Chapter 23 – God of War

A/N: All at the bottom of the chapter – enjoy the story!


"So then", it was always the way, the calm before the storm that drove the warriors to talk, "this is really it?"

"Yeah", Zabuza spoke to his second in command, the temporarily-exiled Konoha jounin smiling up at him as he shrugged, "assuming your brat does as he's told and gets the diversion right to lure the Mizukage out, we'll tear the heart out the traitorous bastards' chest before sunrise". For her part Anko merely laughed softly,

"Has he failed yet? Anyway", looking over at the eerie silhouette of the Kiri village, the last bastion of the Yondaime's soldiers following the rebellion systematically overturning Yagura's forces over the past eighteen months, the Snake Mistress eagerly awaited the signal to begin, "a forlorn hope, the first man into the breach – do you really think he's going to back down?"

At that question even the Demon of the Mist couldn't help but chuckle, remembering with awe and not a hint of jealousy some of the times he'd seen the other jounin's pseudo-student in the aftermath of his missions. By his own demands and the necessity of the rebellion, especially in the desperate, early days of the Mei's campaign against the tyrant Yondaime, the Kyuubi jinchuuriki had often been the first one sent into the meat-grinder of combat and every single time he had come back alive, in one piece and lucid enough to make a report to the woman who he bent his shoulder to as a commander, often speaking to the last Temuri with what looked like most of his lifeblood pooled around his feet and covered head to toe in the gore of his enemies. Desperate rescues, frontal assaults of superior enemy forces, spearheading amphibious invasions and, as now, forlorn hopes to breach holes in towns held by the Yondaime's die-hards – they were his speciality, his trademark and his home away from home.

Throughout the rebellion he was both a symbol of hope and an enigma; though he had appeared little more than a boy Zabuza knew, just as Mei knew having had the jinchuuriki reveal his true form to her in private, what was held behind his seals. The child that had grown so much and drawn such ire from their quartermasters for depleting their rations during the first week of his arrival was now a national hero of the rebellion for not only his relentless abilities in combat, stories of which had spread so far and sapped the morale of all but the most fanatical of Yagura's forces in a manner not even the most destructive of Mei's yoton techniques could, but also for his apparent humility – though he was often invited on war councils and his strategies were almost unanimously sound, he had never once sought to impose himself on the command structure or challenge for a leadership role.

In private, Zabuza thought this unwillingness to lead a good thing – skilled through he knew he was, in combat with the Subete no unmei and the unmatched killing potential of his unnatural axe, he had absolutely no illusions that victory for him would only come if the deck was completely stacked in his favour.

The Demon of the Mist had, however, had a hand in his teaching, something Anko had laid down as one of the conditions of them joining the rebellion in the first place. Even now his techniques with the monstrous weapon weren't flawless but, given that Zabuza had once had the axe weighed (without anyone touching it – Naruto had told him what would most likely happen if anyone save himself touched his pride and joy and the swordsman hadn't been willing to risk it, despite being tempted to dare the gristly fate just to say in the afterlife that he had been able to heft such a beautiful killing machine) and reckoned it to be heavier than he and his blade were together, not to mention the heavy head making it completely unbalanced, it was likely the jinchuuriki's blade work would never to be honed to perfection. However what little skill he may have lacked was more than made up for by his inhuman reflexes, terrifying strength and, most of all, the co-operation of his bijuu, Kyuubi working with his host to ensure Naruto remained the master of both himself and the bloody legacy he carried. Combining his speed, reach and absolute refusal to stop fighting even when hit with techniques that would obliterate a lesser man, Naruto was a match for almost anyone the Yondaime could send against him, especially when he had Goa-chichioya in his hands.

Or even, as had become his preference over these past few months in the few occasions he showed his real self, in his hand...

"Can't believe it's nearly over", Anko's voice jarred the Kiri jounin back to the present, "one more wild night and the fun's all gone".

"This is my home tearing itself apart you're talking about", Zabuza muttered darkly, glancing across at her with a level gaze, "and besides, even after we put Yagura's head on a spike we'll have to round up the traitors, stamp out the rest of the roaches that followed him and probably even have to track down the damn Sanbi again. Plenty to keep us all interested, especially if Utakata sticks around – I still can't believe your kid managed to talk him into this fight, he was strictly neutral from what I remembered of him".

Anko looked away with a slight chuckle, not wanting the other jounin to see her discomfort as she recalled the meeting of the two jinchuuriki and the look of utter horror and revulsion that had been etched on the older boy's face following the link between them being broken; not even victims of Ibiki's torture died with that sort of grimace frozen on their faces,

"Well he can be quite the charmer when he has to be", she explained glibly, checking the time again and readying her kunai – it was quite literally any second now, "got a silver tongue on him when he needs it".

"Oh", one of Zabuza's eyebrows rose; contrary to popular myth he did have them, they were just exceptionally thin due to an accident in his youth involving a katon jutsu, a camp fire and an over-abundance of lighter fluid, "and how exactly did you find that out – I though the tree-huggers were against sensei-student relationships?"

"Jealous much?" Anko teased back in the same vein, contorting her body voluptuously to sidle closer to Zabuza's side, "Don't worry koi, you're still the only one for me".

"Kami preserve the next generation of Momochi", he grunted through his mouth bandages, though Anko had enough time to tell he was smiling under them before a roaring, echoing bang and rush of flame lit up the night and made both them and the half-dozen ninja at their back tense up; the main gates of Kiri had simply blown inwards, utterly destroyed by some of the special explosive seals delivered to the resistance by an unknown but suspiciously perverted anonymous backer. Even before the flames died down the two jounin from their elevated position saw a familiar, ominous silhouette loom into the destroyed portal like an avatar of death.

Naruto was not playing nice today; he was unsealed, had Goa-chichioya already howling in one hand and, as his free fingers flickered through the one-handed seals Haku had taught him, he set the night ablaze once more with his own combination technique. Though not strictly a bloodline, the rebellion ninja that had seen it had quickly christened it as such both to help integrate the jinchuuriki into their ranks and send further shivers down the spines of their enemies – not only was arguably their strongest warrior a living terror on the battlefield, he was a bloodline wielder too. Naruto himself didn't pay much attention to that kind of thing but, in her own mind, Anko found herself agreeing with the Mist-nin on this one – as the white-hot fire of his combined fire-wind technique scoured the dwellings closest to him and reduced them to ash, Jigokuton seemed as apt a name as any for her student's abilities,

"Mizukage Yagura", the shadow of her student lengthened ominously even as the teeth of the chain-axe blurred, howling at the distant sight of the Mizukage tower as though ready to tear its way out of its owners grip and rend the structure to powder itself, both Naruto's roar and the shriek of his weapon drowning out even the hungry crackle of the flame around him and the desperate calls of the garrison force, what little was left of it, to repel the invaders, "we have come for you!"

With that he marched on, unconsciously mimicking the actions that had cemented the name Betrayer to one of his second-father's most infamous and barbaric sons as he strode into the night burning and slaying all before him, looking like nothing in this world or any other would be able to stop his single-minded stampede towards the Mizukage tower. As Anko followed Zabuza's lead and, like the other strike teams Mei had positioned surrounding the village, made to decapitate their own targets to finally take back the Kiri village itself, he was lost to their sight save for the odd pulse of white-hot fire that lashed out and torched both houses and positions of strength for the Yondaime's forces, the fire persisting despite the mist and feeding frenziedly on the tinder and, later, the dead bodies of friend and foe alike.

As the night drew on and the battle fast reached its zenith, the night that Kiri would forever afterwards both remember and condone equally in the mournful celebrations of the Night of Ash and Fire unfolded in all their terrible glory.

In that single night, Kiri burned.

In the crimson sunrise of the following morning, Kiri was reborn.


"Hey, Naruto", as always the words were no sooner out of the Toad Sage's mouth than his travelling companion had whipped around to focus on him and even a ninja as old and experienced as the Gama Sannin had to hold his nerve to avoid flinching at the inhuman level of focus in his godson's penetrating gaze, "something on your mind?" Naruto dropped his eyes for a moment before, after a little thought, simply shaking his head,

"It's nothing", he admitted somewhat wearily, though since he'd only been walking for a minute fatigue simply didn't even register in his mind at the minute; he could and had walked for a week solidly before feeling even the inclination to stop for a rest, "just remembering the past".

"Which past?"

"Recent", Naruto answered shortly but not abruptly; for those that truly knew how differently the jinchuuriki perceived history compared to his peers, recent history meant something that had occurred since some bright spark in the Elemental Nations had realised bashing two rocks together was a good idea, "remembering the Mist. I, the rebellion at least lost a lot of good people there, to say nothing of the civilians displaced and torn apart from their families by the fighting; it doesn't get easier with time does it?" Jiraiya shook his head,

"No and it's a good thing that it doesn't; one of the lessons sensei told my old team that even I paid attention to was that when burying the dead became as easy as tucking yourself in at night it's time to turn your headband in and call it a day as a ninja"; and if only all three of our team had remembered that lesson the old man might still be alive to meet us now; forcibly squashing that line of thought before Naruto could pick up on it and potentially mar his homecoming by remembering his murdered grandfather-figure, the self-proclaimed super-pervert instead slapped on a grin and stepped closer to his godson, the boy still slightly smaller than him in height if not breadth, "still, look on the bright side. Mostly because of you Kiri's joined Suna and us in a three-way defensive pact, the Mizukage and the majority of her staff have nothing but respect for your abilities and you managed to turn not one but two other jinchuuriki to your side as well, and that was before you even began the second step of your idea and got out the Mist once the fighting died down".

"True enough, though it hurts that we had to create one of those jinchuuriki after Yagura let his damned bijuu out", Naruto scowled as even now that memory rankled; during the last push to oust the Yondaime from his post the diminutive leader had for some reason, most likely a form of suicide jutsu to attempt to take the leaders of the rebellion down with him, broken the seal that contained the three-tailed turtle, which had quite understandably gone on a rampage and blindly smashed its way towards the nearest large water source, seeking to find somewhere to hide while it regathered its strength. That issue was one Mei, now Godaime Mizukage, could not let lie so close to Kiri's borders and almost as soon as the village and its surroundings were secure a team had been set up to capture the three-tails and reseal it in a vessel that had, to the surprise and horror of most but amusement of some, all but stood before the last Temuri and demanded she be used to house the beast. Thinking back to the blonde spitfire of a girl that had reminded him so much of another little blonde that had existed before a single drop of tainted blood had changed the course of history and mutated him into the other, infinitely stronger but at the same time darker figure pacing beside him was an ache worse than having the accursed head of his godson's weapon gnawing into his chest, so to avoid dwelling on the past too much Jiraiya quickly answered and directed his thoughts down another, more positive path,

"Ah, details; Hotaru-chan was the best candidate available by a mile, and not just because I was able to convert that damned kinjutsu on her back into a seal stronger than possibly even yours", the Toad Sage commented, someone pleased with himself for what had been, even the most jaded and crusty fuuinjutsu master would have been forced to admit, a revolutionary bit of trickery with an ink-stick and precise chakra control, "not only was she used to carrying a burden, she's got Utakata-san looking out for her as well. Not to mention her Naruto-niisan", the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi merely growled low in his throat at that title despite the widening grin it caused on his godfather's face; Utakata, after all, wasn't the only jinchuuriki who tended to act aloof as much to protect himself as he did everyone else around him, "and on top of all that they, and the Mizukage, know as much as I do about the Akatsuki threat. Be under no illusion Naruto, they needed surprise to make their plans work smoothly; stripping that surprise away has hurt them far more than anything else we could have done these past three years". Naruto pondered this for a moment before giving a gruff snort of amusement, rolling his neck to give a loud crunch before shrugging and carrying on,

"True but Itachi and Kisame's heads on a pair of plates would have been a nice garnish to that ramen dish", he pointed out with a nasty smile; though the S-ranked duo had slithered out of the trap set for them, Naruto was certain that if nothing else the elder of the Uchiha siblings was forever weakened from the blows he'd taken even years in the past; I was aiming to kill and trained by a medic – even if we miss we still maim, that is the med-nin's code; "though I have to say I was somewhat surprised you just so happened to be in the area when the Sanbi was ready for the sealing, and you offered to step in as a sealing expert at no cost..."

The jinchuuriki tailed off but his eyes never wavered from his godfathers' suddenly shifty form, Jiraiya doing his best to laugh and brush off the raised eyebrow being sent his way and the same time and pray the younger semi-humans' enhanced senses wouldn't catch onto the bout of nervous sweat now beading together at the back of his neck,

"Ah well, I am the Gallant Jiraiya after all", he exclaimed breezily, pointing at himself with a massive thumb, "be they from the east, south, north or west, the sound of a pretty woman's cry of distress shall bring me running. And what sort of a cad would I be to demand payment from a weeping land, so decimated by a war – no, I am no mere mercenary, I am a philanthropist who places the satisfaction of the fairer sex far above profit"; or, at least, obvious profit; the Toad Sage thought to himself, checking the dynamite ready for his next publication was as safe and concealed as he could make it with the virtual bloodhound that was the Konoha chunin next to him stood close by; you will drive the sales from the next volume into the stratosphere my sweet, sexy Zei-chan, and none shall ever know where the inspiration came from. Least of all the honourable Mizukage-sama; though Jiraiya feared, or at least claimed he feared no mortal woman except, maybe, his one-time team mate, the thoughts of what might happen if the new leader of the village hidden in the Mists was to pay attention to one of his future characters and join the dots were enough to make even him quiver a little; somehow I doubt even the mighty Seiso no hogo-gijutsu would stand up to a woman trying to parboil them using lava and steam!

"Keep the fantasy for your books ero-sennin", fortunately Naruto's voice broke him out of his cringing at a future that could be coming his way should someone get careless with a copy of the future Icha Icha; Steam Room Chronicles and Temuri Mei ever draw parallels between herself and a fictional busty hot springs masseuse, "as of right now, all I'm looking for is a reunion with my family that's long overdue".

With that Naruto soldiered onwards, knowing that the indistinct smear in the distance would, in time, solidify into the easily recognisable Hokage monument of his village and if he kept up his normal marching pace he'd be within eyeshot of Konoha's gates by sometime in the late afternoon. However, even as Jiraiya took a final glance at the hidden pocket in his sleeve that held his research notes, much improved after not just his sojourn into Kiri but also following his godson around the Elemental Nations as Naruto began his self-appointed mission, the Toad Sage was not able to see the expression in the blue eyes, the brooding, terrible patience building like a storm cloud as the owners of those old, terrible eyes saw the horizon and beyond it, seeing his progress thus far, the remaining pieces arranged before him and knowing the obstacles he had yet to overcome to see his ultimate goal realised forever.


The first indication of how times had changed in his absence came about thirty minutes later when his enhanced eyes picked out the new layout of Konoha's most famous landmark at a range where most people would have been squinting to make out the mountains' outline. Eyebrows raised at the sight of the fifth head carved into the impenetrable wall of stone at the villages' back, he smiled before turning to his godfather with a grim sort of chuckle,

"How many barrels of what percentage-proof sake did you have to force down her neck before she agreed to put that damned hat on?" Jiraiya for his part, after taking a breath following keeping pace with the relentless jinchuuriki's march home for the better part of three days and grateful for any rest he could grab, merely glanced at him affronted,

"I told you, several times in fact, that there was a Senju in charge for third time in history but would you believe me? Well what have you got to say now?"

"Poor Shizune-chan", Naruto didn't even miss a beat, chortles shaking his massive shoulders as he began carrying on his walk home under the granite visage of his de facto clan leader, the last Senju watching over Konoha just as her ancestors had, "no doubt the old soak's had her run ragged ever since she took up the robes, not to mention the fun I bet she's had making sure the old woman's sober enough to actually sign the paperwork rather than the desk half the time. I just hope her Iruka-kun's enough to make up for it all; they are married now aren't they?"

"Yeah; originally they wanted to hold off until you were back but", Jiraiya gave a semi-helpless, what-can-you-do kind of shrug, "Tsu-hime didn't really give them that option. 'You're only young once, live it up and enjoy it while you've got the chance' were the words she used exactly – I think she almost dragged Shizune-chan to the altar by her ear from what Iruka told me in the aftermath".

"Sounds like baa-chan, though much as I hate to admit it she's got a point", the Senju-Uzumaki reasoned, "life's too short to hold out on what you want; go up there and grab it with both hands if you've got the chance because, let's face it, you might never get another. And if those words appear in any of your future books ero-sennin", alerted to the sound of scribbling by his enhanced hearing Naruto span on his heel and, caught with the smoking gun, or notepad and pencil in this case, in his hand Jiraiya could only smile weakly and try to sidle the evidence up his sleeve as he was once more locked in the azure searchlight that was his godson's scrutiny, the altered jinchuuriki's voice not exactly threatening but at the same time not exactly a polite suggestion either, "I will find out and you will pay for it, both in money and pride!"

"Hai, hai, but that was a good line", Jiraiya pointed out as he tore the page out and reduced it to dust with his doton-natured chakra; much as normal people were able to play games with an ultimate warrior that was at best only semi-human, the Toad sage and the jinchuuriki had an unofficial agreement going that if Jiraiya was able to take a tangible record of one of his godson's notable speeches without Naruto calling him out on it, he could publish it in one of his novels. Admittedly Naruto wasn't really one for giving rousing speeches, mostly because he hardly considered himself a leader of men and on top of that the few words he considered noteworthy enough to warrant a place in the admittedly-popular Icha Icha series were the ones he'd usually bellowed at the few shinobi of Kiri who were either crazy enough to follow him into battle or mad enough stand in front of him when he led the charge, but a handful of Jiraiya's characters had quoted him in the three or so years since he'd joined up with the rebel of the Mist. This time though he was able to chalk up a point in the contest with his godfather and, because of this, it was with a lighter step than before that he and the sannin came eventually, just as the sun began to sink in the sky as midday turned into early afternoon, to within eyeshot of the famous gates of the Hidden Leaf Village.


Watishi Lanzu was nervous.

Not in a cowardly way of course; he was a respectable chunin of the Leaf after all and had well-earned his rank in the Chunin exams of all places, but he'd only been in the Academy, just ready to graduate when the so-called invasion of Konoha had been launched by Suna and Oto. Crouched down in the main hall of the shinobi Academy with all the other students, each silent as the grave on the order of their suddenly ruthless, dangerous-looking teaching staff, he hadn't been privy to either the actual fighting itself or most of the gory bits of the clean up that had followed, but he'd heard the stories all right. He and everyone else, be they civilian or ninja, had been caught up by the firestorm of gossip that had swept over the village almost as soon as the dust had settled over the rubble and the corpses of the slain; no two stories were ever the same and each person swore their version was the truth, but even the two most disparate tales agreed on one focal point. Senju-Uzumaki Naruto was not what he appeared to be; the face he wore was nothing more than a mask which hid behind it a terrible and terrifying killer, something that had either saved the Leaf from destruction or all but unbarred the fortress gates for the invaders beyond (that part of the invasion story varied wildly depending on who was telling it and how deep into their cups they were).

Lanzu had listened to these stories as all children would listen, had heard of the monster or warrior the last descendent of one of the founding clans of Konoha had become but had always held within his mind a grain of disbelief, the thought that the tales must have been exaggerated at some point, blown out of all proportion; surely, at the end of the day, even a ninja was a man and, as Senju-Uzumaki Naruto was a ninja, he was at the end of the day merely a man as well. It was the mental defence of the ignorant, those who had been told but who had not seen the truth, and as of right now it was being washed away by the sudden tsunami of nerves and wariness that was steadily gathering momentum through his mind as, rooted to his spot on gate-guarding duty, a chore all new chunin were expected to perform, he had no choice but to behold the ominous shadows before him solidify into twin figures that could have stepped straight out of the pages of either a legend or a nightmare.

Whatever relief he may have felt at the sight of Jiraiya, and one of the men approaching his post simply had to be him for there was no mistaking the robes and get-up of the infamous hermit of the Toad clan whatever the distance, returning to the village was more than swallowed whole by the sight of the man who travelled by the side of him, the man who had to be the Naruto he'd heard so many stories about. Those who spoke of him called him many names, most of them unpleasant or outright blasphemous, but since he'd become a chunin and therefore able to get his hands on an uncensored Bingo book (genin copies had the information of Leaf nin, even missing-nin, removed to reduce the risk of some hot-shot rookie thinking he could desert the village and make it big on his own) he knew better than many what the jinchuuriki was rumoured to be capable of. Naruto wasn't listed as missing-nin though the decree of his banishment had been pronounced to the village as a whole by the new Godaime Hokage herself, Tsunade-sama explaining that she would uphold the village laws even when they were put into practice against her last surviving clansman, but he was still within the Bingo book itself. His was a picture that had made many, Lanzu included, shudder; his pen-portrait glowered from the page as though imprisonment in ink and parchment was a torment. It depicted a paragon of wrath, drawn as though he were all but dripping in the vitae of his enemies and with an A rank, fifteen-million ryo bounty on his head firstly from the Mizukage and then, when that had been rescinded following the success of the rebellion, continued by the monster Orochimaru, the beast who called himself the Otokage offering the bounty for the Senju-Uzumaki's head.

As far as the new chunin could see though, even from the book never mind the giant stomping towards him down the road that led to the village, if anyone were ever able to take that bounty they would have to earn it the hard way. Beholding the stormy visage and simply mesmerising body that made up the last of both the Senju and Uzumaki clans, Lanzu realised in no uncertain terms why he bore the Bingo book moniker of Naruto no ketsueki kuroku, Naruto the Blood-Cloaked, even if he couldn't see the supposed weapon that made the jinchuuriki so fearsome anywhere on or around his person; and just as well, if he alone makes a grown man shiver I'd hate to think what that looks like! Lanzu was a shinobi of Konoha, however, and he did not shirk from his duty regardless of the odds set against him; it was therefore to his immense credit that, as the mortal monster approached with a tread that seemed to make the earth itself quake in fear of his arrival and snapped a gaze that seemed able to core through the Hokage monument with its unmeant ferocity, his reaction was little more than a shudder and a slight hitch of nervousness in his voice,

"I believe", despite the tone being soft Lanzu was under no illusion that this was the last Senju-Uzumaki being nice; having heard that voice and imagining it howling a war cry to the heavens as its owner pounded headlong to war, it was somehow very easy for the chunin to imagine Naruto undertaking the seemingly impossible tasks his Bingo book entry had credited him with, "that you have something of mine waiting for me here?"

"Uuhh, right", he knew what it was of course; since the Godaime had made the news of her fellow clan members' banishment being lifted public, all gate chunin had been briefed about his arrival, though seeing the other chunin in the flesh was enough to make Lanzu forget his lines for a moment before with a flash of inspiration he remembered exactly what the jinchuuriki was referring to. Grateful to be out of sight of those inhumanly haunting eyes for a moment, the new chunin consulted the roster of items handed in after flipping it back by almost half the books' thickness and, seeing the item number, cross-referenced it with the small safe-like structures set into the gatehouse wall. Reaching in and claiming his prize, Lanzu carefully and with a slight pang of satisfaction signed the 'returned' column of his ledger and headed back outside, holding the small plate of metal out for Naruto to claim in his massively oversized hands,

"One Konoha head band, just as you left it", the chunin declared, recalling the notes left in the side of the ledger and underlined; a clever precaution – I'd hate to think what this man could do if he thought someone had mishandled his personal affairs, even something as small as a headband. To his great relief Naruto seemed happy enough with such tribute, merely wrapping it around his bicep and tying it off in a crude knot as there wasn't enough material to fasten it around his forehead any more before nodding to the chunin and, after berating Jiraiya for taking so long and taking a brief second to steel himself against what was coming, stepping through the open main gates and into his home for the first time in over three years.

A few seconds later, after waving a now somewhat-peeved Gama sennin through in a clatter of robes and geta sandals, Watishi Lanzu stepped inside the guard hut just off the side of the gates and treated himself to a well-deserved collapse into the seat provided there, not quite able to take in the figure of legend that had just walked into his village unopposed.


The hardest part, though he knew for a fact it was coming, was adjusting to the looks.

In some macabre jest this was something Naruto had been used to even before his change but for a completely different reason; more than once in his life he had come to the conclusion that humanity was simply ill-adjusted to accept anything that it recognised as different from itself. As a jinchuuriki, even a child, he was reasonably sure he would have been regarded, at best, as a curiosity even without the added complexity of housing the beast that had all but flattened Konoha itself and slain their beloved Fourth Hokage. Now, however, as he returned to his home village for the first time in three years the eyes of the general populous were upon him once more, though this time his difference was plain for all, even the children who should have been ignorant to the bijuu he contained, to see. Though, as always, the reactions are seldom positive; heaving a mental sigh Naruto took a second to pause and consider the idea of past and present; as a child those eyes were full of disdain and loathing, now, since my change, they recoil with fear and apprehension. Still, it probably won't get much better than this – let's just pray they never have a cause to see me in combat; that much was certainly true and, for the first time, Naruto felt a sudden, almost unexpected pang of homesickness for Kiri and its civilian population – though a lot more guarded and world-weary than most people of Fire country, at least the normal population of the Mist were a lot less phased by the sight of someone who was obviously a warrior born and bred, a legacy of the Seven Swordsmen their Godaime was attempting to restore to their former glory.

As he strode through the village towards the one place that was likely to be a safe haven from the goggle-eyed shock that chased his footsteps through the village, Naruto took a moment to think about what had happened during his three-year and some absence from Konoha and his journey in the wider world, both what his godfather knew about it and what he had kept private and would continue to do some for quite some time. There was, as he had decided following partially abandoning his disguise following leaving the Mist after the bloody end of the former Mizukages' reign, no point trying to hide any longer; any thoughts of concealment had been lost when Itachi and Kisame had slipped out the net, though that probably wouldn't have been the case had the traitor Uchiha's idiot brother not blundered into the whole trap and stopped it springing properly. Sasuke; there was a sore point for the Uzumaki, not so much that he had ruined the planned ambush because in his heart (both of them), Naruto could see where he was coming from; after all, his second-father had bequeathed him nothing if not memories of betrayal and how they could gnaw at the soul until it was nothing but an empty shell, but the sheer brute stupidity of what the Uchiha had reportedly done next simply baffled him; well, what's done is done. He's a traitor and he'll die a traitor's death if our paths cross in the future; that much Naruto was sure of even as he paused in his march towards the Hokage tower to let someone cross in front of him; he was so distracted by memories of his one-time peer within the Konoha ninja force, however, that he didn't recognise the person in front of him until he realised they weren't moving and took a second glance,

"Sakura-chan", the girl's distinctive taste and scent upon the air was as much of a giveaway to him as her unique pink hair was, "long time no see".


Eep; despite having had to almost bolt her mentors' feet to the floor the past few weeks as she realised her adopted nephew was coming home any day now, Sakura was still taken aback by the sudden sight of the former dobe of her Academy year. In all honesty this wasn't exactly her fault because, even in the absence of his former orange attire, there was no way this living monolith before her was ever going to pass for even vaguely normal even in a village full of ninja. The last Uzumaki, and the youngest Senju she reminded herself, didn't just garner attention simply because he was one of if not the biggest person in Konoha, there was something else about him that didn't so much catch the eye as grab hold of it and hold it to ransom. During the brief time she'd had a romantic attachment in her life before study of medical techniques had simply consumed anything like a social life she'd ever had, Kiba had tried to explain the Inuzuka concepts of alpha, how the nin-ken the clan were so famous for using automatically knew who was in charge and afforded the pack leaders the respect they were due. Sakura had actually forgotten she remembered such snippets of her life but, upon seeing and appraising the teenager; and dear Kami he is still a teenager, in fact he's younger than me – that's just bloody terrifying; before her, the memory burst into life in her mind and she recognised exactly what Naruto was now.

He was no longer the bratty, annoying boy who had shrieked aloud that he would one day ascend to the throne of Hokage, nor was he even the cool, almost frightening collected child that had suddenly replaced that dead-last dobe almost overnight; he was the man who looked like he was heir apparent to such a lofty title and had, if rumours were right, already toppled and installed a new regime in one of the lands Konoha was now allied with. Standing taller than Kakashi-sensei and more than twice as broad, he wasn't muscled in the way an Akimichi or Gai-sensei was; instead there was a kind of feral leanness coiled just below the surface, a dormant power held subcutaneously and ready to be unleashed in an instant in the same manner she guessed his horrifying axe still was. His eyes were similarly hooded now; where once they had smiled now a much more guarded, scrutinising expression regarded the world as though at arms-length and with something much darker, infinitely more dangerous held within the deepest depths of their periwinkle blue. Having been able to glean even the most basic and rudimentary guesses as to what had actually happened to Naruto to transform him from midget to exemplar of humanity and seeing it in the flesh before her, the diagrams and medical theory made real and so very frightening, Sakura realised exactly what she was looking at.

The Senso Haundo, already a warrior of terrifying repute even before he left Konoha, had returned to his village as nothing less than an alpha.

Even as she realised this however the rational part of her mind that hadn't been overawed with simple, primal instincts such as 'run', 'hide' and 'beg for mercy' belatedly chimed in that she was committed the unforgivable sin of a medic-nin and simply gawping at a case instead of doing something about it. With this in mind and luckily just before Naruto could say anything else she gave a polite, shallow bow and replied,

"Same to you Naruto-kun", much as she felt a little childish for using the suffix in relation to someone who towered over her, Tsunade had said that if there was one thing her fellow clan member hated more than anything else it was being treated differently from other people just because of his physical appearance and, as Tsunade's student, she had to follow her mentor's example, "been a very long time. How are you?" The answering chuckle was so deep she swore it almost made her bones reverberate,

"I'm feeling okay, though I'm sure the old bat in the belfry up there will probably find twenty things wrong with me before I've even got through the door".

"Naruto", ingrained respect for her teacher drove Sakura to stand up for the absent Hokage, "show some respect to Tsunade-sama!" Once more he laughed and the med-nin felt a shiver run through her,

"I haven't managed that since I was knee-high to her so I'm sure as all hell not going to start now – last thing I need is her accusing me of being an imposter on my first day back", he pointed out reasonably before gesturing over her shoulder, "on your way to her where you?" Emerald green eyes widened in surprise,

"How did you know that?"

"Squid and teriyaki", Naruto replied simply, pointing at the covered basket she carried under one arm and laden down with a selection of medical textbooks, "hidden from sight but not smell. I know that's baa-chan's favourite by a long shot, no way she'd have anything else if Shizune's barricaded her in the office to get the paperwork done". Sakura, despite herself, snickered slightly,

"I shouldn't laugh, but it'd be a lie to say Tsunade-sama's the most efficient paperwork shuffler in the Elemental Nations – sometimes I'm sure she only started the med-nin programme just so she'd have an excuse to get out the office occasionally"; yep, sounds like her; "anyway, nice as it is to talk to you out here the food's going cold and it'll be my neck if it's not piping when Tsunade-sama gets it. I'll walk with you to the tower if you want?"

"Sure", for once grateful that his godfather had disappeared off somewhere, most likely the hot springs given how long he'd been out of Konoha, Naruto fell into step just beside the kunoichi and simply listened to Sakura speak about how the village had changed in the three and some years he'd been absent, while all the while the distance between himself and the Hokage tower, bastion of those he considered eternally closer family than the monster who had perverted his body to the machine it was now, shrunk with every step.

Some years ago he would have given, if not an arm, then at least a few fingers to have been in the position where Sakura-chan would actually talk to him without shouting or giving him a whack on the head, however well-deserved such a whack might have been at the time. As time passed however those dreams of childhood were revealed to be simply that, dreams and nothing more; even if he were to even attempt a relationship with anyone, even a kunoichi, not only would he run the risk of accidentally breaking them should his reactions or instincts slip in the throes of passion, but it would all come to naught anyway, one of the conditions of being the superhuman he was now.

Besides, all thoughts of machoism aside, it felt somewhat silly even thinking about trying to be amorous when the girls his age mostly stood at hip-height to him.

However whatever spark of optimism was left within him simply refused to allow his sometimes grim thoughts to stray too far down that path; instead he simply focussed on what was a very pleasant last leg of his journey, one that was replete with news and revelations from both parties, though not in any way that may have revealed secrets that may have endangered Konoha in Sakura's case, or his own agendas in Narutos,

"So, it was a good celebration then?"

"Oh yeah, one of the events of the year", Sakura recollected fondly, remembering the expression on the face of the woman she now considered as close to her as an aunt if not an elder sister as she had emerged from the temple to a small but raucous gathering of both friends and well-wishers, something Shizune was definitely not in short supply of following the event preceding her nuptials to the new deputy headmaster of the Konoha shinobi Academy, "the Akimichi catered for it and virtually everyone was invited, and even most of those who weren't turned up anyway. She looked magnificent Naruto, I'm sure she'll tell you all about it when you see her next, she's Tsunade-sama's secretary now"; though hopefully not for much longer, a few more months at most;

"I'd guessed as much; besides nee-chan there's not much that'd hold baa-chan in the seat short of super-glue", the Uzumaki rumbled, glancing at the kunoichi sidelong, "so, their wedding went off without a hitch?"

"Picture-perfect, even the weather was nice", Sakura told him before her expression soured somewhat and she shuddered as phantom pain throbbed from her memory, "the morning after though, oh, my head. I felt like someone had lashed me to one of the big temple bells as a spare clapper; my ears didn't stop ringing for three days straight! I knew letting Tsunade-sama organise and run the drinks bar was a bad idea".

"True enough that; about the only one worse would have been giving ero-sennin free reign to arrange the entertainment afterwards", Naruto snickered before sending a crafty glance Sakura's way, "somewhat delicate the in the cold light of day I assume?" Once more the kunoichi shivered,

"Delicate is about the politest way you could say it; that party was my first time, ah, merry", Sakura put delicately, looking away to hide her slight reddening of the cheeks as she remembered the other first that had happened that night; well, at least he wasn't trying to take advantage, just needed the sake for courage to ask, and all we did was kiss – thank the Kami that mum didn't walk in though. I shudder to think what she'd have done if she'd found Kiba in my room with me even if we were both fully clothed; "though from what I've read of your medical records it'd be an impossibility for you to get in the same state. Yes, I know a very little", she help up a placating hand in the face of Naruto's suddenly sharp look, "both Tsunade-sama and Shizune-sensei thought it only right there be someone not of your clan who could treat you if they were otherwise engaged. All the Godaime's students know a little bit but together we make up the whole picture, and we're forbidden to talk amongst ourselves and share information on the subject too".

Naruto mulled this over for a moment before, realising the decision had been made for better or worse and there was nothing he could do about it now that wouldn't get him, at best, exiled for a second time for murdering an entire class of med-nin, the altered jinchuuriki shrugged,

"Its fine, though how does she...?" For a moment he thought Sakura was making an impolite gesture to him, but then he saw the lines of blackness standing out against the pink of her tongue and understood,

"Secrecy seal, perfectly harmless unless we try and spill the secret", the med-nin explained after retracting her muscle and licking her lips, "Tsunade-sensei gave us all the option of finding out about you and taking the seal or not and carrying on as med-nin; I signed up because, well, sorry if this sounds heartless, but because Ino-buta did as well. I wasn't going to let her out of my sight – even if she's got slightly more chakra than me my control's better". Naruto shook his head,

"Still got the rivalry going I see?"

"You bet", Sakura nodded, a challenge in her eyes that the jinchuuriki wagered even his former, rather more bone-headed self would have been hard-pressed to miss, "though it's moved onto more important things after...well, you know?"

"I understand, and I'm glad; he might have been a capable ninja but as a person he was never worth either of your time", the Senju-Uzumaki spoke with as much gentleness as he could force into a voice four octaves deeper than Sakuras, "I'm just glad everyone came back alive after that mission; from what Jiraiya told me I'd have been in baa-chans' camp and just let the teme go – he was a civilian in any case, I don't see what claim Konoha had over him in the first place". Having had this argument in the past Sakura merely rolled her eyes and snorted,

"No-one was sure if he'd gone willingly or been kidnapped at first, and after that there was some bull-crap about the village needing the Sharingan even if Sasuke was unwilling; either way it didn't really matter, the whole thing was a cluster from start to finish – even Tsunade-sama can't explain how everyone walked away alive. Well, actually she can – bloody good medics mostly, and the fact Shizune-sensei was in the area after a brief mission outside the village; without her emergency first aid it's likely the Akimichi and Inuzuka clans might be looking for new heirs now".

"I heard about that; probably the reason her wedding was so well funded", the jinchuuriki postulated reasonably, "still, all the guys on that team managed to wipe out old Orochi's so-called elites so that gave the snake a bloody nose, even if Sasuke-teme slithered away after their fifth man intervened. Have to say though, I always found it fun dealing with Oto-nin when I met them", his smile was suddenly even more cut-throat than his axe, an expression Sakura found she couldn't face without a shiver running down her spine, "fanatics and nut-jobs most of them even without the cursed hickey, though a few were pleasant enough". Sakura was brought up short,

"You didn't kill them all?"

"Just because I've got the build of an ox doesn't mean I have the brain of one", Naruto shot back, mildly affronted, "I'm not all 'blood-frenzy' and 'kill-maim-burn' you know; I'm as much of a ninja as you are".

"At the size of you you're about five times as much of a ninja as I am; I'm sorry though Naruto-kun", and to her credit Sakura did indeed look apologetic as she bowed ever so slightly, "I should have known better". To her relief the jinchuuriki merely shrugged,

"It happens, and I truth be told I do look that way a lot of the time, especially when I'm actually fighting", he admitted before lurching the conversation around to slightly more stable ground, "though what you said earlier was true as well, about me being completely immune to the effects of the demon drink", he prompted, promoting an expression of surprise followed by a stifled snigger from his companion, "not that it's stopped ero-sennin trying over the past year and a bit – any excuse for a celebration as far as he's concerned".

"I've heard it was a bit more than that on occasion", Sakura jibed, not even trying to hide her shaking shoulders, "this rumour went round a few months back and I just need to know – was it true you managed to drink Gamabunta-sama under the table when you actually signed the Toad contract?"

"I can neither confirm nor deny that rumour", the jinchuuriki told her sternly before his facade broke and he let slip a slight wink, "don't want to hurt the old toads feelings, you know? Speaking of which, are you signed up with baa-chan's contract yet?" At that Sakura did smile properly,

"Yep, me and a couple of the others are inked on the page, though we have to work together to summon Katsuya-sama; how on earth Tsunade-sama does it without breaking a sweat is beyond all of us..."


Catching up with his one-time crush was pleasant enough though, as he actually strode up the steps that led into the entrance of the tower, Naruto couldn't help but feel the fire of impatience start to trickle through his veins once more and had to forcibly hold himself back to allow Sakura to keep pace with him. He could actually see into the passageway itself now, though before he could move towards it too much Sakura seemed to spot something before he himself did and waved in greeting,

"Hey Kiba-kun".

"Sakura-chan, good to – whoa!" The Inuzuka recoiled as though a ration jutsu had just been earthed on his skull as he registered the mammoth form stood next to the girl he still considered to be his girlfriend even if she was adamant that she didn't have time for a relationship; what the hell, I'll wait for her, but after this; "Naruto, that you?!"

"Indeed – I'd hate to think there were two of me", the jinchuuriki joked, stepping forwards and sending his friendliest smile towards the team of chunin that followed the Inuzuka's lead out of the tower, "mixed up the teams a bit did they recently Hinata-chan, Shikamaru?"

"Yeah, troublesome but necessary to 'promote inter-team relationships throughout Konoha's chunin force'", the Nara replied, somehow managing to sound as disinterested as ever despite being re-introduced to someone who he hadn't seen for three years and who could break him in half with little more than a dirty look if he were feeling irritated at all, "not an issue you've had these past few years, floating around the Elemental Nations as free as a cloud". Taken slightly aback by this Naruto blinked for a moment before rallying,

"Free as... now listen here you lazy bag-of bones, I've..."

"I don't wanna hear it, too troublesome", the Nara sighed again, Naruto just about cutting off the boiling insults on the tip of his tongue and seething in silence as the shadow-wielder spoke once more, "anyway, glad you're back, you might finally get some of the others off my back asking for training".

"He said it", Kiba picked up the slack so seamlessly even the jinchuuriki didn't have enough time to get a word in edgeways, "three years I've been sweating blood and puking up piss to get ready for this and today, that wait is over! I've just finished my last C-rank, I'm feeling on top of the world and I am not moving from this spot until I get the spar I've been waiting for", and, true to form, the Inuzuka folded his arms and settled his weight onto his back foot, not breaking eye contact with his next sparring partner, "and I'm not the only one either. Hinata-chan", the Hyuuga broke off her examination of what had once been the love of her life before she and the rest of Konoha had seen what lay beneath the mask of the boy they thought they had all known, "would you do me a massive favour and round up the others while I wait here for the guest of honour?"

"Hai", the Hyuuga replied quietly, bowing to the assembled group and moving away, away from the massive figure that left such a confusion in her mind, even after three years of grappling with the problem in her mind – did she hate Naruto for lying to her so much, making her fall so badly for someone who had never existed, or did she love and admire him for being able to liberate her somewhat from the stifling confines of her clan and its rigid, unyielding rules? Learning under Tsunade-sama had been like rebirth into a different world, a new existence where she could be her own person, she didn't have to live up to any kind of example or preconceived notions about who she was or was not meant to be. It was freedom of a sort but, at the same time, it was imperfect and would never be what she truly wanted it to be...

...because Naruto-kun, her Naruto-kun, wasn't there to share it with her.

To disguise this confusion Hinata was only too happy to acquiesce to Kiba's request and make herself scarce and to her relief no-one called her out on such cowardice, not even Sakura, who must have at least had an inkling of how deep her feelings had run for the jinchuuriki. Watching her go and still not exactly sure where he stood with her, Naruto merely shrugged and decided he'd deal with it later, instead nodding respectfully at where Kiba still stood rooted to the spot and not going anywhere, Akamaru oddly enough nowhere in sight; though, that might be because they're not too fond of nin-ken in the Hokage tower – Kiba must have left him at home; and moving past him with Sakura in tow, smirking slightly as he realised something else positive had come out of today.

Even after he reunited with the remainder of his clan, he had a bit of a challenge to look forwards to, something that had become noticeably scarcer over the time he'd been away in the other Elemental Nations.


Sakura had walked from all over Konoha, though most usually from the hospital, to the Hokage tower so often she didn't even need to think about the route any longer; she merely started walking and her feet seemed to carry her there of their own volition. This, as far as a the often-harassed young medic could work out, was undoubtedly a good thing as it allowed her to engage her formidable mind in more pleasant endeavours than remembering exactly which patient needed which medicine and who had to run which clinic for the next three weeks. She was so used to this semi-daze in her walking (though the onetime Kakashi had jokingly hinted such lack of attention might have been the death of her she'd challenged him to try and assassinate her during one of her off-periods – if the Copy-nin hadn't had reflexes as quick as his chakra nature the kunai she'd snatched out the air and returned to him at phenomenal speed might well have been the death of him instead) that she was actually halfway up the stairs towards the reception area of the Hokage tower before she realised something was wrong with this scenario; confused for a second she glanced around and up, brow furrowed, before a look over her shoulder made her remember exactly who was missing from her shoulder. Somewhat embarrassed by not noticing Naruto stop, she was about to apologise when she realised what he was doing and the words died in her throat to be replaced by curiosity; is he afraid the floor's about to give out or something?

At the foot of the stairs about six or seven feet below her, Naruto was very cautiously settling his weight forwards onto the bottom step, eyes fixed downwards as though expecting the stair to give way at any moment. Such a precaution appeared well-advised as even from where she was Sakura could pick out the sound of wood creaking ominously, but in the end he appeared happy enough and settled his full weight onto the stair before repeating the process on the next one, though with a little more speed this time as the staircase had obviously passed the first and most important test in seeing if it could support his weight. Glancing upwards and seeing the curious eyes on him, Naruto gave as much of a chagrined smile as his naturally-stern face would allow him to pull,

"Sorry", he apologised for the delay in the med-nin's trip as he laboriously levered himself up one step at a time, wincing as he heard the steps beneath him groan in protest and wondering idly if Tsunade would copy the Mizukage's style and have the steps of the Hokage tower replaced with stone, as Mei had done following the infrastructure of Kiri being rebuilt following the final battle and the Sanbi's retreat to the ocean, "just got back in the village today, don't want to end up putting my foot through it yet..." Another squeak of protesting staircase made both the ninja wince as he drew level with his one-time classmate, Sakura wisely jumping ahead as she easily saw she'd never fit on the same stair as the massive jinchuuriki,

"...metaphorically or literally".

A few moments later, and having ducked her head around the door to check the victim was present, Sakura spoke up after giving Naruto the nod to stay where he was for a moment; after all, he shouldn't be the only one to give people a surprise;

"Sensei", the familiar head of black hair glanced up; Sakura timed it to perfection, stepping to the side just as the older woman opened her mouth to ask the obvious question, "someone to see you". Even with the width of the corridor it was still a squeeze and she had to hold her breath as Naruto brushed past her, though due to his bulk she would be left forever cursing the fact she missed the expression on both the face of the elder medical ninja that her little brother had returned, and that of Naruto as he was reunited with the woman he considered his older sibling for the first time in three years,

"Naruto-kun", it might just have been Sakura's imagination but was that a quaver in the normally iron-willed special jounins' voice, "you, you're home?"

"I am indeed neechan, and...", he tailed off and Sakura once more had to bite her lip to stop a giggle escaping; bet I know why you've clammed up, in fact that'd be a bet even Tsunade-sama would take; "...and now that I'm here I see I have a job to do – there is a dolphin near here in dire need of skinning".

"Senju-Uzumaki Naruto!" Such was the commanding snap in the senior ninja's voice that Sakura subconsciously sprang to attention, Naruto flinching but not doing any worse than that for the time being; just as well or we might be looking at a replacement doorframe right about now; "You will do no such thing! Iruka-kun and I are now very happily husband and wife, this is just the natural culmination of such a state of affairs. Anyway, apart from that and assuming my husband is now safe from your well-meaning but misplaced fraternal protectiveness", there was a seconds' silence before Naruto gave a brief, dismissive grunt that could have meant anything but Shizune, for the sake of expediency, assumed to mean compliance as she spread her arms wide and smiled serenely, "come and say hello to both your siblings".

Sakura felt as much as heard Naruto move into the room and left it for a count of ten, giving the two some privacy before poking her head around the door and smiling at the strange sight before her; he could break her back like a breadstick from there. Did he grow up with that kind of control because he started changing so young, or did he have to learn it from scratch when his implants started working?; it was a thought that she and the other med-nin who were in on at least part of Naruto's secret often wondered and discussed but, as things were in the here and now, none of them really mattered for, beneath his damned lineage and seemingly-supernatural biology, with his family around him the jinchuuriki was revealed as being as human as the next man. From directly behind him Sakura couldn't see much of Shizune save her forearms, the special jounin not able to even wrap her arms around the boy, or at least the henge, she'd once towered over, while Naruto for his part was hunched over slightly to embrace the woman in kind. From her observation Sakura guessed the older kunoichi's head was nestled comfortably in Naruto's solar plexus; or at least where his solar plexus would have been had his ribs not fused together and completely ossified into one big bone sheath around his organs; and, as the two stepped back for a moment, she smiled to herself as she noticed Shizune wiping her eyes discreetly before Naruto asked the obvious question that almost literally hung between the two clan members,

"How long?"

"Five months left, give or take", Shizune freely admitted, glancing down at the swell in her kimono with maternal pride, "and no, before you say anything we haven't discussed names and you are not to tease Iruka-kun about them – he's already had enough of a hard time about that with his colleagues".

"And baa-chan?" Shizune's answering look told a thousand words and brought a chuckle from her jinchuuriki brother as he pushed himself to his full height after carefully checking he wasn't going to knock the ceiling with his head, "Speaking of which, is the old witch in – Sakura-chan was kind enough to bring her lunch". Following his sweeping gesture Shizune belatedly recognised the second intruder into her domain and smiled at the younger girl, beckoning her in,

"Gomen Sakura-chan, I didn't see you there; not difficult with this great lummox in the way", Naruto shot her a nasty look but let the comment pass without further action as the pink-haired girl stepped forwards and offered her basket forwards, though, somewhat unexpectedly, not towards Shizune,

"Hey Naruto-kun, you might need a peace offering before going in there", she said with a somewhat cheeky smirk that made the jinchuuriki raise an eyebrow as he hooked it out of her hands with a couple of fingers, "no doubt she heard that last comment – I think I can hear her knuckles popping from here".

"Either that or the veins in her temple", Shizune pointed out, joining one of her erstwhile apprentices in the joke before attempting to usher the larger man towards the door that led to the tower's inner sanctum, "go on, you best not keep her waiting. I, we that is, will see you tonight?" Naruto nodded, as serene an expression as Shizune could ever remember on that massive, inhumanly focussed face of his,

"As if I'd miss my return meal; just make sure Iruka-sensei's there neechan; I wouldn't miss my chance to offer my congratulations for the world". The med-nin merely scowled and swatted him on the shoulder before pointing towards her mentor's office, a very definite look etched onto her face and, pausing only to offer his thanks to Sakura for the walk and to Shizune for greeting him, her stepped up, pinched the door handle between two of his fingers and carefully let himself in to his baa-chans' place of power.

His first impression as that things hadn't changed much in his absence; his second, following the impact of a small, hard something that smacked into his chest hard enough to leave a bruise and draw a slight whisper of air from his lungs even as both his body and his tenant got to work healing the wound, was that time hadn't altered either Tsunade's temper or her aim in the time he'd been away,

"Nice to see you too baachan", he grunted, stooping to pick up the small object she'd hurled his way and noticing idly that the stapler still appeared to be in fine working order; huh, guess they really do build things to last when they hear baachan's going to be the one using it; "and here I was worried you'd mellowed out in your old age". Tsunade's teeth ground in fury and she slammed her hands onto her desk; stacks of paperwork wobbled ominously as she levered herself into a half-standing position and leant forwards menacingly, face set in a snarl,

"I heard those comments you made even before you got through the bloody front gate brat", the Godaime ground out, honey-brown eyes hard as amber as they sized up the jinchuuriki before her as though he were nothing more than a training post to be battered to sawdust, "I see you still haven't learnt to respect your betters".

"Huh, I'll respect them when I meet them", he shot back, stomping forwards and thrusting his chin out to meet her challenge eye to eye, neither of the two Senju-Uzumaki backing down an inch as tension crackled between the two of them like a chidori, "besides you couldn't beat the lesson into me in, what, eight years? What chance did Kiri and ero-sennin have in three and a bit?"

"I could but hope", Tsunade pointed out before, simultaneously, they both cracked; snarls were shattered into a pair of beaming grins and the two almost fell into each other, supporting themselves halfway across the desk of the Hokage as clan head and clan heir were reunited for the first time in years. The embrace was harder than the one Naruto had shared with the Hokage's niece, Tsunade being able to use her perfect chakra control to reinforce her body against his crushing power as much as she was able to boost her arms to crush him in kind, and lasted about the same time before they both let go, the Godaime settling back in her seat of power before speaking again,

"Heh, glad to see you haven't changed that much in the time you've been gone", Naruto for his part did his best to hide a slight snort of disbelief at her words before speaking again, "still, as things are I'm certain you've got better places to be than here".

"What? But don't you need...?"

"A debrief?" Tsunade finished for him before chuckling, though there was no malice in her tone as she wafted a hand towards the door, "Yes but that can come later, behind closed doors at home; as it is I'm reasonably sure half my available chunin force is limbering up to take you on in the training areas and I've got a mountain of paperwork to deal with before I can even think about Shizune-chan letting me relax for the night. Go", she waved towards the door again, "meet up with your friends again and we'll catch up over the dinner table this evening – just make sure they're in a fit state to fight when you've finished with them".

"No fear of that baa-chan", the ever-familiar title made the Hokage scowl but before she could comment upon it Naruto had already withdrawn a pace and asked his question, "I assume that all members of the clan will be present for the occasion?" Tsunade knitted her brows at the oblique query before with a flash of insight she understood where he was going with his line of inquiry and an evil smirk crossed her lips,

"Yes, of course we'll all be there", Naruto's expression duly morphed to match her own, though on his much more war-scarred visage the grin looked positively diabolic rather than playfully mischievous, "you'll be able to give your congratulations personally – just try not to rip anything off or get blood on the floor".

"You're a medic aren't you – surely you should be able to stick him back together? Besides nee-chan's already..." he couldn't quite bring himself to say the P-word, "... in the blush of health for at least half a year, surely he doesn't need one particular part of his anatomy until then?" After biting her tongue for a moment to ensure she wasn't going to laugh, Tsunade shook her head,

"He might not but Shizune-chan may; pregnancy's a funny thing you know, all the hormones rushing about in the body, there's really no telling what she'll need from one day to the next", the Hokage shrugged before leaning forwards and lowering her voice a touch, "though take it from me, if she suddenly gets the urge for, ah, release and her Iruka-kun's suddenly not up to the task because of either of us I wouldn't want to be in the Elemental Nations when she found out. A woman scorned is one thing Naruto-kun but a woman frustrated is a whole different bag of kunai, least of all a pregnant, hormonal one". The jinchuuriki seemed to think this over for a moment before offering a suggestion,

"We could always get it stuffed..."

