Naruto ain't mine. All the cool ideas here are though.

/~/

He came back to life with a gasp, and then a groan as he felt the extent of his injuries. His head, which had lifted off the tatami mat with his first, deep breath, dropped back to the ground with a muted thump. "Fuuuuuuck," he hissed through clenched teeth.

"Good afternoon," Haku said placidly from beside him; Naruto would've jumped had he been able. Be mindful of your surroundings, he chided himself. The thought roared through his consciousness, a hallmark of all of his training, and he latched on to it. Blue eyes strained in their sockets, trying to catalogue every inch of his environment without necessitating he raise his head.

Dark wood greeted his eyes every which way he looked, from the walls to the floor to the low table that was directly to his left. "I'm back," he breathed, allowing himself to relax and focus on the sole other occupant of the small room. "I made it."

Haku's smile was brighter than the sun, unshed tears clear in his eyes. "You floated into the marshes yesterday evening, unconscious. Zabuza-sama found you. I wasn't sure if you would make it…"

"Eh, I've been through worse."

"You had a partially lacerated liver and it looked like something had burned its way through your digestive tract. Not to mention the blunt force trauma to your chest and stress fractures in your shoulders, wrists, and elbows." The boy's voice was very nearly clinically detached, but the blond couldn't help but hear the undercurrent of anguish that colored the words.

Well…maybe I haven't through worse. "Heh, I had total faith in you," Naruto managed. He pushed himself to his elbows with effort, wincing all the while. "Where're the other two? I need to fill the captain in."

Haku's hand gently pushed him back down. "Rest, Naruto-kun. I'll fetch them." Naruto shot him a grimace that the effeminate boy managed to return with a small smile before he padded out of the room.

The blond sighed, mind racing to remember every detail of his stay. Interrogations could be a font of information for those on both sides of the proverbial table; it just wasn't every day that the one being interrogated had the opportunity to share what they learned.

And while it wasn't anything concrete, he had learned.

"Report, Same." The clipped voice of his captain nearly brought a smile to his face. Nearly. I missed you too.

He lifted his head off the ground to see the captain standing at attention one pace inside the doorway. Zabuza leaned casually against the frame just behind her, the bandages that usually covered his mouth absent; the missing-nin spared him a smirk. Haku had made his way back to Naruto's side, kneeling beside the tatami mat and gazing down at him, concerned.

The blond took a deep breath, withholding a wince – Fucking stab wound – and began, "The map was a ploy –"

"Oh was it?" Zabuza snarked.

"My ambush failed and I was captured by an Iwa kill squad that was present in lieu of a standard guard detail," he continued, ignoring the demon with practiced ease. He paused in contemplation. "I am not sure how long ago it was," Naruto admitted.

"Your ambush was six days ago. Continue," his captain ordered.

Naruto noticed Haku turn away, eyes determinedly shut, in his periphery. They had me for five days, he realized. The information was shoved to the back of his mind to be processed later as he restarted: "I was held in a detention center in Numachi De for the entirety of the interrogation. A single man was responsible for me for the first days. The Monkey took over for a few hours toward the end. No information about our position was given up."

"Konoha?" she demanded.

"No. They suspected, of course. I did not give any information supporting their suspicions." A memory occurred to him, unbidden. "The Monkey claimed to recognize the shade of my hair." He glanced at his captain for any guidance beyond ideas that had taken root in his mind long ago, and predictably received nothing. No surprise there.

"How were they equipped?" she asked.

"Minimally. They used standard physical interrogation techniques, waterboarding, and genjutsu." The waterboarding and genjutsu weren't that bad, actually, he remembered with some amusement. His interrogator had been especially angry after those had failed. "Blunt force trauma was used to reduce my chakra output along with starvation and dehydration."

"What of The Monkey?"

