The morning sun peeked through the window and its rays hit Yagura full in the face.
He tried to ignore the wake-up call at first, burrowing deeper into his futon. But when sleep proved delusive, he sat up, groaning and rubbing at his forehead. His mouth was drier than the desert and his head throbbed with now-familiar pain.
‘So you’re finally awake.’ Han’s voice appeared in his head.
Yagura groaned again, rubbing the sleep away from his eyes before looking up at Han. ‘What time is it?’
‘Almost time for lunch.’
Han sat upon a large armchair, armor and weapon pouch at his feet. In his hands he held a wide-open newspaper. At the bedside table nearby were a teapot and a still-steaming cup of tea.
Grumbling, Yagura blinked around the motel room. At his right, Roshi’s red hair peeked out from below his futon, the blankets falling and rising with his snores.
To his left was a hungover Jiraiya.
The white-haired man was hugging a pillow up to his chest, snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Drool dripped down the side of his mouth and his hair struck out like a porcupine. He was still wearing the same clothes from the night before, barbecue sauce stains and all.
Despite the pain in his head, Yagura suppressed laughter. ‘He really shouldn’t have underestimated us in the drinking contest.’
Han snorted. ‘How was he supposed to know you two have extra powerful livers?’
‘He couldn’t. That was the point.’
Yagura let out a yawn and stretched his arms over his head, smirking as he remembered their petty revenge from the night before.
Following their meeting in the toad’s stomach, the three jinchuuriki and Jiraiya had turned to the nearest town to rest. After some sleep— which gave them time to join the Room— they had ended up staying longer with Jiraiya to talk.
With the worst of their exhaustion abated, Yagura had challenged Jiraiya to a drinking contest, with Roshi as a partner and Han as the sober judge.
After hours of drinking, Jiraiya had been forced to throw in the towel, giving Roshi and Yagura gloating rights. Exhausted, the three drunk men had ended up in the same motel room, laying down futons before immediately falling asleep.
Now, Jiraiya slept on, hungover and sleeping like the dead— and more vulnerable than Yagura could have ever hoped for.
Yagura smirked. ‘You know, I think he should pay for what he did.’
Han placed his newspaper on the table. ‘Need a bowl of warm water?’ he asked as he reached for his cup of tea.
Yagura hummed to himself as he considered his options. ‘That could work,’ he admitted. ‘But I have another idea. Do you have a marker or ink brush by any chance?’
Han grunted. ‘I believe I do.’ He picked up the weapon pouch at his feet, rummaging through it before pulling out a brush with a jar of ink. ‘This ink takes weeks if not months to fade away,’ he warned. ‘It’s for fuuinjutsu after all.’
Yagura forced himself not to cackle in delight. ‘Even better.’
Han shrugged before tossing him the brush. ‘Have fun.’
Yagura caught the brush and inkwell in the air. Chuckling to himself, he bent over Jiraiya, doodling whatever came to mind onto the man’s face. Unaware of the contamination being done, the man slumbered on.
A giggle escaped Yagura’s throat despite himself. Payback’s a bitch.
Soap suds stung at Jiraiya’s eyes as he clawed at his face over and over again. Cursing under his breath he dried himself with a cheap towel before looking up at the mirror. The markings greeted him, clear as day.
Safe with the distance between them, the three men were surely laughing at his pain. Although it was probably a good thing Jiraiya hadn’t noticed before they parted ways. How could their tentative truce survive then?
Jiraiya tried two more times to scrub his face. When that failed to remove the markings, he gave up. He sighed in defeat and placed his hands along the side of the sink.
Why couldn’t they have used normal ink to draw on his face? Fuuinjutsu ink took weeks if not months to fully fade.
But looking like an idiot for a few weeks was the least of his worries. Isolation was always an option, as was transformation. But considering the severity of the Akatsuki situation...
Jiraiya sighed. He needed to speak with the Hokage. And for that, he needed to see the old man face to face.
Will my old sensei notice the fake glasses around my eyes?
Jiraiya glared at himself in the mirror. The answer was a definite yes. Only a blind person would miss the kitty whiskers, penises, fake glasses, and obscenities written all over his face. The swirl of poop on his forehead was icing on the shit cake. The patchy beard he had tried to grow had done little to hide the drawings— instead making his face itch night and day.
And while Jiraiya had considered a transformation, the third Hokage would sense the jutsu immediately. And how could he explain why he’d need the jutsu in the first place?
