Hey guys, I've got a new chapter fresh off the keyboard.
Hope you like it.
When Jiraiya returned to Naruto's apartment, there was a woman drinking tea in the living room. He peered in through the open window, "What have we here?"
"Welcome back, Jiraiya-sama." Her black hair was tied up in a ponytail, and without the ANBU tactical armor she could pass as a harmless civilian.
He slipped into the room and slid the window closed, "And hello to you, too. I heard you'll be looking after the kid until he wakes up."
She took a long drink and set the cup down on the small end table, "Indeed."
Jiraiya sat next to her with a smile, "You know, when taking care of someone there's a specific uniform-"
"Don't worry." Though her expression didn't change, her tone was frigid, "I will follow the orders I have been given by Lord Hokage. Nothing more."
Jiraiya's cheek twitched, "I see." Jiraiya was disappointed that he wouldn't get to see a ninja maid, but he didn't let it get him down, "Your name?"
She glanced at him, "...Nezuna."
"Oh?" Jiraiya raised a snowy eyebrow, "Is that the one they told you to use, or did you come up with it yourself?"
"I-isn't it all the same?"
"Yeah, I suppose so, Nezuna." Jiraiya looked her up and down and nodded, "You'll do."
After Jiraiya's declaration, he'd left. That had been days ago.
Nezuna shook her head, "Pay attention." She had a lot of questions about this unusual situation, but she'd held herself back at the time, "A ninja doesn't question their orders." That was what she told herself, but her mind began to wander as she rolled the mysterious blond boy in his bed and changed his IV drip.
Why would an injured genin not be in the hospital? And why have an ANBU be his caretaker? The report said his name is Naruto Uzumaki, but is it an adopted name? Blond is uncommon in Konoha, is he perhaps an illegitimate Yamanaka?
These were the thoughts that plagued Nezuna as she tended to her duties.
In the forest surrounding the village, a young boy wandered between the trees. His little blonde head swayed this way and that, and he would sometimes stop and crouch at one bush or another. He was looking for something. A bird flew over and the boy tucked himself into a bush. He curled in on himself and fell asleep.
Naruto watched the boy sleep, before the ground opened under his feet and swallowed him whole.
At a cross section of flooded sewer ways, the surface of the water distorted. Then, Naruto sat up out of it. His heavy breathing echoed off of the iron walls, and everything was tinted by the dim lights.
He glanced down the four identical hallways, stood up, and started down one of them.
Clinging to the side of Hokage Mountain, Sasuke gasped for air.
"What's wrong?" A shadow stood far above Sasuke, blocking out the sun, "Giving up?"
Sasuke squinted, "On your life." With sweat beading his forehead, he grit his teeth and reached for his next handhold.
Kakashi's book was open and he spoke with his usual tone of disinterest, "Forfeiting is always an option, you know. No one would blame you, either. After all, you make one wrong move against that sand kid, and even the bugs will have to use straws to slurp up what's left of you."
Sasuke pulled himself up, took a breath, and said, "I'm not running away." He glared at Kakashi's silhouette, "Ever."
"I see." Kakashi flipped a page, "There's a fine line between being brave and being a fool." Sasuke turned his head and tried to focus on climbing. Kakashi continued, "It doesn't really matter which side of that line you fall on, they both lead to death."
"Hn." Sasuke grunted as he continued to climb.
Sakura was doing push ups on her own in an empty training field.
Since Kakashi was off training Sasuke somewhere, and Ryuto was nowhere to be seen, Sakura had decided that the next step for her self improvement would be basic strength and stamina training. Everyday she would wake up and go straight to the training ground where she would alternate between different workouts and running up and down the trees.
"Wow, you're really going at it."
Sakura didn't pause in her reps, "Ino? What are you doing here?"
"Why so cold, Sakura?" Ino Yamanaka, heir to a prestigious ninja clan in the village and Sakura's childhood friend, made her way across the grass. She held a large bento in her arms, "I heard you've been spending your days around here, and I figured we could, I don't know, talk? We didn't really get the chance to catch up with everything that went on in the exam. And what was up with that emergency at the end anyway? It seemed pretty serious, but no one has any idea about what actually happened."
