A Single Step – 5

5 – Unshakeable Bonds

From then on his mornings in the containment cell were vicious and taxing. Naruto really couldn’t classify it as training — it was more like survival. Often he had to summon his own well of kyuubi chakra just to get through it. Which always took its toll long after the he’d left the cell.

Orochimaru came down to watch the first few times, reassuring that if it ever went too far they would intervene. But no one ever did.

“We are not so different, you know. I grew up in Konoha too,” Orochimaru said to a heaving Naruto in the corridor after a spar. Naruto slanted an incredulous look up at the man. Orochimaru simply smiled, earrings swaying behind his curtain of black hair. “Just think of this like your chunin exams. Once you beat Juugo, you can move on to the next.”

Naruto rolled his eyes, not believing it for a moment.

“Let’s start by seeing how long you can stay in there, shall we?”

Orochimaru pulled a small hourglass from the sleeve of his kimono and passed it to Kabuto, who flipped it upside down and hung it from a hook beside a flickering torch.

Naruto scowled. But Orochimaru flashed a patronizing smile. “Time’s wasting, Naruto-kun.” Kabuto smirked, and both men left.

Scraps of their conversation drifted back.

“How long do you think he will last,” Orochimaru asked.

Kabuto snickered softly. “Probably not half as long as Sasuke-kun could,” he said, not bothering to lower his voice.

“Yes…but still, it will be interesting to see how his little friend fares….”

Prideful fury had Naruto straightening and brushing himself off again. He glared at the empty corridor where the men had left. Then he turned back to the metal door.

“Open it,” he commanded without looking at the other men or the swaying hourglass beside his head. The door swung back on the growling darkness. And Naruto disappeared inside.

Day after day, his “training” continued. The monster…Juugo…would swipe at Naruto, hurtling every ounce of his malicious power into crushing him like a mosquito under his meaty fist. Naruto would stay in the room, bobbing and weaving, darting around the behemoth or hiding in the darkness, until he couldn’t take any more. But each day, he lasted a few seconds longer.

Naruto worked out a system when he was ready to end it. He’d bang on the door once, then he’d peel off to distract Juugo. The men would unlock the bolt, and when Naruto was ready he would make a dash for the door.

At first, he easily outwitted the dull beast. But Naruto discovered that Juugo caught on quick. Naruto could never use the same distraction more than a few times in a row. This must have been why the men had the acid-tipped pikes ready. Just in case.

Over time, the swaying hour-glass beside the torch got larger and larger. Naruto had developed his evasive skills in ways he could never had imagined, but he was proud of himself. He felt like he could stay in the dark room as long as he wanted and outwit, outrun or outlast Juugo.

And he said as much one afternoon when he accompanied Sasuke to Kabuto’s lab. No one spoke, but Sasuke looked up from the Kabuto’s tray of med and nodded, duly impressed.

However, Orochimaru undid all his success in a single blow.

“So Naruto-kun,” Orochimaru asked casually, “remind me again…have you ever actually landed a hit on Juugo?”

Activity in the room ceased.


Sasuke glanced back sharply, hand suspended over the small cups of pills and liquids.

Naruto blinked and began to speak…but he couldn’t find a good reason, other than it just felt…wrong. He knew some part of his mind still saw Juugo as a beast, not a willing participant.

But in the face of the three of them, his reasons sounded weak. He closed his mouth.

Orochimaru tipped his head with a simpering smile. “Curious….”

Sasuke frowned deeply at him, clearly wondering what the hell he’d been doing in there.

Kabuto never looked up, instead to hitching his eyebrows knowingly as he fussed over the cups on the tray. They clinked softly in the lengthening silence.

Naruto cleared his throat. But the words, “It’s just not fair,” died on his lips.

“Well, Naruto-kun, perhaps that should be your next goal to shoot for,” Orochimaru said as if speaking to a child. Then he turned back to Sasuke and activity in the room seemed to resume, leaving Naruto behind.

Naruto went red with anger. His mouth twisted into a childish pucker and he glared at the two men. Sasuke swigged back a cup of pills, chasing it with water, and shot him a warning look over the edge of the glass. “Just do it,” he mouthed threateningly when no one was looking.

Naruto turned on his heel and stalked out.

That night, Sasuke picked up where they left off.

“What’s wrong with you? When have you ever been afraid to go after someone?” he said seriously, closing the door behind him.

“I’m not afraid of him, alright!?” Naruto sat up, letting the blankets pool at his waist. “It just…it doesn’t feel right, that’s all.” His voice trailed off.

