Chapter 11

A/N: Another ridiculous delay later, here is Chapter XI. This chapter wasoriginally meant to be half the length, but then a certain foul-mouthed cynicstarted talking. On which note, content advisory for more foul language thanthe rest of the fic thus far combined.

_ Special thanks go to my faithful beta readers, Nezumi, sehrrhes and (as ofthis chapter) Traiden. In addition, thanks to edao for writing in with a listof typos for past chapters, which have now been corrected. Finally, as ever,thanks to my reviewers for letting me know what you think. There can never betoo many reviews, nor can any of them be “too long”. If I was afraid of wallsof text, I’d stick to writing haiku._

On which note, now I’m actually getting a few negative reviews: for the loveof the Night Angels, people, if there are changes you feel need making, beclear about them. “Naruto is still stupid”, for example, tells me nothingabout what I’ve written that makes you think so, or what he’s lacking thatwould make him genuinely intelligent in your estimation.

For spoiler tracking purposes, the anime has just revealed the names of theTailed Beasts.

“Old Stone Face” wasn’t actually a reference to Vimes, although as anavid Discworld fan I probably had it somewhere in the back of my mind. It wasa consequence of my original, slightly different, image of the head librarianhaving “Ishi” as part of his surname. Then, when I was choosing a differentname, I thought “Ishi” (Japanese for “stone”) plus “Kao” (Japanese for “face”)suggested an obvious nickname.

I’m afraid I haven’t read/seen Inuyasha. The reference, such as it was, wasto Ranma 1/2.

I do like my characters (except smart!Gaara, who is so scarily overpoweredI have no idea how to stop him, and don’t even get me started onsmart!Orochimaru), but look at it my way - can you even imagine whatsmart!Naruto would do to the world if he wasn’t kept busy by crisis aftercrisis?

In regards to background setting info, I’ll try to put in more basic facts,and there’s an obvious point a couple of chapters down where a detaileddiscussion of Narutoverse politics would be natural and appropriate.

Since a lot of people are apparently getting turned off by “Nine-Brains” asclashing with the general tone of the story, I’m going to be cutting down onthat particular title from now on. The inspiration/homage/blatant stealing ofideas from the HPMOR omake has been established well enough by now.

Speaking of tone, I should clarify that this was never meant to be a 100%serious fanfic. To me, the fact that Naruto’s everyday life is threadedthrough with an undercurrent of humour (I know, people have died for lessmixed metaphors) strengthens the impact of the parts where that humour issuppressed, rather than undermining them. Naruto is an ostracised child with amonster inside him trying to eat his soul, and it would be all too easy to gogrimdark from there, but that’s not what this story is about. This story isabout… well… lighting up the dark.

Since I apparently fail at deadlines (and also have to factor in my betareaders’ schedules), I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep trying to committo any sort of regular timetable. I will keep writing, however, and not vanishinto the ether.

-o-

The text Naruto had just read was unreal. It was something out of a spythriller. Leaf had not seen two-day secret military tribunals for decades, notsince the days of the Second Hokage when the Blue Ink Crisis had necessitatedthe legislation of some frankly terrifying legal powers in the name of villagesecurity. Of course, since they were secret tribunals, it was entirelypossible that they continued to take place every day without Naruto knowing,but he vaguely remembered being taught that the Third had repealed the lawsinvolved not long after his accession. Had they been reinstated duringNaruto’s absence?

And then there was the “those responsible… cannot be trusted” part. Thissuggested that someone very influential was out to get Kakashi-sensei, someonewith the power to block or pervert the course of an entire investigation. Thenote’s sender had to be very influential as well - they were aware of thedetails of a secret tribunal, after all - which suggested that Naruto wasbeing dragged into a conflict between two (or more) heavyweights. Ordinarily,that should have been scary as hell, but now… now Naruto knew that some majorpower in the village, one capable of overruling the Hokage himself, was alsoresponsible for all the suffering in his life. If this was an opportunity tosee some of Leaf’s movers and shakers first-hand, and simultaneously find outwhich of them was evil enough to try to frame Kakashi-sensei for treason,there was no way he could back down. He was going to do this, for Kakashi-sensei, for a chance to take another step towards his revenge, and for hispride, which wouldn’t let him give up on a challenge without trying.

All right. Time to think it through logically, step by step. Given that no-onehad even bothered summoning him as a witness to the trial, when he’d been theone to kill Gatō on Kakashi-sensei’s alleged orders, it seemed like the wholething was a sham, and not a genuine attempt to find out the truth in any way.His aim therefore wasn’t really to exonerate Kakashi-sensei, but to findevidence that would stretch out the trial long enough for whoever had sent himthe note to find other means of solving the problem, such as through politicalpressure. Not that this really changed things - he was still after the bestevidence possible, in the biggest possible quantities. And there was one morething he could do…

Yes, the solution to the issue of Gatō‘s assassination suggested itself almostinstantly. It wouldn’t be enough to simply admit that he’d acted on his ownrather than on Kakashi-sensei’s orders, since then he might end up being triedfor the same crime instead. But what he could do… he didn’t like it, and itmade him feel more than a little dirty, but, in the end, he thought what hewas going to do would be understood. Maybe even forgiven.

The hard part would be the reinforcements issue. There was no reason forKakashi-sensei to lie to them about calling in reinforcements, so he probablyhad. But for all the tactical advantages of leaving nothing on interceptablescrolls, it meant there was no physical evidence of the request. That broughtit down to witnesses.

He, Sasuke and Sakura had all been asleep at the time of the hand-over, sothat was right out. The staff at Takeda’s Wayside Inn might have seensomething, but there were a number of reasons not to rely on them, not leastthe fact that there was no way he could make it there and back in six hours.At least probably not. Kakashi-sensei had told him that the Fox was able tobeat Haku on speed using only the techniques in Naruto’s arsenal, so as a lastresort he could try to invent some sort of super-fast travel technique in thetime remaining to him. But that was probably best left for plan B, or maybeplan Z.

