Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. If I had to live in one of the five major hidden villages, I would pick Kumo. The mountains are awesome. I hate the heat, so Suna is out. I hate islands, so Kiri is out. I don't have any problems with Iwa, other than thinking it's a little bland.

What about Konoha? Well, it's not bad, but it's always sunny. It sounds trivial, but I'm way too naturally miserable a person to deal with that all of the time.

Chapter 75: Nothing But The Truth


He knew.

The Sandaime Hokage knew about Itachi's orders to massacre the Uchiha Clan. He had confirmed this with his own words. With that being said, he was probably the man that had issued the order to begin with! He was the man in charge of the whole village! He gave orders to ANBU directly!

Hiruzen could see Sasuke's ire rise right before his eyes, like bread inside of an oven. If there was anything the older shinobi could say the younger one lacked, one of those things would be patience.

A young man's rage was not something that he was unfamiliar with, nor was it something that intimidated him, "Would you like to attempt to kill me now, or would you like to hear more?" He asked plainly.

Sasuke's mouth fell open at the village leader's blunt statement. It was then that he realized his fist had been clenched tight enough to go numb. Of course that could have also been the lightning chakra he'd been drawing on subconsciously.

Hiruzen stared Sasuke down, letting him know that any attack on his person would be treated as a legitimate offense. Sasuke let his lightning chakra fade away before the Hokage continued, "How much do you know?" He asked.

"I know about what led up to everything," He explained, not wanting to go back over the basics that it was clear both of them were aware of, "I remember Itachi acting weird back then."

From that, he wanted to hear Hiruzen's side, pick out the discrepancies between what he had to say and what Sasuke had been told by 'Madara'.

Hiruzen nodded and gestured for Sasuke to stand with him against one of the three posts marking the training ground. Sasuke kept his distance. Fair enough, "Itachi was reporting to the village elders and myself about what the Uchiha Clan was planning," Hiruzen said, "Discussions between the clan and I were underway, but it looked like things were coming to a head."

Things came to a head. Well what caused tensions to rise to begin with? "Why did it even start in the first place? We were loyal to the village! Just as loyal as any other clan! Konoha was our home!"

It was common knowledge that the Senju and Uchiha clans were the major founding members of the village. But the village values leaned heavily to the Senju side of things. That couldn't have been it, however. Sasuke never remembered hearing any of his family or other clansmen complaining about that. It probably didn't matter to them at all.

"The attack of the Kyuubi changed more than you think," Hiruzen said, "We lost the Yondaime Hokage that night, and countless shinobi in the village's defense. Afterwards, village elders began to suspect that your clan may have somehow had a hand."

The hair stood up on Sasuke's neck, "And you just believed them?"

"The Sharingan has an extensive ability to control the Nine-Tailed Fox," Hiruzen didn't bother acknowledging Sasuke's temper, hoping that more of a grasp of the situation would temper his mood, "As time passed, we had the Uchiha placed under surveillance, to make sure there were no signs of treachery. In the end, we did discover it, but not the kind we were originally looking for."

From previous revelations, Sasuke already knew where this train of conversation was headed, "You discovered a coup."

Hiruzen nodded grimly, "The preparations for one, at least," He said, "Uchiha Clan members were inserted throughout Konoha's command structure, spread out, covering as many bases in prime positions as possible. These were talented men and women, who deserved their positions, worked hard for the village. But they were spies."

He had so desperately hoped otherwise when he began investigating the people in question, but the results were what they were. And as such, he had to respond in order to keep the village operating as well as possible. These people weren't outed from their positions, instead being fed as much false information as possible to stunt the coup's progress.

And then, something important happened that changed the trajectory of things for both Konoha and the Uchiha Clan alike.

"Your father made a mistake," Hiruzen said, "He pressured your brother Itachi to enter ANBU, directly under my command. I treated him no differently than any other operative. He had no idea we were already aware of what was going on. When he came to me, revealing the coup, he was surprised that I already knew."

This had been something conveniently left out by 'Madara' during his explanation, "Itachi came to you? Why would he do that?"

"Your brother did not agree with your father's plans. He believed it would only escalate into another Shinobi World War. He had seen the destruction and death of the last one. He wished to avoid such a conflict."

Talented though he was in his young life, people never stopped to realize something about him. He had entered ANBU at the age of 11. No matter how exemplary his performance in the field, he was still a child.

Yes, a child caught up in the world of adults, before he had received the guidance and full life experiences to leave him fully prepared to do so. He handled things as well as he could have, but things grew far too large for him to keep under control on his own.

"Things went well for a time with this arrangement," Hiruzen continued, an enraptured audience present in Sasuke, "Due to his position, both as ANBU and as the son of Fugaku, Itachi was well within the inner-circle of the coup. What he told me directly about your clan's grievances, I was able to work on smoothing out. Hostilities de-escalated for a time. Then came the death of Uchiha Shisui."

"Itachi's best friend," Sasuke whispered. He remembered this man. He personally hadn't been close to him, but the name was familiar, 'Isn't that the person Itachi killed to get his Mangekyou Sharingan?'

Or did he? Sasuke didn't know what was real any longer. 'Madara' had come to him first with the truth, but the Sandaime Hokage had never given him any reason not to believe his words. Even so, he had never told him about the circumstances leading up to the massacre until now.

