Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. That's obvious. You think if I owned Naruto I'd be here writing this for you?

Please excuse me while I get in a good, deep laugh at your expense for a few seconds.

Chapter 73: Anyone But You


After being informed by Shikamaru of the plans that Konoha's upper brass had for them, Naruto couldn't get himself together fast enough to head out and get it confirmed straight from the highest source available.

Hiruzen was not surprised to see Naruto so soon after the decision was made and sent out, nor was he surprised by the energetic response from the young man. He was older and wiser than the little boy who used to prank others for attention, but there was still a lot of enthusiasm inside of him.

"So, I heard you were gonna promote me," Naruto said with a grin as he sidled into the Hokage's office, entirely appointment-free, "Just so you know, I'm perfectly fine with getting a genin team. I'm great with kids. When's the next graduation again?"

A shiver went down the Sandaime Hokage's spine at the thought of Naruto actually being in a position of influence and authority over three Academy-fresh genin. From his interactions with Konohamaru and Hanabi, yes, he would be a good teacher, but the village was not ready for that sort of team, and it was uncertain if it ever would be.

"You're not getting a genin team," He stated flatly, as seriously as he could, "Not anytime soon. Besides, you have to be promoted to jounin first."

"Well, we can solve half of that problem right now. Promote me."

"Naruto."

"Okay, fine," Naruto acquiesced, much to Sarutobi's relief until he realized that this was Naruto. His ego would only allow him to admit fault in a situation such as this only so much, "…Send me on the mission for the test, then promote me."

Decades of politics gave the wizened old Hokage an incredible poker face, yet Naruto was often able to render it a twitching mess within minutes, "We don't just pick random missions to send you on for your jounin exam," He explained, "We carefully select the sort of assignments that would allow you to show us everything that you would need to prove that you were ready for the position."

'Carefully selecting' sounded like something that he would have to wait quite some time for. Patience was never one of Naruto's virtues, "Well how long will that take? Me and Shika are ready to get this show on the road," Instead of a glare, Hiruzen's stare turned to one of complete skepticism, knowing better, "…Okay, I'm ready to get the show on the road, Shikamaru isn't really as happy as I am about the idea."

"That's just fine, because you won't be going on the same missions regardless," Hiruzen informed the teenage jinchuuriki, to the chagrin of the latter.

Naruto's jaw dropped in disbelief. It was Team 10! What did he mean they wouldn't be going together? It didn't make sense to him, "What? Oh come on! What fun would getting promoted be if I couldn't do it with someone who'd actually celebrate with me?"

Once again, Hiruzen wasn't willing to bite on the idea that Nara Shikamaru would do anything of the sort, "Shikamaru of all people would celebrate?"

"…Stop poking holes in my arguments, old man! I'm trying to make a point here."

"A very dull point," Hiruzen jabbed in return, smirking momentarily when he was able to elicit an irritated response from Naruto, "We can't judge two jounin candidates on the same missions when they're the ones who are supposed to be leading it. If we did it your way, you would be going on two missions, one entirely irrelevant to your promotion."

Naruto thought about it for all of half a second, "Okay."

The Hokage sighed and grabbed at the bridge of his nose to fight back the Naruto-induced migraine he could just feel was coming on strong, "…If you both went on each other's missions, evaluations would be more difficult for the both of you."

"Well, just as long as I can go on his test missions then, they don't have to score me during it. Or they can score me twice. Whichever one is worse. I don't mind," Naruto said with a confident grin and a shrug before his expression became more earnest, "Team 10 is like a family to me, and this test is… special. I never had a brother or anything, but Shikamaru is the closest thing I'll probably ever have to one. Even if makes it harder for me, I'll do it. I want to be there and make sure he has the best chance possible to get what he deserves."

No matter how much Hiruzen butted heads with Danzo over the years, his late friend and rival had a point that he had never really been able to dispute; he had a notable soft spot at times. While he liked to believe that he was as tough on enemies as any kage should have been, when it came to the people of his village, especially some of the ones that had a particular place in his heart, he was very lenient.

Naruto was one of those people. He had made concessions for that boy in the past over things much bigger than his possible placement on a test mission. If he wanted to basically take his exam twice instead of once, that was his business.

"Whenever Shikamaru's jounin test that he's meant to lead is put together, I won't bar you from being on the squad," Hiruzen relented, "It's really up to him. Test-takers oftentimes get their choice of available shinobi for missions aside from the proctor anyway. I'm just saying, it makes things needlessly difficult for you."

"Please. Something like this can't stop me."

"The jounin exam isn't like the chunin exam. You don't get to just take it every half-year if you fail. If you don't perform properly, it could be years before you're given another look for a promotion."

"I already told you, it doesn't matter to me. I'll get there somehow," Naruto said determinedly, the small, heartfelt smile still present on his face, "I just want to get there with people that actually give a fuck, you know?" After a moment of silence, Naruto cleared his throat and changed the topic to something less sappy, "So since this is all coming up after the whole mess with Sora-ku and Iwa, is Sasuke getting a promotion test too?"

At that, Hiruzen paused, surprising Naruto. He thought it would be a sure thing that if his dysfunctional ass was getting a look for a jounin position, Sasuke would be as well. He hadn't been prepared for the fact that apparently it wasn't.

Hiruzen folded his wrinkled hands over one another as he considered the issue, "Sasuke. I was thinking about it," He admitted, smiling a bit when he thought about all of the progress Kakashi reported he'd seen while he was in charge of Team 7, "The boy has a lot of talent. He's come a long way, and I'm not talking in terms of his ninjutsu. He seems more stable. Not quite as angry as he was when he was a boy."

"I'll take part of the credit for that," Naruto said, none too humbly, "He doesn't have so much hate to throw around when he's aiming most of it at me. We piss each other off pretty well, but hey, what are friends for?"

Hiruzen shook his head at the young man's exuberant demeanor. But this was more serious than Naruto really knew. The inside of Sasuke's head was not a pretty place, "He needs to come in for a mental evaluation, as do you," Hiruzen fought the urge to roll his eyes at Naruto's mischievous grin. His girlfriend tripled as a certified therapist in addition to her duties as a field shinobi and an interrogation specialist, so it wasn't like it would be hard to get him to do his, "Sasuke's been avoiding it. I won't make the sort of call that would put him in that important a position until I'm certain he can handle it."

