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The four of them made their travel preparations and departed early in the afternoon. Typically a team leaving the village would leave at sunrise to maximize the daylight hours if they were in no particular hurry, intending to reach one of the travelers’ inns before nightfall, about a day’s walk out along the major roads, but Kakashi wanted to give them some proper exposure to bivouacking in the forest, and to practicing their mobility over longer ranges.
Ninja past the academy level were expected to travel at speeds greater than a man on horseback—at least until their chakra was exhausted, but even a horse would tire faster than a ninja. By thrusting against the earth with powerful bursts of chakra from the base of the feet, a shinobi could leap forward at a low angle and then soften their landing with a corresponding pulse on the other end. This tended to burn through chakra pretty quickly at first, but as their control grew more reliable and precise it was possible to make bigger leaps, and to soar great distances with a single huge thrust, emitting nothing at all while airborne, confident in their ability to land without shattering every bone in their body.
Travelling from Leaf village, however—located as it was in heavily forested terrain—was a different sort of challenge. A canopy of trees made landing and launching-off much more difficult than it would have been in the open prairie further north. It had great defensive value in that it slowed the approach of enemy ninja and offered copious opportunities for ambush, but it also meant that the quickest form of travel for Leaf ninja was often to leap from tree to tree along a web of flying “roads” that had developed over time, as generations of ninja picked their way through the forest at high speed, only occasionally clearing out an intrusive branch or two on their way. This method of travel was markedly more complicated than the mere pushing and catching that made up standard ninja travel, but Naruto had chakra to spare, and welcomed the opportunity to learn. The advantages were widely known even in foreign countries; nobody could move as fast through a forest as a ninja of Leaf.
Over a lifetime of travel these routes would become second nature, but for newly-made genin they were a nightmare. When he wasn’t diving after Kakashi through some little gap in the branches or bouncing off a specific knot on a tree trunk, he was flying high above the canopy, completely blind to his landing place until practically the moment he was on top of it. And everybody knew what happened to a ninja who made a bad landing—not just the punctured lungs and mangled limbs, but the broken branch you left behind. Every ninja in Leaf would know the name of the genin who put a hole in the northern tree run, and whatever other accomplishments you might have once had to your name, that would forever be your legacy.
The four of them set up camp that night around fifty miles north of Leaf, about a third of the way to Sound village. Kakashi expected that they would cross the border on foot tomorrow, and reach their destination some time the next day. There was no hurry, though, and any unnecessarily wasted chakra could be a danger in foreign lands.
Technically, Leaf was at peace, for the moment, with all five of the great villages, and had treaties of one kind or another with all of the little buffer states on her borders, but such agreements carried little weight when information could so easily be distorted, and jounin could so easily be snatched off the roads to be tortured for techniques and other intelligence—for techniques like the shadow clone.
Naruto had given his old tinted goggles to Hinata for her to wear, after speculating that it might be dangerous for her eyes to be so easily identifiable. He hadn’t expected her to take him up on the offer; most clans considered it a mark of pride to be recognized, especially by their enemies, but her anxiety must have won out. He’d bought those goggles long ago, thinking he was very clever to be protecting his eyes, but the loss of peripheral vision had been more of an impediment than he’d expected, and he’d quickly given up on wearing them. For a wielder of the byakugan who could see through walls, though, that wasn’t so much of a concern, and they certainly functioned to make her look a bit more intimidating.
Kakashi was on watch while they ate. Naruto was working his way through the book he’d brought along, one-handed, when he caught Sasuke eyeing him from across the grass. He raised his eyebrows, inquiring.
Sasuke sniffed with disdain. “You’ve got enough shadow clones that you can just sit back and relax now, huh?”
Naruto had only casually mentioned a few weeks ago that he was using shadow clones to train—mostly as an excuse to explain how he’d caught up so fast, but Sasuke seemed to have taken it like he was cheating, somehow.
“I’m not sitting back to relax, this is a textbook for jounin,” Naruto replied, feeling a little defensive. “And it’s hard work—it’s probably the most important training I do.”
“Yeah, looks real difficult,” Sasuke said.
“I mean it,” Naruto said, swallowing his mouthful of food. “Whenever I have a few spare minutes I always get my clones to work on my reading pile. If an ANBU came through my window last night they would have seen a dozen hunchbacks jammed into every corner.”
“W—why?” Naruto asked. “Uh, well… because there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know how to do yet, and books are good at teaching me how to do them? How else could I keep up with someone like Hinata, who can see the chakra she’s manipulating? Or with the sharingan you’ll probably unlock soon for being an Uchiha?”
Sasuke looked dubious. “If you say so.”
“Don’t you read things in your training?”
“No,” he said. “I train my own way.”
“You just… what, you figure everything out naturally, from scratch?” Naruto asked. “First time, every time?”
“Nobody’s perfect. I just want it more, and I’m not stupid.”
“Aren’t you concerned that those sorts of methods might not work when the stuff we’re learning gets harder?”
“Then I’ll work harder.”
Naruto shrugged. “Okay. If you say so.”