“What doesn’t? The fact that this guy wants to pound you into nothing?”

Sasuke unhooked a sheathed training tanto from his waist and hung it up above his pallet.

Naruto looked at the dagger sullenly, another reminder that Sasuke was moving on. He swung his gaze away. Sasuke didn’t miss it.

“Look, these guys we fight, whatever they have in them, it makes them extra angry. So we have to help them let off that steam. Right? Because this is all they want to do, cause trouble and fight.” Sasuke tugged off his shirt. “That’s why they are so good for us to go up against. We get to fight against guys who aren’t holding back. And we don’t have to hold back either.”

Naruto twisted up his face. “Why don’t we have to hold back?”

“They have something in them that heals easier, which is part of what makes them that much stronger.” Sasuke suddenly slid his gaze away. “Or so I’ve heard from Kabuto.” He pulled back the cover and got into bed.

Naruto laid back down, hands behind his head, thinking. “M’kay,” he said finally. “I’ll try. If you think it won’t hurt him.”

“Sure of it,” Sasuke said sleepily. “I’ve been fighting guys like him for a while. They just get right back up…. It’s…. It’s amazing….”

Naruto looked across at his sleeping form in the darkness, thinking that he would call it lots of things. But not amazing.

The next morning, he stood silently in front of the cell door. He had to wait, as he always did, for one of the men to go “awaken it.” What they did, he didn’t know. But he always knew when Juugo was finally awake — the man always came barreling for the entrance, screaming “Open! Open!”

The door slid back in a woosh, the man tore out, and Naruto stepped in. Then the door closed solidly behind him.

Angry breathing filled up the darkness. Juugo swung, Naruto deftly jumped to the side. He lurched around and swung again. Naruto ducked below it.

He had become quick enough that he didn’t need to draw on as much of the kyuubi’s chakra to help him escape. So he reasoned, as he darted around the mutated limbs, that all he would need to do was get close to Juugo. Then he could strike. Easy enough, Naruto thought with buoying confidence as he leaned out of the range of a swiping clawed hand.

Juugo howled in anger and threw himself at the spot where Naruto stood. But Naruto was gone. Juugo was stunned into silent fury for a moment.

From the angled darkness over directly over Juugo’s head, Naruto smiled down at him. At the moment of impact, Naruto had pushed chakra to his feet and dashed up the wall. He was completely concealed, and Juugo would never think to look up. Naruto laughed inwardly at his plan. One flying roundhouse kick and this would all be over. The behemoth would be flat on his back before he knew what hit him.

Juugo stood completely still and cocked his head, listening. Naruto knew it was his moment. In perfect silence he launched off the wall, turning his body into a spin and whipping his leg around, readying to crack it across the man’s skull—

Juugo snapped his head up and looked straight at Naruto. Shock splashed across Naruto’s face, but it was too late too stop. Juugo snatched his foot out of the air and hurled him into the metal door, making a body-sized crater in the metal that bubbled out the other side.

Naruto slid to the floor, lungs emptied of air. Juugo galloped toward him, exploding with anger that seemed to rewrite his very structure. Horns protruded from his head, his fingers sharpened to claws and winged blades shot from his elbows. Naruto struggled and gasped, forcing himself to move, certain those glowing yellow eyes coming out of the darkness would be the last thing ever saw—

The door behind him suddenly tore open. A hand hooked his collar and yanked him into the hall. Then the door wrenched shut a scant second before Juugo slammed into it with all his snarling fury. Dust puffed out around the rumpled edges, but he could not break it down.

Naruto lay in the corridor, clutching his chest and wheezing. The men put up their pikes, obviously aware that their services were no longer needed that day, and left him to recover alone on the cold, wet stones.

That night, Sasuke thankfully did not broach the subject. He must have started some new training regimen by the way he eased into bed, careful of his injured shoulder, and passed right out.

Naruto closed his eyes, pushing away the fact that Sasuke was still moving on…yet he was not.

The next day, he tried again. And the next. And the next.

Sometimes he was able to get away. Other times Juugo nearly threw him through the wall. But he was never able to land a hit.

Naruto knew now that he had drastically underestimated the man. And he was certain that that was why Orochimaru had paired them. Juugo was a predator, constantly watching and using his weaknesses against him.

He was at a loss as to how to beat him, so he did the one thing that came naturally: he pulled out more of the demon’s chakra.

It made him sick, and exhausted, and at one point he thought he could actually see red around his hands. But it helped. Even if he felt like he couldn’t live in his own skin for a few hours afterwards.