Sasuke's capabilities on the battlefield were not in question, and while his drive to fight for others and protect his colleagues could be iffy at times, he had no record of deserting his comrades. That didn't change the fact that he was still a mentally fragile boy. He had dealt with a lot over the years, between Orochimaru's seal, dealing with his brother again, and more.

In the back of Hiruzen's mind, no matter how capable Sasuke grew, he would always see a part of him as the catatonic seven-year-old boy in the hospital the morning after the Uchiha Clan was destroyed.

He was a constant living, breathing reminder of one of the Sandaime Hokage's biggest regrets during his long tenure as leader of the village.

"Come on, old man," Naruto said, cutting through the Hokage's sullen introspection, "Sasuke's a moody son-of-a-bitch, but he's not that bad. Besides, he got his man, right? Uchiha Itachi, the source of all of his crazy, he's dead. Sasuke put him in the ground. It's over."

XxX

(Meanwhile – Uchiha Clan District – Naka Shrine)

Sasuke's brain had the consistency of pudding. Whatever he had expected from the story before 'Madara' had told it, he hadn't expected it to hit so close to home… or to fill so many holes in what he'd known of the massacre back when it had occurred.

He didn't know how to feel about any of what he had just been given in regards to the final fate of his clan.

Well, that wasn't exactly true. Anger was the first emotion that welled up. It was his default setting for most of the things that happened in his life that he didn't understand or agree with.

Disbelief was the next. The Uchiha Clan had shed blood in the name of Konoha. Had fought countless battles for the safety and sanctity of the village. Had dedicated themselves to overseeing the day-to-day piece of the population. For God's sake, they had been one of the two driving forces that led to its formation almost a century ago! Why?

Why would the village blame them for the attack of the Nine-Tails? Why would their paranoia cause them to isolate the clan and put so much pressure on them that a coup was the only option they saw possible?

Why was he even listening to this, other than the fact that he couldn't kill the masked bastard or force him to go away.

But it all made sense.

His clan hadn't always lived in that one part of the village eventually designated as the Uchiha Clan District. Not entirely. Yet they were all packed together on top of each other. Adult shinobi still living at home with their parents, despite the fact they could get their own lodgings elsewhere in Konoha.

All of the attention on him in the Academy personally, not because he was good, but because they were keeping a close eye on him as a future problem.

Come to think of it, an Uchiha Clan member had never even come close to leading the village. Itachi's placement in ANBU was the only time they'd gotten any kind of position so prestigious. It was why their father had seen it as such a big deal. And yet, it seemed it was only another chance for the village to keep closer tabs on the clan.

…And have their agent that would eventually strike at the heart of the clan to wipe them all off the face of the planet.

But how could you accept something that flew directly in the face of everything that you had believed in and had lived your entire life by for the last ten years?

Tobi could see just what his little history lesson had done to Sasuke. Emotionally, the boy was a kite being blown about in the wind. Sasuke wasn't exactly the picture definition of 'stable', even on a good day.

But that was just it.

He needed Sasuke to be volatile. He didn't necessarily need the boy to stand with him, didn't need him to fight for his cause. Sasuke was a wild card at best. He would only have use as a pawn that would get him what he wanted, and the less he thought about his actions, the easier it would be. He just needed Sasuke's instability to create enough of a distraction to give him a chance to do what was required.

It wouldn't take much more at this point. He was clearly so frazzled, there was little left to do other than to drive the final stake home.

"Itachi loved the village more than the clan, so to prevent a civil war he enlisted my help to slaughter them all," Tobi said, "…But his love for you was even greater than that. He did as he was told, his only condition being that no one was to lay a hand on you."

"If Itachi loved me so much, he should have known what this would do to me!" He bellowed, "Killing me with everyone else would have been more merciful! And he let me live, out of some guilt trip, so that I could be the one to put him down. AND FOR WHAT!? All so he could feel redeemed in the end!?"

Sasuke's rage and sadness were swelling. Tobi could feel it as though it were tangible, something he could grab onto and manipulate with his hands.

Tobi's words would do just fine, however.

"No. It was out of purely selfish love. Itachi could endure walking this earth with the burden of destroying your clan on his shoulders. But he couldn't live with the thought of killing you," He walked next to Sasuke, looking just past him, noting that the last Uchiha of Konoha didn't budge, "Anyone but you Sasuke. Anyone but you."

No. Itachi was a monster.

Itachi was a monster that didn't care about anyone other than himself and his own strength.

Itachi was a monster who slaughtered the entire clan, killed their parents in cold blood, and made him watch the entire thing as though he had been there in person.

Itachi was his brother who carried him home when he'd worked himself to exhaustion trying to live up to their father's high expectations.

Itachi was the brother who went out of his way to teach him how to be a better ninja, even taking him on a few missions.

Itachi was the brother who always tried to make time for Sasuke, and apologized when he couldn't.

Itachi was a monster that did terrible things. He was also his brother who had given what he could to protect him. And Sasuke had killed him, all because he had been put in an impossible situation where there was no winning, there was only a choice of who and how many would die by the end.

A grin formed behind Tobi's mask as he could see the pattern in Sasuke's eyes begin to change. This was beautiful. It was absolutely perfect.

"This village lives in peace through the lies that your brother and your entire family were buried to protect," Tobi said, speaking softly to his clansman, "Your friends live their lives, ignorantly cursing the name of the one who saved them from dying in fire. The one whoo sacrificed everything to make sure that you survived. But you're the one that took his life in the end. You've become Konoha's perfect little weapon, the one who could finally do the very thing they've always wanted done since the beginning."

He moved inches away from Sasuke's ear and whispered the rest.

"You wiped out what was left of the Uchiha Clan, Sasuke. Well done."

Moving back slightly, he saw the red of Sasuke's eyes transformed into three intersecting ellipses with a black dot of a pupil at the center.

"It doesn't feel good, does it? You have all of these feelings, but no focus for your hatred," Tobi said in an understanding tone, "I'm afraid one of the men responsible is dead and gone, but the other still lives. Still resides over the village you've fought for all these years. And he's never told you. If he had it his way, you would never know. Why would he tell you? You're such a good little pawn. And if there's one thing the Hokage needs, it's good soldiers like you, Sasuke."

