Chapter 10: Mutants & Masterminds
Kamizuki Izumo resisted the urge to slump in his seat and rest his head in his hands.
“Ugh, I can’t believe we got gate duty,” Kotetsu groaned, sliding backward in his seat and looking up at the ceiling of their little shack.
“Look lively,” Izumo said, elbowing him in the side. “This is an important mission.”
Kotetsu glared at him but sat up straight. He rubbed his nose where the bandages he wore crossed over it. “Yeah, I know. But we had a sweet gig going with the chunin exams. Looking after a bunch of green genin as they get their hopes and dreams crushed? Easy and entertaining. Compared to this?” He gestured at the empty path that cut through the large gates in Konoha’s protective wall.
“The gate is the first key to Konoha’s defence. As the shinobi assigned to it, we are the heart of that key.” Izumo held up one finger until Kotetsu chuckled at the silliness. “Besides, did you want to risk fighting the One Tail?”
Kotetsu shivered. “No thank you. I was just too young to face the Nine Tails, and I could go my whole life without fighting a beast.”
“I could go my whole life without even seeing a demon, thank you very much,” Izumo added with a sigh.
“Ah, excuse me, gentlemen.”
Izumo looked up. He and Kotetsu had both heard the man approach, of course. It was a good sign that he had bothered to stop for the checkpoint rather than walk right past the two obviously distracted ninja. However, that impression was instantly undermined by the sight of him. Izumo had never seen a man that screamed ‘suspicious’ so loudly in his life.
He was tall and rail thin. He wore an outfit of very foreign make, black trousers and a long black coat which he kept open. Under the coat he wore a black vest and white shirt. All the clothes were finely tailored and spoke of wealth. He wore a small black hat which hid most of his green hair; the short brim was cocked to hide his eyes in shadow.
It was that shadow that really got to Izumo. Something about those eyes lost in shadow made him feel a tightening in his guts. Still, suspicion alone was not an excuse to forget his manners.
“Hello, and welcome to Konoha. What is your business in the village?”
“Also, you’re out a little early.” Kotetsu said, looking at the distant horizon. The sky was just beginning to show a faint rose tint of approaching dawn.
“I arrive with the morning stars,” the man said, holding out his hands to show he was unarmed. “I have been travelling for a long time, and only just recently received an invitation from a good friend of mine. I came to see your marvelous Chunin exams.”
Izumo and Kotetsu exchanged a glance. “You must have missed the news while you were on the road,” Izumo said. “The Chunin exams have been cancelled.”
“Cancelled?” The man tilted his head to the side. His smile never faltered. “Alas and alack. I did so hope to see young hearts compete against each other in mortal combat. I am from a distant land, and was looking forward to evaluating the talents of your ninja to see who could be hired in service to my masters.”
“Well, we hate to disappoint you,” Kotetsu said. He did not sound like he was sorry at all. Perhaps those shadowed eyes and happy smile made him suspicious as well.
“Ah. I don’t want to waste my time.” He rubbed the back of his neck, still smiling. “I have thirty days of spending money on me, and it would be terrible if I didn’t get to see some ninja in action. Perhaps I can stay around and interview some of your people for potential long-term missions?”
“And… where would we be sending them?”
“It’s a very foreign land,” the man replied. “I suppose you could say I come from a place called… Boundary. And of course, it is only polite to identify myself. Call me Hazama.”
Ino kept trying not to be impressed by the level of sophistication shown by Sakura’s inner world. If she was really going to be spending three years in this place, then one day it would probably all seem mundane to her, but for now she couldn’t entirely suppress her awe.
Take the “dojo”, which Sakura treated with casual ease as if everyone in the world had access to things like this. The building had been located on the outskirts of the simulated village, roughly where the Forest of Death would have been. It was massive: a complex covering the entire region, shaped like a giant dome made of interlocking hexagons. The inside had been made up of a series of hexagonal rooms which Sakura had led them through one after another. Each room had been filled with a different environment, from an icy glacier to a volcanic mountainside. Eventually Sakura brought her to a room that resembled a typical Konoha training ground, a wide grassy field surrounded by modest trees and a small creek.
Ino glanced at her guide as they came to a stop in the centre of the field. To her surprise, it hadn’t been the teenage version of Sakura. It had been the scandalously-dressed version of her, one of the ones that looked like an extremely well-proportioned young woman. She spun in place and held up one finger.
“Right, Ino. Before we begin, do you have any questions?”
“Why are we even bothering with training?” Ino crossed her arms. This Sakura had shown up outside her room and dragged her here in the morning. She had also provided her with a change of clothes: a loose white workout gi, under which she wore her haptic bracer.
“Good question. The obvious answer is that no amount of physical conditioning will impact your meatspace body. But while your body’s control system is maturing to the point you can inhabit it again, it’s important that you train your mind as well to deal with its quirks and abilities.”
“Quirks?” Ino narrowed her eyes.
“Yes.” Sakura began to pace in a short line, gesturing with her finger like a lecturer. “Your body is going to be a lot stronger and faster than you remember, and can be better still. However, unlike your old body you won’t be able to lower this power below a certain level.” Ino raised an eyebrow. “Your physical conditioning is impressive… for a pre-teen girl, but most of your superhuman strength and ability comes from channelling chakra through your body. The strength of your new form is built on unbending physical laws that have been exploited to the maximum. Your unassisted strength is intense enough to shatter bones or bend steel bars. But if you don’t learn to regulate it, you could break someone’s hand by shaking it.”
“And how is this place supposed to help me do that?” Ino shifted in place, not certain how to feel about this.
“Simple: this dome marks the edge of a simulated space where the normal rules of physics are more flexible.” She smiled and crossed her arms under her chest. “We still don’t know how you are even here, much less how your spiritual presence will react if your simulated body is actually damaged. Further, unlike my avatars in the simulation you’re not hooked up to Anima Invictus’ program directly, so we can’t just edit your body to give you superpowers on demand. Thus, this place.” She waved a hand around. “We can’t adjust you, so we have to scale the rest of the world to match. Instead of multiplying your strength by five or ten, we can divide the weight and resilience of people and objects so that mathematically they work out the same.”
“Okay, I think I get the idea.” Ino picked up a stick from the ground. “So basically you can make this stick easier to break?” With a twist of both hands Ino managed to snap it, though it was harder than it should have been and took her three tries.
“Yeah. But first, let’s establish a baseline.” The woman looked up. “Ai, load NPC Real Ninja, please.”
There was a flicker, a flash of white and black static, and then a man was standing there. He was taller than Ino or Sakura, with a whipcord body. He wore baggy black clothes and a scarf wrapped around his face so only his eyes were exposed.
“This is a normal human martial artist with regular conditioning and no enhancements.” She stepped out of the way. “Punch him as hard as you can.”
Ino’s lips thinned and her fingers creaked as she squeezed them into a fist. With a cry she dashed the dozen paces and drove a haymaker straight into the unmoving ninja’s cheek. His head snapped to the side and his body leaned back… and caught itself and rolled back to the previous position. His head turned and he looked down at Ino. Ino gasped and rubbed her knuckles.
“What is he made of?” she asked.
“Ones and zeroes, but he simulates normal human physiology.” Sakura walked around her and held out her hand. Ino reluctantly allowed her to hold her wrist and turn it around. “Interesting.” She allowed the hand to drop and stepped back. “Your form is very technically proficient. You did about as well as a girl of your body mass can be expected to do against a man who outweighs you by forty kilos.”
She gestured to the side and made a strange hand sign and one of those floating screens – “holographic” was the word Sakura had used – appeared. Ino tilted her head to get a better look and saw that it was a complete anatomical model of her own body, or her modified body. Sakura glanced over her shoulder and with a gesture spun the screen so Ino could see.
“It appears that anything that happens here in simulspace is reflected in your meatbody,” Sakura said. She gestured again and the screen zoomed in on Ino’s hand. Ino couldn’t make heads or tails of the display, but she nodded as if she understood. Sakura’s indulgent smile showed she had seen through her, and Ino felt herself blush. “The good news is that your self-repair systems are correcting the damage as quickly as they are supposed to. How does your hand feel?”
Ino stretched the fingers. Where before they had ached from crashing into the man’s cheekbones, now there was no pain at all. “I feel perfectly fine.”
“Good.” Sakura waved her hand, the screen turned to her and the display changed. She fluttered her fingers through the image, causing lines on the display to shrink and grow as she moved. “Okay, so that is your normal strength. I’ve adjusted the NPC to reflect your new enhanced strength.” She walked away and gestured for Ino to proceed.
Ino took a deep breath and bounced on the balls of her feet. She considered dancing a few steps backward to get the same kind of run up but decided against it. She just planted her feet, firmed her legs, twisted her hips and made the line with her shoulder. Then with a loud kiai she drove her fist into his face again.
His head exploded.
Ino shrieked. She landed on her behind, blinking through the blood and… other things. Sakura tapped her screen and the headless body lying on the ground vanished, along with all the awfulness on Ino. She jumped to her feet before Sakura could speak.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT!?”
“I wanted you to get an idea of how strong you will be,” Sakura said calmly, crossing her arms again.
“And you thought making me KILL SOMEONE would do that!?” Ino felt her eyebrows twitching and her jaw clenching so tight her neck ached. “Don’t you know anything about psychology?”
“Actually I have taken enough courses to qualify-“
“Obviously not!” Ino poked her in the solar plexus. “By all the gods, Sakura. I could see his damn brain. Do you want to give me a complex?”
Sakura had the decency to look slightly embarrassed. She scratched her chin. “Maybe Sakura Martial was the wrong choice, after all.” She held up one hand and waved it aside. There was a flicker of white and black static, and she was now wearing glasses and a lab coat. She adjusted her glasses with one hand before grinning. “We’ll take a scientific approach!”
Ino stepped away, uncertain how to take this. She had heard Sakura’s words last night, but seeing it in action was another thing. It was a complete shift in body language and tone of voice.
While Ino had been reflecting on the chameleon personality of Sakura, the pink-haired girl had been busy, gesturing and bringing up a series of screens, tapping them with rapid finger motions and then gesturing them closed. With a final flick all but one screen closed.