Because he finally managed to land a punch on the beast.

But it ended there. Naruto’s fist against his big head felt like he was hitting a stone wall. Juugo craned his neck around and swatted Naruto away, sending him flying him across the cell.

He tried again and again, day after day, week after week, but each hit ended the same. He couldn’t make Juugo feel even a ripple of pain. And Naruto usually ended up limping back to their quarters.

This day was no different. Naruto rolled his shoulder, rubbing the spot where he’d crashed into the wall. He unhooked a torch and carried it down the darkened maze of corridors toward his chambers. There were few lights at this end of the complex these days…because he was the only one here.

He hadn’t seen Sasuke in several weeks. Training, was all he’d said when he left. Naruto shrugged at the time, but bitterness had slowly taken root.

Because of course since Sausuke was gone, he hadn’t seen Kabuto or Orochimaru in a few weeks either.

Kabuto’s sneering words echoed back to him in the darkness. “I was beginning to think we couldn’t find anything to entertain you….”

Naruto sighed and rubbed a grimy hand across his forehead. Feeling a smear of dirt, he dragged his forearm sleeve across it.

Well…they certainly had found something to occupy his time.

It was weird, after having so much attention for so long, both bad and good, now he was treated like a child that needed to be entertained. And after that, he received no attention at all.

Not that he wanted any extra favors from Orochimaru and Kabuto. Because he didn’t. Naruto shuddered at the thought, making the light waver and splash down the silent corridor.

But it was clear that if he wanted to improve, he was going to have to depend on himself.

Sure, Sasuke may have said they were in this together, but more and more it seemed like he was on his own….

Naruto turned down the last long hall, only to frown at the orange light spilling out of the doorway to his room.

He approached warily, surprised to hear the familiar sound of kunai clinking and thudding onto a bed. Sasuke was back.

Naruto stood in the doorway for a moment, staring at a transformed Sasuke. He wore different clothes, similar to Orochimaru’s, even down to the big rope belt. From a coil at the back he was just drawing out a long, gleaming katana.

Naruto scowled inwardly at the obvious sign of progress and stepped into the room.

“Hey,” Sasuke said with a backwards glance. He hung the huge sword on the wall where the tanto used to hang.

Naruto nodded once without looking at him, jammed the torch down into the holder on his side of the room, extinguished the flame, then threw himself into the bed, not even bothering to change.

His feelings had suddenly congealed. Sasuke didn’t need his help. And if Sasuke didn’t need him, if they weren’t a team, then what the hell was he doing here—

“So what’s been happening since I left? Make any headway?”

Naruto stared at the cracks in the wall, the same ones he’d been looking at for months and months now. What could he say?

That he was moving at the same rate as the cracks in the wall? That he tried so hard sometimes the demon’s chakra bled through? That some days he thought he more in common with that man-beast than with Sasuke?

Naruto folded his arms over his chest, rounding his shoulders. He could barely even admit to himself that when he landed a hit on Juugo he still felt weak and wretched, because he knew…deep down…that this was not the way a shinobi was supposed to be….

Naruto crushed his eyes shut on the dank wall in front of his face. But sunlit memories of training and laughter and pink hair spun through his head. He closed his mind against them and pushed back on the tears stinging his eyes.

“Nah,” he muttered, throat tight. “No headway.”

“H-Hey Naruto…” Sasuke’s voice had lost its characteristic certainty. “I know this is hard. It’s hard for me too. But it’s only for right now. It won’t always be like this.”

Naruto didn’t move. But at length he shrugged one shoulder.

“You know we’re still in this together. Right…? Right?”

Naruto flopped back and stared up at the ceiling. “Yeah, alright. I guess,” he said in a monotone that made it clear he wasn’t alright.

“Hey,” Sasuke said, thinking quickly, “Orochimaru might know some secrets about the kyuubi that they weren’t allowed to tell you in Konoha. Or some better ways to handle it. He’s seen a lot, you know. And he was Jiraiya’s teammate….”

Naruto flipped back on his side at the mention of his old mentor’s name. Sasuke cringed.

“What I’m saying is that since he’s from Konoha too, he may know some secret techniques for dealing with the kyuubi.”

Naruto said nothing. But he sullenly thought that if the creep did know anything, he sure hadn’t offered to share it. But at least Sasuke had offered….

“I’m sorry I was away at the other hideout for so long.” Sasuke said quietly. “Listen, I have a plan and…well, no matter what they think, we won’t be staying. We’ll learn everything we can then move on. Promise.”

