Will of Fire, Heart of Stone
A/N: It's been a long time since since I put up chapter six for this story. You might want to re-read the earlier sections in order to familiarize yourself with this story. (It bears passing resemblance to canon.) Enjoy!
Twenty minutes of the hour-long test passed in quiet contemplation. Tense. None of the people on the floor of the arena were saying anything, making any noise. (Well, save for Konohamaru.)
Naruto had looked everyone over. He had seven names on his list. Names of people on the floor of the stadium who were infiltrators into the test of wisdom. People from other villages trying to sneak into a test to determine who the next Hokage would be. Brazen and dangerous people.
"Naruto..." Konohamaru whined.
A glare from Namikaze Naruto shut the young ninja-in-training up. One didn't have time to talk in a test like this one. Something would happen. There were dangerous people in this space. Put danger together with a time limit...and the violence would come naturally.
Danger and violence that Konohamaru had put himself in the middle of, the petulant child.
Naruto had moved around and taken a seat closer to Konohamaru. The boy seemed to quiver in fear one moment before bursting into energy, almost as if he might challenge Maito Gai to a slugfest. Stress made the kid manic, it seemed. Chattering about who was from the different villages before looking fearfully at all of them, as if he knew and then didn't know where he was, how much danger he'd chosen to put himself into, like dunking a strip of marinated chicken or a piece of vegetable into a pot of very hot oil.
This arena the pot of very hot oil. The young ninja-in-training the defenseless nibble. He wasn't even an E-rank threat to a bunch of A-rank monsters.
Naruto looked around the assembled men one more time. Most had retired to the outer perimeter of the floor, to be as far away from anyone else as possible. Leaving ninja out in the open like this test did added another kind of mental stress. These people expected to work from alleys and shadows. Putting them on display had to make some of them angry. Nervous. Twitchy.
"What about him?" Konohamaru asked, pointing at a person Naruto was sure was an infiltrator.
"I think he's one."
Konohamaru wanted to talk. He couldn't sit still, couldn't abide silence. Why had Naruto made himself a babysitter again? This kid was a pain...
"Why him?" Naruto asked.
...but the kid was special to Sarutobi-sensei. A piece of shit, but one beloved on Naruto's best sensei.
"I've never seen him in the village before."
"Well, it's a guess. Take it." Naruto hoped the Hokage's grandson did fail this first test. He didn't want an Academy student in this kind of danger again. There were five more tests to go.
They would just get harder. There was no guarantee of fighting in this one, although Naruto was sure enough violence was coming. There were infiltrators in the test, ones who were promised torture sessions. What kind of infiltrator would sit and take a session with some ANBU sadist?
Naruto looked at the field of contenders against. Almost evenly spread against the outer arena wall.
His eyes hung on a man almost opposite. Naruto decided the long-haired man staring back at Naruto had to be a spy of some sort, too. What was the name he gave? Naruto had let that piece of information slip out of a his mind. The man glared back at Naruto, too. As if he knew Naruto.
Yes, this man wasn't part of the village. Not that Naruto could do anything about it but try to remember the bullshit name the man had given. Dealing with him would fall to the ANBU after the test ended and the infiltrators were exposed.
It was hard to do nothing. In fact, doing nothing was worse than being in a fight, Naruto decided. This test was damned hard as a result. Sitting and thinking, sweating in full view of everyone who chose to attend. Since the prize for attending all six of the tests was a vote in the next Hokage election, most if not all of the village was in the stands.
In truth, Naruto was tense and he was bored, a horrific combination. He couldn't relax because he was in such close proximity to people who could and would resort to violence if it profited them. He also wouldn't allow himself to pick the initiating fight in view of this many people. He didn't want to be publicly known as a warmonger or a fool.
He knew he was missing something about this test. He couldn't see what he was learning or proving about his wisdom. He knew Sarutobi-sensei meant to measure something in these people at the same time that he taught them something. Sarutobi was nothing if not efficient in his methods; test and stretch and challenge and give the slightest nod of the head as praise. Force the student forward, make him struggle under his own drive, his own desire.
Naruto wanted to take these tests because he wanted to succeed the man who had done more than anyone else to train Naruto. He wanted to be the Godaime Hokage. He was young, but he could see that Sarutobi-sensei was aging fast, weakening. Even in the months since he announced this tournament...he had gone from a powerful ninja to a grandfather, an old man who grows quieter and quieter until he's quiet forever more.
The Hokage was dying, Naruto understood. But how many of these others knew that? How many had twice weekly trainings with Sarutobi and the Monkey Clan? The Hokage rarely stood. He sat all the time now. He said he trusted that Enma would batter around Naruto just fine, he didn't need to stand up and help.
It was a line. There were times, growing longer and longer, when the Hokage couldn't stand at all, Naruto thought. Konohamaru would be devastated when the end came.
Naruto wouldn't admit it, but he would feel the pain just as heavy.
Naruto looked into the stands, wondered what the observers thought. The Hokage and the ninja were looking for certain things, but what about the civilians?
People who lived around ninja but didn't understand them. Sold them food or clothes, but didn't understand what they did. Was this test tense for them? Was it boring? What were they expected to learn from this event? How were they supposed to begin filtering candidates for Hokage by watching them think for an hour...
The test wouldn't end when a bell rung, when the stated time passed.
This was part of the wisdom of this test. Putting dangerous men under pressure would force violence to the surface.
This test would end in battle. The test was letting the pressure build. The test wasn't letting the spies and infiltrators escape. All of them, however many there were, were trying to work out how to escape.
The stated purpose of the test had nothing to do with the real test. It wasn't to identify the infiltrators. It was to stop them from leaving before or even after the test ended.
It was a test of wisdom that would require the precise application of violence. It wasn't sparring friend against friend. It was a war contained in a glass bottle for thousand to watch and judge. Even civilians would be wowed and stunned by what would have to happen.
Sarutobi-sensei had dangled bait, an open election for the Hokage. That must have drawn the other villages in...must have put into this arena the equivalent of live tigers thrown in with the genuine candidates. Were there A-rank ninja in here? Perhaps an S-ranker? How many villages tried? How many other organizations, bands of criminals and the like. Was there a blue-skinned ninja here under a henge?
If so, perhaps Maito Gai, of Konoha, would handle him. Naruto couldn't do it...not without showing off things he refused to show.
Jiraiya, holding up the sealing array that kept everything contained on the floor of the arena, was an S-ranker but he'd be busy. Tsunade as well.
Then there the Hokage. Once the strongest of any of the Kages.
He couldn't be counted on in war from now on. Naruto understood that. That was why his own training had picked up the pace. Why he had advanced so rapidly up to sparring with Enma, the Monkey King, one of the summons who could contend with the monstrous giants summoned by Jiraiya even if they were a tenth the size.
The Monkey King was said to have sparred and beaten the First Hokage back in the day.
Naruto, of course, found his sparring partner well beyond challenging. But he recognized exactly what was at stake.
There were A-rank enemies here. They wouldn't let themselves be dragged to cells. They would fight.
Naruto found his fingers flexing.
He found himself about to start out on his unusual set of chakra control exercises. He had to force himself to stop. He knew the arena was sealed with fuinjutsu.
He'd seen others doing surreptitious tests of the sealing that the Pervy Sage had set up.
Still, even though he told himself not to do his chakra control exercises, he found himself lifting off the dirt floor of the stadium. He had to consciously stop himself...from...using his chakra.
Wasn't that supposed to be impossibe?
Naruto tried a little jutsu, a replacement of himself with Konohamaru. It fizzled. In fact, Naruto could feel...the chakra bleed away. Drained. He could feel the seals at work. He wished he understood them. That would be a hellacious technique to understand.
"Konohamaru, you stick with me?" Naruto whispered.
"When the fight breaks out, you are stuck to me."
"No, if there's a fight..."
Naruto clamped a hand over the boy's mouth. It had been a mistake to warn him. Naruto should have let the fight begin and then just tied Konohamaru up, kept him safe.
He stared at the younger boy.
"You going to be quiet?"
The young Sarutobi nodded.
Naruto released his hand.
That was fine. It was quiet, at least. Naruto tried one of his chakra control exercises, one that went straight toward his control over wind. Naruto found himself floating over the dirt again.
What...was up with that?
The Pervy Sage was a powerful ninja. There was nothing wrong with his sealing efforts...unless he hadn't included elemental chakra into his design. Could that be it?
The man knew what he was about...so long as no beautiful women were involved...but this was the first time he'd ever proctored anything like this. Jiraiya had left a fatal flaw in his sealing array.
Naruto formed up a wind blade on his finger. He let it go and it cut a tiny line in the ground, not big enough for anyone to notice.
Naruto had to work to keep a smile off his face.
