A Single Step – 3 Preview

Author’s note: A preview of the next chapter of “A Single Step,” in which Naruto leaves Konoha with Sasuke and goes to train with Orochimaru. So in writing this chapter I’ve realized that some of my events don’t mesh with the manga. So to keep this fic more believeable, Naruto did not go off with Jiriaya to find Tsunade, encountering and fighting with Orochimaru and Kabuto. Tsunade did come to the village and knows Naruto and Sasuke. So mostly the same as the manga, I’m just leaving out Naruto’s interaction and fighting with Oro and Kabuto when they find Tsunade. Makes his going with Sasuke and being willing to be trained by Orochimaru more believable. 🙂  

The steep stone pathway was invisible behind the natural rock outcrops so prevalent in the vast forest. But at the right angle, beneath a curtain of dripping vines, a shaft opened up. Black and foreboding, it lay there like a hidden snake, mouth open, waiting to devour anyone unlucky enough to fall in.

Sasuke held the vines back. Naruto stopped, nervous. One glance told him that Sasuke wasn’t certain about this either.

“We don’t have to—“

Sasuke shook his head. “We can’t go back. That’s why we left the headbands.”

Naruto frowned. He’d told him not too. It was too much.

“Come on,” Sasuke urged, nodding toward the darkness.

But Naruto didn’t budge. “We should check it out first,” he said, eyeing the wet pavers that melted into the black. “Sorta looks like it could be a trap—”

“It’s not a trap! I’m sure of it,” Sasuke snapped. Naruto still didn’t move. “Fine. I’ll go first.”

But Sasuke hesitated at the opening, showing just how unsure he truly was. Then he stepped forward into the black.

There nothing left for Naruto to do but follow him. He took a breath and ducked under the vines. Dew pattered down on his head and shoulders. Then the shroud of foliage swung closed, erasing their presence from the quiet forest completely.

In darkness they walked down, down, blinking intos the nothingness. Only the drip of water and the steep angle of the stones was constant. All else was gone in the musty blackness. Even their sense of time. It felt they’d been in darkness for hours when they finally saw a brown haze of light several long minutes later.

They slowed, eyes adjusting to the light as they got closer. The arcing pattern of the pavers emerged around them, even over their heads. Ahead the tunnel flattened out. A slant of yellow light shone from beyond a corner.

They softened their footsteps and eased the kunai from their holsters. A passing shadow dimmed the light. Murky voices drifted up. Sasuke and Naruto edged to the wall and crept slowly toward the landing and the light.

“Stay back,” Sasuke mouthed when they were nearly there. Naruto nodded.

They held their position against the wall for a few seconds more, watching the light on the damp floor and listening. Barely breathing.

Finally Sasuke detached from the shadow, flipped his kunai into reverse grip, stepped into the light. His white shirt glared in the darkness. In two steps he was gone.

Naruto’s heart banged against his chest. He gripped and regripped his blade, hands getting sweaty.

What if this was wrong. All wrong. What if it was a trap, and now they’d been separated—

In spite of his fears, he edged closer to the corner wishing he could see what was happening.

The light slanted dangerously close his feet. He shifted the kunai slowly to his other hand. A scrap of light reflected in the blade caught his eye.

Ridiculously, an illustration in a comic book sprang to his mind.

Naruto would have laughed if the situation wasn’t so grim. That he’d remember a trick from one of his childhood ninja comic books now of all times. The books were cheap and the ninja heros were all in black and terribly boring. But he remembered clearly the panel with an inked eye reflected back on the hero’s shining blade.

Naruto bit his lip and held the kunai out in front of him. Slowly, slowly, he tilted it, edging the tip out into the hall, always watching the reflection.

It worked!

He could see perfectly the scene unfolding around the corner.

There were two men: Orochimaru from the forest, and another man with white hair. He looked familiar, but Naruto couldn’t place him.

Sasuke was slowly approaching.