Sasuke went back to cleaning his boots. Naruto tried to return to his meal, but after a few seconds the pressure had grown too great to ignore.
“Look,” he said, “I know it’s really none of my business, but if I wanted to fight Uchiha Itachi, then I would be looking for every possible shortcut to power that I could find. Avoiding books for the sake of my pride would be a really low priority.”
“I don’t avoid books because of pride,” Sasuke replied. “What does that even mean?”
“Well, everyone would always call me stupid when I was reading about something I was supposed to know already, but when I read something more advanced then everyone would make fun of me for trying to show off. It can be useful though just to hear things you already know explained in a different way, sometimes, or even if you only understand a tiny bit of the harder stuff it can be really interesting, or it can show you what to expect once you start learning things properly. I wouldn’t mind sacrificing some of my prestige if it meant I could learn useful stuff faster.”
Sasuke snorted. “Yeah, some sacrifice. All that orphan prestige.”
“Hey, at least I’m trying,” Naruto replied. “You’re the one who wants to fight one of the strongest ninja alive. What are you willing to sacrifice?”
Sasuke looked him in the eye. “Everything.”
“Name one actual thing you actually chose to sacrifice,” Naruto said.
Sasuke paused, breaking eye contact. “…Happiness.”
“Yeah? And how much of that did you really have to give up, living all alone in that big empty Uchiha compound?”
Hinata drew in a sharp breath. Sasuke turned away, neglecting to respond.
Naruto still wanted to be angry at him, but he knew he’d gone a bit too far with that one.
“Okay, I’m feeling a little cranky now and its making me want to be unreasonable, so I’m sorry for saying that,” he said. “I know how hard you work and I’m sure that you really do want to get strong, even if you have to make sacrifices.”
Sasuke didn’t reply.
“All I was trying to say was that I think books are useful, and I bet that you’d grow faster if you experimented with different kinds of training, sometimes… I’ve got some notes here from a book called ‘108 Weird Tricks to Train Your Chakra Control.’ You can borrow them, if you want to see what happens, or you can just train however you like, I guess. It’s none of my business.”
Sasuke cupped his hands over his mouth, tapping his foot on the ground.
He stood up. “Alright. How much do you bet?”
“Oh, uhh… Well—I kind of meant it as more of a… hypothetical bet…” he said, caught off guard, “but I guess that wouldn’t really carry much weight, so… um, how about… twenty ryo?”
“Good enough,” Sasuke said. “Gimme the notes.”
Thirty minutes later Sasuke returned from the woods. He tossed a twenty ryo coin in Naruto’s direction.
“Good enough,” he said. “Show me the rest.”
“Oh, I was right?”
“Gloat all you want,” Sasuke said, “just show me your other notes.”
“I’m not gloating, I’m happy,” Naruto said. “You’re my teammate. Maybe this’ll be what you use to save my life, someday.”
“Not likely,” he said. “May I please have the other notes now, Naruto?”
“I can lend them to you, yeah, but I didn’t bring them all with me. I have years worth piled up in my apartment.”
“That’s fine. I’ll take them all.”
“H—hey! It isn’t like I just pulled them out of the air, you know. Those two pages you’re holding took, like, nine hours to put together. If we’re going to share the benefit we should share at least some of the work, too.”
“Just make more of your shadow clones,” Sasuke said. “Get them to do it.”
“I would, if I could afford to, but I still do actually have to live through all that training myself, you know. I’d still be doing the work.”
“So, what, you want me to keep up with your hunchbacks and write you a dozen book reports before you’ll let me read one?”
“No—I’m not trying to exploit you,” Naruto said, “I’m just trying to figure out the best way for us both to, you know… exploit each other. So we can combine our different strengths. I will give you all my notes, even if you decide not to do anything for me in return, but I’m trying to come up with a better plan, because I think we could both get a lot stronger if we just tried to help each other out a bit more, you know?”
Sasuke handed the two pages back. “What do you want, then?”
“I don’t know yet, I hadn’t really thought about it,” Naruto said. “I guess it would be nice if you could let me know when you see some way I could improve my combat patterns or something. Maybe you could let one of my clones train with you sometimes. Mostly I just want you to act like it’s a good thing if I get stronger, rather than as if I’m threatening to get to Itachi first. Just help me out when you can, and I’ll help you out too, like partners. What do you think?”
Sasuke frowned. “Sounds easy enough, I guess.”
“Alright,” Naruto said. “Good.”
“Can I have the rest of the notes you brought then, now?”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“I know, I know,” Naruto said, digging the notes out of his pack. “You can have them, but I’ve just had another idea that I think could make you… even more strong.”
Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “How?”
“Well—it’s just that I’ve got a lot of book summaries and notes and stuff, years and years worth. This could turn into a pretty huge project, even if you only want to read a tiny fraction of them all. I just thought maybe I could spare a few hours once we’re back in Leaf to map out some kind of path through the whole mess. Like, there are a lot of books which probably don’t even seem relevant to most ninja, but which ended up teaching me some really important stuff that I get a lot of use out of, or which helped me understand other things faster. So if you want to wait a bit we can figure out what your current situation is and I can sort it all out for you. That’s what I’d do if I had to train myself up from scratch again, anyway. But I guess it’s no big deal to just give you this stuff to start with.”