The hope audibly drained out of Hiruzen's voice the more he spoke. It was clear there were no more bright spots in this story, "Shisui was tasked with looking after your brother for the clan. He committed suicide, but your clan believed that he was killed by Itachi and that his death was staged. Itachi lost trust, and we lost our source of soothing the Uchiha. Things spiraled out of control from there. But I believe there still could have been a peaceful solution salvaged. At least, until the assassination was offered to Itachi."

Sasuke swung his arm angrily, "What do you mean, offered? He was made to do it. Ordered to! Who else but the Hokage could issue a mission to a member of the ANBU?" This was the wrong tone to take on the wrong topic.

Sharp eyes from Hiruzen almost seemed to cut into Sasuke's soul, taking the young man aback, "That's why I said it was 'offered', because I didn't order him to do anything," He said crisply, "I had been unaware of Itachi's 'mission', until he reported it to me in its aftermath. It had been given to him by a village elder by the name of Danzo."

A name. Something to latch onto, to focus on. Sasuke took it like a life preserver for a man drowning at sea, "Who is this man, and where is he?"

"I just told you who he was. And as to where he is... he's dead," Hiruzen said, "I killed him, months ago."

Whatever lifeline Sasuke had been looking for had been pulled back in, leaving him stranded in the sea of his own emotions, "You killed him? Well isn't that convenient!?" He bellowed, "Why did you just now get around to doing it now, instead of ten damn years ago?"

Even though the deed was now done, Hiruzen asked himself the same question every day, "Danzo had a powerful position in the village. An organization under his command performed vital operations to the village. If I remember correctly, you had a run-in with one of them before. Simply getting rid of him would have led to, best-case scenario, an entire flank of the village being exposed. Worst-case scenario, a civil war. The exact situation Itachi sacrificed to avoid."

Sasuke looked down at his hands as they shook. He still felt so... empty. Even emptier than he first had after defeating Itachi now that he knew what he did now, "So what am I supposed to do now? I pushed myself for ten years, for one thing, to kill the man that destroyed my clan! My brother, who only did it to protect this village! But the man that made him do it, from what you're saying at least, is DEAD!"

Hiruzen sighed. Talking about all of this had worn heavy on his head. "As things are, your entire clan has been canonized, whereas had a coup taken place, they would have been seen as villains," He attempted to explain. It would do little, if not nothing, to make things any better, but it was worth the attempt, "With Itachi's death, you and I are now the only ones alive who know the truth," He let his words sink in before continuing, "...Or are we?"

Sasuke's eyes snapped up from his hands and straight to the eyes of the man in charge of the village. With his impatience in getting answers, he had neglected perhaps the most understated, yet important aspect of all of this. How in the world he learned of this in the first place.

It had been something that Hiruzen had picked up on from the very beginning, immediately wondering how Sasuke had found out as much of the truth as he had. Granted, after revealing what he knew, Hiruzen felt he might as well know the rest. But that didn't answer the biggest question of the day.

The conversation having taken a sharp turn, Hiruzen seemed larger than life as he loomed over Sasuke. This man was the Hokage, for goodness sake. As kind as he seemed on the surface, it took a hard man to have the stomach for such a job, "Sasuke, even if Itachi revealed certain things to you before his death, there are certain things he would never have shared. Who did you speak with about this?"

He demanded to know. It wasn't a request. The fact that anyone outside of the three people directly involved with issuing the order, carrying it out, and covering it up per the request of the assassin knew enough to give Sasuke a dangerously bare-bones explanation of it all was a threat. There were reasons this was all kept under wraps. Multiple reasons. Major reasons.

"Now, now, Hokage-sama," A voice said, interrupting the talk between Hiruzen and Sasuke, "There's no need to bully poor Sasuke. After all, hasn't this village bullied the Uchiha Clan enough?"

Sasuke took a step away from the masked individual who appeared from nowhere. The first thing aside from his mask that Hiruzen noticed was the black cloak with red clouds adorning his frame, "And you are, Akatsuki-san?"

The masked man shrugged, "No one, really," He said absently, "But if you absolutely must have a name, you may refer to me as Madara. Uchiha Madara."

XxX

(With Naruto – Hero's Monument)

Finding Hatake Kakashi wasn't as difficult as most people who spoke about the man figured. He was oftentimes late to everything, but that didn't mean he was a secretive person. If one was searching for him, there were a handful of places he could be found. Places like his home, the Jounin Standby Station to wait for missions or catch up on rumors, or the Hero's Monument, to mourn and reminisce.

Sakura guided Naruto to the latter in order to find the silver-haired masked man. Fair play to her, she was 100% correct, as they managed to locate him without any difficulty.

Kakashi had been surprised to find his most recent kunoichi student with his sensei's only child. Doubly so that Naruto had come to see him. They weren't exactly close, even after the mission to save Naruto from Iwagakure. They had always had a decent enough relationship, and had become even more cordial with one another in the aftermath.

He had greeted the pair of chunin kindly enough, but it wasn't a social call apparently. In fact, what Naruto had to tell Kakashi left the man speechless at first.

Naruto told Kakashi everything Sasuke had let slip to him atop the Hokage Monument earlier that morning. That Itachi had been ordered to carry out the massacre of the Uchiha Clan.

"That was... that was what he told me," Naruto said, having finished divulging all that he could to Sasuke's teacher. His mouth felt dry after having said all of that.

