Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. At this point, I'm pretty sure it owns me. Seriously, how many words have I pumped into all of these stories? I don't even want to know. I'm sure it's way too many.

I've been told before, but I keep forgetting, and I don't care enough to add them up myself. Don't blame me, I hate math. Even basic math.

Chapter 76: An Easy Detail


Hanging out around Konoha was beginning to be a chore. Troublesome, as Shikamaru would put it. Being a hidden village, it seemed peaceful on the surface, but if you were in the know, things that put the village to risk kept occurring – the latest being the infiltration of an Akatsuki member using the name Uchiha Madara.

All of the village elites were on high alert. Even many of the shinobi out doing border patrols in the far reaches of Hi no Kuni were called back to locations closer to Konoha. Missions were still being run, both domestically and abroad, but for the time being, suspicions were at a high point.

Just walking from down the street, anyone savvy enough could get the sense that something important was going to happen soon. It was in the air; an uncomfortable, tense feeling that stuck in the back of one's mind.

The best thing to get homefront drama off of the brain was to find something else to throw oneself into. There was nothing more useful in that regard than a life-or-death mission, for some people at least. It was yet another reason why Naruto was so excited to get back to doing missions again, and there was already one lined up for Team 10.

Standing at the mission assignment desk, he could barely contain himself as he waited for the task meant to go to his squad – a job accompanying the Hokage to the palace of the Fire Daimyo for a conference. It was a place Naruto knew quite well, given that he had spent years roaming it as a member of the Guardian Ninja.

"Naruto, would you chill out?" Shikamaru complained, standing next to his antsy, blond teammate, "We're just heading back to the Capital. That's all this is," This was merely a hope of his, of course.

Shikamaru wasn't fool enough to think that this would be a courtesy visit between the Hokage and the Fire Daimyo. He could hope that whatever the meeting between the two powerful figures was for remained too high for his paygrade. The last thing he needed was more trouble to trickle down onto him.

Despite Shikamaru's request, Naruto couldn't help himself. He was excited, "No way! I haven't seen everybody in forever! This is gonna be awesome!"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes, "It's a bodyguard job, Naruto. It's not an excuse for you to catch up with old friends," Besides, he had seen a few of his former fellow Guardians recently. Granted, Naruto hadn't, because he had been held captive by Iwagakure at the time, but that was his loss, "You remember what most of those bodyguard missions are like, right?"

It was at that moment that Naruto remembered how many stuffy, official meetings he played bodyguard for when he worked for the Fire Daimyo, and how unceasingly boring they were. His high spirits had been visibly dampened by reality.

"Aww," Ino complained, reaching out to stroke Naruto's cheek in consolation, "Why'd you have to do that?" She asked Shikamaru, "He was acting like a big golden retriever. It was adorable."

Shikamaru had no remorse for taking the wind out of Naruto's sails, "What's adorable to you is obnoxious to me."

Ino stuck her tongue out at her buzzkill of a friend before turning her attention to Asuma, who amused himself by playing with his lighter, "I'm surprised you're coming with us on this, Asuma-sensei," She said, getting her former teacher's attention with a wide grin, "You've been sticking around the village a lot while Kurenai-sensei has been all preggers."

"Hey, a guy's gotta work sometime," Asuma said in his own defense, "And this is going to be quite the job."

"Don't say that," Shikamaru requested, knowing full well things were going to be harder than he would have liked, "Can we ever just get an easy detail? Is it too much to ask that people don't count on us for important stuff?"

Naruto had no mercy on Shikamaru's desire to take things easy, "Yep. Because we're Team Ten, Shika. The best goddamn team to ever strap on a Konoha headband. It comes with the territory, and I for one think Hokage-ojii made the right call on bringing us in. Who's better?"

"His actual protection detail?"

"Pfft. Nah."

While Shikamaru and Naruto amused/annoyed one another, Ino leaned over to her sensei and whispered to him, "This is part of their test, isn't it?" She asked, "Their jounin exam? I know it's a thing that's happening."

Asuma didn't even bother looking in her direction, "I can neither confirm nor deny any specific action without the Hokage's approval," The older man immediately replied, stock-standardly.

"Uh-huh," Ino sounded wholly unimpressed at her superior's sense of protocol, "Is this another one of those secrets that isn't a secret, like Goldie and the Kyuubi? Or ANBU identities? Or the second genin exam?"