Resigned to his fate, Jiraiya took out a small jar of foundation. He rarely used it in his line of work, preferring transformations. But the basics were basic for a reason, they couldn’t hurt to try.
But to his horror, even makeup was not enough. While it hid the worst of the damage, it wasn’t a miracle maker. The doodles were still clear as day.
With a groan, Jiraiya forced himself to look away from the mirror. The Hokage couldn’t be kept waiting. Not for news of such magnitude.
With a quick transformation— suitable for all but the most elite of shinobi— he checked out of his room. Only a half day’s walk away, he arrived in Konoha just a few hours later.
At first, the village looked the same as he remembered nearly ten years ago. The same streets crisscrossed the village. The same collection of civilians and shinobi traveled through the streets and roofs. It even smelled the same: trees doing little to hide the urban pollution.
Yet, as he approached the central administration building, the differences became more and more stark.
His favorite takoyaki stand had closed down, replaced with a fruit shop. The clinic where he had gotten patched up after missions had grown into a true hospital. There were at least three new high rise apartment complexes next to buildings that had stood since Konoha’s founding.
Guess things changed more than I thought.
“I wish to speak with the Hokage,” Jiraiya told the guard in front of the administration building.
The guard— a boy that looked barely out of the Academy— squinted up at him in suspicion. “Do you have a mission request? If so, you can talk to—”
“I know who usually keeps track of mission requests, kid,” Jiraiya interrupted. “I came to talk to the Hokage directly. Name’s Jiraiya.”
The name drop did not have the desired effect. The boy blinked up at him, a tiny frown creased on his forehead. “Jiraiya?”
“The Third Hokage’s student?” Jiraiya tried, staring at the boy in consternation. “The Gallant? One of the Legendary Sannin? The Toad Sage?” He crossed his arms.
The boy only frowned in response.
Jiraiya sighed. He had no other idea for how to describe himself. Would the kid know one of the most important shinobi of Konoha was also the writer of Icha Icha? Was he even old enough to buy it?
But to his relief, the boy’s eyes widened in recognition and he bowed his head, flustered. “Jiraiya-sama!” His face had turned pink and he stared down at his toes. “I-I didn’t recognize you.”
“That’s fine, kid,” Jiraiya sighed. “Can I go up now?”
With his eyes still on the ground, the boy nodded. “I believe he’s free now, Jiraiya-sama.”
Jiraiya only grunted before sidestepping past the boy and entering. As he headed up the stairs, he passed busy shinobi and staff, although he said nothing and no one gave him more than a passing glance. Soon after, he stood at the door outside the Hokage’s office.
He placed a hand on the knob before remembering. With a sigh, the transformation disappeared and he entered.
“Ah, Jiraiya, welcome back!” The Hokage stood up from his desk, a small yet genuine smile on his face. “I wasn’t sure when to expect your arrival.”
Jiraiya returned the smile, although a bead of sweat rolled down his back. Had his teacher noticed the markings? “It’s great to see you, too, sensei.”
Hiruzen pointed to the chair in front of his desk as he sat back down. “While I’m happy to see you, I take it it’s not a social visit.”
Jiraiya shook his head as he took his seat. “Unfortunately, not, sensei.” He forced himself not to sigh in relief. His old teacher’s vision must’ve started to deteriorate.
The Hokage hummed as he reached for his pipe. “Can’t say I’m surprised, Jiraiya.” He took a short puff before continuing. “Although it’s nice to see you in person after so many years.”
“What I learned was too important to entrust to a letter or messenger,” he said, meeting his old teacher’s eyes. He let the unanswered question hang in the air. Is the room secure?
Hiruzen’s eyes flitted around the room before giving a short nod. Three shinobi wearing ANBU masks appeared from nowhere and stood behind Jiraiya.
“Keep the perimeter secure,” the Hokage ordered. “Leave us.”
The ANBU guards nodded once together before vanishing once more.
“Sure there are no eavesdroppers?” Jiraiya asked as he glanced around the office.
For a moment, he considered using Sage Mode to sense any intruders. But he trusted his teacher. And wasn’t he ugly enough already with the patchy beard and barely concealed doodles?
“I’m sure.” Hiruzen took off his large hat and placed it on the desk before leaning back and taking another puff. “Do you doubt me?” The question contained an edge of annoyance.
“Just making sure,” Jiraiya said with a shrug. “I mean, the kid guarding the entrance looked like he graduated from the Academy last month. Didn’t even recognize the name Jiraiya the Gallant at first.” He hoped he didn’t sound as petulant as he felt.