He didn't wait around for Sasuke's response, or to see if there would even be one. Tobi teleported away, having seen to what he had infiltrated Konoha to do.

Whatever happened next didn't matter. The seed had already been planted, and with the formation of the Mangekyou Sharingan, the pot was soon to stir.

XxX

(Uzumaki Clan Temple)

Checking in on Naruto was one of Jiraiya's favorite things to do nowadays. Being around when he was stumbling his way through adolescence was fun enough, but it could be a pain in the backside more often than not.

Now, he could watch him come into his own as a functional adult. He could watch him get stronger, and reach life milestones. Milestones like his first girlfriend, getting the chance to be a jounin, and building his own home on his clan's property. It was just the thing he needed to calm down after how angry he had been the other day.

He still wanted to rearrange Onoki's face into an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle, and Orochimaru was still around the top of his list of chief concerns, but there was just something about watching a contractor crew worth of Narutos laying the groundwork on the foundation of what was to be his new house that set him at ease.

"I'll pray for that Yamanaka girl whenever you convince her to shack up with you in that thing," Jiraiya joked sitting inside of the restored mask temple with the original Naruto who was supervising the work of his clones, "I mean, you can probably survive the roof caving in on you because of shoddy workmanship. I'm not so sure she can."

Naruto rolled his eyes and fake-laughed, splitting his attention between his godfather and overseeing his copies to make sure that they didn't slack off. He didn't want to start hiring actual crews for something like this when he knew he could do this much by himself, "Oh screw you. I can build a house."

"You say that like it's not a big deal," Jiraiya muttered, "So how are you doing, really? After what happened on the last mission?"

Naruto let out a groan. Of course there was a catch to Jiraiya's little visit to his clan's property. Otherwise, Jiraiya would have just broken into his house or dropped in on him on the street, "How many people are gonna ask me that? I'm fine."

He'd heard it from every person on the street that knew his name since he'd come back. Granted, it was good that people showed any kind of consideration as to his well-being nowadays, but shouldn't it have been obvious how he was doing? He was up and around, and he wasn't whispering to himself in shadowy corners, so he wasn't losing his mind.

Sure, there were a few nights where he found himself locked in a never ending battle where he had to cut through enemy after enemy that came his way, ala Iwagakure, but that would go away eventually, wouldn't it?

"Just making sure," Jiraiya said. Even if he could imagine how tired Naruto was of hearing it, it was still somewhat his responsibility to be plugged into his state of mind, "A lot of people put in the situation you were don't come back the same, if they come back at all."

"We found a way to break out of prison," Naruto rebutted, "We would have found a way to get out of Iwa somehow," Even with an entire army breathing down their necks.

"If we hadn't gotten there when we did, Onoki would have stepped in to handle you himself. You aren't ready to tangle with a kage, kid," Jiraiya said, "I'm not saying that to belittle what you can do now, or to inspire you to some kind of breakthrough. It's just a fact. If you can't beat me, you can't take on any of them."

They would have been wiping up whatever was left of him off of the nearest rock face had he fought Onoki… if there had been anything left of him after the Tsuchikage used his trademark jutsu on him. With more time, there wasn't a doubt in Jiraiya's mind that Naruto could and would be able to handle himself against any ninja walking the face of the planet, but until then…

Naruto didn't like the idea that he still wasn't ready. Most ninja could accept the fact that there were people more dangerous than them in that grand pecking order of ninja society. He personally never could. Even when he would have been pureed by a jounin as a genin, he barely cared. He'd spent years closing the gap between himself and the many bad people in the world that wanted to cause him and his loved ones harm, so to hear that there was still so much further to go was not easy to stomach.

"Well, you did do a nice job of fixing this old place up," Jiraiya changed the subject to something more comfortable as he got up from his seat, "If this is what I can expect for quality, it might not be so bad."

As he walked around the temple and into the room that contained all of the masks that gave the location its name, Jiraiya took a moment to look over the numerous creations displayed on the wall. It was a unique clan aspect Naruto could boast in the future that no others could. Every clan had to have their quirky novelty to set them apart, even a clan of one.

Jiraiya went still as he noticed the symbol on one mask in particular. It was one that he had seen countless times, and he had come to know very well, 'There's no way…' He thought to himself before bringing up the issue out loud, "Brat, have you put this mask on yet?"

Naruto shook off his introspection once Jiraiya posed his question, "I haven't tried any of 'em except for the one I told you about. The one that possessed my clone," He was never going to forget which mask that was, having mentally labeled it as the one to definitely stay away from. As a matter of fact, he didn't even want to look at the masks anymore, turning his attention back to the job his clones were doing outside, "Oh yeah, this house is gonna look so awesome when I'm done!"

Jiraiya kept staring at the inside of the mask in his hand, pondering the chances of it working the way he figured it might.

Well, there was only one way to find out. Worst case scenario, he was wrong and it wouldn't do anything, right?

Jiraiya placed the mask on his face and felt a surge of familiar energy rush through him. Just as quickly as he put it on, he took it off, his wide eyes morphing from a toad-like pattern to their normal color and form, the deepened red marks around his eyes returning to the thin vertical lines that they usually were.

"Holy shit," Jiraiya whispered to himself, putting the mask back on again after settling himself down, 'This mask generates natural energy.'

Once again, he put the mask back on his face and reveled in the feeling of the chakra flowing through him. He didn't have to gather it on his own, which meant he could move. He could actually move.

Naruto looked away from his oversight of his new home's construction and saw Jiraiya with a mask on his face. He instantly recoiled in terror at the potential horrors the mask held, "Don't do that! Those things are dangerous!"

"You're damn right they're dangerous," Jiraiya commented in agreement, despite the fact that he was still wearing the mask, "Don't you put this one on until I say you can, or else you will die."

Naruto frowned and tilted his head in confusion, "Then why are you wearing it?"

Jiraiya grinned behind the mask, "Well obviously, because I can," He pointed to the piece of mystical artwork on his face, "This mask forces natural energy into your body," All he got from his short explanation was a blank stare, "Right. I didn't teach you about that yet."

That didn't stop Naruto from trying to figure out what one of his clan's masks did, "It gives you chakra?"

