"Just so we're on the same page here, I'm not asking for information unless you see fit to share it, but I would like to express my concern for Anko. She was sort of a big sister to me, growing up I mean," Naruto explained to Jiraiya as they watched Anko go through a couple hours of preparation for the ritual Jiraiya had brought them all there for.
"That's good," Jiraiya said approvingly. "I've always liked Anko. You know she was pretty much your father's counterpart. I had Minato and my teammate Orochimaru had her. She's was a good four years or so the younger, but they were friends when circumstances allowed it."
"Does she know? About me, I mean."
Jiraiya nodded. "Hell, kid, she was there for more of it than I was."
Naruto thought about that for a moment. "So why is she only a special jounin? I mean, my dad made Hokage. I'd have thought she'd be at least elite jounin, since she was trained by one of the Sannin."
"Heh, nice to see you have some respect. And don't misjudge her, Anko is a lot more dangerous than her official rank indicates. But she's crippled compared to what she should be. Hell, she might have surpassed your father, Orochimaru always bragged that she had more latent potential. Unfortunately, instead of caring for her like he should have, he used her up and threw her away." Jiraiya scratched his chin thoughtfully.
Naruto glanced at him, clearly expecting him to add something.
"I want you to remember this, kid. Anko loved Orochimaru like Hinata loves you. In other words, way too much for it to be healthy. Having someone who trusts and, hell, basically worships you like that, it's a powerful thing, and it's really easy to stop thinking of them as a person and start seeing them as a thing you own. Orochimaru was a lot like you, kid. Too smart by half, cynical, paranoid, and ambitious. And he hurt a lot of people following his goals, and none more than Anko. Remember that when your superiors start mind gaming you. We don't want to see another Orochimaru, especially not one that leaves another broken girl behind like Anko. Treat your friends right, and above all else in your dealings with Orochimaru, remember that he treated his wrong."
"He's gonna mess with me, I figured that much is a given," Naruto admitted.
Jiraiya shrugged. "If you're lucky, he'll barely notice you. It's Anko and I he'll be focusing on."
Naruto didn't say anything, choosing instead to watch Anko finish her sobering up routines. Jiraiya wasn't sure if that boded good or evil.
The sky was black and dappled with stars by the time both Anko and Jiraiya were ready. The basement, already prepared and inlaid with seals and spells to contain and control summoned beings, fairly hummed with the power Jiraiya had pumped into it.
Anko stood in the middle of a large seal array, one which, rather conspicuously, did not feature the elder sign either as a star with a flame or as a branch. A mixture of large, bold symbols made the border, each one linked by smaller, delicate traceries of runes none of them had ever seen before in seal script. The center was about four feet across and clear of seals, clearly it was meant to contain something within. The ceiling had its own set of seals, though instead of an open spot in the middle, more seal script filled it.
Jiraiya had spent most of the morning working on it with inks and blood from all five of them present and strange pigments produced from a multitude of clay pots he produced from sealed scrolls before finally putting his tools away with an air of satisfaction.
"You turn yourself into an outsider, you have to play by outsider rules," he said with smug satisfaction.
Now Anko, her expression bleak and hopeless, obediently took up position in the center of the array.
"Sorry, Anko," Jiraiya apologized one last time.
"Yeah, well…" She sighed. "Yeah."
Then she began, drawing a drop of blood from one calloused finger on an eyetooth filed sharp for the purpose long ago, and moving through a set of hand seals familiar to Team Lie, for it differed in only two places from the sequence they'd copied from Kakashi. Finally she slammed her hand to the ground, the chakra and blood sacrifice offered to the technique manifesting in seal script that radiated out from her hand a short distance, then seemed to ripple and explode in the not quite smoke of space being twisted for a summoning.
"That's interesting looking," Hinata commented.
Suddenly a snake appeared, coiled around Anko's body. It was a big snake, at least by conventional standards, probably around fifteen feet long but thick bodied, with scales so pale and white that they seemed almost pearlescent in the flickering candlelight that lit the summoning room.
The reptilian head, clearly snakey but with features that spoke of something else, twined around and came to a rest above Anko, facing them.
"Hi, Orochimaru. Destroyed any hopes and dreams lately?" Jiraiya asked.
"ssNot assss many assss you'd ssthink," the snake hissed with a raspy voice, as though from disuse. "Jirraiiiyaaa. sssSexed up any hot Yama-uba latelysss?"
Jiraiya looked like he'd bitten into an especially bitter prune. "You really are never going to let me forget that, are you?"
The white snake that was apparently Orochimaru laughed with a deep, hissing sound. "Not even when the stars gutter and die and the world is a barren rock."
"It was only the one time," Jiraiya muttered defensively.
