A/N: Back with another update, y'all. Don't worry, I'm still writing these days, if only at a snail's pace. Now that we're at the tenth chapter of this story, I want to try giving my other stories some attention, even though things will definitely start picking up with this one. I know a lot of you have been asking about Save Me, so that's definitely at the top of my list.
But in any case, I hope you all enjoy the chapter and leave a review if you did. I hate to admit it, but praise certainly does wonders for my motivation levels.
"Hidan, quit doing that."
The silver-haired man with a triple-bladed scythe grunted as he continued to crack his neck, "Cracking my neck feels good. Especially after being forced to sit here by the boss like this for two days straight."
The masked Akatsuki member stood up and started walking away, "If you lose your head again, I won't reattach it this time"
Hidan used his scythe to help hoister his body up and began following, ignoring Kakuzu's warning, "Where are you even going? Konoha is back the other way."
"We're not going to Konoha."
Hidan rose an eyebrow, "Why not? That's where the Two-Tails is."
Kakuzu shook his head, "Don't start overestimating your immortality again, Hidan. Going to Konoha by ourselves to try and find the Two-Tails would be more trouble than it's worth since they would likely be expecting us, and now have intelligence about us. We need to be smart and draw them out."
"How exactly are we gonna do that, Kakuzu?" Hidan questioned with a skeptical tone.
"According to my sources, there's a Fire Temple nearby that's closely allied to Konoha. There's another bounty there and-"
"Ohhhh, okay, so there it is. You just want to fixate yourself on getting a bounty for another wad of cash, huh?" The reaper said knowingly, hiking his hands behind his head as they continued walking, "Predictable as always."
The taller Akatsuki member stopped walking, making Hidan stop behind him. He didn't even bother turning his head.
"Idiot. As our organization's head of finance, increasing our funds is important. If you didn't let the last bounty get away along with the Two-Tails-"
"ME?! IF YOU WOULD HAVE JUST-"
"THEN I wouldn't currently be worried about getting more funding for our organization. But if you're done interrupting, we're also going there because it would allow us to keep Konoha guessing just enough for us to figure out a way to intercept the Two-Tails when the time inevitably comes. We may even grab the Nine-Tails if we're lucky."
Kakuzu continued walking again, while Hidan continued standing and blinked.
"Yeah, okay, I guess that sounds like a good plan." He then started walking again, "I still think your greedy ass is just in it for the cash. Lord Jashin and I know the kinds of games sinners like you tend to play."
Kakuzu paused, wanting to be done with the conversation. Often times he feels as though he'd be better off alone, and had Hidan been any other kind of partner, he would have been by now one way or another. It almost feels like karma's way of getting back at him for all the partners he'd killed in the past. But regardless, it wasn't going to distract him from what's really important.
"Cash rules everything around me, Hidan."
Hidan scratched his head, "...That sounds like some kind of rap lyric, Kakuzu."
*Back in Konoha*
Dawn loomed over the village as the surrounding birds started to engage in their early morning conversations. The village itself was a bit quieter than normal, as fewer shinobi and villagers alike were out roaming the streets unless absolutely necessary. Things might have been a bit more lively, had there not been the issuance of a Stage Two lockdown all over the village just the night prior.
This meant that the village was under heavy surveillance with ANBU members and high-level Jounin, particularly around its borders and entry/exit points. Non-essential businesses, such as Ichiraku's or The Yamanaka Flower Shop, were ordered to close. All residents, shinobi and villagers alike, were ordered to stay home for the time being, unless absolutely necessary, until further notice. The Stage Two lockdown wasn't exactly a state of emergency, but rather a state of heavy caution.
The busiest area within the village at this time was Konoha's Central Hospital, where the Hokage was reviewing fresh medical exams about one of her only apprentices. She scanned the documents with her eyes that had slight bags under them, before rubbing her head dejectedly.
"What's wrong, Tsunade? Did you find out anything?" Naruto asked from his seat. Aside from the sleeping Yamanaka in the room on the medical bed, they were the only other occupants. He had stayed up all night as well, showing mild signs of exhaustion. His demeanor wasn't something that gave it away, though. He still somehow seemed full of energy.
"The results aren't too conclusive here, but from what it seems, the Kyuubi's chakra is causing a blockage in one of Ino's most vital chakra centers." Tsunade stated.
