Chapter 9: Scion
The quiet was deafening. The stillness of the aftermath of the battle hung like a blanket over Anko Mitarashi. It would be almost calming to think that was what was holding her down, what was pressing her face to the mud and rocks and twigs of the forest floor, and not her failure.
She hated it.
She wanted to thrash, to spit, to curse, but the cursed seal had drained that energy from her at the same time it had filled her body with liquid fire, white-hot pain that left her unable to scream. Of course Orochimaru had had a trump card. Of course his gift to Anko had a hidden trap. It had killed nine of her friends: that should have been enough.
But it never was enough for Orochimaru. Nothing was. She knew that better than anyone. Wheels within wheels, lies within lies, snakes swallowing their tails.
She knew what it meant that the sounds of the battle had ceased between Orochimaru and the ANBU members the Hikage had left. She knew that bastard snake better than anyone.
He was going to get away.
And if he did, it would be her fault.
No. Not like this. She wouldn’t end her quest without even fighting.
One of her hands shot out and gripped the root of a nearby tree. It was heavy as lead and moving sent the liquid fire in her veins sloshing to and fro. Anko bit her lip to keep the tears from her eyes.
Not without a fight.
She dragged herself up unsteadily, scanning the clearing even as she weakly clasped her free hand over the cursed seal throbbing on her neck. As she had expected, the half-dozen ANBU the Lord Hokage had left behind when he ran off to deal with the larger crisis of the tailed beast were scattered across the clearing. A couple were trying to struggle to their feet; the remaining ones were lying in heaps – unconscious or dead.
She had expected Orochimaru to be gone already, had already anticipated tracking his escape route through the forest, pulling herself after him by her sheer force of will and hate and memories.
But he wasn’t gone. And he wasn’t alone, either.
The monster Anko had spent the last ten years chasing was already beaten. He had collapsed to the ground, his limbs limply twisted beneath him. He wasn’t dead yet; she could hear it now, his raspy, gurgling breaths as he struggled to take in air. His face was a ruin, a melting and pockmarked caricature of a human face. His blackened tongue lolled grotesquely from his tattered lips.
And standing before him was a man. Anko knew him, knew this man, but in that moment she couldn’t think, could just blankly stare, couldn’t put any name to him but one:
Those inhuman white eyes were more unforgettable, more unmistakable than any single person. They were fixed on Orochimaru’s writhing form, yet they saw her too, saw everything in the world. Dizziness came over Anko, and she half-fell against the tree, before furiously biting her lip again to banish the shadows from the corners of her vision.
He wasn’t dead yet. Nothing was over yet. She knew that better than anyone. She knew!
Step by agonising step she pulled herself forward, and as she did she could hear their voices.
”…but… I saw you leave with the Hokage…” Orochimaru rasped.
“You did,” the Hyuuga replied.
”…I see…. a shadow clone…”
What was left of Orochimaru jerked his head to the side, and for the briefest moment, he and Anko locked gazes. The liquid fire pumped in her veins again, and she struggled to lift her leaden arm up to defend herself.
And then Orochimaru crumbled in on himself, his body hissing like his own snakes as it imploded. The last shreds of his skin dissolved, and for a moment Anko thought she saw a writhing white snake in his place. It made a last, reflexive twitch towards her, and then it too fell apart, leaving a jumble of white chunks that were quickly turning black.
Black, and then gone. Nothing more than a pile of steaming sludge.
“So he is dead.”
The announcement didn’t fill Sarutobi Hiruzen with any joy. Nor did he experience sadness. The news simply left him emotionally numb. It was like he had pulled a poisonous stinger from his body after many years, and all that he could acknowledge was the sudden void.
For a moment, he was reliving a memory so vivid it almost overrode his sense of time. Still barely a child, he was standing on what would come to be the Hokage Monument. Tobirama and Hashirama stood before him, and the three talked about the future of the village and the Will of Fire.
He blinked away the memory and reflected that at this point he felt older than he ever had before. These flashes of memory were becoming more vivid and common. He had heard that those who grew old eventually lost their memory, but he found in his case that wasn’t what was happening. Quite the opposite: as he grew older the memories came brighter and faster and easier than before. Things he had forgotten for decades drifted into his mind without bidding at the slightest prompt.
He looked up from the pile of reports. Anko stood in front of the desk, her hands clasped behind her back. There was an expression on her face that looked like he felt. “Yes, Lord Hokage. The ANBU you left behind with me had some difficulty finishing the fight…” There was a squeaking sound as she tightened her grip on her arm. “I was… incapacitated for the majority of the fight by some sort of jutsu that Orochimaru used against my Curse Seal.”
“You can personally confirm the death?” Hiruzen asked.
“Hiashi dealt the actual final blows.” Anko’s face was a passive mask, but her voice was taut.
Hiruzen nodded somberly. The Hyuuga clan. They had definitely planned for this. He did not believe for a second that Hiashi had ‘just happened’ to see Orochimaru in the Forest and summoned his Hokage. Hiruzen was not known as The Professor for no reason. He had done the math: the speed with which Hiashi had gone from ‘idly watching’ the Forest to summoning the Hokage himself in his personal office, nearly thirty kilometres away, was beyond anything short of the Fourth, or Shunsui the Body Flicker.
The only possible explanation was a shadow clone, deployed to the forest and that dispelled itself as soon as the man could confirm the presence of his target. The memories would have been transported instantly to the Hiashi waiting near his office.
Waiting to spring the trap.
“Very well,” he said, looking up at Anko. “Dismissed.”
She nodded and flickered away. Hiruzen leaned back and began to prepare his pipe. It was a neat setup. He hadn’t seen such a well-executed assassination since the last great war. For a moment he was lost in a few memories of some of the darker moments of his life, but he forced them aside.
It was beginning to look like he had been played by his own ninja.
He needed a few minutes with his pipe to calm down. Finally he rearranged a few of the scrolls on his desk and called for his next headache.
“Yamanaka-san,” he said with a nod. The head of communications and intelligence came to a stop before the desk, wrapping his arms behind his back. His stance was outwardly correct; a man who didn’t know him any better might even say it was relaxed. The Yamanaka clan, however, were masters of body language – and as clan head, Inoichi was a master among masters. To Hiruzen, who had known him since he was a child clinging to his mother’s skirts, the tension and worry in his demeanour was obvious. “I won’t pretend this isn’t a difficult time for you. You certainly have my sympathy.”
“Thank you, Lord Hokage.”
“Have you managed to communicate with your daughter?”
For a Yamanaka, the experience of being in a body that was not their own was not considered strange. In fact, during training in their family jutsu, even children would often be caught running around in each other’s bodies. The clan tried to keep this from getting outside the compound, and within it was officially discouraged for the ability to be used for pranks and horseplay. Discouraged, but not forbidden: a distinction lost on few. So long as nothing serious was done, punishments were kept deliberately light.
In the end, it was a requirement for the expansion of the clan’s jutsu. Even if the mind-body switch was considered slightly archaic, the fundamental skills it developed – and more importantly the intimate understanding of a wide variety of chakra systems – allowed expansion into skills such as mind control and long-range telepathy.