Sakura grimaced at the memory, and continued to pump her arms, "Look, Ino. It's cool that you want to talk, but I need to focus on my training right now." Sakura didn't look, but she could imagine the look on Ino's face, "I've decided to take my shinobi career seriously." Sakura statement was followed by a low rumbling in her stomach.
Ino giggled and showed off the bento she brought, "Oh, I brought lunch, too."
Sakura tried to fight back her blush and sat up with a sigh, "...Fine. We'll have lunch, and then I'm going right back to training."
Ino clapped her hands and cheered, "So, I brought-"
Sakura lightly sighed as Ino started describing the food, and her lips twitched upward, slightly.
After she finished going on about the food and the goings on, Ino brought up another topic, "By the way, I heard you were looking for information on that teammate of yours before the exam." She thought about her words, "Did you still need it?"
"Hm?" With a blank face, Sakura looked up from the sandwich she'd been working through. Then her hands clamped onto Ino and her loudest voice came out, "You mean you actually found something?! Tell me right now!"
"Sure, sure, whatever you want, just stop shaking me!"
Ino took a moment to fix her hair, and grumbled, "I swear, you take your eyes off a girl and the next thing you know she's turned into a brute." Then she noticed Sakura quietly sitting at attention, who was staring at her with intense eyes, "Ah."
Sakura's eyebrow twitched, "If you're done, then tell me."
Ino smirked, "Just one thing before I do."
"Ino..." Slowly, Sakura let out a threatening energy as she lifted her fist.
Ino waved her hands back and forth, "Don't worry it's nothing crazy like give up Sasuke or anything!" Sakura didn't put her fist down, so Ino quickly explained, "It's not like a ninja to give information for free! That's what my sensei told me one time, and I thought, 'Hey, I want to be a better ninja. Why don't I try to do that?' right? So I thought instead of just giving it to you we could do a trade! I just wanted to ask you a question, then I'll tell you what you want to know, okay?!" Huffing from the sudden rush of words, Ino scrunched her eyes and hid behind her arms.
Sakura huffed, "...Fine. Ask me."
Ino peeked around her guard, "Really?" Sakura nodded slightly, and Ino cheered right up, "Okay! Then this is what I want to know," Ino pointed at Sakura, and declared, "You're different from the Sakura I'm used to, and I want to know why! We've hardly talked since graduation! What made you change so much? That's what I want to know!"
"Huh?" Sakura blushed, "W-why the hell would you want to hear something like that?"
Ino looked away, "What's wrong with wanting to check in on my rival every now and then?"
"It's creepy, that's what's wrong with it."
"You know what's really creepy? That enormous forehead!"
"You take that back, Ino-pig!"
"You first, Billboard-brow!"
They glared at each other for a moment before their expressions melted and they both giggled.
Sakura leaned back with a pleasant sigh, "You're ridiculous. You know that, Ino?"
"Who cares? Didn't that feel good? You've been looking down for awhile, and I figured you needed a good old fashioned Ino-style pick-me-up."
"So you've been watching me?" Sakura laughed, "You really are a creeper."
Ino lightly smacked Sakura on the arm, "Says the one walking around looking like a zombie. Do you know how many of our old classmates and academy students you've terrified?"
"What are you talking about? I only asked them a few questions..."
"Uh-huh. I'm so convinced."
Sakura's face matched her pink hair, "Anyway, are you going to tell me about Ryuto or not?"
"So is he the reason you changed? Don't tell me, you're seriously in lo-"
"Ino." Sakura cut her off before she could continue.
"Alright, I'll be serious. But-" Ino crossed her arms, "I want you to go first. This point is non-negotiable."
Sakura shook her head, "You haven't changed a bit, Ino."
Naruto slid his fingertips along the wall, feeling the cold surface as he walked down the hall. The water at his feet sloshed with every step he took, and as he continued, the darkness closed in.
A frigid wind blew, and bushes rustled.
Naruto blinked, "A snowfield?"