“Zaji is a better shinobi than you might think,” Hiruzen replied before letting out a long sigh. “Although I will admit security is not what it used to be after... the Uchiha incident.”
Jiraiya winced. “There’s nothing you could’ve done about that, sensei,” he reassured him. “Itachi made his own choices.”
“His own choices?” The Hokage fiddled with his pipe, eyes focused on the window. “I suppose you’re not wrong about that.” He gave one last long sigh before focusing his full attention back on Jiraiya. “So what exactly did you come all the way here to talk about?”
“Well...” Jiraiya let out a chuckle. “About Itachi...”
With that, Jiraiya recounted everything he knew about Akatsuki as well as everything he had learned from the three friends. Their origins as a revolutionary group in Amegakure. Their members, old and new. Orochimaru. Itachi. Kakuzu. Sasori. Kisame. The mysterious departure of Orochimaru after Itachi joined. Providing mercenary services at well under the competitive rate.
By the time Jiraiya finished speaking, his old teacher had needed to refill his pipe twice. Now the two stared at each other, waiting for the other to speak.
“So Itachi has joined this organization?” Hiruzen was the first to break the silence.
Jiraiya nodded. “Seems like it, although it’s technically still too early to confirm. But some of my informants have seen a young man that matches his characteristics wearing the cloak of Akatsuki.”
“Thank you for the news,” the Hokage said as he refilled his pipe for the third time. “Although I would not consider Itachi’s involvement in Akatsuki to be a great threat.”
“Why is that?” Jiraiya raised an eyebrow. How could the person responsible for destroying Konoha’s entire police force and one of its most prominent clans not be considered a great threat?
His teacher paused a moment too long before answering. “Because I believe the leaders and other members of Akatsuki are more important concerns.”
Jiraiya hummed to himself before nodding. “I guess that’s true,” he admitted. “Whoever the leader or leaders are, they’ve been able to keep some of the most infamous missing nin of the world under their control. That can’t be easy.”
“No, it can’t be.” Hiruzen shook his head. “Now is that all you wanted to talk about, Jiraiya? I appreciate the visit, but I’m still not sure how this information had to be told in person.”
“You’re right, sensei.” Jiraiya grinned. “There’s something I learned that I couldn’t entrust to any message or letter, no matter how well encoded.”
The Hokage only hummed, leaning back as he held the pipe up to his lips.
“While I was collecting intel, I learned of a group of three men that were searching for me,” Jiraiya began. “Obviously, I was cautious. What did they want with me? Who were they? And, most importantly, were they an enemy of Konoha? So I decided to find out.”
Hiruzen frowned but said nothing, gesturing for Jiraiya to continue.
Jiraiya grinned. “Well, I’d learned the names of two of the men: Han and Roshi. When we met, they said little about themselves but I already recognized them as high-ranking jounin of Iwagakure.”
“There are Iwagakure jounin searching for you in the Land of Fire?” The Hokage’s voice grew hard and he leaned toward Jiraiya.
“Yes and no.” Jiraiya shrugged. “They were searching for me, but it’s clear that they’re defectors.”
“Defectors?” Hiruzen raised an eyebrow and some of the tension eased from his shoulders. “How can you be sure?”
“Well, when I heard about a group of people searching for the Gallant Jiraiya, I tried to find out as much as I could about them,” Jiraiya answered. “I learned their names in the Bingo Book first. And after meeting them, they refused to wear a hitai-ate or to answer questions about where they’re from. And considering who the third man was...”
“The third man?”
Jiraiya sighed. “Well, sensei, you’re going to think I’m crazy but...” He crossed his arms and stared up at the ceiling. “I swear I’m telling the truth. I couldn’t believe it myself. And it’s too insane for anyone to make up.”
“Insane?” The Hokage pulled at his beard, the first truly nervous gesture since Jiraiya’s arrival. “Who was this third man?”
Jiraiya grinned. He leaned forward and the Hokage followed his lead until they were inches apart. “The third man...” Jiraiya waited for the Hokage to be close enough to whisper the name. “The third man was Yagura Karatachi, the Fourth Mizukage.”
The Hokage bolted up from his seat, staring at Jiraiya with bulging eyes and a slack jack. “Mi-Mizukage? But... how is that possible?”
Jiraiya hummed to himself. “Well, he wasn’t willing to tell me much,” he admitted. “But during the fight between Mei Terumi and himself, he managed to fake his death. He told me that himself: that the Fourth Mizukage was more useful dead than alive.”