Orochimaru was sitting…maybe reclined. In the sliver of blade Naruto could see bandages around an arm.

The white-haired man set a heavy tray down beside him and began unloading it. He put a glass in front of Orochimaru.

Sasuke’s shoulders hitched once in a silent laugh. Naruto guessed what he was thinking: It wasn’t a trap at all. They’d caught the men unawares, about to have tea.

The white-haired man stepped back, holding the empty tray to his chest.

Sasuke stiffened. Naruto’s eyes went wide.

There were four glasses on the table.

The white-haired man looked down the long hall, right to where Naruto was standing. In shock Naruto almost threw the blade in the air when the man stared directly into the blade reflection, pushed his glasses back up his nose and smiled.

Kabuto, the guy from the chunin exam, Naruto realized with a cautious exhale. He must have been allied with Orochimaru even then.

Kabuto shifted his eyes back to Sasuke.

“Sasuke-kun, I’m so glad you’ve come.” Orochimaru opened his hand to the drinks. “We’ve anticipated you and prepared a little celebratory drink. Won’t you join us?”

Sasuke took a few more steps into the light, then stopped. Naruto knew he was sizing up the room, their opponents. Er, allies, he corrected himself. He didn’t like the way that sounded.

Orochimaru smiled complacently, as if nothing would make him happier than to wait on Sasuke.

At length, Sasuke was satisfied with the inspection. “I am not alone,” he declared.

“Yes we did detect another chakra passing through our defenses,” Orochimaru said patiently.

Sasuke nodded once. “Good. Then know this, if I accept your offering of training, it’s on the condition that you train him as well. It’s the only way I’ll do it.”

Orochimaru frowned. Kabuto tipped his head.

“Him?” He looked at Kabuto, who shrugged. “We thought for sure you had brought the girl….” Orochimaru shook his head, the smile slipping back into place. “But no matter. So who is this mystery person we are required to take on?”

Orochimaru still smiled, but to Naruto his expression was tight. As if he didn’t like not knowing at all.

Sasuke turned and looked back down the hallway. Three sets of eyes were reflected in the blade. Naruto’s mouth went dry. He slipped the kunai back into his holster and repeated “For Sasuke. For Sasuke,” as if he might forget. Then he pushed away from the wall and turned the corner.

Slowly stepping into the angled light were black shinobi shoes, an orange training jacket, then fair cheeks with undeniable whisker lines….

Naruto came fully into the light, then stopped. Somehow his bright outfit and hair seemed even brighter now. Which only made him feel more out-of-place.

“Well, well….” Orochimaru grinned toothily. “Sasuke-kun you are full of surprises.” He looked Naruto up and down, breathing deeply as if someone had set a delicious dish before him.

Naruto scowled. He balled his fists at his sides. The light danced in his eyes. Sasuke recognized the defiant look and jerked his head for Naruto to come on.

“I am honored,” Orochimaru continued unfazed. “Konoha’s finest. I hope I’m up to the task. But then again, there is no one else who can guarantee to make you the strongest.”

Naruto didn’t move.

“Ah, but don’t worry Naruto-kun, all changes take adjustment. Why don’t you come have a drink with us. I’ve already spoken to Sasuke about what we can offer him. But I had not thought…that is to say…you are endowed with the kyuubi.” A gleam lit his dark eyes. “A unique responsibility with unique powers. But perhaps you seek a little more training in how to best harness it.”

Naruto blinked. Orochimaru lips curled into his first genuine smile. He didn’t miss the boy’s subtle movement. He had hit upon something the boy wanted.

“I’m glad you’ve come,” Orochimaru said warmly. “I can help you, and I can explain a lot of what and why and how it was placed in you. Questions I’m sure you must have wondered yourself, but may not have always been given the answers….”

Naruto breathed once. Orochimaru nodded encouragingly, to both of them. “Then come! Drink! We have much to talk about!”