Naruto thought through the events of the day. The prisoner had been handedover to the four Chūnin, who had taken him through the forest, to the gate,signed in at the gate, then gone through the village to the ANBU headquarters,and signed the prisoner over. So he could find out the names of the Chūnin whowere supposed to convey the message quite easily, and question them.

Except that was a bad idea. They were one of the two possible weak links inthe chain - either the four had failed to deliver the message, or ANBU hadreceived it and then pretended they hadn’t. In case of the former, he was onlygoing to be told lies, and would also be alerting his enemies to hisinvestigation. In case of the latter, he was pretty much doomed from thestart. If ANBU had been subverted…

Wait. There was a third option. The missing-nin, the Demon Brother whose namehe could find out easily from the gate records, would not be aligned with anyfaction in Leaf, corrupt or otherwise, and over him Naruto might actuallyhave some leverage - more than he would over the four Chūnin or ANBU, anyway.In addition, he probably didn’t expect to be questioned, and wouldn’t havespent time preparing a plausible story that concealed the particularinformation Naruto wanted. The prisoner might have witnessed Kakashi-sensei’sreinforcement request, or at the very least overheard conversations betweenthe Chūnin that might give a clue as to their motives and plans. He was stillgambling that the man’s ANBU jailors were innocent, but since they hadn’t beeninvolved in the reinforcements issue thus far, that was quite likely (short ofthe whole organisation being in on it).

All right. Naruto set off at a run towards his first destination.

-o-

ANBU receptionist and office administrator Matsunaga Nao half-heartedly sortedthrough equipment requisition forms while listening to the clock tick away theminutes until the end of her shift. To her right, a thick metal door led tothe rest of the complex. To her left, the smell of life-giving coffee waftedin from the entrance to the break area, where her replacement was alreadywaiting as per standard procedure. Occasionally, her right hand would tugunconsciously at the purple ponytail over her shoulder, as if to check that itwas still there.

After perhaps a hundred thousand near-identical forms (or at any rate, atleast thirty), her work was interrupted by a late-night visitor, a boy shecouldn’t help but recognise thanks to his ridiculous orange outfit. UzumakiNaruto, she recalled, had all but single-handedly exposed and captured atraitorous Chūnin instructor before even graduating from the Academy - a featthat had put his name on a number of interesting lists.

If he maintained this track record of exceptional achievement, Nao knew, thenone night in a few years’ time he’d wake up to discover a mysterious maskedshinobi at the foot of his bed, there to make him the offer of a lifetime. Ifhe accepted… a few days later he’d be taken away and likely never heard fromagain. If he refused the offer to betray Leaf in exchange for what hispsychological profile suggested he wanted most, or pretended to agree and thenreported the shinobi to the authorities the next day, he’d pass the secondstage of the ANBU selection process. (Rumour had it that Uchiha Itachi hadsomehow coerced the “recruiter” into giving him a leadership position in thenon-existent spy cell, and turned up at the ANBU headquarters the next daywith the detailed list of agents, passwords and operating instructions thatthe man had originally invented purely as a way of getting into character.)

“Hello there, Naruto. What can I do for you?”

The boy smiled as he recognised her - receptionists being among the fewcategories of staff not required to maintain anonymity. “I need to interrogatea prisoner, Miss Matsunaga, the missing-nin Onigahara Tariki.”

“You can call me Nao,” she told him. “But I’m afraid that as a Genin, there’sno possible chance you’d have the security clearance to conduct aninterrogation. Your best bet is to get your team leader to authorise it foryou.”

“Ah,” Naruto grimaced. “That would be the problem. My team leader is HatakeKakashi, and he’s in no position to authorise anything right now. I’m herebecause he needs help.”

The receptionist’s demeanour changed in an instant. “Captain Hatake needshelp? Why didn’t you say so before? Tell me everything you can.”

Naruto quickly summed up the contents of the note. It was a gamble, but he’dneed Nao on his side if he were to have a chance of success.

“Shit,” Nao muttered. She thought for a few seconds. “All right, Naruto, I’mabout to let you in on the most closely-guarded secret of the ANBUadministrative staff. In times of crisis, we are formally obliged to do thingsby the Book.”

She half-turned, in a practiced movement that left Naruto in her peripheralvision as she considered the enormous double row of thick tomes on the shelvesbehind her.

“What’s that?”

“The Book.” Nao picked up Volume IX and set it on the desk in front of her.“Also known as Complete Rules and Regulations of the Assassination and BattleTactics Special Unit. Our ultimate weapon, expanded and empowered bygenerations of masters of the bureaucratic arts.”

Nao opened the book and began to flick through it. “Have you passed yourtwelfth birthday, as recorded on your birth certificate?”

“Huh? Um, yeah,” Naruto replied, caught slightly off guard. Not that his birthcertificate had much to do with reality.

“Good, then clause 26 doesn’t apply. Now, based on section 18, paragraph 6,and given that the current duty officer fulfils the criteria for clearancecategory L3, we can proceed straight to section 8…” Nao started to mutter toherself as she turned the pages back and forth, occasionally swapping in adifferent volume altogether, pausing only to ask Naruto the occasional inanequestion.

-o-

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a criminal organisationinvolved in smuggling operations across ninja village borders?”

-o-

“OK… You haven’t submitted forms 3314, 205 and 472b (twice) in advance, butI think paragraph 16, clause 3 can get us around that…”

-o-

“Technically, the current Hokage is the Third, but since he’s taken the posttwice, section 173, paragraph 2, clause 7b allows us to count him as theFifth…”

-o-

“Have you ever carried out a mission in a squad including one or more membersof Root?”

“What’s Root?”

