his chakra was only giving off waves of good-humored amusement. I offered him some dango and he passed, citing that he was on his way to look for some wood finisher. Apparently he had run out - did that mean he finished repairing the puppet Tenten broke to bits? Interesting - and heard about a shop in Konoha that was supposed to sell some of the best quality finisher in like, all the countries or something.
Lucky for him, I knew exactly place he was talking about. It was one of the only shops in the Village that Neko frequents for all his wood shopping needs. I've run errands there for him before to pick up his special orders when he was across the country on a mission.
I flipped to a clear page and wrote down the directions to the District he needed, keeping to the Main Roads of course, and even went the extra length to describe the shop's features so he would be hard pressed to miss it. I tore out the page and handed it to him. Though he masked his surprise pretty well on the outside, I could still feel the ripple that went through his chakra.
"Thanks," he said, giving me an odd look. He stood up with his hands in his pockets and I think he was about to leave, but before that I wrote out a quick question for him.
"How is your brother doing?"
Kankurō had a look on his face that reminded me of someone staring at a particularly colorful puzzle.
"I can't figure it out, Ponytail, so maybe you can help me out here," he started, his tone bordering on humor even though his chakra was giving off feelings that were not humorous anymore.
I nodded my head, curious. He had a question for me?
"Seriously, first was the invite to dinner and now just casually asking 'how he's doing' — do you actually have a death wish?" he asked. "Or is it some kind of kink for blood-thirsty monsters? You were conscious when he pasted that guy, right?"
I made a face, unpleasantly reminded.
Zaku. His name was Zaku, and he was just a kid.
All Monsters Were Children, Once.
I wrote down my answer, even as that apathetic voice rung around my head.
"I don't believe in monsters."
The curl of Kankurō's smirk looked just a little cruel around the edges.
"You do that, Ponytail."
"And I want to be his friend." I added honestly.
Kankurō's face did that funny thing again where it looks like I broke his brain.
"Yup. You're just insane. Good to know." he said. Totally reasonable conclusion. I offered my last dango in semi-sincere apology for his realization. His nose scrunched up. "I don't even like sweet things." he complained.
He took my apology dango anyways, because free food is free food.
"Whatever, Ponytail, it's your funeral if Gaara feels like burying you in the Exams next week, just so you know." he shrugged, dango stick hanging out of the corner of his mouth. "He's really someone you don't want to mess with — I don't envy any of you guys."
"Not interested in getting a promotion?" I teased.
"Nah, not ambitious enough." he drawled.
I smiled wistfully, wishing I could be as laid back as that. If only a lack of ambition was the only challenge we were facing next week.
"And," he tilted his head thoughtfully, chewing on the stick. "I don't see the point in fighting battles where there's nothing to be gained. It's just a waste of time and energy for what is basically a bunch of rich assholes amusement."
Huh. Interesting response. I smiled a little, tapping my pen against my pad.
I might've found a kindred spirit in the Suna Puppeteer. How delightfully unexpected.
"And you don't want to get pasted by your brother." I added.
"And I don't want to get pasted by my brother, yeah." he agreed amicably.
I was grinning by the time he finally set off, giving me a wave goodbye over his shoulder. Once he was out of sight, I turned back to my tag-making and moved on to refiguring the parameters on the Barrier Buster. Even though Jiraiya and I had come to a solid formula — but there was always room for improvement.
As I sketched out strings of Kanji, I thought about Kankurō and our interaction. For a moment, there had been a flash of guilt that washed through his chakra when he mentioned me getting pasted. Which, honestly could've been an unrelated feeling but I'd like to think it was because about the Invasion next week and the actually very real possibility of me getting pasted, and that flash was just a healthy sense of morality.
Or, I could be totally wrong and he felt guilty about breaking a diet by eating my treat. We'll see. And I also think… despite our undesirable circumstances, there might be a real chance to make a friend in the puppeteer from Suna.
At least I hoped so.
Sora, June 27th—Nearby a Waterfall
(Days Until Invasion: 5)
Almost slipping off the underside of the Oak branch I was attached to, I carefully planted both my feet with chakra before craning my neck back to see an upside down Hero down stream from where I was perched. His pervy old man Godfather nearby. Naruto cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted even louder.
"SORA-CHAN! THE PERVY SAGE SAYS WE'RE GONNA GO LEARN A SUPER COOL THING BUT I MIGHT NOT BE HOME FOR DINNER — SO DON'T EAT THE LIMITED EDITION SALTED PORK RAMEN, WE'LL HAVE THAT WHEN I GET BACK — OH! BUT STILL REMEMBER TO EAT SOMETHING DATTEBAYO!"
If there ever was a time for a sweat-drop, now would be good. The boy tells me that unreliable old man is taking him to an unknown location to learn a suspiciously 'super cool' thing four days before the Finals and… ramen was his top priority. Gosh, I do love the boy but he makes me worry sometimes.
I gave a wave, signaling that I heard him and he waved back before the pair of them walked off. I felt myself frown, watching the back of Jiraiya's head until I couldn't see his spiky hair anymore.
What the hell could that man be up to now...?
Stuffing away the suspicion, I turned back to the gushing waterfall and squatted. Next, I lifted up an emptied Compressurized Storage seal and lined it up verrrry carefully, measuring the distance with my eyes and making sure I didn't overshoot anything. It wouldn't do to catch the waterfall and the trees, after all.
Slowly, I grinned.
(343 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
I have discovered that Orochimaru-sama has been giving me controlled doses of Belladonna in my tea, with the aim of causing an abortion.
I do not know how to best approach this situation now that it seems Orochimaru-sama has taken matters into his own hands.
I do not know what to do.
Sora, June 27th—Konoha Administration Building - Café
"YOU CAN'T HIDE FOREVER, BRAT!"
Birds startled and took flight. Civilians shared looks of alarm. Nearby dogs started barking. A Chūnin at the table over doing paperwork just looked confused. I glowered at the direction that echoing threat came from and across from me, Hiruzen chuckled.
"It sounds like your training has been going well. Eh, Sora-chan?" he joked, calmly stirring his tea.
I pouted sullenly, not nearly amused by my suffering as he seemed to be. Even since that break with the boys at the Hot Springs the other day, the Devil Woman has been particularly nasty in concerns to what my training covered. It seems like she was satisfied enough with how my Taijutsu technique has come along, so she's just resorted to testing it out in more practical situations — AKA: She's been ambushing me at almost all hours of the day. She even attacked last night, when I was doing the dishes after dinner. It freaked Naruto out something fierce when she busted through the front door and then started sparring me.