The atmosphere felt heavy. Kakashi knew why they came to him. He was the experienced veteran. One of the finest ninja ever to come out of Konoha. He had all of the answers. Or at least, he was supposed to. That was the idea.

Not for this. Not for anything like this. Kakashi didn't even know where to start, "Have you told anyone else?" He asked.

Naruto and Sakura both looked at each other before Naruto shook his head and answered, "No. I went to get Sakura so she could help me find you. She's the only person I've seen other than Sasuke since I woke up this morning."

Sakura couldn't believe any of it. It was so markedly different from what they had all been told since it had first happened ten years prior, "Where did he hear this?" She asked.

Unfortunately, Naruto was at a loss. He had nothing to offer for them, despite coming to them for help, "I don't know. That's why I came to you guys in the first place. I don't even know if it's true. And even if it is, I don't know what to do about it."

Kakashi hated making the suggestion he was about to, but given what he was aware of, he had to say it, "Well, first of all, this information goes no further than right here."

Both Naruto and Sakura were taken aback at being told such a thing, "What? Why?" The former asked.

Kakashi sighed, "This is a state secret. The highest level of information you could possibly imagine, Naruto. It would take longer for me to explain all of the reasons you shouldn't throw this information around than it would to just say not to. Please. Trust me."

"Kakashi-sensei has a point," Sakura admitted, although begrudgingly. It was in her body language, the way she wrapped her arms around herself, "I mean, what would be the point of spreading this around? It wouldn't change anything, Sasuke-kun already knows, and the only other Uchiha it affects is gone."

It wasn't about what was just at this point. It was about how this could negatively affect the village as a whole, and it absolutely would. Information was a weapon, like an explosive. It could damage you, just as easily as it could damage your enemies.

"That doesn't change the fact that he got all of this from somewhere," Sakura continued, "What would someone else have to gain out of telling just Sasuke, other than having an ear that might listen? And why does he believe them?"

Naruto thought hard, until a stray thought buzzed into his brain, "Itachi was in Akatsuki. Those were the people closest to him for years, right? And Sasuke won't say where he found any of this stuff out," He said, trying to put things together, "What if a member of Akatsuki told him?"

Sakura frowned at the idea, "Akatsuki work in twos, don't they? Didn't you kill Itachi's partner, Kisame?" Back at Sora-ku. It was part of what Shikamaru had reported back, that Naruto had broken off from the team to fight Hoshigaki Kisame, "Who else would be in a position to find it all out other than him?"

Kakashi let out a hum of thought, which surprised Sakura that he was actually considering it, "Itachi didn't seem to be the type to share. But then again, these are the best of the best. I wouldn't underestimate a single one of them," That what they were talking about, that Sasuke had been contacted by a member of Akatsuki, was an actual possibility was disturbing.

Uchiha Sasuke was not prone to making good decisions when he was emotionally distressed. And Kakashi could think of very few things that were more distressing than learning that the most important event that shaped you as a person was nothing like you had figured it was for ten whole years prior.

Bad things would happen if they couldn't keep a grip on things as they stood. And the first part of that involved keeping track of the wild card in the hand.

"Naruto, can you find Sasuke for me?" Kakashi requested, "Talking to him right now, probably won't do any good. For the time being, I just want to keep an eye on him."

Naruto nodded his agreement to help. Kakashi was probably a better option to go trail Sasuke than he was. There was less of a chance of his presence resulting in a destructive fight than Naruto's, "Uh," Naruto said, after letting out his pulse of chakra sonar, "Sasuke's with the Hokage."

Kakashi's single visible eye went wide, "...Which way?"

XxX

(Meanwhile In Konoha – Third Training Ground)

Sasuke took a deep intake of air, realizing at that moment that he had been subconsciously holding his breath the entire time that the interloper Madara had been present. It took him little time to realize why.

Not only had he never been around to see the Hokage in combat. He had never so much as been present for the Hokage reacting to any kind of threat whatsoever. Like a defense mechanism, the man let the great weight of his strength loose to bear.

To say or do anything in this instance would be punching above his weight-class. How much further up? Sasuke wasn't certain. It depended on whether or not this Madara person was stronger than him, and by how much. He knew his clan's history. If they were dealing with the genuine article, he was so far out of his league, it wasn't funny.

"Uchiha Madara," Hiruzen tested the name with gross skepticism in his voice, "Well, it is quite the honor to be graced by the presence of history's most prolific member of the Uchiha Clan."

He didn't believe that he was truly standing in front of that person for a moment. But whoever it was, they were a formidable force. Hiruzen had an ANBU security detail. That they hadn't shown themselves in the face of this uncleared interloper only meant bad things for them.

The masked Madara simply nodded in return, "You seem to be quite well. Suckling at the teat of your predecessors and their Senju ideals must have done wonders for your development."

Hiruzen was quick to cut off that line of reasoning, "Stow the prejudices, please. I am my own man. My own Hokage. While I was influenced by those who came before me, the decisions made for the sake of Konoha's development were my own."

Madara conceded the point, backhandedly so, "True enough, my village does seem to be flourishing. Blood must be a wonderful fertilizer for the tree of the great leaf."

Decades of political jousting tempered Hiruzen's nerves to steel. Nothing anyone could say to him would come close to needling him, "Have you appeared simply to waste your breath and my time with petty, snide remarks, or have you come for a legitimate purpose."