“Like ANBU, but evil. Oops, I did _not _just say that out loud.” She looked upfrom the book sharply, and proceeded to recite, as if from memory, “The ANBUpolicy towards our Root colleagues is based on complete respect andprofessional cooperation, and it is in no way permissible for ANBU staff toadvise members of the public to stay the hell away from Root if they valuetheir life.” She looked down again. “Anyway, that lets us invoke paragraph 4…”

-o-

Meanwhile, somewhere deep underground, in a place very few people knowexists…

Although, as the Third Hokage, Sarutobi Hiruzen was trained to the peak ofphysical and mental fortitude, as a man long past the age of retirement(insofar as such a thing existed for shinobi) he nevertheless did not relishspending long periods of time in cold, damp subterranean spaces. As such, inspite of himself he felt a momentary sense of relief when he finally heard theinimitable “tap, tap, tap” of Shimura Danzō‘s cane.

It had an interesting rhythm, that sound. One who knew what to listen forwould notice that it was not the slow, heavy rhythm of an old man relying on astick for support. Nor was it the casual tap of someone carrying a cane as aconvenient status symbol, or perhaps an elegant concealed weapon as someforeign aristocrats liked to do. No, to a fellow master this rhythm spokelouder than words: “I have already calculated exactly how to kill you in onemotion from anywhere in the room, and am now choosing a suitable position atmy leisure”. The Hokage had seen would-be assassins flee from Danzō‘s presenceupon hearing that rhythm, and silently commended them for their good sense.

“Why have you called me here, Hiruzen?” Danzō demanded in the tones of a long-suffering public servant whose only desire is to return to his interruptedwork. Of course, given that he had been the one to arrange the meeting, thiscould only be a trick to assume control of the flow of conversation.

The Hokage would not give ground so easily. “I thought I had repealed all ofthe Second’s emergency laws. Rest assured, by this time tomorrow I will havefinished the job to the last loophole.”

Danzō‘s only reaction was a slight raising of his eyebrows. “You always lackedforesight. I, on the other hand, knew this day would come, the day when thebalance between us would have to be restored, and made sure your attentionwas… redirected… from certain records.”

“What balance? I have taken care not to interfere with your work with Root.”This was, of course, a lie, but Danzō would be hard-pressed to proveotherwise. “Do you have some other complaint?”

Danzō gave him a look. “Don’t play dumb, Hiruzen, it doesn’t suit you. Youwere too greedy. I could have tolerated your claiming the Uzumaki child - withdifficulty, but I could have done it. I am nothing if not a patient man. Butyou should have left the Uchiha to me. Or vice versa. They are resources thatbelong to the entire village, not just to you.”

“So that’s what this is about?” the Hokage frowned. “You want me to give upone of this cohort’s most promising children to Root?”

Danzō shook his head. “It’s too late for such half-measures. Your every actionkeeps proving how unsuited you are to leadership. Unsurprising, of course,since that’s just another thing you stole from me.”

The Hokage opened his mouth, ready to rehash this age-old argument yet again,but Danzō didn’t give him the chance.

“You can wear the hat, Hiruzen, if it matters to you so much. Who am I tostand in the way of a man desperately clinging to unearned pride? But I won’tlet you endanger the village with your incompetence. I won’t just stand bywhile you let those two play children’s games, growing up worthless and softlike the rest of your Genin. That’s why I’m giving you a choice.

“You can try to keep them. Then Hatake will be convicted, and you’ll lose oneof your favourite pawns to no gain. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you whatpunishments Master Tobirama decreed for treason.

“Or you can allow me to assign a squad leader of my choosing to replaceHatake.” A certain hunger shone in Danzō‘s eyes. It was subtle enough thateven the Third would have missed it, were he not familiar with every shade ofexpression his former best friend had to show. “If you do, your best shinobiwill be released, to serve you elsewhere as you wish, and I’m not even askingto have Uzumaki and the Uchiha moved into Root. They can stay within yourformal jurisdiction, but my chosen captain will have final control over theirdevelopment. The girl will, of course, be transferred to another squad - Icare not what you do with her - and I already have a most promising candidateto replace her.”

“You must replace Hatake as squad leader no matter what,” Danzō told theHokage. “Your only choice is whether you care to spare his life.”

The Hokage feigned intense thought. The fact of the matter was that he alreadyhad a number of schemes going to try to counter Danzō‘s gambit, from thewildcard that was Naruto, to a plan which would ensure that Team Seven couldmanage without a squad leader for the immediate future. Right now, he couldn’tconduct any sort of investigation himself - Danzō had pulled some of his bestshinobi from their missions in order to watch him and be ready to interfere inany attempt - which meant the best use of his time might be to keep Danzōtalking. Every minute Danzō spent in this godsforsaken basement was another hecouldn’t use to reinforce his own position. And right now, every minutecounted.

“You’re the one who blocked the reinforcements to Kakashi’s mission, I takeit?” the Hokage asked. “You realise they were nearly wiped out as a result?”

Danzō shrugged. “If the Demon Fox host and the last Uchiha, under theleadership of Sharingan Kakashi, could not take care of a low A-rank mission,then their power would have been insufficient for me to concern myself withtheir survival in the first place. On the other hand, if they survived, asthey did, their power would increase significantly, as it has.”

“And I take it you are offering to sacrifice four of your own men - who wereacting on your orders - if I take the deal? All just to keep those two boysout of my hands?”

“Do not waste my time with pointless questions,” Danzō said sharply. “You knowas well as I do that something is coming. Every village is makingpreparations and maximising their resources - they are all doing whatever ittakes to be ready. Something is coming, and I will not allow you to doomHidden Leaf with your weakness and inaction. Too many good men have fallen,and too many more will fall, for you to dishonour their sacrifice with yetmore failure.”

For a brief second, the lights flickered, and had anyone been able to seeDanzō‘s face in the darkness, he would have looked less like a ruthlesspowermonger and more like a very, very tired man who knew that the world wouldfall apart if he so much as stopped to take a breath.

