05-29-2022 Author's Note
I am dedicating this chapter, and the remainder of my fic, to my friend and fellow Naruto fan who recently passed away due to illness. He and I stayed close for a number of years after meeting through a mutual contact. I shared my creative projects with him and received helpful feedback countless times. We compared and contrasted opinions on not only anime and manga, but also games and every MCU installment. My friend always pushed me to keep writing and releasing chapters. He believed in me even when it was hard for me to believe in myself, and for that I'll never be able to thank him enough.
Wherever you are, man, rest easy. I really wanted you to see these next two arcs. I wish I could have written faster so I would have had the chance to hear what you thought of everything that's about to unfold. I'll finish this story for you, if nothing else. I know that's what you would have wanted.
16 - Self-Study
Deep within the recesses of the dark chamber that comprised Kushina's inner world, she and Gerotora watched with expectant stares. Several chakra-imbued tags placed along the corners of the walls gave off a resonant glow. The modified jutsu formula on each tag was a test run of a hypothesis upon which the Uzumaki matriarch hinged her hopes and dreams. Her chakra was running low after so many tests. However, Kushina learned from her many mistakes up to this point and refined the process so it required far less chakra. The past dozen ideas they tried hadn't worked, but this one would. This one had to — she would accept no other outcome.
"Gerotora," she whispered, keeping her eyes on the warbling mass of Nine Tails chakra, "this is it."
"I hope you're right," the scroll toad said, casting fearful glances at the lit symbols.
The collective hum of the activated tags sent shivers across Kushina's skin. She took a wide stance and waited, praying and believing that this risky gamble would succeed. The sooner it did, the sooner she could overcome the imbalance of chakra in her seal.
There was no flashy effect or sound to accompany the activation of the modified jutsu. Not that she expected one. In fact, she had no idea what to expect. This was something heretofore unexplored, as far as she knew. Then again, perhaps someone had tried this sort of thing before, but died before passing on the knowledge of what led to their failure. Regardless, one fact remained: at long last, Kushina had done it. She was filled with a surge of pride at her accomplishment, even as Gerotora let out a shriek of surprise that called her back to the present moment.
"Huh?" she said, looking down to find her body was beginning to lift off of the ground. Beside her, Gerotora flailed in midair, surrounded by rising chakra particles and water droplets.
"Lady Kushina," he urged, "stabilize it!"
Kushina nodded, winked at the frightened toad, and formed the appropriate sign to control her newest jutsu.
Ninja Art: Temporal Distension!
Even thinking the words was enough to bring a smirk to her lips. Gerotora stared at her, wide-eyed and in clear disbelief at the fact she was enjoying this.
"I've always wanted to create my very own jutsu," she said, earning an exasperated sigh from the summoning animal.
In all of five seconds, everything was back to normal. Gerotora descended with a sudden and uncoordinated splash, sending a ripple through the standing water. Kushina landed in a far more graceful manner. She giggled at the summoning toad's panicked sputters. He looked around, realized he was safe, and relaxed.
"Please tell me this is over," he pleaded.
She smiled and nodded, admiring the stable chakra-infused field around her. "It's over, and it's perfect. Oh, I can't wait to tell Minato! I'm probably the first one in history to pull this off, ya know."
Kushina's face drooped as she recalled Minato's recent confession. Maybe she would hold off. She didn't feel comfortable talking with him just yet.
Gerotora shot her a curious glance. "Pull what off, exactly? I still don't know what all of this was for, Lady Kushina."
Her mischievous grin provided little reassurance to the summoned creature.
Minato was relieved to sense Sasuke still sleeping in his bed the next morning. A heavy dose of the cold shoulder from his wife while they prepared breakfast replaced his relief with shame in no time. He excused himself from the table to escape the awkwardness and headed into the office early. Kushina didn't say anything or try to stop him.
"I love you," he said over his shoulder before vanishing from the room.
On most days he would have chosen to stay a little later so he could see his boys before work. However, he was the last thing his family needed right now. He was probably doing them a favor by removing himself from the equation. Sasuke and Kushina meant the world to him, but there were things at work that required his attention, too. He had a village to run. His personal feelings came second.
All Minato could do was hope that his family would come around and talk things out with him. Poor Naruto bore the brunt of the uncomfortable vibe in their household as the sole unaffected member of the family. Minato needed to resolve things for his sake, if nothing else.
"Lord Fourth," called a Chunin who opened the door moments after the Hokage jumped to his office. "Lord Fourth!"
