Chapter 18: A Test of Wills, Part Two
Kabuto Yakushi strolled into a cavern through its well hidden entrance behind a thicket. Once inside, a series of torches provided just enough light to guide him. He settled onto a bench carved out of the stone wall. A few minutes passed before the one he was supposed to meet appeared. A short, bulky figure ambled into the cave, its long tail casting a shadow that would've struck fear into most people. Kabuto was another story. He calmly stood and gave a bow of acknowledgment to the infamous ninja puppeteer.
"Evening, Sasori," he said.
"You're early, Kabuto," the gravelly-voiced man noted. "It's nice not to be kept waiting."
Kabuto smirked. "Of course. I'm well aware that that's one of your pet peeves."
Sasori settled into the opposite corner of the cave. His hunchbacked figure had an inhuman quality that might have bothered Kabuto if not for the fact that he interacted with Orochimaru's test subjects daily. Hesitant to speak first, the bespectacled triple agent allowed Sasori to start things off.
"So," the Akatsuki member said, "do you have anything to share about Orochimaru?"
"Not much more than you already know. We're extremely busy these days finding new talent to fold into his forces. The Leaf Anbu have assimilated quite well into our ranks. Some have even shared skills with The Sound that they learned while in Root."
"And that traitor's got no idea about our little arrangement?"
Kabuto peeked over the rim of his glasses. "What kind of spy do you take me for?"
Sasori uttered an empty grunt.
"Among other things," the white-haired young man continued, "he's especially worried about you Akatsuki and your plans."
"Oh? He afraid we'll come for him?" Sasori let off a guttural laugh that was hidden by the bandana covering his mouth.
"Honestly, I suspect his suspicion has more to do with Danzo. Danzo's not confident that Itachi won't have shared inside secrets about The Leaf's Foundation. If he has, then Lord Orochimaru thinks there's a good chance your organization could use the intel to move against The Leaf Village before he—ahem, sooner than he was expecting."
Sasori's eyes flitted to Kabuto's, intrigue evident even in his minimally expressive face. "I see."
"So he's been even more careful. Making sure the hideouts are secure, that our forces are well trained…general housekeeping things."
"I know the feeling," Sasori groaned. "Our leader's more paranoid than ever, now that Jiraiya of The Sannin is coming closer to discovering us. Seriously, having all of us learn a barrier ninjutsu just to deal with him is overkill. Why not wait until he shows up, poison him and be done with it?" He gazed upward, daydreaming to himself. "I'd love to add someone that strong to my collection. Between him and The Third Kazekage, there would be almost no battle I couldn't win!"
"Maybe your leader wishes to capture him instead?"
"Hmm. I hadn't considered that. If so, maybe he'll let me have the body after Kakuzu's done torturing The Sage for intel." Sasori perked up at this new possibility. Fueled by renewed hope, he slipped back into his delusions of grandeur. Kabuto veiled his boredom behind a stoic expression. "The barrier is primarily an alarm. It traps the target and is not particularly heavy on offense, so maybe there's still a chance…"
Their conversation drifted back to discussing Orochimaru. Kabuto gave sparse details; current test subjects, vague future plans, but with enough detail to seem genuine, occasional probing questions. Sasori seemed to take the bait, for the most part. When at last it was time to depart, Kabuto was dismissed. Sasori bid him farewell and he started a rehearsed walk out of the cave. His illusion of being under Genjutsu that kept him obedient was working well so far. He needed to keep this up until Lord Orochimaru could secure a new body and move forward with his endgame plans.
"Hey," Sasori called out.
Kabuto froze. Had he been made? This was bad.
I didn't factor in having to fight with Sasori. What if-
"Don't get yourself killed just yet, Kabuto." He let out another hoarse, sinister laugh.
Gulping back his worry, Kabuto marched out of the cave. He didn't release the breath he was holding until he was comfortably out of range of Sasori.
That was a close one. I thought I slipped up.
He allowed himself to bask in his success on the way back home. All that was left was to report what he'd pieced together from the contents of Sasori's many complaints. Orochimaru might request that Kabuto make some last minute adjustments based on deeper analysis of these clues, so time was of the essence. After all, the big day was coming soon. He didn't want to miss out on the action.
Back in the main Akatsuki hideout, Sasori glared at the translucent barrier he and his comrades erected per Pain's instructions. Damn thing was an eyesore, but he had to admit it was a pretty impressive jutsu. Almost like a work of art that one grew to appreciate over time.
"You have news for me?" came a powerful voice.
Sasori whirled around to see Pain staring back at him. He stepped out of the shadows, revealing his familiar fiery orange hair and studded ears, nose, and mouth.
"Maybe," Sasori replied. "Maybe it's nothing, but I didn't want to take any chances on this."
"Tell me everything."
"Right. Earlier this evening, I met with my informant from Orochimaru's inner circle, Kabuto Yakushi. Seems he's keeping something important from us."
Pain leveled an intense gaze on his subordinate. "What do you mean by that, Sasori?"
"He spoke very broadly, but he mentioned that Danzo fellow being worried that Itachi spilled info to you about his time in Anbu Root. Then he talked about Orochimaru not wanting us to attack the village before…before something. Looked like he caught himself giving away too much and moved on."
"And your suspicion?"
"If I know the two of them as well as I think I do, odds are that slithering bastard's planning something big. I don't know what it is, but my guess is it involves targeting The Leaf."
