Tsubasa whirled and spun, kunai flying from her fingers, and speared three ninja who had been creeping up behind her, one in the head, one in the eye, and one in the neck. Just as quickly as they fell, they were replaced with three more ninja, each one already forming hand seals.
“Damn!” she swore, blinking salty sweat out of her eyes. “Did Kiri send their whole village?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Tsubame, identical to her in every way from his Uzumaki red hair to his sea blue eyes, said grimly as he took out two ninja with a rush of water, leaving another two stunned. Tsubasa darted forward to slap seals on their foreheads, and activated them not even a second later. The two ninja crumpled to the floor, and Tsubasa disregarded them. She turned, Tsubame’s name on her lips, only to freeze as she spotted him, clashing swords with a Kiri nin as another crept up behind him.
Too far—she wouldn’t make it in time.
She reached for a kunai, and found her pouch empty. Tsubame turned, reacting to the presence behind him, too late.
A swirl of leaves, the clash of metal on metal. She blinked, and Tsubame was on the ground, but not bleeding. The Kiri nin’s head rolled to a stop at her feet.
A man with blond hair stabbed the remaining ninja, and then turned to her. “Got here in time!” he declared cheerfully, as if a man’s decapitated body wasn’t lying at his feet. “Uzukage-sama?”
She nodded, even as she eyed him. Blond hair and blue eyes weren’t an unusual combination in Uzushio, but none of her people looked quite like this man. She looked for any sign of a forehead protector or other village identifier, and found nothing. “That’s right.”
“You look like you could do with some help,” he said with an easy grin.
Despite the lack of identifier, she could tell easily that he was a ninja, and what was more, he’d saved her precious younger brother and that said more than he knew. “Uzushio welcomes your aid,” she said.
“Great!” he said, and brought his hands together in a seal. “Shadow clone jutsu!”
A veritable army of clones appeared, so many that even an Uzumaki would have probably killed themselves doing it. They let out a battle cry and rushed deeper into the village, racing over the roofs and down the streets, leaving Tsubasa and Tsubame blinking at each other.
“Did that happen, or is the chakra exhaustion making me hallucinate?” she asked.
Tsubame tossed her a few soldier pills and the weapons pouch he’d pilfered from one of the fallen ninja. “No time to worry about it now. You good to go?”
She popped the pill and cracked her knuckles. “Try to keep up, shrimp. Dinner for a week says I can get more Kiri nin than you.”
Tsubame smirked at her. “Better get your wallet ready. Let’s go!”
Tsubame dashed off into the city, vanishing and then reappearing to slam kunai into the eyes of two approaching shinobi. Tsubasa laughed and followed, seals and kunai at the ready.
The sun had risen by the time one of her ANBU appeared behind her. “Uzukage-sama, Kiri is retreating.”
She slapped a seal onto the forehead of a Kiri nin. He fell, leaving the street relatively peaceful for the moment. Overhead, the Kiri nin leapt from building to building, more often than not falling prey to traps, weapons, and the occasional jutsu from those with enough chakra left. She heard whooping from triumphant genin in the distance, and couldn’t help but smile despite her bone-deep exhaustion.
“Report,” she ordered as she retrieved her kunai.
“Several streets have taken damage, particularly in areas frequented by shinobi, although there have been heavy casualties in the civilian sectors as well. Our barrier seals have been completely destroyed. Our forces suffered heavy casualties, but we made it through. The jounin and chuunin took the brunt of it, but the majority of the genin were in the shelters with the civilians. Some of those areas were targeted, but most of the attacks were averted. I can only imagine what would have happened if not for our backup. I didn’t see them myself, but I heard stories. Did Konoha send them?”
She and Tsubame exchanged a glance. “Them? I was only aware of one.”
“I only sensed the one,” Tsubame confirmed.
All three of them tensed and readied their weapons as someone flickered into the space between them. Their blond ally blinked at them before sheepishly grinning and holding out two Kiri jounin as if giving up a peace offering.
“Caught these guys organizing the retreat. They seemed to be in charge; you could probably get some information from them,” he said.
Tsubasa signaled the ANBU, who quickly restrained the two ninja and then vanished with them. Even as he left, however, she sensed three more ANBU approaching. “Come with us,” she said, gesturing to the stranger. “We can talk in my office. If it’s still standing.”
Her office, only a few minutes away, was missing a wall but otherwise none the worse for wear. Tsubasa put her Uzukage robes on over her standard shinobi armor and then placed the hat on her head before taking a seat at her desk and facing the stranger.
“Now, explain how and why you came here,” she said. “I assume you have a name.”
The blond sheepishly ruffled the back of his hair. “Yeah . . . Namikaze. Narumi Namikaze.”
“You feel like an Uzumaki,” Tsubame said from beside her. “Uzumaki chakra is quite distinctive, if you know what to look for.”
“Yeah, my dad was a Namikaze, but my mom was an Uzumaki,” Narumi said. “That’s what I’ve been told, at least. I never actually knew them.”
“What village were you raised in, then?” she asked. Not Konoha, most likely. They would have been told if an Uzumaki child, either abandoned or an orphan, was alone in the village. Or so she liked to think, anyways. She knew all too well that even the closest allies kept secrets from each other.
“No village,” he said. “My sensei taught me everything I know, but he didn’t belong to a village, either.”
A shinobi without a village, who just so happened to know the Shadow Clone Jutsu, Konoha’s specialty, and was so powerful that he should have at least been in the bingo book? Either he was lying, or his sensei had been a missing-nin, most likely from Konoha.
“And where is your sensei now?” she asked.
There, in his eyes, a brief flicker of something—grief? “Dead,” he said. “He died a few years ago.”
She steepled her hands in front of her and narrowed her eyes at him. “Why did you come to Uzushio?” she asked. “Given your age, I doubt it was to locate your family, or you would have come years ago.”
Narumi shrugged. “It’s hard to miss pretty much an entire shinobi village headed out to battle. I was traveling through Kiri at the time and caught wind of what was going on, and decided to help Uzushio.”
She couldn’t detect any lies from him, but at the same time, it seemed incredibly convenient. “What are your plans from here on out?”
Narumi rubbed at his nose sheepishly. “I was hoping you might have room for another shinobi?”
Tsubasa held in a sigh and exchanged a glance with Tsubame. Tsubame nodded once, and she looked back at Narumi. “Tsubame will take you to torture and interrogation, where you will go through the standard procedure for joining the village. Any wounds you have will be treated there as well. Cooperate, and you should have no problems.” If you are telling the truth, her eyes silently told him.
The young man just grinned at her, as if she had informed him that they just so happened to have an open position for Jounin Commander and a vacant mansion for sale, and he was welcome to them both. “Sure thing, Uzukage-sama. Lead the way!”
Tsubame left, Narumi behind him, and two silent ANBU tailing them both. Tsubasa sighed and glanced out through the space where there had once been a wall, surveying the collapsed canals and bridges, the destroyed houses, and the shinobi, most of them genin who had been spared the worst of the battle, clearing the dead from the street. Tsubame appeared in the street below, and Tsubasa watched as he marched Narumi off towards T&I. She could only hope that she had made the right decision.
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?
Two long, dull months spent in a small room in T&I, his only visitors the two interrogators who had been assigned to his case, the shinobi that brought him his meals, and, on rare occasions, Tsubame.
Really, it was sort of relaxing, compared to what he’d been through before activating the seal that had sent him back in time.
Narumi Namikaze, who had once been called Naruto Uzumaki, grinned broadly as he stretch his hands up towards the sky.
Two months, and he was finally free.
“Don’t look too excited,” Tsubame said sternly. “You’re still on probation for the next year. That means—”
“Limited access to files and facilities, regular meetings with my T&I buddies, no S-rank missions and A-ranks only in extreme circumstances. I know, I know,” Narumi said, waving off the glare with ease.
Tsubame set off towards the administrative center, where the Uzukage’s office was located, and Narumi followed. “Unfortunately, due to the current political situation, we are in an eternal state of ‘extreme circumstances,’” Tsubame said tersely. “As such, you will accompany me on an A-rank mission to Konoha. The Uzukage will explain your duties in further detail.”
Without another word, he took to the rooftop, cutting across the village. Narumi followed him, waving at the genin working at repairing the village as he ran. Those that recognized him from the attack waved back, while others eyed him curiously, and some stared at him warily. He couldn’t help but smile as he took in the white houses with the colorful roofs that rose from the water. He was only just seeing Uzushio for real, and he loved it already, from the salty sea breeze to the red-haired children running through the narrow streets and along the canals.
“Namikaze!” Tsubame barked. “This way.”
“Coming, coming,” he said, turning to follow the red-haired man. He wondered, idly, what had become of him in the time he had left behind. Killed, most likely, along with most of the others in Uzushio.
He couldn’t help but grin. He’d done it. He’d saved Uzushio, even the Uzukage, and the Uzumaki.
He jolted back to attention as someone cleared their throat loudly, and found himself standing in front of the Uzukage. She looked much as he recalled from a few months ago, still red-haired and blue eyed, still almost identical to her brother, still dead tired.
“Narumi Namikaze,” she said, and he realized that she was holding out a navy blue flak jacket and an Uzushio forehead protector. “Do you swear, on your life and the lives of your ancestors, to protect Uzushiogakure and her citizens, to obey the word of your Uzukage, and to serve them until your dying day?”
“I do,” he heard himself say.
“Then,” she said, as she placed the items into his hands, “I hereby name you a chuunin of Uzushiogakure, to be promoted to jounin upon the end of your probation. Welcome to Uzushiogakure, Namikaze.”
He slid into the flak jacket and zipped it up. It was heavier and thicker than the ones from his time, but still comfortingly familiar. He tied the forehead protector around his head, adjusting his hair slightly as he did. “Thank you, Uzukage-sama. I heard you had a mission for me?”
“Yes,” she said, producing a scroll from her desk. “You will be acting as guard detail as Tsubame travels to Konoha on a diplomatic mission, along with two ANBU. I expect you to bring him home safely, Namikaze. You leave at dawn.”
He nodded firmly, and tucked the scroll into his standard-issue belt to read later. “Yes ma’am.”
He turned to leave only to pause and turn around sheepishly. “Oh, and, uh, is there anywhere I can live? I didn’t really bring much money with me, ya know. . .”
Tsubasa sighed. “Get one of the chuunin outside to show you to the barracks. We’ll find something more suitable once our rebuilding is finished. Have him take you to the armory, as well,” she added.
Narumi left Tsubame and Tsubasa to their conversation, well aware that they were probably going to discuss him. Really, it wasn’t a bad idea—stick him with the Uzukage’s brother and a couple of ANBU to keep an eye on him, and send him somewhere he couldn’t easily cause problems. If he’d actually been trying to sabotage Uzushio, his efforts would have been stymied for some time, given the amount of surveillance he would be under from both his teammates and Konoha. Not to mention that Konoha had the Yamanaka on hand.
He stopped in front of the Hokage’s desk, manned by two chuunin, one with red hair and one with teal. “Uzukage-sama said to ask one of you to take me to the armory and the barracks?”
The two took one look at him and immediately pressed their heads together, whispering furiously and making quick motions under the desk. Moments later, the red-haired one cursed, while the teal-haired one smiled triumphantly and stood. “Right this way,” she said. “I’m Mizushima, by the way. Suoh Mizushima. My partner back there was Hachiro Uzumaki. And yes, he really is the eighth son of his family. He has two younger sisters, too! His family is productive even for the Uzumaki. They’re the largest clan in Uzushio, of course. The Mizushima clan is the second biggest,” she added proudly. “I’m not talking too much, am I?”
He shook his head. Information on Uzushio had been nearly nonexistent in the future, and they hadn’t really been eager to tell him anything in T&I. “Go ahead. I’d love to hear more.”
Suoh beamed and clapped her hands together. “Great!” she chirped. “Now, I’m sure you know that the Uzumaki are brilliant at fuinjutsu, because everybody knows that. But what you need to know about my clan stems from our origin as glass-makers . . .”
By the time they reached the armory, he knew more than he was sure he’d ever need to know about the history of the Mizushima clan, from their skill at manipulating glass, which they eventually turned towards a unique type of weapon-crafting, to their fine-tuned Katon jutsu, which while not as large or explosive as Uchiha jutsu, were capable of reaching extreme temperatures.
He was actually mildly relieved when she finally announced, “And here are the barracks! They’re a bit crowded at the moment, seeing as a lot of people’s houses were destroyed in the attack and a bunch of others gave up their houses for civilians with nowhere else to go, but we should be able to find someplace for you.”
Narumi stared at the facilities. The barracks weren’t, as he had expected, a large building or dormitory, or even an apartment building. They were, rather, a series of boats strung together at the edge of the island. Each boat was large enough to house five to ten people, maybe more, depending on how closely they were willing to squeeze together, and there were at least ten boats in total. “Boats?”
“Boats!” Suoh said cheerfully. “Come on, I think that one has a spare hammock. One of my cousins was staying there, but he’s boarding with relatives now. The armory is that storehouse down there, by the way, but let’s get you settled first.”
She jumped on board the boat and lifted a trapdoor in the deck. “Yoohoo! Got room for one more?”
A loud groan emanated from the depths of the boat. “Not another! We just got rid of one,” someone grumbled. A shinobi with scars criss-crossing his face shuffled into view, glowering up at them. “If I tell you we don’t have room, will you leave?”
“Nope,” she said cheerfully, before shoving Narumi forwards. He yelped and fell through the trapdoor, but managed to land in a crouch on the wooden floorboards. “Narumi, meet barrack seven. Barrack seven, meet Narumi Namikaze. He’s related to the Uzumaki, I think?”
“I know you,” a blond girl, sitting beside a brunet and a blue-haired boy, said. The three of them couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. “You helped us hold the shelter!”
He squinted at them, and thought that maybe they were familiar, but he’d had so many clones running around that night that half the damn village seemed familiar. “Don’t mention it. You three were doing pretty well already.”
“The medic-nin say Toshima-sensei is going to make a full recovery thanks to you,” the blue-haired boy said, looking at Narumi with something eerily close to hero-worship.
The blond girl nodded, looking slightly more cheerful. “Once Toshima-sensei is out of the hospital, we’re going to live with him,” she said wistfully. The three of them spoke to each other in hushed whispers.
“Hammock’s over there,” the scarred shinobi said, jerking his head towards the opposite side of the room. “Put your stuff in the bag.”
The hammock was strung from the ceiling, across from another hammock that was already occupied by a snoring older man. There were ten hammocks in total, but someone had also laid mats underneath them, so that people could sleep beneath them as well. The mat beneath his hammock was empty at the moment, but a worn stuffed animal was resting on top of it, and one of the bags hanging from the ceiling was full of gear. He placed the spare clothing he had in the other bag and returned to Suoh, who was waiting where she’d left him.
“Those three kids down there are a genin team,” she murmured. “Their houses were destroyed in the attack. They’ve only got their sensei and each other, now.”
“Who sleeps underneath my hammock?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. One of the others in there would, but I don’t really spend much time in the barracks. Now come on, let’s get to the armory. I do have to go back to work sometime, unfortunately.”
The armory was being manned by a trio of genin who eagerly tripped over themselves and each other in their rush to help, grabbing kunai and shuriken and sealing supplies and anything else they thought he might find useful, while one of them painstakingly counted the items and recorded it in a ledger. The total cost was surprisingly cheap, and he was able to afford it even on the small stipend the Uzukage had given him.
“Anything more specialized than this, and you’ll want a blacksmith,” Suoh said as the kids rushed around. “But this is a great place to get the basics, and the quality is pretty decent considering the cost. Lots of genin use it, and a fair amount of the chuunin. Jounin tend to prefer higher-end shops for their materials.”
A girl with red hair in pigtails, perhaps about ten years old, handed him the pouches full of supplies. “Thank you for shopping at the armory!” she chirped. “And thanks for saving my big brother during the attack!”
“Thank you!” the other two chorused.
“Well, that concludes our little tour,” Suoh declared as they left. “Welcome to Uzushio, Namikaze. I look forward to working with you.”
“You too,” he said. With a final wave, Suoh darted off over the gold, red, and blue roofs of Uzushio, leaving him to board the ship and drop down into the barracks. The sleeping shinobi had left while he was at the armory, but two chuunin had taken places on mats on the floor, and were playing an odd game with dango sticks while the three genin watched curiously. The trio nudged each other as he walked through the boat, and stared as he sorted through his supplies.
He settled down to sleep after a dinner of ration bars, knowing he would have to wake up early and that what sleep he would get was likely to be fitful and restless. In a way, sharing a room with so many strangers was a relief—he woke up whenever someone entered or left or started crying, so that he didn’t have time to have any nightmares of his own, even if he was still drowsy by the time the sun rose.
As he rolled out of the hammock, he nearly stepped on a small hand, and in his hurry to avoid it nearly ran into the hammock next to his. The person beneath his hammock, a boy around ten years old, still wearing his chuunin vest, sleepily rolled over but didn’t wake. A few of the shinobi in the room did wake as he made his way to the exit, but that was unavoidable, considering they were all on high alert. He smiled fondly at the three genin on the far side, who had pushed their three mats together and were curled together like puppies, and leapt through the trapdoor.
Uzushio was beautiful in the sunrise, white stucco painted orange and gold, the dark sea lightening and changing colors along with the sky. Narumi took the long route, trailing along the narrow walkways bordering the canals, picking his way through the occasional bits of rubble and construction materials, and marveling in the sheer happiness he could sense in the village, even after everything they’d been through.
Two children, laughing, darted in front of them, and he stared after them in wonder. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen happy, laughing children before coming to this time. Actually, now that he thought about it, he couldn’t remember seeing any children. Not any living ones, at least.
He shook those thoughts from his head and ran the rest of the way, managing to reach the administration building just as the sun fully rose. Tsubame was already there, flanked by two ANBU and chatting warmly with an Uzumaki jounin and her three genin, but his smile fell away the moment he caught sight of Narumi.
“Namikaze,” he said, glancing towards the sky. “Right on time. Let’s move. Sana, I’ll talk to you when I’m back.”
“Of course, Tsubame-sama,” the woman said happily as she ushered her three genin, all of whom were staring at Narumi, into the building. Narumi wiggled his fingers at them, and they quickly looked away, only to sneak glances back at him.
The ANBU fell in line behind Tsubame and Narumi as they walked to the edge of the village, where the roads and buildings faded into a beach dotted with shrubs and kunai. Narumi looked out over the deceptively calm sea, well aware of the torrential currents surging beneath the surface, ready to trap any unprepared boats or swimmers. Ninja, thankfully, didn’t have to worry about that, and the four of them easily ran out over the surface of the sea, moving so quickly the currents didn’t have time to grab hold of them and drag them under.
“How long to Konoha?” he called over the roar of the wind.
“At top speed, with a squad this small? Three or four days,” Tsubame said. “How’s your tree-running?”
Narumi laughed. “I could practically do it in my sleep!”
“You might need to,” Tsubame said slyly.
Narumi blinked at him, startled, wondering if he was teasing, only for Tsubame to vanish between one blink and the next. “Hey!” Narumi protested, and dashed off, chasing the occasional glimpse of crimson hair he could catch through the trees. He couldn’t see the ANBU anywhere, but he assumed they were surreptitiously keeping their eyes on both him and Tsubame.
His next glimpse of them was close to midnight, when Tsubame finally stopped and allowed Narumi to catch up. “Hmm, you are fast,” Tsubame hummed as he stretched, still standing on a branch. “I actually had to work to keep ahead of you.”
“Oh yeah? I was barely getting started,” Narumi taunted in response.
“Are you normally out of breath after barely getting started? You should see a medic about that,” Tsubame said. He settled down on the branch and closed his eyes, but kept his hand on his weapons pouch. “You should sleep, if you can. We’re making better pace than I expected. How are you two keeping up?”
“Fine, Tsubame-sama,” one of the ANBU said. “We will keep watch.”
With that, the two of them vanished again, leaving Narumi and Tsubame seated on opposite branches. “Not sleeping on the ground?”
“You’re welcome to it, if you fancy being crushed in your sleep. We’re deep within Fire Country right now, but you never know when you’ll come across enemy troops.”
Narumi grimaced, but resigned himself to an uncomfortable night. Not something he was unfamiliar with, all things told, and he managed to drift into a light sleep before too long, although he retained a vague sense of what was going on around him. When the ANBU alighted on the branches of the tree next to his, he awoke instantly, as did Tsubame. The two of them stretched, grimacing, trying in vain to work out the kinks that came along with sleeping in trees. Narumi peered up through the thick foliage, trying to gauge the time by the rising sun, and looked back only to find Tsubame had vanished again.
He looked into the distance, glimpsed red hair snapping in the wind, and groaned. “Oh, not this again.”
Nevertheless, he pushed off from the branch in pursuit of Tsubame. They ran throughout the day, eating dry rations bars on the run, Narumi only guided by the occasional sighting of red hair or a painted mask. These forest were familiar, but at the same time not, having yet to experience the passage of time and the multiple battles that would change the landscape into what he knew. There wasn’t even much of a road to speak of, beyond the occasional thin, dirt track he spotted winding through the forest, and the only travelers he glimpsed were other ninja, and then only for a split second before they vanished again.
They stopped not long after the sun had fallen. Narumi caught sight of Tsubame crouching on a branch, deep in discussion with what appeared to be two Konoha jounin, judging by their uniforms. As he approached, the two of them left again, and Tsubame ran on, but this time allowed Narumi to catch up to him.
“We’re an hour out from Konoha,” he said. Narumi caught sight of him sliding a scroll away, but didn’t bring it up. “We’ll stick to the ground from here. Konoha gets a bit antsy when foreign shinobi run through their trees at top speed.”
The ANBU fell into step behind them as they jumped to the ground and began running again, albeit at a much slower speed than before. More and more shinobi could be glimpsed through the trees as they approached, either watching them carefully or rushing off on missions of their own.
The gates of Konoha appeared so suddenly he was almost startled, and only remembered to slow down when Tsubame, beside him, dropped out of his run. A full squad of chuunin was manning the gate, two on each side and one in the middle.
“Identification and mission statement,” the one in the middle ordered, holding out a hand.
Tsubame handed over a small booklet and the scroll he had taken out before. The chuunin looked expectantly at Narumi, who stared at him blankly for a moment. Tsubame coughed. “Namikaze, your identification.”
“Oh,” Narumi said, and began digging through his pockets. “I have identification?”
“Of course you do,” Tsubame said, in the tone of voice that said exactly what kind of idiot he thought Narumi was.
“Aha!” Narumi said, digging out a similar, if much crisper, booklet. “Here you go.”
The chuunin examined them carefully, and Narumi took the opportunity to look at them as well. They’d used his mugshot as his identification photo; somehow, he wasn’t surprised. T&I sorts had a bizarre sense of humor.
Finally, he nodded and handed them back. “This all seems to be in order. Please go directly to the Hokage’s office.”
One of the chuunin at the gate peeled off from the rest to escort them, just in case they had any thoughts of not going directly to the Hokage, Narumi assumed. He skimmed through the identification booklet as they walked. It was surprisingly thorough, containing everything from his name and birthday to his medical information and history. He wasn’t even entirely sure how they’d gotten some of the information in there.
He looked up again to find that they had reached the Academy, and that the Konoha chuunin was leading them through the expansive yard to the administration section. It hadn’t changed much from his years there—the building was pretty much the same, and the old swing still hung from the tree in the front of the school, although it was much newer now. A boy with blonde, spiky hair was sitting on it, pouring over a book of some sort. Narumi craned around, trying to catch another glimpse of him, only to be sent spinning as a small, red-haired whirlwind collided with him.
“Tsubame-nii! Are you okay? Is everyone in Uzushio okay? I heard about what happened, Uzukage-sama didn’t get hurt, did she? Did you kick their asses?” the red-haired whirlwind demanded. “Tell me, Tsubame-nii! And who’s this guy?”
The girl whirled around, and Narumi’s breath caught in his throat. Red hair, purple eyes. Kushina Uzumaki, Academy student.
“I’m Narumi Namikaze,” he found himself saying, before Tsubame could say anything to introduce them or the chuunin could hurry them off.
“Eh, Namikaze?” she said, gaping at him. “Really? You gotta come with me!”
“Kushina, wait!” Tsubame snapped, but Kushina had already grabbed Narumi’s hand and yanked him off, towards the tree where the blond boy was still sitting.
“Hey, Namikaze!” she yelled. “Minato!”
The boy looked up with a distinctly startled expression. “Uzumaki-san!” he yelped immediately. “It’s you!”
“Of course it’s me, dummy,” she scoffed. “I found a relative of yours! He’s a Namikaze, too.”
“What? A Namikaze?” Minato turned, finally, to look at Narumi. After a moment, his eyes widened, likely noticing the resemblance between the two of them.
Narumi grinned and ruffled his hair. “So, you’re a Namikaze too? Who’d’ve thought that I would end up with such a cute little brother when I came here.”
“Little brother?” Minato yelped.
“Little brother!” Kushina exclaimed, looking between them with wide eyes. “Oi, Namikaze, why didn’t you tell me your older brother was so strong? Maybe you’re not as wimpy as I thought.”
“You thought I was wimpy?” Minato said, with an expression that bore a remarkable resemblance to a scolded puppy.
Kushina rubbed the back of her head. “Did I say that? I meant, uh . . .”
Kushina was spared from having to think of an excuse by the reappearance of Tsubame, who appeared between them in a swirl of water. “Namikaze,” he said, his blue eyes boring into Narumi. “Need I remind you that we are on a mission?”
“Of course not. Still, it’s not every day you find out you have family still alive,” Narumi said.
Tsubame’s eyes slid to Minato, and he pursed his lips. “With me, Namikaze. Now.”
Before Narumi could get a word in edgewise, he found himself being dragged away from the building. “I thought we had to go to the Hokage?” he asked.
“Change of plans. The Hokage is busy. We’re heading directly to meet with someone else.”
‘Someone else’ as it turned out, was a Yamanaka and a much younger and much less scarred Ibiki. They looked at him, he looked back at them, and the next thing he knew, something slapped against his neck, and the world faded away.
The door opened, and three of the room’s four occupants looked up. “Ah, Hokage-sama. Jiraiya-sama,” Ibiki said. “You made it after all. We were just about to begin. Yamanaka, when you’re ready.”
Tsubame leaned against the wall as he surveyed the small group that had gathered around Namikaze’s unconscious body. Inomi Yamanaka, to handle the primary investigation. Ibiki Morino, in case they required a more in-depth investigation. And, finally, the Hokage, Jiraiya, and himself, to observe, gather information, and draw conclusions.
“All right,” the woman said, drawing a breath. “Just so you know, this technique will not draw out precise details and memories, more like feelings and emotions towards a given prompt, and sometimes impressions. Now, let’s begin.”
The woman knelt by Namikaze’s head, touched her fingers to his temples, and closed her eyes.
“First things first—is he who he says he is?” Ibiki began.
“Narumi Namikaze,” she murmured. “It’s his name, as much as any name can belong to anybody. His parents—a man, blond, who looks like him. A Namikaze. His mother, red-haired. Uzumaki. He’s . . . happy, about something. A boy who looks like him. So small—was he that small? A son—no, a brother. Minato?”
“An academy student here,” Tsubame said to the others. “They met before we came here. What are his intentions towards Kushina?”
“Kushina Uzumaki,” she murmured. “Family. So small, little spitfire. He’ll keep her safe.”
“Where did he learn what he knows?” Jiraiya asked.
Yamanaka’s brow furrowed. “His teacher—an old man? Left his village. Powerful, but you wouldn’t think it to look at him. There’s sadness there—he died, long ago. Never got to say goodbye.”
A missing-nin, then, as they suspected.
“What are his intentions towards Konoha?” the Hokage asked.
“The trees feel like home,” she murmured. “It feels familiar, but not. He likes it here already. He’ll protect her, if he can.”
“And Uzushio? What about Uzushio, and the Uzukage?” Tsubame asked, feeling that familiar thump in his heart that came up whenever he thought of his sister in danger.
“Uzushio,” she whispered. “It’s beautiful there. Happiness—the children are laughing. Sunlight on the ocean.” She sniffled, and he realized, suddenly, that tears were pouring down her cheeks. “I-I’m sorry, Hokage-sama.”
“Can you continue?” Ibiki demanded.
She took a few deep breaths and nodded. “He loves Uzushio,” she murmured. “He would die for her. The Uzukage, Tsubasa Uzumaki. Strong, beautiful, but not as much as her brother.”
Tsubame felt his cheeks flush as Jiraiya whistled. “Let’s move on,” he suggested.
“No, no, let’s hear more!” Jiraiya said. “Ask about Tsubame-chan. Come on now, it’s for the sake of the village.”
He started to interrupt, but already Yamanaka was speaking. “Tsubame. Happy, smiling, but only for others, then cold and down-to-earth for him. Want to see that smile again. Wonder what his laugh is like? Red hair, like a waterfall, bet it’s soft—”
“Okay!” Tsubame interrupted over the sound of Jiraiya’s laughter and the Hokage’s stifled chuckles. He was sure his face had to be bright red by now. “That’s enough!”
“Oh, that was priceless! This whole thing was worth it for that. He thinks you’re pretty,” Jiraiya sing-songed.
“Jiraiya, I can and will use you as a test subject if you don’t shut up,” he said.
Jiraiya fell silent, but now the Hokage was chuckling, which was just unfair. He couldn’t threaten the Hokage! “Ah, to be young,” he said. “Thank you, Yamanaka-san, that will be enough. I think we can be fairly well assured that he bears no ill will to our people.”
“He doesn’t bear ill will to much of anything, really,” Yamanaka admitted as she pulled away. “I sensed a lot of sadness, and he’s got a protective streak a mile wide, but not much hatred or malice. Except he doesn’t like venus fly traps, I think?”
“So we have a possible hatred of plants. Oh, excellent work,” Ibiki drawled. “You’re dismissed, Yamanaka. Go clear your head. I don’t want to see you in here for the rest of the day. Uzumaki, do your thing.”
Tsubame pulled the counter-seal to the sleep seal from his bag, and pressed it to Narumi’s forehead. A burst of chakra, and the seal sank into Narumi’s head. A moment later, his eyes opened. He blinked once, twice, and cleared his throat. Tsubame watched carefully, keeping an eye out for any potential side-effects.
“Ah. I was just interrogated, wasn’t I?” Narumi asked, remarkably calmly. A potential side-effect, perhaps, dulling his emotions or his responses? Could be useful, something to look into.
“Calm down, buttercup, it’s not like we yanked all your fingernails out while you were sleeping,” Ibiki said. “You’re free to go.”
Narumi sat up and rubbed at his temples. “Ugh, my head feels like it’s been scrambled. I could sleep for a week.”
A side-effect of the Yamanaka jutsu, or the seal? Possibly both. “It’ll wear off in time,” Tsubame said. “Come, I’ll show you to our quarters. Jiraiya, are we meeting later?”
“Sure, sure, I have some time before I’m being sent out again,” he said. “I’ll get the gang together. Namikaze, you’re welcome to come, if you’re up for it.”
“Me?” Namikaze asked, pointing a finger to himself.
“Who else? You’re the only Namikaze I know of besides that academy student, and we’re hardly going to invite a kid drinking. You sure Inomi-chan didn’t scramble his brains?” Jiraiya asked Ibiki, who ignored him. A completely understandable reaction—Tsubame often felt the same urge.
“It sure feels like she did,” Narumi groaned. “Ugh, I feel like I’m going to be sick.”
Tsubame sighed and slapped another seal on Narumi’s forehead. “Honestly, you and Jiraiya are such children. Is that better?”
Narumi opened his mouth, paused, rubbed his forehead, and then said, “Yeah, it is! Hey, I didn’t know you were a medic.”
Jiraiya made a muffled snorting noise. Tsubame diligently ignored him. “My specialty is medical seals, but I wouldn’t call myself a true medic-nin.”
“That’s pretty cool. Is that how you put me to sleep?” Narumi asked.
Tsubame steered him towards the door. “Yes. It’s primarily used for surgeries, but it serves other purposes as well.”
“Like kidnapping and interrogation?” Narumi asked, shooting a sly smirk over his shoulder at Tsubame.
“Among other things,” Tsubame said smoothly. Narumi followed along just behind him as they exited the T&I building. He felt the two ANBU on the edge of his awareness the moment he left the building, although he couldn’t see them anywhere. They followed along, hidden, as he led Narumi through the village to the diplomatic quarters. Narumi stared around them with avid interest, occasionally staring at passers-by or food stalls.
“Have you ever been to a big city before, Namikaze?” he asked.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, a few, here and there. Not recently, though,” he said. Tsubame dodged around a trio of Uchiha children, easily recognizable by their clan insignia. Narumi stared after them, wide-eyed. Tsubame stifled a smile. Seeing him like this, gaping around at the big city, staring at one of Konoha’s most famous clans, and tripping over his own feet because he was too busy taking in the sights, made the fearsome warrior who had appeared that night to single-handedly save his village seem a little more . . . human. And rather young, actually. Before, he would have placed him in his mid-to-late twenties, but now he wasn’t so sure.
“How old are you, Namikaze?” he asked.
“Hm? Oh . . . twenty-ish, I think,” Narumi said thoughtfully. “I haven’t really been keeping track recently. What about you?
“I don’t believe I made any agreements for an exchange of information,” he said, making a show of stroking his chin.
“What? Hey, I told you mine!” Narumi protested.
Tsubame stiffened at movement out of the corner of his eye, only for Narumi to slug him on the arm and throw an arm around his shoulders to pull him close. “Come on,” he said, with a teasing glint in his eyes. “Don’t make me mess up this perfect hair of yours.”
Red hair, like a waterfall, bet it’s soft...
Tsubame pulled away, hoping the blush on his cheeks wasn’t as obvious as he felt it was. “That won’t be necessary. I’m eighteen,” he said.
“Eh? Eighteen? I thought you were way older. Isn’t eighteen a little young to be Uzukage?” he demanded.
It took Tsubasa a moment to figure out what he meant, but once he did, he nearly laughed out loud. “Tsubasa isn’t my twin.” He took a moment to admire Narumi’s surprised face, and then added, “She’s older than me by ten years.”
“What? No way!” Narumi exclaimed. “You’re having me on. You two look practically the same!”
He shrugged. “Tsubasa looks young for her age. Uzumaki longevity, I suppose. Plenty of people who didn’t know us when we were young mistake us for twins, so don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s a common error.”
“That’s a thing?” Narumi asked.
Tsubame paused, for a moment, to stare at him. “What, common errors?”
“No, Uzumaki longevity,” he said. “What’s that?”
He sighed and continued walking. “You really don’t know much about our clan, do you.”
Despite his words, Narumi’s grin only grew. He went over what he said, and realized. Our clan, he’d said, accidentally including Narumi in his statement. Or, perhaps, simply including him without thinking about it. He’d meant it, he realized. Whatever else he might be, Narumi was unmistakably an Uzumaki. Chakra like theirs couldn’t be faked.
“Uzumaki longevity,” he continued, “means that our clan tends to have long natural lives and heal quickly. That’s all, really. Some consider it a bloodline, others don’t. It varies from opinion to opinion. Haven’t you ever noticed something like that?”
Narumi laughed and rubbed sheepishly at the back of his head. “I mean, I don’t get sick all that often? And I heal pretty quickly, I guess.”
“It can manifest like that,” he said. “I know some people in the village who’ve never been sick a day in their lives.”
