The weeks following the tournament were a storm of activity and reorganization in Leaf. None of the great villages had yet been around long enough to experience more than a few handovers of power between Kages and clans, so the protocols were still being partly established, but a provisional council of clan heads managed to keep some semblance of order in the interim.
The tournament had been brought to an immediate halt by the assassination, but now that things were clearing up it seemed that nobody had much interest in rescheduling the final battle, even just for a small audience of judges. Neither Naruto nor Sasuke had any reason to appeal, either, as the two of them had both received promotions to chuunin rank from the provisional council, along with Hinata and Rock Lee.
Despite their new rank, they had been put on a string of D-rank missions for the time being, though, standing guard around the village, partly due to the unusual needs and disorganization of the provisional council, and partly due to the natural glut of such missions around the exams.
Naruto yawned as he and Hinata took their places next to Sasuke. Kakashi was there too, leaning against the wall, but as chuunin they no longer needed a jounin to captain their team—he was there of his own free will, now. Not as an equal, yet, but as a friend.
Sasuke nodded as they sat down. “You hear about the new Hokage they chose?”
Naruto blinked, rubbing his eyes. “No? They picked one?”
“Yeah. It’s that old guy you guessed; Danzo, he’s called. Guess I owe you fifty ryo.”
“Wow, I guess he really… wow. That asshole!”
“Hey! Watch your tongue,” Kakashi said. “That’s our new Hokage you’re talking about.”
“Thought for sure they’d pick one of the Sannin,” Sasuke said.
“I told you, man, strength and respect and stuff isn’t enough. It’s all about trading favors, and having coalitions, and that kind of thing. Hinata says that the Sannin gave up any hope of power the day they left Leaf’s internal politics behind.”
Kakashi looked at him. “I’m curious, Naruto. How were you able to bet with Sasuke that Danzo would be chosen as the Fifth?”
“I wasn’t certain or anything,” Naruto said, “I just thought it was weird that I’d never seen him before, until recently, and now he’s suddenly sitting next to the Hokage all the time. I figured he was probably just the old head of ANBU or something, not much of a public figure, but then the Third died and since ANBU probably did it I made the guess that he was orchestrating it to put himself in charge. Lucky guess, mostly.”
Kakashi scanned their surroundings with his eyes, tense. “Such words will get you killed, Naruto. Even to theorize, you cannot speak this way in public,” Kakashi said. “ANBU could never betray the Hokage. They report personally to him for that very reason.”
“I didn’t mean they killed him,” Naruto said, chastened. He spoke more quietly, to match Kakashi’s tone. “Just that, I don’t know—maybe the guy that the Hokage put in charge of coordinating the boring logistical stuff for the exams might have left a hole in the defenses, for an assassin to slip through. Anyway, you’re right. Sorry.”
Naruto had never been very confident in the guess himself—it had just been a bit of fun between him and Sasuke, and there were too many ways for it to be wrong, but now that Danzo had become the next Hokage it seemed a little more plausible. There had been such a big show of strength for all the foreign visitors that it seemed unlikely anyone could have hoped to pull off an attack unless the vulnerability had been set up beforehand.
“We may never know who took the life of the Third, but the official suspicions are toward Mist country,” Kakashi said. “They have a history of high profile assassinations.”
“I think…” Hinata said, “I think that if Mist wanted to weaken us for the coming war, they would have attacked in the height of the confusion. The fact that they didn’t even take advantage of the opportunity suggests they weren’t even ready to fight… and if it was another foreign power trying to precipitate war against Mist then there should have been a clearer indication of their responsibility to stir our passions. The Third would likely have passed away soon from age alone, regardless, and he only reluctantly took up the mantle again when the Fourth sacrificed himself… I think, um, he might have chosen his favored successor, recently, and he meant to announce it soon. The opposing factions would have had good reason to remove him before it could be made public. That is my guess.”
Kakashi leant in to speak quietly among the four of them. “Listen. These things you three are saying are treasonous. Do you understand that? If they are false, then there is no reason to speak of them, and if they are true then there are even better reasons not to speak of them. You are chuunin now, not students of the academy; you can’t speak lightly of assassinations and conspiracies. You three in particular should understand well how easily ninja can be spied upon.”