Even so, hearing his daughter’s voice coming from another girl’s mouth shook him to the core. It sounded too much like her: despite lacking her body language, despire it being a different body altogether, all his daughter’s verbal tics and sub-vocalisations were perfectly rendered. It could have been a perfect imitation jutsu, and part of him wanted to believe it was just that.
“Ino…” He breathed out and mastered his demeanour and expression. Yet she had given all the proper signs and countersigns, even the deep ones that had been implanted in her mind unconsciously by jutsu she wasn’t even aware had been used on her. Unless Sakura – or whoever was behind her – had a mastery of mind-affecting jutsu that exceeded that of his clan, there was no way the person he could be talking to was not ‘Ino’. “My girl…” He leaned forward slightly. “I’m so sorry. I never anticipated this was even possible.”
“You can get me out of here, right?” Ino’s voice was trembling slightly.
Inoichi scrubbed at his face with one hand and leaned back. “Ideally, even if you were unable to use the release sign yourself, the target’s chakra system should have rejected you automatically after a short time. At least at your level, the maximum period you could maintain the technique should be measured in minutes rather than hours or days.”
“But Sakura doesn’t have a chakra system to reject me!”
“Right.” He frowned. “I should be able to find your spiritual presence and extract it. Normally the Shingya Shunshin no Jutsu is nothing more than a joke, and lasts only a few seconds besides… but if I moved your mind back to your own body, it should be perfectly adapted to your own chakra system.”
“Ah, Mr. Yamanaka, I hope you don’t mind me butting in, however, that would be a bad idea right now.” Inoichi suppressed a shudder at how quickly the voice shifted to the original inhabitant. “Ino’s body hasn’t adapted yet. It would be torture to return her right now.”
Inoichi looked at the only other inhabitants of the room. The place was a containment cell well beneath the intelligence division, not quite located in the Torture and Interrogation sub-department but still adjacent. The walls were covered in restriction and surveillance seals. Still, the room was otherwise well-appointed. Three comfortable chairs, one of which Sakura was using, and a small bed suitable for one guest. Technically this room was to be used for high risk but not ‘hostile’ subjects.
Like Haruno Sakura.
“Well, what is your prognosis?”
The medical ninja looked up from his examination of Ino’s body. Inoichi couldn’t help but let his own eyes wander over the changes. He had been shocked almost to the point of dropping his self-control when Sakura had first released her genjutsu concealing the extensive modifications to Ino’s body. For one thing, she looked older than a twelve-year old: more like a teenager on the very cusp of adulthood with a mature body and face. Her ears had extended out from the side of her head, long and funnel-shaped with a tapering point so they looked almost kunai-like. There were other, more subtle, changes. Tiny blemishes and imperfections had been removed, her skin was cleaner and softer, the calluses and tiny scars that any ninja developed from training had been erased.
The medical nin was clad head-to-toe in the sterile white of his operating gear. Only his hitai-ate and his exposed eyes showed any variation. The man shook his head. “This… this is beyond me, Master Yamanaka.” He ran a palm just over her face, down her chest and stomach, across her thigh and down to her feet. “From what I can tell based on the reference charts you provided us, Ino’s chakra network is intact and I can sense her physical energy inside the body. But her spiritual energy is… greatly diminished.”
“That only makes sense. The majority of Ino’s spiritual energy would have been transferred along with her mind into Sakura.”
“Yes, Master Yamanaka,” the man said and then hesitated. “But these other modifications? I frankly didn’t even know most of this was possible, much less something you could accomplish in less than a day.”
“Incredible,” Inoichi said. He took a deep breath. “We only have to hope the body can accept Ino’s spirit.”
“Inoichi!” Sakura stood up abruptly and grabbed his wrist. “You can’t do that!” Catching herself, she continued with a tone of patient aggravation. “The neural control network takes time to mature into its new body. Without it, Ino can’t regulate the physical sensations. She’ll be fed random bursts of sense data, most of which will be excruciating pain.”
“Nevertheless, we have no choice.” Inoichi pulled his arm free. “I’ll forgive your informality this time, but you have no place making demands of me or my clan with regards to my family. Your assassination plan against Orochimaru was never cleared by the Hokage. That means all of this is your fault from the beginning.” He turned back to Ino’s body. “There are records in our clan history of minds being forcibly separated from their body for extended periods of time. Without her soul, Ino’s body will suffer a critical chakra imbalance that will progress to become fatal.”
“I designed the artificial intelligence that runs Ino’s autonomic functions to account for that-“
“No!” Inoichi cut her off with a sweep of his hand. “You admitted in questioning that you have no true direct understanding of the chakra network or what it means. I will not risk Ino’s life on your word.” He pushed her down into her chair. “I have to return her back to her body, right away.”
Sakura sat down, but her expression was not chastened. “You’re a father worried about his daughter,” she said, then looked away from him. “There is no way to talk you out of this.” She took a deep breath. “Ino, are you okay with this?”
“Of course. I trust my father.”
“Then do it.”
Inoichi ran through the hand seals he hadn’t practiced since he was a teenager. Adult ninja didn’t have much use for a jutsu that lasted only moments and expended far more chakra than more effective techniques. Largely it was relegated to pranks and child-play. So he went through the jutsu again and again until he was certain he had it right.
Clearing his mind, he filtered out normal senses one by one. First vision, then sound, then smell and taste and finally touch. When he was finished, he could feel the chakra of the medical nin. He could feel the chakra in the seals in the walls. He could feel the physical and spiritual energy moving through the networks. He could feel the physical energy in his daughter, surging stronger than ever before, almost jonin level.
He could also feel something else in her, a spiritual energy that was so faint as to be almost undetectable. It was like a newborn… no, less than that. He recalled holding his hand over his wife’s stomach, feeling the first small sparks of spiritual energy within the developing child. It was like those sparks, barely enough to call a spirit at all.
He turned his attention to Sakura and immediately saw why her teachers had evaluated her as having almost no chakra. Her body was like examining a rock or a tree. He could sense only the strange static of ‘natural chakra’ in her. He probed deeper, and felt the condensed spirit of his daughter’s mind. It felt far more distant than it should have, like Ino wasn’t in the other girl’s heart like she should have been but had instead been pulled through some sort of… compressed or folded space-time jutsu?
He wouldn’t let that stop him. His hands flashed through seals. “Shingya Shunshin no Jutsu!”
The spiritual presences swapped places. Ino’s body took a sharp breath. Sakura tilted her head to the side. “Wait… how did you do that? Computer programs don’t have spirits…”
Inoichi ignored her. His little girl was opening her eyes, staring up in wonder.
Then she screamed.
Her back arched and her arms twisted in place, her fingers curling into twitching claws. Her mouth opened all the way, the tendons in her neck bulging from the strain, her eyes stared up, the eyeballs literally bulging out of their sockets. Tears formed there.