Even now she was looking for me, but I got lucky finding Hiruzen on his late afternoon break. She'd never think I was ballsy enough to use the leader of the village as a hiding spot! It was just a bonus that I was getting treated to some minty cookie-things I think were imported.
"And how has Naruto-kun been these last few weeks?" Hiruzen continued, genuinely interested. "Has he been making progress under Jiraiya-kun's teaching?"
'Naruto has been having some trouble focusing enough chakra, and…'
I made a face at the mention of the suspicious pervert, reminding me of how it was nearly sundown and there was no hide or hair of Naruto yet. Just what could they be doing? I swear, if it was anything that would corrupt my dear Hero's innocence then there was going to be hell to pay!
My inner thoughts must've shown on my face, because Hiruzen chuckled again.
"Not a fan of Jiraiya-kun's — ahem, 'methods'?" he asked wryly.
'Something like that,' I signed, giving a sigh. Half the problem might be cause I am a fan. Somewhat. He's a good author, very entertaining. A… decently versed Fūinjutsu practitioner. Still a shitty Godfather though. Also extremely perverted bordering on degenerate.
I took another nibble of my cookie.
'Seems like a lout to me.' I decided. He chuckled again, amused by my response.
"You never know," he replied sagely. His dark eyes sparkled a bit as he began to stuff his smoke pipe. "Jiraiya-kun can be quite reliable when the situation calls for it… Especially when you're least expecting him to be."
Just as he said that, a loud BOOM shook the foundations of building. My blood turned ice-cold as I sensed an explosion of Malevolent chakra that was too big to be human. The shinobi in the cafeteria jumped up from their tables, eyes on high-alert as all heads turned towards the direction of the sound.
Out the window I could just barely make out a shape in the distance. Not that it was much help because I could hardly believe what I was seeing in the first place — On the outskirts of the Village, standing out of the forest like a sore warty thumb, there was a mountainously large red toad wearing a grey-blue haori.
As my jaw was sitting on the ground, Hiruzen casually lit up his pipe.
"Well," he said slyly. "It seems as if Naruto-kun has made a breakthrough in his training."
Jiraiya, June 27th—A Roof - Across from the Hospital
I watched as the girl ran down the street like her life depended on it. She ran up and along the side of the fence to avoid a couple loitering in her path and she didn't stop even after dashing into the Hospital lobby. Her silhouette flashed by in the hall windows as she ran farther into the building and up to the third floor.
The girl cared about Naruto. I understood that before I'd even met her.
That was sensei's plan from the beginning, for the most part. He put the girl with Naruto to see what would happen and has pulled strings to keep them together since. With hopes of them developing an incredibly strong bond to one another. Hell, he even rearranged their graduating genin teams just so that they could remain by each other's sides. Knowing what he did about what she was and where she came from… It was risky as hell.
A Host body to be used as a means of achieving immortality — what kind of sick fantasy bullshit has Orochimaru been up to all these years? I had always suspected that little Anko-chan's Seal had been on another caliber of Fūinjutsu than what was taught outside of the Uzumaki, and it turns out that he'd had his own secret Uzumaki for years!
It was sickening to read this traumatized little girl fall deeper and deeper under that creepy bastard's influence, and all the things she was willing to put her own body through for him.
To put her own child though.
From my position I was able to see the moment the girl busted through the door and into Naruto's room. She was panting at the doorway as she took in the scene, a flash of fear in her pale expression when she saw his unconscious face. Then he snored at an obnoxious volume and all the anxiety melted away from her frame like snow in spring. She walked lightly to his bedside and pulled up the blanket he'd kicked off in his sleep, tucking him in.
A smile rose on her face that left no doubt to her feelings.
Yeah, the question wasn't whether or not she actually cared about him. There's not much risk that she was faking it. You can't fake that kind of relief. That kind of adoration for another person.
I wonder if Sensei had looked after her all these years because he had felt guilty about what she went through being pursued by Orochimaru's lackeys, only to get caught up by Danzō and his greedy claws? Was that all there was to it? I mean, I could understand why Sensei thought she'd be a half-decent kunoichi - the emotional and psychological issues aside - she was well-taught in the Sealing Schools and pretty clever for her age. Has some strange but unique ideas. Heavily opinionated. Had her own way of looking at the world that was just a bit different than everybody around her.
Or, and what was more likely, maybe she reminded him of another clever, opinionated kid that had his own twisted ideas and way of looking at the world. The student Sensei could never get through to. And now here was the perfect little dimple-smiled second chance to make up for the mistakes he'd made with Orochimaru. Literally dropped on his doorstep.
"Jiraiya-kun, I have already failed that child once before because I had only seen the shadow cast on her by her past. Just as you do now," Sensei said, looking old as dirt and just tired. When he looked at me, I could actually see the regret in his eyes.
"Do not make the same mistake I did."
I wanted to groan.
Either scenario was shit. In both cases it speaks to decisions being made with personal and emotional attachment, meaning bias — Heavy bias. And that certainly wasn't making it any easier to come to a objective opinion about the girl. In a normal situation the kid would've been shipped off to some civilian village on the far side of the country in the middle of fuck-nowhere to live her life under the radar with a decent little family of rice farmers or something. And, y'know, not be a walking security risk.
But obviously, this wasn't a normal situation.
The Uzumaki Ikari's journal felt ten times heavier than when I'd first held it a couple weeks ago.
Briefly, I wondered what Minato and Kushina would've done if they had been around. I wonder if they would — ah, goddammit. I know exactly what the kid would've done if this little girl ended up on his doorstep: Minato would've taken her into his home - and probably his heart, too - without even a second thought to it. He was just that optimistic and a little dumb enough to take the risk without a worry. Kushina-chan would've taken even less time to make up her mind, and then there was no changing it after that.
If only they were here instead. They'd be doin' a hell of a better job than me.
I sighed tiredly, looking back at Naruto's hospital room. She'd pulled up a chair and made herself comfortable at his bedside, one of her hands clasped around his.
Looking at the little girl who posed so much trouble, I had to wonder…
Was she really worth the risk?
Sora, June 27th—Hospital of Konoha
I yawned widely, lifting my arms and stretching out in my stiff hospital chair. Jeez, how late had it gotten while I was writing? I looked around for a clock but couldn't find anything to tell me the time, save for how dark the sky was through the window blinds. Ah well. It was time well spent.
I set aside the brown, leather-bound book, gently blowing on the wet Heart-Lotus Seal inked on the front of it. The Tale of the Unfortunate Ferret, Sensu Sable had been officially finished. And in good time, too. I'll have to make plans to drop it off sometime right after the Exams, it wouldn't do to have it get lost or damaged in the Invasion.