Again, Naruto was silent.

“And…I’ll make it up to you when we get out of this.” There was a note of desperation in Sasuke’s voice. “Then we can do whatever you want, ok? Wherever you want to go. You decide.”

Naruto thought darkly that it probably didn’t apply to Konoha. But that was okay, because to go back there, even for quick visit, they’d have to sneak in…until they took care of Itachi of course. Then they could go back as heroes—

“Hey Naruto?” Sasuke asked, unsure for perhaps the first time in his life of the answer. “We’re still in this together, right?”

Naruto sighed. Hearing those words was a soothing balm after everything he’d been through. If felt like a tightly wound coil inside his chest finally unwound.

“Yeah,” Naruto breathed. “We’re still in it together.” He turned over. The cracks in the wall didn’t look so harsh and jagged anymore. His eyelids sagged. Exhaustion swept over him as if he’d finally put down a heavy burden.

“Good,” Sasuke exhaled. The blankets softly rustled and he eased into his bed. “Cause I don’t think I could’ve done it alone.”

Naruto blinked once at those words. A worry line creased his smudged forehead. He didn’t altogether like the sound of that…but he was too tired to dwell on it. ‘Didn’t matter anyway,’ he told himself with a deep shuddering breath. ‘They were in it together. Teammates….’ His forehead smoothed, and his eyes drooped shut.

And the next day, Sasuke kept his word.

“Naruto needs more training than just taijutsu. He needed something else…something more.” Sasuke stared down at Orochimaru where he sat at his desk. “If Naruto isn’t properly trained, then neither of us are happy.”

Orochimaru laid the scroll aside and folded his hands.

“Well, if you feel so strongly about it, Sasuke-kun,” he smiled tightly at Sasuke, “then I’ll see what I can do. However, you should know, there is a lot more injury involved in channeling chakra than there ever is in taijutsu. But perhaps,” his eyes flashed, “I could alter the seal, and give him greater access to the kyuubi’s chakra.”

Clearly excited by the idea, Orochimaru stood and pulled out a handful of scrolls from the shelves behind him reading and nodding and saying “Yes…” and “That would do nicely as well….”

Sasuke watched the older man with suspicion. He didn’t trust Orochimaru’s enthusiasm. But there was not much he could do. This was what Naruto wanted, so he’d just have to deal with it….

HELL NO!! You’re not touching my seal!!”

“Naruto-kun, I can understand, I was only trying to help you before and—“

Naruto clamped both hands over his gut. “Jiraiya fixed it, and I’m not letting you anywhere near it, ever again! So you can just forget it!”

The smooth lines of Orochimaru’s face hardened. Shadows pooled under his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks, turning his face angular and deadly.

“Suit yourself,” he hissed. “Juugo is more than happy to keep throwing you into walls.” He rolled up the scrolls and slide them back in their spots.

But Orochimaru’s malice only seemed to galvanize Naruto more — he jutted out his chin, wrapping his arms firmly around his midsection.

Across the room, Sasuke glared at Naruto, recognizing by the look on Naruto’s face that he would never relent now. But if he didn’t intervene, Naruto would be curled up in bed, depressed and hopeless, by nightfall.

Sasuke grit his teeth. “Orochimaru…sama,” he forced himself to say. Orochimaru cocked up an eyebrow at the added epithet. “Maybe there is something else you could show Naruto, something else that might help him. Something other than the seal.” Anything, he wanted to add, but he kept his emotion guarded.

Orochimaru watched Sasuke, thoughtfully stroking the edge of his robe. “Well, I suppose, we could work with his elemental training. Is that what you had in mind, Sasuke-kun?”

The man drawled his name in a way that made Sasuke’s fingers twitch for a weapon, but he stopped himself. “Yes,” Orochimaru looked at him expectantly, “…Orochimaru-sama.”

The fawning elegance returned. “Good, I feel like we’re getting somewhere. Naruto-kun,” Orochimaru sat down at his desk and curled his long fingers under, beckoning him. “Let’s test you for your natural affinity, shall we?”

Naruto frowned once at the man, then darted a cautious glance Sasuke.

Mouth held in an angry pinch, Sasuke jerked his head and glared back with a look that promised severe pain if Naruto bucked this offer.

Naruto ignored him, but he still shoved his hands in his pockets and sauntered over.

Orochimaru retrieved a normal-looking cream square of paper from his desk. “It’s special,” Orochimaru said, “and when you flood it with your chakra, we can determine what kind of elemental affinity you have: water, earth, fire or wind.”

