"We did not change as we grew older; we just became more clearly ourselves."
It had been nearly a month since his encounter with Itachi, and Naruto finally felt like a real ninja. He had spent the last three weeks living in a cave in a remarkably remote valley of River Country, and while it had been weird at first to not have anyone else around, he now had a routine that gave him a feeling of worth. He was living just fine, thank you, with nothing but his own wits.
His modest cave had been altered to be a bit more comfortable, including a small hole for smoke so that he could light a fire inside. He had plenty of food stored, mostly fish, smoked so that it would preserve and he had meals if he couldn't gather new stores for a while.
But most importantly, at least to him, he felt like an adult. Not because he could take care of himself... he'd felt like he could do that from the age of seven. It was because he finally... understood. He could think and focus and ponder, and one of his favorite topics was pondering why he hadn't done it before.
All of the best ninja were thinkers. Able to reason through situations, observe what was happening, make inferences about their surroundings and circumstances. He'd finally concluded, especially with the abruptness that it had come to him, that there had been some kind of actual block on his mind. It could have been some kind of seal, or perhaps something less ninja-related. His favorite theory though was that it was either related to the fox or to the new holy chakra that he could use.
But one of the other things about pondering was that it was difficult to lie to yourself, and deep down Naruto knew there was no external excuse for his lack of thought. If he was honest, it was because thought was rather unappealing. Will and determination he had a great deal of, and so he often would approach things through nothing but sheer will and determination.
Still, the Walkabout had opened his mind. Nothing was as black and white out here in the real world as he'd taught himself to believe. Not even the life of a forest creature. The fact that he didn't have the power to force things to be simple compelled him to confront this simplistic view, and now he had discarded it as mostly useless.
The only time he'd tried to force his will on the world out here, he'd nearly ruined the lives of dozens of people in a small town. And every day since, he'd thought about the Sandaime.
The old man had always seemed so kind and wise. He always seemed to know what to say and what to do, and in his mind, Naruto felt that's what a Hokage should be. The Hokage never promised things he couldn't deliver, and Naruto had a habit of making promises before he knew how to keep them.
The fox had been right... it had been scarcely a week before Naruto could no longer sense the poison of the demon's aura. The presence was still there, it was just... not so bloodthirsty. Naruto hadn't been able to speak with the Kyuubi since the apparent cleansing. It was as if the giant beast had shut him out to be alone.
At first the blond ninja had been somewhat peeved. It seemed like a terribly rude thing to do, and the giant fox didn't even have the excuse of being a demon any more... probably. But after a few days without even the fox's presence, Naruto had decided to try some silence for himself, and had found an untouched oasis of a valley. Now, he felt he understood somewhat. The silence of true solitude was actually quite enjoyable; no one was here to judge him, or ridicule him, or discourage him; there was no one here to impress or to compete with. No one mattered but himself, and after several weeks Naruto was ready to admit that he had not given very much thought to how much he mattered.
He'd despised the villagers in some ways, and had vowed to take every one of their barbs as a challenge that he would prove wrong, until they had nothing to say at all. He had thought this was him caring about himself, but after a month he was ready to admit that it was quite the opposite. A person who felt that they mattered wouldn't seek that much attention or praise. Sure, it was nice, and he would always enjoy that, but to need it? Wants have desires, but needs have causes.
This had been something of a vacation for him almost. Very little training, no work or stress of other people, just himself and the forest. He began to feel like he understood what the true point of this Walkabout thing was.
But today it was back to work. This was a perfect place to train undisturbed, and he wanted to see just how far he could push himself.
He didn't have anyone out here to teach him or help him with things, and so over the last few days he'd decided on something different: he was going to invent things. His best tactics, and some of the best technique training he had ever done, had happened when no one had told him enough to learn it, so he'd had to invent the rest.
And invent he would, starting with his holy chakra.
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu."
Naruto stood in front of hundreds of clones. This batch was three days old, his longest yet, and that had forced him to hold meetings where he could give instructions.
"Alright. Today groups one through three will be working on the new clone technique we've all been working on; groups four and five... you're on gopher duty, helping everyone else out; group six, seven and eight, holy chakra; group nine and ten, you're on chakra control."
All his facsimiles nodded in agreement, ready to start their day.
"I'll be heading to the village to look for some scrolls. Anything I can find on jutsu creation or seals, but this far out I'm not gonna hold my breath. Remember, avoid detection. Gophers are also on lookout. And most important... organize your thoughts at the end of the day! It's gonna be hard enough to deal with all these memories. Go!"
His clones went about their assignments with professional efficiency, much to his satisfaction, as he left for the nearest village. He'd been moving to a new location every time his clones dispelled, and usually checked the nearest settlement for anything interesting.