His daughter was writhing. Her movements were violent enough that the bed beneath her broke, dumping her onto the floor.
Her mouth gaped, whatever words she was trying to stay drowned out as another scream tore itself from her throat.
Her body was twisting, her limbs bending almost to the point of breaking. She finally managed to force more words out, staring helplessly at him from her tear-streaked face.
The medical ninja rushed in, placing chakra-infused hands on Ino’s limbs.
“No, don’t touch her!” Sakura shouted, too late. Ino’s body reacted, one arm folding around the medic’s right arm and squeezing. The man shrieked as his arm broke. One of Ino’s legs snapped out and kicked him into the wall hard enough to crack it. The man crumpled to the floor. “Damn!” Sakura yelled.
Sakura jumped over Ino’s body and landed next to the medical ninja. Her hand lashed out, pink light forming a mandala pattern between her and the man as she touched him. “Magna Cura!” A prismatic aura flowed out of the medic, traveling from head to toe in a moment. His arm straightened in its wake. His body jerked, and he took a long breath before shaking his head and standing up.
“What happened?” Inoichi demanded.
“Autonomic self-defence instinct hard-coded into the nervous system via redundant neural command clusters throughout the body.” Sakura explained. “In short, redundant brains with preprogrammed combat instincts.” She walked around Ino’s body, keeping well out of range of her flailing limbs. “They’re designed to save the body in the case of catastrophic loss of primary control and to speed up mid-combat action by delegating control of individual limbs and organs to smaller decision clusters embedded throughout the body. The difference in reaction time can be measured in nanoseconds, but in high-level ninja combat a nanosecond could be the difference between life and death.” Sakura walked up to Inoichi. “Of course, without a properly developed command network her neural clusters are operating randomly. She has no idea how to regulate it, and the artificial intelligence that normally slaves them to the master brain is not operating because it hasn’t finished maturing yet.”
She grabbed his shoulder. “Inoichi!” He snapped his eyes up to meet hers as Ino shrieked. “Every second you waste is another second Ino needlessly suffers.”
“I…” He licked his lips. His outward control was a façade. His mind was racing, trying to find the answer, trying not to run to Ino. Could he place her mind in another body? No. In the end the person’s native chakra would reject her and force her back into… that.
He looked helplessly at his daughter. She was staring at him, her tearful eyes locked on him. Her mouth worked, and something almost coherent emerged. “Fuh-fath-” She was cut off again by another seizure. Blood trickled from her mouth.
Even now, she was looking to him to save her. There had to be a way!
“Inoichi!” Sakura cried from behind him. “I can’t do this spell!”
“Master Yamanaka, I can’t treat her if I can’t touch her.” The medical ninja was looking between Sakura and his arm with something between wonder and horror. “And even if I could safely try, I don’t think there’s anything I could do. Her anatomy is just too inhuman.”
“Transhuman, thank you very much,” Sakura said, before turning her gaze back to Inoichi. “You have no choice. You have to trust me. I think… I think there would be enough spiritual energy in her body to maintain its chakra if you switch her back.”
Ino trusted him to save her.
But he couldn’t. He had no answers.
“Damn you,” Inoichi spat. “You’re right. I have no choice.” He stared into her eyes. “This isn’t finished, however.”
He flashed through the hand seals and performed the jutsu again. He thrust his daughter’s presence back into Sakura’s body. It felt sickening as that brief mental closeness receded into the impossible distance folded inside the pink-haired girl’s body.
The writhing body on the ground immediately stopped and lay still. The medic hesitated and then approached. He ran a hand over her body again, and when nothing happened began to arrange her limbs into a more comfortable position.
Sakura walked over and knelt next to Ino. “System admin access, report on damage and system integrity.”
Ino’s mouth moved and her voice responded, but it was monotone and lifeless. “Minor damage to all muscle groups due to excessive strain injury. Countermeasures deployed. Physical recuperation in fifteen minutes. All systems running at dangerous integrity levels.”
Sakura looked at Inoichi then back down. “Report; integration of primary neural control system in estimated real time given standard parameters.”
“Three thousand hours until all systems reach acceptable levels of maturity.”
Sakura walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ino will recover. I’m taking care of her psyche in my inner world right now. Trust me, I know how to help someone recover from that level of pain. She’ll be fine in a day or so.”
Inoichi knocked off her hand with one forearm and walked over to place a hand on Ino’s cheek. It felt familiar yet strange. He squeezed his eyes shut and mastered himself. He rose to his feet.
“Take Ino to a recovery room.” He walked to the cell door. “Keep this one in here until the Hokage decides what to do about her.”
“I see,” Hiruzen took a long draw of his pipe. Inoichi kept his posture rigid. It was quite a predicament. “Has Ino recovered?”
“She began speaking again this morning,” the elder Yamanaka said with clipped precision. “Apparently Haruno can… transmit commands from Ino’s spirit that resides in her to Ino’s body. It appears to be some form of radio frequency. Our radio technicians can detect it, but it’s extremely well hidden in regular background radio noise. It has a range of about fifteen kilometres.
“However, Ino receives only audio and visual… she used the term ‘feeds’… from her actual body. Her sense of smell, taste and touch are blocked to her so long as her presence resides in Haruno’s inner world.”
“And do we have any further information on this inner world and its inhabitant?” Hiruzen asked, blowing out a cloud of smoke to the side. “Or inhabitants, I suppose.”
“The Hyuuga clan has been advocating on Haruno’s behalf. They’re claiming clan secret privileges to prevent us from engaging in vigorous debriefing regarding what, precisely, Haruno did.
“Further, her explanations of the Orochimaru Assassination Plot have been complete in terms of details, including the use of the-” Inoichi cleared his throat. “SnakeDie nanoscopic weapon system. However, she has been evasive and somewhat glib as to revealing the source of her extensive intelligence on the attempted infiltration of the Chunin Exam, Orochimaru’s connection to the newly formed Sound village, and the trio of suspected spies in Team Kozane.”
Hiruzen took a long draw and an equally long exhale. “Do we have any corroboration of the claims Haruno made to justify this whole mess?”
“Ibiki reports that after a full work over, the trio of Sound Ninja all confessed. They revealed that the Sound village was, indeed, founded by Orochimaru. Further, he apparently personally tasked them with infiltrating the Chunin Exams with the specific task of assassinating Uchiha Sasuke. The planned method was open combat rather than covert assassination. Through this, we can confirm that Orochimaru’s special interest lay in the Uchiha.”
“I see.” Hiruzen made a show of shuffling papers on his desk. “And Team Kozane?”
“So far I’ve kept Akado Yoroi and Tsurugi Misumi confined, but only a regular debrief. We have no evidence to accuse them of any crime.”
“And their jounin advisor and third teammate?” He asked. The three had been too old to have a full-time jounin commander. Also, there was the other factor to consider.
Kabuto hated this sewer. It wasn’t the stink. He had been involved in enough murders and surgeries and body disposals that the scent of offal never bothered him. It was the damp. Water constantly dripped from the ceiling and pooled underfoot. It got everywhere. And there was no way to put up seals against it, lest he attract the attention of the various chakra sensors – or worse, the entire Hyuuga clan.