“S—sorry,” Hinata said.
“Sorry. But I don’t have any problem with Danzo, anyway,” Naruto said. “The Third was nice to me, is all.”
“I understand…” Kakashi said. “You had no one else.”
“Well—it’s not like we ever spoke more than a few times, anyway,” Naruto said. “And it’s none of my concern how someone else got to their position. I’ll follow orders.”
Kakashi let out sigh. “Some might call that the ideal attitude for a ninja,” he said. “Others are less certain… But in this case, for the three of you, it is wise.”
With the examinations over Naruto quickly settled quickly back into his accustomed routine: training, reading and sparring.
He had a little less privacy now, with Hinata having taken up temporary residence in his tiny apartment. He didn’t mind having her around though, and as she was no longer a legal member of the Hyuuga clan she didn’t even have to worry about being given the branch-family seal, anymore. Perhaps her clan thought it was unlikely she would give away her other eye, too.
Still, her expulsion from the Hyuuga clan was a stronger reaction than he had expected. She wasn’t eager to talk about it, but Naruto hadn’t had to fend off any assassins yet, so he was hoping that they were in the clear now, and that Neji’s negative reaction had not been representative of the wider Hyuuga’s dedication to exacting violent justice. Only time would tell.
In training his new primary goal was to work on chakra control with the aid of the byakugan, aiming to shave down the number of seals for the barrier technique in particular, but while that was ongoing he assigned a few clones to look into potentially adding a new technique to his mental repertoire. In the exams he’d really felt the lack of a good ranged offensive ability, and thrown kunai just didn’t cut it. Skilful throwing with the aid of chakra was a whole art of its own, and he had no particular talent for it.
His main asset was great quantities of chakra, so the ideal candidate technique didn’t have to be particularly cheap or efficient, but he did want something quick and easy to hit with. He searched mainly among the water-element techniques from the open library due to his natural affinity, and progressively narrowed down his selection until finally settling on the one that best fit all of his requirements. The “Raging Wave”, it was called. It was commonly recommended to water-natured genin getting their first exposure to elemental ninjutsu—a versatile mid-range technique that shot a stream of water from the mouth with great force. Not particularly deadly, but it carried a lot of physical impact, and he expected that with enough clones he’d be able to exert a good amount of control over his opponent’s movements, knocking them prone or opening them up for a whirlpool attack.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy to learn. The very first time he tried the sequence of hand-seals it came out fine, and it was easy to remember with only three seals in the chain—the prefix from the transformation technique being unnecessary. The barrier technique had taken days of intense effort to get it to function consistently, but he supposed that the shadow clone had also worked straight away—not everything needed much manual control.
He added it to the list of techniques he wanted to keep memorized. Hinata practiced it too, on Naruto’s suggestion, as they both had the same affinity for water, and it seemed like it would be useful for her, as well.
He was going over some notes after sparring when something caught Sasuke’s eye, over his shoulder.
“Hey, Rock Lee’s coming,” he said. “He looks upset.”
Naruto hadn’t been looking forward to this conversation.
“Naruto! Sasuke!” Lee shouted, running toward them. His arm was still in a sling, but it had been successfully reattached. He would be fine, soon enough.
“Hi… Hi, Lee.” Naruto said, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.
“They’ve—they’ve got my dad! And Kakashi!”
Naruto looked at Sasuke. “Your dad?”
Naruto had learned the name of Lee’s jounin, Might Guy, after the chaos of the tournament. There was no record of him having any children.
“Don’t tell me you’re in on it too! B—but that’s not the point!” Lee said. “They got him—Kakashi as well!”
“What do you mean they ‘got’ him?” Sasuke asked. “They’re dead?”
“No, worse!” Lee said, “They’ve been taken prisoner, by ANBU! Dad didn’t show up to training this morning—he never misses our training sessions—so I went to the office and the girl there said that Guy was arrested last night with his co-conspirator Hatake Kakashi! She said they attempted to assassinate the new Hokage!”
“Holy shit,” Sasuke said.
