Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. I'll drive 50 miles in a snowstorm up and back just to spar with my peeps from college for a few hours. While Japan might be a long-ass commute just for a beatdown, do you really think I won't head to your neck of the woods if the rights to this franchise were on the line Kishimoto?

I will buy a plane ticket to Tokyo in a heartbeat Kishimoto!

Don't make me come over there Kishimoto!

Chapter 64: The Noblest of Pursuits


Kabuto was glad.

For everything that was great about him, Orochimaru wasn't normally one to practice moderation. After taking in the Sanbi, Kabuto had sort of expected Orochimaru to fancy 'collecting' the biju for himself. While Orochimaru reveled in the ease with which he could execute some techniques he hadn't felt healthy enough to perform in years and be able to continue fighting, he wasn't becoming drunk with his own power.

After all, those who had always been strong tended to develop a tolerance for that particular disorder. How much power was enough to drive you mad when you had always been more powerful than most everyone else?

"Orochimaru-sama, you just can't sit still and let things fall around you, can you?" Kabuto asked with a smirk as he followed his master through the pleasant summer weather underneath the forest trees. It was too nice out for his tastes.

"I've sat around watching things happen for long enough Kabuto," Orochimaru said, "There are things I want to do. While you and others like Guren have done exceptionally well in my stead, I must admit, I would feel a tad stir-crazy sitting around in poor Yukimaru's body when there are so many wonderful things I wish to put into action. It's been so long since I've felt like making my presence known."

"Kind of close to Konoha though, isn't it?"

"Not particularly. It's just the same country. If no one dispatches a request to them, no one from Konoha will come," Orochimaru reasoned gleefully, "And even if they did, you and I wouldn't even need to involve ourselves in a fight."

Not fighting? Kabuto remembered how he handled Sasori when he didn't have to. He took great joy in killing his old Akatsuki partner. The glee evident in every action Orochimaru took after the quick confrontation had been palpable.

He seemed to enjoy the battle, simply for the fact that it allowed the serpent the chance to flex his fangs for the first time in a long while.

"There are only a handful of people in the world that can stand up against me now Kabuto," Orochimaru declared, sighing as though it were some great tragedy, "As sad as it is to say, other than maybe my old teammates or the leaders of the hidden villages, I don't see anyone that can stop me any longer."

Well, you know what they say about whistling through the graveyard.

Kabuto grit his teeth together at the sight of a swirling vortex appearing right in front of them. He figured it would have only been a matter of time before Orochimaru's little debutante ball that consisted of putting Sasori six feet deep came back on them somehow.

From the black robe decorated with red clouds on the masked man that stepped out of the portal, it was quite clear that this man was Akatsuki. Spiky black hair and an orange swirl mask with one eyehole. He was quite the odd-looking one.

Orochimaru didn't seem to blink in the slightest. If anything his smile now seemed eternally pasted on his face, as if nothing could get the man down.

"Ah, the man who believes that he knows everything," The snake-eyed Sannin said in his own condescending form of an affable greeting, "Hello my old acquaintance."

Someone clearly wasn't in the mood for small talk from his reaction.

"What do you think you're going to accomplish Orochimaru?" The masked man asked, a dangerous lift to the end of his sentence despite the congeniality of the talk. Even Kabuto, despite the obvious danger he was in merely standing anywhere near the two, didn't seem very fazed, smirking in his usual smug manner as he leaned against a vertical surface and played spectator, "You're playing a dangerous game. Our rings, our targets."

"Target," Orochimaru specified with a chastising wag of the finger, emphasizing that he was indeed brazenly wearing the Akatsuki ring that he had only previously kept amongst his hideout belongings as a memento of losing his hand, "I only wanted one biju my 'mysterious' friend. And now I have it. Consider this a part of my unfulfilled Akatsuki severance package. I was promised the chance to learn every jutsu in existence, but I was so severely admonished for trying to cash in on that guarantee."

"I still needed Itachi."

"Well, unfortunately I don't any longer. You can keep what's left of him now," Orochimaru reasoned with a shrug, "I wouldn't ever have in the first place if you hadn't seen fit to help him kill his entire clan, but after you did, well let's just say I only had one living target to aim for if I wanted a fully matured Sharingan," Sasuke was still out there if he wanted him. If he wanted him, "…A little bird tells me that I don't even need that one target any longer. I just enjoy having contingency plans."

Kabuto pushed his glasses up on his face with a smirk, "After all, someone did something with all of those eyes after the massacre. You wouldn't happen to know where all of those got to, would you Tobi-san? That is what you prefer to be called isn't it? Or wait, is it Madara? I'm sorry, it's just that I've heard so many names for you, I can't keep them straight."

The masked man took a single step forward after being presented with that information, "You'd best carefully consider the things you wish to refer about in passing."

Just… no.

Unsubtly threatening Orochimaru wasn't a wise course of action before he supercharged himself, it didn't matter how strong the person was. Doing so now might have become the most effective form of suicide known to mankind.

"I seem to remember when this fool in a mask appearing out of the blue to recruit me for his merry guild, because he needed the best. I was promised the chance to learn everything, but was constantly kept in the dark and treated as a mere underling. A pawn," Orochimaru's smile stayed on his face, but it grew noticeably more sadistic with more ill intent behind it, "…I was given orders by a man who claimed to be a leader but let himself be directed by a man who doesn't even use his own name."

The man in the mask felt a confidence in Orochimaru that went beyond anything he'd felt from the man before. This was the man who fancied himself a God-like being because of his ability to jump between bodies, and if possible he seemed more self-assured than ever now.

With admittedly good reason. He was disgustingly powerful

"I have no interest in your little gentleman's club," Orochimaru said coldly, "You have nothing that I want, and for all intents and purposes we should never cross paths again, unless of course you still desire the Sanbi in which case… feel free to try and take it from me."

If you're man enough. If you're powerful enough. If you're willing to jump into a fight you're not sure you can win because I baited you into it. If… if… if. The choice was his as to what Orochimaru meant by his outright challenge and if he would take him up on it.

The masked man simply disappeared back into the vortex from whence he'd come, "You will beg for me to bring you your end," He assured Orochimaru.

"I can't say I've heard that one in a while. 59."

"I'll stare at your corpse down by my feet, and you'll know when you're dead that you brought it upon yourself."

"23."

The masked man stopped and regarded the smiling Orochimaru strangely, "What are you doing?"

"Oh," Orochimaru said, waving the entire thing off, "Don't mind me. It's just that I hear these vengeance-filled soliloquies so often that I've made a little game out of counting how many times I've heard certain lines. But by all means, continue."

Who made a game out of all of the people who had spoken of killing them? That was just depraved, "You… sick bastard."

"190," Orochimaru chirped in return.

Tobi just stared at him for several seconds before seemingly departing into his own eye, leaving the area.

He might have had his own problems, and his own morals might have been what conventional folks would have called 'shot', but Tobi hadn't ever dealt with anyone as deranged as Orochimaru. And the man refused to be a piece on someone else's board.

He actually had the power and apparently the information he needed to keep such a thing from happening as well.

This was not good.

…Where were Itachi and Kisame with their mission to take the Nibi? Something had to go correctly for them. At this point Akatsuki only had the Yonbi, Gobi, and the Rokubi out of the nine biju. That was less than half and they had been the softest targets to take.

Of the ones left to capture, the Sanbi was now inside of Orochimaru of all people, the Ichibi's jinchuuriki seemed to be rising up the ranks to top-class in Suna after his murderous urges seemed to taper off four years ago, the Nanabi jinchuuriki was something of a hero to Takigakure now, the Hachibi…

…Well they weren't going after that one until they had a fantastic plan or incredible set of circumstances to make success possible beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Kyuubi host was a softer target by Akatsuki standards, and not by much. As far as all of the remaining jinchuuriki went, he struck the most even balance between the extremes of the three.

He wasn't an outright cold-blooded killer like Gaara but he was dangerous and had no problems splitting suckers down the middle. Itachi's recount of the fight with Kimimaro had been starkly eye-opening as to how deadly serious that boy could be.

He was famous and roughly seen in the same light as Fuu by his village as far as popularity went, but considerably lesser than Killer B was by his.