It made creating a sterile work environment near impossible. Still, Kabuto struggled on. He adjusted the dial on his microscope. This place was so much less well-equipped than his labs in Oto. Add ‘electrical wires that didn’t short out constantly’ to the list of things he hated dampness for denying him.
“Fascinating,” he said aloud. He moved away from the sample and tilted his chair back. “No wonder you were so powerful.”
He looked at his sealing array and noted it was running out of power faster than his projections. “Ah, my math is off.” He placed a hand on the receptor seal and made a series of one-handed seals with the other. The seals turned from black to blood red. “There. Isn’t that better?”
He began to turn back to his research when the door opened. The clack of a cane against the stone floor preceded the man into the room. He was tall, but had shrunk slightly with age. His face and one arm were wrapped in bandages, and the awkward cane-assisted motion made it clear he was crippled. Life as a ninja sometimes did that. In fact, it often did that. Very few ninja lived long enough to retire without being effectively forced to do so by injury of some kind.
Yet Shimura Danzo was anything but the harmless old invalid he appeared to be.
Kabuto made himself smile in an inviting manner. This was perhaps going to be the most delicate situation in his entire life. He well knew what secrets were hidden under those bandages, and knew he was not in any position to defeat Danzo or even escape from this place. For all Kabuto knew, he had already lost the game and his mind had been rewritten to forget.
“Welcome, Lord Danzo.” Kabuto rose to his feet and bowed, dipping his head nearly to the floor. He kept his eyes firmly fixed downward.
“Your mission was a failure,” Danzo said, his voice unthreatening. A shiver ran up Kabuto’s back.
“Respectfully, I would instead say I succeeded at a different mission.”
“While I gathered very little intelligence on the abilities or loyalties and goals of Uchiha Sasuke, there was a member of his team that proved most enlightening to observe.”
“Haruno.” The word was said with dreadful intensity.
“The girl used extremely unusual jutsu, displayed far more power than a genin of her experience level could be expected to, and, of course, arranged the assassination of Orochimaru.”
“So you can confirm Orochimaru is dead, with your own eyes?”
“Yes, Lord Danzo. I arrived at the battle just as Orochimaru was dispatched by Mitarashi Anko and a squad of ANBU with the help of Hyuuga Hiashi.”
“Haruno wasn’t there at the end?” There was a series of clacks as Danzo walked around behind Kabuto. “Sloppy to not ensure her target was destroyed.” He paused. “If that was, in fact, her intention.”
“I caught a glimpse of her rushing across the forest away from the engagement site. Her course exactly paralleled my own but in the opposite direction. I believe she was rushing to the aid of the genin injured in my escape.”
“Yes.” Danzo’s cane came down directly behind Kabuto. “This girl, she correctly identified Orochimaru and his connection with the Sound Village. She conspired with the Hyuuga clan and several genin to arrange he be attacked with a sophisticated poison that even the legendary Sannin could not devise a defence against, and then unleashed the full might of the Anbu and the Hokage against him while he was weakened.”
“It would seem so.”
“A formidable girl. Especially considering that until now her performance was notably subpar.”
“As you say, Lord Danzo.”
“This raises two questions. The first is obvious. How did she know so much about Orochimaru’s plans, weaknesses and agents?”
“I’ve been asking myself the same thing since the incident.”
“Hmm.” Danzo did not sound pleased. “The other question… why had she arranged to take out the Root operatives I had infiltrated into the exam? On top of that, she showed a disturbing level of knowledge about the capabilities of your entire team.”
“I believe I have a hypothesis.” There was a clack as Danzo shifted his cane. “This girl, Haruno Sakura, is obviously extremely intelligent. Her scores on all theoretical work and academic subjects were absolutely perfect. She never made any attempt to conceal this.
“Further, she had access to several ninja tools that were exceptionally sophisticated.” He gestured towards his microscope. “Take a look at the sample under the lens.”
“What would I be looking at?” Danzo did not move.
Paranoid old ninja. But then, that was a redundant description.
“A shred of ‘fabric’ torn from her battle gear by Orochimaru’s Kusanagi sword. I’ve enhanced the magnification as much as possible with optics and fuinjutsu, yet I cannot see the slightest seam or break in the material. To all appearances it is a single black mass. One which is growing.”
“Yes. I attempted to perform a chemical analysis on the material; it is apparently non-reactive to most solvents. But further examination showed the mass had increased slightly each time. Further testing showed that exposure to certain chemical compounds caused it to gain mass faster. The primary element that seems to speed its growth is carbon, and also certain metals, though at a far reduced rate.
“My conclusion is that whatever this material is, it is somehow harvesting local carbon in an attempt to repair itself.”
“So clothes that fix themselves? Is that all?”
“On a whim, I also attempted to examine the material with my diagnosis jutsu. The results were intriguing. It reacts almost as if alive, though it lacks anything but natural chakra. More importantly, however, I had encountered a similar reaction before: when I used the jutsu on Haruno Sakura’s skin. This material, whatever it is, is either the same as or extremely similar to the material that makes up her entire dermal layer.”
“I attempted to divide the sample and encountered some difficulty. None of my instruments could so much as scratch it. I had to resort to a chakra scalpel, and even that was a tedious procedure that was far too chakra intensive to be practical on a battlefield. It would be like sawing down a tree with a dull knife.
“Intrigued, I subjected it to various stimuli while under magnification. It turns out the material reacts. Subject it to impact, and the material compresses at the point of contact and then ripples outward in a wave, evenly distributing the kinetic energy over the entire surface. It absorbs heat and, as far as I can tell, perfectly conducts electricity.”
“So it resists most damage, and even if damaged, repairs itself so long as it has material to do so with?”
“Yes. Not only that, I just finished another series of tests. I was curious where the heat it absorbed went. It turns out the material somehow stores the energy, like a battery. Under certain precise stimuli – mainly very, very high frequency electromagnetic waves – it can be caused to release that energy by moving itself. Basically, it can absorb thermal energy and later release it as kinetic energy.”
“Can it be replicated?” Danzo asked. Kabuto allowed himself a slight smile. Always looking for the main chance, old man.
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t have any idea how. The production is far beyond me. At its current rate of growth, if I feed it a non-stop stream of carbon… it would take a few months or years to produce enough fabric to cover an average male adult.”
“Can’t you be more precise?”
“Not without running more tests. While carbon is obviously the primary building block, it does also consume certain metals; platinum and titanium mainly, though it also reacts to gold and silver. It may need very specific ratios to produce more than a handful of fabric and may also require exotic materials I wouldn’t even be aware of.”
“Pity. Anything else?”
“I also retrieved some blood and tissue samples. I don’t have the equipment here to perform a full DNA typing, but given how… thoroughly Haruno’s poison destroyed Orochimaru, I can only assume it mostly came from Haruno and the handful of injured Anbu.