"Yeah?" Minato turned to his subordinate. He beckoned them closer. "What is it?"
The Chunin turned over a bound scroll and knelt at his feet.
"This just came by messenger bird for you, Sir."
Taking the scroll and examining it, Minato dismissed the Chunin. He removed the thread holding the scroll together and unfurled it with a held breath. He doubted he had the capacity for any more bad news right now, so he prayed this was nothing that would add a damper to his already depressing morning.
A distinct symbol graced the top of an official letter that was personally addressed to him. When he finished reading the message, Minato's eyebrows pinched together. That was one of the last things he expected, but at least it wasn't bad news. Well, he didn't think so. Minato walked to his desk chair and sat down. The letter's author had given him quite a bit to think about.
Naruto rushed through a quiet and uncomfortable breakfast with Sasuke and Kushina before excusing himself from the table. He wasted no time throwing on his combat gear and leaving the house. The suffocating negative aura that permeated their home was killing him inside. The more distance he could put between himself and it, the better. Closing and locking the door, Naruto took a calming breath of fresh air, then headed out.
He made it to Hinata's place in record time. In fact, he was so relieved to be away from home that he didn't so much as flinch when Neji answered the front door. Not being unhappy to see the guy felt pretty weird, but Naruto wasn't in the mood to care.
"Morning, Neji," he said. He panted as Neji gave him a once-over.
"Naruto," the Hyuuga acknowledged in a flat tone. "Here to see Lady Hinata, I presume?"
"Yeah." Naruto wiped his forehead, staring at the back of his hand in confusion. Somehow, he'd made it all the way here without noticing he broke a sweat. "Huh. I musta' really been bookin' it."
"She's in the courtyard," Neji said with strained civility. "Are you coming in or not?"
Realizing he was standing in the doorway longer than necessary, Naruto gasped. He stepped across the threshold into the main room.
"What," Neji said as he passed, "no attitude today?"
"Oh, please! That's my line."
Naruto headed for the courtyard. He heard Neji click his tongue and walk down a different corridor. The faint sound of a paper divider sliding shut signaled the end of their mutually unwanted interaction.
A sound in the distance grew louder the closer he came to where he was told he'd find his best friend. Hinata was shouting along to the rhythm of dull thumps he couldn't identify. When he rounded the corner and stepped out onto the courtyard, Naruto saw her striking a wooden training post. She hit the post at regular intervals in marked locations.
"Again," said a stoic man standing behind the post.
Naruto's face contorted with disgust as he recognized Hinata's father. The boy almost turned and walked back the other way, but he couldn't do that to Hinata. He promised to come see her today. They needed to make up for lost time due to the away mission, after all.
Hiashi honed in on him after all of two seconds. His Byakugan was on full display, bulging veins scattered across his face in a chilling display of power. Naruto may not have been a fan of the guy, but it was easy to tell with just a glance that Hiashi was very strong. He had to give him that much.
"Ah, Naruto!" said Hiashi in a jovial tone. His stony expression softened into a warm smile. "Welcome! I heard you just returned from your mission. Come join us."
Hinata turned to Naruto and waved. He stayed rooted to the spot, gears turning in his head. What was going on here?
When at last the explanation came to him, he felt like an idiot. Hiashi had a twin brother named Hizashi! The simple detail slipped his mind in his rush to get away from Neji. This wasn't the first time the blond had mistaken the twins for one another, and he was certain it wouldn't be the last.
"Mornin', Mr. Hizashi," Naruto said, striding over to Hinata with his hands in his pockets. He didn't make eye contact. Hizashi allowed Hinata to take a break and greet him.
She gave her best friend a knowing look and whispered, "Again?"
Naruto frowned, embarrassed to have been found out. "Yeah, again."
Hinata's lighthearted giggle would've been cute, had it not rubbed salt into the wound.
"I was assisting Lady Hinata with practicing her forms," Hizashi said. He bowed toward Hinata. "He's welcome to join us, if you'd like."
She let out a nervous hum and shook her head. "A-actually, Naruto and I were supposed to train together somewhere else today. I'm sorry, but let's continue later."
"Is that so? Well, I don't see why using our courtyard for your training isn't an option." He gestured toward the wealth of wide open space.
Naruto found himself baffled by the fact that this guy was Neji's dad. He wasn't the most happy-go-lucky person, but his politeness and Neji's rigid demeanor were like night and day.
Hinata looked at Naruto with uncertainty. "What do you think?"