“Huh,” Narumi said, looking out into the distance. “I had no idea it was a clan thing. I thought it was just a me thing.”
So he really hadn’t heard much about their clan. “Do you know any fuinjutsu?”
Narumi nodded at that, at least. “Yeah, I’ve picked up a bit here and there. Not as much as you, I bet.”
“I’ve been learning about seals since before I could walk. Don’t worry, we’ll bring you up to speed on them,” he said. “We can’t have an Uzumaki who knows nothing about seals, after all.”
“Nothing! Hey, I know some stuff,” Narumi protested. “I can do storage seals and explosive seals, no problem.”
“Oh, is that all?” Tsubame teased as he ducked through the gate to the apartment complex where his sister kept an apartment for her visits to Konoha. He was familiar with it, having stayed there many times before, and easily darted up the stairs to the top floor, Narumi hot on his heels. “I was making those before I even started the academy. Come back when you’ve created your first original seal array.”
“I’ve done that too!” he declared hotly.
“Oh, good for you! Now you’re on the same page as an Uzumaki academy student,” he said as he opened the door at the top of the stairs and stepped into a small hallway. He bit his thumb until it bled and pressed it against the door, which unlocked with a click.
“Blood-based seal array,” he explained at Narumi’s curious look. “The door will unlock for me, my sister, or the Hokage.”
“Not the ANBU?” Narumi asked.
He shook his head. “They stay elsewhere, and only guard the outside.” He stepped inside, leaving his shoes at the door, and pulled out a piece of seal paper from the pouch at his waist. With his still bleeding thumb, he drew a quick seal array, which he handed to Narumi. “Put your blood in the center of that, and it will let you come and go from the apartment. I expect it back at the end of the mission.”
Narumi bit down on his thumb with a practiced ease that spoke of experience with blood-based seals, or perhaps summoning—Narumi hadn’t disclosed any summons, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have one hidden up his sleeve—and spread his blood in the blank spot in the center of the seal. “This is pretty clever,” he said, his eyes drifting over the seal. “Way better than a key!”
“Tsubasa designed it,” he said. “She’s the seal expert, of the two of us.”
“Still can’t believe you aren’t twins,” Narumi muttered.
Tsubame hid a smile. “Come on, I’ll show you where you can sleep. There’s two bedrooms.” He led the way through the small living room, which featured a couch, a table still covered in seal paper from their last visit, and few large bookshelves, and past the kitchen and dining room, to an area with four doors. “Bath and toilet,” he said, motioning to two of the doors. “The other two are bedrooms. The one on the right is yours. Now, I’d advise you get some rest—no doubt Jiraiya has a long night planned for the six of us. And if I have to suffer through it, so do you.”
Notes about Names
Tsubame (燕): barn swallow
Tsubasa (翼): wing
Red hair, purple eyes . . . Narumi blinked slowly, clearing the sleep from his eyes, and reached out with one hand. “Mom?”
Naruto yelped and shot up in bed, rubbing his cheek. “Ow! That hurt, ya know!”
Tsubame’s smile was sweet and very, very sharp. “Do I look like your mother, Namikaze?”
“It's dark!” he protested. “And you do have kind of girly hair.” Not that it didn’t look nice, he noted privately. Normally Tsubame kept his hair up in a bun, away from his face, but tonight he only had it up in a ponytail, free to fall down his back. He’d only seen it like this once, on the night of the battle in Uzushio.
“Get dressed. We’re going out,” he said. “The others are meeting us downstairs. Be ready in sixty seconds or I’ll leave you to find the way yourself.”
Narumi scrambled for his clothes, yanking on the first fresh pair out of his bag and yanking it on as he tumbled towards the front door. “Hey, don’t be mean! I didn’t mean it. Your hair’s, uh, cool.”
“Shut up about my hair!” Tsubame snapped. Narumi stared after him as the other man started down the stairs. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve said that Tsubame’s face was rather . . . red.
“Namikaze!” Tsubame barked. “Are you coming, or not?”
Narumi jerked back to awareness and sprinted down the stairs. “I’m coming, I’m coming. Where are we going, anyways?”
“To meet with the others,” Tsubame said, as Narumi burst out into the open street. Narumi whirled around to face him, only to find that Tsubame was already walking down the street. Tsubame was wearing a pair of fancy sandals, rather than the more practical pair favored by most shinobi, but even then he moved surprisingly quickly in them, especially considering that he was also wearing a hakama rather than the standard shinobi pants.
The apartment was fairly close to the center of town, so they reached the main street in short order. Tsubame, Narumi realized after a moment, was moving towards their destination with pinpoint accuracy, not even looking around them to see if the people they were meeting were around. “Tsubame,” he realized, “you’re a sensor, aren’t you?”
Tsubame glanced back at him, surprised. “You figured it out quickly. Yes, I am.”
“What are you sensing? Can you sense, like, individuals or something? Does everyone have a special chakra signature?”
He shook his head. “No, I'm not that skilled of a sensor. I can tell roughly how many people are around me, and I can distinguish between certain special types of chakra. Some Uzumaki have distinctive chakra—you do, for instance. But with the people we’re meeting, all I really have to do is head for the largest group of chakra signatures around.”
“Who are we meeting, anyways?” Narumi asked.
“You’ll see in a minute—there, they’re waiting for us,” Tsubame said.
Narumi followed Tsubame’s gaze towards a bar on the corner of the street. He noticed Jiraiya’s unmistakable hair first, and then recognized Tsunade and . . . Orochimaru. He very nearly grabbed a kunai, but stopped himself at the last minute. At this point in time. Orochimaru hadn’t done much of anything. He was, what, twenty, twenty-one? Hell, the three of them weren’t even known as the Sannin yet.
He looked, then, at the fourth member of the group. Where the other three were intimately familiar to him, even as young and happy as they were, this other man was a complete unknown, even though he looked to be the same age as them. His hair, however, was grey and spiky, and he stood with a casual nonchalance that struck him as familiar, somehow.
“Ah, Tsubame-chan!” Jiraiya cheered. “Here we are, together at last. We’ve missed you on the battlefield.”
“Stop calling me that,” Tsubame muttered as they approached, easily dodging Jiraiya’s one-armed hug. “And you know I’ve been needed in Uzushio.”
That sobered the other four up quickly. “How are things there?” the grey-haired man asked.
“Coming along,” Tsubame said. “We lost good people, but the majority have managed to pull through. I’ve been pulling overtime at the hospital, though.”
Tsunade grimaced. “Tell me about it. Medics are in such high demand that I feel like I’ve seen more missions than these three combined.”
“I hear it’s thanks to your friend here,” Orochimaru said, peering at Narumi in clear interest. “We haven’t been introduced.”
“Of course,” Tsubame said. “Namikaze, this is Jiraiya, Orochimaru, Tsunade Senju, and Sakumo Hatake. This is Narumi Namikaze.”
Hatake—that was why he was so familiar. This was Kakashi’s dad, Narumi realized, looking into the man’s face. He did look familiar, now that Narumi really was close enough to really see him, although Kakashi looked . . . lazier.
“That was good work you did there,” Sakumo said, shaking his hand.
Narumi rubbed the back of his head. “Anyone would’ve done it.”
“Anyone who could summon a full army of shadow clones,” Orochimaru said, still staring at Narumi with that sharp, unblinking gaze. “Tell me, did you modify the jutsu? Have them stored in seals? Or do you just have that much chakra.”
“Huh, I never thought of doing that,” Narumi said. “Uh, no, I just have a lot of chakra.”
“There’s an understatement if I ever heard one,” Jiraiya laughed, slapping Narumi on the back so hard he nearly stumbled. “I hear we have you do thank for saving Tsubame-chan, here.”
“Stop calling me that,” Tsubame muttered. Jiraiya made an odd, pained noise, and turned stark white. Naruto took one look at Tsubame’s icy expression and decided he was better off not asking.
Orochimaru sighed loudly. “Pity. I was hoping it would be something interesting, but you appear to be yet another brutish lout. No doubt you and Jiraiya will get along famously. Tsubame, come. I had something I wanted to consult you on in regards to seals.”
Orochimaru’s mention of seals made him shiver, but luckily, no one seemed to notice. “Hey, hang on! I thought we agreed I got to pick his brain first? We had a bet, bastard!” Jiraiya yelled.
Orochimaru sniffed indignantly. “You took too long to ask him. Idiot.”
While the two of them bickered, Tsunade slipped her arm through Tsubame’s and led him inside. “Namikaze, come on. Those idiots will be there all day,” she called over her shoulder. “Now tell me what you’ve been up to before those two start picking your brain.”
“Oh, like you don’t want to pick my brain too,” Tsubame said.
“Yes, but unlike them, I have the sense to wait until we’re working. It’s my night off! I’ve forgotten what my apartment looks like, I’ve spent so much time at the hospital.” She sank into a booth, pulling Tsubame down beside her and gesturing for Narumi to sit across from them. Sakumo, who had followed them in, sat beside him. “You, what’s your story?”
Narumi blinked and pointed at himself. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. You see any other mysterious shinobi here? We’re all curious. I’m just cutting to the chase for all our sakes so we don’t have to put up with the idiots trying to act like spies,” Tsunade said as she flagged down a passing waitress. “Sake, all around. Keep it coming!”
“You’ll regret that in the morning,” Sakumo chuckled, even as he accepted a glass of sake.
Tsunade shrugged. “I don’t have a shift, and Dan said he’d make breakfast. The way I see it, I’m better off than the rest of you. Kaede’s still in the field, isn’t she?” Sakumo nodded his agreement. “And those two are still bachelors, and these two are just going to be stuck with each other’s suffering! Oh, I’m going to enjoy everyone begging me for hangover remedies!” she cackled.
Narumi couldn’t help but grin; it seemed Tsunade hadn’t changed all that much, at least.
A crash resounded through the room, bringing all the ninja to their feet and their hands to their weapons as a white blur shot through the room, crashed into the opposite wall, and dropped to the ground.
JIraiya, groaning, flopped onto his back and rubbed his head. Orochimaru, on the other side of the new, Jiraiya-shaped window, dusted off his hands and clothes, stepped neatly through the door, and took a seat beside Tsunade.
“So,” he said, casually sipping from his sake cup. “Where were we?”
“Asking this guy his story,” Tsunade said, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Even the other shinobi in the bar had already returned to their drinks and conversations, paying no attention to the body on the floor.
“Ah, the boring method,” Orochimaru sighed. “Very well, carry on. I must admit to being curious.”
Jiraiya finally roused himself, still rubbing his head, and sank into the remaining seat next to Sakumo. “That’s no fun,” he grumbled, apparently having overheard their conversation. “But fine, fine.”
“Oh, like you don’t know more than us, anyways,” Tsunade said, rolling her eyes. “Come on, Namikaze, spill the beans!”
“Um.” Narumi rubbed the back of his head. “What did you want to know exactly?”
“How did you learn the Kage Bunshin? That’s a Konoha secret technique,” Orochimaru said. “And seeing as I don’t recall someone stealing any village secrets recently . . .”
“Oh. I learned from my teacher,” Narumi said, which . . . okay, was a complete lie, but he couldn’t exactly tell them that he had stolen village secrets, even if he’d been twelve and (in retrospect) kind of stupid.
Jiraiya leaned back and peered into his sake cup as if examining it for secrets. “Ah, yes, the mysterious teacher. Let me take a guess: a Konoha missing-nin.”
“He might’ve been. He didn’t wear a village headband,” Narumi said.
“What was his name?” Jiraiya asked.
Narumi shrugged. “I just called him old man. Or pervert.”
Sakumo snorted sake out his nose. The rest of them kindly ignored him as he hacked and coughed. Jiraiya held his sake cup up, squinted at it, shrugged, and gulped it down. Orochimaru’s smirk turned a little more evil.
“Anyways, he . . . passed away years ago,” Narumi said. “I doubt it’s relevant.”
Jiraiya shrugged. “You never know what could be useful. Still, seeing as he knew Konoha techniques, I’m betting he was a Konoha shinobi. Maybe from sensei’s time? No, maybe earlier. Records from that time are sketchy, but I could take a look.” He stroked his chin. “Orochimaru, what do you think?”
Orochimaru hummed thoughtfully. “If he was from sensei’s generation, you’re more likely to find information. But if he was from earlier, you’re unlikely to find any descriptions detailed enough to give you a lead. Not to mention that his appearance would have changed over the years, so any descriptions you did find would likely not match up with Narumi’s knowledge. All in all, I would say finding any concrete information would be quite unlikely.”
“How close were you to this guy?” Jiraiya asked.
“He was sort of like a godfather to me,” Narumi said. “I never knew my parents, so my teacher was all I had.”
Tsunade grimaced. “Cheerful,” she said, and knocked back her sake. “Come on, everybody, another round! We’re celebrating tonight.”
“And what, exactly, are we celebrating?” Tsubame asked, even as he accepted and knocked back the next two cups of sake Tsunade pressed on him.
“Uzushio’s survival, and ours,” Tsunade said grimly. “Come on, you all, bottoms up.”
They all dutifully chugged their glasses, and no one protested when Tsunade topped them all up again, although Tsubame’s cheeks were starting to look suspiciously pink and Orochimaru’s eyes had taken on a glassy sheen. Sakumo seemed normal enough, until he hiccuped.
“That’s enough for Tsubame-chan, I think,” Jiraiya chuckled, pulling his sake away from him. “Still as much of a lightweight as always, huh?”
“I have seals to deal with hangovers and I’m not giving you any,” Tsubame said, and grabbed the glass back.
“Suit yourself,” Jiraiya said, and slung an arm around Sakumo’s shoulder. “So, Sakumo, how go things with your lady-love?”
“You and Tsunade, both so domestic. It’s sickening,” Orochimaru said.
Sakumo elbowed Jiraiya sharply, forcing him to let go before he spilled his sake over the both of them. “I’m sure you’d like to know!” he laughed.
“Which one did you decide on?” Tsubame asked, abruptly.
Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru all turned as one to stare at Tsubame, and then, still moving as one, turned eerie grins at Sakumo.
“Oho!” Jiraiya laughed, ruffling Sakumo’s already messy hair. “So that’s how it is, huh? Doing these sorts of things without telling your best friends. You punk!”
“You’ve been holding out on us,” Tsunade said, cracking her knuckles threateningly.
“And yet you asked Tsubame for advice? Tut, tut, Sakumo,” Orochimaru said, shaking his head back and forth. “Resorting to asking someone six years your junior for help.”
“It’s because you guys have bad taste,” Sakumo said drily.
“Bad taste!” Tsunade yelled, slamming her hands down on the table hard enough that the sake bottles all rattled and would have tipped over if Narumi hadn’t hastily steadied them. “You bastard, I’ll show you bad taste!”
The appearance of a small, square box shut them all up. They stared down at it intently, and gasped when Sakumo opened it with a flick of his finger.
A small, golden band with a white jewel set into it sat nestled in the box, twinkling in the light.
Tsunade sat back and huffed. “Boring.”
“It’s kind of plain, isn’t it?” Jiraiya noted. Orochimaru nodded in agreement. “Jeez, Sakumo, you’re giving her this?”
“It’s a diamond!” Sakumo complained. “You know how hard it is to find these things since the war? This thing is worth twenty S rank missions!”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Jiraiya complained, although Orochimaru looked rather more impressed.
“Well, I’m not giving it to you,” Sakumo said, snapping the box shut and putting it back in his pocket. “I’m proposing once she gets back.”
“Sakumo, you dog!” JIraiya cackled, already recovered from his disdain of the ring.
“Wolf, actually,” Sakumo corrected.
“Personally, I liked the one with the blue stones,” Tsubame said. “But this one is nice too.”
Narumi looked around at them. “Uh, congratulations?” he guessed.
“Yeah, congratulations!” Tsunade cheered, pouring another glass of sake for all of them. “Cheers, to Sakumo’s marriage!”
“Cheers!” they all chorused, clinking their glasses together.
“Sakumo’s getting married?” another group of ninja called from across the room. “Hey, guys, Sakumo’s getting married!”
Before long, the whole bar was cheering and offering congratulations, and even some shinobi walking by or eating in restaurants across the street had come to see what the fuss was about. Amidst the chaos, Sakumo groaned and sank his head onto the table. “She hasn’t even said yes yet,” he groaned. “And now she never will!”
“Oh, don’t be dramatic, you big baby,” Tsunade snorted. “Drink some more!”
Sakumo dutifully accepted the two glasses of sake she pressed onto him. This seemed to be the cue for the rest of the bar to start buying them drinks to celebrate, and before long their table was filled with a variety of sake bottles and shots. Jiraiya and Tsunade, and even Orochimaru, in his own creepily quiet way, accepted this turn of events with wild abandon, tossing back drinks one after another, even as their cheeks turned red and their words slurred together. Sakumo joined in after a moment of sulking, although Narumi got the sense that this was more to drown his misery and get so drunk that he wouldn’t remember any of it in the morning. Even Tsubame made a valiant attempt, although he slumped against the wall, fast asleep, even before they were halfway through with all the drinks they had been purchased.
Narumi joined in with them happily. He might not have been a jinchuuriki anymore, but some of the effects had lingered, such as his massive chakra pool and his incredible metabolism. He was pretty sure that by the time they polished off the alcohol, he’d had more than anyone else at the table, and was half as drunk as them.
“Saaakumo,” Jiraiya slurred as they stumbled from the table. “Mah friend . . . we gotta . . . enjoy our youth while you’re still free.”
Sakumo shook himself free from Jiraiya’s grip, and somehow managed to make his way to the door. “Nah, I gotta, gotta write a letter. Gotta write to Kaede.” He practically fell through the door, but somehow managed to stay upright as he wobbled down the street, mumbling to himself.
Jiraiya shrugged and staggered off towards the red light district.
“Have fun!” Orochimaru called, and giggled.
Tsunade narrowed her eyes at him. “What’d’ja do?”
“Hmm, nothing much. He’ll be fine other than performance issues,” Orochimaru said, still snickering. He swayed on his feet, steadied himself on the wall, and turned rather green. He vanished without another word. Tsunade, shaking her head woozily, followed him.
Narumi tapped Tsubame’s shoulder, and then, when that failed, shook him. Neither action accomplished anything beyond making Tsubame curl up into a ball. Narumi rolled his eyes, but let him sleep, instead enlisting the help of a couple drunk jounin to get Tsubame on his back, with his arms slung over Narumi’s shoulders and Narumi’s arms tucked under Tsubame’s legs. Tsubame fell back asleep in seconds, and remained that way even when Narumi hauled him up the stairs and dumped him into bed.
Naruto woke to an apartment that was empty but for a bowl of rice, pickles, miso soup, and a letter stating that Tsubame was in negotiations with the Hokage, would likely be stuck in negotiations for the next few days, and that he should seek out one of the four he’d met the previous night if he remembered them and if he wanted to risk the hangover. Alternatively, the paper suggested several good restaurants in the area, several good training grounds, and advised asking civilians if he wanted anything more touristy.
Narumi took one look at the breakfast and went straight back to bed to sleep off his hangover, and awoke much later to a white mask looming over him.
He shrieked and shot up in bed, smacking his face against the mask. The ANBU reared back, and Narumi rolled to the ground, clutching his head and cursing up a storm.
The door opened. “Oh,” said Tsubame, sounding distinctly unimpressed. “So you are alive.”
“Sage’s balls, you didn’t have to startle me like that,” Narumi groaned. “Oh, that did not do anything for my hangover.”
“Just as pathetic as the rest of them,” Tsubame sighed. He knelt down beside Narumi and pressed a seal to his head. Narumi groaned in relief as his headache and lingering nausea vanished.
“Tsubame, you’re a god,” he sighed. “Is that breakfast still there?”
“Unfortunately, no, but there is dinner,” Tsubame said. “You’ve been asleep for hours.”
“I’m never drinking again,” Narumi sighed as he got to his feet. The ANBU had vanished, leaving them alone.
“Thankfully, the others seem to agree with you,” Tsubame said, as he took a seat at the kitchen table, where someone had laid out plates of rice, fish, vegetables, and pickles. Tsubame, it seemed, had fairly simple tastes.
“How are negotiations? What are you negotiating for, anyways?” he asked.
“Reparations,” Tsubame said, once he’d swallowed. “Konoha is bound by our treaty to defend us in the case of attack, just as we are bound to defend Konoha. They failed to uphold their end of the treaty, even though we have upheld ours, which is a very serious slight to their honor. It doesn’t look good, so they want to give us reparations both to uphold their honor, and because giving another village reparations makes them look better, since it means they can easily afford to give away these things. Basically, if they give us supplies and food, it means they can easily spare these things, which makes them seem stronger. At the same time, we don’t want the amount of supplies we’re given in the reparations to be obvious, because it makes us seem weaker. Although we really do need them,” he grumbled.
“Huh. Do you do these kinds of things a lot?” he asked.
“Diplomacy missions? Not that often. We don’t have them very often, to be fair, and when we do I usually get sent on them,” he said. “Medics are in high demand, though, so more often I’m in the hospital or on the front lines.”
Both of them fell quiet at the mention of the war. Narumi had to admit he didn’t remember much about the Second Shinobi War, other than that Nagato said that Konoha had started the war, the Sannin had made their reputation during the war, and that it had left small countries such as Ame devastated.
Times like these he wished he’d paid more attention in school. He’d spent days cramming details on important missions and events into his brain, but he was lacking a lot of the bigger picture.
“We’ll probably have another mission pretty soon. We’re working out a joint mission deal with Konoha, as part of the reparations,” he said. “With Tsunade’s team, probably, and maybe Sakumo, Dan, or Kaede.”
“Already? What kind of mission?” he asked, desperately hunting through his mental files for any idea of what they could be sent to do.
Tsubame smiled grimly. “We’re at war, Namikaze. What kinds of missions do you think they give their heavy hitters?”
Heavy hitters, as it turned out, got the kind of missions that involved camping out in trenches on the Suna-Konoha border, covered in mud and leaves and praying the seals protecting them from earth jutsu held so they didn’t get crushed in their sleep. Narumi had been placed on a joint Konoha and Uzushio squad with Dan, Sakumo, Tsubame, and whatever Uchiha or Hyuuga got stuck with them. For the moment, they had a ten-year-old Uchiha named Isuzu, fresh from the Academy. Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru had been shipped off to Ame, so it was just the five of them and the other squads stationed with them.
Tsubame appeared beside him with a splash of water. “How are the seals, Namikaze?”
Narumi sat back on his heels. “They seem good. They match up with what you showed me, at least.”
Tsubame made a pleased noise. “We’ll make an Uzumaki seal master of you yet.”
“That’s why Uzushio was targeted, yeah?” Naruto asked.
Tsubame nodded. “Most likely. Our primary responsibilities are shielding our allies and capturing or stopping enemies, especially large groups of enemies. A seal array in the right place at the right time can capture or kill a whole squad, and the reason why we’re able to stay in these trenches is because these arrays prevent earth jutsu from being used here.”
“And you have medical seals,” he said.
“And that,” Tsubame agreed. “Preferably we’d also have a medic on hand, but medics are in short supply. I don’t have the chakra control for it, unfortunately.”
Narumi laughed. “Yeah, my chakra control was always shit. It took me ages to get tree-walking down.”
“I’ve been walking on water since before I could remember, so mine has always been passable. Still nowhere near the level required to be a medic, however,” Tsubame said.
A bird call pierced the air, and Tsubame frowned.
“Enemies?” Narumi guessed.
Tsubame nodded. “The Uchiha must have seen something. Come, we should return.”
They used shunshin to return to the rest of the squad, splattering their companions with water and leaves. “Ugh,” Sakumo grimaced. “Why can’t you do a normal shunshin instead of splashing all of us, Tsubame?”
“What did you see?” Tsubame asked.
Dan nodded at Isuzu. “Tell them, Isuzu.”
Isuzu’s sharingan whirled as he looked over the edge of the trench. “Suna shinobi, heading this way. A whole bunch of them. At least fifty, maybe more. It’s hard to tell with so many.”
“Good. Turn that off before you exhaust yourself,” Tsubame ordered. Isuzu sighed in relief as his eyes returned to their natural black. “Go down the line and pass the word along.”
Isuzu nodded and dashed off, keeping low to the ground so as not to be seen as he left their trench. “Our seals are in good order,” Tsubame said. “Sakumo, can your wolves track them?”
Sakumo bit his thumb and slammed his hand on the ground, and three wolves appeared in a small puff of smoke. “Gin, Jun, Ran, enemy combatants headed our way. Track them and report back.”
The wolves slipped away and disappeared into the forest like ghosts. By the time Isuzu returned, there was no sign they had ever been there.
“Everyone is ready,” he said.
“Good,” Tsubame said. “Now we wait.”
“You got goggles, kid?” Sakumo asked Isuzu, who hesitated a moment before shaking his head. Sakumo tossed him a scroll. “You’ll need them. These guys love going for the eyes, especially if you’re an Uchiha.”
Isuzu gulped and pulled on the goggles as the rest of them settled in, ready to move at a moment’s notice. “They’re splitting up,” Isuzu murmured after a moment. “Pincer attack? There’s a wolf coming this way.”
Sakumo sniffed the air. “Ran,” he said. “Hm. Puppet corps?”
“I can’t tell,” Isuzu confessed.
Ran slipped back into their trench. “Puppet corps,” she said. “A full troop of them headed this way.”
Narumi jerked as he heard a shout from somewhere in the distance. “They’re here,” Tsubame said grimly, and then the world exploded in light and color.
Narumi leaped from the trench, summoning his shadow clones into existence with barely a second thought. The seal arrays had triggered, he realized moments later, trapping a few squads of shinobi and taking them out of the equation but leaving many more free. “Isuzu, fire!” he called, leaping out of the way of a Great Fireball just in time. The puppet user swore and tried to recall his puppet before it burned to a crisp, but a wolf leapt on him and tore out his throat.
Narumi glanced over at the kid and swore as he saw him frozen, staring at the wolf in horror. He ducked under the sweep of a poisoned blade, allowing one of his clones to take care of his attacker, and dashed toward Isuzu. He snatched him out of the way of a spray of senbon and held him close as they rolled along the ground. “Hold on tight,” he ordered, shifting Isuzu to his back and summoning two more clones. “You two, watch my back. Isuzu, what do you see?”
“On your six, there’s a squad of puppet users rallying,” Isuzu called.
“Fire on my mark,” Narumi ordered, and leapt back into the fray, dodging stray jutsu and weapons. Flashes of memories returned to him as his clones were dispersed, but he dismissed them and summoned more clones. He threw a spray of kunai into the back of a puppet user, who staggered and fell, revealing a group of puppet users that were gathering not far from him.
“Fire when in range,” Narumi ordered.
Hot fire bloomed over his head. A few of the puppet users managed to leap out of the way, but the rest screamed as the fire devoured their puppets and then reached for them. A wind jutsu took care of the rest of them, scattering them and throwing them into trees. He caught sight of a glimpse of Sakumo, his white blade shining bright, and then of a Suna jounin turning on his squad, a mark of Dan’s technique at work.
Tsubame appeared beside him in a flash. “Narumi, array eight!” he barked.
“The what?” Narumi asked as he thrust his kunai into an enemy’s eye, and Isuzu spat fire at a puppet getting ready to spray senbon at them.
Tsubame groaned. “You’re going through the Uzumaki standard seal patterns as soon as we get some down time. Just watch my back.”
While Tsubame drew on the ground, Narumi and Isuzu maintained the perimeter, Isuzu tossing fire at puppets and people alike, and Narumi using wind to push back projectile weapons or poison smoke. His clones raced through the battlefield, screaming war cries at the tops of their lungs. A few of them came to join him, protecting both Tsubame and the seal, until Ran howled and Tsubame screamed, “Narumi, trees!”
Narumi leapt for the trees as a wave of water crashed through the battlefield. The Uzushio shinobi seemed to know what to do, as the moment the seal activated they were up in the trees, with their Konoha counterparts not far behind. The Suna shinobi, however, were inexperienced both in fighting Uzushio shinobi and in dealing with large quantities of rushing water. The few Konoha and Uzushio shinobi who had been caught up in the technique soon climbed out of it using water walking, but the Suna shinobi were either killed while still finding their feet, or sucked down into the whirlpool at the center of the seal before they had a chance.
Then, all at once, the water receded as if it had never been there, leaving dozens of shinobi scattered about the field, groaning.
Tsubame forced a stack of seals into Narumi’s hands. “Put these on the chests of any drowning victims on our side, or any highly ranked or important people on their side, and activate them.”
Narumi lowered Isuzu to the ground. “Come on,” he said. “I could use a hand.”
Isuzu nodded slowly and trailed after him as he headed across the battlefield, to the closest green and blue jounin vests he could see. Some were already dead, killed before Tsubame had even activated his technique. Only a few had actually fallen prey to the technique, and they were quickly revived with the seals Tsubame had given him.
They spluttered back to consciousness, hacking and coughing up water. “Ugh! Fucking Uzushio bastard!” they called to where Tsubame was picking his way through a group of bodies. “Some warning, next time?”
“I believe someone needs to brush up on their battle signals. A wolf’s howl was the signal mentioned in the mission report,” Tsubame said.
“Eh? There was a mission report?” Narumi said.
Tsubame sighed. “Hopeless as ever. I can’t believe you’re an Uzumaki.”
“I thought you’d do it before you activated it, not right as you did,” the Konoha shinobi grumbled, even as he swiped a stack of the seals from Narumi.
“Even if you hadn’t heard it, your water-walking should have been more than good enough to see you through,” Tsubame said.
The shinobi threw his arms up and wandered off, muttering about Uzushio shinobi all the while. The Uzushio shinobi, none of whom had fallen prey to the technique, just snickered.
Narumi handed half of his papers to Isuzu. “You see how to use them? Go ahead and check on the Konoha and Uzushio shinobi. Once you finish, stick by someone in the squad.”
Isuzu nodded and ran off, and Narumi began the slow work of picking through the enemy shinobi. Some were dead, some had drowned too quickly for him to save, and some were genin or chuunin that he couldn’t justify using the supply of seals on. He slapped them on a few important-looking jounin and some shinobi he recognized from the bingo book he’d been given. He rolled over a red-haired man in a tan jounin vest, looking for some distinctive marks, and froze at a familiar face.
He thought, for a moment, that he was looking at Sasori, before he remembered that Sasori was probably a baby. Sasori’s father then, he assumed. He thought he remembered that Chiyo lady going on about someone killing Sasori’s parents during the war.
He scrambled through the man’s pockets for his identification, and got his confirmation. This man was either Sasori’s father, or a very close relative. Narumi slapped a seal on his chest and tied him up as he coughed up water, and then quickly checked the identification of the women closest to him to see if he could find the man’s wife. He found her not far away, and quickly slapped a seal on her before tying her up as well. Narumi left them there once he was certain they weren’t going anywhere, and continued on his way.
He’d just about finished tying up the last jounin he thought he recognized as someone important when Tsubame appeared next to him. “What’s with those two random shinobi you got?” he said.
“Eh? You mean they aren’t important? I thought I’d seen them in the bingo book or something,” he said.
Tsubame sighed. “The woman isn’t even a jounin. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Chiyo escaped with half the puppet corps, so that’s down the drain. We’ll transport all of them to Konoha and see if they know something.”
Narumi hummed. “They might, if they were here. You never know! I mean, I’m not a jounin, and I know a lot of stuff.”
“Well, you’re an anomaly,” Tsubame said wryly.
Narumi winced as the last of his clones dispersed. “Ugh, suicide jutsu,” he said. “Some puppet user decided to go out in style.”
Dan and Sakumo appeared in a flash of leaves. Isuzu, Narumi realized after a moment, was perched on Dan’s shoulders. “There’s a clean-up squad and a couple capture squads headed our way,” Sakumo said. “We’re to hold the position and help them with the prisoners if need be.”
Narumi felt a pulse of chakra from Tsubame, who pulled out a scroll and opened it. “No, we aren’t,” he said grimly. “Uzukage-sama is calling our team to the Kiri front. They’ve got some trouble over there. We’re leaving Konoha Team Three in command here.”
“Ugh, not those assholes,” Sakumo groaned. “Dan, you deal with them. You’re the only one of us with real social skills.”
Dan laughed in amusement, but obligingly hurried off, calling out to a particularly grumpy Hyuuga and exchanging a few quick words. “We’ll hit up a supply drop on the way,” Sakumo said. “There’s one along the way, if I’m not wrong.”
“I know the one,” Dan agreed. “The one at the watch post?”
“That’s the one. If we make good time, we might be able to beg a bed from the folks out there,” Sakumo said.
They did not, in fact, manage to bag a bed from the sleep-deprived, jumpy shinobi at the guard post, nor did they manage to for the remainder of their trip. They slept in trees or on the floor of whatever guard post they managed to reach the entire way to the coast. By the time they reached Uzushio, beds felt like a distant dream. At that point, Narumi would have killed for even a hammock.
He flopped down on the sand with a sigh and unzipped his flak jacket to tug irritably at his sweat-soaked shirt. “Just dump me in the ocean,” he groaned. “I’ll survive.”
Tsubame frowned down at him. His red hair was up in a bun again, both to keep it out of the way and to keep it from being soaked with sweat and sticking to his neck. “Get up, Namikaze. We don’t have time to waste.”
Narumi reluctantly hauled himself to his feet as Tsubame took off over the waves, barely giving his feet time to touch the water before he was off again. Narumi took off after him, the other three hot on his heels, with Dan looking after Isuzu.
Tsubame reached into his bag and pulled out a scroll, reading as he skipped over the swirling water beneath them. “Kiri’s getting rowdy. We should be just in time to meet our people before they head out. We’re hitting them before they can hit us. With the seal arrays in the state they are, they’d smash through our defenses with no problem.”
“How on earth do you do that?” Narumi asked. “Some kind of seal thing?”
Tsubame glanced back at him in surprise. “What, the message transfer? Uzukage-sama and I have linked seals. If one of us seals something in, the other can take it out.”
Isuzu dashed ahead, laughing as the waves sprayed him with salty water. “Don’t fall in!” Dan called after him as he fell into step beside Narumi. “Tsubame, what’s the news?”
“Looking for news about Tsunade?” Tsubame asked wryly. “She’s still in Ame with the other two, last I heard. Hanzo the Salamander is making some noise, I think, but nothing’s come of it. No news of Chiyo, either.”
Sakumo groaned. “They’re going to send me after her, I just know it. I always get the worst jobs. I’ve been stabbed, burned, electrocuted . . .”
“Poisoned on that one bodyguard mission,” Dan mused. “Left to drown in a well that one time with the hunter-nin . . .”
“Tied up to a tree completely naked,” Tsubame offered. “Oh, no, wait, tied up to Kaminari no Kuni’s daimyo’s wife’s bed while all her maids laughed at you. That was funny.”
“The time when he was tied up to the Kazekage’s bed was funnier,” Dan said.
“You never told me about that one,” Tsubame said. “You’ll have to fill me in over drinks.”
Sakumo groaned. “Dan, we had a deal.”
“Sorry. All’s fair in love and war,” Dan said, completely unrepentant. “You can cry about your woes to Kaede, I’m sure she’ll be sympathetic.”
“You kidding? She’ll laugh herself sick. I thought she was going to die when I told her about the crime lord incident.”
Sand crunched beneath their feet as they left the ocean for the shores of the island. Tsubame led the way through the twisting canal to the Uzukage’s office. Tsubasa was waiting for them, along with a full squad of ANBU. “There you are,” she said grimly. “You’re moving out. Eel will fill you in on the situation while you’re on the move.”