Jiraiya stopped him before he could get the wrong idea about what it was, "It's not an advantage unless you can control it," He said, "If you can't, you turn to stone, at least that's how my style of senjutsu works if it fails," Once more, there was nothing to show for his words to his godson, "…Right. Again, you have no idea what I'm saying. Okay, until I get a better chance to explain it, this mask is very useful for a handful of people. If anyone else puts it on, they'll die. You included. Got it?"

Naruto gave a thumbs up in response. That was basically the approach he had been taking with every mask on that wall to begin with; that they could all kill him.

He spared a glance at his wall full of the aforementioned masks. Naruto was beginning to notice a pattern. All of the masks that actually did something came with some incredibly freaky ability that had the potential to be fatal for the wearer. Most of them didn't do anything at all, but the ones that did really did something.

Jiraiya then began to cackle, "This is amazing! I feel like a young, strapping lad, furiously beating his meat for the first time!"

It was at that point that Naruto chose to simply bail out of the temple as Jiraiya continued to celebrate. While he normally would have been one to celebrate right alongside with him for… whatever reason he was celebrating for, he wanted no part of Jiraiya's weirdness today. Something told him while he slowly backed out of the building that it was above his paygrade for now.

Naruto shook his head at the man who was godfather and one of his mentors and influences. He was a complete headcase sometimes, and it wasn't an act. He just knew when to turn it off and be serious.

What he'd said earlier, about Naruto still not being in the Tsuchikage Onoki's league… he'd had a point.

Even if Naruto had been healthy and hadn't had to fight through an army by the time the Tsuchikage reached the battlefield, what kind of chance would he have really had?

How much of a chance would he have against Jiraiya?

Could he stand up to Tsunade long enough for it to be an accomplishment, or would she smash his head like a watermelon within a handful of tries?

Would the Hokage still turn him into an orange and blue smear in the grass and dirt, even at his advanced age?

The entire point of his joining the Guardian Ninja, of leaving Konoha to test himself with the dangerous workload that came with the position, of training with Jiraiya and putting himself and others around him in danger to learn to better utilize the Kyuubi's chakra was so he could deal with Akatsuki without anyone needing to save him.

That included saving him from the aftermath of those conflicts.

He needed to be better, because he was going to be a jounin soon – at least if he had anything to say about it. His responsibilities were going to be bigger than ever. Not just the ones he would have to the village, but to his loved ones and to himself.

It put a creep of fear into his chest. The good kind. The kind that usually meant there was a challenge worth living up to.

Bring it on.

XxX

(Tetsu no Kuni)

Progress was going well as far as Orochimaru considered with his scientific endeavors. The samurai response that had been sent to investigate and exterminate the source of several villages' destruction only served as an even better test for his artificial jinchuuriki.

Even with their advanced chakra manipulating capabilities, the samurai that arrived to do battle were no match for his creations.

It was a glorious sight.

The samurai were a formidable fighting force. Even the ninja refused to trifle with them. But that in of itself came with problems of its own for the samurai. Because they had rarely dealt with ninja, when they couldn't force a direct battle, they were at a disadvantage to standard shinobi tactics.

That wasn't even accounting for Orochimaru's methods of operating. They were ill-prepared to deal with them. The only way they would engage him was if he needed a stiffer test for his project, so maybe one day they would get a taste of how fearsome the fruits of his intellect and labor could be.

Orochimaru rested, looking over the smoldering remains of another successful test. He licked his lips in anticipation of putting his artificial jinchuuriki to use in the field properly.

But even with all of this success, something felt off.

He couldn't put his finger on just what it was though. Everything he had endeavored to do over the last few years had paid off. He had the entire finances of Gato Corporation in his back pocket to fund anything his heart desired. He had the manpower to make Otogakure a viable force for him to use.

His experiments were paying off now more than ever.

He was stronger now than he had been at any time ever in his life, and every day seemed to be coming up with new ways to utilize that vast power.

But it was just so… boring.

There hadn't been anything to truly challenge him in quite some time. And now he wondered if there ever would be. There used to be a time when he feared every day of his life. When he would defend his secrets as though his very existence depended on it. Now, he was just a hair away from having all of his nasty little dealings done in the daylight.

All because he wanted to feel some kind of thrill out of what he was doing.

Orochimaru frowned down at the notes he had been taking on the progress of his project and rolled up the scroll he had been writing on, "How dull," He mused to himself, "I want something to get my blood pumping again."

The rush that came from breaking nature's careful little designs with nothing more than your own intellect was fine, but he wanted a test.

He turned his head upon noticing the presence of Karin. The red-haired scientist seemed frightened by something, but not at the prospect of disturbing him during his time of private introspection. Curious.

"Yes?" Orochimaru asked, a thin eyebrow raised in interest.

Karin let out a shiver, her gaze moving back and forth between Orochimaru and whatever she was sensing in the distance, "Something's coming," She told him, "Something strong. Its-, oh God."

"In the air!"

The cry from one member of Orochimaru's nearby entourage got his attention next. Putting away his things, he stood and noticed a larger avian figure in the cloudy skies than there should have been for that area. If he focused, he could actually see two figures on its back.

A smile slowly started to spread across his face until laughter started rumbling from his throat.

He calmly paced into the middle of his own forces as they all prepared for an attack. Orochimaru simply held his hand up to keep them from acting rashly, "Well, this is quite the pleasant surprise," By now, he could clearly see the blue-haired woman flying the airborne paper construct above them, "Konan. And you brought a friend as well."

With Konan was a tall, skinny man wearing the common Akatsuki cloak. He had orange hair tied back in a long ponytail and piercings visible all over his face.

He stared down blankly at Orochimaru with nothing but ill intentions in mind.

"You don't look particularly familiar," The white-skinned shinobi said, obviously recognizing the killing intent being sent his way. How could he not? It was paralyzing half of his forces at that exact moment, "Have I threatened or experimented on you before?"

The man's expression didn't so much as change, "As long as it took for this moment to come, I was expecting something wittier or more sarcastic out of you," He said, "You disappoint me, Orochimaru. Then again, you're very good at that."

Orochimaru spared him another glance, wondering just why this person figured it was alright for him to speak, "Yes, yes. Do me a favor and just sit back. I'll get to whoever you are after I deal with my dear old comrade, Konan," He turned his attention back to the origami-lady before him, opening his arms wide, "It's been so long. Come down here and give me a hug, dear."