Not the most pleasant man I've ever met. "He made me swallow magma." Haku couldn't contain a gasp, reaching out to grab Naruto's right hand in a vice grip. Zabuza cursed under his breath in the doorway. Distantly, Naruto wondered at an interrogation technique that was beyond even the Demon of the Mist's twisted moral code.

"His manner, Same." The captain's voice was as professional as ever. Naruto nearly rolled his eyes even as Zabuza's muttering increased; he didn't need to look at his friend to know Haku was glaring murder at his superior at her callousness. He should be used to it by now.

"Frustrated. He was focused on troop movements as a whole. He didn't interrogate me for long before giving up."

The captain was silent for a few moments. "You performed well under stress. The list of your injuries is extensive, but you should be back in operational form in a week, Kōri believes. Rest up, operator." Heedless of the man behind her, the captain turned on her heel and strode from the room.

"Robotic cunt," Zabuza murmured when she was gone, not that she would've cared had she heard. "When this shitshow is over, you're welcome to travel with me and Haku, kid. Can't believe you'd wanna go back to a village that churned her out."

"They're not all like that," Naruto chuckled, brushing the demon's offer off with practiced ease. Gotta love a world where a psychopathic nuke-nin cares more about me than my superior. The thought rattled through his brain unbidden for a moment suspended in time before he banished it. "How we doing?"

He heard Zabuza shrug more than he saw it. "The reports she gets are vague as always. But the info is positive. The supply trains have been fully cut off and rebel forces are slowly harassing their way to Kusa. We're to remain in place until the transition is complete. Keep tab on any Iwa forces that may try to make a break for the eastern border into Rain country."

"Engage?" the blond asked, not sure whether to be excited or not at the prospect of more fighting.

A bloodthirsty smile split the demon's lips. "You know it." Naruto felt his heart drop for reasons unknown. Zabuza turned to leave, but paused. "I tracked your path through the marshes from Numachi De after I handed you off to Haku. You got out clean, kid."

Naruto couldn't help the small smile that crossed his face. It was gone as soon as it came, unsettling thoughts that he had shuffled to the side reemerging.

"How do you feel, Naruto?" Haku asked gently. Green chakra encircled his palms as he hovered them over the blond, running diagnostics.

"Tired," he returned immediately. He was almost startled by the truth of the statement. I've gotten used to lying.

"Exhaustion is expec–"

"No, Haku," Naruto interrupted. "I'm tired of this." Blue eyes locked with curious brown; Haku frowned a familiar frown that still managed to look out of place on his usually smiling face.

"Of what, then, Naruto-kun? I know we've talked about this before. Is it the fighting? The turmoil?"

Naruto shook his head, returning his eyes to the wooden ceiling. I just got tortured for five days. And nothing's changed; there's still more graveyards to be made. "All of it, Haku. I'm tired of all of it," he breathed.

/~/

Amegakure was huge.

"Well, what do you think?"

Wet, was the immediate thought. Relentless, unending rain poured from the heavens to drench the sprawling metropolis that was laid before Naruto's eyes. Black and gray structures did their best to touch the clouds for as far as his eyes could see, steel and concrete fused together to create buildings taller than the blond had ever seen before.

Lighted windows peppered each building in such numbers that the ambient light very nearly blotted out the stars in the late dusk. Pipes larger than Konoha's densest tree trunks lined the skyscrapers, carrying the falling water into a network of underground canals that emptied into the manmade lake that surrounded the city. Electricity was swiftly carried to all corners of the village, small generators interspersed throughout the tunnels having turned the never-ending rain into a boon for the city's populace long ago.

"Loud," Naruto finally settled on. He turned his eyes from the skyscrapers to the thoroughfares that ran like veins between them. Hundreds if not thousands of people were moving to and fro. Merchant carts littered the streets, their owners' shouts into the crowd an incomprehensible babble by the time it reached the blonde's ears, high as he was.

Distantly, the roar of the factories that made up the outermost buildings of the village could be heard over the din of the populace. Smoke curled lazily into the falling night's sky that would have left the city shrouded in a haze if not for the rain washing it away.