Naruto turned his head toward the unconscious blonde. He was glad that she seemed peaceful in her sleep, unlike the hours of constant agony she seemed to be in last night.
"Is she going to be okay?"
Tsunade put her clipboard down and sat in the chair next to Naruto's, "She doesn't seem to be in real danger now that we helped stabilize her. The Kyuubi's chakra may be painful for her to handle until we find out how to extract it, but I highly doubt it'd be anything fatal."
Naruto said nothing. He simply clasped his hands together in front of his face and said a quick prayer of gratitude.
Tsunade watched and placed a hand on his back to rub it, "You've been through a lot these last few days, haven't you?"
"Yeah, but not as much as I've put my friends through apparently." He answered solemnly.
Tsunade gave his back a few pats, "Hey, don't go blaming yourself for this again. You've been through enough as it is, Naruto-kun."
"You're right. I'm sorry. I'm just tired."
"I know the feeling." Huffed the Godiame, "I think we could both use a good nap."
"Or a good drink." Naruto responded. Tsunade raised an eyebrow, intrigued by his response. Before she could issue a response of her own, a knock was heard at the door. Upon Tsunade's call for entry, the door opened. Stepping through it was none other than another Sannin, The Great Toad Sage himself.
"You couldn't have come at a better timing, Jiraiya. Come rule the village in my place for a few days." She almost commanded.
Jiraiya smirked, "And exactly what would be in it for me if I did that?"
"The appreciation, respect, and utmost gratitude of a long-time friend." Was Tsunade's bored answer.
"You mean I didn't have these things already? Some 'long time friend' you are."
"Screw you." Tsunade grunted, "I really do need your help, though. And so does Naruto."
"Hey, Ero-Sennin." Naruto greeted passively.
Jiraiya eyed the boy, putting a hand under his chin, "Kid, you look pretty down. Is everything alright?"
"He's been through a lot." Tsunade answered for him, "But right now it's imperative that he gets his seal fixed. It's growing weaker at holding back the Kyuubi's chakra each time he uses it."
Jiraiya nodded, "I spoke with Tenzo about what happened on that mission with Orochimaru... we'll speak more about that later, Naruto." He promised to the boy before turning back to Tsunade, "Aside from that, why is the village on lockdown?"
"Because the Two-Tail's Jinchuuriki is out roaming about in this village somewhere and I need to find her before she finds a way to leave."
Jiraiya had to admit that wasn't the kind of answer he was expecting.
"Why is the Two-Tail's Jinchuuriki here?"
Tsunade grunted as the questions were starting to make her develop a headache.
"I'll explain all that later. For now, I need you to figure out what you can do for Naruto's seal. It's becoming a bit of a concern and I'm making it a priority." She told him. Jiraiya nodded and waved Naruto to follow him out of the room.
"Alright alright. C'mon gaki, let's get you checked out."
With one last look at Ino's stationary form, he got up and followed him out of the room.
In a northern part of the village, a certain shopkeep could be seen in her family's store, cleaning up the counters and displays to the many weapons located behind the counter. After tossing her dirty rag into the trash, Tenten gave the store one final survey to make sure she didn't forget anything before heading to the door.
While locking the door behind her, she thought about the fact that she had heard about a few of the members of Squad 7 passing away, then the sensei of Squad 10 not long after. Now the village was on lockdown and she was only able to keep her shop open for a few morning hours. She knew that meant that an intruder could be on the loose, and double-checked to make sure she had her weapon scrolls on her. As a kunoichi, naturally she knows that death surrounds her and her friends, but she didn't like the sequential pattern of the recent events. It made her uneasy, deep down. She quickly shook these thoughts away though, just as she turned around to head home.
Just then, however, Tenten's legs were faced with an obstacle before she saw it coming. She and said obstacle collided, making her fall forward. Her reflexes kicked in to cause her to use her arms to break her fall before shifting her weight into the fall to do a handstand before somersaulting back onto her feet.
"Ow!" Said the obstruction, just as Tenten's eyes landed on a small boy with tan skin and brown hair. He had a Hitai-ate wrapped loosely around his head, and had landed on his butt due to the collision.
"Oh, sorry!" Tenten exclaimed, rushing over to the boy to help him up, "Are you okay?"