Then the lights returned, and he continued as if nothing had happened. “Youwere never able to make the difficult decisions, Hiruzen, never able to makethe sacrifices that need to be made to protect what’s important. I am makingthem for you, and though I know I cannot expect any gratitude from you andyours, I expect you to at least make the effort to act rationally, for thegood of your faction if not of the village. Make your decision about Hatakebefore the trial resumes. I’ll be waiting.”

And then there was just a rhythmic tapping sound, and then silence.

The Hokage sighed. Normally, he could tie Danzō up in philosophical debate forhours if that’s what it took - part tactical manoeuvre, part yet anotherhopeless attempt to pull someone who mattered back out of the darkness - buthis talk with Naruto had left him too emotionally exhausted. He stood therefor a few seconds more, then began the slow walk back. There were cunningplots to weave, and dreary paperwork to process, and at times like these theHokage honestly couldn’t say which one he hated more.

-o-

“I think we’re nearly there,” Nao announced, her eyes locked on Volume IV.“Would you say, in your best judgment, that the current situation threatens anirreversible breakdown of public order?”

“Yes,” Naruto nodded firmly. Which is to say he would raise hell if Kakashi-sensei were falsely convicted of treason. There were vast, unplumbed depths ofcreativity he could draw upon if that’s what it took, and if Leaf had thoughthe was a terror before, they had no idea what he could do now he actually hadmoney.

“Great!” Nao finally looked up. “Then in accordance with clause 13a(ii) ofparagraph 7 of section 245 of the Rules and Regulations of the Assassinationand Battle Tactics Special Unit, I am bound to escort you to the low-securitysection and hand you over to the captain in charge, who will facilitate theinterrogation.”

She turned towards the break room door. “Yukari?” She raised her voice. “Ineed you to relieve me for a few minutes.”

“Sure thing, Nao-baby,” a young woman’s voice responded.

Nao’s expression changed somewhat. “Yukari, we have a visitor!” shepractically hissed.

“Oh.” Another, younger, woman emerged from the break room, looking like shewished she knew an instant earth-opening-up-and-swallowing-oneself technique.“I mean ‘Saitō Yukari, acknowledging reception area handover, ma’am!’”

Nao gave Naruto a look that quite plainly said “I’m helping you out here, sojust pretend that never happened”, and silently took him through the largemetal door.

-o-

Naruto was led to the entrance to the prison section, where an enormousreinforced door slowly opened after a few words from Nao. On the other side,the duty officer, a tall ANBU man with a crow-themed mask, told her to go backto her post, and Naruto to wait. He then half-turned back, keeping one eye onNaruto, and gave a guard a few brief instructions.

Several seconds later, a loud voice came out of nowhere, nearly making Narutojump. Loudspeakers, like most electronic technology, were rare and expensiveas heck, but then the ANBU budget was nothing short of insane.

“Attention: Areas Three through Seven are now at Yellow Alert. Prisoner no.435 is now being transferred from Cell Block D to Interrogation Chamber Four.Repeat: Areas Three through Seven are now at Yellow Alert. Prisoner no. 435 isnow being transferred from Cell Block D to Interrogation Chamber Four.”

The officer looked back to Naruto.

“Listen carefully,” he told Naruto in what could only be described as theemphatic monotone of someone who had delivered the same speech, word for word,a thousand times, but had never stopped caring about it. “Matsunaga said youneeded a private interrogation chamber, so here are the rules. You surrenderall weapons, loose items, jewellery et cetera before entering the room. You donot move from your seat unless there are at least four guards in the room withyou. If for any reason you find yourself out of your seat, you do not underany circumstances approach the prisoner, not even if you think you’ll still beout of reach. You do not use techniques. Repeat these instructions back tome.”

Naruto did, feeling more than a little anxious.

The captain nodded with faint approval. Every shinobi was expected to traintheir memory to peak performance, but sadly that didn’t mean they all did.

“There will be four guards outside. The acoustic properties of the roomscramble speech, but it is still recognisable as speech from outside. If theyhear shouting, or anything at all that doesn’t sound like a person speaking,they will enter immediately. If they hear nothing for a full minute, they willenter immediately. If you press the concealed alarm button under the edge ofthe table nearest to you, they will enter immediately. If there is any impactagainst the door, they will enter immediately. Repeat this information back tome.

“If anything unexpected happens, summon the guards immediately. If you feelthreatened, no matter what the reason, or even if there seems to be no reason,summon the guards immediately. If you feel confused, or have difficultythinking or moving, summon the guards immediately. If you find yourself havingthoughts or feelings inappropriate to the situation in nature or intensity,summon the guards immediately. Repeat these instructions back to me.”

Satisfied, the captain led him to the interrogation chamber. To Naruto’sdisappointment, whoever had designed the ANBU complex had put some thoughtinto it, and left a route that gave visitors no chance to satisfy theircuriosity about the actual layout and contents of the prison.

Naruto did, however, get a glimpse of the ANBU approach to secure constructioninside the chamber itself. A table and two chairs were arranged parallel tothe wall with the door, such that anyone coming in had quick and easy accessto both the visitor and the prisoner. All furniture was bolted to the floor,and while the interrogator’s chair merely looked uncomfortable (as if it hadbeen hewn from one piece of stone), the prisoner’s chair came with floor-mounted “boots” to hold the feet, and locks on the back to fit the handrestraints all prisoners wore at all times. Anyone sitting in that monstrositywould be effectively immobilised.

He also took note of the guards’ equipment before they left him alone with theprisoner. One had no visible weapons at all, while two others had retractableclaw gauntlets on both arms. The fourth had strange metal devices likecompletely blunt knuckle-dusters in his hands. After a few seconds, itoccurred to Naruto that they might be chakra blades, which he’d been taughtabout at the Academy, though the ones he’d seen had a vertical point or edgefor focusing the wielder’s chakra into a sharp blade, not to mention spikes onthe punching edge. He didn’t understand the significance of all this untillater, when he idly pondered how he’d go about escaping an ANBU prison, andrealised that there was no possible way to disarm the guards or turn theirweapons against them.