“Some of these samples show intriguing anomalous properties. For instance, so long as they are in the right environment they increase in volume.”
“When in the acceptable temperature ranges for a healthy live human, and the same level of pressure and other factors. If I attempt to refrigerate them or place them in a storage seal, they… seem to self-destruct. But if I emulate the conditions of a human body well enough, they produce new, healthy, blood cells and plasma. The tissues show a similar reaction. Like the fabric, it seems to need some sort of seed stock to convert. Though unlike the fabric, it isn’t as picky. I’ve had to replace glass vials constantly, and plastics practically melt.”
“And how is she accomplishing these feats? Some form of jutsu?”
“I don’t believe so, Lord Danzo. As near as I can tell, none of this requires any chakra. I have been using fuinjutsu to completely suppress chakra around the sample and the effect on the growth rates and reactions has been unobservable, if it exists.”
“I… couldn’t. There is simply insufficient data.”
Danzo hummed to himself. Finally he decided to prompt some more answers. “Have you ever heard the word nanotechnology before?”
Kabuto frowned. “I know the components. Nano is part of the standard scale. One billionth.”
“My sources inform me that this is the word Haruno uses to describe her ninja tools.”
Kabuto’s mind was moving fast now. “It must mean… machines. Not just microscopic. Beyond the ability of our current science to even see. That would explain everything.”
He wanted to leap to his feet and begin pacing or gesturing wildly, but he kept himself humbly bowed. And his eyes carefully away from Danzo and what was under those bandages.
“Just think what can be accomplished with mere microscopic machines!” Kabuto was almost vibrating now.
“Cells, Lord Danzo. The building blocks of all life.” Kabuto grinned. “Cells can construct an entire body, produce materials more efficiently than a factory, chemicals faster than a laboratory. We use living organisms to produce poisons and antidotes, but those organisms are really just collections of millions of cells that produce what we need more efficiently than any crude process we have. Cells are what produce everything, including chakra.”
“And this technology could custom design cells?”
“More than that. If cells, which are things we can see under a microscope, can produce such wonders… imagine what even smaller machines could do. The potential of this technology is nearly limitless. Even now, completely removed from Haruno’s body, her blood and tissues continue to repair damage and prevent breakdown. With sufficient control they could be injected into others to heal – or harm, as Orochimaru discovered.
“Attack, defence, enhancement, reconstruction, destruction, energy storage and release. Even the complete restructuring of the human body on a scale that modern surgery cannot hope to compete against.”
“I’m sorry, my lord?” It wasn’t like Danzo to let something like that slip. He must be very intrigued, indeed.
“Nothing, a word that came up. Continue.”
“One could also imagine machines the size of dust motes that could float through the air, gathering intelligence from any area not sealed airtight.”
“If not jutsu, then how would you suggest Haruno creates these nanomachines? A special kekkei genkai, like the First?”
“I don’t believe so, Lord Danzo.”
“I think that Haruno built them, Lord Danzo.”
“The way a blacksmith would a kunai or a seamstress a cloak. I think this girl is a genius on a level we have not seen in the Elemental Countries in a thousand years. Not since the Sage of the Six Paths who devised and distributed chakra among the people has someone come up with a technology that could so fundamentally change the world.”
The wood of Danzo’s cane creaked. “How could we have overlooked such a gifted young ninja for so long?”
“With all due respect, Lord Danzo, if she is as brilliant as I suggest then it would be too easy to underestimate her. She would have been a brilliant and perceptive child. I believe that Orochimaru was kidnapping citizens of Konoha when she was young,” Kabuto said. He had to walk carefully here. “A genius capable of devising a way to construct technology this sophisticated using only pre-existing tools would have seen that a clanless girl with no chakra but a genius intellect would be defenceless against any number of organisations. She would have been able to see underneath the surface layer of Konoha. Perhaps even deduce the existence of organizations like Root and individuals like Orochimaru from the evidence of her senses and what she could learn in history texts.”
“So this attack on Orochimaru and your team?”
“Nothing short of a declaration of war against those who would seek to abuse her intellect.”
The slow clack of Danzo’s cane sounded as he moved around towards the door again. “She is well-protected now. The Yamanaka have her sealed in the intelligence division, and the Hyuuga clan is keeping a close eye on her.”
“That, too, can be explained.”
“Even if she is a genius unmatched since the Sage of the Six Paths, she is still a girl with no clan, no connections, no political influence or wealth. Her technology is simply too sophisticated to be something she could put together with the resources available to a twelve year old girl of no special status.”
“You are saying that the Hyuuga clan is sponsoring her research and development?” The obvious question under the question was ‘why?’
“The benefits are obvious. First, access to the fruits of the girl’s labours.”
“This nanotechnology must be made to serve the interests of Konoha.”
Translation: it must be made to serve me, Kabuto thought, but kept his posture and expression entirely neutral.
“Very well, continue your research. That fabric, especially, intrigues me.” The cane began to clack its way out of the room. Kabuto kept his posture until the man paused just outside the door.
“And what is that other thing on your workspace?” Danzo asked.
“A flesh sample from the battle,” he answered completely honestly. “The array is designed to keep foreign chakra from interfering with my work.” It was, again, all true.
The door closed. Kabuto kept himself still until he was certain that the man had actually left. He stood up and walked over to the seal and placed his hand on the receptor, forming the seals to empower it again. Keeping the damn thing supplied with chakra was like trying to fill a sieve to the brim with water.
Oh well, what could he expect from a single night’s work? Using Inyu Shometsu was draining in the best of circumstances, after all. He would perfect the array in time. He rubbed his finger along the length of the small white worm-like sample. The black patches along it grew and shrank in time to the pulse of the array.
Yes, he would perfect the seal.
“There are still a few ninja missing after the One Tail’s rampage.” Inoichi thought for a few moments. “Among them are Kozane Gusoku and Yakushi Kabuto. Casualties were remarkably low thanks to Konoha having so many high-level ninja ready to rapidly respond, but the missing and dead still number over a dozen.”
“So it’s possible both were killed?”
“Or fled when Orochimaru was killed.”
Hiruzen didn’t want to believe that. All four of them had been part of his Root Rehabilitation Plan. Reintegrating the shinobi from Danzo’s disbanded organisation had been his decision; the alternative was executing them all, and he wouldn’t allow another tragedy like the Uchiha Massacre to occur again under his watch.
“Keep Yoroi and Misumi confined for now, but they are not to be badly treated until we can uncover more evidence of crimes against the village. The words of a single genin, even one who predicted the movements of Orochimaru, are simply not enough.”
“I understand.” Inoichi paused. “There is one other witness that can corroborate some of Sakura’s claims.”
“You mean your daughter?”
“Yes, though of course…” here Inoichi’s throat tightened as he forced the words out, “We may need to consider her testimony… compromised.”
“C’mon, Ino, you’re going to love this!” Sakura pulled Ino along by one hand as they walked quickly down the corridor. “Oh man, you will not believe what I have to show you.”