"Other than revealing the truth to young Sasuke," Madara said, gesturing slightly to the individual in question, "I believe I've said it already. I've come to take a look at how my village has grown and changed. It's been a long time, and I don't think it will be here for much longer."

The pressure over the scene immediately increased, "That's a very stark threat," Hiruzen pointed out.

Madara treated it as though they were discussing the weather, "Not so much of a threat. More of an observation," He said, "There is a meeting with the Fire Daimyo soon, or so I'm told. Tell me, does that man know about any of this? I wonder how Konoha's standing will be affected by this? And what of your fragile alliances. To know that Konoha could so casually eradicate a smaller force so maliciously. So... callously."

He knew more than he should have. There were a handful of people in the village privy to the upcoming meeting. None of whom would let that information slip lightly.

This individual had so brazenly infiltrated the village, only being seen by those he wanted to reveal his presence to. And here he stood, in front of the most powerful shining in the village, with no fear of reprisal for all he had a hand in, as well as things he would endeavor to do in the near future.

"War is on the horizon, Hokage-sama," Madara continued, "At this point, all it will take is a small nudge. Both you and I know this. A Fourth Shinobi World War will happen, sooner rather than later. I may as well declare it now myself, to save the rest of you the trouble."

Hiruzen regarded him with the poise of a man that had heard most threats under the sun, with evidence of the force to back it up, "I have no idea what your endgame is for Akatsuki, but mark my words and mark them well, Madara. The ninja world has survived dire threats before. As a society, we have only continued to evolve and grow further."

Madara wigged a finger chidingly, "No more evolution, Hokage-sama. From here on out, the ninja world as we know it can only expect extinction," He made to address Sasuke once more, "It was this ninja world, Sasuke. This world is the architect for all of your pain. And this man wants you to stand as its vanguard. Just like your brother did."

"Enough," Hiruzen demanded, his voice booming with authority, "He can make his own decision, without any input from you or I."

Madara pressed onward, "It takes a stronger man to fight to change the world than fight to keep things as they are. Will you keep your eyes closed, or open them to the truth?"

"ENOUGH FROM THE BOTH OF YOU!" Sasuke bellowed, his Sharingan roaring to life. Hiruzen watched as the pattern in his eyes morphed into something he had never seen before, "NEITHER OF YOU GET ANY SAY IN HOW I FEEL, OR WHAT I DO!"

Madara took a step away, lest the volatile young Uchiha turn his ire onto him, "It's fine. Your eyes have just recently opened after being closed for so long. But they'll adjust to the light eventually, as mine did."

A grim smile came to Hiruzen's face as he moved to strike, "Do you think leaving will be so easy?"

His movement was a diversion for a Kage Bunshin that formed behind Madara, quickly stabbing at his back with a previously concealed kunai. The blade merely passed through Madara as though he were a spectre.

Madara chuckled and destroyed the clone in a move that Hiruzen couldn't see, "You can't stop me, Hokage-sama. Not now, and not in the future."

As he spoke, Kakashi suddenly arrived, taking in the scene. His appearance caught Hiruzen's eye for a split-second. When he turned back to Madara, he was already disappearing in a swirl-like vortex.

Kakashi caught sight of this individual just as he departed. But there was no opportunity to attack him. He had taken the minuscule opening presented to him to escape.

Hiruzen glared at the remnants of the portal as it vanished from existence. Whether he was truly Uchiha Madara or not, that man would be the agent of their destruction if he were allowed to persist.

Kakashi got a good look at the man in the mask. Most notable to him were two things, the black cloak with red clouds, and something else that he couldn't put his finger on, "Who was that?"

The Sandaime Hokage never looked away from where the portal had been, "If he is to be believed, Uchiha Madara."

"Uchiha Madara," Kakashi said, his voice sounding like he was speaking of an urban legend more than a living individual. He then turned to Sasuke who quickly departed without saying a word.

Kakashi went to pursue him when the sound of Hiruzen's voice stopped him momentarily, "This... has not been a simple day, Kakashi. Handle this with care."

The former sensei of Team 7 was the closest adult figure that Sasuke had in his life since the death of his parents. Any damage control that would be run needed to be done by him, if it was possible to do so. Kakashi nodded and took off, following behind Sasuke.

Speaking of damage control, a lot would have to be done to limit the kind of harm that would be done by this madman. Whatever he was after would apparently have massive repercussions on the shinobi world.

XxX

(Moments Later – Miles Outside of Konoha)

Konoha would scramble ninja to scour the countryside. Madara knew this. They were likely already moving to locate him, but they never would. After he had left in his portal, they were already too far behind to ever catch up. And it wasn't just him either, not that they knew there had been another member of Akatsuki within their walls.

Madara didn't react as Zetsu emerged from the ground behind him, "Did you get what I asked of you?"

Zetsu held up a scroll as proof, "Yes, I've got it. Are you finally finished with everything you needed to do here?" The white half of Zetsu asked before the black half took over, "There's still too much work to do to be bogged down with side projects."

A side project wasn't how Madara would have described it. Not completely. Though, it would have been a lie if he said there had been nothing sentimental about the visit. But he wouldn't, because it was of no concern, "Nothing has changed. Make sure Hidan and Kakuzu are ready to mobilize again."

"What about you, Tobi?" White Zetsu asked.

