Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. I haven't even given the sequel series a look yet. Not sure if I will, actually. What say you, audience? Help a Kenchi out. Let me know if there's anything in it that I need to pay attention to.
Chapter 74: Rules Of Nature
One mind. One source of chakra, in control of six fully functional bodies.
How did it work? Was Pain's consciousness split between them? Did each have an aspect of his personality and intelligence? Had he somehow brainwashed six ninja powerful enough to go into battle with his name, his personality forcefully impressed upon them? Was it deeper? More complex than even that?
The mystery intrigued Orochimaru. The scientist in him was dying to find out the truth, and to that end, he had to slaughter the Six Paths quickly and get them to a laboratory to begin dissecting them.
He would just have to save enough of some of the bodies to have a decent subject to study.
"No time like the present!" The eager Sannin said, "Show me your strength, oh almighty!" He exclaimed, mockingly.
Unlike before, when Orochimaru had been the aggressor, cutting down every creature that Nagato had summoned with extreme disregard for his enemy, the latter decided that with his current numbers advantage it was time to go on the attack. Now was the time to show the full breadth of the Six Paths of Pain.
What did he have to lose? It was six-on-one.
Nagato had offered Orochimaru to choose which of his six Paths he would die to, but it seemed that this selection was limited. Three of the six came at him at once; the slender one with long hair, the massive bald one, and the stocky one with the slicked-back hair.
In this particular pick your poison scenario, Orochimaru only took a moment to think before making his move. Like lightning, his neck extended far away from his body. Out of the three, he launched himself at the would-be slowest attacker, latching his fangs onto the neck of the largest of the Paths.
But something was wrong. Other than the skin, it felt like biting into a machine, and it didn't seem to affect him.
The bald Path formed a blade from its arm and tried to remove Orochimaru's head, but he retracted his neck before it could be severed.
While Orochimaru's head had been away from his body, his arms had still been active, beginning his next move while he was still in the midst of his current one. Hand-seals set up his responding jutsu.
"Fuuton: Daitoppa (Wind Release: Great Breakthrough)!" As his head retreated in the face of the assault from the three Pains, a crushing gust of wind flew from his mouth, intent on blowing his enemies away.
The large Path tried to hold its ground but was being sent back steadily until the stockily built Path got in front of him. A clear barrier formed around his body and seemed to nullify the jutsu.
A ripple of jealousy tore through Orochimaru.
Such a remarkable technique. Such a versatile jutsu. And yet, it had been performed so effortlessly. So much power, all in the possession of this man, all because of the odd mutation in his eyes.
It was something Orochimaru never understood, could never accept. Why from the outset of life were some people predetermined to have so much power readily available to them when others had to struggle and toil just to have enough to protect themselves? Such a thing made him think of how unequally snakes were created, despite all of them being fundamentally the same.
The lowly garter snake was not a comparable creature to the mighty python or the feared cobra, though not by any fault of its own. All it had to work with was simply what the universe had given it.
This was why Orochimaru was obsessed with learning jutsu. Why he was obsessed with obtaining immortality. Why he so readily modified the bodies of his underlings to make them better. As much as he believed in the human potential to reach further and further, when faced with such insurmountable kekkei genkai such as the Sharingan and the Rinnegan, it rendered such a thing a sick joke.
His beliefs. Everything he stood for. The mere existence of a person like Nagato spat on everything he stood for.
Orochimaru could appreciate a prodigy – after all, they were his favorite types and he himself had been one in his youth. But there was a difference between a prodigy and someone with broken genes.
Much was expected of a prodigy, but they got just as much to work with as the next person around them, and it wasn't an impressive title for long.
When you're ten, they call you a prodigy. When you're fifteen, they call you a genius. But once you're twenty, you're just ordinary. Your feats, your excellence, they're all expected. No one cares any longer.
There were few things that made Orochimaru's blood boil more than being considered any less than extraordinary.
"Your toy soldiers have some interesting traits!" Orochimaru exclaimed loudly, "Tell me, which one has the 'Kung-Fu Grip!'"
Pain wanted to keep his cool, to remain calm and in full control of the situation. The battle would go at the pace he set. And yet, Orochimaru's smarmy taunt irked him. He wanted to shut the arrogant man down once and for all, "Allow me to show you," The Path with the short, spiky hair declared, lifting its hand in Orochimaru's direction, "Banshou Ten'in (Heavenly Attraction of All Creation)."
An invisible force sucked Orochimaru off of his feet and sent him flying at the avatars of Nagato. The large, bald Path moved directly into his path and split him in half at the abdomen with the blade in its arm.
The bisected Sannin's body was brought back together by a mass of snakes that seemed to comprise his innards. In the midst of battle, Orochimaru chuckled. It would take more than that to kill him. Nagato had to know that much.
Even as he was drawn closer to the spiky-haired Path, Orochimaru still made moves to attack. Contorting his body upside-down, he dragged his hand across the ground, quickly summoning a massive snake that barreled across the ground behind him, its mouth wide open, set to devour Orochimaru's enemies and the man himself.
The Path with the long ponytail moved in front of Orochimaru and the snake before summoning a creature of its own – a massive crab. The crustacean stood in the way as the snake's fangs snapped down on its shell. The sounds of hissing and cracking sounded out across the battlefield as the crab brought one of its claws up to the snake's throat and clamped down.
Orochimaru utilized Shunshin to make his way to the top of the two summoned creatures. A thick miasma of chakra began to flow from his body, surrounding him like a forcefield. The power of the Sanbi. It felt good. Thanks to the power of Yukimaru, there was no rage from within from the Tailed Beast. He was in complete control. Every time he flexed these particular muscles, it always felt good.
The Path with the ponytail, all it seemed to do was summon others to fight on its behalf. So far, it had been quite annoying to deal with, even before it had brought the other five onto the battlefield.
There was a method to Nagato's fighting style. It was a puzzle, and he had already broken down the places of two of the pieces, with an idea on the third.
(Hi no Kuni – Konohagakure no Sato – Naruto's Apartment)
Uzumaki Naruto was an energetic sort, but when he chose to wind down for the day and get some sleep, he slept hard. Honestly, there were only a handful of things he enjoyed more than sleep. Not on the level of someone like Shikamaru, but he could still appreciate a good nap or a good night's rest.
Having Ino with him didn't hurt that any. She didn't snore, and she was so dainty that even when she chose to lay all over him, it didn't bother him any. She was a warm body, she was soft, and her scent was calming. Having her stay with him was the best thing that had happened to him since he'd returned to the village. And he knew she felt the same way, otherwise she wouldn't have done it as often as she had.