Tsunade virtually collapsed onto her desk, cringing and almost crying with laughter at the same time as Naruto retreated while the going was good, a few fingers on the door handle as he made to deliver his last line,

"That's ingenious, disgusting and unethical Naruto", the Hokage managed to choke out as she regained control of herself after a minute, "which now that I think about it sums you up quite nicely. Still, get out of here – you can tell us all about your adventures when you're done getting re-acquainted with old friends". Taking this as a dismissal Naruto nodded and opened the door, though a thought seemed to strike him as he made to leave and he glanced back over his shoulder,

"Frustrated women are really that bad then baa-chan?" He said as mildly as his voice, made to project itself through thunder, death and the hell of artillery bombardment, would allow him; just as the Hokage nodded he sprung his trap and was gone, "You know, thinking about it, that explains an awful lot about you..."

Even he was only just fast enough, the thump of a small object travelling at speed impacting on the wooden door at his back enough to make him snicker and Shizune, once more behind her usual desk, roll her eyes and groan; yep, he's back all right. Something tells me that's the end of Tsunade-sama's three year stint of good behaviour, least of all if that sensei of his is still around somewhere...


He didn't need any of his alien biological attachments to picture the look on his one-time crushes' face as he followed Kiba towards training ground eight, the place, he later discovered, that all those who'd been prepared to escort him to the gates of the village three and a bit years ago had decided and sworn to each other later that day would be the place they saw him again,

"Well then", he still didn't dare look at Sakura; an angry expression on her face held too many memories of boys in the classroom getting knocked base over apex as they made an unwise comment within her earshot, "congratulations are in order then, though I hope it'll be some years before you take too much after Shizune-neechoooff!" The elbow that landed in his side was actually enough to make him grunt and, recognising the technique, he finally glanced down at Sakura's irked expression,

"Baa-chan taught you her strength techniques I see?"

"Yes and that's not all she taught me either so watch it, both of you", the medic amended at the last minute, glancing around the jinchuuriki at where Kiba was grinning at the mischief he'd caused, though she ducked back just as he blew a kiss her way and fought hard to stop her cheeks colouring as she ground out the last part of her answer, "and for the last time Kiba-baka we are not an item!"

"Yeah we are, you're just busy all the time", the Inuzuka shot back genially, apparently unconcerned by the sound of grinding teeth as Sakura had to use every calming mental mantra she knew not to give in to the urge to throttle the insufferable, unendurable and, to her, irreplaceable Inuzuka clan heir, "I've told you before and I'll tell you again, you've got your patients but, when they run out, my patience will still be going strong".

"Dear Kami I hate you sometimes Inuzuka Kiba!"

"And I love you all the time Sakura-chan", he replied, throwing his hands behind his head and stretching off his neck, "see, we're a perfect couple; kaa-san said she was just the same when it came to my father – must be a girl-thing". The cherry blossom winced once more before glowering up at Naruto, the jinchuuriki silent and somehow keeping the mirth off his face as he heard the would-be couple on either side of him go at it hammer and tongs; baa-chan and ero-sennin, Tsume-san and her other half, crazy-snake-lady and psycho-demon-man – damn, must be a more common relationship pattern than I'd thought about;

"Naruto-san, much as I usually don't wish harm on anyone, least of all a fellow Konoha ninja, I feel it necessary to confess that if you don't punch that annoying baka's teeth down his throat while you're sparring I'll have no choice but to do it myself!" After a second spent realising that for about the first time in three years, he was being called upon to play the part of peace-maker of all things, he glanced down at Sakura and gave a shrug,

"As long as you fit them all back where they should be when you're done I can't see Kiba having too much of a problem with that", he mused before his eyes took on a slightly more predatory glint and he smirked, "especially if you put them back in with your tongue..."

Fortunately for both his hearing and Kiba's health, the Inuzuka having fallen over in helpless hysterics at not only the joke but the sight of the woman he knew was going to be the future mother to some of the next generation of Inuzuka all but seized up and trembling as her revulsion was evenly matched by her fury at such a suggestion, the medic had no time to refute the insinuation as a large number of very familiar scents and tastes became apparent to the enhanced senses of the jinchuuriki. Casually pulling ahead of the other two and trusting them to catch up, he caught sight of a few familiar faces just before he stepped into the training grounds properly and they all saw him.


Wow; logically Ino knew, or at least was intelligent enough to make a guess that Naruto, who she'd heard had returned to the village today after being tipped off by a breathless Hinata as the Hyuuga heiress barged into her family shop, would have only improved in both physique and size since those ill-fated exams years in the past, but even so the sight of him was a big emotional blow. Still the Yamanaka were a clan that specialised with the mind and the emotions attached to it, so she was able to shake off her shock slightly quicker than her friends and view the returned Senju-Uzumaki through eyes of clear logic, rather than ones clouded by emotions of panic and potential flight.

Her immediate observation was one shared by the entirety of her peer group around her; that such thoughts of fleeing into the wild blue yonder at the sight of the Uzumaki weren't foolish notions of fear but rather related to basic instincts of survival. Honed as she was in empathy it was the sheer amount of control, the iron-clad grip Naruto had over his emotions that gave her the most pause, though as he tracked around to regard everyone who'd shown up, the fact he looked perfectly capable of hammering any and perhaps all of them into the floor like they were little more than a selection of nails wasn't particularly lost on her either. Still, that level of emotional control; it was something she'd talked about often with her father as she'd grown in her kunoichi career, hoping to one day follow in Inoichis' footsteps at the T&I department; I know, or at least from Shizune-sensei and Tsunade-sama told us we knew he had to stay on top of himself all the time in case something like the Chunin exams happened again, but even so from what I can gather he's wound tighter than Asuma-sensei just before asking Kurenai-sensei on a date. Still; she broke off her internal musing as she saw a flicker of recognition light up on the Uzumaki's face; I should feel more when the inevitable sparring kicks off;

"I had hope you'd change for the better", the newcomer rumbled, pointing out a finger as thick through as newborn's arm to highlight the one he was addressing, "but I have to say I never thought you'd take up the life of a monk Hyuuga Neji".

There were a few stifled chuckles at this but, overall, Ino felt that the Hyuuga prodigy dealt with the comment much better than most who knew how particular his clan tended to be on matters of honour would have assumed. Though she didn't have much to do with the now-jounin, Ino along with the rest of her year group had long since grown accustomed to seeing him bald as an egg; it was only when a comparative outsider such as Naruto pointed it out that it became obvious. Ducking the head that showed only the faintest hint of scarring following him virtually being scalped by the Senju-Uzumaki's brute strength over three years ago, a legacy of Tsunade-sama's revolutionary use of medical chakra in skin graft surgery that had hidden the majority of the damage even if it couldn't replace the removed hair follicles, the prodigy spoke in a voice that showed a great deal more humility than had been present in his youth,

"I assure you I am still a shinobi Naruto-san", Neji's voice was still the same as it had always been but lacked, in the Yamanaka's opinion, something he'd had before that infamous bare-knuckled bout in the finals of the chunin exams, the absolute certainty of his convictions, the tone that simply demanded there was no way he could ever be wrong, "though I, all of us, still have much to learn if we're to live long lives in that path".

"Just as long as you all learn and remember what's important in life", the semi-human retorted in his habitual growl, transfixing Neji with a penetrating glare until the Hyuuga nodded again and he relented, "still, it is good to see all of you again; I thought of you often while I was, ah, employed outside the village".

"And we thought about you too, meat-headed ox that you are, but anyway, enough of the mushy stuff", Kiba declared, punching his friend lightly on the forearm (the traditional dead-arm punch was a little too far out of reach) as he strode past and turned on his heel, dropping into his clans' fighting stance, "the time for talking is over – this time we talk with our fists!" As the Inuzuka was backed up by various nods of agreement and a distinct cry of 'yosh' Naruto smirked and let one leg slide back behind the other, feeling his twin hearts start to beat in time with the drums of war he could see gathering pace before him,

"So I see", the Senju-Uzumaki grated, fixing each of his friends with a challenging glower even as he reinforced his mental shields as much as he was able to, trusting to his reluctant partner to call him to heel if his instincts became overpowering in the face of adversity, "well then, I assume you're not going to wait in line like samurai, so..."

With that and no further warning he pushed off his back leg and, like a coiled spring, burst into and almost through the ranks of his year group, throwing into disarray any plans they might have had cooked up prior to this spar and turning a battlefield into a taijutsu brawl, not letting any of them back off enough to use wide-scale techniques and muddying up lanes of fire with the bodies of their allies. It was completely without tactics, without mutual support of team mates and a textbook example of how shinobi should not fight...

...and it was where Naruto, even being forced to restrict himself to the barest sliver of his actual lethality, was completely peerless and had already carved his bloody legend into the history of the Elemental Nations.


At the same time, a woman in her office suddenly paused with her official stamp held high above the piece of paper she wanted to sign, glanced around the seemingly-deserted room and then let out a reluctant sigh,

"I'll assume you heard everything so come out of whatever hole you're hiding in before I drag you out of there kicking and screaming". For a moment nothing altered, not even a whisper of the breeze could be heard around the place but, just as she was about to force herself to her feet and rectify things, as always the object of her ire-slash-somewhat playful affection dropped whatever technique it was he'd developed and stepped forwards into the office, bare of its normal quotient of ANBU at their leader's request,

"Mou, such are the tribulations of a frustrated lady hime", Jiraiya, as always, seemed to abandon his fear of death when an opportunity to poke fun at his former team mate was in the offering, something he shared with his sometime apprentice in the realm of suicidal tendencies, "though, if you would allow the Gallant Jiraiya to aid you in such struggles I could guarantee I wouldn't be the one doing the screaming..." The Toad sage broke off and hurled himself to the side as Tsunade's stamp splatted against the wall next to him and remained there, quivering in the plasterwork as the Godaime fixed him with a volcanic glare,

"You've been in the village less than half a day; are you really looking to leave it that soon?" She challenged, one fist clenched menacingly as Jiraiya, figuring he'd played around with the explosive tag that was Tsunades' temper enough, decided to end things there before it blew up in his face and raised his hands placatingly,

"No hime, I'm in no hurry to experience unaided flight again"; though it might be worth it for the valley you expose just at the point of the punch – no, no bad Jiraiya, business before pleasure; "I take it you can guess why I'm actually here?" He left the lure dangling and, though he could tell she didn't want to bite for fear of the taste of the bait, eventually the Godaime had no choice but to ask the inevitable,

"Go ahead then", she requested in a tone laden with lead, pulling a sake gourd and two saucers out of one of the drawers of her desk as she did so, "might as well get this over with – I heard as far as the end in Kiri and Anko-chan's been keeping me up to date with what's happening in there. What have you two been up to since that point, and did you make a head start on Naruto-kun's other idea?"

Though nothing showed on her face Tsunade was indeed very concerned over this particular piece of news; when first suggested by the child she still considered to be her nephew even if he now towered over her and could, if the after-action reports she'd been receiving were accurate, likely rend her limb for limb even with her medical techniques. She scrutinised her fellow sannins' face for a long second, tension making her almost crush the sake container in her hand before, to her mingled relief and annoyance, the Toad sage finally cracked,

"Ha, you think so lowly of my apprentice hime? No, Naruto-kun hasn't merely worked on his plans, he has completely finished them, or at least", his sudden sobering stifled the relief that flooded through Tsunades' mind, "he's finished those that he let me in on. There's a lot that he keeps private hime, even from me and probably you as well – even now", the sannin shook his head, for once looking his age as he let out a sigh, "I can't tell for sure how all this is going to end when the threat of the Akatsuki is gone". Letting out a low breath, Tsunade decided to focus on the positives while she could and then bite off the bad news when she had no choice but to deal with it,

"You met with all the other jinchuuriki? Even those from Iwa and Kumo?"

"Met with them, and actually created one as well; I take it Anko-chan told you about that little escapade?"

"Yes, your run-in with the Sanbi was quite the fish-tale", the woman smirked, uncorking her drink and pouring a measure into each glass, "still, better the bijuu contained and under protection than running free where our enemy could steal it. The new jinchuuriki, she's being looked after by the Rokubi container right, Utakata wasn't it?"

"Yeah, they're still together in Kiri, and they were the first to sign up with Naruto's plan, well, after Gaara of course", Jiraiya spoke before deciding it was time to bite the shuriken and pray for deliverance, "but yeah, he told me he met the others, though I wasn't there for all of it. I was, ah, somewhat delayed after the whole Sanbi debacle and, well, it took some time to get everything straightened out and I, er, kind of, lost track of Naruto for a little while after that..."


A kick came in from the side, deflected by the edge of the hand with a touch that was barely even felt; Chouji scowled as his opponent twisted away and almost casually thrust Hinata from him with a mere buffet of his thigh, never realising that his leg was only in a single piece because Naruto had not wished to hurt him...


"You lost him?!" Tsunade was all but hissing the words up her fellow sennins nostrils, Jiraiya for his part whimpering in terror as the blonde pinned him against the wall of the Hokage office with a single hand, "You let him wander the Nations on his own with the damned Akatsuki after him, what kind of idiot are you? If this was because of your Kami-damned peeping so help me I will shatter your balls so badly even Orochi-teme will wince on your behalf!"

"It was his choice, his choice", the taller man gabbled desperately, crossing his legs to protect his two most precious assets, already under potential threat from one kage, from being assaulted by another, "look, we got back to Kiri with the Sanbi sealed away in Hotaru-chan and it wasn't until we got there we realised he'd even gone, in fact he was never with us once the three-tails was sealed, it was a clone all along while he made a break for it. I couldn't go after him straight away hime, I had to stay in the Mist for at least two months checking Hotaru's seal was working – it was a new piece of fuuinjutsu, experimental and if it had failed it would have been on my head and made Mei-sama's position as Mizukage untenable. As soon as I was sure nothing was going to happen and had Utakata-san's assurance he'd look after the new jinchuuriki I was gone and out of there, but even so it took me another month and a half to track him down to the borders of Kumo".

"Kumo?" Tsunade parroted, thinking for a second before she made the connection and gasped, "The eight and two-tails!"

"Yes, Kumo has both of them and they both agreed to help, or at least I think they did, I wasn't in on that conversation", Jiraiya pointed out before, taking a chance, poking Tsunade in the ribs with two fingers and wrenching himself free of her slackened grip as she let out a low bark of laughter and withdrew her arm to cover her weakness, "it's like it was with Gaara; he pretty much just held their hands for a minute and next thing I know the eight-tails container is looking serious and pledging all seven of his swords to Naruto's cause and the two-tails is all over him, lucky bastard".

"Don't be a, or at least any more of a pervert than you already are", Tsunade declared before settling down and massaging her head with a free hand, "so, did you find out what he was up to when he absent at least?"

"He told me, he was in Iwa; don't look so shocked hime", Jiraiya dismissed her sudden expression of horror with little more than a raised hand, "you of all people should know he's got a knack for not being seen when he wants to use it, least of all because he can still use that seal of his to hide himself". The memories of Naruto's early years, when his body had been changing from boy to super-man without anyone in the village being aware of it were enough to calm Tsunade's immediate surge of panic at the thought of the Yondaime's son traipsing around the ancestral home of Konoha's most trenchant enemies, though that didn't stop her squinting up at her team mate with a suspicious glint in her eyes,

"What was he in Iwa for? Just the jinchuuriki?"

"That's what he told me; told me he found them both as well and, as I've heard nothing to the contrary from any of my sources I'm going to have to believe him on this one", the spymaster admitted, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously as he recalled the irritation he'd felt at having a hole in his net of spies pointed out to him, "so, once we had those two out the way it was easy enough; Taki's friendly to us so the Nanabi was easy to meet, quite a friendly little mite as well, she and Hotaru would get on well by my reckoning. So, all the other eight have been spoken to and, from what Naruto tells me, they've agreed with his plans and, more importantly, are aware of the main goals of the Akatsuki and how they relate to the bijuu themselves".

With that news Tsunade let out a low, loud breath, a great weight lifted off her mind as she nodded and spoke,

"That is good news; so, do you reckon Konoha should send out missives to the other kage for decisive action against those pricks or wait a while to see how it all pans out; we still don't know who they're after first do we?"

"No though I have suspicions that whatever they're sealing the bijuu into would probably require some form of logical sequence and a massive source of chakra, though how they'd generate the power needed to both unseal and then reseal a tailed beast is something I'm not sure of. As to the kage question", once more he had to screw up his courage to take the plunge, "I really, really don't recommend it".

"Why not? No point rocking the boat before the cloaked fools play their hand?"

"No, or, yes but I'd also not bother sending out the invites because, apart from the Mizukage and current Kazekage", there was a slight hitch in his answer but before Tsunade could question it Jiraiya revealed the secret, "none of the other kages were consulted before their jinchuuriki were approached".


...Kiba snarled in frustration as Akamaru's lunge from behind was dodged and the nin-ken sent cart wheeling by the open-palm Naruto thrust into him; he had hoped the sudden appearance of the massive canine would give the unstoppable living dreadnaught pause but Naruto seemed unphased by the great bear of a dogs' appearance. Growling under his breath, Kiba leapt atop his partners' back and channelled his chakra, never once thinking that his partners' heart was only still intact because of how much Naruto was holding himself back...


To her credit Tsunade didn't scream or hit the incompetent, bumbling buffoon in front of her despite the sore temptation in her mind; instead she blinked, blinked again and in a low, cold whisper, spelt out a simple demand,

"What did you say?"

"Naruto-kun only spoke with the jinchuuriki of the Elemental Nations", Jiraiya repeated, voice strangely flat and fatalistic as he realised that this was quite literally as bad as it was going to get and any improvement on crawling away from his kages' wrath more or less alive was a bonus compared to his expectations, "whatever deal he's made is with them, as far as I know their leaders aren't in on it just like we're not". Tsunade squeezed her eyes shut, fighting off a mounting headache as she slumped against her deck and ground the knuckles of one hand against her forehead as though trying to massage her rejuvenating seal into her brain to quench the new fire that had sprung into being there,

"That's what I thought you said", she groaned before dropping her hand and facing Jiraiya directly, eyes narrowed into lethal slits, "do you have any idea what kind of damage that might do to our standing with the other nations. If even one of those, what, five or six people, all of whom are powerful ninja in their own right, let their commanders know Konoha will have its name blackened in every corner of the Elemental Nations. And don't tell me he was exiled at the time", Jiraiya obediently closed his mouth with a snap, "you really think Kumo or, Kami forbid, Iwa will let the facts stand in the way of a good publicity coup?"

"No and I wouldn't blame either of them; we'd do the same if we could get away with it", Jiraiya commented off-hand before carrying on, "still, it's done and nothing we can do will change it. I've never been one for any of your medical mumbo-jumbo but one thing I do understand now hime, now better than I ever have before in the past, is that Naruto now doesn't think like any other person in this world. Whatever his goals are involve the Elemental Nations, and all of us as well in one way or another but overall", the Toad sage shook his head, "I can't help but think his plans run to something a lot bigger than just dealing with the Akatsuki and our unruly neighbours, though exactly what they are even I can't fathom". Tsunade digested this for a moment before, eventually, giving a nod of agreement,

"That much at least we do agree on Jiraiya-kun; all we can do now is trust whatever he had to say to his, fellows I suppose, for want of a better word, was enough to keep their lips sealed for now. Still, giving how long Kiri took and the fact he went missing for nearly a third of a year", Jiraiya flinched at the venomous tone but, to his credit, didn't back down too much as his team mate glowered in his direction, "what else did the two of you do in the time you were both gone?"

"I did what I needed to hime; I taught him how to take on and kill S-ranked ninja...", unusually for the usually effervescent man, the Gama sannin seemed unusually withdrawn as he spoke, a melancholic bent to his eyes as he recalled the training he had offered to the beast his godson had become and how effortlessly Naruto had taken it in, refined it, improved it and honed it into ever-more lethal killing techniques; even now I'm not sure if I did the right thing – if and when Akatsuki falls, I can't see anything else in the Elemental Nations standing up to him now. If he wished he could crush us underfoot like ants, and I'll die knowing I helped train the destroyer of our world in the skills he needed to make it happen;

"...and he surpassed even my most extreme expectations".


...She had waited patiently, feeling guilty as she watched her friends and comrades take blows and go flying in her stead but, as she sprung her trap, she soothed her troubled conscience by the knowledge that it was all for a greater good. Paper flew around her, twin twisters as she channelled her chakra into a self-taught technique and filled the sky with razor metal, each blade flying through the air towards the target as everyone else immediately shunshinned out of the way, one of the Nara's pre-conceived plans finally bearing fruit. At the centre of the storm the weapon mistress kept her eyes open and fixed on the target, not just to check her accuracy but also for a glimpse, three years long-awaited, of the weapon she had heard so much about but never truly seen, a torment for one as fond of the blade as she was. Now she would see it, she was sure – impressive as Naruto had proven himself to be, there was no way he could dodge that much flying shrapnel, least of all when at least semi-pinned by Shikamaru's Shadow Bind – either he defended himself with the weapon she so ached to see or he'd be turned into shishami.

There was a puff of smoke and a sudden whirl of bronze, what she assumed was the haft of the legendary axe moving so fast it appeared to transmogrify into a shield that proved proof against her attacks. Wire tightened painfully around her fingers, drawing a pinch of protest from her lips as her weapons were deflected with terrible speed and frightening power, several of them pinging off their controlling wires entirely and being lost within the forest. Still, it was for the best, she could stand a little pain in order...her mouth dropped open, eyes widening as a second puff of smoke swallowed the bronze pole and her target, now free of the constricting shadow, leapt away towards other targets, not even showing his attacker the decency to reveal the weapon that had defeated one of her most powerful techniques. Snarling, Tenten leapt down from her perch and grabbed a nodachi before leaping in pursuit of her quarry, determine to get a sight of the Leaf's most powerful hand to hand weapon, never considering what the consequences of forcing the dread axes' wielder to reveal his true strength might have been for both her and her friends...


Hearing Jiraiya's words and explanation, not even needing to check to tell he wasn't lying and that everything he said was the truth, Tsunade found it a hard struggle not to try and drain the bottle of sake on her own and leave her team mate in the lurch this time,

"All of them? You mean he has, the legacy?!"

"Yeah, from both his fathers, the taller sannin replied humourlessly, "not to mention his mother as well. I've got a suspicion that if push truly came to shove he could use the Kyuubi's chakra as well but I've never pushed him on that subject – I know he sees the fox as something more than just a prisoner, or even a partner. Kyuubi saved his life when the change began and is still helping him keep his head even now; because of that reason alone I don't think he'll ever force the fox to give him chakra and that's without the fact that whatever's going on in the grand scheme of things as far as Naruto's concerned the bijuu, all of them, are something to do with it. And all that's to say nothing of the fact that at least some of the fox's power comes from hatred and ill-feeling, things Naruto needs to be exposed to about as much as I need to use that axe of his as a back-scratcher". Smirking at the mental image Tsunade immediately sobered up and moved onto what could, for her, very well be the main meat of a highly unpalatable bento concerned him somewhat unusual but still beloved clan member,

"I can understand that and you've got my gratitude for teaching him what and when you did Jiraiya-kun; I understand it must have been difficult operating a spy network with someone not used to covert operations in tow", try as he might to play off such praise with a self-deprecating remark, the spy master could only stand in silence as the current Hokage bowed to him shallowly, though most of that silence may have been due to the lecher not trusting his voice at the sight of his team mates' cleavage exposed by the gesture, "still, apart from all that, seriously how do you think he's gotten on over these past years?"

Jiraiya had known the last pure-blooded Senju for the better part of five decades and loved her as he had loved no-one else in his life; therefore when he heard her question he knew, even without actively digging for other clues in her tone and voice, exactly what it was she was asking. She didn't want to hear about what he'd learnt, the enemies he'd fought or the plans he'd made; she wanted to know about the friends he had made, the knowledge that he was still clinging on grimly to the humanity that he had been leaving behind ever since the cursed day when the monster he called his second-father had reached across time and cursed him with a drop of tainted blood. As far as Tsunade was concerned now the legend, the A-ranked ninja, the saviour of Kiri, the Senso Haundo; all of that could go hang in the breeze – she was interested in Senju-Uzumaki Naruto, the boy that still existed within the heart of the war machine and how he was coping and adapting to the change in circumstances even beyond his control.

He heard this, the well-hidden but still plaintive request of a woman demanding to know about her child, even if there was no direct biological link between the two; hearing this and recognising it for exactly what it was, Jiraiya nodded and spoke again,

"He's been impeccable Tsu-hime; in these three years he's done more, been involved in more situations than I've done in ten and he's come through all of them with little more than a minor black mark or two against his name. Not just the fighting either, though that's what everyone, and I've been guilty of it too a few times, assumes he's only good for – he can be quite a sensible diplomat if he has to be though truth be told he'd rather solve a problem with physical rather than mental effort, though how much of that comes from his second-father as opposed to his mother I don't know", he bit back a slight chuckle at the memory of Kushina and how she'd decked his former student a few times before Minato had finally been forced to grow a spine and stand up to her, leading to a rivalry that had eventually culminated in the birth of Naruto himself, before getting back on track, "but either way that's who he is. In terms of combat he's not a ninja; in fact I can't think of any ninja less ninja-like than he is; but at the same time I reckon if we were to turn back the clock and fight the battle for Kiri all over again, he could probably do it on his own if he had to". That admission made the Godaimes' eyes widen,

"An entire hidden village? But their Yondaime was a jinchuuriki, and his supporters were fanatics..."

"And to Naruto-kun none of that would matter", Jiraiya assured him, doing his best to hold back a shiver, "he said it himself back then, just after sensei passed away; he thrives on war. Put opponents in front of him and he'll only grow stronger, get faster and tear them apart even quicker than before, with or without that bloody glaive in his hands. In three years he's never stopped learning, making leaps and bounds like no-one else I've ever known; I've done hardly anything but give him the odd word of advice here and there – yes, three years ago we made the right choice in setting him up with the Kiri rebels but as he is as of right now I'd say he wouldn't need them. His control is steel, absolute and as damned near unbreakable as any I've ever seen, and I've tangled with a few Root agents in my time; he can use his clones almost as well as he uses other techniques but, quite frankly, unless he's up against someone spectacular, most of the time he just doesn't need to bother".

The words were simultaneously both a relief and a source of cold panic to the Slug sage; yes it was good to hear that Naruto would, or should, be as ready as anyone or anything else in the Elemental Nations for the attack of the Akatsuki group, but at the same time if he was such a terrible combatant that very few other people in the ninja world could really hold a candle to him, what was the guarantee that he would stay loyal to anyone but himself once the threat had ended? Tsunade had seen such genius corrupted before and the death of her sensei at the hands of her former team mate was an ache that would never truly fade, but Naruto was not and would never be Orochimaru; if nothing else, the Kyuubi would stop such corruption before it could truly take root in his head. Despite such assurances though,

"You still think he's a potential risk?" She almost didn't realise she'd spoken until Jiraiya replied though, thankfully, he didn't call her out on it,

"Anyone's a potential risk hime, a jinchuuriki more than most; Naruto-kun though", he shook his head, "maybe it's just me being too trusting but I just can't see someone like him, who's been in some of the situations he's been in over the past few years, plunging a dagger into our backs like that, the picture just won't form in my head. I've been looking over his shoulder for give or take three years and, strange as it might sound, I have to say if there's any fault to be had with anything he goes through nine times out of ten it's not him in the wrong, it's the world he's been forced to live in". The oblique comment cause Tsunade to frown, trying to mull it over as she pondered the words in her mind,

"The world, you mean the world of shinobi? I'm first to admit it's not ideal and Kami knows everyone's lost something..."

"No, no I don't mean that; in fact the gaki says it best himself – I asked once when I saw him looking a bit down, he thought I wasn't around and, when I pressed him a bit, this is what he said the problem was to me", drawing himself up to full height Jiraiya took a deep breath and spoke four words that had weighed heavy on his mind for the year and half since he'd heard them first,

"China dolls and cardboard".


...Finishing her scan and confident all was as it should be, Sakura released her patient with a word of warning she was sure he was going to ignore,

"Try not to move that arm too much over the next few days; you might not be so lucky next time". As she'd expected, Neji merely smiled and bowed in apology, the slight scars on his naked scalp picked out by the bright rays of the descending sun,

"My thanks for your treatment and concern Sakura-san", the Hyuuga spoke before activating his bloodline and springing away, back to the battle, "but I fear my team mate needs assistance!" Shaking her head and muttering something derogatory under her breath, the medic moved back under the shadow of one of the nearby trees and flopped down next to her compatriot, turning to the blonde as Ino glanced over after scanning the tree line for a moment,

"Men, they're all alike – more balls than brain-cells the lot of them". The Yamanaka snorted,

"Not all of them but I'd definitely with that in the case of your Kiba-kun, he's claiming you as a girlfriend isn't he – oh, touchy", despite her grin she still shuffled backwards at the sight of Sakura's suddenly clenched fist and warlike expression – out of all of the medical ninja, the cherry blossom was closest to truly emulating their sensei's enhanced strength techniques, "still, though, reckon we might have a few more patients to deal with soon".

Ino's prediction was soon proved true as with a snap of breaking wood, one of the nearby trees over to the right was shaken violently and, after a brief scuffling noise, a green body was hurled into the main clearing of the training grounds. Using his superb agility Lee merely twisted and landed on his feet in a fighting stance just as Naruto arrived at a charge, breaking through the foliage with the earth shaking under his feet. He and the taijutsu prodigy exchanged a volley of blows almost too quick for the eyes to follow and, even though by Sakura's count Lee landed a lot more shots, the blonde just seemed to soak up the damage and give back murder, a single one of his jabs that the Green Beast was just a hair too slow to avoid was all it took to catapult the smaller chunin back fifteen feet. Something small and sizzling landed at the jinchuuriki's feet before he could follow up and, by the time the smoke of the tags' detonation had cleared, Lee was gone, back into cover to link up with anyone left against the rampaging demon host. Left alone for a moment's respite, Naruto seemed to taste the air with both his nose and tongue while deflecting a brace of shuriken almost without thought using one of the oversized kunai held in holsters at his hips before lunging back in a different direction, following the wind towards fresh prey. Watching him go and idly wondering how long it would be before someone else limped towards her and Ino for medical aid, Sakura turned to her friend and shrugged,

"They're brave, I'll give them that much – he was, Kami he was scary at the chunin exams and we barely saw much of what he could do then. I'm just grateful he's not out for a proper fight now, right Ino. Ino-chan?"

Sakura turned to her friend when the Yamanaka didn't answer and immediately her expression became concerned; usually the life and soul of a party, Ino appeared, if not withdrawn exactly, then certainly concerned with something, eyes glued to the point where Naruto had been lost from sight. Touching her friends' hand gently, Sakura wasn't all that surprised when the other chunin started and glanced around, the pink-haired girl dropping back a step to show she was harmless before speaking,

"Something on that massive, multi-layered mind of yours buta?" The Yamanaka smiled weakly at the jab before, in a low, soft voice, she gave possibly the last answer Sakura would have ever expected from the blonde,

"I'm scared forehead".

"Scared?" Sakura repeated dumbly before, remembering what she'd just seen, she understood and nodded, "Oh, about that – well I certainly wouldn't blame you – we knew from Tsunade-sama he was something else but to see it like this..."

"No Sakura-chan", her friend shook her head, smiling sadly as she did so, the expression so alien on Ino's face that Sakura found herself stunned into muteness as her fellow chunin went on, "what I'm seeing doesn't scare me as much as what I'm not seeing".

"What? Ino-chan that makes...", the words died on Sakura's tongue, the realisation creeping over her like a blanket of snow as she licked suddenly dry lips and croak out a self-correction, " mean... how much is he still holding back?" The empathic kunoichi shivered,

"Virtually everything; he's so used to pulling his punches it's like second nature to him but I can still feel his frustration Sakura-chan, only just but it's there and it's enough to make me very worried", not for nothing was Ino considered a worthy apprentice for Morino Ibiki when she had time off from medical duties, a Yamanaka cut from the same cloth as her father and as in-tune with the emotions of others as she could be with herself, "it's like he's a dam, a huge, impregnable dam holding everything he's capable of out of our sight, just showing us a trickle of what he can really do. I know shishou trusts him so I will too but even so, after seeing him for just a few minutes after years apart, I'm absolutely terrified of what could happen if he lets himself go. If that dam breaks", she shook her head sadly, ponytail and bang swaying as she unconsciously shifted towards her friend, seeking comfort in a familiar presence as Sakura put a hand on her shoulder reassuringly, just like she or one of the other medics usually did if Ino had been through a harrowing interrogation, "I don't think there's anyone or anything in Konoha that would survive the flood..."


"China dolls and...what?"

"Imagine", Jiraiya continued without allowing Tsunade to dwell too much on her question, "if you had your strength technique up to, let's say a third, a third of what it usually is, okay?" Not sure exactly where he was going with this the Godaime nevertheless nodded only to nearly blanch at the Toad sages' next words,

"Now imagine you couldn't turn it off, at all, it's completely normal to you – can you imagine how difficult that would make normal life for you? That's what he goes through every day of his life; I've been there and seen it happen hime", Jiraiya shook his head as though disturbed by a cloud of mosquitoes, trying to make his team mate understand the issue, "he'd dropped that seal by the time I caught up with him at the edge of Lightning, hasn't worn it since and probably just as well; at least now he's got an excuse as to why he sometimes breaks stairs or uproots floorboards when he steps on them. I didn't understand it at first but, when I did, it all made sense – he lives in a world made of cardboard, things we take for granted just aren't built to take his strength, or his weight for that matter, into account. Everything he does, every tiny move he makes he has to scrutinise to make sure he's not going to break something or, even worse, someone doing it". At that last word a sudden chill crept into Tsunade's chest and, more to excise it before it could burrow too deeply into her, the Hokage managed to ask the fatal question,

"The people, the china dolls, they're so fragile he could break them without meaning to; please tell me he hasn't..."

"He's never killed a man that didn't deserve it hime, not to my knowledge at least", Jiraiya was quick to soothe her worries and Tsunade let out a relieved breath as he did, "thank the Kami either he or Kyuubi can make sure he stays rational enough to plan everything. Even now, when he's no doubt sparring with most of the rookie chunin; if he was anything even close to serious", he shook his head, lined face creasing into a mask of gravitas as he spoke with sincerity, "we'd be burying a lot of clan heirs and promising young ninja tomorrow morning".

"Is, is there anything we can do?" Tsunade asked, only the slightest quaver in her tone betraying how much she didn't want to have this conversation, "Seals, you're a fuuinjutsu expert, can we...?"

"No, that'd be about the worst thing we could do and not just because it'd demean Naruto-kun's years of almost perfect self-control in the worst possible way", Jiraiya told him, Tsunade eventually nodding at his logic; after all, if I spent years honing my chakra control only for someone to say it wasn't enough and slap a seal on to do it for me I'd be pretty hacked off as well; "with the seal that contains his bijuu on him as well, adding extra to his body may destabilise the whole matrix and bring it all crashing down like a house of cards. I know, or at least Naruto-kun's told me the fox doesn't want to break free but, even so, I was a lot more relieved than I let on when I realised he'd got rid of your clan seal for good – that was more than enough of a risk for him as far as I was concerned. Still it's gone now and Naruto-kun is his own person; I've seen him spar, train and fight with other people and so far he hasn't so much as chipped a single china doll – well, apart from that one time in Taki..."

"Do I even want to know?" Jiraiya grinned,

"Well it was quite funny in the end; after I got us access to Waterfall and their jinchuuriki, though of course Naruto spoke to her on his own; officially we were just there to take a load off after a few days on the road; one of their jounin who'd hung around Kiri a bit recognised him and got a bit uppity, challenged him to a kendo spar. Of course due to his new obligations – ask him tonight, you'll find out then and believe me it's quite a story – he had to accept and, well, long story short he won with a practice o-katana. Thing was what Shibuki-sama, that's the new oyabun-jounin of Taki by the way, failed to mention was that he was having a spot of bother with Oto at the time and because of that and the fact the duel was held outside, we ended up coming under attack by Sound forces. They weren't anything particularly special, a couple of cursed seal bearers that Shibuki and I put down, but the leader was a whole different matter; he was a Kayuga believe it or not".

"The clan of the Dead Bone Pulse?" Though not usually an expert on the myriad of bloodlines that proliferated within the Elemental Nations, Tsunade had in her youth studied that particular Kiri clan quite closely in the hopes of developing osteopathic treatments based on their manipulation of bone, though unfortunately due to the clan's self-inflicted genocide, it had never come to anything; though apparently they weren't quite as dead as everyone thought they were; "Huh, you see something new every day – I swear trouble doesn't so much find you as consider you a favourite drinking partner, and now you've dragged Naru-kun into your messes! I assume he faced him down?"

"Yep, though he actually didn't kill him, the Kayuga up and died right in the middle of his sword-fighting, just pitched over onto his face and croaked", Jiraiya reported with a shrug, "still, the two of them went at it for a good ten minutes and the idiot couldn't keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it. It was all 'you are trash' and 'for the glory of Orochimaru-sama', typical snake-fag zealot; he must have been gone into the afterlife really pissed knowing Naruto managed to keep him at bay with just a wooden sword and some inventive kawarimi. After we chased off the rest of the attack and had a look at the bodies the med-nin were able to piece together why; the kid had more drugs in his system than the village pharmacy, it was only a matter of time before he expired anyway and fighting like he was only hastened the end. After that was over Naruto-kun led a platoon of Taki shinobi back along the Oto trail and trashed their base, blew it sky-high; I imagine that's why our scaly friend kept his picture in the Bingo-book, he must have had his eye on Taki for quite a while considering the size of the place they brought down". Remembering her sensei's murder with a scowl, Tsunade viciously downed what was left of the sake in her saucer and muttered under her breath,

"As far as I'm concerned anything that scorches that snakes' tail is a good thing in my book; just a pity the Uchiha wasn't there, I'm sure Naruto-kun would've loved to have cleaned his clock just out of principle. So, anything else you need to tell me or are we about done?" Oh boy; just by the look on his face she could tell she'd put her foot in it this time; bang go my hopes of an early night;

"Ah my hime, surely you are the true medic, healing not just a warriors wounds with you soft, supple hands but opening your ears to the suffering of his soul..." Once more Jiraiya dove for cover just in time to avoid being nailed by a flying desk object, this time a paperweight as his team mate glowered at him murderously,

"Is that so? Well listen up 'hero' I haven't got all day, so be quick about unloading the suffering of your soul before I decide to add a few more bruises to that body of yours!" He tried, he really, really tried to heed the rational part of his mind and save himself some grief but, in the end, there was just no choice but to open his mouth and take advantage of the opportunity,

"Ah my love, at last you return my affection; fear not for I like no other can endure whatever erotic games of foreplay you can deviii-arrgh, not the face, not the face! Or that – I've changed my mind, the face, the face!"


...The situation wasn't good but they could still do it, though victory would be cheapened by the means they had to sink to achieve it. However, as he hastily briefed up the second of his two remaining team mates, the first having dutifully taken what was now referred to as a suicide order to try and slow the target down in any way he could, Kiba knew he just needed a single shot, just one, and surely he'd be able to put this one away. The brief delivered, the Inuzuka ran downwind towards the sounds of the nearby fight, cursing quietly as he watched the form of his partner be tossed away over a clump of nearby bushes – it was all down to him and Lee now.

Kami smiled upon his arrival; he could see that the taijutsu master had engaged the target and was trying to dodge, rather than strike, their larger friend, at the same time as pull him towards Kibas' ambush. Though Lee had at first been against such unyouthful tactics even he could place grim necessity above the flames of youth, therefore when Kiba gave him a silent signal he dived to the side, allowing the heir to the House of Dogs the run up for his clear shot, Naruto facing away for the rush. Wind howled in his ears as Kiba ran, crossing the ground as swiftly as possible before, with a half-formed shout of an apology on his lips, he drew back his leg and swung mightily for the target, Naruto for some reason either too off-balance or too slow to block him, though considering what was about to happen, why was his grinning like tha...

Even as a sudden scream of agony reached his ears and the sight before him made his eyes bulge in astonishment, Lee sensed his opponent move but was too shocked to do anything about it; all that he remembered was a sudden crushing blow on the top of his bowl-cut of hair before he was plunged into darkness and the afternoon-long spar was brought to a final close.


In the end, thanks to Naruto holding back, the medical assistance of all Tsunade's students and a pinch of luck, all the ninja involved in the welcome-home brawl were able to more or less walk home alone and unaided, rubbing bruises and nursing aches and pains but nothing debilitating or that would put them out of action for more than a few hours at most. The one exception to this rule, however, was currently limping back towards the village as part of a very odd quartet, shooting irritated glances towards another member of the foursome as he tried to both keep his weight off his injured leg and his girlfriends' shoulder simultaneously,

"I really, really can't believe you Naruto-baka", shifting the comatose form of Akamaru, the nin-ken currently unconscious following his head colliding with a badly-placed tree following Naruto deflecting one of the twister-like attacks of one half of the Inuzuka duo and now slung over the jinchuuriki's shoulders for easy carriage on the way back to the village, the spar victor glanced sidelong at the glowering form of the smaller shinobi, "who in their right mind, in this day and age, wears bloody chakra-metal reinforced codpieces!"

"Someone very used to fighting people smaller than him", Naruto shot back affronted, remembering more than a few times in Kiri when such a garment had proved exceptionally handy in keeping his vitals protected even if they no longer functioned properly any more due to circumstances beyond his control, "especially when a large number of those opponents use swords and fight dirty. Besides it was your own fault; you know trying to kick a fellow guy there violates every code of manhood ever designed or envisioned". At that rebuke Kiba at least had the good grace to look rueful, though that could just have been the pain throbbing around his lower leg,

"I know but I couldn't think of anything else to even try; you stymied half of Shika's plans the second it all kicked off, and I think it's safe to say I've already paid the penalty for any anti-bro moves – it feels like I split my shinbone in half". From the side of him Sakura gave a huff of equal parts annoyance and effort as she repositioned his arm over her shoulder, exasperation clear in her tone at the shinobi's stupidity,

"You suffered a hairline fracture of the bone at worst you big baby; honestly how you expect to run your clan with such a pathetic level of pain tolerance is completely beyond me. I've heard other med-nins once popped your mothers' shoulder back into place and she barely even flinched".

"Oh that old chestnut", Kiba rolled his eyes, "these'd be the same med-nin who swear she gave birth to Hana-chan at the same time as dictating orders for the next clan meeting; she was high as a kite on gas the whole time, I've seen her medical records; it's all just part of the image she likes to throw around. Besides", a smile made his cheek tattoos crinkled and his shouldered arm moved enough to let him brush the girls' chin with his fingertip, "who needs a high pain tolerance when I've got you?" Sakura shook her head and, had she a hand free, would have palmed her face at such a comment,

"You're hopeless, and stop that sniggering", suitably chastised, Naruto immediately fell silent as the cherry blossom rounded on him, "you'll just encourage him".

"Sounds to me like he doesn't need much encouragement Sakura-chan, and you should be grateful he cares", the jinchuuriki admonished her gently, grateful they were getting close to the Inuzuka compound and that it was away from the village as a whole as he was already getting a few funny looks from passersby due to the fact he was carrying a huge canine over his shoulders, "you know I've got precious few previous examples of good relationships to fall back on; baa-chan continually knocking seven bells out of ero-sennin is hardly what I'd call a platonic relationship at least; but even I can tell he's serious".

"Yeah, you see"; cheers bro, the code is still strong within you – I don't know how I'll do it but I will find a way to pay you back; pouncing on the jinchuuriki's words Kiba seized the moment and ran with it as far and as fast as he could, "Naru agrees with me and we all just got schooled in how awesome he is – no way he could be wrong, right? Look, okay", seeing the stony visage Sakura swung his way and regarded him with Kiba held up his free hand placatingly, "just drop in when you drop me off – a decent meal's the least I, or in fact all of us owe you after the battlefield first aid you handed out for most of the day. Naruto-kun, offer's open to you too if you've no other plans".

"Fraid not, I'd hate to think what baa-chan would do to me if I missed my first night home", the jinchuuriki admitted before glancing ahead and nodding at the figure approaching from the collection of homes in the distance, "and speaking of which I'd better be away right about now, assuming you can get this bundle of fluff up and moving any time soon Hana-chan". Sliding Akamaru off his shoulders, into his arms and then lowering the massive nin-ken to the floor, Naruto came to his full height just in time to see the elder Inuzuka sibling cluck her tongue at the comatose canine and shake her head at her brother, her partners all crowding around the larger dog and giving a trio of worried whines,

"I hate to say I told you so baka but..."

"Yeah, yeah, spare me the sermon", Kiba grumbled, his sister merely shaking her head as she knelt down and began making hand-signs, "besides wasn't it kaa-san who always said you never learn more or feel more alive than when tackling the biggest prey? Well the evil old witch was right", he admitted freely, drawing in a shocked gasp from Sakura and a well-concealed hitch of the shoulders from Hana as he glanced over at his returned friend, "Naruto-kun, we really must to that again sometime when we've all got a weekend free". Chuckling and returning Hana's greeting bow as both she and, rather more groggily, Akamaru both came to their feet, the tallest of the four chunin turned to his friend to reply,

"I agree, though hopefully this time I'll get to see what you and Ino-chan picked up from the old woman; grateful though I'm sure the rest of them were that you were able to act as medical support I really don't fancy squaring off against Hinata-chan again", he made a show of wincing as he touched a spot just above his right hip, "combining Jyuuken with chakra scalpels was the idea of a warped and twisted genius – she's turned into quite the little wildcat since I was gone".

"Tell me about it; she's in my team and guess who along with Shino-kun got roped in to helping her develop that style", he groused before speaking in the language of the dogs to his now-recovered partner, Akamaru moving up to his uninjured side and allowing him to hop on for a ride, much to Sakura's relief as she massaged her sore shoulder, "still, thanks for the fight and the appetite it kicked up – Sakura-chan, you..."

"No", the cherry blossom put her foot down, though fortunately not quite hard enough to make the earth crack open, "I'm tired, sweaty and know for a fact one of the first things I'm going to see tomorrow is going to be your ugly face because, Kami-sama help me, I'm on the early shift at the hospital – the last thing I need now is – hey", a sudden soft but firm grip seized her upper arm and, swinging around with her fist raised, she walked straight into the deadly attack that was Akamaru's puppy-dog eyes, the recovering nin-ken having immobilised her arm gently with his teeth, "whoa, no, stop it Aka-kun, that's a hit below the belt. Kiba make him stop", the Inuzuka managed to keep an admirably straight face as he gave a helpless shrug and, after a long moment meeting eye to doe-like eye with the nin-ken, Sakura dropped her fist and capitulated, "dammit, alright, I'll have my stupid dinner at your stupid clan house. Damned Inuzuka, always cheating and using their pets against me when they know I can't hurt animals", she complained, letting the now grinning Kiba pull her up behind him on his canine steed before whipping around and flaying the other male present alive with her eyes, "and you, you didn't say much did you?"

"Leave me out of this", Naruto retorted, dropping back a pace, "there are very few wars I'd be afraid to be caught in the middle of but wars of the heart are certainly among them. Go enjoy your meal, and Hana-chan", the elder Inuzuka looked up at the rather more playful tone in the jinchuuriki's voice, though 'playful' was perhaps quite a relative term when applied to someone who's voice was probably understandable to certain varieties of sea life, "I'm relying on you to make sure Kiba-kun's face isn't the first thing Sakura-chan sees tomorrow morning..."

Baa-chan did her job too well methinks; the thought passed through Naruto's mind just as he jerked his head to the side to prevent a shuriken from doing the same thing, Sakura somewhat understandably peeved at him and letting her temper show by throwing sharp bits of metal at his retreating form. After he casually dodged the weapons he could and deflected those he couldn't following his extraction from the danger zone, the jinchuuriki was grateful for his eyesight, enhanced by bio-sorcery of a bygone age to be much clearer and have a greater range than that of a normal person, letting him see the small stick-figure with the shock of pink hair thump the shoulder of someone in front of her before wrapping her arms around them with a good deal more tenderness. Good for her, both of them; he had known, or at least suspected that of all his former peers who may have been affected by the betrayal of one of their number Sakura had the deepest feelings for the one who'd absconded from the Leaf, but it seemed she was doing well enough both as a med-nin and in her personal life, Kiba obviously under her skin like a splinter and refusing to be dislodged by even her most vehement protests; much like someone else I know. Speaking of which; turning away and making sure no-one else was around for the moment, Naruto allowed himself a smile, a smile that he very rarely showed other than to people who, a few seconds after they saw it, weren't going to be alive enough to tell the world about their experience; tonight's the night for another little reunion I wouldn't miss for all the iron in Tetsu country!


Umino Iruka was a man who had started out with modest goals in life and had, to his own mind, achieved or surpassed most of them; he was doing well in his careers, the third-youngest deputy headmaster of the shinobi Academy in history was no mean feat after all; had built up quite a nest-egg in his savings and, somehow and almost without him being at all aware of how it happened, he had picked up a better half as well, and not just any wife either. The thought of his Shizune-chan was a constant comfort to him whenever work was rough or his work friends and colleagues teased him for holding the ear of the Hokage to ransom by marrying her niece, but at the same time even the thought of the black-haired goddess and, more than that, the new addition to the family she was going to bring into the world sometime within the next half a year, couldn't quite banish the one dark cloud on his horizon. The post of teaching, as he had often told his students, did not pay a kingly salary and restricted his available time to do missions as well; due to this lack of both time and money, Shizune was still living with her former mentor and he was confined to a bachelor pad, unable to afford permanent dwellings for them both as property prices in Konoha had only increased following the necessary rebuilding of the village after the debacle of the chunin exams some years before. Though, some of the houses along that White Blossoms Street seemed to be coming down in price at last – maybe in a few more months I'll have enough cash scraped together to put down at least a deposit; he thought glumly to himself as he knocked on the door to the traditional but comfortable house that housed the remaining Senju in the village and her now-pregnant protégé; and just as well. Ducking and diving around town was fun for a while but something tells me Godaime-sama would be somewhat upset if she ever found out her future great-niece or nephew was conceived in a love-hotel...

It was at that moment, just as the memories of that particular night were writ large on Iruka's face, that the door to the Senju residence swung open and he was brought violently down to earth by the sights of a second sudden thunderhead that had appeared in his formerly virtually cloudless sky like a falling meteorite. Face frozen in a strange, half-strangled smile, the Academy tutor found he could only stare bloodlessly into the volcanic glower that he'd last seen some three years previously after it, and the body it was attached to, all but single-handedly saved the Leaf village from invasion; though something tells me this time; he fought to both remember how to breathe and restart his heart simultaneously as he realised that, unlike the house dilemma, this particular problem was not one that could be resolved by throwing money at it and, just for good measure, had previously threatened to tear him limb from limb for the sake of his older sisters' heart; we're not standing shoulder to shoulder any more.

"Ah, uh, Naruto-san", he began awkwardly, his former student not deigning to answer and instead merely continuing to burn a hole through him with his eyes, "I'd heard you were back, in the village that is; uh", somehow Iruka thought a question along the lines of 'how was your exile?' was not going to be the way to claw his way back onto the jinchuuriki's good side and therefore moved on to safer ground, "good to see you again".

"Umino-san", the answering rumble was about as inviting as an earthquake and the sight of the jinchuuriki stepping back from the door to allow him entry to the shadowed hallway, "a pleasure you could join us this evening. Come in", his beckoning seemed to resemble a hangman leading the way to the noose but, for the love of his wife, Iruka had no choice but to ascend the gallows and step inside, just about hiding his jump at the sound of the door banging shut behind him, "baa-chan was just finishing laying the table".

It hadn't been the most genial of reunions and almost as soon as he saw the seating arrangements the scar-nosed man knew with a sinking feeling that it was only going to get worse; arranged across from Shizune-chan so he could, in Tsunade-sama's words, 'gaze into her beautiful eyes any time he felt like it', about the only saving grace he had was that the chair he was in made sure he sat higher at the table than Naruto, sat by the side of him at what Iruka considered an uncomfortably close distance, did.

Though even that crumb of comfort was soured by the simple fact that, unlike everyone else seat at the dining table, the jinchuuriki was sitting directly on the floor and was still only a hair short of reaching his shoulder.

The meal itself was definitely one of Shizunes; he'd eaten her cooking far too many times to mistake it for her mentors as Tsunade, though a genius in her own right, seemed to suffer from a curse common to all levels of prodigy and simply did not seem able to take care of herself to the level most normal people could. Though the Slug sage could cook, compared to the creations dished up by her apprentice the meals were dry, dull affairs that very rarely left people asking for seconds as Shizunes' always did – the thought of what might happen to his village leader should he ever actually be able to commit his name to paper and sign his name to a house deed was one reason Iruka was content to allow the former Kato to remain where she was for the moment. He had been at the Senju residence before, several times in fact both as Shizune's partner and then as her husband, but in all those times never before had he felt under such intense scrutiny, or pressure, as he felt now. The worst thing was that Naruto himself was virtually silent; it was Tsunade who was doing all the talking; however, just because he wasn't saying anything, Naruto was certainly making his presence felt if the beads of nervous sweat trickling down the back of his former sensei's neck were anything to go by,

"So then Iru-kun", the Godaimes' voice was conversational but he could see the mischief in her eyes, and what was worse he couldn't say anything because she was both the head of the household he was currently enjoying the company of and his boss, "how's the job going?"

"Ah, well enough Tsunade-sama..."

"Oh come now, stop being so straight-laced", she admonished him, waving a hand, "we're all a big, happy family here; you know I'll never forget the first time you were here and called little Shishi-chan hime for the first time". There was a sudden spike of killing intent to the side of him and made Iruka cringe, though before he could even react it was gone as though it had never been; left flailing, he could only gabble his answers,

"Uh, yes Tsunade-san", he corrected himself at the last minute, "that was a, quite extraordinary day".