Lately he'd been frustrated with seals. He hadn't found any decent scrolls on the subject yet, and without some all he could do is try to dissect an exploding seal. But that was both dangerous and of limited utility since he didn't really know much about them yet.
He was feeling confident though... maybe today was the day he would add some sealing scrolls to his library...
He had barely begun his journey when he felt a familiar pull from within, and soon found himself in his mindscape, standing in front of the Kyuubi's cage. The immense creature was sitting, staring at him intently.
"Uh..." Naruto stared for a moment. "It's been a while." The giant fox made an odd wheezing sound that Naruto figured was chuckling.
"Indeed it has."
An uncomfortable silence passed between them.
"So, uh..." Naruto glanced at the nine waving tails behind the fox. "Are you still a demon?"
"No," the fox replied. "I am... different."
"Then... my promise?"
The fox cocked his head.
"I have been watching you, Naruto. You have grown tremendously since we last talked, but as your... friend pointed out, there are great trials ahead, and in the face of those you are still yet insignificant. I do not desire your friendship. That is a trapping of humanity that has no meaning to me. But I do wish to help you.
"You have the ability and potential to be incredibly powerful, for a human, and this could give you the opportunity to shape your world in ways that no human before you could. But it will be difficult to do so on your own."
Naruto looked at his hands and thought for a moment.
"What do I need?"
"You need me."
"Still have your megalomania intact I see." Naruto rolled his eyes. The Kyuubi grinned, which was a rather gruesome sight.
"I know a great deal about chakra, though I know very little about human ways or the ninja arts, and as your teacher I can help you become the most powerful human that has ever lived."
"What can you teach me?"
"The Sage of Six Paths is regarded by your people as the man who created ninjas. He had an incredible bloodline. Within him he had the Juubi, the God of All Demons, sealed, and before he passed he split this demon into nine parts, of which I am one. He did this by using Yin chakra and intent, combined with Yang chakra and vitality to give form to his desires. This is a way of interacting with chakra that has been lost by your people, and I will help you reclaim it.
"You have within you the ability to use holy chakra, and you have been exploring it recently. But as a small child you were also touched by demonic chakra, and your spirit almost certainly knows how to work with it as well in limited ways.
"This holy and demonic chakra make it easier to utilize Yin and Yang chakra separately. All ninja today have no control over how much Yin or Yang chakra they utilize, or in what way, but you can."
Naruto stared at the creature for almost a minute, contemplating what he'd been told.
"You mean to tell me that I could do something like... splitting demons into pieces?"
"It is neither that simple nor that narrow. Yin and Yang do not function on levels such as that, it is much more fundamental." The fox paused. "Think of it like this: most humans get to paint with one or two colors, but by understanding Yin and Yang, holy and demonic, you can create colors."
"And what do you want in return?"
"Nothing. What I get in return does not concern you or this world." Naruto eyed him suspiciously and the monstrous creature sighed. "This is my purgatory, Naruto, and you are my penance."
Naruto looked out over the small village in Wave that had been the site of his first real mission. From his vantage point he could see the entire span of the bridge and the buildings on the other side. It looked far more peaceful and prosperous than the last time he was here.
It had been nearly six months since him and the Kyuubi talked, and he was now finished with his Walkabout. He had realized it the previous night actually. A Walkabout ends when you realize that all of life is a Walkabout. Perhaps he would return to Konoha soon, but he had things he wanted to do in the Elemental Countries first.
He had perfected a few new techniques involving clones that were game changing for him. Throughout his training he'd come to understand techniques to be one of three things: an action, a utility, or a multiplier. Basic clones, which were a kind of illusion, he classified as a utility, able to confuse but not to assist. Shadow clones were multipliers, able to multiply power and time for the user.
This simple categorization had led him to a conclusion that had greatly helped him: he needed as many multipliers as he could get.
So both him and the Kyuubi had developed completely original techniques to act as new multipliers, and as Naruto was most familiar with clones, most had involved them somehow.
These new techniques were just now bearing fruit, and with his new plans in motion, he wanted to learn more about the situation of the world. That meant infiltration and spying. He rubbed the back of his head softly, running his fingers over the newly placed seal on his skin.
"I wonder how they're doing?" Naruto thought out loud.
"Go and find out."
Naruto smiled. The Kyuubi wasn't much for idle thought or conversation.
He moved silently through the trees, down to the bridge, when he spotted the placard.
"The Great Naruto Bridge!? Is that the name?"
Hinata worked through her forms effortlessly. She had improved dramatically in the year since Naruto left, partly thanks to Neji's assistance, and partly due to her confession. It had turned on a new part of her, a part that no one, not even her, had known existed; and this part of her was determined.
As she moved through the forms, she let her mind wander.
It's been a year to the day. A year since I told him... a year since he left. She spiraled through a series of jabs. He said he would send letters, but I haven't gotten a single one... did something happen to him?