Yama-uba, or mountain crones, were sorcerous old women who tended to live far from other people, usually in remote mountains. They could shapeshift to varying degrees, and cropped up in stories ranging from raising orphans, getting travelers lost, seducing strangers, and bargaining away tidbits of their occult knowledge. They were also known to be peoplenivorous.
Orochimaru laughed again, a harsh, rhythmic hiss, and coiled his body around Anko. "Ssso, why have you called me this time?" the snake asked. "I see you have taken some precautionss." The voice was getting smoother, dropping the pronounced hiss.
"Well, after you tried to kill me last time, it seemed prudent."
"I only wanted a finger," Orochimaru replied, humping up the section a few feet behind his head in a snake equivalent of a shrug. "You didn't have to be so hossstile about it." He flicked his tongue at his old friend.
Jiraiya slowly and deliberately flipped Orochimaru the bird, to more snake laughter.
"Oh god, this is us seventy years from now," Naruto said with a sigh, glancing at Sasuke.
"Hey! How old do you think I am, brat?" Jiraiya growled, turning to the boy.
"I will not turn into a snake," Sasuke replied seriously. "It never helps."
Orochimaru, as he felt befitted a basically unknowable being from beyond, ignored the byplay, choosing instead to coil his body back and forth around Anko's in a sinuous dance, his forked tongue stopping just short of flicking her ear as he whispered secrets to her.
While Naruto and Sasuke went about their little routine to assess the reactions from Orochimaru, Hinata was simply watching him with all the intensity of her abyssal eyes.
Beyond its outer appearance, the snake was actually much like Jiraiya, but thinner in one way and thicker in another. It had strange seals apparently embedded in its soul, like Jiraiya, and various other strange energies swirling around it, but it also had a link stretching away from it, through other dimensions, to whatever realm Orochimaru had been summoned from.
The changes in Anko were also noteworthy. Her chakra had spiked alarmingly, tripling in that instant of summon, and changing color from its normal dingy blue-purple to a rich blue that seemed incredibly potent. Her eyes lit up with life, a sharp contrast to the depressed air of resignation she'd had before the summoning, and she both stood straighter and seemed to lean into the touch whenever Orochimaru's snake body brushed along hers. And deeper than that, burning in ways chakra only hinted at, Anko's very spirit seemed larger, more complete.
Interesting. And worrisome.
"Naruto," she said softly, putting no particular stress on the sound.
"Ah, yes, yes, no being childish in front of the Sannin. Sorry, Hinata," Naruto said in a mixture of cheerful acceptance and abashed contriteness as he redirected his attention to Anko and Orochimaru.
"The Kyubi avatar, Uchiha Itachi's pathetic little brother, now blessed with a generous dose of power, and a corrupted Hyuga princess." Orochimaru paused, staring at Hinata, who stared back at all nine dimensions of him. "Make that a thoroughly corrupted Hyuga whore. Just couldn't wait to enjoy the perks of godhood, huh little jinchuriki?"
"Actually, Sasuke is his lover. I'm just going to be the mother of their gay baby," Hinata replied without a trace of inflection.
Orochimaru reared back in surprise.
"I'm not sure I like the term 'gay baby'. That makes it sound like the baby is gay," Sasuke complained, delighted at seeing Hinata blindside the snake. He already hated him for the comment about his brother.
"We are not doing the gay baby routine for the littlest snake god," Naruto said, chastising them both. "That's for friends only."
"Okay," Hinata and Sasuke said in unison.
Jiraiya smothered a grin by putting his hand over his mouth.
Orochimaru flicked his tongue at them in a speculative sort of way, then drew up about five feet of his head and neck and began twisting back and forth in the air, looking at the trio of genin from a variety of angles. His sinuous dance was oddly hypnotic, Naruto thought, almost as if he were…
Hinata and Sasuke both pinched him, hard, from opposite sides and brought him back to himself.
"Hey, now, none of that or I'll banish you again," Jiraiya warned.
"Ssss," Orochimaru said neutrally.
"They're the reason I brought you here, if you haven't guessed already," Jiraiya continued. "Naruto has created a blood contract between himself and the two of them, and it's letting the Kyubi's chakra leak back and forth. That's worrisome enough, but it's also influencing their minds and actions. We're worried that it's weakening the seal, or trying to take over."
"Sss, Spring is here, Summer comes once more," Orochimaru said idly, his tongue flicking. "The stars are nearly right, their poison fades."
"Should we capture the stars, then?" Jiraiya asked.
Orochimaru jerked as if slapped. There was a long, tense moment as the ascended snake and the indolent toad stared at each other, slit pupils opened wide staring at Jiraiya's cool but interested expression.