"I'll say; for a very long time I thought the closest either of you were going to get to the opposite sex would be either medical textbooks or the gutter-fillers my perverted team mate dares call literature", there was a second spike of aggression by the side of him and Iruka cringed again; once he'd been tempted to read the book that so entranced a large proportion of Konoha's shinobi forces, once and the Hokage had never let him forget it, "still, on that I'm glad to be proved wrong, as I'm sure you were as well Iruka-san?"

He knew what she was doing but, at the same time, how could he possibly avoid it; with his wife's adopted but sometime-psychopathic little brother all but breathing down his neck, anything he could have said in answer would almost certainly be taken the wrong way and could quite literally be the death of him,

"Well I, that is to say Shizune-chan and I..."

"Must be very happy with each other", he could all but hear the nails being hammered into his coffin and it appeared the Godaime seemed all out of mercy to spare him as her next words seemed to be little more than the last rites to the Dolphin ninja, "though really, would it have killed the two of you to wait until after the wedding to produce an heir?"

He didn't even need to look to the side or feel the killing intent; the sound of chopsticks being reduced to sawdust from very close by was more than enough – however just as he was debating whether rapidly excusing himself or just passing out would be the more proper course of action there was a sudden bang from across the table and Shizune shot to her feet, eyes blazing as they swept to the other members of her family like a katon jutsu,

"That's enough the pair of you; stop trying to put the fear of Kami into my Iruka-kun; you're old enough to know better and you shouldn't be encouraging her", suddenly both Tsunade and, more surprisingly, Naruto were on the back foot in the face of the younger woman's annoyance, "I've put up with it for this long but no more! One more peep out of either of you and we will both leave and we'll never darken the door of the Senju-Uzumaki clan again, do you understand me?"


"I said", Shizune was usually quite a reserved, respectful person but on the topic of her husband she was completely unable to compromise and because of that she met her sensei's eye without fear, in fact with challenge alight in her sudden stare, "do you understand me?"

The stare down was on, master and apprentice locking eyes in a test of strength and knowledge of the force that lay between them, the strength of blood and family bonds; the two could have stayed where they were until time itself ended and all the suns went dark before, with an impact that brought both sets of eyes onto him and nearly made Iruka pass out again, a heavy hand landed on the taller chunins' shoulder and, looking around, all three other occupants of the dining table were in time to hear Naruto speak,

"You are a very lucky man Umino Iruka", Naruto stated quietly, though with sincerity in his voice and a smile on his lips as he patted his fellow chunins' shoulder as softly as he could manage, "to have my nee-chan for your wife".

With that the tension was earthed and banished as though it had never been; Tsunade muttered something like an apology for both her teasing and roping Naruto into it, Iruka nervously grinned and spoke various platitudes about how grateful he was to have claimed the heart of the raven-maned med-nin and the meal progressed with a much more jovial, relaxed atmosphere about it. As the night passed on and candles burnt lower the conversation turned hither and thither as was the want of those speaking it until, after Tsunade had broken out a bottle of vintage sake to celebrate both her nephews' return and his meeting with his now-brother-in-law, things took a slight twist following Shizune, herself on water for the sake of her baby, gaining a measure of revenge for her mentors' conduct earlier in the night,

"And don't look at me like that sensei, you've only yourself to blame", she pointed out in order to deflect Tsunades' reproachful look, "if you just did your work as and when it came into the office I wouldn't have to keep locking you in there to get it all signed when the deadlines come due".

"Ha, if I did it all as it came in I'd never leave the damned place", the older woman complained, nursing her saucer before sighing, "but you're right Shizune-chan, as always, though you have to say my filing systems' gotten better recently, especially since Danzo stopped making so much of a nuisance of himself some years ago. Curse you Umino", though she was only waving a playful fist Iruka nevertheless drew back slightly on his seat, knowing full-well just how destructive even love-taps from the last Senju could be, "you took away my rock, my guardian against the evils of the paperwork!"

"Stop being so amateur-dramatic you old drama-queen", the sudden comment from the side made everyone look over, Tsuande in particular looking venomous at the comment about her age as the other member of her clan went on, "Shizune-neechan doesn't save you from the paperwork more than she saves you from being you half the time, though saying that there has to be a reason everything in that tower runs so smoothly. I'm pretty sure everyone knows who wields the tanto in the Hokage tower and it isn't the one wearing the hat – as I said sensei", this time Iruka had to fight to stop squirming in his seat for a different reason as Naruto flicked him a glance and a smile, "you're a very lucky man". At that comment the teacher did nod,

"I am, first to admit it I am, though truth be told I still can't work out what I did enough to please the Kami enough to earn Shi-hime at my side", the medic looked away bashfully as her husband beamed across the table at her, her mind posing the same question to herself that he was trying to answer with his, "though whatever it was I'm grateful I did it. I know for a while my old man was worried the family name would end with me and if it hadn't been for your nee-chan he might well have been right".

Iruka had always possessed a vein of self-depreciating humour and had expected a bit of a laugh out of that admission; however even as Shizune smiled across the table to silently reassure him that wasn't the case, her brother appeared to recover from his slight laughing fit enough to allay his fathers' fears in a completely different manner,

"You give yourself too little credit sensei; I know for a fact if you hadn't expressed any interest in my neechan there would have been someone else close by who'd have snapped your right off the shelf".

"Really?" That was news to Iruka, "Who?"

"Give you a clue; a lot of women might have been single in the village but she was the only one desperate enough to paint it on a banner for everyone to read"; Iruka thought about this oblique clue for a moment before his eyes widened and he spluttered at the same time Tsunade did, though the Hokage's reasons for laughter might have been for slightly less noble reasons that the chunins; her and Iruka-kun? Oh that would just have been the proof to end all proof that opposites attract;

"Anko, Mitarashi Anko?" In perfect honesty he'd barely even met the jounin before, let alone suspected she might have fanned some kind of a flame for him, "Your sensei had, or was..."

"Yes, she was, and she's now more than ever my former sensei", Naruto answered, voice becoming steadily graver as he went on after lowering his head, "I am sad to say that Mitarashi Anko is no longer with us", Iruka too bowed his head; even if he'd had hardly anything to do with the former apprentice of the Snake, the loss of any ninja of the Leaf was a pain shared by the entire cadre of her ninja, "however I'm also pleased to report that Momochi Anko has taken off right where that savage, sadistic but still so very sexy bitch left off, and that husband of hers only encourages the worst in her. What", he defended himself from Iruka's incredulous stare with a shrug and nod towards the village leader, "there's a reason she's the official envoy to Kiri you know?" Iruka merely shook his head,

"No I didn't know, just like the name Momochi is ringing absolutely no bells in my mind". Naruto chuckled again,

"Better not let him hear you say that sensei or he might well ring a few bells in your head with his fists – Momochi Zabuza, one of the Kiri Swordsmen, carts around a blade bigger than he is, that tick off any pages in the mental Bingo Book?" The chunin, if anything, looked only more confused before his sharp mind pieced the puzzle together and he gawped,

"Momochi, the one team seven and you faced down at the Red Bridge of Wave? I thought he was a nuke-nin rather than one of Kiri's Seven Swordsmen?" Naruto merely waved a hand as though the accusation was nothing more than a fly to be swatted aside,

"Reinstated after the fall of the Yondaime for good behaviour and helping out the rebels, and speaking of the Swordsmen there aren't seven of them anymore, well, not strictly speaking anyway". Iruka quirked an eyebrow at this before a groan sounded from across the table, Tsunade massaging her eyes as this particular cog once more ground against her mental gears,

"I'd heard bits and pieces about this debacle brat but I'd like the full story now I can finally hear it – what exactly did you manage to swindle out of that place?"

"I swindled, as you so crudely put it baa-chan, nothing that wasn't freely given", the younger of the Senju-Uzumaki shot back affronted, "after my work in Kiri was resolved Mei-sama, that's the new Mizukage", he elaborated for Iruka's benefit before carrying on, "was very grateful and granted me free passage throughout all of the land of Water, similar to your old travelling rights. However on top of that she also mentioned it was virtually impossible for her to ignore the opinion and fervour of both her ninja and the public on one particular matter; because of that, even though I'm not affiliated with Kiri at all, the Mist now considered there to be eight ninja swordsmen in the world rather than just their seven; the Doragon wa kiri no naka ni kakusa re they call me now".

"Shouldn't it be Haundo wa kiri no naka ni kakusa re?"

"Funnily enough I said that too baa-chan", the jinchuuriki admitted, looking somewhat wistful and amused at the same time, "but Mei-san seemed insistent that didn't seem a fair reflection on the reputation of my 'jigokuton' within the Land of Water, said I needed something a bit more impressive". The Hokage snorted,

"You've got that oversized bludgeon haven't you, what more do you need?" Fortunately, before Naruto could give a response to that, Shizune stepped in to make the save,

"As well they should see fit to thank you for your hard work Naru-kun, even if I'm not sure why they call you a swordsman when that thing you use is an axe from what I remember of it", Shizune managed to smile serenely even if the memory of the hateful thing that was welded to her brother in all but bloods' arm was to her nothing more than a disgusting relic of a past best buried and forgotten about, "speaking of which, is it still..."

"Where it's always kept neechan", the altered jinchuuriki said softly, remembering that Shizune out of all those who knew of the monstrous weapons' existence was the one who held it in the least regard; quite a feat considering I hate the damned thing myself; "though it didn't get out of Kiri unscathed either. Sensei", Iruka glanced over and, seeing the taller man flex the arm closest to him and having an inkling as to what might happen next, immediately obeyed his next command, "duck".

As the plume of smoke cleared and Iruka dared to squint upwards he suddenly found himself slinking as far towards the far edge of his chair as he could possibly go without appearing incredibly impolite; that was far, far closer than he'd ever wanted to be to the thing he'd heard a lot about but never actually seen in the flesh despite serving with the jinchuuriki under arms. The axe, if such a weapon could be referred to in such simple terms, was just as terrible as he'd been told but at the same time so unutterably much worse, more terribly fearsome in a manner that couldn't be accurately described. It was something that defied human comprehension, a weapon that man should never have been able to wield against man yet which, impossibly, existed despite all attempts at rationality to disprove it. As Naruto swung the heavy head away from him Iruka felt a relief as profound as the Shinigami declaring it wasn't yet his time wash over him, rendering him almost numb enough to miss Tsunades' sudden accusation,

"Don't tell me someone else was mad enough to touch that thing?"

"Of course not, I did it myself", Naruto rebuked her verbal accosting before glancing up at the crude symbol that now adorned the formerly blank face of his weapon, the symbol of the number eight picked out clearly in melted down silver-steel imported from Tetsu, one of the first diplomatic relationships Mei had rekindled following Yagura's deposition from the throne, "but yes, Goa-chichoya is now considered the eighth legendary blade just as I'm the eighth swordsman. But anyway, I'm not here to rehash old conflicts", another puff of smoke removed the chain-axe from the room and lightened the atmosphere simultaneously, Iruka in particular letting out a low breath as he felt as much as saw the weapon disappear, "I'd much rather talk of better subjects, such as the fact that despite your early start my old sensei's left you in the dust nee-chan; her and Zazu-san's first should be turning a year old soon and I somehow doubt she'll be happy just to stick at one..."


Lying upon the futon that had been carted downstairs by Iruka as he didn't trust the stairs to hold him, Naruto looked out of the open window towards the night sky. It was a clear, crisp night, a perfect view of the stars – he liked looking at the stars as they, perhaps more than anything else, allowed him to stick to what he felt was the right course in his mind. They were a reminder of the bigger picture, the most important things though, as he felt his vision darken and his mind settle into familiar circadian patterns that simultaneously were and weren't sleep, he was also grateful for the things that allowed him to turn his attention to more immediate steps in his plan, conquer less serious goals here on this earth before attempting to ascend to the heavens above,

"Aww kit, I never knew you cared". Despite himself the jinchuuriki smiled at the voice,

"I care when you break into my peaceful mind just for conversation", he shot back without malice before carrying on, "hell of a day fox?"

"We've had worse and we're sure to have worse in the future", the bijuu pointed out reasonably before, after a moment's thought, it continued, "though, having said that, it was good to see my brothers and sisters again". Memories of the other bijuu and their human containers swam up through Naruto's near-eidetic memory and he smiled at most of them, though as he saw what loomed over them all and threatened all he both had planned and held dear his expression tightened into a scowl and he spoke again,

"The Akatsuki though, they're still out there and attempting to control forces they do not understand".

"Hello kettle, this is pot speaking".

"I have not and will never attempt to control you, any of the other bijuu or whatever you might all become", he casually shot down that jibe and felt the fox in his subconscious retreat slightly, accepting the fact he'd won that point before listening in again, "however the same can't be said for them. We have to stop them Kyuubi, no matter the cost or what we might reveal to get it done".

"I know kit, though right now we can only truly guess at their intentions; we can only react to their moves until we have one of them exactly. I am a hunter, in this we are alike, but we can't hope to hunt a prey we have no scent of; for now..." Kyuubi didn't finish but Naruto, even though to outsiders he appeared dead to the world and asleep, nodded and spoke for him,

"...we wait".


It was two months later, nearly to the day, when that wait ended; a piercing cry made him look up from the trio of small forms he was overseeing at their task and he held out an arm immediately, allowing the messenger bird to settle and, with surprising dexterity for someone with fingers as thick as his, skilfully relieved it of the scroll it carried. Letting the hawk fly off, he pulled the scroll open, scanned the message and a second later all three of the genin in front of him cowered in mute terror for a moment before he could control himself and address them all,

"Team", his voice was authoritative but as gentle as he could make it and, considering none of the new genin had yet passed out, he figured he was doing as reasonable a job of that as could be expected, "I've been summoned for a mission; because of this you three are on your own. Konohamaru, you are now in charge; get the mission done, report with your team to the Hokage tower and then you are dismissed for the rest of the day". As his temporary teacher leapt away and was rapidly lost to sight, the Sarutobi did his best to disguise the slight shiver he's always had around the older ninja ever since he'd jumped headlong into the Hokages' office while his grandfather had held the post and then immediately fallen onto his rear end and scuttled backwards towards the door as a kunai came within a hairs-breadth of pinning his foot to the floor; when he had complained about such an action, Naruto had coolly pointed out that had he not realised at the last second Konohamaru was a minor, the Sarutobi clan would now be less one member for the crime of being stupid enough to attack the village leader; even back then he was scary, now he'd be enough to make even jiji take him seriously. Of all the days for Ebisu-sensei to get a cold...;

"Come on guys", the grandson of the Sandaime said with a loud, false cheer in his voice that he certainly didn't feel as he dipped his paintbrush back in the bucket by his feet, "quicker we work, quicker we're done and can start training in awesome jutsu". Luckily Moegi and Udon seemed to be in a mood similar to his own and the three of them carried on in silent, diligent work, the lingering memory of the man who'd been overseeing them still crouched over their shoulder and dissuading bad behaviour even from a distance.

Much as I can't complain about what I am now, least of all in a fight; though the Senju-Uzumaki was more or less at peace with himself following years of literally growing up with a body where half the organs weren't originally his, there were times when he sorely missed the easy escape routes most ninja could use that were forever barred to him due to his new build; there are times when being able to leap across the roofs with raising issues of property damage would be a great advantage. Still, if his weight meant he couldn't use the rooftops as a convenient, at least his size mean he was easy enough to see coming and therefore, give or take the odd near-miss, he was able to make good time to the Hokage tower, throwing himself up the stairs six at a time and sparing only the merest nod towards Shizune as he threw open the door to his clan leaders' office with a resounding bang,

"Suna calls for aid", he declared, voice low and murderous as he held the scribbled summons forwards, "I assume Konoha will answer?"

Even as the other half-dozen ninja in the room turned to regard him all he saw was Tsunade standing tall behind her desk and nodding gravely,

"Hai, the abduction of the leader of one of our allies is a crime we cannot ignore; team nine, Haruno Sakura, Hatake Kakashi and Senju-Uzumaki Naruto", each ninja sprang to attention as their name was called, the room seeming to quiver as Naruto slammed his heel into the floor, "you are to travel to Suna at best possible speed, assess the situation and render any and all aid you can to Sands' forces, including a rescue attempt if the situation is viable", even as she spoke the Blonde Hokage wondered if she was the only one who saw the gleam of anticipation in the eye of one of her ninja before it was swallowed away as though it had never been, "this mission is time-critical and A-ranked, though the rank may alter depending on any resistance you encounter. Go, and good luck".

The benediction was barely out of her mouth before the office was deserted; Gai had briefed his team in standard Konoha hand signals and therefore taken the lead on the mission, letting the others know they were to be ready to move at the east gate of the village within fifteen minutes. In several blurs the ninja team and associated specialists were departed, Sakura hitching a ride with Kakashi towards the hospital as the Copy-nin was faster on the ground than she was until, strangely, all that was left was Naruto, the jinchuuriki having been as still as stone the whole time. Only when the last of his team were gone and the window slammed shut behind them did he break his self-imposed trance and speak,

"So then, they've made their move?"

"So it would seem", Tsunade sighed heavily before grinding her knuckles against her forehead, just above the fuuinjutsu seal that her godson now lacked, "dammit, now I owe the old pervert fifty ryo and a kiss; it must be one to nine as he'd guessed".

"So they went after Gaara first", Naruto finished for her, face grave, "they must have been strong to tackle him in the desert, though hopefully he'll have softened them up enough so that I can get the sample we need".

"You're sure you can do it?" Tsunade's eyes were openly curious and, in respect for such honesty, her adopted clan member was likewise honest with her,

"It's never a guaranteed process", he ruminated slowly, remembering the few times he'd used the technique he planned to initiate against the Akatsuki to gain information against various criminal organisations he'd run into over the past few years, primarily against Oto itself and the capture of one of their chief spies years ago at the start of the chunin exams, "but I believe if I can get a sample it will work; Akatsuki is small and their members must be infamous throughout the Nations – names are all ero-sennin will need to kick his network into gear and leave them no place to hide. I'll come back baa-chan", such was the promise in his voice that Tsunade believed him without further question even if one hand clenched at the collar of her robes, the crystal necklace beneath it still trapped around her neck as she had refused to relinquish it once more, a curse she would carry to her grave just as Naruto had been expected to do with his bijuu, "and I'll bring back some cactus-sake for you".

"You better do brat", she could only hope her threatening grin disguised her heartbreak, "that rubbish you shipped me from Mist could've come out of Ton-Ton, in fact I'm still not sure it didn't and it wasn't a joke between you and that lecherous sensei of yours". Naruto merely snorted dismissively as he turned to leave,

"As if I let that pervert in on my amusement", he pointed out before opening the door before him; though it would have been undoubtedly cooler to leap out the window like some of the assembled had, there would have been issues with both the size of the window itself and the crater when he landed and therefore the stairs just seemed like a more sensible option, "see you in a few days baa-chan".

Tsunade said nothing more, manage to shuffle around paper on her desk for a few minutes longer until she was sure he was out of earshot before slumping down in her seat and running her hands through and over her hair, forcing herself to breathe properly and remind herself of the facts. Naruto was stronger than normal, faster than normal and had more battle experience than any child his age had a right to have; he was reputed with saving, from the shadows as the majority of his work had been shrouded in as much secrecy as Jiraiya could make for his extremely direct modus operandi, two separate villages and was now likely to try his hand at helping the kage of a third. But, if all that is true; she clutched her ill-fated talisman once more, trying to fight the vague nausea in her stomach and mind; why does it feel like I just lost him again after getting him back so soon?

The second question that nagged even further back in her mind she didn't even consider because she was both sickened by herself for even formulating it and potentially scared of any answer she might be given; for the good of Konoha and the land of Fire as well as her own peace of mind, she simply had to believe that Naruto, regardless of the changes that had occurred within him, was, had always been and would always be hers in some small way.


Though she hadn't wanted to say anything Sakura had been curious as to exactly how the largest member of their party was supposed to keep up with the rest of them; strong as he undoubtedly was, Naruto couldn't join them in the canopies of Konoha's forests for the simple reason that a large number of the tree branches there couldn't hold his weight. Several of the older, more gnarled specimens undoubtedly could but, with time of the essence, time was much more pressing commodity than care and safety and therefore she along with the other five ninja of the team had reluctantly listened to Naruto's command to leave him behind, he would catch up with them when they stopped to rest. She had initially disagreed with this estimate and had a suspicion that both jounin present did as well, though neither would admit such a thing, as both Kakashi and Gai-sensei took a long time to set up camp that time; however such precautions seemed for naught as not twenty minutes after they had stopped for the night, a soft patter of footsteps in the soft loam announced the jinchuuriki's arrival. Even as he raised a hand at Tenten and Lees' greetings however, he cast an eye over the fledgling fire Neji and she had begun to set and shook his head,

"No time"; okay; the med-nin had suspected this might happen and immediately moved to play peacemaker; time to earn my money;

"Naruto-kun", her tone was engaging but not patronising; after all, in common with nin used to working solo, it wasn't unreasonable to suspect that he simply might not realise potential team mates didn't have the same limits he did, "we need to rest for the night; it'll be too dark to move soon so we might as well camp here rather than in a more open area where we could be attacked". To her relief, rather than argue, Naruto merely nodded and reaching into one of his equipment pouches for something,

"I know you all need sleep Sakura-chan; it's for that reason", there was plume of smoke as he unsealed something that quickly faded as he stood over his new equipment and finished, "which is why I have these".

Silence reigned in the camp site for a few long seconds before Neji, disengaging his bloodline limit, cocked his head towards the much taller figure and enquired politely,

"A sleeping bag? My thanks for the offer Senju-Uzumaki-san but I had enough foresight to bring my own".

"Not like this you haven't", Naruto assured him, rolling the whole thing open with an expression somewhere between grim finality and wistful amusement, "may I present to you all, and I can't believe these words are coming out of my mouth, the Gallant Jiraiya-samas' Ultimate Team Transportation System – don't look at me", he shielded off the incredulous looks with a raised palm the size of a soup plate, "he invented it, he got to name it". Recovering a little of her former courage, Tenten stepped forwards a pace and gave the bundle of cloth a closer inspection, noticing the closed off lengths that she assumed were for the arms before glancing up at the one who'd unsealed them,

"Okay, and much as I respect Jiraiya-sama for being one of Konoha's finest, but how is what Neji-kun said untrue; what's different about this sleeping bag compared to ours?" Naruto glanced across at the weapon mistress with a raised eyebrow before his shoulders shook with a chuckle,

"You respect Ero-sennin – you'd be one of very few kunoichi in the Elemental Nations that did", he pointed out before becoming more serious, "you know the stories about ninja being able to sleep while they run – these bags make it happen. The cloth is spun by chakra-sensitive silkworms native to Taki and impregnated at certain points with seals the old pervert came up with; around the head, when the hood is pulled down to cover the eyes and prevent moon or other types of light waking the occupant, small seals active to redress the balance of fluids in the inner ear, making the person in the bag think they're lying down rather than stood up. At the same time genjutsu seals are activated to make the person feel relaxed and comfortable, better able to sleep; I've never used one since that'd rather defeat the point of them but from what I heard elsewhere on my travels they work and in this case they'll save us at least a day and a half in travelling time".

As the member of team ten most familiar with fuuinjutsu, even if her knowledge mostly extended as far as storage and exploding seals and stopped there, Tenten mulled this over for a moment; it certainly sounded like something more than possible for an accomplished seal master such as the Toad Sage Jiraiya to have created. Even as she considered such a thing, however, two immediate issues rose in her mind and she turned to the Senju-Uzumaki with an inquiring gaze,

"Fair enough, I can see how that would be useful; however firstly there's only one of these and seven of us and second, how are they going to help us move on? They might make sleep more comfortable but we will still have to sleep to get the benefit right?"

"Right indeed Ten-chan", the much taller figure admitted before swiping a finger over the front of the bag, multiple explosions that revealed a sextet of other items, five cut from the same cloth as the original bag and one that was very different, "still, these are enough bags for all of you, though if some of you want to share I did have the foresight to create larger varieties", the expression of distaste on the weapon mistress's face was enough to let him know that whatever feelings she might have had for any of the men present on his mission wasn't quite that serious, though her irked expression was swiftly replaced by confusion and then sudden understanding as she watched him swiftly slip the halter-type device over his shoulders, "and this is how we keep moving".

"You; okay I know you don't need to sleep like we do", that much she'd learnt at the side of her fellow medics at Tsunade's feet, though admittedly out of all the aspiring medics she was amongst the least advanced as medical techniques didn't hold her attention as much as honing her skills with weapons, "but can you seriously carry all of us?" Chuckling as he recalled times in the Mist where a large number of the ninja of the rebellion had been held quite literally on his shoulders, the jinchuuriki nodded,

"Heh, you might not believe it but trust me carrying you half-dozen would be a light workout considering some of the patrols I've held in these bags before now; it's a lot easier for one man to mask their trail than a whole platoon to have to do the same". Tenten would have spoken again at this point, pressed for details regarding what had gone on during his banishment only for her would-be question to end up overruled by the voice of her sensei, Gai looking unusually serious as he clapped his hands and ordered a brisk set of instructions,

"Tsunade-sama ordered us to go at best speed; fifteen minutes, cold rations only – Naruto-kun", the jinchuuriki nodded as he slipped his arms out of the halter that the bags attached to and reached for his own rations, providing food for his body in light of the run it was likely to endure over the next few hours while his team recovered in his godfather's inventions, "how long can you carry us?"

"How long do you want to sleep for?"

"Wake us at dawn or after six hours, whichever comes first", Gai decided on a second later, not entirely sure how quickly the sun would rise over the desert they would have to traverse before reaching the Sand village, "everyone, be quick in your eating and ablutions and then bank your flames of youthfulness for the night – we will need to be at the pinnacles of our youth for tomorrow right Kakashi-kun?"

"Hmm – sorry did you say something Gai-kun?"

"Damn you and your hip attitude Kakashi!"

Twelve minutes later and the Copy-nin was the last of the six shinobi to be ready, having retreated into the bushes for a moment as Naruto finished zipping the rest of team nine and Sakura into suitably-sized sleeping bags before turning to the one-eyed jounin and nodding towards the open bag,

"Done? That one's yours, and please", the jounin quirked his single eyebrow at the jinchuuriki as Naruto quickly arranged the others in terms of size, figuring the best way to fit them to the halter he would carry them on, "do your best at retraining yourself in there – ero-sennin's certain washing won't destabilise the seals but I'd hate to take the risk". Lying down and zipping himself up, Kakashi gave an eye-smile,

"Worry not Naruto-kun, I am a master at self-restraint when I have to be". The altered human allowed himself a brief chuckle as he casually bent down and picked up the bagged Copy-nin; as one of the two tallest present, both jounin would have to go closest to his back to ensure their feet wouldn't drag on the floor,

"I don't doubt it, exposure to that much porn for so long must have burnt out most of your libido by now", he pointed out after laying the jounin down next to Gai-sensei, "right, that should do it; the others will be on top for a little while but when I've got you upright it won't matter".

"Yosh, this would be excellent endurance training Naruto-kun", a disembodied voice reached Kakashi's ears and he rolled his remaining natural eye; like sensei like student; "when we return to Konoha I will race around the village with Neji-kun tied to my back..."

"You will do no such thing!"

"...and if I can't do that I will have Tenten-chan lay upon me from dawn until dusk..."

"Damn it I can't reach my kunai pouch in here – Sakura, stop sniggering", the now-mortified weapon mistress demanded of her pink-haired counterpart as out the corner of her eye she noticed the bag next to her shivering with the med-nins mirth; dammit Lee, if it weren't for the fact I know you've got about as much social sense as Akamaru I'd gut you for that comment. Love you as I most assuredly do I will not be laying on you any time now or in the future!;

"...and if I..."

"Lee", the verbal thunderclap deadened even the most youthful of rants as Naruto stood over his prone friend and picked up the sleeping bag containing him with a single hand, "you can either be quiet and go to sleep or I can choke you out here and now, your choice". Though not said aggressively or with any malice in the tone, the second Green Beast of Konoha wisely fell silent and allowed himself to be attached to the holster without further comment.

Fifteen minutes after Naruto had arrived at the was relieved to see the remainder of his entire team attached to the carrying straps he himself had created to allow him to carry multiple people at once either directly or, in the case of the smaller members of the mission team, indirectly as they were stuck to the bags of the sensei and each other. It looked faintly ridiculous seeing six shinobi suspended like a clump of oversized grapes but, as Naruto had been told by many teachers over the time of his exile, if an idea looked stupid but worked it was not a stupid idea, and he knew this idea worked from countless previous experiences. Realising time was of the essence Naruto quickly drew up the prone from of his companions and slipped his arms through the shoulder straps of his harness before buckling up the waist belt, speaking over his shoulder a she did so,

"Hoods down guys, you should feel the seals kick in after a few seconds". There was a rustle of cloth behind him, followed a moment later by Tenten's voice,

"Whoa, that felt weird".

"Like you'd been flipped right on to your back right? That's just the water seal working on your ear - don't worry, Haku-san said you get used to it after a while. For now though just close your eyes and try to relax or do whatever it is you do before falling asleep, aside from what we mentioned earlier Kakashi-sensei", there was a soft thump against his back as the Copy-nin tried to elbow him as best he could, the gesture drawing a smirk from Naruto's lips before he drew himself up to his full height and faced the forest before him, grateful that the trees were starting to thin as the team's running for the day had brought them within half a day's travel of the limit of Fire country; a good speed, though once I'm out of this damned shrubbery, I'll be able to make sure we make up for any lost time...


The rocking sensation was so nice and gentle that he almost decided against waking up; after all he was still tired and no-one would mind him nodding off for a few more minutes surely? However, even as his fledgling consciousness began to once more capsize into the depths of sleep a sudden thought occurred to him and, as a trained ninja, all thoughts of further rest were dashed by the imperatives of the mission before them. Chakra summoned and utilised in a manner as familiar to him as breathing, Neji immediately activated his bloodline limit, a good habit drilled into all Hyuuga ninja to prevent or reduce the risk of ambushes from both enemy ninja and mischievous younger family members as they woke up; and after the water-balloon wake-up Hanabi-sama gave me on my fourteenth birthday, a trick never to be forgotten again – Byakugan!

Fortunately for all Hyuuga the vision gifted to them by their doujutsu was monochrome and therefore mostly unaffected by sunlight; this was a real boon in Neji's case as it meant that he wasn't immediately struck blind by staring straight into the rising sun behind him. A brief mental calculation and memories of the previous night told the Hyuuga prodigy both that the time was close to wake up and that his entire team was virtually arm to arm with him, the reason so many chakra networks were interwoven around him; however, of much greater interest to him was the very low but persistent cloud that hung along the ground just behind where he was being carried. At first he dismissed it as early-morning dew but, as he focussed his vision upon it, he quickly realised this couldn't be the case as it was present only directly behind him and extended only to the front-third of his vision; a sudden idea formulated in his mind as he recalled the mission destination, Neji quickly realised the mostly likely explanation and, deactiving his All-Seeing eye, made to check out if he was right or not; moving his arm with as much dexterity as he could manage as it was still held within the sleeve of the sleeping bag he was ensconced in, the Hyuuga squeezed his eyes shut and quickly flipped the hood of his sleeping bag up and over his head.

He was briefly assailed by vertigo as the removal of the hood disengaged the seals that had tricked his body into thinking it had been laid down; even before the sensation cleared however, he knew exactly where he was purely by the smell of the air around him. It was dry, desiccated and full of the tang of sand; blinking his eyes open and squinting against the harsh light of the dawn, he immediately saw the low clouds of sand being kicked up by the workhorse who was carrying not only himself but five other ninja as well and, reminded of the jinchuuriki's efforts, he called softly over his shoulder, not wanting to wake anyone else who might still be resting,

"Naruto-san", the swaying motion that had characterised the progress across the desert slowed slightly and, now he knew he was being heard, the Hyuuga spoke again, "dawn – we should wake the others".

"Hai, brace yourself a second", not exactly sure what was coming next Neji prepared for anything and felt his efforts rewarded as he and the rest of his team were swung off Naruto's shoulders and laid out in the desert sand. Once he was prone, Neji reached around his sleeping bag and unzipped himself, glancing up at the Senju-Uzumaki with well-concealed surprise; he must have been running all night but he's barely even breathing heavily;

"Give me a hand a minute", the sudden command broke Neji from his temporary trance and, between the efforts of the two of them, the other five members of the team were quickly roused and returned to action,

"Ahh, I slept like a brick", Sakura yawned as she stretched upwards, glancing at the sleeping bags Naruto was sealing away with his harness with renewed respect, "Jiraiya-sama truly is a genius of fuuinjutsu, and I know you must have had a hand in helping him create those things Naruto-kun".

"Only a minor one, and it's mostly just the harness that's mine", he responded curtly before standing to his full height and giving the others a once-over, "if I'm right we should be about five or six hours from Suna; if we push we can make it there before midday". Two pairs of very thick eyebrows rose,

"From Konoha to Suna in less than twenty-four hours; yosh, a new record", Gai mentioned with a victorious smile, "your flames of youth are a conflagration Naruto-kun".

"Nah, my jigokuton is a conflagration Gai-sensei, though with any luck you won't see that any time soon", the taller man smiled before his face became more serious, "for now though we have a mission to complete and Gaara-sama's life may depend on our swiftness. We must move on now".

With that and only a momentary pause to grab ration bars and water canteens for eating and drinking on the run, the six-man team raced across the desert towards their objective, the rays of the dawn chasing them the whole way there.


Sabaku Temari had a lot on her plate at the moment; both her younger brothers were somewhere on the brink of life and death and the state of her village defence was tenuous to say the least; therefore it should have come to no-ones' surprise that when a panicked-looking chunin sprinted into the hospital calling her name, the first thing she did was introduce the tip of her war fan into his gut at some speed,

"Quiet you idiot", she seethed, letting him slump to his knees as she scowled towards the door where Kankuro lay being treated as best the medical staff could manage for such a deadly toxin, "there are injured here being treated – you shrieking like a fishwife may distract the medics".

"The, the team", hugging his traumatised stomach, the chunin nevertheless managed to glance up from where he'd fallen and deliver the message, "reinforcements, from Konoha, they arrived a few minutes ago".

"What? That's impossible", even with futon jutsu and virtual flight, never before in history had there been such rapid movement between the allied villages, "they couldn't have got here so quickly..."

"The ketsueki kuroku runs with them Temari-sama".

At that name some, but by no means all, of the tension drained away from the eldest of the Sabaku siblings; since hearing of his exile from Konoha and the explanation the Godaime Hokage had given for it in the face of Gaara's ire following his coronation as Kazekage, she and her brothers had met the Senju-Uzumaki once or twice in the past and each time he had given them reason to believe that when he was concerned the term impossible should be used with the very greatest of care. Though neither she nor Kankuro truly knew what had occurred between the two jinchuuriki within that Konoha detainment cell nearly four years ago, Temari was well aware both that Gaara held his Konoha counterpart in the highest of regard and that Naruto reciprocated such concern; though why I don't know. Does he need Gaara for something, to hold to whatever bargain it was so long ago – well, either way that's immaterial now; nodding to the chunin who'd brought her such good news and giving him a hand back to his feet, Temari made to move off towards the main administration building of Suna, thankfully untouched following the attack of the Akatsuki; as long as he and his team can return Gaara and help Kankuro, I can deal with whatever other deals he's struck as and when they become important.

Some fifteen minutes later, after she had managed to talk the elder Chiyo out of attempted murder of Hatake Kakashi following mistaken identity on the part of the older woman, she finished her debrief of the attack and what had happened in the aftermath. As she'd expected the Konoha party looked grave with the exception of the two kunoichi, one of whom looked merely determined as she flashed a glance at the eldest Sabaku to confirm a few facts,

"Poison you say?"

"Yes, though not one familiar to our medical staff"; Sakura merely nodded before flicking her eyes to her sensei and, seeing his nod, started making her demands,

"Okay leave this to me taicho, I won't let you down; Tenten-chan, would you mind lending me a hand and Neji-san, you come too, I might need your eyes. I'll get the rest of the details from your hospital when we're there – sorry elder, can I help you?" The wizened old woman who had attacked Kakashi earlier merely stayed silent for a moment before, just as Sakura was tempted to push past and get to her patient faster, her croaking tone faintly mocking as she faced down the younger kunoichi,

"What makes you think you can counter the poison of Akasuna no Sasori, the prodigy of our puppeteer corps and slayer of the Sandaime Kazekage?" Sakura merely smiled,

"Simple, I was trained by the best Chiyo-baasama", if the elder was surprised that Sakura knew her name she didn't show it, instead merely waiting passively as the pink haired medic went on, "oh yes, Tsunade-shishou told us all about how you and she were rivals during the earlier wars, and she mentioned that your grandson went rogue from the village as well. Still, the way I see it if she was able to detoxify all your poisons and taught me, there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to do the same when it comes to the grandson you taught". The smaller puppeteers' eyes narrowed but before she could answer Sakura took her leave, followed by two members of team nine; as Chiyo watched them depart with a calculating gleam in her eyes, Gai turned to Temari with an uncharacteristically serious look on his face,

"We should come up with a strategy to recover your youngest brother while our students save your elder one Sabaku-san; my youthful rival, do you think you could track them through the desert?" Kakashi rubbed his chin for a moment, book out of sight to reflect the severity of the event as he considered the other times he'd fought in the dunes of Suna and how difficult it had been to ensure the target was brought to book by either himself or his team as he led them to their place or rest,

"Not easily, especially if one of the abductors has the ability to fly", the Copy-nin admitted, "though my summons might be of greater help if we can get them a scent to go off. Naruto-kun..."

"Same issue", the jinchuuriki grated, his irritation plain for all to see as he began to pace slightly, "though the extraction of Shukaku should generate huge amounts of chakra residue that anyone should be able to pick up on if they get close enough. We are in a tight bind; as the last one to see the Akatsuki was Kankuro-san, we have to wait for him to recover to get at least an idea as to which way they went; any idea how long Sakura-chan's treatment might take?" Both jounin present swapped a glance before Kakashi answered for the two of them,

"I'm not a med-nin Naruto-kun, though I trust my student and Tsuande-sama's teaching to treat Kankuro-san as quickly and safely as possible".

Naruto nodded at this and made to depart, though anyone even casually looking in his direction could have seen that he was not exactly happy with such news and with good reason; it was not in his nature to be on the defensive or react to a situation. He was the one who sought fights rather than waited for them; the Akatsuki might not have been foes on the level he had seen from the cursed memories that had been bequeathed to him as irresistibly as Goa-chichioya had but they were still dangerous and cunning foes; not for the first time he cursed Jiraiya for not telling him about one particular technique of the toad clan until he had been on the steppes of Kumo. If he had known such a manner of travel existed then he could have ensured all the jinchuuriki were as protected as those of Lightning and Waterfall, though as things stood he couldn't wish for what was now impossible. All he could do was wait however much it irked him to do so, and put his trust in the skill and dedication of his team mates in the way his second-father had failed to place his trust in his brothers long ago in the distant past. He would rely on humans untouched by the gifts of the biological mutations that set him apart, normal people who could and would do extraordinary things for those that they loved; this trust, this belief in the power of mankind as it was, would be what would set his future visions apart from the mistakes that had been made so long ago and plunged the greatest empire ever known into ruin and decay.

Despite himself though, regardless of the mantras he had repeated in his mind and brain until even the Kyuubi knew them by rote, there was one small part of him that snarled its discontent, a savage, unfettered monster that demanded the blood of those who had dared place themselves in his path as obstacles. There could be no peace, no diplomacy, it decided – there was no need for reason, no requirement for empathy with enemies. Only through blood and death could the matter be decided; might would, and would always, make right.

And regardless of how he cursed himself for such feelings, he could not help but consider such a savage point of view as having a certain amount of validity to it.


Fortunately for both the rescue mission as a whole and Naruto's wrestling with his own internal doubts and recriminations Sakura, with assistance from Tenten and Neji, was easily able to extract whatever poison had laid Kankuro though, though the puppeteer was still desperately weak and would likely be in recovery for a good many weeks until his strength returned. He was so knocked out by the poison of the nuke-nin, who he did quantify as being Akasuna no Sasori to back up Chiyo's observations based on the wounds he'd received, that he had to rely on another Suna jounin to retrieve the head of his puppet Karasu and the small scrap of fabric held within its jaws.

"Felt myself going", he managed to grate out from his bed as Sakura held the black and red cloth with a pair of surgical forceps, not willing to risk contamination of the only lead they had by touching it with her bare hands, "so did the only thing I could to try and get a trail off them". Realising what the Suna nin had done, Gai-san gave a thumbs-up,

"Good work Kankuro-kun, the act of turning a defeat into victory if proof that your flames of youth burn brightly". To his credit the puppeteer merely blinked at the disturbing sight of a grown man in tight spandex posing at him for a few seconds before, rather than freaking out as many had done in the past, merely turning to the med-nin who'd saved him and nodding at the small vial of ominous green-black liquid she'd extracted from his wounds and speaking in a perfect deadpan,

"If this is going to be a regular occurrence, any chance I could get that poison back Sakura-san? Pretty please?"

"No", the chunin answered, though she didn't look entirely unsympathetic as she watched Gai's team distract his attention with what looked like practised ease, "I'll need this to come up with an antidote in case we end up facing Sasori to get Gaara back".

"Though before you start, give it to me Sakura-chan", Naruto broke into the conversation as he eyed up the toxin with something like professional interest, "I may be able to determine at least some of its effects and only require a small sample".

"Really?" Must not have been her part of the training; the jinchuuriki held in a sigh as he nodded at her question,

"How else do you think I survived Anko-sensei?" The reminder of the somewhat insane jounin was enough to make all the Konoha nin present shiver for a moment before the medic handed over the precious sample, watching with interest as Naruto, after giving the bottle a gentle sniff, merely raised it to his lips and took a small gulp of it into his mouth.

Though Naruto did not exactly know what all his new organs were and how they worked, he had a rough idea of what was going on with his altered biology when he did certain things. Ingestion of poisons was one such occurrence and something he had done frequently over the years, mostly due to the influence of Anko-sensei, who had always been one for developing resistance to toxins and had been delighted to find he was so naturally resilient that she could immediately introduce him to some of the more dangerous weapons in her arsenal. Through experimentation the student and sensei had discovered that the most effective way for him to gain immunity to venoms that were novel to his system was for him to ingest them; the fact that, once exposed in this manner, he could quickly remember where the poison had come from was just the icing on the cake and, in this case, made rapid disassembly of the poison used to incapacitate Kankuro much less hassle than might have otherwise been expected,

"It's a compound mixture", he spoke, swirling the compound around in his mouth and allowing his own alien biology to dissect the toxic soup in his mouth, "based mostly around fugu venom, though there's uh, at least two, no, three other types, one of which I'm fairly certain is that of a scorpion, quite a generic one as each of them have two types of sting; reckon Sasori uses this one just to attack the nerves and cause pain. The others seem to attack the chakra network and act as facilitators for the fugu toxins but I don't know exactly what they're from. Hope that helps", he said curtly before swallowing the venom completely, allowing the next phase of his digestive system to both break down the proteins making up the poison and educate his body into how to counter such a venom should, as was likely, he encounter it in the future.

"Perfect, thanks a lot for that Naruto-kun", Sakura's beaming was brighter than the sun overhead as she turned to the nearest medical orderly and began barking instructions, "fugu venom is the main issue, the rest aren't immediately fatal so we should be okay. I assume you have anti-venom for that fish in stock?"

"Uh, maybe a little", the somewhat overawed medic managed to tear his eyes away from the man who'd drunk what should have been an immediately lethal cocktail and seemed ready for a second course enough to defend himself from Sakura's suddenly ominous glower, "hey don't look at me, we're miles from the sea here, fugu isn't exactly a common dish in Suna". Recognising the logic, the Hokage's apprentice sighed before nodding,

"Well get me all the stocks you have, and I assume you've got some sort of treatment for scorpion stings here somewhere? Get me the cures for the most dangerous scorpions in this damned desert, and if a chakra poison is involved I'll need infusions from these three herbs..."


Despite Sakura's apparent genius in the chemistry lab, however, the sun was certainly starting to sink when she emerged into the light once more, somewhat haggard but certainly triumphant as she held aloft three injectors containing a clear, very light blue medical liquid,

"Got it", she exclaimed triumphantly following Tenten, who'd been acting the part of laboratory assistant for the past few hours, rounding up the rest of the rescue squad, "these antidotes will convert the poison into harmless protein for up to three minutes after injection into the body, though", she glanced down at the floor as though somewhat disheartened, "due to the lack of fugu anti-venom I could only make a total of three injectors".

"Well then we'll just have to be careful how we fight", Kakashi eye-smiled at his former student, relieving one of the injectors from her and tucking it securely into his equipment pouch, "I suggest you take one of them as the medic and split the other two between myself and Gai-sensei; that way if anyone on the team is injured there's a cure available in both squads if we have to split up. Unless, Naruto...?" The jinchuuriki shook his head,

"No need for me, that poison's nasty but it won't keep me down"; not any more at least; admittedly he would have had cause for concern if he'd been going up against the supposed Sasori blind but thanks to a little luck that wouldn't be the case. Kakashi, to Naruto's mingled relief and gratitude, seemed to take his assurance at face value and merely bit his thumb; a few seals and a puff of smoke later, a very familiar squat little form blinked up at the shinobi owlishly,

"Kakashi", the little pug always seemed to sound morose, even when not in the middle of a battle to the death, "what you need me for?"

"Can you get a scent off of this Pakkun; should be at most a day or two old?"

"Hurmm, good enough", the nin-ken allowed Sakura to lay the little scrap of cloth before him and took several deep breaths through his nose before backing off, wrinkled nose scrunching up even further in distaste, "gah, what did that come off, a training dummy? All wood polish and machine oil – oh, we're in Suna right – puppeteer?" Kakashi eye-smiled at his favourite summon as he retrieved the cloth from the floor,

"Apparently so; Naruto-kun?" Pakkun watched with boredom as his summoner offered the cloth to someone else, most likely an Inuzuka as they were the other clan he knew of to work with canine partners, only to for his face to fall as much as it was able to at the sight of the huge fingers that emerged from a nearby doorway and snagged the scrap of fabric. Seeing the cloth stuffed into the massive humans' mouth and chewed up, the nin-ken felt compelled to make a comment even if he kept his tone respectful; annoying someone who had feet the same size as your body was simply not the done thing even for a summoned creature,

"Wow, this is the Naruto you were on about Kakashi?" At the Copy-nins' nod, Pakkun craned his neck up to see the Senju-Uzumaki roll an eye towards him, "You're a big kid aren't you?"

"And you're a small pug; it takes all sorts to make a word", the jinchuuriki riposted before spitting out the masticated bullet of the Akatsuki cloth and tasting the air with his tongue, "can you get us to the desert Pakkun-san, my senses work best where there's not interference".

"Yah, I can follow something that distinctive", the pug assured the retrieval team, making to move off as Naruto nodded; taking his cue from his summons Kakashi stood tall to address the shinobi under his command before a harsh, crackling old laugh cut him off; glancing over, the Konoha jounin was quick to sidestep behind the spandex-clad form of his eternal rival as the geriatric who'd attempted to murder him almost as soon as he'd entered Suna approached their team, Temari dogging her heels with her fan holstered over her back and a worried but determined expression on her face,

"So, you're all off the play the hero and bring my errant grandson to book are you?" The Suna elder looked them all up and down before, inexplicably, smiling, "So then, looks like I'll be joining you then; I want to see little Sasori-kun once more before the Shinigami claims me for his own".

"Elder Chiyo, you cannot..."

"Bah, don't tell me what I can and can't do; just because I handed in my headband twenty years ago doesn't mean I'm a useless old woman Sabaku no Temari; just ask your brother how much my skills have declined if you doubt my word", suitably chastised, the eldest of the Suna trio of siblings fell quiet as Chiyo glanced around at her erstwhile team mates before Naruto stepped forwards and glared down at her imperiously; both generations of shinobi regarded each other for a long time before, at last, Naruto broke the stare down first,

"You don't keep up I'm carrying you baachan; Temari-chan", his fellow blonde simultaneously glanced up and stepped back; though time had dulled the memory and over the past few years she had been given the chance to get a little more familiar with the mysterious container of the Kyuubi, she knew she would never be truly able to like him – the dead face of her former sensei Baki loomed too large over the jinchuuriki's for such familiarity to ever occur, "we'll get him back".

"You bet, and then we're going to have that rematch you owe me Sandy", the sudden shout made Temari simultaneously start and glance around; seeing the kunoichi of team nine staring down at and twirling a kunai around her fingers, her more traditional smirk broke over the Suna ninja's face,

"You that desperate to get blown away again? Fine, I look forwards to beating some more sense into that twin-bunned head of yours". Jarred by the reminder of her defeat during that ill-fated chunin exam Tenten growled low in her throat and her knuckles whitened on the knife she was holding, though before she could snap back at the infuriatingly smug Suna jounin her sensei stepped between them,

"Tenten-chan control your flames; it is most unyouthful to pick a fight with an ally when our mission is still in progress", under the eye of the jounin the kunoichi backed down grudgingly, glaring at Temari the whole time until, at last, the now-seven members of Gaara's rescue team raced away to the main entrance of the desert village and, following Pakkun's trail, ran across the desert on the trail of the stolen friend.


The earth of the summoning chamber shifted suddenly, one half of the main scout of the Akatsuki returned early from his vigil and addressing the rest of the organisation, though only two were present in body rather than projected from the rings they wore,

"They come", the black half of Zetsu spoke, apparently unconcerned that his white half stood with the others around the chamber and the suspended form of the One-tailed host was held in the air before them, "seven of them, including your dear old grandmother Sasori-kun". The hunched form of the puppeteer said nothing at the information, just as well at it would likely have been drowned out by the raucous laughter of one of the other members,

"Wow, now that's really scraping the ass-end of the barrel", the figure with a tri-bladed scythe turned his smirk on his fellow S-ranked ninja, "she must be, like, older than rag-man over there; not one of your old flames is she Kakazu?"

"I will kill you one of these days Hidan, immortality be damned!"

"Ha, you're welcome to try", the Jashinist smirked, glad that he'd managed to rile up the Taki bounty hunter again, "Jashin-sama armours me against your pathetic might you money-grubbing old bastard".

"Enough", the voice of the leader, even though his spectral body was hidden in shadow and let only his ringed eyes show in the gloom, "they have moved faster than we anticipated, we require at least a further day to complete the sealing. Itachi, Kisame, your decoys are prepared?"

"Hai Leader-sama", the shark-nin replied, concentration not wavering from the ritual all nine of the Akatsuki were involved in, "we're ready to lead any desert rats that come after their leader a merry chase". A soft laugh broke across Kisames' words, Zetsu only just managing to contain himself as he glanced first to the Kiri nuke-nin, then his partner,

"It won't be that easy, this isn't just some Suna-nin wanting to play hero; they have Konoha with them and the Senso Haundo runs at their head. Oh", the artificial construct feigned shock at the way all attention suddenly shifted towards him, "you remember him then?"

Of course they did, there wasn't a member of the organisation that didn't know that name; one of their targets that couldn't yet be touched, the Kyuubi jinchuuriki had first made his presence known following the Konoha chunin exams and then again immediately afterwards by somehow almost crippling one of the more powerful of the Akatsuki teams sent to test his capacity. Had it not been for luck on the part of the Akatsuki operatives there might be only eight in the summoning circle now rather than ten, and it appeared those who had escaped the jaws of the War Hound were in no mood to repeat the experience if the sudden widening of Kisames' eyes were anything to go by,

"I believed him to still exist in exile; Sasori, your spy network has let us down", though nothing showed through his veiled face the puppeteer could easily hear the disapproval of the Akatsuki leader, "still, there is little to be done about it now. Send out the decoys; should our perimeter be breached you, Deidara and Sasori, are to ensure the One-tails remains within our possession until it can be correctly sealed away".

"You got it leader-san, un", the taller of the two partners smiled with all three of his mouths, fingering his pouch of explosive clay before grinning widely, "I can't wait to introduce the Kyuubi container to my art; I'll blow him back to the Leaf with his tail between his legs!"

For a moment no-one answered the youngest member of the organisation and Deidara smiled at his boast until, with crushing inevitability, his smile was ground to nothingness and he scowled at the sibilant voice that spoke next, a note of caution in its tone,

"I would advise you don't antagonise him Deidara-san", the slight form, shielded by the bulk of his partner, had to lean slightly forwards to speak to the glowering Iwa ninja, "remember your mission, do not be side-tracked by your art or vainglorious war".

"Hey, un, you were the one who got your ass kicked by the kid Itachi", the blonde spat back, still disgruntled that he had been bested by the Uchiha so easily and forced into the Akatsuki ranks against his will, "we're all grateful that you showed us how it shouldn't be done but not all of us are quite that incompetent; after all Sasori-danna and I already got our bijuu, you and Kisame-san can't say the same".