He gave a huff once back to his feet, "Yeah. Are you the weapons store lady?"
Tenten gave a soft chuckle, "I guess I am."
The boy's eyes lit up, with urgency seeming to be the primary emotion, "Can I buy a kunai and some shuriken please?"
"Sorry, the shop just closed. You'll have to try again tomorrow."
"Aww!" The boy exclaimed, "Please? I have an exam tomorrow at the academy and I really need to train today!"
She gave him an empathetic smile. She remembered how she used to feel about those academy tests on weapon usage.
"No can do, little guy. The village is on lockdown and I have orders from the Hokage herself to shut things down early."
The boy slumped down, all former energy sapped from him, "Aww man..."
As Tenten eyed the mopey boy, she couldn't help but feel bad, "Hm... hold that thought."
The Chuunin Kunoichi grabbed and opened one of her weapon scrolls before activating the seal. In it, a kunai and handful of shuriken emerged.
"These are on the house." She said with a smile, gesturing for the boy to grab them. His face lit up like a bonfire.
"Wow! Really?" He asked. Tenten smiled again, nodding her head. She had to pull them away for just a second, however, as his first attempt to grab them was a bit too eager and reminded him to be more careful. He nodded and carefully grasped the tools, putting them in his belt holster.
"Thanks, weapons shop lady!" He exclaimed before heading off down the street. Tenten watched him go off with a smile before heading to her original destination.
It wasn't until a few more steps, however, that something dawned on her.
"Wait." She rubbed her chin, "Tomorrow is Saturday..."
Just then, her path was blocked by another obstruction. She had seen it coming this time, though. Tenten recognized the woman with a Neko ANBU mask that landed in front of her immediately. Yugao was one of the store's best customers. She had good taste in swords.
"Tenten, have you seen anything or anyone unusual recently?" Asked the voice behind the mask.
Tenten raised her eyebrow, "Uh, not really. Why?"
"Because I'm looking for a threat to the village and my senses are telling me she was here recently." She responded.
Tenten shrugged, "Well, I didn't see anyone except some genin boy just a second ago..."
Yugao didn't respond immediately, "Which way did he go?"
"Um, that way." She stated, pointing in the direction she saw the boy running, "But I don't think-"
Before she could even complete her sentence, Yugao had disappeared.
Tenten scratched her head before shrugging and resuming to go home. But it was then, as she continued walking, that it started dawning on her that the boy claimed to want weapons for an academy exam... when he already wore a Hitai-ate. He wouldn't be taking those exams if he was already a genin. So when you pair up how he claimed to have an exam on a day where academy students don't attend class, the situation got even weirder the more she thought about it.
...It wasn't until a little later when Tenten had actually gotten comfortable in her home, however, that she noticed the key to her shop was missing, despite how sure she was that it was in her pocket. After replaying the series of events in her head, starting from the collision with the boy, she realized how she had been played from the very beginning.
When that truth finally sat in, Tenten facepalmed and shook her head.
"... Are you freaking kidding me?"
Atop of Konoha's tallest obstruction, the heads of the Hokage monument, Yugito thought to herself as she twirled a kunai around her index finger on one hand and a key on the other. She felt confident that no one would find her, as she was hidden away in a corner right behind Tsunade's carved-in head. These Konoha-nin would probably keep checking the borders and exits, as anyone would guess, but Yugito liked to work smarter than that. What other place to hide than right under the Hokage's nose, almost in a literal sense?
"And now we play the waiting game." Yugito hummed to herself, keeping her eye on the time. And what's more, not only did she successfully henge into a little boy to swipe the key to the weapons store from that gullible little Konoha girl, but she even gave her some free weapons to start out with! Amazing. Yugito wondered how Kumo has had its many troubles with Konoha in the past; they didn't seem to be the brightest bunch, in her opinion.
Regardless, just because she successfully ran doesn't mean she's home-free. This is a pretty big village, and it would take time for her to find an opening to actually escape. Until then, she was just glad to successfully arm herself and find somewhere to lay low for a while. As she laid there, she couldn't help but think about those guys in black cloaks with red clouds and had to process the possibility of running into them again. Despite her skepticism last night in Tsunade's office, she began to wonder how much the Hokage told her was actually true. As she thought about her last encounter with them, she could recall how both her opponents always got right back up no matter what she threw at them. They were definitely not like most shinobi, and the fact that she could vividly remember almost dying at their hands made her question her most recent decisions a bit. Whether she liked it or not, she was saved. By Konoha-nin. Her earlier belief in it all being a big plan on their end started crumbling when she thought about how exasperated the Hokage was upon her accusation. A loud and dramatic complaint about people making her job difficult? It just wasn't the kind of reaction she expected, which of course was just prior to her acting on impulse and escaping the office when the opportunity presented itself.