Naruto looked at him. “You don’t think he—”
“Dad would never!” Lee interrupted. “And—I don’t really know Kakashi, but my dad says the two of them have been together forever, and I always have to go home early when Kakashi comes over to his house for dinner, so he must be a good person!”
“…Really?” Sasuke said. “Those two?”
“Is the new Hokage alive?” Naruto asked.
“He’s fine, don’t worry,” Lee said. “I don’t know what happened, but they must have been framed for the attack by Mist ninja! We have to save them!”
“…How exactly do we do that?” Naruto asked.
“I thought you would tell me!” Lee said. “But—maybe we can try speaking to the new Hokage! We’re entitled to an audience, and he’s the one we’ve entrusted to carry out the burning will of the village. He has to understand.”
Naruto felt a lot less certain of that, but he followed along for lack of any better idea.
Kakashi attacking the Hokage… could he have actually done it? Kakashi had always seemed like a principled sort of guy, behind the mask. Maybe he didn’t like the idea of the Fifth taking over by assassination. Two elite jounin, trusted friends working together in secret—it wasn’t impossible that they could have actually hoped to pull it off.
The alternative—that their conversation had been overheard—that was terrifying for different reasons entirely.
Hinata met them on the way, having been informed by one of Naruto’s clones what was going on. The rest of his bodies had cut short their training for the day, just in case. He wasn’t sure what he could possibly need to save his chakra for—it wasn’t as if he could just fight the new Hokage, but like Kakashi said: caution was a habit.
The four of them were eventually granted an audience with the Fifth, Shimura Danzo, who was busily engaged with what looked like important paperwork on his desk. The walls were singed black with fire, not yet fully repaired.
He stood up, respectfully, as they entered.
“Welcome, welcome. What can I do for you?”
Lee spoke first. “Hokage, sir, my father—Might Guy—he’s a jounin. They say he was arrested for attacking you, but it can’t be true! And his friend, Kakashi—”
Danzo stepped out from behind his desk and put a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “Rest assured, son, I am well aware of the problem and I’m doing everything I can to resolve it.”
Lee’s face lit up as the Hokage smiled warmly down at him.
“I understand how you must feel. Such a dear friend, gone with so little warning. The Third and I had been friends since our academy days—it came as a terrible shock to have him taken from me so abruptly. Taken from all of us. But those brave, self-sacrificing shinobi of ANBU take matters of public security very seriously. We must trust in them, now, as fellow brothers of Leaf, to be as loyal and devoted to their duties as we are to our own.”
“So you’ll talk to them?” Lee asked, earnestly. “You’ll get him out?”
“I wish it were that easy, son,” said Danzo. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I will be talking to them. To save the life of an innocent ninja I’d talk until my tongue dried up, but I’m not the only one who gets a voice. The village of Leaf is unique in that we listen to all our shinobi—not just the Kage, or the jounin, but the chuunin, the genin, and even the little academy students without a clan to stand up for them. That’s why I have fought tirelessly since I donned this ancient regalia to more than double the amount of time available for young ninja like yourselves to call on me, and to tell me, personally, what you’re thinking. Because I believe that children are the future, and if we can’t even listen to our children, why in the world should they listen to us?”
Lee had been completely enchanted by Danzo’s words. “Thank you! Thank you, Hokage!”
The four of them were escorted out again by the ANBU standing guard. The expressionless animal masks they wore to hide their faces seemed a little less noble and glorious, now. More… unsettling.
Lee seemed satisfied to leave the rest in Danzo’s hands, but Naruto could already see the new Hokage speaking with his next visitor, having made no clear changes as a result of their visit.
They stopped in at the official aboveground ANBU headquarters briefly on their way back, but were turned away. No visitors were allowed for any prisoners that may or may not have been taken, and who may or may not be present there, or at any other ANBU locations which may or may not exist. Naruto could see them both, though, underground on the other side of the village, sitting quietly in their well-guarded cells. The guards all had some weird seal technique imprinted on their tongues, too. He’d seen it on the Hokage’s guards as well—some new ANBU policy, probably.