Konan visibly sneered from atop her mount, refusing to acknowledge anything he was saying otherwise.

On the ground, Orochimaru let out a soft chuckle. This was more along the speed of amusement that he had been looking for. It was always fun to belittle and squash those self-important 'S-Rank' criminals in Akatsuki.

He noticed Karin slowly moving away from him and turned to see that she wasn't acting fearful of Konan, despite being clearly outclassed by the more powerful kunoichi. Her red eyes were glued firmly to the form of the man Konan was with.

"I wasn't talking about her, Orochimaru-sama," Karin whispered fearfully, "It's him. He's the one. He's the one I sensed before."

That man with the orange hair and the piercings was the powerhouse that brought Karin to him in concern?

It took a moment before Orochimaru truly understood what she was telling him. Once he got a look at the odd eyes inside of the man's head, it clicked. He then began to cackle aloud, "Kukukukukukuku… this is just wonderful. I'm being graced by the presence of Akatsuki's 'leader' himself. The illustrious 'Pain'."

How interesting.

"I'm hurt, Orochimaru. Don't you remember me?" Nagato said, his voice showing that he most certainly was not hurt.

"Well, seeing as how none of us ever saw you in-person," Orochimaru said, still grinning as he stepped forward to face his would-be opponent, "But now that you mention it, your voice does sound very familiar. Yes! I can definitely place it now, o' great leader."

As he prepared to wage battle with a worthy foe, Guren stepped in front of him, ready to fight to the death for her master, "Let us protect you, Orochimaru-sama," She said, glaring heatedly at anyone fool enough to go against Orochimaru's will.

The loyalty was what he wanted instilled in all of his ninja, but it had no purpose here.

"He would tear right through you. You would buy me, what, five minutes at the most," Orochimaru said, calmly reaching forward and grabbing Guren by the arm "Besides.. who's to say I need or even want protection in the first place?"

Guren's eyes went wide as she felt Orochimaru's grasp. He was actually touching her. Elation turned to concern when she felt it grow painfully tight, "W-What are you saying?" She wondered aloud.

Orochimaru didn't answer her directly. Instead, he threw her behind him, as though she were an obstacle standing between him and something he wanted. There was an excited gleam in his eyes as he looked toward the sky, "You can't stop him. You can't stop either of them. Continue with the operation. Listen to Karin's warnings. You can handle it alone. I want to see something for myself."

Guren stood up, hiding the pain from the minor injuries she'd received, "You heard Orochimaru-sama!" She said, regaining her composure, "Get moving! Retreat! Move the specimens!"

Konan eyed all of them like a hawk as they scattered and fled. She was ready to go after them when Nagato stopped her with a shake of the head, "No. They're not worth anything. Once Orochimaru is dead, that will be the end of Otogakure. Keep your distance. Make sure I finish the job."

"Nagato..."

"You know how he is. If he escaped Itachi, there's no telling how he'll make his getaway after I overwhelm him. I need you to ensure that doesn't happen."

"Then let me fight."

"I'm afraid you may not be able to defeat him. I want to be thorough about this."

With that, Nagato dropped from the back of Konan's paper bird, landing on the ground in a crash of dust before standing up straight, continuing to stare the enemy of his organization down. Orochimaru simply smirked and crossed his arms as the wind blew over the cliffside plain.

"You've become sloppy," Nagato told him, "After hiding from us for almost ten years, it was almost child's play to track you down here in the open."

"I think I wanted to be found, believe it or not," Orochimaru said, "You see, I have to admit, I've been rather bored lately. Every time you or anyone else has tried to oppose any of my plans, they all... fail. I wonder, will you be like the rest?"

"The arrogance," Nagato spat, "You believe that because your body is no longer decrepit you have no equal. Well, you're not entirely wrong. We're not equals," He declared, "No matter what you do to yourself, you're still just a man standing in front of God."

Orochimaru snickered evilly in response, not intimidated by the Akatsuki member's attempts to intimidate him, "And what is a god to a nonbeliever, Nagato? Nothing at all."

Nagato slammed his hand on the ground, causing a massive plume of smoke that engulfed the area, "Then I will have to make you believe. By the end of this, you will kneel and face your judgment."

A massive crustacean's pincer flew out of the smoke, intent on snatching Orochimaru up and snapping him in half, but it was far too slow to make good on the attempt. A snake emerged from Orochimaru's mouth that spat the Sword of Kusanagi into his hand.

Orochmaru gleefully severed the claw and jumped through the air at Nagato, stretching his neck in his direction to bite his throat out with a bitter hiss. Nagato leapt off of the giant crab and dispelled it, firing a long black stake from one of its arms.

Orochimaru's head reeled in the rest of his body, bringing with it the sword that he used to seamlessly fend the projectile off with a resounding 'clang', "Hm. That's interesting. No hand-seals or blood to summon. I want to see what else the Rinnegan is capable of."

Nagato summoned another creature, this time a gigantic, deformed chameleon with a snake for a tail. The snake tail lashed out at Orochimaru with a volley of lightning quick bites, but its target stayed elusive. The Akatsuki powerhouse didn't remain idle during this time, using the opening provided to summon more creatures – a giant centipede and a mammoth rhinoceros.

The centipede quickly skittered over to attack and pick up where the chameleon left off. Orochimaru retreated directly backwards, pulling up the sleeve of his arm and cutting his finger to drag a trail of blood down a summoning tattoo inked onto his skin, "Kuchiyose no Jutsu (Summoning Jutsu)!"

Orochimaru retreated back through the large puff of smoke as a massive snake came barreling out of it, opening its mouth and swallowing the charging centipede whole. The snake wound up trampled underneath the hooves of the rhino, leaving Orochimaru once again exposed as he too was stomped into the ground.

Instead of blood and gore, mud splattered as a result of the summoned creature's rampage, the remnants of an Earth Clone. The real Orochimaru, safe and sound, rushed past the rhino and tapped it on its hind legs, "Sangoshou (Coral Palm)!"

Large formations of coral grew inside of the joints of the rhino and began protruding from its skin, effectively immobilizing it in an exceptionally cruel manner. Orochimaru grinned evilly at the pained, low-pitched bellows.

