A Single Step – 4

4 – A New Opponent

For Naruto, the days and weeks melted together.

Every morning he would watch Sasuke disappear down the long, damp hall towards the labs, then he’d trudge off in the opposite direction for solitary training.

Sometimes he would encounter the white-haired medic, busily delivering trays of medicine to and fro down the corridors. With that fawning smile, Kabuto would remind him that the door was always open to him as well….

“Naruto-kun, a training regimen like Sasuke-kun’s would greatly accelerate your skill—“

Naruto never let him finish. Instead he’d shove past without a word, leaving Kabuto still smiling under the lamplight.

He wanted no part of Kabuto’s ‘training regimen.’ Pumping drugs into your veins was no training.

Sometimes Orochimaru was with the medic. Although he never pushed the way Kabuto did, Orochimaru always watched…. His never-blinking golden eyes followed Naruto’s movements as they passed, and the cruel slant of his smile grew wider the more Naruto tried to ignore him.

Naruto couldn’t decide which man he hated more.

If it weren’t for Sasuke, he knew he would never have come here. But lately he had even begun to question that. It felt like Sasuke didn’t need his help after all. And he didn’t like the way that felt.

Stretching back on his pallet one night, staring up at the chinked stones and moss that made up his world now, Naruto knew something had to give.

He and Sasuke no longer spoke at night. He had nothing to share, and Sasuke was concealing more and more about his days. Naruto didn’t know if it was because Sasuke knew he didn’t approve of the meds…or because he was moving so far ahead in his training. And Naruto just wasn’t.

Naruto grit his teeth. He really didn’t know what the hell he was doing here.

Sasuke scraped the door open, clearly exhausted, and threw himself on his bed with a great sigh. Naruto blew out a low breath and turned on his side to face the wall.

After several minutes of oppressive silence, Sasuke shifted on his bedding and rallied himself to speak instead of passing immediately out.

“H-Hey Naruto?” There was a note of uncertainty in his tired voice. “Are you doing okay? I mean, I know it’s not exactly how we thought it would be, but….”

Naruto’s shoulder jerked with a half-hearted shrug.

“So I’ve been thinking…these guys I’ve been up against. They’re bigger, stronger than any of the Konoha nins I’ve ever known—“ Naruto seemed to sink even deeper into the bedding. Sasuke quickly rephrased. “I mean, they’re different from any nins I’ve met. So I don’t have to hold back. I can go as far as I want.”

Sasuke watched Naruto’s unmoving back for a moment before continuing. “And…I was thinking you should be doing that too. Going up against anybody you can. I know you don’t want to take the meds…and you don’t have to,” he added in a rush, “but that doesn’t mean your training should come to a halt.”

Naruto shrugged carelessly again, but something tight in his chest was unwinding at Sasuke’s words. He realized he’d been afraid Sasuke had forgotten about him. A ragged sigh escaped. “Yeah, I guess,” he said quietly.

“I’ll talk to them in the morning,” Sasuke said firmly. “That taijutsu’s got to be driving you crazy.”

Naruto snorted. Sasuke laughed, clearly relieved to be finally getting some kind of reaction.

“If I’m learning new stuff, you need to be learning new stuff too. We’re still in this together, right?” Sasuke’s coaxing smile colored his voice. “Together, right?”

“Yeah…. Together.” Naruto flopped back on the pallet and dared a glance at Sasuke. In that moment, any distance in their friendship, real or imagined, faded away. Sasuke smiled — a rare thing, they both knew — and Naruto remembered why he’d left with Sasuke in the first place. They were partners now.

A corner of Naruto’s mouth tugged up. He quickly stretched back on his pallet before his face broke into a high-wattage beam. Sasuke laughed, reading his mind, and bedded down, but Naruto clasped his hands behind his head and grinned up into the darkness.

And wasn’t this proof that they were partners? Knowing what was troubling him and finding a way to fix it?