Finally, Orochimaru began to laugh. "Ku ku ku ku, yessss! That's it entirely! Capture the starssss! Ku ku ku ku. We were ninja once, yesss, and a ninja knows how to take down a stronger opponent. Distill their essence, refine it into a poison of the most frightful potency, yessss, that is the way. Thank you, Jiraiya, in my time in the Out, I had quiet nearly forgotten the lessons I learned from Sensei. Just because the biju have always been does not mean they must always be. How wonderful to be human." The snake seemed unaware of the hypocrisy in the words, or perhaps it wasn't speaking of itself. "Oh yesss, capture the stars, ku ku ku ku. Kill the sleeper before it wakes, and Summer could be peaceful indeed."
"I don't want to kill him," Jiraiya said patiently. "I want to make sure the Kyubi doesn't slip its chains."
Orochimaru twisted around himself, then lunged forward a foot, making all three of the genin flinch. This was, after all, one of the most powerful things they had ever seen.
"A red string does not a chain make," Orochimaru replied coldly. "Sensei believes that bonds of love and trust will bind him to Konoha. Perhaps it could have been enough once, if the biju are capable of love in addition to… lust," he finished with distaste. "Certainly it prevents you from doing the logical thing and killing it. See a little too much of his father in him, hmm? Certainly it is no secret why Anko-chan was drawn to the boy. Perhaps I was too hasty in not letting her breed with your student. Such a child could have been interesting."
Naruto's breath hissed inward as a few things Jiraiya had said clicked into place, and he stared at the woman who could have been his mother with new eyes.
Anko was oblivious, lost in the bliss of reunion with her god and master.
"You son of a bitch," he whispered.
Orochimaru laughed. "Ku ku, oh, so it was a secret? My bad."
Jiraiya shot his ex-teammate a dirty look.
"Love will not save your precious village. I don't know if it can love, but I know it can hate, and it was born in hatred," Orochimaru continued. "It wasn't hatred that drove me to join the Akatsuki cult, simply a desire for knowledge and power, but it was hate that drove Tobi, the leader, to wake the Kyubi early and cause it to rampage through Konoha destroying all in its path. And it is hate that drives his few remaining loyalists to continue their rituals of worship." He dipped his head down to the ground, slithered in a circle, testing the boundaries of the seal array, then shot his head back up to human height and looked at them again.
"Oh yes, I see it dawning in you now. You assumed that the Nine, or however many he's found, were the ones to stir the Kyubi and cause whatever it was that scared you bad enough to call on me. Ku ku ku, ku ku ku. They call upon the Kyubi now, and have even summoned it to their temple, right out from under your nose."
"Ia, Ia, Kyubi f'taghn," Naruto whispered in dawning horror.
"Some bad dreams there, little godling?" Orochimaru asked in a hissing parody of concern. "Ku ku ku ku."
"Oh, shit," Sasuke said, not because he actually understood, it just seemed like an appropriate time to curse.
"Can we stop them?" Jiraiya asked, cutting right to the point.
"Perhaps. The new Akatsuki would even help you. They desire to see only one god on this world, and it is not the Kyubi as Tobi and his Akatsuki wish. Carry the stars to them, they will welcome you with open arms. But beware, the Kyubi will not tolerate attacks on its worshippers, not this early, when it needs them. You will be forced to chose which of your students you wish to die."
"Not it," Sasuke piped up.
"Ku ku ku ku! Such a mouth on the littlest Uchiha. Fascinating that the Uchiha and the Kyubi are so closely linked. All three of them vying for right hand? Oh my."
"Not now, kid," Jiraiya said.
"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT! Are you seriously fucking telling me that that piece of shit Itachi is a member of this Akatsuki? I'm going to kill his ass!" And then Sasuke's explosive rant got really foul, only to be cut off when Naruto put his hand on Sasuke's shoulder.
Sasuke regained control of himself, but with visible effort, his whole body trembling.
"Would you like to know more?" Orochimaru crooned.
"Go eat a bucket of dicks," Sasuke snapped back, well aware that Orochimaru would only torment him now, not give him useful information.
"Can the summoning be blocked? Or their connection?" Jiraiya pressed, ignoring the genin.
Orochimaru paused for a moment, considering it, or possibly trying to come to term with the mental images that Sasuke's insult brought to mind. "The Elder sign would do it, but only from their end. Anything more direct would cause the Kyubi to react. It needs worshippers to wake, you see. Its sleep is the sleep of the dead. It will no more allow itself to be cut off from the worshippers that give it power than they will allow it to be cut off from them. Tell me, has ordering the children to stop calling on it worked in the slightest?"
"…no," Jiraiya admitted grudgingly.
"Ku ku ku. You see, anyone can be a god if they have enough worshippers." Orochimaru twined around Anko once more, and let his tongue flick along her face as her eyes closed in ecstasy. "But some people only need one, if they believe enough…"
"You stole part of her soul," Naruto said, finally understanding the nature of the bond. "And then you threw her away."