Damn, that was good; though a lot of the Akatsuki didn't get on with each other due to clashing egos, Deidara was usually the one who came off worst when he tried to pick a fight with the Uchiha prodigy so to roll him over so effectively in front of the whole organisation left the former Iwa nin with a rosy glow. Itachi for his part was silent for a long, long moment but, as always, just when he was daring to relax and consider the point won conclusively, the flat, monotone voice he hated so much was a poured into his ears like an evil liquid wax and despite his better judgement he was forced to listen,

"I do not deny we were unprepared for the Kyuubi", that was about as close as Itachi was likely to come to admitting he'd made a mistake, "but incompetence and unpreparedness are not the same thing Deidara-san. After all, what Naruto-kun took from me in vision", the Sharingan wielder finally turned towards his tormentor and, despite himself, Deidara couldn't help but twitch ever so slightly as he was force to match and hold that half-dead gaze, listening as the Uchiha finished with one of his eyes glowing from the disembodied form of his astral projection,

"I have merely regained in perspective".


The shadows were lengthening, the day drawing to a close but none would dare slow down, not with the Akatsuki tantalisingly within reach; under the guidance of Pakkun's nose, a hundred times more sensitive than that of his summoner even if Kakashi enhanced his sense of smell with chakra, the team made good progress through the desert, the trail leading them towards an outcrop of rocks at the edge of Suna where, Chiyo surmised, it would be easy for a small group to set up a camp in a defensible location. The mood of the travelling team was tense and alert, Neji with his Byakugan almost constantly activated and ready for use while even Gai and Lee appeared quiet and contemplative; in fact such was the apprehension in the atmosphere that it was almost a relief when Pakkun, by now being carried by Sakura because he liked the smell of the shampoo she used, suddenly tensed and barked a warning after catching an unfamiliar scent upon the air,

"Ahead of us, two of them", the nin-ken briefed the others, "one stinks of water and blood, the other..."

"Ash", Naruto finished for him, having tasted the air with his tongue as Neji engaged his bloodline to pin-point the location of the two charka signatures ahead of them all, "so then, the bishie and the fishie again; looks like I'll have a chance to correct the balls-up we had three years ago". He drew two of his kunai, the weapons long, slender and glinting in the dying suns' rays before a word from Kakashi caught his attention,

"Naruto, you can't just take on the Akatsuki alone; you are one of their targets along with Gaara after all", the jounin reminded him, though he was careful not to get too close to the Senju-Uzumaki as Naruto's gaze snapped onto him with terrifying intensity, "we'll take them together".

"Right", he replied after a moment before glancing across at Gai, "you know how to defeat the Sharingan I'm told Gai-sensei?"

"Hai Naruto-kun; though an unyouthful bloodline, it matters little if the enemy can't catch your eye – just look at their feet and most of an Uchiha's normal tactics are undone. However Itachi, though most unyouthful, is not an ordinary Uchiha; he may well have adapted to such a fighting style". The jinchuuriki smiled,

"Well we're about to find out because you will be taking him down", he indicated the rest of his team with a broad sweep of his closest kunai before drawing the weapon in close to his body and speaking again in a tone that wasn't a threat, or an order but nevertheless inspired those that heard it to take heed and pay attention to it,

"Kisame is mine".

A few moments later, just as the desert dunes began to recede into rockier ground, the Akatsuki revealed themselves and for the first time the difference between Naruto and his fellow shinobi was revealed; as they drew lines of sight to their opponents seven members of the retrieval team slowed and then halted in guard positions in a typical shinobi reaction to sighting the enemy; using perfect teamwork even if from different villages in some cases, each member was quickly covering angles and preparing to engage the target after scanning for weaknesses and determining which techniques and tactics their enemies were likely to employ.

The eighth member, on the other hand, didn't even slow down.


"You will see him fight Kakashi...";

Unbidden the words from a few days ago came back to him; in the fifteen minutes he'd had to prepare for this mission following the Godaime dismissing them all, the Copy-nin had spent at least thirteen of those minutes in conversation with Tsunades' fellow sannin. Jiraiya had been waiting in his apartment for him to return and, having thrust a bundle of sealing tags into his arms the moment he'd arrived, the Toad sage had quickly spoken the words that were now echoing around Kakashi's mind as he saw, for the first time, exactly how the jinchuuriki of the most powerful demon within the Elemental Nations dealt with his foes:

"You will see him fight Kakashi", the older man seemed grim and reserved as he said such a thing, a million miles from the goofy persona he preferred to portray to the world, "and when you do you will realise why Naruto-kun is no longer a shinobi, in fact he's almost the antithesis of what a shinobi should be. But for all that you'll also realise exactly why he's so damned dangerous, the power of the monster he's holding back in his head – I've never needed those seals I've given you but at the same time I've never been able to bring myself to get rid of them entirely. I want to, never for a second think otherwise, but because I've seen what he's capable of I can't, in fact I will not not have a way to restrain him in case his control does finally reach a limit and break. Should that happen, should Naruto lose the war he's been waging since the second he was bitten by that damned axe..." Jiraiya broke off, breathing harshly and the Copy-nin was surprised but not shocked to see tears glistening in the older mans' eyes as he turned away and hopped onto the windowsill, his last words breathed over his shoulder as he leapt away into the normal world of Konoha,

" know what you have to do".

He knew, of course he knew; if nothing else the betrayal of Sasuke, even if he hadn't exactly been Kakashi's problem when he turned his back on the Leaf, had taught him that there could be no second chances for potentially treacherous behaviour; but seeing the fight before him, almost stunned for a second before recollecting himself and following his eternal rival into the fray, he found himself wondering if he would even get a chance to use the sealing tags should the worst occur. Naruto had simply swept past them all, disregarding the chance to study his opponents in favour of simply closing the distance; the move was so completely unexpected that it had caught out their enemies as well as his allies and because of that it had been successful, the ring of steel on steel evident as the jinchuuriki's sudden bellow burst in the ears of his team,

"Get Itachi! I'll handle the half-shark". Even before the shock was over, however, Kakashi was in motion, using a flight of shuriken from Tenten as cover as he followed on Gai's heels towards the most infamous traitor Konoha had ever produced.

So then, that's him out of the picture; though he had heard the rumours of how gifted Itachi was as a shinobi Naruto had trust, as his bastard of a second-father had not, that his team would be able to keep the Uchiha off his back while he reduced the number of legendary ninja swordsman in the world by one. A kunai in each hand was enough to keep Kisame backpedalling and off-balance, the much larger blade of the Kiri nuke-nin actually a hindrance at close quarters, though to his credit the swordsman was able to deflect most of the offence of his antagonist and received only glancing cuts and grazes. That would be enough though; from what he had learnt in Kiri about the wielders of Samehada there was a reason the Monsters hidden in the Mist were considered the most dangerous of Seven Swordsmen, the bijuu with no tails. The semi-sentient blade could not only devour chakra, it would also heal the wounds of its bearer, enabling him to outlast virtually all opponents in a war of attrition; though the virtually is the key there; the enhanced shinobi considered as he continued to press his advantage – unlike years ago when Kisame had been stronger than his sealed form, now he wasn't hiding any more he was able to match the monster strength against strength; Kisame, in fact none of the Akatsuki have ever met a foe like me.

The nuke-nin for his part was getting considerably more annoyed by his opponent; he'd been caught on the back foot for a split-second after the jinchuuriki had made his suicidal charge and that had been long enough for the damned brat to take the advantage and not give it back. Snarling, Kisame attempted to fall back and earn some breathing room only to find the Senju-Uzumaki matching him step for step, denying him the advantage of the longer blade. It was as frustrating as engaging a samurai, one of the masters of idate who could stop ninjutsu experts in their tracks simply by taking advantage of the pauses needed to craft ninjutsu seals; as he felt himself nicked time and again by the shorter kunai-like blades of his opponent, the half-shark decided it was time to take more serious action to throw off this tenacious aggressor,

"Hey, kid", he broke off to deflect a straight thrust with the flat of Samehada, "heard you, were with Kiri these days?" He received no reply save a rip on his upper left arm for a few seconds before the jinchuuriki answered, though he did not relent in his blizzard of attacks, almost driving Kisame to one knee,

"Eighth Swordsman", he grunted back, "just a title, nothing more".

"Not, much of one", Kisame pointed out viciously, finally able to shove his opponent back half a step, "where's your sword?"

There!; finally able to go back on the offensive, the Kiri nuke-nin took full advantage of a fractional lull in the jinchuuriki frenzied attack following his words eventually piercing the haze of Naruto's concentration. Jumping away slightly, Kisame brought his blade down two-handed in a vertical overhand slash, hoping to either make the jinchuuriki back off or split him in two; what actually happened next, however, left the Akatsuki member reeling. Rather than getting completely out the way Naruto merely sidestepped to the left and slightly forwards; not exactly the last think Kisame had expected, he would have been able to deal with the unorthodox move had it not been for the fact that the jinchuuriki also brought his left arm up and caught Samehada in the crook of his elbow, sandwiching the steel between his forearm and bicep at the same time as flipping his kunai around and over the top of the sword, preventing Kisame from trying to lift it clear of the trap. Impossible; even as he watched bright red blood start to gout down his enemy's arm and felt the rush of charka from Samehada as it feasted, it seemed impossible to the rogue that even a jinchuuriki could stand up to the crushing force that should have sheared his arm from his body; even if the fox was helping him, that should have shattered every bone in his arm...;

It was at that point that Kisame realised he had another, rather more serious issue to contend with; though technically Samehada was still in his hands, the fact that both of his aforementioned limbs were no longer attached to the stump of his wrists was a cause for considerable consternation as the jinchuuriki's other short sword, held in his right hand and completely unaffected by his ensnaring move, whistled upwards in a flash of silver, hacking through the extended wrists as though they weren't there. The amputation was so fast that Kisame barely felt any pain, stumbling backwards with blood jetting from his new stumps before, with grim finality, the Konoha ninja stopped his retreat by darting forwards and driving his kunai through the half-sharks' closest thigh like a nail. Feeling his bone break and with only one remaining limb working, Kisame could do little more than stare and curse as Naruto stood to his full height and flexed his left arm, Samehada left to fall to the floor with a clatter as the jinchuuriki spoke,

"Know what I hate?" He didn't even give his opponent a chance to answer, instead ramming his remaining kunai through the Akatsuki members' sternum with finality and speaking only as the light left the dying man's eyes,

"I hate it when people automatically assume they're worth the axe".

Kisame, of course, didn't answer, though as his form began to change Naruto merely spat upon the ground near his former adversary, cleaning the venom he'd been storing there from the two glands in his hard palette in case he needed to use it if the duel went awry. It hadn't gone so far of course, though how much of that was due to his tactics and how much was due to the comparative weakness of whatever simulacrum technique Kisame had used was a matter of conjecture; all told, he'd won a proxy duel against arguably the most powerful member of the Seven swordsmen still living today using purely kenjutsu, not an achievement to be sniffed at. Glancing at his arm to see that the blood flow had already stopped and the bruising of the tendon in his lower arm was starting to fade, a combination of his own unique clotting factors and the presence of Kyuubi, he turned to face his remaining opponent only to see there was no need; Itachi, or at least whoever the unfortunate Itachi had possessed to spring this attack had been, was currently airborne and being riddled with shuriken from the ground courtesy of Tenten, Neji and, if the way some of the projectiles weren't just lodging in his flesh but tearing through it and leaving exit wounds was anything to go by, Sakura-chan as well. Lee was standing slightly to one side looking a little confused about something, though judging by the way Chiyo-baachan was smirking Naruto would have laid better than even odds she was behind it somehow, and just before the traitor landed both jounin made themselves known, a double Leaf Whirlwind slamming home simultaneously from opposite directions to drive all life from the traitors' proxy. Realising the fight was over, Naruto reached down and picked up the fake Samehada, casually ignoring the pain in his hand as it seemed to stab him somehow with ease of long practice, and paced towards where the others were examining the remains of their foe, his extra-sensory hearing enabling him to pick up what Chiyo was saying even at this distance,

" of Suna's captains; this raid must have been planned for a long time for Akatsuki to get their tendrils in this deep, just as we feared. Ah, you survived then brat", Naruto raised a hand at the oblique greeting, causing many of his team to gasp at the sight of how barley he appeared to have been torn up; huh, they think this is blood – just as well they weren't there when I led the breakout of Pansuki in Kiri, that was bloody night alright; "thought you were supposed to be half-decent with a sword?"

"Heh, you haven't seen the other guy yet baa-chan; bear with me a moment, there's a message I have to send now", Chiyo seemed to smirk a little at the returned banter before raising an eyebrow as the jinchuuriki took a knee and, in a display of strength, rammed Samehada into the soft dust at his feet up to the hilt, speaking in his mind as he did so,

"Kyuubi, this sword plagues me".

"Have you considered letting go of it?"

"Of course"; despite himself the jinchuuriki smiled at the fox's caustic comment, causing some of the other shinobi to exchange worried glances as they began sensing him building up his chakra, "but that's not exactly the message I wish to send to the bastards that have Gaara and your brother. You know what's on my mind – you have any objections?" He could almost feel the bijuu's crocodile grin from the depths of his mind, a familiar burning down the length of his arm as he channelled the fox's foul chakra into the sentient blade,

"No, though cruelty doesn't become you kit".

"Cruelty? This is mercy Kyuubi", he corrected his prisoner, feeling the metal beneath his fingers grow warm and vibrate – as he suspected, there was a limit to the level of chakra Samehada could absorb and he was fast approaching that, "this is merely a warning for all the Akatsuki, who may heed it and avoid me or ignore it and face their end at my hands. I know people like this Kyuubi, much to my dismay – they won't listen to reason, the only thing they respect", he closed his eyes and braced himself as the fake Samehada approached critical mass, "is brute strength".

There was a noise like a bundle of explosive tags going off, a cloud of earth thrown up and a chakra flare so bright Neji was glad he'd disabled his bloodline limit; he was already without hair, he had no desire to be robbed of his eyesight as well. For a heart-stopping second everyone stared into the cloud hoping to see an inkling of what had just happened, only for the imposing figure of the jinchuuriki to step forth from the airborne dust and cough slightly,

"So, that's the message delivered; let's hope the Akatsuki pay attention before I get serious and we have to kill the lot of them", he remarked conversationally, clapping the dust and dried blood off his hands while his enhanced healing cells began clotting on the surface of his palms, "so then Chiyo-baachan", the eldest shinobi present took a step back as Naruto smiled in her direction, though even if the gesture was meant for reassurance, there was still a cut-throat edge to its depths as she and everyone else in the retrieval team realised exactly what he had done and where the evil chakra she had felt building up around him had gone, "let's go get your leader back".



"What do you...?" Hidan's voice suddenly dropped as the Jashinist suddenly realised who had spoken, "are you screwing with us?"

"No", strangely enough the voice of Kisames' partner added more gravitas to the situation that Kisames' original outburst did, Itachi appearing contemplative as he reviewed the memory from the flesh clone that had just been obliterated by the combined Konoha teams, "even at nearly half strength our opponents were able to overcome us in moments, and Naruto-kun has only grown stronger". There was sudden shuffling from somewhere in the vicinity of the rogue ninja swordsman and Kisame snarled, a rare light of anger in the shark-nin's eyes that was visible even over the astral projection,

"The bastard just..." disrespect of another mans' blade was a taboo in Kiri, one even nuke-nin adhered to, " time I see him I rend his flesh from his bones and drain every scrap of chakra from his coils for what he did to Samehada!"

"But not now", it was a testament to how serious the situation was that Itachi actually raised his voice to be heard, "Leader-sama, we do not have the time to seal the One-tail now, we must withdraw". The concentric rings of the one doujutsu in the world more powerful than the Uchihas' own swept over to him before, eventually, the shadowy figure of the Akatsuki leader made his decree,

"We will seal as much of the bijuu chakra as we are able to at the moment; when we are uncovered you", Sasori and Deidara perked up, the taller of the two shooting a smug look in Itachis' direction as he realised the Uchiha had once more been found lacking, "will ensure we maintain ownership of the container until the rest of the Shukaku can be sealed. If you can weaken the Kyuubi jinchuuriki as well, do so".

"You sure Leader-san? I mean we wouldn't want Itachi-senpai to feel inadequate when we catch his bijuu for him", Deidara chuckled before feeling the eyes of the organisation on him and falling silent, directing his attention to the jinchuuriki suspended above them, feeding his chakra into the sealing ritual even as his victorious smirk wouldn't leave his lips and the tongue of one hand dipped into his clay pouch, tasting the explosive death within and imaging the magnificence of his art being shown to a new, ignorant audience a few hours from now.


Almost before he'd heard the problem he had used the gift of his clan and seen the solution,

"There are four tags", his intoning placed him as the centre of attention as he quickly indicated the location of the hidden anchors of the barrier seal protecting the Akatsuki hideout; quickly deciding on a plan, team nine and their sensei donned short-ranged radio sets and moved out, preparing to destabilise the barrier while the remaining four shinobi quickly discussed their plan of attack,

"That oversized pebble is mine", Sakura declared, cracking her knuckles inside their protective gloves as Naruto nodded and turned to the oldest member of their party,

"I assume you're a puppeteer Chiyo-baachan; your job is to get Gaara out of there, I'll cover you and Kakashi-sensei, anything goes wrong you step in. Make sure you all get out way and take Kazekage-sama with you", staring at the seemingly impenetrable rock before him, Naruto narrowed his eyes and began garnering his chakra around him as he took in a breath of air for both his respiratory systems, "I'll handle the rest".

A moment later the signal came through the radio set Kakashi was wearing and his former student sprinted forwards; as the massive boulder was reduced to powder Naruto found himself rapidly reappraising his one-time Academy colleague; looks like baa-chan really did find someone who could surpass her. Luckily Sakura seemed to follow orders rather better than her sensei adhered to Shizune-neechan's paperwork schedule, quickly retreating to behind the jinchuuriki even before the dust finished settling, Naruto himself stepping forwards and trusting to his enhanced eyesight to pick out the important items in the scene before him. Vision sharper and able to see in more spectrums than even the fabled Byakugan, the enhanced jinchuuriki immediately sized up the scene before him and took the most appropriate cause of action to save his friend from the attentions of the nine madmen attempting to kill him for nothing more than the happenstance of his birth.

Due to his quickness of eye and matched quickness of hand there was an oversized kunai lodged in the opening eye of the giant statue dominating one end of the rough-hewn cave. Even as its sudden high-pitched scream of rage echoed around the cramped confines of the hideout a stream of chakra strings whipped out and latched on to the suspended form of the Kazekage, the sand-user dragged towards safety as Chiyo snapped her strings expertly to safeguard her village leader, shouting forwards as she did so,

"Ha, are these old bones too quick for you grandson? I'm ashamed of you Sasori, if this is how far you've fallen". One of the only two living opponents present seemed to react to the old womans' chiding but, before any further action could be taken on the part of the Akatsuki to recover their hostage Naruto took one step forwards, flashed a glance to the side to make sure the ancient puppeteer had dragged Gaara far enough clear before channelling his chakra and taking a deep breath into his massive and massively altered lungs,

"Jigokuton"; and now I know how baa-chan and ero-sennin feel; originally he'd hated that name for his techniques but, over the months and years, he had come around to feel a strange kind of fondness for the Kiri-based description of his combination techniques, the ones that had earned him his Dragon moniker, "Jigoku no kuchiwohiraku!'"

He didn't expect to kill his opponents of course; against such strong opponents such a straightforward technique, even one as hot to handle as a fire and wind collaboration technique, was hardly enough to even begin to hope for a lethal strike; but hopefully it would be enough to keep them occupied enough for him to plan his next move and, more importantly, dissuade them from pursuing their main target. After a few second she let the white fire die and scanned the chamber, another of his knives in his hand and trained on the thick wall he could see erected in front of the last position of the two definite enemies he could see, the rest of the Akatsuki vanished back to their own bodies and no longer a factor while whatever summon had been used to seal away the tanuki's chakra had disappeared as well. The second the cracks began to appear in the fired clay the blade was in motion, cracking through the burnt red wall with a noise like a sheet of ice shattering. There was no scent of blood, nothing to suggest he'd hit a flesh target as opposed to a clone but then he hadn't expected to; in fact the sensation of a couple of senbon digging into his left arm almost came as a relief as it pin-pointed the location of his opponent even if the sudden acceleration of both his heart rates as they worked to pump the poison now in his system towards where the growth on his kidney would easily purge it from his system was an annoyance he could have done without,

"Heh, guess he wasn't that tough danna; he didn't even see your attack coming"; I know it's a bad habit and I really shouldn't do it, but; sometimes he could see where his godfather came from, there was a certain element of sense in letting your enemy know they were outmatched and could either attempt to escape or, in this case, simply die where they stood. Therefore, as he casually glanced over at the Akatsuki duo and made a show of pulling the poisoned needles out of his arm with a chilling smile, he couldn't help but feel a certain grim satisfaction in the twitch of consternation hat raced across the face of the taller of the two nuke-nin,

"Or maybe he just didn't see the point in getting out the way of such a weak strike", he offered his point of view before returning the senbon to their owner at speed, the hunched figure dodging the splinters with the slightest of motions, "come on little poisoner, surely that can't be all you can do?"

"So", the voice was low and growling, more metallic than human as the Suna missing nin spoke, "your bijuu renders you immune to even my venom?"

"No; he helps but no, you're just not in my league any more string-flinger", Naruto scoffed, the derogatory name for an amateur puppeteer intended to draw Sasori's attention onto him, "run along and play with your dolls, and take your little friend with you; you'll live longer that way".

"But you will not; Deidara, this one is mine", with that the Scorpion of the Red Sands brought forwards a single fist that fired forwards, shedding thousands of senbon on its flight until a blast of wind scattered them uselessly, Naruto wagging a finger at the ineffective attack,

"Projectiles against a futon user – are you sure you're from Suna originally little scorpion? At the minute I see you as little more than a cockroach and about as threatening; give me more!" The veiled face shook, the rage of its owner betrayed as Sasori began to use more of his puppets' weapons, speaking to his partner as he did so,

"Crush the rest of this vermin; Leader-san's wishes be damned, I will take the nine-tails and have his pelt for a new puppet".

"Right danna, un", with that the Iwa-nin chewed up and spat out a new clay steed, leaping atop it only to jump straight back off as a the earth cracked underneath his ride and a hand blazing with light emerged, cutting the construct apart as though it were butter. Cursing, the Iwa-nin made to dodge and find some room before he stumbled, almost tripping as something snagged his ankle. The hitch in his step was enough to allow his new enemy to come to grips with him, Sasori too engaged with his own opponent, who had simply stormed through a blizzard of venomous weapons as though it were a shower of rain, and he found himself ensnared by the eye he hated so much. The sight was so unexpected that he froze, just for a second, but that was a second far too long as Kakashi closed with his prey and with a flash of lightning, the life of the explosive artist ended in the most beautiful and powerful explosion in the natural world.

Sasori, for his part, couldn't have cared less about his partner as he attempted to find room to get deploy his more powerful and dangerous techniques against this new opponent that wasn't felled by his poisons but the jinchuuriki would not give him an inch. Much like Kisames' clone had been hemmed in, the puppeteer was unable to get any distance making the majority of his ninjutsu useless; only the durability of his puppet shell kept him from taking a debilitating strike. Only the fortunate combination of a second explosion from somewhere close by and Sasori shedding his outer shell was enough give him a chance to deploy his most powerful puppet, the permanent reminder of his most high-profile target to date,

"The Sandaime Kazekage", Chiyo's voice was heard in the background, "so you did kill him Sasori?"

"Hai, and now he serves a much greater purpose", the puppeteer spoke, his strings already anchored to the joints of the former leader of his village, "I have evolved the art of the puppeteer to beyond mortal parameters; as a human puppet I can never age, I shall be eternal..."

Dragon-fire belched forwards once more, the rest of Sasori's speech swallowed in a rush of white flame; as Naruto had grown in the world of ninja he had easily found that one of the most glaring weakness many powerful ninja had was a need to speak, to aggrandise their supposedly infallible techniques; though occasionally guilty of this himself, it was the one weakness he loved to exploit, especially when he knew of other chinks in his enemy's armour. This time he didn't let the fire drop, he kept the flame hot and pumped chakra into his technique until, at last, he smelt the distinctive tang of molten metal on and dropped his technique before diving forwards through the remnants flickers of flame, enhanced senses straining to find his enemy and, upon location, detaining him. Punching through what was left of the smouldering human puppet, the jinchuuriki seized his opponent by the neck, casually ignoring the pair of swords that were thrust towards his chest and deflected from his rib plate as he hefted Sasori off the floor one-handed,

"How", apparently having his throat crushed didn't prevent the animatronic human being able to speak, "you've taken enough toxin to kill an army, bijuu or none! And how did you defeat the Iron Sand?" Naruto didn't answer immediately, instead ripping both the puppets' arms from his body and catching the sprung-loaded coil before it punctured his abdomen as his ears caught the distinctive sound of the weapon chambering an instant before it launched. Dropping the weapon, Naruto faced the unchanging expression of the Akatsuki member and let out a gruff snort,

"Metals lose their magnetic properties if exposed to too much heat, and heat denatures the proteins that make up your venoms", he quoted, his near-eidetic memory and superhuman neural transmission speeds allowing him to both recall the bloodline of a shinobi he'd only read about once and figure out a plan to undo him in an instant to get to his enemy, "and as for you", he drew the puppet closer to him, voice dropping as he lowered his gaze slightly, "did you really think I couldn't smell the blood amid all that wood and metal?"

Sasori had no time to even begin to answer as Naruto thrust a few fingers forwards, hitting the sealed portion of Sasori's puppet body and knocking the cylinder loose from its moorings; the missing nin immediately fell lifeless, the puppets' strings cut without the living part of Sasori to control it. Reaching forwards and retrieving the small sealed container, the jinchuuriki allowed himself to smile and glance across at the other combat that had gone on while he dealt with Sasori. To his disappointment, however, there was no second body; instead Kakashi and Chiyo were glancing around at a discarded Akatsuki robe and a new hole in the ceiling which Sasori's partner must have blasted to make his escape. Seeing this and smirking slightly, Naruto fought down the slight feeling of nausea that arose due to his massively accelerated pulses forcing the blood to circulate around his body at high speed, the Senju-Uzumaki tracked back and rose a hand in greeting at Kakashi's lazy wave,

"He got away then? I know Chiyo-baachan's got an excuse but are you sure you're not letting old age catch up with you Kakashi-sensei?"

"Maa, these things happen; I might be fast with my eye but even I find it hard to tell an Iwa-bunshin from the real thing in a second, least of all when used by a master of doton techniques. Still", the Copy-nin held up his right hand, the fingers still sticky with blood up to second knuckle, "he didn't get away entirely unscathed, though it's a shame I couldn't take his whole arm rather than just halfway cripple it. Hope they've got a good medic on their side though otherwise that's going to be a wounded soldier they've got on their side for the foreseeable future. Did you want this by any chance?" The Copy-nin offered his fingers forwards but, seeing the blood on them drying, the jinchuuriki held up the hand containing Sasori's few mortal remains,

"No, I've got what I need here and no", catching a glimpse of Chiyo's face tightening Naruto made to head off any potential issues before they could arise, "this is not the property of Suna any longer; ask your Kazekage if you've any objection". The elderly woman merely coughed and spat onto the dusty floor, casting a bemoaning glance towards what was left of her grandson's puppet body,

"Hm, we can glean more from his body than what's left of his withered heart; anyway it'd be a little much to ask the Kazekage anything now considered what he's just been through".

"I hope you're not disparaging my cute student there Chiyo-sama", Kakashi spoke with an eye-smile as the Suna kunoichi glanced up annoyed, "Sakura-chan does good work; with any luck Gaara-sama should be up and about any time soon".

As things turned out Kakashi was proven half-right; Gaara was certainly conscious following Sakura's tender ministrations, the med-nin as always staying out of the fight to treat the injured and bring the Kazekage around, though the Suna leader wasn't able to stand or even sit up without grimacing. Rolling his teal eyes towards the figure that blocked out some of the newly-revealed starlight, the current Kazekage managed to master himself enough to speak, Sakura helping brace him up and running soothing healing chakra into his fractured system, though the seal that held back his prisoner was still intact despite their opponents' best efforts. Smiling down at his fellow jinchuuriki, the Senju-Uzumaki decided to break the ice with his standard diplomatic aplomb,

"Hey Gaara-san, enjoying having a pretty girl waiting on you hand and foot?" As he'd expected a pair of filthy looks attempted to flay him to the bone before, with a great effort, the Kazekage managed to speak,

"You don't know how lucky you are that I'm in too much pain to gather my sand", the youngest of the Suna siblings told him before relaxing slightly on the cold earth, Sakura continuing to channel her medical chakra to paper up the cracks of the Kazekage's chakra network, "still, did you get what you needed?" Holding up the container that held what was left of the S-ranked Suna missing nin, Naruto casually flipped it over and pointed to where Chiyo was exiting the cave with the puppet body of her grandson sealed in a scroll,

"Yeah, this should be all I need; anyway, seeing as I need a little while to get rid of the last of that asshole's attacks, I suppose there's no better time to get this over with. Kakashi-sensei, Sakura-chan, sorry to impose on you but you might have two jinchuuriki to look after for a minute, though", a sudden thought occurred to him just before the pressure he placed on Sasori's heart container became intolerable to the carved wooden cylinder, "while we're on the subject, where are team nine?"

About fifteen minutes after this observation, following the removal of a quartet of clones, the seizing of one of the trapped tags for further analysis by the Konoha crypto-analysis squad and a stare-down between Chiyo and Lee, who for the first time in living memory seemed to have met a person whom his flames of youth couldn't burn down the barrier between, Naruto sat down beside the still-recovering form of Gaara. The Kazekage was about able to sit upright by this point and had told his most senior puppeteer that a deal did exist between Konoha and Suna regarding the Akatsuki situation, the last diplomatic wrinkle in the plan that Naruto had come up with to gather information on their elusive enemies,

"Glad we nailed this one to be honest", Naruto admitted, glancing to his right to see Gaara's almost expressionless eyes, though most of the bags had been removed following Shukaku allowing his host to sleep after being terrified into obedience by the sight of the true monster both he and Gaara had glimpsed within the recesses of Naruto's inherited memories, "I recognise his seal-work from some of the bodies we found in Suna; your scorpion must have had his claws deep in many different areas, especially if the seals we found on some of the Suna shinobi were loyalty seals as your sister suggested. This", he lifted the heart container he'd kept hold of for the duration to prevent any last minute bids for freedom his prisoner might have had in what was left of his mind, "should tell us what we need to know. So than Gaara-san, for surviving the attentions of the Akatsuki and getting us the information we needed", he raised the heart container in a salute, "a toast".

With that he gently squeezed the top of the cylinder until it eventually cracked in a spray of fine red droplets; without further ado Naruto casually raised the gory contents to his lips and downed them in a single draught. With this done and the cold meat swilling around in the first chamber of his stomach, the Senju-Uzumaki concentrated all his focus inwards and fell into his standard resting trance, his enhanced bodily functions breaking down the meat and running the resultant stew through part of his mind dealing with learning. As he watched through flashes of a life that wasn't his own, his focus narrowed onto the recent past and, like a Suna-nin digging a scorpion free of the desert sands, the jinchuuriki eventually began unravelling the recent past of Akasuna no Sasori and, more importantly, the eight or nine other shadowed figures that he had worked with to try and bring about the birth of a world twisted by the dreams of a madman.


"Is Naruto-kun asleep?" Lee, as always, voiced the question others were only thinking, though in this case Sakura, having done all she could for Gaara without exhausting her chakra, pushed some of her hair back behind her ear and shook her head,

"Not exactly; I can't say too much about it", though unspoken, the secrecy seals that some of the med-nins were branded with were relatively common knowledge amongst the shinobi corps, "but from what I understand he's aware of what's going on around him. Never tested it though and to be honest, wouldn't want to".

"Yeah, I wondered about that as well", though considered a more junior medic to someone like Sakura who had studied at Tsunades' side, no-one gainsaid Tenten as she stepped forwards with a kunai in her hand and a curious glint in her eye as she beheld the thousand-yard stare of the seated jinchuuriki, Naruto seemingly oblivious to the world around him as the weapon mistress stepped towards him and slowly raised her weapon before letting it descend towards his exposed head in slow time. For a moment it seemed as though the strike would hit true until one of his hands shot up, gripping her wrist even if he nicked the side of his hand against the keen edge of her kunai. The tableau remained frozen for a moment before Naruto eventually let go slightly and allowed the kunoichi to withdraw, Tenten rubbing her wrist with a chagrined expression,

"I wonder no more", she pouted before breaking her funk and shrugging, "though truth be told I think I prefer my beauty sleep to that kind of trance he goes into".

"Yosh, Tenten-chan, you do yourself too little credit; you require no beauty sleep", fortunately in the darkness no-one could see if the kunoichi was blushing or not as the taijutsu master went on from where he was helping his sensei and team mate build a camp for the night, Sakura having declared the Kazekage slightly too delicate to risk moving at night, "still, the night is drawing in and it gets cold in the desert; I shall have this camp fully set up before the first star is seen in the sky or I shall run back to Suna on my hands".

"Yosh my student, such is the power of youth raging into a conflagration that will brighten even a night in this desert", the deeper voice of Gai-sensei echoed that of his protégé, "such dedication, such training will only ensure your triumph in your next contest with your eternal rival, right Kakashi-kun?"

"Hmm, you say something Gai?"

"Curse you and your hip attitude Kakashi!" With such a debacle taking place in front of her eyes the eldest ninja in the rescue mission retreated the side of her village leader and spoke from the corner of her mouth,

"Much as I respect our allies for their strength, is it truly necessary to closely entwined with such...eccentricity?" Despite himself Gaara smiled at the comment as he answered his advisor,

"This from the woman who threw herself at one of my rescuers screaming about revenge against the White Fang; Sakura told me after I was revived and requested a debrief", the Shukaku jinchuuriki explained his apparently prescient knowledge as Chiyo had the good grace to appear slightly embarrassed by her own examples of less than completely professional behaviour, "still, considering what could have happened but for the intervention of Konoha, a little insanity seems to be small price to pay for Sunas' safety and, more personally, my life".

Chiyo seemed content with that as the elderly woman said nothing more for the remainder of the night; the seven shinobi, with Gaara helping as best he could in his weakened state, made camp and set a watch for the remainder of the night, ready to move in the morning. The majority of the entertainment for the night came from Team nine, the quartet of shinobi recounting how they Akatsuki seals had created almost perfect duplicates of themselves to stop them getting involved in Gaara's rescue, though as a huge shadow suddenly loomed across the campsite everyone immediately dove for a weapon before the figure resolved itself and everyone relaxed again,

"Ah, hey Naruto-kun", Sakura greeted, casually trying to make it look like she hadn't just snatched a spread of shuriken out of her weapon pouch at his appearance, "get what you needed?"

"Most of it", the jinchuuriki spoke in a guarded tone, settling down in the rough circle and reaching into his pouch for a ration bar, "put it this way; Jiraiya-sensei's going to have a field day with this. Don't take this as impolite Gaara-sama but as soon as you're back in Suna we'll have to shoot off home ourselves – there is some information here that may be time-sensitive". The Kazekage for his part merely raised a hand and nodded,

"I understand Naruto-san; you and your companions have more than fulfilled their obligations to Suna by my rescue"; so he's really starting to go into the diplomacy of his village; the flowery language of the other shinobi didn't go unnoticed by the much more perceptive jinchuuriki, "you are all free of any further service, I will stamp your mission successful and write to the Hokage a personal note of commendation for your swift and decisive actions"

"You do us too much credit Kazekage-sama", in the gloom no-one could see Kakashi's eye-smile but there was no doubt it was present as he leant across the smokeless fire, grateful for the warmth, "Konoha will always honour its treaties with a true ally".

As Gaara was unable to travel all that far the return to Suna was a much slower affair than the journey out of it, though the sight of Gaara's face as he was returned to the cheering masses of his village was more than worth the sight as far as the majority of the rescue team was concern. The village was almost ready to declare his semi-resurrection as an impromptu holiday, especially as the Suna siblings were reunited with their youngest brother with Kankuro recovered from Sasori's poison and Temari simply relieved that her youngest brother was still alive. The Konoha team was profusely thanked by the entirety of the Suna council; Temari was even feeling so grateful as to send a funny sort of half-bow towards Naruto, closing her eyes temporarily to the bloodstained spectre of her sensei hanging behind the gargantuan form of his killer; and the following morning the seven Konoha shinobi were ready to depart for their home village. However, almost as soon as Suna had receded into the heat-haze of the distance, Naruto had closed the distance to the leader of the team and spoken as quietly as he was able to,

"Kakashi-sensei, permission to disengage from the team and make best speed to Konoha when the situation arises?" The Copy-nin raised his one visible eyebrow,

"Your information?"

"Hai; I was truthful when I said some of it might be time-critical".

"In that case permission is granted", the jounin said, raising his voice to let the rest of the team know his command, "your new mission, Senju-Uzumaki Naruto, is to relay the information you have garnered on the rogue terrorist organisation Akatsuki to our Hokage. On my authority as a jounin of good standing within the shinobi force of Konoha, this mission is authorised as B-rank". With those words spoken Kakashi turned towards his eternal rival and Gai, who had been listening in as intently as everyone else within earshot, spoke his lines seamlessly,

"As a jounin of good standing within the shinobi force of Konoha, this mission is witnessed and recorded", the Green Beast spoke, the Konoha requirement of new missions in the field requiring two separate jounin to issue and ratify being fulfilled and, heeding this, Naruto nodded at his commanding officer and demanded every ounce of speed his enhanced frame could produce to race away from the others; though it was nothing even close to the top speed either of the Beasts of Konoha could achieve, the difference was that he could carry on that speed until was stood in the Hokage's office giving the debrief. Even as he ran and left his friends temporarily behind just as they had him at the start of the mission, behind his guarded eyes he began to determine exactly what of the schemes, plans and abilities of the Akatsuki he had gleaned from Sasori's meagre biological remains he could reveal even to the Hokage, the woman who was both his leader, his superior officer and the closest thing to a mother he had ever known.


The aftermath of the Suna recovery was considered a success on a par with the Yondaime's decisive strike against Iwa during the closing stages of the Third war, though as usual in ninja business the truth behind the matter was hushed up; only those who needed to know were allowed to know what they needed to know. The reverberations of the Akatsuki's first defeat, however, were even more subtle but just as widely felt; though at first glance they would have appeared to be little more than ripples spreading out from a stone cast into a pond, by anyone looking underneath the underneath they would have appeared more akin to a tsunami threatening to sweep away many of the constants of the shinobi world.

For example, Sarutobi Asuma was a proud and well-respected jounin of Konoha who had a long and enviable record of service for his village; after all, of all the shinobi and kunoichi in Fire country, only two dozen at most were permitted to wear the crest of the Daimyo on their personal clothing, a token of gratitude from the lands' ruler to those whose bodies had been his shield. However as with all ninja sometimes a little time away from the front line was necessary to maintain a healthy mental balance and therefore no-one, least of all the now-chunin force of team ten, were surprised when their sensei was temporarily replaced for a few weeks as Asuma was taken off duty for a short break. It was also no surprise, at least to those who knew the chain-smoking jounin and his previous history, that the majority of that holiday was spent travelling to the monastery of Fire country to seek out his old friend Chiriku, one of his former comrades within the Guardian Twelve who at the end of his service had turned his back on the world of shinobi and become a monk. The spiritualist for his part had been delighted to see his old friend again and the two had spent many fine evenings reminiscing on shared missions, past friends and sharing many games of shouji and go in the warmth of the Fire country sunshine.

However what was not seen or overheard by any of the younger monks of the Fire temple were the private conversations held between the two veteran shinobi behind closed doors; this was done mostly at the behest of Chiriku, who decided that it was for the best that the mention of the nearly-dead but still dark religion Asuma brought with him on his travels did not reach the ears of the younger generation – better that the creed of Jashin be unremembered forever than spoken anew.

In a similar vein, at the same time Asuma began his holiday new diplomatic ties were forged between the Leaf and the Waterfall; again, hardly surprising since the two villages were allied with each other and had been since the Third war. Shibuki, the leader of Taki, was most pleased to receive the emissary of the more powerful village and, over several days of negotiations of the price of chakra paper supplied to Konoha, shared several snippets of information regarding some of the Waterfall's most famous and infamous shinobi, just as the beautiful jounin commander of the tracker team sent to secure the negotiations was happy to regale him tales of their Hokages past. It was typical shinobi bantering, the passage of completely harmless information that had been part of the ninja way ever since there had been ninja; in a world of secrets, it was something of a relief to be able to talk frankly about the skills and secrets of shinobi who had been quite safely dead for at least fifty years.

The last piece of the puzzle was the one that was simultaneously the most important and swiftest to resolve, undertaken by Naruto himself almost as soon as he was home after debriefing both his godparents in the aftermath of the Kazekages' rescue mission. A drop of his blood and a few words led to a few restless hours wait only to be greeted by an ear-searing response, though regardless of the ill-feeling in the words that met his pseudo-warning and commands, he was grateful to realise that at heart the person on the other end of his toad-based communication system was willing to listen and adapt her plans to his warning. Because of this warning some two weeks later, when another duo of the Akatsuki chased their quarry into a deserted subterranean system, they had no way of knowing that they were attempting to take on a much greater and infinitely more dangerous foe than a single isolated jinchuuriki.

Almost as the two hunters disappeared into the darkness however, half the continent away the law of unintended consequences was rearing its ugly head and a single shinobi wearing a headband marked with a musical note symbol realised the deadline had passed and stepped away from the bridge he had arrived at some ten minutes earlier, never once suspecting his masters' presence or the ire that appeared in Orochimarus' eye as he realised a chance for revenge against the organisation that had cast him out had somehow slipped through his fingers.

That didn't stop him spitting his sword through the potential information leak just in case, the Oto jounin not even feeling his death as the rogue sannin terminated the potential mole in his organisation just in case his former Akatsuki partner had somehow caught wind of his plan and avoided the trap meant to end him. To a personality as narcissically perfectionist as Orochimarus, such loose ends were simply too unspeakably ugly to be born.


Almost before the attack was halfway towards her Yugito had avoided it, the Nibi jounin twisting acrobatically in the air as her newly-summoned companion disappeared into the darkness around her. Memories of the warning that had been scrawled on the paper passed to her some weeks ago fresh in her mind, the Kumo kunoichi was careful to keep well away from the head of the tri-bladed scythe even as its wielder, shoulder to shoulder with his partner, stepped forwards into the murky light of the underground world Yugito knew so well.

"Aww man, I must have the slowest attacks in the Akatsuki", the pale, almost albino man complained, tugging the rope of his scythe to make the wicked-looking weapon fly back to his hand, "I just never seem to hit anything".

"Perhaps if you spent more time training and less time on your knees you'd be a better shot".

"Hey, screw you Kakazu", the younger-looking one of the duo replied angrily, attaching his scythe back together with an audible click, "Jashin-sama demands genuflection from His loyal followers ya filthy heathen; the only thing you value is money".

"Because it is eternal Hidan", the masked shinobi spoke, his red sclera seemingly emitting an eerie light in the darkness, "humanity will always be reliant on money when even the memories of the gods have faded to dust, even yours". Hidan's face mottled, what little blood actually remained in his body following his profane rituals rising to his face before, slowly, he forced himself calm and wrapped the pendent of his faith around his fist,

"When the final day comes Kakazu, you will be the first I beg Jashin-sama to drown in the lake of eternal blood", the prophet assured him, holding his simple iron necklace like a talisman as he raised it towards his lips, "I am armoured by the blessing of Jashin-sama and before this kill, in His holy name, I pray to him".

"You may pray to your god prophet", a voice that most definitely did not belong to their quarry growled from the darkness just as the Nibi jinchuuriki finished focussing her chakra and clapped her hands together, covering for her fellow jinchuuriki as he finished emerging from the mouth of the toad that had transported him halfway across the Elemental Nations and stood to full height on the water next to her, "but I know that here and now, He will not answer you".

The Akatsuki were unable to answer this question due to the rather more pressing concern of dodging several tonnes of falling rocks and the resultant cloud of dust the explosion kicked up. Quickly rallying side by side, the Immortal duo of the bijuu-hunting organisation heard faced down their newest opponent, recognition dawned on the face of one of them and a tri-bladed scythe was levelled at the newcomer,

"Hey, you! You're the ass-hat that stopped us claiming the One-tails!"

"Guilty as charged", Naruto admitted, having to almost physically check himself from readying his own weapon in the face of provocation from an armed opponent, "and though I'm sure she doesn't much need or appreciate the help", Yugito gave a slight snort at this that fortunately went unnoticed by the two S-ranked shinobi opponents, "I am here to ensure your master doesn't get his hands on the Nibi no Nekomata as well". Hidan gave a derisory laugh,

"Master? I have no master save the great Jashin-sama, the god of darkness and bloodshed who has gifted me his boon of immortal suffering, that I might spread His creed of desolation to the world".

Recognising a zealot lashing himself into a religious fervour when he saw one, Naruto merely took in his opponents' words and, rather than replying in kind, merely smiled and readied himself for the inevitable as he spoke the next words sure to provoke the foul-mouthed mans' temper,

"To the world – that your so-called god has such small desires is somewhere between amusing and downright pitiful". As he'd expected the casual insult was the straw that broke the camels' back; after being stunned into impotent rage for a moment Hidan let out a blood-curling scream and lashed his scythe forwards, the triple blade whipping through the air and, to the dark priests' delight, drawing the blood he so required for Jashin's ritual to deliver divine justice to the infidel. He yanked back to retrieve his weapon only to almost end up jerked off his feet; Naruto had caught the weapon by the rope haft and held it tight in his right hand, almost completely oblivious to the wound all three blades had struck in the arm above his hand,

"Let me tell you two things Hidan the Immortal", the jinchuuriki spoke, thinly amused by the sight of the smaller man heaving on the rope to try and get his weapon back, "firstly there is only one god of blood, a deity one of my fathers worshipped and who, thankfully, is unknown to the Elemental Nations. Secondly, even were you to worship him from what I have seen he would be most displeased with you; for his altar..." Unexpectedly he let his arm go forwards, the lack of resistance almost knocking Hidan onto his backside before his opponent suddenly used all the strength his enhanced musculature could produce and pulled his fist backwards, the incredible tug irresistible and dragging Hidan into stumbling forwards, straight into range of what was likely the progenitor of the millions upon millions of sacred weapons to his second-fathers unholy god that had once existed,

"...a much greater sacrifice would be demanded!"

With a plume of smoke from his arm and a downward slash, Hidan found himself meeting the same fate as the first victim of the rediscovered chain-axe; the demonic keening filled the now-sealed catacomb as with a spray of gore the Jashinist was ripped asunder, caught by the iron mandible on the left shoulder and free of its tearing bite only when it exited the ruin of his body halfway down his right thigh. Forewarned of the silver-haired man's strange ability to defy death due to the blessing of a god he'd never heard of, Naruto was not yet finished; in a blizzard of strikes so fast they appeared as a continual blur to even the two nin spectating the gruesome event, Goa-chichioya descended four more times before its controller allowed the mangled, mutilated remains of his opponent to sink beneath the blood-filmed surface of the shallow, underground lake. Even then Naruto thrust the head of the pole-arm below the surface, the whirling teeth of the chain-axe churning the top of the formerly pristine pool into a bloody soup of water, viscera and foam-flecked froth as the jinchuuriki smiled at the one remaining Akatsuki, Kakazu apparently taken aback by the violent demise of his partner in a matter of seconds,

"Stitch that back together if you can, Kakazu of Five Hearts", Naruto's voice was a clarion, a strident call that could be heard over the roar of even the most convoluted battlefield, "yes I know your name, I know who you serve and I know the abilities of your Earth Grudge Fear jutsu, how you have lived so long. I also know that, should you stand against us", reddened water flew from the teeth of his axe as he lifted Goa-chichoya out the water, the flying liquid landing on his skin and drawing rivulets through where the blood of the man he had just rent asunder had painted itself to the flesh of his killer, "the oldest living shinobi to date will meet his end. Against two jinchuuriki", he shook his head slowly, Yugito doing her best to look intimidating at the same time as trying not to vomit copiously at the memory of Hidan's demise; please tell me none of that blood landed on me; "not even you can survive. You have two choices; you can either live or die, but either way you're leaving the Akatsuki".

For a moment Naruto was certain his opponent was going to die for the cause and his weapon echoed his irritation, the throaty growl of the rotating metal a threatening purr that only rose in pitch as Kakazu reached slowly around under his robe; it died away, however, at the sight of the cover of a familiar publication rising up to eye-level with the ancient shinobi. Kakazu studied the Bingo book closely for a moment, glancing between the pages of his well-thumbed copy and the shinobi before him; after a moment of silence, the aged bounty-hunter spoke in a gravelly tone,

"You are Senju-Uzumaki Naruto; heh", Kakazu's chuckle was like a dying mans' last rattling breath as he replaced his Bingo book, "fifteen million ryo? Whoever wants you dead is either a cheapskate or a fool to place a bounty that meagre on your head". Feeling slightly more confident in the situation as she too recognised exactly who she was standing side by side with (and also, to her surprise, finding herself in agreement with the man who was supposed to be hunting her down and helping drag the Nibi out of her that his Bingo book rating really didn't do him justice), Yugito wrestled down the last of her nausea and dared to speak again,

"So, you're turning in your robe?"

"I don't appear to have a lot of choice", the man retorted caustically, casually sweeping the black and red cloak from off his shoulders and casting it into the water at the jinchuurikis' feet, "much as I love money, even that is useless if you're not alive to spend or save it". Naruto seemed to nod at this logic before holding forwards a single hand,

"The ring as well; I know they hold a purpose for the Akatsuki". Kakazu nodded and removed the ring from his finger, the metal flashing as he casually tossed it towards the waiting figure of the enhanced jinchuuriki. As he watched his membership of the apparently doomed organisation slip away into the weapon pouch of one of the would-be targets of his fellow S-ranked shinobi, the bounty hunter felt compelled to ask a question that had been in his mind, and, he knew, not just his mind, since Deidara had reported that the Kyuubi jinchuuriki had been the one to rescue the Kazekage while his charred and half-severed arm was being stitched back into place by Kakazu's own forbidden jutsu,

"Why do you fight?"


"I asked why do you fight; do not test my patience with bewilderment", the aged shinobi warned, confident that even if he was likely to die in a fight with the two in front of him, he could at least make his end worthy of remembrance in the minds of his last foes, "I fight for money, Hidan for the glory of his god. Every shinobi fights for something and you are no exception – Konoha and Kumo, working together", Kakazu shook his head as though in disbelief, "had I not seen it with my own eyes I would have never have suspected Leaf and Cloud could ever set aside their differences. Something, some force or belief has driven you to break boundaries in your struggle and it's not just against us, the Akatsuki; we're just the first step for you to overcome", jaded though he might have been Kakazu was also one of the most experienced shinobi in the world and that experience made him almost unmatched in the art of discerning lies from truth, falsehoods from the real reasons man behaved as he did, though Itachi was also inherently gifted in that art, "you've got something else, a greater plan that we're just a factor of. I don't expect you to tell me what it is"; I don't need you to have another reason to kill me; "but I would know why you fight so hard, why you would come to the aid of an enemy of your state when it would be in Konoha's interest to see her dead? What is it, other than loyalty, that commands the Senso Haundo?"

Kakazu's question was answered with silence for a long, long minute before, just as the former Akatsuki member was beginning to suspect that he would get no answer, Naruto spoke once more, a much quieter tone to his voice as he rumbled into the grim blackness,

"I cannot tell you what I fight for Kakazu-san"; that much I cannot reveal, not until far, far in the future – Kyuubi, stand ready; just as the answering growl from the kitsune was heard in the back of his mind, the Senju-Uzumaki met eye to eye with the former Taki-nin and inexplicably smiled wolfishly, "but I can show you what I fight against"; now!

A few seconds later, as she beheld the much older shinobi stagger backwards as though hit with a physical blow, Yugito glanced between her would-be abductor and her rescuer, voice polite but inquiring even if she didn't move closer to the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, apprehensive at the sight of the unnatural weapon he held negligently in one hand, its broad head resting atop the water that even now wasn't clear of Hidan's blood,

"What did you do to him?"

"Me?" Naruto's voice managed to sound surprised at the question, "I have done nothing, genjutsu will likely be forever outside my area of expertise. However what we, Kyuubi and I that is, managed to do recently was find a way to project certain memories from my eyes into those of my opponents; mostly useless due to the time it takes but useful in some circumstances. As to what he's seeing", the Senju-Uzumaki shrugged shoulders that Yugito suspected could bear a half-dozen of her on each of them, "I imagine it's mostly the same thing you and Bee-san did".

The Kumo kunoichi shivered, she was not ashamed to admit it; most likely she would never be able to remember the day that had changed everything she thought she had known about her world so violently she still sometimes felt she was spinning on a different axis to the rest of the world; and if I feel disjointed at times, imagine how he feels – I remember what he showed the two of us, he lives it every day. She had been receiving last-minute instructions from the eight-tails jinchuuriki prior to her taking the journey to the Turtle Island to fully tame her bijuu; hopefully mostly a formality as she and Nibi had a good relationship despite an admittedly rocky start; when Bee had suddenly stiffened at the appearance of an unfamiliar stranger at the head of his valley. Yugito had at first castigated herself for not sensing the unknown chakra but Bee knew his valley like he knew the back of his own hand and therefore blaming herself was unnecessary; ready for anything, the two Kumo jinchuuriki had waited together for the unfamiliar presence to appear and, to Yugito's slight surprise, that had been exactly what had happened. Even half-way up the valley the profile of the stranger had been visible, the man apparently cut from the same cloth as A-dono, Bee's older brother and the current Raikage. Answering their challenges with a raised hand, the man what had introduced himself simply as Naruto had been responsible for single-handedly shifting the focus of two of the most loyal shinobi Kumo had ever produced if not away from their village entirely, then at least to encompass a much wider view than merely the Elemental Nations.