Yes. There was no question or hesitation in Naruto's thought process whatsoever. As soon as his home on his clan property was done, he was going to ask this girl to move in with him. Even if she didn't want to right then, just leaving the offer open to her was good for him.
As the two blondes slept, the male of the couple was abruptly disturbed.
Naruto awoke to the sight of a small toad sitting on his stomach, patiently waiting. It hadn't been there for long. He'd felt a weight settle on him not too long before, but he'd figured it had just been Ino moving around at first, at least until he realized that there was nothing she could put on him from how she was hanging off of the side of him, both of their legs intertwined.
His first thought was to question the summoned creature as to why it was there – after all, he didn't summon it – but running the risk of waking up Ino was a no-no. When she was out of it, causing her to stir for any reason would lead to a very aggravated telepath.
Silently, Naruto gestured with his head for the toad to get off, which it did, allowing him the chance to make a Shadow Clone and substitute himself with it in bed, so Ino still had something to hold on to while he was gone. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he followed the toad to the balcony door, quietly stepping out to find Jiraiya sitting on the ledge, looking at the sleepy village. It was barely past two in the morning. Jiraiya certainly chose the witching hour to try and disturb him.
Jiraiya noticed his student's presence and his lack of general clothing. Granted, he had woken him up, "You're still wearing the lame pajama pants, but at least you ditched the top and the hat."
"Ino's warm enough that I don't need the shirt," Naruto said, letting out a yawn as he leaned over the same ledge as his godfather, "And she kept pushing and pulling the hat off. She moves around a lot when I don't have a hold of her."
"Sounds nice. I appreciate the details on the sex life," Jiraiya needled, giving Naruto a chance to wake up more. Before the young man could process what his mentor had said and respond in kind, Jiraiya cut him off, "So, I'm taking off for a while. Work beckons. I'm gonna miss your little battery of promotion missions."
Naruto turned his godfather's way, "You found out about that, huh?" He asked with a lopsided grin, "Wish me luck, Ero-kyofu."
Jiraiya waved off Naruto's request, "You don't need it. You'll be fine. I made a man out of you," He said before taking a moment to think, "...Well technically, your Yamanaka girlie made a man out of you. I guess I made a shinobi out of you."
Naruto stuck his tongue out at the experienced ninja. He didn't need Jiraiya remarking on the things he did in his private life, "So, do you want something before you go."
"Just to say goodbye, brat."
"Honest. I just wanted you to see me off," Jiraiya persisted before averting his gaze, "Also, I wanted to borrow that mask from your temple."
Naruto chuckled. That was more like it, not that he had a problem with it. If Jiraiya could use it, why not let him? It wasn't like Naruto was very keen to do so, not until he figured out how they worked. Just as long as it served him well, "Yeah, sure. Just get it back to me. That's an heirloom."
"You lost Tsunade's heirloom," Jiraiya pointed out, making Naruto cringe.
"The Tsuchikage's granddaughter said he took it off of me while I was out! That wasn't my fault!" He replied, trying to defend himself, "I was damn near dead!"
"Excuses, excuses," Jiraiya scoffed, getting under his godson's skin further.
Naruto gagged and flipped Jiraiya the middle finger, "Oh, screw you!"
The bickering subsided and the two settled into a silence for some time before Jiraiya moved off of the railing, his hand extended for a shake, "Take care of yourself, Naruto. I don't want to have to rescue your ass again."
Naruto stared at Jiraiya's hand before shaking his head and extending his arms wide, "No. Bring it in," He said, a wide grin forming on his face, "You know you want to."
Jiraiya gave him a look that was part incredulous and part amusement, "You can't be serious."
"I am cereal. Super-duper cereal."
"You're not wearing a shirt."
"So? Doesn't make this any less manly."
Jiraiya looked around to make absolutely sure there was no one around watching. Once he was satisfied, he moved in to give his godson the hug he'd asked for, "Minato never asked for any damn hugs," He grumbled good-naturedly.
"Eh, dad's loss," Naruto shrugged, patting Jiraiya on the back, "Just one more thing I've got over him."
Jiraiya did not let him off easy, "Good for you. That makes the score Naruto - 1, Minato - 43," He started to laugh as he heard Naruto curse while in his grasp.
He was a good kid. Jiraiya had no doubt he would be okay while he was gone.
Nagato did not like puzzles. He hadn't found a way to develop his skills with the Rinnegan in order to fight strong, challenging opponents. Gods were not supposed to struggle or have trouble to defeat the ones who seeked to challenge them. Gods were meant to smite their foes.
He knew coming in that Orochimaru would not be an easy out, but he hadn't imagined that the man would be something of a match for him. Yes, he had the Sanbi within him, but being a jinchuuriki far from made him invincible. More formidable, yes, but not something significantly more difficult to overcome, not with how he was prepared to deal with the chakra beasts and the ones who contained them.
The true problem was, there had always been a set strategy if dealing with Orochimaru ever became necessary – outlast him. Due to his body-swapping habits, his physical form was either notoriously weak, or he hadn't fully adjusted to the changes yet. Either way, it left him vulnerable in a contest of longevity.
This was no longer the case.
Orochimaru cackled aloud, dodging a series of small missiles fired from the arm of the near-robotic Asura Path, "My dear boy, if you plan on turning this into a battle of attrition, you may as well fall onto my sword right now! It would save us both time!"
The man was infuriating. Who was he to go against the way things were meant to be. The prophecy said that he would save the world. Nagato had no illusions that it would be anything other than difficult, but all of the years of preparation had come to this. Now it was a matter of execution. He had amassed Akatsuki, and thus far they had done terrific in bringing three of the eight biju to him in less than a year of being active once more.
It would not be allowed to end. Not at the hands of this creature from the depths. Nagato would not offer Orochimaru enough respect to refer to him as a man.
The man was as difficult to corner as the snakes he favored. But his powers were meant to fight with all sorts of shinobi. As far as strength and ability went, the Rinnegan made him unmatched. As far as his goals, he had a dream that was worth fighting for.
An agent of chaos like Orochimaru would never understand.
On his end of things, Orochimaru hadn't felt so alive in years. This was the kind of battle he had wanted in order to test all of his years of research and experimentation. Nagato posed a hefty and extremely annoying challenge. He needed to begin putting away some of Nagato's bodies before their numbers advantage began to overwhelm him.