"Then we need to watch Kabuto more closely," Pain declared. He turned to Konan, who stood in the shadows. She was as still as a statue. Sasori gasped, shocked that he hadn't seen her before now. "Konan, find him. Investigate. Be discreet."
"Of course," she said, bowing in deference. Konan activated a secret mechanism to open the safeguarded entrance. Then her body scattered into a million floating sheets of paper. The paper converged into a concentrated wave that floated toward the exit.
Sasori cleared his throat, causing Konan—still in paper form—to postpone her departure.
"One last thing, sir," the puppeteer cut in. He alternated between addressing Pain and his right hand woman. "I coated my designated meeting place in poison. In small doses, it can work as a paralytic agent when activated. I laced it with a small amount of my chakra so if Kabuto ever broke out of his mind control and attacked, I could quickly defend myself by activating it."
"In that case…" Pain turned to Konan. "Follow Sasori's chakra signature. Find out what Orochimaru is up to."
The whirlwind of paper made a flashy exit, spiraling out of sight into the sky.
"Your report is appreciated," Pain said while walking back into the shadows. "Good work."
The leader of The Akatsuki melded with the darkness. His presence faded away. Sasori mused that there were few people he wanted to be less right now than former Leaf Village medic Kabuto Yakushi.
Several rows of masks with intricate designs were on display in the main room of the Uzumaki Temple. A raised platform provided access to the collection of handcrafted relics. Naruto looked at them one by one, mouth hanging open in awe. Kushina smiled and let him take everything in uninterrupted. He had to give it to her; 'sacred' was the exact word to describe the feeling of being in this place. There was an unusual energy in the air. Surrounded by so many artifacts, several of which contained ancient power that he could sense the moment he came within arm's reach of them, Naruto was left humbled.
"So, what do you think?" Kushina said after some time.
"It's amazing, Ma! Believe it." Naruto gasped and pointed to a suit of armor that was on display. "Hey, I recognize that. I think it used to belong to Founder Ashina."
"That's right! Good catch." She walked over to a corner of the room, then pulled a feather duster out of a narrow closet space. Kushina strode along, stopping to dust every other step while she addressed her son. "Every couple of weeks or so, I visit this shrine to clean up and look after things. Outsiders aren't allowed in here without permission, or an Uzumaki Clan escort. Long ago, the people who built this place developed a barrier ninjutsu to alert us if outsiders entered."
Kushina tapped the floor with her foot until she found a loose floorboard. She knelt and lifted a latch, revealing a jutsu formula burned into the aged wood. "Ah, here it is! So Naruto, when it's your turn to take over guarding this place, this is where you'll need to infuse chakra to reinforce the seal. You can also switch it between active and inactive using this sign combination."
Her son's eyes were as big as saucers while he watched her demonstrate the hand sign sequence. The seal had, until now, given off a steady droning sound that was so quiet, Naruto only noticed after it stopped. A faint flash of light died out just as soon as it appeared, confirming the jutsu was no longer active. He gulped and followed his mother's instructions. A gentle hum signaled the mechanism was switched on again.
"Cool," Naruto whispered.
They went through the sequence a few more times to help cement it into his memory. Then Kushina turned her attention to the many masks arranged in neat rows.
"Now that we've covered that, I should explain these to you."
"There's so many. What are they?"
Emerging from the closet where she stowed the feather duster, Kushina cleared her throat. "These, Naruto, are all specially designed masks made by prominent Uzumaki Clan members. Most are purely symbolic and were worn on special occasions, but a few have unique abilities."
"Ooh, which ones?!" Naruto clambered up the steps and leaned in to inspect the first mask that caught his eye. "What's this one do?"
He gagged when a strong tug on his collar pulled him backward.
"Not so fast!" Kushina said. "Some of these are really dangerous. I'll go through all of them with you, ya know. So just hang on."
She did exactly that for the next twenty minutes or so. The majority of the masks were used for ceremonial purposes that no longer applied, but a select few served other purposes. Chief among them was the mask that could be used to summon the Shinigami, or Death God, and free any souls trapped in its stomach. This was meant as a failsafe to undo the effects of the Dead Demon Consuming Seal, which was a forbidden Kage-level technique known to very few shinobi.
According to Kushina, generations ago, Ashina Uzumaki declared that he wished for the Shinigami mask to remain a last resort. She didn't elaborate on what his conditions for its use were. Naruto was much too enthralled with the treasure trove of information she was throwing at him to interrupt her and ask.
"This one was used for celebrating a good harvest in The Land of Eddies. These two were reserved for sanctioned duels to settle disputes. Oh, and this one lets you convert chakra from one person's chakra signature to another's, but it's very hard to control. Even Lady Mito had difficulty with it." Kushina paused to breathe halfway through the summary of each mask's intended use. "That's almost all of the important ones. Got any questions about those, Narut…?" She trailed off.
"What's wrong, Mom?"
Kushina's eyes cut toward the entrance. Her posture straightened and her jaw muscle flexed. She put a finger to her lips. "Stay here until I come back to get you. I think someone's watching us."
Naruto obeyed, scratching his head in confusion as she disappeared through the doorway.
Really? How did I not sense anything?