He was at least as powerful as Fuu and Gaara because he'd beaten them before and had only gotten stronger over time, but less powerful and experienced than Killer B and obviously Orochimaru.

Yugito Nii had been on a mission outside of her village when Itachi and Kisame had been dispatched to take her. Two of the remaining five, as in Fuu and Killer B, were mostly kept domestic. Fuu was normally kept within the country that Takigakure resided in and Killer B never really left the confines of Kumogakure at all.

…Except recently for some reason.

XxX

(Konohagakure no Sato – Uzumaki Clan Mask Temple)

The day had to carry on as usual, even after Killer B's sudden departure after the morning get together between the two squads that had graduated in the same year.

Seeing Killer B head off earlier, notably stoic as he presumably went to the office of the Hokage for his own reasons, left a somber mood over the Team10/7 meeting on Naruto's clan lands. The get-together had dispersed soon after the dark-skinned shinobi received his long-distance message, with Sasuke following him under the excuse that he was Killer B's escort for the duration of his stay in the village.

Shikamaru went home to unwind some more after the trouble with Root had seemingly come to an end, and Ino did have errands to run around town in the stead of her father who was working overtime with Konoha T&I on the captured members of Root to see what could be done about them.

After Naruto's telling recant of Orochimaru's horrifying level of control over the Sanbi, Jiraiya figured it was time

Jiraiya was probably going to have to get himself involved with handling Orochimaru should he keep himself and Otogakure going on their current upswing. That trend could only mean trouble in the future with so many high-level rogue elements. Since that was the case, he figured that there was a need to go into overdrive on what he was teaching Naruto.

It wasn't that time wasn't necessarily a luxury, but times of turmoil were an awful time to try and improve to any considerable degree. You had to take the chances to work when you got them, because when they were gone they were gone.

So he had to get Naruto back on focusing. Pressing the kid to get the job done after it became imperative and all-vital to was not Jiraiya's idea of fun.

"There's nothing you can do about it anyway," Jiraiya said sternly, arms crossed as he oversaw Naruto's progress, "I know you like to think you can solve most of the problems around you after you hear about, but sometimes you've got to let sleeping dogs lie, because sometimes that'll get you bitten."

Naruto cracked open an eye Jiraiya's way and quirked an eyebrow at the uncharacteristically cynical talk coming from his godfather, "You alright Ero-sensei?" He asked, "You sound like someone pissed in your cornflakes this morning or something."

The middle-aged toad sage had been testy ever since the Hokage had gone off to fight Danzo. That could have gone the wrong way if the two hadn't been a little closer matched in strength. Danzo definitely had the tricks up his sleeve, unfortunately he relied too heavily on his invincibility with Izanagi to counter Hiruzen's heavy attacks and wound up paying for it.

Jiraiya's face crinkled up in thought at just what was eating him. It was quite the list.

Between Orochimaru finding a new lease on his miserable life as a jinchuuriki and Hiruzen expending who knew how many years off of his life to finish things off with his longest standing rival, he was considering hitting the bottle to a Tsunade kind of degree.

Along with that, heading up to the Capital to see what was up with that red light district didn't sound too shabby either. It had always been a favorite haunt of his.

And things had been so simple back just a few years ago. All he had to do was make sure Naruto was a world-beater by the time he finished with the Guardian Ninja, teach the boy how to be a man, and finally find a way to convince Tsunade to bang him.

He'd completed… roughly one and a half of those three things, but he'd had a hell of a time doing them! He hadn't noticed how much he'd missed having a kid around to corrupt until he'd started training Naruto.

Speaking of which…

"You're not holding still enough," Jiraiya told Naruto, getting him to scowl, 'Damn it, what I wouldn't give for the training oil. Stupid atmosphere,' If he could spring Naruto for some off-time he probably would, but there was too much going on at the moment to take Naruto to Mt. Myoboku for the length of time he figured it would take him to learn Sage Mode, "Do it better."

"I've been trying to do this forever," Naruto replied through his teeth, "You started me on this before I even left the Capital, and I've got all of jack to show for it," That wasn't true. He wasn't so thick-headed that he couldn't see progress, but sometimes it felt like it.

"You can do it," Jiraiya assured him, "If I could, you sure as hell can. You know how to meditate, and it's just a few leaps forward from there. The moment you feel it out, you'll wonder how the hell you could have ever missed it."

Granted, once again it would be much easier on Mt. Myoboku with the toads, the oil, and the ambiance. Naruto's mask temple was the next best place they were going to find in Konoha that was for sure, and the meals back at home were a hell of a lot better than they would have been on the mountain.

Jiraiya knew Naruto could get the job done. He was so close, even without the oil, which was incredible. He wasn't even letting Naruto use clones to get it faster because of the danger factor. It had only been six months since they'd started dedicating time to teaching Naruto to gather senjutsu chakra.

The best place other than the mountain to gather the needed nature energy was in a place that felt like home. The reason Naruto's apartment was out was because a house by itself simply was not a home. It was a place where you felt most comfortable, and for Naruto that was a place of his own that belonged to him.

He was so close. If he could just get an excuse to get Naruto out to Myoboku…

With a sigh, Naruto's seated posture broke down and he looked up at Jiraiya shaking his head, "I dunno. I mean, I think I feel something, but I don't ever know. I know what your Sage Mode feels like, but when I think I'm drawing in senjutsu chakra I don't, you know, feel it."

"My Sage Mode is imperfect anyway," Jiraiya said, crossing his arms over his broad chest, "If you think you're feeling it, but it's not the way it feels when you sense it from me, that means you're balancing it right, which kind of pisses me off to think about really."

Naruto grinned at Jiraiya as he jumped up to his feet and threw his hands back behind his neck, "Don't be like that Ero-sensei. If I'm awesome, doesn't that just make you awesome too for teaching me?"

"In a way," Jiraiya said, finding the grin infectious, "All I seem to do is train top-shelf badass. First the kids from Ame, then your old man, and now you're shaping up nicely. That's right Naruto, just keep on building up my legacy for me! Wa-ha! Wahahahahaha!"

Naruto laughed along with him boisterously until he picked up on something that didn't quite belong in that set, "Wait, what kids from Ame? You trained kids from Ame?"

Jiraiya stopped laughing and sobered up in mood considerably. It hadn't been something he had been hiding, but all the same he wasn't very excited to talk about it, "Yeah. It was before I trained Minato even. I taught three kids for three years until I thought they were good enough to survive on their own."

"…What happened to them?"

The white-haired veteran sighed and leaned against the wall by the display of masks, "They did well for a while. I'd hear rumblings of some group in Ame working for peace… but that was a long time ago. I haven't heard anything since… gosh, right after the time you were born I'd say."

Wow. Talk about a throwback of a memory.

"I think you would have liked to meet them," Jiraiya said with a smile of remembrance, "Two of them were good kids. You would have gotten into a fistfight with Yahiko though," Thinking of those things were sad though, "Enough about that though, what's up with these masks? Do they do anything?" He grabbed one and went to put it on his face before Naruto stopped him, "What? I was kidding."

"No, they really do stuff," Naruto told him, pointing to one in particular on the wall, "That one possessed my clone."

"With what?"

"I don't know. I don't care. It wasn't human. I got the hell out of here."

Jiraiya looked at the wall of masks with an all new interest, "Okay, you know we're spending the rest of the day figuring out what these damn things do don't you?"

"What if there's one that makes you explode, or makes you pee blood or something?"

"Well that's what clones are for."

XxX

Akatsuki. Akatsuki. It always came back to Akatsuki.

Sasuke couldn't focus on his training. Not after the message Killer B had received had been shared with the Hokage. He had been told explicitly that he was not to roam alone. He was to wait in Konoha until a squad was available to escort him. He was surprised Killer B hadn't simply barreled his way out of town, but apparently the only person the world's greatest jinchuuriki would back down to was his Raikage of an older brother.

…Older brother…

Accounts from eyewitnesses of the departing attackers of the Nibi jinchuuriki claimed that one of the attackers bore extreme resemblance to Konoha nuke-nin Uchiha Itachi.