He had spoken, in a deep voice she always remembered, of a history unknown to shinobi; of wars on a scale unimaginable to anyone who lived currently, in fact since before the time of the Sage of Six Paths, a time of heroes undefinable by shinobi legend or myth. She and Bee had listened politely to what she had entirely believed were either the words of a gifted storyteller or, rather more unkindly, the ravings of a lunatic, until he had spoken of other things much more valid to both her and her sensei personally. He had claimed that his true name was Senju-Uzumaki Naruto, a shinobi exiled temporarily from Konoha and, more importantly, the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi, the nine-tailed fox – more worryingly from a Kumo security perspective, he had also been able to tell them that they too were jinchuuriki, holding the two and eight tails respectively. At that point both she and Bee had stood ready for a fight but conflict seemed to be far from his mind; Naruto had told them that during his exile he had spoken to many of the nine jinchuuriki of the Elemental Nations, even had a hand in creating the new container of the three-tails – his eventual goal was to speak to them all. When pressed by Bee as to why, he had merely smiled and offered both his hands forwards with a comment that words were immaterial compared to the message of the heart spoken with a hand, rather than the closed fist shinobi were so fond of using. Yugito could remember, with perfect clarity she could remember, sharing a long look of disbelief with her mentor before, along with Killer Bee, she had reached up and taken one of the strangers' massive hands in both her own.

Fortunately, and she would forever consider herself fortunate in this regard, she could remember very few of the actual details of what she had seen next; it all seemed to fade together into a macabre carnival of bloodshed, gore and cruel, wanton, mindless slaughter overseen by two laughing, screaming monsters, one she could, if she was feeling the need to, see clearly if she closed her eyes while the other, infinitely more powerful being remained mercifully hidden, unable to be seen or comprehended by the human mind, even one as inured to demonic interference as a jinchuuriki. She couldn't accurately remember when the dream, or vision, had ended and reality began; the next thing she remembered accurately had been coming back to herself in the overwhelmingly embarrassing position of the stranger's arms, hugging him tightly and shivering in a manner she swore she'd left behind along with her childhood. Fortunately Naruto had been too understanding and Bee too grave with his own recollections to make a mention of it, though through the perfect lens of hindsight she couldn't help but feel slightly embarrassed about such unprofessional conduct. She didn't, however, regret pledging her allegiance to the Senju-Uzumaki's cause of eradicating the Akatsuki from the world before ensuring, when the time was right, that the demon in his mind would be conquered forever with the help of the other eight bijuu and their jinchuuriki; as such a goal wouldn't endanger Kumo, it placed no conflict of interest between her village and her conscience to agree to his plan. She had laughed, something she'd been afraid she'd never do again, as the solemn trio were suddenly broken apart by the appearance of another large man, this one easily recognisable, and the way he immediately began berating the Kyuubi jinchuuriki for wandering off without leaving him a message was just too amusing not to raise a smile even if her eyes were still wet with tears of sorrow form the oceans of blood she had seen spilt.

After that day, though she hadn't seen Naruto until a few moments ago, his influence was in everything she saw and did; whereas before Kumo's prosperity had been her one and only goal, now the village seemed, small, almost insignificant in the grand scheme of things – how many such populations had been burnt to ashes with their living population still trapped inside their new tombs on the orders of the demon she had been forced to see the echoes of? The Raikage, in the face of such unholy might what power did he actually hold – though she was nothing but loyal to her kage, in her heart Yugito knew now that she served two masters with very different goals – she served Kumo with her body and career to keep her village and family safe but, when the time was upon them all, she and Nibi both would do their duty to Senju-Uzumaki Naruto to ensure the nightmare was finally ended forever; and, as of right now; the sudden lurch of movement from in front of her told her that whatever evil show Kakazu had been party to, it had at last ended and released the Taki traitor from its grip; we might have a new convert to the path.

"What", the voice was as thin and reedy as one of the thread that held his ancient body together, "what was, that? You, that axe", a trembling hand pointed out the weapon Naruto still held ready, though Goa-chichioya was quiescent at the moment, the water having cleaned its metal teeth of Hidan's blood, "it is a weapon that's doomed worlds – have you come to end us all?"

"No", not even a nin as experienced as Kakazu could hide the relief that swept over him as he heard that denial and the truth the one simple word held within it, the promise of reprieve for the Elemental Nations and its people from the blood-spattered ending he had seen, "if I can I will ensure the creature that held this weapon before me remains where it belongs; a memory locked in my head. I do not wish to fight anyone Kakazu-san, not even the Akatsuki", the admission made the would-be assassin of the Shodaime Hokage cock his head as the Senju-Uzumaki, possibly the last living descendant of the man he had failed to kill so long ago in the past, glanced between jinchuuriki and former jinchuuriki hunter, a strange sort of expression twisting his face before, inexplicably, he smiled in a way that made both of them nervous, "and, as such, before you leave to do whatever it is in the world you want to do, I wonder if you would do me a favour. Though be aware Kakazu", as the malignant weapon the jinchuuriki carried was levelled towards him even the man of five hearts dropped back a pace, respect borne out of fear of what that blade had done in the past etched large in his face, "you've made me a promise to leave the Akatsuki and I will hold you to that oath. Break your word and there will be no place in this world or any other where the Senso Haundo will not be able to hunt you down and bring you to heel. Understand?"

"Hai", and just by the tone of his voice Naruto knew he'd made his point and made it absolutely; Kakazu simply sounded his age, his voice more humble and defeated than before as he spoke on, "I think I've been in the shinobi lifestyle too long. Maybe a different career beckons; I've heard Nami is good this time of year, something to look into after this last mission. What was the message you wanted me to send?" Once more Naruto smiled, a finger on his chin as he sealed his axe away and the tension lightened because of it,


A few moments later, as she watched the last vestiges of one of the men who had been sent to hunt her down and deliver her to her death disappear with his new burden, one she herself had had a hand in creating to make it look more authentic, slung over one shoulder, Yugito held in her shivers and turned to her fellow jinchuuriki once more, not quite able to bring herself to look him in the eye as she spoke,

"Are you sure it was a good idea to let him go?"

"Hard as it might be to believe I'd rather talk than fight"; least of all because that way I have a lot less of a chance of losing myself, though, if you come through for me one more time Yugito-chan, hopefully that will be much less of an issue soon; "he won't come after you again, either through fear of me or honour to his word, you've no need to fear him any more".

"Hah, as if I did in the first place", the Nibi jinchuuriki snorted, giving a proud flick of her pony-tail as some of her usual bravado returned to the fore, "still you were right in what you said earlier; I'm not going to thank you for the help, in fact I was looking forwards to tearing that weird prophet a new one myself". Naruto chuckled,

"Sorry, doubt that's much of an option now; even if he's supposedly immortal, sewing him back together as he is now would be beyond the ken of most med-nin. Anyway", much as Yugito tried to hide it, he could see even in her slanted eyes that she didn't want to talk or remember what Goa-chichoya was capable of in his hands, "now it's just us jinchuuriki alone, I have something for you".

Yugito felt her eyebrow rise despite herself; after all better than anyone she knew she was an attractive woman whose bijuu had gifted her natural beauty with a touch of the exotic. Naruto wouldn't' have been the first man to have been ensnared by her looks – heck even Bee fanned a bit of a flame for her, though the knuckle-headed ox was far too professional to act on such an instinct save serenading her bedroom window with his cheesy rap rhymes; a stunt which nearly got him both his head reshaped by his brothers' Iron Claw and his knackers stomped flat by me. Luckily she was able to banish the excruciating memory by the time the larger man had found what he was looking for and focussed his attention back on her and held out a few slips of what looked like paper,

"Take one of these for yourself and pass the other two to Bee-san"; examining the paper she plucked from his thick fingers, Yugito was at first confused by the mess of squiggles she could see on the page before they seemed to resolve themselves in something approaching a seal matrix, though a fantastically complex one. Nonplussed, the kunoichi glanced up at her fellow bijuu host,

"Thanks, I think – what are they?"

"A more effective way for me to get to you than using toad-based techniques", he said cryptically, Yugito knitting her brows before she recalled the tales of another blonde shinobi of Konoha, famous for one particular fuuinjutsu-based transportation technique. Suddenly feeling very cold as she realised exactly what was in her hands, what Naruto had entrusted her with, she licked dry lips and spoke in a whisper,

"Th, that technique? Konoha has managed to replicate it?" Naruto shook his head,

"No, I have merely reclaimed yet another legacy that was mine; I seem to be overburdened with them", Naruto admitted with a shrug before turning slightly more serious, "if the Akatsuki come for you again channel your chakra through the tag and then throw it somewhere safe for me to appear; I will come to help you. I hope to get one of these to all eight of you but I only finished deciphering the matrix towards the end of the three years grace I had, and it took me until very recently to recreate the technique in its entirety – Minato-dono truly was the prodigy everyone claimed him to be. The Kazekage, Gaara of the Desert, was the first to receive his; now you and Bee-san and likewise protected". Yugito just about managed to keep her face straight and her tone level as she glanced from the anchor tags to their creator, speaking after a moment absorbing the news that had just been broken over her head,

"Namikaze Minato was, is your father?"

"He was my first-father; as you know it's complicated", the Kyuubi jinchuuriki admitted before moving back to business, "still, keep one of those tags on you at all times and make sure Bee-san gets the other two".

"Two? Why does…?" The question died on her lips as she recalled some of what Bee had told her of the conversations he'd had with Naruto and sense was made at last, "the Turtle Island? You're trying to master the Kyuubi?" Sorry fox, no offense meant;

"None taken – better they don't know exactly what we're going to do if my guess is right about that place"

"Yes, I do need to learn to control the bijuu but Konoha has nothing like the Turtle Island Bee-san mentioned to me", the Konoha ninja lied with a perfectly straight face; it was better, he deduced, than telling the truth in this case; "with the Akatsuki on the rise, the last thing I need is for the fox to rear up his ugly head and make my life any more difficult than it already is". Yugito nodded, tucking the seals into her equipment pouch,

"Can't say I've had too much of that problem, Nibi's mostly placid as long as she gets a bit of exercise every so often", the Kumo jinchuuriki confessed before shrugging, "still, I'll make sure madman of rapping who proudly serves the Cloud alongside me gets the message".

"Good; in that case would you also mind telling said madmans' brother about the Akatsuki – ero-sennin's done a bit of digging and discovered they have a potential army stashed away somewhere. If they start mobilising properly, and they might now that their first two attempts to claim the jinchuuriki have failed, we'll need the Nations to work together to match them man for man". Yugito nodded, expression betraying her consternation,

"It'll be a hard sell, especially since I've not been touched really – I could say I had to make a break for it, rough myself up a bit on the journey back – I'll do what I can but what else has been said to who?"

"Kiri is on-side though their jinchuuriki haven't been struck at yet, Iwa I'm not sure of, Suna will stand beside Konoha and Kumo – well, that one's up to you and Bee-san. From what I know of Iwa and the Tsuchikage, mostly what I've been told by Roshi and Han, Onoki will likely be brought to the table if he sees the rest of the kage conspiring – the Fence-Sitter won't run the risk of his country being isolated from an alliance of the other four great nations".

"Sounds like the Tsuchikage ji-san's always complaining about", Yugito admitted before, after glancing around, shrugging and heading towards one of the tunnels behind her, "still, let's get out here; it's a bit depressing. Don't worry", she shot down the slight hint of concern that arose in Naruto's face almost before it fully surfaced, "I know my way around this place as well as I know the shinobi codes; I'll have us back in the sunlight before you could smell the fresh air".

Naruto nodded and made to follow the kunoichi into the darkness; as the two departed, Yugito concentrated for a split-second before emitting a pulse of chakra; in response, as two sets of footsteps faded into the distance, their passage was obliterated by a chair of explosions from the roof of the chamber where the two jinchuuriki had faced the Akatsuki down. Masonry rumbled and broken stone tumbled down, the chamber collapsing to bury the last remnants of the religion of Jashin forever, the dark gods' last priest destroyed and consigned to history by the last son of the premiere worshipper of another, infinitely more powerful deity of slaughter.


Considering the recent run of bad form his organisation had suffered from, least of all the loss of one of their members and the failure to capture and seal the Shukaku, the first and least of their objectives, it was to be expected that the lord of Ame was in a black temper; even as the ground moulded around a single figure with a peculiar growth around his neck, the Rin'negan user spoke with a bite of impatience in his voice,

"You better have some good news this time Zetsu".

"Sure thing boss", as always the literally bipolar shinobi spoke in two voices, "Kakazu approaches and he bears the Nibi with him".

"Finally", the lord of Ame muttered under his breath before speaking aloud again, "Hidan?"

"No sign", the black half of the plant-based man spoke before the white chipped in, "guess he met something that could end even him".

"Damn; it was hard enough trying to find Kakazu a partner he wouldn't immediately kill if his temper gave – I doubt we'll be so lucky a second time", Pain admitted, not particularly caring that the Jashinist was dead as, had he not needed the seemingly immortal man as a buffer to keep Kakazu's temper from spilling over onto the rest of the organisation, he would have been perfectly happy to do the deed himself and rid the world o the foul-mouthed zealots' presence permanently, "still, we have one of our targets. I will assemble the others and summon the Outer Path statue as soon as the jinchuuriki is secure". Fortunately the damage to the bijuu receptacle from the kunai of the Nine-tails was relatively minimal and had already been repaired; therefore the Nibi could be sealed away prior to any potential rescue mission being attempted and the Akatsuki could finally start picking up the schedule that had been lost by the attentions of Suna and Konoha combined.

Some minutes later the Deva path of the ruler of Ame stood just outside the gates of is village, the rain that characterised his water-logged land pressing the hair to his face as he watched the slow, shambling figure before him gradually become clearer, Kakazu never one to hurry unduly without cause to do so. Pain could also be patient and thus he waited, the treasurer of his organisation and his comatose prisoner within twenty feet before the corpse that had once been Nagato's best friend broke the silence between the two S-ranked shinobi,

"Kakazu-san, your hunt was successful then? What of Hidan?" The bounty hunter didn't speak for a moment and Pain had the impression the Taki rogue was for some reason measuring his words before, with a noise like a dying mans' last breath, Kakazu chuckled,

"Hidan is as dead as he's ever likely to get; not even I could piece him back together after his opponent was through with him". Scrutinising his underling through his Rin'negan, Pain spoke in his usual monotone despite his rising apprehension – Kakazu was never one to mince words usually so his somewhat cryptic language was a cause for concern,

"The Nibi was that fearsome?"

"Wouldn't know", Kakazu admitted, swinging the unconscious figure off his shoulder and onto the floor where the doton clone of Nii Yugito began to dissolve in the rain, the slight flicker of fire around the mud that made up the chakra construct caused by a burn off of the chakra of the Nibi that the jinchuuriki had imbued his technique with to make the clone look more authentic to prying eyes, even if those eyes supposedly shared a lineage with the Sage of Six Paths himself, "never fought her, but the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi was enough to put paid to all that fools' ranting about the blessing of his beloved Jashin-sama".

The name made Pain jerk his head up from where he'd been observing the fake Nibi host decomposing into slurry under the effect of the rain, Rin'negan eyes boring into Kakazu as the leader of the Akatsuki readied himself for a potential fight – obviously the Taki nuke-nin had gone rogue,

"What is this?" That question had a number of connotations and, fortunately, Kakazu was experienced to know that, answering with a gruff snort as he glanced down at the now-disappeared clone,

"Consider it my resignation; don't bother trying to find me", even as he gave that warning tell-tale streamers of mud began to flow out from where Kakazu's feet should have been, the second mud clone destabilising as its creator moved out of range for it to maintain coherency, "with Sasori dead I can cover my tracks too well to be worth your while hunting down". Nothing showed in the eyes of God, the Rin'negan as cold as the corpse they were shown through as Pain dispassionately watched the traitor disappear,

"There are consequences for disobeying the will of God Kakazu"; his answer was little more than a gritty chuckle, the clone slipping away into the floor even as it answered,

"You're not God Pain; I have seen a true god, jus the barest glimpse of what He was capable of and that was enough to show me He is as far above you as you are above an ant", the clone of Taki bounty hunter somehow managed to smile even as its throat was reduced to muck and it finally returned to the earth it had been born from, "the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, Senju-Uzumaki Naruto, he is the one who walks in the shadow of a god, though he refuses to acknowledge it; stand before him Pain, you will die and not even your eyes will save you!"

With that there was silence at the gates of Ame; in fact Pain was still staring at the spot where the doton technique had ended and considering his options when the air behind him warped and his partner in leading the Akatsuki appeared once more. He didn't even need to look to know how angry Tobi, or at least the legend masquerading as the childish shinobi, was but at the same time the Uchiha progenitor managed to keep the wrath from his voice as he stated the facts,

"Three of our members dead or fled, no jinchuuriki sealed and the entirety of the Nations, or at least our quarry, aware that we exist and that we are hunting them; about the only good news that has come to us recently was the death of Orochimaru by the blade of my kin. Even if Sasukes' triumph will likely mean the end of Itachi, he will at least be another useful member for our little association, though even his joining us will serve no purpose", for the first time a shade of anger appeared in his tone as the masked shinobi folded his arms and bit his tongue, recalling again that a member of the clan who were the ancient enemies of the Uchiha clan was attempting to stall his latest plan to rise to glory, "should we not destroy the current stone that lies in our path, one Senju-Uzumaki Naruto". Pain was silent for a moment, the Rin'negan user finally tearing his eyes away from the clones' remains and turning towards the older shinobi,

"Kakazu's abdication is not as damaging as the loss of financial capital he brought to the table", he said quietly, the mulling the options over in his head, "however the Kyuubi, though powerful, is still little more than a weapon to be wielded by the hand of a god. I will take him myself Madara; the bijuu can be just as easily sealed last to first as first to last – with him gone the rest will fall into line easily".

"We can but hope", the legendary Uchiha spoke before meeting his Sharingan to Pain's Rin'negan, "regardless, I will look for alternatives to power the Zetsu army we will need to take the Nations themselves; having been to Spring country, I believe it may be possible to replicate the generators of that country to produce chakra, though it would be rather more vulnerable to attack compared to the chakra of the bijuu. Itachi and Kisame have gone into Iwa; we can but hope the animosity between Konoha and Iwa was enough to dissuade even the Kyuubi from seeking out his opposite numbers in Stone. We should wait for them to return, though it may take them some time to track down the jinchuuriki present there; if successful we may be able to create at least some of the troops we require from the Gedo, rather than somewhat more esoteric sources".

"Assuming the whelp of your clan doesn't interfere", Pain pointed out, though in truth he could see the logic in Madara's plan; only a fool would play his ace when he still had cards in hand, "still, once they are returned I will move on Konoha – the Leaf will feel my pain and know the judgement of God. You will oversee Itachi and, if necessary, sway your last kin to our side; the Mangekyou Sharingan is a powerful tool and Itachi has been broken for many years now". Yes; Madara remembered that day with an evil temper – for a while it had been touch and go as to whether even the clan-slaying Uchiha could pull through the depressed skull fracture he had suffered at the hands of the last Senju and, even when he had, the fact one of his eyes had prematurely and permanently darkened was almost as bad as him surviving at all; broken, but perhaps upon a useless handle can a new, sharper blade be mounted.

With that thought in his mind Madara inclined his head and warped away, leaving Pain to his thoughts as he too returned to his spire looking over his village, though even as he did so, the words of Kakazu still echoed in his head. Kakazu was one of the Akatsuki Pain respected if not actually liked, thinking his temper too quick to be a true friend, but at the same time when he wasn't in a killing mood the Taki-nin was surprisingly good company and often had sage ideas and plans, though most of them revolved around money and the acquisition of said money. For him to turn from the Akatsuki with such short notice was as disquieting as it was annoying, and try as he might Pain couldn't dislodge his former subordinates' last words from his head as he surveyed the drizzly land he called his home; if Senju-Uzumaki Naruto was supposedly touched by a god but would not admit it, did that mean he, who was a god, could overcome him easily, or would it be a true deific collision that his creed of pain would have to survive before he could claim his prize and teach the world the lesson of suffering?


In the aftermath of the Kazekages' rescue Naruto had, to little surprise to those who knew him, taken up residence in the Forest of Death rather than the village properly, though he often dropped in to visit friends and family and, occasionally, picking up the odd mission, usually substituting for a jounin-sensei if one was required even if his official rank was still chunin, the promotion apparently still grinding its way through the gears of the village. He had many reasons for returning to his old stomping grounds, some of which were more important than others; firstly it was the place in Konoha where he had the most positive memories – training with Anko-sensei might have been considered a death sentence for most shinobi but, as he wasn't most shinobi, he'd enjoyed his time under the tutelage of the mad Snake Mistress. Apart from that there was also plentiful food around assuming he could catch it, though he was careful to always keep some normal food around in a series of caches scattered about the forest for the few occasions he had reason to entertain guests, but the main reason he returned to the Forest of Death was for the simple reason very few people were insane enough to go in there and it was therefore it provided enough privacy for his purposes.

It was because of this privacy that, some month and a half after he had come face to face with Yugito Nii for the second time, when he felt a tug of chakra pulling on one of the sealing tags from a great distance away he was easily able to create a shadow clone to masquerade as himself, issue it some curt instructions to remain hidden for a few days and then disappear in a flash of light without anyone in the village being any the wiser to the fact that he'd left.

A split-second later the altered jinchuuriki felt himself appear in a place that was alien to him but that he'd heard a great deal about; glancing to the side of him where he had sensed the man who had summoned him, he smiled at where Killer Bee stood awaiting him, fighting off the slight drain on his chakra reserves as a result of using his father's technique to travel so far across the Elemental Nations,

"Good to see you again Bee-san; my thanks for your working so fast and inviting me to your private sanctuary". Sunglasses glinting in the early morning sun the Hachibi container nodded at the compliment, his expression unusually serious to those who knew him,

"My pleasure; bro didn't look too much into my request, mostly 'cause he was concerned with what little miss two told him about the Akatsuki and he knows this is as safe a place as any in Kumo to both train and hide. On top of that", for the first time the strong white teeth of the Kumo jinchuuriki were seen as he glanced around the wooded area around them all, "all the creatures great and small were overdue a visit from the baddest mofo of them all, yo". Naruto gave a snort that could have meant anything from annoyance to affection for the rappers' odd rhymes,

"It's a shame we never met earlier Bee-san; the younger me could have used a role-model like you". That much was certainly true; from what Naruto could remember of his childhood before the change forced upon him made him turn down a path he would otherwise have never considered in his life, he would have been very happy if he'd turned out as a shinobi like the Hachibi jinchuuriki. Though the brother of a kage, Bee had earned his reputation and the adoration of Kumo by his own hard work and relatively easy manner, though perfect control of the eight-tails also helped in that regard. He was a good example of what jinchuuriki could become and would have doubtless been a shining exemplar for a young, impressionable child to look up to – not for the first time Naruto found himself envious of the younger Kumo jinchuuriki for having Bee to guide her as she learnt to control the power of the Nibi. Still; he scrubbed the doubt from his mind; this is no time for envy, or any other such thought; knowing what was coming, the reckoning that was at hand, Naruto could only trust that both he and Kyuubi in tandem would be enough to overcome his most dangerous enemy to date and, more importantly, not be forced to devolve into a blood-craving lunatic to do so; fear, anger, hatred, pride – they destroyed the man who should have become a champion of humanity, they will not claim me as well.

Such were his thoughts as he dogged Bee's footsteps deeper into the interior of the Turtle Island, heading towards the Kumo shinobi had called the Waterfall of Truth, the first stage a jinchuuriki had to pass in order to gain mastery over their inner demon; though, as I promised fox, I will not even attempt to control you and I expect the same curtsey in response; from the recesses of his mind he felt the Kyuubi grin almost as much as he heard its answer,

"There are very few men who would promise such a thing Naruto, and even fewer that I would believe. But then again, you're not most men are you?"

"You'd know that better than I would – you watched the rest of me grow from the bastards' genetic stock, I just dealt with the aftermath of it developing", it had taken some time and a lot of experimentation but Naruto had finally mastered the art of talking back to his tenant without speaking aloud or falling into a trance, "still, you know what we're about to face now; I'll need every scrap of help you can give me to pull through this".

"I still don't understand why you are determined to go through with it", the bijuu confessed, though this was just raking over an argument the two of them had tussled over many times in the past in order to stave off thinking too much about what was coming, "surely you are already powerful enough to get your point across?" Unseen by his guide, Naruto shook his head slightly,

"To show them the truth about me, almost certainly; for them to fully appreciate the truth of the War-Hound itself, no – though I can rend apart enemies and even cities, only the true Senso Haundo can open their eyes to the real horror that ended so long ago. To awaken that beast without losing my mind, however, I have to be absolutely sure that I, not my second-father, is and will always be the master of my mind. You feel it though fox, the Waterfall is close and it is, it must be as we suspected". Hearing the roar of the water from its hosts improved ears made the fox simultaneously grin and shy away from the prospect of combat; though the bijuu had accepted the truth and sense in his hosts' explanation of his plan, it too knew exactly what they were going up against perhaps better than Naruto himself did and, because of that knowledge, it was not so proud that it couldn't feel fear gnawing at its belly as the execution hour drew ever closer,

"I believe so but hope not, though I doubt hope will bear me out here", Naruto chuckled dryly at the comment before deflecting the curious glance Bee shot over his shoulder by tapping his temple, indicating that his prisoner was a little rowdier than normal; fortunately the other jinchuuriki had just turned around as the fox continued his words, "though, as we are likely walking to our deaths, at least call me by my name".

"Your name – I thought you were just known as the Kyuubi? You never gave me a reason to call you anything else – is this to do with demons and their true name?"

"No, those rules don't apply to the other bijuu and I; we are not demons as you understand the term", the Kyuubi corrected his delusions before sighing and breaking the barrier and giving away his final secret at last, "I am Kurama".

"Kurama huh? I can live with that, though for how much longer is a matter of conjecture", the jinchuuriki thought to both himself and his tenant even as he came into sight of the rushing water he could hear and his twin hearts started to pound a little harder as the first faint tendrils of emotion began to beckon him towards the battle that was coming, "you can feel it as well can't you? I doubt I'll need your youkai to open the gate but, just in case…"

"I am ready", the bijuu assured his host, crouched behind his seal and for once praying it could hold in case their next opponent attempted to somehow influence the mind of his host, "best tell your friend what is likely to happen next and give him the chance to run away screaming – Kami knows I'd take it if I could".

"Sorry Kurama-san, you're stuck with me and if I'm about to get ripped limb from limb messily then so are you. You do have a point though", holding back a sigh, Naruto stepped forwards to come abreast of his Kumo counterpart at the edge of the waterfall's lake, "there's someone here who deserves to know at least a bit of what's going on".

Killer Bee was about to explain exactly what had to happen for his fellow jinchuuriki to begin to tame the nine-tails, the bijuu his own tenant had more than once referred to the most cantankerous and uncooperative of all the nine, but even before he could get the first word in the Senju-Uzumaki spoke, his voice surprisingly soft for his size,

"So, this is the Waterfall of Truth", it wasn't a question as he gazed around the mighty natural edifice, "it's beautiful".

"Uh, glad you like it", the Kumo shinobi managed after a seconds' floundering; of all the people he'd ever brought here, none had ever commented on the actual place itself, "still, now you're here I'm sure you want to know how to make the Kyuubi your bro?" In answer one hand rose to the back of Naruto's head, the Konoha shinobi giving a rueful grin as he answered in a way that began to tell some of the truth,

"Uhh, not exactly Bee-san; Kyuubi, or Kurama as he's actually called, has been on my side since the day I got the memories you and Yugito-san were unfortunate enough to live through – without him I would never have survived my change". To the biologically enhanced human's surprise, rather than demanding answers or spoiling for a fight after being tricked, Bee seemed to smile at the declaration of the younger jinchuuriki,

"Heh, me and the little cat though it might be something like that; one way you'd be able to wrestle with the Killer Bee without the Kyuubi"; so, they thought something like this was coming then? Good, that makes it easier to explain this next part; "so then, what's your call – why'd you need Turtle Island's waterfall?"

Deciphering the rapping speech of the somewhat eccentric shinobi, something not unlike trying to unwrap any message delivered by either of the Green Beasts of Konoha as they smothered it in their flames of youth, Naruto gave a slight smile and stepped forwards again to the very edge of the lake, speaking as he did so,

"You, and not just you in fact; no-one knows what this place truly is Bee-san; even I could only guess until I stood here and realised for myself my guess was correct", he began, glancing down at the water before him as it lapped delicately at the shore near his feet, "there is a reason why this Waterfall of Truth allows jinchuuriki to enter communion with their beasts and inner selves. There are places, on this world and many others, where the barriers between the realm we live in and the other realm, a place of nightmares and dreamscapes, is weaker, thinner than it should be. The Waterfall of Truth is one such place; things happen here, things are here, that should not be possible even in a world of shinobi and chakra – the weakened barrier is the reason why jinchuuriki, those already touched by the other realm, can grapple with their inner beast because, here, it is possible to literally come face to face with your inner self and the bijuu themselves". Trying to take this logic in, Bee was silent for a long moment as he both wrestled with his own mind and tried to speak with his own inner bijuu before asking the question that had first surfaced in his mind,

"Are you saying this place, this waterfall that you called beautiful, is some kind of portal straight into Jigoku? No way fool, uh-uh, I can't believe that; hell I've stepped through the waterfall, I know what's behind it and so does Yugito-chan – if you're saying this place leads to a big drop into the hot place, how come we never fell down it?"

"There is no name for the other realm in our language Bee; it is not Makai, Jigoku or any other place of damnation; its name was originally…" Bee raised an eyebrow as his Konoha counterpart seemed to cough at a crucial moment; only when he carried on did the Hachibi container realise that jagged, harsh-sounding word was the supposed name; guess it doesn't translate well; "… but it hasn't been called that in many years. As to why you and Yugito-san didn't 'fall down the hole' as you put it, it is because the bijuu themselves are not native to that dread place", Bee had just enough time to start feeling grateful for that small mercy before he saw Naruto square his shoulders and take his first step forwards onto the lake itself, the Kyuubi containers next words stopping the older man dead in his tracks,

"My quarry, however, now calls it home".

Memories Bee had wished forgotten since the minute he'd gotten them burst into malevolent life in front of his eyes and almost before he could control himself his shout split the still of the night,

"No! Against them, you're mad man, no-one, not even the whole Elemental Nations together could topple that monster! The Akatsuki are fair game, they're mortal men like you and me but that, that thing", before the crimson face of the evil god who had drowned stars in blood and still thirsted for more Bee closed his eyes and shook his head, hoping to dislodge the nightmare as though it were a splinter, "that's beyond us all". Naruto, however, merely glanced over his shoulder and smiled, somewhat sadly, as he and the bijuu he carried felt the water before them react to his presence, the call sent across the barrier that should never be breached and, far away, so faint it was almost imperceptible even to his enhanced hearing, the answering roar came back from across the depths of the starless existence,

"But you are wrong Bee; mortal men have faced down this monster and have defeated him in the past – now I have to do the same if only to ensure and prove to myself that I am my own man, not merely a flesh-puppet controlled by the lusts and urges of the beast whose blood created me. You've done more than enough for me already Bee-san, but once more I must ask something of you; do not follow me when the door opens", his tone was both gentle and warning at the same time as at last he felt and sensed the change occurring, the gateway to the land of his cursed second-father opening before him and tainting the very existence around it with its presence as he faced down his fellow shinobi, Bee with his swords almost drawn and seemingly ready to either fight him to stop him or join him in what was likely to be his final battle and death, "there are things under this heaven and this earth that should never be seen, even by battle-hardened shinobi such as yourself. The gate is only open because I am here and will close regardless of whether I live or die; where I go now", he glanced upwards, eyes set on the waterfall before him as he watched the terrible transformation that marred the earth before him as the maw to his second-fathers' world opened like the entrance to a long-sealed tomb,

"I must go alone".

Bee would have liked to argue this point, perhaps even try to dissuade Naruto of this suicidal course but, even as he made to move his foot to step upon the choppy surface of the waterfall's basin he found himself suddenly stepping backwards, appalled in a manner that his lifetime in service to Kumo had never prepared him for. Before his dread-struck eyes the water itself was changing, the falling fluid changing colour to a light fuchsia, a soft pink that darkened quickly to rose, then wine, then port and finally, horribly, to a colour completely unmistakeable to a shinobi such as himself. The stench hit him like a physical slap, the scent of blood so heavy in his nose that he retched, hugging his stomach as the stone that now supported the waterfall of gore now writhed as though it were alive and in torment. Moulded like the wax of a candle, the living rock twisted this way and that, bubbling and churning as shapes appeared within the formerly blank stone until hundreds upon hundreds of skulls sat stacked atop each other, every one of them bleached to the colour of old bone and weeping yet more blood from their eye sockets as a terrible low moan filled his ears. It was a sound of the damned, a mortuary chant that somehow also sounded like a prayer, a battle hymn to a raging, wrathful god that he couldn't understand and never wanted to even try to understand. Two lines spoken, repeated, over and over again, a chant of the damned that was equal parts war cry and burial prayer to the creature those who had owned the skulls had lived for, slain for and died for.

Even as he fought to hold his nausea down as he witnessed one of the happiest sights of his childhood, the one where he had first actually met and made contact with the bijuu who had become his first friend, transforming into this scene from a psychopath's nightmare, Bee found his attention broken by the guttural noise from nearby; dimly he recognised the axe-like shape as being the weapon Yugito had breathlessly but privately explained had been the thing to end one of the two Akatsuki that could have been the end of her had Naruto not interfered. The snarling of the axe jarred against the wailing of the skulls and, in that moment of dissonance, Bee was able to speak, shout out one last time as he watched Naruto step forwards towards the blasphemy before him, shoulders bowed but unbroken as he approached the battleground, Goa-chichioya held firmly behind the head as it growled at the taste of the flecks of blood spat into its face by the crashing blood-fall before them,

"Naruto!" Seeing the figure pause, Bee pressed his advantage for all it was worth, "What can I do – there must be something that can help you?" For a moment Bee was sure he wouldn't get an answer but, just as he thought such a thing, he noticed the shoulders facing away from him shivering slightly and caught the edge of a single word called back to him,

"Pray Bee-san", the answer was called back to him just before the figure took the final fatal step forwards and was swallowed by the torrent of vitae, "that always seems to help; there are very few atheists during the end times".

A few seconds later, as one jinchuuriki was lost to sight, the second fell to his knees at the edge of the lake of blood and began kow-towing for aid from any kami who might be able to intervene on the behalf of his fellow while, at the same time, the second-most powerful of the tailed beasts intoned the name of the human who had created him and his brothers and sisters and invoked the old man's ghost to watch over his nine-tailed brother.


The journey simultaneously lasted forever and was over in the blink of an eye; holding his breath and with his head bowed against the battering of the descending blood, his dark baptism continued almost until spots appeared before his eyes from oxygen deficient until, with a gasp, he found he could breathe again, the air stale and smoky with the tang of dust, mould and blood. Shifting his axe into a guard position, the Senju-Uzumaki trusted his eyes, other senses and Kurama to warn him of any approaching danger as he scanned the small alcove of purgatory his second-father had invited him into.

From what little he could gather regarding this strange world, he himself could have an impact on how the world behaved around him; unbound by normal rules of existence, this place was literally limited only by his imagination, though of course in here he was the guest, not the master of the house he found himself in. The place was not unfamiliar to him; from the dust on the floor he could see and the cracked, crumbling architecture around them, it appeared that his past had touched with that of his second-father, terraforming the world around him into a cross between the Chunin exam arena and the rather more bloodstained fighting pit where his part-creator's bloody legacy had begun; though it looks like no-one's been around to sweep up in a while;

"He is close kit", the familiar voice in his head warned, suddenly becoming sharper as Kurama felt his host's breathing and heart rates quicken, "control yourself – this is an enemy you cannot simply overpower. Either you use your head or lose it this time".

"As if I'd give him the satisfaction as opposed to Zabuza-sensei", memories of the zanbatou-wielding shinobi who had sworn several times that no-one was going to kill his student before he did brought a smile to the jinchuuriki's face before a sudden rattling noise filled his ears, a grating mechanical screech that announced the lowering of one of the rusting iron gates at the far end of the fighting arena. Spinning his axe around to face the direction of the threat, Naruto dropped his eyes slightly as he felt as much as heard the approach of the being who had created him, the lost, warped son of the most powerful human to have ever existed whose blood had simultaneously elevated a scared, lonely child to a physical peak that would likely never be surpassed at the same time as force him to teeter upon a mental precipice that, if he slipped from, would force him to share in his progenitors' damnation forever,

"I often wondered what to call you, it was almost my first question when I realised this was inevitable", Naruto spoke as the gate boomed back into place, the champion of the arena unleashed once more upon new prey, "you had many titles; Akai Tenshi, Ten'nō no kuchiku-kan, Chi-shin no hidarite, but overall I think I'll stick with the one I know best…" without fear, for he and his kind had been created to know no fear, his head rose and his brilliant blue eyes finally beheld the monster that had tormented him for over half his life and cast a long shadow over not only his life, but the lives of those he loved and the fate of his world as he knew it; until now, when I lift that shadow forever or die trying;

"…hello Angron".

This was not the demon primarchs' true form, that much he knew; elevated to near-godhood by the dark deity he served, the fallen Red Angel was free to assume a variety of guises just as any denizen of the shadow of the physical world was able to, though even now, as it had been during his mortal life, subtlety was not a great part of Angron's mindset. To Naruto he appeared as he had during his earliest life; the ultimate gladiator, the lord of the bloody fighting sands of his world and an undisputed grandmaster in the art of dealing death; this was before his liberation by the master of humanity, in fact even before his rebellion for freedom; this was the primarch as he had been before he had been armed and armoured by the greatest minds that his father's people had to offer. Strangely enough this incarnation of his second-father wasn't as massive as Naruto had expected, more wiry muscle than outright brawn, though there was no denying his obviously apparent strength as he hefted an axe in every way the mirror of Goa-chichoya as though it were a branch of willow. Scars dotted and criss-crossed the chest, arms and abdomen of the warrior and, atop it all like a jagged, rust-speckled crown of thorns, the arcane monstrosity that had begun Angrons plunge into darkness, the Butcher's Nails rose from the crown of his head and continued down the back of his neck as the demon lord surveyed his returning son and, after a moment, spoke,

"Remove that disguise", it was not a command nor a request, it was what would happen simply because Angron decreed it, spittle flying from the twitching lips of the mad demi-god, the hyper-aggression forced upon him by his biology and his own psychosis quieted for the moment, "no son of mine stands before me with a false face". Naruto considered this for a second before, with a whisper and pulse of chakra, he revealed the part of himself that none in the Elemental Nations were yet ready to see and stood before the thing that had helped create him; father and son scrutinised each other a second longer until Naruto broke the silence, having eventually worked out exactly what felt out of place about the unholy tableau he was beholding,

"Is that the real one?" Angron's answering smile, more a bare-fanged grimace as his lips had receded from his sharpened canines, told him all he needed to know, "How did you get it here?" The head of his opponents' axe flashed out and to the side; following it for the barest instant with his eyes, Naruto saw something that had been masked by the primarchs' presence; a suit of baroque armour, rent and pitted with dust, lying abandoned in the arena that was the demon's home,

"My most loyal son, he who followed my path most closely", the primarch's voice was like a razor and a rasp combined, wearing at the ears of those who heard it even as its owner twitched and shuddered involuntarily, nervous paroxysms caused by resisting the urge of both his body and his psyche to fly at what he could consider to be a new threat, "with slaughter he brought it to me, sought to turn it against me as is the creed of the Blood God. Only the victorious are worthy enough to serve; he died at the edge of my blade but it was a glorious battle, a fitting end", a glazed look slipped over his face for a moment before another tremor raced through him and he faced down the slightly shorter figure again, "and now you bring the other, another of my sons to be a tribute for the altar".

"Save your sermon madman", Naruto spat back, tensing himself a she could see in his father's eyes that Angron was seconds from springing; brace yourself Kyuubi, here we go; "I'm not and never have been your son. I've fought your influence every day of my life and right here, right now, I'm gonna take this axe you threw onto my world and ram it…"

With a single pounce and a scream that matched that of his axe Angron ended the life of his traitor, the surprise dying in his cowardly sons' eyes as his patron reached out to claim even as unworthy a sacrifice as this… smoke clouded his vision and he ducked before he was truly aware of the threat, something whistling over his head as he watched the chattering teeth of his weapon smash through the broken armour that had once been worn by his greatest son, the last remnant of the Betrayer destroyed by his primarchs' hand. Fury unbound by the way the coward had avoided the death stroke and then struck his opponent in the back, the demon that had once been part of a brotherhood of humanity's exemplars let out a howl of pure rage and sprinted towards the source of the attack, axe leading the way as chemicals and hormones flooded his system, his face transforming into the crimson death-mask that had been the last thing countless foes across the galaxy had seen before they met their end,

"I will tear your skull from your body", he screamed, bullets of bloody spittle flying as the extreme rate of his heart beats ruptures capillaries in his tongue, "there will be no clean end for a coward like you". Even as he struck once more though there was a flash of light and his opponent was gone, denying him the honest clash of blade on blade even as the voice of the insect who blasphemed against his fathers' creed issued forth once more, Naruto retrieving the kunai he'd thrown and wordlessly thanking his other father for developing the technique that would, he hoped, help put this beast down,

"But you forget Angron", to make the taunt unbearable to someone so attached to his martial pride as the former leader, the Senju-Uzumaki casually shouldered his axe nonchalantly as he smiled at the thin streamer he could see trickling down from the demon's nose; good, he's getting angry; "you've never fought a coward like me!"

With another deafening howl and profane proclamation to his god, the demon pounced once more.

Now I know what Zabuza-sensei was complaining about; how long he had been matching the entity that had once been a mortal he didn't know or care about – time had no meaning in this place after all. The only thing that mattered was the dance of battle and bloodshed, one he had to stay one step ahead of or it would be his end; this was much more easily said than done when your opponent was stronger than you, faster than you and held a weapon that could carve you in half with just a touch. He already bore one great rent on his arm where he'd been just a touch too slow and taken a glancing blow from the teeth of Angron's chain-axe, though the primarch was far from untouched himself; even if as a demon he could regenerate his flesh to a greater or lesser extent, he was still bloodied and had to shake his head periodically to keep his eyes clear of blood from where his craven son had virtually scalped him, the kunai wound open and bloody, hard for even his god-like physique to heal completely. Naruto, however, as he took stock of his situation and watched one of his clones engage his maddened opponent for a moment, was slightly more confident than he'd been expected to be in this situation as he realised exactly how this fight was panning out and how great the advantage he had against his second-father.

Angron was truly worthy of his dread reputation; Naruto had never even heard of anyone or thing that could even hope to come close to touching the fallen one in combat. Up close Naruto knew he would be dead and in ribbons in the space between heartbeats – he had no hope of matching his second-father in a fair fight.

Fortunately Naruto was and would always be a shinobi, a warrior who never fought fair – he also had access to his chakra and Kyuubi even in this strange place; because of this he was able to keep Angron at a distance as he relentlessly pressed the demon's greatest weakness for all it was worth; in his rage, in his bloodlust as formidable as it was, Angron couldn't think in anything beyond the extreme short-term. This lack of foresight, fine against the foes the primarch was used to fighting, was akin to fighting with his arms tied behind his back against a shinobi and Naruto punished his opponent every chance he was presented with. Jutsu and clones were mostly diversions, traps that tricked and goaded his opponents into ever greater fury as occasional blows bit home and drew whatever counted as his blood; dancing on the edge of a bloody, terminal precipice, the jinchuuriki led his opponent by the nose until he could wear down the war-god enough to open the way for a killing strike. Even a monster had limits that he would have to hit eventually and, gradually, Naruto noticed his opponent starting, minutely, to slow down.

Fractional pauses, not longer than split-seconds, were starting to appear in his enemy's attacks, a snatched breath here, a sudden gasp there as the raging creature hunted its elusive quarry, Naruto not hanging around long enough for his second-father to even try to engage let alone hit him. Though a terrible foe, about the worst thing a shinobi could hope to face due to his relentless attacks preventing his opponents having the time to plan even the most basic of strategies, never mind attempt to craft jutsu to use against him, Naruto had an advantage against even as mighty a foe as the fallen one.

Because it was the way he himself often settled a conflict, he knew how to counter the tactics of the berserker Angron had devolved into.

Keeping his distance, striking at range or only when it was in his favour to do so; he could have counted the number of times their blades had actually clashed on a single hand - he held back, frustrating the effects of Angrons' assault even as the roaring demon screamed at him to stand and fight. He waited, he was patient; he had to be or the result would be death, plain and simple; and to his slight surprise he found the bloodlust he usually had to keep at bay in battle, though elevated, not as mentally draining as he'd expected; though the traitor primarch was a beacon of fury that was setting a touch-paper to his own internal rage, the fact that Naruto knew it was just him in danger, for if he died the portal to the this alien world would be closed, meant Kyuubi needed to speak only three or four times before, in a flash, he saw his chance to end the fight and took it.

It had been a slip, nothing more; whether brought about by lethargy or ill-luck Naruto didn't care – he was trained to seek and attack weakness in his enemies and without a second thought he moved to end the contest, a lethal strike. His chakra control was far from ideal; regardless of the training he forced himself through, he simply produced too much to be able to channel it properly, but a lot of the time if he threw enough mud at the wall he could gain the desired result. For the first time in the battle, however long it had been, Naruto was within the sweep of both weapons, Angron's fingers slipping from his stumble and loosening his hold on the chain-axe which was then jerked unceremoniously out of his fingers, a bellow of triumphant vindication echoing in his ears like a thunderclap before a sphere of shining blue-white power slammed into his naked chest and flung him away into the sand,



As soon as his strike landed Naruto shunshinned away from the impact zone, the kawarimi with the weapon Angron had held successful; though an A-ranked technique for good reason, he didn't trust the hitting power of one of the jutsu his godfather had taught him to put a demon as tough and powerful as Angron was down for long; if nothing else he's got no insides left to mulch. Keeping all his senses strained as he peered through the cloud of grit his second-father had vanished into, he felt a small surge of pride as he beheld his second-father down on one knee, breathing heavily as his bloodshot eyes lanced pure, inhuman malevolence towards the last of his cursed kindred. Seeing the monster docile for the moment, no doubt regenerating the effect of the Rasengan's impact on his effectively-immaterial body, Naruto took the bull by the horns and spoke, Goa-chichioya extended as he did so and growling as it always did; the axe recognised no friend when it was hungry for blood,

"Tell me teme", though the word was unfamiliar to the primarch Naruto was under no illusion that Angron would understand the gist of it at least; all the sons of the lord of humanity had been created for genius and military acumen as much as pure physical prowess, though admittedly Angron himself had hardly been an exemplar of rational thought and strategic planning even when he had been loyal to his fathers' dream; not that I wasn't grateful for his brains though – without them I might never have been able to break down my other father's last gift to me; "I've seen as much as your blood could tell me when Goa-chichioya left your hand; how did the story end? What turned you from a near-deity into", he gestured dismissively with the blunt head of his axe, "this, this shell of what you once were. Once you consumed worlds and their entire populations, now you skulk in abandoned lairs waiting for your challengers; what happened at the end of the end times?"

The fury did not abate; from that hate-fuelled visage it never could – damned as much by humanity's hand as he was by the oaths he sworn and signed in blood, Angron would never be able to know release from his inner pain unless he was writing his name in his enemy's innards or heaping yet more skulls at the feet of the dark patron Naruto would never name, for even using the names of the fell brothers in darkness could give power to them as he knew from his inherited memories of havoc and slaughter. However the beast was at least cunning enough to take a respite when one was offered and, spitting up blood from lungs it no longer possessed, the demonic once-superhuman spoke,

"Blood, fire and death; all the galaxy in flames for an age, ten millennia of blood, fire and the laughter of the mad gods; my Dominion of Fire, the servants of the Breathing Corpse scattered and slain, groves and worlds of the Ancient Enemy burned and black, beautiful, beautiful", to Naruto's distaste the monster he was forced to claim as his kin seemed almost happy as those memories of his war years brought a blood-flecked smile to his lips before they creased once more in a snarl of loathing, Angron's tone noticeably harsher as a more recent memory grated across his mind with as much tenderness as the bite of his axe, "then the Coward died, and all that should have been was ended".

Naruto knew who his twisted progenitor was referring to; heck in the few quiet moments he'd had over the years, he and Kurama had often wondered with each other how the madness had ended; the war that had rent the domain of Naruto's surrogate grandsire asunder must have finished somehow but even Goa-chichioya could provide no answer, the dread axe already slumbering beneath the sod of a virgin world millennia before the end times dawned. Out of respect for the death of the greatest of men Naruto inclined his head fractionally, never taking his eyes off his opponents' kneeling form as he spoke again, the words carefully chosen now as Kyuubi rumbled that he other demon seemed to be regathering his lost strength,

"So then, He died; surely that should have meant the triumph of you and your traitor brothers?" Angron bit out a vile curse in a tongue that made his surrogate sons' ears ache,

"No, He died and was reborn between the worlds; we hurried, I hurried for the kill, hungry for revenge for my brothers, those I should have died alongside but even then He mocked me. There was light, a bright light in the darkness, then it faded, nothing was left of Him; I rejoiced even as I howled in anger, the Coward was gone beyond even my vengeance, but victory was ours, His sons had outlived him for we are eternal. But even in death He would spite us, rob us of what was ours; His mind was strong enough, engorged with the souls of those humans whose minds could pierce into our realm, that He could stand in the way of even the Gods, even their chosen ones and their children. In our victory we were consigned to our tomb; He was dead and His children as helpless as sheep before the slaughter men but He ensured there was no way left to pierce the veil; mortals could call to us but we could not rip the barrier between worlds down".

"And you've stayed here ever since", Naruto finished for him, a strange smile on his face as he saw clearly in his mind what had been done, the sacrifice the lord of the largest empire humanity had ever or would ever know had made for His people, "He knew he was dying and turned even that against you who betrayed him. He thickened the barrier between your world and ours; you can't be summoned, you can't get out", stirred into life by his rising emotion and the flares of chakra he was emitting, Goa-chichioya whirled into a languid life even as the fox in his mind rumbled a warning in his ear to remain calm, "your vengeance was taken from you".

"By a coward!" Angron's voice was like thunder, a sonic explosion that the world he had claimed for his own echoed by making the earth dance, pieces of the ruined stadium around them crumbling for the floor as it champion howled, "He was no innocent; my brothers, the ones who died beside me in the pits and were slain so that we might all be free; they died by His hand, as surely as if He had turned His soldiers upon them! Devoid of honour, empty of martial pride – you talk of the Coward like one of the countless fools I slaughtered, the sheep who followed him", finally Angron stood, his arms flexing like living snakes as he shivered under the effects of the new chemicals being poured into his enhanced frame, the Butchers' Nails almost vibrating atop his skull as they sought to at least partially monitor the rage of the monster they were bound to, "you call Him a god – he was as nothing to the men who followed me and the god who granted me the means to avenge them in the blood of those who would follow their killer!"

In the face of such insanity Naruto could only hold in his sigh; the primarch, whatever few scraps of him that were left under the ocean of gore, insanity, fury and mindless, directionless hate, were too far gone for him to even try and reach. Instead he held in his sigh as best he could and shook his head, shifting his weapon to a ready poise and speaking,

"You are correct in one respect and one respect only Angron; your father, by grandfather, was no god; He was a man, infinitely more powerful than other men true, but a man nevertheless who made mistakes, just like any other man, and did his best to atone for them when He could. You could have been great, amongst the greatest like all your brothers; instead you turned from Him because you could not forgive him a single mistake, a mistake any father could and probably would make in trying to rescue his lost son", blue eyes were locked onto crimson, the expression of malice countered calmly by the placid, relaxed expression of the speaker as Naruto spoke on, measuring his foe once more and preparing to counter any move he might make, "I have nothing in my hearts but regret when I look at you now, my nii-tou-san, regret for the man you could have been...", for the first time something else, something other than blind fury trickled into the dark primarch's eyes, a hint of confusion that was crushed almost before Angron could even acknowledge it, submerged beneath yet more slaughter-lust and wrath as Naruto slashed with his axe, beckoning the disarmed demon forwards as he spat his last curse at the beast before him,

"...and I feel nothing but contempt when I see the beast you've become; you're not a champion of anyone anymore; you're just a rabid, mindless animal too caught up in its own suffering to see how far it has fallen, and I am here", Goa-chichioya burst into song, Naruto for the first time snarling at his enemy as Angron reared up to his full height, evidently fully restored to health after the Rasengan's debilitating impact, " to put you down!"