Naruto warily approached. He and Sasuke walked down the rest of hall together. They came closer, but still kept a safe distance from the men.

Kabuto poured four drinks, placed two back on the tray and walked them over. Sasuke took his immediately, but when Kabuto turned and said “Naruto-kun” with a sickening familiarity, Naruto recoiled. He bet it was poison.

Sasuke glanced meaningfully at the tea, but Naruto didn’t pick it up. Instead he looked down at it, thoughts swirling just like the brown liquid.

He could barely stomach any of this. What had Sasuke gotten them into. This man must have been a spy. And the other one was just evil, the snake man who had killed their Kage. He was an enemy of Konoha. Hell, they both were if they were together. And now he was supposed to share a drink with them?!

“Naruto, you look like something is troubling you.” Orochimaru looked around Kabuto. “Is there anything you’d like to talk about? Anything you’d like to ask? There must be something—”

“You killed our Kage,” Naruto ground out, waving Kabuto and his tray away. “You’re own sensei. And you expect me to just sit here?”

Sasuke shot him an angry look, silently telling him to keep his mouth shut. But Orochimaru looked at him as serenely as if he were a child.

“Ah, my dear, dear sensei. How I wish things could have ended differently.” He rubbed his arm, and looked across the room as if deep in distant, misty thought. Yet when his black eyes drifted back to Naruto they were crisp and clear. “But sometimes when you start on a course, you cannot change it. No matter how much you want to.” He smoothed his uninjured hand down his long black hair. “Do you know how that feels? Being a little in over your head?”

Naruto looked away from the man’s suddenly piercing gaze.

“I may not have intended to fight Sarutobi-sensei, but after it started, there was no way out. I had to see it through. I knew he wasn’t going to hold back, so I couldn’t hold back. I knew he was going to kill me, if he could. Because he was afraid of the discoveries we made. I was growing too strong, and I was a threat. I had hoped to just injure him, enough to get away.” He turned his head as if overcome. “We must all live with our choices, must we not?”

Naruto looked up then, trying to read him. But when Orochimaru looked back, any trace of emotion had been twisted back into sympathy for them.

“I can only imagine what it must have looked like from within Konoha’s walls,” he simpered. “You forget that I am a Konoha shinobi too. I grew up there, went to academy, passed the same tests and endured the same hardships. My closest friends were Jiraiya and Tsunade growing up.”

Orochimaru tipped his head, earrings glittering from under the black sheet of hair, and flashed them a perfectly understanding smile.

“So you see, I too know the bond of partners. Teammates as only those in Konoha can know. It is inseparable. And your bond to each other is to be honored. No I wouldn’t dare sever it or separate you.”

Kabuto tried again with the tray, and this time Naruto took the tea. It was sweet and pleasant, not containing a bitter poison as he’d expected.

“I am honored that you both have come to me to continue your training.”

He bowed his head solemnly to the two boys. Watching him over the edge of his glass, Naruto didn’t buy it for a second.

“Here you both will achieve powers that you never would have been able to attain in Konoha. I guarantee it. Kabuto—“

“Yes, Orochimaru-sama?”

“Please show the boys to their quarters.”

“Yes, Orochimaru-sama,” he bowed dutifully.

They followed the Kabuto silently down another corridor, past more hallways and flickering torches till they were completely disoriented in the underground maze.

Was it really this big? Or was he just doing it on purpose? Naruto didn’t know. But eventually they came to a hall lit with one torch and doors on either side.

Kabuto produced a key and unlocked two doors right across from each other. The dank rooms contained no furnishings save for two uncomfortable-looking ledges on each side. Naruto sniffed at the room closest to him. It was musty and stale. These were no better than prison cells.

Naruto didn’t like the thought of that. Not here. With them.

He looked over at Sasuke. One glance told him he felt the same.

“We’ll both stay in this one,” Sasuke said firmly.