Whoever was there must have been pretty skilled if even he didn't notice. Sure, Naruto wasn't the best sensor ever. He was still working on becoming as quick as his father with that sort of thing, but the mission to the Land of Waves had shown him he was no slouch. Time dragged on while he waited, shifting from side to side to busy himself with something other than suffering in the dead quiet. His eyes wandered back to the collection of masks, settling on the first one he noticed earlier. Its sardonic grin and pinched brow gave it a certain abstract charm.
Naruto peered into the inanimate face's eyeholes. Other than a pair of long, curved lower canines, there was nothing outstanding about its appearance; at least, not compared to the other equally wild designs. The young Uzumaki found it impossible to explain why he felt drawn to this one. He chuckled, wondering how sharp its teeth were and extending a finger out of curiosity.
"No, not that one!"
He jumped in excitement. Kushina dashed back into the room and joined Naruto on the platform. She put her hands on his shoulders, turning him so they were facing each other. Her face was drained of color. He rarely saw that kind of fear in his headstrong mother's face. Whatever frightened her, it was no doubt something serious.
"Sorry, Ma. I didn't-"
"Naruto, that mask isn't one just anybody can handle. All it takes is one touch and the cursed jutsu on it could kill you! Promise me you won't ever disturb this one."
"Promise me, sweetheart."
He looked into her shimmering eyes. Gulping, Naruto nodded. Kushina breathed a sigh of relief.
"Sorry," she said. "I panicked, ya know."
He looked back at the entrancing mask. "It's okay. What's the story with this old thing? I didn't know it was a big deal."
His mother's gaze went vacant. He could tell she was tapping into a long-buried memory. "Well, you see, whoever puts this on goes through a kind of forced chakra control training."
"That's all? Something like that can seriously kill you?"
"Yes. It has the ability to distort any external chakra, but the cost is too great. If you aren't prepared, it could siphon all of your chakra away before you know it. I touched it as a girl, before I knew too much about this place. If Lady Mito hadn't been there to help, I might not have survived."
"Whoa." Not knowing what else to say, he went for a joke to break up the tension. "Like mother, like son, I guess?" One glance made it clear she didn't find the situation even remotely funny. "Sorry, Ma." Eager to change the subject, Naruto followed up with, "By the way, what was going on outside?"
"I must have imagined it," she said with a nervous laugh. "I'm really jumpy today, eh?"
That was when he noticed something was off. He stared hard at Kushina, trying to place what was amiss. Then it hit him: her hair pin was on a different side! She always put it on the same side. Anyone else would have missed something so minor, but Naruto knew then and there that she wasn't his mother. He tried not to make his change in demeanor obvious, but it was too late. They shared a look of mutual realization.
Switching into combat mode, Naruto reached for his ninja tool pouch. Kushina was faster. She tackled him and held him against the far wall with an elbow. He hated to admit that he hesitated long enough to lose the element of surprise because this imposter was wearing her face.
Damn it! Such a cheap trick, but I fell for it anyway.
"Why don't you behave and I won't have to harm your dear mother, kid?" said a voice that in no way matched hers. Her sneer of confidence filled him with dread.
"W-where's Mom, you bastard?!"
"Safe, for now. If that remains the case? Heh, well, that depends on you."
Naruto struggled to put his hands together so he could form the sign for the Shadow Clone Jutsu. However, his assailant had thought of that in advance. Kushina's impersonator made sure one of his arms was pinned between his back and the wall.
"Unh-uh," said the foe. "Listen. You're gonna sit still while I nab a few of these, or else my friend outside will take her out. Got it?"
When the initial rush of fear subsided, Naruto felt like kicking himself. He had just the solution for this situation!
Duh. Flying Thunder God!
He had taken it upon himself to share a marked kunai with his mom the night prior.
I knew it'd come in handy, but never expected to have to use it so soon. Yay, me!
Naruto reached inside himself for the necessary chakra to teleport, but nothing happened. His heartbeat quickened. Was this the effect of some kind of sealing jutsu?
"Something wrong?" the enemy teased. Kushina morphed into the burly figure of a male Rain ninja. He wasn't anyone familiar, Naruto could tell that much.
"Who the heck are you?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
This guy must be here for the Chunin Exams or somethin'. Well, he's not gonna get the better of me, believe it!
Naruto gritted his teeth. If the guy had cut off his access to chakra, then he'd have to settle it with a good old fashioned slugfest. He strained and pushed back against the hold he was in, swearing he'd make this faker pay for trying to hurt his family.
"Will he be okay?" Kushina said.
She stood next to Iruka Umino with her hands clasped together. The two of them stared at a woman in front of the Uzumaki Temple. She maintained intense focus, barely making a sound. Iruka and Kushina stood on the dewswept grass beside the paved path to the temple while they observed.
"Of course, Lady Kushina. I would never put Naruto in any real danger."
"Yeah, I know." She sighed. "I just hope he can figure this out. It's always been one of Naruto's weaker points, ya know."
"Only time will tell," Iruka said. He indicated the woman standing at the foot of the front steps. "She's the best we have, so he's got his work cut out for him."
Kurenai Yuuhi made a hand sign and activated her chakra network. The jutsu stabilized in seconds. She stopped to breathe. Kurenai took a moment to wipe her now-unkempt, shoulder length black hair out of her eyes. Then something occurred to her.
Naruto could get lucky and brute force his way out, especially with the sheer amount of chakra available to him. If he's anything like his mother, it's best not to take chances. I'll infuse more of my own chakra…
Iruka watched her work in silence. He was no fool. Having learned from his past oversights while preparing challenging scenarios for each Genin, he reached out to The Leaf's queen of Genjutsu. He would entrust the task of testing Naruto before the Chunin Exams to her.