Naruto did as he was instructed, and the paper tore in half.

“As I suspected,” Orochimaru said. “You are a wind nature.”

Naruto hitched his eyebrows, impressed. “Hey, what are you Sasuke?”

“Fire,” he said flatly.

“Very desirable,” Orochimaru added.

Naruto’s interest swelled. “What about wind?”

“Not so much,” Orochimaru said flatly, and he threw away the torn pieces.

Deflated, Naruto pondered the four elements for a moment. “So…which is more powerful?”

“Fire,” Sasuke and Orochimaru said at the same time.

Naruto’s shoulders slumped.

“But, Naruto-kun, your nature is not important.” Orochimaru’s serpentine charm returned, and he spoke to Naruto with the same fluid voice and simpering smile that was usually reserved only for Sasuke. “What’s important is how you use your element. If you combine it with your other strengths you can make stronger jutsus. Or you can charge it with your chakra and use it to become a weapon—“

Orochimaru stopped and looked at Naruto’s comically puzzled face as if he wasn’t really seeing the boy, instead remembering someone else entirely.

He curled his mouth down in distaste and whipped out another square of paper—

“H-Hey, is that one special too?”

“Not at all,” Orochimaru said dryly. “I have a hunch that long discussions are wasted on you, if you are anything like my old teammate. So take this,” he pushed the paper into Naruto’s hand, “and stare at it until it rips in half.”

Naruto looked at him, stricken.

“You do that, use your wind element to tear this simple paper in half — not with your hand or your teeth or anything else,” he said it as if speaking to a child, “then bring it back to me. After you’ve mastered your wind nature, Kabuto can put you on a regimen—”

“Eh…. Thanks but no thanks. I’ll just work on this.” He shoved the paper in his pocket, turned on his heel and left.

Orochimaru’s eyes followed him.

“Thank you…Orochimaru-sama,” Sasuke said, even though it killed him. He followed Naruto out immediately without looking back. But he couldn’t ignore Orochimaru’s voice slithering through the air behind him.

“My pleasure, Sasuke-kun.”

The next week Sasuke trained and Naruto stared at the piece of paper.

He stared so long he hated it.

He stared so long he wished it would burn up in his fingers.

He stared so long he thought he was going to rip in half before the damned paper ever did.

But after a full week, he was ready to give up. He just didn’t care anymore. He threw himself back on his bed, still holding the paper out in front of him. It felt so light in his hands it was like it wasn’t even there.

But even when he closed his eyes, he could still see the damn thing, hovering there, perfectly square, waiting to be torn.

He sunk down farther into the bed, imagining what it would be like to feel that sweet release of the paper cleaving in half…. The two pieces finally fluttering under his fingertips….

Then a strange thing happened. It was so slight at first he thought he’d imagined it. But a stray breeze licked past his toes, skittered over his fatigues and swirled softly around his hands.

And before he had time to wonder where the stray breeze had come from in a still, underground bunker…the soft hiss of tearing paper filled the air.

Naruto popped his eyes open. A rip had begun at the top edge of the square.

But his startled excitement immediately plunged into worry. He was afraid he’d done it himself. Maybe he had fallen asleep and tore it while he was dreaming.

Naruto stared at the paper, willing it to happen again. And of course, it didn’t. The ripped section just flopped there, teasing him.

He watched it fervently, but nothing happened. More frustrated than ever, he jammed the paper under his pallet so he wouldn’t have to see it again and stalked off to train.

The next two days were the same, with him glaring at the paper until he needed to exhaust himself outrunning Juugo.

But the third day, Naruto tried something different. Instead of watching the paper, and feeling his temperature and anger rise in the process, he closed his eyes. He held out the sheet loosely in front of him, picturing it in his mind. And instead of focusing everything on the paper, he tried to remember what he was doing when it ripped.

He straightened out on the bed, laid very still and rigidly held the paper out in front of him. But eventually his breathing became more relaxed. His arms sagged a bit. He imagined the paper as a milky white square hovering over him. Then he pictured it slowly pulling apart, into two soft, floating rectangles. He stayed like that for so long — breathing and holding that image in his mind — he was certain that if he opened his eyes he would see two pieces.

A delicate tendril of wind laced around his ankles and ruffled his pant legs.

Naruto opened his eyes in excitement. But the wind stopped. And the paper hadn’t changed.