From the corner of his eye, he caught the long-haired Animal Path fade back from the Preta Path and Asura Path. Orochimaru reeled through a chain of hand-seals as he watched the Animal Path's hand approach the ground.
As the Animal Path attempted another summoning, a hole opened up in the earth where it was about to touch down. Three vipers emerged from the ground and latched onto the Animal Path's arm and neck. As it recoiled and drew away, a large snake burst up and devoured the weakened body whole, swallowing it down.
Orochimaru grinned as the snake hissed and glared threateningly at the remaining enemies. With a single shift of his fingers, the snake vanished in a puff of smoke, "Just to be safe..." He said.
The remaining five bodies of Nagato paused and looked at the rapidly dissipating smoke before all turning to glare at Orochimaru in unison. The Animal Path was the one that got them all to one place when all six Paths needed to be brought together. Without it, transport would be significantly more difficult.
Nagato wondered if Orochimaru had discovered the key to his technique before casting the thought aside, 'As intelligent as he is, he hasn't shown that he's realized my secret just yet. Even so, he needs to die sooner rather than later,' The risk of Orochimaru gaining access to that kind of information was too great to be ignored.
He just needed to make this count. With his opponent's expectations and arrogance, it couldn't have been too difficult to make happen.
The crown of the Asura Path's head opened up to reveal a cannon, glowing with chakra and aimed at Orochimaru. He showed no fear in the face of the walking weapon, simply avoiding the blast area of the attack once it was fired. The ground shook, as dust and debris flew sky-high, covering the battlefield.
'Next will either be the grabby one, or they'll attack together!' Orochimaru thought to himself, readying his by now well-practiced attempt to evade once the Preta Path showed itself. From the smoke, right on cue, the Path capable of absorbing chakra with nothing more than a touch came barreling at him, only this time, something was different.
The way it lunged for him was different. Orochimaru couldn't even make out the chakra absorbing field that usually surrounded its body when it normally went to attack him, and somehow its reach seemed longer. Long enough to actually brush past the sleeve of his tunic.
"Gah!" Orochimaru felt a sharp, piercing pain in his forearm where a black device had stabbed into him. A hidden blade?
In retaliation, he summoned the Kusanagi sword from a snake inside of his throat and sliced the head off of the Path body before it could get away from him. It was a satisfying feeling, but he couldn't help but feel that this was no great victory over Nagato. This particular Path had attacked far too recklessly to be a valued commodity.
Worse yet, Orochimaru could feel that there was a serious problem. His chakra control immediately fell, "Damn!" He howled a curse at his own negligence.
Nary a smile came to Nagato's face, despite the turning of the tide.
It was a gamble and it had come at a cost, but it had paid off in the end. Besides, in battle, the Human Path was very expendable. Its abilities did very little to make a difference when fighting a significant foe. It was more useful for information-gathering purposes, but it was still an able body that could be used the same as any other. And putting a chakra receiver on Orochimaru was worth the sacrifice.
Now was the time to press his advantage, before Orochimaru could find the time to rip out the deeply embedded tool.
"It is meaningless," Nagato insisted as the Asura Path stormed forward, attempting to slice Orochimaru to ribbons with the numerous weapons inside of its body. The Preta Path slipped in where it could, trying to do damage of its own, "You feed off of the worst, most destructive traits of the human condition. I can think of no individual that must be destroyed in order for my peace to truly take hold over the world. Your end will be just another leg of the path to a new beginning."
"You..." Orochimaru tried to fight off the disruption to his system after being stabbed with the odd black weapon. The Preta Path tried its hardest to so much as lay a finger on him. He only had a short window to get away from it before the others closed in on him and took advantage of his weakened state.
He needed an opening. Something to get the pressure off of him before the other attack-oriented bodies could pile onto him and make him pay.
His mind rolled through everything he had picked up thus far about the battle. The only Path that had done absolutely nothing to engage him thus far had been the one with the older appearance with similar spiky hair to the Deva Path. It was the only one that Orochimaru had yet to see in action, and yet, it was kept out of harm's way from the very outset of the battle. If he wanted to create an opportunity for himself, the Naraka Path needed to be put in danger.
Even with a 4-on-1 advantage and with him in a weakened state, they would not attack him all at once. Nagato was still wary of going all-out and leaving himself vulnerable to having his strategy ruined.
"Sen'ei Tajashu (Multiple Striking Shadow Snakes)!" From Orochimaru's unharmed arm, he shot out dozens of massive snakes at the Naraka Path as though they were bullets.
"You must try harder than that," Nagato declared through the body of the Deva Path, lifting his hand to repulse the flying serpents, "Shinra Tensei (Heavenly Subjugation of the Omnipresent God)." The snakes hit an invisible wall, but when they did, for a moment, Nagato saw what was stuck in their mouths.
They hadn't had their jaws open, poised and ready to strike. Their mouths had been wide because they were trying not to suffocate. After all, even summoned snakes needed to breathe, and it was nearly impossible to do that when there were explosive tags stuck inside of their throats. Tags that were burning down to detonation.
Orochimaru's yellow eyes glowed from the towering flames that engulfed his enemy. There was a large sense of satisfaction at accomplishing the feat of gaining the upper hand over an opponent like Nagato. He wasn't fool enough to believe that the battle was over simply with that, and so took steps to further press his advantage.
With a short series of hand-seals, Orochimaru released a great blast of wind from his mouth that stirred the flames before him into an out-of-control state. The heat grew more intense, melting the snow and ice on the ground and scorching the rocky ground until the fire burned itself out. There was nothing physical to feed the flames, so Orochimaru did what he could to make the intense blaze as powerful as he could for a short period of time.
Once it was gone though, Orochimaru was met with a very unsavory sight. All five of the Paths left on the battlefield were still in one piece.
The cloak of the Deva Path was heavily damaged, but it was otherwise unscathed. In fact, the most damaged Path seemed to be the burly Asura Path. Despite its obvious durability, the explosion and the fire had done it severe harm. It should have hurt all of them, and yet that was the only one that showed injury, even though the Deva Path clearly didn't avoid Orochimaru's attack.
The Asura Path slowly moved aside to reveal that it had been covering the Naraka Path, trying to protect it. Even though it was just a vessel, it still had the composition of a human being for the most part. It shook from the shock its body had undergone in the fire. Grisly burns were visible on the pale skin of the grotesque Asura Path.