“Okay. It’s not as cinematic but it’s far more accurate,” Sakura gestured to an open space and in more static a set of free weights and other exercise equipment appeared. “Let’s set some benchmarks,” she said and grinned eagerly, rubbing her hands together.
Sasuke followed Kakashi up the river. Water rippled outward on the surface with each of his steps, while Kakashi’s tread left no sign of his passage. Sasuke frowned and resisted the urge to deploy his Sharingan eye to see if there was some sort of trick to it.
The ravine they travelled through was covered in large, jagged spike-like protrusions leading all the way up. Sasuke looked up, shading his eyes against the rising sun with one hand. There was no way this ravine was natural. It had to be some sort of result of a jutsu.
“And here we are,” Kakashi said. They had walked into a pond formed at the bottom of the ravine. A waterfall fell down the escarpment from some place far up and out of sight, explaining both the pond and the river together. Sasuke wondered if the river above had once wandered in an entirely different direction. Beyond the waterfall and its surrounding pond, the river continued down the artificial canyon opposite the way they had come in.
Kakashi unlimbered his carry pack and threw it to the side. The straps looped entirely around a rock spike with unnatural ease. “Well, what do you think?”
Sasuke looked around. There were no shores or other land, only the walls with their spiky sides. Walking over, he rubbed a hand against the sheer rock, his fingers coming away slick. “It’s an interesting place for sparring. Constant chakra expenditure to stay on the surface would make it more of a workout.” Sasuke tried to stick his hand to the rock with chakra, but found it almost impossible. The tree-walking jutsu required an exact level of chakra, but the film of water on everything meant that you needed to use the water-walking jutsu as well, which meant you would lose adhesion to the rock fairly quickly. “And no way to escape up the sides, either.”
“Perhaps.” Kakashi nodded idly and crossed his arms behind his back. “If the intention was to fight each other. Maybe we’ll do it here, one day.”
“If we’re not going to fight, what are we going to do?” Sasuke crossed his own arms and stood on the water in a partial slouch.
“We’re here for two reasons,” Kakashi said. “The first is to build up your chakra.” He held up one finger. “The second is to teach you that there are no shortcuts.” Sasuke snorted. “You can dismiss it all you want. But for this training exercise, the only way out… is through.” Kakashi pointed at the waterfall.
“What?” Sasuke looked up the waterfall. “You mean… climb up the waterfall?”
“No.” He shook his head and pointed towards the waterfall. “Not up, through.”
Sasuke stared, aghast. “That’s impossible.”
Kakashi chose not to respond to that directly. He began to walk towards Sasuke. “Chakra is made up of two elements. Physical energy, which we call stamina, and mental energy, which we call spirit.” He waved his hand around.
“Physical energy is produced by the cells in the body. Your cells have tiny energy conversion organelles inside them called mitochondria. These organelles convert oxygen and nutrients into energy which is used to drive your body; it allows your cells to do all their work, to reproduce and grow and perform all your physical activity.
“But this system is not perfect. Your cells produce a great deal of waste energy, more waste energy than actual energy in fact. Your internal chakra network absorbs this waste energy, forming one component of chakra. We call this stamina. The way you improve your stamina is through conditioning: muscle training and aerobic exercise.
“The trick is that as you exercise, you use more and more of your chakra to take over for your regular metabolic activity. Since chakra is a lot more efficient than mitochondria, this means that your chakra network can harvest more and more ‘waste’ energy. However, there is a downside.” Kakashi spread his arms once he was within reach of Sasuke. “Can you figure it out?”
“Chakra exhaustion,” Sasuke said with grudging respect. “If your chakra network is taking over for your normal metabolism, then draining the chakra network too much to perform jutsu will mean those processes break down.”
“Cor-rect!” Kakashi nodded and turned around to walk about in a circle. “This is why if you try to force a jutsu that you don’t have the energy for, it not only won’t work, but it could very well kill you. In fact, with enough stress your chakra network will drain the metabolic energy out of your cells, causing massive necrosis of the system.” He looked over his shoulder. “That is the principle behind the Eight Gates, which I will not be teaching you.”
“So are we going to get on with it?”
“I’m not quite finished.” Kakashi gave him a patronising look. “You seem to have skipped out on basic knowledge, like listening to your sensei, so indulge me.” Sasuke grunted again and looked off towards the waterfall.
“The second component of chakra is spiritual energy. Now, do you know where it comes from?”
Sasuke frowned. “Mental training and experience,” he said.
“Correct but insufficient.” Kakashi slid into his view. “How does mere knowledge produce energy?” Sasuke narrowed his eyes, but had no answer. “The answer is that it doesn’t. Spiritual energy is produced by one and only one process – concentration.”
“Yes, that’s why the tree-walking and water-walking jutsu are considered the stepping stones to truly mastering your chakra. They don’t require very much chakra at all, but they do require a great deal of concentration. The act of concentrating your attention on a single task generates spiritual energy, which flows into your chakra network. Unlike stamina, it is not constant and flows up and down based on your attention level. It’s weakest during sleep, and strongest during intense meditation.
“The reason you study and develop life experience isn’t because it helps directly with your chakra, though it has side benefits much like physical conditioning does. The reason you do it is because intense study and the focus of true experience helps to build your ability to concentrate and thus raises the maximum peak spirit you can produce. This is why the academy focuses so much attention on rote memorization and logic problems that would seem to have no direct use for a combat ninja. It’s not the information, it’s the focus it builds that is important.
“Ironically, this is your weakest area. As a genius, you breezed through the academy without much need to develop that intense focus. Though your personal training certainly helped.
“The ratio of spirit to stamina determines the type of chakra released by jutsu and so on and so forth, yadda yadda yadda.” Kakashi waved that part aside. “That’s not really important here. What is important is that I think I know why your chakra wasn’t developing in the accelerated time field.”
“And?” Sasuke was growing impatient.
“Basically, for some reason the field doesn’t produce sufficient concentration. Your body ages and develops and your stamina is increased as a result, but being outside of the normal flow of time means that the energy produced by concentration is not reaching the same peak. In short, because it removes the pressure of time it also removes the pressure of focusing to achieve, which means that you don’t get that spiritual energy peak intense training should. Thus, your ratio of stamina to spirit is off and you end up having to use far more stamina than you should. This can be catastrophic as you could lose control of your jutsu, just like you did with your genjutsu against Gaara.”
Sasuke grunted. He supposed it made sense. Hardship developed power. If there was one thing That Man had taught him, it was this truth. Sakura removed a lot of hardships, so it meant his power wasn’t growing as it should. “Okay, I’ll accept that.”
“Now, that’s just my guess, but I figure this training is the best way to prove it.” Kakashi stood in front of the waterfall. Despite the mist and constant splashing as the great torrent fell into the pond, he didn’t seem to get wet. Handy trick, that.
“That’s why you are going to walk up straight through the waterfall. Not on it, though that would be impressive. But the constant pressure of all that weight bearing down on you will be excellent physical conditioning. Further, the wall under the waterfall is entirely full of jagged spikes that have been broken and worn by decades of falling water. The stone could be adhered to using the tree-walking jutsu, but the film of water on it means that you also need to perform the water-walking jutsu at the same time. Maintaining two jutsu at the same time would require concentration enough, but you will be entirely unable to see the wall due to the water pouring down into your face at all times. It will require yet further concentration to memorise the uneven and treacherous surface hidden behind the water.
“And best of all, your Sharingan will be entirely useless to you here. You won’t be able to see, and there is no trick to steal or pattern to memorise. The water will just come down. No tricks, no shortcuts, no special methods. Just sheer determination and effort between you and the top.”
Kakashi gestured to the bag. “Food for when you need to take a break. Good luck.” he made a hand sign and vanished in a puff of smoke.
Sasuke walked to the waterfall and looked up. The top of the waterfall was lost in the shadows of the cliff far above. No way of knowing how much progress he was making until he reached the top. He grunted and rubbed his nose.
“Fine. Challenge accepted.”
“Wait, I’m confused. I thought the idea was to stop using the fox’s chakra?”
Sitting cross-legged and cross-armed, Naruto frowned and squinted as he looked back and forth between the flat-faced guy and the other guy who he’d brought along with him. He pounded one fist into his palm.
“Aha!” He jumped to his feet and pointed at the other one. “And what the hell is this glasses guy doing here?”
“I’m here to teach you,” the man replied with a disgusted tone. He adjusted his black wire-rim glasses with one hand. He wore neck to toe black; a bandana on his head covered his hair. “I am an expert at teaching.”
“Aren’t you the guy who is a super closet pervert?” Naruto asked suspiciously. He leaned in, thrusting out his jaw.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” the black-glasses guy said, adjusting his collar. He glanced at Yamato, who was smiling slightly to himself. “I’m a respected specialist jonin who has perfected the art of teaching ungrateful brats like you what they need to know to be superior shinobi.”
“No, I’m pretty sure you were that pervert!” Naruto insisted. “You were messing with Konohamaru and I used that jutsu to get you to back off. Here, I’ll prove it!” Naruto made a hand sign. “Sexy-“
There was a snap and Naruto found his hands pulled apart: the man was standing in front of him, holding his wrists. “As I said…” He was blushing very faintly. “I’m here to help you with your… special training.” He released Naruto’s wrists. “Since you don’t remember me, my name is Ebisu.”
“Ebisu?” Naruto was still giving him the stink eye.
“You could say it with more respect,” Ebisu muttered.
“Anyway, I thought Yamato was going to teach me?” Naruto pointed at the flat-faced guy. “Kakashi sent him special for me while he trains Sasuke.” Naruto managed to keep most of the bitterness out of his voice. “Isn’t that right? I only want to work with Kakashi’s friend!”
“Naruto…” Yamato looked down, rubbing his hand over his face. When he looked up, disturbing shadows covered his face. “Respect your teacher,” he said in a hollow voice.
“GAH!” Naruto staggered back, clutching his heart. “That face is super creepy!”