That's why Yugito felt no rush in figuring out her escape from Konoha just yet. She just needed some time to think... and process. Maybe get some answers, if need be. So far, no one in Konoha has laid a hand on her and even helped nurse her back to full health. Maybe she was wrong about them, after all. Maybe they really want to help.
Any further thoughts in regards to that were swiped away when she heard the Raikage's words replay in her head.
Konoha could never be trusted.
"Alright, this seems to be as good a spot as any." Said Jiraiya, after verifying that they were in a secluded open field far enough from the village so that should anything go wrong, Konoha would be safe, if not relatively.
Naruto sat down onto the grassy terrain across from his mentor, who had done the same. There was a bit of a quiet air between them, as Jiraiya baited Naruto to start talking first. The attempt failed, however, as Naruto's weary eyes looked at nothing but the ground.
"I was going to ask if everything was okay with you gaki, but I think I have my answer if you're not yapping on a storm like usual." Commented the Sage with a mix of both sarcasm and concern.
"I thought you said Yamato-sensei told you everything." Mumbled Naruto.
Jiraiya shook his head, "All I know is that your last mission went to Hell because of the Kyuubi. Yamato told me to get the details from you. Telling from Tsunade's plea to fix your seal, it must have been pretty bad."
Naruto simply sat there for a while before sighing. He had lost count of how many times he had to explain his traumatic experience to other people. It had never gotten easier for him since the first time.
"It was worse than bad. It was terrible. Orochimaru provoked me about Sasuke when we confronted him, and so much of the Kyuubi's chakra leaked out, I can barely remember what happened. I grew four tails into the Kyuubi state, apparently, and... I ended up attacking Sakura." Said Naruto, getting the information out as simply and quickly as he could.
Jiraiya sat there, staring at the boy with no external reaction. He could tell he was still hurting from it as he explained it.
"That sucks, Naruto. I'm sorry you had to go through that."
"Yeah." Was Naruto's dull response. He was getting numb to it externally, but not internally.
Jiraiya huffed, "Well, you know I'm here for you however I can be, Naruto. You always were like a son to me..." Jiraiya rubbed his chin before grinning, "Well, maybe more like a grandson considering this old geezer has more than three times the amount of years of experience than you do."
Only a light huff of air escaped Naruto's nostrils at Jiraiya's attempt to make him laugh. His words of endearment weren't something that went over his head, though.
"But anyway... I guess we better go ahead and check that seal of yours out. Go ahead and lay on your back."
Naruto did as he was told and laid flat on the ground, now parallel to the earth. Jiraiya sat beside him and lifted up his shirt, placing a chakra-filled hand onto his abdomen to expose his seal.
"Ero-sennin, wait." Naruto said, "Before you do anything... there's more to the story that I should tell you."
Jiraiya retracted his hand and nodded, gesturing for him to continue.
"So... after I came back from the mission, Sakura had passed on and I went through a bit of a hard depression... a few things lead to another and Ino had discovered through her Shinrashin technique that Sakura is still somehow... inside me. Ino ran into the Kyuubi somehow and Sakura saved Ino from whatever the Kyuubi was planning to do with her. That's why Ino was unconscious when you came into the hospital room; apparently, the Kyuubi still managed to do something to her."
Jiraiya slowly nodded, taking mental notes.
"But that's not even the weirdest part. Ever since I came back from our training trip, the Kyuubi's presence has been changing. It's almost as if she can shapeshift from a giant fox to a woman... and even the atmosphere around that space I meet her in has been changing, too. And I'm not really sure what that means."
"Hm..." Jiraiya thought to himself, "I remember you mentioning before that you can sometimes communicate with the Kyuubi. I'm guessing it's becoming more frequent?"
"Yeah. I even talk to her when I fall asleep sometimes now. It's almost like she can pull me to her when I'm not completely conscious. It only used to happen when my life was in danger so that I could ask for her chakra."