Sasuke shrugged. “I’ll wait,” he said. “You weren’t wrong about those other ones, so I guess I’ll listen even if you are going to keep talking to me like I’m an idiot. I’m not afraid to sacrifice my pride for any kind of power.”
“R—right,” Naruto said, sheepishly. “Well, I’m sorry for talking like you’re an idiot. I’m not very good at communication, yet, I think. It was unintentional, but I’m glad you pointed it out—maybe you can help me sound less condescending from now on.”
“Might be tough.”
“You did want a more challenging mission, right?” Naruto said. “See? This ‘partner’ thing is working out already.”
“Hmph… I’m gonna go train some more, then,” he said, nodding. “Later.”
Naruto wasn’t certain, yet, but it seemed that out of the wreckage of that argument, he and Sasuke had somehow just grown a little bit closer.
Hinata looked up from her food and cleared her throat.
“Um, I was wondering,” she said, “have you ever, um, made notes from a book about, um… cowardice?”
“Cowardice?” he asked. “Uh… I’m not sure. Are you worried about when we might have to fight someone? Because you remember how hard it was to even hit Kakashi; he’ll make sure you’re safe even if you freeze up completely.”
“Well, not, um—not in battle, exactly, but… more like… people-cowardice? For just normally, in life?”
“Oh, you mean, like—like talking to people?” Naruto asked. “And wondering what to say, and things like that?”
“I don’t think I’ve read much on that exact subject… but I know I’ve seen a book called ‘Assassinating Social Anxiety’ in the library. I can get it for you, if you want. Or I can put a clone on it and make a summary.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry. I can read it on my own,” she said. “Thank you, though.”
“You already helped me a bunch with my experiments, with your eyes, so it wouldn’t be a problem. We’re partners too.”
Hinata smiled, turning back to her food.
When they reached the village of Sound they were welcomed in by the guards on watch as esteemed guests.
The “village” seemed to consist of little more than a few scattered buildings—still more of a command post than a genuine urban settlement, but there was a big empty traveler’s lodge that seemed well equipped, with individual rooms already prepared for them. Arrangements were made to meet with the village head the following morning.
His name, according to Kakashi’s, was Gen’yumaru. Reports said that until recently he had been an unremarkable young chuunin from Frost country, until he disappeared one day and showed up a few months later in Hot Springs country with a few lackeys and started to carve out his own territory—Sound country. If the stories were to be believed, he had fought off a dozen of the local jounin at once.
Nobody seemed to take Hot Springs very seriously. Somehow they’d already lost control of half of their agricultural base, and they had been completely unable to mount a competent response to what should have been a trivial threat. Leaf was not in the business of propping up fragile states on unthreatened borders, so the mission they had been dispatched on was intended to grant diplomatic recognition to Gen’yumaru’s new village of Sound in exchange for a few insignificant legal concessions, mostly for the sake of bringing them into the fold and heading off any risk of future conquests not approved of by Leaf’s Hokage. They were only a small country for now, but Hinata said it would be wise to check their momentum before they established too large an independent powerbase in the north.
They were to meet with him in a small auditorium that had been built underground, perhaps in the hope that its dimensions couldn’t be easily judged from the outside, but Hinata had it mapped out with her byakugan almost as soon as they’d settled in. She had observed twenty-two people inside, most of them asleep, spread out over two floors which she sketched on paper for Kakashi. All but a few of them looked like prisoners, crammed into guarded cells on the bottom floor—most likely some of the Hot Springs ninja yet to be traded or turned, but she also noted the strange fact that one of the local ninja seemed to possess two distinct chakra systems overlaid, one on top of the other—something she’d never seen before. He looked like he was important, possibly Gen’yumaru himself, and he also had a very tiny snake coiled around his ankle. Kakashi quizzed her for details and took notes for his report. You never knew what sort of rare bloodline techniques might be encountered in the field, and Leaf was always interested in compiling more data on potential enemies. The possibility that it was some kind of body-fusion technique was briefly discussed, or that it might be a form of mental possession for which Gen’yumaru was the original victim, but they had little to base their speculations on, and the information was not a high enough priority to be worth prying into at the expense of diplomacy.
Naruto had begun to expect to meet a grand charismatic-conqueror type, but when they finally met Gen’yumaru he was dressed without any of the ostentation that might be expected from one so newly empowered, and he was, if anything, a little short.
“Hey! Welcome, welcome,” he said, beckoning them inside. “Sorry about the mess, we’re all a bit frantic at the moment. You know how it is.”
The “audience chamber” was indeed a mess. Cluttered piles of papers and stationary were strewn about, and what looked like boxes of valuable hospital equipment for medic-nin were just sitting open on a desk.
Kakashi was in the process of formally introducing himself and the trio as the diplomatic representatives of Leaf when another young man in thick spectacles entered the room from a side door.