“Okay, okay, take it easy.” Ino waved her down with her free hand. “I’m still recovering from yesterday. So keep your voice down, okay?”
Sakura giggled and let Ino go. She waved Ino forward and began to skip down the corridor. Actually skip. She turned every now and then to make certain Ino was keeping up, and wave for her to hurry.
“Where are we even going, anyway? You’re locked in a cell and I’m stuck in a medical ward.”
“You’ll see,” Sakura said and stuck out her tongue. Ino shrugged and followed her. A door at the corridor opened, and Ino walked out of it and into a wonder.
She had seen the view of the distant world before, but this view and that were not comparable. It was breathtaking. The moon was rising on one side and the sun on the other. The blue-green jewel was framed perfectly, the glittering white of clouds accenting the shapes.
“Wow,” Ino said.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Sakura grabbed her hand and tugged her down some stairs towards a large open area where one entire wall was open to the view below. In the room was a machine of some kind, as large as a sailing junk except shaped more like an arrowhead with a large bubble of glass in the centre. “I had to build all this for you. Since you’re not actually neurally linked to Anima Invictus, we can’t just upload and download you between the various simulspaces. But the ride is pretty spectacular on the way down.”
“To the planet, silly. Did you think I spent all my time in a boring place like the command centre?”
“You have an actual planet inside you?” Ino was aghast and awed.
Sakura giggled behind her hand and shook her head. “Don’t be silly. It’s not an actual planet.” She pressed her hand against a symbol on the side of the large arrowhead and a seamless door opened, folding down into a set of stairs. “Come on. I have so much I want to show you. I’ve never had anyone else to my home before, and I’m eager to show it off.”
Ino let herself be led up into the arrowhead, which it turned out was some sort of craft like the self-propelled boats she’d seen off the coast of the Land of Fire. There was a short tunnel leading into the bubble of glass. Two chairs were suspended inside, seeming to float in mid-air. Sakura leapt into one and patted the other. Having nothing better to do, Ino followed her lead.
The moment she was seated comfortably, the entire machine shifted and then began to drift out of the large portal. It seemed to pass through a brief flash of blue light that covered the entire opening, and then they were floating in space. The view afforded by the bubble allowed Ino to look in any direction. She gaped around like a bumpkin tourist; even the stars were simulated in Sakura’s mindscape. Ino considered asking if they were “real” too, but decided she didn’t really want to know the answer.
The craft descended quickly towards the planet, which grew larger and larger. After a few minutes they seemed to hit something thick; the ship rumbled, and there was a flare of flames all around them.
“Sorry about the view. I run hard reality sim for the entire planet with every physical law emulated. I don’t like to turn it off even for special occasions. You get too used to cartoon physics and you get kind of detached from reality.”
“Sakura, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
The flames outside vanished, and Ino was able to see the planet again. Fingers of cloud obscured some of the ground, but she could see coastlines and mountain ranges and great forests and deserts.
“This isn’t really real.” Sakura’s voice took on a more hesitant tone. “This is actually a simulated reality… think of it like a picture book, but one you can step inside. Or maybe like a genjutsu that you can interact with however you want.” She waved towards the ground. “This is a perfect emulation of a planet. Every pebble, twig and drop of water. Aaron built it. We use it for training and relaxation. But none of it is real. It’s a mathematical model, a set of ‘rules’ being consulted by a program that determines what we see, hear, smell and feel. It perfectly matches the ‘rules’ of the real world. Gravity, entropy, chemical reactions, inertia. Even down to the quantum level.”
Sakura waved the question aside. “Don’t worry about it. If you want, I can arrange some undergrad courses in physics for you.
“The important thing is that this place feels like the real world, but it isn’t actually real. It’s a simulation being run on Anima Invictus’ mainframe.” Sakura gave her a wide smile and giggled, her tone becoming playful again. “So don’t sweat the small details about how impossible everything is and just accept it, okay?”
They descended toward a crescent-shaped island to the east of one of the larger continents and floated into one of the inlets. There was a village laid out there that looked almost exactly like Konoha except for the lack of a Hokage monument. Oh, and what looked like a large pagoda-style castle on the far end just beyond the gates. They ship they were in set down in one of the larger squares, and Sakura eagerly pulled Ino outside.
Sakura leapt down and spun in place, throwing her arms out. “Tada! Welcome home!”
“Home?” Ino looked around. “I thought you said this wasn’t real? It looks just like the village.”
“Well, I wanted you to feel at home. So I had this modelled just for you!” She skipped a few steps away and laced her hands behind her back, bouncing on her heels. “And if you’re going to be living in my custom reality for the next three years, I wanted you to feel comfortable.”
“I…” Ino had no idea what to say, so she just shrugged. Sakura began to bounce down the street and gestured for her to follow. Ino proceeded after her. She recognised the path quickly and was not surprised when they ended up outside the Yamanaka compound. Or the Simulated Yamanaka Compound, she supposed.
“Now, I don’t actually know what it looks like inside, so I had to make some educated guesses when I was modelling it.” Sakura’s smile slipped a little. “Unless it’s too painful to stay here? In which case I can give you literally any house in the village!” She waved around. “You can even stay in the Hokage Residence if you want.”
Sakura bounced up to the door. “But! But! I added a hot spring to the compound.” She looked over her shoulder at Ino. “You like hotsprings, right?”
“I… yes, I do.”
“And there’s a garden, too!” Sakura added quickly. She threw her arms wide. “It’s huge! It has, like, every flower in the world in it.” Sakura paused and made an exaggerated disgusted face. “Well, not a titan arum because ew. Trust me, just ew.”
“Sakura!” Ino broke in sharply. The girl gave her a little fragile smile. “It’s… it’s nice.”
“Yay!” Sakura bounced. She pointed over at the castle in the distance. “And if you ever want to visit me, I’ll be at the castle.”
“Castle?” Ino raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms, tilting her head mockingly.
“Well, every girl secretly wants to be a princess, right?” Sakura waved her finger back and forth. “And I can live anywhere I want, so I get a castle. With an open air bath. And the fluffiest pillows.” She looked very serious about the pillows.
“Okay…” Ino trailed off. “But… how do I interact with the real world from here?”
“Oh, right!” Sakura reached into her pouch and pulled out a metal band. “Here! I rebuilt your haptic. Just put it on.”
Ino took it and examined it a bit. Seeing it was sized perfectly, she slid it onto her wrist. It came about halfway up her forearm and had three large colored dots on it.
“Tap the green dot to initiate the interface,” Sakura said, miming the motion on her own wrist with two fingers. “It will bring up an audio-visual feed from your meatspace body and record and transmit your movements to your normal body. You’ll also be kind of… suspended above the ground so you don’t run around in the simulspace. Tapping the red one will turn off the interface. The button in the middle will turn on and off the artificial intelligence that’s running your meatbody. I mean, it’s always on, but only to run your autonomic functions. If you turn it on that means the AI will do stuff like walk around, interact with people, pretend to eat and so on.”