Cheeky girl. Asuma sighed and waved Ino off, "Welcome to the military – where even when things are basically out in the open, they still count as state secrets," He straightened up when he saw his father/boss enter the room, "Hokage-sama."

Upon hearing Asuma's greeting, the entire team stood at something akin to attention, waiting as Hiruzen strode by them, appraising their preparedness for the mission to come. Once he was finished, he stopped in front of all four of them, a warm smile on his face, hands folded behind his back, "Good morning. I hope everyone is prepared for our little journey today."

Naruto nodded, a big grin affixed on his face, "You know it, old man! I can't wait to head back to the capital and see everyone from the court!"

"As I can imagine," The village leader said beneath his hat, "But I'm afraid this trip has more diplomatic designs than recreational ones."

"Business, not pleasure," Shikamaru quickly translated for Naruto unasked. The latter shooting him the middle finger in return.

Asuma could only palm his face, "These are the children I trained," He said incredulously, before speaking to his father, "You sure these three count as the 'king' pieces you've been talking about all this time?"

Hiruzen found amusement in the byplay between two of his young shinobi, "Absolutely."

XxX

(With Jiraiya – Tetsu no Kuni)

As Jiraiya's 3-man team kept on Orochimaru's tail, they team had to be very careful about how they went about doing so.

It wasn't just the forces of Otogakure they had to look out for. The samurai of Tetsu no Kuni would have no mercy on them if they were to be discovered. A shinobi was a shinobi as far as they were concerned, and they were all unwelcome. They could count on no direct help from the country's standing military force.

Fortunately, all three of them were very accustomed to operating under clandestine means far away from home.

At last check, the team was still a few days away from catching up to Orochimaru, judging by trail they had been following. This time, the trail took the form of dead samurai in a snowy forest clearing. The poor foot soldiers had attempted to confront members of the snake sannin's cabal in combat.

It was surmised that they had fought Orochimaru's followers and not the man himself because that particular portion of woodland was still standing.

Jiraiya crouched over the frost-covered armored corpse, staring at the unfortunate soul that lost their life trying to stop a madman from encroaching farther into their homeland. He seemed deep in thought as his teammates used the temporary stop for other means.

Anko marked the trail they had discovered so far on the map, trying to come up with a place where they could possibly cut the enemy off, "What the hell is in his head, raiding the countryside?" She asked, "I don't get it. What in the world is he trying to get out of this?"

Chaos for the sake of chaos had never been Orochimaru's style, but there wasn't much else that could describe just what this was.

From where he had been stooped down, Jiraiya shot straight up like an arrow, surprising both Anko and Tenzo, "...How many bodies were in the last village that you found?" He asked.

"Huh?" Anko replied, caught off-guard.

"How many bodies?" Jiraiya patiently repeated.

Anko blinked and regained her composure quickly, "Uh... 261. I made sure I didn't miss any. It was kind of important. Why?"

Jiraiya began pacing around the clearing, the wheels clearly turning inside of his head, "That leaves 75 unaccounted for, according to the latest consensus," He stopped and looked pointedly at his two cohorts, "Tetsu no Kuni keeps very good records."

A scowl formed on Tenzo's face, "So you're saying they took prisoners?" The thought of that man getting his hands on defenseless people made him sick.

"He does perform experiments, you know," Anko pointed out, "After all, you're one of them."

That turned Tenzo's ire temporarily onto her, "Thanks for the reminder," He said dryly.

Anko rolled her eyes in response, "Oh whatever. You know what I mean," She was not about to let him get offended over being experimented on. Not when she had her former sensei's evil hickey on her neck, "You're not the only one he's done shit to. Join the club."

Jiraiya intervened before his trained professional killers could devolve into bickering teenagers, "Children, if both of you don't behave, I'll turn this hunting party around right now."

Anko turned to leer at Jiraiya through narrowed eyes, "Huh... I was expecting you to say something like you'd spank me, you big horndog."

Jiraiya could admit to mulling over such an approach, "Yeah, that sounds like a plan for you. But that wouldn't work for Tenzo. I can't spank him."

Anko looked between the two men and shrugged, "I mean... you could. It's an equal opportunity world, you know."

Tenzo was quick to shoot that idea down, "I'm not cosigning on that. Go spank somebody else."

Clearly, they were on the same page, "I'm not either. This freaky toad sage doesn't get down quite like that," Jiraiya specified, before shaking his head and getting back down to business, "Look, we're getting sidetracked. Prisoners are usually only good when you have a place to take them. Not when you have an active campaign going with no base. Ideas, people?"