"From now on, refer to me as Madara," The masked man requested, "And as for me? If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."

There was very little subtlety behind those vague words, "You're going to hunt the jinchuuriki yourself?"

It was of little bother to Madara, "The plan never called for me to stay in the shadows the entire time," That was an unrealistic way to approach things. Akatsuki was meant to do as much of the heavy lifting as possible, but most of them were expendable, not that they needed to know that, "The only thing that matters is the completion of the Moon's Eye Plan. Aside from certain aspects of it, how we eventually get there is of little concern."

"Which one are you going after?" The Black Zetsu demanded to know, "Is there a reason the Kyuubi wasn't a target?"

"He's too well-protected to attack in the middle of Konoha," "No, my target is more vulnerable. And if done correctly, taking it will leave us in a better position to take two others."

"How so?"

Madara chuckled, "Oh, Zetsu. You of all people should know these people look for any excuse for war," He said, a dangerous gleam in his eye behind his mask, "Just like I told the Hokage, all it will take is a nudge."

XxX

(With Naruto)

It had been a very trying morning for Naruto, and he hadn't even been at the middle of it this time. Over the course of a handful of hours, he'd almost had to fight a friend, learned things that would have been kept from him for the rest of his life had he not stumbled upon it, and found that a member of Akatsuki had been within the walls of the village.

Naruto's stomach was empty. His head was swimming. And most importantly, he had no idea how to proceed. Did he proceed? Did he even do anything himself from that point forward?

It was early in the morning, and yet he felt tired as he and Sakura prepared to part ways.

"Well," Sakura said, trying to say something to break the tense mood between the two of them, "What a way to start off the day, huh?"

Naruto pursed his lips in thought, but had nothing eloquent to say. There was just one question on his mind, "So what the hell am I supposed to do now?"

He was miffed. Risking his own neck. Getting mixed up in action. These were the kinds of things he knew how to handle. Beyond that, things got murkier. Now they were delving into the realm of state secrets. And not the 'worst-kept secret of all time', like his status as the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi.

Sakura was equally at a loss, and was technically closer to it, given that Sasuke was her teammate and crush, "About this? Nothing. I have no idea. What could we even do about it?" She said, sounding put off before heaving a deep sigh, "But I'll tell you what I think I can do. I'm going to talk to Kakashi-sensei, and then I'm going to find Sasuke-kun, because I really don't think he needs to be alone right now."

That was fine for her, but it still left him twiddling his thumbs, "And what about me?" He asked.

Sakura reached out and put a hand on Naruto's shoulder, "Go home. There isn't really a lot more that can be done at this point."

Naruto frowned and clenched his fists. Sasuke was a friend. Not the best friend, but a friend all the same. They had been through their share of crap together, and now this, "What kind of friend am I? What kind of shinobi am I if I'm completely useless over something like this?"

Sakura let out a laugh with a slight 'aww', smiling at Naruto as she did so, "I guarantee, useless is the last thing you are," She said, moving in to give him a soft peck on the cheek, "Thank you for coming to get me this morning. Thank you for helping. Tell Ino we need to get together soon. Later."

Naruto stood back as she headed off to presumably meet back up with Kakashi and do as she had informed him she would. A few years ago, getting a kiss like that from Sakura would have put him on cloud nine. Those days were long gone. Now though, it just put him more at ease than he had been a moment before.

As he walked back inside of the door of his apartment, he smiled at seeing everything the way he left it. Removing his shoes at the entrance, he went back into his room to find Ino sleeping with the clone he'd left behind for her to keep her company.

Once he dispelled it, it took all of a few seconds for Ino to register the change in her sleeping situation and wake up. Once she focused in on Naruto, she stared at him fully from where she continued to lay.

"Morning, baby," Naruto said, waiting for Ino's brain to catch up with her body. A similarity they shared; neither was a morning person, "Did you sleep well?"

"I had been," Ino said in a tone that asked, 'Why are you up? It's our day off.'

Naruto sat down next to her on the bed and stroked her hair, "I couldn't sleep, so I had to step out for a bit."

Ino seemed confused, "Huh? You left?" The spot next to her where Naruto normally slept had still been warm when she'd woken up, "When was this?"

"Yeah, Jiraiya woke me up way early, so I just walked around until the sun came up. Sorry," Naruto explained/apologized.

"Oh," Ino chirped, slowly pushing herself upright, "I didn't even notice you were gone," She said, pausing to blow away a few errant strands of hair covering one of her eyes.

"That's because I left you a clone for cuddling."

"Oh. Well look at you, mister smartass. Putting your signature move to good use."

Naruto faked taking offense at Ino's remark, "Hey, I have like five signature moves, thank you very much."

Ino laughed softly, until she noticed something subdued about Naruto's demeanor. It was easy to notice that the sun wasn't shining as bright when there were a few clouds in the sky. So was it for her to discern when something was off with Naruto, "Goldie, is something wrong? Did Jiraiya-sama tell you something bad?"

It wasn't Jiraiya. But Naruto couldn't say what it really was. Not without breaking the confidence of the very top brass of Konoha and violating Sasuke's privacy. He wiped the thoughtful expression from his face and threw on a bright grin, "Nah not that. Ero-kyofu's out on a mission. He wouldn't tell me what it's about before he left. Just wondering what he's into this time."