Kabuto did not say a word. He merely locked the other door, lifted the torch from the hall and lit the single torch in the room. Pallets were rolled at the far end of each ledge, half hidden in the darkness.

“Try to get some rest. I will send some food and supplies down. Training will start tomorrow.”

Kabuto swept out before anything else could be said. The heavy clack of the door lock sounded, then he was gone.

The boys rolled out their pallets and laid back, both processing the events of the last few days. Neither one wanted to give voice to their fears. The room was silent except for a soft patter of water somewhere — it seemed to be everywhere down here — and though neither admitted to being tired, they soon dropped off to sleep. It was the deep sleep of someone who had stayed up on adrenaline two days straight.

Someone did bring food in. They roused just enough to eat but were soon back asleep.

The next morning, or at least what they thought was morning, Kabuto returned.

“Orochimaru-sama would like to see you in the laboratory for some…tests.”

Naruto frowned immediately. “What tests?”

Kabuto smiled. He pushed his glasses up. “Nothing really, just medical tests to determine what kind of enhancements you need—


Sasuke stepped between them to explain. “Enhancements, uh, like Konoha’s soldier pills to improve our strength. Only these get a lot faster results, right?” Sasuke eyed Kabuto as if he’d better hold up his end of some bargain.

Kabuto nodded. “I am a medic-nin, Naruto-kun. And I have developed specially formulated drugs to accelerate your chakra, bumping up your muscle-memory so that when you train—“

Naruto waved at the air as if the words were buzzing around him. “Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” He scrunched up his face at the traitorous nin. “I don’t want any of it. I don’t need your drugs, pills, chakra muscle-memorizer whaddeveryacallits. I’ll do it on my own!”

Kabuto looked at him in disbelief. “I can understand if you might not believe me at first, given our shared history, but trust me when I tell you that—“

“Forget it,” Sasuke said with a snort. He walked past them into the hall. “You’re wasting your time. He’ll come around when he’s ready.”

Kabuto shrugged. “Naruto-kun, if you would prefer to start your taijutsu training, there is a well-equipped training room at the other end of this hall. Turn left, you’ll find it at the end.”

Naruto nodded, putting fierceness into it. Sasuke rolled his eyes. Then they were gone. And Naruto was left alone to discover the training room.

Their days, if they could even be called that in an underground base devoid of light, ran the same course everyday. Sasuke disappeared for meds, “training” Kabuto called it; Naruto ran through routines in the taijutsu room.

Naruto worked hard, making sure to push himself as long as Sasuke was gone. Which was all day. Naruto was worn out from it all, working himself harder than he ever thought he had before, and at night he was exhausted. Sasuke was too. But Naruto felt like he was improving, and that’s what mattered.

At the end of the first week, Kabuto proposed a friendly spar. He led them to large room at the end of yet another hall. It was dank and dirty, and Naruto noticed there were heavy locks on the doors that could only be open by key. He also thought maybe it wasn’t as impromptu as Kabuto first said because Orochimaru was leaning against the wall just inside the door, waiting for them.

Naruto ignored him and took his place in the center of the room. Sasuke took position across from him. They both nodded.

But Sasuke didn’t engage. Naruto smirked. “Eh, come’on teme, show me what you’ve been up to in that top secret lab.” He thumbed over at Kabuto, watching the white-haired man speaking softly to Orochimaru. “What’s he got that good old-fashioned training can’t—“

Naruto never even saw him move. Sasuke was just a blur in front of him, firing blows at his head and chest before a boot to the gut knocked him off his feet.

Naruto skidded on his back, leaving a grimy streak across the floor. He gasped and blinked up at the stone ceiling.

Sasuke laughed once, flexing his fist and marveling at it. “Kabuto was right. I barely felt it. And the speed was definitely quick. But it could be quicker….”

Still wheezing Naruto pushed himself up on his elbows. Then Sasuke did something that he never, ever would have done in Konoha: He crossed the floor with his hand out to help Naruto up.