But now there was a problem. Nagato was nowhere in sight. He had disappeared into thin air. There was no sign of him anywhere, nor was there a sound to be heard, other than the injured rhino and the ever-intensifying wind.

"Nagato. I know you can hear me," Orochimaru called out, keeping his guard up for anything that would expose Nagato's position, "Thank you for the warmup."

No response. Not that he expected one. Why would Nagato relinquish such an advantage for nothing more than idle banter?

Even so, Orochimaru continued to speak. He had no such reason to remain quiet, which meant he would do the opposite, "Do you know what I hate most about you? He asked, getting no reply again, "I'm a scientist. I believe in the potential of humankind to reach perfection. And one day, in my pursuit of it, I may very well run into someone farther along on that front than I am. But you, in all your hubris to call yourself 'God' are not perfection, in any way, shape, or form."

A man could indeed make himself a god in Orochimaru's opinion. But it took more than power and force of will. Yes, those things indeed very important, but there was more to it than that. And Nagato lacked that something more.

"If I am to be destroyed before I myself can achieve my destiny of becoming the ultimate being... well, if such a thing does come to pass, it won't be by your hands," Orochimaru said, intensity blazing in his snake-like eyes, "Anyone but you, Nagato. Anyone but you."

At this point, it was a waiting game between two experienced shinobi with patience to spare between them. It was all quiet on the battlefront, but that would only last until one broke the very flimsy stalemate.

There was a storm coming to the battlefield, in more ways than one.

XxX

(Konohagakure no Sato – Ichiraku Ramen)

As the evening came, Naruto and Ino found each other and decided to head out for dinner, with Ino not wanting to go back to her family's home that night and neither one particularly in the mood to cook.

Ino sat, waiting on her order and looked around at her modest surroundings. She never thought she would particularly enjoy going to places like this, as she was more of a restaurant with reservations kind of girl. But in order to date Naruto, the reliable old ramen bar came part-in-parcel. They'd been there enough by now that the owner and his daughter knew her name, and as much grief as she and many others gave Naruto for his ramen-heavy diet, the place had good food and a comfortable atmosphere.

Naruto had been grinning up a storm ever since Ino had seen him again, and with good reason after he told her that he was in the running for a promotion.

Ino couldn't help but smile along with him. It was easy to be excited about it when it was something that she knew was important to him, "Too bad you have to be cleared before you can take your jounin exam," Ino said, unknowingly deflating her boyfriend, "Oh well. I guess that gives you time to prepare."

Naruto dropped his head onto the counter with an annoyed groan and turned his face toward Ino, "Seriously, how many evaluations do I need before I can go back into the field?" He complained, "Isn't your whole watching me thing supposed to have been one big evaluation?"

Ino smiled and patted the side of his head, "I wasn't evaluating you. I was just making sure there was nothing obviously wrong with you that slipped through the cracks in the meantime."

"Because I'm so dangerous?"

"There are still people who think that about you."

"You think I'm dangerous?"

Ino rolled her eyes, "Of course. You're a goddamn trained ninja. We're all dangerous," She reached over and picked Naruto's head up to give him a peck on the lips before he could start pouting, "You're not dangerous to me, Goldie."

Naruto smiled at her in return and stirred a straw around in his drink restlessly, "I just really want to get back into the game."

"Why are you in such a rush to get back to doing missions, Naruto?" Ino asked him, resting her elbow on the counter, cheek pressed into her hand, "You know you don't have anything to prove, right? Sometimes a shinobi gets captured. You aren't the first, you won't be the last."

"This isn't about that."

"You're lying. I don't need to read your mind to tell. You're just that bad at it," Ino nudged him with her foot to prompt him to tell her more. He hadn't clammed up and kept things that bothered him from her in some time, "Come on. What do you have to prove?"

Naruto paused for a long time, just looking down at his folded hands set on the counter. Ino just sat at his side and waited patiently. From his body language, it was clear he was going to tell her. After years around him, she could tell the difference between Naruto clamming up altogether and him trying to prepare what he wanted to say. Because he wasn't much of a linguist, sometimes it took a while for him to get his thoughts together.

The couple remained silent until their food was set before them, thanking Teuchi. By then, Naruto had seemingly gathered himself enough to broach the topic, "Do you ever wonder how good you are?"

Ino had broken her chopsticks apart and started into her meal by the time the question came to her, giving her time to think as she savored her first bites, "Sometimes," She replied, "I mean, I train most days. If you're not improving, you're regressing. But most of the time, I don't worry too much about it. Just so long as I'm good enough to protect my team and the people I care about. That's what's important, right?"

Naruto smiled at her, but there wasn't a whole lot of meaning behind it, "That should be enough, shouldn't it?" He said, "But I want to be Hokage. I want to protect all of this. How can I do that, if I can't even protect myself?"

So it was about his most recent outing. He hadn't talked about it, but it had been obvious that he'd been holding on to something about the last mission that had ended badly.

Ino loved Naruto's drive, but she felt that there were moments when he expected more from himself than anyone had any kind of logical reason to ask, "You were fighting an army. Most kage have their own forces to help them do something like that. Now things would have been worse if the Tsuchikage had made it to the field, but-..." She noticed Naruto flinch as silently tucked into his meal, "You have to be kidding me."

"I'm not," Naruto said through a mouthful of ramen, not stopping his attempts to eat for the sake of conversation.

"Baby, that's a kage," Ino reasoned gently, "You're not supposed to be able to fight them. No one is. That's why there are only five of them at any given time."

"If you want to be one, you've got to be able to beat one, right?"

"Not really sure that's how that works."

"But that's how good I've gotta be," Naruto said, staring out blankly at nothing in particular in front of him, "After Suna pulled their crap at Sora-ku, the only allies we have are Taki and Kiri, and the setup with Kiri is probably because we're too far away from each other to get into each other's business all the time."

This wasn't some sort of personal fixation, Ino realized. It wasn't some milestone he felt like he needed to achieve in order to get to where he wanted to go career-wise. He was looking at the grand scheme of the Elemental Nations' current makeup, and when she herself stopped to think about it, things were just as unstable as they had ever been. They were well and due for another war if one were to look at history.