He felt a lot better about this test, and the likely way it would devolve, now that he'd stumbled on a way to cheat, if needed. Hell, if he could make wind chakra still work, he could simulate a gust of wind, rip a few sheets of paper from the other competitors, maybe start a fight or two on his own timetable.
For as much as some ninja spoke on honor, the one rule that Enma never let Naruto forget during their spars: ninjas cheat. Enma was a dirtier fighter than anyone Naruto had ever seen before. Lying in a fight was a hard thing for Naruto to learn. He guessed he was just an open person, more so when his mind was occupied. When the fighting was most furious Naruto would have to spend a moment to think of how to cheat...it wasn't an easy thing for him to master. Likewise, he wouldn't make a good spy where one cheated and lied constantly.
Naruto craned his neck. He could see the bubble of the sealing Jiraiya had done rise up over the floor of the arena. It almost shimmered in the sun there was so much power behind it. Naruto wondered if the sealing array would preclude taijutsu specialists from hardening their attacks with chakra. Was that included in what Jiraiya was able to prohibit on the floor?
Naruto wished he knew.
He sat and waited. He looked at everyone also sitting and waiting. He looked in the wrong direction for long enough that he missed the start of the fight. In fact, he knew it had broken out only when he saw a piece of masonry that was larger than Naruto's new apartment flying through the air. Toward where civilians were sitting mixed with just a few observing ninja.
The long haired ninja who'd stared at Naruto was laughing. He'd pulled the masonry from the arena. It answered Naruto's question about whether taijutsu and other body uses of chakra were still possible. They were. Only ninjutsu and perhaps genjutsu were proscribed.
Naruto took a quarter-second to consider what ninjutsu he could perform that would help. Several of the wind techniques he knew...he could try. But he'd never attempted to hone in on something that big, something that was flying through the air.
Movement out of the corner of Naruto's eyes stopped him from attempting something. Naruto saw Jiraiya leap from his perch manning the seal array, collide with the massive stone edifice, and send it on a new course far outside the arena.
Naruto didn't think he could do something like that. Enma could, but Naruto hadn't learned to harden his body that much yet. It was something new to add to his goals.
Naruto watched the hunk of masonry fly. He also felt the seal fail.
The attack, aimed toward civilians, had been a diversion.
The masonry hit nothing, but it accomplished its mission. The seal was a high-maintenance kind and it began to fail immediately. Little battles, more diversion work, broke out on the floor. The infiltrators had been waiting for an opportunity and they wasted little time pressing for an advantage. This was the real point of this test of wisdom. To be ready when crisis came. How would one respond? What would one do?
True Leaf ninja were trying to keep them occupied.
Jiraiya was back at his station. Trying to get the sealing array back into service. And failing to do his work fast enough.
Ninjutsu began to rain around the inside of the stadium. Ninja in the stands began escorting the civilians out. It was a dozen kinds of chaos.
Naruto grabbed Konohamaru by the collar when he made to get into the fray.
Naruto would enjoy the battle, but not at the cost of letting this Academy student become unprotected.
"Let me go," the young almost-ninja screamed.
Naruto wished he had a dozen eyes to keep up with the fights that were breaking out. So far no one who hadn't entered the first test had descended onto the floor. The seal went back up. Elemental ninjutsu continued.
"Shut up," Naruto hissed. He needed to keep the brat safe. He needed to be ready to defend when or if the battle came to him.
Naruto couldn't see his temporary sensei, but he guessed that Jiraiya understood the magnitude of the mistake he'd made. The safe space wasn't all that safe. People could and would die in this test.
"I want to fight," the young man shouted.
Naruto didn't. He wanted to survive. He wanted to make sure that the infiltrators didn't.
That was different from surviving.
That was the essence of winning.
The infiltrators in the stands didn't let the opportunity pass them by either. People who worked for Cloud or Stone left as scared civilians and made for their secondary targets, to make it into the village proper, if possible, and infiltrate various buildings, perhaps the village library or the Hokage Tower or the secure floors of the hospital.
The people on the arena floor had created the necessary diversions.
No one expected a spy to become Hokage. But they did expect an opportunity to cause some propblems.
One infiltrator, a strong female ninja, from Cloud took a moment to decide. She didn't have orders to return the breeding Hyuuga to the Raikage's control. But she had the opportunity to do so.
Yugito made her way out when the ninja asked her to come with them. She moved how a civilian moved, at least to the best of her ability. Not so fast, scared, colliding, slowing. She lost her escorts more than once. Slowing down. Getting her slowed in the onrushing stream of people.
She looked at the confusion.
She eyed the structure. It's collection of hallways and tunnels. It's profusion of stairs and little bottlenecks. She worked out how she could make the grab.
It was possible.
Was it the right thing to do?
The young girl had killed the Raikage's ninja in her escape. She had more children to birth for the glory of the Raikage's term of office.
Yugito took another survey. She could do this.
She would do it.
She had a Hyuuga to collect.
"I am staying," the Hokage said when his ANBU tried to remove him from the stadium.
Sarutobi shook his head.
In truth, the way his legs were acting now, he didn't think he could leave unless he were carried from his box. He wouldn't let that happen. Couldn't let the illusion of his continuing strength fall.
He would sit and watch and hope his grand plan wouldn't kill too many as it burned down around him.
Sarutobi now knew there was at least one S-rank ninja on the floor of the arena. It wasn't a face he recognized at this time. But that feat of strength...and everything else Sarutobi had seen after told him what the truth was.
Tsunade, even if she were cooperating, would have a tough time with a ninja like that one.
Sarutobi sat and watched.
One young man, identified in the Tower report as a farmer or laborer, was fighting like an experienced ninja. But he was fighting on the side of Konoha for now. Sarutobi watched because that was all he could do...
Red. Red in his eyes.
That young man had Sharingan eyes.
Sarutobi had thought they knew all the ones who remained behind, a handful of civilians. He'd thought all the ones who abandoned the village had been killed. Hadn't that been the report? Orochimaru a decade earlier had killed them all?
One he'd missed. One who'd unlocked his eyes. One who had come back to Konoha. But not identified himself as part of the devastated clan. Not made contact.
If he survived, Sarutobi needed to talk with that man. To find out why he had come, why he had come under a false identity. To find out if there were other survivors.
Sarutobi pointed out the Uchiha.
"Sir?" The ANBU was asking if the man was to be killed.
In his surprise Sarutobi hadn't been very clear at all. "I want him to survive. I would like to speak with him after this is all over."
He sat and watched because he couldn't do anything else. His hope of developing a new legend might still happen even if there were no one but him to see it happen. But he knew the rest of the five tests, the rest of his plan, was all ended.
He'd been mistaken in the design of this test.
He'd been mistaken in his choice of proctor.
It had the potential to be one of the biggest mistakes he'd made in decades.
There were very few who remained unevacuated in the arena, Jiraiya, the Hokage, some ANBU. There was only one who remained in the standard seating unobserved by even the best trained of the ninja, his eyes turning over everything. His face now covered with darkened glasses so that the red wheels in his eyes, his Eternal Mangekyo Sharingan, wouldn't be detected too soon. If his cloaking jutsu failed for a moment.
He directed his thrall, Kakuzu, to engage directly with the Kyuubi jinchuuriki. He had agreed not to enter the competition himself, but when Kakuzu was told to enter, Madara had made up his mind. He had a dozen different ways to imprint his will on another, even a very strong ninja. But there wasn't anyone, not even Kakuzu, who was able to resist the Sharingan commands of a true Sharingan master.
Uchiha Madara wanted better information than he'd gotten when he and Kisame attempted to capture the young ninja. Slippery little shit. He also wanted to have some fun, cause some destruction, blow some shit to sand.
Madara wanted to see just what the young thief could do with the Kyuubi stuffed inside him.
He would have to exercise a tiny amount of care not to fatally wound the Kyuubi. Waiting for the Kyuubi to reform, not on his agenda. He was immortal, but his patience had its limits of course.
Test but not kill.
Some idiot lobbed a fireball toward Naruto's side of the stadium. Naruto grabbed Konohamaru and jumped into the air. The brat was fighting him. When Naruto landed, there was a fist coming for his face.
In all the practice Naruto had done with Sarutobi-sensei or the Hokage's monkey summons, Naruto had never been forced to protect a person while defending himself. It took him almost too long to work out how to make his body move in the right ways to keep two people protected.
The fist missed Naruto by less than an inch.
Naruto jumped and got himself away while the hulking man barreled after him.
Naruto saw...red in the man's eyes. Not a red pupil or red irises. But the imprint of red floating in the eye, moving.
It was bizarre and unnerving.