"Ngg… Su… Summon jutttsu!" Naruto shouted in his sleep, flailing his arm slightly. I smiled, looking over at the chakra-exhausted blonde, leaning over to brush some of the fluffy hair from his face.
Gossip was how I found out Naruto was in the hospital. I was scrambling through the streets when I heard a few Chūnin complaining about a giant-ass toad landing in front of the hospital, leaving behind huge tracks they've been filling in all day. After getting here I'd asked the medic in charge about what had happened and he filled me in on what little details he had gotten when someone matching Jiraiya's description dropped him off. Apparently, they had been out training and he just suddenly used a super chakra-intensive move and passed out immediately after?
My Hero might be amazing in a lot of ways, but he doesn't just go from level Tadpole to Boss level without something happening. Something that involved that suspicious pervert needing to take him away. I'm not sure yet what he did, but because of it… it's caused Kurama's chakra to become more prominent than I have ever felt. Nearly tangible.
Even now, I could feel the bubbling heat radiating from within him, making him glow Brighter than ever before. Still, so much of Naruto's chakra remained like brisk summer Breeze during a hot afternoon… a shady reprieve holding back the sweltering, Scorching heat that lied there, waiting, ready to Burn.
It seems like Kurama is still pretty mad at… well, everyone.
I wonder if he would like cake? No one can be mad while eating cake. I'll have to make a note about researching the possibility of getting the Fox some Devil's Food cake.
For now, I needed sleep.
Nudging aside the snoring blonde, I made enough room on the stiff hospital bed for me to sneak in. I curled up at his side and pulled the blankets over us. Naruto squirmed a little, threw one leg over me, an made himself comfortable. I closed my eyes with a smile on my face, drifting off to the feeling of Bright and Breezy wrapping around me like a familiar blanket.
…I'd chew out Jiraiya's ass when I woke up.
The skies were clear for once. Blue, and endlessly clear.
By the edge of the grass, there was a house that stood tall and firm. It's paint was a faded blue, the door hinges creaked, and some of the roof shingles were missing — but it's foundation was built as strong as anything.
This was the house of memories, where hundreds of frames sat on it's walls.
The Girl walked among these halls and saw many faces that were blurred away, either from time or from consequence. She saw a man with dirty blonde hair and green eyes, looking at her with a smile that made her resolve weaken. A small girl with soft curls and blue irises brighter than the sky, with a laugh that was more wonderful than music and brought tears to her eyes.
There was so much here that had belonged to the Woman, but there was a place for the Girl's life, too.
Naruto was there. Grinning, laughing, eating ramen until he couldn't touch another bowl. A constant presence and a wonderful ray of light and happiness in her life. There were so many pictures of him and her together, spanning most of her life.
But there was Sasuke, too. In the past he was often in the background, but in recent weeks he was appearing in more and more of the frames on the wall. Most of the time he was scowling, fighting or riling them up, but there were rare moments where she caught a glimpse of a softer side of him. The Girl treasured these moments most.
There were pictures of every one of her most precious people.
This is what she was protecting.
At the most recent frames the Girl was stopped by the sight of passive teal eyes, a pale face and a bloody tattoo bathed in moonlight. Those eyes were guarded as they looked back, filled with an aching loneliness that caused her own chest to tighten.
This, is what she'd fight for…
(3437 Days since meeting Orochimaru-sama)
I have confronted Orochimaru-sama about the poison.
He was unsurprised I discovered the Belladonna, and expressed the idea of disappointment if I hadn't. He had explained his motivations to me over a cup of non-poisoned jasmine tea.
Some weeks ago, he had preformed a diagnostic jutsu and had discovered that the child's chakra network is compromised — an unexpected side-effect of my own damaged coils. Among potential neurological disorders from a lack of chakra to it's nervous system, Orochimaru-sama hypothesizes that the baby will not even live long enough outside the womb to take its first breath.
He said that he only wished to spare me unnecessary pain.
—(The writing had stopped, multiple spots of ink stained the page where the brush had sat suspended over it)—
I confess that I do not understand his caution. It has the potential for real success, despite the risks involved.
Orochimaru-sama has been using poison in attempt to kill the life I carry inside me, but this pregnancy has lasted longer than any of the ones before.
His motivation of termination is based off of a hypothesis with no previous data to pull from or reference. Already, my child has gone through a number of trials before they have even been brought into the world, and yet their heart still beats strong.
I do not want to give up on this child.
I am torn between Orochimaru's wishes and my own.
I do not know what to do.
When I had applied the Transference seal to my body, I had been prepared to sacrifice my own life for its success if required. I had not anticipated that the cost might be more than my life.
I do not know what to do.
I do not wish to give up on my child's potential before they have even been born.
I want them to live.
Shikamaru, June 28th—Hospital of Konoha
I moved my Rook, taking one of Black's Bishops. Naruto was still unconscious on the bed and being quieter than I've probably ever heard him.
Switching sides, I continued with my earlier strategy and moved one of White's pawns forward, earning it a promotion.
I wonder what was taking Chōji so long to bring that get-well fruit basket? It was his idea to visit Naruto here in the first place. Ah, whatever. I was the one looking for any excuse to get away from Yin training, anyway. Playing Shoji with myself was just as good a way to pass the time as anything.
I startled, head snapping towards the door just in time to see Sora sprint through. She ran past me, without sparing even a glance and stopped at the window. In a rush she unlocked and threw open the window pane before dropping to the floor and sliding under Naruto's bed.
I stared at the bed, silent.
Thirteen seconds passed and a woman came busting in through the door too. I blinked dumbly, recognizing the malicious grin on her face. It was the Tokubetsu Jōnin from the second phase of the Exams. The one I'm pretty sure is the Mitarashi Anko from T&I I've heard Ino's Dad complain about to my Dad before.
"Where did she go?!" the Tokubetsu Jōnin demanded, looking more than a little crazed.
Without a word, I pointed at the window. The woman grinned at me, looking more than a little like a feral animal before launching herself out of the window and out of sight. There was a yell from outside where she landed on the street, followed by a string of curses that eventually faded out of earshot.
There was a minute of tense quiet where I stared out the window and had to wonder if the woman was going to come springing back to throttle me for lying to her. But, no. A full minute passed and there was no sign of the woman launching back into the room. I guessed she really had fallen for the trick when Sora peeked out from her hiding spot, also staring at the window like she'd just missed getting eaten alive.
Purple irises landed on me and I cringed as Sora threw herself at me, arms winding around my neck as she crushed her cheek against mine.