'Itachi…' Sasuke thought to himself. This was the second time in a handful of months that he'd heard anything of his own older brother. His chief rival even had visual confirmation of Itachi's current existence, and had even suffered a Sharingan-style genjutsu entrancement.

Walking back into the main house of his clan grounds, Sasuke found Killer B sitting by the door, leaning against the wall. His face was grim and serious behind those sunglasses of his.

He'd been so passionate when he'd taken the message to the Hokage's office, but the orders of his Raikage superseded his desire to leave and do his own thing. Nii Yugito had been taken. There was no way Kumo wanted to risk losing two of their absolute heaviest hitters in one fell swoop.

Even so, if anyone understood wanting to say 'screw it' to the rules that were holding you back from doing what you wanted, it was Sasuke. In that vein he wanted to help. Not just because of that, but because sticking his nose in this would get him a step closer to taking Itachi's head.

"The Raikage said you weren't allowed to travel the countryside alone right?" Sasuke asked, trying to help the rapping shinobi skirt the law that had been laid down by his brother, "Well hire us, or to be more specific, hire me. I'll put a team together and we'll 'escort' you across the country."

Killer B hesitated for a moment. A was already pissed off enough about him running off from Kumo at the drop of a hat. While he technically wouldn't be going against his brother's word, A would still kick his ass even harder for finding the excuse of a loophole to disobey him.

But it was Yugito who was in trouble. Any sort of wrath he'd have to face from his brother's Iron Claw was a mere trifle if he could get his village's resident kitty cat back alive and in one piece. He wouldn't leave a friend like her behind. And it wasn't like he hadn't earned enough money over the years to pay for a mission of this sort. With all of the S-ranks he'd won before A barred him into staying in the village, he could easily drop the cool million ryo minimum it would take to run an S-rank mission.

A needed to specify his bullshit parameters meant to order Killer B around better, because he also never said that the squad Killer B had to wait for needed to be a Kumo squad.

"I guess the Uchiha boy isn't all darkness inside," the Hachibi commented from inside of Killer B, "Then again, I don't expect much positive out of that clan to begin with, so it wasn't like he had much to live up to."

He didn't know why Sasuke cared, because it couldn't have just been out of the goodness of his heart, if that was even a bit of the factor at all. On the other hand, assistance was assistance. The Uchiha Clan was notably intense and somewhat obsessive, so why not put that to use against another Uchiha when this one clearly wanted a piece of Itachi?

'No doubt. Can't be that bad if he's helping us out,' Killer B slowly started to grin as he looked up at Sasuke's serious expression. Didn't the kid know that frowning that much would give him wrinkles by the time he was 25? "So this escort team you're talking about, you got anyone in mind or are we just ass-out?"

"You let me worry about that," Sasuke said before groaning inwardly, 'Oh good lord, I understood him. I've been hanging around this clown too much.'

Killer B had something Sasuke wanted; an excuse to get himself a piece of Itachi. Sasuke had something Killer B wanted; a way to avert A's ruling against heading out to retrieve Yugito. Neither of them cared that the other one had their own reasons for going after Akatsuki. All that mattered was that the partnership would make it easier to get what they each wanted out of the deal.

"Ye~~~~ah!"

Ugh. This was a horrible idea.

Between Killer B and one of the members he had in mind for the team, Sasuke was certain that he'd wind up stabbing someone on his own side before they even caught up to Akatsuki. But he figured he could save up all of that rage and have more to take out on Itachi when he saw him.

And there would be plenty of rage to be had.

What was a family reunion without a knockdown, drag-out fight?

XxX

(Northern Kaze no Kuni – Sora-ku)

Kisame let out a whistle at the sight of the formerly grand city. It seemed entirely comprised of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. There was no building within view, at least from the range they were viewing it from, "What can I say about this town that hasn't already been said about Kakuzu's face? It looks bombed out and depleted."

"Indeed," Itachi said as they continued walking toward it, "It was an ambitions idea to settle here. A thriving border town in the northern portion of the desert nation of Kaze no Kuni. But not soon after it began to come into its own, Sunagakure and Iwagakure waged war against one another. The northern border of Kaze no Kuni became something of no man's land, and the city became a battlefield. People fled, and the dream died."

The wind whistled over the dry, cracked plains that surrounded the dead city.

"Ah. Morbid," Kisame said as he shuffled an unresponsive Yugito under his arm, "You're really good at that kind of thing Itachi-san."

"Hm," Itachi said, accepting it cryptically, "Either way, this place became nothing by the end of the last war. No one comes here. There's no point. Not even bandits. There's nothing to loot that hadn't already been taken by shinobi fighting for this place back in wartime, and it's a terrible place to use as a stronghold. Water is hard to come by through regular means."

"Why do you know about it then?"

"The Uchiha Clan stored munitions here just in case after it became a ghost town."

"Just in case of what? They had a whole village on their side. What the hell were they stockpiling weapons outside of it for?"

Itachi spared half of a glance his way before continuing onward, his high collar covering most of his face, "That… isn't important anymore."

When Uchiha Itachi declared in so many words that a conversation was over, you picked up on it. When he did that, there was nothing you were going to do to restart it.

…At least they had a decent place to hole up and contact the others to extract the Nibi.

XxX

(Konohagakure no Sato – Mission Assignment Desk)

"Report," The Hokage ordered of the four Konoha shinobi standing before him. He could have turned this mission request down, but it was in everyone's best interest that Akatsuki did not wind up extracting another biju. Between the one Orochimaru had and the three that the rogue organization already had in their possession, losing another one, even one from another country could spell disaster.

"Jounin, Hyuuga Neji."

"Chunin, Uchiha Sasuke."

"Chunin, Nara Shikamaru," Whether his enthusiasm for the mission was questionable or not, Shikamaru knew enough about protocol to get his shit together and sound off at identification like the professional that he was.

"Chunin, Uzumaki Naruto," He said before putting on a cheeky grin, "…The greatest team ever made, reporting," He just couldn't help himself, "Come on, this is the best team ever. You can't say it's not. We're so good it's broken, and that's not even counting-."

The doors flew open and the most god-awful noise any of them had ever heard came out of the mouth of the man that entered, "YEAAAA~~AH!" Was that supposed to have been singing?

Hiruzen felt a migraine coming on. He was too old for this crap. Killer B had certainly perked back up after putting that mission request in, hadn't he? "…For those of you who weren't aware, this is your client for the mission."

Neji suddenly felt an intense amount of resentment for Sasuke who had recruited him directly for the squad. He didn't know that his client would be so… flamboyant, "I see."

It was okay. When he wasn't busy with his separate duties as a jounin he dealt with Gai and Lee almost every day. Together. When those two were on point with their eccentricities they could come close to making any sane person lose it. How bad could one new person be?

"Officially your mission is to help B-san adhere to his brother's declaration; that he is not to leave our village without a professional escort," Hiruzen stated, his tone completely in business-mode, "Unofficially, off the record, you all deserve to know that you will be more than likely heading into battle with Akatsuki. B-san wishes to intercept them before they can extract the biju of Kumo's second jinchuuriki. For the sake of preventing Akatsuki from obtaining yet another vital resource for causing havoc across the Elemental Nations we will be lending our assistance."

Everyone stood in place, taking the information in until Naruto raised his hand.

Hiruzen sighed and shook his head, "Yes Naruto-kun?"

"Why the fuck are we the only ones that ever do anything about this?" A fair query, if not worded completely vulgarly, "Suna is right there. They were spotted going through Kaze no Kuni, with the Yugito lady. And we're hauling ass cross-county alone because…?" He asked before remembering that Hiruzen was the Hokage and not just his nice grandfather figure, "…Err, sir."

It was going to take them two days to get onto the trail from Konoha, and that was if they went at Naruto's pace. If Suna actually gave enough of a damn about Kumo losing one of its two jinchuuriki, they could have at least tried.

The same went for Iwa, but of course they weren't going to do anything. No, why would they? They'd already lost their jinchuuriki, both of them, all without saying a damn word when the separate situations occurred, so it would be obvious that they'd be fine with the other villages losing theirs. The balance of power and all that.