A masked ANBU nodded at them politely, and Tsubame returned the gesture. “We’ve just returned from the Suna front. They’ve retreated for the moment, though I have no doubt they’ll return. Tsunade’s antidotes are holding us in good stead even in her absence.”
Tsubasa laughed. “I bet that old bat’s taking it real well, huh?”
“Let’s just be glad the Kazekage hasn’t gotten involved,” Tsubame said.
“Don’t worry so much. I have people working on it,” she said, waving her hand. “Now go.”
Tsubame glanced around the room. Other than their squad, there was a squad containing orange-haired Uzumaki woman, a pair of blue-haired twins, and three Konoha shinobi, as well as the eight masked ANBU. “This is everyone?”
“You’ll make it work,” she said. A bird alighted on the window, and she sighed as she retrieved the scroll. Tsubame nodded towards the door, and they left with only a few missteps.
Narumi wasn’t going to forget an ANBU, elite ninja, pride of Uzushio, getting accidentally tripped by a little kid anytime soon. Judging by the snort that had managed to escape Sakumo, neither was he. Tsubame, clearly the most mature out of all of them, just sighed and led the way down to the shore. Once there, the other squad peeled off from them along with four of the ANBU, probably heading for a different part of Kiri.
“Our job is to cause trouble wherever we think it’ll hit Kiri hardest. Supply lines, mines, fields, guard posts, you name it. Whatever we have to do to make an opening for them to do what they need to do. And before you ask, no, I don’t know what their mission is, and no, you aren’t allowed to pester them. Unlike your Konoha ANBU, Uzushio ANBU bite .”
“Sakumo would know,” Dan said.
A scroll flew threw the air and smacked Narumi in the head, followed by a call of “Catch!”
“Some warning?” he yelled back as he scrambled to grab the scroll before it was lost to the whirlpools under their feet.
“Those are standard seal arrays. Study them,” Tsubame ordered.
Narumi summoned a couple clones and set them to studying it. “Where are we headed first?”
“Kiri’s docks,” Tsubame yelled.
“I’m thinking fire,” Sakumo mused. “Lots of fire.”
“The wood’s wet, you’ll just make smoke,” Tsubame said. “Think before you speak next time.”
Sakumo sighed. “Fine, fine. We’re going for big and flashy, right? Let’s get some big, fiery explosions for the boats. I’ve got a nice lightning dragon that’ll look badass coming through the smoke.”
“Sakumo, we’re near water,” Tsubame replied.
“So? You have seals for that, don’t you? Come on, it’ll scare them shitless,” Sakumo said with a wolfish grin.
Tsubame sighed and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. “You can’t always rely on me to keep your bizarre plans from getting out of hand,” he complained, even as he produced a seal. “This should protect you in case the lightning gets a bit out of hand. It does have a limit, so try not to go swimming. Keep away from the water as much as possible.”
Narumi examined the seal. “What does it do? I’m getting something about repelling the lightning?”
“Essentially,” Tsubame said. “It should protect your person and the area immediately around you. Regardless, you should stay back while Sakumo and I go ahead. Water dragon, then lightning dragon.”
“Then clones,” Sakumo said. “To finish off the ones still standing. Make them look like a bunch of different people, if possible. We want to make them think an army’s headed their way. Dan, Isuzu, you move in with the clones. Isuzu, keep an eye out for anyone who looks important, or anyone who looks like they’re pulling any big stunts.”
Isuzu nodded. “And the rest,” Sakumo finished, “we’ll figure out as we go along. Alright, let’s do this!”
Sakumo and Tsubame dashed ahead, leaving only the violently churning water in their wake. The ANBU had vanished already to do whatever it was they had been sent to do.
Narumi ran, and watched as in the distance a watery dragon reared its head and lightning crackled through the sky. “Sakumo must have very good control to keep it from getting out of hand,” he mused.
Dan nodded. “Even with the seals, Tsubame wouldn’t trust anyone else with lightning around water. Sakumo is a master of the element.” He smiled grimly. “There probably won’t be much left for you to clean up.”
“Even so,” Narumi said, and summoned a horde of clones. They all transformed, either into people he had made up or into villagers and shinobi he had known over the course of his life, and ran forwards. He allowed himself to be swept up with them, and spotted Dan and Isuzu doing the same.
They arrived to docks and boats piled high with corpses. Further back on the shore, Tsubame and Sakumo were fighting several ninja who must have come as backup. With a mighty cry, the clones swept forward, taking the ninja off-guard by their sheer numbers alone.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, everything was still. Narumi wandered through the crowd of clones, and eventually came upon Tsubame, who was applying seals to a wound on his leg. As Narumi watched, he activated the seal, and the wound began to heal until it was nothing more than a pink, shiny scar.
“Impressive,” he said.
“For simple wounds, at least,” Tsubame said. “A wounded leg is easier to heal than a stab to the stomach or other organs. You need the more delicate touch of a medic for that.”
“Seals can’t do it?” Narumi mused, tracing the smooth, curving lines of one of the seals. “I dunno, I think they’re pretty delicate.”
“Not now, at least,” Tsubame hummed thoughtfully. “I’ve been researching it.”
He stood and wandered over to a body, which had been slashed open from groin to mid-chest. “Sakumo is very good for that,” Tsubame said.
“Huh? Wait, you mean you experiment on these guys?” Narumi said.
Tsubame looked at him in surprise. “Of course. I certainly wouldn’t do it on live subjects.”
“That wasn’t really what I meant,” Narumi said.
Tsubame’s gaze fell on the Kiri shinobi again. “We all have to do things we don’t like for our village,” he said. “We already killed him. I can’t think of anything worse we could do.”
“I guess,” Narumi said.
It just seemed weird to him, coming from a time when only creeps like Orochimaru or Danzo experimented on people like that to a time where it was basically acceptable, at least on the battlefield. “Some Uzushio and Konoha ninja donate their bodies to the village, should they die in battle,” Tsubame said. “Some of them will be taken home. Some will rot where they lie. Some will be taken by other villages, and experimented on. It’s not pretty, but that’s how it is right now.”
He sighed and sat down, tucking his knees up to his chest, and stared at the corpses scattered around them. “I wish it wasn’t that way. We’ll change things.”
“Yeah,” Narumi agreed, sitting down beside him. “We will.”
They sat for a moment, in silence, until Sakumo appeared in the distance, picking his way over the corpses. “There you are. How long do those clones of yours stick around?”
Narumi shrugged. “As long as they want, or until they get forcefully dispelled.”
“Excellent. That’ll freak them out, for sure. Can you keep making them whenever one gets dispelled in battle?” Sakumo asked.
“If I have a chance, yeah,” Narumi said. “I can make . . . pretty much as many clones as I want. I’m not even tired after making all those.” He might not have the Kyuubi anymore, but he still retained some of the benefits of being a jinchuuriki.
Sakumo whistled. “That’s pretty incredible, even for an Uzumaki. Anyways, Dan took a look around and he says there’s a couple of guard stations we can hit on the way to a supply route. Isuzu’s with me on fire duty. You’re on clone duty. Tsubame, whatever crazy seal shit you think up. Dan’s doing his spirit release, because it freaks them out like nothing else.”
“Like you wouldn’t scream like a civilian if your teammate turned around and stabbed you,” Tsubame scoffed. He pulled himself to his feet, brushed himself off, and peered out over the horizon. His red hair gleamed in the setting sun, and Narumi couldn’t help but watch in fascination as the light brought out the golds and oranges hidden in the sea of red. He irritably blew a strand of hair away from his face and turned to look into the distance, where Isuzu was washing his hands in the water while Dan stood nearby.
“Should we camp?” he murmured, quiet enough that neither of them would overhear. “What do you think, Sakumo?”
“Me?” Sakumo scratched the back of his head. “Wouldn’t you have more experience with kids than me? Your clan is huge.”
“Yeah, but if an Uzumaki kid is flagging, they won’t let you forget it. He’s an Uchiha.” Tsubame wrinkled his nose. “They’re so quiet .”
Sakumo sighed. “Can we even afford to camp?”
Tsubame paused, and then shook his head. “We’ll just have to keep an eye on him. Tell him not to use the Sharingan unless he has to. We’re in the middle of enemy territory, and we have to keep going while our momentum is strong. Namikaze, you have stamina to spare?” Narumi nodded. “Carry him on your back, then.”
They returned to the other two and informed them of the plan. Isuzu, as they might have predicted, puffed up irritably upon hearing their decision. “I don’t have to ride on your back! I’m not a child, I’m a shinobi of Konoha!”
“You have to conserve your strength for the Sharingan,” Tsubame said evenly. “Chakra is a resource, and I won’t have you wasting it keeping pace with us when you should be saving it for when we need it. You’ll ride on his back, and that’s an order. Come on, we’re moving out.”
Isuzu scowled, although the expression didn’t look nearly as fierce on his childish face as he probably wanted it to, and reluctantly clambered onto Narumi’s back.
They set off without another word, and over the course of the night smashed, stabbed, and burned their way through three guard posts, with the burning and subsequent explosion of a key bridge on the supply route as the grand finale. After surrounding the place with enough seals to ensure no one would want to set within ten feet of it for fear of being reduced to itty, bitty pieces, they retreated for the night and set up camp in a tree, like true Konoha shinobi.
“These trees aren’t nearly as comfortable as the ones in Konoha,” Sakumo grumbled. “Why couldn’t we just go back to that last guard post again?”
“If you want to be set upon by Kiri nin in your sleep, be my guest,” Tsubame said. He was perched in a tree of his own, reading through letters by the light of a seal.
“Anything from Konoha?” Dan asked.
Tsubame shook his head. “Just requests for updates on our status.” He scribbled down a quick reply and sent the message off again. “Some intel, too. One of the ANBU sent back word of a supply depot not far from here. We’re to hit that in the morning.”
Sakumo sighed. “I’m so jealous. Those three get to have a show-down with Hanzo the Salamander and we’re stuck in the ass-end of Kiri.”
“You could always go join them. I’m sure you’d survive somehow. You’re like a cockroach that way,” Tsubame said.
Sakumo kicked Tsubame’s branch. Tsubame scowled and threw a stick at him. “Children, please,” Dan said calmly. Isuzu, leaning against his side, was fast asleep.
“So Tsubame has an immature side too, huh? That’s kind of cute,” Narumi couldn’t help but tease, just to see Tsubame’s face turn tomato red.
As predicted, he flushed and scowled and threw a scroll at Narumi. “Shut up and study your seal arrays.”
“I’ve already learned so many of them,” he complained. “I’ve had clones studying that other scroll all day.”
“Keep studying,” Tsubame said. “I won’t have you blowing us all up by messing up such simple seals. The next step is practicing them until you can make them with your eyes closed.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Narumi muttered, and settled down to sleep while his clones read over the scroll. Below and around them, his other clones patrolled the perimeter or sat in silence. With that many clones surrounding them, the enemy would be hard pressed to sneak up on them, so he felt comfortable enough to fall into a light doze.
Narumi woke what seemed like minutes later, when Sakumo fell out of his tree and dispelled one of his clones. Tsubame, startled by the noise, jerked to alertness and probably would have drawn his sword on instinct had he not lost his balance and nearly fallen out of his tree as well.
“I had a dream,” Sakumo grumbled irritably as he pried sticks and leaves from his person.
“Don’t tell me.” Tsubame leapt from the tree and landed gracefully, not a hair out of place even after sleeping in a tree all night. Narumi tried to ruffle his hair into something more orderly, and quickly gave it up as a bad job in favor of joining them on the ground for a breakfast of ration bars and water purified by seals.
“I think you were in it,” Sakumo mused.
“Now I really don’t want to know,” Tsubame said.
“I think I was Uzukage,” Sakumo continued.
Dan and Isuzu joined them on the ground, accepting ration bars from Tsubame. “Is Sakumo talking about his dreams again?” Dan asked.
“How’d you know?” Sakumo asked.
“Because as far as I can recall, you haven’t ever been Uzukage,” Dan replied. He made a face at the ration bar, and wolfed it down as quickly as possible. Narumi couldn’t fault him. They tasted like a mix of sugar, cardboard, and rancid meat, and it was impossible to get used to the taste even after weeks of living on them.
“Fuck you, I’d make a great Uzukage,” Sakumo said.
“Uzushio would either fall or revolt within a week,” Tsubame said.
A clone alighted beside them. “Hey, boss, there’s a whole bunch of Kiri shinobi headed this way,” he said. “Should we ambush ‘em?”
Narumi glanced at the others. “Why not,” Tsubame shrugged. “Just make sure to leave some of them alive to spread the word. Isuzu, stick close to Namikaze.”
They leapt into their trees, masking their presence with camouflage jutsu and scent-suppressing seals. The Kiri nin traveled along the ground, not as used to perching in trees as their Konoha counterparts. They weren’t, however, totally oblivious, as a few meters before they were within striking range, one of them cried out a warning.
“Damn, sensors! Dan, go!” Tsubame called.
Dan’s spirit entered the commander of the troops, who began to strike those around him. Without their leader, the less experienced shinobi began to panic, and were hardly in any state to respond when the other four launched themselves at them. Narumi managed to blast a good chunk of the force into the air with a few wind jutsu, leaving them easy pickings for Isuzu’s fire jutsu. A white wolf leapt over his head and tore out the throat of shinobi in the middle of a technique, and out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a white tanto crackling with lightning and chakra. Occasionally he jumped over shinobi with seals slapped to their body, or stumbled upon traces of seal arrays.
The battle was over as quickly as it started, as Narumi slammed a kunai into the back of a woman trying to heal her fallen teammate and looked up to find the rest of the shinobi fleeing into the distance.
Tsubame peered after them. “Mid-chuunin level,” he estimated. “Not worth chasing.”
Sakumo turned over one of the fallen corpses. “Got their commanding jounin here, I think,” he called as he rifled through the woman’s pockets. “Orders to scope out situation along the border. Looks like we’ve got their attention. Let’s see. . . Kiri bingo book, I’ll take that if no one else wants it. And . . . aha, ANBU tattoo. Judging by the wounds, I’d say taken off ANBU duty to recover from injuries. They must be feeling the heat if they’re sending out injured shinobi. Scrolls, in code. Tsubame, send these to Uzukage-sama so she can get T&I on them.”
“Of course. Namikaze, seal array twenty-one,” Tsubame said, tossing yet another scroll to Narumi. “Tag any survivors for ANBU or capture teams. You can draw this one directly on the skin.”
Narumi went around, drawing out the seal on any living shinobi, while Tsubame did the same. Dan, Sakumo, and Isuzu continued to search the fallen shinobi for anything useful. They found a few coded scrolls, and a stash of Kiri-made rations, which tasted of seaweed, tree bark, and miso. It was a welcome change.
After their impromptu lunch break, they continued on their way to the supply depot, avoiding any shinobi they ran into along the way. They seemed to be streaming en masse towards the coast, although some also seemed to be headed in the direction of the other squad terrorizing Kiri.
Tsubame was the first to sense the supply depot. Dan applied a quick earth jutsu to dig them a small fort, hidden from view, so that they could observe.
“At least five squads of six shinobi each,” Tsubame reported. He sketched out a quick plot of their patrol routes in the dirt, while Isuzu held up one of Tsubame’s seal-lights. “There is always one in place here—likely the entrance. Two more patrol a rectangular path around the border of the depot. They encounter each other every twenty minutes. Another is stationed here,” he said, prodding an area inside the compound. “They patrol around and inside this area. My guess would be that the majority of their supplies are here. The other two patrol the inside of the depot. The largest chakra signature, likely the leader, is with the squad that patrols the stretch from the entrance to this other guarded area. The leader is accompanied by shinobi with high-chuunin to low-jounin levels of chakra. The other squad on the interior patrols the edges, and is made up of shinobi of a similar level. The outer patrols are mid to high-chuunin level. Thoughts?”
“Since we’re going for flash, I’d say hit ‘em hard with the clones. Freak them out a bit,” Sakumo said. “Dan, you go for the big guy before we enter, and keep up the act until they see the clones. Having their commander turn on them will panic them more. We’ll try to keep the clones on the down-low, but once they start catching wind of what’s going on, have them use suicide seals to take out as many as possible and freak out the rest. After that, we’ll head in for cleanup. Leave one of those less experienced chuunin alive to spread the word.”
Tsubame took a scroll from his waist, and from it produced a bottle of ink and a stack of blank papers. “These will go to your clones,” he said as he began to paint seals onto the paper. “They only take a little chakra to activate, but they’ll produce a blast strong enough to kill or seriously injure anyone close to you. The closer, the better. Try to keep them within five feet. Where are your clones?”
Narumi shrugged. “Scattered around here and there, underground like we are. I can send another clone to deliver anything to them.”
“Copy this seal,” Tsubame said, handing a handful of supplies to Narumi. “The rest of you, get some sleep. We’ll launch our attack at night.”
“Ten of them are asleep, right here,” Tsubame reported, circling an area on his map. “Two from each squad. Each squad has four members patrolling, for a total of twenty shinobi on patrol. The big guy is still patrolling this stretch right here. He’s front and center, with three others fanned out behind him. Is that enough to get him, Dan?”
Dan nodded. “Should be. If not, I can use one of the others to take him down.” Dan made a hand seal and, moments later, his body slumped against the wall.
“Ten minutes,” Sakumo said. Isuzu shifted nervously.
They waited with bated breath, anxiously awaiting any sign that things had gone wrong, until at long last, Sakumo said, “That’s ten. Send in the clones.”
Narumi made a clone, which exited their little fort and ran off to find the other clones. As he peered out into the darkness, he could barely make out figures running towards the depot. Some fell into traps, only to dispel instantly. Memories rushed through him as clones dispelled.
“Traps around the perimeter,” he reported. “Capture, not kill, mostly pits and rope traps. A few noise traps, but they’ve been disabling those as they go.” A loud explosion resounded through the air, and flames lit up the sky. Moments later, screams and shouts and the clash of metal on metal resounded through the air. “That would be the sleeping shinobi,” he said, and then winced. “Or what remains of them anyways. One of the clones decided to get the drop on them with a suicide jutsu.”
Dan, beside them, gasped back to awareness. “That explosion shocked them for a bit,” he reported. “I managed to take out the rest of his squad, but then he sustained a fatal injury at the hands of the other squad patrolling the interior.”
“Nicely done,” Sakumo said. “Now let’s move before they get a chance to recover!”
Explosions lit their way as they traversed the trap-covered ground. Narumi caught sight of Sakumo summoning his three wolves, who howled with delight and raced into the fray. Dan made a few hand seals and sank into the earth, probably to approach from below.
“Namikaze-senpai!” Isuzu called out. “If I get that squad over there in a genjutsu, will you help take them out?”
“Good idea!” Narumi replied, turning to head towards a group of four shinobi that were fairing pretty well against the flood of clones. As he watched, they began to stumble and miss, their perceptions of their surroundings thrown off. Narumi had to give the kid props—it was a simple genjutsu, but effective as long as you didn’t give them time to notice.
And he didn’t. Narumi launched himself at the nearest of them, knocking him out with a blow to the head with the blunt side of a kunai and flinging a series of shuriken at the woman beside him. She blocked half of them, but the genjutsu threw her off enough that one caught her in the eye and another in the throat. A third shinobi screamed as he was enveloped in flame. The fourth freed himself from the technique, but too late, as one of the wolves leapt onto his back and tore out his throat. Isuzu screamed, and Narumi whirled around to see a shinobi throw two kunai at the boy. He parried one of them, but the other collided with his goggles and cracked the lens. Narumi caught the moment instinct took over as Isuzu flung out a series of shuriken. The shinobi stumbled back, and Narumi grabbed hold of him and slit his throat.
“You okay, kid?” Narumi asked.
Isuzu tore off the goggles and tossed them to the side. “They’re broken!” he declared.
“Trust me, better them than you,” Narumi said. “A kunai to the eye at that range means losing an eye is about the best you can hope for. C’mon, stick close to me.”
The inside of the compound was both flooded and on fire, and the ground was broken up and jagged where earth jutsu had torn it apart. Narumi glimpsed a flash of crackling lightning out of the corner of his eye, and then the world was silent and still.
Tsubame trudged through the muddy water towards them. “Check through the supplies and tag them with explosives,” he said, passing out stacks of explosive tags to the two of them. “Dan and Sakumo are searching the bodies.”
“Can I make them blow up?” Isuzu asked, trying and failing to hide his eagerness.
Tsubame looked him up and down. “I suppose, if you’re very careful,” he said. “I’ll teach you how once you have them all set up.”
Isuzu whooped and splashed off towards the nearest pile of supplies. “I better go make sure he doesn’t blow them up before we salvage what we can,” Narumi chuckled.
“I think this is the most excited I’ve seen him since he joined us,” Tsubame said wryly. “I should have known. Pyromaniacs, the lot of them.”
“You know how it is. Giant water dragons are cool and all, but nothing tops a good old explosive tag,” Narumi said.
Loud splashes and squelching noises heralded Sakumo’s arrival. “Whose idea was it to flood the place?” he complained. “Ran is pissed at me for ruining her coat!”
“Not the other two?” Tsubame asked.
“You kidding? They’re practically overgrown puppies, they had a blast.” Sakumo paused. “Don’t tell them I said that.”
Tsubame sighed. “Don’t you have something to be doing, Sakumo?”
“Oh, yeah.” Sakumo rifled through his pockets and tossed a small book at Narumi. “Take a look.”
Narumi opened the book and quickly recognized it as a bingo book. He flipped through it quickly, only pausing on the faces he recognized. The Uzukage had a page, as did the would-be Sannin and the rest of his companions, bar Isuzu. At the back of the book, on a page that had clearly been recently added, he had to double-take at the face and name that greeted him. “Narumi Uzumaki,” he read. “The One-Man-Army.”
Sakumo grinned and clapped him on the back. “Congrats, you got your first bounty! It’s not as high as any of ours yet, but it’s up there.”
“Dan’s is the highest, isn’t it?” Tsubame said, as he peered at the page curiously. “Hmm. That’s a decent bounty, for a new entry. Word of what you did at Uzushio must have spread.”
“They got my name wrong,” he said.
“Well, you are an Uzumaki,” Tsubame said. “This is for the best anyways.”
“What do you mean?” Narumi asked.
“If you have a bounty, people are likely to go after you. If they’re especially motivated, or if they want revenge, they might even go after your family. The Uzumaki are a large enough clan that targeting immediate family isn’t practical, but you have a younger brother in Konoha, don’t you? Namikaze isn’t a common name—it wouldn’t take long for some shinobi out for revenge to connect the dots. It’s safer for him not to be connected to you by name,” Tsubame explained.
Sakumo nodded sagely. “It’s true. A lot of shinobi from small civilian families drop their last name or take a new one so people don’t try to get revenge on their family members.”
“Huh. I didn’t know that,” Narumi said.
“We’ll call you Uzumaki in the field,” Tsubame said. “Now that you have their attention, we should avoid bringing that connection up if at all possible, at least until he’s old enough to defend himself.”
Narumi shuddered at the thought of Minato being captured and killed because of a connection to him. “Yeah, let’s avoid that.”
“There you are,” Dan called, sloshing through the water as he approached them. “I’ve finished my search.”
Sakumo’s brow creased. “Dan? Weren’t you with Isuzu?”
“No,” Dan said, blinking at him in confusion. “I haven’t seen him. I thought he was with Tsubame and Narumi.”
“Shit,” Sakumo said, and the four of them launched into motion.
“This way, I sense him!” Tsubame said, leading the way further into the compound.
Sakumo sniffed the air. “Blood,” he said grimly, and darted forward, drawing his tanto.
They reached the back of the compound and rounded a corner to see a Kiri shinobi hunched over a small, prone body. Sakumo disappeared in a swirl of leaves, only to slam into the Kiri shinobi a split second later. Tsubame ignored the brief tussle, instead running straight to Isuzu, Dan hot on his heels.
Tsubame skidded to his knees and pressed his fingers to Isuzu’s neck. “Still alive,” he said grimly.
Narumi stepped up beside him and stared down at Isuzu. His left eye was a gaping wound, blood pouring from the empty socket down his face. “Tried to steal his Sharingan and bungled it,” Tsubame said, and gestured to the cut next to his other eye. “We stopped him taking the other one, at least.”
“Can you heal it?” Dan asked.
Tsubame grimaced. “If it was whole, I could reattach it. Work like this is too delicate for my seals. Our best bet is bandaging him, giving him some blood pills, and getting him back to Konoha ASAP.”
“Team Two has a medic, right?” Sakumo said. “Any idea where they are?”
Tsubame pulled out their mission scroll and tapped the map, which was dotted with various markings. “The last marker they placed has them halfway across Kiri. It’s on the way to the border, though, so we can try to find them. If we don’t, one of us will have to split and take him back.”
“Sakumo,” Dan said. “You’re the fastest.”
“And the least mission critical,” Sakumo nodded, with a sharp grin. “I get it, you guys don’t need me hanging around with the One-Man-Army on your side.”
“If you could leave Gin, Ran, and Jun, however, that would be appreciated.”
They fell silent as Tsubame opened his medic kit, pulled out gauze, bandages, and various other items, and began to tend to Isuzu. He cleaned the wound as best he could in their conditions, bandaged it, and topped it off with a seal. “That should hold until we can get him help,” he said grimly. “As long as we get him help quickly. Narumi, can you carry him?”
Narumi nodded, and Sakumo and Tsubame loaded Isuzu into his back as quickly as possible without disturbing his injuries. They fell into formation, Narumi in the center, Sakumo taking point, and Dan and Tsubame flanking Narumi from the rear. Once they were sufficiently far away, Tsubame triggered the seals. The resulting explosion was strong enough that Narumi could still feel the heat, and he had no doubt that the sound had summoned any shinobi in the vicinity.
“That should keep them busy,” Tsubame said grimly.
They ran, occasionally adjusting their trajectory as Narumi’s clones dispelled or were destroyed, but never stopping. The Kiri shinobi were easy enough to avoid; most of the squads they came across were too distracted to notice the Konoha shinobi darting past them. They made good time to the other end of Kiri, and from there Tsubame was easily able to pick out the chakra of the Uzumaki on the other team.
The other team, when they found them, had not fared nearly so well as they had; they were down one member, one of the ones from Konoha, and the other had a faintly dazed, shell-shocked look to him. One of the blue-haired twins was carrying the other on his back, and the orange-haired Uzumaki had lost her left arm from the elbow down.
Their team fell into step beside them. “I called a retreat,” the Uzumaki said grimly to Tsubame.
Tsubame nodded once, sharply. “Our Uchiha needs to be taken to Konoha ASAP. Can you make it?”
She thought for a moment. “I can get him as far as Uzushio at least, but I’ll take him further if I can. Strap him to me so I don’t drop him.”
They halted just long enough to tie Isuzu to the Uzumaki’s back with torn strips of cloth and bandages, and then the other team took off again, leaving them huddled in an underground shelter to plan their next move.
Tsubame spread out the scroll and the map, and surveyed it thoughtfully. “It seems like they already hit everything in our immediate vicinity,” he said. “We could backtrack to where we were and see what we can find—no word from ANBU on potential targets.”
Once everyone had examined the scroll to their satisfaction, Tsubame closed it with a snap and a determined nod. “All right,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”
They wreaked havoc across Kiri for another eight days before, just after a skirmish with some Kiri ANBU, Tsubame announced, “Message from the Uzukage.”
Narumi looked up from where he had been rifling through a fallen jounin’s pockets and stuffed a pilfered pack of gum—a rare treat—into his pocket. “What’s she say?”
Tsubame scanned the scroll once, then twice, before closing it. “We’re being recalled. ANBU accomplished its mission, and all operatives are accounted for.”
Sakumo stretched and grimaced as his back made a series of popping noises. “Good. The sooner we’re out of here, the better. I need real trees over my head, damn it.”
“Is there anything we should hit on our way out?” Dan asked.
Tsubame shook his head. “No. Uzukage-sama wants us back ASAP.”
Sakumo grimaced. “How ASAP is ASAP?”
Tsubame gave them a humorless smile. “Yesterday, preferably.”
“About as ASAP as it gets, then.” Sakumo sighed and began to stretch. “Get your rest while you can, boys, we’ve got a long run ahead of us.”
“Let’s finish up here, then move out,” Tsubame ordered.
They quickly raided the remaining bodies, grabbing anything useful or important. After a quick meal of stale rations and soldier pills, they took off as fast as they could while still saving their stamina. This time, they were careful not to draw enemy attention, and steered clear of any towns or guard stations. They managed to make it out of Kiri without incident—most Kiri ninja seemed too distracted to pay attention to the enemy shinobi racing by—and were soon out on the ocean again, dashing over waves and whirlpools.
Narumi got into a groove after the first hour or so, focused on nothing but regulating his chakra so he didn’t plunge into a whirlpool and keeping pace with the others. At their top speeds, it didn’t take long to reach Uzushio, although they all had to pop soldier pills to keep going. All of them could have done with a rest, but the moment they stepped foot on shore, they were ushered straight to the Uzukage’s office.
“Diversion Squad One, Uzukage-sama,” the ANBU escorting them announced.
She looked up as they entered, relief clear in her eyes for a moment before it was suppressed. “Good,” she said briskly. “ANBU has completed the objective, but we anticipate retaliation from Kiri. That brings us to your next mission—protection detail.”
None of them complained, because they were professionals, but a quick glance at the others told Narumi they likely had some choice remarks to make in private.
Tsubasa handed a scroll to Tsubame, who read through it with a frown, the kind that meant he was displeased and trying to hide it. He handed the scroll to Sakumo, who in turn handed it to Dan. Neither of them looked particularly happy about it.
Narumi skimmed through the scroll quickly. It contained information on three children, all between the ages of three and seven. Judging by their names, the three-year-old and five-year-old were siblings, while the seven-year-old was unrelated. The scroll didn’t have any other information, though, so he wasn’t sure why the others were so upset. Unless protection detail was code for something unpleasant.
“These children,” Tsubasa said, “are the three youngest children of the Mizukage and Daimyo of Kiri. The next four oldest have been taken to Konoha. The Mizukage has one remaining child, as does the Daimyo. They will be eager to recapture their children. Your duties will be to guard the children and ensure no attempts to rescue them or kill them succeed. They are being held at the Uzumaki compound, where you will reside for the duration of the mission. I leave the details to your discretion. Questions?”
“No, Uzukage-sama,” they chorused.
“Good. I suggest you clean up before reporting in.” Her eyes returned immediately to her desk, already skimming over a report. “Dismissed.”
They left in silence, and didn’t speak until they could no longer see the administration building.
“Well, now we know what ANBU was up to,” Sakumo said, his voice carefully empty of emotion.
“It’s a logical decision,” Tsubame said in the same manner. “The Daimyo and Mizukage will think twice about attacking while their children are at risk, and it gives us something to hold over their heads during negotiations.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Dan murmured, so quietly Narumi had to strain to hear him. Tsubame gave a sharp nod, but said nothing.
They trooped on in silence for a while, until Sakumo said, “So, are you putting us up, or are we going to have to rent a room?”
Tsubame rolled his eyes. “Good luck finding a room. Half the shinobi in the village are still living out of the barracks. The civilians and genin all have housing, but that leaves the majority of the chuunin and jounin. You’ll be staying with me, of course.”
“Fancy,” Sakumo teased. “We get to stay with the Young Lord .”
“Don’t start,” Tsubame sighed, in the tone of voice of someone who knew very well that the imminent mocking could not be stopped.
Narumi took pity on him and decided to head Sakumo off at the pass. “Young Lord?”
“Don’t you know?” Sakumo said gleefully. “Tsubasa is the Uzumaki clan head, but she doesn’t have any children, so Tsubame here is the heir. His bedroom is as big as my apartment. There’s a whole room just for eating in. Meanwhile, I eat sitting on my bed, using a milk crate as a table.”
“Spending all your money on diamond rings instead of new furniture might have something to do with that,” Dan noted.
Sakumo’s expression shifted from teasing to sappy at once. “But it was worth it,” he sighed as he gazed into the distance.
Tsubame shot Dan a grateful look while Sakumo was distracted by whatever fantasies he was entertaining. “This way,” he said, motioning them along.
More and more Uzumaki appeared as they walked down the streets—there was no gate or wall marking the compound, but Narumi assumed they must have entered it at some point. Orange and red-haired children darted through the streets, likely running home to eat dinner. Adults, he noted, were more scarce, and those he did see were mostly injured, elderly, or civilian. More than one child remained outside even as the sun sank below the horizon, sitting on rooftops and the edge of canals and eating seafood roasted on sticks. They waved and called out greetings as the group passed, the more daring ones asking for Tsubame to show them a cool seal or jutsu.
“Later,” Tsubame promised each one. “I’m on a mission.”
The children left them alone upon hearing that, so they managed to make it to their destination largely unbothered. Tsubame’s house was large, as Sakumo had said, but it was far from empty. Even outside, Narumi could hear the sound of cheerful conversation, which only increased in volume as they entered the house. He quickly realized the reason; every room Tsubame led them through was filled with bedrolls, the house turned into an impromptu barracks for people left without housing after the attack on Uzushio. Not all of them were Uzumaki, either—Narumi noted more than one head of blue, brown, or black hair.
Tsubame’s bedroom was the only one free of extra bedrolls, but not for long. It took them moments to drop their gear and set up their bedrolls, and by then the room was just as crowded as the ones they had walked through earlier. Even Tsubame laid out his bedroll—Narumi suspected his bedding had long since been given up to some of the guests.
Unloaded of their burdens and keenly aware of how long it had been since they bathed now that they were in an enclosed space, the four of them raced to the baths and eagerly stripped of their uniforms—Narumi didn’t even want to think about what some of those stains were. He was pretty sure they were better off burning them and requisitioning new ones than attempting to clean them.
Narumi was the first into the bath, although Sakumo was quick to join him.
“I’m so jealous,” Sakumo moaned as he sank into the water. “I can’t believe you have a private bath. I have to go to the public bathhouse.”
“I think the fact that you live in a dump could be blamed for that,” Dan commented.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, waving a hand idly. “Kaede’s grandparents left her a beautiful house. You know, the one with the wisteria. Once the war is over, we’re going to get a genin team to fix it up. It has plenty of bedrooms, too. Master bedroom, then three spare rooms, so the kids won’t have to share.”
“You don’t have kids,” Tsubame said, as he slipped into the water between Dan and Narumi.
“I will,” Sakumo said cheerfully. “Three of them. We’ve got names picked out for the first one already.”
Dan smiled wistfully. “That’s wonderful. Tsunade and I want kids as well, of course—but we’ll have to see how things go with the hospital. There’s so much to do.”
Tsubame sighed as he untied his hair from its usual bun, letting the long strands drift through the water. “Tell me about it. As soon as this war is over, every shinobi from genin to jounin is going to be drafted into the rebuilding effort.”
“What about you, Narumi? Any plans?” Dan asked.
Narumi hummed thoughtfully. He had plans, of course—more than he could safely share. “Yeah, some,” he said, idly twining a red strand around his finger. “I want to stay in Uzushio, but do you think the Uzukage would let me visit Konoha to see Minato?”
He glanced up at Tsubame, who seemed to be distracted—he was staring very intently at the opposite wall. “Tsubame?” he prompted.