Sullen, he closed his eyes and tried again. It took even longer but this time, when the slight breeze finally wound it’s way around and up him, he forced himself to keep his eyes shut.

Naruto kept his focus on the wind, imagining that it was a tool, perfect for coaxing the tear open a little more…. He exhaled slowly, picturing the paper slowly giving way….

A whisper of tearing paper hit his ears. But Naruto realized he didn’t need to see it to know it was happening. He could feel it.

Excitement overcame him again, and he lost his focus on the wind before he could rip the paper completely in two. But as he stared at the paper, connected now only at the bottom, the two pieces waggling from front to back independent of each other, he knew he could do it. Just by grasping that basic thread of the idea, he knew he could figure it out.

He slid the paper gently under the pallet, eased back on to his bed, clasped his hands behind his head and smiled up at the ceiling.

Sasuke didn’t miss the familiar expression on Naruto’s face when he came in later.

“Make any progress?”

“Yeah,” Naruto said cagily, even though the corner of his mouth was hitching up into a telling grin.

Sasuke watched him in quiet amusement, but when Naruto didn’t offer any more, Sasuke just shrugged. “Good,” he said, feeling more relieved than he cared to admit that Naruto might be acting like his old self again.

Naruto continued working until he had enough control to tear the paper in two on the first try. He decided immediately that he was not going to Orochimaru with the proof of his success, as the man had instructed. He didn’t trust Orochimaru, and he didn’t want anything that Kabuto was offering.

But he was even reluctant to share his news with Sasuke.

Watching Sasuke hang the long katana on the wall night after night had given Naruto another idea. He decided he’d come up with something new…a new weapon or a new jutsu…something that proved he was moving ahead too. Only he was doing it his own way.

Feeling revved up for the first time in months, Naruto hopped out of bed in the morning, ready to work. Sasuke said nothing, but smiled to himself, glad that things felt like they were getting back to normal. He could go off to train without feeling guilty.

Naruto worked for hours each day perfecting his wind techniques, until he could tear and whip and bend the air in any manner he wanted. As long as he stayed still and concentrated.

Naruto learned that lesson the hard way. Early on he had tried to summon some extra force behind one of his jabs at Juugo. But the paltry cough of wind barely registered on the man, and Naruto was left wide open. Juugo knocked him clear across the room. After that, Naruto decided to perfect his technique before trying it again in combat.

So Naruto returned to the taijutsu room — the very place he had come to hate after his first weeks of solitary training. But now he saw it with fresh eyes. He ran through his standard training sets, just the way Kakashi had always drilled them, then attacked the wooden posts, dummies and training machines with renewed vigor.

And as he worked, he concentrated on pushing wind into his punches and kicks, and pushed all other distractions away. Instead of laying or sitting perfectly still, he tried to find the stillness inside. His body moved through his sets, but in his mind he saw the smooth, cool white square of paper, waiting to be torn.

And slowly he began to feel the force of the wind moving with his feet, swirling with his punches and bursting with his kunai and shurikens.

Sprawled out on the tatami mat after one particularly hard session, Naruto finally felt like he’d done it. Sweat stuck to his head in yellow spikes, his knuckles were bloody and the pads of his feet were throbbing, but his weapons had sunk deeper into the training post than they’d ever been before.

Naruto breathed deeply. He felt like he’d mastered his element. He was a wind user.

And that success did a funny thing to him inside. As hard as it was, mastering his element only made him yearn for more.

He idly wondered what could he do with his wind nature? Funnel it like a tornado? Wrap it around his weapons? Maybe he could get a great fan like that girl from the Sand…. No, he wanted something that was his own. Something that no one else had….

He immediately thought of the kyuubi. His curse. Yeah, nobody else had that.

But maybe he could turn it into something special. Like a signature move.

Naruto stirred with the idea. He sat up, remembering Orochimaru saying something about charging the wind with chakra.

Well…he had plenty of that didn’t he? That’s why he was a jinchurriki in the first place. Maybe that would be his thing….

Naruto puddled chakra in his hand, the way he did to his feet when he was trying to climb a tree. Then he summoned a wind. The blue chakra wrapped around his fist in a malicious swirl, nicking his hand with a thousand tiny blades.

“Ow-ow-owww!” But instead of releasing it, he quickly hopped to his feet and threw a short jab at the wooden post. Tiny splinters rained down from the back of the post.

“Coo-ool!” He cradled his injured hand, which was quickly beginning to feel like that splintered post. But inspecting the damage he’d inflicted, eyes bright in the darkness, Naruto’s mind began to leap ahead with ideas.