Lee decided to head back home, satisfied to know they were both okay, but Naruto felt uneasy about simply waiting to see what happened. As mere chuunin there wasn’t really a lot they could do, though; they weren’t even sure that Kakashi and Guy were really innocent, and there was certainly no chance of breaking the two of them out—not without personally declaring war on the entire village, at least. Even the jounin that knew Kakashi seemed reluctant to talk to them about it, fearing they too might be thought disloyal.
Eventually, Sasuke had to return home for the night, and no plans were made to continue trying to talk to the other jounin tomorrow. Hinata went back to Naruto’s apartment with one of Naruto’s clones while another pair sat in a tavern not far from the underground prison, playing shougi against one another, keeping an eye on Guy and Kakashi in their cells beneath the village.
He could at least spare a few clones to make up for the lost sleep.
One of his shadow clones woke up earlier than the rest, his sleep disturbed by a sliver of stray light cast across his face by the rising sun. He’d been sleeping in his field hammock since Hinata had come to stay, but he’d needed too many bodies last night to avoid just spreading out on the floor wherever he could fit.
He wandered down the hall to visit the communal outhouse, rubbing his eyes. He remembered the two clones he’d left to keep watch over Kakashi.
The knowledge and its implications came all at once, like a memory he’d briefly forgotten. One of the guards had delivered a meal of soup to Kakashi’s cell, like any other, and within minutes he was dead. Guy too.
He’d seen it—he’d watched their hearts stop—all of it had happened already.
He looked out over the quiet village of Leaf. The sun was slowly rising from beneath the horizon. His teacher was dead. He could see people going about their morning chores—none of them would raise any outcry. Almost none of them had known Kakashi, and those who had would only hear of his death in whispers. There would be no funeral, and nobody would do anything different because of it. Nobody could do anything different. Nothing had even clearly gone wrong with the system—Kakashi had committed a crime, maybe, and he had been punished for it in a way that everyone had long agreed was appropriate. The world would move along as it ever did.
An overwhelming sense of wrongness pervaded him.
No one piece seemed clearly incorrect in any way he could understand, but the outcome as a whole seemed, somehow… ugly. This couldn’t just be how things were supposed to work. The law was necessary, and wars and struggle were a part of the world, and ninja died—everybody had to die, but he’d never known his parents before they went. Maybe he’d never really been close enough to someone before to really feel it when they died. He’d known that death was supposed to be painful, and he had assumed that as an orphan he’d faced that pain and overcome it already—but it had never really felt like this.
There was an old story, supposedly dating back from a time the ancients called ancient, about a hero called Odysseus. While travelling the seas with his companions, trying to find his way home, Odysseus had needed to pass through the narrow straits between two sea-monsters. Six-headed Scylla on one side, and great Charybdis on the other, a submerged beast so large that whirlpools formed where it drank. Odysseus chose the lesser evil and willingly steered closer to Scylla’s side, sacrificing six of his men to avoid total destruction. But it turned out not to matter, in the end. Six men were lost, but all the rest would die soon in a storm anyway, and Odysseus would be sent right back into Charybdis’ great maw. He’d thought it was a sad story when he’d first heard it—even if the hero got to live it seemed like a shame for everybody else just to have died, for no reason—but the whole world felt a little bit like that, lately. He’d felt it in the exams, too—a sense that he was trapped in some enormous, inescapable, pitiless maelstrom, that pulled and dragged until it swallowed everything. It didn’t even care if you were as clever and heroic as Odysseus. Everybody drowned eventually.
Naruto didn’t want Sasuke or Hinata to drown. He knew how childish the feeling was, but he didn’t want them ever to have to die. It felt like he’d been robbed. It felt like the entire world was at fault—like he couldn’t just let it get away with that kind of thing.
He didn’t know what he could do about it, but he couldn’t just accept things as they were. He couldn’t just sit back and wait to be pulled underwater. To just—to surrender, when there was no law he’d ever understood that said it had to be this way.
He couldn’t see any way anyone could even begin making changes to the world at such a scale, but he thought about the life of the First Hokage. He had wanted things to change, too. He’d wanted peace—an end to the perpetual warring of the ninja clans. Naruto had always mocked him for it—cynical little Naruto, who would have preferred not to even bother attempting something that hard. Failure was so much easier to excuse if you knew you hadn’t really been trying.