Tsubame jerked to attention. “What? Oh. Yes, probably. It’s not uncommon for Uzushio shinobi to visit Konoha.”
“Great!” Narumi said. “I’d like to get to know him. He’s my little brother, ya know!”
“I pity him already,” Tsubame said, dry as the desert. He dunked his hair into the water one last time before climbing out of the bath. “We should be going.”
Sakumo groaned, but nevertheless hauled himself out. “You’re a slave-driver, Tsubame.”
“If we stayed in there any longer, we would never get out,” Tsubame said as he tossed each of them a towel.
“You know I hate it when you’re reasonable,” Sakumo said.
The four of them quickly scrubbed off and got dressed; to Narumi’s pleasant surprise, their old clothing had been replaced by fresh, Uzushio-issue uniforms. They weren’t all that different from Konoha uniforms, really, except that they were a slightly lighter shade of blue. Honestly, they could have been bright pink and he wouldn’t have cared so long as they were clean.
All too soon, they were heading away from the bathhouse, through the streets of what Narumi was coming to consider the Uzumaki part of town, rather than the Uzumaki compound—he still hadn’t seen any walls anywhere. This time, Tsubame didn’t lead them to his house, but to a smaller house behind it. As they approached, Narumi caught sight of a few ANBU, hiding in shadow. Another two were inside, one of them looming over a pot of stew in the kitchen, the other staring down a trio of children. Two of them sat frozen in their chairs, hardly daring to breathe let alone move, while the youngest cried his eyes out.
Tsubame swept into the room without a moment’s hesitation, dismissing the ANBU with a flick of his fingers. “Dan, Sakumo—one of you take care of him, the other talk to the other two. Narumi, I want your clones stationed around the house. Take a look around and see what we have for them. Clothes, books, toys, toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap and shampoo—anything they don’t have, we’ll send someone to buy tomorrow.” He sampled the stew, grimaced, and dumped the goopy mess into the trash. “Tastes like field rations.”
As Tsubame raided the cabinets—which were thankfully stocked with food—Narumi sent a horde of shadow clones out into the world. Sakumo approached the youngest boy, who took one look at him and started screaming. Sakumo quickly changed paths, instead kneeling in front of the two older children. Dan bravely picked up the screaming boy, only to get kicked in the chin by a flailing foot.
“This is more difficult than they make it sound in books,” he commented, as he attempted to keep the wriggling, screaming boy right side up and simultaneously prevent him from kicking or hitting Dan in the face too much.
“Oh, for—Narumi, keep chopping these vegetables. And stir that soup.”
Narumi somehow found himself holding a knife in one hand and a spoon in the other, and had to rush to the counter to catch a carrot before it rolled over the edge. When he wasn’t in danger of dropping any vegetables or stabbing himself with the knife, he looked up to find that in all of five minutes, Tsubame had somehow managed to silence the toddler and was now carrying him while he contentedly chewed on Tsubame’s hair.
“How’d you do that?” Narumi asked.
Tsubame poured a variety of spices into the soup and stirred it all together. “Live with the Uzumaki long enough and you’ll get plenty of experience with screaming children. He didn’t even try to stab me with a kunai.”
“Mama,” the boy said.
“I’m not your mama,” Tsubame said, in the tone of voice of someone who knew that a venture was doomed.
“Mlem,” the boy said, around a drooly mouthful of hair.
Narumi glanced over at the others—Sakumo was entertaining the other two with some sort of lightning trick that was making their hair stand on end, and Dan was talking to one of Narumi’s shadow clones—before returning to his newest duty as a shinobi: sous-chef.
The boy babbled something. Narumi had absolutely no idea what he said. “You’re correct,” Tsubame said. “I think that is plenty of carrot. Give that here, Narumi—if these children have been living on ANBU cooking, I have no doubt they’re starving.”
Sure enough, the moment their food was placed in front of them, the children fell upon it like starving animals. They finished half the pot between them, and promptly fell asleep at the table. They didn’t stir when Sakumo and Dan bundled them into futons, or when the shinobi began to talk quietly at the table, leaving the door to the bedroom open so they could keep an eye on the kids.
Sakumo ran a hand through his hair. “Seriously,” he muttered. “What the hell is the Uzukage thinking, kidnapping kids?”
“It’s an effective tactic,” Tsubame said grimly. “She told me she got the idea from something you did, Narumi.”
“How did she even have time to tell you that?” Sakumo asked.
Tsubame rolled his eyes and tapped his scroll, the one linked with Tsubasa’s. “It’s easier to talk privately through this. Apparently one of the jounin and the chuunin you captured were actually Chiyo’s son and daughter-in-law. She’s been a lot more reluctant to attack now that they’re in Konoha’s hands. Things are almost over on the Suna front.”
“So they thought the same tactic might finish things in Kiri,” Dan surmised. “It makes sense, although it is unpleasant.”
Sakumo looked through the bedroom door. “These kids have nothing to do with the war, except for what their parents did.”
“And we’ll make sure the war doesn’t touch them more than it already has,” Tsubame said. “The ANBU have a watch, but we should organize our own, just in case.”
As it turned out, their watch wasn’t really necessary. A few enemy shinobi attempted to either rescue or capture the kids, but ANBU always took care of them before they got anywhere near the house. They took to spending their shared watches playing cards or, in the case of Tsubame and Narumi, holding lessons on fuinjutsu.
“Until now, I’ve just been having you memorize arrays. We haven’t had time for anything else,” Tsubame said as he set a pile of scrolls, an inkwell, and several brushes on the table. “At the moment, we have enough time for you to learn properly instead of simply memorizing and copying. So, paper, ink, brush, and a list of seal components. Start experimenting. I’ll stop you if it looks like you’re about to blow the house up.”
With that, Tsubame unfurled a scroll and started to draw a seal of his own on it. Narumi looked between him and the supplies lying on the table. “What, just go for it?”
“You have the basics down by now,” Tsubame said. “Trial and error will teach you the rest. Unless you’d rather sit through a detailed lecture on what each and every component does on its own and in combination with other components?”
Narumi shuddered. Just the mention of a lecture brought back memories of sitting inside a cramped, stuffy classroom on days when he could have been running around outside. “No thanks.”
“That’s what I thought,” Tsubame said.
Narumi glanced over the list of components Tsubame had left on the table. He recognized most of the components from the arrays Tsubame had made him copy, and some of them he was passingly familiar with, but he couldn’t even begin to list the functions of some of them. He started by drawing he Uzumaki spiral—that, at least, he knew was usually used as a base. He started adding a few components that he recognized. He wasn’t sure what the seal would do, but hopefully it wouldn’t do something horrible if he activated it.
He’d show it to Tsubame first just in case.
“What in the world are you making?”
Narumi looked up to find Tsubame leaning over his shoulder, peering down at the array on Narumi’s scroll with a furrowed brow. “Not sure,” he said. “Something cool, I hope.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like it will kill us all,” Tsubame said, after a moment more of squinting at the array.
“Let’s try it out, then,” Narumi said.
He lowered his hand to the array.
“Wait!” Tsubame said, reaching out to grab Narumi’s hand.
Tsubame’s hand landed on Narumi’s right as the array activated, the ink flaring blue for a moment.
Other than that, nothing happened.
Tsubame sighed. “Well, we aren’t dead yet. Next time, wait until I actually tell you to activate it. I can’t tell how it will react in a single glance. I’m an expert in medical seals, not whatever abomination you created. ”
“Right. Sorry.” Narumi laughed sheepishly.
Tsubame pulled his hand away. Narumi’s hand moved with it.
The two of them stared at their hands. Tsubame moved his hand to the side; Narumi’s hand moved as well. Narumi tried to pull his hand away, only to bring Tsubame along too.
Tsubame pinched the bridge of his nose with his free hand. “This is why we wait to activate our seals,” he muttered.
Narumi waved his hand up and down slightly. “Sorry. Wow, they’re really stuck.”
Tsubame forced their hands to be still. “Cut that out. We have to figure out how to reverse this. Sit still while I look at the seal.”
Narumi leaned back in his chair while Tsubame pulled the array closer and leaned over it, absentmindedly tucking a strand of red hair behind one ear. Tsubame chewed on his lower lip as he ran a finger along the outside of the array, clearly deep in thought. He was pretty cute when he was concentrating.
Sakumo walked out of the bedroom, yawning and scratching his stomach. “Hey, Tsubame, what’s for breakfast?”
Narumi looked at Tsubame, who was leaning in so close to the seal that his nose was almost touching it. He was muttering to himself too quietly for Narumi to make out the words. “I think you’re on your own,” he said to Sakumo.
“Plain rice it is,” Sakumo said. He trudged to the kitchen and began to putter around. “I have no idea how Kaede and I are going to survive. Neither of us can cook.”
“Me neither,” Narumi said. He’d gotten pretty used to living on instant food, takeout, and field rations over the years.
“The life of a bachelor,” Sakumo sighed, the last word ending in a yawn that threatened to split his face in half.
Tsubame chewed on the end of the brush. “You’re gonna give yourself splinters,” Narumi said.
“Shut up, nee-chan,” Tsubame muttered. Narumi snickered.
After awhile, Sakumo came over with two bowls of rice and slid one across the table to Narumi. Narumi took the chopsticks with a free hand; thankfully, his right hand was free, and his left hand was stuck to Tsubame’s right hand.
“So, you and Tsubame,” Sakumo said, with a pointed look at their hands. “Did you . . . you know?”
Sakumo’s eyebrows waggled up and down. “You know.”
“Oh! Uh, no, our hands are just stuck together because of a seal accident,” Narumi said.
Sakumo sighed. “Damn. Here I thought you’d finally got yourselves sorted out.” He laughed. “‘Seal accident.’ Nice one.”
Narumi snorted, and ended up hacking and coughing as rice went up his nose.
Entirely oblivious, Tsubame said, “Well, you seem to have created something that sticks two or more objects together, which has the potential to be quite useful. On the other hand, you added a time dependency clause of some sort, which means it will wear off in either 24 minutes, 24 hours, or 24 days.”
“I think it’s been more than 24 minutes,” Narumi noted.
“Hours or days, then,” Tsubame said. “I’m going to start working on something to cancel the effect. I am not going to go around stuck to you for almost an entire month.”
“Ah, that would cause some problems,” Sakumo said.
“We’re in the middle of a war. I think it would cause more than some problems .”
“At least we’re not on the front lines anymore.” Sakumo laughed. “Although the Kiri nin might be confused enough that you could get a few hits in before they pulled themselves together.”
“This does mean, however, that meal preparations will be complicated,” Tsubame said. “Sakumo. Go out and buy food. Something that even you can make.”
Sakumo gave him a mockingly deep bow. “Yes, young master. Whatever you want, young master.”
Tsubame threw some sort of booklet at his head. “Get out of my home, you menace.”
Sakumo, still laughing, snatched the booklet out of the air and slipped out the door. Narumi caught a brief glimpse of one of the ANBU guarding the house before the door closed again.
Tsubame sighed and shook his head, tossing back strands of red hair. “Finally, some quiet.”
“Until everyone else wakes up at least,” Narumi said.
“I wish. Those children never say a word. I never know what they want.” Tsubame tossed his head as if shaking off those thoughts and shot a glare down at the seal in front of him. “This, at least, is a relatively easy problem to solve.”
Tsubame reached back to pull his hair into a ponytail, inadvertently taking Narumi’s hand along with him. Strands of Tsubame’s hair slid through his fingers as his hand was pulled along, as smooth and fine as silk.
“Huh. Your hair’s really soft,” Narumi said.
Tsubame jerked his hands away from his head like he’d been electrocuted.
“Sorry, sorry,” Narumi laughed. “I can’t help it.”
Tsubame glared down at their attached hands. “Let’s solve this problem as soon as possible.”
He set to work, giving Narumi another seal that he deemed vitally important to Narumi’s education in the sealing arts. Narumi worked on it with half of his attention, the other half devoted to the warmth of Tsubame’s hand against his and the cute way Tsubame bit his lip when he was frustrated. After a while, he got bored of working on the seal and started making up his own—although he would definitely have Tsubame thoroughly check them over before activating them.
All too soon, however, another problem arose. He’d tried to ignore it, but it was unavoidable.
Naruto nudged Tsubame. “Hey, Tsubame. I’ve got to piss.”
Tsubame looked to the ceiling as if beseeching an unseen god. “This is the worst thing to have ever happened to me.”
“I have returned—whoa, what happened here?”
Narumi shrugged helplessly as Tsubame furiously scribbled away on a scroll. Their disastrously embarrassing trip to the bathroom had taken ten minutes, and Tsubame had only grown increasingly irritated since then. Narumi suspected that Tsubame now had to use the bathroom as well, but was resisting giving into the inevitable out of sheer stubbornness. “What’d you get?”
Sakumo tossed the booklet onto Tsubame’s lap and then dumped a bag on the table, upending it so its contents spilled out. “Spoils of war, my friend!”
Narumi had expected him to come back with a bag of rice and some fish, and maybe some vegetables, not several items wrapped in brightly colored paper or stored in cardboard boxes. He opened one curiously and found three grilled squid on skewers, like the ones he sometimes saw kids eating on the side of the canal.
Tsubame looked up as one of the items rolled across his scroll and sighed. “Sakumo. You didn’t.”
“What? Those little genin looked so cute, selling stuff by the side of the road. I couldn’t resist!”
“I said to buy groceries, not snacks and street food!” Tsubame sighed and shoved a clumsily wrapped package away from his scroll so he could roll it up. “I suppose I’ll have to go out myself. Narumi, you can carry the bags.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Narumi said, as he was tugged out of his chair along with Tsubame. Tsubame retrieved a few bags from the kitchen, most likely to carry their purchases, and nearly dragged Narumi out the door.
“Slow down, Tsubame,” Narumi laughed as he quickened his pace so they were walking side by side. “The groceries won’t go anywhere.”
“We should get there before the good fish are all taken,” Tsubame said. “They’ve probably already been picked clean of the best catches of the day, but if we hurry we should be able to find some good ones. I’m not holding out much hope for vegetables. Maybe they’ll still have rice, but we have to hurry.”
As they hurried through the village, people called out greetings to Tsubame and cast curious glances at Narumi. A few people even waved cheerfully at Narumi, evidently recognizing him from somewhere. Or maybe they were just friendly.
“People here sure are nice,” he remarked to Tsubame.
“Well, you are an Uzumaki,” Tsubame said. “Some of them can sense that, like I can. Sensors aren’t uncommon among our clan. As far as they’re concerned, that makes you family.”
A smile spread across Narumi’s face, unbidden. “Family, huh?”
He couldn’t help but look around, grinning goofily at all the colorful heads of hair running past him. As their eyes met his, they smiled in return, even if he had no idea who they were. After a moment, Narumi looked back to Tsubame, catching a brief glimpse of his reddened cheeks before Tsubame turned around and yanked Narumi back down the street.
“Hurry up, before everything is gone. If we miss out, you’re waking up at four in the morning tomorrow to accompany me during the morning rush.”
Having grown up in Konoha, Narumi first expected to end up in a supermarket of some sort, only to realize that they probably didn’t have supermarkets yet, in which case it would probably be a series of stores, each geared towards a specialized item. He didn’t expect, however, for Tsubame to pull him onto a wide street running alongside the widest canal Narumi had seen so far. Boats filled the canal, strung together to avoid drifting away, and people walked freely from one boat to another along narrow makeshift walkways.
Tsubame sighed. “Ah, we already missed the rush. Well, we’ll see what’s left.”
Narumi followed him onto one of the boats; there were a few people on each boat, so he wouldn’t say it the canal was all that empty. “What’s it like during the rush?”
“Oh, you can hardly move. Shinobi arts are strictly forbidden, including minor chakra manipulation to walk on the water, unless it’s an emergency. We had a few too many instances of shinobi trying to cut in line.” Tsubame surveyed the fish being offered by the man running the boat-shop. “These three here, and that one over there, please.”
“Of course, Tsubame-sama,” the man said. “Come again!”
Once the fish were nicely wrapped up in plain paper, they left that boat by crossing over the one next to it, which seemed to be selling crockery. The next was selling clothing, and the one next to that was selling fabric. They stopped on a boat selling a sparse collection of vegetables: a few lumpy yams, some crooked carrots, a small, sad collection of mushrooms, a handful of roots, and two small bags of rice.
“Tsubame-sama, welcome. Let me put something together for you,” the shopkeeper said. “No mushrooms again?”
“I’ll take the mushrooms this time,” Tsubame said. “And some for my friend, too.”
The shopkeeper turned a cheerful, if tired, smile at Narumi. “Welcome! Any friend of Tsubame-sama’s is a friend of mine. I’ll need your ration books.”
While Narumi attempted to remember if he had ever been given a ration book, Tsubame produced two thin booklets and handed them to the shopkeeper, who removed a few slips of paper from each before handing them back.
“I held onto yours for you,” Tsubame explained. “I didn’t anticipate taking you along for the grocery shopping.”
“What about Dan and Sakumo?”
Tsubame grimaced. “They’re from Konoha, so they aren’t covered. At least my rations were increased because of the kids . . . I think I can make it work.”
The shopkeeper placed a wrapped package on the table and patted it firmly. “There we go, wrapped up safe and sound. Have a nice day.”
“Thank you. Now, let’s see what else we can find.”
Narumi followed Tsubame through the boats, idly browsing as Tsubame examined each and every shop. Most they passed through, with a brief stop at a shop that was evidently meant to be a bakery but was only selling a few small bags of flour, sugar, salt, and a few tiny jars of yeast. Their final stop took them to a fruit stand, with offerings as meager as the rest of the food shops.
As the woman wrapped their purchase, Narumi spotted a small potted plant with long, thick leaves on the counter. When he leaned close to examine it, he noticed that someone had written “Jirojiro-san” on the pot. It was a completely different plant, but it still reminded him of Ukki-kun, the plant he had given to Kakashi a lifetime ago, and he couldn’t help but smile and pick it up.
“You have a good eye!” the woman chirped.
“It’s an aloe vera, right?” he asked.
She nodded. “That’s right. I got it from some merchants that passed through Suna. I don’t think I’m taking very good care of it, through.”
“Nah, you’re doing great,” Narumi said, setting it back down on the table. “I’m pretty good with desert plants like this.”
“Wow! You should give me some tips.”
Narumi sheepishly rubbed at the back of his head. “Hehe, sure.”
A sudden jerk at his hand pulled him to the side. “We should go,” Tsubame said sharply.
“Come again!” the shopkeeper called after them.
Tsubame pulled Narumi along in silence, speeding up whenever Narumi tried to walk next to him, until Narumi could no longer hear the din of the marketplace.
“Uh, Tsubame?” Narumi asked. “You trying to run away with my hand?”
Tsubame deliberately slowed down. “My apologies.” They were side-by-side, now, but Tsubame wasn’t looking at Narumi. “I . . . didn’t know you liked plants.”
“Oh, yeah, I do. I had a small garden where I grew up, and a bunch of potted plants. It was kind of nice to have something that needed me,” he said with a laugh. “I guess there isn’t much room for a garden here.”
“Some people have potted plants,” Tsubame said. He hesitated for a moment. “And . . . it’s a bit far from the main village, but there’s a small island that no one’s using right now. I don’t know who used to own it, but they left it to the Uzumaki when they died. No one wanted to live so far from the main compound, so there’s an empty house just sitting there. It probably needs some repairs after all these years but . . . it could be yours. If you wanted it. I know there’s enough space for a garden.”
“What, really? Come on, let’s check it out!”
Narumi darted forward, only to be yanked backwards with a yelp as Tsubame pulled his hand back. “We can’t right now! We have to get the groceries home.”
“Aw, c’mon, Tsubame, live a little! The groceries aren’t gonna go bad if we take a little detour,” Narumi said, giving Tsubame his best pleading expression.
Tsubame looked away, cheeks slightly pink, and sighed. “Fine, we can go. But we have to be quick about it.”
He pulled Narumi in the opposite direction from where Narumi had been headed. “This way.”
The village abruptly stopped without so much as a beach on this side of the island; Narumi could see the barracks docked nearby, and a few people had boats tied up outside their houses. As they stepped out onto the water, he could see a few boats in the distance, skillfully avoiding the whirlpools.
Salty water sprayed across his face as they ran. At first he couldn’t see much of anything, but eventually he could make out a small, flat shape in the distance. It increased in size as they approached, until he could make out a protrusion from the shape, and then that the protrusion was in fact a house, and then the details of the island itself.
They stepped from the water onto a small beach, from which a small path led up to the house. A few small trees stood around the house, the kind that were good for thin, whippy branches you could use to attack your friends. The house itself did look to be in need of repairs; the windows and door were missing, and when he looked inside he could tell it was covered with grime.
Tsubame pulled him around to the back of the house, where there was dirt instead of loose, gritty sand. Narumi knelt, pulling Tsubame down with him, and ran a hand through the dirt. “Yeah, this is pretty good from what I can tell. I think you could grow some stuff here,” he said.
“You want it, then.”
Narumi sat on the ground. Tsubame hit the ground beside him with a huff. “Whoops. Sorry. I dunno, maybe. It’s nice.”
“It is. And I suppose it might be good to have you at a distance in case you cause any more mishaps,” Tsubame said.
“Hey!” Narumi elbowed Tsubame, and then laughed. “What could I say? I just couldn’t bear to be separated from your gorgeous face.”
“Just my face, hmm?”
“Well, your personality is a little . . .” He made a face and wiggled his free hand from side to side. Tsubame thumped his fist against Narumi’s shoulder. “Joking, joking!”
Tsubame huffed and looked away. Narumi laughed and looked up at the sky. “It’s kind of quiet here, though.”
“You don’t like the quiet?” Tsubame asked, still looking away.
“Mm, not really. It feels a little isolated, I guess,” Narumi said.
“The village is only a short walk away. No matter where you live, you’re always welcome in the Uzumaki compound. Besides, I’d come visit you,” Tsubame said.
Narumi looked at him, eyes wide. “You would?”
“Of course. You’re my responsibility, aren’t you? My sister told me to keep an eye on you,” Tsubame said. Narumi couldn’t help but notice that the redness on his cheeks spread all the way to the tips of his ears. “And I have to get some time away from my family. You haven’t had time to notice yet, but they have a tendency to be nosy and overbearing at the best of times. Especially the elders.”
“What, I don’t count as family anymore?” Narumi gave him an exaggerated pout.
“Well, you know, you’re . . . different,” Tsubame said. “I . . . enjoy spending time with you.”
The words hung between them for a moment.
Narumi gave Tsubame a teasing grin. “So, how painful was that for you to say?”
Tsubame huffed and elbowed him. “See if I ever say anything to you again.”
They fell into silence for a moment, the groceries abandoned at their sides, their hands still stuck between them.
“I wanted to live here,” Tsubame said. “I used to come here to play as a child, when I wanted to be alone. Most children had parents who wouldn’t allow them to come out this far, but my father was the Uzukage. He spent most of his time running the village or training Tsubasa to be his successor.”
“What about your mom?”
“She died giving birth to me.”
“Oh, the same as me.” Narumi snorted and gave Tsubame a lopsided grin. “What a weird thing to have in common.”
“It must have been hard, being raised away from your family.”
Narumi leaned back as much as he could with his hand still attached to Tsubame. “It was at first. But I had my teacher and my friends, and then the old guy who trained me, so it wasn’t all bad. And I found my way here eventually.”
“You’ll soon have your fill of us,” Tsubame assured him. “Trust me, living in the middle of the compound is a trial at the best of times.”
“So why don’t you live out here?” Narumi asked.
“As much as I may want to . . . as the heir to the family, I’m expected to live inside the compound. And Tsubasa is never going to have children, so that will never change.”
“You should do what you want. Not what other people’s expectations tell you to do,” Narumi said.
Tsubame sighed. “If only it were that simple.”
Narumi opened his mouth to speak, but Tsubame interrupted him. “We should be going. It’s getting late. The ANBU will start to wonder what became of us.”
“Just a little bit longer,” Narumi said. “Come on, you know you want to. Or would you rather go back to babysitting?”
“Just a little longer,” Tsubame agreed, at last.
Smiling, Narumi knocked their shoulders together. He remained like that, his shoulder pressed against Tsubame’s, as they stared out over the sea. Caught in the wind, a few strands of Tsubame’s hair glistened in the sunlight, red and orange and yellow. Idly, Narumi reached up with his free hand and let one of the strands wrap itself around his finger.
“Your hair really is pretty, ya know,” he said.
“Sh-shut up, Namikaze.”
Narumi grinned. Once again, Tsubame was as red as his hair, from his cheeks to the tips of his ears. “It’s the truth.”
Tsubame, still blushing, tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, only to jerk in surprise as Narumi’s hand was brought along and brushed against his hair.
This close, Narumi was able to see all the little details he’d never noticed before, like the little holes in Tsubame’s ears. Curious, he leaned closer. “You have pierced ears?”
“Hm? Oh, I do. I’m surprised they haven’t closed up. I don’t wear them on missions,” Tsubame said. “I wouldn’t want to lose them."
"But you're not on a mission now," Narumi said.
Tsubame gave him a flat look. "I already have children grabbing my hair. I don't need them to grab my ears as well."
"I guess you've got a point," Narumi sulked. "Aw man, and here I wanted to see you in them."
A huff of laughter escaped Tsubame. “After all this is over, I’ll wear them again.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” Narumi looked out over the ocean. “When this is all over, huh . . . when do you think the war will be over?”
“It’s hard to say, but . . . soon, I think. It’s already been a few years since it started.” Tsubame sighed. “We’ll have a lot of rebuilding to do once everyone is home. If you think it’s crowded and busy now, wait until the war is over. Most of the chuunin and jounin are out of the village.”
“I’m looking forward to it. A whole village of Uzumaki!”
Tsubame gave him a small smile. “There are other clans, you know.”
“Yeah, but!” Narumi waved his hands. “Uzumaki!”
Tsubame laughed quietly. “You’ll get sick of us soon enough.”
“You think?” Narumi looked over at Tsubame, at his red hair and sea-blue eyes, and couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of you.”
Tsubame turned his head away, but Narumi could still see that the tips of his ears were red. “Honestly. Stop saying things like that. People will get the wrong idea.”
“Maybe I want them to.” Tsubame, still looking in the opposite direction, elbowed Narumi firmly. Narumi couldn’t help but laugh. “Sorry, sorry, I’ll talk about something else. Hmm . . . when did you pierce your ears?”
“Ah. When my genin team took the chuunin exam,” he said. “We passed it all at once, on our first try. Our sensei didn’t let us until he was sure we could pass, so we were thirteen, the oldest ones there. We pierced our ears with fishhooks. We all got infections, of course. Not our finest hour.”
“Ha! So even you do stupid stuff sometimes.”
“Tsubasa would have a wealth of stories to tell, I assure you. If you ask her, however, I’m afraid I’ll have to kill you.”
Narumi laughed and leaned against Tsubame. “Still, Tsubame in earrings. I’ll look forward to it. I bet you look even prettier.”
“I thought I told you to stop saying things like that.” Tsubame looked away, over the ocean, but then turned around to meet Narumi’s eyes. “If you think I’m so pretty, why don’t you pursue Tsubasa?”
Narumi squinted at Tsubame, trying to discern what he was thinking from his blank face and coming up with nothing. “What? Why would I do that? I don’t like Tsubasa, I like you, ya know.”
Tsubame was blushing again and avoiding Narumi’s gaze, but Narumi could still see that his blank expression had been replaced with a small smile. “It would be easier.”
Narumi failed to see how trying to get with the Uzukage would be easier. “Doesn’t matter. Like I said, I like you. Tsubasa’s too scary.”
Tsubame laughed. “She’d be happy to hear you say that. Speaking of which, we should be going. Tsubasa will have nothing on Sakumo and Dan if we leave them to fend for themselves for much longer.”
Tsubame stood, but Narumi remained sitting, their joined hand stretching between them. “I’ve become one with the earth. Help me up.”
Tsubame rolled his eyes. Narumi laughed, only for his laughter to morph into a startled shout as Tsubame yanked upwards, heaving Narumi onto his feet. Narumi stumbled forwards and would have fallen again had he not collided with Tsubame.
“Geez, warn a guy.” Narumi steadied himself with a hand on Tsubame’s chest. They were almost the same height, Tsubame just slightly shorter, so that he barely had to look down to meet Tsubame’s eyes. This close, with their noses almost brushing, he could make out all the little flecks of different colors in Tsubame’s eyes. It was like every time Narumi took a closer look at him, he got more and more interesting.
Tsubame’s eyes met Narumi’s and then flicked downwards slightly, landing on Narumi’s lips. Narumi’s breath caught in his throat. His lips felt dry. On reflex, he licked them.
Tsubame tore his gaze away and stepped back. “We should go.”
“Oh . . . yeah,” Narumi said, allowing himself to be pulled along to the front of the house and down to the beach. “Maybe we could come back, sometime? It’s pretty nice here, ya know.”
Tsubame stopped on the beach. Narumi stared at the back of his head.
Without warning, Tsubame spun around, seizing the front of Narumi’s shirt with his free hand, and tugged Narumi close. Their lips crashed together, their teeth clacking together painfully as Narumi opened his mouth in surprise. Tsubame’s tongue darted into Narumi’s mouth for an all too brief instant before pulling back.
Narumi found himself gaping at the back of Tsubame’s head as Tsubame stared resolutely at the village, a hand pressed firmly to his mouth. “We should—we should go.”
Slowly, a grin spread across Narumi’s face. “Uhuh. You sure you don’t need a minute to calm down?”
“Shut up, Narumi.”
The seal binding their hands wore off after only 24 hours, before Tsubame had a chance to finish his counter seal. As a punishment, he sentenced Narumi to repeatedly draw the same seals over and over until he had them all memorized. It was the worst parts of the Academy all over again—and to make it worse, Tsubame wouldn’t even let him use clones to help memorize them. Narumi was joined in this endeavor by the three-year-old, who took to sealing with the exuberance of someone who had no idea what they were doing and only liked to stick their fingers in the ink and try to eat them.
Despite the fact that they were looking after kidnapping victims, life in that house wasn’t all that unusual. They quickly fell into a routine, aided by Tsubame’s insistence on holding lessons for the children, and soon it felt almost normal to be looking after three kids with three other guys and a bunch of unseen ANBU. By the end of the third month, Narumi didn’t even blink when he walked out of the bedroom to find Sakumo hoisting two of the kids into the air like they were makeshift weights.
Tsubame, surprisingly, took care of the bulk of the childcare, organizing meals and baths and lessons, handling all nightmares and tantrums, laying out house rules and enforcing them when they were broken.
“I’ve taken care of Uzumaki children before,” Tsubame explained, when Narumi asked. “Nothing is as trying as an Uzumaki child that wants nothing more than to fling itself headfirst into the nearest canal or blow itself up with a sealing experiment. At least these ones don’t know any jutsu.”
In the absence of the ANBU, the kids got more boisterous over time. Narumi didn’t even want to think about what they would be like with jutsu under their belts. It was hard enough keeping them out of trouble as it was.
Still, sometimes they managed to get breaks. Narumi took to accompanying Tsubame on his weekly trips to the market; if they left early enough and finished quickly, Tsubame occasionally allowed them a few moments alone, and they would walk out to the small island away from the main village before returning.
In the house in the middle of the bustling Uzumaki compound, surrounded by his friends and the kids, it was almost possible to forget about the war.
And then the Uzukage walked into their living room, dressed in armor under the robes of her office, sword in hand rather than on her back.
Tsubame stood and faced her. “Uzukage-sama,” he said, face blank.
“Kiri is launching an assault on the village,” she said. “As they currently are, the barrier seals won’t even withstand their first attack. I’ve made threats. Now it’s time to make good on them.”
Her eyes landed on the children, sitting frozen around the table where they had just been eating dinner.
Tsubame stepped forward until he was close enough that she was easily within striking distance of his sword. His hand rested on the hilt, ready to draw at a moment’s notice. “You might be my Uzukage, but you’re my sister first,” he said. “And I won’t let you do this.”
Neither of them moved. Narumi’s mind raced through the possibilities. Tsubame could hold off Tsubasa, at least for a while, but he couldn’t fight the ANBU at the same time. Narumi, with his clones, could manage that, but that meant Sakumo and Dan would have to grab the kids and make a run for it without anyone to watch their backs. It could work, if they got out before anyone else in the village realized what was going on, but they’d have to be quick. Now, if only Narumi could signal them somehow—
Tsubasa’s hand left her sword. Tsubame’s shoulders relaxed slightly.
“Tsubame. Namikaze. With me.” Without another word, Tsubasa turned on her heel and left the house.
Narumi fell into step beside Tsubame, both of them following behind Tsubasa as she led them through the village. The canals and streets were crowded with ninja and civilians who all fell silent as Tsubasa passed them.
They stopped on a beach. In the distance, Narumi could see a horde of shinobi approaching over the water.
Tsubasa turned to Tsubame and looked at him for a long moment before turning to Narumi. “Namikaze. You saved my brother’s life once. I never thanked you for it. So, thank you.”
She removed her robes, draping them over one arm, and then took off her hat. Tsubame stepped forward and grabbed her arm. “Nee-chan, you can’t. You’re the Uzukage. The village needs you.”
“I’ve always been a warrior,” Tsubasa said. “That’s how I keep Uzushio safe. But more than a warrior, our village needs a healer. They’re going to need you, Tsubame.”
Tsubasa swept the robe around, setting it on Tsubame’s shoulders, and then took one last, long look at the hat before placing it on Tsubame’s head. “Take care of the village for me, Uzukage-sama. And you, Namikaze—look after my brother.”
Tsubasa stepped out onto the waves without a backwards glance as Tsubame sank to his knees in the sand.
Narumi watched as Tsubasa broke into a run, moving almost too fast for him to see her. He looked down at Tsubame. “Should we help her?”
Tsubame said nothing, just stared after Tsubasa, and after a moment Narumi turned back to the sea as well.
Narumi squinted into the distance, trying to see Tsubasa. He could only just see the brilliant banner of her red hair, flying in the breeze. “What’s she doing?”
“If it’s what I think she’s doing? A forbidden technique.”
Narumi gritted his teeth and formed the seal for the Shadow Clone Jutsu. “We can’t let her go alone! I’ll help her.”
“Don’t!” Tsubame pushed himself to his feet and grabbed Narumi’s arm. “The technique she’s planning to use can’t be controlled. If you go out there, you’ll be killed. We have to stay here in case she fails. I can count the number of jounin and chuunin in the village on one hand—if we go after her, that’s two less jounin to defend the village.”
“Uh, I’m still a chuunin, remember?” Narumi said. “I’m still on probation for another six months or something.”
“Not anymore,” Tsubame snapped. “You’re promoted. Now be quiet, Namikaze!”
Narumi fell silent. The village was eerily silent; even the ever-present seagulls were gone from the sky. In the distance, the Kiri shinobi were still too far off to make out clearly. Something was strange about the scene, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
And then he realized—the ocean was getting further away.
“Uh, Tsubame? Isn’t it bad when the ocean starts moving away like that?” He glanced over at Tsubame, only to find his gaze fixated on Tsubasa.
If not for her red hair, it would have been impossible to discern Tsubasa from the horde. “Soon,” Tsubame murmured.
Something strange was happening to the sky, almost like it was moving. It was only when the first white froth of the cresting wave appeared that Narumi realized it wasn’t the sky, but the sea.