Jiraiya couldn't help but find it fascinating that Naruto was referring to the Kyuubi as she/her, but knew that it wasn't really an important detail of what he was explaining.
"And when you communicate with the Kyuubi, what exactly do you both talk about?"
Naruto shrugged, "She usually just tries to scare me into thinking she'll get free someday to kill me and everyone I love. I usually just tune her out, but... there was this one time a few days ago when I saw Sakura in that mindscape, but she disappeared, and it seemed as though the Kyuubi was hiding something. Ino had confirmed that a part of Sakura might still be inside me yesterday after what happened, but the Kyuubi insisted that I was going crazy."
"Ah, well, easy enough to say that you can trust Ino's perspective over a demon that wants you dead." Said Jiraiya simply. Naruto finally looked Jiraiya in the eyes for the first time since they arrived at this clearing.
"But what does it all mean, Ero-Sennin?" He asked, "Ino said it might be possible to bring Sakura back, but... I still don't really understand what's happening."
Jiraiya stretched his back, as he knew he might want to get comfortable. After processing this information, Jiraiya prepared himself for a bit of an explanation.
"I think I can clear some things up for you gaki, but I'll need you to bear with me, alright?" Naruto nodded, giving him all his attention, "Your chakra network is a bit more complex than most people's if you haven't already figured that out. You have an extremely vast amount of chakra and stamina, mostly as a result of being a Jinchuuriki. The Kyuubi is sealed in a big and important section of your chakra network known as your Solar Plexus."
"Solar Plexus?" Naruto repeated, new to hearing this term.
"Yes. Each point in a person's chakra network is connected to seven essential centers that holds and produces chakra for you to use. Each of these centers utilizes and creates chakra for different purposes, but they all work in tandem with one another."
"Oh, you mean like the chakra pathway system? I already learned about that in the academy." Naruto started. Jiraiya shook his head.
"Not necessarily. This is a bit different than that, although your chakra pathway system does connect with these chakra centers. What I'm about to explain to you isn't really taught in academies. I learned this through the teachings of becoming a sage at Mount Myoboku."
Naruto nodded. He wanted to ask what exactly this all had to do with his situation, but Naruto decided to take the high road and patiently listen.
"Anyway, your Solar Plexus chakra center is the center in you that holds such a substantial being such as the Kyuubi, seeing as that is usually the biggest and strongest center. It's located right there in your stomach, and it's also probably the reason why you have such a huge appetite. But despite the benefits that come with having a Biju sealed there, there are also drawbacks. Your Solar Plexus also deals with your sense of anger and personal power, which is why it can be very hard to control this chakra when you're angry or when your adrenaline is in overdrive."
Naruto supplied him with another nod.
"Now, the Kyuubi itself, or rather herself, is an other-worldly kind of being known as a demon. And while not all demons are necessarily evil, they do feed on souls. My personal guess as to what happened on your mission is that when the Kyuubi was taking control of your body, she targetted Sakura in order to feed on her soul to sustain herself and grow stronger, which could inevitably make her too strong to be held back by your seal. But for some reason it didn't fully happen, considering how both you and Ino managed to see her inside your chakra network for yourselves."
Naruto allowed a second to process this. It was connecting some dots in his mind, but there was this vague sense of unease as Jiraiya continued explaining.
"The reason I mentioned your chakra centers is because when Sakura was attacked, instead of her soul being devoured by the Kyuubi, my guess is that either the seal or something else prevented that from happening, causing Sakura's soul to still reside within you, possibly within another chakra center. These centers can hold a lot of things that cannot be seen or felt on a tangible level, so it makes sense that this is something that you are just now hearing about."
"I see..." Naruto hummed, placing his hand over his stomach, "So Sakura is probably in a different chakra center than the Kyuubi is located... does that mean that it's possible to get her out?"
The young Uzumaki didn't particularly like Jiraiya's expression in response to his question.
"Possible? Yes. Likely? No." He said, "Chances are that the only way to even attempt bringing her back is through forbidden jutsu, and I'm sure I don't need to explain how that can be a hit-or-miss kind of deal."
Naruto frowned, "Yeah, Ino did mention something about that."