'All that to protect one body that wasn't even a factor in the battle,' Orochimaru thought to himself, 'Not to protect the clearly most powerful one? Yahiko's body?' He mused, thinking of the Deva Path. And even then, how did the Deva Path seemingly escape any kind of harm? How did any of them? That fire hadn't been spawned from chakra. The Preta Path couldn't have absorbed it.
"Are you finished?" Nagato nonchalantly asked as his five remaining Paths grouped together.
It was here that Orochimaru took the time to analyze their formation. Now that one of the original six was absent, more things stood out than previously did. The Naraka Path, the one useless in battle, stayed in the middle, protected on all sides by a different Path.
The protective positioning of that Path in particular. The fact that the Naraka Path had been the only one that had not participated in the battle in any way.
The Naraka Path was the healer, and it was effective enough to such a degree that any other body was expendable with the exception of that one. He hadn't seen its technique at work. Likely, Nagato had used the cover of the fire to heal any severely injured Paths, which explained why the Asura Path was still hurt. It had used its sturdy body to protect the healer, and the fire hadn't lasted long enough to conceal whatever technique Nagato was using to restore the others.
The man was so secretive, not wanting to tip his hand for fear of letting the truths of his abilities slip. Granted, doing so to someone like Orochimaru was something to be afraid of. However, that was only if neither of them intended for this to go to the death. If one or the other would not survive, who cared if they knew the full scope of the other's abilities?
Orochimaru took his own advice.
"No, Nagato, my boy," Orochimaru said as a thick miasma of inhuman chakra began to flow from his body and surround him. It was considerable enough to be tangible. A physical force-field, as it were. He felt like a new man. The rush of something that shouldn't have been in human hands revitalizing his body was like a drug in his system, "I'm not finished just yet."
A sharp whistle rang out through the air, attracting the attention of both combatants. From the east, hundreds of arrows flew at them out of the sky. Nagato's Deva Path blocked all of the projectiles headed their way, unfortunately protecting Orochimaru at the same time. It irked him to do so, and Orochimaru knew so from the chuckle that emanated from the snake summoner.
A man with thick samurai armor walked through the snowy blinds. He wore a helmet that covered his full head and face, with twin horns on the top, signifying his high rank, "You're both finished."
"The samurai of Tetsu no Kuni have mobilized," Orochimaru said, stating the obvious, "And you are?"
The samurai elite shook his head, "It doesn't matter who I am," He declared, "What matters is where you are, and what you've done."
Orochimaru visually feigned innocence while Nagato's remaning Paths prepared to vanquish the interloper and return to the business at-hand, "This is no business of the samurai."
"Oh?" The elite said "You bring a military element into our country, wipe one of the villages under our protection off of the map, and you say this is no business of the samurai!?"
As he bellowed and his voice echoed into the air, the wind cleared enough to show the silhouettes of hundreds of samurai standing just behind the snowblind surrounding the immediate area. So an entire force had approached them while they had been fighting.
All of Nagato's Paths looked over at Orochimaru, who simply began to cackle, "I needed an environment to test my creations. If it makes you feel any better, they were an unmitigated success. Would you like to meet them?" He asked tauntingly, pulling up the sleeve of his tunic to reveal his summoning tattoo, "They're rather difficult to cage back up once I've released them, so I think only a few will do."
Samurai were taught how to deal with shinobi in a certain way – mainly by reacting quicker than they can utilize their ninjutsu, preventing them from even using it.
When the samurai in charge of the attack saw Orochimaru's summoning tattoo and realized what it was, he immediately dashed for the man, 'I can't let him!' His hand moved to his sword, meaning to cut him down before he could act, "Die, Orochimaru!"
He drew his blade once he was upon the target and slashed through in a single motion. No matter how powerful a shinobi was, if he couldn't react in time, a samurai's sword would slice through him as easily as paper. This situation was no different. One slash through the torso, and another through the neck. While the head was still in the air, he stabbed it down into the ground.
The horror that rolled through him when he found that he hadn't killed Orochimaru, a clone of Orochimaru, or even a snake, and had instead killed a member of his own squadron that Orochimaru had replaced himself with was immeasurable.
The snowblind increased Kawarimi no Jutsu's effectiveness by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, the execution of that technique and where he had gotten his decoy from meant... Orochimaru had replaced himself amongst the samurai ranks.
Guttural roars emanated from around him. They were not from snakes.
"No," The samurai elite whispered to himself before shouting into the howling wind, "Beware! The enemy is among you!"
Before he had even finished his declaration, the cries of pain and yells of panic returned to him. He could see silhouettes of his armored underlings being cut down by not one, but several quick moving red blurs. The murderous intent in the air was palpable, along with an unnaturally intense chakra. It felt human, yet distinctly warped.
In the chaos, Orochimaru made himself scarce, attempting to gain distance from Nagato using the throng of samurai. Nagato cared nothing for them. Samurai business was samurai business, the same could be said for the shinobi. He ventured to Tetsu no Kuni to capture Orochimaru. Nothing else was of importance.
"You will not be allowed to escape," Nagato said to himself as he and his Path bodies pursued the trail of chakra they could feel Orochimaru had left behind, "Stand and face your judgment, coward."
And just like that, nothing. Orochimaru was gone. The only blatant sign of the man was the freshly mangled corpse of a giant summoned snake that had been torn open. It gave him pause for a moment, and bore more scrutiny when he got a better look. It hadn't been cut open by a sword or any weapon. It had been clawed, as if an animal had ripped its way free from within.
Nagato caught sight of a red monster launching itself his way, letting loose something between a psychotic scream and a roar as it attacked, intending to claim whatever life it could.
The Deva Path held up a hand and stopped the creature cold in the air. As it continued to swipe and kick around despite how it was trapped, Nagato studied it as closely as he could. These were the things that Deidara had reported to him on. The things that had destroyed an entire village in a test.
They had been described to him by the bomber of Akatsuki, but seeing them for himself was a unique experience. Covered in uncontrollable, red chakra over a human shape... it looked just like a rampaging jinchuuriki. Such a thing wasn't completely unfounded, but this had been created by another person. To think that the chakra of the tailed beasts was being weaponized so wantonly.
"Orochimaru, what have you done?" He said to himself, looking at the pathetic being in his grasp, "Such a twisted science, to create such abominations."
It seemed to be in enraged and in pain. Ever-waking pain. Pain was something Nagato knew plenty about.
Crushing it on the spot was the most merciful act he participated in on the battlefield that day. It would be an act of mercy that would not be extended to the man who created the fake jinchuuriki.