Hiruzen grimaced as he returned to his seat. “But why? Why would he want to fake his own death?”
“To install Mei Terumi as Mizukage,” Jiraiya answered.
The Hokage looked more confused than before. With a frown, he gestured for Jiraiya to continue as he refilled his pipe for the fourth time.
“I already said he didn’t want to give me all the details,” Jiraiya explained. “But the basic reason why is because of something Akatsuki did in Kirigakure.”
“Something Akatsuki did?”
Jiraiya nodded. “Somehow, a member of Akatsuki was able to place Yagura Karatachi under his full control using a genjutsu.”
“He what.” While the survival of Yagura Karatachi had made the Hokage jump up in surprise, the newest revelation almost made him drop his pipe.
“I know, hard to believe right?” Jiraiya let out a brief laugh. “He broke out of it two years later, though he wouldn’t tell me how that happened exactly.”
Hiruzen hummed, pulling at his beard with one hand as he stared off into space. “A genjutsu strong enough to take down a kage? I don’t like the sound of that...”
“He theorizes that the genjutsu was used to help destabilize Kirigakure, considering everything that was happening at the time. But for the actual end goal?” He shrugged. “He can only guess.”
“How does he know Akatsuki was the one responsible for the genjutsu?”
“The last thing he remembers before becoming a puppet is a man,” Jiraiya answered. “He wore a dark cloak embroidered with blood red clouds— Akatsuki’s uniform. But he hid his face behind an orange mask, so his identity remains a mystery. If he was able to take control of a kage, he might be the leader of Akatsuki himself.”
The Hokage said nothing and Jiraiya took it as his cue to continue.
“Upon breaking the genjutsu, Yagura Karatachi did not wish to alert this man about it,” Jiraiya continued. “For a while he tried to find out the truth and end the civil conflicts happening at the time. But when nothing changed, he was forced to leave his post, faking his death and leaving Mei Terumi in charge.”
The Hokage’s frown deepened. “Does that mean that Mei Terumi is aware of the Fourth Mizukage’s true fate?”
Jiraiya nodded. “It was a joint plan, apparently. After that, he set out in disguise to find out more about Akatsuki, although he did not know the name of the organization until we met. How and when he met two runaway jounin from Iwagakure, I have no clue. But they seemed determined in their course to track down Akatsuki and, in particular, hunt down Orochimaru.”
“Orochimaru?” Hiruzen flinched back, as if he couldn’t take any more unexpected news. “Why would they focus on Orochimaru?”
“They didn’t want to give me the full details,” Jiraiya admitted. “But it was something personal.”
The Hokage took a long drag of his pipe, exhaling with an equally long sigh. He gestured for Jiraiya to continue.
“The three men and I talked at length about Akatsuki and shared information with each other,” Jiraiya said. “They told me of Kakuzu and Sasori and I told them of Kisame and Itachi. And...” Jiraiya swallowed, fearing his teacher’s reaction. “I agreed to let them go on their way if we allied with each other to track down Akatsuki and learn of their goals.”
As expected, the old man did not react with immediate joy. With a huff, he placed his pipe onto his ashtray and turned to stare out the window, a grimace on his face.
A bead of sweat rolled down Jiraiya’s back. Was he about to be scolded for his leniency or praised for his alliance?
“Hunting down Akatsuki... having a personal vendetta against Orochimaru...” Hiruzen’s tone was impossible to place as either pleased or angry. “That makes them sound like they are allies to Konoha. But these three men...” he met Jiraiya’s gaze head on. “Can we trust them?”
To fall asleep in front of them? Definitely not.
But it was the question Jiraiya had been dreading and expecting in equal measure. Could they trust the men?
“I don’t believe they are enemies of Konoha,” he tentatively answered. “They only wish to track down Akatsuki, which means they could be allies.” He winced, remembering the doodles still adorning his face. “We don’t need to trust them completely. But the potential help they could bring us... it’s impossible to overstate it. Even our brief meeting gave us excellent new intel.”
The Hokage closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, deep in thought. After a moment of silence, he opened his eyes and stared into Jiraiya’s soul.
“We have nothing to lose by letting them track down Akatsuki on their own,” Hiruzen said. “And a lot to gain if we do end up cooperating with these men.”
Jiraiya nodded. “Not to mention the huge piece of potential blackmail we hold over them.”