The other two experienced shinobi took turns spitballing ideas, Tenzo deigning to go first, "Hostages? If they come across a force of samurai they can't handle, having a bunch of human shields might come in handy."

Anko frowned and offered her own input, "I'm sticking with the experiment thing. A guy needs his hobbies while he's on the move, eh, Jiraiya-sama?" She said, needling their commander.

Despite this, Jiraiya gave her an amiable smile, "We'll find out soon enough. With more people, they'll be moving slower, no matter how hard they push the group, and they'll be less able to hide their trail with a bunch of civilians around."

They would be catching up soon. With circumstances the way that they were, there was no way they wouldn't.

XxX

(With Naruto – Hi no Kuni)

Traveling with the Hokage extremely uneventful. Because of the fact that it was serious business of the utmost importance, there wasn't much goofing off, or even conversation to be had amongst Team Ten.

Ino at first had expected more shenanigans from Naruto, and was surprised when she saw a serious, focused version of him. Not that she didn't think he had it in him, because she had seen his driven side more than enough to know it existed in spades. More because of his attention-span. Then she realized it.

-Naruto had done bodyguard missions with a VIP on the level of the Hokage so many times that it was like clockwork to him; just substitute the Hokage for the Fire Daimyo. And the Fire Daimyo couldn't defend himself in the slightest. The Hokage would probably react to any threat before the rest of them did. Compared to that, this was simple.

Sometimes it was easy for Ino to forget that even though they had become chunin at the same time, Naruto and Shikamaru had been operating at a high level longer than she had. They were qualified to become jounin just from credentials alone.

Neither Naruto nor Shikamaru were treating anything out of the ordinary. It was just a mission. The same as any they had run before. That was probably the right attitude to take. If what they had been doing had them on the doorstep to a promotion, why change things up?

"What should we expect once we get to the Capital?" Shikamaru asked once they had been on the road for a while, "It's been eating at me for a while now. Asuma didn't say too much about it before."

Naruto wasn't expecting any information. Far too many times before he had been told that something was above his pay grade to think he'd be told about anything now, "It's probably one of those 'need-to-know' sorts of things," He said, resting his hands behind his neck, which was also conveniently close to the machete on his back, "Since Asuma-sensei is gonna be the only one in the room during the meeting, he's probably the only one that's gonna hear about it."

"Not at all, seeing as how part of it involves you," Hiruzen said before going into more detail, "The Fire Daimyo has concerns about your safety," He revealed, eliciting a surprised look from Naruto, "Recent events occurring back-to-back have put Hi no Kuni's sole jinchuuriki at risk... at least that's what some of the Daimyo's advisors would like for him to believe."

This bit of information was unwelcome to Naruto, "You're kidding, right?" Hearing that he needed protection chapped his hide, "Hokage-jii, tell me you're kidding. After everything that's happened, this is coming up now?"

Shikamaru stepped in to try and keep his more hot-tempered teammate calm and sensible, "You have to admit, there's a point there Naruto. More crap has been falling on our heads than we expected when we came back."

"No, it's more than you wanted, which isn't saying much," Naruto said with a half-hearted glare before rolling his eyes, "Seriously, guys, it's not like I would be any safer if I were still working with the Guardians."

Ino didn't know much about things at the Capital, other than what she'd been told in conversations with Naruto and Shikamaru, "How so?" She asked.

Naruto's face twisted in thought as he tried to consider the best way to go about explaining, "Well, in Konoha, there's a village full of super-strong shinobi to fight with if something happens. At the Capital, there's what, 8 of us? Less if Shika goes home and we don't replace him."

Shikamaru nodded in agreement. The Guardians were an extremely strong group of shinobi. But after interacting with them and fighting against Akatsuki, he had an honest gauge for what one could do against the other, "Yeah, a reason we were so happy to go home was because that whole two-year time frame Jiraiya-sama gave us for Akatsuki making moves. If we stayed long enough that they tried to come at Naruto, even if they tried it at the Capital, we probably couldn't hold them off."

Doing the smart thing was normally what one could count on when it came to Shikamaru. Certainly, he had wanted to return to Konoha to be done with the killer work schedule that the Ninja Guardians kept, expecting an easier time once he had done so, but keeping his friend safe from S-rank criminals was also that much harder to do without the direct support of the village.