"Different from where you grew up, I imagine."

A smile stole its way across Naruto's face, as wry as his counterpart's usual fare. "Don't think I could think of a place much different than this."

Konoha had been carved out of Senju Hashirama's forest; its buildings primarily wood and few over four stories high. The energy that thrummed throughout it constantly was the result of its populace.

The only wood in this city were the roots of the plants that lined the gardens he could see between the occasional building. In Ame, it seemed the people took their energy from their surroundings, rather than the other way around. "It's not like any other village I've seen. Any city, even," he said. He tore his eyes from the metropolis to regard his cousin beside him.

Nagato looked upon his village with a stern eye. "It used to be a small trading post strategically placed at the convergence of two rivers. Hanzo took it over with little effort back before the First Great War and shaped it to his will. He wanted a village that would thrive regardless of the business it received from missions, and he got it."

"Smart man," Naruto mused. Two of the three great wars had been started by villages starving for revenue. It's why Suna invaded. A frown crossed his face at the thought of the invasion that had claimed so many of his comrades what felt like a lifetime ago.

"He was a genius in many ways," Nagato allowed. "Unfortunately, that genius only extended to his ambitions as a world power." Ringed eyes turned from the skyline to Naruto's questioning blue. "His first conquests were the opening salvo of the First Shinobi World War. His alliance with Iwa and Kiri helped spark the Second. And while he wanted no part of the Third, its battles spilled over into the country regularly. And while the village has stood tall through it all, the wars devastated the country and its inhabitants."

Nagato turned from the village below and strode back towards the expansive suite that the balcony they had stood on was a part of. Naruto followed dutifully, noting with surprise that the rain – somehow, miraculously – hadn't managed to land in the room at all.

The suite was easily the most comfortable accommodation Naruto had ever been lucky enough to have. The back of a plush, L-shaped couch the color of midnight stretched out in front of the open door invitingly. Smooth, pale wood floors felt almost foreign under his bare feet for their lack of splinters, covering all but the tiled area that made up the kitchen. Modern appliances that would've cost the blond a small fortune back in Konoha hummed quietly, nearly unnoticeable over the sound of the downpour. A single chair the same color of the couch was off to the side in a way that Naruto assumed was meant to be aesthetically pleasing, and upon it sat a beautiful blue haired woman that hadn't been there when he had first arrived.

She rose with all the grace of a trained shinobi, her black cloak with red clouds seeming at odds with the placid picture of domesticity she was in. "Naruto, meet Konan," Nagato said, good humor in his voice. "She is my oldest friend and partner in all that I believe in. Konan, meet Uzumaki Naruto."

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Naruto-san," Konan said softly, eyes the color of burnished bronze taking him in. Her expression was closed despite her otherwise neutral tone, and she appraised the blond with a clinical detachment that reminded Naruto of his captain.

"You as well, Konan-san," he returned formally. He turned expectantly to Nagato, only to see his cousin regarding their companion with something resembling disappointment in his expression – Hard to tell with those eyes

Unbidden, the feeling of not belonging crashed upon him like a wave. The back of his neck itched in a sensation he hadn't felt since before he'd left Konoha to go to war.

And as soon as it had come, Nagato was smiling warmly at him, dispelling the tension. "Now that we're all acquainted, we have a lot to discuss. Would you care for some tea, Naruto?"

"No, thank you."

"Well take a seat. I'll be back in a moment."

Naruto was left with the blue haired woman, whose eyes hadn't left him the entire time he had been in the room. She doesn't trust me, he realized. He berated himself a moment later: Of course she doesn't. He wouldn't trust an outsider with a plan to change the world after just meeting them either.

Suddenly more comfortable, he dropped to the couch, sinking into its comfortable depths and crossing his left leg over his right. Konan returned to her own seat a moment later, mimicking his posture, eyes still appraising him.