“Ooh, here he is!” Gen’yumaru said, opening his arms wide. “This guy right here is my number-one ace-assistant: Kabuto! You guys should probably talk to him if you want to know anything about, like, paperwork, or the details of the whatever, or whatever, you know? He does all my thinking for me, ha-ha.”
Naruto immediately pinned this guy “Kabuto” as one of those power-behind-the-throne types; he practically reeked of deceit, seeming far too cordial and reserved to be a genuine friend to someone like Gen’yumaru, and too intelligent to be satisfied taking orders from him. Kakashi might have got the same impression, as he didn’t hesitate to accept the offer to go and speak with him in private about “the details” once the formalities were concluded, leaving the trio with an instruction to meet him back at the inn.
“Alright, catch you later!”
Gen’yumaru waved goodbye to the three of them with a boyish smile on his face, but as they turned to go he called out again, “Oh! Hey—hey! Uh, are you an Uchiha, you there?”
Sasuke looked back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“I saw it on your back,” Gen’yumaru explained. “Uchiha, man! They’re great! Do you have your sharingan yet?”
“We don’t discuss military matters with foreign personnel,” Sasuke said.
“Oh, hey, I get it. Don’t even worry, man. I knew an Uchiha who didn’t get it till he was nineteen. I was just gonna say I know a trick, so I could help you unlock it if you want. Takes like two minutes.”
Sasuke seemed to hesitate. Naruto stepped in before he could get them in any trouble. “If you as a shinobi loyal to a foreign country intend to make a gift to a shinobi of Leaf of a technique or of information relating to a technique which may or may not already be in the possession of said Leaf shinobi, it would be considered inappropriate to accept said gift without the consultation and acknowledgement of the formally appointed diplomat assigned to oversee communications and exchanges with said foreign country at the present time.”
“Whoa, man,” Gen’yumaru laughed, “hey, I’m not really on top of all that diplomatical business, you know? I’m just saying I could show my man here how to turn his sharingan on, if he wants? But, like, hey, I don’t wanna start a war over it! Ha-ha.”
Naruto nodded in acknowledgment, turning again to leave, but Sasuke hesitated. Naruto knew he was impatient to unlock his clan’s famous eye-technique, and it couldn’t be helping that their own captain had one of the last Uchiha eyes transplanted into his head. Even if Gen’yumaru did have some trick, though, they could always come back for it later, with Kakashi’s permission. It didn’t seem too likely that Kabuto would find out about it, and try to have the offer recanted to sell it to them instead, or something.
“I’ll meet you two back at the lodge,” Sasuke said. “Don’t worry about Kakashi; anything bad happening would be an act of war. I’m not concerned.”
Naruto was concerned, but he could tell Sasuke didn’t want to wait, and having a public disagreement in full view of such a high ranking foreign ninja would be a punishable offense all of its own.
“We’ll wait outside”, he said, glancing at Gen’yumaru, “if that’s fine with you?”
“Yeah, man. Whatever you say,” he replied. “Won’t take a sec, like I said. C’mon mister Uchiha, let’s get you fixed up.”
Grudgingly, Naruto stepped outside to wait with Hinata. She had her byakugan to keep an eye on him from afar, at least.
On their first day, during the bell test, Sasuke had told them both that Kakashi had obtained the sharingan years ago, from a dying Uchiha teammate. The guy had apparently broken clan law by giving it away, even as he was dying, but for whatever political reasons that were relevant at the time the Uchiha had decided to let Kakashi keep it. What had surprised Naruto most about the story was the fact that apparently the noble Uchiha’s famous eye-technique could be taken as easily as by switching out eyeballs. It made him wonder why there weren’t more foreign shinobi walking around with stolen sharingan, if every Uchiha genin was such a walking goldmine. Maybe there were.
Once they’d found a good private spot she activated her eye and began to describe the goings-on inside, for him. She explained that she could see Kakashi sitting across from Kabuto, in another room, sedately going over a number of maps and documents, their exact words not clear to her sight alone. Sasuke had followed Gen’yumaru out of the audience chamber—and he was indeed the one with the two chakra systems.
They went through a little corridor, and Sasuke was waiting now while their host spoke to a few other ninja in an adjacent room.
He returned to Sasuke and said something else, gesturing to the door. Sasuke nodded, and went in.
Three guys and a girl were waiting for him. They were grinning like wolves when he entered.
Gen’yumaru leant against the door behind Sasuke, as if trying to trap him inside.
“Oh—oh no, they’re about to—”
Naruto started back for the stairs in a hurry, not even knowing what he intended to do.
“Wait, they—no. They stopped?”
He skidded to a halt, looking back.
“They didn’t—Sasuke fell over, but now he’s standing up and talking to them again,” she said. “His eyes—he’s got chakra in his eyes. It’s like the byakugan. I think it worked.”
“What?” Naruto asked. “How? Is he safe?”
“I—I don’t know. He’s still speaking to them. Gen’yumaru went in too. They’re talking… the other ones are leaving, now. It looked like they might have been trying to scare him.”
“But he’s okay, right? What’s he doing?”
“I think he’s okay,” she said. “Unnerved, maybe, but he looks fine. His heartbeat’s calming down.”