There was a younger version of himself watching a group of genin train. He was hiding behind some bushes, kneeling in the snow with only a scarf and an overcoat to fend off the winter season.
The genin's jonin-sensei soon appeared and scolded them for being foolish, "You'll catch a cold training in this weather like that! Still, since we're already here I'll teach you a way to keep your insides warm. With this, you won't catch frostbite even if you skinny dip in a frozen lake!"
The genin smiled, and their eyes glittered, "Sensei!"
Naruto muttered to himself, "I remember this, it's when I learned that jutsu to stay warm. After that, winter was my favorite season." He looked to his younger self and whispered, "Good luck." Then he left the scene.
Naruto passed between frosted trees, and his feet landed back in the water. He was in the sewer again, but there was a door in front of him. Naruto stared at it, "Through here is that fox's room." He reached for the handle, "I better say hi at least, or he's gonna start whining." The door swung open and Naruto stepped into the dark room, "Hey, Fuzzbutt! I know you're a jerk who tried to betray me and all, but I figured I might as well see you while I'm here! So come on, make with the lighting already!" Naruto's voice echoed in the open space of the room, but the only response he received was dead silence. Naruto frowned, "So you're sulking, huh? Well I'm coming in anyway!" The sound of Naruto's splashing steps fell flat in the silence, "Has your head reattached at all yet? I seem to remember a few amazing jokes on my part regarding that." His laugh came out hollow. He pressed on, "I really can't see anything in this darkness." No response. Naruto huffed, "I'll do it myself then." He flexed his fingers and snapped, and light swelled into the room. He nodded, "That's much bett-oh." The self-satisfied grin on Naruto's face fell at the sight before him.
The huge body of the nine-tailed fox, collapsed behind the bars of the seal, with it's head missing. The once soft fur had lost it's gloss, and had even begun to lock together. It's legs were splayed out, and it's tails hung limply.
"N-no..." Unable to tear his eyes away from the sight, tears began to well up and spill out of Naruto's face. His breath hitched, and his knees gave out beneath him. In the darkness, he sat and cried.
From the darkest corner of the great room, red eyes watched the blond boy collapse onto the wet ground with tears in his eyes. A hand twitched forward, but then pulled back, and the presence disappeared from the room.
In the cool night air, Sakura stared at the door in front of her, "According to what Ino was able to dig up, this was the place." She wiped the sweat off of her palms, and raised her fist to the door.
After checking the IV and changing the bed pan, Nezuna wiped the sweat from the boy's body and finished by rotating him in the bed. Then she left the room and quietly shut the door.
"You're looking beautiful as always, Nezuna-chan."
She didn't need to see who it was lounging on the couch. She spared a shallow bow and continued to the kitchen, "Jiraiya-sama."
"You're so cold, Nezuna-chan. Why don't you sit next to me so I can warm you up? Ohohoho!" Jiraiya's nostrils flared and he smiled like a gorilla. His fingers twitched and flexed unnaturally toward her retreating form.
"Not a chance, Jiraiya-sama." From the kitchen, Nezuna said, "I'll bring out some tea."
"How sweet of you, Nezuna-chan." Jiraiya leaned his large frame back in his seat, and the piece of furniture groaned. He let his eyes wander, "You've done well keeping everything in order." There wasn't a trace of dust anywhere.
"Of course." She placed a ceramic cup in front of the white haired ninja, "It would be an affront to medicine if I were to neglect the living space of a patient."
"I see." Jiraiya sipped his tea, "And how is his condition? Have there been any changes?"
Nezuna shook her head, "I have nothing to report, the boy is still comatose."
Jiraiya finished his tea and stood, "If anything does change, let me know." He slid open the window, and the night air rustled his ponytail, "Until next time." He slipped out and closed the window behind him.
Nezuna watched him go, then she glanced at the bedroom door, "He really cares for that child, huh?" She smiled, "Maybe it's his grandkid." She returned to the kitchen, and hummed at tune as she went. She grabbed a cup of instant noodles and poured the water, then she returned to the boy's room. With her eyes, Nezuna traced the horizontal marks on his cheeks, "I don't see the resemblance, but I guess it's possible."