"Well, don't be peeved that you couldn't go with him," Ino said, trying to perk her man back up, "Your recovery period is almost over. I'm sure there are some juicy assignments all set up for us whenever you are."

Naruto raised an eyebrow, smirk firmly planted on his lips, "Us?"

"Yes, 'us'," Ino said sternly, sitting up in bed to give Naruto a very strict look, made slightly less imposing by her early morning bedhead, "Whenever I let you out of my sight, things tend to go sideways. I would like to have a hand in making sure more awful shit doesn't happen around you. At least as much as possible."

She wasn't a miracle worker, after all. Some things were beyond her ability. Simply keeping Naruto out of trouble completely was out of the question.

Naruto laughed, though it was more of an 'either laugh, or cry' kind of moment, "Oh, you don't even know."

Ino sighed and smoothed out her nightgown before folding her arms over her chest expectantly, "Well, I'm up now. Make me breakfast, Goldie."

Naruto scoffed. She wanted him to do what exactly? Making breakfast for Naruto involved boiling water for instant ramen and pouring some juice or milk. At best, he'd fry an egg or something. There was little chance of that being sufficient enough for Ino's palate, "You make breakfast."

Ino was bullish in personality enough to clash with him on this, "Why don't you make me make breakfast?"

Now that they were talking about food, Naruto could admit that he was hungry. But he wasn't about to back down now of all times in the face of such a challenge, "I'll drag you to the kitchen and chain you to the fridge. You'll make something eventually. Either that or eat raw ingredients."

Ino raised an eyebrow and calmly placed her hands in position for Mind Body Divide, "Fine. I'll make you make me breakfast."

Naruto's eyes went wide. He had seen that jutsu in action, back in Iwagakure when she'd used it on that strong guy he'd been fighting to make him go away. He had no idea how long its effects lasted, but he wasn't interested in finding out first-hand.

Ino found herself tackled down onto the bed, tussling to get her hands in position to aim at Naruto to make good on her threat. It was too early in the morning to wrestle. Why did Naruto have to be so much stronger than her? And why did he have to specialize in that Nebaiken taijutsu style? It was unfair how much better at grappling he was.

"Goldie... your hand does not go ther-, ooh. Okay, yes it does. It goes there."

At the very least, it didn't last long before something more enjoyable started. A different kind of hunger was getting satisfied for the time being.

XxX

(The Next Day – Tetsu no Kuni)

It had been a quick trip to the border for Jiraiya. He knew the countryside of Hi no Kuni like the back of his hand, so making good time from Konoha to where he had set up to meet with his team wasn't a difficult task. He just hoped that there was good news when he got there.

He traveled to a great stone bridge with a large gate on one end, fashioned in the shape of a stand holding a sheathed sword with the kanji for 'samurai' on it. The bridge sat in a valley, bringing together two sides of a crevice. It was very rocky area with some trees growing straight out of the cliff walls.

Upon reaching what was supposed to be his destination, Jiraiya looked around for any indication that his allies were around. A smile came to his face when he saw the side of a tree somewhere in the crevice decorated with wooden skewers in the shape of Konoha's symbol, "Well that's unnecessary. You know, you could have just come out when you saw me, Anko."

The woman in question appeared with a big grin on her face as she sauntered over to the toad sannin, "But Jiraiya-sama, what kind of fun would that have been? All this sitting and waiting around is boring."

Not far behind, Tenzo came out of hiding, garbed in his face-guard style headband and standard shinobi garb, "It's safer than tracking Otogakure day and night, isn't it?"

Anko rolled her eyes, "Says the guy that can make a house whenever he wants. Don't remind me. I haven't had decent time to rest in weeks, so I guess this is fine."

"Well, thanks for all of the hard work," Jiraiya said before letting out a dramatic sigh, "Beauty and a work ethic like yours? What a woman."

Anko puffed out her chest, playing up to the praise, "And don't forget it, either. The fucker left a trail heading out of Tetsu no Kuni. All I had to do was follow the breadcrumbs," Anko said, sounding quite proud of herself before gesturing her head in the direction of her partner, "Oh, and Tenzo caught up near the end too, I guess."

Tenzo gave her a deadpan stare in return, "Thanks, Anko. No, really."

Jiraiya chuckled at the good-natured ribbing. He knew Anko was aware of why Tenzo was late to link up with her. She was just having some fun, "Don't be upset with him. He was needed somewhere else for a bit. It was important," He said, before getting onto track, "Right. So where is the old snake headed?"

"Take a look at this," Anko directed, pulling out a map documenting the movements of her quarry, "He had a good chunk of Oto ninjas with him. I had to keep a distance. He's got a really good sensor with him. Like, really good. I have no idea what her range actually is."

She was a red-head with glasses. Anko had gotten close enough to spot her one time. Only once. The rest of the time, she had to follow them from miles back. And not by one or two miles. A minimum of ten. It was remarkable.

"You know, you could have sent me an Inuzuka," Anko mentioned off-handedly, "It would have made this whole thing a lot easier."

Jiraiya nodded in understanding. Anko was one woman. Keeping tabs on what was going on wasn't worth being discovered. He needed her in a position to keep providing him with what he needed to know, "What are they doing here?"

Anko's face turned to one of great distaste, "Five villages have gone up in smoke since he got to Tetsu no Kuni," She had been through all of them in the aftermath. She hadn't been able to get close during the attacks, lest she get discovered, "I don't know what he's after, but he's starting shit in the samurai's territory. If this goes any further…" She trailed off, knowing that Jiraiya had a grasp of the situation, better than she did, in fact.