Meanwhile, Naruto's mother grappled with fear over the outcome. Iruka informed her that Sasuke succeeded already. Still, that left his brother. Whatever hellish ideas Kurenai had cooked up, Kushina decided to trust in her son's ability to think and act like a ninja. Naruto Uzumaki was not just any Genin, after all. He was she and Minato's child!
Come on, Naruto! she said to herself. Think it through. Don't let this beat you.
Sakura squinted at her reflection in her bedroom mirror. Hours of stress had sucked the life from her eyes. Sweat mixed with traces of the moisturizer she applied that morning, leaving messy streaks along her sagging cheeks. She cringed inside, but ignored all of this and pressed on. Taking a wider stance, she formed the sign necessary to mold chakra and concentrated. Her forehead creased and the faint outline of veins appeared on her temples. The mental strain was only now becoming outpaced by the physical demands of this task; this would be her last try of the day. Sakura poured as much chakra as she still had in her tank into an attempt at casting a strong Genjutsu.
A wave of energy rippled through her. She visualized her end goal, kept her eyes on the mirror, and waited. One by one, reflections of the objects strewn around her room disappeared from view. Sakura allowed herself a small yip of excitement, but held her stance. All it would take to fumble this attempt was one misstep.
Not this time. Come on!
She eked out the last bit of her chakra reserves that she could spare without reaching critical levels. Back in The Land of Waves, Kakashi-sensei advised her not to overdo it when expending chakra to create illusions. The kunoichi rolled her eyes, hearing his voice in her head.
"Remember, watch your chakra consumption. If you use too much and you're forced into a battle at close range, you'll be in trouble."
He would also make occasional comments on her stance and suggest minor adjustments. Kakashi watched her like a hawk with his Sharingan, correcting any chakra fluctuations until she got used to the 'right' amount of output. Annoying at the time, she had to admit she was grateful for the guidance in hindsight. Drawing on the experience she gained from the sessions with him, Sakura put all she had into this final try. She bit her lip as her body was starting to reach its limit.
The jutsu stabilized at last. Everything behind her in the mirror faded away. Her reflection was left standing in the middle of a dark abyss. Unnerved but also encouraged, Sakura chanced a peek around the room. Every item was in its usual place. In the mirror, everything remained invisible.
"Yes!" she cried, throwing a fist in the air. "I did it!"
Lightheadedness made her fall on the floor in an ungraceful manner. This also reminded her she was low on chakra, because even staying upright was difficult. Sakura smiled in spite of this and got to her feet. Making a hand sign again, she terminated the Genjutsu and watched her reflection return to normal.
"Sakura, are you alright in there?"
"Mom?" Sakura said. "What is it?"
"Everything okay?" Mebuki's muffled voice asked from beyond the door. "I heard some loud noises."
"Yeah, Mom! I'm just practicing something my sensei showed me."
She left out any details about the fresh spin she was putting on the basics he taught her. That would remain her own little secret for now. Kakashi-sensei, Naruto, Sasuke, even Ino Pig…everyone would see what she was capable of next month.
"Oh! Sorry to interrupt, honey. Dinner's almost ready. Come down when you can, but I don't mean to rush your training, Ms. Nominee! I'm so proud of you!"
"Okay, and thanks! Love you."
Her mom left her in peace. Sakura smirked, surging with pride. She realized just how much she was looking forward to the exams. Had Iruka-sensei intended for this to happen all along?
Once her stomach let out a loud growl, Sakura no longer cared to analyze his motives. Her thoughts shifted to the delicious smelling meal wafting into the room from beneath her door.
I hope Mom made the sweet dumplings again!
This was the first day in, well, ever, that she remembered feeling happy about being covered in sweat.
Naruto broke free from his bind with a shout. He rushed forward, not giving his opponent the slightest chance to react. Naruto charged The Rain ninja and tackled him to the floor. Then he whipped out a kunai and stabbed it into the edge of the man's sleeve, pinning him there. Whatever weird jutsu was keeping him from molding chakra wouldn't matter if he only relied on taijutsu. The man lifted an arm and shoved him aside before he got the chance to pin the other sleeve.
Naruto hit the wall. Hard. A few of the hanging masks clattered to the floor around the two ninja as they wrestled for control. However, Naruto found he was no match for this mammoth of a person. The Rain ninja slammed him against the floor, grasping his throat with a meaty hand and applying pressure.
Albeit with tremendous difficulty, Naruto managed to slip his arms from under the guy and form a hand sign, only to find that something was wrong. Just like before, he tried with all of his might to pool his chakra, direct it, and activate a jutsu that would help turn the tide. Naruto was pleased to at least feel a slow trickle building up this time. However, the small amount of accumulated chakra dissolved in seconds.
Seeing the desperation in his eyes made the man cackle. "You're a stubborn little one, aren't you? I may just have to kill you first before I deal with that noisy redhead outside!"
This invoked Naruto's rage yet again, giving him the strength to fight back. They rolled around on the floor for what must have been a full minute, each consecutive shift in momentum requiring less effort on the enemy's part. Naruto grunted when he found himself pinned yet again.
Damn it! I'm losing…energy.