"This is not over," The Deva Path said walking over the corpse of the vanquished monster lying in the snow, "My future for the Elemental Nations cannot become a reality as long as you exist. Your darkness is a cancer, and you must be cut from the body of the shinobi world.
(Hi no Kuni – Konohagakure no Sato)
Naruto couldn't go back to sleep after speaking with Jiraiya before the man's departure. Unfortunately, once he had woken up for as long as he already had been, getting back to sleep was next to impossible for him. An early morning walk around the village was always a good way to kill time and wait for the sun to rise. Unless Lee and Gai were out training and caught Naruto wandering around, it was usually peaceful.
There was a lot to think about. Finishing up the house on his clan temple's property, asking Ino to move in with him, the test mission for his promotion, the situation with the other hidden villages, and more. There was a lot on his plate. But when he was out by himself in the quiet of the early morning, it didn't seem to matter. It felt like no important decisions needed to be made.
His walks usually took him to the top of the Hokage Monument, one of his favorite places in the village with the most spectacular view. As Naruto reached the summit and prepared to find a place to sit down to find a good spot to see the sunrise, he noticed that he wasn't the first person with the idea to head up there, or so it seemed.
Staring out at Konoha proper with an unreadable expression on his face was Sasuke. Naruto had never so much as seen him near the monument before, let alone taking in the sights from atop the Hokage sculptures.
"What are you doing out here?" Naruto asked as he approached, a grin on his face and an abrasive greeting in mind, "If you're gonna brood, can you do it somewhere besides one of my favorite spots?"
Sasuke was not in the mood for any verbal sparring. He didn't spare so much as a glance in his ally/rival's direction, "Go away," He said bluntly.
It was more direct a dismissal than Naruto had received from Sasuke in quite some time. In other instances, he would at least take the effort to insult him first. That lent itself to a potentially bigger problem.
"Come on, what's the matter. You can tell me," Naruto asked, honestly feeling some concern. Yes, there were times when Sasuke pissed him off, and proving who was better between the two of them was roughly 10% of his motivation as a ninja, but they were from the same class and had been through some serious situations together. If there was something wrong and he could help, he wanted to know how, "Seriously, we made it out of Iwa in one piece. We're probably gonna get our asses promoted,"He said, listing off things to be positive about, "You got your revenge. You killed Itachi-."
If ever there was a trigger phrase to activate someone's temper, Naruto found it without ever meaning to.
Sasuke drew a kunai and launched himself at Naruto without warning, taking a swipe at him with the deadly weapon and forcing him to lean out of the way. Only finely honed reflexes and the quick draw of his own small weapon prevented Naruto from taking a blade to the neck. Naruto took one big jump away from his attacker, clutching at his own throat in surprise and horror, "W-What the hell?"
"Don't you talk about Itachi!" Sasuke snapped, red eyes ablaze with the Sharingan, only there was something different about it. A different pattern instead of the three tomoe, "You don't have the right to talk about him! No one in this village does! After what he-!" Sasuke took a step back, his Sharingan returning to normal before he turned to glare at Konoha, "After what he was ordered to do, by this village..."
Naruto cautiously began moving toward the edge of the monument again, "Sasuke, seriously, what are you talking about? You're freaking me out? What about your brother?"
"You-,"Seemingly all too eager to blurt it out at first, Sasuke thought better and drew back, keeping himself from spilling his brother's greatest secret, even if he was dying for the world to know, "You don't need to know."
Something in him held it back.
Naruto growled and threw his kunai Sasuke's way. It was deflected by the one in Sasuke's hand, "Like hell!" The jinchuuriki snapped, "If you go for my neck over something I helped you get into position to do, I'd like to know what fucking changed your tune! Or have you just flipped your lid?"
Sasuke threw his kunai at Naruto out of frustration. Frustration that only grew when Naruto easily moved out of the way, not caught unaware this time around, "I learned that he didn't massacre my clan and defect on his own! It wasn't just something he did on a whim!" He exclaimed out of anger. Once it started coming out, he couldn't find the motivation to stop. He wanted to say it aloud, "It was a mission. He was told to do it. ANBU are for the village first. The most loyal shinobi that serve their village. They would do anything if it was ordered."
It wasn't lost on Naruto just what Sasuke's words implied, even if his exact point was. Itachi had been ordered to kill the Uchiha Clan.
It hit Naruto like a punch to the gut, "That's nuts. Why would anyone-? Who could ask someone to do that to an entire clan? Let alone their own clan? That can't be true," It was a nice thought, but by now, after learning all that he had, secrets and mistruths came part and parcel with being a shinobi. Even so, something like this couldn't just be accepted at face value, "Sasuke, that can't be legit. Where'd you hear that? Did Itachi tell you?"
At this, Sasuke all but clammed up, "It's not important where I heard it."
Naruto wasn't willing to let Sasuke's dismissal of the info source slide, "It really is. It could be a lie."
Sasuke knew there was no way he would get off lightly if he let it go that he was given this information by a member of Akatsuki – an active member of Akatsuki. Not only that, but everyone would think he was either lying or out of his mind if he told them that a person claiming to be Uchiha Madara spoke to him.
"Well it's not like there's anyone else alive that could verify it, is there?" Sasuke said, meaning to be a smartass, although it did trigger a thought that was actually productive, "…Actually, there's one way I can think of to find out," He said after coming to his realization, "If there's one person in the village who knows, it'll definitely be him."
Due to Sasuke having a conversation with himself, it put a stop to the flow of the one transpiring between him and Naruto, who was left out of Sasuke's thought processes, "Who are you talking about?"
Sasuke's gaze moved over to the Hokage Mansion. As the sun was beginning to rise at this point, it wouldn't surprise him if the man at the top of the village was already awake, "The Hokage. He'll give me my answers."
Naruto trusted the old man. If there was anyone who was going to be a straight-shooter once too many facts were presented to simply file away, the Hokage was one, "What if he doesn't give you an answer you like?"
"There is no answer I'll like," Sasuke replied simply.
"Hey!" Naruto let his chakra flare, knowing it would get Sasuke's full attention, "You know what I meant! What if what you found out is real? That Itachi was told to do... that, to your clan."
Sasuke turned to face Naruto, the son of the Yondaime Hokage. No matter what, he would never be able to reason with him that the village deserved his hate, and there was no way he would let him exercise that anger. At the moment, he still didn't know what he felt. But he did know one thing for certain.
"We'd all better hope that's not the truth," Sasuke muttered before narrowing his eyes at the blond chunin, "Why does it even matter to you? It's none of your business. Keep out of it."