"She gave it to me willingly," the snake replied casually as Anko shuddered in his coils.
"You broke the deal," Naruto said again, his voice rising in volume and deepening in pitch. "You threw her away when she gave you everything. You evil son of a bitch, you broke the deal!"
"I didn't need her anymore." The snake stared back, unblinking.
"You don't break the deal!" Naruto roared in purely human outrage.
"I already did," Orochimaru replied. "And you will, too. You will suck your little black eyed whore dry and cast the shell aside, just like you will all of the others. Because it's what they're there for, it's why they offer themselves to us, it's our nature as gods."
Naruto was shaking his head back and forth furiously. "No, no, no! I will never do that to them!"
"Oh, but you will. It's as inevitable as the coming of Summer. The Kyubi will eat its followers this time just as it has every time before." Orochimaru seemed profoundly pleased by this.
"Anko let you break her," Hinata said quietly, her face tilted down in thought. "And you did it. But my love for Naruto is stronger than her love for you." She looked up suddenly, her black eyes encompassing his entire being. "I won't let him break me. Because Naruto would never truly love a girl who would let anyone, even him, break her."
"You lie, little girl. You wish it were true, but you've already let him break you in so many delicious ways. You're half empty already, and no matter how deeply you drink of him you will never feel full, you will only lose more and more of yourself…" He started laughing again.
Hinata opened her mouth to speak, but Sasuke cut her off with a touch.
"Don't bother, Hinata. He's just fucking with us. We've gotten all we need, and no good can come of staying." Sasuke turned to Jiraiya. "Jiraiya-sama? I'm taking my team out of here."
Jiraiya shook himself out of deep thought, considered it a moment, then nodded. "You're right. This is all we can reasonably expect to get out of him without major problems." He turned to his onetime friend. "Bye, Orochimaru. Don't let reality hit you in the ass on the way Out."
The snake hissed in sudden alarm and anger, but Jiraiya pressed his hands to the edge of the seal and made him go away.
"Sooo… on a scale of one to ten, I'd say we've got problems," Sasuke noted. "But at least I have an idea of where my brother is. And another Uchiha. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that."
Anko screamed incoherently from the basement down below, then trailed off into broken sobs. There was a loud thump.
"I wonder why your brother left you and this other Uchiha alive. I suppose he might be more powerful. The snake did say that all three of you were trying to be the closest to Naruto, and since this Tobi person is the leader of the cult…"
"Tobi, huh? I've never heard of a Tobi Uchiha." Sasuke thought about it for a while, which was kinda hard since Anko kept alternately screaming and crying. It wasn't that he didn't care, it was that he had no idea what to do. Presumably, Jiraiya was handling it.
Naruto was sitting on the couch in the living room, looking pretty upset and flinching at the screams. He seemed lost and horrified. Hinata sat beside him holding his hand, but it didn't seem to be helping.
"Hey, I just realized. I have what this Tobi and my brother seem to want. I'm obviously closer to Naruto than either of them. Hell yeah, fuck you, Itachi." Sasuke cheered himself up considerably with that thought.
"Yeah, and presumably Itachi killed your whole family to try and appease the Kyubi. He's gonna feel so stupid," Hinata agreed.
Sasuke stared at her in shock.
Hinata paused. "Oh, that wasn't something you needed to hear, huh?"
"What the shit…" Sasuke began. "He said it was to test his new power, I thought he was just crazy…" He paused. "To appease the Kyubi…!" His expression darkened as he turned his glare on Naruto.
Naruto visibly flinched. "But… hey! I didn't know!" he protested. "I never asked for that! I would never!"
"It's just a thought," Hinata added hastily. "We don't know that's why he did it."
"Then why did you say it?" Sasuke asked, his voice low and dangerous.
Hinata didn't answer.
"Un huh. Because it's a logical assumption." Killing intent flowed off of the dark haired boy, and he suddenly turned and left.
Hinata watched him go, then turned to Naruto. "There goes the father of our gay baby."
"Shut the fuck up."
It was a cold and miserable night for the five unwelcome guests of the house.
Sasuke found himself questioning his loyalties, since the biggest trauma of his life seemed to have been caused by Naruto, or at least the Kyubi. He spent the rest of the night wandering the beaches, killing anything that crossed his path, which only amounted to a few dozen scuttling crabs his sharingan picked out in the darkness.
Hinata made herself scarce after Naruto snapped at her, and wound up sitting on the peak of the roof, her sight tenketsu sealed, yet still unable to stop seeing through her hitai-ate, which grew moist as she cried silently.
Naruto sat up against the head of the bed in their guest room, wishing Hinata would join him, wishing he hadn't snapped at her, wishing he knew how to deal with Sasuke, wishing he had the guts to get up and do any of it.