“Oh yeah. You don’t have a stomach anymore, so you can’t actually eat.” Sakura jumped closer. “But here, everything has all the tastes you want and you can eat all you want without gaining a single gram of fat! So you won’t even miss it!”
Ino opened and closed her mouth but didn’t say anything. Sakura went back to her explanation. “If the AI is on when you turn on the interface, you’ll see what it’s doing but not have any control. So remember to turn it off if you want to actually interact. Though uh, don’t log out of the controls if you aren’t laying down, because you’ll just collapse into a heap.”
“Like a puppet,” Ino said, unable to keep the edge out of her tone. Sakura’s smile trembled but firmed up.
“Once your AI has trained itself to run your body without hurting you, you’ll see how cool it is to have a transhuman body.” Sakura bounced a few steps away. “In the meantime, you have an entire planet to explore. There are things here you never imagined. So much food. Oh, and movies and books! You have to watch Princess Bride and Princess Mononoke! And there are amusement parks, and water parks and…
“And since you don’t need to sleep anymore you can… maybe hang out with me when everyone else is asleep?” She backed away. “Unless… you don’t want to. Which I can totally understand. I mean, your dad doesn’t like me and I did something really horrible to you without your consent. So… if you don’t want to see me… well, there is an entire planet.”
“Sakura…” Ino frowned.
“But if not, we can hang out and… have slumber parties and talk about boys?” She smiled thinly. “That’s what teenage girls do, right? Oh, and ice cream!” She held up one finger and winked. “I have the best ice cream.”
“Sakura…” Ino couldn’t believe this. “Are you… lonely?”
“What? No! Why would you think that?” Sakura looked shocked. “I just… I’ve never had any one to show all the neat things in the simulspace to. So… like, I want to show off.” She laughed and waved away Ino’s concern with a negligent flip of her hand. “I mean, I grew up here. I’ve lived here my whole life. It’s…” she trailed off. “I just wanted to show you how neat it is.”
“Why is the village so empty?” Ino asked softly, looking around.
“Well, I can fill it with NPC programs if you want. And if you dedicate a lot of runtime to them, they can be almost real. But…” She shrugged. “I thought you’d prefer to talk to real people.”
“What about the… other yous?” Ino stepped closer.
Sakura’s smile trembled again. “Others…” She looked around. “Heh. Others.” She smiled. “It’s a good play, isn’t it?”
“All the masks they wear. You’d almost think they were really different people. But…” She shuffled her feet and looked down, her smile vanishing. “They’re all… the same person. It’s a game. Practice. So much of The Plan requires playing roles, deceiving people by putting on faces. I even fool myself sometimes, you know?”
She looked up. “They live on the other side of the planet. As far from me as possible. The only one that’s different is me.”
“What… are they?”
“The official term is compartments. But we use stuff like forks or instances.” Sakura shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, really. They’re all… me. I can…” Sakura rubbed her temple. “I can know them. Anytime I want. It’s always there, just at the edge… that awareness that I am…”
She chuckled dryly and threw up her hands. “He… I… wanted to have a normal childhood.” She turned and started walking to the castle, taking slow steps. “It wasn’t fair, to steal Sakura’s life. To kill a little girl without giving her a chance to live. So… why not… separate and let that little mind grow…”
She laughed as she began to turn the corner. “Maybe even get a chance to fall in love like a normal person one day.” She paused just before stepping out of sight. “Except… I’m always there. Just on the edge.” She turned and smiled at Ino. “That’s the funny thing about masks. You can always take them off.”
Then she was gone.
Hiruzen gave Inoichi a long look. That last admission had probably cost him a great deal. “I see.” He took a draw and released some smoke. “We’ll have to consider anything she says tainted, I suppose. Hopefully, we can clear both of them of any wrongdoing.
“After all, despite all the damage to the forest, we managed to end a significant threat to the village. And frankly, the number of deaths was less than what you get in an average Chunin Exam.”
“Thank you, Lord Hokage.”
Inoichi left through the door, and Hiruzen contemplated what to do. Finally he tapped out his pipe into the tray. He signaled for the ninja on duty to send in his last meeting for the day.
“Koharu, Homaru, please, enter and have a seat.”
“Hiruzen,” Koharu said with a small nod. The years had been kinder to his old teammate than to Hiruzen. Then again, she had never taken on the responsibility he had. It tended to wear down on him over time. She had her grey hair up in a pair of buns with a needle keeping them in place. Her robes were expensive but plain.
“Sarutobi,” Homura said while adjusting his glasses. He was always more formal than either of his teammates. He moved stiffly as he sat down.
“I asked you both here to discuss the cancellation of the Chunin Exam.”
“That would be unwise,” Homura said as he leaned forward. “We would appear weak to the villages in the alliance. Even worse, it would send a message to hostile nations.”
“I agree, we need to be careful. Just because the Shukaku attacked doesn’t mean we can end the exam. Perhaps we can arrange for an extension or an alternate second exam?”
“I’m afraid that is no longer possible,” Hiruzen said, leaning his elbows on his desk and placing his palms together. “Too many genin had to be removed for serious wounds. There were few deaths, but almost no genin escaped the attack without some injuries. Further, there is the possibility of being accused of provoking the One-tail ourselves. It was three of our genin who both started and ended the rampage, after all… including the last Uchiha.”
“I see. You think Sand will accuse us of attempting to interfere with their jinchuuriki and upsetting the ancient treaties?” Koharu frowned.
“More than that.” He unrolled the debriefing of Haruno. “There is the fact that it is possible that Sand was working with Sound to attack the village during the exam.”
“Do we have any evidence?” Koharu folded her hands in her lap.
“Only accusations.” He snapped the scroll closed. “But the source of those accusations also predicted Orochimaru’s attack well enough to arrange his assassination.”
“I see.” Homura held out his hand and Hiruzen slipped him the scroll. He looked at it for a few minutes. “So, your plan is to cancel the exams to eliminate the possibility that there will be an invasion. You also plan to give Suna a chance to look for their Kazekage… and if he really has been murdered out in the desert, as Haruno claims?”
“The source of Haruno’s exceptional intelligence has been discussed with the relevant parties.”
“What you need from us is to handle this diplomatically with the other villages.” Koharu opened her eyes a crack. “They won’t be pleased to have wasted their time.”
“I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.” Hiruzen nodded to them both.
“In exchange, there are two things we need to consider.” Homura adjusted his glasses and leaned back in his chair. “The One-tail jinchuriki. What is to be done about him?”
“We have no choice but to return him to Suna eventually. His siblings are under treatment from our medical corps. Our sealing experts are examining his Tea Kettle Seal under the cover of working to prevent another ‘unexpected incident.’ Without any Uzushio sealing experts or Lord Jiraiya, there is little intelligence to be gathered. Other than the fact our sealing arts at least still exceed that of our allies in this area.”
Homura and Koharu nodded as if pleased. Homura spoke up next, “The reports of the seal weakening on the Nine-tails jinchuriki are concerning.”
“Ah, yes.” Hiruzen frowned. “There is a plan in place for that. Unfortunately, Jiraiya is the only true expert on the Eight Trigrams Seal we know of, and he has not reported in for years.”