That must be a sign of a true bond between them. Naruto closed his eyes, feeling better than he had in weeks.

The next morning, Sasuke was true to his words. Instead of sitting obediently in the lab chair while Kabuto pulled out the tray of prepared injections, Sasuke remained standing.

Orochimaru looked up from a chart and tipped his head thoughtfully. “Something on your mind, Sasuke-kun?”

“Naruto,” he said firmly. “He is unhappy. And his training is insufficient,” he declared.

“Ah,” Orochimaru said with a tight smile. He laid the clipboard on the table. “That doesn’t surprise me. I believe he was under Jiraiya’s tutelage for a little while?” Sasuke nodded. Orochimaru’s smile turned to a grimace. “Yes the boy is just like him,” he said with distaste. “Impatient and hard-headed. Only learns through physical means. You two are so very different….”

His voice suddenly turned silken. “I’m surprised you’re so fond of him, Sasuke-kun….” Orochimaru pinned him with a penetrating gaze and glided a long finger down the edge of the table.

Sasuke glared thunderously back. “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about, but he’s my teammate, and if you’re not going to help him too, then—”

“Oh don’t worry on that account, Sasuke-kun.” Orochimaru’s coy smile returned. “I told you I understand about Konoha and teammates. Jiraiya was very much the same as Naruto. Just as loyal…and just as stubborn.”

Orochimaru crossed the room to a large rack of scrolls. His fingers floated over the alphabetically organized shelves, stopping at the “J,” then pulled out a scroll that was thicker than the rest.

“Kabuto had hoped he would come around,” Orochimaru spoke while perusing the scroll, “accept the enhancements and then be able to spar with you. But I had my doubts.” He smiled knowingly. “Naruto-kun is like Jiraiya after all. And no shortcuts will do….”

He read more, opening the scroll farther. “But I think he will do nicely….” Orochimaru nodded to himself. “Yes, vast reserves of power. Some untapped talents, shall we say….”

Sasuke looked skeptical. “Naruto is very strong, he shouldn’t be put up against just anyone—“

“Oh don’t worry. I think our Naruto-kun will find this one an even match. He’s pleasant enough,” Orochimaru’s gold eyes glittered, “but he hides a dark secret.”

Sasuke frowned, but kept any reservations to himself. Naruto would just have to withstand whatever Orochimaru had in store for him.

“And now that he’s sufficiently entertained, let’s get back to you Sasuke-kun,” he drawled, holding his arm out for Sasuke to take a seat.

Sasuke slowly did as he was told. Orochimaru passed the scroll back to Kabuto. Kabuto’s eyebrows hitched up, but he nodded approvingly at the choice.

“Oh, and be sure to separate him from Kimmimaro a few hours before they spar.”

“Hai,” Kabuto said, tucking the scroll in his pocket.

Orochimaru smiled down at Sasuke, patting him on the shoulder. “Now then, where were we….”

Kabuto stepped around to Sasuke’s exposed arm and primed the injection. Silver fluids dribbled out the end of the needle.

He smoothed back Sasuke’s pale skin, thumbing down the flesh until he found a fat blue vein. His silver glasses flashed.

“You’ll feel a slight pinch,” he said with the ghost of a smile. Then he pushed the needle in.

Sasuke grit his teeth, hating Kabuto for his stupid joke. He closed his eyes as the liquid fire burned through his veins.

Orochimaru watched it all with hungry interest.

Finished, Kabuto pulled out the needle, turned back to the clipboard and jotted down a few notes. Then he rolled the paper into a scroll and returned it to the empty spot on the shelf marked “S.”


“Have fun, Naruto-kun,” Kabuto cooed. He held back his arm, ushering him through a darkened doorway. Two raggedly dressed men stood at either side, pikes at the ready. “Knock twice when you’re ready to come out.”

The men swung the heavy door shut behind him. A bar lock slid into place with a clang that echoed into the dim, cavernous room.