"I'm certain that other villages have suffered Akatsuki killing some of their shinobi as they abduct jinchuuriki. Grudges run deep. Even over something like this involving security for us all, I'm sure other villages love the idea of seeing foreign villages fall flat on their faces," Hiruzen said, "You can call it the hubris of others. You can call it a refusal to see a bigger picture. Whatever you'd like to call it, just know that we're the only ones doing anything about Akatsuki because we're the only ones that see the merits in doing something whenever another village is the target, because in the end it will come back to bite us all."

The grim, stark reality of those words set everyone serious. Neji and Sasuke could understand, not wanting to help anyone else for some 'greater good' when they had been gravely wronged by them in the past.

"It would be like you helping Kabuto rescue Guren if she were a jinchuuriki or something," Shikamaru pointed out for Naruto's benefit. Judging by the way his face twisted up at the thought of assisting Kabuto with anything other than a painful death, the message had been received.

Every village had done awful things to all of the others at some point in time. Every village routinely had conflicting missions with the others. Every village had within it children who had lost parents or some sort of family to ninjas of another village.

The Sandaime Hokage put a small smile on his face at the thought of one thing despite all that he had said, "At least if Naruto-kun is somehow taken, I know of two places with people who wouldn't mind lending our village assistance in retrieving him," Naruto seemed put off at the thought of needing to be saved by someone, "Take it as a plus. Now, be on your way."

Killer B took the initiative and grinned at his hired help, "One hour. See ya at the gate, so don't be late!"

Neji wanted to strangle him already. This could be more difficult to endure than Lee and Gai together at their worst. He needed to sit somewhere quiet for a moment to gather the strength of will he would need to survive this mission. It hadn't even been five minutes yet.

As the team walked the halls away from the mission assignment desk, one question had to be asked that seemed to have been glossed over when the team was put together in the first place.

"Why aren't you taking anyone from Team 7?"

Sasuke stopped dead in his tracks when he heard that out of Shikamaru. It was a legitimate question, and it was one that he wasn't surprised someone as perceptive as Shikamaru asked him. It should have bothered him that none of Sasuke's main teammates were on the current squad.

The answer though was chillingly simple, "…Because I don't want any of them to see how I'll be when I see Itachi."

Both Naruto and Shikamaru looked at each other at that vague and odd answer, even as Sasuke continued to walk out of the building, "What way?"

This time he didn't turn his head or stop, "You'll see."

XxX

(Yamanaka Clan Compound – Ino's House)

Every time Naruto ventured over into the neck of the village inhabited by Ino's clan he always found himself feeling extremely self-conscious. It was odd. He could walk through the Hyuuga Clan's grounds with no shortage of swagger in his step, and they were five times as tightly wound about everything than the Yamanaka Clan.

It probably had something to do with his latent paranoia that he subconsciously thought everyone in that clan could read his mind, which was silly, because he knew how Ino's jutsu worked as much as someone could without knowing the jutsu personally. Mind-reading was a high-level technique and if someone wasn't touching his head they couldn't even do it.

Either way, Naruto almost jumped when the door opened. Half expecting Inoichi to be the one to open the door, he was surprised when Ino's mother did instead.

She was a lady just over forty with light brown eyes similarly patterned to Ino's blue, the color of her irises outlined in black. She wore an elegant dark teal dress with a gemstone just underneath her collar and wore her brown hair in a bun with strands framing her face past her ears. She was still very lovely. Even with the marks of aging on her face, it only seemed to make her seem nobler.

Ino's mother always set Naruto aback because of her stately demeanor. She always seemed so elegant. He wanted her to like him but always felt as if he spoke like too much of a hoodlum in front of her. If she cared though, she never said anything in front of him. She seemed to think well enough of him.

"Oh, Naruto-kun. It's been too long," She had such a calm and collected demeanor. Ino wasn't like her or Inoichi at all. They must have spoiled her too much when she was young, but he wasn't dumb enough to say that to Ino's face, "Have you come to call on Ino?"

Wow. Did she actually know that they were together, or was she just fucking with him? She tended to do that when he ran across her in the flower shop or the few times that he'd seen her when coming to their house in the past.

Naruto didn't know where Ino stood on letting her parents in on things regarding the two of them, "Ah, sort of? I just wanted to tell her something."

Ino's mother clicked her tongue shamefully and looked up at where Ino's room was, "That girl. When days come around when she doesn't have to work or go on any missions she can be such a lazy young woman."

"I'm not asleep mom," Ino's voice drifted blearily from up the nearby stairs, "Go ahead and send Goldie up."

Ino's mother put on an expression of false onus at being caught in conversation, "Ara, how did you know Naruto-kun was here dear?"

"My room's at the front of the house mom," Ino's voice called down the stairs, "I can't help but hear everything."

"Well you heard her Naruto-kun. Go on ahead," The older woman said, beckoning Naruto inside before quickly shooing him upstairs. It took considerable effort from Naruto not to grumble something as he went along. Seriously, that woman probably knew years in advance that he'd been feeling something for Ino, "You really should come by more often. I know Ino would enjoy it if you came for dinner one evening."

"Heh-heh, anytime I get an invite I'll totally do that," Naruto said, backing his way up the stairs as quickly as he could to escape the conversation without tripping and falling. Why did Ino's family freak him out!? He knew why Inoichi did, but Ino's mom shouldn't have rattled him at all.

His progression was stopped after he made it to the top and Ino held him in place by his shoulders, "Whoa boy," He spun around immediately after being stopped, "Easy now."

"I'm pretty sure your mom knows something's up," Naruto said immediately upon seeing his brand new girlfriend, hair down and clad in purple pajamas. Well someone had certainly been comfortable in bed before he'd shown up.

"Huh, I didn't know we were hiding anything," Ino replied, stretching her arms up over her head as she led Naruto down the hall to her room. Damn her, the freaking tease. He didn't care if she was barely awake or not. That top was too short to be stretching like that and those pants rode too low. She had to have known this already before getting up to walk around her house like that.

"Uh-huh…" Naruto drawled, eye twitching as he followed Ino into her room and leaned against the door, closing it, "By the way, it's like eleven in the morning,"

Remaining asleep past that hour would have been a total Shikamaru sort of thing to do. Not that Naruto was above doing so himself from time to time, but he also wasn't above pointing it out either.

Ino glanced back at him, her bangs covering one of her eyes from his view, "It's my day off Goldie," She said with a yawn as she crawled onto her bed, "This is the first day in a while that I didn't have to be up before sunrise."

"I know it's your day off. It ain't mine though," Naruto said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder at the travel pack strapped tightly to himself. Anything to keep from being caught staring at Ino's butt while she got back into bed, "Me and Shika have got a mission. We're probably gonna fight Akatsuki again."

Ino got herself resettled and stared at Naruto long and hard, looking over the fact that he was getting ready to head off on the job, "I'd tell you to be careful, but that's a total death flag, so just kiss me goodbye and I'll be good."

"You, being good?" Naruto asked with a scoff as he got closer, eliciting a scowl out of her, "I really wish you could go though."

"Mmm," Ino wrapped a hand behind Naruto's neck and pulled him in for a long kiss, "Do you?" She asked, breaking away to start peppering multiple kisses that cut him off from answering.

"Yeah," Naruto said in between multiple pecks from the girl before finally pulling away, "We wouldn't have any fun on this one, but I still wish you could go."

"I do and I don't at the same time," Ino admitted shamelessly. On one hand, she hadn't been assigned to go, but on the other she wanted to be there because from her experience it was better to be in danger with Naruto than worry about him from afar, "I guess I can help Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei with baby stuff in the meantime."

Aww. His baby was going to do stuff to help get ready for Asuma-sensei's baby. Ino pointed at him meaningfully to stop anything he was about to say on the matter before it could come out of his mouth.

Ino saw Naruto make a zip motion across his mouth and lowered her hand with a sigh of relief, "Good. Now isn't your team waiting on you to go? I'm not getting in trouble for making you late just because you want pre-mission nookie."