“Yagura Karatachi wishes more than anything for the truth of his death to remain hidden,” he explained. “He fears revealing the truth could destabilize Kirigakure and potentially start another civil war. Considering he faked his death for his village— he wants nothing more than for Mei Terumi’s rule to remain.”
The Hokage pulled at his beard and hummed. “So who knows that the Fourth Mizukage didn’t truly die?” he asked.
“As far as Yagura knows, Mei Terumi, Han, Roshi, and, now, you and I.”
“Very few people.”
“Indeed.” Jiraiya nodded before letting out a sigh. “But it means that we have something to hold over their heads if need be. Although I personally doubt it will be necessary. Just so long as no one else learns the truth.”
“No one else?”
“No one.” Jiraiya shook his head. “Yagura wishes to keep war away from Kirigakure while it continues to rebuild. Anyone else learning about it could lead to conflict. In fact, he refused to share most of his intel until I promised I would tell only the Hokage about the fake death.”
Hiruzen’s expression hardened and he nodded. “No one else will know,” he reassured him.
“Well, good.” Jiraiya let out a relieved sigh before standing up and stretching his arms over his head. “Anyway, I think that’s about everything I wanted to talk about, sensei. In person at least.”
“Are you going to stay the night?” Hiruzen stood up, although he needed to tilt his face up to meet Jiraiya’s gaze.
“Only one night.” Jiraiya rolled back his shoulders. “I’ll set back out tomorrow.”
The Hokage nodded. “Good. And... just so you know, the boy is doing well.”
“The boy? Naruto?”
A pang of sadness pierced his heart. He had seen the kid once as a baby while Konoha was still in the early stages of rebuilding. The Hokage in his occasional reports had mentioned the child was doing well, but Jiraiya had never had the time to check on him in person.
Hiruzen nodded. “Yes, Naruto.” He picked up his pipe and took a long inhale. “He’s doing well at the Academy, although his teachers say he gets distracted easily. I see him with his friends at times.”
Friends? Doing well in school yet distracted? Did that make the boy more like Minato or like Kushina? It seemed to be a combination of both parents. But how could he be sure?
“Do you think I could see him before I leave tomorrow?” Jiraiya asked, dreading the answer. How many people other than his teachers and caretakers could even get near him?
“Of course you can,” Hiruzen answered almost immediately. “Although I would prefer you watch him from afar.” He sat at his desk with a groan. “He tends to go to Ichiraku Ramen for dinner on the weekend.”
Ichiraku Ramen? Wasn’t that the stand Minato and Kushina used to frequent, too? Was it still around?
The memories of his old student and wife cause a heavy ball of guilt to build in his stomach. And after Yagura reminded him of Tsunade, the separation hurt more. When was the last time he had talked to any of his friends in person?
“All right.” Jiraiya flashed the Hokage a grin. “Thank you, sensei.” He gave the old man a quick bow before turning and walking toward the exit.
“Wait, Jiraiya, just one thing.”
With his hand already on the door handle, Jiraiya turned to look at his teacher once more. “Hm? What is it, sensei?”
Hiruzen frowned, mouth opening before closing shut, as if wondering whether to speak or not. His eyes narrowed as he stared at Jiraiya’s face. But after a moment, he shook his head and sighed.
“Oh nothing. Go and rest, Jiraiya.”
Jiraiya shrugged, opening the door and walking out.
“Ha! I knew it!” Naruto shouted, pointing at the screen where the man and woman were now kissing.
“No! I wanted her to get with Rui!” Ino whined, covering her face.
“Tsukasa is... not very nice.” Hinata’s voice was full of annoyed disappointment.
“Ugh! That’s an understatement,” Sakura added. “But Rui is really nice to her.”
“Nah! Rui is a loser,” Naruto said, grimacing as the two characters continued to kiss. “Tsukushi would’ve been so happy with Shizuka, ya know.”
“Wait, what?” Ino and Sakura turned to blink at him with twin frowns. “Shizuka?”
“Yeah.” Naruto nodded. “Remember when she lent Tsukushi her dress for the party? Shizuka said she looked beautiful.”
“Well, yes but...” Hinata turned to him with a frown. “But... they’re both girls. That’s just not possible.”
“Why wouldn’t it be possible?” Naruto asked, taken aback. Yugito had been dating her girlfriend for years now and she’d never said anything about it not being possible.
“Well, I’ve never seen two girls together before,” Sakura said with an air of finality.
“So?” Naruto shrugged. “Two girls can be girlfriends. I don’t see why they can’t.”
