Tobi was ready to rip those damned eyes out of Nagato's head, if only there was someone else able to use them. As it was, he had to control himself and pretend to accept what the fool was saying.
"I would like to know what has caused this change in you," he said calmly. "I had thought you were invested in carrying out the plan we came up with." It was really his plan, he'd simply given Nagato the right information and ideas to lead him in the right direction.
"Konan and I recently traveled to Konoha," the man said. "We wished to see what had happened to them after the attack of the Kyuubi. I believed that it would be proof of how our plan would work. Konan was still uncertain about the plan, and I intended to set her mind at ease."
"Of course," Tobi said amicably. "So what happened?"
"The citizens and even the shinobi of Konoha did not have the reaction I expected. Rather than growing from the pain they experienced and seeking peace, they became more aggressive, hostile to outsiders and even willing to attack the infant who had become the Jinchuriki."
Tobi cursed himself. Of course, he hadn't yet mentioned to Nagato that Jinchuriki were universally shunned and hated. If he had, he could have explained it so that it fit into the man's idealistic worldview.
"I see. That is unexpected." He tried not to sound too sarcastic. Now was a delicate time for Nagato, and he needed to remain in the man's goodwill. "So, what shall you do instead?"
"Konan and I are going to search for a new answer," Nagato said. "We met our old sensei, Jiraiya, and thanks to him we can stay in Konoha for the time being. Konan fears that, since becoming shinobi, we have been too embroiled in war and death to know what is needed for peace."
"That is possible," Tobi said. Of course it was, that was his idea all along. He needed Nagato to remain single-mindedly focused on the plan, not to get distracted by things like this. His real goal, the Moon's Eye Plan, needed the power of the Rinnegan, and Nagato needed to believe he was saving the world in his own way. He wasn't ready to accept that the real world was already beyond repair.
A little crease formed between Nagato's eyebrows as he looked his masked ally up and down.
"I must admit, I didn't expect you to agree to this so easily."
Tobi spread his hands wide, assuming an innocent posture. "I told you when we first met, I wish to work with the man who has been blessed with the Rinnegan to achieve world peace. If your method of attaining peace has changed, then I will honor that."
"Thank you," Nagato said.
"Don't mention it. You can still contact me at any time. If I can help you with something, let me know."
"Thank you," Nagato said again.
Space distorted around the eyehole of Tobi's mask, sucking him into a vortex until he disappeared. As soon as he was gone, Konan entered the room and walked to Nagato's side.
"I never liked that man," she said.
Nagato shrugged. "He is a little strange," he admitted. "But I think we have already seen some equally strange folks here in Konoha."
"Fair point," she agreed. "And Madara Uchiha did help found it, after all."
"If it makes you feel better, we'll keep him as a last resort contact," Nagato offered. "Especially if Jiraiya is willing to help us, we'll rarely need Madara's assistance."
"Thanks," she said.
A piercing cry reached them. Konan hurried out of the room and Nagato followed at a slower pace, his contraption not moving quite as fast as her. He found her in the small nursery just down the hall. She'd already gotten the bottle for the baby and he had quieted down as he was feeding.
"This will be unlike anything we have ever done," he commented.
"I know. But if we left him to grow up in the orphanage, dealing with this village's attitude towards him, there's no telling what he might become one day. And we don't want a wild Jinchuriki running around."
"I understand," he agreed. He looked down at Naruto Uzumaki. The baby was smiling now as he gurgled up at them. "But I have a feeling this will not be easy."
Tobi rematerialized in a cavern hundreds of miles away from Konoha. He stalked angrily through the lair, pulling off his mask to reveal a scarred face with only one eye.
"Zetsu!" he called out. A black-and-white being rose up out of the ground at once.
"Yes?" the black half asked seriously.
"What's up?" the white half asked.
"Nagato has changed his mind. He's not seeking to gather the Bijuu anymore."
"Can we kill him?" Black asked.
"I don't know. But now he's living in Konoha. If we battle each other there, he might have enough allies to tip the odds in his favor."
Black Zetsu grumbled something. "He still believes we're on his side, right?"
"Of course. I'm not stupid."
"Good. We should continue to manipulate him. We can still gather the Bijuu on our own, we'll just need to wait for the right time to reclaim the Rinnegan and seal them into the Gedo Mazo."
"If we start collecting them, he'll notice before too long."
"Then be discreet. And wait for the right time."
"Fine. He still wants to achieve world peace. If he gets involved in his own plans heavily enough, we can get away with acquiring the Bijuu one at a time."
"Good," Black Zetsu said. "Then that's our plan."
"Keep an eye on him for me too. His woman doesn't trust us as much as he does, and we need to keep up to date with his plans."
"That'll be boring," White Zetsu complained. "Can't we do something else?"
"Guruguru can do those other things," Tobi said. "Now get to work. There's no time to waste."
"See you later," Black Zetsu said as he and White sank into the earth and vanished from sight.