Jiraiya sat there humming to himself in thought for a few moments, "Well, one thing we could attempt to do is talk to Inoichi, Ino's father. Maybe he knows of a hidden family technique that can at the very least give you more time with her. But, that would also mean that I can't fix your seal just yet."
"What? Why?" Naruto asked.
"Because, fastening that seal could also seal away Sakura's presence within you, making her inaccessible just like the Kyuubi. Fixing your seal would mean your Solar Plexus chakra center and each one below it would be used solely on a survival basis, meaning that you wouldn't even be able to draw upon the Kyuubi's chakra like you normally would. And since we don't know which chakra center Sakura could be located in, it could also mean that she'd be sealed off, too."
Naruto sat up from his position and thought to himself. Just when he thought matters couldn't get more complicated, it did.
"So... what do you recommend I do, Ero-Sennin?"
"Considering how I have orders from the Hokage herself to fix your seal, there's not much you really can do. But, I guess it couldn't hurt to see Inoichi to see what we can do beforehand, he's probably at the hospital checking on Ino, anyway. Who knows, we might even be able to help Ino too, while we're at it."
Naruto quickly got onto his feet.
"What are we doing sitting around here then? Let's go."
As Naruto started walking, Jiraiya stared at the young man's back and grinned before getting up to follow.
"Yeah... that's definitely your kid, Minato."
Located in a region of Konoha near Kurenai's home, Kurenai, Anko, and Shikamaru could be spotted entering the apartment of the recently deceased Asuma Sorutobi. The three took it upon themselves to clear out Asuma's belongings, as the apartment was now vacant.
As it was Kurenai's idea, Shikamaru watched as Kurenai hesitated to open the door, still clearly in emotional turmoil through losing her lover. Anko offered to lend a helping hand, glad to help out to avoid the boredom of staying at home due to the lockdown. Soon enough, the three individuals entered Asuma's home, a home that Kurenai had gotten familiar with but now felt unfamiliar without Asuma's presence. It made the place seem emptier, despite the small messes of clothing and junk being scattered around. Kurenai always nagged him about his cleaning habits, as Kurenai was always a bit more of a neat freak. She could still even smell the faint aroma of cigarette smoke lingering in the air and on the furniture.
"Let's just get this over with." Said Kurenai, stepping deeper into the living room. She picked up a framed photo of Squad Ten, handing it over to Shikamaru, "I don't really feel comfortable staying here longer than I need to."
Shikamaru and Anko both nodded. The trio then began to search around the apartment, locating anything that could hold any sort of value and sealing it away in a scroll.
Anko was relatively quiet as she started her task, seeing as there really wasn't much she could say. She felt bad for Kurenai, especially now that she's going to have to raise her future child without its father. It felt like just yesterday when she had told her of her pregnancy, and now he's gone. She could almost feel Kurenai's pain herself, despite not being able to walk in her shoes. The best thing she could do for her best friend was just be there for her as much as she humanly could, and even that didn't feel as though it would be enough for her. If she could march up to the Shinigami himself and demand that he bring Asuma back to her, Anko would do it in a heartbeat.
Shikamaru continued his task without much to say as well, still feeling a similar kind of heartache that Kurenai was feeling. Asuma practically died in his arms, and now they were ransacking his belongings like vultures. Of course, Asuma would probably want nothing better than to have those closest to him take care of his belongings, but it still somehow made him feel uncomfortable. Maybe it was because the wound is still a bit fresh, and if anyone could feel it more than he could, it would be Kurenai. Still, he felt a ton of responsibility to help Kurenai with anything and everything, especially with matters pertaining to Asuma's future child. If Shikamaru could do nothing else, he was going to make sure that his child knew how much of an outstanding shinobi and sensei his/her father was, under any circumstances.
While Shikamaru was occupied clearing out Asuma's kitchen, Anko and Kurenai finished with the living room and headed toward the bedroom. Kurenai paused for a moment as it felt as though she could almost still feel his presence right there on his bed, relaxing and daydreaming like he usually does. She took a deep breath of air and continued onward, searching through his bedside drawers and dressers for anything that belonged to him.