The wave rushed toward them like an avalanche, swallowing up the Kiri shinobi and Tsubasa. It was taller than any building in Uzushio, and moving fast enough that there was certainly no time to escape the beach, much less evacuate the village. Perhaps they had already been evacuated, but Narumi distinctly remembered passing several people on the way there.
Was this how Uzushio was destroyed? By a forbidden technique activated by it’s own Kage?
Still, Tsubame didn’t move, and so Narumi held his ground. The wave rushed toward them, and Narumi couldn’t help but close his eyes against the spray of water as he braced for the impact of the wave.
Water smacked into him, knocking him backwards. Narumi stumbled back and fell, landing in water that only went up to his knees.
He blinked in surprise. The massive wave was gone, the small waves that periodically lapped against him the only sign that it had ever been there. In the distance, the ocean was almost entirely still once again. The Kiri shinobi were nowhere to be seen, and neither was Tsubasa.
“The whirlpools,” Tsubame said. “Even an expert at water-walking wouldn’t have a chance of getting out once the whirlpools caught them.”
He removed the hat from his head and stared at it. After a moment, he replaced it and offered Narumi a hand. “We have to tell the village what happened.”
They didn’t have to go far. The edge of the beach was crowded with the few jounin and chuunin in the village, as well as several genin. Tsubame stopped in front of them.
The jounin leading the group dropped to one knee. “Uzukage-sama!”
The rest of the shinobi followed suit, from the jounin to the genin. Even a few civilians who had risked leaving their houses took to their knees.
Tsubame inhaled slowly. “My sister—the Nidaime Uzukage is dead,” he said. His voice was quiet, but the village was still unnaturally silent. “She appointed me the Sandaime Uzukage.”
None of the shinobi seemed to be very surprised, as far as Narumi could tell. The leader of the group nodded firmly. “Shall we discuss matters in your office, Uzukage-sama?”
“Ah—yes.” Tsubame looked at Narumi for a moment. His hand reached forward slightly, and then retracted. “Namikaze. I’ll see you . . . later. When I have time.”
“No worries. There’s a lot to deal with,” Narumi said. “I’ll head back to the house and fill Dan and Sakumo in.”
Tsubame gave him a brief, grateful nod, and then he was gone, swallowed up by the jounin and ANBU bodyguards. A few people walked out onto the watery beach, staring out into the distance. A few young children darted out and splashed through the water, throwing wet sand at each other gleefully. Narumi left them through it, walking through the streets that were only just starting to regain some semblance of life, as people left their houses and stopped him to ask about what had happened. He left them discussing everything in his wake; as he walked through the village, eventually people knew before he even came across them, and more and more people stood talking in the streets.
“Isn’t eighteen a little young to lead the village? Tsubame-kun is so young . . . Nidaime-sama was twenty-five when Shodaime-sama died.”
“He’s a medic, isn’t he? I don’t know if a medic is suited to lead the village . . . what if Kiri attacks again?”
“Didn’t you hear about that wave? Kiri would have to be insane to try that again.”
Even the Uzumaki weren’t immune from the gossip; if anything, the loudest discussions on the subject were occurring inside the Uzumaki compound, mostly from kids exclaiming about how “totally cool” it was that Tsubame was now Uzukage, and how “super awesome” the giant wave had been.
As Narumi shut the door to the house, he was beginning to understand Tsubame’s love for that tiny island, far away from the main village.
Sakumo approached him as soon as he shut the door. “What happened? Quick, before the kids realize you’re here. Dan can’t distract them forever.”
Narumi sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Short version? I’m pretty sure the war with Kiri is over now.”
Sakumo stared at him. “I think I’m gonna need the long version.”
Narumi didn’t see Tsubame again until late the next day, in the middle of washing up dishes after losing at rock-paper-scissors to Dan and Sakumo.
“Good, you’re all here,” Tsubame said. “Pack up your things. We’re going to Konoha. The Hokage has called a Kage Summit.”
“The kids?” Dan asked.
“They’re coming as well,” Tsubame said. “We leave early tomorrow morning. I will meet you on the beach.”
Sakumo appeared in the bedroom doorway, stifling a yawn. “What’s this about Konoha?”
Tsubame left without another word, leaving Dan to fill Sakumo in on what little they knew. They spend the rest of the day packing. They didn’t need much, used to surviving on rations and sleeping on any available surface, but the kids weren’t used to such travel. Narumi suspected the longest trip they had ever made was when the ANBU had kidnapped them and taken them to Uzushio, and they’d probably been asleep or unconscious for most of that.
It seemed like every time Narumi turned around there was something else they needed to bring, but somehow they managed to get everything together in time to meet Tsubame on the beach.
Tsubame wasn’t alone, of course, accompanied by his usual group of ANBU guards and a jounin with blue-green hair, the one who had spoken to Tsubame the day that the Kiri ninja attacked.
“Kaisou Mizushima,” he said in greeting. “Jounin Commander.”
“Narumi Namikaze,” Narumi replied.
“I know. I’ve read your file.”
Tsubame cleared his throat. “If everyone is ready, we’ll set off immediately. Dan, Sakumo, Namikaze—each of you take one of the children. I’d like to get there as soon as possible.”
If it was just them, they could have run straight to Konoha without stopping, but with the children they had to stop and make camp and prepare meals. The fighting had died down, but they still remained on high alert whenever they stopped for the night. There was no telling when some rogue shinobi might show up, wanting revenge or simply wanting to rob them blind.
Either they were lucky, or ANBU were secretly stalking them and stopping any attackers, because they somehow made it to Konoha without any issues. Tsubame and his Jounin Commander were immediately whisked away to wherever the Summit was being held, somewhere outside of Konoha, taking the ANBU with them. The children were taken somewhere else, hopefully to be reunited with their older siblings, who had been in Konoha's custody.
That left Narumi standing at the gates of Konoha with Dan and Sakumo, not entirely sure what he was meant to be doing next.
A grin spread across Sakumo's face as he turned toward the source of the call. Narumi followed his gaze; it was easy to spot who he was looking at. She stood head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd, and a dog even bigger than Akamaru walked by her side. As if that wasn't enough, she had a massive naginata slung across her back.
A cocky grin on her face, she beckoned Sakumo with one finger. "Get over here, you sexy man."
Sakumo laughed and ran towards her. He had to lean up to kiss her, balancing himself with an arm around her shoulders. When they separated, her cocky grin had settled into something softer, only to turn mischievous an instant before she put an arm around Sakumo's waist and swung him around. When they came to a stop, they were kissing again.
They separated at last, laughing and breathless. Sakumo turned and beckoned Narumi over. "Kaede, this is Narumi Namikaze. He's with the Uzumaki. Narumi, this is Kaede Inuzuka, my fiancée, and her partner, Hachimaru."
Narumi should have guessed she was an Inuzuka from the massive dog at her side, the red clan markings on her cheeks, and the sharp canines revealed when she grinned wolfishly at him. Her messy brown hair was pulled back in a loose braid that looked like she had slept in it for a week or two. The most striking thing about her, however, was how tall she was, easily tall enough to prop her chin on Sakumo's head.
"Holy shit," Narumi said. "How tall are you?"
Kaede barked out a laugh. "193 centimeters. And I never let Jiraiya forget it!"
Narumi stared at her. Kaede grinned and flexed. He was pretty sure her biceps were about twice the size of his. "Like what you see?"
"Uh, is it weird if I say yes?"
"I'd be insulted if you said no. Also, I wouldn't believe you. Everyone wants a piece of this." She winked at him. "Might as well be honest about it."
Narumi found himself briefly struck speechless by the realization that this was probably Kakashi's mom.
Sakumo came to his rescue. "How did you know we arrived? We didn't send advance notice."
Kaede tapped her nose. "I could smell you comin' a mile away, babe."
Narumi had to admit they kind of reeked. Traveling from Uzushio to Konoha at top speed didn’t allow much time for showering.
“Tsunade and I’ve been bored as hell waiting for you,” Kaede continued. “They haven’t been giving out missions or anything because of the Summit. We’ve got the weddings halfway planned already.”
Dan perked up. “Tsunade is here?”
“Yeah, she’s at the hospital, I think,” Kaede said, wrinkling her nose. “I’m not helping you look for her. That place stinks.”
Dan was already walking towards the hospital. “We’ll meet up later!” he called over his shoulder before he was swallowed up by the crowd.
“We should move away from the gates,” Sakumo said. “We’re blocking traffic.”
“Whatever you want, babe. Wanna get lunch?”
“I could eat. My mouth still tastes like ration bars. Narumi, you interested?”
Narumi ran a hand through his hair. “Maybe another time? I was gonna head by the Academy . . .”
Sakumo nodded. “Another time. I’m sure we’ll all get together tonight, anyways.”
The two of them wandered off, arms around each other’s waists, already deep in discussing the options for lunch.
Narumi went in the other direction, towards the Academy and the administration building. Other shinobi glanced warily at him as he passed, not recognizing him, and he was pretty sure that an ANBU was watching him. He definitely had a member of the Military Police tailing him; the Uchiha wasn’t even trying to be subtle.
With that in mind, Narumi didn’t try to hide what he was doing. He walked right up to the Academy, looked into classrooms until he found the one Minato was in, and knocked on the door.
The teacher paused in the middle of his lecture and glared at Narumi. “I’m in the middle of teaching, Shinobi-san.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, as he looked over the crowd of students. Most of them, eager for an interruption, were staring at him. Kushina, recognizing him, waved at him enthusiastically. Minato, on the other hand, had his nose buried in a book, and gave no sign of noticing that the teacher had stopped speaking, much less that they had a guest. “Mind if I borrow Minato Namikaze?”
Minato still didn’t look up. The boy next to him elbowed him, and only then did Minato jerk to attention, jumping to his feet and dumping his book on the ground. “Sorry, sensei, can you repeat the question?”
The class snickered. Narumi waved, drawing Minato’s attention away from the teacher. “Hey! Wanna go for lunch?”
“Lunch isn’t for another hour!” the teacher protested. “And students are not allowed to leave campus for lunch!”
“Whaddya say, Minato?” Narumi asked.
Minato looked at his teacher, and then back at Narumi. “I should really stay and study . . .”
Narumi waved a hand. “I never studied, and I became a ninja! One day of skipping won’t kill you.”
The teacher spluttered. “Excuse me, I really must protest—”
Minato nodded, a small smile appearing on his face. “I’d like to join you for lunch.”
“Great! Grab your stuff. You can show me around town after.”
Minato stuffed his things into his bag in record speed, nearly leaving behind a few stray papers in his haste. His smile was nearly wide enough to split his face in two by the time he joined Narumi in the doorway.
“You’ll have to show me the good places for lunch,” Narumi said, slinging an arm around Minato’s shoulder and leading him out of the Academy. “And before you start worrying about cash, it’s my treat. I remember being a broke kid.”
“I don’t really go out to eat,” Minato admitted. “The matron makes lunch for all the students, and I eat breakfast and dinner at home.”
“Then we’ll just pick whatever smells the best!” Narumi declared. “The matron?”
“At the orphanage,” Minato said, his gaze focused on the ground. “I’ve lived there ever since I can remember. The matron says that a woman brought me there, told them my name, and left. She might have been my mother, but they don’t really know . . . and I don’t know anything about my father except that his name was Namikaze, at least according to the woman who brought me there. And now you, I suppose.”
Narumi ruffled his hair. “We’re the same. I never knew my parents either.”
Surprisingly, Yakiniku Q was still around. Narumi stopped in front of it and inhaled deeply before grinning down at Minato. “Smells good. You down for barbecue?”
Minato nodded. “My classmates talk about this place. They say it’s good, but I’ve never been able to go.”
It was still a little early for lunch, so the hostess seated them immediately, and a waitress quickly came by to take their order. Narumi had a lot of pay from his missions, and he hadn’t had an opportunity to use it, so he was free to go nuts and order as much as he wanted. By the time he’d finished reeling off his order, Minato was staring at him with wide eyes.
Narumi laughed sheepishly. “I’ve been eating ration bars for the past few days. I’m starving for some real food. Eat as much as you want. So, you just started at the Academy, right?”
Minato nodded hesitantly. “In January. I’ll be a second year soon.”
“So you’re . . . seven? Eight?”
“Eight,” Minato confirmed. “My birthday is in January.”
“Damn! I missed your birthday. I’ll get you a present next time for sure. What day is it?”
“Ah, no, you really don’t have to. I don’t need anything,” Minato assured him.
“Birthdays aren’t about getting stuff you need, they’re about getting stuff you want! Or about other people giving you stuff they think you would want,” Narumi said. “I’ll guess what you want and then you can tell me how close I am. So come on, what day?”
“The twenty-fifth,” Minato admitted at last.
“Expect the coolest birthday present ever!” Narumi declared. “I’ve gotta make up for eight birthdays, ya know!”
The waitress interrupted their conversation with plates of thin-sliced meat. Narumi heaped them onto the grill, turning them so they could cook on each side. They only took a few seconds each, they were so thin. “C’mon, eat up before it gets cold.”
Between the two of them, they somehow managed to polish off all the food. In between bites of meat, Minato filled him in on everything he’d been learning in the Academy. He didn’t seem to have many friends from what Narumi could tell, instead spending his time practicing and studying. He studied in class, he studied during lunch, and after school he went to the library or training ground to study more, until he went home, ate dinner, and studied in his room.
“I’m already behind,” Minato explained as he picked at one of the remaining pieces of meat that neither of them had the room to finish off. “Most people in my class are from shinobi clans, like Kushina-san. She can walk on water already. I’ve been trying to figure out some of the chakra control exercises I’ve read about in books, but I haven’t had much luck on my own . . . and when I try to practice at school, the older students just laugh and make me leave.”
“I can teach you, ya know! I mean, I’m not that great at chakra control stuff, but I know how to do the tree-walking and water-walking exercises,” Narumi said. He scooped up the last of his meat, shoved it into his mouth, and waved down the waitress for their check.
“You’ll teach me? But why? Don’t you have other things to do?” Minato asked. “You already bought me lunch.”
“Nothing more important than hanging out with my little brother!” Narumi said as he signed the receipt for the meal with a flourish. “C’mon, let’s go find a free training ground.”
By the time they finished their meal, most teams had gone for lunch, so they had their pick of training grounds. Narumi picked the one Team Seven had always met at, the one near the bridge with the wooden posts.
“Okay, so, pick a tree and get walking,” he said. “I’ll make sure you don’t crack your head open.”
MInato raised his hand.
“You don’t have to raise your hand. It’s just the two of us. What’s up?”
“How do you do the tree walking exercise?”
Narumi scratched the back of his head. “Uh, you just channel the chakra to your feet and walk up. Here, I’ll show you.”
Narumi walked up the tree and down again as Minato watched. “Like that.”
“How do you channel chakra to your feet?”
“You just . . . do it?” Narumi desperately tried to recall what Sakura told him. He was pretty sure she had given him a massive lecture about chakra once or twice. He remembered none of it. “Uh, yeah, you just do it.”
Minato gave him a skeptical look. “Are you sure you’re a jounin?”
“Yes, I’m a jounin! I trained for it and everything!”
“Okay then, how do you channel chakra to your feet? And how do you know how much chakra to use?”
“You channel it through . . . the chakra pathway system. That’s right. And if you use too much, you’ll break the tree and fall off, but if you use too little you won’t stick to it at all.” Narumi scratched at the back at his head.
“That’s not much information. Are you sure you can’t tell me anything more detailed?” Minato asked.
“Uh, to be honest, I kind of just ran at the tree until it worked,” Narumi admitted. “I figured it out eventually!”
Minato nodded. “Trial and error, then? In that case, I suppose there’s nothing to do but get started.”
He walked towards the nearest tree. “Oh, hey, do you want a kunai to mark your progress?” Narumi called. Minato gave no sign of hearing, instead staring up at the tree, lost in thought.
Narumi leaned against one of the wooden posts and waited, wondering if Minato would be more like Sakura, who had gotten it immediately, or Sasuke, who had struggled and struggled until he had mastered it.
Minato put a foot on the tree and pulled it back. “Not enough.”
He put a food to the tree again; this time, the bark fractured under his foot. He repeated these experiments a few times, putting a foot to the tree and then removing it, until at last he nodded firmly and walked up the tree.
“That wasn’t so hard,” he said, from the top of the tree. “What’s the next step?”
“Water-walking, I guess,” Narumi said. “We’ll need some water to practice on.”
The Naka River wasn’t far from the training ground, thankfully, and before long the two of them stood by the edge of the river, Minato putting a foot on the water to test various levels of chakra.
“I see,” he said, after a minute. “The current changes, so you have to constantly adjust the amount of chakra to compensate.”
With that, Minato stepped out onto the water, wobbled a bit, and then steadied. He took a few steps, then walked around in circles, growing more confident the longer he remained on the surface of the water. Before too long, he was experimenting with jumping up and down.
“What about hands?” he asked. “Could you channel chakra to your hands to grab onto something?”
“I guess. I’ve never tried. Wouldn’t you want your hands free so you could form seals?” Narumi said.
“But what if you were falling and had to stop yourself? I feel like it would be easier to grab onto something with your hand. Or if someone was trying to grab something from your hand, you could hold onto it,” Minato said. He started to go through the basic Academy kata, only occasionally wobbling on the surface of the water.
“You’ve got pretty good chakra control. It took me forever to get that down,” Narumi said.
“Well, sensei says I have an average amount of chakra, so I have to use it well. I’m not like Kushina-san. She has so much chakra. She beats me at everything except academics,” Minato sighed. “And she can do the water clone jutsu already, and she knows a lot of taijutsu that they don’t teach us at the Academy. I’ve never managed to beat her when we spar.”
“She probably can’t do the regular clone,” Narumi said. “I never figured it out. They always came out funny-looking. And don’t worry so much about school! I was pretty bad at school, and I turned out fine! You’re gonna be an awesome ninja.”
Minato gave him a small, sheepish smile. “Thank you, Narumi-san.”
Narumi opened his mouth to tell him that just Narumi was fine, when a deep voice said, “Narumi-san.”
Narumi looked around, but saw nothing.
“Down here, Narumi-san.”
Narumi looked down and saw a large slug sitting at his feet. “Oh, hey. Did Tsunade send you?”
“Yes. Your presence is required. I will escort you to Tsunade-sama,” the slug said.
“Sure. Sorry, Minato, looks like I’ll have to cut this short,” he said. “I’ll see you again, yeah?”
Minato stepped off the water and bowed. “Thank you for your time, Narumi-san. But . . . before you go, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Minato hesitated for a moment. “Why did you want to spend time with me today? I’m sure you have more important things to do, as a jounin, and I’m just a first-year student.”
Narumi ruffled his hair. “You’re my brother, and that makes us family! I wanted to spend time with you and get to know you. That’s all there is to it. I don’t know how much free time I’m going to have, but I want to spend as much of it as I can with you. How about this? If I’m free, I’ll meet you at the Academy.”
Minato fixed his gaze on Narumi’s shoes, but Narumi could see him smiling. “I’d like that.”
“Great. I’ll see you soon, Minato!” With one last ruffle of Minato’s hair, Narumi turned to follow the surprisingly fast slug, nearly missing the quiet response from behind him.
“See you soon . . . Nii-san.”
Grinning like an idiot, Narumi followed the slug back to the main streets of Konoha. He vaguely recognized the areas they were in, although it had been rebuilt and added to many times when he had lived there. The restaurant district was still in the same location, albeit with different restaurants than he was used to. The bar that the slug led him to was unfamiliar to him, but the faces that greeted him inside were very familiar.
“Narumi!” Sakumo waved him over with the hand not wrapped around Kaede. “Grab a seat. You’re the last one here, apart from Tsubame.”
Sakumo and Kaede sat on one side of the table, with Dan, Tsunade, and Orochimaru on the other side. Narumi chose to sit next to Sakumo, even though that put him in the uncomfortable position of sitting directly across from Orochimaru. The rest of them already had drinks, and were quick to push another drink at him. Another drink still waited, most likely for Tsubame.
Narumi looked around the table again. “Jiraiya isn’t coming?”
The glass in Tsunade’s hand cracked. “Jiraiya,” she said, through gritted teeth. “Is too busy playing genin-sensei in fucking Ame!”
“I told you we should have just killed them,” Orochimaru said.
Tsunade sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “For the last time, Orochimaru, we’re not killing kids if we can help it. Now drink your alcohol.”
“We kill people all the time. I don’t see what difference the age of the individual being killed makes,” Orochimaru muttered before downing his drink.
“So Jiraiya’s still in Ame? I’m surprised the Hokage let him stay,” Narumi said.
“Officially, he’s there to ‘keep an eye on the situation.’ Ame is still unstable as hell. Fights break out there every day. The villages might have stopped all major operations for this treaty, but that still leaves rogue shinobi, minor border skirmishes, shinobi from the smaller villages, and the like. Hanzo hasn’t been too active over there since we fought, but it’s still a hot zone.” The glass in her grip shattered. “Bastard.”
Dan cleaned up the glass as Sakumo dabbed at the spilled alcohol. “With any luck, everyone will be officially recalled soon. I’m sure he won’t miss the weddings.”
“He’d better not. I’ll kill him,” she said.
From what Narumi could remember, Jiraiya wouldn’t return to the village until Minato became a genin. That wouldn’t happen for a couple years yet, probably. “I’m sure he’ll return soon,” Narumi said.
“Speaking of missing people, where is Tsubame?” Sakumo asked.
Tsunade smacked the table. “He’d better show up, that brat! I sent him an escort and everything.”
“He might be busy with meetings,” Dan pointed out.
“Nah, they stopped them early. The Tsuchikage’s guard was in my hospital with a broken arm,” Tsunade said. “Any longer and there might not be a Summit anymore.”
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” Dan assured her.
They ordered another round of drinks and some snacks, still with no sign of Tsubame. At last, a bird with a blue back, red face, and white belly flew in through the door and landed at their table.
“Tsubame-sama sends his apologies, but he won’t be able to make it to the party,” it chirped, before fluttering its wings as if to fly away.
“Orochimaru, catch it!”
At Tsunade’s words, Orochimaru’s hand shot out and seized the bird before it could fly away. Tsunade stood and slammed her hand on the table. “If Tsubame won’t come to the party, we’ll take the party to him! Grab your drinks and snacks, everyone. This meal is on Jiraiya’s tab!”
“No tabs during wartime!” the bartender called.
Tsunade put her hands on her hips and stared down the bartender. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Tsunade Senju, one of the Sannin who survived Hanzo the Salamander!”
“You’ve had too much to drink, is what,” the bartender retorted. “Now pay your bill and get out!”
The six of them abruptly found themselves out on the street, holding drinks and plates of snacks. “Wimps,” Tsunade said. “We didn’t even drink that much.”
“And another bar kicks us out,” Sakumo said cheerfully.
Dan looked back. “Should we return their plates and cups? They didn’t give us any takeout containers.”
“Ours now!” Tsunade cackled. “Okay, Orochimaru, release that bird. He’s our ticket to Tsubame!”
Orochimaru released the bird, which fluttered away and was soon no more than a dot in the sky. “After him!” Tsunade declared.
Balancing drinks and plates of snacks, they took to the rooftops. Orochimaru was the fastest out of them all, leaving the rest of them trailing behind him, spilling alcohol all over themselves and dropping snacks on roofs.
“You there! Drinking alcohol in the street is prohibited!”
Kaede laughed. “Shit, it’s the Uchiha! Run for it!”
Narumi glanced behind them to see two members of the military police attempting to keep up. “I know your names!” one of them yelled. “You’re in for it once I report you!”
“Yeah, right!” Kaede called back. “Name us then!”
“Senju, Hatake, Inuzuka, and Uzumaki! Your clan symbols are right there on your backs! And I know you too, Orochimaru!”
“Looks like Dan’s the only safe one!” Sakumo laughed.
Narumi looked over at Tsunade, who was in the middle of taking a drink. “Uh, should we be concerned about this?”
“Pfft! As if. They’re the military police, not ANBU. What’re they gonna do, scold us and slap us with a fine? And that’s if they catch us first!” Tsunade called, loud enough that the officers still chasing them could easily here.
“That’s it, just wait until I get my hands on you—”
“Stop in the name of the law, you menaces!”
Narumi took a gulp from his drink and nearly choked. It was much harder to run and drink than Tsunade made it look. He risked another glance behind them. The two officers were still chasing them, but they weren’t gaining any ground.
Two more officers alighted on the rooftops beside the original officers. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Captain! We were attempting to arrest these shinobi for drunk and disorderly conduct when they started to resist arrest!”
“Shit! Reinforcements. Run for it!” Tsunade put on a burst of speed, and the rest of them followed, breathlessly chasing the bird. In the distance, Narumi spotted the building he had stayed at the last time he had been there, the one where Tsubame kept an apartment.
Orochimaru, first to the door, punched in a code and vanished inside. Tsunade held the door open and gestured towards them. “In, in, in! Quick, the stairs!”
They jumped up the stairs rather than climbing up them normally, and soon were at the top floor. Tsunade jostled the handle and swore. “Locked with a seal! Orochimaru, can you get it?”
“An Uzumaki seal of that caliber? In a week,” Orochimaru said.
“JIraiya could do it,” Sakumo said.
Tsunade slammed a fist against the door. “Dammit, Jiraiya! If I get arrested, I’m making him pay bail!”
“Hang on, I think I can get it, Tsubame said he added me to the seal.” Narumi pushed his way to the front and bit down on his thumb until it bled. He swiped his thumb across the seal, and they all tumbled forwards as the door slid open.
“Quick, shut the door, shut the door!”
Tsubame, sitting at the kitchen table with a mountain of papers in front of him, blinked at them rapidly. “What in the world are you doing?”
“Tsubame, cheers!” Tsunade exclaimed, holding her mostly empty cup aloft. “Hide us from the cops!”
“Again? What did you do this time?”
They all tried to talk over each other to explain what had happened, only to fall silent at a knock on the door. Tsubame stood. “I’ll deal with it. Stay out of sight.”
The six of them shuffled over to the nearest door, and shortly found themselves shut in Tsubame’s bedroom, sipping their drinks and nibbling on edamame and kara-age.
“I feel like someone should be making a joke about being in Tsubame’s bedroom,” Sakumo remarked.
“I’ve got nothing,” Kaede said. “We need Jiraiya’s unique talents for this.”
“What, being a creep?” Tsunade laughed.
Sakumo had his ear pressed to the door. “Shh, shh, we have to listen in case Tsubame needs backup.”
“Oh, come on, they’re hardly going to try to arrest the Uzukage,” Tsunade said. “How drunk are you?”
“Not drunk enough, probably,” he said.
Tsunade wiggled her empty cup. “True, that. There is a distinct lack of alcohol here. Who wants to go to the corner store?”
“Rock-paper-scissors!” Kaede proposed. “Losers have to go to the corner store!”
“Everyone loses at rock-paper-scissors,” Orochimaru said. “Unless you plan on restricting us to two options.”
“Okay, fine, we’ll pick underwear out of Tsubame’s drawers and whoever picks the brightest pair has to go,” Kaede said. They stared at her, aghast, and she shrugged. “What? Someone has to represent Jiraiya here.”
“Oh, so it was a joke,” Tsunade said, as she subtly slipped a kunai back into her pouch.
Sakumo rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It wasn’t a bad idea—don’t look at me like that, I’m not saying we should actually steal his underwear! We should draw lots or something!”
The door opened, and any response they might have made was silenced by Tsubame’s glare. “You had better not be talking about stealing my underwear.”
Kaede, grinning, wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Don’t worry, Tsubame-chan, I’ll defend your honor.”
“You were the one who suggested stealing his underwear in the first place,” Tsunade reminded them.
Kaede waved a hand. “Details.”
“It’s a pretty important detail, you can’t exactly defend him from yourself—”
“I could if I had a shadow clone that turned evil—”
“You can’t even make a shadow clone.”
“Yeah, but if I could!”
“Why are you in my house?” Tsubame said.
Narumi raised his hand. “Well, I’m staying here.”
Tsubame shot him an exasperated look.
Sakumo raised a hand. “It’s Tsunade’s fault.”
Tsubame shot Tsunade an exasperated look.
Tsunade shrugged. “What? Hiruzen-sensei is hardly going to hide us from the cops.”
“He did that one time,” Orochimaru said.
“Yeah, when we were kids,” Tsunade said. “When we turned sixteen he said he was going to stop hiding us from the cops, remember?”
Tsunade thought for a moment. “Oh, yeah, it was just Jiraiya and me that got that lecture.”
Orochimaru smiled slyly. “That’s because I never need to hide.”
Narumi was overcome by a sudden fit of coughing as he recalled all the time Orochimaru had spent hiding in the future.
“How drunk are you?” Tsubame asked.
“Not at all!” Tsunade declared. “Come on, Orochimaru, you and I are going to the corner store. We’ve got better taste than these plebs. The rest of you, sit on Tsubame and make sure he doesn’t get away.”
“This is my house!” Tsubame called after her. The front door slammed in response. He sighed. “She’s going to bring back vodka, isn’t she? You do realize I came here to work.”
“We can’t have a party with one of our friends missing,” Sakumo said.
“And it isn’t good for your health to work constantly,” Dan said. “You need to take breaks, Tsubame.”
Kaede dropped her arm from around his shoulders, only to pull him into a bone-crushing hug. A muffled yelp escaped him as his face plunged into her chest. Narumi felt weirdly jealous of both parties. “Don’t worry, Tsubame-chan, we’ll save you from the big, bad paperwork.”
Kaede patted his head, and then grinned wickedly and gave him a noogie that had him desperately fighting her off. “Kaede, my hair—do you know how long it takes to fix my hair—”
“Oh, calm down, princess, you’re still pretty.” Kaede released him and slapped his back, sending him stumbling forward. She gave Narumi a wicked grin. “Narumi agrees, right?”
“Please, you two aren’t fooling anyone. You reek of each other. The only two worse are Dan and Tsunade,” Kaede said. “So, did ya do it yet?”
Tsubame spluttered. “Kaede! That’s completely inappropriate!”
She shrugged. “What? I just want to know how much PDA I should prepare for.”
“As if you aren’t the worst offender in that department,” Tsubame said.
Kaede, grinning, folded her arms behind her head. “Guilty as charged.”
Tsubame sighed and massaged his temples. “You could at least get out of my bedroom.”
“Sure, sure.” Kaede dropped her arms around Sakumo and Narumi’s shoulders and dragged them forwards. “Come on, boys. Tsubame needs time to pretty himself up for his guests.”
“We can’t all roll around in the dirt and call it makeup,” Tsubame retorted, before slamming the door on their backs.
“You wish you had a face like mine!” Kaede yelled through the door. Narumi hadn’t personally met that many Inuzuka, but from the ones he had met, he was beginning to think that they had no idea how to speak in anything quieter than a shout.
Tsubame didn’t respond, so they returned to the main room, which contained a small kitchen, the kitchen table, and a small living room off to the side. The kitchen table was covered with papers, which they all left alone in favor of squeezing onto the couch and fiddling with the radio.
After the sixth station droning on about the war and the peace talks, they finally found a station that was playing some weird music that Narumi would have considered oldies but that were modern in this day and age.
“Better than nothing,” was Kaede’s assessment. “Otherwise we’d have to break out the musical instruments, and trust me, no one wants to hear Tsubame attempt to play. Or me. Or Orochimaru. Or Tsunade. Or Sakumo.”
“Or me,” Narumi added.
“That leaves us with Dan, and he only listens to weird instrumental music from before Konoha even existed,” Kaede said.
“They’re classics,” Dan said. “The musical complexity—”
The door opened and Tsubame walked out, wearing a more comfortable yukata with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Are we discussing music? Dan has the best taste—what are you doing?”
They blinked at him. “What?” Narumi said.
“You do realize I have chairs,” Tsubame said.
They looked at each other, squished on the couch. In the end there hadn’t been enough room, so Sakumo was sitting on Kaede, but they made it work.
“Do you want to make Orochimaru sit on this couch?” Sakumo asked. “Because you’re welcome to try. I promise we’ll make your funeral a nice one.”
“There are two chairs,” Tsubame said.
“Go on, fight Tsunade for the other one,” Kaede said. “That’ll liven things up.”
“I’m not sitting with you. I have a lot of work to do.” With that, Tsubame took his spot in one of the chairs at the kitchen table and glared down at the papers spread in front of him.
“Boo! Spoilsport,” Kaede called.
“I told you, I don’t have time to drink with you. I have a lot of work to do for the Summit,” Tsubame said.
The door slammed open. “Guess who’s back?” Tsunade called, holding two bottles of vodka aloft. Orochimaru, behind her, held two six-packs in each hand.
Tsunade dumped their purchases—including a few bags that Narumi suspected contained more snacks—and set about pouring shots for everybody. “Anyone who skips out on shots can go turn themselves in to Officer Uchiha out there,” she said.
“They’re still there? For real?” Kaede laughed. “Don’t they have real criminals to arrest?”
“They’re the Military Police,” Tsunade said. “They basically exist so the Uchiha can feel self-important.”
“Now, now, that’s not the only reason they exist,” Dan said, although he was smiling in amusement.
“Oh, yeah, how could I forget! They also exist to get in the way of the ANBU.” Tsunade handed him a shot and leaned down to kiss him. “Thanks for the reminder, honey.”
Narumi tossed back the shot as she handed it to him, wincing as the alcohol burned all the way down his throat. “Ugh. That’s disgusting.”
“It’ll put some hair on your chest!” Tsunade declared.
“Tsunade was too cheap to buy decent alcohol,” said Orochimaru, who Narumi noticed was drinking something completely different.
Tsunade snorted. “I’m not wasting the good stuff on people who have no taste. They can have the shitty beer and glorified rubbing alcohol.”
“I think I’d rather have the rubbing alcohol,” Narumi said as Tsunade poured him another shot.
“Get drunk enough and you’ll stop tasting it. Bottoms up, boys and girls!”
They all drank, and drank again whenever Tsunade refilled their glasses, switching to the bland, watery beer when Tsunade declared them all sufficiently drunk. Narumi had made his way through three beers and several conversations that he only dimly remembered by the time they did another round of shots, which they followed up with snacks and convenience store meals.
Narumi downed another shot—it was true, you did stop caring about the taste after you were drunk enough—and laughed as Kaede told some doubtlessly exaggerated story from the Iwa front.
At some point, Narumi ended up sitting on the floor; Dan was throwing up in the bathroom, and in his absence Kaede and Sakumo had taken over the couch and were whispering to each other and laughing quietly. Orochimaru and Tsunade were both hunched over the coffee table, scribbling away on pieces of paper and plotting Jiraiya’s death. Tsubame still sat at the table, pouring over his papers.
Narumi got to his feet with minimal wobbling and made his way to Tsubame with a tray of snacks. “How’s it going?”
“Terribly. It will be a miracle if the Tsuchikage doesn’t kill everyone in the next meeting.” Tsubame bit into a piece of chicken and glared at the paper. “I would like to find a solution that pleases everybody, but the Tsuchikage and Raikage are determined to not be pleased on one end of the spectrum, with Danzo on the other!”
Narumi tried his best to look as if he didn’t recognize the name. “Danzo?”
“Shimura Danzo. The Hokage’s advisor,” Tsubame said. “He has the best interests of Konoha at heart, but that doesn’t make him any less unpleasant to work with. Especially when he seems determined to dismiss all of my suggestions.”
Narumi sat down backwards in the chair next to him, folding his arms across the back of the chair and resting his chin on them. “Well, you can talk to me about it if you want. I bet I can do a good Danzo impression. Grr, Konoha is the best, all other villages should die!”