"W-What?" They hadn't been together long enough for him to consider doing that. Not that he wouldn't want to, of course not that, but getting too frisky too fast with a kunoichi was an effective way of getting oneself neutered. Aside from the physical ramifications, Naruto would rather hammer a nail through his hand than screw up what he had with Ino.

Two buttons on Ino's pajama blouse then decided to pop open for Naruto's benefit.

Fully awake at this point, Ino's playful side was on full display. It was almost effortless at that point to establish a connection telepathically between the two of them, "Come on, you're gonna say you weren't thinking about it?" She communicated through thought.

If he hadn't before he was now. Getting a very good view of her chest was probably pushing his mind straight down that gutter.

It was still fun to tease him even when they were together. And the best part was that if she nudged him far enough he'd nudge back, and that would be… interesting for lack of a better term.

She hadn't expected him to push back right at that very moment though.

The fair-skinned blonde bit back a gasp when Naruto leaned over her, stroking her cheek and looking into her eyes. The moment she opened her mouth to speak, she found herself the recipient of a searing kiss. She fought his tongue with her own for dominance but quickly lost due to foul play from roaming hands. Her body pressed to Naruto's she bit back a moan when he kissed and nuzzled against her neck, moving his spiky head toward the opening of her top.

"Stahhhp…" Ino whined, biting down on the index finger of one hand while guiding Naruto lower with the other. She didn't mean it at all.

Kissing her collarbone, he continued downward, undoing the rest of her buttons and stopping at her belly-button, watching her fight to keep from wriggling too intensely beneath him, 'Holy shit, this Ero-sensei stuff actually works?'

And here he'd been pretending to ignore Jiraiya whenever he'd gone off on one of his explanatory tangents on how to play with girls. Thank goodness Naruto had only pretended to not listen. He idly wondered what else he'd been right about, and how much of it he'd get to try with Ino.

She would never voice it aloud and let him think that he'd won, but it took all of the Yamanaka telepath's focus to keep from screaming out in her mind for him to touch her, to do anything he wanted. If she'd have thought it as loudly as she knew she would have, he'd have heard it. They were that close in mind. And she'd have never lived it down,

He kept doing that damn thing where he'd put his hand on the lower part of her belly and use his full-body sensor jutsu in direct contact with her, 'Stupid chakra-pulse foreplay!'

Naruto's grin was downright evil. His fingertips hooked onto the waistband of her bottoms and tugged at them until they reached her shins. Settling his hands on her knees, Naruto teased pushing her closed thighs apart. Just the thought of it made Ino whimper in complaint every time she felt him start and stop.

'Hey, remember that time you tried to get me all flustered and five minutes later you were screaming at me to do this-and-that to you?' Yeah, she could imagine hearing that back later and wasn't letting that happen.

Ino shut her eyes tightly, breathing in pants as she anticipated what was to come, only to feel nothing but a breeze. Opening her eyes, she turned her head and saw that her window was open and there was no Naruto in sight.

…He was gone.

That asshole! She could literally hear him cackling inside of her head. Really. Instead of forming actual words through their telepathic connection he was making the effort to mentally laugh.

"Ooh… you're so going to get it for leaving me like this when you get back Goldie!" Ino thought to Naruto fitfully through their connection. Granted, she should have known better. There was no chance in hell Naruto would have done anything serious inside of her house with both of her parents present.

Still, Ino was a bit spoiled. When she wanted something, she usually got it. She hadn't quite gotten what she'd wanted this time, either because Naruto had seduced her in return for her messing with him, or because at the very last second he'd thought with his correct head and realized how bad things would have gone for him if they'd had sex in her bedroom.

At least now she knew Naruto had no problems being the aggressor. Fun-fun-fun.

Lying on her back, Ino pulled her bottoms back up and re-buttoned her blouse, grinning up at the ceiling silly and red-faced. Ahh, the joys of specializing in psychology were so much fun when your boyfriend was one of the top 5 most eccentric people in the village.

A knock came to her door and Ino hopped back underneath the covers. It was best to avoid as many awkward conversations with her parents as she could for now. She was anticipating that little episodes like this would only be the beginning.

"People just saw Naruto hopping rooftops like a bat out of hell," Inoichi said as he opened up Ino's door, "What's his problem?"

Ino just giggled to herself and pushed herself up on her elbows, "No problem daddy, he's just late for his mission. He came to let me know he and Shika will be gone."

"In your room? With you in your night clothes?"

Ino shrugged in return, not rising to her father's protective streak, "It's Naruto."

That meant two different things to the two of them. For Inoichi it put him on alert, that he was more than just a teammate, which was what Ino had wanted, thank you psychology. Really, on Ino's side of things, Naruto had done much more in the past than just see her in pajamas. He'd done more not even two minutes ago, the bastard.

Eyeing Ino's room with an analytical eye, the jounin tried to dredge up something suspicious that would have given credence to Naruto getting frisky with his daughter. After five seconds of blank silence he couldn't find anything, and the look on Ino's face was one of annoyance at having her room scrutinized.

His eyes did stop on a pair of goggles that sat in a prime position on her desk. They were perfectly clean, but the lenses were broken, there were markings of obvious wear on the straps and the frame. They looked extremely familiar as well, just like Naruto's. Oh yes, she'd had those for quite some time.

"You still keep these ratty old things," Inoichi pointed out, leaning on the doorframe, "These are Naruto's right?" They had always been broken, but she kept them clean and they were always in sight. Not like a trophy, but like a memento.

"They're Goldie's old pair, yeah," Ino informed him, "Someone we fought a long time ago broke them and he got a new pair, so I asked him if I could keep the old ones."

Weird, because Ino didn't like old clothing, even items that she'd never worn before. Not only were those goggles old, they were used and broken. Also, Ino would never have been caught dead wearing anything like that, "…Why?"

"Because they make me think of him," And thinking of him made her happy. She didn't care if Inoichi felt protective of his little girl or not. She wasn't so little, she wasn't so innocent, and as previously mentioned when she knew she wanted something enough she'd get it.

Hoping he heard something else, Inoichi gave Ino the 'dad stare' only for her to return his look without flinching. He opened his mouth to say something lecture-worthy only to find that he had nothing he could think of. Ino just silently raised an eyebrow as she waited for whatever he had to say, but nothing ever came.

In the end, he just pointed his index and middle fingers at his own eyes and then at hers, getting the girl to roll her eyes, before he departed, closing her door back and walking away. He had to get back to headquarters to continue his shift as lunch was almost over.

Speaking of thinking of Naruto, Ino had a little something of hers to take care of before going back to sleep, and it was Naruto's fault. With a downright evil toothy grin, she made sure she still had her connection with him before reaching a delicate hand underneath the covers and her pajama bottoms.

"Oh Goldie, I'm so glad you've got some fight-back in you. Let's see how far I can make you go before you lose your head," With the person she knew his sensei to be, it probably wouldn't take much of a real shove, "You made me make the first move, but I'm making sure you make the last."

XxX

(Thirty Minutes Later – With Naruto)

Well that had certainly backfired. Badly.

Taking a cue from Naruto laughing inside of her head through telepathy, Ino made sure she was projecting her thoughts to Naruto while she was masturbating. And she made sure they remained connected until she finished.

Now he had to start a mission all frustrated, and he would have no privacy to 'relieve' himself when they finally stopped hours later for a few minutes to take a rest.

He landed at the front gate with a scowl on his face a mile wide. Put off at the sight of him, Shikamaru had to bring it up, "What's the matter with you?"

"You don't want to know," Naruto said, eliciting a mumble of troublesome out of Shikamaru. The two long-time teammates walked the rest of the way to the outside of the gates together to meet up with Killer B, Neji, and Sasuke, "What's up guys? Are we ready to go?"

"Wheee!" Killer B exclaimed, throwing his hand into the air, index and pinky finger extended to mimic horns, "Hachibi-sama's ready to bust! Them black-coated clowns 'bout to bite the dust!" Izumo and Kotetsu both visibly cringed inside of the gate station.

"Ugh." Naruto heard the Kyuubi complain inside of his head, "Please. I don't care if we'd lose or not. Just fight him. Either we'll kill him or he'll kill us, but at least I won't ever have to hear his voice anymore. We both can't live on the same planet for too much longer." It was almost willing to make the sacrifice as long as it didn't have to hear Killer B try to rap ever again.