Naruto stood still, letting his eyes adjust. Impenetrable black shadows stretched away from him, disguising the room’s depth. With its stone floors and vaulted ceilings, the cell felt more like a dungeon than a sparring room….

Naruto’s nervous breath sounded overly loud. Water dripped and torches crackled and his breathing grew more and more ragged, echoing back to him—

Naruto shut his mouth, suddenly hoping it was only himself he heard.

But sure enough the rasping breathing continued, growing in intensity and and becoming more…feral.

Naruto only had a stab of a second to wonder if Kabuto had locked him in there with a bear before a creature exploded from the far end of the room.

Meaty arms studded with horns swung out of the darkness, sending Naruto dancing backwards out of their lethal embrace. A beast swung furiously at Naruto in great grey-skinned blurs.

Naruto darted around the monster, using its considerable size against him. Getting behind it, Naruto’s gut clenched. Its hunched grey back rippled with sinewy protrusions. It must be twice as tall as he was—

The beast swung a clawed hand back in a devastating arc. Naruto ducked and leapt backwards into the safety of a dark corner. But his relief was short lived. Naruto realized he’d just put the beast between him and door. He’d cut off his only escape route.

The creature turned slowly, looking for his prey. Naruto’s heart pounded, but he held very, very still.

The feral breathing returned. The creature panted through its open mouth, which was stretched overly wide to accommodate his fanged teeth. Lips thin and curled back, his face might have looked human if it wasn’t forced into smile of the cruelest kind.

The beast’s eyes darted around, landing on Naruto’s hiding spot and peering directly at him. Naruto froze.

Wild yellow irises filled his eyes, with black where the whites should have been. A glimmer of drool dropped from a tooth point.

A small skittering noise echoed from across the room and the beast’s attention moved on. Naruto cautiously exhaled.

The creature swiveled slowly, revealing mottled purple skin. The discoloration continued into his shocks of blood-red hair. Naruto noted with deepening dread that there were many things about him that looked almost…human.

The creature completed the circle. His back and arms were molten and misshapen, almost reptilian. But Naruto couldn’t ignore that the form underneath was certainly human.

A human with something horribly wrong with it.

Naruto felt sick. Whatever this creature was — one of Kabuto’s experiments gone wrong or possibly even a jinchuriki like him — keeping him locked up wasn’t right. And neither was fighting him.

But Naruto knew he might have to to get out.

Muffled voices came through the door. The beast turned slightly, concentrating all his attention there. A slotted window snapped open. Someone peered through. Naruto thought he saw the telltale reflective flash of glasses, and he hated Kabuto all over again.

But he put it from his mind. Slowly and silently, Naruto lowered to a crouch and began feeling around for an object to throw. His hand closed on a long, cold something…. He would have thought it was a branch if it didn’t feel so very smooth and…ughbone-like.

Naruto grit his teeth and straightened, telling himself that whoever that bone once belonged to, they obviously didn’t need it now. And he did.

Keeping his eyes on the door, Naruto hurled the bone into the opposite dark corner. It clattered loudly, knocking on walls and floors. The beast swung around with a great growl, pummeling the air and hurtling toward the sound.

Naruto launched out as well, moving in silent tandem behind him, heading straight for the door.

Kabuto’s eyes still hovered behind the open slot. Seeing Naruto, they pinched at the corners, as if he was laughing.

“Kabuto! Open the door right now!”

The beast fumbled in the darkness behind him, howling in renewed fury at his lost prey.

“Was he too much for you Naruto-kun? I was beginning to think—“

There was a scrambling sound and suddenly the creature was pushing out of the darkness, barreling right for Naruto—


A crack of light split the door from the wall, and Naruto didn’t wait. He wedged his fingers into the gap, tugged hard, then shoved himself through. Naruto tumbled into the lit hallway, ferocious growls chasing him. He righted himself in time to see a clawed purple hand swiping through the opening after him.