Yamato continued to stare at him intensely and speak in that flat monotone. “Naruto, I am not a teaching jonin like Kakashi. So I managed to convince the Hokage to assign the best teacher in the entire village to you. Now show some gratitude and obedience.”
“Fine, okay, okay!” Naruto backed away holding up his hands in surrender. “But if Ebisu is going to actually do the training, what are you here for?” He looked around. “And why are we in this place?”
They had gone far from the village. It had barely been dawn when Yamato and Ebisu had dragged him out of bed, but now the sun was burning high overhead. The area they had taken him to was barren: nothing but sunblasted rock and pillars of more rock rising around them.
Ebisu adjusted his glasses with two fingers. “The reason we came to this, the most remote training ground in the entire village, should be obvious when you remember the reason for this training.”
Ebisu’s eyebrow twitched. “As I’m certain Kakashi told you, the purpose of this training is not to teach you a new jutsu. It is also not to suppress the Nine Tail chakra. Somehow, the seal placed on you by The Fourth Hokage has weakened, and the monstrous chakra of the demon fox is leaking out into the rest of your chakra system.
“This training is not about suppressing that chakra. It would take more chakra than any normal shinobi has to repress the power of the Nine Tails. Instead, we need you to master and control it. So that even if it leaks into your body, you don’t lose control of your actions.”
Naruto looked down at his hands. “Control the fox chakra…” He looked at them both. “Is that even possible?”
“That depends on your will,” Ebisu said. “The original purpose of jinchuriki was to turn the uncontrollable power of the tailed beasts into a force that could be harnessed by the ninja villages. The process of sealing a beast inside a human would be pointless if the host could not use the power. The precise nature of the interface between man and demon depends on the exact seal used, and no one fully understands the seal used on you.
“However, since the Fourth Hokage designed it and he was perhaps the most skilled fuinjutsu master since the fall of Uzushio, we presume there has to be the ability to control the demon’s chakra.”
Naruto looked at him for a long moment. Finally he shrugged. “Okay, I didn’t really get much of that. But you’re saying the Fourth made me able to control the chakra?”
Ebisu sighed. “Yes. Basically. The trick-” He held up one finger. “Is figuring out the trick.”
“And that is why I am here,” Yamato said. His hands began to flash through a series of seals. He sat down lotus-style and then held one hand out towards Naruto. A kanji appeared on his palm, and the ground around him cracked and groaned as eight wooden pillars with stylised dog heads rose around him in a circle. One by one the giant wicks on the tops of the heads lit. “This jutsu was developed by the First Hokage to help control the power of the jinchuriki. With it I can sense the build up of tailed beast chakra, and if it starts getting out of control we can drain it away into the earth. Like grounding out a lightning bolt.”
“Now we begin your training,” Ebisu said. “And to do that, we are going to break rocks.”
“Break rocks?” Naruto looked around him. Nothing but rocks in all directions. “Well, we came to the right place, I guess.”
“Don’t be cheeky,” Ebisu said. He picked up a hand-sized stone and frowned at it. As Naruto watched, the rock began to vibrate, and with a sharp crack it crumbled into a dozen pieces. “You won’t be breaking rocks with your strength. You are to break them with your chakra.”
“Oh wow!” Naruto ran over and began to shift through the rock shards with his hands. “So, awesome earth-based jutsu?”
“No. Not Earth. You will be learning the Yang Release.”
“Yang?” Naruto looked around. “Release?”
Ebisu looked at him then at Yamato, who shrugged. “Did nobody teach you about nature transformation, the elements, yin and yang?”
“If I say yes, will that make you stop talking and teach me a cool jutsu?”
“I’m beginning to sympathise with Kakashi,” Yamato muttered.
“Right, I’ll skip the proper explanation and try to simplify this…” Ebisu rubbed his chin in thought for a moment. “Okay. You know that chakra is made up of physical and spiritual energy?”
“Oh yeah!” Naruto smacked his palm. “Sakura taught me that in Wave Country!”
“In the ancient terms, we refer to physical energy as Yang and spiritual energy as Yin. So the combination of the two is called Yin-Yang Release. It is the basis of all jutsu.
“By altering the proportion of Yin to Yang, you can specialise the energy produced. If you purify the physical energy and minimize the spiritual you produce Yang Release. If you purify spiritual over physical, you get Yin Release.”
“What does this have to do with breaking rocks?”
“Well, Yin Release is your weakest jutsu.” Ebisu performed a series of hand signs. “Bunshin no Jutsu.” In a cloud of smoke, two identical copies of Ebisu appeared next to him. “The clone jutsu is the most basic Yin Release, which was your worst technique in the academy. So it would be a waste of time to try and teach you Yin Release.”
“But shadow clones are my speciality!” Naruto made the special hand seal and performed the jutsu. “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” In a burst of smoke, a half dozen Narutos were standing there. That would show pervy sensei!
Ebisu shook his head. “No. Kage Bunshin is a Yin-Yang technique.” Ebisu picked up two pebbles. He tossed one towards one of his clones, which passed completely through it. Then he flicked the other at a Naruto clones, which bounced off its face and prompted the clone to yelp and slap the cheek. “The standard technique is primarily spiritual. It’s an illusion and thus has no physical presence. Your shadow clones are an illusion imbued with physical presence, a yin-yang technique.”
Naruto dispelled his clones and rubbed his own cheek.
“The replacement technique is another yin-yang technique. It imbues an object you have prepared in advance with your physical energy, and brings out that energy in the form of an illusion while you escape.
“The other basic academy technique is the Transformation technique. That is a Yang style technique, which creates a physical change in the body. I hear you are… good… at transformations.” Ebisu adjusted his glasses. “So that is why you will focus on Yang Release for this training.”
“But if I already know Transformation, then don’t I already know Yang Release?” Naruto frowned.
“In a way. The Academy Three are taught specifically because they are the fundamentals of all ninja arts. That’s why they are taught in that specific order. Replacement for the basic ninja art, then Transformation and Clone for the use of Yang and Yin respectively. With mastery of these foundations, you can theoretically master almost all jutsu.
“But performing the simplest Yang technique is far from using the true nature of Yang Release.” Ebisu picked up another rock, and in a puff of smoke it transformed into a teacup. “Break this.” He tossed it to Naruto.
Naruto shrugged and dropped the cup. As expected, the delicate porcelain shattered into pieces on the hard ground. With a puff of smoke, only the rock remained.
“Did you see it?” Ebisu asked.
“See what?” Naruto asked.
“The transformed rock took on the properties of the delicate tea cup, but when the jutsu wore off it had no damage at all. That’s because while Transformation can bestow properties of other objects or materials, that process is ultimately an illusion. You are imposing a new nature over the old nature, and when that nature gets damaged the underlying object is revealed.”
Ebisu reached down and picked up the remains of the rock he had broken earlier. “Yet what I did was bestow the properties of delicate porcelain to a rock, and with the slightest pressure… it cracked. And remained so.”
Naruto let out his breath in awe. “So what you’re saying is that I can actually change an object’s nature?”
“Correct.” Ebisu walked over to one of the stone pillars. “Your training will be complete when you can crack this entire pillar like a tea cup.”
Naruto’s jaw dropped. “The… entire thing?” He looked up. It had to be four stories tall and two meters wide.
“The amount of chakra it will take is immense. More than you can possibly use on your own. To change the material nature of this much stone will require you to control the tailed beast’s chakra.”
“You’re saying I can master this…?” Naruto said.
“Honestly, no.” Ebisu sniffed. “It can take trained ninja decades to master this level of nature transformation. But the point isn’t to master this technique. It’s to use enough chakra to draw out the tailed beast. Do you understand?”
“Understand?” Naruto grinned viciously. “Don’t underestimate me! Not only will I control the fox’s chakra, but I’ll master this Yang release as well! Believe it!”
“So I guess the rumours are true then?”
Kimimaro nudged the body of one of the Sand ninja. It was one of dozens scattered across the landscape in various states of dismemberment. A few were still groaning, but Sakon was methodically moving from body to body, driving his kunai through their hearts.
“Why else would the Sand Nin turn on us so openly?” Kidomaru said. He was slumped against one of the rocks, breathing heavily. His six arms were splayed out over the rock and his dark skin contrasted with his simple white tunic. Kimimaro glanced around. All of them were obviously at their limit. It was only to be expected: fighting nearly two dozen jonin and chunin was not an easy task. All of them had been forced to release to level two during the brief but bloody battle.
“Pathetic weaklings,” Sakon grumbled as he finished off the last of those who had been clinging to life. Like Kidomaru, he wore an off-white tunic and a thick purple rope wrapped around his waist and formed into a bow behind his back. Unlike Kidomaru, he wore a black undersuit that reached to knee and wrist. He had short purple hair and a second mop of it stuck out of his back just below his neck. “They lose contact with their precious Kazekage and they lose their heads entirely. This was nothing but a desperate bid to throw off any suspicions from Konoha.”
“Fucking piece of shit,” Tayuya said, kicking at one of the bodies. Her shoulder length red hair came out in a mess from under her black skull-cap with its three attached pipes, including a long lock that fell between her eyes. Her tunic was slightly pinker than the other Sound ninjas, the only real concession she made to femininity. She kicked another body, flipping the mutilated corpse over. “These assholes think they can blame everything on us? Like the fuckers didn’t agree to go along with the plan out of their bullshit pride!”
“Language!” Jirobo said, frowning at Tayuya. He was the largest of them all, his body thick with both fat and muscle. He was mostly bald except for an orange mohawk and strips of hair above his ears. He wore a pair of black trousers under his tunic. “Don’t blame them.” He held a body in each hand, the shinobi twitching as their chakra was siphoned away. He discarded the husks when he was finished. “Besides, they were just following the orders of the Kazekage to betray Konoha and team up with us.” He smirked and stood up, the only one of them that looked fresh and ready to fight now that he had fed. “It wasn’t their fault that Lord Orochimaru killed their Kazekage and impersonated him.”