Everyone had their little pet peeves. Naruto had many. He was an emotional guy. It wasn't difficult to make him react, but one of the easiest ways to do so was to jeopardize his relationships.
"It matters because we're actually friends, you dumb bastard!" Naruto snapped, grabbing Sasuke by the front of his shirt aggressively, "After all we've been through, after everything that's happened since we graduated-, No! Since the Academy-! Even if I want to beat you up sometimes, that doesn't mean I want anything bad to happen to you. And I can't let you do something that'll screw yourself up!"
Sasuke didn't seem bothered by the violation of his personal space and security, "Are you really going fight me in the middle of the village?"
Naruto let go of Sasuke's shirt with a shove, "I don't want to fight you at all," And it was painful to say that out loud.
Sasuke didn't say anything else, instead just walking past Naruto and taking a step off of the edge of the monument, disappearing in midair with a Shunshin.
Naruto didn't even bother turning to watch him go, "Fuck," He cursed to himself before disappearing in a swirl of black ash. There was someone he needed to talk to about this, immediately.
(Elsewhere in Konoha)
Tobi often told people when they asked who he was upon first meetings that he was no one. He meant that. It extended to his lack of overt presence. Shinobi that had been training themselves for decades, since childhood, could not mask their presence the way that he could. If he didn't want to be noticed, nothing short of catching actual sight of him would let you find him.
Having the ability to control access to an alternate dimension also helped in that regard.
Concealing himself in the shadows, he found himself the observer of a scene that most others in Konoha knew to be a private, solemn daily occurrence.
Most people were aware of Kakashi's daily visits to both monuments that marked the loss of his teammates. The Hero's Monument for Uchiha Obito, and the gravestone for Nohara Rin.
Tobi found him at the latter, well before dawn. And that was where both of them remained for the longest time, though one was none the wiser to the presence of the other. When Kakashi left to likely pay his respects to Obito, Tobi remained.
Before he had the time to take solace in his solitude, he was disturbed by the only person in the world who could find him when he wanted to be alone.
"Zetsu," Tobi said, his tone not betraying the ire he felt at having his private time interrupted.
"Have you done what you needed to do here?" The white half of Zetsu asked before the black half took over, "We have more work to accomplish. Orochimaru is still on the loose. The samurai of Tetsu no Kuni have begun to move. There is much to be done."
It wasn't unexpected, given that the clash between the two powerful shinobi took place well within their domain. The samurai weren't to be trifled with freely, so Tobi had never come up with any plans to account for them. They would have to be factored into his approach now, which could make things easier or more difficult, depending on how things shook out, "So the sleeping giant has been roused. But you are right. I can't linger here for much longer. Give me a little more time."
"A little more time?" The white half of Zetsu pondered before the black half took over, "Fine, but do not take long. At this point, things could either swing monumentally in our favor or against us."
"I know. I'll be prepared, I can assure you of that," Tobi said. Hopefully he would be able to linger just long enough to see the outcome of one of the situations he had put in motion.
Shikamaru let out a big, wide yawn as the clack of a shogi piece on the board sounded out in the quiet morning air. Birds were chirping, deer were sparsely grazing just out of sight of the Nara Clan homes. It was a peaceful, easy morning.
Even so, it was far too early to be awake. The sky was still flecked with orange from the sunrise.
"Didn't take you for a cheater, sensei," Shikamaru said as he pondered his next move against his opponent for the day, Asuma, "You just had to come over and play me in the morning, didn't you? Even if you win, you sure you want it to be tainted like that?"
"I've got baby stuff to do with Kurenai today," Asuma grumbled to his student, defending his decision, "It was either get this game in early, or not do it at all this week," A lot of his attitude came from the fact that he was still losing to Shikamaru, despite the time advantage.
"Whatever you've got to tell yourself," Shikamaru replied, patiently eyeing the board as he continued to think.
It was a nice tradition that the two of them had. Ever since Shikamaru had returned after his tenure away from the village, he and Asuma took a day out of the week to just sit down and play a game or two whenever they were both in town. It was nice, quality time where they could catch each other up on what was going on in their lives.
Asuma wouldn't have said it out loud because of how Naruto and Ino would have reacted, but Shikamaru was his favorite out of the three genin that had made up Team 10.
Asuma decided to make conversation while he sat waiting on Shikamaru to advance the game, "So, while you were in the desert, one of your old comrades came to the village to inform the Hokage about a meeting with the Fire Daimyo he's been summoned for. But with everything that's happened in the meantime, you're going now. You and Naruto."
It was a piece of information that didn't necessarily make Shikamaru happy to hear, "Why do either of us have to go to this thing?" He complained at having to tag along for big-time state work, "Isn't this above our pay grade? I don't want any part of it."
Asuma shrugged in return, "Tough. You're in the running for a promotion to jounin. Get used to it," He chuckled when he heard Shikamaru moan in exasperation, "You were there, at Sora-ku. They're going to want someone to give the account of what happened."
The same went with Naruto at Iwagakure. Hearing what happened from the mouths of the horses, instead of relying on a secondhand report was obviously preferable. This was a big deal, even if one of the parties involved didn't want it to be.
"Why does the Fire Daimyo care about what happened to us?" As far as Shikamaru was concerned, they were rank-and-file chunin. Not that important in the grand scheme of things, even if Naruto had certain aspirations to be Hokage.
"Because Naruto is a military asset, and because he likes you both, remember?" Asuma explained, as he moved a pawn, "What you have to say will go a long way in figuring out of retaliatory actions are necessary. No pressure though."
The feeling of a lead weight settled in the pit of Shikamaru's stomach, "Like a war?" The words from his mouth dried his tongue like a handful of salt.
Asuma didn't want to admit it, but sugarcoating things would do nothing other than leave his old students unprepared for what may come, "It may lead to a war," He said, "What would you do if you had to fight one? You never had to live through one. For the last eighteen years, we've done a decent job of keeping any of you from having to deal with that."
Admittedly, he had always been curious to how Team 10 would respond to being placed in a military campaign. It was a morbid curiosity. While he had no doubt that they would rise to the occasion, he didn't want them to suffer the kind of changes that would come with proving themselves in that manner.
He didn't want them to change. Not in the way that a long, arduous, bloody campaign in a faraway nation would change them.
Even though they were self-sufficient young adults, talented shinobi on the rise, whenever he looked at them, he still saw the same trio of ill-fitting 12-year-olds he had chosen to take on as a genin squad.