Naruto held her gaze easily, performing his own analysis. Five-foot-six, one-hundred-and-five pounds; even callouses; no discernable markings. He withheld a scowl; her cloak made it almost impossible to make educated guesses at her specializations – Which I suppose is the point, he allowed. He let his eyes drag down her seated form, taking her in from the piercing beneath her mouth, to her orange fingernails, to the heeled sandals she wore. Blue eyes rose to meet bronze once more without shame.

Through it all, Konan's expression didn't change.

Nagato returned with two steaming cups of tea a moment later, placing one in his friend's hands before joining Naruto on the couch. Distantly, the blond marveled at the picture the three must have painted to the outside world, utterly at odds with what was about to be discussed in the luxurious apartment.

"Why are you here, Naruto?" the redhead began suddenly, mercury eyes assessing him from behind his cup of tea. The blond couldn't contain the surprise that crossed his face, and Nagato smiled. "So far, our acquaintance has been mostly me making assumptions about what drives you. I believe those assumptions to be accurate, and you told me some of your story back in Tea Country, but in the interest of moving forward we have to understand what exactly is driving you."

"…what I need is an ally. Someone who believes as wholeheartedly in my goals as I do. Someone who is motivated by the same goals that I am."

Was it the ruins of Uzushio, a relic of an age long passed that spurred him to combat the man that had obliterated his family? The prospect of striking back at the system that had taken his friends, his family, and nearly his life in service to it?

Why am I here? Naruto allowed himself to wonder. "You called me a man of action when we first met. You were right," he began, staring at a spot on the wooden floor somewhere near Konan's right foot. "I've been a shinobi for almost longer than I can remember, and I've been good at it. All that mattered was the next mission. For the Will of Fire. For Konoha." He smiled sardonically. Things were simpler then. "War's not that simple," he murmured, smile fading.

"I had a friend. He was a Kiri nuke-nin we contracted. His name was Haku." A smile worked its way back onto his face at the warmer memories, talks of chakra theory and jokes at Zabuza's expense and trying to enjoy what little peace they could find in between the endless missions. "He had no business being a shinobi. He was too soft…" He was too good for us. "He was strong, but he rarely killed. He fought to protect."

Naruto shook his head, exhaling and bringing his eyes up to meet Nagato's and Konan's in turn. They both regarded him with neutral expressions, giving nothing away. "Fighting alongside someone like that changes you. You look at your reasons for doing what you do. After a while I couldn't remember why I was fighting anymore."

"By the end of the war, I was just so tired of it all. Somewhere along the way the strategic operations to kick Iwa out of the country had turned into a mindless slaughter. The differences between who we were and who we were fighting against didn't mean anything anymore. And the body count got so high that who we killed and why stopped mattering." He shook his head, pushing memories of viscous blood splattering and corpses being swallowed into earthen tombs to the furthest reaches of his mind.

The blond ran a steady hand through his hair. I should probably stop rambling. "I haven't killed a man in two-hundred and twenty days. I left so I would never have to kill again. But I know myself. And all I've ever known is being a shinobi. Maybe I'd make it a year. Maybe two. But sooner or later I can't help but think I'd get sucked back in to that world. And if it happens, I want it to be for the right reasons."

"And what are the right reasons?" Nagato suddenly asked.

"I don't want anyone else to go through what I did. I don't want anyone else to have to go through what I did." Naruto met his cousin's eyes easily. "I want to fight to end the wars."

/~/

Within Ame laid an oasis that existed only to be torn apart.

"This was Hanzo's personal training area," Nagato said, directing Naruto's attention to the expansive open space. It was an entirely flat plain that was comprised of hard packed dirt and clay, surrounded on all sides by thick, concrete walls. Aside from the public gardens that were interspersed between the monolithic towers that comprised Ame's skyline, this was the only evidence of the outside world inside the concrete city.