“Their weakness was their fault,” Sakon said. He rubbed his shoulders. “Still, that took a lot out of us. If Kimimaro hadn’t been here…”
“Yes.” Kimimaro scowled. “But I fear for Lord Orochimaru.” He leaned down and picked up a particularly mutilated body. “This one said that Orochimaru is dead.” He dropped the dead shinobi to the ground. “That can not be.” He turned away and suddenly slumped over. He coughed, the violent motion sending waves of pain through his body.
Curse this useless body, he thought as he struggled to regain his feet. If this disease hadn’t infected him, Orochimaru could have used his body to infiltrate Konoha. With Kimimaro’s body, and his kekkei genkai, there would have been nobody among the Leaf Nin, even the Third Hokage, who could have stopped him. If Orochimaru was…
If he was…
The fault was…
“Damn,” he said and slammed his fist into a rock hard enough to leave a fist sized crater. “Damn this body.”
None of the others had made a move to help him. They stood around him, instinctively adopting their four directions formation. They had their arms crossed, looking in at him without expression. If he was weak, they would abandon him. If he was strong, they would kneel to him – as they had that first time he had been forced to demonstrate his powers.
Such was the way of Lord Orochimaru.
He pulled himself to his feet and mastered himself. He could feel his body breaking down, but he was not at his end yet. “Come. We’ll head to the nearest hideout and learn what we can of Lord Orochimaru’s fate from his network.”
“And get you some medicine,” Tayuya said, but froze when Kimimaro fixed his eyes on hers. She tilted her head down and bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I was out of place.”
“And if we get back and discover it’s true?” Kidomaru asked.
“It isn’t,” Kimimaro hissed. “We will discover how Lord Orochimaru survived, and what new task he has set for us if the invasion plan is called off.”
“But if he is?” Sakon insisted.
“Then we shall have revenge,” Kimimaro said and started walking.
Sakura ran across the room and leapt into the older man’s arms. He grabbed her under her shoulders and swung her around, laughing and pulling her into a hug. It was obvious from his dull-pink hair where his daughter had developed her own distinctive locks. His hair was styled like a five-pointed star and his thin mustache connected to it from thick sideburns, though he left the section right under his nose shaved.
The woman with him moved in and placed a hand on Sakura’s head. She was shorter than her husband and had wheat-colored hair that was styled over her forehead in a wave. Her most striking feature were her startling green eyes which stood out partially due to her thick lashes. The woman blinked tears out of those exceptional eyes.
“You had us so worried, young lady!” the woman said, rubbing Sakura’s hair both affectionately and forcefully. “I even got put on administrative leave because of you.”
Sakura stuck her tongue out in embarrassment. “Sorry about that, Mom.”
“‘Sorry about that, Mom,’ she says. My daughter gets locked up by the intelligence department for nearly a week and I get kicked out of my job and ‘Sorry about that,’ is all she can manage.” The woman’s affectionate head rub was becoming more forceful by the moment.
“Give her a break, Mebuki,” the man said, pulling Sakura away. “She’s always been a private girl.” He placed Sakura down and patted her shoulder once. Sakura slipped a bit away from him, but kept him between her and her mother.
“Stop babying her, Kizashi,” Mebuki said, crossing her arms. “This is serious. Do you know how many strings I had to pull and favours I had to call in to even get to see her?” She looked at Sakura. “They have you isolated from everyone in the village right now, and they won’t even tell me why. I hear wild rumours that you killed a Sannin or performed illegal human experiments or got replaced with an otherworldly creature.”
Sakura smiled at her with a little fragility, wincing a bit at each accusation, especially the last. “I’m really sorry, Mom.”
Mebuki blew her hair up and shook her head. Kizashi looked at her and then turned to his daughter, crouching slightly to put himself at eye level. “Sakura, we worry about you is all. Your mother worries the most. We both love you. I know what it’s like to be a ninja and have classified information you can’t share with your family. Even your mother and I have secrets we have to step around.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. “But… you know you can tell me anything, and I will still love you.”
Sakura bit her lip and looked him in the eyes. “I love you, too, Dad.”
Mebuki had a strange look on her face. She wiped it off before crouching next to her. “Just give me a hug.”
Sakura and Mebuki held each other for a while. Mebuki closed her eyes, but Sakura was looking past her, her expression distant and neutral. Kizashi rubbed his wife’s back in slow circles.
Maybe ten seconds later, the two released each other. Mebuki stood up, sighing and adjusting her hair. Kizashi hooked an arm around her shoulder.
“I’m really happy you came to see me.” Sakura sat down in one of the comfortable chairs. Her parents sat in the other two. “It’s really easy to forget people care about you when you’re in a place like this.”
“Neji was asking about you,” Mebuki said, apparently deciding that if Sakura wasn’t going to talk about the reason she was in here, neither was she.
Sakura flushed slightly. “Mom!”
“Neji is a nice boy, and you both get along,” Mebuki said in a teasing tone.
“No boy is ‘getting along’ with my daughter!” Kizashi said harshly, chopping his hand through the air between them. “Especially a cradle robber.”
“They’re one year apart,” Mebuki said.
“I don’t care if they’re one day apart!” He crossed his arms and stuck his nose in the air.
“He’s a very nice boy from a good family. Very proper,” Mebuki said as she nodded repeatedly.
“And what is wrong with our family, then?” Kizashi pointed at his chest. “Just because we don’t have fancy bloodlines or wealth or a long history in Konoha, does that make him better than us?”
Sakura sat back in her chair, smiling dreamily and just watching her parents banter back and forth. The argument, which never really involved their daughter at all, escalated quickly with the mother all but suggesting they set up an official engagement date and the father all but declaring a blood feud. Sakura looked back and forth between them like one would a tennis match.
Finally the father turned to his daughter and asked, “Well, you can’t be seriously dating this boy, can you, Sakura?”
“We’re not dating, Dad,” Sakura said.
“You spend almost all your free time with him,” Mebuki pointed out.
“We train together.” Sakura shrugged. “Though Neji has had less time for me since he joined Might Guy’s team. His friend Rock Lee makes up for it.”
“Rock Lee?” Mebuki asked. “I’ve never heard of a Rock Lee before.”
“Ohhh.” Kizashi managed to draw the sound out like a scandalised teenage girl. Sakura giggled behind her hand. “Trouble in paradise, huh? Rivals in romance?”
“Lee would like to think so,” Sakura said with a sigh. “But he just isn’t my type.”
“You have a type?” Kizashi clutched at his chest. “You don’t have enough experience to have a type!” He looked at her with a suddenly haggard expression. “Tell your father you don’t!”
She giggled behind her hand again. “I can honestly say I have never dated any boys,” she said. “I don’t know why everyone in school thought Neji and I were dating, either. The fact you two don’t know better honestly dismays me.” Sakura gave a dramatic sigh, but was still smiling.
“Well, do you have any message you want us to bring back to him? Or…” Mebuki hesitated. “Any of your other friends?”
“Well, hopefully they can’t hold me forever.” She smiled brightly. “They’re just upset I’m smarter than them and want me to learn a lesson about trusting my superiors.”
“Well… you should,” Kizashi said. “Trust people, I mean.”
Sakura met his gaze for a long time and then he looked away, unable to keep the disappointment off his face for a few seconds.
“I…” Sakura paused. Mebuki was squeezing her husband’s thigh and he was holding her shoulder as they leaned towards each other. “There was… I was wondering if Hinata had a chance to drop by?”
“…Hinata?” Mebuki said.
“I mean… she did something very stupid during the exam that I very explicitly told her not to and… I’m worried… she was hurt or… worse…” Sakura was blushing and fiddling with her outfit. They had taken all her normal clothes and left her only with a bright blue two-piece smock.
“Hinata hasn’t been around,” Kizashi said.
Sakura closed her eyes and sighed and then nodded. “Well, she’s probably being yelled at by her father. Or at least stared at in a very disapproving manner.”
“Master Hyuuga can be a bit… two-minded about how he treats her,” Kizashi said in a musing tone.
“I’m certain your friend is very worried about you.”
“That’s… good. I’m certain she’s busy. Being frowned at.”
“Anything for your team?”
Sakura paused. “Tell Naruto to be nice to animals and Sasuke to be nice to anyone and Kakashi to stop blaming himself for everything that goes wrong in the history of the Elemental Countries?”
“We’ll… pass that along,” Mebuki said.
“Someday you’re going to let us in on the joke,” Kizashi said with a smile that was slightly more forced than when he first arrived.
They hugged again, exchanged pleasantries and then the parents were escorted out by a jonin in a medical ninja sterile suit.
The screen froze, a bar of static caught halfway up the screen.
“Your opinion?” Danzo asked, turning to Kabuto. He was sitting in a strictly utilitarian chair, obviously deliberately designed to be uncomfortable. He had both his hands layered over the top of his cane, which was between his knees. There were a dozen ANBU Root in the shadows around them.
Kabuto adjusted his glasses and considered what Danzo was asking for. “She’s putting on a good show.” Danzo gazed at him with his one visible eye, the lids settled down in a squint so fine it was almost impossible to follow where his gaze settled. “Haruno, the younger that is. She puts on a good show. If you didn’t know better, you’d think she really did love them.”
“You think she doesn’t love her parents?”
Kabuto took a moment to answer. For some reason, the light seemed to be glinting painfully off his glasses in this room. He removed them and found his mind focusing better. “There are clues in there. Subtle, but I could still pick them up. The way the parents have a healthy banter, but the girl is… a spectator to their lives. Their constant pressure to get her to open up to them and her complete silent treatment on it. The way the parents accepted this without any significant push back.”
“So… you don’t think the parents are a good pressure point?”
Kabuto considered his response, fiddling with his glasses. Were there hairs caught in the frames? Brown hairs? He forced himself to put the glasses aside. “No. I mean, it could be a pressure point but I don’t think the girl is vulnerable from that angle.”
“As powerful and intelligent as she is, she is still a child,” Danzo said. “I have dealt with genius children before. They always have a pressure point.”
“Yes.” Kabuto walked over to the projection monitor and placed a hand on it. “But… I think it’s possible to again underestimate this girl.” He turned to Danzo. “If you were a genius who had figured out the existence of organizations like Root at the tender age of three, could you not also have figured out typical Root methods?”
“You’re saying… she is purposefully cutting herself off from her parents?”