He didn't charge, he didn't even recover his lost weapon instead leaving it in the dust, cast away just as the other had been; with an avastatic bellow the evil thing slammed his fists against his bare breast, fingers cutting grooves through even his scar-stitched and toughened hide. As blood, bright red and much more voluminous than could have been expected from even a demon, belched forwards Naruto took some steps back, waiting to see what new ace his sickening progenitor had up his sleeve as he continued to tear himself apart. A second roar made the earth shake, almost forcing the jinchuuriki to a knee as the stadium around him was blown apart, cracking and crumbling at the warlords, screamed command. From the pool of arterial blood that had gathered around Angron's feet something was thrust upwards; in the sudden gloom and besmirched by blood Naruto couldn't see what it was as Angron lay his hands upon it and threw back his head with a scream somewhere between triumph and horror, the last shreds of his humanity disappearing as his form exploded in a shower of vitae, the blood steaming and hissing from the potent chemicals it was laced with as it landed around the ruin. From the haze of gore something else emerged, a new, hulking creature that twisted and expanded, defying human physics and the human mind as it grew grotesquely, filling with rage until, at last, the real monster was revealed and Naruto was left gazing up at what the Lord of Skulls had crafted one of the sons of a solar empire into.

Huge he was; huge, bat-winged and with skin the colour of congealing gore; the air around him was a choking miasma of flyblown meat and singed bone as the demon primarch took a step forwards, the earth around his hoof cracking with a piteous wail and oozing dark blood. Tasting the air with a tongue that protruded from behind many rows of razor-sharp teeth, the true form of what his second-father had become glared down at the now-diminutive form before it and, with a noise like a thousand nails being scratched down glass, laughed mockingly,

"A beast I am, and this beast you cannot slay", he declared as he stomped on the earth once more, this time breaking the crust into a pool of magma, the hot blood of the earth sputtering and spitting as he made a grasping gesture over it; as the hilt of a sword so black it seemed to absorb all light around it was thrust into his waiting claw and he brandished it aloft, the motion sending a spray of molten rock around haphazardly, the prince of Hell went on, "you share my blood but you shall never be mine – I name you Coward, and when you are dead I shall crush your skull beneath my feet and consume your soul for all eternity. Yes", despite himself, his confidence in his own body, Kurama's reassurance and the fact that he could logically see that Angron had just gifted him another advantage despite the fact he was now leagues more powerful than he had been before, as that hellish gaze swept over him Naruto couldn't help but feel a shiver run through him, "prepare yourself – it will take you a long time to die Coward!" Forcing himself to throw off the malignant aura of the demon, a sheer side effect of being so close to the unnatural thing, Naruto met his foe eye to eye one last time and, inexplicably, smiled,

"You know, for the fact you're your patron's favoured son and most loyal follower, I'd have thought he could've made you taller..." He was then gone in a flicker of leaves as the Black Blade descended in a strike that would have shorn him in two had it connected and instead split another grievous, bleeding wound in the battleground.


Recovering from where the giant sword had nearly made him half the man he used to be, Naruto took a breath and recollect himself and face down his second-father's true, repugnant form; and it's time to finish this, I don't know how much time could've passed in the real world. Kyuubi...;

"I am ready" and, true to the bijuu's word, Naruto felt a hot fire race through his veins as his bijuu channelled the barest slip of his power through the seal he was imprisoned behind; it was a calculated gamble as the use of demonic energy was sure to alert Angron to their location and, true to form, with a beat of his wings that blew the smoke of a hundred battlefields across the bloody ground the primarch went airborne for a second before arrowing towards the ground, splinters of bone and clods of bleeding earth thrown skywards as the much taller of the two combatants sought to smash his opponent to paste before whipping around, Black Blade trailing towards across the ground at his rear. He'd expected his spineless son to appear behind him and bifurcate him with his swift attack but once more hit nothing but air; only the sudden shout to his front showed him where Naruto had manoeuvred to,

"Kage kunai no jutsu!"

One became a hundred and, imbued with the cutting power of the wind, most of them bit home into Angron's armour though very few actually penetrated the hell-forged steel to cut the flesh beneath; even as he roared with equal parts anger and mocking laughter, the primarch spoke at the flea who dared believe such pitiful attacks could harm him,

"Mortal steel and human strength is no match for the might of the Blood God's chosen!"

"No", even at full, impressive volume, Naruto's voice sounded like a child shrieking defiance at an adult, "but human ingenuity is – thank you tou-san!"

There was a flash of golden light and Angron bellowed again as another blade slammed into his flesh; swatting at his armour with his free hand he was still too slow to stop the technique that would still make many Iwa-nin sweat cold in their beds at night if its name was whispered near them. With Kyuubi's chakra increasing his speed even more than the Harashin could normally and Goa-chichioya able to cleave through even demonic plate as though it were tinfoil, Naruto flashed around and around his gargantuan opponent, pausing only long enough to strike and no longer. Black ichor belched forth from would opened in the iron-hard skin, bubbling and hissing malevolently as Angrons' crimson armour twisted and writhed, spikes shooting out of it to skewer the craven pest who so irritated its wearer. Even as he was nicked and scalded by the unnatural nature of the monster he was tearing down Naruto would not relent; this was his best and likely only chance to bring the demon down before the a plan to counter his speed percolated the red haze that was Angron's mind. Just a few more; no longer disorientated by the near-instantaneous movement, Naruto hacked down once more and was rewarded as the head of his terrible axe drank deep of diabolic vitae, Goa-chichioya sinking into a joist between the armour plates and feasting mightily; Kyuubi, how much damage is he doing?;

"You're better off not knowing", the fox replied, already assisting the altered jinchuuriki's superhuman physique to heal up the damage Angron's armour and a few mean buffets of his arm were going, "is it ready?"

"In position", Naruto thought back, flipping off the shoulder of his second-father just as Angron's massive, misshapen head twisted and lunged, the demon attempting to swallow his blood-kin whole but frustrated as the jinchuuriki flashed away, "going for it now – brace yourself this is probably going to hurt at best, kill us at worst!"

His second-to-last target was one of the kunai that originally hadn't been thrown; instead he had stabbed it in or as close to the vital area he needed to strike as he could manage without getting crushed for his trouble. Appearing in a golden halo, he felt himself fall and counted two, just two, before rotating his body and commanding every ounce of torque and power he could demand from his momentum, his muscles and his chakra to swing his chain-axe at its target. For the first time there was a note of pain in one of his enemy's bellows, the weapon slashing through one of the tendons that made up the great knuckled right knee of the monster, though before Naruto could even think to feel proud of his blow the world span around him as Angron whipped about, dislodging the weapon that was anchored in his joint and sending its bearer flying. Naruto hit the ground like a comet and bounced hard; he felt something inside give with a dull little snap but paid it no mind; if he gave into pain now he would die. Spinning to his feet he let loose a wolfish smile as he beheld his infernal adversary once more down on one knee, the severed tendon enough to keep even Angron down for a moment as Naruto called out mockingly,

"Ha, the Chi-shin no hidarite", he tasted blood on his lips but put the thought from his mind, trusting Kyuubi to sort out the most important damage fist, "your skills have dulled in your long exile gladiator; you've been forgotten. No more do people chant your name and offer sacrifice to you – as a demon that makes you weak – what is a god who no-one worships!"

As expected it was the mention of weakness that overcame Angron's threadbare rationality; with a sweep of his midnight wings he ascended towards the twisted heavens of this unnatural place, a ball of molten fire coalescing around his hand as he sought to use the one advantage he had over his smaller, much faster opponent; his ability to fly. For a moment the traitorous son of humanity was at the centre of a corona of fire, the infernal heat melting off the last of the kunai his frenzied struggles hadn't thrown clear before the flames died and he stared down at his treacherous offspring; before he could correct his flight to attempt to swoop in or unleash the ball of fire in his hand, however, Naruto vanished once more. Angron scanned the battlefield for a second before sensing the presence now on his back and attempting to corkscrew his body around to dislodge the clinging parasite; before he could even begin to twist however, the pain slammed home into his back and drove him towards the unforgiving earth.

You could get rid of my kunai; seeing the winged horror before him made Naruto smirk triumphantly, even if the sight of the self-immolation the demon put himself through was an unexpected kink in his plan; but you couldn't get rid of the last seal I placed! That much was certainly true; using the intelligence that had been gifted to all the first sons of the man who had become the god of humanity Naruto had discovered, as his father before him had, how to imbue one particular seal matrix onto virtually any surface with nothing more than a glancing touch, a drop of blood and a flare of chakra. The result had been the true rebirth of the Hirashin, the Flying Thunder God that once more flashed into life and caused him to reappear right between his second-father's massive shoulder blades, the wings either side of him flapping languidly as Angron scoured the sky of his hell. Realising he had only one shot at this to hopefully ground and then pound his adversary to defeat, he raised his hand and almost immediately a second ball of spinning chakra, much larger than the one that had done for the primarchs' first body, manifested in his palm. He felt the flesh under him buck as his opponent realised his danger, gritted his teeth as his legs and feet were perforated by jagged, brutal spikes that thrust upwards from the remaining metal plates Angron wore before, with a triumphant cry, he let his massive technique descend like the hammer-blow of a god onto the back of his second-father.

The wings were the first to go, ripped into shreds of meat as Angron screamed in pain, back bowing obscenely as the technique ground through his armour and started working on the flesh below. Teeth set in a grimace Naruto forced the Rasengan to keep spinning, keep tearing through the meat and bones of his adversary even as his ride started to lose height, plummeting towards the ground in a suicidal dive as his means for stability had been ripped away from him. Naruto fell with him, had no choice even as the technique finally ended and he forced himself to move, grunting in discomfort as he ripped his skin from the bitter spurs he'd been impaled on and limping further up the demon's body towards his true target. Even in the middle of his descent Angron still fought to twist around and Naruto was not able to stop him; instead he used the chakra present in all shinobi to adhere to the body of his opponent and clamber around, seeking his next target as he avoided the retaliatory swipes of the arms of his maddened, wounded opponent. Goa-chichioya's roar matched that of both its first and second bearer as the ground zoomed upwards dizzyingly, Naruto raising the weapon high and letting it drop upon his target only split-seconds before the moment of impact; with the momentum of the fall and his own strength of arm, there was nothing that could stop the chain-axe burying itself in the exposed throat of the demon lord, half-severing his neck even as Naruto felt the shock of the landing reverberate up his legs and crack some of the toughened bones in his feet.

Instinct, that and nothing more made the shinobi move again; his opponent was wounded, perhaps almost as mortally as any devil could be, but he was not yet dead and because of that Naruto leapt off the chest of his second-father to near his shoulder, leaving a trail of bloody red footprints behind him. Even in death Angron still flailed, desperate for the end of his foe as he could think of or understand nothing else; however stunned by the impact and with bubbling murk fountaining from his throat, even he was helpless to react as his once-favoured weapon descended again and, this time, ended the job it had begun during the fall.


He had staggered away, avoiding the spreading pool of acidic, steaming demon gruel by nothing more than willpower as finally his cracked and broken legs gave out and he pitched onto his knees, catching himself with the haft of Goa-chichioya to prevent himself sprawling onto his face. For a long time all he could do was breathe, in and out, over and over to ensure that he was yet amongst the living; he couldn't even look over his shoulder to see for sure that he and Kurama's schemes had come to fruition and together they had undone one of the greatest mistakes made in a past neither of them had been any part of. There was a rough fire raging below his waist and not abating, the chakra of his bijuu he assumed and, with a mental pant of effort, he spoke in his mind again,

"How bad is it?"

"Bad", the fox assured him curtly, "both your legs are fractured, if you'd been a normal man you've have bleed out just from the wounds caused by that damned armour and even my chakra is barely keeping your punctured lung from collapsing".

"I'm still alive though – that is what matters; I'm alive and he's... well, as dead as he's likely to get for quite some time". Despite his exhaustion, Naruto felt the bijuu give an ominous smile in the back of his mind,

"Aye kit, defeated and broken in his own arena; let me speak to him", the request caught the jinchuuriki quite by surprise but the fox pre-empted the question, "I would show him the fate that awaits him once the plan comes full-circle".

"You're a sadistic bastard aren't you Kurama-san", the superhuman muttered tiredly before eventually heaving himself back to his feet, gritting his teeth against the aching pain from his legs and the countless other wounds across his body as he stepped towards the now-severed head of his second-father. Angron wasn't dead; it was virtually impossible to kill a demon even in its home realm, but the defeat and beheading had left him badly wounded and weakened, unable to react save by glaring as the flat of Goa-chichioya clouted him on the nose to get his attention,

"Pay attention teme", Naruto spoke, grateful that his blow seemed to have severed the demon's vocal chords and rendered the raging entity mercifully mute, "someone here wants to speak with you".

With that said Naruto let his eyes close for a minute and felt himself drifting away, the sensation not unlike falling into his sleeping trance but at the same time slightly different as he knew it wouldn't end until the Kyuubi gave him back control of his own body again. While many would have decried letting his bijuu take control of his body the move or tactic of a madman, Naruto had built up a lot of trust with the fox over the years and was usually content to let his prisoner out for a little exercise as long as he promise to behave himself; some years after he had first discovered how to let the fox's consciousness supersede his own, Kurama had given him no reason to break his part of the deal. Away from war, battle and even pain for a moment, Naruto was at last able to rest and be freed from the confines of his physical shell for a moment while his prisoner had a talk with their vanquished foe and made then made tracks to get him back to the world he had left.

As always it could have been minutes or days before he felt himself coming too, Kyuubi sending a surge of chakra through the implant that basically placed his body in suspended animation and allowed the fox to control it like a puppet, breaking his conscience free and into the waking world again; complete with all its aches and pains. Screwing up his face against the throbbing pain from his multiple wounds, Naruto risked a cautious step forwards and was grateful that his tenant had left Goa-chichioya in his hand; without the axe to use as a kind of crutch, he reckoned he'd have had to have crawled to the exit of this dread place to get home. More of his senses coming online, he glanced around only to see the place deserted, the barren wasteland empty save for him and no sign of the decapitated corpse of his opponent,

"He fled kit", Kyuubi filled him in with a wolfish smile, savouring again the hint of fear he'd seen in the eyes of the much more powerful demon and instant before his body had burst into a welter of gore, oozing into the ground and away as the primarch left to try and recover his strength, "he knows what is coming, the plan to deal with him forever. Though he will be better prepared next time, he will still have no hope of victory against all of us united".

"I sure hope so fox", the jinchuuriki muttered under his breath before registering something strapped to his thigh; glancing down, he almost jumped as he saw the sliver of midnight pressed against his almost-bare flesh, "what the hell is that doing there? You can't expect me to use something like that in the Elemental Nations surely?" From the back of his mind the fox gave the equivalent of a negligent shrug,

"It's just a shard; besides regardless of where it came from it's a weapon, a tool, same as any other blade and only as evil as the purpose it's put towards", the kitsune pointed out before a wicked grin split his lips and Naruto internally cringed; that is never a good sign; "besides, if you think that's bad you should see the other trophy we've taken..."

He didn't even need to look; as he felt the familiar sensation on his arm and realised exactly what was wrong the enhanced jinchuuriki shook his head as though trying to deny a bad dream,

"That too?"

"It'd be a waste to leave it – besides, take it with us and it's another weapon he can't use when we come back here". Seeing the logic in this argument the last descendent of two clans nodded wearily, too tired to even fight as he took another agonising step towards freedom, feeling the world around him alter once more and hearing rushing water from nearby, the barrier between the worlds thinning once more as he demanded to go back to the Waterfall of Truth, purge it of the corruption his second-father's domain had forced upon it,

"True enough", Naruto agreed tiredly, carrying on his unsteady march through willpower alone as fatigue caught up to even him after such a battle, "just have to figure out a clever way to hide it until the time is right..."


Despite the fact the Waterfall of Truth was now the gateway to a charnel house Bee still maintained his vigil, simultaneously wanting to be anywhere but where he was at the same time as sure he wouldn't move until either the waterfall returned to the way it had been or, preferably, Naruto returned and then peace was restored. He had blocked his ears against the monotone psalms of the skulls before him and kept a silent watch upon the place of horrors, swords drawn and alert against any devilry that could emerge from the maw of vitae before him. The stars were beginning to bloom overhead, the waterfall fading to a black streak in the night as the day ended and nothing altered; it was only due to his experience in staying awake to complete missions as a shinobi that he didn't let his guard drop and therefore was immediately alert as for the first time his sensitive ears caught the distinctive change of pitch of the waterfall, a break in the monotonous rhythm of gushing blood that brought all seven his swords into his normal fighting stance; regardless of Naruto's assurances, Killer Bee was not going to run the risk of some nightmare from a world of insanity drag its carcass over the threshold of his world without him having a say in the matter. In the darkness he was unable to make out a clear picture and was lot more grateful than he let on when the stranger spoke first and set his mind at rest,

"Relax Bee-san; it's me".

"Prove it", even a shinobi as easy-going as Bee was on first-name terms with paranoia and because of that he remained ready until, a second later, he felt the unmistakable signature of the one tailed beast in the world more powerful than his own. Sheathing his swords with a breath of relief, the Hachibi jinchuuriki stepped back a bit to allow his fellow shinobi to move off the lake of blood; the sight that awaited him when Naruto came close enough to see, however, was far from a pretty one,

"Whoa, what happened in there nine? When you left you were fine?" Grinning as much as his pain-wracked body was able to, Naruto limped forwards a short way and would have collapsed had it not been for Bee's quick reflexes, the Kumo shinobi allowing his Konoha counterpart to fall on his shoulder rather than the earth beneath him,

"A lot happened in there Bee; a lot of it better left unsaid", the Kyuubi container managed to gasp as he lowered himself to his knees, "I don't think I'm going to be able to stay awake much longer – would you mind making sure no-one finds me until the fox gets off his nine-tailed rear end and sets about healing me up?"

"I heard that you...!" Fortunately Naruto had learnt to tune out the ranting of his tenant when he felt like it and, as the eight-tailed jinchuuriki slowly lay him down on the soft ground and he felt his consciousness begin to suspend itself once more, the last thing he saw before fading away temporarily was the sight of the Waterfall of Truth slowly returning to normal, the skulls being eroded away as the blood began to peter out of the water that cascaded down the rock, the barrier restored and the gateway to the lair of his second-father sealed away until he would need it again, hopefully not until many years in the future.

He slept, as much as he did sleep, for nearly eight hours, something he'd last done during his exile, about halfway through the Kiri rebellion; since then his brain had attuned to its new biological add-ons and removed his requirement for the proper night's sleep most people needed to be at least semi-functional in the morning, members of the Nara clan excepted. As he came too and recognised his location, he stood with a groan as the aches of mending bones and straining sinews flooded over him before, after sensing a chakra presence from nearby, nodding at where Killer Bee appeared,

"My thanks for your vigilance Bee-san", he said after stretching off, his axe still in his hand, "though I will need slightly longer to heal than I can safely stay here – I've been gone over a day, any longer and Konoha may get suspicious". Bee's shoulders shook,

"Heh, you should take a leaf from my book fool; wander round on your own, the epitome of cool and the ladies will know you rule". Despite himself Naruto smirked,

"Yes, I heard about how well that went for you last time, though I suppose Yugito-san finally mastering her two-tailed state was worth the trade off of your pride and most of your rapping notebooks", almost immediately a raincloud appeared over the Kumo shinobi's head as he recalled the sight of his precious rhymes being burnt to cinders by the younger jinchuuriki's power, Killer Bee so far gone into his misery that he almost didn't hear Naruto prepare to leave after crunching down on a soldier pill, "still then, time I wasn't here. I'm not sure exactly what the next step will be but Jiraiya-sensei's on the case; he'll find something I'm sure and as soon as he does Konoha will be sending out diplomatic letters to all the other four nations; I'm relying on you, Yugito, Roshi and Han to bring Kumo and Iwa to the table". Banishing his ill-feeling at the loss of his raps, the older shinobi nodded,

"We can do that; our pact with Iwa's still strong so if one of us gets targeted we'll both move in, though old man Onoki's used Akatsuki before in the past – if anyone's going to be a blot in your copybook it'll be that crusty old troll".

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it", Naruto admitted somewhat evasively, still slightly grateful he'd had the foresight to teach both jinchuuriki of Iwa, who were certainly not as well respected as their Kumo counterparts and virtually isolated from humanity as a whole, a certain jutsu that they could use to get away should they be attacked by the organisation, the Kage Bunshin even enabling them to use the power of their bijuu to make the fight look more realistic as they made a break for it should the battle go badly; if nothing else a report from one of them should be enough to convince even the Tsuchikage that the Red Dawn has its own goals and can't be trusted; "until then though, I have to go".

"Now you're gettin' it", Bee suddenly smiled, brightening as he recognised the lyric, "took a little time but soon you'll appreciate the power of a good line".

A flash of gold was his only answer.

Returning to his home village in the centre of the Forest of Death, Naruto's first task was to fall back to sleep and recover the chakra it had taken him to both fight his second-father and teleport halfway across his known world; jinchuuriki or not, the distance for that Hirashin was not something easily recovered with his body as battered as it was. Upon waking some time the following morning he was met by his clone, the chakra construct giving him a nod before bursting and informing him of what had gone on in his absence; nothing crucial thank the Kami – if the Akatsuki had moved while I was away that could have been a serious wrinkle in the plan. After hunting down a couple of spiders and making a meal out of them, the Senju-Uzumaki turned his head towards Konoha for a moment but thought better of it as he looked down at his axe again; he had another task to do before he could drag himself to baa-chan for healing, something he'd done only once before and had never expected to do again.

It was ironic that, as his hand and the kunai in it descended to make the fist incision, in another much more remote location a second hand descended and brought with it a beast of lightning that obliterated the object of the hatred that had ruled his life and made him a traitor to his home. Even as he cackled with sudden mad, delirious laughter at the same time wrestle down the influence of the Curse Seal on his shoulder with the dregs of his chakra, Uchiha Sasuke found himself for the first time in his life liberated of his clan's curse of hatred as the ashes of what had once been his brother were scattered by the wind and rain, Itachi reduced to less than dust by the impact of the Kirin lightning dragon.


As the rain fell around them, Konan felt herself pressed to ask her only living companion the question that was pressing on her mind and had been since the setbacks had mounted for their organisation,

"Do you truly trust Madara can emulate the power of Spring country to raise the army we need?" Rippled eyes turning towards the Angel of Ame, Pain spoke with a note of caution in his tone,

"Yes, though it will take us longer, far longer to achieve than if we had been able to capture the bijuu", the God of the weeping land answered tonelessly, "to avoid the Nations noticing the movement of the machinery needed to create such power we must move slowly, very slowly, and spread our purchases throughout the Nations via sleeper cells and agents. The loss of Sasori's spy network and Kakazu's underworld contacts has hindered us in this regard, as has the loss of Itachi and his illusionary powers, though his younger brother appears quite skilled in that art. I must trust Madara to oversee his younger protégé though; the time of God cannot be taken wet-nursing a boy through his pain; either he will rise above it and master it, let it make him powerful enough to understand our goals of bringing peace to the world, or it will break him". The almost expressionless kunoichi nodded once to show her understanding of the Gods' will before speaking again,

"The loss of Itachi is a great blow; without him Kisame has become a rogue element – he is unlikely to form a coherent team with the man who killed his previous partner".

"And since the debacle in Iwa I sense he has begun to lose hope in our cause", Pain finished, neither of the two Ame orphans admitting that the first faint stirrings of doubt were also swirling around their own minds as the Rin'negan user went on, "two potential targets, both missed due to them knowing a technique everyone assumed to be unique to the Leaf; though I cannot be proven I'm sure the hand of the Senso Haundo played a part in such a situation. Now even Onoki grows too wary of us to appreciate our services", another of the many, many worries piling up around them, the lack of funds was hurting not just the Akatsuki but the village of Ame as well; though Pain was destined to bring peace to the world, he also longed to make the land of Rain a fit place for people to live and families to grow rather than a battlefield for the other great nations, "still, he is loyal for the moment if only for his hatred of the nine-tails for the disrespect of his sword".

That at least was a crumb of good news at an otherwise fairly bare banqueting table; somehow the other Nations seemed to have been one step ahead of them at all times, though how this was no-one, not even Madara or Zetsu, could shed any light on. None of their members had been taken alive to be interrogated; most, in fact, had been killed where they stood by enemies, or an enemy in particular, who seemed to know how to negate most of their techniques right off the bat. Though Pain himself could use his paths to determine the truth if any of Akatsuki's remaining contacts were trying to sell information to the opposite side the cost of the soul of the interrogated was too high considering they Red Dawn had relatively few reliable links left across the Nations. With all this weighing down even his enlightened mind the leader of the terrorist cell who's goal was to bring peace to the war-torn world of shinobi raised his ringed eyes to the heavens and spoke, a decree of God that none could gainsay or set asunder,

"The way to peace has been opposed for too long; Konoha and its jinchuuriki have stood in my path for too long. I will go to the village hidden in the Leaves and teach it the..."

As Pain suddenly trailed off in mid-speech Konan glanced across at the reanimated body of Yahiko, wondering if one of the chakra receivers had come loose again and robbed him of his ability to speak; however before she could phrase her question, the body of one of Pains' six paths spoke again,

" appears", the Rin'negan user spoke slowly, though there was a slight smile tingeing the corner of his otherwise expressionless mouth as he turned his full attention to his angel and moved his fingers slowly through a long sequence of hand-seals, "that the journey will not be necessary. God will not have to travel to the Leaf for the Leaf has travelled to the feet of God and they have brought their target with them. Come Konan-chan", pushing himself fully upright, the proxy of the leader of Ame stood to his full height as the rain above them cleared, "I shall ready my paths and clear the way of the rain. If you will deliver me to a place close enough to the south-west border of Ame, I will bring the Senso Haundo to heel!"


"So, let me get this straight", not for the first time in the two months since his unnoticed excursion outside the village into the heart of Kumo, Naruto found himself struggling to believe some of the information that was coming out of the mouth of both his sensei and his village leader-stroke clan head, "I see from Sasori's memories a figure with those strange eyes, shaped like ripples, and you're now telling me you not only recognise what those eyes are, you may very well know exactly who they belong to?" Jiraiya nodded, though there was no triumph in his strangely serious eyes as he folded his arms,

"Yes; towards the end of the Third War we, the Detsu no Sannin that is", he explained, indicating himself and Tsunade who remained behind her desk and nodded, "encountered three orphans in Ame, kids that that had lost everything in the struggle. Orochimaru was all for killing them to save them from the pain of growing up with no-one and, truth be told, if my suspicions are correct about the leader of the maniacs hunting down you and your kind I'm kind of sorry we didn't take his advice back then – either way, I hung around for a while with the youngsters, taught them a bit about being shinobi in the time I had between missions. One of them, the smallest and youngest, had the eyes you saw from Akasuna no Sasori's memories, I'm sure of it".

"Who was he, and what are they then?" The Hokage broke in softly, steepling her hands under her chin as she was wont to do when considering an important matter of state, "I assume he had some kind of doujutsu?"

"Yeah, the rarest and most powerful; the Rin'negan, the eyes of the Sage of Six Paths", Jiraiya confirmed in a melancholy voice, "I hoped to steer the three of them towards a brighter path but if it truly is Nagato running around with the Akatsuki I'm going to have to assume I messed up, big style. Sorry gaki", the Toad sage gave an embarrassed grin towards his current student as an apology for the actions of his past pupil, "seems I really do suck as a sensei". Naruto didn't reply to this, instead remaining silent for a moment before, eventually, inclining his head towards the letter on the corner of Tsunade's desk, the same as countless other bits of paper near it but marked out as truly unique because of the seal it bore,

"Still at least we've got an idea of what we might be going up against in the future; if he really is running the show with those S-ranked nutcases chances are we're going to come to blows sometime in the future – they must have an idea I'm behind most of their recent setbacks by now", Naruto explained with a slight note of glumness in his voice before he glanced at the letter again and brightened, "still, whoever this Nagato is can come with as much force as he likes; if even Onoki of Both Scales is swapping love notes with baa-chan things must be changing for the better across the entire Elemental Nations".

Jiraiya hastily averted his eyes and did his best to stifle chuckles as the Godaime's expression darkened palpably; after glaring death at her would-be clan heir for a moment, she blinked and put her business head back on, tapping the latter that had arrived earlier in the morning by courier-nin and was one of the reason she'd called this three-man meeting; the Toad sages' information on the Akatsuki being the other,

"Despite your way disrespectful way of putting it", both blondes matched stares for a minute before relenting, "this news is as good as I could have hoped it'd be. The shrivelled old prune didn't give away any more details than he had to; he never does; but I get the impression the jinchuuriki of his nation have been targeted by the terrorist cell since they now know or suspect those of the other four countries have their jinchuuriki better protected. Both, however, seemed to have survived their run-ins with the Red Dawn", Naruto immediately relaxed at that news; though he'd gotten off to a rocky start with Han and only really got to know the steam-using shinobi after he'd had most of his skin parboiled off and the Iwa jinchuuriki had ended up with most of his armour mangled beyond recognition in retaliation, he had enjoyed Roshi's company as the old man was very experienced with using his bijuu's powers and had a relationship with the four-tailed monkey second only to Bee's partnership with the Hachibi, "and reported to the kage. Coupling this with the increase of paperwork we, the kages as a whole that is, have been shuffling between each other, the whole thing's coming down to the first ever Gokage summit to be held in Tetsu".

The impact of this statement was not to be underestimated; never before had the leaders of the five great nations ever been in the same location without blood being spilt and fists flying everywhere. That the threat of Akatsuki was being taken so seriously was a great boon to the minds of all present, Naruto most especially as it meant that, in the event of an alliance, it would make slotting the final piece of his decade-long puzzle home much more simplistic than would otherwise have been the case. All three ninja mulled the news over before, with his finger on his chin in a thinking pose, Jiraiya spoke first,

"When and what are the conditions?"

"One month from three days ago; each kage can bring as many bodyguards as they feel they need to though, from what I heard from Mei-sama, two seems to be the magic number, and as well as that all nine of the jinchuuriki will also be in attendance". Naruto felt his eyebrows rise even as he clamped down on his excitement as hard as he could,

"It's a trap as well as a meeting then? Fair enough; anyone stupid enough to gate-crash a meeting with that much raw chakra is going to simply be asking for a hammering, weird eyes or not. Who were you thinking of for bodyguards baachan – surely not Shizune-neechan right, she's ready to go any day now?" Tsunade rolled her eyes,

"Of course not Shizune-chan; if nothing else I don't think even I'd be able to pry her out of Iruka's arms if he thought she was having to leave so close to giving birth to the next generation of Umino", she explained before looking more serious, "though thankfully as you're there I doubt I'll need much more in the way of an escort. I was actually thinking of Izumo and Kotetsu..."

"What?" Jiraiya's sudden squawk brought the entire conversation to a shuddering halt, "hime, how could you leave me here; without the flower of your beauty I will wither and die like a tender blossom denied the warm caress of the sun". Tsunade simply shivered while simultaneously cracking her knuckles as her fellow sannin's attempt at a chat up line while Naruto slapped a palm to his face before regarding his clan head through a single lidded eye,

"Baa-chan please just sleep with him; you'd only need to do it once", Tsunade tried to turn white and green at the same time as a hand flew to her mouth as though attempting to deny a gag reflex while Jiraiya gawped at his student amazed before nodding so rapidly in agreement it was a wonder his neck didn't crick, "I've tried everything else to get him to give up that crush so it's all in your hands now".

"Hands, thighs, cleavage", Jiraiya repeated to himself like a zombie, a trail of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth as his nose bled copiously, "and all other parts as we..." Mercifully he was cut off by an explosion of killing intent and a paperweight slamming into his gut at near the speed of sound, Tsunade banging her hands against her desk as she glowered at the two perverts before her,

"Firstly never even think of suggesting something like that around me again or I'll find a way to injure you in a way even the Kyuubi couldn't heal", the Slug sage demanded, expression in Naruto's opinion black enough to make even Angron think twice about having a go before she calmed down and spoke more rationally, "secondly you're staying here Jiraiya as my regent in case the village is attacked; I know it's unlikely but your reports of Akatsuki apparently trying to lay their hands on an army from somewhere is enough to worry me and the village will need a figurehead to stand behind if they do make a move. And anyway as I recall those three orphans you rescued weren't overly enamoured with Konoha for invading their land – if it truly is your old student pulling the strings he might see my absence as a chance to earn his revenge for misdemeanours occurring in the Third War".

It was a well-made and logical argument, Jiraiya couldn't dispute that; even so though, it felt wrong to be sitting on the sidelines while his godson and team mate had all the fun, least of all as he bore some responsibility over the foundation of the Akatsuki if Nagato truly was responsible for its formation. As well as that he was known as a renowned spy-master – surely if he were there supplying information it would lend more weight to Konoha's position than anything else short of Naruto revealing some of the plans he'd put in place over the past few years. He pouted, trying to buy time to mull this decision over for a moment before his eye caught on a sudden document on Tsunade's desk and the edge of the map it showed; he saw that and inspiration struck with the force of a bludgeon. Stepping forwards, he carefully tugged the paper responsible for his brainwave out of the pile of paper it was sitting in before smoothing it out across the Hokages' desk,

"Maybe there's a way to kill two birds with one stone", he explained, jabbing his finger at the map, "we know the village will be safe for a month at least because no-one's moving 'til then. When we do, however, there is a way to get to the Land of Iron through the Land of Rain, though the route's a bit convoluted. I've used it myself but I don't like it; somehow Ame is locked down tighter than a nun's cloisters and virtually nothing gets in or out unnoticed. I have a suspicion this is to do with the current souso of the village who I'm virtually sure is Nagato; the Rin'negan has abilities beyond my knowledge but is reportedly the most powerful doujutsu in creation; I wouldn't put it past a Rin'negan user to be able to watch over a country as big as Ame with relatively little issue".

"So", Tsunade urged, "how does this help us?"

"Akatsuki want the bijuu", Jiraiya's smile was far from his usual beaming grin; it was the cut-throat expression of an S-ranked shinobi gearing himself up for a war, "so we'll give them what they want. If we step into Rain to get to Iron there are three things that might happen as far as I can see; either Nagato is in charge there in which case he might try to engage us, the souso sends some of his shinobi out to see us in which case it's an diplomatic oops from us but was the only real was we could get to Tetsu without potentially pissing off Iwa as we're neutral with Ame at the minute, or nothing happens at all. In any of these three cases having me there with you serves two purposes; I might be able to glean some information about the place while we're moving through and, if the worst does come to the worst", the tall sannin grimaced for a moment before shaking his head sadly, "it's the job of the sensei to correct his students' mistakes".

Both members of the Senju-Uzumaki clan looked upon their team mate and sensei with concern and commiseration before, after a moment, Tsunade glanced up and looked her team mate dead in the eye,

"Are you serious about this Jiraiya-kun?" There was no boasting, no grandiose in the sage's poise, instead he finally looked as old as he actually was as he lowered his head and nodded,

"Yeah; if nothing else if it comes to a choice between my godson and my student there's no doubt in my mind who I have to pick. Hopefully nothing'll come of this little jaunt but, in case of the worst case scenario, it can never hurt to be prepared".

"That's probably the most sensible non-perverted thing I've ever heard you say ero-sennin", Naruto admitted before being forced to clamp down on a smirk as his eyes tracked across to his clan head and he folded his arm, the new bandaged he had wrapped around his left one shining a pearly white in the evening sun as he grinned, "though when it comes to the statement of your guards Hokage-sama, I think I've got a better choice than the gate chunin..."


Hate you...;

Haruno Sakura was usually a cheerful person who didn't suffer fools gladly and was a professional kunoichi when she was on a mission; during her down-time however she was as stable and well-balanced as a ninja could hope to be, especially as a good bedside manner was virtually a requirement for a medical kunoichi. Therefore it was rather odd to see the cherry blossom trudging along in the footsteps of her group shooting invisible eye lasers at her sensei. Tsunade was of course impervious to her students' dirty looks but even so Sakura wouldn't be denied her righteous sulk; it had all been going so well – she had an important A-rank mission as the bodyguard of her kage and was getting a chance to visit the semi-mythical Iron country. Then she had been introduced to her partner for the mission, realised she'd been well and truly set up and everything had gone straight down the crapper.

...Hate you, hate you, hate you, hate yoaargh! She jumped a clear foot in the air as two fingers landed in her sides simultaneously, shocking her out of her funk and causing her to whip around with a fist raised threateningly. Kiba for his part simply grinned and blew on the tips of his fingers, apparently unconcerned at the temper he was stirring into life,

"Don't look so grumpy Sakura-chan; if the wind changes you'll be stuck that way". The kunoichi merely glared at the Inuzuka, scowling as she resumed her march through the wet, waterlogged land, though thankfully the seemingly perpetual rain had lulled over the past fifteen minutes or so and made progress a lot more swift than had other been expected,

"And if my fist connects with your face you'll never get it back to the way it was Kiba-baka, you've got my word on that", she threatened, clenching a fist as the dog-nin grinned at her; the two held an impromptu stare-down for a minute before, as always, she relented first, "can't believe I got paired up with you – even Ino-buta would have been better company. Touch me again and you'll find out exactly what it means to end up spayed the hard way".

"Well as someone not a million leagues from here was fond of saying believe it you got paired up with me, though the last threat was unnecessary", the Inuzuka shot back cheerfully after every man in the party was done wincing at the threat to their combined manhood, "still, cheer up; we're about a third of the way through this bog now and the sun's coming out, what's not t...oh".

Sakura might have denied Kiba was anything to do with her, least of all on an intimate level, but she knew that it wasn't like him to tail off in the middle of a sentence like that; Akamaru whined in tandem with his master as he too tasted the unfamiliar scent upon the air and Kiba dropped into a fighting crouch, tensing and getting ready for trouble,

"Looks like we've got company incoming", the heir to the House of Dogs growled, tensing in the direction of the prevailing wind, "can't tell you how many but they stink of man, age and, uh, paper for some reason".

"Paper?" Jiraiya questioned, looking uncharacteristically serious as Kiba nodded; so then it is them – nothing else for it, I'm going to have to go all out; "I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this but, like so many things in the world of shinobi, hope's a fickle beast at the best of times. Sakura-chan, Kiba-kun, retire with Hokage-sama; your mission is to keep her safe regardless of the cost to yourselves; Naruto-kun and I will handle the interlopers".

"But..." the combined expression of all three larger shinobi was more than enough to still all notions of dissent and, following the lead of their village leader, the two chunin departed after Tsunade gave some last-minute instructions to her honour guard, as much as 'try not to die' could be considered instructions. As soon as they were out of sight Jiraiya bit his thumb and pressed it to the ground; there was a flare of chakra and two tiny figures stepped out of the smoke, looked around somewhat bemusedly,

"Jiraiya-boy?" The female toad elder cocked her head up at the older signaturee of the Toad contract, "what d'ya need Pa and I for?"

"Hopefully nothing, but probably to correct a mistake I made a long time ago; we'll have to go all out", Jiraiya warned the two elders and, after sharing a look, both Fukasaku and Shima hopped up onto his shoulders, melding with the sage and gathering the natural energy needed for Jiraiya to use the techniques that had truly made him an S-ranked shinobi. Naruto watched the transformation from the corner of his eye, hoping that when the time came for him to transform likewise the effect wouldn't appear quite so disturbing as he nodded at his godfather,

"We go to them?"

"Might as well; if nothing else it draws them away from Tsu-hime and you're their target anyway"; nodding at the logic, the altered jinchuuriki followed his godfather at a run, having to almost sprint to keep up with the pace the perverted hermit set with sage chakra flowing through his coils.

The two groups met each other on open ground; seeing one set of Rin'negan eyes gazing down at them imperiously as the bearer was borne aloft in the arms of a paper-winged angel, Jiraiya skidded to a halt in slight confusion, Naruto mimicking the action and glancing at his teacher questioningly,

"That's not Nagato", the sage explained under his breath, trusting the enhanced ears of the jinchuuriki to pick up his words, "I do recognise him but it's not my former student. The kunoichi is one of mine though; Konan-chan", he raised his voice at the woman who was looking down on the coolly, apparently disinterested by the whole scene, "this doesn't have to end in violence. Come down here and let's talk face to face, and at least tell me what happened to Nagato-kun and Yahiko-kun after I was forced to leave Ame?" The Amen in didn't answer him with words but did at least float gently down to the floor, hovering a foot above it as though the earth was unworthy to feel her tread while her passenger alighted to the floor, not raising a ripple from the water he landed atop as he spoke in a flat, dead voice from behind his multiple piercings,

"You trespass in the land of God Konoha-nin; give to me what should be mine and one of you may leave alive". Naruto and his teacher both shared a pointed look before dropping into fighting stances, though neither of them made an aggressive move yet,

"I see", Jiraiya said shortly, apparently electing himself as spokesman for the two Konoha shinobi present, "well whoever this God of yours is I'm sure he's quite capable of smiting us with lightning if we do too much to piss him off, so why don't you both turn around and go away before this gets ugly. I don't want to fight you Konan-chan", there was sincerity in the sage's voice as he looked to the kunoichi present, though his face hardened as she burst apart in a spray of paper and her companion made swift hand-seals, summoning his own reinforcements to the field. A second later, now staring down six pairs of identical eyes and feeling rather creeped out by the whole thing, Naruto spoke to his godfather once more,

"Any of these your old student?"

"No, but I recognise them all, especially that one", it was Jiraiya's tone that caused the bio-enhanced jinchuuriki to look at his mentor again; in all the years he'd known the Toad sage, he could count the number of times he'd heard true anger in his voice on one hand with fingers to spare, "and they are all dead; there is no natural energy within them. Whoever you are, if it is you Nagato, you have desecrated the dead for your own ambitions; I would not forgive my old team mate for such an abomination, I will certainly not forgive my old student!"

"These are but the faces of God", one of the meat-puppets spoke, Naruto regarding it with a critical eye as though picturing which one would be best to strike down first; and they are moving already – hmm, they must really want to get this thing started. Ah, now that's interesting; using the tactical acumen both gifted to him by bio-enhancement and learnt by hard practice, Naruto selected his first victim with well-hidden predatory interest, "they are the ones who will teach the creed of Pain to all people. You, nine-tails, are both a key to peace and a weapon to be wielded by god".

"Am I now – first I knew about it", Naruto admitted, gathering his chakra as subtly as he could, "and what, pray tell, is this weapon you're hoping to forge from the nine bijuu. Oh don't look so shocked", none of Pain's faces had shifted at all but it seemed like the right thing to say, "I know you're after all of us – hell I've personally killed enough of you Akatsuki to know that".

"It is a weapon nine-tails; a weapon unlike any before seen in the Elemental Nations; when used all will know Pain", the Rin'negan user spoke as though preaching to a slightly dim choir, "the suffering will be legion, so much that all will fear war and none raise arms again..."

"Ah screw this", a crabby old voice broke into the monologue, Fukasaku showing manners far worse than his age would dictate he had as he shouted into Jiraiya's ear, "this could be the destined child the Elder Toad spoke of? We gotta put him down Jiraiya-boy – he's gone more squirrelly in the head than Ma".

"Whaddya mean squirrelly in the head, y'old fart", the other half of the cantankerous couple shouted back, "everyone know's you'd have been dead a hundred years back without me takin' care of your wrinkled old ass!"

"Ha, and everyone one of those days in the grave would have been a mercy for my poor ears compared to your whinin'!"

"You senile old coot – when we get home I'll..."

What Fukasaku's punishment was to be at the hands of his irate wife, however, was never discovered as, using the argument of the elder toads to his advantage, Naruto moved.

It was a motion as seamless as it was effective; seeing the giant blonde suddenly disappear into a whirl of leaves and then reappear behind all of the Pains was pure poetry in motion as far as a shinobi was concerned. Aware they had been surprised all six opponents leapt clear, turning to try and see the enemy now behind them only for the one at the rear of the party to belatedly discover how bad a move that was; he jumped out of range of the jinchuuriki's sweeping arm only for a cloud of smoke and screeching scream to herald his end, Goa-chichoya having a much longer reach than its master. Even as the Pain fell, bisected in half at the waist, Naruto wasn't done, instead stepping forwards deliberately and stomping on the head of his downed adversary – this close he was able to hear the truth in Jiraiya's earlier statement; their opponents had no heartbeat and were therefore dead. Rather than run the risk of one of the six getting back up again, the sole of Naruto's sandal reduced its head to a pulp of mangled metal and brain matter, the jinchuuriki grinning in tandem with his howling axe as he faced down the rest of his enemies,

"Always take the one at the back out first", he bellowed to the sky, "thank you Shizune-neechan!"

With that benediction, he leapt forward into the attack once more.


A cough, low and wheezing arose for the man strapped into the antiquated life-support machine and Konan was at his side in an instant, her question answered before she could even speak it,

"The, the nine-tails", the lord of Ame spoke in a voice choked with phlegm, "it destroyed the Nakara path". That news sent a chill through the kunoichi, though Pain had never been defeated, the removal of his ability to reincarnate his fallen bodies was a serious blow indeed,

"Should we...?"

"No", with his prize so close Pain would not back down, "as long as I am careful I can still win this". With that statement, he sat forwards in his dais and once more commanded his remote bodies to do his bidding.


After that early success in knocking out one of the Pains, the good fortune of the godfather and godson combination seemed to have stalled somewhat; though Naruto was using his preferred method of shunshin and sheer speed to keep piling the pressure on his opponents and Jiraiya's abilities were amplified by his connection to sage chakra, they just couldn't seem to land a blow against the paths. However just because their attacks weren't landing didn't mean they were not making progress; even as his opponents concentrated on his most dangerous abilities, Goa-chichioya foremost amongst them, Naruto knew they, just like all who had come before them, were underestimating his subtler but equally as devastating gifts. His ability to learn, even in the heat of battle, was a talent he had only honed upon the battlefields across the Elemental Nation and he put to use now, realising quickly the difference between the one strike that had connected and the others since then which hadn't, shouting across to his godfather as frustration boiled in his tone,

"Damn them", he casually vanished in a leaf body flicker, scattering the green petals everywhere around him even as his target slipped free of the wide sweep of his axe, "it's like fighting Neji-san and Hinata-chan when they don't want to be hit. Reckon they can see all around them?"

"Possibly", Jiraiya shouted back, his hearing fortunately enhanced by his connection to the earth and therefore able to hear the whispered plan passed to him underneath the bombastic shout, "this is a legendary doujutsu we're up against here, who knows what it can do?"

"In that case let's find out", the jinchuuriki declared, hands blurring as the technique he wanted came back to his effortlessly, "kirigakure no jutsu".

A dense wall of fog flooded the battlefield and Naruto immediately tasted the air; sight to him was unnecessary at such close range; he could virtually taste his prey. Powering down his axe to improve his silent killing, he stalked towards his newest target in the mist, hoping his hypothesis was correct and this would tip the scales back into his and Jiraiya's...

"Shinra tensai".

Whatever the technique was it managed to do two things; it simultaneously blasted both him and Jiraiya away and cleared the air of the mist; shaking his head as he flipped back to his feet, Naruto locked eyes with the Pain that had its arm extended; that one has to go next;

"Against God even your powers are useless nine-tails; you will never get close enough to hit me even with your speed", the emotionless figure intoned, lowering its arm, "come quietly and your death will serve a grea..."

It was cut off by the hand that shot out the water and locked onto its ankle with a grip like the Shinigami; the path was dragged beneath the water so fast it virtually disappeared only to resurface some seconds later, Jiraiya underneath it with a rasengan swirling on his palm as the water clone he'd substituted himself for in the seconds Naruto's mist had been up splashed back into the lake. Under the effect of the senjutsu-enhanced technique the body was rent asunder, whatever life it had possessed finally banished but the sage was not yet done. With a whisper and some seals his hair shot forwards, hard and sharp as steel and tore the body that had once been one of his students apart, the older man speaking to the deceased in a tone somewhere between regret, respect and pure, blazing anger,

"Rest in peace Yahiko-kun"; the altered eyes of the sage fell upon the four remaining paths and Jiraiya snarled ferally, "your friend may well be joining you shortly".

"By your hand ero-sennin, but these other four are mine", Naruto suddenly snarled, leaping into the air and twisting around with a spray of chakra, "futon; Ha senpū o katto!"

Against the sheer scale of the technique there was nowhere for them to hide and they couldn't move far enough to escape its reach; a blizzard of foliage erupted from the Senju-Uzumaki as the Preta path of his adversary stood to shield its companions from the ninjutsu, secure in the knowledge that it could nullify the technique used. The leaves pelted them like a rain of hail, annoying but not dangerous as they fell about, scattering in the water around them until at last the jinchuuriki ended his technique and fell back to the water with a splash. The Preta path was about to speak but found itself cut off by Naruto's bellow, his voice backed up by his axe restarting,

"God of Ame", he declared before giving a wolfish smile, "meet the God of Konoha, and meet your end!"

Just as before the first path to die was the one at the rear; surrounded as they were by leaves cloned and inscribed with a fuuinjutsu matrix known completely to only two shinobi in history, the end was inevitable; four flashes, four hacks with a braying blade and it was over, the leader of the Akatsuki defeated as the victors stood above them. Naruto breathed deeply a few times, forcing his hearts to calm down slightly as he sealed Goa-chichioya away and looked over the corpses before him; after a second he turned to Jiraiya,

"You send a message to baa-chan, I get rid of the trash?" To his surprise the sage shook his grizzled head,

"No, the real one isn't among them", Jiraiya explained, moving over to the carved corpses and stooping down to remove one of the chakra rods from the bodies, preparing himself for what he had to do next.


As Nagato went into a seizure Konan could do nothing but watch, heart in her mouth as the man she did love in some way suffered from an aliment she could not even see never mind try to treat. Only when he finally began to calm down did she dare to speak after purging all worry from her tone; now was the time to be strong for her friend,

"Nagato-kun, what happened?"

"The paths, all six paths", he mumbled, mentally traumatised by the sudden severing of the connection to his bodies, "all gone, cut down". Konan stared and, despite herself, trembled slightly,

"But; there is no choice", paper flew around her as she formed her wings, "we must flee, they cannot find us here". Nagato's head lolled towards her, something like panic in his eyes as he managed to murmur a warning,

"They have already found us; Jiraiya-sensei's sage mode tracked my chakra. They are moving; Konan-chan, you must fly – you now hold the dream of Yahiko-kun". The kunoichi shook her head, determined but slightly pale as she spoke,

"Never; I will not lose another friend Nagato-kun; if we die now we die together knowing we did all in our power to bring peace to the world; that alone will be enough to ease my passing into the Pure World". Nagato, despite his internal injuries, smiled,

"You were always the most loyal Konan-chan; I was not worthy of a friend like you", he admitted, feeling the chakra receiver his sensei had used to trace him approaching at a terrifying pace, "so be it then; we go to meet Yahiko-kun together". Konan nodded, and the two of them braced themselves and waited for death.


He could smell his sensei's blood even over the incendiary destruction of Pain's paths as his jigokuton consumed both flesh and metal alike; turning in time to see a clone of the sage disappear to tell the rest of their party that they'd catch up, Naruto nodded at his sensei as the taller man wiped the blood from his hand and spoke in a voice that betrayed even more years than Jiraiya had accrued on the world,

"I have him; about four and some miles, that way".

"Three minutes and some at a sprint", Naruto muttered before speaking aloud, "I'll leave this in your hands sensei; he is or was your student".

"And right now I know what it is to feel blind Naruto", the sage admitted, trying hard to deny his tears as he realised how close he may have come to damning the world through teaching one lost, lonely boy the path to power, "I should kill him for what he was planning to do; murder on a scale even the, well, your... inner monster might have approved of – that is what he perverted my words to! But he was my student; he was that lost, lonely boy", at last Jiraiya could hold it back no longer, wiping his eyes with his sleeve as he went on, "and now he must be lost again. We've ripped it all down and left him with nothing just like Konoha nin did in the past – I wanted to end the cycle of hatred Naruto-kun, now I've only made it worse". Naruto was silent for a moment and Jiraiya was almost sure he wasn't going to speak again before suddenly he started, peering at the sage with a strange half-smile on his lips,

"Wait sensei, say what you said again?"

"The cycle of hatred?"

"No, actually yes; hate, the one thing I and, by extension and my blood, you know better than anyone", one meaty fist thwacked into a palm as Naruto recalled the day that had changed four lives forever, the memory of which could now change another and turn it around before more harm was done, "we can show them the truth of their so-called pain; how good are you at genjutsu?" Puzzled for a moment, Jiraiya finally cottoned on to his godsons plan and gave an evil smile, nodding at the perfect simplicity of the plan,

"Not great usually but in sage mode it's not an issue; I've got an idea of what to do assuming you don't mind being made the villain of the piece. I'll explain as we go – we best hurry before they try and pull off a dramatic escape..."

Fortunately there was to be no escape for either of the Ame-nins; Goa-chichioya split through the tower of paper as though it weren't there and allowed them both to step through into the interior of the chamber, two sets of eyes enhanced by both chakra and biological experimentation easily picking out the foes nearby,

"I assume you two are Nagato and Konan?" Unusually it was Naruto who played diplomat, though he kept his axe out to show he would not hesitate to use violence if pushed. The emaciated man in the chair nodded and drew a shuddering breath,

"Have you come to kill us nine-tails?"

"No", Jiraiya answered for his godson, his technique completed, "we've come to tell you it's over; the Akatsuki has failed. Even now the villages mobilise against your group and no matter how many bodies you can place upon the field it won't be enough; go back to your village Pain, whatever's left of it". The last line, almost a throwaway comment, made both Ame nin freeze for a moment before, mastering herself Konan was able to speak,

"What do you mean left?" A dark chuckle was her answer, the noise reverberating from Naruto's barrel chest like a man pounding an empty steel drum,

"It is simple, I listened to the creed of Pain and have followed it to its logical conclusion; after all", though none present knew it, Naruto spoke his next words from personal experience, "what is a God with none left to worship him? My clones are already at the gates of Ame, the people there will be the first to know Pain", seeing the horror dawning on the two faces before him Naruto smirked and spread his arms wide, "the Senso Haundo is abroad", his grin revealed teeth that could rival those of Kisame and he seemed to drink deep of his enemy's sudden terror as he finished his dire proclamation, "and a very poor shepherd has abandoned his flock. Let's go ero-sennin; the lesson of Pain has been taught".