Nezuna's thoughts were interrupted by the sharp sound of a knock at the door.
She immediately shut the boy's door before silently sliding up to the front door. With a hand mirror that she snagged off of the wall, Nezuna cracked the door open and checked the immediate surroundings, "...No enemies in the vicinity. All clear."
With the coast clear, Nezuna stared down at the pink genin shivering in front of the door, "Did you need something?" Her tone wasn't threatening, but this was a ninja village. Anyone could be armed and dangerous.
The girl gulped, "Is this where Ryuto lives?"
Nezuna continued to stare at the girl, "...Who?"
"Oh!" The genin suddenly bowed, "I'm so sorry! My friend must've given me the wrong address! I'm so sorry for bothering you, miss!"
"Ah, no problem." Nezuna stared at the top of the girl's head for a moment, her hair was pink all the way to the root. Then she scanned the perimeter again, "Then, if that's all..."
"Yes, of course. Don't let me take any more of your time." Nezuna nodded and shut the door, but from the other side the girl grumbled.
The next day, Ino found Sakura doing push-ups in one of free the training grounds. The blonde grinned at her friend, "Well, Sakura? How'd it go with Ryuto?"
"Terrible." She didn't stop her exercise, "It wasn't even the right place. Some woman answered the door with no idea who he even was. I was so embarrassed."
Ino's mouth hung open, "What? Do you know how many favors I had to call in to get that information? There's no way it's wrong." She crossed her arms, "You know what I think? I that that woman is related to him somehow, and pretended not to know about him for some reason."
Sakura grit her teeth as she forced through a few more reps, "You don't believe that, do you?"
"Well, it's either that or someone I know messed up big time." Ino cracked her knuckles and released her own killing intent, "If that's the case, then I'll definitely make them pay." Ino watched Sakura switch to doing sit-ups, "Still, something doesn't feel right. You haven't seen Ryuto at all since the end of the second exam?"
"I haven't seen Sasuke, either. Kakashi-sensei took him to prepare for the third exam. Ryuto's probably training on his own somewhere, too."
"That's pretty cold, to not even ask for help from your team. It's hard to believe that it's the same Ryuto from the academy who was always goofing off in class." Ino leaned on a tree, "He seemed pretty weird during the preliminary matches, and his match was the weirdest. It was over in an instant, and I didn't know what happened until that sensei of yours started talking about it." Absently, Ino mumbled, "He's gotten way stronger since the academy."
Sakura stared at the ground as she continued her squats, "I don't thing that's exactly right."
"Oh, you were listening."
Sakura nodded, "Remember the jonin test?"
"Sure, it's where the sensei decide if they really want to take your team or not." A soft smile spread across Ino's lips, "I remember mine like it was yesterday."
"Well, for ours we had to steal some bells from Kakashi-sensei."
Ino looked at Sakura, "Wouldn't that be impossible for a genin? I mean, Sasuke could probably do it, but what about the others?"
A breeze rustled the grass, "I know, right? At the start, Sasuke and I hid to make a plan, but Ryuto..."
Ino leaned in, "What did he do?"
"He charged in to fight Kakashi-sensei directly."
Ino laughed, "Really?! What kind of idiot thinks a genin can beat a jonin in a fight?"
"That's the thing. He really held his own, and in the middle of it all he set up a huge wire trap and made a plan for Sasuke and me to steal the bells. And it worked."
"He really did all that? Right out of the academy?" Ino asked to make sure, "The same Ryuto who got detention for pulling pranks in class?"
Sakura puffed her cheeks, "You don't believe me?"
Ino held her chin, "It's not that, but you've got me seriously curious now." Then a devious grin spread across her face, "I've got an idea."
When Sakura saw Ino, she unconsciously let out the words, "Oh no."
So, what did you think?
Characters are moving in different directions, some of Naruto's past was touched on, and Ino and Sakura are bonding after a long time. Sasuke's training as hard as he can, but will he be able to do anything against Gaara without the sharingan, and by extension Lee's taijutsu?
Next time, I'll show you more of the goings on in Naruto's brain, and we'll see how well Ino's idea plays out.