Even here, the shadows cast by the dozens of skyscrapers gave the training ground a secluded feel. Blue eyes glanced at the largest of the concrete walls, to his left, and smiled slightly. A great reservoir laid beyond it, he knew, the cubic tons of water calling out to his senses like an old friend.

Ibuse had mentioned the area more than once in their conversations, and he itched to summon his friend to let him back in the village that had been his home away from home for decades. Maybe later, he thought. For now, he had work to do.

"It's certainly private," Naruto said lowly. The concrete walls kept any prying eyes from the nearby buildings out.

"He was a notoriously paranoid man," Nagato said, stepping out from the entrance to the training ground and into the falling rain; Naruto followed him warily. "The only ones who ever saw him train were his personal guardsmen."

Not for the first time, Naruto wondered about the quirks of power. By all accounts, Hanzo had been the most feared shinobi in the world for decades, and yet his paranoia had been higher than any of the five kage.

"You were very familiar with his tendencies."

"I was strong enough to kill Hanzo years before I actually made my move. The intervening years were spent researching everything about him and positioning our rebel forces to take the country quietly. Nothing was left to chance," the redhead declared. He turned to Naruto, now in the center of the training ground. "I assume I don't need to explain why we're here."

Naruto was silent, opting to cast his eyes around the open space once more in contemplation. He hadn't fought anyone in two-hundred and twenty days. He had trained, yes, and worked consistently with Ibuse's family almost every day since he had recovered from his injuries.

But he hadn't been tested the way he knew he was about to be.

"No," he finally said, eyes returning to his family member. "Anything I should know before we get started?" He felt his chakra start to circulate faster in anticipation, old habits bubbling to the surface like they'd never left.

Nagato smiled cryptically. "'A shinobi is at his fullest when fighting for his life.'" The red haired man disappeared in a shunshin, leaving Naruto on his guard immediately.

He didn't have long to wait, as six figures immediately dropped from nowhere and landed soundlessly in front of him, each sporting the now-familiar black cloak and red clouds of Akatsuki. Five of the six had orange hair the color of fresh sunlight, while one was bald with thick, black piercings protruding from his skull. Each wore an Ame forehead protector slashed through the middle in what Naruto was learning wasn't that bold of a statement in these parts. All six were pierced in more places than Naruto could count, thinner black bands littering their faces, creating a sinister appearance that gave the blond pause.

More worryingly, all six held the same ringed eyes as Nagato.

"Prepare yourself," said the man in the middle, with spiky hair not dissimilar from Naruto's own. His voice was a rich bass, a sharp contrast from Nagato's more familar baritone.

The blond felt his lips twitch and formed two lightning quick hand seals. Dog-bird. Suiton: Daibakufu no jutsu!

The humidity suddenly spiked as a tidal wave of water exploded forth from the air in front of Naruto. The water quickly spiraled into a hypnotic vortex that crashed towards the bodies with all the speed and pulverizing power of a great waterfall.

Blue eyes flittered about as he held the A-ranked water manipulation, watching for his quarries, his awareness extending through a light mist that he created using the water that bled off of his jutsu. Six muted chakra presences met his senses, each distorted in a way that made him subconsciously uncomfortable. What is this jutsu? he wondered.

He felt a single presence shift in front of the other five just before his technique reached them, and suddenly his jutsu was faltering. Where it should have crushed the six shinobi and swept them away in a tsunami of concussive force, it was instead being sucked away to nothingness. It dissipated fully a moment later, and Naruto was left staring stunned at the six figures, a single, rotund man standing at the front of the team with his arms outstretched.

All six took a moment to regard him, identical smirks on each of their faces. And then the world kicked into high gear.

A long haired man charged him at speed, and Naruto tensed in anticipation, blood pumping in his ears. In his periphery, he saw the bald figure moving to flank him as his comrade made his frontal assault – They're herding me – and made a split second decision.