The man fought as if he didn't care if he was hit. He fought like he didn't care about his own life. Naruto punched him with his wind claws fully extended. There were horrific gashes in the man's face and neck.
Black...strings from both sides of the wound seemed to emerge and knit the damage back together.
The man stopped in the center of the arena and let Naruto escape with Konohamaru. He pulled off his black cloak. He reached for...disks resting on his back. As if they were weapons.
Naruto picked up a kunai thrown in someone else's battle and knocked the struggling Konohamaru unconscious. He'd apologize later.
A man this dangerous couldn't be allowed his stronger weapons. He took damage that repaired itself. No, this man couldn't up the fight.
Naruto decided on the 'forest killer' he'd been working on while following Jiraiya around before all this tournament business. The dirt and concrete floor of the arena shredded all the way to the man with the red etchings in his eyes.
The dust took a moment to clear.
The floor in front of the man was destroyed. Behind him, too.
The man was a mess, no part larger than a foot.
Still, a ball of the black strings emerged from his body and knitted him back together.
Naruto hadn't seen much on the offensive side from this ninja. But he had his personal defense rock solid. No bothering to dodge. Take the hit, enough to kill a normal ninja, and let his body repair itself.
What was he? What was this skill? What would Naruto do if he couldn't just rip the man to tiny pieces, if he kept reforming himself, reshaping?
How did Naruto kill something that wouldn't stay killed?
Yugito found her target, the little Hyuuga, weak and meek, being escorted from the arena. A few dozen people behind Yugito. It took her little effort to slow her own forward pace, let her target get in front of her.
The Cloud infiltrator killed the girl's guard or escort with barely the movement of her wrist. The man was barely a chuunin, if that, and would never rise any further.
"You are returning with me."
The Hyuuga turned, saw the dead ninja at her feet, and let the full loathing of her circumstances play across her face. Hatred.
The killer of ninja.
Emotion of most kinds was fatal to a ninja. Anger or fear or hatred was where mistakes were birthed in the mind. Yugito knew that lesson very well.
"Your son is a good friend of mine. We have good times. We play little games. He has a very good life, you know."
Hyuuga Hinata lost her composure completely. Her hands lashed out. Yugito found the muscles of her shoulder unresponsive. Damaged or destroyed. With just a touch.
The reports on the dead from the facility where the Hyuuga was kept were all too correct. This girl could kill with a touch.
Yugito smiled. What a fun way to spend an afternoon. Pity she was in enemy territory. Pity someone might be along to save the girl in moments. This would have to be fast and fun.
"Ready to go back, little Hyuuga?"
"No." Not tears, but rage. Not resignation, but determination.
"You don't have a choice."
The Hokage sat, watching. His eyes widened and he paged rapidly through his memory of history, of ancient history, the kind of stories passed to him by Hashirama and Tobirama, his most important teachers.
The black strings he saw coming out of that ninja on the arena floor. He had heard of that before... Now where...
"That man is dead," Sarutobi said to himself.
"Sir?" An ANBU inquired. Trying to determine if it was an order he should execute. Or attempt to execute. Even the ANBU seemed to realize this was a different magnitude of battle starting.
"Stay out of it for now."
"Who is he?"
"A man who tried to assassinate the First Hokage. Kakuzu of Waterfall. He'd be ninety now?"
"I know he doesn't look it."
Sarutobi hoped Naruto wouldn't hold out too long. The boy was a bit cagey about showing what he could do. This was not the time for reserve.
This was a whole other kind of S-ranker he was fighting with. A ninja who looked thirty or forty when he was ninety. There would be some kind of kinjutsu involved, something horrifying.
Sarutobi could only hope Naruto would drag out his own A- and S-rank responses. The boy had two or three techniques which were in that range. He needed to use them now. Right now...
Sarutobi watched what happened. He had a dozen different lines of guesses running – what technique next, what response after that, how much danger, how much damage to the people in the arena, including his grandson. How much to bleed out beyond the arena...and this buffer zone outside the village proper.
"Help Jiraiya strengthen the barrier. Put all our people onto it."
The battle had become serious. Deadly. Maito Gai had taken down at least three people. The unknown Uchiha had killed four. Both were now disabled by their wounds. But Kakuzu and Naruto were still up, still mobile, still deadly. Konohamaru, his grandson, was unconscious but still in the line of fire, still bogging Naruto down.
The young boy had no damned sense.
Sarutobi thought he had read something about masks...those shapes on that ninja's back. What was about to cause considerable damage. The true village was miles away, but Sarutobi still feared that whatever happened might just stretch that far.
This was now a battle between an S-ranker and a mere child who would have to become an S-ranker within seconds if he had any hope of survival.
In this battle of attrition, Naruto was still going.
He was Sarutobi's finest student.
He decided just then.
Naruto was young but he was the best choice for a strong Konoha in the future. The only choice.
Sarutobi found his arm numb in addition to his legs. He hoped he'd survive this match. He hoped he'd be able to have one last conversation with Naruto. His chosen successor. There was much work to do if he were going to ensure Naruto would become Hokage. Fifth Hokage or Sixth Hokage, one or the other.
"Naruto, fully commit," Sarutobi commanded in a whisper. There was no chance Naruto could hear the words. But Sarutobi hoped his finest student would obey them anyway.
The boy had to survive.
This incoming fireball wasn't the same as the others. It wasn't a ball. It was a stream that didn't seem to end, to have any possibility of an end.
There was no mud wall, no water shield that could do anything to it. If it touched Naruto he was dead. Even from forty meters he could feel the excessive heat trying to worm its way inside his tissues, trying to roast him before it incinerated him.
He didn't know...
No, it wasn't time for what he didn't know. There was...the air. He knew that, perhaps better than anyone else.
It obeyed him.
It wanted to dance for him at all times, to entertain him and help him. The air wanted Naruto to own it.
Naruto glanced at the unconscious Konohamaru. His hands began making handseals, every third one a nonsense seal. He did it to confuse the veteran ninja opposing him, the infiltrator who was stronger than anyone else on the arena floor.
All of a sudden the stream of melting-strength, not burning strength, fire veered to the left, veered up, veered in a loop. Accelerating. Speeding faster than it should have moved. It had been caught in air that Naruto could command. Air that wanted Naruto to command it.
The loop of fire closed on its maker. It landed and incinerated what it touched.
Naruto stared at the glassified sand. He stared at the destroyed cinders. He stared at the horrible death he'd just inflicted.
Madara stared, too. There was something very special about this jinchuuriki. He didn't know what it was yet, but he would.
Yes, there was more to do.
His puppet inside the arena looked broken, less than cinders, but he wasn't.
His control of Kakuzu hadn't ended. The ninja should be dead after eating that kind of attack. But he wasn't.
Madara pushed. He pushed hard. The Earth Fear Grudge technique began its horrible work all over.
He could see threads erupt from the hunks of ash. He could see the body knitting back together. He could see ash flaking off and revealing fresh skin underneath. He could see a rejuvenation technique better than anyone else had ever completed, better even than what the grandniece of his great enemies had produced.
Senju Tsunade and her little diamond seal.
She would need to die as well.
But first this Uzumaki Naruto.
Then the Third Hokage.
This entire misbegotten place.
Naruto hadn't waited while the body reformed itself. He had been lobbing attacks that barely slowed the reforming of the 'dead' man's body.
"That cost me a heart, boy."
Naruto had no idea what the dead-sounding words meant. Other than the ninja was surprised. He mentioned 'a heart,' not 'my heart,' suggesting he had more than one.
One of these ninja with a special trick. Like Jiraiya and his toads. Like ninja with an ultimate defense.
His mind hardened.
He had something else he could try. Something he had sworn to himself he could never use on another person.
Naruto was running around the arena, dodging the wounded and the dead. He was trying to buy himself time even as he carried Konohamaru with him.
The air around Kakuzu, around a few of the other fallen infiltrators, began to thin. The air molecules spreading farther apart, not of their volition but of Naruto's.
He was about to use the Wrath of God on a human being – a dead one, in Naruto's mind, someone he had already killed save for some kind of ninja-cheat.
The air around the ash-ninja thinned further. Then it became an imperfect vacuum. Then the seal was complete. The lightly held cinders of a body began to dissolve under the pressure.
The ash-ninja's body reformed and the vacuum effect kept destroying the seeming-solid flesh. With tiny pockets of air trapped in the not-wholly incinerated cells and in what remained of the blood. The air pressure differential causing what had once been a couple billion tiny pockets of air to become much larger. Each pocket larger than the cell in which it was supposed to reside.
Blowing up this dead ninja-cheat. Blowing him up before the affected area reformed somehow. He was dead, at a cellular level, but the strings fought on. He kept moving.
He was an ash-ninja, a dead-ninja, a zombie ninja. Something not inside himself was commanding him forward.