“Surprisingly accurate, considering you’ve never met him.”
“You never know! Maybe I’ve met him in like a past life or something.”
Tsubame laughed. “You’re drunk. You don’t have to keep me company, you know. Go back to the party.”
Narumi wrinkled his nose. “Honestly, I feel like if I drink another drop I’m going to be sick, and there’s only one bathroom.”
“Dan?” Tsubame guessed. “He never could handle hard liquor.”
“Yeah. And anyways, I like spending time with you.”
Tsubame didn’t look away from his papers, but he was smiling. “And I like spending time with you. I warn you now, it’s not going to be interesting.”
“That’s okay,” Narumi said. “Just looking at you is interesting enough for me.”
“You’re a sap.” Tsubame smiled softly at the papers in front of him.
“Only for you,” Narumi said.
In the bathroom, Dan kept throwing up. Tsunade walked by on her way to check on him; Orochimaru had vanished somewhere, probably to his lab. On the couch, Kaede and Sakumo had fallen asleep, only managing to fit with Sakumo on top of Kaede. Narumi closed his eyes and listened to the scratch of Tsubame’s pen on the papers.
This wasn’t what he’d expected from the past. But he liked it.
Notes about Names
Kaede (楓): maple
Narumi woke up in his bedroom with no memory of how he got there. A glance at the clock revealed it was almost three in the afternoon—about time for the Academy to let out. With a groan, Narumi heaved himself out of bed and trudged to the kitchen. He sipped at a cup of water, hoping that would somehow silence his pounding head and settle his queasy stomach, until he noticed a seal on the table and a note from Tsubame telling him take it for his hangover and that Narumi was once again free for the day.
Narumi applied the seal and groaned in relief as the pain faded away. “Tsubame, you’re a god.”
Now that he wasn’t in danger of throwing up whenever he moved too quickly, Narumi got dressed and ran from the apartment to the Academy, arriving just in time for the students to get out of class. It was still weird to him, how many Uchiha there were—he swore that about a third of the kids streaming from the building had the Uchiha crest somewhere on their clothes. On the other hand, there weren’t nearly as many kids from civilian clans as he remembered from his day. In his class, there had only been ten or so kids from shinobi clans, with the remaining twenty or so from civilian families or the orphanage. Here, he was hard pressed to spot more than one civilian kid for every five from a shinobi family.
He wasn’t able to spot Minato until the crowds cleared and he could see to the old tree with the swing, on which Minato sat, reading a scroll.
Minato jumped, nearly falling off the swing, and looked around. His eyes widened when they landed on Narumi. “You came!”
“I’ve got the day free again. To be honest, I’m not really sure why they even brought me.” Narumi shrugged. “But I like Konoha, so I’m not complaining. So, want to train? We can probably find an open training ground somewhere.”
Minato nodded enthusiastically. “I want to work on my taijutsu. It’s hard to practice with no one to tell me what I’m doing wrong.”
Narumi rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Uh, I’m more of a run in and start hitting people kind of guy. I don’t really know the basic Academy style all that well.”
“That’s okay! Kushina-san doesn’t do the basic style either,” Minato said.
Together, they walked out of the Academy and made their way to the training grounds. “Kushina-san, huh?”
“She’s really good at taijutsu. She can beat anyone!” He sighed. “I wanted to get her something for her birthday, but I didn’t know what she would want, and now it’s too late.”
“A present Kushina would want, huh? Maybe a kunai or something? Or, uh, a scarf? Girls like scarves, right?” Narumi said.
“But her birthday is in the summer, so a scarf doesn’t make sense,” Minato said.
“A . . . hat?”
Minato looked at him doubtfully. Narumi searched for an escape from the conversation before Minato lost all faith in him. “Oh! Look, a training ground. Let’s get practicing! Come on, show me what you’ve got!”
Minato wasn’t bad at taijutsu. He was a little textbook, a little predictable, but he’d grow out of that as he got used to fighting and stopped worrying about whether or not his form was correct. He had what mattered, in Narumi’s mind—he punched hard and didn’t give up.
In the end, Narumi was the one who had to call an end to the training. He was pretty sure training too hard was counterproductive when you were just starting out—Sakura had talked about that once. Once Minato started taking more than a few minutes to pick himself up off the ground, Narumi decided it was time to stop. They’d been training for a long time, anyways; the sun had already started to set.
They went out to dinner at a restaurant Narumi had never been to but that Minato wanted to try. At first Minato was eager to talk about the books he read and what he was learning in class, but as soon as Narumi mentioned seals, every sentence out of his mouth was a question about seals. By the end of the night, Narumi had resorted to giving him a rundown of the basic parts of seals by scrawling them on a spare napkin.
They only left when they realized it was past midnight, the restaurant was closing, and Minato had missed his curfew; Minato refused an escort home, so Narumi headed his own way and returned to the apartment.
Tsubame was there, for once not pouring over his papers. He was sitting on the window seat instead, staring out over the village. He had a bottle of sake at his side, and was dressed in the casual yukata that Narumi was coming to recognize as his preferred outfit for lounging about the house.
“Got room for one more?”
“I don’t think we’ll both fit—here, I’ll move to the couch.”
“Nah, we can make it work. Here, budge up.” Narumi nudged Tsubame’s legs out of the way and took a seat at the opposite and of the windowsill. “Nice view.”
Tsubame hummed in agreement. “Konoha is a lovely village. Not as beautiful as Uzushio, but few places are, to me.”
“Uzushio is one-of-a-kind,” Narumi agreed. “Kind of like you.”
“Hah. People who knew Tsubasa and I as children would disagree.”
“Really? I dunno, you seemed pretty different to me,” Narumi said. “Sure, you two look identical, and I guess you’re both kind of serious, and you both really care about your family, and . . . uh, where was I going with this?”
He’d been aiming for a laugh, but Tsubame didn’t so much as smile. “We were different,” Tsubame said, staring into his sake. “Tsubasa never cared about what other people thought of her.”
He took a gulp of the sake and then held it out to Narumi. Narumi waved a hand. “Thanks, but I’m good.”
“Ah, right, your little over-indulgence last night.” Tsubame took another sip. “I was going to look over the proposed treaty again, but since everyone seems determined to dismiss me as a child, why bother?”
“It’s always a rough day when I have to deal with stubborn old men,” Tsubame said bitterly.
Narumi smacked his fist against the palm of his hand. “Want me to go in there and soften them up for you?”
“If only that would help, I would gladly join you,” Tsubame said.
Narumi ran a hand through his hair. “I wish there was something I could do to help. I’m not even sure why you brought me to Konoha with you, ya know.”
Tsubame tucked his legs up further and rested his chin on his knees. “I have to admit, it was a . . . selfish decision. I wanted you at my side.”
A grin spread across Narumi’s face. “Oh, I get it. This is a romantic getaway.”
Tsubame’s head jerked up. His cheeks were painted the same red as his hair. “It’s not like that!”
Narumi got to his knees and crawled closer to Tsubame. Tsubame, his face still aflame, tried to shift back, only to find himself trapped by the wall. Narumi set his hands on Tsubame’s knees. “And you didn’t even tell me,” he lamented. “All this time for romance, wasted!”
“We’ve been here for two days!”
“There’s a lot you can do in two days,” Narumi said with a wink. He stretched Tsubame’s legs out so that framed his waist, putting Narumi between Tsubame’s knees. The yukata was bunched up at Tsubame’s knees, and had fallen open slightly to display Tsubame’s legs. He ran his fingers along Tsubame’s legs, tracing his soft skin, moving higher and higher with each pass of his fingers.
Narumi had planned to stop as soon as he reached an obstruction, but his fingers encountered nothing, even when his fingers had vanished up the yukata. Narumi ran his fingers along the outside of Tsubame’s thighs, and stopped as he reached Tsubame’s hips.
His grin had faded as he focused on Tsubame’s legs, but now it returned, wider than ever. “You’re not wearing any underwear!”
Tsubame’s blush had reached his ears, and was starting to creep to his chest. It was adorable. “S-so? It’s not like I was going out!”
Narumi surged forward, pressing kisses all over the exposed skin of Tsubame’s neck and chest. “Do you have any idea how sexy you are?”
“A-ah! Narumi, wait!”
Narumi pulled back and moved to kiss Tsubame’s lips instead. “Too much?”
“We’re in the middle of a shinobi village! Anyone could look through the window and see us,” Tsubame protested.
“Is that all? Then we’ll move to the bedroom.” Narumi stood, and before Tsubame could get up as well, got his arms under Tsubame’s knees and around his back and lifted him up. He was heavier than Narumi had expected, but not too heavy for Narumi to carry to the bedroom.
“Narumi!” Tsubame yelped. “Some warning would be nice!”
“But you’re cute when you’re surprised,” Narumi laughed as he walked towards the bedroom. He dropped Tsubame on the bed as suddenly as he picked him up, admiring how how the yukata fell open as Tsubame settled on the bed.
Narumi grinned down at him. “So, Uzukage-sama? I’m at your command.”
Tsubame glared up at him, the effect lessened by his blush. “Get over here and kiss me.”
Narumi crawled across the bed and knelt between Tsubame’s spread legs. He reached out and cupped Tsubame’s face with his hands, brushing away a stray strand of red hair with one thumb. Tsubame’s lips parted slightly, and Narumi could no longer resist. Still smiling softly, he leaned down, towards Tsubame.
“As you wish.”
They fell into a routine over the next few days. Narumi woke up, sometimes in Tsubame’s bed, sometimes in his own, to an empty apartment and the breakfast Tsubame had left for him. He wandered around Konoha, occasionally meeting up with Sakumo or Dan or Tsunade or Kaede or even Orochimaru, until it was time for the Academy to let out. Minato was almost always waiting for him on the swings, and the two of them would train or study fuinjutsu together or grab something to eat until Minato had to return to the orphanage--personally, Narumi wouldn’t have minded spending more time together, but Minato was always careful about curfew after the first time he missed it.
Once Minato left, usually after dinner, Narumi returned home to spend time with Tsubame. Sometimes they went out with the rest of their friends, sometimes they stayed in so Tsubame could go over his papers for the next meeting of the Summit.
Days passed, with no sign of the Summit ending or the treaty being signed, until Narumi walked into the apartment, planning to put away the remains of his lunch before heading to the Academy, only to find the papers gone from the table.
Tsubame was in his bedroom, shoving his clothes into his pack.
“What happened?” Narumi asked.
“The Tsuchikage and the Raikage walked out of the Summit,” Tsubame snapped. “Kiri and Suna signed the treaty. We’re going back to Uzushio.”
Narumi leaned against the doorway. “Do we have time to swing by the Academy? I should say goodbye to Minato.”
Tsubame sighed. Slowly, his shoulders relaxed, releasing all the tension he had been holding. “Yes. Yes, we should have time for that. There is someone I should give my greetings to, as well. Pack your things, and then we will leave.”
Narumi left him to his packing and went to his room to do the same. He hadn’t brought much beyond a few changes of clothes and his usual mission gear. “You mean Sakumo and Tsunade and all them?”
“No, I’ll send them a message. They’ll understand,” Tsubame called back. “This is a meeting that has to be done in person.”
Once Narumi had packed up his belongings and sealed them away to make them easier to transport, he met with Tsubame in the living room. Rather than his usual mission gear or casual wear, Tsubame was dressed up in a kimono and hakama. Narumi, in his jounin uniform, felt underdressed in comparison.
“Uh, should I . . . change . . .”
As Tsubame tucked his hair behind his ear, Narumi’s eyes were drawn to a flash of blue. Delicate blue glass, the same color as Tsubame’s eyes, dangled from his ears.
Tsubame smiled, clearly pleased. “It’s not necessary.”
“Uh, good. ‘Cause I don’t own anything more formal than a jounin vest,” Narumi admitted.
Tsubame shook his head as he turned to leave. “We’ll have to remedy that. You should own at least one outfit suitable for formal occasions.”
“What, you planning on showing me off?” Narumi teased, throwing an arm around Tsubame’s waist.
Tsubame avoided his gaze. “This way.”
Tsubame led them to a clan compound, one of the ones with walls and a big, imposing gate. The nameplate, however, surprised Narumi. “Senju? I thought you said we weren’t going to visit Tsunade.”
“We aren’t,” Tsubame said. He exchanged a few words with the man at the gate, too quietly for Narumi to overhear, and the man escorted them deeper into the compound. Narumi took the opportunity to look around--there were a lot of trees, which he should have expected, and an expansive garden. They passed by several houses, some of them empty and some of them occupied, until they stopped at a house that wasn’t much different from the rest, as far as Narumi could tell.
The man led them to a room, but left them outside the door while he went in. After a moment, he returned, this time to gesture them in.
The room was small, occupied only by a low table, a few cushions to sit on, and an old woman with faded, maroon hair and black eyes.
She smiled as they entered. “Tsubame, come, sit down.”
Tsubame bowed deeply to her. “Mito-sama, may I introduce Narumi Namikaze. Narumi, this is Mito Senju.”
The old woman chuckled. “There’s no need to be so formal, Tsubame. It is lovely to meet you, Narumi-kun. Thank you for taking time out of your day to visit this old woman.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” Narumi said.
“I would have visited sooner, but I was busy with the Summit until now,” Tsubame said.
“Ah, yes, I heard all about it from Hiruzen and Shimura. Those boys never could agree on anything,” she sighed and shook her head. “But enough of that, Tsubame. I haven’t seen you since what happened in Uzushio. I still remember the day your sister turned eighteen. . .it was striking, how much she looked like your mother in her kimono. I see you’re wearing the earrings I gave her.” Mito said.
Tsubame reached up to touch the earrings. “Tsubasa never did like jewelry, but people always gave it to her.”
Mito reached across the table, clasping Tsubame’s hands between hers. “I am sorry, Tsubame.”
Tsubame’s eyes were fixed on his lap, so Narumi couldn’t see his expression. “It’s alright. It was necessary for the sake of the village. I’m sure you understand, Mito-sama.”
“I do. But Tsubame, it’s alright to mourn.” She turned her smile on Narumi. “And, it’s alright to depend on the people you love.”
Narumi expected Tsubame to splutter and protest, like he did when Narumi teased him, but he just nodded once and pulled his hands away. “I apologize for cutting our visit short, but we really should be leaving. We have to stop at the Academy before we leave.”
“Oh? Saying goodbye to Kushina-chan?”
“No--well, I should do that as well. But Narumi has to say goodbye to his younger brother. Minato Namikaze. Kushina may have mentioned him, they’re in the same class,” Tsubame said.
“Your brother? Well then, I’ll have to check in on him as well. He’s practically an Uzumaki,” Mito said.
Narumi beamed at her. He wasn’t really sure who she was, other than a member of the Senju clan, but she was pretty cool for an old lady. “Thanks!”
“Thank you for meeting with us,” Tsubame said, with another bow. “I’ll see you again when I’m next in Konoha.”
“Be safe, Tsubame. And you, Narumi-kun.”
Narumi waved goodbye as the same man who had led them there escorted them from the compound. Tsubame didn’t say a word as they left the Senju compound, and continued his silence as they walked towards the compound.
“Soooo,” Narumi said. “Who was that lady?”
Tsubame finally looked at him, an exasperated expression on his face. “That lady, as you put it, was Mito Senju.”
“Yeah, I got that, but who is she? Just someone from the Senju clan?”
“She’s from the Uzumaki clan, actually,” Tsubame said. “Mito-sama is my father’s sister, but she married Hashirama Senju and took his name. Tsunade is her granddaughter.”
Narumi’s head whipped back to the direction they had come from, even though he could no longer see the compound. “That was Tsunade’s grandma ?”
“Trust you to focus on that part,” Tsubame sighed, but Narumi noticed the smile was back on his face.
“Wait a minute, if she’s Tsunade’s grandma, and your father’s sister . . .” his nose wrinkled. “How old is she? Wait, no, hold up. You’re related to Tsunade? Argh, I don’t know what to focus on!”
This time, a soft huff of something that could almost be considered laughter escaped Tsubame’s lips. “Mito-sama is my father’s older sister, and my father was rather old when he had Tsubasa and I. And yes, Tsunade and I are related. Her father was my cousin, and Tsunade and I are first cousins once removed.”
“Is that why all your names are so similar?”
Tsubame laughed out loud at that. Satisfied, Narumi grinned and waited for him to recover himself. “They are, aren’t they? I hadn’t thought of that,” Tsubame said.
“Well, that’s one mystery solved,” Narumi joked.
Tsubame didn’t speak again, but the atmosphere was much more comfortable now. Narumi suspected that the mention of his sister bothered Tsubame more than he would admit. He filled the silence between them with idle chatter, remarking on the places they passed that he had visited with Minato or with the rest of their group of friends, until they reached the Academy. Their visit to Mito had pushed back their arrival enough that most of the students had left for the day, but Minato was still on the swing under the tree.
“I’ll look for Kushina,” Tsubame said. “She might have gone home already. Meet me at the school gate when you’re ready to leave.”
Narumi continued towards Minato while Tsubame walked off on his own. “Minato! Sorry I’m late.”
Minato looked up with a smile and rolled up his scroll. “It’s okay, Nii-san. I was just studying. Do you have time to train today?”
“About that.” Narumi scratched at the back of his head. “We’re going back to Uzushio today. I . . . don’t know when I’ll be in Konoha again.”
“Oh.” Minato bit his lip and looked at the ground. “Will I get to see you again?”
Narumi crouched down and put his hands on Minato’s shoulders. “Absolutely! I’ll come to Konoha and see you every chance I get, believe it. And I’ll be there when you graduate if I have to become a missing nin to do it!”
Minato giggled and scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve. “You shouldn’t do that, Nii-san. You’ll get in trouble.”
“Nah, I’ve got an in with the Uzukage. He’ll forgive me,” Narumi said. He ruffled MInato’s hair. “Write me, okay? You can tell me all about how you’re doing in school.”
Minato was still for a moment, and then threw himself forward so enthusiastically Narumi nearly toppled over. Narumi stumbled back and quickly steadied himself, mindful of the kid now attached to his waist. He rubbed Minato’s hair, gentler than his previous vigorous ruffling. “You’ll see me again, Minato, I promise. We’re family.”
MInato pulled away and gave him a tentative smile. “Okay. You’ll really come back?”
“Absolutely. I never abandon the people important to me. Even if I have to break some dumb rules,” Narumi declared.
Minato looked at him reproachfully. “You shouldn’t break the rules, Nii-san. They exist for a reason.”
“Even if you have to break the rules to save someone you love?” Minato fell silent. Narumi laughed and poked his forehead. “Don’t break yourself thinking too hard.”
“I won’t!” Minato protested. “You just said something interesting, that’s all.”
“What, I’m not normally interesting?” Minato shrugged sheepishly in response. “See if I ever train you again!”
Narumi glanced back and spotted Tsubame waiting at the entrance. “I should go..”
Minato attempted a smile. “Bye, Nii-san.”
“I’ll see you again, Minato. It’s a promise,” Narumi said, before walking to where Tsubame waited.
Tsubame looked up as he approached. “Ready?”
Minato was sitting alone on the swing, his scroll lying unopened in his lap. Still, Narumi nodded. “Ready. Let’s go home.”
The war waged on. It wasn’t as bad as it had been--after a few final skirmishes on the Suna front before they managed to get the news of the treaty to every squad, the fighting with Suna and Kiri was over. The kids that had been kidnapped from Kiri were still in Uzushio, but Narumi figured they were waiting for things to calm down a bit more before sending them home. They still had Iwa and Kumo to contend with, after all.
Occasionally, talk over another peace treaty would come up, only to fall through as someone disagreed with someone else. Narumi didn’t hear about them all that much--he spent most of his time outside of Uzushio, in the field with a squad that, in the absence of Tsubame and Jiraiya, usually consisted of Tsunade, Dan, Sakumo, Kaede, and Orochimaru, depending on who was cleared for missions at the time.
As it turned out, they were all accustomed to working together. Tsunade and Orochimaru had been on the same genin team, of course, but Dan and Kaede had actually been on a genin team together as well; the third member of their original team had quit being a ninja due to family problems. Sakumo, the only one not to be in the same year of the Academy as one of the others, had been placed onto a team with Kaede and Dan following the deaths of his original teammates. Once Dan and Tsunade had gotten to know each other, the two teams had regularly combined for training and missions. Tsubame had once been their regular squadmate from Uzushio; now, that was Narumi.
Narumi didn’t see much of Tsubame. He was in the field, and Tsubame, as the Uzukage, now had to stay in Uzushio. They had the linked scrolls that Tsubame had once shared with his sister, but those were strictly business only. Occasionally, a small sparrow would show up with a tiny message strapped to its leg. Those messages were always short, and always coded.
Narumi never knew how to read them; the only one who did was Orochimaru. Narumi could only be grateful that Tsubame wasn’t the type to put passionate spiels in his messages, or else Narumi would have never been able to face Orochimaru again.
They went to a lot of places. They fought a lot of battles. They ate a lot of ration bars.
And, in the end, Narumi always returned to Uzushio.
The village was slowly rebuilding. There were more chuunin and jounin in the village now, so they weren’t just relying on the efforts of the genin and civilians. It seemed like every time Narumi came back, a new section of the village had been rebuilt. No one had gotten to the house on the far-off island, but Narumi was in no rush, seeing as he was still rarely in Uzushio. Most of the time when he was in the village, he ended up staying with Tsubame, who was still hosting the kids.
Narumi always expected them to be gone, but they were always there--one year later, two years later, until he really began to wonder when Tsubame intended on returning them to their parents.
The fighting was finally dying down again--another Kage Summit had just been called, this one somewhere in Kumo, and so all missions had been suspended until further notice. To Narumi, it seemed like the perfect time to send the kids home, but when he returned to Uzushio from his latest mission, he found them in the house as normal--two of them, at least. The five-year-old and seven-year-old were sitting in the middle of the living room, playing some kind of game with cards and colorful sticks, but the nine-year-old was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s, uh, Hyousuke?” Narumi asked.
Tsubame, pouring over his notes at the table, glanced up at the clock. “It’s only two. He’s still at the Academy.”
“Wait, the Academy? What’s he doing there?”
“Taking the placement exam,” Tsubame said. “I’m not sure if the Mizukage gave him any lessons, so the first year may be too easy for him. Besides, he’s already nine--he’d be the oldest one in the class.”
“The placement exam?” Narumi echoed, feeling like he’d missed something somewhere along the line.
“It is a bit late. I should have enrolled him at least a month ago, but the elders were being stubborn about it. As usual,” Tsubame said bitterly.
“Wait, wait, wait, why’s he joining the Academy? What about sending him back to Kiri?”
Tsubame didn’t look up from his paper. “He’s not going back to Kiri. None of them are. Those were the terms of the peace agreement. The older children remain in Konoha, and the younger ones remain in Uzushio.”
“I thought you didn’t agree with kidnapping them!” Narumi exclaimed.
Tsubame glanced over at the two children, still in the midst of the game but staring directly at Tsubame and Narumi. “We shouldn’t talk about this here. To my office.”
Narumi stormed away from the table and went to Tsubame’s office. He didn’t even wait until Tsubame had activated the noise suppression seals to give them privacy before demanding, “So what’s the big idea? They should be with their family!”
“Uzushio’s defenses have been completely destroyed. It will take years to get the seals back to the level they were at before the attack. We can’t afford another war. The children are an assurance of good faith.”
“They’re kids, Tsubame!” Narumi slammed a hand down on Tsubame’s desk. “They shouldn’t be involved in this at all! I know you disagreed with kidnapping them.”
“I wasn’t the Uzukage then,” Tsubame snapped. “I had the liberty to disagree with my sister in my private time. Of course taking hostages is a disgusting practice, and I would gladly send them home if I could! But I have to make decisions I don’t like for the sake of the village.”
“You don’t have to! Didn’t you say you wanted to change the way things are now?” Narumi said. “Just send them home!”
“I can’t, Narumi. I can’t.” Tsubame slumped down in his chair and covered his face with one hand. “I want to, but I can’t.”
“You’re the Uzukage,” Narumi said. “If you decide to send them home, that’s that!”
Tsubame laughed brokenly. “If only it were that simple.”
“You’re just giving up, dammit! If you believe in something, then fight for it! Don’t just give up because it’s for the good of the village or whatever.” Narumi turned around and stomped forwards, only to quickly reach the other wall. He turned around and stomped in the other direction, only to quickly run into the same problem. Narumi ran his hands through his hair roughly. “Argh! I can’t think in this tiny room!”
He jabbed a finger at Tsubame. “Don’t go anywhere! I’m gonna persuade you to send them back!”
Narumi stormed to the door and flung it open.
“I know you will,” he heard Tsubame say softly just before the door slammed shut.
There was nothing better than a fight to help him sort through his thoughts. With the Summit going on, the village was full of jounin ready and eager to spar, particularly with someone they’d never trained with before. When Narumi went to one of the many training areas around Uzushio, he found three jounin already there, and by the time he finished sparring with them, even more had turned up. The Uzumaki in particular were fun to practice with--they had almost as much stamina as he did. His last match lasted for half an hour until they both got too hungry to continue. And no wonder--it was past ten when he finally got home.
The main room was dark and empty, dinner left out for him by Suikawari, an Uzumaki woman who took care of the house and the kids while Tsubame was busy. A quick peek into the kid’s room showed that they were all asleep. Tsubame, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. Instead, Narumi found a note informing him Tsubame had left for the Summit and a scroll officially granting him four weeks of leave in Konoha, lasting for the rest of December and most of January.
Narumi sighed and began to pack up his things. “At least Minato will be happy.”
He waited until morning to leave, in order to say goodbye to the kids and tell Suikawari how long he would be gone. He approached Konoha leisurely, to avoid alarming any shinobi in the area, and ended up escorting a merchant from Nami halfway there. In this time, Nami was apparently a prospering merchant country, trading with countries from as far away as the other side of the continent; however, given the war, they hadn’t been able to hire shinobi to protect their merchants and had suffered losses as a result. The merchant considered himself quite lucky to have encountered a shinobi--a shinobi from Uzushio, no less, Nami’s sister island country--who just happened to be traveling in the same direction. Narumi, for his part, didn’t mind taking on an unofficial mission now and then. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
They parted at the gates of Konoha. Narumi wandered around for a bit--he’d never been to Konoha without Tsubame, and he realized too late that he hadn’t informed any of his friends he was coming--before heading to the Academy.
To his surprise, the Academy was crowded with parents. A quick question to one of them, an Uchiha who gave him a dirty look, revealed why. Going at the speed of the merchant caravan had delayed him slightly--he’d arrived just in time for the final exam.
The first of the students emerged, proudly holding up a headband, and was quickly congratulated by friends and family. A few minutes later, the next one emerged, and then the next.
“Ah, Narumi-kun, I see you made it.”
Narumi turned to find Mito Senju approaching him, accompanied by two people he assumed were members of the Senju clan as well. “Mito-san--uh, Mito-sama. It’s been a long time”
She chuckled. “Mito-san is fine. Tsubame is more formal than he needs to be.”
“Are you waiting for Kushina?”
She nodded. “Kushina and Minato.” Narumi felt his eyes widen, and Mito chuckled. “You didn’t think I’d follow through, would I? Oh, yes, I’ve kept an eye on the both of them. Your younger brother has quite a talent for fuinjutsu.”
Narumi grinned. “Yeah, he really does. He’s gonna be a great shinobi. Kushina, too.”
Mito smiled, but Narumi couldn’t help but think it looked somewhat sad. “Yes, she will be.”
The door to the Academy slammed open so loudly that everyone in the vicinity turned to look. “Yeah! I passed!” Kushina shrieked. Eyes lit up with glee, she scanned the crowd. She grinned when she spotted Narumi and Mito and ran forward, forcing everyone to get out of her path. “Baaaaaaa-saaaaaaan! Naaaaarumi-niiiiiii!”
She screeched to a halt, panting, and grinned up at them. “Look! I passed!”
Narumi held out a fist, and she bumped her fist against it. “Good job! Any idea who your teammates are going to be?”
“I hope Mikoto is on my team! She’s amazing at genjutsu and I suck at genjutsu, and I’m really good at ninjutsu and Mikoto isn’t so good at ninjutsu, and she likes fighting from far away and I like to fight close up so we’ll work well together. And Minato should probably be on my team ‘cause he’s gonna get killed without me to protect him. But we won’t find out for another week,” she said. “Sensei says they have to finalize it after they find out who passed. Like me! I passed! They were super impressed with my water clone.”
Narumi spotted a head of blond hair leaving the Academy. Minato didn’t look up as he wove through the crowd, too busy staring at the headband in his hands. Narumi held up a finger to hush Kushina and Mito and crept forwards, approaching Minato from behind. As soon as Narumi was directly behind him, Minato started to turn, but Narumi snatched him up and heaved him into the air and onto Narumi’s shoulders.
“Ah! Nii-san!” Minato exclaimed. “What are you doing?”
Narumi grinned and headed back to Kushina and Mito, still bearing Minato on his shoulders. “What, you don’t like it? I always wanted someone to do this to me when I was a kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” Minato protested. “I’m a genin now. That means I’m officially an adult.”
“Congratulations,” Narumi said. “Any idea about your teammates?”
“I don’t know,” Minato said. His fingers tensed in Narumi’s hair. “I . . . hope I’m on the same team as Kushina-san.”
“Oh, is that how it is?” Narumi teased.
“Nii-san! It’s not like that!”
“Sure, sure.” Narumi crouched down, allowing Minato to unsteadily get off. “So, who’s up for a celebratory dinner?”
One of the Senju accompanying Mito leaned into whisper something to her. “Ah, of course. I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you. Congratulations, Kushina, Minato. Enjoy your dinner.”
Kushina latched onto Narumi’s hand and looked up at him with a gap-toothed smile. “I want ramen, Narumi-nii! Ramen, ramen!”
Narumi looked over at Minato. “Ramen sounds good.”
Minato nodded so rapidly Narumi thought his head might pop off his shoulders. “Ramen is good! I like ramen!”
Ichiraku wasn’t open at this point in time--Narumi had checked. Kushina eagerly led them to her favorite restaurant, a small, run-down restaurant located near her apartment.
“I go here all the time!” she said. “They make the best broth out of every ramen place in town. I know, ‘cause I’ve tried them all. Hey, Teuchi-nii, I want an extra egg!”
Narumi gaped as a young man, somewhere in his late teens, poked his head out from the kitchen. “Welcome back, Kushina-chan! Coming right up.”
“And I want two bowls, please! It’s a celebration! I graduated today,” Kushina declared.
“Congratulations!” Teuchi called back from the kitchen.
Kushina turned her attention back to Narumi and Minato. “I’m gonna learn how to make ramen as good as Teuchi-nii’s someday. ‘Cept I can’t afford the good ingredients on my stipend right now so I was waiting to be a genin to learn. And then I’ll be able to make whatever I want!”
“If you need someone to try your food . . . I’d like to,” Minato offered hesitantly.
Kushina grinned at him. “You will? Thanks, Minato! Mikoto offered too. She’s super good at cooking. We can have cooking parties!”
“Oh! Okay. That sounds fun. I don’t know how to cook at all,” Minato said.
Kushina wagged a finger. “You gotta know how to cook if you’re gonna live on your own! Eating out all the time’s way too expensive. Jeez, Minato. But don’t worry, I’ll teach you everything.”
Their ramen arrived, and Kushina fell silent for a moment as she devoured it.
“Me and Minato’ve been spending lotsa time with Baa-san,” Kushina said, once she’d slowed down. “She’s been teaching us tons of stuff about fuinjutsu! ‘Course, I know a bunch of stuff already, but Baa-san knows way more! She’s amazing. I’m gonna be just like her when I grow up.”
Minato nodded. “Mito-baa-san knows more about fuinjutsu than any of the books I found.”
“Pfft, duh! You’re not gonna learn anything good about fuinjutsu out of some dumb book,” Kushina said. “You’ve gotta have a teacher! That’s how all the Uzumaki learn, right, Narumi-nii?”
“Seems that way,” Narumi said. “Tsubame’s been teaching me the basics.”
Kushina nodded. “And then once you know the basics, you get to go off and do your own thing.”
“It still seems impractical to me to have so much of fuinjutsu reliant on oral tradition. I’ve been making detailed notes of our lessons with Mito-baa-san,” Minato said.
Kushina wrinkled up her nose. “That’s the most boring part of fuinjutsu.” She lifted up her empty bowl. “Teuchi-nii! Seconds please!”
Teuchi came over with a fresh bowl. “On the house, for our new genin here.”
Kushina cheered. “You’re the best!”
Minato frowned down at his bowl. “I like Mito-baa-san’s lessons. They’re very interesting,” he said.
“Then write them down. I’m sure someone will appreciate it,” Narumi said. Minato gave him a brief smile before returning to eating his ramen.
In the end, Kushina ate four bowls of ramen to Narumi’s three, and Minato’s one. Narumi waved off Minato’s attempt to pay and covered the bill himself. The sun had long since set by the time they all left the store.
“Be safe walking home, you two,” Narumi said.
Kushina waved as she ran off towards her apartment. “Bye, Nii-san,” Minato said, before heading off as well.
Narumi stared after him. “Uh, Minato? Isn’t the orphanage in the other direction?”
Minato jumped and laughed sheepishly. “Oh! You’re right. I must be more tired than I thought. Thank you for dinner, Nii-san. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you,” Narumi agreed, as he watched Minato run in the direction of the orphanage. He waited until both kids were out of sight before heading back to Tsubame’s apartment.
The bell above the door of the restaurant rang, and Narumi automatically looked up from his menu. As he spotted the newest customers, he grinned and waved. “Hey, over here!”
Sakumo and Kaede, the first to arrive, joined him around the large table, sitting so close together that they were almost on top of each other. “Narumi,” Sakumo greeted warmly. “It’s been awhile.”
“Yeah, since the mission in Iwa, right?”
“That was a mess,” Sakumo sighed. “No medics, no Orochimaru . . .”
“Well, it was Dan and Tsunade’s wedding,” Narumi said.
“‘Cause they just couldn’t wait until after the war for their wedding like the rest of us. How long’re you here for?” Kaede asked, as she scoured the menu. “You’re not missing ours, are you?”
“Nah, I’ve got until the end of January,” Narumi said. “I’ll be there for sure!”
The bell rang again, and a few moments later Orochimaru slid into the bench on the other side of the table. “You haven’t ordered yet? Disappointing.”
“I was waiting for Dan and Tsunade,” Narumi said.
As if on cue, the bell rang yet again. Narumi glanced over, and his mouth fell open. “Whoa!”
Tsunade glared at him. “Not a word, Namikaze.”
“You’re huge!” Narumi blurted. He waved his hands around. “I mean, uh, holy shit! It’s massive! Are babies supposed to be that big?”
Dan took the seat beside Orochimaru so Tsunade could have the end. Narumi had no idea how Tsunade was managing to sit down with a baby literally growing inside of her. “He’s a normal size,” she said. “And I can’t wait for him to be out! No training, no missions, and he never stops kicking.”
“Two more months,” Dan said, patting her hand.
Narumi stared at her stomach. “Whoa. I mean, I got your letter and all, but it’s different actually seeing it.”
“It is fascinating,” Orochimaru agreed, staring at Tsunade’s stomach. “The creation of a human life . . . the cycle of death and rebirth continues . . .”