He felt ashamed of himself. Maybe he couldn’t ever have avoided this outcome, but how could he know? He hadn’t even tried.
Kakashi had told him not to wait until his friends were dead to swear his oaths—to do things correctly the first time, but it hadn’t been enough.
The First Hokage had failed. That was clear. He had envisioned a peaceful world of cooperation, and an end to the wars, but war had not ended. The peace had been brief, and within his own lifetime there were civil wars anew rising up between the clans, and newer wars of a greater scale between the villages. He hadn’t succeeded in his goals at all. But he had managed to effect a change on the world. It might not have been everything he’d wanted, or even a clear improvement, but it was a change. Things could be made to change.
Naruto didn’t know what exactly he should aim for—didn’t even know how to begin answering a question as broad as “making things better”, but one thing did come to mind. A passage in an old book he’d read, long ago, which he’d written down somewhere to preserve it. It didn’t matter where exactly it was, now, because he remembered it well enough.
If you don’t know what you need, take power.
Because power could be converted into almost anything else, and even if he didn’t know how a single ninja could make a lasting change, or what should be changed, he could be sure that he would need power to do it. The First Hokage hadn’t ended the era of warring clans with nothing but the sort of good intentions any child might have had—he’d done it by retaining those childlike good intentions even as he became the strongest ninja of his age. Strong enough to defeat the rampaging hosts of all nine tailed beasts. That was the kind of strength it took to have a shot at changing things.
Naruto had to become stronger.
Days later, after both Sasuke and Hinata had heard the news, and the three of them had privately mourned him in their own way, they were summoned to the office of the Hokage and assigned a new mission. It was a B-rank, in the south, under the leadership of an older chuunin named Sai. He had experience in the region, and had a few independent responsibilities to take care of while they were there.
None of them said anything about Kakashi’s death in the Hokage’s office, and Sai didn’t raise the subject himself when they met.
Nobody saw them off when they left the village.
Their mission had been described as a simple scouting job near the Mist border in the southeast, but Sai’s assignment was clearly the higher priority, and they would be helping him in whatever way he might need. He had the same new seal on his tongue as the prison guards, so he was probably an undercover ANBU, too.
Sai didn’t speak much as they travelled, though they were all a little quieter than usual. Even encamped at night time they rarely spoke to say anything unnecessary. Sai was a few years older than them, but unfailingly polite. It felt a little artificial, but there wasn’t much pressure to get to know him; they weren’t likely to work together again after the mission.
He had a bloodline technique that let him draw animals on a special scroll he carried, bringing them to life as a kind of fighting calligraphy. He mainly used them to scout ahead as they moved, little flying beetles not unlike the ones Shino had used, but made of pure chakra, more clearly visible to the byakugan. They pervaded the camp every time the four of them stopped anywhere, watching and listening to everything, though there was little to observe.
Naruto’s thoughts were dwelling on Kakashi’s death. At a sustainable pace of about fifty miles per day—thirty of them at speed—they had gone about two thirds of the way to the border before Naruto began to wonder much about Sai’s actual mission.
Solo missions far afield weren’t particularly common for chuunin, and based on the tongue-seal he probably was ANBU—there was even a stereotype that said ANBU ninja were all emotionally distant, but he’d always thought that was an intentional lie spread by ANBU themselves, and that they were really the most friendly people on any team.
It wasn’t that uncommon for an ANBU ninja to be assigned to work in tandem with a regular team, but the standard procedure wasn’t supposed to require the ANBU to conceal their status, and pose as a chuunin. Then again, he would have been a lot less likely to hear about such cases if they ever did happen. But the jounin all knew each other well enough to recognize a new face, and an unfamiliar “chuunin” given independent work alongside a team of jounin might stand out even more conspicuously.