Anko screamed and threw up and cried and screamed and begged and pleaded and would have killed herself in her pain and loss, as the bliss she had felt from being reunited with her one love and the missing piece of her soul only made the separation seem even more fresh and intense.
Jiraiya stayed with her, not leaving her side for an instant, and worked soothing chakra massages and tailored seals into her to try to relieve the worst of it, and cleaned up puke and snot and tears besides. He'd known what he asked of her, knew it had been necessary, since Orochimaru had given him information he'd never have gotten otherwise, and he knew he was still at fault for making her do it. Jiraiya was willing to face the consequences of his actions, even as he knew that the evil Orochimaru had done to the girl was so vast he'd managed to get some on himself.
It was several hours after sunrise before Jiraiya was confident enough in Anko being well and truly asleep to stop his vigil long enough to check on the kids.
They were nowhere to be seen, which wasn't completely unexpected, but when he found Naruto sitting up, alone in the bedroom, looking quite thoroughly lost, lonely, and dejected, he realized that Anko wasn't the only one he needed to take care of after the chat with Orochimaru.
Naruto looked up at him. "Jiraiya-sama?" he asked.
Jiraiya sighed. This wouldn't be good. "Yeah, kid?"
"Orochimaru was lying, right? People lie."
Jiraiya huffed and shook his head sadly. "You're right, kid, people lie. But when monsters want to hurt you, and believe me, Orochimaru is a monster, they tell the truth."
Naruto slumped slightly, as if some tiny hope was drained from him. "The truth sucks," he said after a moment.
"Yeah, sometimes it does. Is it a wonder we lie so much?" Jiraiya sat down on the bed beside him, unbidden, and patted him on the leg. "What did it?" he asked.
"Hinata realized that Itachi probably killed off his clan because he was sacrificing to the Kyubi, or something, and told Sasuke. He got pissed, and I got mad at Hinata, and I haven't seen either of them since."
Jiraiya winced. It actually would explain a lot.
"Yeah, it's hard to argue against. I mean, I'm pretty sure I didn't call for it, but what do I know? I just found out that I've been summoned to some sort of secret fucking ritual run by people who are arguably my enemies but who happen to worship me, and all I can remember of it is some vaguely unsettling dreams and some chants."
Jiraiya nodded. "Yeah, we're gonna have to do something so you can remember that. Getting some descriptions of what happened might help." He looked around. "So, do you need some advice on how to handle your teammates?"
Naruto shrugged. "I know what I should do, I think, but-"
They both looked up as a small, lightning quick little monkey zoomed into the room, bouncing off the doorjamb and two walls before it came to rest on the floor before Jiraiya.
"Message for you, Sir," the monkey chirped in a sort of professional tone, offering up a scroll.
Jiraiya quickly took it and read it. His eyebrows climbed rapidly until he finished the note, then it crumbled away to nothing in his hand when he added chakra to the embedded seal. "It's really inconvenient, but tell the old man okay. Consider it handled."
"Yes, Sir!" the little brown monkey replied and disappeared with a puff.
Jiraiya looked at Naruto, who was actually looking more alert and interested. "Sorry, kid, no time for forgiveness and reconciliations. You've got five minutes to handle your teammates and we're out of here. Looks like Sand had some assets in place after all."
"Yes, Jiraiya-sama!" Naruto replied promptly, bounced off the bed, made a clone, and was gone.
Naruto had a problem.
He'd managed to thoroughly upset Hinata, and Sasuke felt betrayed even though he had never done such a thing, at least not consciously.
But they had a strong friendship and a sense of teamwork unrivaled by their peers. A relationship built on trust and lies.
Not truth. Truth was the weapon used against them. Lies.
Naruto grinned briefly, then his face fell into an expression of barely suppressed rage, heavy demonic chakra surging in his body.
Orochimaru had messed with his people.
Oh, that son of a bitch would pay. One day, he would pay.
But for now, Naruto needed his team. He had less than five minutes to find them, and without Hinata by his side…
Hinata was always by his side. Because she they had a bond that flowed both ways.
The blindfolded Hyuga heiress landed silently beside him an instant later, her face neutral, her body fluid and ready for anything.
And Sasuke. He couldn't betray Sasuke. Sasuke was his right hand, something no one else could be. He could no more betray his hand than his hand could turn on him. Come here, Sasuke, we've got work to do.
"Fine, fine, stop yelling, Naruto," Sasuke complained, running up to them from the beach. "I'm here." His expression was still dark and broody, but he, too seemed to have temporarily forgotten his concerns.
Naruto grinned, showing teeth grown sharp and eyes flickering red.
"I am very angry right now," Naruto said without preamble. "We've been officially mindfucked. Orochimaru hit us where we were strongest and we didn't even see it coming. But that's an outsider Sannin for you, I guess. Last night was one of the worst of my life. Next time… next time we run into something worse than we are, we kill it."