Asuma wasn't concerned in the slightest about the kind of father he would be for the child he was about to raise with Kurenai. As far as he was concerned, he had already raised children before, and had done a damn fine job. Shikamaru and Ino might have had parents, but a part of him felt like they, along with Naruto, were his.
Shikamaru didn't see it. That kind of thing could only come with the kind of experiences Asuma had been through. All he knew was that things were going to be hectic soon, "Those days are almost over, huh?" He said as he finally shifted his shogi piece on the board.
Asuma nodded, analyzing the young man's move, "It looks like it. Too many little things have built up. Things have changed considerably since the end of the Third Shinobi World War," Which Asuma had been alive to see and experience firsthand on the battlefield, "The threat against the biju is leaving a lot of villages anxious... bringing everything to a head."
Shikamaru lay himself back on the grass and stared up at the sky, "Akatsuki really screwed things up. Anything that was happening between the villages anyway is being forced along," A stray thought came to mind as he contemplated Konoha's position in a possible conflict, "We have alliances, right?"
Asuma humored him by giving him the basic rundown of the info that they both already knew, "The one with Suna is all but dead. You saw that much, from what you tell us. Kiri is our ally only as far as they'll trade with us and they won't attack us."
"Our only real ally is Taki," Shikamaru interrupted, "And that's only because if Iwa can't secure a way into Hi no Kuni through a willing country, they'll attack through there. And we'll have to come to their defense."
"Unless we move shinobi into the area in advance and attack first once everything begins. Make a quick push for Iwa. Get as far into Tsuchi no Kuni as we can and put them on the back foot," Asuma said, sending the flow of the conversation back and forth, "Suna will attack through Kawa no Kuni, but then again so can we."
Shikamaru could see that Asuma was picking his brain, trying to get his opinion, "Why are you telling me all of this?" He asked, stopping the train of thought before it could get into practical large-scale strategy – where it was clearly going. He didn't want to think about all of the hypotheticals and the 'what-ifs'. Things were hard enough as it was already, "Even if a war does start, I'm not in any command position. All of this won't matter to me. I'll go where they send me and fight where they tell me."
Asuma rolled his eyes and lit up a cigarette, "You know better. You don't believe anything you just said."
Yes. He was right, as annoying as it was. And Shikamaru didn't even know who or what to blame for everything getting so muddled up, "I just wanted the easy life. I got sucked into joining the Guardian Ninja. I got sucked into this whole thing between Akatsuki. I'm up for a promotion I don't want. Now you're telling me I've got to fight the next big war."
The grizzled Konoha veteran smirked at his young charge's attitude, "You had a choice in everything you got dragged into," He said, "The Guardians? You went with Naruto. He didn't ask you to go with him. He just asked you if you would. Just like he never asked you to fight Akatsuki. He never asked anyone to. Everyone that's helped him did it on their own."
True enough, there had never been one order issued for anyone to watch out for Naruto or protect him from Akatsuki. No decree from the Hokage had ever come down. Instead, it was the people who cared that stepped in to watch out for him.
"What's your point, Asuma?" Shikamaru grumbled, knowing that he'd been conversationally boxed into a corner.
Asuma sat with all of the smugness of an adult having forced a stubborn teenager into conceding to their point of view, "You can't leave well enough alone. You say all of this now, but when something happens you're going to want to do something. When something happens, you're going to think to yourself that things could have been different if you were there. In the end, you'll choose to be out there because you give a fuck, no matter how troublesome it is."
To that, Shikamaru had no response, which left Asuma basking in the glow of not only the sun, but of being proven correct. It was a great feeling for all of thirty seconds.
"Check," Shikamaru deadpanned, looking bored.
Asuma frowned and looked down at the board. All while he'd been lecturing, he'd been getting his butt kicked. Had they really made enough moves in the meantime while they had been talking?
So Sasuke wasn't going to listen to him, Naruto thought to himself. Which was understandable to say the least. They had spent a good portion of time undermining each other and competing to see who the man was going to be as far as their generation of ninja. Even so, a healthy professional respect had to count for something, didn't it? Evidently, not in this case.
Well, force was a last resort. As much as Naruto salivated over the idea of a good fight against his longtime rival, these circumstances weren't ideal. Sasuke was clearly feeling the effects mentally from their last ordeal. What had Ino called it, post-traumatic stress disorder? Yeah, killing your last living relative, then getting tortured for the better part of a week before having to fight your way out of a village had to be taxing. Right now, Sasuke needed help, not a good punch in the chops. Maybe Naruto was concerned over nothing, but there was nothing wrong with being safe and having someone around that could talk Sasuke down. There was only one group of people Naruto could think of who could actually do that.
However, beating on the apartment door of Haruno Sakura in the early morning didn't do much to properly endear himself to her. Unamused green eyes from the sole female member of Team 7 greeted him, a steaming mug of coffee in her hand that Naruto was quite certain she'd thought about throwing on him for disturbing her early morning ritual.
It probably hadn't helped that she had been met with nothing more than a stream of unintelligible syllables out of Naruto's mouth. Such a thing would have been difficult to understand even if she had been fully awake.
"Come again?" Sakura said once Naruto had come to the end of his rapid-paced diatribe.
Naruto grabbed at his own face and dragged his hand down it in exasperation before trying again, in a simplified version, "Where... is your... sensei?" He asked tersely.
"Why... are you at... my place?" Sakura offered in return, mimicking his cadence.
"Because I don't know how to find him by his chakra, but I can find you!" Naruto bellowed, with a large finger pointed right at the chest of the pink-haired girl.
Sakura stared down at his finger before brushing it aside, "…That's kind of weird."
When he stopped to think about it, Naruto could admit that what he'd said did have a bit of a stalkerish vibe to it, "Well, you're with Ino a lot, and I know her chakra like the back of my hand, so I just wound up learning the feel of yours too-. Wait, that's not important," He clarified, done with defending himself, "Where's Kakashi?"
Sakura didn't know what to make of things. Naruto almost never interacted with Kakashi before he had been captured and Kakashi had been a part of the rescue party. Since then, they had spoken a bit more, with Kakashi checking on how he had been doing, "Naruto, it's too early for this right now. What's the big deal that you need to find my sensei – mine, by the way. Not yours – at seven in the morning?"
"Nnnngnnn... no time! We've gotta go!" Naruto exclaimed. Sakura was fully dressed, which meant she was good to go as far as he was concerned. Her concerns fell on deaf ears as he threw her over his shoulder and took off running through the village. He didn't know what the big deal was when she started screaming either. He'd made sure to grab her shoes from by the door before they'd left, because he was a nice guy like that.