"Sunagakure isn't being entirely unhelpful about the situation," Neji informed them, holding up several marked maps that he'd managed to procure from those working in the long-distance messenger department, "They were able to keep a heading of what they could find on their movements that would lead us in the right direction."

Probably borderlands. There wasn't a chance that they'd try anything where people had free reign to scour an entire countryside for them. Another way that Akatsuki constantly used the political environment against the hidden villages. It was probably a trick they'd picked up from Orochimaru judging by how good he was at it… or vice-versa.

It hadn't been what they'd expected once Naruto, Sasuke, and Shikamaru got themselves a look of their own.

Sasuke got a good look at the map and stared long and hard as his mouth slowly fell open, 'There's no way.'

But it was the only place that made sense. It fit too neatly with where the map had them going and where Sasuke knew that place was. It fit so perfectly that Sasuke kept trying to convince himself that it wouldn't be the right place.

But even if it wasn't, it fell just outside of Suna's projected field of hideout locations. They would wind up passing by it even if Sasuke ignored the big beacon of familiarity that existed right by him. He would be remiss to keep that sort of information to himself. There was no such thing as coincidence after all.

"-llo! Oi! Sasuke! Wake up!"

Sasuke returned to the world of dynamic thought with Naruto trying to get his attention, "What's your problem dobe?"

"What's your problem?" Naruto asked in return, "I know you like acting too cool to pay attention to anybody, but we've been trying to get your attention for the last minute. You're leading the formation."

"Look alive Uchiha," Neji said to him, "If something occurs ahead of us you're supposed to be the one to react first and inform us."

He didn't even bother scowling or raising a fuss in return, "I'll hold up my end, just make sure you and Shikamaru keep up," He said as he ran off, setting the pace for the rest of the team to follow. He knew he didn't have to worry about Naruto, who was a stamina monster, and Killer B was probably the exact same. It was a good thing because he knew where they were going, and he was going to be footing it double-time to get there quickly.

Not so much to stop Akatsuki, but to get to Itachi.

In the formation it was Sasuke, then Killer B, then Naruto, then Shikamaru, then Neji at the rear. With that setup, Shikamaru was able to speak to Naruto subtly, "This isn't going to go well at all."

Naruto spared a glance over his shoulder at his closest friend. He was used to his pessimism, but hearing it right out of the gate was off-putting. Shikamaru's pragmatic outlook on the things going on around him usually wasn't that cynical.

As everyone settled into an uncomfortably tense travel silence, only broken in the slightest by Killer B's calm humming of beats as this was just business as usual, Naruto couldn't help but admit that Shikamaru had a point.

There was something funky about the whole thing. Mainly because it would probably be the first time that two members of the Uchiha Clan would be in the same place at the same time in nearly a decade. At least it would be the first time on record that they knew of.

'I had to fight to keep it together when I saw Kabuto,' Naruto thought to himself, frowning in consideration of what Sasuke was more than likely going to be like if and when they saw Itachi, 'I can't even imagine how Sasuke's would go off on the guy that killed his whole clan.'

He hadn't realized just how bad things had the potential to get until he'd seen Sasuke's face change when they'd all seen that map. Whatever Sasuke saw assured him that he was going to have it out with Itachi come hell or high water. Naruto saw it. Shikamaru saw it. And they couldn't turn back now. Time was of the essence, and they were on a head-on collision with whatever the fates had in store for them.

Sasuke had almost nine years to stew over it, every single day. He lived in the Uchiha Clan district all by himself. It was a veritable ghost town and a bitter reminder of what he'd lost every time he left his house in the morning. Naruto didn't have his clan either, but he saw the grounds around the mask temple as a chance to rebuild and make something wonderful happen there again. It wasn't a similar outlook on the solitude.

The same principle probably didn't apply when you saw your dead relatives littering the streets at one time.

For Naruto, fighting Itachi just once for as long as he had before the eldest Uchiha brother had left him to duke it out with Kimimaro alone had been quite the tall order. Fighting Kimimaro had been simpler in comparison when it boiled down to it. Itachi was one of the most talented ninja Naruto had ever had to deal with, and it hadn't just been the genjutsu.

Since regaling his friends with tales of the explosion of violence, Sasuke had gotten him to train with him from time to time, and in exchange for Sharingan management training he constantly picked Naruto's brain for tidbits on what he could remember from how Itachi fought; any habits that he might have picked up on. Every little bit helped, and nothing he could tell Sasuke about the fight was useless to him.

They did walkthroughs where at times it seemed Sasuke tried to recreate what he was being told, and whenever he did it was never with a look of barely bridled anger that one would expect Sasuke to present to anything having to do with Itachi.

At times it was hard to tell if Sasuke wanted to emulate some portions Itachi out of respect for how good he was, or if he wanted to know how Itachi would move on as intimate a level as he could, to know how to strike him down well in advance when it finally came time to take his head off.

They needed a plan of action on how they would engage the pair. As Naruto and Shikamaru had fought them before, the two of them would have the best knowledge of how to go about handling them, but between Killer B who neither of them held out much hope for when it came to listening to them, and Sasuke who they figured would get tunnel vision the moment it became clear that Itachi was in his grasp there wasn't much hope of any plan Shikamaru could make surviving first contact with the enemy.

"Nothing good'll come of this," Shikamaru said to Naruto quiet enough to keep it from being heard too widely, "Just my luck. What a drag."

He'd have to plan for whatever plan he came up with first to fail, and fail to such a degree that two of his players wouldn't be a dependable factor any longer. That was always unpleasant.

When in doubt, when chaos would guarantee to reign supreme over the worst possible situation, Shikamaru had always been able to rely on one thing, and seeing the grin surface on Naruto's face despite what he'd just said solidified only solidified what he'd already gotten to know for three years.

"Shika, just calm down. We've got everything we need. We've got everyone we need," Naruto said in an oddly calm, strangely composed and thought out tone of voice, "You're the best there is, aren't you?"

"Naruto-."

"-You're the smartest there is, aren't you?"

Shikamaru sighed deeply before feeling his nerves settle, "I don't want to be, seeing as how it's a pain in my ass, but if you're making me say it; yeah."

Ego was contagious. And when you constantly hung around someone that wouldn't accept for a moment that you weren't the most intelligent person in existence, it sort of rubbed off on you.

"Well Neji's got the best eyes in the world, Sasuke's the angriest guy in the world, B's the strongest jinchuuriki in the world, and me? Heh, if I said too much about me your heads would explode," Naruto said, his grin never fading despite the obvious ludicrous degree of his statements, "This team is pure… concentrated… badass, and I'm not about to be scared of some blue fish guy and Sasuke's big brother. Not after I actually saw something to be afraid of."

By now, everyone could hear him, and everyone was listening.

"I can't be afraid of anything else ever again," Naruto said, his tone dead serious, ensuring that the entire team heard him, "I told B already. There's only one mortal man walking the face of the planet that I'm scared of," He'd admit it. He was man enough to admit that he was shaken up at the thought of fighting someone, "It isn't B, and it damn sure isn't anybody in Akatsuki."

Everyone had been leaping through the trees, being all silent and reflective, as if they were facing off against the living boogeymen of their society. No. They weren't. Not after Naruto had caught sight of the real thing, or as close to the real thing as anyone was going to reach in this day and age.

He wouldn't be afraid. Not of Hoshigaki Kisame, not of Uchiha Itachi, and whenever Orochimaru slithered his way back in front of his machete again he'd show that snake just how scared he was of him.

Naruto wouldn't be afraid, and he wouldn't let his team be afraid of something that he knew in his heart they could defeat.

"So enough with the silence already. Whatever happens is gonna happen. All we can do is be ready for a fight," Naruto said with a snort, "Seriously, you guys are acting like we're heading for an execution platform instead of out on a mission," They'd all taken the mission knowing the mess that they were going to get into.

It would have been silly to get cold feet right after embarking. They were all talented enough to get the job done. They had to believe that they were. The moment they didn't they might as well have written themselves off as K.I.A.