Hinata and Sasuke both looked at him with somewhat blank looks, having a little trouble organizing their thoughts enough to follow him.
"We were messed with? Like a genjutsu?" Hinata asked.
Naruto nodded. "Something like that. Jiraiya said it's a thing that outsiders can do. I guess Orochimaru learned how when he ascended." He turned to Sasuke. "We know we've got some issues regarding your family, living and dead. But we all know we're gonna get through them eventually, because it didn't even have to be an issue until it was used to attack us by that snake. Now let's just go right back to working together so we can fix everything easier."
Sasuke stared at him for a moment. "And by 'fix', you mean-"
"Killing people we don't like," Naruto said with a nod. "I didn't ask for any damned cult, but if they're gonna worship me, they've got to play by my rules, and one of my rules is don't fuck with my friends."
Sasuke nodded thoughtfully.
"Naruto, I'm sor-" Hinata began, but was immediately cut off.
"No!" Naruto snapped. "No apologizing. Apologizing implies you were at fault. None of us did anything wrong, we just got nailed by something older and meaner. You can't win every battle. We heal our wounds and return them nine fold next time." He clenched his fist and made a sharp gesture across his chest. "Now, we've got about a minute left before we have to leave on an emergency mission Jiraiya just got from a monkey. If we're lucky, we get to kill people, and worst case, Jiraiya kills people. Let's move."
Transportation came in the form of an enormous toad for Jiraiya and the genin, the same one that had carried them to the little resort village in the first place. Anko was eaten by a dark green one that was only twice the size of a cow, which was sent off to Konoha.
Then they got to experience the unusual sensations of riding in a toad's belly as it made two mile hops along the coast, covering ground at a ridiculous rate.
"This is so cool," Naruto said, looking around at the faintly glowing fleshy cave that the toad had provided them. It was moist but not too unpleasant, smelled faintly of brimstone, and was big enough that even Sasuke, who didn't particularly like being eaten since that time with the shoggoth, was able to avoid completely freaking out. "Will I get summons?" he wondered.
"Yeah," Jiraiya answered from his seated position lotus style on the fleshy pink floor. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be concentrating, perhaps seeing through the toad's eyes or something.
"Really? Some sort of servitor or something?" Naruto asked, excited.
"People," Jiraiya replied.
"Oh," Naruto said, remembering. "Well, what about foxes and other stuff? The old priest we killed had bears and a shoggoth, and that was only for the seven tails."
Jiraiya shrugged. "Don't know. Find a fox and ask."
"At least you get people," Hinata noted.
"Yeah, but all I have right now is you two, Sakura, and Neji, and you two are always with me anyway," Naruto sort of complained, though he was thinking about how he'd summoned them earlier, just by wishing they'd come to him. He wondered if he could summon them faster? Like a true summon?
"Don't complain, kid. I started out summoning tadpoles. You ever seen a tadpole fight a ninja? No? There's a reason for that." Privately, Jiraiya's ears pricked up at the mention of Neji. He'd been told Sakura was the only other contract.
Sasuke snerked. "Heh, Sakura is the tadpole of humans. Keep practicing and I'm sure you can do better."
Naruto laughed. "Damn, Sasuke, if you keep being mean to her she's gonna start stalking someone else."
Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Yes, because she's head over heels with my affectionate and considerate personality."
"Actually, could I summon Sakura?" Naruto mused. "I mean, I've given you chakra before, but I've never actually done the jutsu myself. I mean, why would I summon myself?"
"Something to check out later," Sasuke noted. "Or you could do it now and tell her we've been eaten by a toad and wanted to share the experience."
The sandy strip of beach they had largely been following for miles on end had widened, with the forest turning to brush and grass and finally to the salt grass and sandy loam hills of the southern Wind coast.
Once, there was a small fishing village there, no more than twenty to thirty people whose main import were casks of fresh water and whose main export were barrels of salted fish. Now the tiny village was awash with sand and the huts were nothing but splinters. The remains of four ships lay half buried along the beach.
Hundreds of samurai, those fast and skilled enough to evade the sudden wrath of the desert, braced themselves in ordered ranks, pitting their own knowledge of jutsu against waves of sand. Unfortunately for the samurai, sand wasn't something you could just cut with a sword and kill.
It flowed, it engulfed, it ground down, and each time it crested over them, there were dozens of patches of bloody, sticky sand that ebbed around their feet and flowed back into the control of the desert's one true master.
Gaara stood impassively, his arms crossed in the harsh sunlight as the land around him bent itself to the destruction of the invaders. His head turned slowly to the east, tracking something that at first only he could see, but soon everyone who looked could see the immense toad bounding in deceptively graceful leaps along the shore.
A rival comes.
Inside the toad, Naruto's eyes turned red and demonic chakra flickered in their depths. Knowledge not truly his own sprang to the forefront of his mind.