"I guess there's more than enough space." Naruto shrugged. "Sure, let's do it! Thanks, Mister Hizashi!"
Hizashi nodded. He adopted a subdued smile. However, there was a twinge of something else in his eyes that faded just as fast. "Have a good training session, you two. I'll let Kō know we're done for now, Lady Hinata."
"Of course. We'll give it our best, believe it!" Naruto threw up a thumbs up and tried not to overthink Hizashi's masked emotion. It was probably nothing.
Hizashi excused himself and went to look for 'Big Bro Kō,' Hinata's assigned aide.
"So," Hinata said with a smile, "how was The Land of Waves?"
"Honestly? Kinda fun, but it was very different from here. The weather was so muggy most of the time! Especially during Water Walking training."
"Water Walking? You've learned that already?" Hinata gaped.
"Yeah. Your sensei hasn't taught you guys yet? You got teamed up with Kiba and Shino, right?"
"Um, w-well, Kurenai-sensei wants Team 8 to work on the basics a bit more before teaching us that."
"Hey, that's okay! No need to feel bad. Kakashi-sensei only skipped ahead because he was gonna teach us tree walking, but Sasuke and I already knew it. Sakura didn't, but she learned it in a snap."
"I…see. Great job, Naruto!" Hinata gazed at him with stars in her eyes.
He flexed a bicep, pleased that she was praising his hard work. "Thanks! So anyway, what did you wanna work on today?"
"I want you to throw as many clones at me as you can," Hinata declared with unusual strength in her voice. "P-please."
His head tilted almost automatically at the request. "Huh?"
"I figured out a way that I can push my Hyuga Style taijutsu to the absolute limit."
Eyes bugged out, Naruto said, "No kidding? Wow, you really have been busy while I was away."
Hinata gave him a quick explanation of her plan for taking training up a notch. Then she walked to the far end of the courtyard. Kō appeared in a doorway as Naruto took his place on the opposite side.
"Are you sure about this, Hinata?"
"Yeah, I'm sure."
Naruto paused to wave at their new spectator. "Hey, Big Bro!"
"Morning, Naruto," Kō said with a bow. He had the same lavender pupils as Hinata, but with subtle stress lines underneath his eyes. Being the future Clan Head's guardian would do that to a person. "Glad to see you back safely from your trip." Kō chuckled at the sight of the kids' eyes fixed on him. "Oh, please don't stop on my account. It'll be like I'm not even here."
Both Genin faced each other and bowed to signal the start of their battle. A thought occurred to Naruto. He fished around in his ninja tool pouch, retrieved a few newly smithed Flying Thunder God kunai, and held them up for Hinata to see. Unlike the marks on the handles of his father's kunai, these instead bore the Uzumaki Clan's signature swirl. Thanks to the craftsman heeding Naruto's special request, the kunai were now a memento of both halves of his family tree. Everywhere he went, in a way his parents would be there with him.
"Wow!" Hinata said. "Those are yours, Naruto?"
"Yeah! Just received'em last night. Mom showed me this morning before breakfast. Aren't they the coolest?"
Her emphatic nod and smile made the blond tingle with happiness. There was something about sharing his excitement with her that felt loads better than celebrating alone. Maybe that was how it always was for best friends. Naruto shrugged off the thought and focused on the task at hand.
He scattered his handful of kunai around the battlefield. Hinata stood undaunted, her Byakugan activating as she fell into a wide, combat-ready stance. A slight tremble gave away that she was more anxious than she looked, but she didn't back down the way she would have when they first met. Naruto smiled, pride filling his chest. Then he formed a hand sign and conjured a half dozen clones.
"Here I come, Hinata!" said a chorus of identical voices.
"Right!" She ignored the clones, her eyes darting from one kunai to the next.
In the blink of an eye, one of the Narutos teleported to a kunai on her right. He charged in with a left hook that she dodged with a passive tilt of her head. A simple strike to his chest took him out. Then another clone lunged at her. He was defeated. So was the next, and the next, and the next. One clone narrowly fell short of connecting a hit, but succeeded in throwing Hinata's balance off. This left her wide open for a kick to the stomach. She doubled over in response. Concerned for his friend, Naruto dismissed the clone and ran to check on her. He looked her over, making frantic gestures that she dispelled with a weak grin.
"Again," she breathed, rising to full height.
Naruto sighed with relief. He heard Kō doing the same nearby. "Alright, let's go again. Believe it!"