Contrary to Naruto’s expectations, which had included one tabletop lampproviding a narrow beam that left the questioner’s face in shadow, the roomwas brightly lit by a ceiling-mounted light the rough size and shape of adinner plate. As such, he had no difficulty making out the baleful glareOnigahara Tariki was directing at him.

Tariki looked considerably worse for wear compared to their last meeting, withfresh scars visible on his face and hands, and grey streaks in his previouslyblack hair. The standard-issue ANBU prisoner uniform, high-visibility orangewith strips of reflective material, and “ANBU prisoner 435” emblazoned acrossfront and back in big white letters, stood out starkly against the featurelessgrey of the room.

Naruto had no idea how to interrogate a prisoner. He would much rather haveleft doing so to a professional - but right now he didn’t know who to trust,and could not be sure that ANBU hadn’t been caught up in the strange powerpolitics surrounding Kakashi-sensei’s trial. He was lucky that he’d managed toget this far without anyone trying to stop him.

“My name is Uzumaki Naruto,” he finally told the prisoner. “I have something Ineed to ask you.”

Tariki did not respond except to sneer ever so faintly, as if to remind Narutoof the absurdity of asking for favours from the man whose imprisonment he wasresponsible for.

This was not lost on Naruto, who had spent most of the journey here rackinghis brain for some sort of leverage he could use to get the information hewanted out of a hostile source.

“There are things I could offer you in exchange,” he said.

Tariki gave a short, sarcastic laugh, almost a bark. “Of course there are. Goahead, wave your magic wand and make the Mizukage forgive my ‘crimes’. Or pullthe Sword That Cuts Iron out of your ass and use it to break these bonds so Ican escape. Or maybe you’re the Second Hokage in disguise, and you canblackmail the very demons of Hell to give my brother back to me, how aboutthat? No? Then fuck off and stop wasting the little time I have left.”

Naruto was taken aback by the sheer disgust in Tariki’s voice. He had to dosomething about that. Any offer he made while the man was in this frame ofmind was much more likely to be rejected. He needed to… what? To build rapportsomehow? Naruto wasn’t exactly well-versed in the subtleties of interrogation.

“I’m sorry about your brother,” he said.

The prisoner gave him a look of weary contempt. “Subtle like an exploding tagto the face. I’m guessing they don’t keep you around for your interrogationskills.” He looked at Naruto’s costume. “Or your stealth.”

He sighed. “Look, you little prick, I can tell you’re not getting the hint, soI’m going to break this down for you, and then you’re going to fuck off andleave me alone. The best case scenario for me is that your ANBU buddies keeptorturing me until they decide I’ve got nothing left to tell them. Then,depending on what kind of ‘justice’ Leaf likes these days, they either executeme or keep me imprisoned for the rest of my life. Then your medic-nin vulturespick over my remains to see if they can drag any Mist secrets out of them.Then if there are any bones left they get chucked on a shelf in some storagefacility and left to gather dust. If I’m lucky, they might even be in the sameroom as my brother’s.

“That’s the best case scenario. The more likely one is that after ANBU’s donetorturing me, Leaf acknowledges they’ve got me, and trades me back to Mist.Then our ANBU tortures me until they’ve got everything they can out of me,including anything I’ve learned about Leaf, and believe me, they make yourANBU look like fucking pansies. Then they give me a nice, thorough publicexecution to remind everyone else what Mist does to ‘traitors’. And if there’sanything left of my body after the execution’s finally over, they make sure todesecrate the remains so my spirit can never be at peace.

“So with all that in mind, just what do you think you can offer me, you littleshitstain?”

Naruto opened his mouth. No words came. He’d never really… thought… about whathappened to captured enemies. He’d never… He’d…

There were no words. There were no thoughts. Time passed in silence.

A guard opened the door. “Do you need help?”

Concise, short syllables, easier to answer quickly than “are you all right?”,the back of Naruto’s mind noted absently.

It was Tariki who responded. “Take him out. He’s done.”

Acting on autopilot, Naruto started to get up. He was nearly out of his chair-

If I leave now, Kakashi-sensei will die.

It was only that thought flashing across his mind that stopped him. He stoodstill, unaware that his body was in an awkward half-standing position, andrepeated it to himself, deliberately now.

If I leave now, Kakashi-sensei will die.

If I leave now, Kakashi-sensei will die.

If I leave now, Kakashi-sensei will die.

Slowly, he made himself sit back down. “I- I’m fine. Thank you.”

The guard looked at him appraisingly for a few seconds. “Interrogation isdraining. If you find your mental, emotional or physical conditiondeteriorating, you should end the session and resume after you’ve had time torecover.”

Naruto nodded. “Th-Thanks. But I need to get this done tonight.”

The guard left.

Naruto took a deep breath. It felt like dropping a grain of sand into anabyss, but he still said it. “I _am _sorry. About your brother, and aboutwhat’s going to happen to you.”

“Spare me,” Tariki told him. “You won, we lost. You live, we die. Are youreally going to pretend you’d rather it was it the other way round?”

“N-No,” Naruto said. “But… But that doesn’t mean I want it to be like this!”His voice was still shaking. “I fought you because I had to, to protect myteam and my client! That doesn’t mean I wanted you to be tortured and killed!”

Tariki rolled his eyes to the heavens. “Sage’s blood, I’d rather be back withthe ANBU and their clever little instruments than listening to this shit.”