The desert is my enemy.
"Damn, it really is him," Jiraiya said with a sigh. "Listen, kids, you're up against a real heavy hitter this time. Sand sent its own jinchuriki to take care of this army, and it looks like he's up to the task. They've got the Ichibi, but don't get dismissive. I've seen some texts that say that all the tailed beasts are equal in power, but the number of tails says who wakes up first and who goes to sleep first. Of course, almost everyone else says that's bullshit, and you should win easily, but it's definitely true that the one tail has been running around longer than you, and has access to more of his power."
"His power is the desert," Naruto whispered, his gaze far away on something only he could see. "We are at the seat of his power. We should leave his land. He will not let the samurai live."
"Are you sure? Because it'll only take one survivor to hurt Konoha." Jiraiya shook his head. "No, we have to be sure. I'll fight if you can't or won't, I won't blame you. Another jinchuriki…"
Naruto's attention snapped back to the present and red chakra exploded into being around him.
"Too late. He comes," Naruto said simply.
A massive fist of sand attached to an arm twenty stories long shot out of the desert and crashed into the side of the toad, knocking it into the ocean with a titanic burble of pain. As the toad righted itself, the sand arm pulled back, thickening as sand flowed up it, and opened to reveal claws as sharp as glass.
Moments later the arm came crashing down, only to miss as the toad disappeared with a crash and slap of water and chakra.
Something red and angry bounced off the water and ran along the arm, tracking the animating chakra back to its source with the senses of a young god.
Gaara's first sight of the nine tails jinchuriki came almost in the form of a stop motion reel. His enemy was bizarrely misshapen, like a fox the size of a pony but with arms and legs ten feet long, all made of chakra, with a small blond boy suspended in the middle of the translucent red energy. There! –it paused along the top of the sand arm, snarling at him. Over there! –it bounced between spikes of sand that shot to the sky, seeking to impale the interloper. Suddenly here! –it seemed to float in mid air, right arm slamming forward in slow motion as the dull brownish gourd sand, the body of Shukaku that was always fastest to protect him, desperately tried to close the gap and form a full sphere. The edges of the hole flowed together, sand crawling over sand to plug the gap even as red chakra claws reached for his life-
-and then the sphere was complete and the kyubi container's attack slammed into the thickening wall, bulging it inward and spraying loose sand into Gaara's face.
The sphere suddenly grew spikes and spears that reached for the red monster, but Naruto wasn't there anymore, just gone like he'd never been. Gaara opened the shell a crack and looked around, relying on merely human eyes to tell him where his enemy lurked.
And Naruto fell out of the sky, twenty feet of chakra arm cocked back, clawed hand turned into a chisel to crack the body of his enemy. He hit with a screech of pure destruction grinding against the hardest defense, the ancient, blood soaked sand of the first of the gods flowing to wall him away even as he hammered through it, right through the top of the sphere and into the ground, missing Gaara by scant inches.
But even as it had defended the sand attacked, faster now, driven by the force of its hate and the will behind a sharp hand thrust from Gaara. A dozen deep brown spears of gourd sand ripped into the chakra around Naruto and threw him across the rolling sand hills of their battleground.
Naruto rolled to his feet and growled back across two hundred feet of enemy territory.
'Don't kill him!'
Jiraiya's last order flickered through his thoughts.
Then the sand around him began to swirl and flow inwards from a hundred feet in all directions, and it occurred to Naruto that it was unlikely that anyone had given his opponent a similar order.
"Desert-" Gaara intoned, beginning his most powerful killing jutsu and looking on in the first real change of expression he'd had since they'd started. His eyes widened with anticipation of Naruto's death, and the sand formed a dome all around Naruto to prevent his escape.
Naruto cursed as he'd been caught napping. There just wasn't time to stop and think in this fight, not with a fellow jinchuriki with enormous area attacks and a complete unwillingness to pause long enough to talk. The sand tried to wrap around his feet, but the aura of the Kyubi's chakra negated the fine control the suna jinchuriki had over merely normal sand, and it did little but toss and flip at his feet. Still, there was an enormous dome of sand rapidly shrinking around him and he didn't want to pit his aura against tons of rushing force.
Fortunately, Naruto had trained extensively in a technique well suited to a 360 degree defense.
He stood straight, right foot first, left foot back just so, arms outstretched, chakra flaring, and twisted himself into a spin right as he forced all the chakra he could muster out of his body.
The so called Hyuga ultimate defense wasn't actually limited to the Hyuga. Anyone could spin in a circle and channel chakra out of all their tenketsu, and it could block attacks just as well. The Hyuga used it and perfected it because they had an incredibly strong natural talent for manipulating chakra shape and their byakugan tended to both minimize the effects of dizziness and allow them to keep an eye on an enemy as they twirled. Naruto risked both upsetting his balance and not only losing sight of his enemy but also of even the general direction he lay in, both of which could easily be fatal.