“Is fear how you’re supposed to activate the sharingan? Was it like that for your byakugan?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “The byakugan’s already present at birth if you have it. The sharingan is an Uchiha secret—I don’t think Sasuke even knew how. Kakashi probably wouldn’t know either, or he could have just told him.”
“I should head in there anyway. I’ll make up an excuse.”
“He’s coming out, now,” Hinata said. “Gen’yumaru gave him something and left. He’s almost here.”
Naruto let out a breath. “Damn… Damn… My heart’s racing too, now. That was stupid.”
Sasuke came through the doors a moment later. Naruto hurried to his side.
“Hey man, are you okay? We saw you fall over.”
“What?” Sasuke said, “Oh, right. The byakugan. Yeah, it worked… Got my sharingan.”
His eyes were blood-red, with three black swirls around the pupils.
“You sure you’re okay?” Naruto asked. “You don’t look right.”
“Huh? No, I am,” Sasuke said. “They just surprised me a bit. They had to pretend they were gonna kill me so I’d have a real emotional reaction.”
“Well, it’s good that it worked, but damn—we almost started a war just now.” Naruto said. “Really crazy. Hinata said you got something from him, though?”
“Oh, right,” Sasuke said, “yeah, just—just something for the sharingan. Uchiha stuff.”
They started back for the lodge, Hinata confirming that Kakashi’s meeting was progressing undisturbed.
“So what’s it feel like?” Naruto asked, looking at Sasuke. “Using the eyes, I mean.”
“I don’t know. Kind of like I’m seeing faster, I guess,” he replied. “Like, I can see the bugs in those trees, even from here. It’s not bad.”
Naruto squinted at the trees, trying to make anything out.
Sasuke blinked, turning his eyes back to normal. “Costs too much chakra to keep using, though, so I’ll save it for later.”
“The byakugan uses up a lot of chakra too,” Hinata said. “Naruto says that if I ever need to use it more than once every two minutes, then I just should just leave it on, instead of switching back and forth.”
“Yeah, we could work out the exact numbers, if you want,” Naruto said. “The byakugan uses up about as much chakra to activate as it costs to keep it going for a hundred seconds.”
“We’re still in foreign country, remember,” Sasuke said. “No time to mess around.”
“Once we’re back in Leaf, though,” he said. “Might be worth knowing, I guess.”
Naruto grinned. “It’s funny. Now that you have the sharingan and Hinata’s got the byakugan, all we need is for me to unlock the secret eye-technique of the Uzumaki, or the Senju, or whatever other clan I might be partially descended from. We could be famous.”
“What, you mean the rinnegan?”
Naruto snorted. “Yeah, right.”
“…Don’t tell me you actually believe in that.”
“Don’t see why I shouldn’t,” Sasuke said. “There are all sorts of lost techniques.”
“Yeah, but come on, a single skill which is supposed to grant perfect chakra control, and the ability to read minds, and to resurrect the dead and to summon giant fighting centipedes? That doesn’t even sound like a real technique. It sounds like a list of cool powers written down by a nine year old with no idea of, like, balance, or consistency.”
“The Sannin had giant fighting animal companions,” Sasuke countered. “Lots of people saw them in the last few wars. The animals could talk, too.”
“Yeah but they just came along to help out, they weren’t being teleported in or anything, and even if the rinnegan could just summon any animal instantaneously, why would you get all those amazing other powers from the same technique—your enemies might as well just roll over and die at that point; you’d be invincible.”
Sasuke put his hands in his pockets. “Not invincible to old age,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Naruto said. “The story I heard actually said it was your ancestor Uchiha Madara who reawakened the rinnegan.”
“Yeah,” Sasuke said, “he secretly reawakened it after secretly surviving having his guts blown open, by drinking the blood of the First Hokage who didn’t even have the rinnegan, and then secretly dying again without ever showing his face. Really clever guy.”
“Well you’re an Uchiha too. Maybe you’ll unlock it someday,” Naruto said. “Then you can have the sharingan in one eye socket and the rinnegan in the other.”
“Hmph,” Sasuke shook his head. “That’s what it would look like to have your powers designed by a nine year old.”
Kakashi chastised Sasuke that afternoon for not having waited for his approval before going off with Gen’yumaru, but mentioned nothing about any kind of punishment. He was more interested to learn that Gen’yumaru had apparently known one of the Uchiha; something worth noting in his report.
There would be another round of negotiations tomorrow, before anything could be finalized, but Kakashi wanted to do a little information gathering on his own overnight, so he went to bed early in the afternoon.
Hinata spent the latter part of the day tirelessly copying down whatever Sound village documents had been unwisely left in view of her byakugan. After that was done, she had to make a thorough survey of every imaginable architectural dimension and measurement, filling pages with numerical estimates and other information that her clan had trained her to collect. It would be someone else’s responsibility back in Leaf to sort through all the information, but she could only make use of the byakugan for a number of hours before she too had to rest; spending much more of her chakra would have left her completely vulnerable to attack on their way home, and unable even to flee for very long.