Even before the two of them exited the paper tree it burst apart, the top of it exploding as Konan erupted through it, her paper cradle bearing Nagato aloft as well as sickening dread coiled in her heart; surely, surely the nine-tails could not mean what she feared he meant. She forgot exhaustion, her own fatigue and pushed herself on, refusing to believe the warning to be true even as the village of the Rain loomed on the horizon and plumes of smoke rose about it like funeral pyres. Even as tears ran down her face and she deposited both herself and her last living friend on the ground, she refused to believe what had happened until she saw it with her own eyes.


The entire city was an abattoir.

No, it was worse, because in an abattoir the cattle were killed quickly and cleanly; here, in this new place of horror, the people who had once lived and called this village home had not been afforded such a luxury. They had been torn apart, smashed like china dolls only with blood for bleeding and bones for breaking – almost as soon as they came within sight of the ominously silent walls the scent of blood had smashed into them both but even that, and the plume of smoke rising from parts of the destroyed city, was nothing compared to the soul-breaking sight that awaited them as the man who would be god hurried forwards as much as he was able to, shouldered open the door to the city of Ame with the front of his command dais and felt what was left of his god-complex, already reduced to ruin by the defeat he had suffered earlier in the day and the manner in which that defeat, no, humiliation had been administered, ground further into powder by the sight of what had happened to his village in his absence.

Ame was a land that had known more than its share of heartbreak; as a virtually-constant battleground for the larger shinobi world powers it had been scarred by war, death and loss but this, this final atrocity was surely the death-knell of the country. Everywhere his ringed eyes looked there were bodies, corpses; gutted, shredded, hewn asunder by the same nightmare weapon that had been the end of his Six Paths, there was nothing else in the world he knew that could kill so quickly and yet with such gleeful malice. Slumping forwards, overwhelmed by horror and sickness even as he heard Konan behind him turn away and retch, the man who had once been Pain and was now merely known by his true name of Nagato was forced to confront the true folly of his plan of action, of the Akatsuki, of everything he had ever believed in as the sight of the entire population of his city butchered in their own streets pounded mercilessly at his mind, a price that these innocent people had been forced to pay for his mistakes.

How long he remained there, his own misery and merciless horror pounding at his mind as the sight of the dead carpeting the ground, their blood mixing with the rain and turning the ground into boggy red slush, Nagato neither knew nor cared. His city was dead, his land was dead and his dream was dead as well; there was nothing left for him now but to exist until his own crippled body gave out and was reduced to the same state as the civilians of Ame after the monster had come to claim them all. The rain, the rain he had once controlled and used to keep out intruders that would threaten his sodden but still beloved land flattened his red hair to his head, trailing down his face like the tears he was unable to shed though, even as he felt rather than heard Konan move up to stand beside him as the kunoichi swallowed down her horror and subconsciously drew towards the one source of comfort she had left in the world, a noise cut through the repeated drumming of the rain that fell ceaselessly on the dead city.

A series of splashes, rhythmic, each one falling closer and closer and even before he looked up Nagato knew what he would see even before he looked up and, in a twisted, oblique way he welcomed it – for his failure and the price it had extracted on his city, surely it was only fitting that his punishment was to die by the hands of the same beast that had slaughtered the entire population of Ame. Strangely accepting the certainty of his own death, the Rin'negan wielder summoned the last of his strength and raised his head slowly, seeing the approaching figure step forwards from the bowels of the massacred city, drenched in gore and breathing slightly heavier than before but, otherwise, unchanged from the brooding, malevolent figure Nagato remembered prior to seeing himself torn apart six separate times through the eyes of his paths. Stepping forwards as the rain washed the blood clean of both his body and the terrible cleaver that rested over his shoulder, the demon clothed in human flesh looked at the last two Ame ninja in existence and, after a long moment, let a slow, languid, smile split through his gore-caked face as he spread his arms wide, his horrifying axe purring slowly as though temporarily sated by the flesh and blood it had been fed as its bearer spoke,

"Welcome", his voice was a deep as an ocean and as threatening as a thunderhead, pregnant with the promise to break at any moment and unleash a deluge of violence unmatched in history or myth, "to the world you'd have created. Remember this place, the world of carrion ruled only by the peace of the grave; this is the world you would have damned us all too; take it with you on your final journey", overwhelmed by horror and numb with shock neither S-ranked shinobi moved as the man who would kill them stepped forwards, his axe raised as he came within reach of them; suddenly the axe moved, falling to the floor as its bearer released it and lanced forwards with both his hands, speaking only a single word again as he poked them both on the forehead and released a chakra pulse,


They were falling, no, spinning; up was down, inverse was nothing; all faded away in a swirl of water, mud and gore as they fell, they were returning, they were going back...

With an almost physical impact they were both back in their own bodies, the shock making Konan stagger and almost fall as Nagato banged the back of his head on his command throne; Jiraiya removed his fingertips from their foreheads, sage eyes boring into them as both younger shinobi attempted to recover from the genjutsu he'd cast over them,

"Consider that the last lesson I will ever teach you", he spat bitterly, disgusted despite himself it had come to this, "you could, perhaps should have been the destined child Nagato but you pissed it up against the wall, frittering your gifts on schemes of madness. I wash my hands of you both", he turned away abruptly, not wanting his students to see the tears in his eyes as he stepped away from them for the last time, "it is over; return to Rain and never darken my life again; I have only one student now". With this final word the Toad sage moved away, all three of the former team now crying as the two of them realised another bond, one they had virtually forgotten about, was broken forever.

Naruto, however, remained where he was, not moving even as Jiraiya stepped out of the tree and back towards the path his former team mate had trodden; what had happened was a private affair between the three of them and he'd had no right to interfere. However he wasn't so blind as to leave a potentially lethal weapon in the hands (or rather, face) of a man who had been prepared to use it once before and stepped forwards, both of the two Ame nin too badly shocked to react to his approach,

"Forgive me", he tried to make his voice soft; violent and a warrior he might have been but he had no wish to punish those who were already suffering more than he had to, "but those eyes are the eyes of legend, and to the legends they must return".

The sight of the Senju-Uzumaki opening his mouth was the last, tear-blurred sight Nagato would ever see through the eyes that were never his to begin with.


"Damn Kiba-kun", Naruto was impressed as he glanced down at his Inuzuka friend, "you've got a nose on you and no mistake". Kiba shrugged, attempting to deflect the praise,

"Me, I do what I can; anyway they certainly seem friendly enough and there's a familiar scent there but I can't place it; I probably will when we get closer though, or when I actually see who I've caught wind of, which is usually the case".

"Well either way we might as well try to catch up with them", Tsunade decreed, setting a rugged pace towards the heart of Iron country as she huddled down well in her furs, "travelling together at least gives us a chance to get out of this blasted wind, save for those of us who can't bloody feel it", she muttered, fixing her adopted clan member with a vicious glance. Naruto however, didn't seem to notice; having finally caught wind of the party ahead himself and run the scent over the glands in his mouth that allowed him to taste the air in a manner similar to a snake, Naruto broke ahead of the main group and ran up a sharp incline to the right of their current path, tearing up the surface as though it weren't there and shielding his eyes against the breeze in time to catch sight of the friends ahead of them and bellow out a greeting despite the whipping gale,

"Mizu, wait and be welcomed!"

It took only minutes for his cry to be reciprocated; across the snow of the country a figure came running and he dropped to a knee, allowing his fellow jinchuuriki to throw her arms as far around his chest as she could reach; try as she might, Hotaru was still too short to reach his neck,

"Naruto-nii", the Mizu kunoichi declared, stepping back to allow the Kyuubi jinchuuriki to stand to his full height, towering over her by at least a factor of two and a half, "it's been too long".

"I know, and I'm sorry I couldn't see you as often as I'd have liked but duty calls and all that", the Senju-Uzumaki explained, casting an eye backwards to check that the rest of his party were clambering up the slope behind him, including the new addition they'd picked up in Taki, "how have you been Hotaru-chan; is Utakata-san still the old grouch I remember?" He jerked his head to the side to avoid a speeding bubble, not even bothering to hide his smile as the Rokubi jinchuuriki sniffed in displeasure,

"I'll take that as a yes then". Hotaru giggled and was about to ask something else when another voice cut her off, this one even more familiar to the enhanced demon-host than that of either of his fellow jinchuuriki,

"And what am I then brat - shisami?" Standing in all her normal fish-netted glory despite the biting cold, the one and only Momochi Anko beheld her one-time student with an apprising eye and carefree grin, one that soon dropped off her face as Naruto raised an eyebrow,

"Don't tempt me". The current Kiri emissary goggled for a moment before spinning on her heel and folding her arms with a loud 'humph', nose in the air as she turned her back on boy who had once been her student,

"Damned big-headed gakis; one sniff of fame and they think they're all that – never even think of the shoulders they had to stand on to reach those peaks" she grumbled under her breath before her rant was cut short by Naruto's hand descending on her shoulder and spinning her right back around into a rib-splintering hug, "gahh, gerroff! Abuse, this is an unwarranted attack on a dual-nationality kunoichi!" Chuckling as he let her go, the jinchuuriki merely shrugged,

"Heh, as if that defence would stick against any jury who knew even the rumours of what you were like; Zabuza-san", finally tearing his attention away from the kunoichi, Naruto greeted the volcanically-glowering shinobi who stood just behind her, "good to see you again".

"I wish I could say the feeling was mutual", the swordsman grated, still trying to stare a hole through the jinchuuriki's head, "but seeing as you've just had your hands all over my wife the only reason I'm not taking your head here and now is because I prefer life to a vainglorious attempt to write myself into the history books,".

"Proof you are indeed a smart man Zabuza-san, and trust me you'd need a lot of proof to convince people of that in Konoha once they discovered you married Mitarashi Anko", the Snake Mistress merely beamed at her notoriety before, after glancing around, Naruto noticed the missing garnish in this bowl of ramen, "where's Haku-san; he's usually stuck to you like a shadow?"

I get the feeling; despite being used to living on the edge, Naruto couldn't help but feel an icy spider creep up his spine as that question made both Anko and her husband grin in tandem, Zabuza's shoulders even shaking before they both answered together,


"You cruel bastards", Naruto replied after a moment of commending the effeminate boy's soul to the afterlife; if his sensei's kids were anything like their mother, if they didn't kill the Hyoton user he'd end up topping himself anyway just to get away from the madness, "what did he do to deserve that? You're both sick". Zabuza chuckled again,

"I learnt from the best"; Anko, as always, took such a condemnation as a compliment and seemed to wind herself around her husband like a constrictor, grinning proudly as he twisted his head away from where she was trying to nibble at his mouth bandages,

"Aww, koi says the sweetest things about me"; Naruto rolled his eyes and made to comment but before he could do so both the Mizukage and Hokage, having exchange the archaic words of greeting expected when kage meet outside of battle, called to their respective parties to move off again, the reunited friends speaking as they walked as Naruto introduced his friends from Konoha to the rather strange new couple from the Hidden Mist village.


Lounging around the waiting area set aside for the guards of the five kages had to be the most boring deployment of Kurotsuchi's entire ninja career; far from the political back-stabbing and threats of war she'd been expecting and her grandfather had warned her about, instead she along with the rest of the unwilling audience were being forced to sit through nothing less than a series of lectures from various spymasters of each village, most especially Konoha, Suna and Kiri. Okay the facts they were spelling out painted a relatively grim picture and only confirmed what a good idea it had been to have gathered all the nine jinchuuriki together, but even so the monotonous reports, combined with the heat of the meeting hall compared to the frigid temperature outside, was enough to have her eyelids drooping. More to keep herself awake than anything else, the Iwa kunoichi took her attention off the report the oddly-dressed white-haired man was giving about irregular trading patterns originating from the land of Spring to pay attention to the other people around her.

The guards themselves seemed to be a relatively mixed bunch in terms of age and gender, though as they were entrusted with their kages' lives she afforded them the respect they were due as shinobi even if she found it hard to reconcile the fact that anyone could become a half-competent shinobi with hair that shade of pink. The other guard of the Hokage was an Inuzuka; she could tell that by the marks on his cheeks as well as the massive dog that sat by his side as he and his partner talked cordially with the siblings of the Kazekage. Unusually the Raikage didn't have any bodyguards with him, or at least they weren't here; instead Nii Yugito and Killer Bee were conversing with their fellow jinchuuriki in an area across the room, including, the Iwa kunoichi had noticed with interest, some blonde-haired squirt with a Leaf headband; well, at least we know now what happened to the Kyuubi. The Yellow Demon died at the hands of one of his kin but with his last breath sealed it away as a weapon for Konoha; credit where credit was due it was a ploy any shinobi would have been proud to make, sacrificing his life for the villages' future, though Kurotsuchi was somewhat surprised when, as she watched the demon-hosts interact a little more, it suddenly dawned on her that unlike the kage's guards, who were generally aloof from each other, the jinchuuriki themselves were actively mingling with each other.

By Iwa tradition, and one that was replicated in Kumo she knew, jinchuuriki of the village had to be related to the current kage in order to help keep them loyal to their nation; she knew Roshi was something like a second-uncle once removed and Han was even more distantly bound by blood, but seeing the two of them casually chuckling and swapping stories with the other demon-hosts and laughing at the antics of the youngest two present, some blonde from Kiri and a girl with mint-green hair who was originally for Takikagure but had been brought to the summit by the Hokage's party, as they chatted together animatedly just like young women their age were wont to do. Must be because they're with people who can appreciate their pain; Kurotsuchi decided to herself before glancing away and stifling yet another yawn, wishing the meeting would end just so she could find something amusing to occupy her time rather than waiting here with only her brother for company and her mind slowly rotting away.

Some five minutes later however, she was more alert than she'd ever been in her life and trying hard to get out of a predicament she'd not been in since her last relationship ended; the strange white thing that had wrapped itself around her was way too close for comfort and she wanted to desperately get out of his embrace to get to her grandfathers' side. Originally she'd been as shocked as anyone when the odd half-man had burst out the floor with a name on its lips and a challenge to find him, but as the suicidal interloper had been promptly pounded back into the dirt it had sprung from by the Raikage she hadn't been unduly bothered even if she kept her guard up. However she along with everyone else had been caught out by the sudden sprouting of multiple copies of the same figure all around the room, the strange fungal things almost growing out of the walls as they grappled their opponents and began draining chakra. Even as she focussed enough to gather a mouthful of quicklime, she heard a voice from the other side of the room shout,

"Hey baa-chan", glancing away from the ruin of the face of the thing she'd just shot her technique into, Kurotsuchi had to stifle a laugh as she realised exactly who the Konoha jinchuuriki was referring to – only a very powerful shinobi or a relative could get away with calling Senju-Uzumaki Tsunade old, "want me, Sakura-chan and Kiba-kun to take care of the unwanted guests?"

"Stop calling me that, and yes", the answer came back as the Hokage casually folded her would-be captor up like a pretzel, "Sasuke is Konoha's mistake, Konoha will rectify it".

"Right"; glancing across as she saw the jinchuuriki smile and turn to face the thing pinning him down, Kurotsuchi narrowed her eyes and began to lip-read; at the distance she couldn't be sure exactly what she was seeing but the words 'you', 'unlucky' and 'henge' were definitely in there, and the white creature had just enough to say 'oh' in response before there was a plume of smoke, both its arms were ripped off at the socket by the size of the body it was trying to hold increasing exponentially and the Iwa kunoichi blanched as she realised exactly who had been under her nose the whole time she'd been at this meeting.

Two streaks of steel shot through the air and impaled the clones holding the Hokages' guard prisoner, though Kurotsuchi was somehow suspicious they could have got free on their own just as she had before the shinobi who now mimicked Han with his armour on in both size and apparent physique vaulted the railing, calling his commands as he did so,

"Kiba track him down, Sakura with me until we find him, he must have back-up to attack this many high-ranking targets; I'll deal with any help he has, you two take him down".

"Hai", the other two Konoha ninja shouted back in tandem, the Inuzuka giving a fierce smile as he dashed off behind the trail blazed by his companion, shouting as he went,

"Kaa-san will never believe me when I said I got to hunt with the Senso Haundo, and today we hunt traitor!"


His eyes could now see in the darkness but, as he had closed them to the light, it was immaterial as his path was laid out before him. Itachi had died, had been a sacrifice again, to awaken the power he needed to bring the true murderers of his clan to account and, as the Hokage and her entourage were here, they would be the first to feel the cold hunger of his revenge. Madara's dreams of world domination were as nothing to him; he followed his own path as he always did; the samurai around him had fallen easily though they were not dead, unworthy as they were to die by the Kusanagi's caress. Stepping forwards with the rest of Taka at his side, the team he had recruited to hunt down his brother and now used to locate and cripple his opponents following his enlightenment by the man who knew the truth, Sasuke suddenly paused, head cocked, as he head in the distance a sound he had almost forgotten and, with a snarl on his lips, remembered exactly who possessed the weapon capable of making such a sound,

"Oh shit!"

The sudden swear by the side of him made him glance around to see with some surprise Suigetsu actually falling back a step, the look on the liquid human's face somewhere between trepidation and outright terror as he glanced down the hallway the noise seemed to be coming from. Juugo, also perturbed, glanced down at his friend and spoke,

"Problems Suigetsu-kun?"

"We gotta bail, as in right now", the swordsman spoke before a curt word from the leader of his group stopped all movement,


"Are you insane?" The former Kirin in was almost shrieking, "Do you know what that is – it's the eighth blade of the Mist..."

"Then it will be another for your collection", Sasuke cut him off coldly only for Suigetsu to laugh in his face, shaking his head as he answered,

"Ha, I can dream; I heard what happened in Taki, how the Kayuga got taken out in the end and I sure as hell don't fancy my chances against the Mists' Hidden Dragon. If that really is Senju-Uzumaki Naruto we're all dead the second he finds..." Despite his own confidence in his skill at the glare Sasuke shot at him, backed up by the Sharingan swirling in his eyes, he fell mute and let the youngest Uchiha speak,

"Speak not of the Senju to me", Sasuke demanded, reaching for his sword out of reflex, "betrayers and murderers of my clan; they will all die by my hand along with Konoha to grant my brothers' soul peace and avenge our massacre", he decreed before glancing around and apparently nodding at something, "this is as good a place as any to make our stand. We will wait for them here, and the so-call 'Blood-Cloaked' will be the first to feel the wrath of the Uchiha..."

Wiping his Kunai clean Kiba couldn't help but complain slightly as he and his nin-ken dispatched yet another of the strange plant-based clones,

"These things are really weird, even for shinobi techniques; it's like they're made out of wood or something – they certainly bleed tree-sap".

"hence why we're letting Naruto-kun clear the path", Sakura explained from over his shoulder, casually kicking a would-be attacker in a solid stone wall hard enough to spider-web the brickwork, "that axe of his is a far better log-clearer than any of our kunai or even you and Aka-kun's spinning techniques". Kiba snorted,

"There's a matter of conjecture, but anyway look alive Sakura-chan", he tasted the air with his nose again and looked forwards, face set in an emotionless mask as the cherry blossom girl nodded and did the same, "we're about there".

A few seconds was all it took for Kiba's prediction to be born out; the two teams of three were facing each other down; there was silence for a moment before Juugo, having seen the weapon carried in the hand of the shinobi who seemed to be regarding him most closely, felt a long-overdue pang of survival instinct and glanced down at his leader to speak,

"Uhh, Sasuke-sama, perhaps Suigetsu-san's suggestion does have..."

A single glance, one glimpse of the Sharingan was all it took to convey the message, Sasuke speaking emotionlessly as his team mate began to transform into his berserk state under the hypnotic effect of his doujutsu,

"Distract and weaken the Senju while I deal with the other annoyances; I will kill him myself".

"Genjutsu teme", Naruto scoffed as he realised what had happened, sealing away his weapon as he realised the man he was most likely to be facing was not actually his enemy, more a helpless bystander forced to fight against his will, "even for an Uchiha that's low? I'll keep the psycho and the swordsman off your backs; you two take care of Sasuke". Both Kiba and Sakura nodded before dropping into their fighting stances and springing away as Juugo, laughing crazily, sprinted headlong towards where the Kyuubi jinchuuriki awaited him. Wincing as he felt the impact of the two juggernaughts against each other almost as much as he heard it, Kiba made sure to keep his eyes on Sasuke's feet as the Uchiha approached; though he could fight with just his nose if needs be, it was pointless to completely lose one of his senses unless there was a real need to,

"You're a real piece of work aren't you Uchiha? What, happy to throw away the lives of your friends for your own goals – just as well Jiraiya-sama busted your ass back to the Academy, no way you'd have survived on a team with that kind of outlook".

"I have had no friends since the death of my clan, a slaughter Konoha was responsible for and will reap in kind", the traitor answered, Kiba's keen ears picking up the sound of him unsheathing his blade as he did so, "they are just tools to bring me my revenge, starting with the death of the Senju-Uzumaki".

"Not if we can help it teme", Sakura's voice, followed by the sound of scuffling, told the Inuzuka that she had engaged the target and, knowing what was expected of him now due to the number of times he'd worked with his girlfriend before in the field, he clicked his tongue in a pattern Akamaru understood even as Sasuke was sudden thrown backwards, catching a glancing blow from one of Sakura-chan's punches and recovering himself even as she quickly healed the few nicks and scrapes she'd accrued in the brief sparring match,

"How, how did you avoid my eyes?"

"Trained by a Senju-Uzumaki", there was the voice that always got him both irritated and affectionate, a perfect blend of informative and condescending which must have been doing a number on someone as naturally arrogant as Sasuke, "Sharingan's a useful tool but its' far from perfect; why do you think no Uchiha ever became Hokage? If you know what you're doing it's easy to counter; either don't be seen, hit them in the blind spot or, my preferred option, use perfect chakra control to throw off its predictive abilities and make the owner walk onto a punch he thought he saw coming. This is as strong as your clan ever got", Sakura shook her head as Kiba touched the earth with his palm, the vibrations in there telling him his partner was in position, "man, no wonder Itachi killed you all off so easily..."

The explosion of chakra from around the Uchiha was enough to cull any further comment; as a spectral, skeletal warrior made of purple flames began forming around Sasuke, the Uchiha bellowed his demands to the world,

"My brother, my clan died because of your village, now you and everyone else in Hi no Kunai will know the power of the Uchiha. Behold the Sasunoo, the ultimate attack and defence of our clan, and die knowing you are as no..."


At Kibas' shout the ground beneath the traitors' feet shifted violently and Sasuke was hurled into the air, Akamaru's twister form hitting the bottom of the yamabushi before it was fully formed and tearing into Sasuke's feet and the bottom of his legs. Even as he fought against the pain and called upon his Mangekyou to strengthen the Sasunoo, Sasuke was rocked once more by another impact, this one from the top of his protective shield as Kiba ran up a nearby wall and kicked off, his own technique sandwiching the Uchiha between the grinding tornadoes. Disorientated and shocked at his technique being breached, Sasuke had no way to react as with a war cry harking back to her genin days, Sakura sprinted at her one-time crush and focussed all the chakra she could contain into her fist, throwing it forwards towards the ribcage of the ghostly figure before releasing it all in a crushing impact and explosion of chakra. The purple-outlined figure was flung away towards the far wall, kicking up a cloud of dust as he went while the two Konoha ninja regrouped, Kiba giving a whistle as he saw the handiwork of their collaboration technique,

"Damn I love that move; the old ichi-ni-san usually puts 'em down for good; you've gotten stronger since the last time I saw you throw that punch Sakura-chan". The medic smiled even if she kept her eyes forwards, ready for anything as she was certain the battle wasn't over yet,

"Maybe but I don't think even that was enough to put him down for good, and I hate it when I'm right", she complained as the dust cleared slightly as she beheld the same purple construct present as before, though the man in the middle of it had seen better days. Sasuke was on his knees, legs obviously ripped up by Akamaru's subterranean strike, but still snarling, still not ready to concede; even as the two partners shared another look and tried to wordlessly come up with another plan they could use, a sudden shout from the other battle sealed the deal for them,

"Sakura-chan, use this!"

Her response was as quick as a reflex; she saw the kunai, or at least something the shape of a kunai being flipped towards her even if it was almost so black it defied colour classification and, just as it had been with Kakashi-sensei years ago, she caught it between two fingers, ignored the sudden cold that pinched her hand and let the missile fly true. Sasuke was certain his defence would hold; his brothers' technique had never given way to attacks far stronger than a mere flying knife and such was the strength of his conviction that he died with his usual arrogant smirk on his face, not even time for surprise to claim him as the knife tore through Sasunoo like it wasn't there and sent him pitching onto his back, the life of the second Uchiha traitor ended by one who had once considered him her soul-mate and partner for life.

As she watched the spectral puppet fade to nothingness Sakura simply stared and then looked down at her hand, unable to believe she'd thrown the strange kunai that fast and that hard that it had pierced through the shield so quickly. Kiba too seemed caught up in the moment, seemingly not accepting that Sasuke had died just like that; in fact the two of them were so startled that it was only when Akamaru whined that they both glanced up and saw with shock that someone else had beaten them to their kill. Standing over the body of the self-proclaimed mortal enemy of his clan, Naruto quickly secreted something into his weapon holster and stood up with a whistle, admiring the work that had taken Sasuke out,

"Nice throw Sakura-chan; you've got an arm and an eye that'd put Neji-san to shame".

"Uh, thanks", she offered back tentatively before starting and glancing around only to relax; the seemingly mad opponent Naruto had been set against was on the floor in his normal, of what she assumed was his normal form and the swordsman was still hanging back, regarding Naruto with a good deal of healthy respect and nervousness, "stay where you are!" The strange-looking man merely nodded and dropped the sword in his hand and Sakura was about to move into standard detainment practices before Kiba's hand flashed out and a shuriken spread embedded itself in the banister above them,

"That includes you!" The Inuzuka called up to the gantry, though typically just before Sakura could question him the question was answered by a red head of hair peeking cautiously over the banister and shakily raising their arms in surrender. Sakura merely huffed in the face of Kiba's cheesy victory grin before Naruto's voice overrode any potential argument between them, the Senju-Uzumaki flicking his eyes between the blade on the floor and the one who wielded it,

"That's the Nuibariisn't it, one of the swords of the Mist? How did you come by it?" Suigetsu shrugged,

"Picked it up after a tip-off about its final resting place; what did you do to Juugo – hey", he snapped as Naruto raised an eyebrow at his impertinent question, "I answered one of you questions, you answer one of mine. Never seen anyone handle him like that when he gets into one of his rages".

"I'm a little tougher than most; I just choked him out", the jinchuuriki explained with what was, in Sakuras' opinion, a great deal of understatement, "you any good with it?" Suigetsu blinked at the unexpected question before Naruto spoke again, "Sakura-chan, Kiba-kun, escort the other prisoner and the body to the kage; Tsuande-sama will want to verify the death of a traitor. I'll take responsibility for anything that may happen here", the jinchuuriki said with a chilling note in his voice, reaching down to pick two kunai from his weapon pouches as Suigetsu, realising the reprieve he'd been granted by the Eighth Swordsman, stooped to recover his own blade before pausing,

"No jigokuton; it'd destroy me in a way even I couldn't be sure I'd be able to put myself back together from". Naruto nodded,

"I've heard of your clan from the bloodline wars; another one the Fourth thankfully missed completely. Pure kenjutsu; once my companions are gone", he flicked a glance towards where the other Konoha shinobi were making preparations to move the remaining bodies, both living and dead, "the fun will begin".

Despite knowing who he was facing down and the fact the huge man could probably end him at a whim, Suigetsu couldn't help but grin at that promise.


"For war and for peace? That makes no sense whatsoever". Despite his face being covered by a spiral mask, the man calling himself Uchiha Madara seemed to smile as he spoke again,

"It doesn't matter, then again nothing really does; I wish to destroy this useless reality and replace it with a world where only good things can be found".

"Boy did this guy step out of a manga", Kankuro whispered to his sister, Temari having to fight down a smile even if her attention never wavered from her opponent, the man who was seemingly insane enough to threaten five of the most powerful ninja alive in the world at the same time; fortunately Madara didn't seem to hear him as Tsunade spoke up, a somewhat secretive smile on her lips as she spoke,

"But your world, this ten-tails you speak of; a fusion of all the other beasts. Hmm, seems to me like the bijuu are relatively happy where they are", she pointed out, sweeping her hand towards where the jinchuuriki present in the meeting stood alert and ready for trouble, Fu even going to far as to wave at the masked man as he regarded them levelly, "what makes you think we'll simply hand them over to you?"

"You will have no choice..."

"Oh but we will, and we have in the past Madara", for the first time since the meeting began it started to become clear why Senju-Uzumaki Tsunade was the Godaime Hokage, her killing intent enough to make lesser ninja pass out and civilians expire as she focussed it on the man before her, "we, Konoha and the other nations that is, have tripped you up every step of the way. You have claimed no bijuu for the loss of most of the Akatsuki; even now my nephew and ninja I trust with my life as on their way to cleanse another of your cursed bloodline from this world. You cannot win against us Madara-teme; send forth your armies, what's left of the Akatsuki – we will crush them all". Madara merely laughed hollowly,

"Big words from one who hides her face behind genjutsu and her reputation behind her nephew; I have watched the Kyuubi jinchuuriki for a long time now and I will not deny he is, somewhat skilled, but he is still only one man and one man cannot topple an army of the size I command, not even your fabled Yellow Flash. I have forces you cannot match; yes Jiraiya, your spies did unearth some of my contacts in Spring but they couldn't find them all – I can match and exceed you body for body. As for Sasuke-kun", the Uchiha progenitor shrugged, "he was sent here only to test his capacity against the last of the Senju clan – as I and Hashirama fought at the valley of the end so the last of our blood will clash; it is our chain of fate and it can be severed only by the ending of one of the founding Konoha clans".

"Ah, so I suppose you really wouldn't want to hear that that fight's not going to happen then?"

The new voices made everyone glance over as Kiba stepped into the meeting room somewhat sheepishly, shielding himself behind the girl he had locked in an arm-bar hold as Karin bit her lip against the pain,

"Yeah, sorry if we kind of scuppered that plan of yours but, well, Sasuke-teme didn't really consider us worth his time and paid the penalty for it – what's the old proverb about being eaten by ants if you only look for giants?" Madara would have scoffed at this until he glanced past the Inuzuka and saw something else held in the girls' hand, a black-edged scroll with only one purpose through all the Elemental Nations, the one thing no ninja ever wanted to bear sealed within its pages. Eyesight enhanced by his hidden doujutsu Madara couldn't help but seen the name written in the centre of the sealing matrix and for the first time his self-control slipped a fraction; both Kiba and Sakura flinched under his killing intent (Karin, being slightly closer, fainted dead away) before Tsunade brought the attention back to herself by slamming her hand on the table before her, smirk almost predatory as she leant forwards,

"So then, another kink in your grand plan Madara – my, they seem to be accruing at a rate of knots don't they? Run away from here Uchiha; as I've said you cannot win; if you even try to face us it will be the end of you and all who follow you, as it already has been for some". Before Madara could ponder this oblique comment for too long a danger sense of his pinged up and he activated his technique to warp away from the projectile speeding towards his face at great speed.

Tumbling end over end as it was let fly with both hand the head of the monstrous axe buried through brickwork as though it were paper, lodging a foot deep in the wall and sticking there as the Uchiha progenitor reappeared on the other side of the room to the weapon that had sought to cleave him apart as it had so many others, the bearer of such a blade stepping forwards and glaring volcanically at the shinobi before, after a brief stare-down, smirking, breaking eye-contact and speaking to someone else,

"Mei-sama", the Mizukage glanced across at her name, eyes widening slightly as she saw the smaller figure the Eighth Swordsman pushed forwards in his wake and, more importantly, what he was holding, "got a place open in the Seven Swordsmen? Suigetsu here's pretty sharp with the Nuibari", he held forth his left arm, the bandages he now habitually wrapped around it cut in places and patched with clotted blood, "reckon you could shoe-horn him in?"

"I'll see what I can do", the Mizukage assured him, Naruto nodding as the Hozuki clan member tried hard not to seem too overjoyed by the news before the jinchuuriki fixed his gaze on Madara once more,

"It's over teme; nothing you do or try now will make a damned bit of difference. Akatsuki has failed, your shinobi are dead or fled and whatever else you can field will simply be mown down like wheat. Just go away, fade into obscurity like you should have after the Valley of the End". The masked man remained motionless for a moment before, slowly standing to his full height, he pointed directly at the altered jinchuuriki's primary heart,

"I will drag you to the Gedo Mazo myself Uzumaki; I will take..."

"Senju-Uzumaki", Naruto corrected, holding up a finger, "if you're going to threaten me at least have the curtsey to do it right". Madara was once more seemingly stunned for a minute before the air around him seemed to blur and he warped time and space around him, vanishing with only his voice as proof he had ever been there,

"Consider the Fourth Shinobi World War begun!"

In the immediate aftermath of the mad Uchiha's leaving no-one immediately relaxed; instead glances were thrown as though expecting an attack from any angle; the guards clustered around their kages, ready for anything until, after a few minutes of racketing tension, it was dispelled by a quiet cough from Mifune, the samurai general chosen as an impartial overseer for the Gokage meeting,

"Gentlemen, ladies", he said courteously as he gestured towards the chairs the five kages had been occupying before the Akatsukis' sudden strike, "I believe it would be pertinent to begin discussing a battle strategy in the face of this new threat, especially as our enemy has confirmed our fears that he does indeed possess an army to rival the five great villages. And Senju-Uzumaki-san", Naruto glanced over only to scratch the back of his head sheepishly as he followed Mifune's finger, "would you kindly remove your axe from the wall?"

"Heh, sure; sorry Mifune-dono", he apologised, casually walking up the stonework and prying Goa-chichioya free before wincing at the size of the dent left behind, "uhh, anyone here good with doton?"


The loss of Sasuke was far for a critical blow, a wounding one certainly but nothing like a mortal one; such were the thoughts of the man who called himself Madara as he stalked through the streets of Ame, the rain flattening his hair to his mask as he cursed under his breath. The youngest Uchiha had been nothing but a disappointment all along; certainly nothing like a genius on par with his brother, he had almost died at the hands of a half-blind Uchiha who was himself wasting away from a chronic illness no medicine could cure and even then, when he had won, he'd been stupid enough to reduce Itachi's body to atoms, destroying his remaining Mangekyou eye. Since that point Obito had considered him a glass cannon as well as a loose one; unable to gain the Eternal version of the Mangekyou and certainly cut off from the Rin'negan for all time, all he could do with his terminally revenge-fuelled clan member was point him at a target and hope he did some damage before he finally died but, somehow, Sasuke had failed to attain even that meagre standard; humph, if that was as low as my clan had fallen, perhaps it was for the best that Itachi and I ended them all.

With such thoughts in his mind Obito focussed on his remaining problems, or actually the problem; though he had no doubt of his own abilities, least of all the power of his Kamui to avoid the rending strikes of the man who was likely to be his opponent in the final battle, it was true what the damned Hokage had said. Numerous as the Zetsu clones the Spring generators had sprouted were, they were no match for the might of the Elemental Nations shinobi, least of all if an alliance was actually formed. There were only two ways he could think of to possibly tilt the scales back in his favour and, since the only practitioners of the Edo tensai were both dead, he was going to be forced to move the Moons Eye plan along a little prematurely; mighty though the Senso Haundo undoubtedly was, against the power of the real Uchiha Madara, restored to life through the Rinne Tensai of the Rin'negan's heretic path, even he would be as nothing. With this in mind he approached the tower of God and phased through the door, tracking down one of his associates with ease and hailing her as he approached,

"Konan-san, where is Pain-sama; I must speak with him?"

Though she was facing away from him Obito could have sworn the Ame kunoichi seemed to flinch as she heard his voice; however it was when she turned around he truly felt worry start to crawl up his back. Though often aloof and frequently cold, he could never remember the Angel of Ame looking as defeated as she did now,

"Madara", she spoke, her tone as listless as her face, "there is nothing for you here".

"Nothing?" If these two even attempt to pull a Kakazu on me I kill them both and take the eyes for myself; having decided that the supposedly-dead Uchiha spoke once more with dark malice in his voice, "I believe that, as founder of the Akatsuki, everything here is for me". Konan merely smiled sadly,

"You have come for Nagato-kun, for his eyes; you have arrived too late"; in an instant there was a crushing force around her throat, the Sharingan boring into her with wild ferocity as Obito snarled,

"Those eyes were never Pains, they always belonged to me. Speak before I cast down God's angel – what happened to the task I entrusted you with?"

"It was ended", Konan replied, body already flaking into paper, "sensei and this other, his only pupil", she seemed to have to bite her lip for a moment before carrying on, the outbreak of emotion deadening Obito's anger for a moment – what could inspire sorrow in a kunoichi as cold as Konan? "they passed through Rain to get to Iron; Nagato faced them and was defeated, easily – their power and, worse, teamwork were enough to overcome even the Six Paths. They tacked us, Jiraiya-sensei using his sage powers and then..." She tailed off, unable to meet him eye to eye or finish as the memory of the genjutsu torment she and her partner had been put through and, worse, the severing of the bond between teacher and student came back to her, the pain too fresh for her to truly cope with so soon after the event. Obito, however, had no time for her excuses and merely shook her, uncaring that he couldn't actually hurt her or warp her away while she was using her paper techniques,

"I do not care for your failures or excuses; what happened to my eyes, eyes that I gave to Nagato for safekeeping only?" Finally Konan seemed able to meet him eye to eye, the kunoichi smiling wanly as she recounted the end of the doujutsu that seemed to have promised so much but, in the end, brought only heartbreak and pain to a land already suffering from more than its fair share of suffering,

"Ended; Jiraiya's pupil used a technique, some kind of suiton, a poison spat into Nagato-kun's eyes", cold horror coiled in the pit of Obito's stomach and he once again cursed and raged against the shinobi who seemed to have been born to thwart the rightful destiny of his clan, "he has his eyes still but they are lifeless, blind; he cannot see but, at the same time sees more clearly than ever before. Now more than ever I finally understand Itachi-kun when he said the Senso Haundo took from him vision but granted him perspective instead".

Mention of the Konoha jinchuuriki was enough to break the fickle hold Obito still had over his temper; with a wordless howl of rage he bodily threw Konan away from him, the kunoichi bursting into paper flakes and leaving him alone with his fury. She had not lied, he could see that even without the use of his Sharingan; now Madara-sama could never be resurrected and the Moon Eye Plan was forever doomed to failure – he had failed his mentor just as he had failed his love. Sinking to his knees the Uchiha felt himself fall towards despair, the words of the damnable Senju echoing in his head; you cannot win; and it appeared he couldn't – with no way of bolstering the Zetsu, even if he did launch his war he stood no hope of actually wining it; but, then again, did I not say to myself that my hope died when Kakashi thrust his lightning blade through the chest of our team mate and proved himself lower than trash?

Memories of Rin, his beloved Rin, were all that allowed him to stand once more; his path seemed clear enough now. Without the eternal Tsukuyomi he would never see her again in the Impure world; the only thing he could do now was cross over to the other side and reunite with her that way; but I will not go alone. Even if it was hopeless he would still fight, he would still give the Nations their war; they would remember the Uchiha name even if only as a curse; for a second he thought about ending those who had failed him but thought better of it – there was no need to finish such broken tools and incite war against another village when the rest of the Nations seemed ready to have a piece of him. Instead he span space and time around him, reappearing in the most secretive place of the Akatsuki amid humming machinery and rank upon rank of still white figures as the imposing figure of the Gedo Mazu, still silent and inert as none of its fragments had yet been reunited with it, towered over all. Seeing this and planning his next strategy, Obito smiled slightly behind his mask and swore to himself that come defeat and his own death, he would see at least some of the world burn before the end came for him.


It had been remarkably swift all things considered; actually the longest delay came in issuing all rank and file shinobi with their new headbands to show they were fighting as part of an alliance rather than for their own villages, though here and there the odd village symbol still appeared due to a paperwork mix-up or two. Battle plans had been devised and nin of different specialities segregated to areas of the Nations where they could do the most damage; it had been Kumo who had taken the lead in helping to pin-point the likely location of the Akatsuki headquarters, their numerous ration users sensitive to the amount of sheer electrical power required to activate as many generators as Madara seemed to have accrued and stating his likely base was somewhere in the mountain graveyard region of the Nations, though where exactly was unknown even to them. Because of this even now shinobi were racing towards the pre-arranged chokepoints out of this place, ready to engage the enemy forces as they emerged, though apparently not everyone was happy about the current state of affairs even as someone else prepared himself for the final revelation, the last day of his life as he knew it,

"Yo Bro, why can't we go; you know we jinchuuriki are best breaking heads and knocking the enemy dead, so why keep us back when we could be picking up the slack, yo?" Just about resisting the urge to apply the Iron Claw until he had a chance to physically see if his brother actually had anything inside the apparently-empty chamber he called a cranium, A shot his partner a glare that made even the exuberant Kumo jounin back down,

"For the last time B you and the other jinchuuriki are here at mission command because you're the whole reason for this war; we were going to hold you all on Turtle Island but seeing as our enemy has supposedly been alive since the creation of the Elemental Nations he might know it exists and try to attack there directly. And stop your stupid rhyming", the quick-tempered man bellowed, only just resisting the urge to break something close by, "it's not clever, it's not even very good and no-one here likes it", he snapped, fortunately not seeing the affronted looks shot his way by Hotaru and, surprisingly, Han as well as his brother deflated at the criticism. Before anyone else could raise a voice or a fist to break the sanctity of the war room, the Mizukage spoke up to pour oil over troubled waters,

"Despite his words and tone, Raikage-sama is correct in essence", she explained, hopeful as she saw Bee perk up at her voice, "for too long we have used you and people like you as mere weapons, front-line combatants to point at our enemies and nothing else; consider this the start of an apology to you all. This time we, the villages, fight for you rather than forcing you to do the same for us".

The words and the sincerity with which they were spoken seemed to mollify the jinchuuriki somewhat and even made the assembled kage nod in appreciation before, after clearing his throat, a single one of the assembled spoke to counter the Mizukage's voice somewhat,

"If that is the case Mei-sama", though technically it was a lack of respect for him to use her name rather than her title, Mei couldn't find it within herself to condemn the man who'd had a big hand in putting her in the seat she now occupied as he spoke to them all, "please forgive me for what I am about to do – it appears that, this time, your apology may have to wait for another day". As expected everyone here swapped glances at Naruto's words before, tentatively, Jiraiya spoke, the Toad sage present both as a remote commander and a bodyguard to his kage,

"What do you mean by that Naruto-kun? What are you doing?"

"What I have planned to do for a long time now", he sighed, readying himself as he looked at the assembled shinobi directly, the inhuman focus back in his eyes even as the first reports of contact came through the speakers, reports trickling in in prelude to the flood,

"It is time you knew the truth of the Senso Haundo".


Not for the first time Kurotsuchi felt undeniably proud of herself as she watched the army she and her father had unearth tumbled towards the floor, though she doubted many of them would die even from a fall that high; however then she glimpsed a flash of blue amongst the pale bodies, focussed on it and felt her stomach drop as the S-ranked ninja swordsman landed, his blade already open and in his hand as he swiped it through the air experimentally, grinning all the while,

"So then, so many enemies, so little time; who's first for the chop?" He questioned almost whimsically before suddenly the smile on his face froze, his sword seeming to vibrate before, inexplicably, Hokigaki Kisame laughed outright, great gales of unstoppable belly-laughter piercing the air as he leant on Samehada to support himself, the army he had promised Madara he would lead until the end forming up behind him as he eventually gained a handle on his mirth and spoke to the assembled allied shinobi set before him,

"Oh this is just too perfect; surely Kami-sama has a special place in his heart for swordsman seeking a memorable end! I came here expecting to drown in pygmies and instead have a chance to cut down a titan; come forth Dragon, you cannot hide from me", his shark-teeth glinted in the sun as he levelled his blade like an arrow somewhere off to Kurotsuchi's left, "Samehada never forgets a taste, least of all one as distinctive as yours". For a moment all was silent until, with an answering laugh, a shedding of a henge and a roar she knew all too well, the challenge was accepted and the cast down gauntlet picked up,

"So it would seem Monster; very well then", stepping forwards before the ranks of both armies, the two ninja swordsmen set their eyes on each other and only on each other, the rest of their opponents fading into nothingness as they focussed on the duel to come, Naruto casually ignoring the glare being shot into his back by one particular Iwa kunoichi; he's not supposed to be here.


Faces shot between the viewing screen showing Kitsuchi's division and the Senju-Uzumaki before them he swore he heard several necks crick; before the inevitable questions started, he admitted his deception; or at least the first part of it;

"I am a clone".

Truth be told the reaction to this news wasn't as bad as he'd been expecting; baa-chan, ero-sennin, the Mizu and Kazekages looked, if not happy, then reasonably understanding as did his fellow jinchuuriki. The Rai and Tsuchikages appeared somewhat less pleased with this turn of event but before they could start raving, they were cut off by a sudden voice,

"That is most unfair Naruto-kun", to their surprise it was Gaara who spoke up, the Kazekage with an odd smile on his lips as he regarded the taller man, "out of common curtsey the least you could have done was invited the rest of us to whatever party you were planning to throw". Naruto smirked before the expression dropped from his face and he shook his head,

"Not this time Gaara-kun", he spoke to the jinchuuriki, not the hat he wore, "there are thirteen people who know at least part of the truth of what I am and where I came from; one of those is sadly no longer with us, may the Sandaime Hokage rest forever at Kami-sama's side, another will very soon be celebrating the birth of her first child and the other eleven are here, myself included. However even those thirteen do not know the whole truth; it is that which you must see now".

"I dislike your riddles Konoha-nin", as always A made his feelings on the matter clear with the subtlety of a thunderbolt, "what is this truth that's so important you couldn't even stick to a simple instruction such as 'stay here'? That is treason against your kage; are Konoha's standards so lax as to allow this?" Tsunade and Jiraiya both shot the muscular man a venomous glare but, to their surprise, Naruto merely shrugged,

"Technically as a kage bunshin I'm in two places at once so your argument is mostly moot Raikage-sama; however as I said the truth must out at some point and now, in the middle of a war for the fate of the Nations, seems as good a time as any. I have not lied but I will admit I have been conservative with the truth; for example, grateful as I am for your patronage during my training trip Jiraiya-sensei, it was necessary for me to have a little privacy for at least a few weeks; that way", the clone reached up, once more grateful that the Shadow Clone technique replicated everything a shinobi had on them at the time and had been enough to keep one of his secrets safe as he rubbed at a spot at his forehead, tugging away the false layer of skin that he'd worn there since the Sanbi was recaptured and revealing what still lay beneath it to looks of outright horror from those who knew what it was, "I could ensure my real face would never be seen until it was necessary".


Sparks flew and dust was kicked up as the two duellists fought and contested their arms across the earth between the two armies; by unvoiced approval the two armies seemed to have reached a mutual agreement that Hoshigaki Kisame fighting Senju-Uzumaki Naruto was akin to the two leaders of ninja divisions squaring off against each other, a common tactic during shinobi conflicts that allowed a battle to be decided at the loss of only a single life, the command of the defeated general ceding the field to their leaders' vanquisher. The two swordsmen, though how such a term was applicable to the Konoha ninja a question Kurotsuchi wasn't sure she even wanted answering; just blame it on Kiri being nuts, that seems to make everything easier; though for the moment the two seemed evenly matched against each other. Neither of the combatants, of course, cared what the spectators thought, instead focused only on each other and their kenjutsu; by mutual consent this was a challenge of swordsmen, not mere ninja,

"Heh, you really are worthy of your title brat", Kisame admitted somewhat begrudgingly, having been on the defensive for a lot of the fight as he didn't want to risk locking Samehada's blade against the teeth of Goa-chichioya, "the Eighth Swordsman indeed".

"As are you fish-man", Naruto riposted in kind, a thrust from his pole-arm clattering against the legendary sword and almost glancing Kisame's sword-arm, though the wily ninja stepped to the side out of range and attempted to bring his sword down on the fingers Naruto had wrapped around his weapon before he knocked the attack away with the haft of his blade, "when Samehada gets back to the Mist Mizukage-sama will make sure it goes to a worthy heir".

"Ha, I ain't dead yet".

"No", Naruto agreed, once more trying to subtly shift the half-shark into position, "not yet!"


Onoki didn't actually know what the little dot on the jinchuuriki's head was or what it did but, judging by the way three of the kage and the single sage present were currently paling rapidly he was prepared to accept that it was probably something important. He therefore held his peace, waiting to hear more information that was sure to come as Tsunade pointed at the seal that mirrored her own with a shaking finger,

"You, you're still sealed? Why, for how long?"

"Since the end of Kiri, as I said baa-chan", the other member of her clan quoted before giving a slight smile, "as for why, I didn't want to scare you. Hell I know I look intimidating as things are now – trust me it's about to get a lot worse".

"How?" The Tsuchikage asked in a measured tone, levitating to meet the jinchuuriki eye to eye, "You're more powerful than we, than anyone suspected; that is to be expected of those who contain the bijuu, even one as famous as you Senso Haundo".

"It is there, and there alone that you are wrong Tsuchikage-sama; I am not the War-Hound, not in the manner you think I am; it is complicated to explain, but I will do so as best I can".

"Well seeing as we've got a war on at the minute, any chance you could be quick about it brat?" Jiraiya chipped in, still internally beating himself up for missing something that damned obvious; the greatest spymaster in Elemental Nations, missing a scrap of fake skin like that – I'll never live it down; "Just the essentials if you please".

"No problem ero-sennin", the title made the Mizukage smile inexplicably before she ironed her expression flat and listened in to the jinchuuriki's story, "first and most important point, I am not human in the way you understand the term – I was once but, straight after finding Goa-chichioya, I was injected with the blood of someone, something else that changed me into what I am now. Tsunade-sama will back me up here; I heal faster, have sharper senses, more efficient blood, stronger bones and a host of other advantage over other humans, including a second heart", not surprisingly several disbelieving glances were shot towards the Hokage and they didn't immediately disappear as she nodded in agreement with her adopted nephew, "the thing that changed me is the thing, and I use the word thing deliberately for it is no longer even remotely human as I am, I call my second-father and he is a figure from a different age, a time of war across the heavens when stars and world were drowned in blood and entire populations reduced to ash at the push of a button".

"This is insane..."

"No", Naruto shot down the Raikage's comments with venom before recollecting himself and carrying on before anyone else could interrupt him, "my second-father was insane, went insane even after being gifted with power beyond mortal comprehension. He was one of twenty sons, created by the greatest man who would ever live, to be exemplars of humanity; instead he became nothing more than a slaughterer, a fate I have had to fight every day of life to avoid slipping down the same blood-slick road he went down. His blood is within me and has made me what I am but, Kami-sama help me, I am not my second-father, nor am I one of the bloodthirsty Senso Haundo that followed in his footsteps to damnation".

The mention of the War-Hound brought the focus back on to Naruto's title, the one he seemingly both claimed and renounced simultaneously, though before anyone could say anything else a strangled voice, little more than a croak, broke the silence,

"That, your forehead", unlike most of the other shinobi present one of the Mizukages' guards hadn't turned away from the live-action feeds of the sensor shinobi present within each of the battle groups, watching the duel between the first and eighth seat of the Shinobi Swordsmen with professional interest before something had caught his eye just now, a fractional pause that let him see a dread conclusion, "take off the bandages on your arm – that mark up there isn't the only seal you carry now is it gaki?" Naruto, for his part, smiled, grateful that someone had given him the opportunity to explain this little wrinkle in the plan without deviating from the story too much,

"I was wondering if someone would notice", he began, only to be interrupted again by the other Momochi present, Anko squinting at the screen and trying to make out anything in the blur of metal and bodies before her,

"What are you on about koi, I don't see anything?"

"The axe, his axe", Zabuza said gruffly, to his credit only the slightest waver in his voice betraying his sudden apprehension as he pointed to the weapon the true Senju-Uzumaki was using in his duel, "there's no number on its head, it's just bare metal"; even as the others who knew of Naruto's history with Kiri felt themselves grow cold, the swordsman spelt it out for the rest of them,

"That's not Goa-chichioya".


The end, when it came, was as violent and unexpected as most of the other death Kurotsuchi had ever seen during her service to her village and country, remarkable only due to the blood and noise it created.

The appeared evenly matched; both physical monsters with blades hewn from legend, neither could break the defence of the other as the duel wore on, an intricate dance that no-one wanted to miss a step of; they could have been fighting for minutes or hours, none cared for the passage of time, before Naruto made the decisive move in a way none could have anticipated, least of all his opponent. He had tried an overhead slash, an apparently all-or-nothing blow that would have hacked Kisame in two had it connected only for the half-shark, who had his back to the alliance shinobi, to shuffle forwards and raise his blade to catch the pole arm on the haft, though the strength and weight behind the blow almost knocked him down to one knee and that was enough for the fight to end forever.