“I’m saying if she knows about a potential weakness, she would move to eliminate it.”
“Indeed.” There was a grudging respect in Danzo’s voice. A man whose brutal training methods killed emotions. A man who used the bloody legacy of Kiri to cull a full half of his potential workforce in the name of efficiency. Kabuto tried to recall the face of the boy he had killed, and found he could not. Or had it been a girl?
“I presume the Harunos were debriefed?” Kabuto asked.
“Yes. Yamanaka Inoichi handled it. They had no useful information to add.” Danzo held out his hand and a ninja appeared, placed a scroll in it, and vanished with smooth nonchalance. Danzo unrolled the scroll. “A complete work up has been performed. The Haruno family is above reproach; no hint of disloyalty or dangerous thought. Politically inactive, with no major ambitions. Civilian stock. To all appearances, her parents became ninja because their families lived in Konoha and that is just what people do in a ninja village.”
Kabuto nodded. “And their connections to the Hyuuga?”
“Aside from Hyuuga Hizashi using some clout to have himself declared their family physician and then sealing all of Haruno Sakura’s records before his untimely death, there is no official connection. Background on Haruno shows that she rapidly befriended Hyuuga Hinata when they joined the academy during the same year and from there befriended Hyuuga Neji. Other than those two, she had no real friends or close relationships. The teachers liked her for her diligence at her work, but she made no special attempt to secure extra training or attention.”
“What about her teammates?”
Danzo looked at him flatly. “The Uchiha and the jinchuriki? They’re under more observation than the Haruno, in their own way. Plus, of course, Hatake Kakashi.” The name was spat with as close to genuine dislike as Kabuto had ever heard. History there, it seemed.
“I agree with you, everyone has a pressure point. The question is, is it worth pushing? The girl has spent a great deal of effort cutting out weak points.”
“It will be worth it.” Danzo held out the scroll. Appear, take, vanish, reversed. “Thankfully, the debriefing of the Yamanaka girl has been much more fruitful.”
“Can the Yamanaka be trusted?” What Kabuto wanted to know was how Danzo got intel from the Yamanakas, but he kept that to himself.
“Perhaps not, but she’s been singing like a bird about everything she experiences.”
Kabuto was beginning to worry about how much Danzo was telling him. It wasn’t like the cagey ninja spymaster to be this open with a subordinate. Danzo wasn’t the kind of man who consulted with his fellows for ideas, or sought out input and criticism from underlings. Danzo commanded, others obeyed. If his plans didn’t work out, it was because those who carried out his plans were insufficient.
A poor craftsman blames his tools, Kabuto thought. But a poor craftsman couldn’t manage to build something like Root.
“I need your advice on another matter.” Kabuto straightened to show he was ready. Danzo gestured, and a ninja appeared in the centre of the room before one of the electric lights.
He was young, no older than fourteen and dressed in ANBU black with a tight-fitting armoured chest piece in dull grey. He had no identifying marks on him of any kind, no hitai ate or iconography. He had standard kit along with a short sword sticking out from his side that was sheathed on his back. There were long scroll containers on both thighs. He wore a ceramic face mask with no visible eye holes. On the ceramic were constantly shifting black markings; now a Konoha-style animal face, now a Kiri-style abstract, now an Iwa-style geometric pattern.
“This one will be going on a special mission for me,” Danzo said, almost casually. “I need him to have accurate intelligence.”
“Where will he be going?”
“The Village of the Hidden Sound.”
Kabuto didn’t freeze or panic. He didn’t make a break for it, either. He walked back to the small table where he had left his glasses, put them on and smiled. “May I know what his mission is going to be?”
“Delivering a message,” Danzo said. A long pause followed. Apparently, that was all Kabuto was going to get.
“I understand.” Kabuto picked up a scroll and brush. “I’ll have a report within the day.”
“Acceptable,” Danzo rose to his feet. He moved with agonising slowness out of the room, his cane clacking against the floor with every step. He paused at the doorway. “This one was chosen for his unique skills at long-range communication,” he informed Kabuto before leaving.
Kabuto nodded his understanding. He left the room, heading to his quarters and lab down in the sewers. He would have to work fast, providing Danzo with just enough information about Sound that his agent could get in, but not so much as to undermine all of Orochimaru’s network. Well, ultimately, Sound was a disposable asset. Orochimaru’s true resources were hidden all over the Elemental Continent.
He opened the door after checking for traps and observation jutsu. One left-handed benefit of needing to keep these small hideouts as hidden as possible from the watchful forces of the Leaf was that not even Danzo could afford to leave much in the way of surveillance.
He allowed himself to relax a fraction as the door closed. He carefully removed his shirt and hung it on a peg. He glanced over his shoulder and looked at the hand mirror he had set up. The array tattooed into his back was glowing red.
He walked over to the other fuinjutsu array on the table, the strain on his chakra noticeably lessening the closer he got. He looked down at all that remained of Lord Orochimaru: a single snake, constantly caught between the destructive power of the nanomachine disease and the power of the cellular regeneration jutsu that was Kabuto’s speciality.
It must be a torturous existence. Caught between dissolution and regeneration. Still, this was unstable. The weakness of his jutsu was that each cell could only reproduce so many times. The faster Kabuto accelerated the production of new cells from raw chakra to overcome the speed of the SnakeDie, the faster Orochimaru reached the end of his lifespan.
He would need to find a new body, and soon. By doing so, he could change his DNA and thus the targeting profile. But trapped in this living hell, Orochimaru could not perform the ritual of transference.
There was a crunch behind him. Kabuto spun, launching a kunai without thought. It sunk into red flesh.
“Oh wow. If I knew you were that hungry, I would have offered you one.”
The man sat on Kabuto’s only chair, his feet thrown up nonchalantly on the bed. He was dressed in foreign clothes, all in black except a white undershirt. He wore a hat with a short brim out of which came short green hair. It was tilted just enough to hide his eyes in shadows. In one hand he held a red apple, a bite taken out of one side and a kunai embedded in the other.
The man pulled the kunai out and looked at it before discarding it into the corner of the room. He opened his mouth to take another bite, then paused. “You poisoned this, didn’t you?”
“Who are you?” Kabuto said, shifting his hand so he could form a chakra scalpel.
“I’m a guest, and you’re spoiling my food.” He sighed and tossed the apple aside. He reached into his long coat and withdrew another red apple. He polished it on his sleeve and opened his mouth to take a bite. He paused again and shifted his attention to Kabuto. “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you want one?” He offered the fruit.
Kabuto knocked it from his hand and slapped a hand over his neck. Kabuto bared his teeth and pushed closer. “If you don’t answer my questions, I’ll shred your throat.”
The man stretched his head back, revealing his squinting eyes from the shadows. He smiled, a detestable smirk of amusement. “It appears you have me at a disadvantage,” the man said. “Ask what you will.”
“Answer my first question,” Kabuto said. “Who are you? Then you can move onto why you are here, how you found me and why I should let you live.”
“Oh,” the man grinned. “I have so many names. In this place, at this time, you can call me Hazama.”
“Don’t play games with me,” Kabuto said. A trickle of blood ran down from under his palm. “Or I’ll get impatient.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll talk already. Do you know how hard it is to get blood out of silk?” He held up both hands. “Do you mind if I…?” He gestured to his shoulder. Kabuto frowned but nodded. The man pulled his coat, vest and shirt away from the side of his neck.
A cursed seal? The black tattoo was not quite like any cursed seal Kabuto had ever seen on Orochimaru’s test subjects. It looked like a snake swallowing its own tail, overlapping itself in a figure eight on its side.
“Are you saying you work for Orochimaru?” Kabuto said in disbelief.
“Did you think Orochimaru told you everything?” Hazama’s grin never wavered. “About the secrets of Jugo’s enzyme or the Sage chakra it absorbs?”
Sage chakra? Kabuto frowned.
“Besides, I’ve always been a bit attached to snakes.” He chuckled. “I positively fall all over myself for them.” He tilted his head down. “Or is it possible that more than one person in the world has followed the same path to immortality?”
“Immortality?” Kabuto asked.
“Tell me, you’ve had the samples Haruno Sakura left behind for several days now. I know your science is pitiful, but with your diagnostic jutsu you have examined her cells again and again, haven’t you?”
“Get to the point,” Kabuto said.
“Can your diagnostic jutsu examine the telomere decay? Is it that sophisticated, to count the clock to self-destruction written inside every human body?
“And have you seen how the cells in Sakura’s blood and tissue have telomeres that never seem to shrink? Cells that can be reproduced endlessly without any errors, even without chakra. True – Im. Mor. Tal. It. Y.” Hazama spoke the final word with a sing-song taunting tone.
Kabuto’s eyes narrowed. He had managed to determine that the cells in Haruno’s blood had not been subject to any aging that he could detect, but to measure the telomeres was beyond the ability of this lab.
“I can see by your eyes that you believe me,” Hazama said. “Though I truly expected you to be further along by now. Perhaps Haruno underestimated your intellect after all?”
Kabuto tightened his grip. “Are you saying… that she left the blood and tissue behind on purpose?”
“It’s quite the job interview, isn’t it?” His smile widened and he chuckled, not showing the slightest discomfort. “First she puts every one of Orochimaru’s pieces out of play and then she puts the king in check. All without being seen once.” He laughed again, a reprehensible sound that sent chills up Kabuto’s spine. “Then she shows off a bit, and finishes the fight with a tactical weapon he has no defence against.
“And afterward, at the do or die moment, everyone is distracted by the One Tail. Convenient timing, that. Good enough for you to escape an ambush where they could have killed you while you were trapped in the Nara clan jutsu. And you manage to collect some samples after the fight and the last white snake with Orochimaru’s consciousness, right under the nose of the ANBU and Hyuuga.” He laughed again.
“Isn’t it interesting that Haruno can deploy a weapon of destructive nanomachines, but all the samples you gathered haven’t destroyed themselves yet?”
“I… but I went through all that trouble to preserve the right environment…”
“A brilliant man like you could figure out something that simple. No one else could gather those samples but you. But like any good dealer, only the first hit is free.”