But Kabuto was prepared. The two men at door wielded their pikes, which were now wrapped at the ends with dripping fabric strips. They jabbed at the creature’s appendage, causing its skin to sizzle and smoke immediately. It only took a few prods, and the beast recoiled, yowling with pain.

Naruto stood and dusted himself off. The men closed the door and laid the pikes in the corner. Whatever acidic concoction that was, it had already eaten through the torn bandages.

The beast pounded on the door, sending clouds of grit puffing from the sides. Naruto watched it, nervously wondering if those stones were capable of holding back a man like that—

Kabuto laughed out loud at his fearful expression.

“What the hell were you doing,” Naruto said flushing with embarrassed anger. “Locking me in there with that…that…thing!?!”

More banging exploded from the metal door behind Kabuto, sending the medic quick-stepping to Naruto’s side of the corridor.

Flustered, he snapped at the men. “You two! Bring Kimmimaro to the cell, then…then return to the lab!” The men nodded flatly and shuffled off.

Naruto watched them go then turned back to Kabuto, narrowing his eyes at the sneaky medic.

But Kabuto’s flash of fear was gone. He brushed invisible dirt from his shirt and set off in the opposite direction down the corridor. When Naruto didn’t immediately follow, Kabuto stopped and waited expectantly.

Begrudgingly, Naruto fell into step.

“So our Juugo was too much for you?” Kabuto smirked over at him. “I was beginning to think we couldn’t find anything to entertain you.”

Scowling, Naruto swore under his breath.

“But you performed admirably, escaping unharmed. Untouched I’d dare say,” Kabuto said, eyeing him. “Better than most who go on there,” he sniffed.

Remembering the bone he’d used to buy his escape, Naruto’s anger refocused. “So what the hell was that thing? I need to fight with real people. Not some bear…or whatever it was before you experimented on it.”

“A bear…is that what you thought he looked like? Interesting….”

“It was a…a monster! And if it was some wild animal you’ve messed up then that’s…well, that’s just not right! And…and it’s not fair, either! How can I fight against that?!“

“Interesting….” Kabuto stopped at the intersection of another long dark corridor. He plucked an unlit torch from the wall and lit it on one already burning in the main corridor.

“So, let me see if I understand you, Naruto-kun….”

Naruto hated that name and Kabuto’s placating voice. But he wanted an explanation. So he stayed rooted to the spot, even though the tone of his voice made him want to turn and leave.

“So…good Leaf nin that you are, you are concerned that this is not fair, you fighting this…monster, as you say.”

Naruto glared at him, changing his mind about hearing him out.

But Kabuto nodded as if he’d answered. “So then would you think it’s fair if we paired you up with one of the men here…?” He leaned forward and poked Naruto’s chest. “Men who do not possess your considerable…talents?” His voice dropped, turning malicious. “Tell me now, would that be fair?”

Light from the torch splashed menacingly across his face and glinted off his silver glasses.

“What would they think of you Naruto-kun? A man…or a monster?”

Naruto leaned back, blinking in surprise.

Kabuto straightened. His velvet voice returned. “For your information, Juugo is a man…just like you. And he has some considerable talents. Just like you. His powers are his own. We did nothing to him. In fact, I am testing him to try to help him control his urges.”

Kabuto tipped his head and pushed his glasses up his nose. “The lab tests, the experiments. All of it is to help him. If I can test it on the men, isolate it in the small batches, then I can control it— Or rather, help him control it.”

Light bounced off the front of his glasses. “You understand, don’t you? Naruto-kun?”

Naruto didn’t answer. He jammed his hands in his pockets, not sure what to believe.

Kabuto sighed dramatically. “We had hoped that you would be able to help him with his urges. Defuse his anger. You did seem to be a good match for his strength and abilities….” He gave Naruto a sympathetic smile. “But I understand if he frightened you.”

Naruto immediately gaped to disagree, but Kabuto didn’t wait. He took a few steps down the dark hallway before swinging the torch light around for a last look back.