His head disintegrated again and reformed. His neck, his throat, his chest, all fluctuating between solidity and an ephemeral state.
It was the worst thing Naruto had ever seen.
He was dead and his body or his controller wouldn't accept that.
Naruto lobbed a hundred wind swords.
They fizzled at the border of the Wrath of God technique. Not even Naruto could penetrate his own most-deadly attack.
He needed something else to help along the vacuum. As if that weren't enough.
As if it wouldn't kill anyone else it was ever used on.
He was stuck. The zombie shambled forward. Naruto could outrun it for hours, but he didn't know how to stop it. There was always some bit of the core for the disintegrating parts to reform around. Naruto could keep the Wrath of God in motion with the ash-ninja, but he would keep reforming himself.
The man was dead and it wasn't enough.
Yugito removed her lightning encased hand from the throat of a dead ninja. Yugito was skilled at many of the ninja arts, but she excelled in killing. Now she was being called on to capture. She could enjoy death of those who came to interfere.
"He couldn't help you, either."
The dead Leaf ninja slumped to the concrete. There were now four dead ninja surrounding the two young women. One at least had been a jounin.
Yugito had them in one of the lesser used corridors inside the arena, a virtual city of concrete to move people to and from their seats. Now that the place was evacuated she had more time to do thing right.
She pulled a kunai and went after the Hyuuga again.
She realized the girl couldn't do anything with her fancy finger tapping if there was metal in the way. So she used what she had. It was refreshing, a battle done on a new scale with restrictions she didn't often have.
She felt free to injure the Hyuuga on the arms or the legs. But she did nothing to the head or the entire torso. She didn't want to girl dead or any damage rendered against anything required for further conception. She must be able to make more children for the Raikage.
All this interference made it challenging.
The mostly untrained girl had landed three good taps. Her results weren't like the Hyuuga studied in the past.
Instead of precise debilitating touches, the girl more or less detonated any tenketsu she managed to touch. As if Yugito's body were hundreds of little bombs and this...girl had a bit of fire.
It was a deadly battle. A deadly, wonderful battle.
"I think I want your son to have a sister. Maybe twins. More children who can bear children. More glory for the Raikage."
More anger for the mind of the Hyuuga.
This was the hardest Yugito had had to work for a win in some time.
She was aiming to capture. The untrained but deadly girl was aiming to kill. Being handicapped this way made things much more interesting.
The ash-ninja shambled forward.
Naruto needed to keep the Wrath of God going...but he needed to push a stream of wind inside it. Keep most of the air out, but let a very thin column inside. All of the damage to the cells was slowing. Most of the ash-ninja's cell had already been popped at least once. Naruto needed to put more air inside this puppet if he were going to get the total destruction he needed.
Naruto formed up a thin lance, perhaps a Needle of the Gods, and rammed in forward into the Wrath of God. Naruto directed it inside what had once been the mouth of the ninja. He could feel it moving inside the opening and closing throat and chest of the abomination. He directed it to branch off, to find paths into every part of the ash-ninja's body.
It took moments but it was such a strange sensation to control air this way, to make it invade, to make it begin to penetrate even the smallest parts of the ash-ninja's remaining bulk. If Naruto were ever asked to draw a map of how the air had penetrated the dead-ninja's body, the result would have been incomprehensible. Thin columns that branched every inch, like a statue of a man made only out of gleaming silver needles.
He used the multi-branched column of air to lift the ash-ninja off his dissolving and reforming feet and legs. Naruto suspended the thing in the air and let go his control over the Lance of God.
All those fresh pockets of air now exploded outward, the pressure differential more powerful than the biggest explosive tag Naruto had ever seen.
The mess now existed as a black and red cloud inside in the Wrath of God. There were strings trying to reform the body. Trying and struggling. There was no semi-stable core to add onto it. But if Naruto let this go on for very long, there just might be.
He looked around. For a person who was doing this.
Naruto saw things in the sand outside the glass radius, outside the Wrath of God radius.
He used blades of wind to destroy everything, all of it. Including an odd looking mask. Inside the Wrath of God, the threads or strings stopped their attempts to cling to each other, to draw each other back into a mass.
Naruto let the disgusting mess hang suspended in the vacuum for more than a minute, waiting, watching. Hoping it was over.
He hopped with Konohamaru as far as he could away from the mess-to-be.
He ended his separation of air particle from air particle. The air rushed in.
The particles that had seemed suspended in nothing now had gravity reasserting primacy over them. The ash-ninja, what was left of him, landed in a soggy five-foot radius in the sand.
Naruto felt the barrier that Jiraiya maintained end. His sometime teacher was by Naruto's side a few moments later.
Before they could speak, Konohamaru rolled over and glared.
"You hit me."
The boy had his hand out and his accusing finger extended.
"Why'd you hit me?"
Naruto would have pouted if he had the strength left. Save a boy's life and take a raft of shit for the methods used.
A kunai slammed into a leg. A young woman screamed in pain. A body hit concrete.
"I think two daughters and three or four more sons," Yugito said, crowing her victory.
"They'll keep filling you full of children and you'll keep adding to the Raikage's army, little Hyuuga. I wonder what clan name they'll think up. Something new, of course. Something great."
"He was so angry at you when you escaped. I assume the child you carried died?"
"You're not a good liar." Yugito reversed her hold on her kunai and sawed off the right hand of the lying Hyuuga girl. Her very dangerous hand. Yugito was bleeding and in plenty of pain from what this untrained...thing had done to her.
"There, trouble me no longer, little baby maker. We'll push an army out of you before your body falls apart."
The Hyuuga was on the ground, bleeding, not listening, one hand amputated. Yugito was about to take the other when the girl moved faster than Yugito could have imagined.
Yugito's ankle no long seemed intact.
"No. Never again," the bloody, one-handed Hyuuga said.
She tapped her own chest and flopped flush against the cement of the arena structure.
Her chest no longer heaved.
Her eyes were open and fixed. Lifeless.
She'd been defeated. By even the defeated have a final choice.
All the stress Yugito had added with her words. The fear in her mind...had crystalized into this. Yugito had won...and lost.
Yugito couldn't understand it. She sat and stared at the girl who'd killed herself rather than return to service for the Raikage.
She was still sitting when three ANBU arrived, saw the carnage, and subdued Yugito. Too late to save one of the village's newest arrivals. Too late, as often was the case, to do more than clean up the devastation.
Yugito sat, mostly unable to move, mostly unable to mold chakra, looking at the body of the dead young woman. Her taunts...her choicest taunts...had done this.
If Konoha didn't kill her, the Raikage would. He'd order up a new host and reseal the Nibi...just to punish her, just to kill her in the most violent way he knew how.
This was failure on an epic scale.
Only from fear, from words designed to promote anger and rage...and fear.
Madara regained his wits after the utter destruction of Kakuzu. The Kyuubi had done a deal with its prison guard, it seemed, that smiling blond twit, otherwise there was no way to take down Kakuzu that way. Madara had poured almost the bulk of his chakra into animating that hunk of cells those last two minutes. Even now he was beyond exhausted, the most taxing thing he'd done in several decades.
He had enough inside him to phase out and disappear from Konoha.
He had his information. Which told him he needed more information. The Kyuubi was going to be a challenge.
He'd seen techniques this day he'd never envisioned. One technique in particular that Madara didn't know how he himself would survive...because he didn't know what it had done at all.
Some close secret, he supposed.
He would discover what it did. He would discover a way to work around it. He always did.
Itachi saw medical personnel flooding the field. He watched some bodies draped in sheets. He watched others, a smaller percentage, whisked for additional treatment.
He stared toward the field rather than at the ANBU who were dragging him through the stadium.
ANBU brought the bleeding, exhausted man before the Hokage. He held his head high, resigned to his fate as an infiltrator.
The Hokage frowned. "He was seen by a medic?"
The Hokage dismissed his soldiers with an annoyed flick of his wrist.
"They follow their orders better than they obey common sense." The Hokage said, as if he were breaking a confidence. "Still, a brief conversation will hurt nothing. Your name," the aged, seated figure asked. Not demanded. Asked.
Uchiha Itachi said nothing.
He hadn't been so badly beat up in quite some time. He also didn't make a point of walking into a place where he might just be ambushed either.
Everything about this self-directed mission had gone against his normal decisions.
He'd been ganged up on by three people trying to cut a path through Itachi and out of the arena.
He didn't know why he'd tried to keep them there. He didn't know why he'd fought and helped defend this place, the ancient home of his clan, the place where the clan effectively ended.
He supposed he didn't like traitors or betrayers of any kind. Orochimaru was denied him...but other traitors were still meals he could make.