Over the next half hour, they tried placing the kunai in various formations, forcing Hinata to get used to reacting to strikes from different ranges. The idea was a little rough and unrefined, but it seemed to be working from what Naruto could tell. Hinata was a couple of seconds quicker to respond when one of the clones charged her, and she hesitated less before committing to her next action. Her stilted dodges grew smoother and more deliberate. Still, she wasn't able to evade everything Naruto threw at her. It didn't matter, though; she was gaining confidence and had more battle sense than when they started.
In the middle of the training session, Neji walked out and stood beside Kō. "Hey," he shouted, "you have a visitor!"
Hinata and Naruto froze mid-match and turned to him.
"You mean m-me, Neji?" Hinata said. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment when everyone looked her way.
"No. Naruto." Neji nodded toward the stunned guest staring back at him.
"Wha?" Naruto said. "A visitor for me? Here?"
Unpleasant as ever, Hinata's cousin shrugged. "He says he's here by order of your parents. Now come on. I haven't got all day."
"Neji, manners," Kō said under his breath. He gave his fellow clan member a cautioning look. Neji huffed and turned away.
"Quit 'cher whinin', grumpy!" Naruto grumbled. "I'll be right there."
"I…I'm not grumpy!"
Everyone but Neji shared knowing glances. His face reddened at the silent judgment of those around him. Hinata stifled a laugh, amused by her cousin's irritation.
"So anyway, who did you say was at the door again?" the blond said on his way past Neji.
He didn't make it inside. A thickset, long-haired man stepped out into the light, blocking Naruto's path. The newcomer wore a confident grin accented by red markings under the eyes. Realization dawned on Naruto and his mouth fell open.
"What's that look for?" said Jiraiya the Toad Sage. "Not happy to see me, Naruto?"
"P-Pervy Sage?! What are you doing here?"
Jiraiya nodded to Kō and Neji. "I hope it's alright that I came back here on my own. Hizashi showed me the way."
Kō bowed. "Oh, of course. If it's the Hokage's orders, then by all means go ahead."
Nodding, Jiraiya turned back to Naruto. "Your father asked me to give you some special training today. So I'll be stealing you away for a few hours."
"Please do," Neji said. He received a gentle nudge from Ko that prompted him to bow.
Naruto snorted with distaste over his shoulder. The negativity melted from his face as he looked back at Hinata. He waved and smiled. "Keep it up, Hinata. You're doing a lot better already, believe it!"
"Thanks, Naruto," she said, her gaze dropping to the ground. "Do your best, too."
"You know I will!"
Jiraiya lingered on Hinata for a moment before looking back at the young Uzumaki. "Come on, kid. We've got work to do!"
Their destination was a secluded section of the village. They crossed a bridge that overlooked a massive lake. Dense forestry surrounded the still waters glistening under a bright midday sky. A large, weatherbeaten gate loomed behind Naruto and Jiraiya, and a smaller gate stood at the bridge's opposite end.
'The Training Cave,' as Pervy Sage and Dad called it, was built into a cliffside. Several sets of stairs wound their way up the steep wall of rock. Halfway up one of these flights of stairs, Naruto wiped sweat from his forehead and pouted.
"First thing's first! I'm placing a Flying Thunder God mark here when we get to the top."
"A little exercise never hurt anyone," Jiraiya said, ruffling his godson's hair with a carefree laugh.
Naruto grumbled and kept going, pretending not to enjoy the small show of affection. "What exactly are we doing out here, anyway? Neither one of you has brought me here in years."
"Your father asked me to bring you here after you returned home. I got a letter from him that said you were back, so here I am." Jiraiya frowned. "He wasn't home when I got to your house, but Kushina told me where I'd find you. Speaking of which, are things…okay lately? She and Sasuke were acting a little off."
The blond boy stumbled, almost missing a step in his frustration. Up till now, Naruto had succeeded at pushing the unwanted drama going on at home down into the depths of his mind.
"I'm guessing no?" Jiraiya said.
"You don't know the half of it."
"Well, how about you tell me once we're done discussing why I brought you here?"
Their rest of their trek was uneventful for the most part. The only sound other than their footsteps was a metronome of panting noises as Naruto dragged himself along beside Jiraiya. The Toad Sage, on the other hand, cleared each flight with a cheerful grin and zero signs of fatigue. His long strides could have no doubt outpaced Naruto's with ease, but he hung back every other step to stay in sync.
When at last they reached the entrance to the cave, Jiraiya watched out of the corner of his eye while Naruto pulled himself up over the last step in wormlike fashion and collapsed. The boy let out a weak chuckle, pleased with his victory despite the struggle.