"H-Hey! No, you really don't need to—" I tried, but my protest was ignored as Sora bent over and pressed a kiss to my forehead, looking unreasonably grateful. "Gross," Now I had her saliva on me. I shoved her away with an elbow and wiped my face with the back of my hand, glaring at her smile. "That's the last time I lie to a crazy person for you,"
She quickly checked over Naruto, who was still passed out, before sitting opposite me and surveying of the board. Quietly assuming the opposing side in the middle of a game against myself. It was at that moment when I finally noticed the green stain on her hair.
I blinked, arching a brow.
"Trying something new?"
Her smile dropped in a beat, then she said not to ask. I shrugged, not caring enough. Judging from her sullen reaction; it was probably the result of something she did. Either directly or indirectly.
'Who's turn?' she asked.
"Yours — but it's a losing battle," I warn, frowning. It didn't deter Sora — 'Clack!' — She jumped in right away with an attack on my Rook, using one of her Silver Generals to capture it.
'What are you doing here?' she asked, eyes focused on the board.
'Click' — I moved a pawn to the side, leaving it open as a sacrifice to take her Golden General. "Hiding out," I answered. "My Dad is being a pain about training."
She nodded slowly, glancing toward the window warily. 'How are the others doing?' — 'Clack' — she moved her Bishop instead, looking to take my Silver General next turn. Annoying, but not unexpected. She never likes to target the easy ones.
"Chōji's been working hard recently, and even Ino's been putting in the effort."
She smiled, less exuberantly and more honest.
We were quiet for a while after that as we both focused more on the game — 'Click' — 'Clack' — 'Click' — She snapped her fingers, realizing she'd been caught in the trap I'd set up before she sat down. Purple eyes glared at me and I ignored it, defanging most of her assault.
I had warned her it was a losing battle.
'You can come by and stock up on tags,' she offered later, moving a pawn — 'Clack' — and giving me a sideways smile. 'I made enough to share with the class.'
I arched an eyebrow, moving my bishop across the board to take that pawn — 'Click' — "Expecting something big?" I ventured, half-joking.
She shrugged, shuffling her last Bishop across the board in an obvious ploy for my Rook — 'Clack' — I frowned, glancing up at her expression. Her shoulders were forcibly set to look relaxed, but her spine was rigid.
Ah. She's withholding information again.
Man, it's always annoying when she pretends like she doesn't know as much as she actually does. This woman always makes it such a pain to find out information when she stubbornly acts like this. It'd be so much simpler if she tried being more honest and not make me figure it out instead.
'Click' — I moved my Rook, setting her King in it's sights.
"Check." I announce.
Her eyes went wide, genuine in her surprise, realizing how she was about to get cornered from nearly all sides. She moved her King the only way she could out of Check. I chased it with a Silver General, driving her further into a corner.
It was a waste of time to point out the offer for free personalized tags as being over-consideration; Despite how often she spaces out, she's scarily aware of what's going on most of the time. She knows what a disadvantage she's putting herself and her team in by offering assistance to the competition, even if it's to help eliminate the other competitors from Sand.
We may have been classmates — but there was no way in hell she was going to do anything to blow her 'Hero's' chance of winning. Despite the less-than-likely odds Naruto had against the prodigy of the Hyūga, Sora was blindly loyal in that way. Her faith was both something to be admired and very stupid at the same time. It was going to get them both in more trouble than their used to one of these days.
'Click' — I moved my Rook, taking the last of her pawns and exposing her King again.
Sora made a face, scowling at the board in thought.
'Clack!' — 'Click' — "Check," — 'Clack!' — "Check. Again."
There's the possibility that she's offering tampered tags set to blow up in our faces, but, no. That just wasn't her style. Not unless it involved a joke and a bucket of glue followed by glitter to get a good laugh out of the deal. Sure, she could be scary and a pain in the ass when she's angry, but she wasn't the underhanded backstabbing type.
Unless she's gone through a major personality shift over the last few months, she's never shown even a faction of interest in being anything beyond a Genin in all the time I've known her. Something I can personally emphasize with. Still…
I looked at her, my gaze steady.
She pretended not to notice my eyes.
"So you just had a random urge to help resupply your old friends?" I drawled, very pointedly.
She closed her eyes and forced a very stiff smile my way. I grimaced. It was almost painful to look at her. It's moments like this where she really would be better off just lying to my face instead of… whatever this is. But the fact that she's avoiding eye-contact right now confirms that she knows something that she won't and probably can't outright tell me if she's going to these lengths.
I leaned forward, dropping my chin in my hand.
Maybe it has something to do with that crazy T&I agent she's hanging out with, maybe it has to do with her arm that was still bandaged a month later, maybe it's something to do with how Dad has trying to act like he isn't on edge this last week and how he gave me a similarly serious yet vague warning about being prepared for anything.
Ah, what a drag.
Sometimes, I wonder if my life would've been easier if I had been a civilian instead?
"Sure, whatever," I sighed, conceding. "I'll drop by your place with Chōji tomorrow. Are they stashed in the usual place?"
She nodded happily, energy renewed. Yay. 'Don't touch the ones with red ink though,' she warned. 'Experimental.'
I made a face, slightly alarmed.
"The last time you experimented with explosives, you burnt off all our eyebrows." I reminded her.
She smiled guiltily, rubbing her forehead in embarrassment.
Her smile dropped after I cut off her King's only and last escape route.
"Checkmate." I announced with a yawn. I stretched my arms behind my head as Sora looked over the board in panic, double-checking all the pieces.
Blind faith in others was stupid and dangerous, especially when placed in the wrong person — But I trusted this overly-complicated woman well enough. Even if she made things out to be more of a pain then they needed to be, she's always thinking of ways to make the people around her happier despite herself.
She was kind of an idiot like that.
Sora, June 29st—Outside Konoha Hospital
(Days Until Invasion: 3)
"Thank you for walking with me, Sora-chan." Hinata murmured, leaning most of her weight on my arm a little as she walked. I didn't mind one bit. After the first few wobbly steps she took after changing out of her hospital gown, I was ready to roll her out the doors in a wheelchair — But we came to a compromise; she could walk as long as she hung off me. We already made it all the way outside with minimal stumbles!
An agitated aura emanated from behind us, radiating unpleasant thoughts towards me.
A few paces behind us, Hinata's eternal babysitter was glaring at the back of my head for my continued lack of propriety towards the Princess. He was a Hyūga in his early twenties with the traditional Hyūga coloring, creamy pale skin, trimmed dark brown hair accompanied with the judgy pale eyes. While Hyūga Kō didn't hold anything against me for being a penniless, nameless orphan like most of his clan seemed to, he did hold a rather personal grudge against me.