Anko searched his closet, removing the clothes stashed away in there and sealing them up. Upon further inspection, however, Anko noticed a photograph hanging off the edge of the shelf above the hanging clothes. The young Jounin grabbed and analyzed the photo, wiping away the dust on it to reveal three figures smiling together for the picture. One of the individuals was none other than a much younger Hiruzen Sorutobi. He had both his arms wrapped around two boys, one of which she recognized as Asuma's adolescent self, probably before he even became a genin. The other she couldn't really identify, though he seemed to be around the same age as Asuma was in this photo, if not a little older.
"Hey, Kurenai?" Anko called, still analyzing the unidentified boy in the picture, "Did Asuma have a brother?"
Kurenai turned around and walked over to Anko to see what she was talking about. Asuma never mentioned a brother to her before.
Kurenai looked over Anko's shoulder to study the picture she was holding. It was a picture she'd never seen before, despite recognizing her lover's younger self and the Sandiame.
"No, not that I'm aware of..." She hummed, trying to figure out who the other boy was as well. Shikamaru had overheard and stepped into the room as well, looking over Anko's other shoulder to look at the picture. The boy in question had medium-length spiky brown hair, deep blue eyes, and a long blue scarf wrapped around his neck. The resemblance to both Asuma and Hiruzen was unmistakable, as anyone looking at it would conclude that this was a family photo.
Shikamaru rubbed his chin as he and the other two Jounin stared intently at the picture in Anko's hand, "...I think that might be Konohamaru's father."
As soon as Shikamaru said that, the truth became vibrantly clear to both Anko and Kurenai.
"Oh my God, I think you're right..." Mumbled Kurenai, a bit taken back at this revelation. Nobody ever really heard about or saw the father of 'The Honorable Grandson', and as far as most people knew, Asuma was Hiruzen's only living son. Of course, Kurenai knew that Konohamaru was Asuma's nephew, but she didn't really think to dig deeper into it than that. She even was certain that some people around the village believed that Konohamaru was Asuma's son, now that she gave it some thought.
"I wonder why Asuma never talked about him before." Anko wondered out loud. After all, Asuma grew up in her and Kurenai's generation, even participating in the Chuunin Exams together when they were younger. Surely, if Asuma and Kurenai knew each other for as long as they have, Kurenai would have heard him mention something about his brother, right? Asuma wasn't really the type to hold secrets from those close to him, so naturally, this was a cause for Kurenai's growing curiosity and almost her concern.
"Maybe he passed away during the Kyuubi attack, or even a while prior, and he just never wanted to talk about it." Kurenai speculated.
Shikamaru shook his head, "I don't think so. Konohamaru was born after the Kyuubi attack, so that means that if Asuma's brother did pass away, it had to have been after he was born, or at the very least a number of months prior."
Kurenai did the math in her head and found Shikamaru's hypothesis to be sound and correct. What came next was a wave of feelings consisting of confusion, ambiguity, and even a hint of betrayal, as the Genjutsu Queen did not expect Asuma to keep such a significant part of his life from her, especially not for this long. She may not have been overly demanding to know every single detail about her lover, but considering how he put a baby in her, and had even had serious talks with her about marriage, surely he would have told her about the possibility of a living relative of his, right? And telling by the photo, they were close brothers. Why would he choose to omit such an important piece of his family life from her like this?
"Perhaps there's more to the story than the three of us are actively aware of." Said Anko, able to sense her friend's growing emotions. She handed Kurenai the picture to hold, who was unable to stop staring at it, "If it involves the Sandiame, I wouldn't be surprised. It wouldn't be the first time the lineage of the Hokage was kept hidden from public knowledge, and probably won't be the last."
Kurenai heard Anko and this managed to calm Kurenai's racing thoughts a bit. At the end of the day, Kurenai knew that Asuma loved her wholeheartedly and unconditionally. If he was intentionally keeping it a secret from her, she concluded that he likely wouldn't be doing it unless he absolutely had to. After all, no one else seemed to really know about this mysterious brother of his either, not even his name.
Deciding to digress and focus on the task at hand, Kurenai stored the photo with a sigh, "In any case, we can try to figure that out another time. Let's just go back to doing what we were doing."
"Yeah." Shikamaru agreed. Anko nodded as well, however... something about that photo continued to resonate somewhere deep within her as she continued clearing the place out. She couldn't describe it, but it almost felt like some form of connection to the photo. She wasn't exactly sure why that was and for the most part, she brushed the feeling off, but she knew she couldn't deny what she felt.