"Once you catch your breath," the sage said, "come over here and observe. Minato has asked me to start teaching you a brand new jutsu."
He strode into the central room of the training complex; a large open space with polished wooden floors.
"Huh?" Naruto mumbled. "A new jutsu?"
He forced himself to raise his head, his interest captured by the promise of a new technique. Even through the fog of exhaustion, his blue eyes sparkled with excitement. He tried to utter an enthusiastic cheer, but this proved too much for him: he fell flat, unable to move while his body recovered.
"Don't rush yourself, kid," Jiraiya said.
He chuckled and sat cross-legged on the floor, then performed the Summoning Jutsu. A scroll popped into existence in front of him. He unrolled it and started filling in a blank section with his ink brush while Naruto recuperated. A minute later, the rambunctious blond was up and moving again like nothing ever happened. Jiraiya sighed. Naruto almost knocked his inkwell over, but the sage sprang into action, sliding it just out of reach.
"Ease up, Naruto!" he said, holding out a hand. "Can't you see I'm busy here?"
"But you promised to teach me a new jutsu, believe it!"
Naruto crossed his arms. Jiraiya grunted, looking from his student to the scroll and back again.
"And I will," the sage said, "but I need to let this ink dry first."
"Yeahhhhh!" Naruto threw a fist in the air and began prancing around with enthusiasm. "New jut-su! New jut-su! New jut-su!"
Jiraiya looked on in amazement, wondering where this sudden burst of energy came from even though at this point, it should have been no surprise.
These Uzumaki are just on another level, he marveled, touching the handle of his ink brush to his chin. He checked the scroll one last time to ensure he hadn't made any mistakes, then stowed away the inkwell and brush. Naruto had just finished setting a Flying Thunder God waypoint and was now sitting in front of Jiraiya, rocking in place with an eager grin.
"Ya ready?" the boy said, pinging with anticipation.
Rolling the scroll up and getting to his feet, Jiraiya nodded. He formed hand signs and sent the scroll away for the time being.
"So what're we learnin', what're we learnin'?" Naruto pressed.
"Today," Jiraiya said as he held out an open palm, "you'll start mastering this jutsu."
A shining blue ball of chakra grew from the center of his palm. The technique gave off a constant, dull whine. Naruto knew this jutsu well. He beamed and hopped with excitement.
"The Rasengan!" he said.
"Yeah," his teacher said, dispelling the Rasengan. "It's the A-Rank jutsu that your father created all on his own."
"Wait, you mean you didn't help him, Pervy Sage?"
Jiraiya laughed and puffed out his chest with pride. "Oh, not at all, Naruto! While I am, in fact, a Sannin, the Great Sage of Mount Myoboku, and pretty amazing in general, I can't take credit for this one. Minato cooked this technique up all by himself."
"No way! Dad's so awesome!"
"Oh! Speaking of your father, mind cluing me in on why things are weird back home?"
Naruto's joy evaporated the moment he recalled the promise he made on the stairs. "Oh yeah." He dropped his arms in reluctance. "We still haven't talked about that."
Raising an eyebrow, Jiraiya crossed his arms and waited.
"Well, you see, I was in my room last night, and Sasuke came in and…"
When Naruto was done catching his teacher up on what he knew about the situation, Jiraiya took a breath. "Wow. All of this happened last night?"
"Yeah! This morning, we had breakfast without Dad. He left early. Ma told me things are different right now because Dad kept secrets, and she and Sasuke still needed to work some things out with him. But she wouldn't tell me anything else. Sasuke either."
"Hm, I see. I'm guessing Minato must have forgotten to tell you I'd be coming to teach you today with all of that going on."
"Uh huh. That's what I figured."
"Anyway," Jiraiya sighed, "Enough about all that for now. Are you ready for some training?"
"Of course I am, believe it!"
The sage pulled another smaller scroll out of one of the folds in his clothing. "Good!" He unfurled the scroll and activated the seal etched into its vast canvas.
Light spilled from the intricate markings. Naruto stood speechless as the chakra storing the sealed entity away was released. Out bounced something circular, which Jiraiya caught with a casual movement of his wrist. The light died and he put the scroll away, then held up an ordinary looking balloon. There appeared to be liquid sloshing around inside.
Jiraiya grinned. "The first step is rotation."
Kabuto strode along a dim corridor that led to his master's chambers. When he reached the door, he noticed it was already cracked open. That was a little unusual. Wary of the possible consequences for assuming entry was permitted, he delivered a firm knock.