"You are an Uchiha," the Hokage said.
Itachi's eyes flashed inadvertently. In surprise.
"I would ask you not to show your eyes that way again. My ANBU are, understandably, nervous."
The old man didn't fear Itachi. Everyone feared the Uchiha once they discovered he was the one pursuing them, about to collect their heads.
"I spent forty years on battle fields with Uchiha, my young man. I fear nothing you can do."
Itachi believed the old man. He was smarter than he was powerful...and his power was rumored in every village Itachi had ever visited.
"You look like...well, like names we no longer speak."
It sounded like the Hokage was musing, allowing his advanced old age to ponder down neglected avenues of memory. Insulting memories. 'Names we no longer speak,' as if this man were qualified to speak of the ashes he helped to cause.
Itachi recognized the anger he felt. The slight. The invitation to volunteer information. He calmed himself. He didn't let his mind lose the battle with the mind opposing him.
He stood, help up by an ANBU.
"If I didn't know better I would say you were...Itachi."
As if the old bastard had a mind reading jutsu.
"I can see I'm right. ANBU, please take our honored guest to the hospital. Make sure he's comfortable. Make sure, also, that he and I will be able to speak at greater length in the next day or two. I have always regretted that the Uchiha abandoned this village. Thus making themselves targets for criminals, like my former student. I don't think he's prepared to hear an apology in his current state. But I want him to be able to hear it soon."
The ANBU drug Itachi away. He turned his head. "I do want to talk to you."
The mind games had worked. Itachi had caved.
There was a reason this village left that old man in power as long as they had. His mind was sharper than any other weapon the village might have wanted to use.
"Rest, Itachi. Heal up. We will speak tomorrow or the next day."
As Itachi let his damaged body go limp, he heard the start of a conversation.
"Bring me my grandson and Uzumaki Naruto."
"Sir, the Fire Lord..."
"We'll handle him first then. Then Konohamaru."
Once out of the Hokage's presence, the ANBU gathered Itachi in his arms and leaped into the air, all the faster to get Itachi to his prison cell...or perhaps it would actually be a hospital room with guards outside.
Itachi had no illusions anymore.
The young lord walked in screaming. Eventually he managed to begin using an almost normal tone of voice. His repeated statement didn't vary much from when it had been yelled to when it was almost appropriate for a conversation.
"We insist this tournament end," the Daimyo pronounced. Again.
'We.' The pompous ass. Using 'we' every time. As if he, one person, were an entire country. The young man barely knew how to dress himself without three attendants.
As if he could contend with a Hokage who'd outlasted four Fire Daimyo's.
Sarutobi knew the tournament was over. But he wouldn't capitulate now that this young man Sarutobi had made Daimyo by killing off his predecessor had irritated him.
"Go back to your capital and waste the tax revenues. The military arm is in good hands. I control it."
"We must confirm your successor."
Sarutobi was tempted to smile. He'd killed one Daimyo in the last year. Why not make it two? Go through the entire family until he found someone with a scrap of wisdom. A young man didn't walk up to even an ancient S-rank ninja and demand anything.
"We noted Senju Tsunade was present. Why not transition to her?"
"She is unsuitable."
"We think you will find our confirmation withheld for anyone but a member of the founding clan of the village, Lord Hokage."
How easy to destroy a noble. There was the straight kill, of course. But better was the embarrassing death. The one that would never be admitted in public, but would rip through the gossip vines faster than anything else. A situation where the Daimyo died unclothed. Perhaps a sexual situation. Perhaps something degrading. Tied up and beaten. Suffocated by the women he'd hired to entertain him. Sarutobi had signed off on a mission just like that a week earlier but targeted at a minor noble of Tea Country.
"Senju Tsunade has spent the last decade or longer. Two decades. Drinking and wasting money."
"We know. She'd deeply indebted to us."
The Hokage understood. The Daimyo expected to buy himself a drunken, broken, easily cowed Hokage.
Sarutobi stared at the man as a horrible plan formed in his mind. So much for ever telling a ninja one's plans.
Sarutobi ignored the man and looked out at the arena. That made the young lord almost begin demanding again. Instead, Sarutobi pointed at the damage to the masonry.
"The structure may be unstable. Please have your samurai escort you out to safety."
"We haven't completed this conversation."
He waved at the ANBU. Three men hustled the Daimyo out of the Hokage's box. The young man began almost screaming, almost swearing. Embarrassment meant more to someone like that than any amount of actual violence.
Sarutobi may not have sure use of his legs and arms, but he could think faster than any five Daimyo's.
He already knew what to do.
He just hated to harden his heart enough to do it.
He needed now to speak to Naruto in private. To break this news to the boy in a way that was gentle, a way that could be absorbed.
Naruto kept Jiraiya from fussing at him until ANBU asked for his assistance with a jinchuuriki among the infiltrators. One deeply wounded, but still very dangerous.
After he left, Naruto tried to help the wounded, but Konohamaru wouldn't leave Naruto alone. The boy's anger had turned to shock. He was shaking.
Until an ANBU appeared.
"Uzumaki, the Hokage is ready for you. Honorable Grandson, he wishes to speak with you, too."
Naruto regarded the ANBU who'd interrupted a conversation. "We're coming."
"I don't want to see him," Konohamaru said, embarrassed at what had happened, at being knocked out in front of his grandfather. He was a bare two steps away from a full tantrum. The boy kept switching emotions and moods. From the aftereffects of terror he'd descended to petulance.
"It was stupid to enter." It was perhaps the fourth time Naruto had restated his premise.
"No it wasn't."
That was the fourth time Konohamaru had responded like a child would.
"That man was a monster. You would have been toast."
"No, I wouldn't."
Naruto latched onto the younger ninja in training and drug him along to meet with Sarutobi-sensei.
They arrived at the Hokage box overlooking the stadium. The Hokage sat rigid in his chair watching ninja on the arena floor, people helping the wounded, people surveying the dead, people beginning to work on repairing the damage done to the structure so that the entire building wouldn't be imperiled.
"Do you see now why I asked you not to participate, my grandson?"
"Can you think of how I would have felt if I had sat in this chair and watched my grandson die?"
Konohamaru shook his head. But he began to cry silent tears.
"Did you thank Naruto?"
"Because he knocked me unconscious."
"He saved your life, Konohamaru."
The Hokage looked at one of the ever-present ANBU, nervous that their leader was still in this building where destruction had barely ended. "Ask Ebisu to step in."
"Not my tutor."
The Hokage refused to look at his grandson. He waited for another person to enter the box. "Ah, Ebisu."
"Sarutobi Konohamaru is one of your students."
"Yes, my lord." Ebisu was confused, particularly as the Hokage's grandson was right there.
"He seems particularly defiant today."
"It appears so."
"I think he would benefit from some training."
"Not with him," Konohamaru shouted.
"Training hard enough to break through some misconceptions."
"You remember your application to join the ANBU before you became involved with internal affairs?"
"It was a particularly difficult testing course, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was."
"I think Konohamaru should give it a try."
"Positive, Ebisu. The course, on repeat, each day for a week. He may stop each day after he pukes," the Hokage said.
"Run him until he pukes. Dismissed."
"No," Konohamaru squealed.
"You want to be in the middle of S-ranked ninja battles, my grandson. We are going to damned well make you hard enough to survive such foolishness. Dismissed."
The glare that accompanied this second dismissal was enough to wither the grandson.
"Tea service for two," the Hokage said.
All the nearby ANBU left. Naruto guessed it was some kind of code phrase. 'Leave us alone.'
"You did an impossible thing down there. Sit. You're exhausted."
"Thanks." Naruto sat, but he wasn't exhausted. All the work he'd done. All the strain. He no longer felt it.
"You are a master of wind techniques, the greatest on the Elemental Continent," Sarutobi proclaimed.
"There's tons more to learn."
"That is what a master always says. But only the ones who really are masters. Anyone who proclaims himself a master and says he's learned it all, well that man is a fraud."
"There's tons more to learn."
"You will receive the bounty for killing that ninja."
"Who was he?"
"A nightmare of a legend. He once fought the First Hokage..."
"Naruto, you destroyed an S-ranked ninja."
Naruto blinked, shocked.
"Kakuzu of Waterfall. The bounty is going to be astronomical. He was famed, while he was still known to be alive, for tracking down ninja who had bounties on them...and killing them. For the bounty."
"You need more experience, of course. But you will, very soon even if not today, be known as a wind master. You will be registered in Bingo Books as a S-class ninja, Naruto."
"I'm not ready."
Sarutobi was glad that Naruto had matured as fast as he'd needed to. No false modesty here. The boy was concerned. He was frightened not of what had just happened, but of what the future would hold for him. As a man with a price on his head. A man of skill whom others will want to test. In lethal fashion.