Kabuto’s hand shivered against the man’s neck. “Why? What is going on here?”
The man’s smile faltered, and he looked for the first time as if he was annoyed. “Really, Kabuto, I expected better than this from you. Can’t you put two and two together?”
“Don’t toy with me!” Kabuto growled and formed the scalpel, materializing the blade in the hollow of his windpipe. The slightest pressure and he would die.
“This world is full of idiots and fools. People who seek power they don’t understand and doom themselves and their entire world for it. From the very first one who mastered chakra, to all who have followed in those footsteps. Everyone is a fool who just accepts what the world shows them, who just swallows power because it benefits them. The kind of idiot who absorbs energy fields larger than their head, if you will.
“Only one man in all the Elemental Countries has the intellect to look beyond what is offered. The drive to develop new techniques no matter the cost. The desire to truly probe the world’s secrets and understand this world to exploit it to the fullest.
“I had thought you were a creature in that same class of being. But if you’re just another fool, then perhaps I have no use for you.”
Kabuto’s fingers snapped closed around empty air. He staggered and braced himself against the wall with his other hand. He snapped his attention around and saw Hazama standing with his back to him in the doorway. An illusion? Good enough to fool my diagnostic jutsu?
“I think it’s time you decided if you are fool or genius,” Hazama said. He doffed his hat, spinning to bow with it held behind him in one hand. As he rose to his feet, he opened his green eyes. His body began to flake away, dissolving into particles of rainbow light. “Keep the apple. Although, you might not like where it comes from.” Finally there was nothing left but a single eye, floating in the darkness. It winked at him and was gone.
Kabuto walked over and picked up the apple from the ground. He placed it thoughtfully on the table and then sat down.
He had a report to write.
“Shingya Shunshin no Jutsu!”
Ino stared down at her hand. Well, her cousin Saya’s hand. She reached up and touched her face, enjoying the feel of flesh against flesh. The warmth of the air. Even the stink of the cell.
“It worked?” Dad asked.
“Yes,” Ino responded. She reached out and hugged him. He sighed and gripped her tight. It wasn’t with her own hands. But it was with flesh and blood.
They broke the grip with some reluctance and stood apart for a moment. “So, how long do you estimate you can hold onto her body?” Dad asked.
Ino closed her (Saya’s) eyes and formed a seal of concentration with her hands. “Saya isn’t resisting the jutsu and is offering all her chakra to me…” She opened her eyes. “At this level of her skill and mine, it should be a matter of a few hours at least.”
Inoichi sighed and rubbed his chin. It was obvious he hadn’t shaved in days. His normally bright hair was poorly taken care of, and his clothes were put on messily. He glanced to the side and so did Ino.
Sakura looked pleased. She smiled encouragingly and gave Ino a thumbs up. “You really are brilliant, Mr. Yamanaka.”
“Yes, well, it was all thanks to Saya.” He crossed his arms. “She’s a specialist jonin in the communications network, focusing on receiving long-range jutsu cast messages from our operatives. If anyone could master the anchor jutsu in a couple of weeks, it was her.” He walked to the door. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to spend some time alone with my daughter.”
“Of course. Family time is important.” She waved.
Ino waved back weakly and followed her father out. The door behind them closed. There was a flare of seals all along the outside. The hallway they were in was also covered with seals and led to another pair of hastily-installed doors further down, which Inoichi made a series of hand signs at until they opened.
“They change the code hourly,” Dad explained, gesturing Ino through first. A group of medical nin waited on the other side, and quickly ran their hands over both of them. Behind them, the doors were sealed by a quartet of ninja who made the paper wards glow brightly for a moment. “Not even air can escape from that room. Even if she has microscopic machines she can deploy, she won’t be able to do so outside that chamber.”
He led the way into a more comfortable room. There were two couches set up across from each other, fresh tea, and a serving of cherry tomatoes and pudding. Ino smiled at how thoughtful her father was even in this instance. She sat down and took a moment to enjoy the sensation of real food in a real mouth. She paused as she swallowed another mouthful.
She had partaken of many meals in the unreality of Sakura’s inner world. They had all been delicious. She had even had her favourite foods. They tasted… better. More real. These treats now tasted dull and lifeless in comparison. Ino slid the plate aside and washed down the taste with tea that was lesser than the tea in that place.
“I appreciate this, Dad,” Ino said. “But let’s get to the real reason you pulled me out of there at so much expense.”
“Yes.” He rubbed at his hair. “Yes.” He sighed and looked at her. It looked like a decade had dropped onto his face in the last two weeks. Ino clenched at her tea cup. “The reason.” He sat up straight, his expression and tone suddenly commanding. “We will begin the official debriefing.”
“First, are you certain that Sakura can not read your memories within her simulation?”
“I don’t think Sakura knows how I even exist in there. She keeps saying I’m not hooked up to the ‘mainframe’. It’s apparently quite a bother to her. I think if I was in this system, she could do that…” Ino thought about the way Sakura Martial had become Sakura Scienca with barely a flicker of static. “…and much more besides.”
“Very well. We will proceed as if your information is untainted.” He leaned forward. “Report. Show how well your memorisation training worked, my daughter.”
Ino began, slowly but trying to be thorough. She had worked on the memorisation jutsu and found the mnemonic tricks worked better now that she had a chakra network to work with. She started at the beginning and went on from there.
“Can you clarify how Sakura was able to control your body even before it was… transformed?”
“Apparently she can implant nanomachines into a person and that forms a sort of secondary nervous system to run it, like a puppet jutsu. The distance she can do this from is less than a hundred meters, since the machines have a very limited transmission or receiver range compared to the antennae built into Sakura and my ears.”
“And she had a supply of these at the time?”
“No.” Ino took a sip to wet her throat. “She… used her mahoujutsu to stop time for the territory that only included her desk. She was able to produce materials from what she called ‘dimensional storage’ and produce what she needed and then resumed time when she was finished. In subjective time, it felt like a few hours.”
“She managed to pull off this jutsu in full sight of the entire group of examiners? I was under the impression her jutsu required both hand signs, chanting and an elaborate visual display.”
“It does not. She can ‘cast’ her jutsu without gestures or words. In fact, I don’t think she ever needs them. She appears to be able to do so without even moving at all. The visual display is not optional, but she can use illusion mahoujutsu to conceal it. She can only accomplish this because there are multiple compartments within her psyche, each able to act independently. There are eight in all, aside from the primary consciousness. So in effect she can use up to nine jutsu at once without so much as blinking an eye, eight if she wants one of the compartments to use illusion jutsu to conceal her mahoujutsu’s visual effect.”
“Frightful,” Dad murmured. “Very well, continue the mission report.”
“Yes, father!” Ino continued to outline the rest of the events, only to be stopped for clarification once she reached the beginning of the second exam.
“How, exactly, did Haruno transform your body?”
“It was a ring. Sakura was able to explain it to me.” Ino considered how to translate ‘Sakura’ into ‘actual useful information’ for a moment. “Apparently, Sakura can use her mahoujutsu to imbue tools and items with her jutsu to trigger at a different point. The process is quite extensive and difficult, even for her. For instance, she can’t use her time-space jutsu to speed up the process. At least, that was her explanation.
“These stored jutsu can be released by anyone who is employing the item. Sakura explained that she created her body modifications herself through a combination of intense planning and mahoujutsu to alter DNA and create a ‘perfect transhuman body’. She then stored the data of what she calls a ‘racial template’ into the ring. If you don the ring you trigger the mahoujutsu, which instantly alters your body into this modified form.”
“You say she did this to herself?” Dad’s voice strained to keep his shock and disgust out of his tone. “She’s not a victim of some third party?”
“She says she is not.”
“What kind of person would-” Dad frowned and shook his head. “No, continue.”
Ino continued through the remainder of the report of what had happened during the Chunin Exam. She finished her explanation of all of that, including their failed attempt to capture Yakushi Kabuto. When she was finished, Dad signalled for her to stop.
“You were able to monitor her fight against Orochimaru at the same time as you were using the…” He consulted his notes. “Haptic interface to control your actual body.”
“My body doesn’t need much of my attention, so I was paying attention to what the compartments were doing. After all, my life was on the line.”
“Understandable, and useful intelligence. Good work.” Ino flushed with pride at his praise. “But how was she able to both conceal Uzumaki and Uchiha and prepare her ambush at the same time? I understand that you recruited Team 10 and Team Guy, but even if she can use multiple jutsu at once she can still only be in one place at a time.”
Ino closed her eyes. “No, sir. She can be in many places at once.” She opened her eyes and put both of Saya’s hands on the table. “One of her mahoujutsu creates a sort of floating eye in space. She can then direct this eye to move about independently of her body. Her compartments can control the eye as well. I don’t know how far they can move from her body, but she was on the entire opposite side of the Forest of Death from Sasuke when she confronted Orochimaru. That suggests a minimum range of twenty kilometres.
“Further, the compartment, or compartments, assigned to this eye can use all sorts of jutsu through that eye, including her illusion mahoujutsu. She could conceal the eye as a copy of herself, or any shinobi or kunoichi in the village or even within animals, a random coffee cup… and her illusions are so good they even simulate touch.”
Dad looked at his teacup, and grimaced as he swallowed the dregs of his tea which had gone cold long ago. “She can only create this eye at her location?” he asked.
“That’s what I saw.”
He grumbled for a few moments, making a long series of notes. “What else can you tell us about her, about her psychology?”
Ino closed her eyes and considered whether to tell everything she had learned about Sakura’s personality.
An incident came immediately to mind. It had been only a couple of days ago.
Ino had finished her ‘acclimation training’ for the day. Sakura had mostly left her entirely alone since that first day. There had been an explanation about how to operate the various functions of the training room, but in the end it was just simpler for Ino to ask Anima Invictus to produce what she needed. Just standing around and asking the air for ‘Anima’ or ‘Ai’ to produce a thing made it appear. Ino had managed to get it to create everything from random ninja opponents to an entire house.