One between Konoha and Kumo had been narrowly averted... for now, thanks to the safe retrieval Nii Yugito. There was another potentially on the horizon between Konoha and Suna, and yet a third percolating between Konoha and Iwa after those two villages' attempts to exploit Konoha as they tried to deal with Akatsuki.

The blonde telepath let out a hum and took a sip of her drink, "I didn't know you knew or cared about politics," She admitted.

Naruto shrugged, "Well, I was involved in most of this shit."

"My boyfriend: at the center of all the hot international incidents."

"Someone has to be, I guess. I just don't want you to get hurt dealing with all of this stuff I'm into."

Ino was very unimpressed by the idea of letting Naruto go off and do Naruto things (i.e. fight battles of a titanic nature) without support, "Yeah... let's be realistic. That's never going to happen," She said, gesturing in the air with her chopsticks, "Any of us being safe went out the window the moment we got those neat little vests after the chunin exams.

"-That you never wore," Naruto chimed in cheekily, "Guess it wasn't fashionable enough for you."

"Making a point here, Goldie," Ino said sternly, despite the smile peeking through on her lips, "Even if you were strong enough to march out into the nearest field and challenge all of your scary S-rank enemies to a gigantic, epic kage-level battle that people tell stories about for decades-on-end, and win, I'd still try to be there with you. Even if it got me vaporized."

A swell of familiar anger filled Naruto's chest for a moment until he was able to reach out and grab Ino's hand, "If someone vaporized you, I don't know what I'd do."

"Hopefully, you'll never have to find out," Ino said, lightly rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb, "Just don't go M.I.A. again, please. You made me worry so much. I'll make you pay for every stress gray I find."

Naruto laughed. He was certain that she was serious, even if she said it trying to be funny.

"Oh, I think I see one."

"Don't even joke about that."

XxX

(Tetsu no Kuni)

"Suiton: Daikaisuidan (Water Release: Great Water Mass Bullet)!"

A pair of massive water balls blew apart the head of a gigantic panda summon and ripped the right half of its body off. The creature stumbled in place for several moments before collapsing to the ground, dead.

Orochimaru watched the panda die with a growing sense of agitation. Ever since Nagato vanished in thin air, his summon creatures kept coming, even duplicates one ones that had been killed.

The bodies of several massive, odd monster animals littered the battlefield, some dead and in one piece, others with body parts scattered via Orochimaru's brutal methods of disposing of them.

Was he trying to wear him down? The days when that was a viable strategy to use against him were over.

"I thought you wanted to fight me, Nagato," Orochimaru called out to his opponent, "It's hard to believe you came all this way just to send your deformed pets after me. That's disappointing."

He honestly hadn't expected Nagato to show himself after the amount of time he had spent hiding, but to his surprise, the man shimmered into existence, standing inside of the mouth of his summoned chameleon. His calm demeanor hadn't wavered in the slightest, even though he'd stood back and watched Orochimaru butcher his called-upon creatures.

Orochimaru couldn't help but stare at Nagato's eyes. The Rinnegan.

The Rinnegan.

All this time, Nagato had the Rinnegan.

It had been so long ago that Jiraiya had stayed behind in Ame to train those three kids. Konan, Nagato, and the third one. Orochimaru hadn't taken the time to even remember what they had looked like back then, only remembering them from back then because they remembered him when they came recruiting for Akatsuki.

When thinking of Jiraiya's track record as a teacher, it made him laugh. His old friend apparently had a knack for finding the diamonds in the rough of the shinobi world and making them absolutely lethal.

"It would have been foolish to fight you now after what you've done to yourself without first taking the time to observe," Nagato said, stepping away from his chameleon and dispelling it back to whence he had summoned it from, "Fools rush in, Orochimaru, regardless of how powerful they are. This is clearly something you've forgotten. Allow me to reeducate you."

Orochimaru rolled his eyes as Nagato slammed his hand onto the ground, his form concealed again in a puff of smoke. More summoning. A waste of his time. What would he fight this time? A monster rabbit? A mutant squirrel?

His skepticism faded when the smoke cleared and he saw five figures crouched around the original who had summoned them; all garbed in Akatsuki cloaks, all with distinct orange hair.

All with the Rinnegan.

"Now then, Orochimaru," One of the men said, followed by another picking up where the first left off, "I'll be gracious and let you select which path you take to learn your lesson. So choose."

"Now this... is incredibly interesting," Orochimaru whispered, his heart beating faster in anticipation – in excitement.

All of the cloaked men stood and spoke as one, "Choose from my Six Paths of Pain."


Omake: 'Til Death Do Us What? (Aftermath)

With all of the craziness that had been happening around him lately, Naruto decided that it was as good a time as ever to visit his mother's grave and catch her up on everything. There had been quite a few doozies, some of which he was certain she wouldn't have approved of if she were alive, given his idea of what mothers were supposed to think about things in regards to their kids.

Still, it was nice to think that she could hear him and appreciated being kept up-to-date. He did the same thing with the Yondaime Hokage's head at the Hokage Monument, only not as often. It was still a little weird, considering that Namikaze Minato was his hero before he found out he was the man's spawn.

"I wonder how many other women you had to scare away from dad back when he started being a big deal," Naruto said to the picture frame he'd set at Kushina's grave marker. He'd cleaned the gravestone, replaced flowers, and lit a few candles to burn for the duration of his time there, "I guess it's a good thing he didn't have to deal with Ero-sensei's stupid pass-the-buck crap with those Nadeshiko Village women, 'cuz then it have involved you."

Naruto had tried to go about things somewhat diplomatically, only because kicking Shizuka's butt wouldn't have done anything to help. Kushina likely would have gone the confrontational route, consequences be damned.

It was enough to make him laugh at the thought of his mom going off on some girl trying to marry Minato while she was still with him, "Heh, Ino got pissed enough. From what people tell me, I don't even want to know how much you'd have probably blown your top if it was you instead."

A certain someone's ears must have been burning.

"Here you are," Naruto turned around at the sound of Ino's voice and saw her heading his way along the beaten path, "I hope you've been saying good things about me," She teased.

"Mostly," Naruto said with a shrug from where he was sitting in front of Kushina's grave, "I'm pretty clear with the fact that I'm crazy about you… and the fact that you drive me up the wall sometimes."

Ino rolled her eyes and walked the rest of the way over to her boyfriend, "I've been looking for you all morning," She told him before her smile turned a bit sad, "Sorry. When I sensed that you were here, I didn't know if I was intruding or not."