Naruto and Sasuke had nothing in particular to occupy them, and their diplomatic status made standing guard unnecessary. Sasuke opted to go to bed not long after sunset, but Naruto wasn’t really tired enough to sleep, yet. He lay on his back, instead, dwelling on the events of the day.
After a while, he noticed something strange that he hadn’t given much attention to, earlier—Sasuke had said that Gen’yumaru had given him something for the sharingan, some “Uchiha stuff”, but what did that mean, exactly? An instruction guide? Why would Gen’yumaru have had a thing like that just lying around? They were pretty disorganized in there, but it still seemed odd.
Hinata hadn’t mentioned either of them pausing to write anything down, or to find something on a shelf, but he supposed that she would have said something if it was clearly a problem. Then again—Hinata wouldn’t have been able to read what was written on a rolled up scroll, or a folded piece of paper.
Other than his rogue brother Itachi, Sasuke was the very last of the Uchiha, and they had a pretty prestigious name. It might be tempting to a new village. The Hokage had said Mizuki was leaving for Sound village before Naruto had stopped him; people did do those kinds of things. Maybe Gen’yumaru was smarter than he looked, and he’d snuck Sasuke off in part to pass him a formal invitation to defect? Worse, Sasuke might have actually lied about it. If it wasn’t something related to the sharingan, he might really be considering the offer.
With little opportunity to make use of shadow clones in foreign country—and the fact that leaving any behind in Leaf would have left him open to the risk of stubbing his toe during the mission and vanishing in a puff of smoke—Naruto had plenty of extra chakra to burn. Instead of going to sleep in one consolidated body like he normally did, he summoned a pack of ten clones and had them start doing his sleeping for him. By morning time, if all went well, he could expect to receive ten-elevenths of a night’s rest, once he dispelled them again, which seemed like it enough to get by on while still allowing him one body free to wait by the door, listening for a sound, just in case Sasuke tried to sneak off.
He was probably just getting worried over nothing, but it would be interesting to try the sleeping trick anyway, to confirm it really worked.
A noise came not too long after Kakashi had set out, around midnight. Naruto heard a door being quietly closed, and then footsteps slowly passing by his room. He hadn’t wanted to be right.
He got up off the floor and woke a pair of clones before dispelling himself to spread his fresh memories around. One of the two nodded at the other and got up to follow after the sound.
Outside the lodge he saw Sasuke heading toward the outhouse, probably already aware he was being followed.
Naruto called out in a hushed voice. “Hey! Sasuke!”
Sasuke turned around, pretending to notice Naruto for the first time. “What?”
“Are you defecting from Leaf?”
“What?” he said. “No. I’m going to piss.”
“Our rooms have chamber pots. Did you come out here to defect?”
“No? I just don’t want to sleep in a room that smells like piss,” Sasuke said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I was thinking about that thing Gen’yumaru gave you. It sounded pretty suspicious, so I started worrying that he offered you a big incentive to defect. Can I see it?”
“What? No,” Sasuke said. “It’s private. Uchiha shit. Like I told you.”
“He just happened to have it lying around? Private information that you don’t even have back home?”
“He knew about my sharingan, didn’t he? Anyway, fuck you.”
“Can you at least show me part of the scroll, then? If it is a scroll.”
“I just said, it’s fucking private.”
“I know, but I mean literally one word, or something. Like, cover up all the words except some place where it says ‘sharingan’ or something, just so I know it’s actually about Uchiha stuff and that it’s not just some pre-written invitation he gives to all the promising ninja.”
“I don’t have to prove myself to you,” Sasuke said. “I thought we were supposed to be partners now.”
“Exactly! I’m trying to help you!” Naruto said, almost certain now that he had something to hide. “Listen, Leaf is easily the biggest and most powerful of all the great villages. The grass always seems greener across the border, but whatever they’re offering you is nothing compared to what resources you could have access to back home. The Leaf intelligence network must be ten times the size of theirs, and Leaf has a personal stake in helping you find and kill your brother—”
“I’m not defecting from Leaf!” Sasuke said. “Go find Kakashi if you want to formally accuse me of something.”
“I don’t want to get you punished if it’s just some stupid little thing,” Naruto said. “Can’t you at least tell me why you can’t explain more, or something? Anything at all?”
“No? I don’t know. Just fuck off, okay?” Sasuke said. “I’m not going to stand around here all fucking night.”
“They might want your eyes, you know. They’re valuable now, with that sharingan,” Naruto said. “Whoever you’re meeting with, if they attack, are you strong enough to fight them off alone?”
“I’m not meeting with anyone, or betraying Leaf, or anything. I’m just going to take a piss, and then do some training to help me sleep. You got me riled up. I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“Whatever he gave you, it must be something I’d disapprove of or you could have shown it to me, right? Is it related to harming the village, somehow? Or harming one of us?”
“Fuck! No! It’s got nothing to do with any of you!”
“What about you? Does it risk harming you somehow? Are you taking a risk we wouldn’t approve of?”
“I don’t know—it’s none of your business!”