The implication that Sasuke had bested him, and that he new it, roiled the battered blond. With a growl, he pulled away from Sasuke’s partially outstretched hand and heaved himself up off the floor on his own.

“Why don’t you just give them a try?” Sasuke said, shoving the rejected hand in his pocket. “Now that you see what the meds can do—“

“No,” Naruto said stubbornly. “I told you. None of that stuff. There’s no shortcuts to—“

“I know, I know,” Sasuke cut him off. “C’mon,” he sighed. He to walked to the door. Kabuto and Orochimaru offered some quiet words of praise before leaving. But Naruto remained, furious, in the middle of the room.

“We’re not finished here,” he yelled at Sasuke when they were finally alone. “Come at me again!”

One moment Sasuke was looking back over his shoulder at him, next moment he blurred to the middle of the room and stopped in front of Naruto, inches from his face.

Naruto jerked back in shock.

“Train some more,” Sasuke said with a light laugh, “then we’ll go again.”

Naruto scowled, folded his arms over his chest and looked away, not wanting to admit the obvious. But he was right. There was no point in going on. Sasuke turned and walked back toward the door. Naruto rubbed his sore chin, and thought that if it were the other way round, if Naruto had the upper hand and had just beaten him up, Sasuke probably wouldn’t speak to him for a week.

But he wasn’t Sasuke. And this wasn’t his fight. Right now, he was only here to help Sasuke get stronger. And he was. So he should be happy for him, right?

Well. He was. But he didn’t have to show what he didn’t really feel. Sasuke may be getting stronger, but this didn’t feel right.

Naruto slowly walked to the door. Sasuke stood waiting for him. Frowning petulantly, Naruto refused to look at Sasuke. Neither spoke. So in silence they doused the torches and left the darkened room.

The next week was more of the same. Sasuke was gone for hours and hours, while Naruto was left to his own devices. He pounded through his routines, running through them two and three times a day, training until his muscles shook and the heat from the kyuubi strained against it’s seal.

But he couldn’t cast out the lingering doubt that Sasuke could still beat him.

Most nights Sasuke came in exhausted. He’d always rub one spot on his shoulder, which Naruto thought was peculiar. But as he said nothing, Naruto never asked.

However one night there was blood on his shirt. “Sasuke! You’re bleeding! Are you hurt? Did you go at one of them? Did you—“

“Idiot,” Sasuke grunted. “This isn’t my blood.” But Naruto thought he sure looked wounded. Sasuke’s hand clutched his shoulder at the base of his neck. Black flecks marred the skin under his hand. Sasuke looked suddenly pale. Naruto narrowed his eyes.

“You are hurt! There where you keep holding it—“

“Nah,” Sasuke wheezed a laugh, “that’s not a wound, just part of the training.”

“Then what’s all that stuff….” Naruto looked back, but the flecks were gone. Color was returning to Sasuke’s cheeks. His body was less tense, and in a matter of seconds he straightened and even slid his hand away.

But on his neck was a dark mark, a sort of tattoo with three commas swirling in on themselves.

“Eh! What the hell is that? Did you let them do that to you?!”

Sasuke laughed tiredly and eased back into the bed. “It channels the power, that’s all. It makes me stronger. If you had one you’d be stronger too.”

Naruto scoffed. Sasuke turned and another obvious splatter of blood was revealed.

“So who’s blood is it if it’s not yours?”

“They bring some men in to help with the spars,” he said, already drowsing. “Prisoners, stuff like that….” Then Sasuke was asleep.

Naruto flopped back and rolled away, looking at the wall. That sure the hell wasn’t how Konoha did it. Using local prisoners to help with the shinobi training. But maybe it was different here. Maybe they were well payed or maybe it was a better life than being locked up in some small-town jail cell. Naruto decided he’d start poking around, finding out more about this place he was in.