It was going to blow back on the shinobi world as a whole. The number one cardinal rule of the Elemental Nations, especially for the Five Great Shinobi Counties was not to mess with Tetsu no Kuni. It was taboo. An old rule since long ago, before the hidden villages came about.

Back then, it was likely because while the country had been unified under the banner of the samurai, the rest of the nation was comprised of significantly smaller clans doing battle between one another. It was a professional army against a contingent of mercenaries. There was no question that the clans would have been dominated in the open field by the samurai. Now, however, the military might of Tetsu no Kuni was still a primary reason, but the other was that they had no stake in the affairs of the ninja, so there was no need to involve them.

Clearly, Orochimaru cared little for any of this, or whatever consequences would befall many because of his actions.

"Yeah," Jiraiya was not pleased. But then again, he hadn't been happy about what he would have to do since he had accepted to lead this mission, "We have to stop him as soon as possible. I know both of you have probably heard this before, but it's not the same. We're out of the shadows now."

Both Anko and Tenzo looked at each other. Atrocities were nothing new to Orochimaru, but he had never been so upfront with his activities before. He wasn't hiding anything. He wasn't keeping his crimes underground.

People had always been getting hurt at his hands. Tenzo and Anko were survivors of his malicious ways. No one else needed to deal with what they had. Orochimaru didn't get to just destroy more lives and continue on while others had to pick up the pieces.

Jiraiya looked over at his two team members. He'd first met them over ten years ago, when they were little more than victims. Now they were skilled adults. A far cry from the exploited children they had been, "I know I don't have anything to relate with when it comes to the two of you. All the bastard ever did to me personally was abandon the village," He spat, "But he was my teammate, and I couldn't stop him when it counted. For every person he's hurt, and that includes you two, it's my fault as well."

Tenzo's jaw fell open at what he felt was an unnecessary admission, "It's not. Jiraiya-sama, you can't put that on yourself."

Jiraiya smiled at him grimly, "Someone's gotta carry that weight."

"And Orochimaru will…" Anko cut in smoothly, her tone as sharp as a kunai's edge, "…When we drop it on his throat."

Jiraiya could hardly have asked for a more prepared duo to back him on this operation. Orochimaru's former pupil, and the only living practitioner of the Mokuton kekkei genkai.

…Well, Tsunade could have gone along. But she still hadn't recommitted to Konoha officially despite being back for some time now. She couldn't officially be granted a position, so she couldn't be ordered into the field.

It was just as well. As powerful as she was, Jiraiya wasn't certain that he wanted her there for his own personal reasons. In the end, it gave Jiraiya the chance to right a wrong. In his long life with many regrets, he had few opportunities to remedy them. He had learned to move on, instead of dwelling on the things that happened to him.

This was one of those precious few times to make good on one of his greatest failures. And in order to do that, Orochimaru had to die – by any means necessary.


Omake: What's Mine Is Yours (1)

Shikamaru made it easy for Naruto to be lazy. Mostly because no matter what level of energy Naruto was working with, he would never rise to the blond's level. In fact, he oftentimes dragged him down to Shikamaru's level. It was remarkable how Shikamaru was the only person that could truly make Naruto mellow out.

On this particular day, despite not having any missions to do, and it being a bright, sunshiny day, they were both laid about inside Naruto's apartment. It was the main traditional haunt for Team 10 due to his not living with any family.

Naruto sat around balancing a kunai by its point on the tip of his finger until he heard a door somewhere in his home open. Shikamaru called out to him from the hall, "You let Ino set up a mixing station in your hallway closet?"

Naruto flipped the kunai over and caught it by the handle before getting up to walk over to where Shikamaru stared into what used to be his closet, "Yeah. What else was I using it for?"

He kept his weapons in his closet with the rest of his clothes, and he just kept his broom and other things laying around in a corner. Not really the neatest way to keep things, but everything was out of the way.

Shikamaru pointed to the shelves with all kinds of vials, substances and containers stored away, "There's actual chemicals in here."

Naruto shrugged and closed the closet door, "I don't touch any of it."

Shikamaru stared at Naruto and followed him back to the living room while his friend went to the refrigerator for a drink, "You know, I noticed it before, but there's a lot of her stuff around here that I figured would be at her house instead. She spends more time here than she does there."

Naruto poked his head up from behind the fridge door with an open carton of milk to his mouth and looked around his living room. Indeed, there were quite a few of Ino's possessions mixed in with his own. It had gotten to the point where he hadn't even noticed anymore until he'd taken a moment to think about it. It had just... happened somehow. And were he to be completely honest, thinking about it felt nice.

The jinchuuriki finished his sip and smacked his lips, a milk mustache above his mouth, "Yeah... you're right. She does basically live here already," He commented after making his observation as a moment of clarity came to him, "Huh... so why don't I just ask her?"

Shikamaru had been nodding in agreement, eyes closed, until the last thing that Naruto said, "Ask her what?" He asked, thrown off.

"Ask Ino to move in with me."

Shikamaru turned his head to see the joking grin he expected to see on Naruto's face. Only, there was none. Instead, there was a pensive, thinking look. And it made Shikamaru's blood run cold, "Oh man... you're serious. You can't be, but you are?"