Assuming he was ANBU, his mission was probably something important. They were heading to the border with Mist country, so he might well intend to cross into their territory for some reason. Maybe Leaf was ready to fight, and he’d been sent to carry out a false flag operation and precipitate the war directly. Just last week Hinata had been saying that Leaf should be planning to strike first against the coalition of Mist and Stone—they were encircled, but they had the advantage of numbers; their best hope of success would be to strike quickly and knock Mist out of the war before Stone could fully mobilize. Most of the casualties would be borne by the buffer states in Stone’s path, like Rain village, which from Leaf’s perspective was an added benefit, and long overdue, as evinced by Rain’s big showing at the recent exams. The territory of Rain lay across a fertile rice-growing valley, and their village was a rich nexus of trade between the six countries on their borders, which included three of the great villages. Rain was said to be home to almost as many wealthy civilian merchants and artisans as Leaf, despite their significantly smaller size—it had long been Leaf policy to keep them on a tight leash.
But even so, if a war was wanted, why not send a regular jounin? Why send an ANBU ninja under the guise of being a chuunin? ANBU were sometimes used as a kind of makeshift police force, ever since the loss of the Uchiha clan and their hereditary privilege in those domains, at least, but aside from events like the chuunin exams they were mostly employed on missions that required finesse more than strength. Kidnappings, extended infiltrations, assassinations…
It was a worrying thought, but if the Hyuuga were already friendly with Danzo—keeping quiet about his stolen sharingan—it was possible they might have made some kind of deal for Naruto to “accidentally” lose his life while out on a mission, as restitution for his theft of the byakugan. It was probably just paranoia, even to be thinking it, but… caution was a habit. They might even want Hinata dead too—she had said they wouldn’t go that far, but she probably hadn’t expected to be formally disowned, either.
And it wasn’t just the Hyuuga he had to worry about—any number of people might want him dead, and this mission suddenly seemed like an unusually convenient way to do it. Three promising chuunin slain, “by Mist ninja” near the border—that would certainly help to justify a pre-emptive strike by Leaf. If any one of the thousands of spectators in that crowd had been paying enough attention to his use of chakra, and made the connection to his mother’s role as the old Leaf jinchuuriki—he could be more than halfway to his execution by now.
No-one in particular would have actually had much personal stake in his death, maybe not enough to bear the costs of the assassination themselves—other than the Hyuuga, maybe—but it would have been a simple matter to inform the other clan heads and recognize it as a worthwhile decision for the village as a whole. No-one in particular amongst them would object to it—he had no allies, there, and time alone would make him a threat not only to the safety of the village, but to their own clans; someday he might seek to revive his own clan, and with his hereditary control of a tailed beast he might even have some success, thereby shrinking the share of power left for all of the current players. No sense in letting a risk like that mature—better to deal with it now, at the village’s expense.
Sasuke and Hinata might both be intended targets, too—whether or not their conversation had been overheard, if an attack already was going to take place then there was little reason not to kill them too, unprotected as they were now by clan elders with any influence, and both being in possession of valuable eyes that could be taken and traded away. Leaf could even play up their noble blood in diplomatic matters—they could say that Mist had struck at both the noble house of Hyuuga and at the Uchiha, even at the Senju if they were willing to stretch it—and arguably caused the extinction of the two main founding clans of the village, if you ignored Uchiha Itachi as a missing-nin and Tsunade of the Senju for being old and adrift. Leaf might be able to justify nearly any war goals for a crime like that.
He couldn’t be sure though—it was a crazy idea, and even if it were true, what could be done about it? If Sai was in ANBU then he was probably about as strong as Kakashi had been, and with those spying bugs spread around all the time Naruto would have no opportunity to surprise him, or even to coordinate with his teammates.
Naruto was still dwelling on the dilemma when they set up camp that night, near the border.
“Naruto, I wonder…” Sai said, “do you never tire of employing your byakugan eye?”
“Uh, what do you mean?” Naruto asked.
“Surely it must be exhausting to sustain it perpetually, as you do,” he replied. “Even to watch through the night, while your shadow clones sleep—not even the Hyuuga themselves are so fond of it. I presume there is some limit to its use?”
“Oh, uh… it can be difficult…” Naruto hedged. “How can you tell I’ve been using it?”
Sai smiled. “I am a ninja, aren’t I?”
“Perhaps it would be wise to let yourself rest tonight,” Sai continued. “We may face combat, soon.”