There was a second roar, a spray of viscera and Kurotsuchi felt her heart stop dead in her chest as she saw Kisame eviscerated and, more importantly, the weapon that had done the deed. She couldn't see it for long however, Naruto moving too fast for anyone to accurately see as he hopped backwards and raised both his arms, the weapons held at the ends of them brought into optimum range and slamming down and home as Kisame's sword fell from his surely lifeless hand. Torn apart by the rotating steel the S-ranked nuke-nin fell, gaining in death as much notoriety as he had in life by his manner of falling as his killer suddenly raised both his blades, crossed before him into the shape of an X. Fighting hard to stop herself retching as she beheld the blood-splattered form, Kurotsuchi was sure she saw something else, something under the gore that dotted the jinchuuriki's face before it suddenly began to glow softly, the light transfusing his whole body as he suddenly span, axes before him in a different shape as he roared aloud a technique and the battlefield became clogged with smoke.


Seeing the second matrix, twin to the one that held Goa-chichioya at bay, carved into Naruto's other arm stunned most of the strongest ninja in the Nations, the only swordsman present being the first to recover his tongue,

"I thought it had to be a paired weapon", he said feebly, staring at the flesh-crafted fuuinjutsu as though half-expecting it to come to life and start slithering over Naruto's entire body, "no-one designs an axe or a sword like that with a completely flat back unless it has a twin to go with it. Where did you find the other one?"

"In the lair of the second-father", Naruto explained, letting the bandages drop to the floor as they had served their purpose now, "which I entered through the Waterfall of Truth".

"What?" The Raikage was shocked out of his stupor by the mention of one of Kumo's most sacred sites, "How do you know about the Waterfall?!"

"I summoned him there bro; don't bother", strangely enough it was the sad, almost regretful look that made A drop the claw he'd been about to fix to Bee's head for being so stupid as to invite a foreign jinchuuriki into one of his country's most secret training locations, "what I saw there when he went through will haunt me until the day I pass away more than anything you could do to me". Naruto nodded at this, placing a hand on the Kumo shinobi's shoulder in support as he stared the Raikage down,

"Bee-san speaks the truth; the entrance to the lair of my second-father, or at least the demon my second-father eventually became, was more or less a gateway to Jigoku. But I had to go there, I had to face him to make sure I would be free of his influence, his bloodlust and madness that was trying to warp my mind as surely as his blood did my body. I faced him down and I defeated him", it was worth it, worth coming clean about all these scheme and plans within plans, just to see the look of his baa-chan's face as he said those words and she realised what they meant for her irritating but still beloved younger clan member, "getting two weapons, one of which is the twin to Goa-chichioya as you suspected Zabuza-san, out of such a fight was just the icing on the cake compared to knowing I'd thrown that devil off my shoulder for a while".

"You beat him", Jiraiya spoke as though he were dazed or drunk, "does that mean, forever?" Much as he didn't want to, Naruto had to shake his head,

"It's never that easy; demons never die easily but it can be done and I will see it done when the time is right", if any of the kage noticed the other demon-containers present at the time swap looks at this point none of them mentioned it as Naruto went on, "but still, my second-father; one of twenty sons created by the greatest man, ruler of the heavens, who was then lost along with his brothers as powers humanity cannot understand intervened. His creator, my second-grandfather if you like, was dismayed but he could not turn back for his plans; he had lost his generals true but he still required armies to fight for him, reclaim his realm from the powers that had stolen his sons. From the flesh that remained of his lost ones did he craft new warriors, greater and more terrible than men, who would be the edge of His sword, the tip of His spear; it was an age of conquest ad glory, humanity reunited across stars and worlds. The conquest never ceased, never ended as one by one the lost sons were reunited with their father and given command of the children he created from their genetic material and that is where the mistake you all make comes into play". He took a breath, just one, allowing the seemingly fantastical story to sink in to all present before he finally ended the confusion, nothing but grim truth on his face as he spoke,

"My second-father had many names but the most used one was the Akai Tensei; the Senso Haundo was his Legion".

There was silence, thunderstruck silence as the assembled attempted to even try and understand this concept; eventually the struggle proved too much for one of them and it was Utakata, after forcing his fingers to remain steady on his bubble pipe, who broke the quiet to ask the fatal question,

"What do you mean by Legion Naruto-kun?"

"An army", he replied shortly, trying to convey the mingled horror and pride he had seen from the memories in his head, how the War Hounds had truly been before their mad father corrupted them all, "hundreds of thousands strong, each one of them a man like me, armed with weapons like my Goa-chichioya for close range and weapons that could kill from a distance greater than any kunai in the blink of an eye. They were armoured with plate not even your ration jutsu could penetrate Raikage-sama; they were bred for one purpose and one purpose alone – war, the absolute destruction of the enemies of man. Such was their reputation many foes surrendered wholesale if they knew the alternative was the Red Angel descend upon them with his sons in tow – where the Senso Haundo fought, as you will see", having had half an eye on the duel he could see and witnessed its end, he spoke again to finish his story, the tale of woe from the dawn of history as he knew it, "their leader issued them only a single command, one that was their creed, their ethos and their entire battle strategy..."

As he spoke the final world, a long way away, the clones' creator looked forwards at his new foes, bared his teeth in a chilling grin and repeated the word of the chakra construct with seamless synchronicity,



And the world, as far as Kurotsuchi knew of it, exploded into noise.

Clapping her hands to her ears she squinted at the battle before her only for her brain to almost disbelieve what its eyes told it; before there had been but one victor of the duel, now there were what looked like hundred, each an exact replica of their creator and armed as such, though with only a single axe to their name rather than the supposed pair the real one seemed to have pulled out of nowhere. She could hear her father bellowing orders and tried to listen over the sudden shrieks of the cacophonous axes and the sudden crunching sounds they made as they bit into flesh and hewed through bone, the men before them little more than insects to be crushed as the entire throng of clones; oh dear Kami how she hoped they were clones; rushed into the front of their enemy, slashing right and left and reaping huge slaughter. Following the crowd and falling back, the kunoichi glanced back when she could to see the fight as it progressed; the one-man fighting force decimating its opponents and giving them no chance to flee – even when groups of the mass-produced men tried to break away, either across open ground or into the earth, a pack of their remorseless opponents simply tore after them or tore up the earth and then tore them apart. No mercy was given, no quarter offered; in the space of minutes the entire opposing force, some twenty thousand enemy shinobi if estimates were right, had been wiped out to a man by a force a about a twentieth of their size. It was unprecedented, unbelievable and, as the victors began to celebrate, only the precursor to the worst.

Shrieking chain blades where thrust skywards, the warriors roaring something in some bestial, sharp tongue as they stood careless amid the corpses and gore of their opponents, not one whole body left after the attention of such horrendous weaponry. Hands once more over her ears and fighting to keep her eyes open, Kurotsuchi and the shinobi around her could only pray for the nightmare to end before either something more terrible than what she was seeing happened or, worse, their would-be allies turned to look for new prey.

Her prayers, and the prayers of those she served alongside, were answered by a thunderclap from the hands of the son of the most violent angel ever seen on their world or any other.


Though not naturally a ration user Naruto had learnt enough to convert his chakra into positive and negative current; when channelled into pieces of metal, such as his weapons, this gave them a charge that could be violently discharge by, for instance, clapping the heads together, releasing a sonic discharge guaranteed to get someone's attention. In this case it worked to bring the sons he had created to heel, the new Legion crafted in the likeness of his sealed form looking up to their unsealed father for guidance he duly gave,

"Four-hundred left", one axe flew in the direction he had roared, mirrored quickly by its twin, "four-hundred right; hit the flanks and roll them over. Rest of you, with me", with that he brought his weapons together again, this time for a different purpose; after long millennia of separation a father and a child touched, embraced and then roared together and their new bearer swung the completed form of the axe around and pointed straight towards his target, voice rising into a bellow as he called his last command,

"We go for the throat!"


"Where we tread, annihilation follows", Naruto's clone quoted as the kages and his fellow jinchuuriki saw as much of the ruined Zetsu force as their remote eyes could see, "he told me his plan; go to him at the Mountain Graveyard – he will see you all there, and you will see the truth".

With that the shadow clone vanished, leaving behind a very shocked, very scared and suddenly very inadequate audience behind it, each of them asking the others the same questions without opening their mouths; should we follow him?


She saw the danger just in time and to her relief was fast enough; the clone that would have stuck one of its obscenely twisting limbs through her suddenly motionless teammate falling dead with hr kunai in its heard as she roared over the battlefield,

"Dammit Neji; get you head in the game!" She saw his lips move, his Byakugan still active and she was about to shout at him again when he suddenly shouted aloud at the top of his voice, something about as rare as Lee's black moods or Kakashi-sensei being seen without his normal book on hi,

"Get off the beach!" The Hyuuga warned, falling back after disabling a Zetsu grappling with a Kiri shinobi and dragging the wounded man back, "Fall back, everyone fall back!"

"What is going on?" Darui, the leader of the division charged with holding the cliffs, shouted, appearing next to the apparently raving Hyuuga with a flash of light, "Who the hell was dull enough to make you commander?"

"They're coming senpai", Neji as always remembered his manners, slightly calmed from his former mad panic, "they are... reinforcements, of a sort; if we clear the beach we'll give them a free run at the enemy". The Kumo jounin met the blank eyes of the Hyuuga for a second before, seeing nothing but sincerity in the eyes his country had once coveted, he nodded and tapped his earpiece, giving instructions for all allied forced to gradually retreat to the top of the cliff edge.

The order was about halfway through completion when the reinforcements arrived and what Neji and, to a lesser extent as her Byakugan wasn't quite as strong as his, his cousin had feared came to pass.

Jigokuton fire scoured the sand and boiled the sea, searing or scorching Zetsu to death before the front ranks of the charging clone army made contact with their foes and it became a massacre; barely slowed by the sand under their feet, the resurrected War Hound Legion, all four hundred clones of it, hacked into the ranks of the enemy like the edge of a katana through a block of balsa wood. They fought with little or no coordination, very few tactics; each was a single man in his own right and simultaneously a one-man army capable of rending foes limb from limb, cauterising them with fire or slicing them with wind or even, if other options were exhausted, simply crushing chests and pulverising heard with little more than basic taijutsu. Reorganising at the top of the cliff after clearing the few beachheads that the enemy had forged there, Darui gave the order for support fire but it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe in the mad, swirling melee below. Only true weapon experts such as Tenten were able to claim definite kills in support of the unleashed gladiators and it was this expertise that led to one of the most terrifying and surreal experiences of her life.

It had been a misstep and nothing more; one of the multiple clones, after slicing through one opponent and staving in the brains of another on the back-swing, turned to parry a whipping Zetsu tentacle attack but his foot lost purchase in the blood he'd just split, making him half-drop his axe and leaving him open for the killing blow. Tenten saw this and didn't even think; she just reacted; in a second there was a spread of shuriken in the Zetsu's chest, each one striking a vital point, and it was down, its would-be victim able to recover; the weapon mistress nodded grimly and chalked up another triumph before she suddenly found herself quailing. The clone she'd saved whipped his head around and his eyes locked squarely with her for a second, nothing more; she shivered as if the Shinigami had peered at her before the stare was broken and she was free of those shackling eyes, breathing heavily as the clone went back about its gory business.

What would have been a battle all day between shinobi ended in less than an hour; though no-one could be sure all the Zetsu were vanquished, there was a general consensus that if any were left they were likely to be too few as to pose a threat to the stability between the nations and, anyway, the shinobi alliance's temporary allies had done a job much better than most in trying to get rid of them all, even going so far as to boil the sea back a hundred metres with their combination techniques and use doton to disturb the sea bed to get rid of any parasites that might have been hoping to survive down there. When this was done the triumphant army let out a combined roar of triumph, their blood-drowned blades joining them in the symphony of destruction, before to a man they looked across the sea and then started running across it, aiming to move across the bay towards the Mountain Graveyard to reunite with their creator.

All but one, who scanned the cliff top for a moment before jumping up it and approaching his target with his axe slung casually over one shoulder.

Show no fear, show no fear; it was one of the shinobi codes but never before had Tenten been closer to breaking it; this close to even a clone of the destroyer she simply knew that if he decided she was unworthy of life she was going to die, plain and simple, nothing that she or anyone else could do about that. Still she held her ground and tried not to flinch as the clone stomped up to her and gazed down, standing silent for a moment before speaking,

"You saved me". It was a simple statement and not one she could deny, though she didn't trust her voice to speak, instead merely nodded and hoping her relief wasn't too obvious as the clone smiled and help out one of his arms,

"Tradition", it declared, "when we fight with allies the most martial of them is gifted with a token of our esteem. Here", from out of the cloud of smoke came a second monstrous form, every inch the twin of the one still dripping blood upon the ground at his feet, "Goa-okayo, it is yours".

She almost reached out for it, despite everything else she had wanted to hold that weapon almost since the first time she'd seen it and because of that her fingers twitched towards it; then her sense took over and she looked past the immediate offer and saw what that butchers' cleaver had done. The scent of spilt blood and burning bone filled her nose like the rankest of perfume, the sand stained so red it would likely never be clean again; a weapon that new no purpose but to kill, could never be tamed from a sword to a ploughshare, was that really what she wanted?

"No", her voice was a whisper but she shook her head, trying to recover her lost courage, "no", she said again, finally bringing herself to look him in the eye and state her answer as plainly as she could manage,

"I don't want it".

"Good", the answer almost made her collapse with relief; had he taken offense to her refusal she knew she would have been dead before she'd been aware what had happened, the clone instead sealing his spare axe away and turning to follow his brethren across the sea, "live long Tenten, and look after the others at home". With that he leapt away and ran into the distance, the last time any of the ninja watching his from their cliff top position would ever see even a clone of Senju-Uzumaki Naruto again.


Uchiha Obito was now a man who considered he had nothing to lose and therefore he faced down the man who was going to try and make an end of him with the nihilistic courage of the damned; whipping around his kusuri-gama, he adopted a ready stance before the monster that glared down at him through eyes that appeared as blind as one of Itachis' had been following the cursed Senju-Uzumaki getting through with him even as the beast bellowed instructions to the army of lesser monsters it had brought with it,

"Get in there and tear anything in that place down"; this Obito could not allow; his fingertips flared with chakra, he erected the barrier Madara had taught him just before the ancient Uchiha finally passed away,

"You will not touch the Gedo", he declared, forcing the semi-human thing before him to look at him anew, a grudging respect in his bestial face as he unlimbered his massive, now-double bladed axe from his shoulders,

"So be it; I will grant you a swift death"; that was all the warning Obito had before the clone-son of the primarch of the War Hounds leapt for him.

His phasing jutsu kept him alive but he was unable to get close enough to touch his opponent and warp him into the other world, the length of his axe and his apparent ability to see him without eyes making it impossible to get close enough. It would be a battle of tactics and attrition, though not ninjutsu as he respected the Senju-Uzumaki enough to know his jigokuton would overpower any katon technique he was likely to use. His chain whipped out like the tongue of a snake, scoring superficial wounds that to his chagrin healed almost as soon as he inflicted them; he wasn't even going to think about trying to trip or entangle his physically much larger opponent. He cannot wound me, I cannot touch him; the Uchiha thought to himself, crucially missing his opponent reaching into the pouch by his side; it will be a battle of time and strategy – I need only a touch to win this. In the other world his opponent for all his great speed and strength would be a virtual non-entity until he weakened due to hunger and thirst enough for Obito to claim him, though getting him there was the issue as he once more ghosted through a swing of the mighty cleaver that would have killed him a dozen times over but for his Mangekyou ability; it was only when he attempted to swing his kusuri-gama again to try and lock up the shrieking blade and found he couldn't that he suddenly stopped and realized in horror the reason his body hadn't done as he'd asked it to.

His right arm and the chain wrapped around it were lying in the dirt some three feet away and bleeding copious.

The sight, it seemed, released the pain; warping away as he tried to gain some breathing room, Obito clutched his severed stump and tried to channel his chakra through the Senju cells of the Zetsu he had been bonded to all those years ago. However unlike all the other times before nothing happened, blood continued to squirt from severed arteries and, feeling himself go dizzy from shock and blood loss, he managed to remain lucid enough to demand an answer even if he saw his enemy, the incarnation of death, step towards him with the inevitability of the march of time,

"How did you", he grit his teeth at the pain and tried again, "how did you penetrate into my dimension; it is impossible to..."

"There is nothing impossible for a demon", Naruto corrected him, holding up the single black kunai that had been the end of Sasuke as Sakuras' hand and would now end the so-called Madara and the Fourth Shinobi war simultaneously, "this is a shard of the weapon of my demonic father, the Black Blade of Angron; when it strikes it cuts apart all realities. There is no defence against its bite".

"Except stupidity; remind me who thought to take it out of that arena again, you'd have just left it there to rot".

"Quiet fox, this is my big victory speech – I don't get many of them, I'm usually the strong, silent type. I'll pay homage to you magnificence later, let me deal with this now".

"Humph, you better", the kitsune threatened mock-seriously before cutting the link while Naruto, deciding he'd explained enough and rather put off by the fox's intervention, simply decided to end things; with a shunshin and a downward stab straight through the mask of his semi-conscious opponent, he brought the conflict of the world of shinobi to a halt.

The barrier fell and his clones, remembering his last orders, charged in wholesale; when they returned some fifteen minutes later with every generator smashed and bearing the head of a grotesquely ugly statue between two dozen of them, the Gedo Mezu finally destroyed beyond repair, they found their creator waiting for them, weapon at the ready and a determine, expectant look in his eye,

"I have had battle", he said softly before he let his voice and his axe rise, charging towards his sons as they reciprocated, his last words barely heard over the din of so many axes powering up at once,

"I need a war!"


It was obvious where the Legion, who had cleared and slaughtered the enemy of both flanks after crushing their centre, were headed and equally obvious to the kage and jinchuuriki who had followed the instruction of their guide what was happening when they were arriving.

It was fratricide, death on a smaller scale than the war that had both begun and ended earlier in the day but no less violent for that; clones challenged each other, slew and were slain without pause, strategy or restraint, a constant cloud of chakra smoke covering the Mountain Graveyard as the War Hound once more tore itself apart, though this time at the behest of its creator rather than the hand of its most lunatic son. Not even the most powerful ninja in the nations were prepared to enter that valley of death, instead remaining at the entrance to the valley until the sounds of battle had receded and only a few dozen, rather than hundreds, of axes could be heard. Slowly picking their way through the rubble and detritus of battle, the shinobi and demon hosts crept closer to the heart of the fight in time to see the last of the clones swept apart by a two-handed flash of the paired weapon Zabuza had guessed Goa-chichoya had been part of and the true face, the one none of them had ever seen, of Naruto revealed as he raised his weapon and bellowed his triumph to the heavens.

If he wanted them dead they were all going to die; that was the first impression most got from the sight of the near-eleven foot gargantuan that swung around a blade heavier than most oxen as though it were a willow switch – this in actually fact wasn't true as together than kage and jinchuuriki could have probably taken him down but such a victory would have demanded a very high price in blood. His face and most of his chest was bright crimson, his second-father's moniker of the Akai Tenshi finally proven as he lowered the sky-bound axe, turned eyes as red as the rest of his face due to the frantic pounding of his hearts during combat on the approaching party and, recognising them, overcoming the slight niggling in the back of his mind to put them to the sword as well, instead grounding the butt of the double-bladed battle axe in the earth; just wait second-father, you'll get your reckoning yet;

"Sorry about that", his voice was even deeper than before, terrifying despite him not meaning to frighten anyone, "had some adrenaline to burn off".

"What", the Raikage dared to venture, taking in the corpse of the masked Uchiha and the massive severed head of the statue nearby, "what are your plans now?"

"I will go; I doubt any of you will see me again before the time is right", the pointed look he gave towards some of the assembled nin simply could not be missed even intentionally, "I am sorry baa-chan but I do not belong here anymore. I am a destroyer made, as Kami-rendaringu was made", he flipped his axe upwards before pulling it apart, Goa-chichoya and Goa-okayo visible only for a moment before both were sealed away, "to tear down false gods and idols. I don't belong in a world trying to rebuild itself like this world of shinobi. I will be watching though", a note of warning entered his voice as he raised a finger before smiling and making hand-seals, Tsunade trying to be strong even as she realised her clan was going to be reduced back down to one again as the technique completed, Naruto departing with a whirl of leaves and leaving behind only his voice,

"So try and stay out of trouble".


All was silent, quiet for a good long minute as everyone simply stared at the spot where quite literally the most powerful military force the Elemental Nations had ever seen had simply up and disappeared; each shinobi or jinchuuriki grappled with their loss or thoughts in their own way until the one who thought the least of the departed Senju-Uzumaki broke the silence to speak to her brother,

"Gaara-kun", she cared not for his rank now; if the demon had made another Faustian pact with her brother she'd be damned if she wouldn't find some way to see the bargain broken, "he was looking at you, all of you when he said you'd meet again – what did he mean by that?" The Kazekage glanced sidelong at his sister, Temari as always perceptive as ever, and considered his answer before, eventually, folding his arms and speaking once more,

"Naruto mentioned thirteen people who knew part of his truth; nine of those thirteen are us, the jinchuuriki – he found us all during the time between the war in Kiri ending and his return to Konoha..."

"Unauthorised contact with an enemy agent", as always Onoki moved to take advantage of the situation, rounding on the Hokage, "that is sedition Tsunade-sama".

"Bah, with what we know now I'd call it sense you old git", unbelievably the Hokage was defended by none of than Roshi, the Yonbi jinchuuriki too long in the tooth to be much worried by the punishments the jinton-user could dish out to him, "he sought us out because he knows there's one more fight he has to have in the future, one last battle that only he can pull off – he has to destroy, truly defeat, that bastard he calls a second-father".

"But he's already done that"; Anko pointed out only for Roshi to shake his head,

"I said destroy, not defeat; it is possible but very difficult to truly destroy anything not of the world around us, hence the reason we have to seal the bijuu rather than actually get rid of them at last. However Naruto-kun has found one way, the way he will use to bring that mad bastard down at last. If he can't do it, he'll use something that can; one demon can kill another, simply consume it and add its power to that it possessed beforehand". Still not seeing exactly where this was going, Anko crashed headlong into another mental roadblock,

"So why didn't he let big, red and fluffy deal with it last time?"

"Couldn't", Fu replied, shrugging her shoulders, "not even the nine-tails is strong enough to consume something as powerful as his second-fathers' meant to be; the ten-tails on the other hand..."

The Takigakure jinchuuriki got no further as pandemonium erupted, the Raikage in particular livid not just that two of his most loyal shinobi had apparently gone behind his back but also because Kumo, if he was understanding what the jinchuuriki had agreed right, might well lose two of their most powerful weapons in the future,

"Impossible, outrageous", Onoki was lathering himself into a fine old temper, unheeding of the worrying creaking from the region of his hips, "I will not allow two of our finest shinobi to merely be sacrificed like this – how is it any different from what that so-called Madara was trying to do?" Utakata, as always one of the calmest of the nine jinchuuriki due to the docile nature of his bijuu, sighed and let his voice rise to answer such a question,

"It is different simply because, rather than hunt us down and kill us, Naruto-kun will simply collect the bijuu when our time is up; he has spoken to all of the tailed beasts at the same time he spoke to us, their hosts, and all have agreed with him", Hotaru nodded, backing up her mentor as he went on, meeting Onoki eye to eye as he suddenly smiled, "and if you're so preoccupied with losing your fine shinobi Tsuchikage-sama, why don't you think on this question; how exactly are you planning on stopping him coming to get what we promised him?"

On that day, in that valley, the five kage departed with their guards and jinchuuriki in tow; no blood was shed, no cross words heard as the head of each village leader was filled with questions that none of them could answer. They returned to their village and, by the dawning of the next day, there was peace across the Elemental Nations once more.

Omake 1 – The Devil's Brood

Looks like the place; casually shifting his sword over his shoulder, Suigetsu double-checked the address he'd been given before approaching the non-descript house and rapping sharply on the door. He waiting a few seconds, heard movement from within and, as the door opened, slapped on the friendliest grin possible yo someone with pointed teeth and raised a hand in greeting,

"Hey there, uh", having been told a little about what to expect the sight of an apparently dishevelled kunoichi regarding him with eyes that appeared wild with suppressed killing intent and a killing smile that rivalled one of his own was distinctly off-putting, "is, ah, is this the Momochi place?" The grin only widened as the girl spoke,

"Oh yes, yes it is", there was definitely an undercurrent of hysteria to her voice and Suigetsu made ready to run at the slightest hint of this turning nasty; he'd had enough bad experiences from Karin to know that kunoichi were most dangerous when they were stressed out an unpredictable, "I'm Haku, the baby-sitter!"

"Oh right, yeah Zabuza-sama mentioned you; he wanted me to ask how the kids are and how've yo..."

He had the distinct feeling he'd been somehow set up for a fall by his sadistic new master about half a second after it would have been useful; almost without him realising it Haku had reached forwards and with strength that belied her petite frame, dragged him close enough that he could count every one of the suddenly-pulsing capillaries in her sclera,

"They are not children", she hissed up his nose, Suigetsu foregoing any and all response save to nod hastily in agreement and hope she let him go, "they are demons, spawned from the womb of Lilith after impregnation by Lucifer himself – even Jigoku wouldn't let these devils in! Why are you here", suddenly her eyes were on him and it was all he could do to keep from whimpering in terror, "have you come to add to my torment; they have the protection of their father, a man I owe my life to but you will have no such defence!"

Suigetsu tried very hard to think of something, anything that might get him out of this mess without ending up shy a body part and, what felt like a very long time later, a distant memory of his brother came back through the murk of his memory – as he had nothing else to go on he decided to cross his fingers and hope like hell,

"Hey, I can see you're really stressed out", he spoke with a carefree cheer he certainly didn't feel, praying to his brother's departed soul this would work, "but I think I can cure that; eight o'clock, I'll pick you up from here, you pick the place, my treat. What do you say?"

Just for an instant he thought he'd got away with it; certainly Haku let him go and retreated a step to give him room to breathe; but as the temperature nearby started to plummet and the swords of what looked like water and then, to Suigetsu's extreme consternation, ice began to appear in both the kunoichi's hands, he had just enough time to swing the Nuibari off his back and into a guard position before she sprang at him with a war-cry on her lips that filled him with equal parts horror and revulsion,

"I. Am. Not. A. Girl!" Oh my kami, oh my kami, I just propositioned a pissed-off bishie – I'm so going to hell for that.

Some moments later another pair of figures appeared within eyeshot of their home and, seeing the apparent two-ninja war raging outside it, one of them thought it prudent to ask the obvious question,

"Any idea why Haku-kun's trying to disembowel my latest apprentice?"

"Ah, they're just getting to know each other".

"No", Zabuza corrected his wife after wincing as Suigetsu avoided some seriously nasty-looking blows to the soft bits by the skin of his teeth; damn, wearing all those kimonos had finally sent him around the twist – he's even starting to fight like a kunoichi; "I'm pretty sure at least one of them's trying to kill the other; our kids aren't that bad surely?" Anko snorted,

"No way; at that age I was worse".

"Yeah but you're just crazy and blood-hungry", Zabuza riposted before grinning and slipping an arm around his wife, "guess that's just why fell for you".

"You mean it wasn't the great body and smoking hot personality?"

"Those might have had something to do with it", the swordsman admitted before sounding a tad more serious, "though you still have yet to deliver on you promise of a son to continue the Momochi name..."

"Hey, I told you", Anko neatly turned the question on its head just like he knew she would, "you provide the Y-chromosome and I'll do the rest. Hey", she was suddenly swept off her feet, struggling for a minute before realising what Zabuza had done and relaxing in his arms,

"Excellent idea; I say we mark our grand homecoming by having another go at it – you never know, third time's a charm and all that".

Anko merely chuckled as the two of them casually walked past the two brawling junior swordsmen, casually ignoring Suigetsu's pleas for help and Haku's bellows of fury, entered their home through the front door and closed it behind them with a bang.

Omake 2 – Test of Endurance

It was safe to say that whatever she'd been expecting to see in the hospital this morning, the sight now burning its way into her poor, undeserving retinas was certainly not amongst them; it had started normally – turn up for shift, punch in, head for the changing rooms to scrub up and then walk straight into the horror show currently dooming another little part of her sanity for all time.

Sakura was face to face, or more accurate face to back with Tenten; not unusual, the changing facilities weren't that big and they were all girls together; however it was the sight of the weapon mistress straddling the figure underneath her that was most disconcerting, though by the mercy of the Kami she couldn't see exactly where Tenten's friend actually had his hands at the moment. Though she couldn't see the shinobi's face it was impossible to mistake him for anyone else; there was only one set of leg-warmers that colour in Konoha and only shinobi with fashion sense bad enough to wear them; now he and one of her colleagues, one of the eldest of her colleagues now Shizune-sensei was looking after her own child, appeared to be giving or about to give the taijutsu prodigy of the Leaf a physical that certainly wasn't covered by any of the regular medical textbooks.

The cherry blossom was in that horrible limbo, trying to decide whether to just slink off before either of the two partners noticed her or announce herself discreetly when either by an action on hr part or just bad luck she somehow alerted Tenten to her presence. The older kunoichi immediately gasped and blushed a fiery red, the signal for Sakura to break the shackles of her paralysis and squeak out the first words that came into her head,

"Gomen, I'll give you five minutes; be in the waiting room". With that and before she could think too much more on what she'd just seen she turned tail and fled, the door banging shut behind her as she retreated to the waiting room and place to clear her head.

It was amazing what a little breathing room could do, she decided about four and a half minutes later, nursing a cup of water from one of the dispensaries and now looking back to the scene with a snicker rather than a shudder; who'd have guessed that Tenten, one of the most private kunoichi she knew, could have such a kink for encounters where she might be walked in on? Well, speak of the devil; recognising the still flushed figure walking towards her she did her best to keep the grin off her face as the bun-haired kunoichi slumped into a chair next to her and folded her arm, staring ahead and speaking in a monotone,

"Go on, you can laugh; I'm ready for it".

"And, and why would I do that?" Sakura asked, trying to keep her giggles bottled up before pointing at part of her friends' attire, "you're, ah, kind of crooked there". Flushing again the weapon user hastily rearranged her undergarments; unlike many kunoichi, she wore a bra rather than bindings as the underwire could be deadly in her hands; before glancing across at Sakura's next question,

"So, how'd it happen? I know you were team mates but, nah, I'd never have suspected you and Lee; Neji maybe, Lee no". Tenten shook her head,

"I was in a funk after the Blood Cliff battle; he got me out of it, we snowballed from there", she cut back curtly, not liking the open discussion of her love-life and seeking to turn the whole thing around, "not unlike you and the dog-boy after Sasuke went walkabout really". To her surprise Sakura merely nodded; wow, maybe she is starting to warm up to him – took her long enough;

"Yeah, baka that he is; so", there was suddenly an impish glee in her eyes that made Tenten cringe, "what's it worth I don't hand over this truffle to the buta; I can almost hear Gai-sensei crowing from the rooftops even now".

"The fact that if you don't, I won't tell her about that time you snuck your nurses' uniform home for that little date with your man". Sakura's jaw dropped open even as her face flushed,

"I never did that"; might have thought about it but never did it; Tenten merely smirked,

"You know that and I know that, but what do you think Ino-chan's going to believe". Sakura ran her hand through her cropped hair before suddenly an idea struck her and she sat upright, glancing at Tenten with a serious air,

"Okay, let's do this right; this weekend, pick a place; you get Lee, I get Kiba and we meet up even, deal?" Tenten examined the hand thrust towards her as though there were a kunai hidden in the non-existent sleeves before, cautiously, sealing the deal,


"Good", Sakura asserted before grinning again, "now go help Lee-kun out with his endurance training; you have to lay across him all day for him to pass that bet you know?"

"Don't make me stab you Sakura-chan; I've just come off-shift and Tsuande-shishou doesn't like blood on the hospital floor if she can avoid it".

Omake 3 – A Closer Look

Typical of my luck this is; once more Jiraiya raged against the unfairness of life, his own in particular, as he did some last-minute tidying of the office he was temporarily in charge of; no sooner does Tsu-hime get dragged off to Suna for negotiations about wheat and rice prices than the Mizukage requests an audience and I can't say no. All those hours I could have been using sensei's crystal ball for the purpose it was always designed for; he stared beseechingly at the draw that contained said crystal ball before shaking his head; no, no village business must come first. So, an hour to go, ready to move; with that he reclined in his chair in what he hoped was a relaxed posture, hoping to set the fabulously beautiful woman who was coming to see him at ease when she walked through the door.

She was as gorgeous as he remembered, though he had his game face on as he stood and welcomed the leader of one of their allied villages to his office and offered refreshments. The Toad Sage and Water Goddess swapped some chat, some light banter and probed each other for information before, leaning forwards in a manner that Jiraiya was sure she did to get under his guard and was unfortunately succeeding, Mei smiled in her most heart-melting fashion and made a polite request,

"Regent-sama", even if Tsunade was absent, there was only ever one kage of any village, "would you mind dismissing your ANBU as I do my TIDE; I have information most distressing I feel I should give to you only in the strictest of confidence"; damn it she's using my greatest weakness against me; and, as always in the face of feminine cuteness and beauty, he lasted about three seconds before making a hand-seal for the dismissal of the guards of his office.

"Very well Mizukage-sama, we are alone", he assured her before smiling broadly, "what was the information you had for the Leaf?"

"Oh, nothing much really", Mei began in a flighty tone before reaching around in her robes and offering something forwards, "it's just something that concerns this publication; one of yours I believe Jiraiya-sama?"

There was an almost audible noise as the Toad sages' grin froze on his face and then shattered at the sight of Icha Icha: Steam Room Chronicles; even as he attempted to force his body to learn the only technique that might get his most important assets out of this alive, one most commonly used by sumo wrestlers, he almost didn't hear the rest of his guests words,

"Yes, I confess myself quite disappointed in you sage-sama", Mei spoke in a deflated tone, "I can only assume that when you were daring to peek at me you didn't catch my best side – this is something I can't allow to happen in the future. So", Jiraiya just about dared to glance upwards as he realised he wasn't yet dead, just in time to hear the rest of the Mizukages' words, "I believe you need a closer look"; with that, Mei stood up.

She rose like Venus on a clam shell, her robes flowing away from her body like the water she was considered the Goddess of, leaving nothing but soft, creamy skin the colour of sweet buttermilk on display; Jiraiya did not, could not move as his eyes yawned into pits, hoping to capture forever the perfection it was forced to endure before he reached his limit and slumped sideways out of the Hokage chair, nothing else changing in his posture other than the transition from vertical to horizontal. Mei smiled sweetly at the success of her little plan and regathered her official clothes about herself, hardly concerned about her exposure; in a land as humid as Kiri, walking around with undergarments on a lot of the time was just begging for death by chafing. Having redressed, she strode around the Hokage desk expecting to see the Toad sage begin to recover from the unexpected shock; it was when she noticed the froth bubbling out from between his lips that she realised the situation might have been a little more serious than she'd bargained for she moved quickly to summon help.

Konoha held its breath; all of Fire Country held its breath; one of their S-ranked shinobi had been rushed the hospital in critical condition and the red light was still on above his door. Many people offered up prayers for him, burnt incense sticks that he would pull through and great was the relief when the light went off and the medical team emerged with news of a job well done to the milling masses,

"Yeah, he'll pull through", Sakura said irritably to the jounin nearby, most notably Kakashi-sensei who had had to be virtually physically restrained from the entering the surgery to make his offering of incense wrapped in leaves of one of his old Icha Icha novels to ensure the great mans' survival, "though what I want to know is how does anyone even have four simultaneous heart attacks, never mind survive them all?"

"You answer that, I just want to forget today ever happened", Ino said disgustedly, ripping off her gloves, "is he really that perverted he gets a case of praipism even when he's in a coma just because there are kunoichi medical personnel working on him?"

"Don't know, never want to know; yes sensei", she barked at the grovelling Kakashi, tears streaming from his uncovered eye as he looked up at her from his knees outside the hospital doors, "the perverted old man will survive; now get out of here, you look far too creepy for me to be comfortable with". The jounin said nothing but bowed and shunshined away, eternally grateful that his student had saved one of the brightest lights in the Elemental Nations, and he apparently wasn't the only one either; as they changed to go home after work, the surgical team found themselves in the odd position of being bowed to by the leader of another village,

"Is it true Jiraiya-sama will recover?" Mei asked melodiously, answered a moment later by Sakura as she finished her answering bow,

"It'll take a while but he'll pull through".

"I am glad", the kage answered before bowing again and moving away accompanied by her TIDE guards, "tell him I am sorry, and I hope to see him again in the future"; and I hope to see me again in the future – surely if I made that big an impression surely he can't help but remember me flawlessly; she hoped so at least, but for now she was grateful the author would survive. After all, despite having killed many men over the years without much more than blinking an eye, Mei knew that murdering the author of her favourite book series, even if it was by accident and in a way he would surely have wanted to go, would have weighed heavily on her conscience for the rest of her life.

Omake 4 – Road to Redemption

It was about three weeks after Jiraiya was rendered hors de combat by the single most devastating anti-pervert technique ever devised that, for the first time in living memory, something interesting happened at the front gate.

The two chunin guards easily saw the two figures stumbling towards them, one leaning heavily on the shoulder of the other, before as they came close enough to the gate for the two ninja to be able to make out their faces, they suddenly both dropped to their knees as though in prayer. After raising eyebrows and a quick game of jan-ken-po, one of the duo was elected to go and see what was going on and, after reaching the two and seeing the generally poor state the two were in, decided to speak,

"Uh, hello?"

"Hello shinobi-san"; the words were muffled by the floor but the chunin could understand them and, after thinking for a second, tried again,

"You have business in the Hidden Leaf?"

"He have come begging forgiveness", it was a woman who answered this time and, seeing as he was getting answers, he continued along this line of questioning,

"Okay, who from?"

"He must come to us", the man replied, a real bag of bones if ever there was one from what the chunin could see, "he will come to us or we will die here awaiting for him to forgive our rotted bones"; okay, that sounds somewhat macabre; deciding he wasn't paid enough to deal with the crazies, the chunin spoke one final time and was grateful to see the two prostate figures crab slowly to the side of the road, though neither raised their head or stood up as they moved out of the way of potential traffic. Retreating to his post after making the universal sign for 'crazy' in sign-language, the chunin resumed his duties; they were just a pair of harmless kooks; chances were they'd be gone by the morning.

But they weren't gone, nor were they the morning after or the morning after that; in fact the defied all attempted to move them into shelter at the end of the second day, proving they were shinobi by attaching them to the floor. Even Tsunade, the Hokage recently returned from trading with Suna, spoke with the two strangers but they gave her the answers they gave everyone else; they were waiting for forgiveness and would not move until it had been bestowed by the only one who could grant it. Utterly bamboozled by this, the Godaime had simply decreed that the two were at the mercy of the village; if they lived or died from either starvation or exposure, it was all in the hands of the Kami and the population of Konoha.

Konoha was thankfully merciful; as the tale of the two interlopers spread many came to witness them or, thinking they were perhaps monks, leave offerings of food or blankets to keep out the cold. The shinobi were also not completely hard-hearted enough to shut themselves off to the suffering of the two strangers; as the rain season moved in, someone erected a shelter of stone above them and a tag with fire sealed within it was provided, keeping out the bitter cold. Through it all the two never moved, thanking each person that brought them something that enabled them to survive and to the med-nin who periodically appeared to give them massages and scans to ensure they would not suffer permanent deformity from their enforced penance; as the year grew older and the legend of the two only more prominent, it was only when the occupant of one particular bed in the hospital blinked himself awake for the first time in three months that part of the mystery was revealed.


After being notified her former team mate was awake Tsunade had hurried to his room and the two had spent time catching up with the comings and goings of the village since Jiraiya's incapacitation (though he adamantly refused to tell Tsunade his last thoughts before his cardiac arrests had wracked him, which she immediately found suspicious). It was only when she brought up the topic of the two waiting at the gate that the mood had changed; instantly sobering, Jiraiya had asked curtly for a description and, as it was provided, immediately seemed to build a wall around himself, telling his Hokage that he would begin rebuilding his fractured web of contacts following his recovery to full health.

When she came in to see him the next day he was already gone.


Two months later, having finally realised or at least had an inkling of what had been going on, she was ready for him; as he came to the end of his report and nodded, took on a fortifying sip of sake and then spoke,

"You were never this cruel before Jiraiya".

"I was never betrayed like that before Tsunade", he riposted, "I told them they were dead to me; if they want to kill themselves out there let them go ahead; two less S-ranked, or former S-ranked nin in the world that want to kill us – far as I can see everyone's a winner". Tsunade's hit on the table made her sake cup jump three feet,

"No, I will not let you do this", his folded arms and posture just dared her to try and stop him, "weren't you that man who tried to end the chain of hatred that bind all shinobi together? Well what is this you're doing now, replacing it with a chain of neglect, of casual indifference to people who've spent five damned months waiting for just a glimpse of you? Yes I admit it they were wrong if it really is them but who hasn't screwed up once in their lives; I wasted the prime of my life drowned in booze until you came and found me, Sarutobi let Orochimaru go and, who else? Oh yeah, how about someone who's not strictly human who turned my adopted nephew, your godson, into a semi-human killing machine who only didn't go off the deep end because he's the strongest man I've ever met and the fact his dad stuffed a bloody great fox into his head the day he was born", drawing in a breath after her rant, Tsuande continued more levelly,

"I don't want to but if I have to I will order you to do something about them Jiraiya", he started; that was a cheap shot as far as he was concerned, "they're starting to get bad for business. Go", she dismissed him with a wave, "I have a feeling you need them as much as they need you right now".

For a long, long moment there was silence in the office, tension crackling between them before, with a snort, the Toad sage broke the stare-down and turned away, missing Tsunade's grateful breath that she'd managed to outlast him fractionally,

"I'll talk to them, nothing more; if they end up dead at the end of it just hush it up for me - you'll never find the bodies". With that and a nod from his leader, Jiraiya hopped out the window and was gone.


Feet approaching them weren't unusual but the noise made them both dare, for the first time in years, actually dare to hope once more; they didn't dare raise their eyes though, unworthy to even look upon him as he approach and, eventually, cast his shadow over them both. Silence reigned for a moment before, eventually, he spoke in a harsh, cold voice that scoured their battered, bleeding souls anew,

"They are poor students who do not heed their sensei", he lectured in a voice far removed from when they had been children, "especially those who were told their sensei is done with them".

"We should have made this journey decades ago", it was the man who spoke first, face still flat against the ground, "we should never have stayed in Rain".

"Hindsight is always perfect", the older shinobi spat caustically before folding his arms, "what business do you have here; I have told you forgiveness is forever out of your reach". A quiver arched through both their backs, though it was the woman who spoke next,

"Then kill us", she stated matter-of-factly, as though suggesting nothing more serious than a walk, "we lived in darkness only for you to return and show us a chink of light; if we cannot get closer to it then end us out of mercy if nothing else". There was silence for a moment before with a clack of wood on road surface, the Toad sage spoke again,

"Stand, if you can; I see nothing from your backs – show me a sign of the light you claim to have seen".

He made his demand and, haltingly, shuffling and with many gasps of pain as the two of them used muscles that had atrophied after long decay, both his students eventually came to their feet and beheld their teacher, saw his face drop in horror as he saw their mutilation and, clutching at his chest to prevent a repeat of the Mizukage debacle, he manage to speak in a ghostly whisper,

"What have you done?"

"We were blind", Konan repeated, the scars around her missing eye duplicated on Nagatos' face where both his Rin'negan had been torn away and only one had been replaced with the orb of his kunoichi friend, the last one he had left in the world, "you showed us the way, you and your remaining student. We share the eyes that saw the true path so that we may never lose it again, it will never be hidden by lies and deceit".

She would have bowed, Nagato too, but just standing was torture enough; it took all her willpower not to scream in pain as her body fought against gravity just to remain upright. With Nagato on her shoulder, his legs still crippled after extraction from his throne, the struggle was excruciating and only getting harder every moment; nausea reached for her and she prepared for the fall; her one remaining eye filled with tears, tears she had never cried as the Angel of Ame but now, Konan once more, she was free to express as Jiraiya reached forwards and softly embraced them both, heart grievously wounded by the sight of people he had helped to mould into what they were now and disgusted with his earlier thoughts of prolonging their torture. Sensei and students were reunited again, the suffering ending for the final time as, with another snap that no-one could even notice or see, another chain of hatred around the shinobi world snapped and withered to nothing.

Omake 5 – Nine Live Lived

Cats have nine lives had been one of her favourite sayings and fate, it seemed, had borne her out; alone in the world now save for one other who didn't really count, she was the last of the jinchuuriki.

She had been sure it would be Hotaru but, sadly, the Kiri blonde hadn't survived six months after the death of the man who'd been her teacher, guide and, eventually, lover and husband, quietly fading away to join Utakata in the Pure world. Roshi, Bee, Gaara; names she could no longer put faces to swam through her foggy mind as she prepared for the end; when she was gone there would be no bijuu left, and the world would be a safer place for it. It had been ironic that since the end of the One-Day war, as the Fourth World War had first been nick-named and then officially recorded as, none of the jinchuuriki alive on that day had died in battle. They had lived until their time was up and departed happily, just as she knew she would before the sun set again.

She herself had outlived her own partner by a good seventeen years; having ended up marrying Darui, as much to her surprise as his own after the two of them found they actually got on rather well together, Yugito was a mother three times, a grandmother eight, had to many great-grandchildren to remember and, just last month, her first great-great-grandchild had entered the world, though she barely remembered that introduction through the fog in her memory. Still there was one last reunion she was looking forwards to before her time was done and, as she felt the flare of chakra from the somewhat dog-eared and creased but still perfectly functioning seal tag, she smiled as she recalled the face clearly from her mind,

"Hello Naruto-kun".

"Yugito-chan", his answer was deep but powerful, just as she remembered his voice, "still as beautiful as ever". She would have laughed had she feared she'd lose her last breath to a coughing bout,

"Hah, flatterer", she accused, grateful she'd clear the rest of her family away and requested to die alone in a sealed chamber; at least this way no-one, especially the youngsters who might not have known or agreed with her bargain with Naruto, could try to interrupt the passage of her burden, "we'd best do this fast; not long left, I know". He said nothing more but, as she felt an area of warmth over her abdomen, once so flat you could have eaten peas off it (as Darui would have attested, even if his repeated stabbing with a fork had been murder for her slight ticklishness in that region), she felt a surge of his chakra and felt herself falling once more into her mindscape, a place she'd spent more time in the older her physical body had become.


She was herself as she had been in her youth in her mind, should she could still feel the Shinigami's pull as she looked forwards between the bars of the cage one last time, Matatabi as always purring at the sight of her host,

"This is it then Yugito-chan", there was genuine sorrow in the bijuu's voice, "goodbye".

"You too furball", the Nibi managed a half-hearted snarl as her host raised a hand to wave farewell, "Naruto, make sure you take good care of them all, and kick you second-father's ass for us will you?"

"I will", he nodded with sincerity and, happy, Yugito closed her eyes and felt herself slip away; her body shone with a light not of the world, it consumed her, subsumed her, faded, and was gone, the last jinchuuriki gone from the world forever. Naruto inclined his head in respect for the deceased before turning to the Nibi again, the cage she was held behind deconstructing in response to her hosts' death,

"I grieve with you Matatabi-san", he said respectfully, the giant cat nodding at his good meaning before the area behind him darkened and another set of bars, sturdier and thicker than those of Yugito's seal, appeared with a host of familiar faces behind it that made the Nibi purr with joy at seeing her brothers and sisters reunited again. Naruto loosened the Shiki Fuuin with but a thought, the key to the seal ingrained within his memory as he let the last of the nine in and prepared himself.

It was a testament to Kumo's seal masters that none in the village detected the flare of chakra that heralded the last of the jinchuuriki dying and the rebirth of one of the most powerful men to walk the Elemental Nations. Through eyes that were not his own Naruto beheld the room around him before kow-towing to the deceased before him, Yugito relaxed and peaceful in death as he stood again and faced towards the entrance to his last battleground, the rematch with his insane creator; we train first, then there will be a final reckoning!

Omake 6 – Greatest of Men

As the heat of the small forge cooled down, Naruto heeded the voice in the back of his mind,

"Took you long enough", only he, just as the Sage of Six Paths had before him, could dare to joke with the resurrected Juubi, "I've been waiting for this conversation since you finished licking your lips over that devil's corpse".

"Yes, and after that fight, after he was destroyed forever", both partners paused to review those memories, already a year old but still ones they never tired of; Angron was able to learn from his defeat but, even so, he was once again brought down by the same tactics that had slain him the last time, his temper far too fragile to fight a shinobi. His final scream, something between rage, terror and denial, had been music to both Naruto and the Juubi's ears as they finally ended the immortal life of a terrible evil and corrected a mistake that should never have been made. After the review however, the bijuu tried again,

"I said it was over; you said it had just begun – what did you mean? What is left for us to do here?"

"Here? Simple, we wait", Naruto said as though it were the simplest thing in the world, "this world of shinobi is changing, but it is not ready yet for the next step upwards, to reach the stars. We are timeless, we will wait for them to grow and reach out on their own, guide them when we can but otherwise not interfere".

"The stars? You seek to rebuild the empire of your grandsire?".

"No", he answered, plunging his axes into a large trough of water to let out a hiss and a cloud of steam, "the man who became known as the Emperor was still a man and, as such, he made mistakes just as any man would. I will learn from the past I remember, eliminate the errors he made and hopefully, this time, the hell that was the Imperium my second-father terrorised will be averted forever".

"What mistakes Naruto? What have you planned so far?"

"For a start I will trust humanity as He never did", Naruto explained mentally as he rubbed the new design on his axe down with a cloth before inspecting his handiwork, "the Imperial Creed, the denial of the existence of all gods, even the creation of my kind, the Astartes – all mistakes of a man who believed He could not trust his fellow men to remain pure in the face of temptations. He tried to remove the flaws He thought he saw in mankind, refine us to a more effective soldier suitable for his crusades and wars but He could not – you can't simply excise basic human wants, needs and fears like rotten teeth. Even the Astartes, even his own sons fell to whispers from things they could not understand because their father did not tell them about them – the rebellion was in part due to this, the ignorance He spread to try and protect His people and weaken those who dwelt beyond and sought to consume them".

The Juubi was quiet after this for a moment, ruminating the argument before, eventually, it spoke again just as Naruto finished his labours at last and rested both his weapons over his shoulders, the axes still as dangerous now as they ever had been but at last reconsecrated to their true, original purpose,

"You mean to tell them everything then -when the time is right of course?"

"No, they can figure it out for themselves; man learns by his mistakes, even men as powerful as the Emperor Himself – I will aid them if I have to, perhaps introduce myself at some time in the future if it becomes feasible but, this time, for the most part I'm leaving them to it and trusting them to make a better fist of it of my second-grandfather. There could be other worlds out there Juubi", he stepped out of the forge and into the twilight, breath smoking in the air, as he stared up at the night sky, "the Senso Haundo has a new mission. The War Hound must become the Guarding Dog; I will protect my own people and anyone else we find who managed to survive the final cataclysms that came with His death – humanity will rise again Juubi, and this time..."

Both axe clashed above his head and he looked down their haft, almost as if tracking the flight of the twin-headed Aquila to the heavens and above as he saw the stars once more, then looked down at the ground and the good earth at his feet, and smiled as he finished his thought,

"...we'll try and get it right".

A/N: Done, at last; now as promised, the important note:

Due to work deciding I'm the perfect man to be dropped off at a very remote location in the ocean somewhere surrounded by highly-sensitive equipment for the next God-only-knows how long, this fic and its sister are going to have to be put on hold until probably the end of next spring. Where I'm going it's not possible to take my laptop due to the equipment we're using (seriously, going in there with a normal computer is about as smart as walking into the middle of an oil refinery and striking a match) and using work machines is right out as they're in a public domain so I can't do any writing while I'm out there – sorry guys, but reality bites and I kind of like earning a wage I'm afraid.

Okay, now that's said, time to bury some other potential hatchets before they rise and attempt to reap my legs off:

To those that read this and thought Naruto turned into a Mary-Sue; yes, yes he did because he's effectively a Primarch – seriously, read the 40K fluff, read the stats they printed for Angron himself (primarch and demon primarch) and understand it's effectively required Primarch be Mary-Sue characters, they were created that way – this chapter and its first part were an attempt by me to take something out of the box and make it at least kind of believable and worth reading – please let me know if I succeeded and don't just complain I made the main character overpowered (and while we're on the OP subject 'cough'Madara 'cough' oh well 'splutter').

To those that complain 'hey, the chapter's misleading because this isn't about the actual God of War' – right, okay Angron and Krakos have similarities – effectively both demi-gods, duel-wield kick-ass axes and have daddy-issues – but Games Workshop was trading in the 80's, GoW came out in the noughties, so effectively who potentially copied from who there?

To those that read TMok – An Easter egg for you; regarding one of the lines Naruto says just after effectively pepper-bombing his school, this is where the inspiration came from. Go to YouTube, type in 'Cool Guys Don't Look at Explosions' and let your imagination run wild with how damn bad-ass the Mouse could've looked just walkin' away... (if I could get a Deviantartist on the case for that I'd be very grateful indeed; pm or email me the link, my address is on my profile).

Okay, that's it from me – hopefully see you some time in the spring next year; if not, someone chuck a lifebelt into the sea for me...