Tobi stormed out of the room. He was still furious with Nagato and Konan. Here he was, trying to save the world the only way possible, and those two couldn't just trust him and do their jobs properly. This was going to make everything ten times as difficult.
"Hey, Uncle Nagato!"
Nagato's Deva Path Pain turned to see a blond ball of energy running up to him. He bore the young boy's excitement with the ease of long practice. Naruto had recently turned six years old, and ever since he was four, Nagato and Konan had had their hands full keeping up with him. While he wasn't malicious, he loved to explore and find adventure. The two rain ninja did all they could to keep him out of trouble, but more and more often he managed to slip away long enough to stir up mischief. Luckily, the Third Hokage liked Naruto and didn't hold Nagato and Konan accountable for his antics. Part of that, Nagato suspected, was because the old man was terribly amused at how the possessor of the Rinnegan couldn't keep track of one child.
"Hey, hey!" Naruto exclaimed. Nagato realized he'd gotten sidetracked thinking of the past.
"Calm down, Naruto," he put his hand on the boy's shoulder and Naruto managed to stand still for a minute instead of bouncing up and down. He was still trembling with excitement. "What is it?" Nagato asked patiently.
"How do you and aunt Konan do all those cool things? I wanna do them too!"
Nagato's eyes widened when he realized Naruto wanted to learn jutsus. He shouldn't be surprised, Naruto had talked about being a ninja for as long as he could speak. But for a six-year-old to start learning ninjutsu… Thanks to his Rinnegan he could see that the boy's chakra coils were already sufficiently developed, so it was perfectly possible for him to learn. But was it a good idea to teach him at this age? What if that power went to his head? He was a Jinchuriki, they couldn't afford for him to become arrogant and dangerous.
Then he looked into his ward's shining, eager eyes and sighed in defeat. Naruto would mope for weeks if Nagato said no, and his mood would affect all of them. "Yes, I suppose I can teach you a simple jutsu. You'll be starting at the Academy in a few months, it won't hurt to get a head start."
He let Naruto whoop and cheer excitedly for a minute, then put his hands together and focused. With a puff of smoke, he turned into a copy of the Third Hokage. "This is the Transformation Jutsu, also known as Henge," he said. "I'll teach you this to begin with."
Konan came into the room at that moment. "Mind keeping the noise down?" she grumbled sleepily. "I was having a great dream just a minute ago."
"Sorry, Uncle Nagato's teaching me jutsus!" Naruto exclaimed.
Konan blinked in surprise. "Already? Are you sure his chakra coils can handle it?"
"Yes, I'm positive," Nagato assured her. He tilted his head curiously. "What were you dreaming about?"
Her cheeks reddened and she glanced at the floor. "Um, nothing important. I'm gonna go get dressed." She turned around and hurried back to her room before Nagato could ask her anything else.
Three months later found Konan walking Naruto to the Academy for his first day. She was dressed in a grey cloak over typical skintight ninja clothes. Her blue hair was longer than in her youth, tied back in a short ponytail. A simple metal stud adorned her face, set just under her lower lip. But she wasn't the reason everyone stared as they passed by. Naruto had that honor.
Six years ago, when she and Nagato had chosen to raise Naruto, they'd convinced the Hokage that keeping the facts about the Kyuubi a secret was a bad idea. Whether they could talk about it or not, the people would still hate Naruto for being a Jinchuriki. If they could discuss it freely, it would at least be out in the open instead of festering just under the surface. Plus, that way, Nagato and Konan would know who to defend him from.
Add that automatic infamy to Naruto's reputation as a merry trickster, and what you got was a rambunctious child that the village didn't know what to do with. Many of them wanted to hate the boy, and the pranks didn't help, but the presence of Nagato and Konan kept everybody at a safe distance. They'd made sure of that three years ago, when a group of civilians broke into their apartment. The sight of a hundred armed men and women being thrown into the air by Nagato's Shinra Tensei, then falling only to be thrown back up over and over again until they were all too sick and dizzy to stand when he finally let them down had made quite the impression.
Ironically, their apartment complex was now considered one of the safest areas in the entire village, so long as you didn't say anything bad about Naruto.
The villagers, forced to merely watch Naruto's antics as he grew up, were henceforth frequently treated to the sight of Nagato dragging him to the Hokage Tower to apologize to Sarutobi, often carrying the boy by the collar, holding him aloft like a wayward puppy. It became a fairly common routine, and people had since remarked that they got worried when more than a week passed without such a scene. Seeing him act so much like a child, and one who was kept at least somewhat in line, had slowly made the villagers more accepting of him. Granted, it was in the same way that one accepted a thunderstorm; you couldn't do anything about it, so why bother getting angry?