"I know you're there," came Orochimaru's smooth voice. "You may enter, Kabuto."
The inside of his bedroom was even darker than the torchlit hallways throughout the hideout. Kabuto clicked the door shut and cleared his throat. He didn't want to waste any more of Lord Orochimaru's time than he had to — and especially not so close to the big day.
"My Lord, there's been movement in that organization."
Snakelike eyes glowed in the dark. Ones that could only belong to his master. In this poor lighting, making out any other features proved impossible. The eyes narrowed in response to Kabuto's new information. Orochimaru hummed.
"Movement? How so?"
"They appear to be fortifying their defenses against a future threat. If what I've learned in my dealings with Sasori is to be believed, their leader is insisting they make preparations."
"Preparations for what?"
"That much I can't yet say, but I have a few theories."
Orochimaru chuckled and stepped closer. He was nothing more than a faint silhouette with gleaming eyes, but even in this poor visibility, his presence was powerful. "I'd expect no less from you. Such a sharp mind."
Kabuto tipped his head in a soft bow. "Thank you, Lord Orochimaru. What would you like me to do?"
"Pay our little pawn a visit. Gather more information, but don't be too obvious about it. Return here once you've learned more. You still have some time before the operation begins."
Nodding, Kabuto turned and let himself out. He closed the door behind him and flattened himself against it to avoid a collision with an approaching crowd. A squad of Sound Ninja bustled past him and disappeared down a connecting corridor. They were holding crates, scrolls, and other paraphernalia. A few rogue Hidden Leaf Anbu followed close behind.
When the noisy procession had passed, Kabuto peeled himself away from the door and pushed up his spectacles. His thoughts drifted to his newest assignment. He hadn't seen Sasori of the Red Sand for quite some time. A rendezvous with him would be an interesting change of pace. Kabuto marched back the way he came, his mouth twisted into a habitual smirk.
The eeriness of Kushina's inner world still unsettled her, even after spending several hours there. The realm felt weightless and still, almost to the point it was unbearable. She sat upright, her posture perfect and her breathing steady as she lulled herself into the proper state for meditation.
Being alone for this step of the process was appreciated. Gerotora had departed the moment Kushina confirmed her jutsu project was a success. Despite agreeing that the concept could be 'revolutionary' to time-space ninjutsu, he wanted no part of what came next.
"I'd rather not find out what the ramifications are of this going too far," he said before de-summoning himself. "Lady Kushina, you never stop. Your wild ideas'll be the death of me."
Most women would have taken offense at a statement like Gerotora's, but Kushina Uzumaki was not most women. She broke into a fit of hearty laughter, almost tripping and landing face first in the water. What might have come across as an insult to anyone else was instead a badge of pride for Kushina. She understood that some of the best ideas were things that at first seemed impossible or dangerous.
All sights and sounds melted into the background. The determined redhead sat at the edge of the barrier around the Nine Tailed Fox's chakra. A series of torii-style gates encircled the mass of chakra. Rather than its usual unstable spasms, the raw energy maintained a rhythmic flow. Translucent strands of chakra wrapped around a floating cloud at the center. The cloud held a uniform shape throughout, as opposed to its former wobbly motions. Kushina opened her eyes and smiled at the successful outcome.
Her relief didn't last long. The moment she was about to enact the next phase of her plan, a tremor ran through her mindscape. The shallow waters sloshed about. Her heartbeat quickened. Kushina did her best to stay composed, but no matter how hard she tried, she felt like she was going to suffocate. She broke form and hunched over in debilitating pain.
Pain radiated from her stomach.
In the real world, a firm hand shook her out of her haze. She blinked a few times and looked up with blurred vision. Sasuke came into focus. He was crouched in front of her in her and Minato's bedroom. His dark eyes held a hint of concern.
"What's wrong?" he said in a low voice.
"N-nothing, Sasuke. I'm-"
Kushina lost her words when, as she was swiping hair out of her face, the back of her hand slid across something wet. She examined it and found a distinct red smudge. A chill ran through her at the realization that it was blood.
"What were you doing just now?" Sasuke said. "Your nose started bleeding out of nowhere."
She broke eye contact and tried to turn away, but his grip on her shoulder didn't relent.
"Say something," he insisted. "You've been acting strange, even before last night. I know this isn't about Minato."
Kushina sniffled to keep her nose from leaking blood everywhere, but gave no answer. Sasuke held his ground.