During the struggle, Naruto noticed a strange phenomenon. His chakra control somewhat leveled out when they slid toward a particular corner of the room. The destabilized flow of chakra in one of his arms returned to normal. Naruto turned toward the affected arm and noticed something strange. The closer his hand moved to one of the masks that had fallen, the more his chakra came back to him. He gasped when he brushed a finger against its mouth by mistake, recognizing it as the mask with two long lower canines. The same one his mother warned him not to touch under any circumstances! Sure, some phony may have taken her place, but even before the switch, the real Kushina mentioned that some of the relics here were dangerous. Did that mean something bad was gonna happen to him?
Kushina and Iruka were on pins and needles watching Kurenai pump more chakra into her Genjutsu. All of a sudden, she winced and one of her legs buckled under the weight of an invisible force. Both bystanders rushed to her side. She refused to fall, returning to her upright position.
"What is it, Kurenai?" Iruka asked, placing a hand on her back.
Kushina mirrored his gesture from the opposite side. "Are you running low on chakra, ya know?"
"No," Kurenai panted. "Something's…interrupting the Genjutsu."
In spite of Kurenai's current condition, a small smile crept onto Kushina's lips. "So, does that mean he's…?"
"He hasn't broken out. Don't get me wrong, Lady Kushina. Naruto's still hanging on. He's got guts. But whatever this interference is, it isn't his doing."
The worried mother's fleeting relief vanished. What Kushina hated the most about this situation was that she couldn't get involved until the test was over. If she did, Naruto's results would be invalidated. On the flipside, if her suspicions about the cause of this disturbance were true, then they had far worse things to worry about.
"Please," Kushina said, bowing her head to utter a soft prayer, "don't let it be true."
Having at last taken the brunt of the fight out of Naruto, The Rain Ninja drove a thumb into a pressure point on his neck. The edges of Naruto's vision blurred. He began to see stars. Although he didn't like this, he knew there was only one choice left for him now.
Drawing upon the last bit of willpower available to him, Naruto reached for the mask. The instant his hand gripped the forbidden object, its overwhelming aura surrounded him. Whatever jutsu inhibited his chakra manipulation was cast aside like curtains parting to welcome sunlight. Naruto's entire body flared with newfound energy. The Rain Ninja flinched. Could he sense what was happening, too?
Naruto didn't waste a second. He kicked his assailant off of him and crawled backwards on open palms. The young Uzumaki pulled himself up to a standing position using a support beam. Taking a deep breath, Naruto put on the mask that saved him and formed a hand sign. His adversary rushed in to deliver a lethal blow as everything went white.
The transparent barrier around the Uzumaki Mask Temple dispersed with a soft pop. A gentle breeze blew in all directions, carrying along the released energy. Kurenai exhaled and dropped her arms to her sides. Iruka and Kushina turned to her with expectant stares.
"He did it," Kurenai announced. She gulped, finding her words before she continued. "But I don't have a good feeling about this. Something else is going on here. Whoever comes out of that building…might not be Naruto."
All three of them kept their eyes glued to the doorway. Quiet steps came closer and closer. Chimes hanging from the windows jangled. The otherwise harmless decorations added an extra layer of eeriness to the suspenseful moment. The winds died, giving Naruto's footfalls an almost cacophonous loudness.
One foot came into view, its motion slow and measured. Everyone tensed, waiting for a single second that seemed to last eons. Then the rest of Naruto came around the corner. Kushina had to put a hand over her mouth to keep from crying out at the sight before her.
Her son stood at the top of the steps with confidence, saying nothing. He wore the demonic visage of one of the masks she had passed on details to Kurenai about in order to make the Genjutsu ruse more believable. Kushina figured telling him about the dangers they posed would keep him safe. The last thing she expected was for him to try one on anyway.
So I was right, she lamented. Kushina had a feeling the masks were to blame for the disruption of Kurenai's Genjutsu, but hated that her hunch was correct. Until today, she had never heard of the masks activating on their own. Then again, she'd never given someone permission to cast an A-Rank Genjutsu on the temple either, so the whole situation was unprecedented.
The chilling aura their masked newcomer exuded had all three veteran ninja on their guard. Kushina went for her ninja tool pouch, then caught herself and resisted the urge. She wasn't going to use a weapon against her son, no matter what. Iruka and Kurenai, on the other hand, had no such qualms. They maintained shaky grips on their drawn kunai.
"Stop right there, demon!" Iruka commanded, his voice faltering as he spoke. "Show yourself! Let my student go."
'Naruto' descended the steps unfazed. Shallow breaths came from his mask with each stride. They sounded filtered and unsettling; not at all like the voice of Kushina's sweet boy. She stepped in front of the others, looking into the mask's eye holes and trying to believe her son was still in there. He paused on the final step. His anxious observers recoiled, expecting an attack that never came.
"Hm?" said the inhuman voice. 'Naruto' reached up and removed his mask, exposing the face underneath. He stared back at them, brow raised in confusion. "What's going on here? Mom, I thought you were in trouble! I walked out all menacingly and had a whole heroic plan set up to rescue you, believe it!"
Kushina threw her arms around Naruto with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Naruto! You're okay!"
He stiffened at first. Then he relaxed into the show of affection and patted her on the back. "Yeah, and why wouldn't I be okay exactly? What the heck is all this?"
Reassured that Naruto was not being puppeted around by some malicious entity, Iruka and Kurenai put away their weapons.
"Sorry, Naruto," Iruka said. "It's a long story."