Where Neji's grudge was built up over years of resentment and close calls, building and bubbling until my continued existence was an affront to his delicate sensibilities — Kō had assumed from the first time he saw me that I was a scoundrel and a dirty trickster, hellbent on corrupting the moral compass of his dear Princess and he hasn't changed his opinion since. Which was absolutely ridiculous!
Though that did remind me, we should stop by the bookstore on our way to the compound. To celebrate her release from the hospital I can get the latest edition of Hinata's favorite cheesy romance novel, "Era of Roses - The Kunai's Edge" - some fictional historical series about a warrior princess that is trapped in a love triangle between her oldest and most loyal knight and a rival prince, who she'd been promised to all her life - and use Kō to smuggle into the compound for her, because the man can be as weak for Mouse's puppy-dog eyes as I am. He'll hate me a little more for it, but he'll love seeing that excited little smile she'll get after getting her gift.
It'll be worth it.
Plus, while we're there I can get a fresh copy of Icha-Icha to replace my hole-y one! A win-win for almost everyone present.
When Hinata looked away, distracted by the delightful smell of a delicate bouquet of flowers in a pedicured hedge, I turned my head just far enough over my shoulder to stick my tongue out at Kō. His permanent scowl deepened even further and I was positive he was trying to set my head on fire with his glare alone.
Then Hinata asked me about how Naruto was doing and I dropped my childish look in a heartbeat, eagerly answering her and falling into a minor rant about how reckless he was and how worried I've been waiting for him to wake up. She nodded and sighed at all the right times, giving my arm an extra squeeze of sympathy at the end as she wished for his speedy recovery and wondered if it was okay if she could visit him with me tomorrow. I pulled her into a tight hug that had her squeaking and turning as red as a tomato, Kō rushed forward to try and separate us and I nearly bit the man for it.
My Mouse was so wonderful.
I slowly opened my eyes to the sound of obnoxiously loud voices chatting around me, only to shut them tightly immediately after a stab of pain shot through my skull. I saw what I think was white roof tiles and fluorescent lights, so I definitely wasn't on the training grounds anymore. Moving my oddly stiff fingers, I could feel scratchy materials under my skin and noted a woolen blanket that was pulled up to my chin. Was I… in the hospital?
"O-Oi, Chōji!" shrieked one of the obnoxious voices, making me wince from how it rung in my ears. Everything felt way too oversensitive. Wait a second, didn't I know that voice…? "Don't eat those! I got those specially for Sasuke-kun!"
I didn't move another muscle, forcing my expression to relax so it looked like I was asleep.
"Aww, c'mon, Ino!" groaned a voice - Akimichi? - from somewhere towards my feet. "There's plenty! I'm sure Sasuke-san won't mind if I take a couple of these grilled ones…"
It sounds like someone's hand got slapped.
"No, you dolt! I specifically chose all the things I've seen Sasuke-kun enjoy eating—" I repressed a shudder. "—If you have to stuff your face, then eat the ones you brought for Naruto instead!"
"You guys are being so noisy…" sighed another voice from the side. Just how many people were in this hospital room? And why did they know I was here? And where the hell was Kakashi?
I strained to remember, fighting through a pounding migraine. I remember I was training… we were out in the middle of a forested area, I had been working on improving how many times I could use the Chidori consecutively. I… had, I had managed to do it three times but then Kakashi had stopped me before I could try a fourth, citing that I was pushing my body too hard and suggested we should stop training for the day. But then I had ignored him, saying something about knowing my own limits, channeled my chakra into my arm, felt the surge on my fingertips and then it was all a blank after that.
So, I passed out from chakra exhaustion. I grit my jaw in annoyance at the realization — that damn cyclops was going to tell me 'I told you so'.
"YOSH! WE HAVE RETURNED WITH REFRESHMENTS!" announced a loud and way too energetic voice, followed by a yip of a dog and a couple pairs of footsteps. Great, the room was filling up with idiots.
"Oi, Pomegranate," Kiba was here too? Just how many people had time to waste in a hospital with the fights just a few days away. "Why the hell did we have to get the drinks? Wasn't it your idea?"
Sora. Of course this was her fault.
I cracked my eye open just wide enough to get a visual of the room, confirming that two-thirds of Team Ten was here and fighting over a flowery basket by the foot of my bed. Kiba and Lee had just walked through the door carrying drinks and a bag of food, behind them was the Aburame of Team Eight. From the color of the light on the walls, it had to be nearly dusk or it would be soon enough. A can of soda and a coin purse were tossed through the air towards my left, caught by Sora herself, who was sitting next to the Nara by a… were they playing a board game?! What the he — Half of the people in this room were going to be fighting each other in a few days!
Kiba's dog ran across the room, leaping onto the lap across from Sora. "S-Sorry, Kiba-kun." Oh, Hinata was here too? That made both Team Eight and Ten in attendance. What the hell was going through that idiot's head? "It's because Sora-chan was busy teaching me how to play…"
Sora waved a hand at her, turning to Kiba and signing something distinctly insulting. Kiba went to retort but Lee, oblivious to what she said, stepped forward eagerly and thrust the plastic bag in his hand out towards her like an offering. He actually stammered as he handed over the bag and enthusiastically thanked her for thinking to invite him to my hospital room with everyone else.
From the corner of my vision I could see Sora getting flustered as she got out her pad and presumably thanked him because he repeated his thanks again. This looped for a minute until they both fell into a fidgety silence. Shikamaru stared at the two of them before letting out a snort, seeing the obvious infatuation. Ino let out a curious noise at the exchange and was thankfully a lot less interested in me all of a sudden. Hinata's eyes bounced between Lee's grin and Sora's fumbling while the rest either were clueless or didn't care.
Hm. Speaking of clueless… I wonder where the Idiot was? Usually he was never far from Sora's side, so — From beside me, the privacy screen was ripped open and a recognizably stupid face appeared.
Ah. I should've guessed that was going to happen.
"Hey, hey what's the all the racket 'ttebayo?!" he shouted, sounding groggy, like he had just woken up. I quickly feigned sleep again as everyone's attention moved. "What—HEY! WHAT'S EVERYONE DOING IN MY ROOM!?"
"You're in the hospital, dumbass."
"What'd ya mean I'm in—WOAH! Wait, Sora-ch—MMPHTHPPH!" Sora pounced on him by the sounds of the muffled struggling happening to my left. I kept my eyes firmly shut even as the noise around me grew louder and louder, ignoring them.