'Not bad Mister Nine,' Killer B thought, pausing his internal soundtrack long enough to hear Naruto out and see that it actually had an effect on his team. The grim atmosphere had faded, leaving a stark determination behind.

He gave them something of a heart-to-heart, and then he called them out directly. It worked.

All Neji did was smirk and nod his head, but Naruto's direct contrast on the team was a tad more vocal.

"Tch, I didn't need to hear any of your dumb speech." Sasuke said callously with a smirk, "I guess getting together with Yamanaka made you two double-down on the dumb blond stereotype or something," Naruto just silently flipped him off from behind, having gotten the response that he'd wanted out of him, "For the record, I've got the best eyes in the world."

Neji took that as a challenge, "Oho. Really now? We'll just have to see about that Uchiha-san."

"Hm. I guess we will."

And all of a sudden the uncomfortable weight was gone. The cloud that had been looming overhead since the outset of the mission had vanished. Shikamaru furrowed his brow in thought. Just how the hell did Naruto manage to do that so easily? He knew how all three of his present friends ticked to that sort of a degree.

Naruto knew how serious things were, how serious they would be in a matter of days. He only got this way when he knew in advance, without a shadow of a doubt that they were walking into a proverbial meat grinder, and Shikamaru hadn't seen him like that since they'd left the Guardians. Shikamaru was the only one present that had seen him like that.

Naruto wasn't the smartest. He never would be and with what he already had he didn't have to be in order to go as far as he needed to in life. He also had yet to become the strongest in the village, but what had just occurred was leader quality, plain and simple. When anarchy loomed, if you dropped Naruto into the face of it, Shikamaru had no doubt that Naruto would give him the time to make sense of the calamity. That was a leader.

A leader didn't need to have all of the answers or need to be able to solve everything themselves. That was a gross misconception. A leader needed to be the person that had the correct people around him with the answers or resources, and could inspire them to bring out what was needed. As a follower you had to believe in their belief in you, that they were right to put their faith in you.

They weren't kids any longer. One of them had to start standing up as someone that their generation could follow. Shikamaru was smart enough to lead, but he wasn't the one to inspire the kind of widespread confidence that could sway the hearts of people. It was why he'd have been fine with a middle-management position in life.

And now he had to make sure that Naruto wound up being everything that he was shaping up to be.

Thinking of this, Shikamaru rolled his eyes, 'I'm really going to follow that idiot all the way to the top aren't I?' He thought to himself, 'Either that or we're both going to wind up getting shallow, unmarked graves dug for us in the ass-end of nowhere. One or the other.'

Then again, he'd known that well in advance already.


Omake: 'Til What Do Us Part? (1)

Ugh. Shopping. Why?

Naruto knew that Ino worked hard, and he also knew that due to the fact she still lived at home and did not have to pay for living expenses she had quite a fair amount of disposable income for a young lady. Income that she liked to use on sundry goods and items of a leisurely nature.

Having quickly learned the value of money from his time living off of a stipend, Naruto didn't particularly like to splurge on anything unnecessary outside of regular trips to the greatest restaurant of all time and to ensure that his cupboards were constantly stocked with top-shelf instant ramen. Even so, Naruto had an appreciation for Ino's appreciation of the finer things.

Even when those things were clothes, because she had a tendency to parade around in front of him while wearing them, and she was anything but modest about it.

Still though, eventually when you had an attention-span that could be diverted by the sight of a squirrel running past you, watching your hot girlfriend model clothes for you eventually became rather monotonous since it was in public. That meant that the fashion shows came with a strict tag of 'look but don't touch', no matter how sexy he thought she looked at any given time.

Purple was her color, but she made that cream-colored evening dress look remarkable.

"Goldie, how does this look?"

Quite good actually, but he'd said that so many times already that day that it tasted like ash in his mouth to repeat, and he knew what ash tasted like. He was bored, and he couldn't even veg out properly because he had to stay aware enough to answer her.

"Ino-chan, I don't know why you're asking me," Naruto eventually said, "Even if you get it, even if you don't, the only clothes I usually ever see you in are your work clothes or your ninja stuff," That was the wrong way to respond judging by the glare he received for his candor.

Ino pointed at Naruto accusingly, waving her finger close to his face, "Are you kidding? The reason you dress up is to look good. And since I'm not looking for a boyfriend the only person I care about dressing up for is you!"

'If it was for me we'd be at my place, and you wouldn't be wearing anything at all.'

"I heard that."

Damn telepathic connection.

It was wonderful that more often than not that he could communicate with Ino without even having to talk, but sometimes he'd forget the rules of mental projection. They were so close that the louder he thought things the easier it was for her to pick up on them. He could get by it if it was on as long as he thought in an 'indoor voice', but as loud as he'd thought that last one he might as well have tapped her on the shoulder and stage whispered it right to her.

Even so…

"I still stand by it," Naruto said, no qualms about it.

"Part of me is flattered, but the other part wants to wash your brain out with soap," Ino said, poking Naruto on the nose before turning to go back to the changing room, "I'll change and pay for what I'm getting. Be out in a minute."

Cool. Finally, Naruto could go stretch his legs outside, and maybe he could convince Ino to head back Ichiraku Ramen way for some lunch? The sun hurt his eyes so much upon exiting that he pulled his goggles down to avoid being blinded.

Summertime in Konoha might have sounded redundant when they lived in a country that had 'fire' in its name, but it was particularly hot and sticky out today. Kids had ice cream and were playing games of ninja with water balloons and wet sponges instead of wooden shuriken, girls were walking around in clothes that were skimpy by civvie standards. It was that kind of day.

Naruto found his attention garnered by the heat lines in the distance until he heard someone call out.

"Boss!"

Well that could have been anyone really. But judging from the tone of the voice that was so familiar, and the instinctual reaction to sidestep something about to barrel into him, Naruto could take a swinging guess at who it was, "Konohamaru," Naruto said, grabbing him by the scarf as he ran past, "Why are you yelling for me!?"

"Is it true?" The new genin asked, not specifying anything about what he'd meant as he poked Naruto in the chest, "It can't be right? You're not that kind of guy!"

"What kind of guy?" He was getting ready to see if Slingshot Guillotine worked with kids in long scarves as opposed to machetes on chains of chakra. Not that he didn't love the kid, but all of that swelling up on him crap was for the birds.

Konohamaru just stared at Naruto before shaking his head, "Nevermind. We'll get to the bottom of it this way," Turning around he cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled, "Hey guys! He's over here! I found him!"

Naruto tapped his foot on the dirt road and watched as Moegi and Udon landed on the ground seconds later. Once again, he had no idea what was going on. An instant later he choked on his own saliva at the sight of who they'd brought with them.

A gorgeous girl, dressed all in black with pitch-black hair and sharp green eyes. Shizuka.

He thought he'd left that mess behind in the Capital.

"Naruto," She seemed far too pleased with finding him for his tastes.

It was like locking eyes with a predator. If you moved too suddenly you were calling down the wrath onto yourself. Naruto's mouth suddenly felt very dry. It would have been so much easier if she had just been someone who wanted to kick his butt. He could handle that. But she didn't. She hadn't for a long time, "Shizuka…what the hell are you doing in Konoha?"

Shizuka really was a gorgeous girl, even from as small a smile as she presented him with just at answering his question.

"I received correspondence that you'd retired from the Guardians and returned to your village," She answered earnestly, "Without your contract to the Fire Daimyo binding you, I felt it was time to try again in persuading you to return to Nadeshiko Village."

Confusion was rampant on Naruto's face, "Who'd have sent you mail telling you that I was-…?" Shikamaru. He was the only person that knew where to send anything and actually would have done it, "…Shika, that's crossing the line."

Shikamaru had hit below the belt before as far as pranks had gone. If he was going to put forth effort on anything he was going to do it to the extent that he wouldn't ever have to follow up on it again; the whole 'swing once hard enough to keep the other guy down' adage.

Naruto let the 'Letters from the Capital' book slide because despite how personal it was it had been a damn good prank. Having this happen as retribution for the prank war was just way too vengeful. No wonder he hadn't been seeing too much out of Shikamaru the last few days. The bastard knew what was going to happen before it started because he'd been the one to orchestrate it, and he was smart enough to ensure he was nowhere near it.