"Please, Kushina. No more secrets. Not from you, too."
He had a point. She and Sasuke couldn't hold Minato's poor choices and dishonesty against him, but then turn around and lie to one another. Everyone needed to do their part and set a better standard if there was any hope of remaining a family. Kushina and her husband strived for years to cultivate a loving and inviting home, and she was willing to fight to keep it that way. Her actions now could very well determine the outcome of that fight.
Resigning herself, she drummed up the strength to look her son in the eye. "You're right, Sasuke. It's not about Minato. This is something else." He didn't push her to elaborate this time, letting her find her words. She suppressed tears, but her voice broke, exposing the masked emotion. "I wanted to prove I could do this all on my own, but it keeps falling apart, ya know?"
"What does?" He sat beside her, keeping a gentle hand on her back for support.
She curled inward and let out a short whimper. Kushina leaned on Sasuke's shoulder and, at last, let herself break down. He stayed silent, giving her the space she needed to deal with her emotions. Once the crying subsided, though, he pressed for details again.
"What's falling apart? I noticed an imbalance in your chakra with my Sharingan. That's why I came to check on you."
She wiped her tears and sat up straight. "I was trying something new. A new jutsu."
"What kind of new jutsu?"
"One that would keep the Nine Tails chakra in me stabilized. The barrier I needed to create was too difficult to cast in the real world. So I came up with the idea to use someplace more contained." She looked down at her stomach. Realization dawned in Sasuke's eyes.
"Your stomach seal."
Kushina nodded and hung her head.
"But wait," Sasuke said, "isn't that dangerous?"
Rising and heading for the kitchen with a hand over her persistent nosebleed, Kushina said, "Only if my chakra control fluctuates too much."
Sasuke arched a brow as he followed her. "I'm gonna take a wild guess and say it didn't work?"
When she finished cleaning up the mess with a towel, Kushina leaned against the kitchen counter across from Sasuke. "No. Almost, but I…every time I see that chakra, I feel like I'm…I'm…"
"Back there again?"
She froze, stunned by how fast Sasuke caught on. Then she mentally slapped herself. Of course Sasuke would understand the effects of PTSD! His intuitive sense for how she felt made sharing easier, and deepened her already immense love for him.
"Yeah, back there again," she confirmed. "I keep remembering that night and how helpless I felt. I almost died. Naruto almost died, too, ya know! Hell, if Master Jiraiya hadn't shown up when he did, who knows what would've become of us?"
Sasuke stepped closer to his adoptive mother and took her trembling fingers in his hand. "I get it. You know I do. But Kushina, you're here. You're okay. You made it — all of you did."
They stayed like that for a while, saying nothing. The quiet was a comfort. Not having to think, or talk, or do anything other than just exist. Kushina braced herself to weather the storm of yet another panic attack, but was relieved not to go it alone this time.
When breathing became second nature again, she let go of Sasuke's hand. Warmed by his concern, she couldn't help but smile and pull him in for a hug. Sure, Minato and Naruto were there for her, too, but she and Sasuke understood each other on a level the others never could. They each lost everything they ever knew at a young age, and had to pick up the pieces and start again. Now they were part of each other's new families. That was a bond she wanted to protect until her last breath.
"Thank you, Sasuke," she said.
"Of course." Sasuke strode to a high cabinet and pulled down a glass. He filled it with water and handed it to her, refusing to back down until she drank some. "So, why did you invent this new jutsu anyway?"
"Time," Kushina said. Water dribbled down her chin, but she wiped it and continued. "I needed time. Time to study and figure out how to isolate that chakra. Stop it from being a threat. Stop it from making me relive that night." She took another sip of water. Sasuke appeared to be busy analyzing the implications of what she told him. "You see, I'd always kept The Nine Tails caged, because that was my role. Be the vessel that could keep him in check. But now…now he's not here. Only a small portion of his chakra is."
"Yeah. So it shouldn't be an issue, right?"
"Well, it's not that simple. Minato gave me the chakra in an unorthodox way, ya know. There's a safer method for pulling chakra from the Tailed Beasts."
"Yes, but it's not advised. You have to pry the chakra away from the tailed beast by force. There's a high risk of losing yourself, though, if the creature's will is greater than your own. The Nine Tails is the amalgamation of generations of hate and malice. Chakra that potent is bound to be difficult to control." She exposed her midriff. "That's why despite no longer being his host, I still need a seal to subdue the raw chakra. I did some analysis inside my seal dimension, and I discovered that remnants of that hatred and ill intent still remained in the vestige of Nine Tails Chakra Minato gave me. Every time I had an episode thinking back to the night Naruto was born, the seal weakened bit by bit. I saw Lady Tsunade about it, and she told me the fox's chakra was starting to leak."