Deciding to just wait until they all left so I could slip out and go back to my apartment where I could be in peace. I wasn't about to get up and entertain on their idiocy when it seems I couldn't even move my arm up. I'd would be leaving myself vulnerable to Ino's clingy fawning and Sora's inevitable goading. Never mind the fact I'd be willingly exposing my weakened state to Kiba and Lee, who I might end up fighting in a couple days.
Damn it, Sora. It was a stupid idea to invite them here.
It felt like hours, and I drifted in and out of consciousness a few times, but eventually I opened my eyes to a dimly-lit room. It was nearly silent except for Naruto's heavy breaths and cicadas from outside. The only source of light was coming in from a window that had been left open, allowing in a fresh breeze. Everyone was finally gone. Letting out the breath I'd been holding, I allowed myself to relax in the near-silence.
I'll never understand what those two see in needing to socialize so much.
Experimentally, I began to move my hands, testing my motor control. Everything still felt stiff and slow, like every part of my body was weighed down by invisible weights. With an annoying amount of effort, I began to try and will my body to sit up. Just as I was fighting off the ringing in my ears, a pair of purple eyes got in the way, untied hair falling in my face and making me jerk my head away.
I glared at Sora, momentarily berating myself for not realizing she was still here. Exhaustion aside, I should've been more aware of my surroundings. And, more obviously, of course she'd ignore visitor hours to be with Naruto.
'Done faking it?' she asked, arching one brow.
I frowned, not letting my surprise show. She noticed I was awake earlier?
"W-W—" I cleared my throat and swallowed my spit, which felt more like I'd swallowed a mouthful of dust. I needed water, soon. "Why are you here." I managed to ask, though it still sounded uncomfortably like a wheeze.
'To make sure you rest,' she signed. My frown deepened. Her eyes glanced down before she rolled them, briefly gesturing to Naruto. 'Both of you. Sensei brought you in two days ago, so take it easy.'
Wait, two days? Then that meant—
The Exams were happening tomorrow.
'The Medic said you would be fully recovered by the morning—' she looked at me pointedly as she continued. 'As long as you didn't move.'
My lip curled into a sneer and I threw the blanket off my body. I didn't like being told what do to, especially by her. I could rest just as well in my apartment — Alone. I didn't need a damn babysitter to coddle me.
She crossed her arms over her chest. I ignored her look, pushing myself onto my elbow and becoming irritated with the amount of effort it took to do something as simple as that. As soon as I had managed to sit up, a hand landed on my shoulder and I could only narrow my eyes in a glare before Sora pinned me back in the bed.
My body, weaker than I would admit to feeling, didn't put up much resistance. Frustration and anger welled up inside me. I turned my head to snap at her. "Damn it, Sora, you—" my voice caught and I began to cough, cutting off what I was about to say.
My throat burned and I needed water, now.
I was just about to tell Sora to move when to my surprise, she actually did, but it was only to bring back over a pitcher of water. She set it on a table that was placed between my and Naruto's beds and poured water into a glass. My mouth opened slightly out of instinct, but I closed it just as fast. I was far too dehydrated after two days of sleeping.
I forced my arms to push down to get up but I only managed to roll onto my side before the rim of the glass was in front of my lips. I looked up and met her eye. For once, she was watching me without her usual look of smugness after I make a fool of myself. Instead there was a slight frown as she held the cup there, waiting on me.
Slowly, I reached for the cup only to curse when it slipped from my fingers. She caught it before it fell, righting it and bringing it to my hand again. Her fingers covered mine - her skin was oddly warm - and she helped me to grip the glass better before pulling back away. This time I was able to bring it to my mouth and drink, emptying it in seconds. Letting my eyes close as the liquid soothed my throat.
When my eyes opened again, Sora was holding the pitcher and was waiting.
I sighed and held out the glass, not saying a word as she refilled it.
My legs itched to get up and leave. I was already regaining my strength after just a little while. I'm sure I'd be able to at least make it to my apartment and get some peace there. I didn't need to be told to rest — I needed to get stronger, so that I didn't have to rely on anyone to help me get a damned glass of water. Every day, every hour I waste is just more space I'm allowing Itachi to put between us.
I can't afford compliancy.
I can't waste my time being social.
I can't rely on anyone, or else I'd just —
Music began to play.
My gaze shifted over to Sora, who'd moved into a chair that looked like she had been sleeping in it. A thin blanket was hanging off the back of it as she settled herself in, folding her legs beneath her as hands were wrapped around her odd instrument. She looked ready to wait me out. Whatever, I've gotten enough sleep today. She'll get bored or put herself asleep eventually. By then I'll be able to leave without interference.
I let out a long breath and rest my head against the metal bar at the head of the bed, idly listening to the notes as she played them, long and soft and somehow familiar. I frowned, my eyes feeling heavy as I thought about it. I didn't know much music, except a few—I let out a yawn—of the rhymes that my Mom used to hum, but… that didn't explain… why…
Sora, June 31st—Konoha Hospital - (11 PM)
I set my Ocarina in my lap as Sasuke's eyes fell shut and his breathing evened out, his body relaxing and chakra stretching out without tension. This time actually falling asleep instead of just pretending to. He probably doesn't realize that he doesn't tend to scowl when asleep, unlike most of the afternoon today. It's still a darn shame that he pretended to sleep through all the excitement earlier, but I suppose that he's still as much as an anti-social duck as ever. At least he didn't seem overly hostile or aloof like I'd been afraid of, even with his longer hair.
He was the same grumpy Sasuke that I've come to know — and that, somehow, was comforting to know.
Smile dimming, I stared down at the Ocarina, feeling the residual warmth of my chakra humming in the metal surface. It really did do a decent job at channeling chakra. When one was paying attention, that is. While I was a bit wary about using it in any potential combat situation, I'm just glad that it helped to lull Sasuke into a deep sleep so there was little chance of him waking up in the middle of the night to go blow something up with his new flashy hand trick. Silly Duckie. He was clueless about how hard he'd pushed himself this time.
It was lucky for me that I'd caught Scarecrow skulking the halls after checking in on the Hero the other day, otherwise I probably wouldn't have even known that they were back. Or that Sasuke had overworked himself to the point that his chakra levels had hit a critical low and he needed hospitalization.
Scarecrow had the sense to look abashed about letting it happen, at least.
He was also willing to move Duckie into Naruto's room where I could keep an eye on them both, calling off Anko's ambushes while he was at it. Which was an unbelievable relief for me. It gave me an excess of free time that I used on fine-tuning the Siphon Seal, then printing a few copies capable of sucking up a generous portion of chakra that was - hopefully - going to be enough to knock out a Genin-sized chakra monster. All the practical tests had worked up to now, so the only thing to do left was use them tomorrow.