"No. No one ever is."
Naruto decided that Sarutobi-sensei had even faced this before. He might be old, but he knew what he was talking about. He knew because he'd been strong and lost and confused all at the same time before.
"Naruto, I've decided."
The Hokage nodded rather than explain. He looked at his final student and the seconds slipped by. It was less an hour since the violence ended and Naruto found his own hand still shaking just the tiniest bit.
He knew the Hokage took note of it.
"Decided?" Naruto asked again.
"The first test. The first of six planned tests. I've seen enough from this test of wisdom. We won't bother with the rest."
"On the next Hokage?"
The Hokage nodded. "Wisdom is always lashed to bravery and strength and resolution, some of the other virtues I wished to single out and test especially. But testing one usually tests them all, especially when the test becomes as difficult as this one was."
"So who did you pick? Maito Gai? Or...there was one man who gave a fake name. Not too tall, black hair. Probably an ANBU."
Sarutobi smiled and shook his head.
"I'm going to give you a mission."
That was more like it. "I'm ready."
"It's long term. In three parts."
"Lay it on me."
"First, you report to the Hokage Tower tomorrow at ten."
"I will give you a formal reward for your performance today. For saving my ungrateful grandson. For becoming an unheralded, but nonetheless, S-rank ninja."
"What is it?"
"Report to me tomorrow."
"Yes, sir. What are the other two parts?"
"Impatient. I never did manage to teach you to stop fidgeting, did I?"
Naruto smiled. "Never."
"Well, just for that you'll have to wait."
"That's not fair."
"I'm a busy man. I'll see you tomorrow at ten."
Naruto frowned, but did as he was requested. He wouldn't get anything else out of Sarutobi-sensei until the old man was ready to talk.
Naruto knew to be wary when his sensei was being cagey. Naruto didn't make it out of the stadium before Jiraiya latched onto the boy.
"We need to do a bit of training."
Jiraiya picked the strangest times to get serious about things. Naruto didn't complain. He followed Jiraiya to the most out of the way training field he'd ever heard about. It was going to be a long, long day.
Day turned to night. The bars began to empty. All except one. The bartender couldn't leave because one patron wouldn't leave and no one could be found who was stupid enough to force her to leave.
The patron in question had a reputation.
Tsunade ran out of ryo at four in the morning after the bartender forced her pay cash for each drink. She looked disgusted when she lifted herself off the barstool. She swaggered out of the bar. She thought she'd see if she could leave Konoha tomorrow. Perhaps the old bastard who'd imprisoned her here was finally ready to let her leave.
After all, the damage she'd done this afternoon was her on good behavior. She could do much worse.
She wobbled down the street.
The booze was staying with her for once. Tsunade didn't realize that the sake had been laced with small amounts of various poisons. So small she couldn't taste them. In such large quantities of alcohol that they were now doing considerable damage to her body.
When she collapsed into an alley there were four ANBU prepared to catch her. A moment later, the five ninja disappeared.
When Tsunade woke to a slash of hot water to her face, she realized her head hurt. Badly. She tried to do a healing technique on herself. Her chakra wouldn't mold the right way.
The headache remained.
She looked at her surroundings. A concrete room.
Had she been kidnapped? She didn't know.
"What the hell," she bellowed. "Shizune!"
It took a moment to remember that she and Shizune weren't speaking at the moment. Traitor.
"Help! Help me."
A door in the wall opened. Three people walked into the darkened room. Three new people in addition to whoever was present. The room closed and it seemed as if everything were sealed, as if they existed inside a coffin.
Two walked around behind where Tsunade sat. She tried to twist to see who they were. The wire binding her into the chair held firm. She tried to break the chair, a simple thing for her on an ordinary day.
The chair held.
She was helpless.
The cloaked...man who stood in front of Tsunade began to speak to her.
"Jounin Senju Tsunade, you stand charged with treason."
She sat up in her chair, the words doing some little thing to poke themselves through a drunken haze of rage and confusion and indignation.
It was an old formula, a feared one. Her formal title, her name, the charge leveled against her. Within thirty minutes or an hour at most she would be cleared or dead.
There'd been stories of this procedure when she'd been a serving jounin.
She tried to claw the stories back out of the haze. What should she do? What could she say?
"I am a ninja of Konoha. I demand the Hokage hear this." Stop this, is what she meant.
"I am here," came a whisper into her ear.
Sarutobi had allowed them to capture her, try her. "No. No, he would never do this..."
"Jounin Senju Tsunade, you have traveled under freedoms given and later revoked by the Sandaime Hokage. You have refused the recall to service. During a term of emergency that began this morning, you refused a summons for assistance from the deputy director of the hospital. In fact, you punched her through a wall, breaking a leg and at least six ribs. You have defied your Hokage and done damage to your village in a time of emergency. Defend your actions."
"I never wanted to be here."
"You are a serving ninja with dispensation. You had your freedom to travel until you violated your dispensation. You refused all offers, all reason. Defend yourself."
Tsunade finally understood the Hokage and his other executioners were serious.
This was a real trial for treason.
The Hokage had allowed this to proceed. He meant to kill her. Like he'd murdered Orochimaru. Like this village murdered her little brother and her fiancee and everyone else she'd ever cared for.
"I will return to service, I will. If you permit me."
"It's too late," the Hokage whispered to her. "Very much too late."
"You should have told me..."
"I did, Tsunade. I recalled you so that we could talk. Would you come and have that conversation with me, no."
"I will now."
"No. It's impossible," the Hokage said. "You aren't sincere. You're terrified, Tsunade. I babied you. I treated you like a princess out of respect for Hashirama and Tobirama. I allowed you to become this dangerous wretch, so much power inside you still, but the core of you is eaten out and replaced. It's taken the threat of death to wake you from your drunken haze. I would not trust you to be Hokage now, nor ever."
"I don't want to be Hokage."
"You will find that Senju Tsunade has no choice in the matter. The Daimyo and I have fought on the subject...and, after I die, he means to have his way. I cannot permit this."
"You're going to kill me? Me!"
"Eventually. First I will replace you. Then 'you'll' become Hokage. But your drinking will worsen. In three years, yes, in three years you will be dead Tsunade."
She didn't understand. "I'll change."
"I can't give you that chance."
"I don't understand."
"Enma, hold her."
A pair of hairy arms, a monkey's arms, grabbed round her middle, holding her into her chair. She felt a brush on her neck.
Tsunade felt nothing else. In that moment, she ceased to exist.
Naruto arrived at the Hokage Tower, excited and nervous. The Hokage didn't keep him waiting. But there was someone else in the room. Someone covered in cloth from head to toe.
"Sit, Naruto," the Hokage said.
Naruto looked at the third person in their meeting.
"A very specialized agent of mine. Called Taro. Let us speak a few moments and then Taro may have a few things to add to the conversation."
When Sarutobi-sensei went mysterious, it was usually for a good reason. Unlike when the Pervy Sage did it, that was usually for less than pure reasons. Naruto trusted the Hokage, though. Always would.
"Three tasks I've assigned, three missions. You're well on your way to completing the first one, Naruto."
"It's not hard to show up for a meeting on time."
"Have you met Hatake Kakashi? Took me a couple of years to break him of his excessive tardiness."
"I'm already that much ahead."
"You are. Let us talk about your battle yesterday now that your hands no longer shake."
"I couldn't stop them."
"It's nothing to apologize for. Your body was keyed for fighting, even when things appeared safe. Do not apologize for being wary."
"What do you know about S-rank ninja?"
"We never studied them much in the Academy."
"It's not really an official designation."
The Hokage nodded. "How does one become one?"
"Yes," Naruto said.
"It was originally a kind of courtesy, given to a Kage. After all, there should be some way to indicate that a Kage was stronger than the other A-ranked jounin of the village. Later on, different theorists attempted to justify what it meant, how strong one must be in order to possess the rank. Suna, our sometime ally, had a theory that an S-rank ninja must be able to contend with and overwhelm the One-Tailed Tanuki or its jinchuuriki. That was its formal definition for quite some time in that part of the world..."
"But a water user..."
"Yes, that blue-tinted ninja you once contended with. Hoshigaki Kisame, he wouldn't have done all that well in a desert, but he is undoubtedly an S-rank ninja."
"Why? What does it mean?"
"I try to get something of value out of every definition I've heard. But the reason I need to have this conversation with you is this: an S-rank ninja must appear, must actually be, so much stronger than an A-rank ninja that it would be like a seasoned jounin going up against a green genin. That kind of overwhelming difference. If the S-ranker wants to survive for long. From the fame hunters and bounty hunters and upswells of war."
"I don't follow."