Narumi had no idea what Orochimaru was going on about, as usual. He looked around the table for help.
Kaede eventually came to his rescue, continuing on as if Orochimaru had never spoken. “Yep, there he is! The true reason for the Senju wedding! Dan and Tsunade couldn’t keep it in their pants!” Kaede cackled.
Narumi looked between them, at Kaede’s grin and Tsunade’s scowl. “Wait, is that really why?”
“The elders insisted,” Tsunade growled. “I would’ve waited until after the war, but apparently it isn’t proper for the heir to the clan to pop out a baby before getting married.”
“See, if you were an Inuzuka, this wouldn’t be a problem. No one gives a shit when an Inuzuka pops out a baby!” Kaede laughed.
“Something you want to tell us?” Tsunade teased.
“Not yet,” Kaede retorted.
“Not for lack of trying,” Orochimaru said under his breath. Sakumo blushed and rubbed at the back of his head sheepishly.
“What’re you gonna name him? Any ideas?” Narumi said.
“We’ve got it all picked out. Kogane Senju,” Tsunade said. “We wanted to wait to see if it would be a boy or a girl, but . . .”
“The elders,” Dan finished.
“Huh. And you just went along with what they wanted?”
“You don’t know the elders,” Tsunade snorted. “They’re a pain in the ass. I have to listen to them at least some of the time, or they can make life a living hell. And I don’t really mind knowing ahead of time. I’d rather save my fight for the big things. Like sending him to school.”
“School? You mean the Academy? Why would that be a fight?” Narumi asked.
“Nah, not the Academy, I mean before that. You know, how a lot of civilian families send their kids to school from four or five years old,” Tsunade said.
“Why send them to a civilian school? It would be entirely pointless,” Orochimaru said. “Simply enroll them in the Academy.”
“The academy age has been shifting,” Tsunade said. “You’ve noticed, right? Kids are entering at six or seven instead of four like we did.”
“Wasting time,” Orochimaru said.
“They’re four,” Tsunade said. “They should be making friends, not deciding that they want to grow up to become killers.”
“We hardly decided we wanted to become killers,” Orochimaru said. “We had our own goals, and becoming a shinobi was the way to realize those goals.”
Tsunade shrugged. “Maybe it is pointless. Maybe he’ll grow up wanting to be a shinobi just because he’s grown up surrounded by them. Hell, when I was a kid, I never imagined being anything but a shinobi like my grandfather. But I’d like for him to have options.”
Dan chuckled. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll end up wanting to be a monk.”
“A monk? That’s your example? What kind of four-year-old wants to be a monk?” Tsunade said. “You should have said--uh. Daimyo?”
“The Daimyo?” Kaede snorted.
“I’d like to see you come up with something better!”
“Fine! Maybe he wants to grow up to be a dog!”
“A dog? That’s not a job. That’s not even human!”
“Hey, I wanted to be a dog when I was a kid.”
“You’re an Inuzuka, you’re practically half dog already!”
Listening to his friends bicker, Narumi couldn’t help but smile. It was nice to put his worries about Tsubame and the kids from Kiri out of his mind, just for a little bit. Maybe that had been why Tsubame had given him a full four weeks in Konoha--a little time with his friends, away from the war, was just what Narumi needed.
Narumi spent the next few days with his friends and the two kids, depending on who was busy. Dan and Tsunade were always busy with managing the hospital and preparing for the baby. Orochimaru was usually somewhere Narumi decided not to think too hard about. Sakumo and Kaede were usually free, but spending time with them usually ended with Narumi getting roped into helping plan the wedding, which they were extremely enthusiastic about; Narumi had learned quickly to not drop by their house unannounced. Kushina and Minato were both free until the team announcements, apart from spending time with Mito at the Senju compound, and were almost always eager to train or grab a meal with him.
They were in the middle of training when, just as Narumi blocked a kick from Minato and a punch from Kushina, the ground shook. In the distance, Narumi could see a cloud of dust from the area near the village gates. Without a second thought, he sprinted towards the gate, the kids hot on his heels.
By the time they reached the gates, such a crowd had gathered that even the Uchiha officers couldn’t get through. Narumi crouched down. “One of you get up on my shoulders and tell me what you see.”
Kushina moved first. Narumi grabbed onto her legs to steady her as he stood, wincing as her hands gripped his hair too tight. “Uh, it’s your friend, the one having the baby, and she looks really mad, and there’s a crater and a super old dude in the crater.”
“A super old dude?”
“Yeah, he’s got a bunch of white hair and a big scroll.”
“Jiraiya!” Narumi exclaimed.
Tsunade yelled something. “I can’t hear what she’s saying,” Kushina complained.
“Then we’ll have to get closer.” Narumi pushed his way through the crowd, ignoring the dirty looks and angry muttering that followed him.
As he got closer, he could hear Tsunade yelling. “Two years, you bastard! Where the hell have you been? Forget it, I’m not interested. You’re dead, asshole!”
“Tsunade, you can’t kill him!” Dan exclaimed. “Think of the baby!”
Narumi broke through the crowd; Dan had joined Tsunade, who was standing in front of a crater, hands on her hips. “He deserves it.” Dan looked at her sternly, and Tsunade snorted. “Oh, fine. Ugh, there goes our lunch break . . . hey, don’t you assholes have anything better to do than gawk!”
The crowd quickly dispersed, eager to avoid Tsunade’s wrath. Dan met Narumi’s eyes, shrugged, and gestured towards Jiraiya before following after Tsunade. Narumi crouched to let Kushina down before walking to the edge of the crater.
“You still alive, Jiraiya?” he called.
Jiraiya groaned and dragged himself to his feet. “Three years out of the village, and this is the greeting I get . . .”
“You missed her wedding. ‘Course she’s pissed.” Narumi offered him a hand and hauled him out of the crater. “What brings you back?”
“Sensei called me back,” Jiraiya said. “Besides, those kids I was training are doing pretty well now--wait until I tell you about them! C’mon, let’s do lunch, I’m starving. Ah, wait, shit, I have to go see Sensei.”
“I can wait,” Narumi said. He looked down at the kids, who were watching the exchange with unabashed curiosity. “Sorry, you guys mind training on your own?”
“Yeah, okay, I was gonna to hang out with Mikoto anyways. You wanna come, Minato?”
“I can come--I mean, okay!”
The two of them raced off, and Narumi and Jiraiya fell into step beside one another. “How was Ame?”
“A shithole,” Jiraiya said. “Still, that kid--he’s the real deal, Narumi, a complete genius. All five elements, in just three years! Not even Sensei and Orochimaru learned them that quickly.”
“You’ll have to tell me all about it after your meeting.”
Jiraiya grimaced. “He’s gonna chew me out, I can tell. Wish me luck. If I die, burn my porn stash so Tsunade doesn’t find it and bring me back from the grave to kill me again.”
With the Academy out and missions on hold for the Summit, the administration building was pretty empty. Narumi passed the time chatting with the chuunin at the mission desk while he waited.
In the end, it was two hours before Jiraiya emerged from the Hokage’s office, holding a file under one arm and looking like death. Narumi followed him out of the building and into the nearest restaurant, taking a seat across from him at the table.
Jiraiya ordered a bottle of sake, and downed two glasses in short order. “Sensei has a sick sense of humor. He’s making me take genin !”
“So? I mean, you were training some kids from Ame during the war, right? Isn’t that basically like having a genin team?”
“It’s completely different! I didn’t have to do D-ranks,” Jiraiya groaned.
“You can’t just go right to C-ranks?” Narumi asked.
“I wish. Genin teams are required to do a certain number of D-ranks. They probably figured that otherwise everyone would avoid doing them.” Jiraiya gulped down another cup of sake and slid the folder across the table to Narumi. “I can’t bear to look. Just tell me I don’t have a Hyuuga or an Uchiha.”
Narumi flipped through the folder and had to suppress a grin. There, in the back of the folder, was Minato’s profile. He shook his head and closed the file. “Bad news, Jiraiya, your team is made up entirely of Uchiha and Hyuuga. . .”
“What? Give me that!” Jiraiya snatched up the file and skimmed it quickly. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, good, they’re all from civilian families. I hate dealing with clans.”
As the waitress brought their food, Jiraiya pulled out the first profile and read through it. “Good taijutsu scores, average ninjutsu, decent academic scores . . . not bad, all around. Could be worse. Let’s see . . . good ninjutsu scores, average taijutsu and academic scores, again, not bad. And last but hopefully not least . . . good ninjutsu, good academics, and average taijutsu--wait, Namikaze? Ha!”
Jiraiya reached across the table to slap Narumi’s shoulder enthusiastically. “Looks like your baby brother’s in my hands! Ah, this is great . . . seems like a team with a lot of potential.”
Narumi squinted at the folder. “You can tell that from this file?”
“Well, they’re civilians, but they passed the exams on the first try and didn’t do badly, which means they’ve been working hard without any previous training from their families,” Jiraiya said. “Also, because they’re not from clans, they aren’t stuck in any boxes. So many clan kids think that because their clan does something, they have to do it to, even if they’re shit at it. With these kids, I can find what suits them and make them shine! And, of course, Minato here’s your brother. With genes like that, he’s bound to be a great shinobi. It’s like getting a clan kid without all the bullshit baggage.”
The bell above the restaurant door rang. “Oh, hey! Jiraiya and Narumi!”
Kaede dropped into the seat beside Jiraiya without further ado. “Move over, porcupine.”
“Excuse us,” Sakumo said, as he took a seat beside Narumi.
Kaede reached over to snatch up Jiraiya’s file, dropping a file of her own on the table as she did. “You got genin too? This I’ve gotta see.”
Narumi reached over and pulled her file towards him. Jiraiya leaned over the table to get a closer look. “I didn’t know you were taking a genin team, Kaede.”
“I thought it would be fun,” she laughed. “I could do with some fun after all this war bullshit. Damn, Jiraiya, they really gave you a bland team.”
Narumi flipped to the first page, a girl who looked strikingly like Shikamaru. Jiraiya snorted. “A Nara? Good luck with that one.”
Kaede cracked her knuckles. “I can be pretty motivating.”
Narumi pulled out the next profile and found a name he actually recognized--Mikoto Uchiha, Sasuke’s mother. Jiraiya winced. “Ouch. They saddled you with an Uchiha. Have fun with that.”
Kaede shrugged. “I guess they figured I wouldn’t complain about it. It’s not like she can steal any of my techniques, since most of them require a partner.”
“Where is Hachimaru, anyways?”
“He’s only interested in yakiniku restaurants.”
Narumi turned to the final profile, and blinked in surprise. “You got Kushina?”
Kaede grinned. “I know, right? The Uzumaki kid! I figure her and me are gonna get along just fine.”
Jiraiya’s brow creased for a moment, before it smoothed out as he smacked Kaede on the back. “Better you than me! I’ll take my blank slate team any day over clan bullshit.”
Kaede elbowed him. “My team’s gonna kick your team’s butt, shrimp!”
“One centimeter! One, lousy centimeter!”
“More like two.”
Narumi looked down at the file in front of him. “Something wrong?” Sakumo asked.
Narumi shook his head. “Nah, nothing. C’mon, let’s eat!”
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder--Kushina wasn’t a jinchuuriki yet. So when did she become the Kyuubi jinchuuriki?
Minato waited with bated breath. Five teams so far, fifteen students, and neither he nor Kushina had been called.
Sarutobi-sensei cleared his throat. “Team Six! Mikoto Uchiha, Kushina Uzumaki--”
Kushina whooped and jumped up from her seat. “Yeah! Mikoto and me are on the same team! Told ya, Mikoto!”
“Sit down, Uzumaki! I repeat, Team Six, Mikoto Uchiha, Kushina Uzumaki, and Shikanao Nara!”
“No!” Kushina wailed. “Sensei, you were supposed to put Minato with me!”
“Take it up with the Hokage, Uzumaki! Team Seven! Michio Akamatsu, Chinami Wakimizu, and Minato Namikaze!”
Minato looked around the room for his teammates. Michio and Chinami were two of the other civilian students in his class, but he didn’t know them well. He wished he could have been on Kushina’s team, with someone he knew, instead of two strangers.
Michio gave him a wave and Chinami smiled slightly when he met their eyes, so at least they seemed nice.
Sarutobi-sensei finished reading of the last of the teams, ten in total, before calling them back to attention. “You have an hour break for lunch, after which your new sensei will come fetch. You’ve done well. Continue to make your village proud, and embody the will of fire!”
The students erupted into cheers as their teacher left the room. Before Minato could even stand, Michio joined him at his table. “I don’t think we’ve ever talked. I’m Michio.”
Minato shook his hand. “Minato.”
“And I’m Chinami,” the third member of their team said, as she claimed the other seat next to Minato. “Would you like to eat lunch together?”
“Of course,” Minato agreed. “By the swing?”
He waved to Mikoto and Kushina as his team left the room. Kushina made a face at him, likely expressing her displeasure at the team arrangements. He shrugged and gave her a sympathetic smile in return.
Michio and Chinami unpacked their lunches as they sat down. “Minato-kun, don’t you have a lunch?” Chinami asked.
“Ah . . . no, I forgot.”
“I almost did too!” Michio said. “I ran out the door without all my stuff and my mom had to chase me down.”
“You can share mine,” Chinami said, pushing her bento towards him. “My mother always makes too much for me, so I usually share with friends.”
“Here, mine too,” Michio said. “My mom always makes me a snack after school anyways.”
Minato gave them both grateful smiles. “Thank you.”
“No problem! We’re teammates now,” Michio said. “I gotta say, I’m glad we’re all from civilian families.”
“Why do you say that?” Minato asked.
“Everyone knows that the jounin favor the kids from shinobi families,” Michio said. “All the civilian kids who joined the Academy say so. If you’ve got a team with civilian kids and shinobi kids, the jounin-sensei almost always gives all his attention to the shinobi kids. ‘Cause they’ve got more potential, or something.”
Minato frowned. “That’s not right. The jounin-sensei should give their attention to each student equally. Don’t the civilian students complain to someone about it?”
“Who’d take ‘em seriously?” Michio said. “It’s not like there’s anyone in charge of the jounin-sensei besides the Hokage, and they’re not gonna let a genin go see the Hokage just to complain. The jounin-sensei can do whatever they want with their genin. Everyone knows that.”
“Ah . . . I guess they don’t really talk about things like that at the orphanage,” Minato said.
“Well, that makes sense. I mean, the orphanage basically just feeds into the Academy, doesn’t it?” Michio said. “That’s what my parents say.”
Minato shrugged. “In most cases, yes. If someone has no talent with the shinobi arts, usually they’ll do something else, but most of us go to the Academy.”
“I have a few friends from the orphanage,” Chinami said. “They didn’t pass the exam, though.”
“That test was hard!” Michio complained. “I thought I failed for sure. I’m terrible at academics, and my henge is just awful. I guess my taijutsu pulled me through.”
“I did the best in the ninjutsu section,” Chinami said. “My taijutsu and academic scores are okay, though.”
“I’m best at academics and ninjutsu,” Minato said. “My taijutsu is . . . a work in progress.”
“Yeah, I was thinkin’ about that!” Michio said. “You almost got Uzumaki last time we had taijutsu practice. Have you been doing lots of training on the side?”
“Ah, no . . . well, a little, I suppose. Kushina-san and I have been training a lot more together,” he admitted. “We’ve been studying fuinjutsu together.”
“Whoa! So that’s why you two’ve been all buddy-buddy. I thought you were dating or somethin’,” Michio laughed.
Minato felt his face flush. “M-me? And Kushina-san? O-of course not, that would be ridiculous.”
Michio grinned broadly. “But you wanna, am I right?”
Minato buried his face in his hands. “It’s not like that . . .”
Michio laughed and elbowed him. “Don’t worry, Minato, your secret’s safe with us.”
“I think it’s sweet,” Chinami said, with a happy sigh. “Training together . . . falling in love . . .”
“In love?” Minato yelped. “It’s not like that, really!”
The other two laughed.
“You’re a lot of fun, Minato!” Michio said. “I’m glad, I thought you were some jerk with a stick up your ass.”
“Eh? Really?” Minato asked.
Chinami smiled awkwardly. “I have to admit, I thought you were a little standoffish too . . .”
“Is that the kind of impression I give off?” He hadn’t even noticed; he’d have to pay more attention to how people perceived him.
“Don’t worry too much about it!” Chinami said. “I mean, I thought Michio was a clown, and he’s okay so far.”
“What! Hey, I put a lot of effort into being the class clown!”
“You mean being seen as an idiot was intentional?”
“Admit it, class would’ve been ten times as boring without me!”
They finished their lunch just as the bell rang to announce the hour was up, and returned together to the classroom. Kushina seemed cheerful again, and waved at him happily as his team claimed the desk behind her.
She spun around in her chair to talk to him. “Nao-chan’s pretty funny, actually! Did ya know she likes to play mahjong and go and shogi and stuff? How’s your team?”
“They’re nice,” Minato said.
Kushina eyed them skeptically. “Well, Michio can almost beat me in taijutsu, so he’s okay,” she said. “And Chinami’s pretty good at ninjutsu, so I guess she’s okay too.”
“We can hear you, Uzumaki,” Michio complained.
Kushina stuck her tongue out at him. She turned back around as the door opened to admit the first of the jounin-sensei. More jounin followed the first, but none of them came for Team Six or Team Seven.
The door opened again, when the room was almost empty, to admit two people Minato realized he recognized. They were his brother’s friends, the Inuzuka woman with the massive dog and the massive naginata, and the man with the mane of white hair who had been beaten up by the gates.
The woman put her hands on her hips and scanned the room until her eyes landed on Minato’s section of the room. “Team Six, there you are! C’mon, brats, up you get!”
Kushina whirled around, her eyes gleaming. “Minato, she’s so cool!”
The woman laughed. “Let’s see how cool you think I am when I’m done with you!”
Still grinning, Kushina left with her team. The man with white hair stayed at the front of the room. His eyes met Minato’s.
“Team Seven, you’re with me,” he said.
Minato and his new teammates exchanged looks; none of his them seemed familiar with the man. Minato wasn’t sure how to feel. The man was a jounin, and he was friends with Minato’s brother, so surely he was strong, but at the same time he had gotten beat up in front of the village gates.
Maybe taijutsu just wasn’t his specialty, Minato consoled himself.
The man led them to a training ground, the same one that Minato’s brother liked to use. “Okay, let’s do introductions,” he said. “Name, likes, dislikes, dreams for the future.”
Minato looked around at his teammates, neither of whom seemed willing to start. “I’m Minato Namikaze. I like training with friends and studying fuinjutsu and ninjutsu. I dislike . . .”
For a moment, he was stuck; most of his dislikes seemed far too personal to share.
“I dislike . . . natto. And my dream for the future is to be Hokage,” he finished in a rush.
Sensei, thankfully, didn’t call him out for rushing through the dislike part of his introduction. “Hokage, huh?” he said, grinning. “I can work with that. Who’s next?”
“I’ll go!” Michio said. “My name’s Michio Akamatsu. I like taijutsu and pork bowls! And I dislike carpentry, even though my whole family is carpenters. I think it’s boring. And my dream for the future . . . I wanna be a jounin-sensei.”
“A noble goal,” Sensei said. “And the last one.”
“I’m Chinami Wakimizu. I like to design gardens. I dislike . . . eating fish. My family raises koi, so it’s always felt a little weird to me. And for the future, I want to master water-jutsu.”
Sensei nodded. “I’m Jiraiya of the Sannin.”
Minato looked at his teammates. They didn’t seem like they recognized his name either.
Jiraiya-sensei sighed and waved a hand. “Nevermind. Anyways, I like training with my teammates, drinking with my friends, and . . . doing a lot of stuff you’re too young to hear about. I dislike people who betray their friends. And my dream for the future is to make you the best damn shinobi to come out of this village. But before that . . . I have one last test to give you.”
Minato’s mouth fell open in surprise. No one had mentioned another test.
“What? That’s not fair!” Michio exclaimed. “We already passed our final exam!”
“Life’s not fair, kid. The jounin-sensei are allowed to give their genin any test they want. If you fail this test, it’s right back to the Academy for you. ‘Course, if you want to complain, you can always just go back right now. No? Good. The test is simple.”
With a sly smile, Jiraiya-sensei held up two bells attached to string. “You just have to get these bells from me in the next three hours. Whoever doesn’t have a bell . . . fails.”
Minato swallowed. ‘Simple,’ Jiraiya-sensei had said, but just looking at him Minato knew that unless the man was going easy on them, there was no way he would be able to get a bell on his own. A quick glance at Michio and Chinami showed similar misgivings.
This test was definitely not as simple as it seemed.
Jiraiya pulled out a timer and set it on the stumps. “Aaaaand . . . go.”
Michio ran at Jiraiya. Minato grabbed him with one hand before he could get too far, grabbed Chinami with the other hand, and ran into the forest.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?” Michio demanded.
Minato shook his head. “We can’t take those bells from him on our own. He’s a jounin.” He’d had experience fighting Narumi with Kushina, and even when Narumi was going easy on him, Minato couldn’t beat him one-on-one. “If we work together, we might have a chance.”
Michio frowned. “Yeah, I guess three-on-one is better odds.”
Chinami nodded. “I don’t think I could take a jounin on my own. But what about the bells?”
“We’ll have to work that out once we have them,” Minato said. “Right now, we need to make a plan to get those bells.”
The other two nodded firmly. Minato met their determined gazes, and knew that they would do whatever they had to do to get those bells.
They would pass this test.
Kushina couldn’t help but bounce her leg up and down as she sat in front of her new jounin-sensei with her teammates. A genin! She was finally a genin! And she had a team! Minato wasn’t on it--she hoped he was going to be okay, that white-haired guy seemed kind of unreliable--but at least she had Mikoto. Plus, their new sensei seemed really cool.
“Right! I’m Kaede Inuzuka, and this is my partner Hachimaru. Now, I know your names, I assume you know each other’s names, so I have just one question for you. What are your dreams for the future?”
She waved her hand eagerly. “I’ll go! I’m gonna be Hokage!”
“Hokage, I love it! Next!” Kaede pointed to Mikoto.
“I’m going to be a jounin by the time I’m fifteen,” Mikoto said.
“Jounin at fifteen! Great. Now you!”
“Dreams, huh,” Shikanao said. “I want . . . to be the head of the Cryptology department.”
“Cryptology, huh? I don’t know anything about that, but I like it!” Kaede grinned at them all. “Okay, I’ve decided I like you. You’re my genin now. I could give you another test and then send you back to the Academy if you fail, but you all seem like interesting kids. Now, one more question! Don’t worry about getting this one wrong. What is the most important thing to a shinobi?”
“Uh, their body?” Kushina guessed.
Kaede laughed. “I guess in a literal sense I’ve never met a disembodied shinobi, but nope! Not what I was looking for.”
“Chakra?” Mikoto guessed.
“Bzzt! There’s a lot of taijutsu and weapon-work that doesn’t require chakra,” Kaede said. “I don’t know any shinobi that don’t use chakra, but there could be one!”
“The mind,” Shikanao said.
“Good guess, but not what I was thinking of either. The answer is . . . teamwork!”
The three of them all exchanged doubtful looks. “Teamwork?” Kushina asked.
“A lot of ninja work solo, especially in ANBU,” Mikoto said.
Kaede wagged a finger. “That’s what you think. But ANBU, they get their equipment from someone, right? And someone gives them a mission? And someone debriefs them? And someone takes care of their injuries? And someone trained them until they were able to be genin? No one does anything alone. This whole village is one big team, and we all work together to protect each other. The most important thing to a shinobi is teamwork, and without it you’re as good as dead. But don’t worry about remembering that one. By the time I’m done with you, it’ll be drilled into your heads so hard you’ll never forget it.”
Kaede gave them a wicked grin. Kushina’s smile spread across her face until her cheeks ached. Her heart was pounding in her chest, her body thrumming with excitement, her mind whirling with possibilities. She couldn’t wait to get started.
Now that they were officially genin, Narumi didn’t see Minato and Kushina nearly as often. They trained in the mornings and spent their afternoons doing D-ranks, and were exhausted in the evenings. Jiraiya was putting his team through their paces, throwing every exercise he could think of at them in the hopes of finding out what they were good at. Kaede had been running constant drills with her team, making them get used to working together and honing their already existing skills.
Narumi was only able to treat them to a congratulatory dinner a week after they became genin, when they had a day off.
Kushina arrived first and immediately slumped into her chair. “Narumi-nii, I’m exhausted,” she groaned. “I thought being a genin was supposed to be exciting, but all we do is weed gardens and paint fences and boring stuff like that. I wanna move on to C-ranks, but Kaede-sensei won’t let us.”
“Yeah, D-ranks have always seemed like a waste of time to me,” Narumi laughed. “But I guess someone has to do it!”
“If I have to catch that stupid cat one more time, I’m throwing it into the Forest of Death,” Kushina muttered.
The door opened to admit Minato. He looked even worse off than Kushina, with bags under his eyes and his hair uncombed. Jiraiya must have really been pushing his team hard. Still, his smile was the same as always. “Hello, Nii-san,” Minato greeted. “Kushina-san.”
“Minatooooo,” Kushina whined. “Is your sensei as much of a hardass as mine? My bruises have bruises! I’m never gonna look at a naginata the same way again! I have nightmares about being chased by dogs!”
Minato’s eyes lit up. “Jiraiya-sensei is amazing! He knows a lot about fuinjutsu, did you know? And he knows a lot about ninjutsu and creating jutsu, he says his teammate is interested in that kind of thing.”
“D-ranks,” Kushina whined.
“They’re not so bad,” Minato said. “I had to do chores like that at the orphanage all the time, since we couldn’t afford to hire genin.”
“Ugggh, you’re such a goody-two-shoes,” Kushina groaned. Minato shrugged, and Kushina grinned and slung an arm around his shoulders. “That’s why you need me! I’ll get you into trouble, no worries.”
“Shouldn’t we be staying out of trouble?”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
While they playfully bickered, Narumi went ahead and ordered. Kushina wasn’t shy about ordering as much as she wanted, but he knew that Minato would be careful about ordering too much when someone was paying. He was a genin now--he needed all the energy he could get.
Minato’s mouth fell open when the waitress brought by the food Narumi had ordered, so much that the table underneath was barely visible. “Nii-san! This is too much.”
“You can take the leftovers home,” Narumi said. “Now eat up, before it gets cold!”
After a moment, Minato nodded and picked up his chopsticks. “Thank you for the food.”
“Thanks for the food!” Kushina cheered, before falling ravenously upon the meal.
By the time they finished, the entire table had been cleared of food. They must have been hungrier than they’d been letting on. “Still hungry?” Narumi asked, eyeing the two genin.
Kushina leaned back and sighed. “I’m stuffed! That was pretty great.”
Minato nodded and set his chopsticks aside. “Thank you for treating us, Nii-san.”
“Don’t worry about it. You sure you don’t want more?”
Minato smiled softly. “I’m sure.”
Narumi paid the bill, and the three of them left the restaurant. Kushina headed back to her apartment, but Minato headed off in the opposite direction from the orphanage. Narumi watched him go, but Minato didn’t change direction at all. After a moment, Narumi followed him. Something seemed off with Minato, and Narumi was going to find out what.
After a while of following Minato, Narumi began to think he’d been mistaken. Minato went to a ninja supply store for a few minutes, looked in a few bookstores, and otherwise acted like any other genin with a fresh supply of cash to spend. He didn’t buy very much, but that wasn’t surprising. Minato was the type to be careful with his money. By the time nearly an hour had passed, Narumi was about ready to call it quits, when Minato entered a laundromat.
Narumi settled on the roof of the opposite building to watch.
Minato unsealed a bag from a scroll--he was clearly putting his fuinjutsu lessons to good use--and emptied it into the washing machine. He put in a few coins, filled it with detergent, and then settled down with a book.
Narumi watched and waited, wondering why Minato would come here to do his laundry. Maybe the laundry machine at the orphanage was broken, or they didn’t know how to clean shinobi gear properly so he’d taken to doing it himself. Narumi would have to keep watching to find out.
Minato’s laundry wasn’t washed and dried for another two hours, and Minato took another half an hour to fold his clothes and seal them back up. Narumi followed him through the village; Minato still wasn’t heading to the orphanage. Eventually, they reached a park, one that had one of those play structures with a room underneath so kids could sit in it. The room was small, but could still easily fit a child Minato’s size comfortably. As Narumi watched, Minato entered the room and sat on the bench, pulling his knees up to his chest.
Narumi decided he’d watched long enough. In a flash, he was at the entrance to the little room, crouching down to see through the door. He knocked against the wood. “Knock knock.”
Minato jumped up so quickly he smacked his head against the ceiling. “N-nii-san! What are you doing here?”
“Worrying about you,” Narumi said. “You’re not going back to the orphanage?”
Minato shook his head and stared down at the floor, avoiding Narumi’s gaze. “I’m a genin now. Legally, I’m an adult. Everyone leaves the orphanage when they become a genin . . . I’ve been saving up my mission pay for an apartment, but I don’t have anyone to act as a guarantor so I have to pay a large deposit . . .”
“You couldn’t ask Jiraiya? He’s your jounin-sensei, I’m sure he could help you out,” Narumi said.
Minato shook his head rapidly. “I couldn’t impose on him like that!”
“Well, lucky for you, you’ve got a big brother to impose on. C’mon, you’re not sleeping here. You can stay with me until we sort out an apartment for you.” Narumi held out a hand.
Hesitantly, Minato put his hand in Narumi’s. Narumi hauled him out of the playground and wrapped an arm around his shoulders as he led him from the park. “How long’s this been going on?”
“Since I passed the exam,” Minato said. “I should have expected it, but it slipped my mind. Some people failed the test on purpose so they wouldn’t have to leave.”
Narumi sighed. “Jeez, just throwing kids to the wind like that . . .”
“Genin pay can easily cover rent for a cheap apartment,” Minato said. “Two or three D-ranks are enough, and we do more than that in a week. We just didn’t start them right away, and then I wasn’t prepared to put down a deposit.”
“You shouldn’t have to worry about that at all. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Narumi said. “You are going to take a shower and get some sleep. No arguments!”
Minato, still looking at the ground, nodded. “Yes, Nii-san.”
Narumi sighed and ruffled Minato’s hair. “And next time, tell me when you’re having trouble with something. I’m here to help you, ya know.”
Minato didn’t reply, and they walked the rest of the way to Tsubame’s apartment in silence. While Minato showered, Narumi set up a spare futon on the floor of his bedroom. Tsubame’s room was unoccupied, but Tsubame was pretty private, so Narumi figured he should at least ask before letting someone else sleep there. He could take the floor for a week or two while he got Minato sorted out.
Of course, Minato tried to protest the arrangement. “I couldn’t put you out of your bed, Nii-san! I’m fine with the floor.”
“You’ve got training and missions,” Narumi said. “You’re taking the bed. Trust me, I’ve slept in worse conditions for longer periods of time.”
Minato looked from Narumi to the bed, fingers plucking anxiously at the hem of his borrowed pajamas. “If you’re sure, Nii-san.”
“I’m sure,” Narumi said firmly. “Now get in bed.”
Minato crawled reluctantly under the covers as Narumi turned off the lights and got settled on the spare futon.
“Thanks, Nii-san,” Minato whispered.
“No need to thank me. We’re family, Minato. I’m gonna look after you no matter what.”
Notes on Names
Kogane (黄金): Golden; inspired by Tsunade's favorite phrase, "One grab, a thousand gold"
Shikanao (鹿直): Deer+Honest
Chinami: (千波): 1000 Waves
Wakimizu (湧き水): Spring water
Michio (道郎): Land+Central
Akamatsu (赤松): Red Pine
Narumi left Konoha shortly after Sakumo and Kaede’s wedding—a boisterous affair with a horde of Inuzuka in attendance—and headed back to Uzushio. Word had finally come to Konoha that the Summit had ended, a treaty had been signed, and the war was officially over. He passed shinobi returning to Konoha in droves on his way, and was joined by several shinobi returning to Uzushio. By the time he finally arrived, he’d gotten to know many members of the Uzumaki and Mizushima clans, as well as several other jounin and chuunin.
The village was even busier than normal, as the genin who had been left behind reunited with parents and siblings and friends. Even the canals were filled with people running over the water, anxious to get home.
Narumi made his way to the Uzumaki compound, but didn’t get far before an ANBU landed in front of him.
“Namikaze-san,” the woman said. “Uzukage-sama is waiting for you in his office.”
“I’ll be there,” he said.
As he made his way through the crowded streets and canals, Narumi wondered what Tsubame could want. A new mission, now that the Summit was over, or maybe something related to the Summit and the treaty. Or, Narumi thought with a grin, maybe Tsubame just wanted to see him. He probably wouldn’t summon Narumi to his office for something so frivolous, but it was a nice thought.
The ANBU guarding the door opened it as he entered, clearly expecting him. Tsubame, to Narumi’s surprise, wasn’t sitting at his desk but rather staring out the window, towards the sea.
“Leave us,” he said.
The ANBU bowed and left.
“All of you,” Tsubame said. Motion blurred in the corner of Narumi’s eyes, but when he turned his head, he saw nothing.
Narumi leaned against the wall next to Tsubame. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes. I . . .” Tsubame breathed in deeply, then breathed out. Narumi leaned over, trying to look at Tsubame’s face, and saw that his brows were furrowed deeply. “There’s something I have to tell you. It regards a treaty.”
“I thought it might.”
Tsubame shook his head. His red hair fell to the sides of his face like a curtain, blocking Narumi’s view. “No, not that treaty. A treaty with Nami; the council has been arranging it. As you know, Uzushio has no daimyo, and thus lacks a significant source of income that the other countries have, while Nami has no shinobi village, and thus lacks protection. A treaty between the two countries benefits both parties.”
“Yeah, okay, I get that. But what does that have to do with me?”
Tsubame sighed again. “I apologize. It is easier to discuss the minute details than . . . than tell you what I have to tell you.”
His fingers played with the ends of his hair. “We almost had a treaty with Nami ten years ago, you know. The daimyo of Nami has a daughter—Nami’s princess. She was meant to marry Tsubasa, but that fell through for obvious reasons. In the end, without the union to seal it, the treaty negotiations collapsed. And now I’m the Uzukage, in a position to take Tsubasa’s place, so. . .”
Tsubame took a deep breath. “I’m getting married.”
Narumi’s heart stuttered in his chest. “Married?”
“For the treaty. To the daimyo’s daughter. I’m sending out some shinobi to bring her here tomorrow, and when she gets here, we’ll be married. I’m told . . . she’s quite pretty.” Tsubame laughed, but the sound was quiet and broken.
“And you didn’t talk to me about it?”
Tsubame shook his head. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t talk to you about it. I knew that . . . if I did, I wouldn’t be able to go through with it.”
“So you don’t want this?” Narumi asked. Tsubame’s gaze remained fixed out at sea, turned away from Narumi. Narumi seized his shoulders and, before Tsubame could make him let go, spun Tsubame around to face him. “Dammit, Tsubame, talk to me!”
He froze as he took in Tsubame’s face. His lips were pressed together firmly, trembling slightly, and his eyes were shiny and wet.
“You think I want this?” Tsubame hissed. “Of course I don’t want this! I don’t care how pretty she is, or how much of a fitting wife she is. I’ll never love her.”
Tears welled up in Tsubame’s eyes and spilled down his cheeks. “But I have to do this. For the sake of the village.”