I let out a breath, getting up from my chair with the decision to stretch my legs. It was as good a time as any.
There was a chakra skulking the halls, waiting for me after all.
Doing one last check over the boys - tucking Sasuke back under his blanket, picking up the pillow Naruto had kicked off his bed - I quietly stepped out of the room, sliding the door shut behind me. This floor of the hospital was used for non-emergency recoveries, so the halls were darkened to allow patients to get sleep. To my left, I could see the desk light of the nurses station tucked away at the end of the hall and could sense a Chūnin-level chakra signature seated there. To my right was a long stretch of empty hall that was lined with windows overlooking the Hospital's foliage-filled courtyard.
I clasped my hands behind my head and turned right. Allowing my senses to spread out and feel along the walls lined with hidden security seals, ones that were probably installed the same time the hospital was built. As I walked, my thoughts wandered to Gaara, wondering what he was up to?
I hadn't seen him or even sensed him since he tore up my gift over a week and a half ago. I hope I hadn't scared him off somehow. I know I can be a bit much to some people, but I felt like Gaara didn't really fall into that category. Though, I probably shouldn't make any assumptions about how much of a people person he is. Still, I don't think he would've felt any more out of place than Sasuke did earlier.
Being reminded of it, brought a smile back to my face. I hadn't planned to have a Pre-Exam gettogether. It had just kinda happened. And that fact had me smiling like a loon, because every one of them had shown up for Naruto — and kinda Sasuke too — But the point was that they had all shown up of their own free will out of concern for their friends, and I didn't have to do a thing!
Shikamaru had shown up for another game and excuse to get out of training and Chōji had tagged along with a get-well-soon basket full of snacks. Ino had somehow gleamed the knowledge that Sasuke had been admitted to the hospital and shown up with her own flowery basket of tomato dishes. Later Hinata had come with the worry of checking in on Naruto and then Akamaru, Akamaru's rude owner and Shino had tagged along to give their well-wishes to Naruto's recovery too. Lee's arrival had… been an accident. A happy accident, but still, I could've used more mental preparation. As soon as he learned that Naruto and Sasuke were admitted then he was resolute and earnest as always in his desire to wish them well.
I leaned against an open windowpane, a lazy smile on my lips as I took in the peaceful hospital courtyard. Closing my eyes and breathing in the fresh summer night air.
Naruto hadn't said it with everyone around, but I could tell how emotional he got after realizing that so many of his friends had come to visit him in the hospital. How touched he was. While I knew he wouldn't have complained to wake up and find just me waiting for him, the sight of everyone else there had made him happier than I ever could've.
Yeah, there were a lot of people that cared about Naruto. It wasn't just me anymore.
I turned my head as wooden geta clicked softly against the checkered floor tile, the sound echoing down the empty hall. I rested my elbow on the pane and turned to face him, my smile leaving but I tried to keep my expression neutral. As he approached, walking though the moonlight streaming in from the windows, a strange thought struck me that I would deny ever thinking later on and probably blame on my lack of sleep.
Speaking from a purely aesthetic point of view: He could be considered handsome, slightly. The moonlight did something rather pretty to his hair, making the white shade look soft. It also eased the lines on his brow and around his mouth, and making him look a bit younger than he usually did.
Unlike usual, Jiraiya wasn't pretending to look idiot.
His lips drawn into a frown, his eyes were as dark as the shadows lurking at the end of the hall. Gone was the perverted louse of a façade, and now a veteran shinobi was standing before me for the first time since Naruto brought him into my apartment.
'Will you watch Naruto's fight?' I asked in sign, knowing he could understand me. Even if he didn't understand it when he got here - and seriously, the Hokage was one of the first people to learn it from Naruto and I. If Jiraiya hadn't been at LEAST keeping tabs on Naruto all these years then I might not ever forgive him - then he's had the last few weeks to catch up.
He stared at me a moment, eyes narrowing. He was hard to read; both emotionally and physically. I didn't know his tells — if he even had any, and he was keeping a tight reign on his emotions. I had to wonder if he knew of my ability to sense emotions? I had told Scarecrow, but for all I knew it was listed in my Shinobi dossier right next to the notes about my Split Personality Disorder.
Jiraiya's hand reached out and pressed against the wall, and ink dark spread out from under his palm, staining the blank wall. I watched in interest, vaguely recognizing the string and base housing. It was a variant of a Silencing Seal, but it was intertwined with the parameters and recumbent kanji normally associated with the Barrier School.
His chakra enveloped us and the cicada stopped chirping.
"You know," he began, studying my face. "That snake asshole is probably gonna show up tomorrow."
I — Huh? Wait, what did he just say? I blinked owlishly at him, bewildered by the level of honesty he just gave me. I… was not expecting that. What I had been expecting some kind of double-speak to get me to reveal what I know and then we'd dance around the fact we both are aware that something was going to happen tomorrow but didn't outright say it.
My lips tugged into a frown. So much for the mysterious air of a late-night meeting with a spy, why did he decide to be forthright now? Mm. Maybe I've just read too many spy novels…
He huffed, apparently amused by my reaction, keeping his hand on the wall and the bubble around us. "You're smart for a kid," he said, which he could have said with a little more sincerity. "You came to me with those chakra siphoning designs with a reason in mind, and it wasn't just a spur of a moment thing. I could tell that your notes dated back a lot farther than a few weeks…"
A moment passed of silence. I met his eyes steadily, not backing down.
"Care to share what you're planning on doing with them?"
'I wanted the chakra Seal for Sand,' I answered, returning his honesty. 'I don't want him hurting himself if he loses control.'
It was his turn to be surprised. His brow furrowed at my answer, and it took him a moment to connect the dots, but he got there. When he did his suppression eased up slightly, enough for me to get a read on what he was feeling. There seemed to be a generous flush of relief that went through him, lightening some of that suspicion he's held towards me since our first meeting.
I frowned, examining his expression. Wait, so yet he guessed that my Siphoning seal notes were old, but then he was both surprised and relieved by my answer? What exactly did he think I was going to do — WAIT! I looked at him accusingly, signing a bit forcefully. 'Did you think I made that for the Fox? For Naruto?'
His eyes shifted away and he rubbed his neck with a grimace, which meant YES — WHAT THE FUDGE, MAN! The damned Toad Sage ignored the daggers I was glaring at him, instead choosing to lean his back against the wall in a casual manner. His shoulders sagged down, looking like there was heavy and invisible weight sitting on them.