"In my definition, cobbled together from pieces of so many others, an acclamation of an S-rank means that a person is ready to be a Kage of a major village or has the skills necessary to kill a Kage of a major village. These titles, once courtesies, are now earned in battle or in ambush or in other kinds of treachery. Like your father and his S-rank. His then reputed elevated to a double-S rank. It was courtesy and fear that gave those acclamations."
Naruto tried not to look as confused and bored as he was. It was like one of the theory lectures back in the academy.
"The usual way for someone to be acclaimed an S-rank ninja is..."
"I don't know."
"To kill one in battle."
Which Naruto had done the day before. "Oh." He was a chuunin who'd killed an S-ranker. He was an S-ranker himself, it seemed. He found himself rather unamused.
"Few saw it. None whom I don't control."
"But if we ask for the bounty."
"In my definition, an S-rank ninja must look impossible to tackle by an A-rank ninja, an experienced jounin. That means a few areas of outsized strength but no, zero, areas of softness or weakness. No obvious vulnerabilities."
"You're not ready."
Naruto deflated. "Yes."
"I know," Sarutobi-sensei said. "You have strong taijutsu. It's not a strength compared to the rest of your arsenal but it's not a weakness. You need help with genjutsu and weapons usage. Your ninjutsu is your greatest strength. Your elemental connection. They say that every element is strong against another and weak against another. Not the way you use wind. A fire user, normally your challenging type, would flail around against your Wrath of God technique, wouldn't he?"
"But you need secondary strengths. Your father summoned from the Toad Clan. He also became a superlative user of complex fuinjutsu."
"So, I need something like that."
"Your favorite enemy Kisame is a master of the sword, a summoner, possessed of chakra reserves that may just rival my own at my peak, and a mastery over water that is little removed from your own."
"I will be that good," Naruto vowed.
"There are other S-rankers who are more specialized. Less well-balanced. You could go that route. But I prefer greater balance. Less using a powerful offense to make up for a weak defense. Someone who possesses the whole package."
"I'll master it all," Naruto said.
Sarutobi waved his hand in caution. "You need something that you can work with. Master. Something in addition to your wind mastery. It's up to you to find what that is. So..."
"The end of your first of three missions for me, do you want to hear what it is?"
"Yes." With more than a touch of exasperation in his voice.
"I will open my private library. Spend the next few days inside. Look at every scroll. Examine it. Determine if it could really work for you."
"I get to read everything?"
"Skim, yes. But I will allow you to copy...let's say, three scrolls for yourself."
"Three scrolls." A treasure greater than anything, if Naruto took his time and picked well.
"Three scrolls as a reward for saving Konohamaru's life, let us agree."
"There are clear copies. You will be permitted to make a copy of each in your personal cipher."
"Don't have one, do you?"
"Well, first, you're going to create a personal cipher. I'm not letting you carry copies of these three scrolls out of this building until you do."
Naruto quickly realized this reward was another kind of test of wisdom. Everything with Sarutobi-sensei was a test, wasn't it. Pick the right scrolls, develop a difficult enough cipher. It was worse than being back in the Academy. Harder.
"What are the other two missions?"
Naruto shook his head. Defending himself wouldn't work if Sarutobi was in a mood to pick on him.
"Well, I'll tell you, even though I should let you puzzle for a while. Taro, let's see your face."
The ninja in the other chair removed the cloak that had covered everything.
There was nothing remarkable about his face.
"Now let's see the other," Sarutobi asked.
As Naruto looked on, this other ninja's face...changed. It wasn't just a simple Henge. It was something else. As if his skin molded into a new face.
In a moment, the man had a woman's face, a young lady's face. The dark hair had gone blond. There was a diamond that emerged on 'her' forehead.
"There's a plan I need to explain. Can I ask your patience, Naruto?"
"Yes." He was excited by the thought of the three scrolls. He was baffled by this other story.
"This Taro has just become a doppelganger for my...student Senju Tsunade."
"She was tried for treason last night. She is now dead."
"There are very few who know she's dead, Naruto. You're one of four. The three of us and the Monkey King."
"Not even Jiraiya."
"I will never tell him what I had to do."
"I am dying."
"I know. I guessed."
"Weeks, perhaps. Two months, maybe."
Naruto knew, but now he was forced to really know. His eyes teared.
"Tears are for funerals. Now we have to prepare. Us three. The Third Hokage. The Fifth Hokage." Sarutobi pointed at the man-woman. "The Sixth Hokage."
He pointed at Naruto.
On top of everything else, that was crushing. It exited him to know that Sarutobi believed him capable. But his mentor would be dead soon.
He was involved in something unsavory. Dangerous. Deadly. A conspiracy.
"I am going to nominate you as the Fifth. The Daimyo will overrule my nomination. He will put Tsunade into office. You and Jiraiya will go on a training trip. Three years, no more than four.
"You have three years to wipe away the weaknesses, to develop secondary masteries. You have three years to build a reputation as an S-ranker, Naruto. You have three years to make yourself the obvious successor to Tsunade. You will be the Sixth Hokage."
Naruto could see it happening. He sat, stunned, working through it, unraveling all that the Hokage had twisted into his plan.
"If you want me..."
"Why am I letting the Daimyo have his way?"
"Because I wished I would live another three years. I would give you that time anyway. Now I have constructed a method to make you Hokage after giving you a period of years to prepare for the responsibility."
Sarutobi nodded once, the matter settled. He was pleased but concern was the order of the day even through the pleasure of this promotion.
"Now you know your last two missions for me. Keep Jiraiya out of trouble for three years and become the Sixth Fire Shadow."
Naruto smiled, crying. "I accept."
"The village will be safe hiding behind Tsunade's reputation. She will be a desk bound Hokage as I was for the last few decades. Naruto, you may wish to govern more how your father did. He was more a field Hokage during his few years. That may have changed as he aged, but you may wish to start that way."
"There are so many questions I have to ask..."
"Well, Taro let Naruto into the library. I will let you collect yourself. We can talk again this afternoon. I expect a steady stream of people in my office concerning what happened yesterday."
"Thank you," the Hokage said. "I feel much better that I will leave this village to someone, to a pair of people, who will love it as much as I do."
Jiraiya looked shocked when his sensei appeared. First, there was an ANBU who had 'teleported' them both into the room.
The old man looked old...looked unhealthy.
The ANBU, one Jiraiya didn't know from his mask, helped Sarutobi into a chair.
"Can you fetch Itachi."
The ANBU departed.
"Why are we meeting in a hospital?"
"I have a critical favor to ask," Sarutobi said. Not answering.
"Anything." Jiraiya didn't mean 'anything' even if he said it.
"I am approving the training trip you once requested. Three years of it."
"We've been on training trips."
"I want him out of the village for three years."
"You crushed all of them."
"The new Daimyo has decided to pick a fight."
Jiraiya scowled. Politics was the least interesting aspect of intelligence gathering. He understood it but wished he could wash that space out in his mind and reuse it for something better.
"So you trust me now."
"I have a second request."
"Oh, a day of miracles. Sarutobi-sensei asking for things. Not ordering."
"There is a young man. I want you to take him along on the trip. Work with him. I think he has potential."
He half expected to be saddled with the bratty grandson.
"One of the surviving Uchiha."
Jiraiya leaned forward, involuntarily. Damn. He'd given away how interested he just might be.
Non-challant didn't work just then. He still tried and failed with it. He'd never been good at talking with his sensei. The man read too much into everything so Jiraiya always felt over-analyzed and under-appreciated.
"Meet him, really assess him. He could be a danger to Konoha unless we do our best to pull him inside."
"You want me to risk Naruto around this guy?"
"You saw what happened in the arena."
Jiraiya was still kicking himself over his seal array. His fuinjutsu had done some things, but not all things and had left it possible for the huge mess that happened the day before.
"He's good, but there is better."
"You have three years."
The way Sarutobi said it, he meant that Naruto had three years to help himself with Jiraiya occasionally succeeding in making some useful contribution.
"Yes." It was a new voice, soft and full of power.
The door was open. Jiraiya hadn't heard it open, but the Hokage wasn't surprised. Even if the old man got to a hundred, he'd still be finer than his students.
A tall, lithe young man, distinctly Uchiha, walked into the room. The ANBU remained in the hall and pulled the door closed.
"We've met before," Itachi said to Jiraiya.
"I hypnotized you in a small village near Wave Country."
Sarutobi laughed a moment before his face erupted in pain.
"Sit. I'm fine." His face was back to serene, the pain covered over.
"Do the doctors agree with your amateur diagnosis?"
"Do you mind if I..."
The Uchiha seemed as if he'd seen nothing at all.
"This young man was in the tournament yesterday."
"I remember," Jiraiya said. "A good fighter."