Nagato and Konan were pleased with that result. The worst that happened was a few rude comments here and there. The more die-hard Kyuubi haters still glared at them, and they had both been called demon-loving scum. But they had survived through far worse than some insults. Most people just kept their distance and sent them some wary looks. The more time passed, the more accepting people seemed to become. These days, there were even people who wouldn't cross to the other side of the street to avoid them. Konan always kept a pleasant face and smiled to everyone they walked past. Naruto never seemed to stop smiling - unless someone called him the Kyuubi - and often waved to other children. Some of them would smile and even hesitantly wave back. Sometimes the parents would grab their kid's hand and pull them away.
Regardless, Naruto had become an adventurous and happy child. He always smiled and he loved his aunt and uncle, and his "grandpa" Hokage. He'd met Jiraiya once and, despite thinking he was weird, was amazed by the Sannin's ninjutsu. Thinking back on it, Konan was fairly sure that was when he'd started talking about being a ninja. She sighed. All these years, and you're still giving us more work, Jiraiya-sensei.
She and Naruto had reached the Academy. They were early, and a lot of kids were milling about the front, meeting friends and happily talking about school. Konan glanced down at Naruto. As she'd expected, he had stopped, staring at the large crowd. His expression revealed equal amounts of joy and fear, and when she reached down to ruffle his hair, she could feel him trembling.
"Why don't you go talk to someone?" she asked gently.
Naruto looked up at her nervously. "Wh-what if they don't like me?"
Konan knelt down, bringing herself to his height. "Naruto-kun, you're a fun, happy boy who's their own age. Why wouldn't they like you?"
"You know why," he scowled adorably, folding his arms over his chest.
"If they're mean to you because of the Kyuubi, then go find someone else," she said. "Trust me, you'll find someone to be your friend here."
"Okay," he said uncertainly.
Konan looked around the courtyard. She smiled as her eyes landed one a particular person. "Come with me," she said. "I'll introduce you to someone."
She took him by the hand and led him around the edge of the courtyard. Of course, she and Nagato knew that he was desperate to have friends. His reputation kept him safe, but also fairly isolated. That, more than anything, was why they were so willing to have him attend the Academy. They had spent the last six years studying Jinchuriki, even spying on other villages to see what worked and what caused them to lose control. The one consistent fact they'd found was that, if there was someone important to the Jinchuriki, they were able to keep the Bijuu sealed longer. Nagato had originally said they needed to make sure Naruto loved them to help keep him stable. But even back then, Konan had known that, like it or not, they were already coming to love Naruto in return.
But they had looked for others, people who might be friendly to Naruto. And right now, Konan was headed for what she considered their best bet.
"Hizashi-san," she greeted the long-haired man with the white eyes of the Hyuuga clan.
"Ah, Konan-san," he smiled and held out his hand. She shook it happily. "I wondered if we would be seeing you today."
"If we didn't let him go, I think he would have snuck out and come here anyway," Konan admitted, ruffling Naruto's hair again. Hizashi looked down at him, chuckling.
"So, this is Naruto? I must say, you're taller than I expected." He chuckled again. "Though it's hard to judge when I only see you at a distance as your uncle carries you to the Tower."
Naruto pouted a little as the adults shared a laugh, but Konan could tell he was pleased by Hizashi's gentle ribbing.
"And is this Neji?" she asked, looking at the mini-Hizashi standing a little behind his father.
Hizashi smiled proudly and drew his son out in front of him. "Neji, I'd like you to meet Konan, she's a good friend of mine and your uncle's. And this is her nephew, Naruto Uzumaki."
Neji looked at Naruto curiously, but Konan was relieved to see that he didn't look distrustful or angry. He stuck his hand out, clearly feeling confident in himself as Naruto's upperclassman. "Hi," he greeted him. "You're new here, right?"
"Yeah," Naruto said, shaking his hand.
"I'll show you around," Neji offered. "Come on, it's a neat place."
The two kids hurried off, saying goodbye over their shoulders. Konan chuckled again, happy to see the smile on her nephew's face.
"He'll be fine," Hizashi assured her. "Neji will keep an eye on him."
"Thank you," she offered him a short bow of her head.
Hizashi chuckled, shaking his head. "Please, Konan-san, the Hyuuga clan owes you and Nagato-san far more than this."
"Nonsense," Konan said firmly. "We helped because it was the right thing to do, we already told you we don't want you to feel you have to repay us."
"We would have invited you to any number of events and festivals, but the clan elders feared what mischief Naruto-kun might get up to."
"I can't say they were wrong," Konan admitted. "But if we can speak with you and Hiashi as friends, then we'll consider that debt repaid."
"I will let my brother know." He gave her a short, graceful bow. "I'm afraid I have duties to attend to. Good day, Konan-san, and please pass along my best wishes to Nagato-san."
"Thank you, and good day to you and Hiashi-san as well." She returned his bow, and the two of them left.
For the first time in a long time, Konan felt happy. Everything in her life was going the right way. Her family, small though it was, was happy, there were no wars to get involved in, and she and Nagato were making plans to create a true, everlasting peace in the world.
Past experience should have warned her that, with everything going well, trouble was bound to arrive soon.