"Na-ru-tooo! Put me down before I kick your ass!"
"Don't worry! I'll explain everything! We're in a rush!"
As Sakura elbowed him in the side of the head in her efforts to work herself free, Naruto idly wondered how much more difficult this would have been if she had been trained by Tsunade or something. Sakura with her super-strength was a crazy thought.
It was also a scary thought.
(Elsewhere In Konoha – Third Training Ground)
When Sasuke's well-being meeting with the Hokage had been originally scheduled during his recovery after the rescue from Iwagakure, he had been less than motivated to attend. He still would have, because that was his boss, but the urge to blow the whole thing off had been powerful. That was before now, however.
Before he learned that his brother may have been ordered to exterminate his clan. There were very few in the village who had the power to issue such an order to a member of ANBU. The Hokage was the only one Sasuke knew of off the top of his head, and if he were the one behind it all, there would be hell to pay, even if it cost him his life.
He had to give the man a chance. He deserved that much. But in the same breath, he owed it to his clan to try and ascertain the truth. If the truth just so happened to be in line with what 'Uchiha Madara' had told him... he didn't know what would happen then. The fact that he had to stop himself from clenching his fists at the thought of it all made him believe that it wouldn't be something he would take well.
'Breathe,' Sasuke thought to himself as he stood with the Hokage, both looking out at the river that ran through the training ground. The early morning sun shining off of the surface of the water would have normally been calming. Not so much in this case, 'I need to understand all of this. I need closure.'
His attention went away from inward thinking when he heard the Hokage speak up, "Ah, I must say, I didn't know where I expected our journey to lead us, but I'm pleasantly surprised," He said.
Despite Hiruzen's best attempts to try and make conversation throughout the meeting, Sasuke didn't really engage. Even under normal circumstances, he would have likely given one word answers whenever possible. Now though, he had to talk to learn what he wanted to know, "I spent a lot of time here with Sakura, Chouji, and Kakashi," He remembered his younger times on Team 7 as clear as day, "It's just... comfortable."
Hiruzen had followed Sasuke's lead as they moved through Konoha after meeting up. One thing led to another, and his feet just wound up carrying him there. He didn't even think about it. The setting fit.
"What a nostalgic feeling," Hiruzen said, taking his Hokage's hat off to take in the sunshine, "You know, I taught my own genin squad at this training ground. Of course, that seems like a lifetime ago. I'm glad you could take the time to indulge an old man and walk with me this morning."
The way his face crinkled as he smiled, to Sasuke, the Hokage seemed legitimately pleased at the goings-on of the day thus far, "Was there a reason you wanted to wanted to speak to me now, Hokage-sama?"
Hiruzen chuckled warmly, despite Sasuke's prickly demeanor. The boy did nothing to offend him, "My apologies for setting up such an early call. This is the best time of day for me to take the time to meet with anyone before duties get in the way," Either early in the morning, or fairly late at night. The rest of the day left the village leader quite busy.
"I see," Sasuke was a series of conflicting emotions internally, "Whatever. It's fine."
Hiruzen shook his head at the chunin under his command. Sasuke had been nursing a serious, dour expression since they had come across each other, "Now-now. Don't look so serious, Sasuke. This is no interrogation, nor is it a briefing. I simply wish to speak with you. I want to know how you're doing."
"And my well-being matters that much to you?"
The man in charge of Konoha seemed put out by Sasuke's question, "Of course. Even if you are one of my shinobi, you are still important to me," The entire village was important, with no exceptions. Especially the men and women that risked their lives fulfilling his orders to keep everything running smoothly, "You went through a very trying experience, both in Sora-ku and Iwagakure." He gave a wide grin and stroked his grey goatee, "I spoke with Naruto like this as well. He wound up walking us to Ichiraku Ramen just as it was opening. Breakfast was my treat, of course."
'Of course. The idiot,' Sasuke thought to himself before focusing up. Naruto wasn't important. He'd kept him from sticking his nose in this, at least for now, but that wouldn't last if Sasuke got cold feet and decided to deliberate further on how to go about things. He'd ruined that when he'd emotionally blurted things out earlier, 'It's either do it now, or make it harder for myself to do it later.'
Hiruzen wasn't a fool. The moment he'd met up with Sasuke in the streets of Konoha for their assembly, he noticed no small amount of turmoil plaguing him. A frosty demeanor only did so much to hide something like that, especially when it kept breaking.
The wizened old shinobi put a hand on Sasuke's shoulder and felt his heart sink when the young man stiffened up defensively, "You've paid the price for our village. We've put a lot on you and others your age recently. I just want to make sure you aren't overwhelmed," He assured him.
Paid the price for the village? What a... unique form of phrasing, Sasuke thought.
"Don't worry, Hokage-sama. My head is perfectly clear," Sasuke said, as a gleam of uncertainty came to his eyes, "On that note, I do have one question I need to ask you."
Hiruzen was intrigued. Sasuke never asked questions to anyone, unless it was about what he needed to do for assignments that he was given, "Yes? What would you like to know, Sasuke?" Was this about whatever had been troubling him? "I would be more than happy to help shed some light on a particular subject for you."
Sasuke hesitated for a moment, but steeled his nerves. Progress was never made if you were afraid to proceed, "Are you aware that Itachi was ordered to kill our clan?" He asked bluntly.
Everything seemed to go still around them at that moment. The birds seemed to stop chirping, and even the current of the river began to slow.
"...Yes. I am."
Well, the Hokage better have the whole calming grandpa thing down to a science. He's probably going to need it.
So... the samurai are going to be pissed, which just adds them to the growing list of everyone else that's pissed at everyone else for various reasons.
Naruto's ready to get back into action again, and not a moment too soon, what with his being slated to accompany the Hokage to see the Fire Daimyo. What shenanigans will ensue from there? We shall see.
By the way... just so everyone knows, nothing is dead, story-wise. I just have a lot less time to write this stuff than I used to, so I choose what I most feel like paying attention to when I sit down to focus on fanfiction. I don't kill stories, and I'm still working on ideas for everything I've got left. I'm not saying this again, because the sheer amount of reviews and messages I get asking about this is staggering.
So yeah. That's the chapter. I hope you enjoyed. Also, if you feel so inclined, take a look at Fandom Flux on Youtube to hear me and a bunch of other fanfic-writing fools go off about all sorts of things.