"What are you doing here, Iruka-sensei?"
"We can discuss it later," Kushina said abruptly, holding up a hand. "First of all, what are you doing with that?"
She smacked the mask out of his hand and it landed at the foot of the steps. Gasping, Iruka and Kurenai stared at the object with apprehension.
Naruto looked at his fallen accessory in shock. "Wait, Mom! You don't understand."
"Yes I do. That could've killed you, Naruto!" she sobbed. "Why didn't you listen to me? What if-"
"Whoa whoa whoa," he spit out, talking a mile a minute. "Look, Ma. Some big Rain ninja guy cast a Genjutsu on me so he could rob this place. I tried to break out of it like you and Dad taught me, but I'm still not that good at it. He said he had captured you and, and…"
Kurenai waved. "Hello, Naruto Uzumaki. What you experienced was a Genjutsu cast by me as a test."
"That's correct," Iruka said. "I brought Genjutsu Specialist Kurenai Yuuhi here to administer a pre-enrollment test before you enter the Chunin Exams."
"Oh," Naruto said, snapping his attention back to Kurenai's crimson eyes. "Wait a sec. Are you an Uchiha? How can that be?"
Kurenai smiled, making her burning gaze infinitely less intimidating, and said, "No, Naruto. This is just my natural eye color. I do get that a lot." She bowed. "It's a pleasure to meet the son of The Fourth and Lady Kushina. You're quite the skilled Genin. Most shinobi your age would have given in to the power of my illusions within the first five minutes. Clearly you're worthy of every kind word Hinata has said about you."
Iruka smiled at the exchange. Kushina was busy wiping her tears.
A light bulb went off in Naruto's head. "Hinata? Wait, you're that Kurenai?! Hinata's sensei?"
Kurenai stifled a laugh. "Yes, the very same."
"Cool! Is she going to be in the Chunin Exams too?"
"I nominated her, but the choice has to be left up to each student individually."
"Sweet! I just know we'll both make Chunin, believe it!"
A thick, heavy wave of energy hit Naruto. He hopped down from the steps, cowering at the sight of his mother's splayed tufts of hair. The Red Hot Habanero glared at him, destroying the lighthearted mood and striking fear into everyone. Iruka and Kurenai stood by in stunned silence.
"Naruto!" she growled. Pebbles along the stone path trembled from the mere force she exerted. "I gave you very clear instructions not to touch that mask!"
"I know, Ma, but listen!" he pleaded. "I thought I was gonna die and that the Rain ninja was gonna kill you. The only thing that broke through the Genjutsu was that mask. I felt its power even without touching it…like it was, I don't know, calling to me?"
"Huh?!" she paused and gave him a hard stare.
Naruto stumbled and fell backwards. "Seriously, I promise!"
After a long moment of tension, Kushina's hair fell back into place. Her expanse of powerful chakra dwindled. Naruto wiped sweat from his forehead.
"Impossible," Kushina whispered. She stood in a thinking pose. "That would only happen if…"
"If what, Lady Kushina?" Iruka asked. The expression on Kurenai's face made it abundantly clear that she was at an equal loss.
Kushina looked at the three of them in disbelief. "That hasn't happened since the days of Lady Mito." She walked up to her son and cupped his cheek. "Naruto, that mask has selected you as its next owner."
"Thank you, Yamato," said Minato, placing a stack of paperwork down on the edge of his desk.
Yamato stood at attention in front of the former's desk. His Anbu mask was secured to a clasp on his uniform. "Of course, Lord Fourth."
Minato rubbed his hands together and smiled. "That's the last of the memos for today, right?"
"I believe so. What else do you need from me, sir?"
"No, no, nothing else. Thanks for taking care of that delivery on such short notice. I'm releasing you from duty for the rest of the evening." Minato looked over his shoulder at Genma and Raido, who stood on either side of the back wall on guard duty. "Same goes for you guys. Pass it on to Iwashi for me. I'm heading home in a few minutes."
Genma stepped forward, his brow pinched. "But Lord Fourth, we aren't supposed to-"
"Leave me unsupervised, I know," Minato said, putting his pen back in its holder and tidying up his desk. "But in this case, consider it an order." He locked eyes with Genma, giving him a gentle nod. "I'll be okay for one night."
Besides, he thought to himself, I have something I need to take care of.
Pushing his chair back and standing up, Minato patted down his Hokage coat. "Come in," he said, confusing his subordinates.
Nothing happened for a good ten seconds. Then the door clicked and swung open to reveal four shinobi. The guards and Yamato gasped, surprised by the many orders of magnitude their leader's sensory skills were above their own. The team of shinobi entered the room, the oldest and most experienced of the four heading up the group. The senior member bowed in deference while she waited to be addressed. Genma and Raido looked to Minato for direction.
"You may go," he said, waving everyone but the newcomers out. "I've been expecting them." He turned back to the Jonin standing before him. "Good evening, Team 8. Kurenai, is your mission report ready?"
Yamato, Genma, and Raido hugged the walls and made their way toward the exit. Meanwhile, Kurenai Yuuhi rose to face Minato. She cleared her throat and glanced over her shoulder at her team. "Yes, sir. My apologies for the delay.. I was busy helping with the pre-enrollment test for Naruto."
Hinata became hyperattentive at the mention of her best friend, but didn't speak up.
"Naruto?" Minato tilted his head. "Is he alright?"