“Oh—no, I can hold it,” Naruto said. “It’s no trouble,”
“Nevertheless.” He inclined his head, politely. “I would feel better if you were fully rested. Will you trust me to handle our surveillance tonight?”
What else could he say? No?
Sai looked pleased with himself as Naruto deactivated the eye. He didn’t know how Sai could even tell he was using it, covered up behind the forehead-protector, but Naruto might as well have been blind without it—those bugs could be anywhere. And Sai had been so insistent about deactivating it—he was almost convinced, now. If Sai meant to kill him, he meant to do it tonight.
“Sasuke,” Naruto said, “…let’s go spar a bit, before bed.”
“No thanks,” Sasuke said. “Too close to Mist. Gonna save my chakra.”
“We haven’t really fought since before the exams. Don’t you want to see who’s stronger?” Naruto said, mentally urging him to just go along with it.
“I’ll fight you on the way back then,” he said. “Should have asked when we were still in the village, if you cared. Besides, aren’t you always the one telling me how dumb it is to try to compress a ninja’s strength down to a ‘single dimension’? I’m good at some things and you’re good at others. Rock paper scissors.”
“So you’re scared of me, then,” Naruto said.
Sasuke looked at him, confused. “What?”
“You think I’m stronger than you, and if you still can’t even beat me, you haven’t got a chance against your brother. You’re still weak.”
“The fuck are you even talking about?” Sasuke said. “Did you forget how to communicate? Start with ‘I feel’.”
“I feel you’re holding us back, and you’ll be a liability to the team in foreign territory,” Naruto said. “You copied my answers on the written exam, I literally carried you like a baby through the forest, and then you didn’t have to fight a single person in the tournament—even during the bell test you didn’t actually do anything to help against Kakashi. You’re barely a genin, you’re still untested, and you shouldn’t be here.”
Sasuke looked him over for a moment. “…Sai, do you know of any genjutsu that could turn a teammate into a moron?”
“Ah…” Sai smiled, uncertain. “Perhaps we should all, just… get some rest?”
“He’s, um—he’s not under any genjutsu,” Hinata stammered. “My byakugan would see.”
“Be quiet, Hinata,” Naruto said, wincing inside. But Sasuke still wasn’t going for it—he had to press harder.
“I’ve wanted to say this for a long time, Sasuke. A real ninja would have offered me one of those eyes by now. That sharingan of yours is the only value you have; you know you’d be worth nothing without it.”
“Did you forget the part where I won the qualification round against the Cloud girl?” Sasuke said. “How many times do you think I’d have to break your neck before it’d sink in?”
Naruto stood up. “Maybe you’d know if you had the balls to try.”
“Shit, you want to fight so much, I won’t stop you,” Sasuke said, standing up to meet his eye.
“There’s a clearing, past these trees,” Naruto said. “Let’s go.”
Naruto headed off into the trees, reactivating his byakugan now that he had an excuse. He could see one of Sai’s bugs following close behind, but the fact that he’d let them go at all was further evidence that conserving their chakra wasn’t really that much of a priority, for him.
Naruto summoned out a pack of clones as they faced each other across the grass.
Sasuke brushed a knuckle across his forehead. “Ready when you are.”
Pein regarded his subordinates from above in a conscious attempt to accentuate his new authority.
They were nervous. He could tell. They knew that he had matured, and that with experience and time he had only been growing further from enacting the will of their master.
“I have decided to seize power for myself,” he said. It was a plain and clear statement—he was a lord, and speaking to inferiors, now.
Tobi’s reaction was unclear behind the mask, but Zetsu began to shake all over, in some strange semi-human display of emotion.
“Perhaps this role of ‘leadership’ has gone to your head…” Tobi said. “Do not forget your obligations. You are bound by your word, and our lord is not known to be forgiving…”
“I do not fear a corpse who without me is powerless,” Pein replied. “I once had some sympathy for his simplistic proposals, but I intend now to heal this fractured world through my own strength. You two may continue henceforth as my subordinates, in appearance and in fact.”
They looked at each other, and he could tell they would not abandon their dead master so easily. He had expected as much.
The weight of the rinnegan’s gaze forced them to their knees before they could move against him.
“Very well then,” he said. “You have chosen this fate.”