Naruto stood up and dusted off the back of his pants, "No-no," He said, moving behind Ino and guiding her into place by her shoulders as though he were presenting her to the grave site, "I meant to bring you here eventually, I just could never find a good time or a way to ask you without sounding creepy."

Ino shut her eyes and rested her hands over his, "It's not creepy, Goldie. It's your mom," She opened her eyes and looked over the portrait that Naruto had put out for her, "Wow, I've never seen her before. She's beautiful."

"Thanks," Naruto said, placing a kiss on the top of Ino's golden crown, "You know, when I first saw a picture of her, I wish I'd have gotten her hair instead of this mess up here," He said, running his hand through his own unkempt, spiky locks.

"Hey, nothing wrong with being blonde. It's an elite club filled with very sexy people," Ino quipped before returning her attention back to Kushina's grave, melting into a comfortable silence, "I wish you could have met her. I wish I could have met her. Have her scare the crap out of me the way my dad wants to do to you."

Naruto only focused in on the last part of Ino's previous comments, "Wait. Your dad wants to scare the crap out of me?" He asked in disbelief, "He already did back when we were kids! He wants to do it again? I thought we were cool!"

"Well, before was probably a warning to keep your grubby mitts off," Ino said, grinning playfully as she rocked side-to-side in his arms, "Since that clearly didn't work, now he probably wants to warn you not to let those hands wander too far. I'm pretty sure he doesn't know we're having sex already."

Naruto's normally well-colored complexion went ghostly pale at the thought of dealing with Ino's mind-bending dad armed with the knowledge that his little girl's chastity had been taken, "Oh, God."

Ino was not helpful in calming his fears, "Just don't think about having sex with me when he gives you the talk to not have sex with me. You'll be fine."

"I could taste the sarcasm from that," Naruto muttered before giving Ino a certain kind of look, "Hey, can we not talk about that in front of my mother's grave, please?"

Ino gasped in fake surprise, "You mean you haven't told her yet? Are you ashamed of me?" She weaseled her way out of Naruto's grasp and bowed to the gravestone, placing her hand over her heart, "Hello, Uzumaki-san. My name is Ino, the girl currently underneath your son on a regular basis," She could hear Naruto choking on the words he wanted to try and say in the background, "I'm pretty sure she knows that much already, even if you haven't told her about it on one of your little visits."

The thought of his mother knowing what he was up to was normally a comforting thought for Naruto. Not so much when he thought about her being aware of some of the more illicit things he got up to ever once in a while, "Every now and then I'll come by and talk, like I'm telling her what I've been up to. If her sense of humor was anything like mine is, I really think she'd have gotten a good laugh out of this whole Nadeshiko Village thing. Everyone else did."

Everyone except the purple-clad kunoichi whose life was almost affected by that episode, "That, or she'd want to kick Jiraiya-sama and/or Shikamaru's ass for making this a thing in the first place. I know I do," And if Kushina would have as well, Ino knew they might have gotten along swimmingly, "So, I haven't heard anything since Lee swooped in and came to the rescue."

"He's surprisingly cool with it, seeing as how he doesn't actually have to go live there," Naruto told her. After everything that had happened, Shizuka and her village were willing to make concessions as long as Lee was willing to do his part, which would involve eventual baby-making, "Gai-sensei's cool with it too, which is good. I was expecting a beatdown from at least him after word got around that Shizuka's claiming Lee as undisputed husband-to-be now."

Rock Lee was likely going to be the first of his set of friends to be married, even if it was in name only to a girl from another village that just wanted his children. If anyone had been taking bets on that when they were younger, all of them would have lost. No question about it.

Just thinking about it gave the blond pair a set of matching headaches to go with their shared hair color.

Ino sighed and shook her head with a rueful laugh, "I don't even think I learned anything from this, other than the fact that other girls might want your superpowered babies," And they would never, ever get them as long as she was with him. Over her dead damn body, "This was all such a big mess."

Naruto wrapped his arms around Ino's waist and let the girl lean back into him cozily, "You know I can't do anything small," Ino turned her head as Naruto leaned over her shoulder, letting him give her a kiss, "It sure makes everything a lot more interesting, doesn't it?"

'Interesting'. That was his word for it?

An undignified snort passed from Ino as she settled into a comfortable silence. It was a good, warm feeling, especially in the brisk mornings that Hi no Kuni had before the sun was high in the sky and the temperature warmed up properly.

It felt right.

As time wound down and Naruto prepared to leave, he got down and prayed quietly in front of Kushina's grave. Ino smiled at him and got down to pay her own respects, 'I don't know anything about you, ma'am, but you brought Naruto into this world. That makes you more important to me than you'll ever know,' She thought honestly, 'Thank you for giving him to me.'

Ino really did wonder if Naruto's parents would have cared for her, because she loved him.

As they left the graveyard and returned to the Konoha streets proper, Ino bumped Naruto with her hip, "All I know is that after all of this, whenever you propose to me, it had better be good," She said, beaming up at him, a mischievous gleam in her expectant eyes, "Really good. Like, you'd better pull out all the stops."

Naruto raised an eyebrow, smirking down at her in return, "Why should I have to propose? If you haven't been paying attention, I'm pretty used to girls trying to put a ring on my finger," Ino swatted him on the arm and crossed her arms in a pout. Naruto got a laugh at her expense and shoved his hands in his pockets nonchalantly, "...For what it's worth, I think my parents would have liked you."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."


Alright, that's the chapter, you guys. I hope you dug it.

So, I broke my goddamn hand again a few days ago. Honestly, it happens so much, I don't even care anymore.

Can I type? Can I make a fist? Can I still do pushups? Can I play video games? If the answer to three of those four questions is 'yes', cool. I'll get it fixed whenever I get around to it. Other than that? Meh. That's the amount of attention I'll pay to it. I need it out of a cast for like two more weeks, so it's not getting fixed for that long, if I do it at all. The last few times I broke it (the same one, by the way), I didn't even go to the doctor for it, because I am smart, boy.

Ain't nobody got money like that. If duct tape, and ice can't do the job, it's not getting fixed in my world as long as I can still use it.

Anyway, that's all I've got for you this time.

Kenchi out.