“Is it something I can help with? You can’t think you’re already strong enough to fight Itachi, right? Just tell me what you’re doing, I promise I’m reasonable enough to let you do it, if it’s worth doing.”
“…You’ll let me?” Sasuke raised an eyebrow. There was a threat implicit in his tone. “You couldn’t stop me.”
“I wouldn’t really have to, directly,” Naruto said. “I’m already cloned. All I would have to do is cause enough of a racket to interfere with whatever you had hoped to achieve, and then Kakashi would have to investigate. I don’t want to get you in trouble, but you’re not giving me much choice.”
Sasuke looked around, suspicious, his eyes darkened by the sharingan. He couldn’t win by violence.
“…It’s not even against village rules, alright?” he said. “It’s just—it’s not even reckless, it’s just what you might call reckless. That’s all.”
That was a start, at least.
“Okay, so you’re trying to do something risky,” Naruto said, “but there’s a benefit that you think is worth the risk—and… you don’t think we would agree? Something you care about more than us—a step toward killing Itachi, somehow?”
“Something like that, I guess,” Sasuke said. “I’m not just being stupid. I’ve thought it over.”
“Okay, well, theoretically if it had to happen, would it be in any way less risky for you to have a teammate with you? Even if it’s just to call for medical help faster, if you needed it? Theoretically.”
“I—I guess? I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Because there are good reasons to bend the rules, sometimes , and I’m not going to stop someone taking a risk with their own safety if that’s what they want to do. I might be able to help you do whatever it is safely, but I can’t if you don’t tell me what it is.”
Sasuke didn’t seem to know what to make of it. “…Sounds like some kind of trick.”
“It could be, yeah,” Naruto said. “I’m sorry to put you in this position, and I can’t even promise that I will actually help you once you tell me—if I thought you were being affected by some weird mushrooms making you crazy then I’d have to stop you, but I think that if it sounds kind of reasonable, at least, then I wouldn’t interfere. We’re not in the academy anymore. I know that’s not much, and it depends entirely on my definition of ‘reasonable’, but it’s the truth.”
Sasuke hesitated. “…What if—what if there was a ninety percent chance I would die?”
“Ninety—holy crap. Ninety percent?”
“Now, hold on—I didn’t say ‘no’… but a ninety percent chance of death would need a pretty gigantic upside to be worthwhile. Do you have a good sense for what ninety percent actually is? We could flip a coin or something just to see—I think three heads in a row would be more likely than that. You would almost certainly die. By default, you would die and your clan won’t ever be avenged. Itachi wins.”
“If I live, it’ll make me stronger,” Sasuke said.
“…Strong enough to kill him, you mean?”
He paused again. “…No. Not that strong. But it will help, and combined with the rest of my training it might be enough to make the difference.”
Naruto put a hand to his forehead. It would have been easy for Sasuke to exaggerate the upside in a situation like his, but he hadn’t even claimed it was enough to kill his brother. He was thinking clearly, as far as Naruto could tell, but it was still ridiculous just how much he wanted to make himself stronger, even knowing that about the danger.
“The risk might not actually be as high as ninety percent,” Sasuke said. “My own chances would be better because I have good blood, he said, but he might have just been trying to flatter me.”
If Naruto turned him in now, Sasuke would never trust him in the future. They’d never be able to cooperate properly as a team.
“So, what, it’s just some really dangerous technique or something?” Naruto asked. “And it kills you if you mess it up? And if it’s from Gen’yumaru, why would he even—”
“No, it affects your body,” he said. “Look, it’s complicated; can we talk while we walk, if you’re coming? I really do need to get started soon.”
Naruto would never have accepted a risk like that for any technique short of omnipotence, but he didn’t feel right about making that choice for Sasuke, either. Kakashi would almost certainly have stopped them if he knew, but as their captain he wouldn’t have had much choice. Naruto did.
“Alright,” he said. “Just let me tell my clones where we’re going.”
Naruto summoned a new shadow clone next to himself, and a moment later it vanished, having bit its tongue.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
“What, that’s it?” Sasuke asked. “That’s how you talk to them?”
“Yeah. They’re all updated, now.”
“Alright…” Sasuke said. “C’mon, I guess.”
“Cancel the negotiations with Sand, when you get a chance. Our deal is off.”
“…Are you certain, sir? We don’t even know if the Uchiha boy will survive, long enough. The ninja of Sand are easily offended.”
Gen’yumaru smiled. “I’d hoped you would have learned by now that Sand ninja will do nothing until their hand is forced. If Sasuke dies, we needn’t have bothered with Leaf in any case; the other candidates were worthy of note only by their proximity to him. Trust that there will be greater opportunities for our growth, in time. Akatsuki will not catch us unready.”
Naruto followed after Sasuke, moving deep into the forest.
“It’s a seal that lets your body access nature chakra,” Sasuke explained. “I’ll be able to activate it or deactivate it when I want, but apparently not everyone can handle it. Ninety percent of the people he’s given it to have died.”
“So it is from Gen’yumaru, then? He gives it to his shinobi?”