Naruto shrugged and sat back down, leaned back, relaxing on his couch with his head tilted back to the ceiling, "Yeah, I am. What's the big deal?" A shadow tendril reached out and smacked him on the chest, hard, "Ow! Ass!" If he left a mark, there was going to be trouble.

Shikamaru ignored Naruto's complaints in light of his own, "Would you stop trying to be responsible and grown up already? This is one of the last things separating us from being actual adults."

"A serious relationship?" Naruto asked rhetorically. Someone was certainly overreacting. Shikamaru hadn't complained so much since Naruto and Ino had officially started dating, "Besides, it's me doing this, not you. It's not like you have to live with us."

Shikamaru couldn't believe he wasn't getting through to him yet. Naruto's at times dense nature struck yet again, "If you haven't noticed by now, all of your crap tends to trickle down onto me," He explained, ticking off examples on his fingers to prove his point, "Become a chunin? I wound up doing it with you? Join the Guardians? I did it with you?"

Naruto grinned mischievously and added to his friend's total, "Have to go undercover as a stripper? You did it with me."

Shikamaru pointed across the room sternly, "I told you, we don't talk about that," His posture then relaxed, "Either way, history shows that whenever something big happens in your life, I wind up getting dragged along."

And this was one thing he wanted absolutely nothing to do with in any way, shape, or form. Naruto and Ino could keep the cohabitation to themselves. It somehow worked for them, which was kind of amazing when Shikamaru stopped to think about it. The two hardest-headed people he knew actually got along in their relationship very well.

"-Because we're bros!" Naruto exclaimed, laughing when he got Shikamaru to groan in resignation to his fate as Naruto's best friend, "But this is different. It's almost impossible for this to affect you, seeing as how you don't even have a girlfriend to get sucked into moving in with."

The dreaded 'g' word sent a chill down Shikamaru's spine. And it would put ideas in the head of someone else if she so happened to hear it, "This doesn't reach Ino. If she hears that I said anything about this, she'll try and set me up. And if she's going to be making me miserable with that, I'll make sure you're miserable too. Because bros."

Naruto squinted his eyes at Shikamaru turning the whole 'bros' thing back on Naruto, "I'm not sure that's how it works. But all of my friends kind of suck, so it probably is," It certainly seemed that way to him, at least, "Having a girlfriend isn't a bad thing though, Shika. We just have to find you someone that you can stand. That's all."

It was appreciated that Naruto tried to put a more positive spin on things that Shikamaru would have, but the latter was willing to be realistic, "Good luck with that. I've yet to meet a woman that I haven't found troublesome."

Indeed. A girl that ticked enough of Shikamaru's boxes to get him to actually think about engaging with her wasn't just going to drop out of thin air.

Shikamaru waved off the topic altogether, "Let's just hold off on that for now," And get back to it never, "Anyway, are you sure you're ready to do this? Not just because I say it's a bad idea anyway, but because Ino's dad's gonna kill you."

Naruto let out a mighty scoff, "Ino's parents like me."

"Yeah, they do. And her mom is probably going to be okay with her moving in with you. Inoichi, on the other hand... do you really think he's going to be cool with giving her up to you?"

"What's wrong with me?"

"That you're a guy who's taking Ino away, duh," Shikamaru told him, "Ino's a daddy's girl, and the feeling is mutual. Think about it."

"I still think you're exaggerating."

That was fine. Shikamaru had a quick way to nip this discussion in the bud, "Does Inoichi know that you've had sex yet?"

There was a pregnant pause before Naruto answered, "He knows we spend the night together a lot," He answered, trying to deflect.

Shikamaru smirked, knowing that he got him, "That wasn't what I asked," The term 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' applied here, "If he hasn't seen proof or been told, he's never going to put two-and-two together himself. And when he does, oh boy."

Naruto would never admit to being afraid of another person. But the idea of pissing off Ino's telepath dad, who served on one of Konoha's premier teams, and as a top member of the the Konoha Torture and Interrogation Force left him uneasy, "...You think Ino's mom knows?"

Any avenue to him finding out was a possible threat.

Shikamaru nodded, "Oh, she definitely does. But like you said, she likes you. And she's smart enough to know better than to tell Inoichi. The point is, if you're going to ask Ino to move in, Ino will probably say yes. But that'll open up a line of questions from Inoichi that might screw you over."

Naruto was a terrible liar, and Ino couldn't lie to her dad and get away with it, especially when it was his job to tell as much. If questions reached how far they had progressed in their relationship, it was all over. But one had to keep a brave face, in spite of such odds.

"So? I'm not scared, 'ttebayo," Naruto said, trying to swell up with peacock levels of pride.

"Bullshit," One word from Shikamaru got him to deflate just as quickly, "...Good luck though."

Naruto grumbled bitterly, "Oh, kiss my ass," Shikamaru could keep his half-hearted well-wishes, "The only 'yes' or 'no' I need is from Ino. I don't even have to talk to her dad about it," Shikamaru didn't say anything else. He just kept the same smug look on his face, "Shut up!"

It couldn't possibly be that much trouble, could it?


And thus marks the end of the recovery arc. As always, more trouble is afoot. It never ends, ladies and gentlemen. Let's see how our crew is able to handle what's coming their way next.

I hope you guys enjoyed, and I'll catch you around.

Kenchi out.