A bird landed in front of her as she finished the kata. She stared at it for a moment, curious, before it transformed with a puff.
"Na... Naruto?" She blinked, more shocked than anything. "You were... a bird?"
"Yup!" Naruto replied, smiling. "It's really, really difficult learning the details of a bird well enough to actually transform into one, but with the fox's help I figured it out. Flying is a lot faster!"
There was a whole lot about that sentence that Hinata didn't know how to react to, so instead she opted to react to the most important thing in her mind.
"You're back!" She ran up and hugged him, tackling him to the ground.
"Oof! Careful Hinata, you'll dispel me!"
She got up, confused. Dispel?
"You're... a clone?"
"Yup!" He was beaming with pride.
"But... how can... how are you traveling on your own as a clone? If you flew, then you must be far away... how can you be so far away from the original? How long did it take to get here? And why didn't tackling you dispel you?"
"Well," Naruto couldn't help but feel enthralled by the indirect praise she was giving him, "I've gotten a lot stronger. I'm a special kind of clone, one that can take a few hits."
"How..." Hinata was in awe. Such a thing was supposed to be impossible. Of course, the impossible hadn't seemed to stop Naruto before.
"If you make the body of a shadow clone out of only Yang energy, it's much more durable."
Yang energy? How powerful are you, Naruto?
"I haven't been sending letters," the clone said sheepishly. "Sorry." He pulled her close and gave her a tender kiss. It was thrilling, and as he pulled away she found herself speechless. "I won't be able to send messages often... I'm really busy. But I wanted to see you, and to give you a message."
"What..." she looked into his eyes intently. "What's the message?"
"I'll return to the village in one more year. I've got a note," he fished a scroll out of his pouch, "for Jiraiya. Please make sure it gets to him quickly. Tsunade will know how to reach him." He handed her the scroll.
"I'll take care of it immediately," she told him, putting the scroll in her own pouch.
"This," he said, reaching back, "is for you." He pulled out a necklace with a black stone pendant that seemed to have some kind of seal carved on it. "If you are ever in trouble, activate the seal. I'll know immediately."
She was completely stunned by the ninja that stood in front of her. He was so completely unlike the Naruto that left one year before, yet he was very much the same person, and she couldn't help but feel pride for the shinobi she loved.
"Thank you," she said, taking the necklace and putting it on. She loved the way it looked on her as well as the thought behind it. She grabbed him abruptly and gave him another, more passionate kiss. "I'll be waiting."
He nodded and disappeared with a small puff.
Tsunade watched as Jiraiya opened the scroll in the Hokage office. His face instantly went blank, a sure sign that he was in his professional mode.
"What is it?" Tsunade asked over her folded hands.
"It's an intelligence report," Jiraiya replied. "It has details about things he's done... He can absorb memories from clones without dispelling them... And create permanent clones? I wonder what that means... He has a true transformation technique? Hmmm... It says he's used these techniques to set up his own spy network in some places around the Elemental Countries... Tsunade, this is coded with one of my personal codes."
"He figured out how to use the Shadow Clone Technique to train," Tsunade observed. "There's no other way he could have done all these things in such a short amount of time."
"What do we do about the council?" Jiraiya asked. "Naruto is going to return in a year and he's still declared a missing nin."
"I'll take care of that," Tsunade assured him. Jiraiya glanced back at the message.
"It has a meeting a week from now on here too. In Rain Country. He wants me to come alone."
"Hmm," Tsunade mused, raising an eyebrow. "I'm giving you a mission, Jiraiya. Go to this rendezvous, meet up with Naruto, and spend the next year helping him train. It sounds like a little direction would do him some good."
"Understood." Jiraiya disappeared in a swirl of leaves.
"This will be difficult to smooth over with the council..." Tsunade said to herself. "I might have to... persuade them..."
Naruto sat on the shore of a lake, relaxing. He laid back and watched the clouds roll by slowly, understanding a bit why Shikamaru enjoyed doing it so often. The memories from the clone he sent came to him, and he smiled. Jiraiya should be here in a week. He had little doubt that Tsunade would want the Sannin to train him for a little while, maybe a month or so, given the details he'd sent them. Or at least, he hoped that was the case. The details he'd included had been chosen specifically to get some training from Jiraiya, as his seal work was really rough in his opinion. And he'd spent long enough inventing, it was time to learn.
"You'll have to explain things to him. He won't accept your progress without an explanation besides 'Shadow Clones'."
"Yeah," Naruto said out loud, "but I don't know about explaining it all. Telling him I've been studying with a former demon and a minor kami might just cause more problems than it solves."
"He'll have to know eventually." The Kyuubi grunted. "Well, you need to figure out what to tell him, in any case."
"I know," Naruto replied listlessly. "I know..."
Author's Note: I'm still alive.