Ignoring the proverbial raincloud dampening Naruto's mood, Shizuka walked up to him and attempted to grab his hand only for him to pull it out of the way without even paying attention. Much to her annoyance he repeated the process several times without fail.

It was at that point that Ino walked outside with her bags in hand and frowned thoroughly at the sight of Shizuka within ten feet of her boyfriend, "Oh. It's you again," At least now she could hear things from the horse's mouth, "Goldie, this girl says you're her fiancé. True or false?" Getting questioned by his girlfriend on potential infidelity certainly got Naruto's attention.

"False! False as hell!" Naruto exclaimed, throwing his arms up in front of himself in an 'x', "She jumped me in the Capital off of some challenge her master and Ero-sensei threw out before we were born, and I scared her into stopping. Next thing you know she's saying stuff about how we're engaged!"

There was a longer story to it, but that was the gist. He was fairly certain that no one wanted to hear a third-party story about how Jiraiya had screwed him over twenty years in advance back in his days of wanderlust.

Ino raised an eyebrow and spared Shizuka a glance, not minding that she was being subjected to an imperial glare from the woman. She could be catty if sister wanted to make this an issue, "Okay… so since she thinks you're stronger than her-."

Naruto butted in with an amendment, "-Hey, she KNOWS I'm stronger than her."

Oh good lord, and this was her boyfriend, "Whatever. So since she knows you're stronger than her-," Ino said, shooting a mock glare Naruto's way and garnering a cheeky grin out of him, "-She's now obsessed with clubbing you over the head and dragging you back to her village Amazon-style so she can stud you out."

Konohamaru, Udon, and Moegi's eyes went wide upon hearing Ino's rather blunt description of what Naruto would be in the Nadeshiko Village. Slowly, Konohamaru raised his hand slowly, getting the attention of his senior Konoha shinobi, "…I kind of want to go be a Ninja Guardian for a few years now."

Udon couldn't help but concur, "Yeah, me too."

"What? No!" Naruto said, completely beside himself. He wanted to be a good influence! There was nothing good to come of them wanting his old job!

No, that was an awful, awful job. No shinobi child should ever aspire to be a Guardian. Yes, the pay was sweet, you got in good with the daimyo for life with just a three year bid, you got a sweet-sweet sash, and so many people had it out for the Hi no Kuni nobility that there was no end of skulls to crack for practice, but it never stopped.

There were only twelve of them at most and they had to handle an ungodly workload of missions that started off at B-rank and topped out at S. It was no place for anyone that hadn't already lived a full life, because there was a good it would end while you were under contract,

The Good Samaritan part of Naruto who had thought the same thing as Konohamaru and Udon before experiencing it firsthand felt it wouldn't be right if he did anything other than persuade them away from that existence. "Why would you want to do that job?"

"Because Asuma-oji went and he's so cool!" Konohamaru exclaimed, "You went too Boss, and now look at you! You're stronger than ever! Plus you've got Ino, that other girl, and this new girl that you met there fighting over you!"

Naruto stared at the genin team, his head tilted in confusion, "What other girl?" He never received an answer to that question.

"I'm not fighting over Goldie," Ino insisted, fists set on her hips, "…I've already got him. As far as I'm concerned any fight that could've happened is over already. Now come to mama, Goldie."

Udon and Konohamaru struck nosebleeds at the way Ino made that sound.

"Okay, first of all, no. I'm not into that," Naruto deadpanned Ino's way, prompting her to pout out at him before he turned back to Shizuka, "Second of all, I'll tell you what I told you at the Capital. I'm not going back to anybody's village to get hitched. Not to somebody I don't love and who doesn't love me."

There it was. Ino shifted her own glance to Shizuka to see how she reacted. Naruto wasn't going anywhere and it was as simple as that. As far as Ino was concerned, Shizuka could take her curvy, well-built little ass and walk it straight out of the gates back from whence she came.

"It's already been decided Naruto. We are going to be married. It can only be you. You're the only man that's ever defeated me, and that's what's most important. It's a good match."

Or not.

"Argh!" Ino exclaimed before taking aim at Shizuka with her fingers in her number one clan hand-seal. The Nadeshiko kunoichi didn't seem nonplussed in the slightest, "Alright, that's it. How's a nice trip out to sea sound? I've heard the fishing boats in Nami no Kuni spend at least a month straight out there. Shintenshin no Ju-!"

Naruto stopped her from doing something rash with as much conviction as he could muster from someone that also wanted Shizuka gone, "Ino-chan! No!" She couldn't just use a jutsu of that nature on someone out of the blue, even if it wouldn't have caused her the slightest physical harm. Body-snatching was not seen as a small matter. It would have been even if not for what had happened a short time ago.

"But-!"

"No!"

"She's gonna-!"

"Noooo!"

Those two could not be allowed fight. Not in the middle of the village they couldn't. While Ino's techniques weren't very destructive, Shizuka's were. And Ino would have been initiating conflict unprovoked. He didn't want to have to visit her in Konoha's Strict Correctional Facility for the next three-to-six months and she didn't want to be there.

Knowing this, Ino sighed and lamely lowered her hands out of the seal, slumping over in defeat. It probably wouldn't have been her best idea to have taken Shizuka's body down to the middle of the ocean and left it there, but she wanted to so badly. It would have handled the matter, or at least delayed it.

She looked over at Naruto and quickly straightened back up with a serious look, pointing at her blue eyes and then his before turning her back, slapping her own rear. Naruto gulped gravely, but nodded, prompting Ino to depart for home with her purchases, message sent.

And it was clear; if you aren't going to let me solve this you'd better handle it yourself, or you aren't getting any this. Not until the issue was resolved. And they didn't even need a telepathic connection for it. They really were on the same wavelength.

The sight of Ino intentionally making a show of her hips moving as she walked away until she vanished in the midday crowd didn't hurt when it came to driving the point home.

Naruto quietly groaned to himself. Shizuka wasn't breaking any rules or laws by being in Konoha. She wasn't going to outright try and capture him. She was just going to bug him and sabotage his budding relationship with Ino or anyone else she had to until he broke and she got to take him home with her.

Taking him home with her was going to be improbably, if not next to impossible, for several reasons (one of them sitting in his body, batting its tails in slumber) that he doubted she would care about, but that didn't matter. Stubborn people were stubborn after all. She wasn't going to give up, and neither was he.

It was going to be a battle of wills and wiles, and it was going to be downright miserable for the young jinchuuriki.


And that's the chapter. Aside from what you can already imagine is going to go down next, I'm just going to say, all of those Guardian omakes from earlier in the story were done for a reason. They'll be coming into play somewhat next chapter.

Alright, so I've heard through the grapevine, i.e. some of my lovely reviewers, that Orochimaru in this story is overpowered.

To which I respond en masse with honest curiosity... compared to what exactly?

Seriously, I really want to know. There's actual merit to that argument because in essence he is, or at least there would have been over 100 chapters ago (and I'm being generous by staying that low in number), but now, not a chance.

I won't do anything like what I'm about to say because I have standards as a storyteller and a desire to actually improve on what I've done in the past, but theoretically I believe that I could give any remaining villain anything I wanted at this point, within reason of the present universe, and they still wouldn't be OP compared to what actually exists in canon. Jeez.

Comparatively, Orochimaru with the Sanbi and a body that's too legit to quit isn't overpowered compared to say, the real Madara from the days before ninja morals.

Who comes from a land down under.
Where women glow and men plunder.

...Who has Rinnegan… and Eternal Mangekyou Sharingan… and Mokuton… and the Juubi… which is apparently like the God of trees or something; the crown deity of timber and coppice.

Hold on a second.

*gasp* I'm the Log Pope. I should have seen this coming! The divine log! It all makes sense now! The source of the greatest jutsu in the history of the series; Kawarimi no Jutsu, had to be divine itself!

Oh goodness, how could I have ever missed it? My scriptures should have given me enough clues all along as to the true identity of the Juubi.

I hope you enjoyed. I… need to go reflect and repent for my lack of foresight.

Kenchi out.