“That man, he comes and goes as he pleases,” Koharu said with a sniff.
“He would have been Hokage if he could ever take responsibility,” Homaru agreed.
“In the meantime, measures are being taken to control Naruto’s… condition.”
“You have too much affection for that boy.”
“If the boy is not a suitable host, then a new, more compatible candidate should be selected.”
Hiruzen tightened his hands but made no other reaction. “That option has been considered and rejected. Steps have been taken.”
“Kakashi! Quick, they won’t let us see Sakura!”
As usual, Naruto was being loud instead of persuasive. Sasuke sat on the guardrail of the small bridge where their team usually waited to meet. He balanced his elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together in front of his face. Naruto was standing defiantly in front of Kakashi, holding up one fist.
Kakashi stared down at Naruto, his one eye unreadable.
“Come on! We’ll storm the hospital, or the dungeons or wherever they’re keeping her!” He bounced from one foot to the other and shadowboxed. “It’s not fair that Sakura does all this crazy heroic stuff and then gets detained for it.”
“So I figure we bust in on old man Hokage and demand to see her and if he doesn’t submit we use my Sexy Jutsu to take him out and-“
Kakashi’s tone brought Naruto up short. He looked up into his sensei’s face, and Kakashi was not pleased. Kakashi put a hand on his shoulder and pushed Naruto back until he was standing next to Sasuke.
“Neither of you should be making demands right now,” Kakashi said, his tone dangerously reasonable. “I’m very disappointed in you both.”
“But… but we beat that giant sand monster!” Naruto objected.
“He’s not talking about that, Naruto,” Sasuke said. Kakashi looked at him. “He’s talking about the extra training we’ve been doing with Sakura behind his back.”
“Very good, Sasuke.” Kakashi backed away and propped one hand against his chin, cupping that elbow with his other hand. “And can you tell me why you’re in trouble?”
Sasuke only grunted. Naruto frowned, his eyes narrowed to slits in that way that made him look like a real idiot.
“I specifically forbid Sakura to use her time acceleration after the mission to Wave.” Kakashi sighed. “I should have seen it before now. You are both of that age, and I thought it was just a growth spurt. But in reality, you are both about two months older than you should be, aren’t you?”
He looked at Sasuke. “Sasuke, I know you want to get stronger faster. But there is no shortcut here.” He unrolled his arms and tapped one finger against his hitai-ate. “You gain skill, but your chakra isn’t growing in line with that skill. That means you end up using jutsu your body hasn’t developed enough to handle.”
Sasuke grunted and looked away. Kakashi would never understand. Since that day in Wave, his power had grown faster than any other time he could remember. His hands tightened until he could feel his fingers going numb.
Then there was that minute in the Forest of Death; riding on the wings of Sakura’s mahoujutsu. It was like all the training of the past three months had been exceeded in a few seconds. With that power, maybe even his dream was not beyond his grasp.
“I’m not getting through to you at all, am I?” Kakashi shook his head and turned to Naruto. “And you. Don’t you know how dangerous that training is for you? You remember what happened at the bridge?”
“Sensei…” Naruto gulped.
“He’s talking about your tailed beast.”
Kakashi looked at Sasuke sharply. He returned a look that conveyed his contempt at the idea he would blather about this to anyone but his team.
“Don’t be surprised, sensei. Naruto and I ended up… sharing a lot in the Forest of Death.” Sasuke looked at him. “Your training with the accelerated time, it’s weakening your seal.”
“Weakening…” Naruto touched his stomach. “My tailed beast?” He frowned at Kakashi. “What’s a tailed beast?”
“Tch. Did you ever pay attention in class?” Sasuke slipped off the rail and put his hands in his pockets. “The tailed beasts: back in the chaos period, before the foundation of the ninja village system to control the use of ninjutsu, there were nine great monsters that roamed free. They were beings of pure chakra, but dangerous and malevolent. Every time they encountered humans, the humans died.
“That is, until they met the First Hokage.” Sasuke pointed at the face on the monument. Naruto blinked as if seeing it for the first time. “With his rare kekkei genkai he was able to tame the tailed beasts, but instead of using them to rule, he divided them among the Five Great Hidden Villages. Two to each, except Konoha, where he kept the most powerful and most destructive: the Nine-tailed fox, which somehow escaped and nearly destroyed the village twelve years ago.” Sasuke walked up and poked Naruto in the stomach. “And now, it’s in you.”
“Very good, Sasuke, but you don’t get bonus points for history lessons, especially when you made some critical errors about the foundation of the villages and the First’s intentions for the Tailed Beasts, and also considering you never bothered to reveal to your sensei that you were engaging in potentially very dangerous training methods.” Kakashi backed away a few steps and sighed. “Listen, I can’t really blame either of you for what happened.” He looked at them. “Let me guess: Sakura proposed the training, and she also proposed keeping it secret from me.” Sasuke grunted and looked down. Naruto shuffled his feet.
“Right. I’m going to have words with Sakura once she gets released.”
“So… what has happened to her?” Sasuke asked.
Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s hard to say. Sakura did something very useful to the village, but she also made a lot of trouble and put a bunch of genin in way more danger than the Hokage finds acceptable. At the moment, I don’t know when we will see her again.”
Sasuke clenched his fists in his pockets. “Then what are we doing? The chunin exams are cancelled, right?”
“Ah man, what a ripoff.” Naruto frowned and clapped his hands together. “We totally kicked ass! Boom, pow! We took out a giant monster! Sakura apparently lures a missing nin into an ambush as well. We should totally be chunin!”
“Naruto, you don’t become a chunin by manipulating all your friends into a dangerous situation, lying to all your allies and starting a fight that blows up most of the training ground and puts all your allies in danger.” Kakashi sounded tired.
The grey-haired man straightened from his slouch and looked at them both. “But to answer your question, what we are doing is training.”
“All right!” Naruto hopped forward and punched the air. “What kind of training are we doing?”
“We aren’t doing anything.” Kakashi looked at him then back to Sasuke. “Sasuke needs to develop his chakra. So he and I will be doing some special training for that. You will be training with someone else.”
“Ah! But I want chakra training, too!”
“And you will.” Kakashi looked at him. “But in your case, what you will be training is control. Because if your seal is weakening, what we need most of all is for you to learn how to control the nine-tailed fox’s chakra.”
“Control the fox’s chakra?” Naruto’s eyes widened.
“And that’s why I’ve invited an old friend to help you.” Kakashi waved. There was a puff of smoke and a man appeared. He was slightly taller than Kakashi and more heavily built. Like Kakashi, he wore the standard tactical vest and undersuit. His face was fully visible but also oddly flat, with an almost unfinished look. Instead of a standard hitai-ate he was wearing a ceramic head guard with attached bits that protected his cheeks into which the metal plate with his Leaf symbol was embedded. “Naruto, meet the man who will be overseeing your new training.”
“Hello, Naruto. You may call me Yamato.”