He was quiet for a moment. “Look, you fucking worthless excuse for a ninja,you think you have sort of moral high ground for being on the defending team?Let’s be clear about this. Sooner or later, it’s going to be your mission toassassinate some poor sucker whose only fault is that he’s got enemies richenough to afford ninja. Or maybe you’ll be stealing documents with tradesecrets. Suddenly, poof! Some formerly-rich bastard’s out of business, and hisemployees don’t have jobs, and their families don’t have food on the table,and their children starve to death, and tears and drama all round, and you’rethe guy who made it happen. Or maybe you could only take the missions that letyou come out smelling of roses, and turn down the rest. Except do you knowwhat they call guys who refuse to obey orders? ‘Traitors’. I’m sure you’ll berushing to join the club for the sake of your precious morality now you knowwhat _that _means.

“Fuck it, why am I even explaining this to you?” Tariki asked loudly, as ifthe thought had just occurred to him. “I’m not your master, I’m your fuckingworst enemy, the guy from whom you took everything.” He paused. “But you knowwhat, whatever. I’m going to strip away your retarded little illusions, andthen you can fuck off and take the ‘oh I’m so noble’ bullshit with you.

“This is your world. Are you with me? This is where you live. You took moneyto protect that bridge-builder guy. Why? Because your village wants money,because money is power, and power is survival. Jiriki and I took Gatō‘s moneyto kill the same guy. Why? Because money is power, and power is survival. Gatōwanted him dead so he could keep squeezing money out of the people of Wave.Why? Go on, take a guess.

“There’s only one thing anyone wants, in the end, and that’s to survive. Love?Ambition? Duty? Revenge? Good luck with those when you’re six feet under.Survival always comes first. And it never comes free. There’s a price to payjust for staying alive in this shithole of a world, and sooner or later you’llhave to make other people pay it for you before they do the same to you. Andthen you’ll want power like you’ve never wanted it before in your life. Thosewith power can bargain. They can choose what to give and what to take. Withoutpower, you own nothing, you are nothing, because everything you have andeverything you are can be taken away at another’s whim.” There was an oddstress to those last few words.

“And you, kid, are no special little snowflake. Pretend to be noble, pretendto be a fucking tragic hero trying to do good in a fucked-up world. Truth is,that world’s part of you and you are part of it, and at the end of the day,whether you’re a holy saint or an absolute monster, you’ll reach for power oryou’ll be crushed underfoot by the guys who do. No third option.”

Naruto’s hands, safely concealed beneath the edge of the table, weretrembling. Not only had he lost control of the conversation (if he’d ever hadit to begin with), but that impulse to flee, barely suppressed to begin with,was surging again. Tariki’s sheer conviction gave his words the weight ofhammer blows, and Naruto had no defence that would let him stand his ground.What was he supposed to say? “No you’re wrong - you might be about to betortured and executed, but the world is all sunshine and roses really”? Whatevidence did he have that Tariki was wrong about even a single one of hisclaims?

The prisoner just watched him, with a glint of satisfaction in his eyes,waiting for him to get up and leave.

Naruto wanted to. It was his primary feeling, intense enough to block outnearly everything else. But if he left now, Kakashi-sensei would die. But ifhe didn’t leave now… the thought refused to complete.

In the chaotic miasma of Naruto’s thoughts, there was a part of his minddesperately trying to think rationally, aware on a things-you-drop-fall-downlevel that this was what you were supposed to do when in trouble, but notactually having the resources to manage it. Suddenly, it saw an easy-to-makelogical connection and went for it. Naruto wanted to leave. If he left,Kakashi-sensei would die. Therefore Naruto wanted Kakashi-sensei to die.

What.

Naruto snapped out of his distracted mental state with a sudden jarringsensation of alertness, as if he’d just found himself about to walk into alamppost. Did he just conclude on the basis of logical syllogism that hewanted Kakashi-sensei to die? That… that was stupid on so many levels, and soprofoundly, that he didn’t think he quite had the words to describe it.

OK. Let’s just pretend that never happened, and get back to work.

Naruto took a deep breath, then another one. Ninja Teaching no. 11: breathingtechniques are the quickest and easiest way to take control of your mentalstate. It took time, but gradually, Naruto’s breathing grew slower and deeper.Some semblance of order returned to his mind, and he started to think.

First off, conviction and emotional impact didn’t make an assertion more true.He’d been on the receiving end of enough angry rants and stern lectures toknow that. At best, it might be evidence that the other person really believedwhat they were saying. Then again, there was an odd sort of correlation inNaruto’s experience between people with strong beliefs and people who werehorribly wrong, from the people convinced he was a monster whose death was theonly way to save the village, to Haku and his unswerving devotion to a man whocouldn’t begin to value him as much as he deserved.

Likewise, while an adult’s superior experience increased the probability ofthem knowing what they were talking about, it didn’t automatically make themsmarter or wiser. Having lots of raw data didn’t automatically mean you drewthe right conclusions from it. Funny, really, but when you listened to enoughadults, you tended to find that the injunction to listen to one’s elders waspretty much the only thing they all agreed on.

All right. That was the abstract, easy part. Now he had to turn to Tariki’sactual words, and that was still tough. He wanted him to be wrong, with apainful (if now tolerable) sort of desperation, but either way, all he coulddo was test his words against reality and see if they survived.

He didn’t have to look far for examples of selfishness and evil in the world.His daily treatment at the hands of the villagers was enough, and at firstsight it supported Tariki’s case all the way. Indeed, that was part of whathad made it so hard to argue against him in the first place - even withoutthinking about it consciously, some part of Naruto had resonated with apicture of the world that matched his own experiences so closely. But when helooked more carefully…

Every time they saw him, they hurt him… because they thought it would helpthem survive? Because they thought that if they didn’t, he’d hurt them first?Because they thought it would give them power?

No. None of it quite fit, no matter how he turned it around in his head. Theyhurt him because… well, because they honestly believed that he was a monster,different and alien and dangerous. Most of them, anyway, the ones whosecorruption wasn’t absolute. And because they honestly believed that hurtingmonsters, and people who were too different in general, was right and proper,or at least permissible and understandable. It didn’t make their behaviourforgivable - nothing could do that - but it did make it comprehensible. Theyweren’t, for the most part, people who had sold out their morality in the nameof staying alive. They were people who tried to live moral lives, but whosemorality was upside down because they were stupid and short-sighted andselfish and unempathic and terminally incapable of thinking for themselves ortaking even the slightest bit of responsibility for their own decisions.