Kurenai averted her gaze. "I-I recommend asking Lady Kushina. I feel it's a private matter."
The Hokage's already crinkled brow deepened. He hoped Kushina would be in a civil enough mood to discuss whatever Kurenai was anxious about when he got home. "Okay. Come forward, everyone."
"S-shouldn't we wait outside, Kurenai-sensei?" Hinata said. She looked up at the woman with radiant red pupils and long, wavy black hair. When Kurenai returned her gaze, however, she withdrew and stared at the floor instead.
Minato noted that Hinata was even more meek than usual. Odds were that she was feeling eclipsed by Kurenai's natural confidence. Asking Iruka to place her on Kurenai's squad was a choice he made for this exact reason. Minato thought it might help get her out of her shell. He felt bad for the timid girl, especially because she was next in line to become head of the Hyuuga Clan. In fact, fighting aside, the heiress's shyness was affecting other areas of her life too. Anyone with eyes and ears could tell that she had romantic feelings for his son. Naruto was a lot of things; being perceptive in matters of love was not one of them. So far, neither he nor Hinata had pursued the other in any meaningful way. Not to say it was unusual not to focus on romance at this point in their lives, but they were nearing that age.
I guess not everyone finds true love so soon. Eh, Kushina?
He suppressed a meditative smile and tuned back into Kurenai and Hinata's side conversation.
"I could have taken care of this myself, but I thought you would all benefit from seeing how this process works firsthand." Kurenai smiled down at Hinata, setting her somewhat at ease.
"O-okay," she muttered. "That makes sense."
"So," Minato said with a clap of his hands. "Here's how we handle mission reports."
While he and Kurenai ran through the intricacies of the mission reporting process, Minato's thoughts wandered. He couldn't stop thinking about the more distant of his two sons. In fact, he had been psyching himself up to carry out a secret plan all day. If things went without a hitch, then it would no doubt repair some of the damage done in their relationship. But what if they didn't? Worse still, what if Sasuke wasn't interested? What if he got even angrier? There was no way for Minato to know for sure until he jumped home and asked. The wait was killing him.
Yamato's exit was cut short when a quiet voice called out to him. One of Kurenai's students was looking his way.
"Excuse me," the boy said. He wore a high-collared jacket that muffled his already monotone voice, along with dark shades characteristic of his clan aesthetic. That made him easy to identify with what little information Yamato had on the next generation of rookies.
"Yes? You're, um, Shino Aburame, right?" Yamato paused in the middle of lifting his mask toward his face.
What could this kid want with me?
"That's correct. I was wondering if you are Yamato, the former Root ninja who went on the mission to track down Danzo?"
"Yeah," Yamato said, still waiting for the kicker. "That's me?"
"I thought as much. Your mask matches a sketch from the declassified pages of the mission report."
"You read those? Nobody reads those."
"Yeah, I did. If it isn't too much trouble, I'd like to ask you some questions later. The reason is because on that mission, your squad encountered another member of my clan."
All of the pieces suddenly clicked into place for Yamato. He grimaced while remembering the several shinobi who left home that day, never to return. The darkest memory of all, however, concerned Torune Aburame and his partner, Fu Yamanaka. Both were conned into believing in Danzo's twisted ideology at such ripe ages. Back then, Yamato wanted to save them from becoming what he almost had, if not for the efforts of Kakashi and others. The Danzo Retrieval Mission was a failure that left an exceptional stain on Yamato's pride. Ever since, he'd had to live with the reality that those two young and impressionable comrades, among others, were stuck in an immoral system he was lucky enough to escape.
Yamato snapped back to attention. "Yes, we did. Out of curiosity, were you and Torune…close?" He braced himself for the answer.
Shino was about to respond when Kurenai gestured to him. Minato was gathering their team for an announcement. Yamato assured his boss that they would make it quick and turned back to Shino.
"To answer your question, yeah," the softspoken boy said. "Torune was my brother."
Yamato's ears rang with the weight of this revelation. He stumbled out of Minato's office, hearing a disembodied voice that sounded vaguely like his own announce that he would wait downstairs. Genma, Iwashi, and Raido walked with him from the main office to the first floor, chatting the whole way about their plans for how they would spend this unexpected free time. Their idle chitchat couldn't hold Yamato's attention. Instead, he found himself ruminating on the past.
"Yamato?" said Genma once they were outside. He waved a hand in front of the Anbu operative's face.
"Oh! Sorry. What is it?"
"We were just saying goodnight. You okay?"
The trio looked at him with concern, then shared doubtful glances.
"I'll be alright," Yamato said, holding up his hands. "I just need some air. I've been moving nonstop for the past hour or so."
"Ah," Genma said. He started to say something else, but thought better of it and cut things short. "Well, night then!"
Genma and his teammates stole a couple more long glances over their shoulders until they were out of sight. It was obvious they weren't buying the excuse he gave, but they chose not to pry. He appreciated that.
Letting out a sigh, the ex-Root agent leaned on the wall outside of the Hokage's Mansion. He looked up at the starry sky and appreciated its beauty. In no time, his thoughts strayed from the haunting memories Shino dredged up. Yamato smiled, enjoying the peace and solitude of the moment.
Better enjoy it while I can. Things are about to get very busy around here.