He made up for it, at least somewhat, by having more chakra than the entire Hyuga clan put together, and also because the Kyubi's chakra was basically raw destructive energy. A hurricane of demonic chakra spiraled away from him as he spun, slammed into the incoming wall of sand, and blew it away as a cloud of fine dust. The destructive force was such that the grains of sand were shattered over and over again, ground against each other and severed from the chakra that animated them, then spewn forth as a massive cloud that blotted out the light and choked the lungs of anything caught in it.
Naruto finally stopped spinning on a huge, slightly concave disk of rough glass that marked the successful performance of the technique on a scale at least twice as big as anything any Hyuga had ever accomplished.
Then he fell over and threw up.
Fortunately, the huge dust cloud obscured him from everyone's view but Hinata, and Hinata wouldn't tell, because she was racing to his side and dragging Sasuke along with her, holding their breath and relying on Hinata's vision to guide them.
Yeah, gonna need the team for this one, he thought when they emerged from the cloud, eyes, nose, and mouth all sealed shut against the dust.
"Good morning," Jiraiya said politely as he suddenly appeared beside the trio of Sand ninja who'd been lurking just out of sight. He casually caught the dart flung at him an instant later, holding it only with his chakra to avoid the no doubt nasty poison it was smeared in. "I see you're having some problem with an infestation of Lightning samurai."
"Who the hell-" the young man in the traditional black outfit and face paint of a middle rank suna puppeteer sputtered in surprise and anger, but he was quickly cut off by a much older ninja with a white face drape.
"Jiraiya of Konoha's Sannin," Baki said with a bow. "We apologize for the attack on your summon. When we had word that Konoha was preparing to send aid we did not know that they meant you."
"It is forgotten," Jiraiya said with a wave. "Yeah, I'm still officially retired, it's why I'm not actually getting involved here." He paused. "You know, unless I want to or something."
"One of the Sannin is here?" Temari said, barely controlling her voice so she didn't squeak in alarm. Kankuro had shut up immediately, which was a sign of how seriously he took the situation.
"Just for your protection," Jiraiya allowed. "Konoha didn't have any major forces ready to be deployed on short notice either, so they sent their jinchuriki. He's normally pretty well behaved, but Konoha values its alliance with Sand enough to not want to risk any unfortunate incidences." Jiraiya quirked his lips. "Of course, it looks like Suna had a similar idea."
"Again, our apologizes, Jiraiya-sama. I don't know why the jinchuriki attacked you," Baki repeated.
"Maybe cause you showed up on a big goddamn frog hopping across the beach?" Kankuro mused.
Everyone stared at him.
He held his hands up defensively. "I'm just saying, is all…"
"It's a toad," Jiraiya corrected patiently.
Kankuro's nose squinched up like he'd smelled something funny. "Oh. Well, in that case. Gaara, you idiot, I told you not to attack hundred foot high toads."
Baki did not quite facepalm, but the expression on the half of his face that was clearly visible spoke of barely contained embarrassment on behalf of his subordinate.
"It's okay," Jiraiya said understandingly. "There's at least one in every village."
"Anyway, I'm not entirely surprised they clashed like this. Jinchuriki can be pretty territorial, and I had no idea you had one out here or I'd have kept Konoha's away. But I don't think there's anything to worry about. They'll posture and bluff and blow up a bunch of stuff, and probably take care of the samurai in the process, but in the end they'll back down from each other." Jiraiya's tone made it clear that was exactly what he was expecting to happen.
"And if they don't?" Baki asked, genuinely curious.
Jiraiya shrugged. "I'm sure they'll listen to their elders."
And just like that, the kind of neutral, friendly, I'm-just-one-of-you-guys vibe Kankuro had been getting from the white haired man disappeared, and he realized that, perhaps for the first real time, he was in the presence of a monster.
Authors lie: OH SHI-
No, really. We finally get to see exactly what's been going on with the whole 'make a clone army' subplot and how that sub plot has come to the fore. It's a sign of the times that all the villages are starting to deploy their jinchuriki as weapons, and the spectre of Akatsuki has finally been revealed.
What's that? Naruto has real enemies now? Akatsuki B for sure, Akatsuki A kinda, and territorial other jinchuriki? What's he gonna do?
What is he going to do?
So hopefully this will really revitalize the fading People Lie series.
Oh, and People Lie and Ask Me No Questions diverged at this point. In one, Oro sent Team Lie and co to another world, and in this one, things went different. I'll try to get another Ask Me chapter out as soon as possible but I'm really stoked about this Naruto Gaara fight.
Can you believe I haven't found a single good instance where 2tail!Naruto fights transforming!Gaara?