He burst forward in a shunshin, the world blurring to tunnel vision for a moment as he leapt into action directly at the charging man. He batted aside the man's palm strike, rotating inside his guard and threw a chakra enhanced elbow at the man's face that was promptly ducked. Naruto hopped back a step, blocking a thrust kick to his sternum and muting the blow with a precise application of chakra as he landed, and channeled chakra to his right fist.

He hopped back another step, leaning backwards to draw his opponent with him. The man lunged forward in a punch as Naruto retreated, and the blond wasted no time, rotating faster than the eye could follow into an uppercut, a gauntlet of pure ice firmly wrapped around his hand. He buried it in the unsuspecting man's sternum, feeling ribs shatter and break around the strike as the man dropped bonelessly, before spinning swiftly and throwing his right arm out, the ice gauntlet slipping from his hand and hurtling through the air at the bald man charging at his blind spot.

The bald man stopped with more agility than Naruto had expected for a man of his size, braced his right forearm with his opposite hand, and launched his own fist directly at Naruto's flying gauntlet. The two projectiles hit with a crash, Naruto's fist splintering into shards, but the blond had already seized the initiative.

A body flicker carried him inside the man's guard and he kicked out low, trying to sweep the other man's legs. The bald man hopped adroitly over the strike, and Naruto had to spin out of the way of a massive, serrated tail that tore through the man's cloak and buried itself five feet deep in the ground where he had just been crouched.

Naruto didn't pay the weird shinobi's enhancements much heed as he jumped back into close combat, turning aside a stab of the tail with a blade of ice that formed instantly in his right hand. He formed another blade in his left and stabbed out at the man's chest. Two hand burst through the ruined cloak and halted the blade before it could find purchase, however, and Naruto felt his eyes widen at the clearly augmented man. What the – was all he had time to think before reflexes had him ducking and rolling out of the way of a kick from the long-haired man he'd thought incapacitated.

He rolled to his left, twin gauntlets forming around his fists in time to punch another projectile fist away, and he was set upon by both men. Naruto managed to block two more hands that appeared from the bald man's chest, but was powerless to stop the long-haired man from slipping underneath his arms and landing an uppercut to his chin that snapped his head back.

The blond dispersed into water, and the two men had no time to react as the liquid immediately swirled outwards and swept them off their feet.

Naruto emerged from a haze, right hand in a ram seal as he watched his jutsu overwhelm the two men. He reached out with his chakra, a crack rending the air as the water began to rapidly freeze in a series of jagged waves that made to pierce and imprison his attackers. Just as the ice reached them, twin pops sounded throughout the training ground, and the men were gone.

Blue eyes widened in shock as his ice coalesced fully, the jutsu forgotten, immediately locking to the six figures standing together once more. A summoning, he realized, seeing a man with a ponytail remove his palms from the ground.

The ponytailed man stood, completing the team. They stood in an odd formation; the two men who Naruto had fought were adjacent to the man with the ponytail, while the fat man who had absorbed his Daibakufu, the spiky haired man who had spoken, and an older man with a sever face all stood one in front of the other behind the three in a line. The man with a severe face was at the far back.

One absorbs ninjutsu without taking damage; one is mechanical; at least one can summon, he thought, quickly processing his situation. One man at back, defended by others?

He formed a ram seal, blanketing the training ground with suffocating chakra in an instant. Kirigakure no jutsu.

His mist, which had already blanketed the area, immediately thickened to the point of a total white-out. Blue eyes couldn't see more than a few inches in front of his face, but then he didn't need to. The six polluted and twisted chakra forms of his opponents tensed and lowered themselves into defensive positions, their moves like a beacon to his senses.

The fat man whirled around while the spiky haired man hopped back as a mizu bunshin formed from the moisture in the air between them, leaping toward the spiky haired man. The fat man pounced on the clone a moment later, and it dispersed into water that wound itself around the man's arms and legs and froze.