She had decided that this training was really a waste of time. It certainly had nothing to do with the fifth time she had broken her door in a row. It was nothing more than busywork to keep her occupied while waiting for the rest of the world to wake up. When Ino had been a much younger child, a constant ambition had been staying up beyond bedtime. The truth was, after a certain point at night nobody else was around. Especially since she had a very limited freedom of movement.
The prospect of sitting around in an empty, lifeless version of Konoha or indulging in any of the luxuries Sakura had stuffed her fake home with had filled her with dread, so she had done the only other thing she could think of: she’d left the village and walked randomly.
Hearing voices on the wind, Ino had walked towards the sound for lack of any other goal. She came across what was clearly another copy of some section of the village. Ino recognised it as one of the parks near the academy that she’d used to drift to naturally after classes left out. She paused at a corner as she heard the voices of children at play.
She glanced around and saw… Sakura. Yet it was a much younger version, maybe six or seven years old. There was also a younger version of Hinata, Neji and a few other children Ino recognised but who had ended up dropping out of the academy over the years. A number of parents stood in the background. Ino recognised Sakura’s mother and father and Hyuuga Hiashi.
Hinata, the child, was on her hands and knees, breathing heavily and obviously on the point of tears. Sakura was sitting in a tree branch, not really paying attention and looking up dreamily. A trio of girls were walking away, laughing with each other. They paused long enough for one of them to call over their shoulder.
“You can’t be a real ninja if you’re going to be such a softie,” the lead girl said, and the other two laughed as they walked away.
Hinata took a few breaths and stood up slowly, wincing. Ino, who had taken some supplementary first aid training, could see where she had been scuffed up by impacts that were probably going to bruise. A quick glance at the handful of stones scattered around her showed what had happened. When she stood up, there was a moving figure beneath her.
Ino had half been expecting that. Kids that age could be cruel. It wasn’t uncommon for the ones ‘playing ninja’ to fling stones or blunted shuriken at stray animals or even the pets of unpopular people. Ino herself had engaged in a small amount of that as a kid, though she wasn’t proud of it. She was expecting something like a kitten or puppy to be under Hinata.
Instead, what she saw scurrying away from underneath her was a snake. Not a venomous one, but one of the harmless but disturbing garden snakes common in the village. Who threw themself between a bunch of rock-throwing kids and a snake?
Hinata watched it go. She turned as Hiashi and Neji walked up behind her. Hinata hiccuped and looked up at her father. The question in her eyes was obvious.
He crouched down in front of her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I wouldn’t dream of taking that from you. If you are willing to endure pain for what you believe in, then do so. That, too, is the ninja way.”
“It’s stupid,” Neji said with a snort. “If you don’t have the strength to fight back, all throwing yourself in the way does is make your own suffering worse.”
“Neji!” Hiashi said harshly. The boy flinched, and then relaxed when Hiashi placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “If that is Hinata’s way, then it is not your place or mine to interfere with it.”
Neji glanced at him. He opened his mouth, obviously about to say something, then closed it and looked away. He rubbed at the bandages around his forehead in annoyance. The man gently took his hand away from there and held his hand for a moment until Neji sighed and turned to Hinata and patted her shoulder. She smiled, wiping at the corners of her eyes with her fingers.
“Hinata!” The three turned, as with a thump Sakura dropped from her tree branch and walked towards them. Hiashi stood up, suddenly all stiffly formal. He also placed himself between the girl and the two Hyuuga children. For a moment the two looked at each other, locking eyes. Hinata peeked out from behind her father’s legs. After a moment, something seemed to pass between them and Sakura addressed Hinata again.
“Anyone can stand up for a cute puppy or mangy cat,” Sakura said, grinning. “But it takes someone special to stand up for the ugly things in this world. Don’t be ashamed. Be proud!” She walked around Hiashi and stood in front of Hinata, her fists clenched. “And don’t ever be afraid to step in just because you don’t have the strength to do anything.”
“But…” Hinata gulped and rubbed at her arm where a small lump was forming.
“No buts!” Sakura said. “Because if you don’t have the strength, then you’ll just have to shame everyone else into stepping in and helping you with their strength. And together, you and your friends will have that strength.”
“We will?” Hinata asked, clinging to her father’s pants.
“You will, because I’m going to be your friend.” Sakura reached out and grabbed Neji by the wrist. “And so is Neji.”
Hinata looked up at her father, who gave her a tiny nod after a moment. There was a flurry of activity as Sakura’s parents came in and began to apologise to the head of the major ninja clan for their daughter bothering his. They kept saying that Sakura wasn’t like this normally.
Then the entire scene froze and everything dissolved. Sakura was left standing where her child figure had been. She had a distant look on her face.
“Ai… replay from time-code…” She trailed off and looked over at Ino.
For a moment, there were no words between them. Ino stepped fully into view, not certain what to say. She felt… ashamed, in a way that she knew was weird for a ninja. Especially a Yamanaka ninja. She had been trained about how she might be a voyeur to extremely sensitive moments all her life.
“I… didn’t know you were…” Ino cleared her throat.
“It’s okay. My fault for wanting…” She shrugged. “You know, a reminder of what all this is for, in the end.” She walked away. “I better get back to work.”
She vanished in a flicker of static.
Ino blinked away the memory and looked at her father. She repressed her feelings. Why should she care about Sakura as if this was a betrayal, anyway? When had Sakura and her ever been friends? Sakura had taken the position that should have been Ino’s. Sakura had kidnapped her, forced her to choose between death and years in limbo. Sakura made it so she hated the taste of actual food and could not hug her father with her own arms.
Ino began a thorough psychological analysis and held nothing back.
Anko finally found Kakashi lying against a rock in the forested region out beyond the Hokage Monument. A river came down from the higher mountains and split in two. Nearby, it fell down into one of the areas that the young civilian girls liked to use as a swimming pond in the warmer months. For a moment, while she was following his scent, she thought he was peeping on the girls. He was known for reading porn in public, after all.
She had idly wondered if she would punch him in the balls or join in if she caught him at it. Instead she found him at the other branch, where the river plunged into one of those absurd elements of the landscape that could only be the result of some mind-staggering jutsu used long before the current era. She had heard that the Valley of the End had been carved out in the famous battle between Madara and the First Hokage, but if so, she wasn’t certain she wanted to know exactly how.
Orochimaru had been a monster, but even he hadn’t casually rearranged geography enough to make maps useless.
Kakashi was propped up, one hand holding a racy book, the other idly flipping pages. He had a lecherous look in his single visible eye. He didn’t react as Anko approached, nor when she crouched down next to him and peeked over his shoulder. That was quite the bit, actually.
“That’s not anatomically possible,” Anko pointed out.
“Jutsu,” Kakashi said.
“Nor would it be enjoyable if it was.”
“And the clean up.”
“Jutsu,” Kakashi said and snapped the book closed. He looked at her. “Do you mind?”
“Reading free porn? Never.” She smirked. “Your alone-in-a-crowd jutsu is useless against women who have no shame.”
“So I see,” Kakashi said with a sigh. He sat up slightly. “What can I do for you?”
“So I can get back to ignoring you,” went unsaid.
“What are you even doing all the way out here? Shouldn’t you and your team be doing missions?”
“The Hokage gave us a month off on special dispensation, kind of like the month-long break in the exam.” Kakashi gestured vaguely towards the canyon. “And I’m training Sasuke.”
“It looks to me like you’re reading porn and sunbathing.”
“Sasuke mostly trains himself.”
“What kind of training?”
“Running through a waterfall.”
“Running up a waterfall isn’t that hard. You’ve been out here two weeks.”
“Not up,” Kakashi said, with the long-suffering tone of a man who didn’t want to explain something twice. “Through.”
Anko blinked and got it. “That is the stupidest training I have ever heard of. It sounds like something Guy would do.” She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You’re not going Guy, are you?” She added just enough salaciousness in her tone to leave all sorts of implications in that phrase.
“Because if you are, I want to watch.”
“You can break that eternal stalemate of yours by holding a contest to see who can make the other-“
“Yes?” She was all sweetness and light.
“Since my brain cannot handle thinking about anything related to this anymore…” Kakashi stood up and slid his book into one of his pouches. “Maybe we can move on to why you are here?”
Anko looked up at him for a moment and then stood up herself, waving her arms absently as she did. “Honestly, I have no idea. I came looking for you on a whim.”
“So you ruined my peace for nothing?”
She looked away from him and put her arms into her coat pockets. Kakashi wore a pretty standard jonin uniform, black bodysuit. green flack jacket, Uzushio spirals embroidered in the upper arms, Konoha leaf on his headband. Anko wore an outfit that was as much unlike a standard jonin’s gear as you could get: skin tight mesh bodysuit (the flesh-coloured fabric that underlaid the mesh always disappointed everyone who found out), long ostentatious coat, daring mini-skirt. It was an outfit that brought to mind certain unsavoury impressions of what a kunoichi was that Anko didn’t go to great lengths to dispel.
After all, if they thought she was wanton, they didn’t think she was a traitor.
“I was actually hoping you had news about one of your other students.”
“Sakura,” Kakashi said. It wasn’t a question.
Anko shrugged and held one hand over her shoulder, covering the curse mark that lingered there. “I’m not certain if I want to thank her or kick her ass.” She sneered. “That awful snake was such a big thing in my life, I’m not even certain what to do now.”
“You had no plan for what to do after Orochimaru died?” Kakashi slipped around into her line of sight again.
“I knew exactly what I was going to do after he died,” she said quickly. Because I would be dead, too. The forbidden murder-suicide jutsu she had spent nearly ten years perfecting was useless now. “But to have him taken out by a plan from such a…” She avoiding saying the word ‘child’. “It left me at wit’s end. I guess… I wanted to know why she would risk so much to take out one man. From what I learned from Inoichi and Ibuki, she spent years building up to this, hiding her skills and special jutsu and recruiting the Hyuuga and a bunch of genin to her side.”
“And now, despite everything she’s done for the village, she’s being treated like a potential enemy.” Kakashi put his hands in his pockets.
“Yeah.” Anko nodded. “I guess… I wasn’t expecting to feel indebted and enraged at the same time.”