“I’ll tell Orochimaru-sama of your fears. Don’t worry Naruto-kun, you won’t have to face that man…I mean, monster, again.” Naruto pursed his mouth in fresh anger. “And perhaps we can have some extra equipment brought to your sparring quarters. Like one of those round-bottomed dummies that rights itself after each punch—“

“I’m not afraid of him,” Naruto exclaimed. “I just…I just didn’t know what the hell was going on. You could have told me something, you know!”

“But where is the fun in that, Naruto-kun?”

Naruto shook his head, muttering another curse under his breath. Shadows pooled in the dimples of Kabuto’s smirk. “Well, if you think you’re up to it, you can go back tomorrow. But if you get too scared—“

“I’m not scared!!”

Kabuto laughed and swung back around to continue down the corridor. “Of course not, Naruto-kun! Of course not!” The light bobbed around him until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

I just don’t think it’s right. That’s all.

Scowling, Naruto returned to his quarters.


“Hey, I heard you got the shit scared out of you today.”

“What!?! I did not! That damned Kabuto set me up and—”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sasuke said laughing. He closed the door behind him. “I’m just glad you found something to do.”

Naruto laid back down on his bedding, frowning.

“So what’s this guy like.”

Naruto shrugged. “He doesn’t look like a ‘guy’ at all. He’s got something wrong with him. Weird skin, weird eyes. He’s huge. Way bigger than me. And he’s got these extra pieces that stick out everywhere.”

Sasuke listened quietly. He pulled his shirt over his head and folded it in with a stack of similar clothes at the bottom of his bed roll.

“I thought I’d been put in with an animal. Then when he came out, I thought it was a bear—“ Naruto looked sharply at Sasuke. “What happened to your neck?”

Sasuke turned quickly and cupped his hand over the white bandage where his neck met his shoulder. “Uh, nothing. Just a surprise hit.”

“Who the hell got one-up on you to leave a wound like that?”

Sasuke laughed and quickly shrugged on another shirt. “Yeah…some crazy dude, like the one you were talking about.” Sasuke turned and sat on the edge of the bed, and leveled a serious gaze at Naruto. “So what was this guy like?”

“Well, I don’t actually know. I mean, I didn’t fight him. I just got the hell out of there—“

“Was he strong?”

“Uh…yeah. He was real strong. I thought he was going to tear down that door. Or go through the rock wall. And Kabuto thought so too. But I—“

“Then that’s all that matters.”

Naruto peered across the room at Sasuke, about to add that he still didn’t think it was right.

“We get stronger. Any way we can. And to do that, we can either get stronger ourselves or fight guys who are stronger.”

Naruto looked at him seriously. “And which one are you doing, Sasuke?”

His black eyes shifted for a fraction of a second. “The same as you,” he said, forcing a quick smile. “I’m going up against stronger guys, getting stronger too and—“

Shaking his head, Naruto swatted his words away like flies. “Listen, Kabuto said he was mixing batches of whatever’s wrong with this guy. Testing it out on some of his lab rats.” Naruto shifted in on his pallet and pulled the covers up. “Just be careful, okay? Don’t let him try out any weird shit on you.”

“I already told you,” Sasuke said warningly. “If it makes me get stronger faster, then I’m going to try it. That’s what I’m here for…. What we’re here for.”

Sasuke stood suddenly to cap the flame off the torch, ending the discussion. Naruto rolled his eyes at his back, then flopped over on the hard musty bedding and tried to get comfortable.

“Yeah, well you didn’t see this guy today. He was more animal than human. I think anyone infected with that junk would turn out wrong…. No matter how strong it makes you,” he mumbled.

In the darkness, Sasuke bent to pull back the cover on his pallet, but his shoulder spasmed suddenly. He gripped the patched area, breathed through the pain, and eased into the bed.

“Wow,” Sasuke said a strained laugh. “The guy must have been really strong to have scared you so much.”

“Dammit! I wasn’t scared of him!!”

Sasuke snickered softly in the darkness.