Naruto didn't bother to catalogue its progress as he silently landed behind the rearmost figure, a blade of ice in his hand, and struck out in a debilitating stab at the man's stomach.

He was preparing to dash to the front of the group to deal with the summoner next when the man dove out of the way of his stab at the last moment. How? he thought, askance as he moved to engage the man. Even the Byakugan can't penetrate chakra satur– his thoughts were cut off as his whole body was slammed in a hammer blow of terrible strength that lifted him off his feet and hurled him across the training ground.

If not for the concrete wall that splintered as his body impacted it, he wasn't sure how far he'd have flown. Naruto dropped bonelessly to the ground below with a groan. He worked a hand under himself less than a moment later, however, and pushed himself to his feet only to be confronted with five jagged black poles poised to eviscerate him.

"Heh," he managed, rolling his neck as he stood straight. His mist began to disperse as he let go of his chakra in the air, the still falling rain sweeping it away ever-faster. "In my defense, I'm a bit outta practice."

"Your performance was admirable," Nagato's voice called from the center of the training ground. The six men parted like the sea to reveal him to the blond. Naruto glanced at each in turn warily before stepping through the opening, striding over to his cousin with nary a limp despite the blow he had taken. "You aren't terribly damaged, I see," the redhead said, amusement and wonder battling for dominance in his voice.

Naruto shrugged. "The Monkey hit harder. And you said it yourself: it takes something special to kill an Uzumaki."

"Indeed. What are your thoughts on the fight?"

The blond frowned, forehead creasing slightly as he went over the, admittedly short, battle. "Without knowing the full extent of their capabilities, I can't really say how I'd do with more preparation. My reflexes aren't what they once were, but I felt my tactics were sound. Especially given ninjutsu doesn't seem to do much…" he said in consternation. The analysis was a familiar exercise that he fell into; he had analyzed each of his training sessions with his old Root trainer back in Konoha similarly.

Nagato allowed himself a chuckle. "Your tactics were sound, yes. I admit that I've never encountered a shinobi that fights quite like you. Your suiton manipulation is astounding. You manipulate the water to its freezing point?"

Naruto nodded, thoughts drifting to his dead friend. "It's a little more complicated than that, but essentially."

"Fascinating," Nagato mused. "When did you begin to use the techniques?"

Ah. "Back in the war," he said. "Though the salamanders have been very helpful in broadening my horizons in terms of usage."

"Hmm, Hanzo is the only other I've encountered with a suiton affinity high enough to use ice effectively. I didn't give him much opportunity to use it, admittedly." Nagato smiled, regarding Naruto with ringed eyes. "You did well, Naruto. Better than I expected, to be honest."

That took less than two minutes…"What exactly were you expecting?" Naruto asked, amused in spite of himself. There was little shame in losing to the strongest man in the world.

"I thought you'd be more out of practice than you are." The redhead quirked a brow. "Or perhaps you're just more gifted than I originally gave you credit for."

I'm definitely out of practice, he thought, but how much longer would I have lasted even at full capacity? "Who's to say," Naruto muttered both to himself and Nagato, shrugging away the praise. "Who're they?" he asked, nodding to the six bodies who had made their way over to the two Uzumaki. "I've fought multiple opponents plenty of times, but they've never been so well coordinated." It's like they can read each other's minds…

"They are me," Nagato said, stepping to stand in front of the six men.

"And we are one," the six chorused. Naruto nearly jumped at the sound of their different voices speaking in unison.

"I see," he said, though he really didn't. Some type of puppet technique? he wondered.

Nagato smiled wryly. "All will be revealed in time, don't worry. For now, come. We have much work to do, Naruto." The redhead beckoned as the six other men disappeared in plumes of smoke, turning to walk back into the tower that was connected to the training area.

Sparing a thought for how he always managed to end up in over his head, Naruto followed.

/~/

So. We moving. Thanks per usual to the DLP crowd for their help. Feel free to drop a review if you're so inclined.