It wasn't easy to pretend his teacher was dying as they sat around and exchanged small talk. But no one ever told Sarutobi-sensei he was wrong. He never was, at least in his own mind. Now his firmness would kill him.
"I regretted that the Uchiha left. A few remained behind. Have you met them?" Sarutobi asked Itachi.
"Jiraiya will make the introductions. None of them are ninja. All civilians."
"It doesn't matter to me."
It did to the boy's father, Jiraiya realized. Fugaku and Mikoto, two people Sarutobi had killed. Jiraiya wondered if Itachi knew that. Probably not.
"Family is family if you've never had one," the Uchiha said.
"I would also ask you to accompany Jiraiya on a task I've assigned him."
"I'm not one of your ninja."
"No, you're not. I wish that were different."
"I don't plan to join your village."
"That's a discussion for a different time. I just wish for you to have an opportunity to do an apprenticeship with a stronger ninja."
"As I said, I once hypnotized your 'stronger ninja.'"
"Yes, he does have his weaknesses. I think, if you were willing, you might find Jiraiya a capable mentor for a few months...or even a few years."
"What are you asking?"
"You are a capable ninja. But I can see that you could be an outstanding ninja. Self taught?"
"Independent of any hidden village."
"A hunter, then?"
Itachi was silent.
"I heard of such a hunter who brought in the bodies of two S-ranked ninja. One who was a freakish, but fresh kill. A puppeteer of some renown. One the body of a long missing kage. The Third Kazekage."
"That was me." He sounded unhappy to make the admission.
"I think you could do with some finishing school, Itachi."
"Why? To keep an eye on me?"
"Because we owe a debt to those we couldn't protect, who wouldn't accept our help. My student, the one I was remiss with when I could have stopped him years and years ago, slaughtered what was left of you. I would help you, with my student's assistance, if I could."
"It sounds good. What's the rest of the story?"
"There will be war. In two years or five, I don't know when. I have to own up to my responsibility. The way I handled Orochimaru, the way I handled the aftermath left us as a stronger village, but I created a massive amount of resentment. Now it will wash itself out in blood soon enough."
"You want another soldier."
"Yes. I also want you to have a better chance to survive. In these wars, when they appear, independent shinobi and very small villages are the first proxies to be slaughtered. Once even our ally of Uzu perished for this reason. Many small villages, many powerful but independent shinobi may perish in what comes soon. I extend you something of a shield to protect yourself with."
"Why the independent shinobi?"
"Because all the mercenaries either join up or die...villages do this to protect themselves and deny resources to their enemies. You will have to pick a side."
"So you want me watched over by two S-ranked ninja. I think I'd fear your younger student more than your older one."
"He is the most dangerous ninja who will ever exist," Sarutobi said with some pride.
"That's overstating things," Jiraiya interjected.
"Wait. You'll see. Itachi and I agree. Naruto will be a superb ninja. Beyond superb. Surpassing his own father's legacy, I have no doubt."
Jiraiya ignored all that. He was focused on the Uchiha. "You expect me to get him ready for a war?"
Sarutobi smiled. He didn't answer. He expected more than what Jiraiya expected.
"I will accompany your students for a month," Itachi volunteered.
"Renewable month by month if it works out, I hope."
"Good. Jiraiya, could you pour us all a drink. I think there's a bottle over there."
Jiraiya rose and, before he could find dishes for all them to use, he heard a thump. He heard Itachi moving. Jiraiya shifted, expected to see Itachi as an assassin. Instead, the Hokage was having a seizure. Itachi was out the door summoning help.
Jiraiya almost dropped the sake.
He managed to return it to the shelf. He stood and watched, helpless.
Old age had done what ten thousand enemies couldn't. Sarutobi Hiruzen was dying.
The funeral, held ten days after Sarutobi went into a coma following his seizure, was on the brightest, warmest day anyone could imagine. No rain, not a cloud in the sky. As if the Hokage himself had decreed excellent weather.
The old man's will had been unsealed. His designee for the Fifth Hokage had been floated and publicly rejected by the Fire Daimyo. Namikaze Naruto still served as one of the chief mourners, even though he wouldn't take the hat from his late teacher.
The Hokage-designate, Senju Tsunade, was a chief mourner as were Jiraiya and the surviving members of the Sarutobi clan. In total, there were hundreds who walked in procession. The ninja who didn't walk were on duty, keeping the peace.
It was a simple ceremony. Simple in its meaning. Konoha had lost its leader of decades but several students of the late Hokage stood ready to protect the place.
The Tsuchikage sent his granddaughter to pay his respects.
The Kazekage attended in person. The Raikage sent a team of genin, without their jounin-sensei, some kind of snub that no one cared about. The smaller allies of Konoha sent their observers, too.
Akatsuki was represented. Uchiha Madara attended, as he had for each fallen Hokage. He didn't start something, although he was tempted. He wanted to lay into the Kyuubi and see what it knew, what additional tricks it had learned.
After the funeral, the procession returned to the Hokage Tower and Tsunade was invested as the Fifth. 'Konoha is strong. The Kage is dead; long live the Kage' the unmistakable message.
Tsunade invited Naruto into 'her' office.
"Surviving?" Naruto asked once the two were behind sound-proofed doors.
"I've never held an operation as long as this one will last. I've already had to send 'my' apprentice, Shizune, off to Fire City to make sure she won't notice any differences."
"You sure you'll be ready to give it up in three years?"
"Having to carry around melons this size strapped to my chest? I'm not going to have a spine in three years."
The implication being that 'Taro' might be tempted if the mission weren't set so cleverly. Being forced to govern as Tsunade made him eager to give it up. Of course, Sarutobi-sensei had considered this angle...or even crafted it into his plan.
"You can pick your next assignment after the...next transition," Naruto offered.
"I'll hold you to that."
"What will you do with the Fire Daimyo."
"The Third and I discussed a plan. After you return, you will be told the results."
Naruto couldn't ask for more. "You've been his understudy for a long time, haven't you?"
"Yes. I've even been a Daimyo before."
"Are you sure you wouldn't make a better Hokage than I would..."
"On some issues. As a peace-time Hokage, perhaps yes. You will need to be a wartime Hokage. I'm an infiltration specialist. I'm not that kind of leader," Taro explained. "Not a front-line warrior."
Naruto heard answers he liked. "I will see you in three years."
"Have Jiraiya send messages weekly."
"Won't the toads know you're not Tsunade?"
"He's sending them to the High Jounin. I'm pretending to be furious with him."
Naruto and 'Tsunade' stepped out into the hallway outside her office and chatted for a few moments, a good bit of public relations, laying down what would happen a few years in the future. The welcoming of an S-rank hero. The retirement of a drunken has-been.
Less than ten minutes after that ceremony was over, Naruto had said goodbye to several people, including Konohamaru, and was walking down the road through the trees leading away from the village. Jiraiya was to his side. Uchiha Itachi, a quiet, cagey person, was just behind.
"Where are we going?" Naruto asked.
"They sent a jinchuuriki to mess with us during the tournament, cost a bunch of people their lives."
"We still have him?"
"Her? Yes, in the prison block, the room where they kept Orochimaru if I hear correctly."
"You need practice. I feel like venting, too. Good practice, too. They have the eight-tails. Let's not pick a fight with him if we can help it."
"Right," Naruto said.
"Although if you want to make a splash..."
"I'd rather make a splash than be a splash on a rock."
Jiraiya laughed, strained and false. He'd had problems with his sensei for years, but the man's death was troubling to him. All the loose ends would forever remain loose.
Itachi said nothing.
Naruto looked forward toward the afternoon sun. He looked at Jiraiya and Itachi. The three of them, very not inconspicuous. The Roving School for S-Rankers is what Naruto called it. It amused him if not the others.
He hadn't told anyone of his final two missions for the Hokage, but they weighed on him. He wasn't 'Tsunade's' ninja. He was Sarutobi's. He was Konoha's, still doing it's business even after it seemed he left under something of a cloud, a disgrace forced by the Fire Daimyo.
Naruto was fine letting the gossip exhaust itself. He had other worries, harder ones.
Three years sounded like a long time, but it wasn't. Not when the clock was ticking, not when he had three of the hardest techniques he could find in Sarutobi-sensei's library encoded in his backpack. Including one scroll from the First Hokage on how to maintain and improve the forest he'd created...there were fuinjutsu schema in that scroll that no one had seen before, let alone tried. Things to strengthen the forest, to grow it, expand it without the need of Mokuton.
Naruto had three years to stretch himself, polish off the rough edges.
He had three years to make a name for himself, a name equal to or greater than what Tsunade had possessed at the height of her prowess.
Three years to become a war leader. To build a will of fire and a heart of stone.