A figure stepped past his peripheral vision. He gasped at the sight of Kurenai, followed by her students. Yamato had been so caught up in his own head that he didn't hear them approach. The kids turned to him before he had a chance to call out to Shino. If they were this alert now, he shuddered to think what the budding sensory ninja cell was capable of with proper guidance.
"Shino, we'll wait for ya and head home together, okay?" Kiba said, nudging his friend with the sleeve of his thick gray jacket. A small dog atop the Inuzuka Clan member's head barked.
"Got it," Shino said. "Thanks."
Kurenai bade her students, the dog—apparently named "Akamaru"—and Yamato goodnight before heading into the heart of the village. Shino stood across from Yamato and allowed silence to reign while he got his words together.
"So," he said after a time, "your team was the last to see Torune? I know it's been a few years, but what can you tell me about that day?"
Yamato gulped. "I guess it depends on what you want to know. What sort of information are you looking for here?"
"I don't know, exactly."
Shino sighed. He made himself comfortable on the wall next to Yamato. "Torune isn't my brother by blood. My father took him in. It was because Shikuro Aburame, Torune's father, died and he had no other close family."
Come to think of it, Yamato did recall hearing about the man passing away many years ago. He hadn't realized that Shikuro left behind any children.
"I guess," Shino went on, "I just want to know what he was like when you saw him."
"Like all of us who grow up in Root. Loyal to Danzo. Devoid of a personality. The ideal shinobi, some would say." He looked at Shino, who was intent on capturing every detail. "He never said a word to me."
"Did you fight him?"
He hesitated before giving a response.
"Yes. Our team clashed with Torune, his partner Fu, and members of Orochimaru's faction. It was a chaotic and bloody battle." Yamato clenched his fists. "We lost good shinobi that day."
"I know. I read that Torune almost ended the mission singlehandedly with his poisonous insects."
"Yeah. You probably read this in the file, but he suffered a single injury: a blow dealt by me. I landed a glancing hit and removed his mask. That's when I realized who he was. I couldn't bring myself to hurt the kid. He and his partner, I…I've been where they are. Danzo twists and manipulates the minds of those under his command. I wanted to save them the way I was saved, but I failed your brother. I wish I could say this to Torune, but since that's not possible, I'll tell you in his place. I'm sorry."
"This isn't your fault."
"I can't help but feel like it is. If I could've just gotten through to them, then maybe…" Yamato trailed off. He didn't know where he was going with the sentence. The Aburame boy offered a hum of acknowledgment.
"If anyone is to blame here, that would be me."
"What? But you weren't there, Shino."
"Torune didn't get drafted into the Anbu. Not at first. Danzo wanted me, not him, but because of Torune's unique skillset, Danzo accepted the negotiation. We may not have been genetically related, but he wanted me to live a happy life and make friends. That's why he gave himself up for me. I'm not exactly sure, but to me, I think we became just as close as any blood relatives. That's why I wanted to find out more about this mission. When I heard he defected with Root, I thought he might have died. Our academy instructor taught us about the declassified mission report archives in the library, and I took a trip there to see for myself. That's how I found out about you."
"Wow. I knew Torune was a decent person, but I had no idea about how he ended up with The Foundation."
"Now you understand. If Torune hadn't sacrificed his life, he would be here in the village right now instead of me."
"Shino, it isn't fair for you to carry that weight on your shoulders. I don't know you very well, but I can tell you're pretty smart and perceptive, especially for a Genin."
Shino zoned out, making Yamato worry for a moment that he might have hit a sore spot. The boy lifted his head a moment later and directed a thoughtful gaze at the night sky.
"I wonder if any part of him is still in there," Shino said. "You said the Anbu erases your personality."
"This may be hard to hear, but your brother is a rogue ninja now. Clinging to old memories will only burden you. You have to look forward, Shino, and decide what you want to do now."
As bitter a pill as it was to swallow, Yamato's message seemed to sink in. The brooding Genin straightened up and nodded.
"I suppose that's true."
Yamato nodded toward Kiba and Hinata. Shino's head followed. His teammates waved to signal that they were still waiting for him.
"Looks to me like you have new bonds to cultivate here in the village," Yamato said. "Maybe the day will come to save Torune and the others. Maybe it won't. But if we let ourselves languish in the what ifs and maybes instead of focusing on doing our best here and now, we won't be ready if that opportunity does present itself. I say you should live the life he earned for you. If you don't, then Torune's sacrifice was for nothing."
Their conversation came to an end at last. Unsure what would be appropriate in this situation, Yamato settled for patting Shino on the back. The three Genin reunited and shouted their farewells before strolling away toward the market district. They fell into easy chatter. Most of the staff at the Hokage's office building were gone for the evening, which was nothing new. The courtyard was typically dead quiet around this time, but Shino and his friends singlehandedly shook up the status quo. Kiba in particular was unapologetically boisterous. He was so loud, in fact, Yamato picked up bits of the conversation even when the students were the size of buttons against the horizon. He heard Kiba suggest going to a restaurant together before heading home.
The wholesome interaction brought a smile to Yamato's face. Team 8 seemed quite familiar with one another after just one month together. Time would only see that bond grow stronger. Even if Shino had difficult times ahead, at least there were good people looking out for him.
A firefly looped past, interrupting Yamato's stream of thoughts. Its soft light guided him like an entrancing beacon until it flew out of sight. Seeing the bug float away brought more thoughts of Torune to the surface. Yamato made a fist, whispering into the cool night air, "I will save you."