“I think maybe just a few of them, I’m not sure. He did actually say I could join Sound, and that he’d make me a jounin and help me start to restore my clan and shit, but I don’t care about any of that. I just lied and said I’d consider it so he would give me the stuff.”
Sasuke opened up a leather wrap from his pouch. Inside was an opaque cylindrical tube with a detached syringe-point strapped to its side. Such fine needle-tips were very rare commodities; highly valued by ninja hospitals for their reusability. No modern smith could work steel that fine.
“I guess it’s hard to imagine any technique being worth sacrificing nine out of ten ninja for,” Naruto said. “He can’t have more than a few dozen shinobi in the first place. But I guess he probably knows what he’s doing.”
“He said that he uses nature chakra, and that the First Hokage used it too. It’s meant to make your whole body tougher and faster, and you can hit harder. After my body has had a few months to get used to it he said I should come back to Sound and he would upgrade it to an even better version, free. He really wants me to defect.”
“So you are actually expecting to survive this, then?”
“Maybe,” Sasuke said. “Anyway, we’re probably far enough in now. I don’t think anyone will hear us.”
He shoved the leaves out of the way with his foot, clearing a space to sit down on the forest floor.
“Do we even know this thing is real?” Naruto asked.
“I saw something like it on a couple of his ninja. He’s got no reason to lie; just wants the Uchiha name on board to legitimize his village.”
“…So how is this supposed to work?” Naruto asked, sitting down next to him. “You just spike this into your leg and then… what? I wait to see if you start screaming before I go get help?”
Sasuke carefully attached the needle-point to the tube of liquid.
“I think I’m meant to start screaming, actually,” he said. “That’s why I came all the way out here. I’m supposed to thrash around in pain for a few minutes, and then pass out for an hour or so. I guess if I die at some point you can figure out the rest on your own. I don’t mind if you say you weren’t involved.”
“I would feel really stupid for letting you do this if you died,” Naruto said. “So, uh… try not to, okay?”
Sasuke sniffed. “Yeah. I’ll try.”
He assembled the syringe, then held it for a second, looking at it.
He smiled, nervously.
“Do you want me to do it?” Naruto asked. “If it makes you thrash around I might be steadier.”
“Yeah, actually,” Sasuke said. “Good point.”
Naruto took it from him, turning it around in his hands. “Where do I inject it into you? Does it matter?”
“He said I would get black marks on my skin that look a bit like the sharingan, so I should hide it between my toes or something. I thought Hinata might notice anyway because of the chakra, though, so I was going to put it on my forehead and say it was a special Uchiha thing. Hiding in plain sight, you know?”
“Yeah, that sounds smart,” Naruto said. He scootched closer and put his fingers on Sasuke’s forehead to hold him steady.
“Are you ready?”
Sasuke nodded. “Yeah. Guess so… Feels kinda like I should say some last words or whatever, though. Just in case.”
“You’re not supposed to die, remember?” Naruto said. “We’re partners, and I still have stuff I need to learn from you. Dying now would be a breach of contract.”
“Yeah, alright. No last words,” he said. “Do it, then. I’m ready.”
Naruto pushed the tip of the syringe firmly into the skin of Sasuke’s forehead. A bead of blood formed at the tip and rolled down his face as Naruto squeezed the other end in, slowly plunging the fluid into Sasuke’s body.
Nothing seemed to happen, even after fully evacuating the syringe.
Sasuke relaxed his clenched teeth and rubbed at the mark. “It hurt a little I guess, but not that much,” he said.
“It might take a second,” Naruto said. “Be ready.”
“Oh, yeah, here it comes,” Sasuke said. “Ahh shit…”
“You feel it?”
“Aaaahh fuck fuck fuck fuaaahhHH—”
He screamed in agony, and within moments he was on his back, curled up in a ball. The sound made Naruto incredibly uncomfortable.
He dispersed a few clones into the trees surrounding them just to get a better idea of where he was, and to give an early warning if they met any late night patrols that happened to be passing through.
The veins on Sasuke’s neck stood out, and he heaved with heavy, painful breaths, hissing through gritted teeth.
Naruto took the jacket off of one of his clones and tried to make a little pillow for his head, and used another jacket to try to muffle the sound a bit, only just now realizing how ill-prepared he had been for the reality of this thing. They shouldn’t have rushed into it like that, even if it was a good idea—they should have discussed how to mitigate the pain somehow, first, like inducing unconsciousness through chakra exhaustion, or stealing some anesthetic water from the hospital, or something. It might have taken a while longer, but was there even any reason it had to happen tonight? He hadn’t even thought about it—he’d just gone along with Sasuke, worrying more about how to avoid offending him than how to deal with a ninety-percent chance of death—he’d barely paused to think at all. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Sasuke’s howling finally began to fade, and he eventually fell into a state like sleep.
His heart was still beating, for whatever that was worth. Naruto leant in close, feeling his warm breath.
A mark on Sasuke’s forehead had appeared during the first few minutes of the torture. If he didn’t suddenly die, it seemed things might go relatively smoothly, from now on.
Naruto settled in to wait, checking Sasuke over every few minutes, to make sure he was okay.
Barely half an hour had passed before they were discovered.