He quickly discovered that by keeping the chakra on his body, he sustained some of the injury. But if he could push it into a weapon, then it could carry much more force.

Shurikens, charged with chakra and whipped with wind, bit chunks off the post with each strike. Kunai ripped into the wood, nearly tearing through it.

Running his hand over the sharp points protruding from the back of the post, it didn’t take long for Naruto to realize that if he could harness the energy, without having to channel it into an object, then he would never be unarmed. His chakra would be his own weapon.

Naruto experimented with chakra forms and wind techniques, shaping it into slicing daggers or thin needles like senbons. But they were hard to control and lost their shape the longer they were in the air.

The wind naturally wanted to spiral. So…he let it. Then he added his chakra, letting it suck up the blue energy like a funnel cloud. He looked at the swirling mass in his hand, impressed. The gyrating motion kept it aloft, however it was quickly loosing speed.

Naruto hurriedly threw it. But the energy dispersed on impact and wrapped around the post like steam.

He tried again, this time summoning a clone to keep it moving. The timing wasn’t perfect, and sometimes it looked like a plate or a bowl or a top. But it kept spinning. And that’s what mattered.

Naruto glanced at the yellow head bobbing next to him, suddenly surprised.

After a few moments, the clone panted. “Uh, like this, boss?” He screwed up his identical face to look at the original.

Naruto simply stared back, as if he wasn’t sure what he was seeing.

The clone did not look like him. Or the him that he remembered. The yellow hair was shaggier, and the face was longer…and definitely more pale. And the clothes were dirty, worn out and ragged on the edges.

Naruto looked down, surprised that these were in fact his own clothes. There were no mirrors down here, so he simply hadn’t noticed. He frowned lightly, mind wandering….

If this much has changed here, I wonder what’s different back home—

“Yeeow!!” Distracted, Naruto’s fingers had relaxed and curled too close to the spinning ball. “Yeah,” he grunted, clutching his wrist and forcing his palm to stay flat. “Yeah, like that.”

The clone whirled it a few more times until Naruto said, “Ok…now!”

The clone stepped back and Naruto winged the disc-shaped chakra at the post. It flipped around as it hurtled, impacting the beam on it’s flat side and shattering like a plate on the wood.

Blue shards of chakra scattered before evaporating into the air. Which was better than just disappearing like mist, Naruto told himself bracingly…until he realized the wood was slowly toppling backwards like a felled tree. It crashed with a hollow thud that vibrated through the tatami mats.

Naruto stood blinking in the center of the room. Blow-back ruffled his shaggy yellow bangs. The corners of his mouth slowly curled up into a beaming smile, and his blue eyes practically glowed.

“So what are we here for Naruto.”

“You’ll see,” he said to Sasuke as he motioned for the men to open the door to Juugo’s cell.

Naruto entered, ignoring the snarling rage from the darkened corner, followed by Sasuke, Orochimaru, and Kabuto.

When the last two came in, Juugo ceased his growling and choked out what was almost like a wimper, a sound Naruto had never heard from him before. Kabuto snapped for one of the men to wake him up.

Jittering, the man went toward the darkness, pike extended in front of him, poking at air, until he disappeared. Then with a yowl of pain, the man came running out of the dark, followed by an enraged Juugo.

Naruto quickly caught his attention while the other three observers stepped back against the far wall. The man threw himself out the door, shutting it behind him.

Juugo circled around for Naruto, swiping and kicking in ever more complex moves. He had adopted Naruto’s skills over the past year, and threw them back at Naruto whenever he could.

But Naruto wasn’t interested in taijutsu. Not today.

He dodged a blow and quickly sprung up the wall to angled darkness at the ceiling. Juugo snarled at him, hating that spot from previous encounters, and Naruto seemed to oblige him by dropping back down to to the stone floor.

Juugo chased after the infuriatingly nimble kid, who always stayed one step ahead, until they came full circle and he was turned around facing the wall again. Naruto darted back up, and while Juugo was following him with his eyes, two more identical Naruto’s stepped down out of the shadow. The third copy, the one he’d been chasing, popped halfway up the wall. His smoke was swept into the swirling blue mass that the Naruto in front was just pulling out from behind him.

Juugo’s yellow eyes were fixed on it, the light illuminated all of his grotesque deformities.

“Now!” The clone pulled back, and the real Naruto launched from the wall, legs bending beneath him and a plate of spinning energy arcing over head in his hand. With the force of a punch, Naruto pounded the disc into the center of Juugo’s body, sending him sprawling back into the dark corner of his cavernous cell. He scraped himself up, wimpering, but he did not come out again.