“Well, I guess...” Sakura trailed off, taking her eyes off the screen to blink up at the ceiling. “I just never really thought about it.”
“Whatever, I just hope Tsukishi just doesn’t end up with Tsukasa,” Ino added, taking a potato chip and throwing it in her mouth. “He’s a dick.”
“He really is.” Naruto nodded while reaching for Ino’s bowl. “That’s why Tsukishi should go with Shizuka, ya know.”
Lounging with his back on the sofa, Sasuke huffed. “It’s just a show.” Despite his words, which he had repeated various times in the last hour, he had never taken his eyes away from the screen.
Inside the show, the two finally broke apart, although they continued to stare into each others’ eyes, romantic music emphasizing the moment’s importance. Through the window, Rui appeared, looking both shocked and disappointed. He disappeared before Tsukasa and Tsukushi could see him. With that as the final scene, the credits began to roll, the upbeat music clashing with the last shot.
“Well, that didn’t go as well as I thought,” Ino complained as she stretched back and stared up at the ceiling. “If they make Tsukushi get together with Tsukasa, I’m gonna scream.”
Sasuke snorted. “They’re going to now,” he hypothesized. “Tsukasa is the one that shows up in the end credits the most.”
Ino groaned and covered her face with her hands. “I hate that you’re probably right.”
“Tsukushi should’ve just punched him,” Naruto added.
“She should’ve,” Hinata agreed with a sigh.
With an equally tired sigh, Sakura reached for the remote and turned off the television.
“There’s still a new episode next week, right?” Naruto asked.
Sakura nodded. “I think so.”
“Well, it’s almost time for dinner,” Hinata said as she left the sofa’s comfort and stretched her arms in front of her. “I should go before Ko-san starts to worry.”
“We should probably go, too,” Naruto admitted, making Sasuke huff in agreement.
“Me, too,” Sakura piped up. “I have to help my mom with dinner. Same time next week?”
Ino nodded. “After training? Sure.”
Naruto grinned. “Looking forward to it.”
Hinata nodded enthusiastically while Sasuke shrugged.
“That’s settled, then!” Naruto bounced up and down on his heels as the five of them left the living room and headed out.
But before they reached the front door, Ino’s father, still in his shinobi uniform, entered the hallway.
“Good evening, kids,” he said with a smile.
In an instant, the air drained from Naruto’s lungs and the blood left his face.
Once, Ino had casually mentioned that her father could read minds. According to her, as the Yamanaka clan leader and the head of the Analysis Team in the village, he was the best mind reader in all of Konoha.
And while Ino thought nothing of the fact and even seemed to take pride in her father’s abilities, the knowledge terrified Naruto. What if Ino’s father learned all his worst secrets? About the photo of his mother, hidden inside the floor of his bedroom? About the one time he had a conversation with the Kyuubi? About his goal to help Sasuke to hunt down Itachi? Or worse, about the Room and the jinchuuriki?
Not wanting to meet the man’s eyes, Naruto stared at the wall and forced himself to think of anything innocent.
Ramen. The dish was delicious, especially if it was from Ichiraku Ramen. Salty, savory, and better than anything else in the world. If he was really hungry he could eat five whole bowls. Sometimes, Teuchi would put extra meat atop his bowl, although he always acted like it was an accident when that happened.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed Sasuke tense, although he managed to keep more of his composure intact. What kind of secrets could he want to keep from Ino’s father, anyway?
In comparison, the girls were unaffected, returning the man’s greeting with smiles of their own.
“Hi, Daddy!” Ino leaped forward, wrapping her arms around her father’s waist. “ Back from work?”
“Yes, Ino.” The man swept Ino’s bangs away from her face and placed a kiss on her forehead. “Thankfully I got out just in time for dinner.”
Ino’s smile widened. “I’m glad, Daddy.” Her grip on her father’s waist tightened.
An uncomfortable weight settled in Naruto’s stomach. Based on the expression on Sasuke and Hinata’s faces, they were having similar experiences. Only Sakura seemed unaffected and she bounced up and down her heels, waiting for Ino’s greeting to end.
To Naruto’s relief, Ino broke the embrace quickly, although she remained at her father’s side, his hand atop her head.
“I guess you kids are heading out now?” Ino’s father asked, absentmindedly combing his fingers through his daughter’s hair.
“Yes, sir,” Hinata answered with a forced smile. “I can’t make my family wait any longer before they start worrying.”
“I need to help my mother make dinner,” Sakura added.