“I’ve been worried about Sakura as well. But…” He looked towards the ravine. “Sakura did it all for Sasuke. She was willing to endure this for her friend and teammate.”
“And you’re trying to drown him?” Anko said with forced sarcasm.
“Oh, the fall would shatter his bones long before he got a chance to drown,” Kakashi said with a smile. His expression went serious. “But I think I figured out what Sakura has been doing all along.” Anko raised an eyebrow and he continued. “As soon as we were away from observation, Sakura convinced me against all my judgement to allow her to use her mahoujutsu to train Sasuke.” He walked to the edge of the ravine and stared down into it. “Then she even went against my explicit wishes and continued to train him behind my back.”
“…for power,” Anko said.
Kakashi glanced over his shoulder at her. “Yes.” Kakashi looked down. “Sasuke didn’t even think once to reject my ridiculous training. He is hungry for power. No, he’s starving for power. And Sakura gave him that. Fed him.”
He pointed at her shoulder. “What Orochimaru came to do was to give Sasuke that curse mark, and all the power it contains.”
“Because somehow Orochimaru, who had never even met Sasuke, knew what I was blind to until after that botched exam – how much Sasuke desires power. If I’m not careful, it will consume him.” His shoulders slumped. “And I had hoped to have such a simple life. Retire from… well, you know… and raise a pack of ungrateful brats. Ungrateful but simple brats, who would look after me in my dotage.
“I never expected to have three such needy little headaches.”
“You’re being exceptionally open today,” Anko said with some irony. Kakashi’s look told her he had caught the double meaning.
“Honestly, I was hoping for your advice.”
Anko blinked. “You want my advice?”
“I need to figure out how to teach Sasuke something more important than jutsu or tactics.” He walked up to her. “How did you do it? How did you retain the Will of Fire?”
Anko seriously considered his question for a long moment. Then she shook her head. “Don’t ask me. I can’t explain it. Me, teaching a kid? That’s as unlikely as me getting out of shape.” She slapped her thigh. “You’re better off asking the Hokage. It was him who stepped in and dragged me out of my own ass.” She looked towards the village. “It’s why I would…”
She shrugged. “Anyway, I’ll let you get back to your fun. And if they ever let your student out of hock, tell her I owe her a meal.”
Naruto cried out as he thrust his hands against the great stone pillar. He was shouting up a storm, sweat dripping down his face.
”No, no, no!” Ebisu shouted. “You need to gather up all your chakra at once, to utterly exhaust yourself.”
Naruto turned away, swiping his hand through the air between them and holding up one fist. “I’m not getting anywhere. I’m just wasting all my energy!”
Ebisu adjusted his glasses and looked over at Yamato, who shrugged while still holding up one palm towards Naruto. “Wasting energy is the point, Naruto.” He sighed. “Success or failure with this jutsu is incidental. In fact, failure may even be better.”
“How can failure be better!?” Naruto said with a snarl.
“When you use a jutsu, the better your control, the more efficient the jutsu. Let’s say a jutsu takes an arbitrary ten chakra. If you had perfect chakra control, you would use exactly ten chakra. The worse your control is, the more energy you waste. So an average shinobi would use fifteen to accomplish what ten could do.
“Of course, your control is so bad you use more like thirty to accomplish what ten would do. If you didn’t have a ridiculous amount of chakra, you’d exhaust yourself with even basic jutsu.”
“Then I’ll do it with only nine!” Naruto shouted, holding up that many fingers.
Ebisu covered his face with his hands. “It doesn’t work that way. No matter what, the minimum is always ten!” He managed to calm himself down and took a long breath. “But in this case, your goal is to use one hundred.” Ebisu crossed his arms. “The ultimate goal of this training isn’t to perform the jutsu, it’s to draw out the chakra of the nine tails and control it without losing yourself.” Ebisu pointed at the pillar. “Now, fill that entire pillar with your chakra!”
Far above them, on another of the sandstone pillars they were not paying any attention to, Jiraiya sat. He wasn’t moving at all, his long white hair blending in with the sky or stone depending on the angle. The human eye relied so much on motion for vision, but Jiraiya had long ago mastered the art of stillness. He grinned, recalling similar stone pillars coming to spear-like points, upon which his own training had been conducted.
“So, they’re working on that jutsu,” he mused. “Not what I would have chosen. Though I guess none of them have a summoning contract.”
Truth be told, he hadn’t even come here to look in on Naruto. The rumours of Orochimaru’s death had drawn him like a fly to honey. Or to a frog’s tongue, he supposed. Yet while he had confirmed the death of the one he had once called friend, he had felt no real relief. He had turned aside from the village, making a sweep through his contacts in the Lands of Fire, Sand and Rice Fields. He had seen increasing combat between Oto and Suna, and chaos in the small border countries.
Worse, those hints he had been chasing since Minato’s death…
Maybe it really was time he did right by his protege. He had been considering the prospect of taking on another apprentice since he’d heard Naruto had graduated. The fact the boy had been on Kakashi’s team had kept him away. However, seeing these fools waste time on useless jutsu almost made him want to step in.
“In my dream, you who are solely pervy, will still manage to become a splendid ninja…”
That memory, of standing before the frightening ancient toad, its body ravaged by time and its mind almost senile. The entire comedy of errors had led to that moment. Training in senjutsu, accidentally transporting himself halfway across the world, meeting the Great Sage and becoming his apprentice. It had all been foretold by that dying old frog.
“In time, you will have your own disciple, a ninja who will bring about great change to the ninja world… either great stability or great destruction the likes of which the world has never seen before… you will guide that revolutionary. The day will come when you will be forced to make a critical selection… the choice will decide which way the change goes…”
So it was that Jiraiya had looked for this disciple. The ancient toad had told him he would write books, so Jiraiya travelled looking for stories to tell. And disciples he had found. His hands clenched, his first movement in several hours. Yamato, if that was the name he was going by now, glanced in Jiraiya’s direction but turned his attention back to Naruto.
“And yet…” Jiraiya murmured.
“…and yet.” The ancient toad’s eyes had opened, revealing milky cataracts. “…and yet my sleep is troubled. Increasingly my sleep is full not of dreams but nightmares. And my nightmares frighten me. For I see a nine-headed monster that will haunt the child… and throw all into a chaos that existed before history…”
Twice now he had thought he had found the child, and each time they had died. Nagato to the horror of the Third Ninja War. Minato to the Nine-Tailed beast that now sat in Naruto’s body. If he took on Naruto as a student, would he too be haunted by a nine-headed monster and thrown into chaos?
He had wondered once how Tsunade could throw away her Will of Fire in the face of the deaths of her younger brother and lover. How could she believe that necklace of hers was cursed? Yet now, he contemplated the future if he should take on the boy and he be haunted by that same fate.
He stood up. Not yet. Not until he could be sure he was ready. Naruto was in capable hands for now.
With a flicker, Jiraiya left before Yamato spotted him.
“Alright, what’s the catch?”
Inoichi stared into the eyes of the monster. They looked green and innocent, but he knew that something far more dangerous lay within them. He glanced to the side and saw his daughter; changed, but still recognisable. She was inside those eyes: trapped, for all intents and purposes. Yet she could still talk to him.
“This is an A-Ranked mission approved by the Hokage himself,” Inoichi had held Saya’s hand. “The mission is infiltration. Befriend the target and relay intelligence to your handler, who shall be me.
“Use everything I have taught you.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead. “And come back safe.”
“The Hokage has agreed to release you into the custody of your team captain. It will be with several conditions, as you have already guessed.”
Inoichi frowned. “You haven’t even heard the conditions yet.”
“I can’t do any good as long as you don’t trust me. Being locked up won’t make you trust me. I’ll have to prove I can be trusted with deeds.”
“You could tell us the source of your intelligence.”
“I already told you,” Sakura said and shrugged. “I’m just that smart. It’s the only explanation that makes sense, when you think about it.”
“And your alliance with the Hyuuga?” Inoichi glanced at Ino. Her eyes were looking at the two of them and at other things, things he could not see.
“That’s not my secret to tell. Ask Hiashi.”
Inoichi sighed and nodded. It was a useless gambit. If two weeks of questioning was not going to crack her, then a simple request wouldn’t work.
“There are three conditions. First, you will take no actions outside of those approved by your captain. Do you agree?”
“Kakashi has a decent enough head on his shoulders. Sure.”
“Second, you will refrain from using mahoujutsu on any Leaf Nin until we have fully studied the interactions of your strange chakra with normal chakra.”
She winced but nodded. “Yeah, okay. I should have expected that.”
“Third,” Inoichi narrowed his eyes. “You will turn over all your tools to the village for safekeeping.”
“Fine,” she said calmly. Inoichi blinked. He had expected more resistance to that one. The girl held up her hands, spreading her fingers. “Don’t panic, okay?”
She gestured sharply. “Ars magica: restriccione in contrarium inde absolvisti; schola porta quod corium discuteret.” She reached into the circular mandala of pink light that formed, pulled out a large red cloak and placed it on the table. Next came a ceramic harness, followed by a wrist bracer with a cracked jewel in the centre. A quiver with a single arrow was tossed idly on top of the pile. She paused and stuck out her tongue. She pulled out a bottle from the mandala and laid it very carefully on the table. “Don’t drink this one.” Finally she reached up and withdrew a truly massive sword from the pink void. Sakura ran a hand over it and very carefully placed it, with the sharp end pointing away from everyone.
“Can I get a receipt?” she asked.
“You’re not afraid of losing these?” Inoichi asked.
“Of course. But trust is a two way street.” She shrugged. “Besides, all these devices only run on a power source that is inside my confined space. Take them more than a metre away from me and they’ll rapidly lose all power and be nothing more than interesting toys.” She smiled. “Also, they’re designed to self-destruct if someone attempts to break into them. All of my Ars Technica are designed with those two limits in mind.”
“You’re forgetting one tool.” Inoichi said evenly. “The ring you used to perform the modifications to Ino’s body.” He glanced at Ino, who looked away.
“Ah, I didn’t forget that one.” Sakura grinned and reached into her mandala, bringing out her closed fist.
“I have five of them.”
Five rings clattered onto the table.