"So you know," he said, with emphasis. Looking at me from the side of his eye. "But the kid doesn't realize you do. Why's that?"
'It's his secret to share.' I answered, shifting my eyes away. And it was! Naruto would tell me when he was ready to, whenever that was. I wasn't going to force him into talking about it if he didn't want to, just to make myself feel better about it. 'And it's not like many have a good opinion on the Fox.'
A wash of guilt rolled off of Jiraiya and his grimace deepened with a hint of shame. I did my best not to smile in satisfaction of that. It's good he feels guilty. He should. He could've been here for Naruto as his godfather — the person Naruto's parents chose out of everyone they knew, to take care their child if anything happened to them. But instead he was off doing god-knows-what in who-knows-where.
'He deserves better.' My eyes drifted back over to him. 'They both do. They are kids, not tools.'
"…yeah, you're right." he agreed, a tone of bitterness accompanying his words. "But so are you."
I made a face at the implication, as if I should be one of the kids that need watching over. While that was only technically true…
'Adults are unreliable.' and most the adults I knew were, in some way or another.
He let out a sudden laugh, full-throated and genuine. He nodded with a wry grin.
"You probably got me there, kid."
He stepped away from the wall and the sounds of the cicada humming resumed, the script on the wall fading with the chakra that bubbled around us. A wind that smelt like moss and firewood swept in through the window, carding through my hair and warming my face.
I smiled a little, glad that we had a chance to speak with this old fart without any pretenses or pretending. His honesty was appreciated. I mean, I still thought that he was a perverted louse that could use a good smack upside the head now and again, but… he was a bit more tolerable. A little. Like, very, very little.
"It's midnight," he hummed. And following his words, a musical chime rang from down the hall, a clock signaling the late hour.
Ah. Time's up, then.
(Days Until Invasion: 0)
—(The writing here had been scratched out, leaving behind streaks of ink)—
I have made my decision.
I looked at back at Jiraiya, expression dead serious.
'But you are coming to watch Naruto's fight tomorrow?'
He flinched, looking away.
I stared holes into the side of his head as he began to sweat. I swear to Fudge, this man — Ugh. If he didn't show up to support Naruto tomorrow then I was actually going to castrate him. Then he's really gonna have a reason to go look for Tsunade.
Chapter Fifty-Three: "Cram Sessions"
A/N: BWAHAHAHA! I HAVE MADE IT! Woo. Oh my gosh. This took too, too long. Oh my. But, it's finally done and I am so happy it is. Oh my gosh, so much to cover I can't even point out the highlights of this chapter because I have been back and forth over it for literally months. T_T It's likely I don't even remember everything in it. Oh, I just hope that you guys enjoyed it.
Though, there is something I have to mention about Ikari's sub-plot and the utter and ever-encompassing plot hole that is Orochimaru's timeline — I adjusted both the ages of Anko and Kimimaro for the writing of this FanFiction. Because Orochimaru's timeline sucks utter fudge balls. Kimi is now 4 years older than in canon, making him as old as Kabuto. And Anko is 2 years older, making her as old as Kakashi. This all makes way more sense when you add in the math of Yamato's age and when Orochimaru's was supposed to defect. Ugh. I just don't understand how Kimi was supposed to join Orochi, recruit Jūgo for his Cursed Seal/Kekkei Genkai, slap the seal's first version on the Sound Five and THEN put an advanced Heaven Seal on Anko right before defecting. Meanwhile, half the people mentioned just now weren't even born by the time Anko got the Mark, thus screwing every damn point.
Goddamn I hate Orochimaru. There was nothing he did quite as heinous and inhuman as having an inconsistently written character and then forcing poor fools like me to try and four-dimensional Rubix cube his bitch ass.
Complaining out of the way, now going to give you guys a little update on me and my writing progress and the distinct lack of it, as some of you might point out — I am going to be moving in the next month or so because my current residence is near unlivable. So! That means until things settle down I just might not be updating for… a couple months? Not until early next year at the least, I would think. Anyways, I don't think that's much different than how often I post now but at least you guys will know if I end up taking a bit longer than usual.
Though I DO plan on creating things like a tumblr, instagram, and maybe a Twittery thing so that I can keep in better touch with you guys and give more thorough updates about my fics! I have finally gained enough self-confidence to go out and be among the world! XD I'll even be able to share with you guys more Omakes and all the crazy ideas that get shoved away in my documents! Eerr, or I will try! I still get hits with waves of anxiety but I think that's pretty commonplace for everyone, right?
Oh! And actually info about ASfT, I already have the next arc plotted out in a very constrained and hopefully well-paced manner! Mostly written already in little bits and pieces, just need to find more time out of my day. And beyond that… yah. I have a hell of a lot plotted out. We have the Finals Arc next, followed up by the Sensu Sable Arc, then Field Tripping Arc, the Getting Life Back Together Arc—And that name is a work in progress and a half, but basically covers a bunch of little stories crammed together to fill the passing of time and can't be considered as a proper Arc. Giving you any Arc names after that will be pretty telling, but as a little tease, in comparison to the canon timeline—the Arc that follows that last one would be around the same time Sasuke defects? That is all I will say. Baaah-baaaaaah~
And as a message for to the so many people that has lost someone they love over the past year, and I don't even know if you're reading this, but… I am so sorry. There might be nothing that can be said to take away your pain and I wish that there was, but the best thing I can think to say is… it's okay to feel your pain. You should not be pressured to get over it faster than you are ready to, or even be pressured into feeling more than you do. Your grief is your own, and you shouldn't let anyone tell you how to deal with it.
That might be a bit confusing, maybe? But, uhm, I'm honestly not that good with words. Sorry if it comes across weird. But if you ever need someone to talk to, to just vent at or to or just to have someone listen to you and hear you, then please, feel free to message me as that someone. Feeling like you are alone is one of the worst feelings in the world, I know that personally and it really, really sucks. I'm awkward and chronically shy but I always have a willing ear to lend. :)
Hokay! A long AN for a long-awaited chapter! Thanks for reading this far, you are the type of person I work and lose sleep over to try and make smile. It is totally worth it, each and every time. ❤️
"Mmm, what is you're favorite type of weather? A soft snow, a spring rain, something utterly unique and alien to our world like a blizzard of petals?"
Well, I think I am fondest of… rain, actually. I've lived in a very dry climate with sudden bouts of monsoon-like rainstorms that come once a season, but I prefer light rains. Something to wash over the ground and refresh everything. Plus, the sky always looks a bit more beautiful after the clouds clear up.
Until next time, love. Stay safe and have a safe and Merry December.