Naruto straightened, releasing the clone that still clung to the wall, then turned to his audience.

Kabuto’s stared in awe. Orochimaru’s mouth slanted up in a greedy pleasure.

And on the end, Sasuke fixed him with a tight smile that equal parts esteem and jealousy. “How long have you had that up your sleeve, dobe?”

Naruto laughed, and Sasuke’s smile suffused his features with a warmth they did not often have. Naruto felt like he’d conquered many obstacles today, the least of which was beginning to grumble from the back of the cell.

“Shall we go, Naruto-kun,” Orochimaru said, holding out his sleeved arm in front of startled Kabuto. Naruto smirked up at the arrogant medic as he and Sasuke passed, but Kabuto quickly shoved his glasses up his nose, radiating unconcern as hard as possible.

“Naruto-kun,” Orochimaru drawled, his velvety voice filling the corridor, “you have improved so much. I can see now why Sasuke-kun chose you.” He raked a glance over Naruto before turning back to Sasuke. “The only thing that would make this day better would be to see you two…together….”

Naruto looked stricken.

Orochimaru laughed throatily. “In the sparring room, of course.”

At the thought of going up against Sasuke, Naruto felt all his gains evaporate.

He didn’t know if he could beat Sasuke. He thought so…maybe….

Naruto knew it was cowardly, but he didn’t want to discover that, after all this work, Sasuke might still be able to beat him.

“No,” Sasuke said firmly. Naruto looked back, surprised. “It wouldn’t do either of us any good,” Sasuke continued. ”I have too much going on right now. And, from the looks of it, so does Naruto.”

Naruto looked back at Sasuke, his blues eyes clear and wide. Sasuke’s recognition of his efforts had set a curl of pride unfurling within him.

Secretly, Sasuke didn’t want to beat him and send him back to reconsidering his choice every night. And even deeper still was the real possibility that Naruto just might be able to take him.

Sasuke cleared his throat. “Neither of us would benefit,” he said with finality.

Naruto nodded quickly. “Yes, neither of us would…you know, benefit. Besides, we have nothing to fight over!” Naruto’s weak laughter at his own joke guttered out in the silence.

Orochimaru shrugged delicately. “Hmmm…. Perhaps another day, then….” But he continued to watch the two boys with a dangerous gleam in his eye.

From then on, everything changed.

Naruto and Sasuke worked in tandem, improving and perfecting their skills. And when it became clear that Naruto no longer needed to spar with Juugo, Sasuke took him to see some of Kabuto’s other “men.”

Sasuke always skipped over the uglier details of why the men were imprisoned there, because he knew Naruto would never ignore their injustices, real or imagined. And the last thing he needed was to galvanize Naruto’s sense of right and wrong and have him start a riot.

Sasuke promised Naruto he’d go up against men with different techniques from other countries. Which he did. Most of it was useful…but some of it was truly barbaric. However, all of it, Sasuke reminded him, made them better shinobis.

“You know, we’re learning stuff we never would have learned if we’d stayed in Konoha,” Sasuke said one night after he’d gotten into his bed.

Naruto shrugged quietly from his bed. He thought Sasuke was glossing over it. Sure they were learning a lot of things they’d never been exposed to in Konoha, but not all of it was good. And that weighed on him….

“I’m glad you’re here Naruto,” Sasuke said suddenly into the darkness. “I couldn’t have done this alone.”

Sasuke sounded so earnest and…un-Sasuke like. Naruto knew he was telling the truth. It tugged at him, and he gave into that encompassing warmth of being needed. “Yeah,” he breathed. “I’m glad I came too. It’s all been…” he hesitated, searching for an accurate word. “Uh…fun,” he finished lamely.

Sasuke snorted at Naruto’s obvious fib, but didn’t hold it against him. Naruto chuckled too at being caught and rolled over in his bed. He smiled at the cracks he knew were in the wall, even though he couldn’t see them in the dark. This must be what true friendship is….

So they fought and trained and ignored the unsavory aspects of their life with Orochimaru. And each night, Sasuke would tell Naruto thanks, that he couldn’t have done it without him. And for Naruto, that bond made all the other troubling facts of their life sink into the background. They were in it together.

And through those dark days of training, moving from hideout to hideout, slipping into foreign lands, and dealing some of the most heinous jutsus imaginable, Naruto thought their bond was unshakeable. And at that moment, it was….