Sasuke reactivated his Sharingan, took a defensive pose, and stared at her stomach.
"No, no, no!" Kushina half-laughed. "It's not leaking right now! She patched me up. But unless I can get a handle on this and face my fears, it may happen again."
"So that's why you're doing this? To prevent the leak?"
"Yeah," Kushina said. "I used Minato's Flying Thunder God formula as the base for the new jutsu. Combining sealing with time-space ninjutsu allowed me to develop a new kind of barrier. One where hours went by for those inside, while mere moments passed in the real world. That way I could do the soul searching I needed to do, and get a handle on that chakra, as fast as possible. After dozens of rounds of trial and error, I succeeded." She avoided eye contact, knowing a disapproving glance awaited her. "Yes, I know I should have told everyone. I just…I needed to do this on my own. I needed to feel-"
He had hit the mark yet again. Kushina stood amazed, giving Sasuke a slow nod.
"I relate to that need to feel stronger," he said. "You don't want to be made a victim again. It's something Inoichi and I have gone over a lot. But if there's anything I've learned from him, it's not to bottle stuff up and try doing it all by yourself." He waited until their eyes met to finish making his point. "We're here for you, so let us be."
She dropped her arms, ashamed and speechless. Here she was, being admonished and given life lessons by her own son! In sync with her thoughts, he quipped, "Yeah, guess you could say I've grown up a bit."
"A month away from home really does make a difference!" Kushina shot back. "Thanks again, Sasuke. I truly mean that."
"Don't mention it," he said over his shoulder, walking back toward his room with his hands in his pockets. He spun around and walked backwards. "Oh yeah, I forgot to say I'll be heading out in a bit."
"What for?" Kushina called after him.
"Training! Chunin Exam's right around the corner. If I sit idly while Naruto trains with Mr. Jiraiya, he'lll surpass me."
A slow grin formed on Kushina's lips. "Actually, about that, I have an idea."
Sunlight streaked across the cliffside as Naruto slammed a fist down on the hardwood floor of the training site. Jiraiya lounged nearby, writing notes and glancing up at his student every so often.
"Damn it!" Naruto said, hitting the floor again. "I just can't get this."
Jiraiya played with a pencil between his teeth. "You will," he managed to say, his words barely understandable. "Keep going. We're burnin' daylight, kid."
"Well, you could stop looking at that book and help me, believe it!"
"No deal. You have to do this yourself or it's meaningless."
"Do you think you'll have someone to help you during the exams? Sure, you have a team, but so does everyone else. You'll need to hold your own, not rely on Sakura and Sasuke. For all you know, they may have their own battles to fight."
"No buts! You got the first step down, didn't you?"
"Yeah." Naruto puffed out his chest and nodded. "The first step is rotation. Right?"
"Right! Now you need to work on your control. If you made it this far in only an hour, then I'm more than confident you'll conquer this next one in no time."
"But exploding some rubber ball is WAY different than when you gave me a flimsy water balloon to pop."
"Okay. So? Think about this. How can you come up with an effective way to apply that chakra control you honed with Kushina to a task like this?"
"With Ma?" Naruto grunted, searching through the years of training under his belt for something meaningful. "Oh! Well, uh, she showed me how to use seals to isolate, contain and balance chakra or objects."
"And it's possible to modify the area affected, or strengthen a seal, is it not?"
"Yeah! But if you're tryin' to seal away chakra, it depends on the amount and the potency."
"There you go. This follows a similar concept." Naruto lit up with pride at the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge. Jiraiya held up a finger. "But I'm not going to spoonfeed you, kid. Figure it out."
"Okay," Naruto grumbled, kicking at the floor.
"You're the son of The Yellow Flash. No complaining out of you."
The Uzumaki adopted a wide smile. "Yup! You got it, Pervy Sage! I'll work this out in no time. Believe it!"
Naruto wanted to shrivel up under the pressure of this situation. He'd just staked his honor on a promise to his godparent. One that he had absolutely zero idea how to uphold. Sometimes his mouth moved faster than his brain. He glared at the pile of rubber balls in the corner. They seemed to mock him from afar, or maybe that was just in his imagination.
Jiraiya gave his student a satisfied nod before returning to his writing. Sighing, Naruto got back to the grindstone.