Slowly, Narumi let go of Tsubame’s shoulders and instead wrapped his arms around him, pulling him in closer until Tsubame’s face was pressed against his shoulder. Tsubame leaned against him limply, trembling.
“I’m sorry, Narumi,” Tsubame whispered. “If I could, I would . . .”
Narumi pressed his face against Tsubame’s hair. “It’s okay. I understand.” He pulled back just enough that he could cup Tsubame’s face in his hands and wipe away Tsubame’s tears. Somehow, he managed to smile. “I know what it means to be a Kage.”
Tsubame reached up, running his hands through Narumi’s hair and pulling Narumi down until their foreheads rested against each other. “You’re too understanding, Narumi.”
Narumi shifted slightly, pressing their lips together. Tsubame kissed back eagerly, his hands clutching at Narumi desperately. When Narumi pulled away, Tsubame’s cheeks were flushed pink. “I dunno about that,” he said. “I’m just as understanding as anyone should be.”
Tsubame smiled softly and leaned against the window. “If everyone were like you, the world would be a much better place.”
“Hey now, don’t flatter me when you’re dumping me. I’ll get the wrong idea.” Narumi stared out the window, looking out at the deceptively calm water. “You said there was a mission to bring her here, right? Send me on it.”
Tsubame should his head. “Narumi, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“I want to go. I want to meet her. I gotta see if she’s as pretty as they say,” Narumi said, giving him a grin.
Tsubame scoffed. “You know I don’t care about that.”
“Yeah, otherwise you wouldn’t be with me.”
“Don’t say things like that,” Tsubame said. “You know I’ve always found you handsome. This girl, whoever she is, whatever she looks like . . . she could never compare.”
Narumi ran a hand through his hair, and Tsubame gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I’ll refrain from saying such things.”
Tsubame turned away from the window and returned to his desk. “I’ll add you to the mission roster. The team leaves from the mission desk tomorrow morning. Details are in the scroll. I’ll have a copy sent to you. Now, I—I have a lot of work to do. You should go.”
“Okay. I’ll go. See you, Tsubame.”
With one final glance at Tsubame—looking down at his desk, avoiding Narumi’s eyes—Narumi walked to the door.
“Narumi. I . . . I really am sorry,” Tsubame whispered.
Narumi paused, one hand on the door. “Yeah. Me too.”
He left the Uzukage’s office and took to the streets, wandering them with no clear destination in mind. He drifted through the crowd and somehow ended up at the edge of the village, staring in the direction of the small, isolated island Tsubame had once taken him to.
Narumi walked across the water until he reached the island, and walked through the house. It was made of some kind of stone, or a similar material, so he wasn’t too worried about walking through the house and going upstairs. It was a nice house. Big enough for two people to live comfortably, with a trapdoor at the top of the stairs that lead to the large, flat roof of the house.
Narumi stretched out on the roof, staring up at the blue sky and the few clouds.
“Dammit,” he said.
His eyes burned. Narumi covered his eyes with his arm and tried to ignore the wetness seeping into the fabric. Even when he closed his eyes, he could still see Tsubame’s distraught expression, the tears pouring down his cheeks. He wanted nothing more than to run back to Tsubame’s office and rip up that damn treaty, then go to the elders and rip them a new one for making Tsubame feel like he had no choice but to go through with the marriage.
He understood making sacrifices for your village, for the people you cared about. He’d sacrificed a whole world, all the friends he’d left behind, for the sake of building a better world. But that didn’t make it hurt any less, and it didn’t make him stop wanting to beat the shit out of anyone who made Tsubame cry.
In this situation, though, Narumi couldn’t do anything, and he hated that more than anything.
So, he went to get the Daimyo’s daughter. Her name was Shiomi, she was a few years older than Tsubame, and she was just as pretty as Tsubame had been probably been told. She smiled the whole way to Uzushio; she had been told Tsubame was handsome and strong, and she was excited to marry him.
She hadn’t been told that he was sometimes cold and standoffish, that he had a streak of mischief he kept carefully hidden, that he loved children and that they loved him in return, that he was obsessed with seals and spent more time researching them than was probably healthy, and that he would never love her as anything more than a friend.
Narumi tried not to dislike her, but he had to admit he wasn’t entirely successful. He may or may not have slipped a sea urchin (or two or three) into her bed when no one was looking.
With civilians, they had to travel by boat and move carefully to avoid the whirlpools lurking under the water, so their trip from Nami was much slower than Narumi was used to. By the time they arrived, the whole village was decked out for the wedding, shinobi and civilians alike crowding in the streets to catch a glimpse of the princess.
Narumi went to the wedding. Tsubame did look handsome in his formal attire, and the princess even prettier than she had looked on the trip over. Tsubame’s eyes were slightly red, and his hands trembled through the service.
“Tsubame-chan is nervous,” an old Uzumaki woman chuckled to her friend.
The other woman swatted her. “That’s our Uzukage, you know! And not that I blame him, with such a pretty wife . . .”
Tsubame smiled at the end of the ceremony and smiled through the reception, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Narumi stayed for the whole reception, but didn’t approach Tsubame. Instead, he waited until a week later, went to Tsubame’s house, and knocked on the door.
Hyousuke opened the door. Seeing him here, in Uzushio instead of home in Kiri, still made Narumi feel guilty.
“Hey, Hyousuke, is Tsubame home?”
The boy nodded and stepped back. “Tsubame! Narumi is here!”
Tsubame appeared in the door, a frown fixed to his face. “Narumi. Should you be here?”
Narumi shrugged and smiled at him. “Hey, you dumped me. You never said we couldn’t be friends.”
Slowly, the corners of Tsubame’s lips turned upwards. “Friends? I suppose . . . I suppose I would like that.”
Narumi beamed. “Great! Because let me tell you, I still have a lot to learn about this whole fuinjutsu thing.”
Tsubame sighed, but he was still smiling, and the tenseness in his eyes had cleared. “Of course you’re after my fuinjutsu knowledge. Well, you might as well come in. We’ll make a respectable Uzumaki of you yet.”
“I’d like to see you try!” Narumi laughed as he walked through the door.
Even if he couldn’t have what he’d had with Tsubame, at least Narumi could make sure he was smiling.
“I think Tsubame is avoiding me.”
“Well, can you blame him? That did kind of end disastrously.”
Narumi stared miserably down at his ration bar. Sakumo poked futilely at their attempt at a fire.
“He’s been sending me on missions non-stop since he got married,” Narumi sighed.
“He feels guilty,” Sakumo said. “This is his weird, emotionally-constipated way of making it up to you.”
“By sending me on a hunt for a missing-nin? In the rain?”
“Hey! At least you have my charming company!”
“I’d rather be out of the rain. Or at least have a good meal.”
Sakumo sighed. “It does make it hard to track. Ran, Gin, and Jun still aren’t back . . .”
“Shouldn’t you go with them?” Narumi asked.
He waved a hand. “I’d only slow them down. They’re better trackers than me. Now, if Kaede were here . . .”
“Oh, yeah, how’s she doing?”
Sakumo chuckled. “She can’t wait. She’s been counting down the days ever since we found out.”
“He’s due . . . November, yeah?”
“Yep, two months,” Sakumo said. “He’ll be in the same year as Kogane in school. Maybe they’ll even be on the same genin team.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Narumi said. It was a strange thought—there were people alive who should have been dead, and people alive who shouldn’t have existed at all. Kakashi’s genin team might be totally different from what it had been. “How’s Kogane doing?”
“Getting bigger every day,” Sakumo said. “Hard to believe it’s already been six months. He’s a quiet kid. I thought babies were supposed to be noisy, but Tsunade says he pretty much never cries. I wonder what Kakashi’ll be like . . . oh, I don’t know if I told you. That’s what we’re naming him.”
“Kakashi Hatake. Nice name,” Narumi said.
“Kaede thought of it, actually. We’re sticking with the Hatake naming tradition—”
Both of them fell silent as the sound of footsteps racing towards them became apparent. They both took up positions behind trees, kunai at the ready.
Three animals burst into the small clearing where they had made camp. At first, Narumi wondered if they were Gin, Jun, and Ran, but no—these were clearly dogs, not wolves, much smaller than Sakumo’s summons.
A teenage girl burst into the clearing, gasping for breath. “Sakumo-senpai!”
“Tsume?” Sakumo exclaimed. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Kaede-nee-chan,” the girl gasped. “She’s at the hospital! The baby’s coming! Tsunade sent me to relieve you.”
“Already? But it’s too early!”
“The baby doesn’t care!” Tsume said, shoving Sakumo forward. “Now get going! I might be a chuunin, but I can track just as well as you!”
“Keep my summons with you,” Sakumo said, already moving forwards. “I’ve got to—”
He leapt up into the trees and was gone, his words lost to the wind.
Gin, Jun, and Ran appeared nearly a day later, having tracked down their missing-nin to an abandoned fishing hut where he had taken shelter from the rain, and disappeared just as quickly.
“That’s not good,” Narumi said. “He uses water jutsu—he’ll have the whole river to use.” He grinned at the thought of a bit of a challenge. Tsume Inuzuka, too, was grinning.
“Me ‘n the boys are ready any day,” she announced, cracking her knuckles.
“Then let’s get going!”
Tsume cackled. “Just barge in and hit ‘em, huh? I like your style!”
With Tsume and her ninken as backup, Narumi was free to barge right into the fisherman’s hut. The missing-nin, clearly not expecting such a full-frontal assault if he expected to be tracked down at all, went down like a sack of bricks to Narumi’s punch. Narumi heaved him up over one shoulder, slapped a seal on him to keep him knocked out, and rejoined Tsume.
The two of them headed back to the village. It took two days, all things told. Narumi left the missing-nin and the mission debriefing to Tsume in favor of running to the hospital.
He burst through the doors and ran to the front desk, ignoring the dirty looks the staff gave him. “I’m looking for, uh, Kaede Hatake.”
The receptionist flipped through her files and nodded. “You’re on the list. Maternity ward, room 203.”
Narumi thanked her and took off towards the elevator. The room was easy to find, but when he arrived it was empty except for Kaede, who was sleeping. A few flowers had been set up around the bed, along with several balloons declaring, “It’s a boy!”
Narumi left the room and continued down the hallway until he encountered Sakumo staring into a window. Narumi joined him and looked through the room full of babies until he spotted the smallest of them, connected to twice as much equipment as the others.
“He’s so small,” Narumi said.
“They think he’ll be okay,” Sakumo said. “Tsunade herself is taking care of him.”
Narumi put a hand on his shoulder. “I know he’ll be okay. He’s gonna grow up to be an amazing shinobi.”
“I hope so,” Sakumo said, still staring at the baby. “Narumi, would you be his godfather?”
“Yeah, of course—wait, what?” Narumi blinked rapidly. “Why me?”
“Dan and Tsunade are busy with Kogane, and the hospital on top of that,” Sakumo said. “Tsubame has enough on his plate as it is. And as much as I like Orochimaru and Jiraiya, I wouldn’t trust either of them with a baby. There’s no one I’d rather take care of him than you if something happened to me and Kaede.”
“I hope you know I’m gonna spoil him terribly,” Narumi informed him.
Sakumo laughed. “I’m sure you will! He’s gonna take after Kaede, I can tell already. I’m gonna be beating boys and girls away with a stick.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Recovering. There were some complications, but Tsunade says she’ll be up and training again in no time.” Sakumo chuckled. “You should’ve seen her genin team. Ah—that reminds me. I think you might want to talk to Kushina-chan.”
“Kushina? What about?”
“Didn’t you hear? Mito Senju died recently,” Sakumo said. “I think we were on a mission during the funeral—it was during the summer. Tsubame didn’t tell you?”
Narumi shook his head. “Like I said, he’s been avoiding me. I don’t think things are going well with his wife.”
“I’m not surprised,” Sakumo said. “You sign up to marry a hot young shinobi and you get Tsubame. Don’t look at me like that! I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I just meant that if she expected to marry a gorgeous prince who would sweep her up in his arms and carry her off into the sunset, she was going to be unpleasantly surprised. Bad luck, really. Her first prince ended up being a princess, and her second ended up only interested in other princes. Or maybe it's karma?"
“Whatever it is, she's not happy about it,” Narumi sighed. “She started glaring at me whenever I showed up at their house.”
Sakumo whistled. “You went to their house? You’re a braver man than me.”
“I couldn’t just abandon him!”
“He got married. He wasn’t captured by enemy shinobi.” Sakumo thought for a moment and shrugged. “Granted, for Tsubame it may amount to the same thing.”
“I wish there was something I could do to make it easier for him.”
“Give it time,” Sakumo said. “Eventually, his wife will accept that Tsubame isn’t attracted to women at all, and then she’ll give up and let him do whatever he wants. It’ll just take, oh, ten years or so depending on how stubborn she is.”
They were quiet for a moment, watching Kakashi through the window.
“I wonder if they’ve had sex?” Sakumo wondered. “How does that work? Like, does he just lie back and think of Narumi?”
Narumi shuddered. “Please, never say that again.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Sakumo laughed sheepishly. “Kaede’s lack of filter is rubbing off on me. But like I was saying, you should check in on Kushina. She’s seemed quiet lately.”
“Yeah, I might go do that. Any idea where she is?”
“Kaede’s team has been training with Jiraiya’s team while she’s in the hospital,” Sakumo said. “Check training ground three.”
Narumi left Sakumo at the hospital and ran to training ground three, stopping at the edge of the training ground to observe before entering.
He spotted Jiraiya’s team first, practicing ninjutsu together. Chinami was spitting out globs of water, Michio was blowing out a stream of fire, and Minato was puffing out gusts of wind. In the background, Mikoto was training with shuriken and kunai, throwing them at Jiraiya. After a moment, Jiraiya froze in place. Narumi looked for the cause, and eventually noticed a shadow connected to his—Mikoto had attached wires to the kunai, and Shikanao had used the shadows from the wires for her jutsu.
“Again, faster!” Jiraiya said, only to look over and spot Narumi. He waved and dodged a kunai. “Narumi, what brings you here?”
“Is Kushina here?”
Jiraiya jumped over a trio of shuriken and knocked a kunai aside with a kunai of his own. “She went off on her own, towards the river. You’re welcome to follow her if you want to get your head ripped off.”
“I’ll take my chances!” Narumi said, waving at Minato as he headed into the forest.
It wasn’t hard to find Kushina; he just had to follow the sounds of splashing and cursing. He found her attempting to stand on the river, only to wobble and fall into the river. Narumi had a feeling he knew what the issue was now; Kushina, an Uzumaki born and raised in Uzushio, had probably known how to walk on water since she learned how to channel chakra, and there was only one reason he could think of for her to have difficulties with it now.
As Kushina dragged herself out of the river, Narumi knocked on a tree to get her attention. “Hey there,” he said.
Kushina glared at him as she wrung the water out of her shirt. “What?” she snapped.
Kushina turned her glare on the river. “I shouldn’t! I’ve been walking on water since forever! This is stupid.” She kicked at the river, splashing water through the air. She sank down, tucking her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. “Why’d Mito-baa-san have to pick me?”
Narumi knelt beside her and ran a hand over her hair, pushing the wet strands away from her face. “Because she knows you’re strong.”
“I can’t even do the stupid water-walking exercise. Even babies can do that,” Kushina muttered.
“The Kyuubi is disrupting your chakra. You’re used to having a certain amount, and now you have way more than you’re used to,” Narumi said.
Kushina looked at him with wide eyes. “Nii-san . . . you know about the Kyuubi?”
“I had a hunch,” he said. “There aren’t many things that would give you difficulty with the water-walking exercise.”
He stood and offered her a hand. “Come on. Let’s keep trying. You’ll get there!”
Kushina took his hand, and he pulled her up. Kushina stared at the river. “Mito-baa-san said that I’m a vessel for the Kyuubi, but . . . if I fill the vessel with love . . . even a jinchuuriki can be happy. Nii-san, do you think . . . do you think Baa-san was right?”
Narumi rubbed his chin. “Hmm, I dunno. I think we’d better test it out!”
Kushina stared up at him. “What do you mea—eeek!”
Narumi seized Kushina, hugging her so fiercely that she was pulled off her feet, and spun her around until she was laughing. He set her down, steadying her as she stumbled, and ruffled her hair. “So, how d’you feel? Does the vessel have a little more love in it?”
Kushina wiped her eyes and smiled up at him. “It does. But I think we gotta do that one more time. Just to make sure.”
“Okay, here we go!”
Narumi hoisted her up and spun her around, laughing along with her. “Okay, Kushina! Let’s go!”
“Go? Wait, what’re you gonna do?”
Narumi put one last burst of speed before releasing her. “Fly, Kushina!”
Kushina shrieked as she flew through the air, colliding with a tree with a smack. Kushina glared down at him from the tree. “Nii-san! That was mean!”
“Yeah, but you’re sticking to the tree,” Narumi said.
Kushina blinked in surprise, and looked down at her hands and knees, which were both sticking to the trunk of the tree. Slowly, she removed her hands from the tree, shifted from one knee to that foot, and then from the other knee to the other foot, so that she was standing on the trunk.
“Hey, I’m doing it—whoa!” Kushina fell from the tree as quickly as she had stuck to it, landing in a crouch on the ground. “Nii-san, you saw, right?”
“Told you, you’ll get it,” Narumi said.
Kushina got to her feet. “Yeah! I’m not gonna give up, stupid river!”
Narumi cheered as Kushina ran back to the river. “Yeah, you show that river who’s boss!”
By the time the sun went down, both of them were soaked and shivering, but grinning from ear to ear as Kushina stood on top of the river. They made their way back to the training ground, Kushina on Narumi’s back, and found Minato waiting for them.
He jumped to his feet as they approached. “Nii-san! Kushina-san! Are you alright? You’re soaked.”
Narumi spotted Kushina’s victory sign out of the corner of his eye. “‘Course I’m alright. I’m gonna be Hokage, ya know! A little bit of training won’t bring me down.”
“She’s fine, just exhausted,” Narumi said. “C’mon, time for dinner. My treat.”
“Yeah!” Kushina cheered. “Ramen, ramen!”
“Ramen it is!”
On days when they had missions, Kushina met her team at Kaede-sensei’s house instead of the training ground. Mikoto was usually the first one to arrive out of the three of them, always punctual, and sure enough when Kushina opened the front door, Mikoto was already sitting in the living room, showing Kakashi-chan how to hold the shuriken properly.
“Yes, just like that,” she said, as she looked up to give Kushina a smile.
Kushina crouched beside them and ruffled Kakashi’s hair. “How’s it going, Kakashi-chan! Training already?”
Kakashi peered at her through his half-lidded eyes, somehow managing to look both irritated and sleepy.
Kaede rushed through the room, pulling her hair up in a pony-tail as she grabbed her mission pouch from the kitchen. “Only two and he’s already started asking us to put him in the Academy. He can’t wait to start training for real. Right, Kakashi?”
Kakashi nodded once.
Kaede grabbed her naginata from where it had been leaning against the wall and slung it across her back before turning to them with a broad smile. “Now, who’s ready to go to Kogane-chan’s house?”
Kushina raised her hand. “Sensei, Nao-chan’s not here!”
“I’m here. Are we leaving?” Shikanao stood in the middle of the entryway, not even bothering to take off her shoes.
“Nao, right on time as always. Yep, we’re heading out. Got your stuff? Need help with your shoes?” Kaede asked Kakashi.
With a nod, Kakashi grabbed his tiny little backpack and started to put on his itty-bitty ninja shoes. Kushina almost cooed over him—he was so adorable!—but that was a surefire way to get kicked in the shins.
Kakashi insisted on walking, so their progress to the Senju compound was slow. “Where’s Sakumo?” Kushina asked Kaede, to pass the time.
“Oh, he’s off with Narumi again,” Kaede said. “I feel like Narumi almost sees him more than I do! They’re tracking down a missing genin squad.”
Mikoto frowned. “That would be . . . Isamu Uchiha’s team, right?”
“Yeah, I should’ve known you would know,” Kaede said. “Their distress seal went off a few days ago.”
Mikoto nodded. “I spoke to his mother yesterday . . . she’s very worried.”
“I would be too. A fresh genin team activating a distress seal . . .” Kaede sighed. “Well, Narumi and Sakumo will find them.”
The guard at the Senju gate waved them through, as he always did, and they walked with Kakashi to the house he stayed at when both Kaede and Sakumo were on missions. The door was opened by another of Narumi’s friends, a man with pale hair who Kushina had only met in passing a few times.
“Hey, Dan, got another one for you,” Kaede said. Kakashi pulled off his shoes and wandered into the house in search of his friend. Kushina had babysat them both once as a D-rank. It was the easiest D-rank they’d ever taken; the kids had sat next to each other in silence, looked at some books, and gone outside to ‘train’ together. “Aaaaaand he’s off. See you when I’m home, Kakashi! Have fun with Kogane!”
“Bye,” Kakashi’s quiet voice called from within the house.
“I’ll look after him,” Dan said. “You’re due back in two weeks?”
Kushina nodded. “Yeah, it’s your basic patrol mission. Sakumo might be back before me, we’ll see. Alright, kids, let’s head ‘em up and move ‘em out!”
The four of them made their way to the gates, where Hachimaru joined them. Kakashi liked to turn Hachimaru into his mount of war, so Hachimaru tended to make himself scarce when he wasn’t in the mood to play. Kushina scratched him behind the ears—a difficult feat when Hachimaru was as tall as she was—and earned herself a grateful bark.
“You know the drill,” Kaede said as they took off into the trees. “Stay alert, give a signal if you notice anything out of place. This is our last mission before the chuunin exams, so let’s make it a good one.”
They fell into their usual formation, Kaede and Hachimaru in the front, Shikanao and Kushina on the sides, and Mikoto in the back. They passed another patrol as they made their way along their route, and Kaede exchanged brief words with them before they headed on their way. At night, they made camp. Shikanao, who couldn’t be trusted to wake up in the middle of the night, took the first watch, while Mikoto, who was always awake early anyways, took the last watch. Kushina ended up with the second watch, and passed the hours staring up at the stars visible through the gaps in the trees, Hachimaru curled around her back.
For the first few days, nothing unusual or unexpected occurred on their route. This was why Kushina hated patrol routes; the majority of the time, they were the most boring missions available. She’d rather fight a bunch of bandits, or guard a merchant traveling from one town to another. Even escorting the Daimyo’s wife and her horrible cats to and from the capital would be better than endlessly running through the trees, staying on high alert even though nothing was going to happen. It left her with too much energy and nothing to do with it.
And then, on the fourth day of their patrol, Hachimaru stopped and sniffed the air. Kaede did the same, and promptly wrinkled her nose. “Blood.”
Kaede launched into motion, running off into the distance with Hachimaru. The three genin followed hot on her heels, Shikanao vanishing into the trees like the shadows she controlled to attack from a distance while Kushina and Mikoto ran directly into the fray.
Kushina burst into a clearing to find Kaede already engaging a group of bandits. Kushina engaged the nearest of them, a woman with wicked set of brass knuckles, ducking underneath her wild blow and punching her directly in the diaphragm. The woman doubled over, gasping, and Kushina quickly knocked her out. A trio of kunai shot past her, and Kushina followed them. The bandit knocked aside the kunai, only to freeze as Shikanao caught him in her shadow, wide open for Kushina to take him out.
Hachimaru leapt over her, landing on a bandit who had been attempting to sneak up on Kushina and tearing out his throat. Kushina turned to find two more bandits running at her, and on reflex whipped out a chakra chain and tangled them together. Mikoto followed up, knocking them out and tying them up with ninja wire.
The clearing was still.
Kaede pulled her naginata out of a bandit with a squelch and wiped the blade clean on the grass. Mikoto searched the fallen shinobi, tagging them for retrieval and picking up the various weapons she had thrown.
“Hey, sensei?” Kushina asked, looking around the clearing. “What blood did you smell?”
Kaede sniffed the air again and frowned. “I’m not sure. It’s still here but . . . muted.”
Mikoto looked around in a circle, her eyes Sharingan-red.
The ground burst upwards underneath them. Kushina toppled backwards, the back of her head smacking against a tree as rocks and dirt rained down on them. When the dust settled, a group of five shinobi stood in front of them, the line through their Iwa headbands as clear as day.
“Shit! Get back,” Kaede snapped. “Where’s Nao?”
A twig snapped behind them. Kushina whirled around, kunai at the ready, but relaxed as she recognized Shikanao’s familiar, spiky ponytail. “Nao-chan,” she called, only to freeze as a man stepped out behind Shikanao.
No—he wasn’t just behind Shikanao, Kushina realized, as he stepped further into the clearing. Nao’s feet weren’t touching the ground at all, and blood dripped from her chest, from the gaping hole through which the man had shoved his hand.
The man yanked his hand back, and Shikanao fell to the ground, limp and unmoving.
He smiled. “She’s still alive,” he said. “Now, hand over the Uchiha, and we’ll let the other three go. If you hurry, I’m sure your hospital can save her.”
Kaede snarled and aimed her naginata at him. “Over my dead body.”
The man sighed and shook his head, as if regretful. “So be it.”
Kaede met Kushina’s eyes in the instant before the man lunged, heading towards Mikoto. In a flash, Kushina was in front of him, Mikoto standing in the place where she had just been. The man didn’t stop, but Kushina ducked under his extended fist. He slashed at her with a kunai, scoring a long line across the arm she hastily raised to protect her face, only to be knocked back as Hachimaru leapt over her.
“Go!” Kaede yelled, naginata whirling through the air. “Hachimaru and I will hold them off!”
Kushina and Mikoto exchanged glances. “But, sensei!”
“Go! These are jounin. Call for backup and get Nao back to the village!”
Kushina forced herself to tear her eyes away from the fight and ran to Shikanao, joined by Mikoto. Together, they were able to get her off the ground, and ran from the clearing with Shikanao supported between them.
Shikanao’s body was still warm, but blood was seeping from her wound.
“We can’t go on like this,” Mikoto said. “We have to bandage her wound, or she’ll die before we reach Konoha.”
Kushina halted only a second after Mikoto. A quick glance backward showed that all the enemy shinobi were still engaged with Kaede and Hachimaru. “We have to be quick.”
As Mikoto bandaged Shikanao using the standard medical kid, equipped with seals anyone could use so long as they followed the instructions properly, Kushina hunted through her pockets until she came up with the distress seal. When activated, it would alert the mission center in Konoha, and they would send someone to the location of the seal. Kushina dropped it on the ground and hoped that would be enough.
Mikoto sat back on her heels and wiped her face clean of sweat, accidentally leaving a streak of blood on her forehead. “There. That should hold her until we can get her to the hospital, but we have to move quickly.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Uchiha bitch!”
A body plowed into Kushina, sending her flying into a tree. She lay there for a moment, stunned. When she managed to pull herself together and get to her feet, she found Mikoto dodging spikes of earth and tossing out weapons and fire jutsu that were quickly blocked by walls that emerged from the ground at a split second notice. Kushina bit down on her thumb and started to draw on the ground. Her ink and sealing paper was somewhere in one of her pockets, and getting it out would waste time—blood and dirt would have to do.
She finished and activated the seal, and the next time the man tried to summon up a wall of earth, nothing happened. His eyes went wide as Mikoto’s kunai speared him in the throat and chest.
Kushina stumbled to her feet. Her thumb was still bleeding, but it was a minor wound at most. “C’mon. We’ve got to go.”
Mikoto’s eyes went wide, and her hand clapped against her neck. She turned, her eyes looking upwards, before collapsing to the ground.
Kushina leapt in the direction Mikoto had looked, colliding with a woman and knocking her down to the ground. The woman twisted out of Kushina’s grip and rolled them over, punching Kushina twice in the face before Kushina reached up and dug her thumbs into the woman’s eyes. She screamed and reared back, and Kushina kicked her off and hit the woman’s nose with the flat of her palm, directing the blow upwards, towards the brain. Her nose crumpled with Kushina’s hit, and the woman fell to the ground and didn’t move.
Kushina wiped away the blood streaming from her nose. Shikanao was on the ground, bandaged but still bleeding, and Mikoto was unconscious from an attack of some kind. Two enemies had managed to get past Kaede and Hachimaru and attack them, and that meant they were in trouble.
There was nothing else to do—Kushina couldn’t abandon Kaede and Hachimaru, and she couldn’t leave Mikoto and Shikanao undefended. Bringing her hands together, Kushina formed a seal and summoned six shadow clones. Before the Kyuubi, she’d managed three and been exhausted; the horrible fox had his uses.
“Get them back to Konoha. I have to go help Kaede-sensei,” Kushina said.
The clones nodded. Four of them paired up to carry Mikoto and Kaede, and the other two followed. With any luck, they would manage to get home without being dispelled. It was a risk Kushina had to take.
There wasn’t a moment to lose; leaving her friends in the hands of the clones, Kushina turned on her heel and ran back to the clearing.
She stopped short as she entered the clearing. She couldn’t see Hachimaru, but Kaede was still standing, naginata firmly planted in one of the four remaining enemy shinobi. Relief rushed through her. “Kaede-sensei!”
Kaede sank to her knees. Kushina stepped forwards, and Kaede fell face-down in the dirt and didn’t move.
The man who had attacked Shikanao looked at her, still smiling. “Looks like one of the little genin came back. Where’s the Uchiha, girl? Tell us, and we won’t hurt you. It’s too late for your sensei and the dog, but you don’t have to die.”
At last, Kushina caught sight of Hachimaru, his coat red with blood. Rage bubbled up inside her like lava, more powerful than any of the ‘love’ that Mito had told her to cultivate.
The man’s smile faltered as he took a step back.
Kushina’s hands clenched into her fists, her nails biting into her hands and drawing blood, sharper than they should have been.
“I’ll kill you,” she snarled.
Red filled her vision, and she pounced.
Narumi hefted the small body into his arms and sighed. “At least we saved one of them.”
Sakumo, beside him, gently laid the final body onto a storage scroll and sealed it up. “Better than nothing,” he said grimly. “How are his eyes?”
“Intact,” Narumi said. “I have them sealed up. Think Tsunade can reattach them?”
“If they’re intact, then probably,” Sakumo said. He stood, holding the three scrolls in his hands. “We should get him back to the village quickly.”
Narumi looked down at the boy in his arms. Isamu Uchiha, ten years old, recent Academy graduate, the only surviving member of his team. Narumi had wrapped bandages around his eyes and activated the seals in the bandages, but Sakumo was right. The faster they got him back to the village, the better. “Let’s go.”
Before Sakumo could put away the scrolls, a hawk flew down from the sky, alighting on Sakumo’s shoulder. “A message from Konoha?” Narumi asked as Sakumo quickly shoved the scrolls away and removed a slip of paper from the hawk’s leg.
“A distress signal was activated near us,” Sakumo said. “Only a few minutes ago.”
“You go. You’re the better tracker,” Narumi said. “I’ll get Isamu back to the village. I’ll take the bodies, too.”
“You can spend time with Kakashi,” Sakumo said as he handed Narumi the scrolls. “It’s been awhile since he saw you. If Kaede isn’t home, he’ll be with Dan and Tsunade.”
“I’ll visit him once Isamu is taken care of,” Narumi said.
With that, Sakumo took off with his wolves, while Narumi ran in the opposite direction. Isamu’s breaths were short and shallow, but at least he was breathing.
“Hang in there, Isamu,” Narumi encouraged as he ran. “You’ll be home soon. You can do it.”
Isamu’s lips parted. “M-mom . . .”
“She’s waiting for you, so hang in there,” Narumi said. “You’ll see her soon, don’t you worry. I’m gonna get you to Konoha, so save your strength.”
“T-tell mom . . .”
Narumi listened, but Isamu said nothing else, and after a few minutes Narumi assumed he had lapsed back into unconsciousness. He put on an extra burst of speed and didn’t slow down until the gates of the village were in sight.
The guards waved him through after a quick check of his identification, leaving Narumi free to make his way to the hospital. The moment he walked through the doors, Isamu was whisked away by a medic and the storage scrolls were taken by another medic so the bodies could be processed.
Unwilling to leave until he knew more, Narumi settled down in the waiting room.
Eventually, Tsunade emerged from the depths of the hospital, leveling an unimpressed look at him. “I thought you’d be here. The Uchiha kid is fine. Eyeballs back in his head and everything. It might take him a while to get the sight back.”
Narumi leapt up from his seat. “He’s fine?”
Tsunade set her hands on her hips. “He’s fine, so settle down. He’s asleep and resting, and his mother is on her way, so there’s no need for you to take up space in my hospital anymore. Go home and take a shower.”
“I was gonna visit Kakashi.”
“Trust me. Take a shower first,” Tsunade said.
Looking down at his blood-stained shirt, Narumi had to admit she had a point. Tsubame’s apartment was a bit out of his way, but he made his way there was quickly as possible to bathe and change before heading to the Senju compound.
He found Dan in the garden, watching over three small children, one with dark hair, one with blond, and one with grey.
“Narumi,” he greeted warmly. “Good to see you.”
“There’s one more than normal,” Narumi said, squinting at the kids running around with toy shuriken and kunai.
“My niece, Shizune,” Dan said. “My sister’s daughter. She’s three.”
The kids had taken notice of the new arrival. Kogane and Shizune quickly dismissed him and went back to throwing their toy weapons, but Kakashi stared at him solemnly from behind his oversized scarf.
Narumi grinned and waved him over. “Hey there, Kakashi, remember me?”
Kakashi ran over, but shook his head.
“That’s okay,” Narumi said. “I brought something fun for you.”
“This is Narumi-ji-san, your parents’ friend,” Dan said as Narumi hunted through his pockets.
“Aha!” Narumi held a seal aloft. “Here, hold this and channel chakra through it. Wait, do you know what—”
Kakashi grabbed the seal with both hands and glared down at it. After a few minutes, brightly colored sparks erupted from the seal, spiralling and pinwheeling through the sky. Harmless, but colorful and fun.
Narumi laughed at Kakashi’s wide eyes and reached into his pocket for more seals. Went he went to hand over the seals, however, Kakashi’s eyes were no longer looking at him but behind him.
Narumi turned and saw Sakumo standing on the path leading to the garden. “Hey, Sakumo!” Narumi called, waving him over.
Sakumo stumbled forwards.
Dan stood. “Ah. I think I should take the children inside. Kogane! Shizune! Time for lunch. You too, Kakashi.”
Sakumo was limping, Narumi realized as Kogane and Shizune ran past him. Kakashi didn’t move from his side.
Dan looked inside, after the other two, and then back at Kakashi. “Come on, Kakashi.”
“It’s okay. Go look after the other two,” Narumi said.
Sakumo’s shirt was stained with blood, not yet dried, and Narumi had a feeling that something was terribly wrong.
“Dad?” Kakashi said as Sakumo approached them, his eyes fixed on Kakashi and nothing else.
Sakumo sank to his knees in front of Kakashi. Trembling, his hands reached out to gently hold Kakashi’s shoulders. Kakashi stared at his father, and then at Narumi, confusion clear in his eyes.
Narumi had a sinking feeling he knew what team had set off the distress seal.
Kakashi tentatively patted his father’s head, as if unsure what protocol to follow now that their regular post-mission routine had been disrupted. “Welcome home, Dad.”
Sakumo blinked, as if seeing Kakashi for the first time. “Ah. I’m home . . . Kakashi.”
Sakumo’s face crumpled. Tears welled up in his eyes. He clutched Kakashi desperately close, as if never intending to let him go, and sobbed.