And yet this world, a world that encouraged people to walk around with theireyes closed hurting each other, had also given birth to Iruka-sensei andHinata and Haku. Tariki wasn’t wrong - the world _was _a place of cruelty andselfishness and conflict in which people hurt and exploited each other, inwhich the strong trampled the weak, in which power was the only guarantee ofsafety even as it corrupted those who achieved it. And yet.

“You’re wrong,” Naruto told Tariki. “There are people in this world who try todo the right thing, not because it’ll let them win conflicts or bring themprofit, but because they want to help others and make the world a betterplace. They-”

“That’s it?” the prisoner exclaimed. He’d obviously been expecting thisresponse, or something like it. “That’s the best you’ve got? You really _are_just off your mummy’s tit, aren’t you?”

He smirked. “I guess there’s no chance of a little brat like you knowing muchabout other villages, so I’ll make this real fucking simple for you using yourown. Take your First Hokage. He wanted to unite the clans and teach them tolive in peace and prosperity alongside commoners, so he wasted his life ondiplomacy and negotiation and finally founded Leaf. Real noble, huh? All itgot him was to be killed off by Uchiha Madara, who knew the score and hadspent _his _life becoming a fucking unstoppable god of death. Oh, and thevillage system? We have that to thank for three great wars that were athousand times more devastating than all the little clan skirmishes that hadcome before.”

Naruto opened his mouth, but Tariki wasn’t done.

“Let’s move on to his granddaughter, Princess Tsunade of the Leaf Three. Shehad the bright idea of reviving the pretty-much lost art of Leaf-style medicalninjutsu. Improved on it, too, from what the stories say. No-one wants to die,so of course she was reckoned a hero. Except then she decided to take thelogical next step, and she proposed that every squad should have its ownmedic-nin. Poor girl actually thought her superiors cared about saving lives.Do you know what happened?”

Naruto shook his head. He could guess, from the fact that Leaf didn’t haveall that many medic-nin, but his history classes hadn’t mentioned anyonecalled Tsunade. That meant something, if she’d really been that important.

“She got turned down. Know what happens when too many ninja live long enoughto get real strong? Of course you don’t, you idealistic little prick. Theystart getting ambitious. And there’s nothing worse when you rule a ninjavillage than someone who thinks they can rule it better than you, and won’twait their turn.

“What,” the missing-nin went on, “don’t tell me you thought ninja fatalityrates were all bad luck? Come on. If the Powers That Be wanted their ninjato survive, they’d have fewer of them, and invest their resources in trainingeach one to Jōnin level, or as close as talent allows, instead of mass-producing a bunch of useless Genin each year. I’ve been on the front linesof serious battles. Know what happens? First, they throw the Genin and theweaker Chūnin at the enemy, the guys who might have mastered one or twotechniques at best, and any fighter worth his salt kills them off by thedozen. Only then do they send in anyone who can actually make a difference.Guys like you? You’re meat for the grinder, you’re lambs for the slaughter,you’re the caltrops thrown to the ground to slow down pursuit for that oneextra second while the real ninja get away.

“I like that look on your face. Means you’re listening. So anyway, if all thatkunai fodder survived, it would only inconvenience those in power, soTsunade’s proposal was rejected. Then the Third Great Ninja War broke out, andshe lost everyone she ever loved, starting with her own brother, because therewere no medic-nin at their side to save them. After that, she just vanished,never to be seen again. She’d learned her lesson about trying to do good inthis world.

“And to finish off, how about the Fourth Hokage? Gave his life, everything hehad, to seal away the Demon Fox and save Leaf. How’s that worked out for him?He’s dead and rotting, all the big reforms he had planned never happened, andthey say Kyubey’s new host is a bloodthirsty monster that makes Red DevilUzumaki look like a fucking kitten. I’m told you people don’t even dare speakits fucking name in case you draw its attention. _That’s _what happens to goodpeople in this world.”

Naruto felt once again like he was clinging to a reef in the middle of astormy sea, the prisoner’s relentless litany of cynicism a swirling whirlpooltrying its best to drag him in and drown him. He held on, however, becausethis time he had a response.

“You’re missing the point.”

“Huh?” That, Tariki had not seen coming.

“So good people are rare. So horrible things happen to them. So they never getwhat they were hoping for. That’s not the point.”

“What are you-”

But Naruto was on a roll now, finally reaching his time to talk back. “Thepoint is: their existence isn’t magic. It’s not some great cosmic coincidencethat makes good people appear in a world that’s full of evil and suffering anddarkness. Reality doesn’t work that way. There are rules, there are concreteand discoverable reasons why some people do good and others do evil.”

Naruto paused dramatically.

“And being a ninja is all about making the rules your bitch.”

Tariki goggled. “You’re fucking kidding me. _That’s _your response? You thinkyou can change the world? What the hell do you think you can possibly do?”

“I’m going to become Hokage,” Naruto told him. “I’m going to use myintelligence to understand whatever the hell is wrong with people that makesthem hurt each other, and I’m going to figure out a way to make it stop.”

“And what makes you think that you, some tiny, naive little prick whodoesn’t know the first thing about real life, can pull something like thatoff?” Tariki asked, sounding almost intrigued, like an entomologist listeningto the first report on a new and completely alien species of beetle.

“Because I’m me,” Naruto said. “Because I’m a few months out of the Academy,and I’ve saved a country, beat a Jōnin, and forced S-rank secrets out of ahead of state, and that’s before figuring out how to use the incredibleunique powers lying dormant inside me. One of the richest men in the world isdead right now because he sent you to interfere with my first C-rank mission.