Naruto swallowed down his fear and forced himself to meet the man’s eyes. Ino’s father might be terrifying, but he had always been polite enough— at least compared to the rest of the village and even Ino’s mother.
“We’re going home now,” he said.
“All right.” The man nodded. If he thought anything strange about Naruto or Sasuke’s reaction, he refused to show it. “I guess I will see you around later, kids.”
Sasuke swallowed as he met the man’s eyes. “Yes, sir.”
Naruto almost laughed. Since when was Sasuke polite to anyone? Not that Naruto could blame him. Who wouldn’t want to be polite to someone who could read minds?
“Thank you for the hospitality, sir,” Naruto added.
“Thank you, Yamanaka-san.” Hinata gave the man a polite bow.
“Goodbye, Ino-chan! Goodbye, Yamanaka-san!” Sakura managed to flash the man an honest smile.
With that done, they left Ino’s house. Hinata returned to the clan compound while Sakura ran home.
“Let’s get ramen for dinner!” Naruto suggested as they left the Yamanaka compound.
“We’re always getting ramen,” Sasuke complained. “Let’s just cook.”
Naruto groaned. “Do you really want to make dinner now?” he asked. “In the time it takes to cook the rice, make soup, grill the fish... that’d take forever!”
Sasuke huffed. “We have time and I’m not hungry.”
Naruto raised an eyebrow as he took a step closer to meet Sasuke’s eyes. “Really?”
Sasuke met his scrutinizing gaze without flinching. “Really.”
Naruto almost believed him. But Sasuke’s stomach decided to act first, growling loudly in defiance.
Sasuke turned his face away. “Ramen’s fine.”
Naruto snickered in delight. “Thought so.”
Why was it so difficult for Sasuke to be honest? Naruto almost wanted to mock him for it. But based on past experience, he already knew it would only make Sasuke surlier. Content to wait for Sasuke’s embarrassment to fade, Naruto stared at the night sky above them. Walking side by side, they traced their familiar route toward Ichiraku Ramen.
“Do you think we’d know if Ino’s father was reading our minds?” Naruto asked, trying to hide his nervousness and failing.
Sasuke was quiet for a moment before answering. “I hope so.” The worry in his voice was impossible to miss.
“What are you afraid he’ll learn, anyway?” Naruto asked, curious despite himself. “Like about that time you—“
“I told you never to mention that!” Sasuke’s face was red as he glared at Naruto. “Besides…” He turned away. “It’s not like you know everything about me.”
Images of Naruto’s mother and the jinchuuriki flashed through his mind. He scoffed before looking in the opposite direction. “I could say the same thing to you.”
Sasuke snorted. “Yeah, right. Like you’d really have anything to hide.”
Naruto shoved his hands into his pockets, balling them up into fists. He wanted to argue more, but what would be the point? He could never tell Sasuke any of his real secrets. Not about his mother. Not about the jinchuuriki. And definitely not about being the container of the Kyuubi. Could they even stay friends if Sasuke learned the truth?
Now too annoyed to speak, they walked in silence the rest of the way to Ichiraku Ramen. The silence was still tense by the time they sat down.
“Good evening, Naruto-kun, Sasuke-kun!” Ayame greeted them with a smile, as she wiped spoons dry and placed them into a container.
“Welcome, boys,” Teuchi said, raising one hand as he chopped something behind the counter. “What can I get you two tonight?”
Naruto’s mood lifted in an instant and he grinned as he sat at the nearest empty stool. “Chashu pork ramen, please!”
“Miso for me,” Sasuke added. While he remained annoyed, he still sat next to Naruto at the counter.
Teuchi nodded. “Coming right up, boys.”
Not wanting to chat, Naruto and Sasuke turned away from each other and scowled in opposite directions.
But soon enough, Naruto began to grow bored as his annoyance faded. His eyes wandered toward the other patrons. Except for him and Sasuke, there was one other person: a tall man with long white hair.
The man noticed his gaze. He paused mid-bite and gave Naruto a polite nod before slurping down a bite of noodles.
Naruto nodded back, frowning to himself.
The man was strange. Looking closer, he could see that there were dark marks and lines criss-crossing his face. While at first he thought they might be markings like his whiskers, or some perhaps some sort of bruise, the patterns were too regular. And there was a thin layer of makeup that was beginning to flake off. Why was a man just walking around with drawings on his face?
He wore a thin layer of armor under his shirt, but there was no hitai-ate to be seen anywhere. The fact that he was acknowledging Naruto at all only added to his strangeness. Was he from outside of Konoha?
Naruto gave the man one last confused frown before looking away. He chanced a glance at Sasuke, but the other boy continued to ignore him, staring in the opposite direction.
Suppressing a sigh, Naruto placed his chin on the counter and counted the number of toothpicks inside the jar. He had counted them twice over— each time with different results— when a bowl of ramen finally appeared in front of his nose.
In an instant, his mood rose and he sat up straight and reached for a set of chopsticks.
“Thanks for the meal!” he said as he separated his chopsticks before digging in.
At his side, Sasuke did the same, although with a fraction of the enthusiasm.
Naruto kicked his feet up and down in the air as he ate as quickly as he could. How could a simple dish be so delicious? The meat was tender and perfectly cooked, the broth salty without being overwhelming. He only wished he could eat ramen for every meal.
“Make sure to breathe, kid,” a deep voice said.
Naruto jumped and turned to the source of the voice.
The strange man met his gaze with a raised eyebrow. “You don’t wanna choke.”
Naruto frowned, chewing furiously before swallowing. “I’m not gonna choke, ya know!”
The man’s eyebrow only seemed to rise higher. After a second of consideration, he shrugged and turned away to focus on his own meal. “Just trying to give some friendly advice,” he muttered to himself before returning to his meal.
“Would you like anything else, Jiraiya?” Teuchi asked as he turned his attention to the strange man.
Jiraiya? So that was his name? Naruto took another bite of noodles.
The man, Jiraiya, shook his head. “No, thank you,” he answered. “Although I’m surprised you still remember my name, Teuchi. It’s been years since I was last here.”
“A chef doesn’t forget his best customers.” The ramen chef turned to smile at Naruto.
Naruto returned the glance with a smile of his own.
For some reason, the strange man frowned at that. He spun on his stool to meet Naruto’s eyes. “So you’re a regular at Ichiraku’s?”
Naruto shrugged. “I come here sometimes.” Although he would visit more often if his wallet and the jinchuuriki permitted it.
“We come here all the time,” Sasuke corrected.
Naruto turned to glare at Sasuke. “No we don’t!”
Putting his chopsticks down on the counter, Sasuke glared back, eyes full of annoyance. “Yes, we do. At least twice a week.”
Teuchi laughed. “I think it’s closer to once a week,” he said. “Every once in a while I won’t get a visit from you two boys.”
“You see?” Sasuke scoffed as he picked his chopsticks back up and began to eat. “We’re regulars,” he mumbled with a mouth half full of food.
Naruto rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
“Well, Ichiraku Ramen’s pretty good,” Jiraiya said, fiddling with his chopsticks before eating more.
“Yeah, it is.” Naruto shrugged again as he focused back on his own meal.
At his side, Sasuke did the same and the strange man also said nothing. Behind the counter, Teuchi began to clean up, aided by his daughter. In silence, they ate their food, interrupted only by the sounds of their eating and the world outside.
Naruto was nearly done with his first bowl when a sigh from the strange man caught his attention. Mouth half-full of noodles, he turned to look up at Jiraiya.
“Thank you so much for the meal, Teuchi,” he said while standing up and placing a bunch of coins down on the counter. “It was nice to learn the place was still standing.”
“And it was great to see you again after so long, Jiraiya.” The ramen chef paused his work long enough to wave at the other man. “Come back to Konoha more often. I’m sure there are a lot of people you care about here.”
Was it his imagination, or had Jiraiya’s eyes turned to Naruto?
Jiraiya flashed the chef a smile, although Naruto thought there was a hint of sadness in his expression. “I’ve got a lot of important work to do,” he said. “I wish I could come more often. Anyway...” he rolled his shoulders back and groaned. “I should set out now. Thanks again... for everything.”
He turned to Naruto and Sasuke next, a lopsided smile on his lips. “Enjoy your meal, boys.”
With that, he turned his back to them and left, not glancing back once.
What a weird man.
Naruto returned to his ramen. He chewed through the last of his noodles and gulped down the broth before asking for more. As Teuchi prepared his new bowl, he turned to Sasuke, their earlier argument already forgotten.
“That man was so weird, ya know,” he said.
Sasuke nodded, apparently having also forgotten their earlier disagreement. “Why was his face...” he paused, looking almost like his mother was there watching his words. “Covered in lines.”
Naruto shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he just likes drawing on his face?”
Sasuke copied his shrug. “Maybe.” With a sigh, he continued eating.