“This is my world now, and I will teach it to play by my rules.”

Then there was a sound so unexpected that Naruto took a second to recogniseit. Tariki was laughing.

His whole body was shaking to the very limits of what the restraints allowed,the laugh coming from the very depths of his body, so loud that an ANBU guardactually opened the door briefly to assess the situation. It seemed to lastfor hours, and every time Naruto thought the man was about to stop, hesuddenly went into convulsions again.

“Oh, man,” Tariki told him once he got his breath back. “That was fuckingpriceless. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. Makes me wish I couldlive to see just how you’re going to crash and burn, because I’d bet myimmortal fucking soul it’s going to be spectacular.”

He gave Naruto a more serious look. “Maybe I underestimated you. If even halfof what you just said is true, you’re so goddamn insane I actually want to seeyou take a stab at it.”

The prisoner paused, then smirked, but this time seemingly at himself, as ifhalf-disbelieving what he was about to say. “All right, kid, whatever it isyou came here for, you get one shot. Give me your pitch, and I’ll hear itout.”

Naruto focused on his breathing again. Well, that conversation probably wasn’tin any interrogation manual in the world. It had certainly added more than afew pieces to the ever-expanding “let’s turn Naruto’s world upside down withmore ideas and information than he can process” collection. While it had beensatisfying, in the end, to be able to boast to someone about all the thingshe’d genuinely done, it was more than a little uncomfortable to realise thathis ambitions were growing faster than he could really take in their scope.But for now, he’d given himself the opportunity he needed to pursue hisoriginal goal, namely saving Kakashi-sensei’s life.

So, what could he actually offer this man? The clues were there, if he’d readhim right. The tricolon crescendo of his impossible demands. The conclusionsof his projected scenarios. A few odd words. Balance that with what Naruto wasrealistically likely to be able to get, with his very specific field ofinfluence…

“I can offer you and your brother an honourable burial next to each other inLeaf’s Foreign Shinobi Cemetery, with the rites you request.”

Tariki gave him a strange look, surprise mixed with intense attention. Wasthere maybe, just maybe, some suppressed hope in those eyes? “That doesn’thappen to captured missing-nin. We’re barely human in the eyes of the law.What makes you think they’ll bend the rules that far at some Genin’s request?”

That was the easy part. “The Hokage owes me a favour. A big favour. The kindyou can’t measure in ryō.”

Tariki looked him in the eye. “Since you’re here, I guess you managed tosurvive your mission with that bridge-builder guy, and I can believe that Gatōsent a Jōnin to finish the job after Jiriki and I failed. So I suppose there’sa chance you’re telling the truth about this part as well, and you really didblackmail the Hokage. In which case, what do you want from me?”

“Tell me what happened the day after we fought - fully, honestly and to thebest of your ability.”

“That’s it?”

Naruto nodded. “Yeah. Now, since we’re technically enemies, I could add abunch of conditions about all the different ways in which you’re not allowedto lie, and you could look for loopholes in them, but instead I’ll just saythis. What you’re buying is the right to leave this life with honour. How muchtruth you pay with is a direct reflection of how much you think that right isworth.”

Tariki gave him an incredulous look. “I really can’t tell whether you’ve gotno balls at all, or huge swinging ones of steel. You kill my brother and takeme prisoner to be tortured and killed. Then you cry like a baby when I tellyou the absolute basics of how life really works. Then you boast like you’rethe second coming of the Sage of Six Paths. Then you bargain with me and spendfavours for what you could get for free through torture. And now you blackmailme with the last thing I’ve got left to care about.”

“All right, final question. How do I know that when you’ve got what you want,you won’t walk out of that door and forget I ever existed?”

“Who, me? The ‘fucking tragic hero trying to do good in a fucked-up world’?”Naruto grinned. “The ‘naive little prick who doesn’t know the first thingabout real life’? I guess you don’t. But if you haven’t figured out what kindof person I am yet…”

Tariki sighed. “I could have died instead of Jiriki, and then he’d be the onehere, stuck dealing with this bullshit. But no, he always knew to get outbefore the shit hit the fan, everywhere from the women’s baths to Hidden Mistitself. So… what do you want to know?”

-o-

Some time later, Naruto returned to the reception area to find three ninja inunfamiliar, predominantly dark grey uniforms, arguing with a cheerful Yukari.

“These documents are filled out to every last specification you gave us! Now,for the last time, you are to hand over prisoner Onigahara Tariki to usimmediately for urgent transfer to Root facilities! We are not going back toget these forms redone again!”

Yukari smiled in a friendly fashion. “Of course, sir. Let me take a look. Now,I see you’ve submitted them in triplicate, with the date in the top right handcorner in the correct order, signed and countersigned by the relevantauthorities with name readings provided in the appropriate format…”

She continued to talk softly to herself as she carefully examined every lastelement of each of the three forms, taking care to do so with the speed of asleeping sloth.

“Thank you. Now, I will be happy to take you through to the main complex tocarry out your request… as soon as you correct this error here.”

“What?!”

“Section 71, paragraph 4, clause 9 of the Rules and Regulations of theAssassination and Battle Tactics Special Unit clearly stipulates that formsreferring to prisoners originally from the Hidden Village of Mist must listtheir names in both standard script and Traditional Mist characters, forreasons of compatibility with other document databases.”

“But Traditional Mist characters haven’t been used for generations! Thereprobably isn’t anyone outside Mist who can even read them!”

“I’m sorry for your inconvenience, sir,” Yukari responded in the friendliest,most innocent tone she could muster. “Before you leave, I should remind youthat any action likely to reveal Mist missing-nin Onigahara Tariki’s presencein Leaf to Mist authorities, including requesting the Traditional Mistcharacters used in writing his name, would be deemed an act of treason ifperformed without the authorisation of the Hokage’s office.”

“This isn’t over, damn you!”

“Have a nice day!”


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