Even if Akatsuki was designed to deal with ninja villages, a ninja village was still far and away the best equipped sort of faction to try and deal with them, both when it came to the actual combat and the motivations of those doing the fighting.

"Our old teammates are powerful," Shikamaru continued, "But protecting Naruto wouldn't have been on their short list of priorities if the Capital had been attacked."

Ino's ire was raised at the thought of Naruto being considered expendable, even if they all were in reality, "They'd let Goldie get kidnapped instead of trying to fight?"

'Letting it happen' was too strong an accusation for Naruto's tastes. But still, it wasn't entirely incorrect, "Ino-chan, think about it. What if someone came at us right now?" He asked, bringing up a hypothetical situation, "You'd protect the Hokage first, right? Would you ditch him if I got snagged during the fight?"

No. At least she wasn't supposed to. The priority would have been to secure the VIP she was guarding; not just because he was the point of the mission, but because in this instance he was the leader of her entire village. But what she was supposed to do was all well and good. Would she actually do it if the moment called for it?

"I... I..." It was one of those questions that Ino wouldn't truly know the answer to until it happened. But she didn't want to have the answer, because that meant the worst-case scenario would have occurred, "Don't ask me that. I don't even want to think about that. And doing it now wouldn't do me any good, so don't you dare say I have to."

Naruto smiled at Ino, casually letting her anger slide off of him. It only existed because she didn't want to think about him getting hurt, "I wasn't going to. I don't plan on getting caught by anybody ever again. One time is enough for me."

Asuma snorted in amusement, "Zero times would be enough for most other people," The senior shinobi of Team 10 remarked, "Hey, Hokage-sama, how many times were you captured before you became Hokage?"

Hiruzen let out a chuckle, realizing what his son was trying to do, "Never. In fact, no shinobi who has ever been held captive by an enemy force has ever become a kage."

Naruto froze midstep, and Asuma went for the proverbial kill, "Ooh, that's a big strike against you, Naruto. Too bad."

Naruto considered what he'd been told for a moment before shrugging it off, "That has to be a complete load. You guys aren't funny," He said, only to get no confirmation or denial from either Sarutobi, "I mean, that was a joke, right?" He jogged ahead to catch up with the rest of the party, "Right?"

No response was given. Naruto made a note to himself to have Shiho look this up for him later once he got back to Konoha.

XxX

(Amegakure – Pain's Tower)

Nagato was temporarily on the sidelines, needing to replenish the Paths of Pain that he had lost in battle with Orochimaru. Returning to Amegakure after Orochimaru had disposed of the Animal Path had been quite the annoying ordeal. The Human Path wasn't as much of a loss for him, but to complete the Six Paths of Pain technique, all bodies needed to be restored.

That would take a bit of time. Thankfully, his Ame forces were on the job of finding him new bodies capable of being used in conjunction with the Rinnegan.

A setback had been suffered, but that didn't mean that anything had changed in the grand scheme of things. None of this would be easy. When they had been building up their forces, they knew they would lose a good portion of it during the process of putting everything into motion. They would need to obtain the Sanbi eventually, but it wasn't their only target. They needed to get their fourth biju, and a target had been selected.

And the person on the job would not fail. Nagato could see no way that he would, 'Now that he has put himself into play... I don't see how any force in all of the hidden villages could be prepared for him.'

Tobi had sent word that he would be taking matters into his own hands for the next part. Nagato had no question that whatever he would do would move Akatsuki's plans forward and provide openings for them to further their aims.

No, Nagato wasn't deterred in the slightest, despite the difficulties they had run across, "We even have a contingency for the Kyuubi if Konoha's jinchuuriki proves too difficult to obtain. One no one will know needs to be protected," He explained, "I should thank Orochimaru later. After all, he gave me the idea."

He would make sure to do so while the Sanbi was being extracted. Though, Orochimaru probably wouldn't be able to hear him over the sound of his own pained screams.

XxX

(Kaze no Kuni – Near the Western Coast)

Gaara was not a happy man, and that was an extremely dangerous thing for anyone around him.

News didn't stay hidden for very long, unless it was declared an S-Rank secret. He was angry with his father for the treachery utilized when Konoha had sent shinobi to Sora-ku to help Kumo retrieve the Nibi jinchuuriki. Normally, he wouldn't have cared for such a thing. But both Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke had been involved in the mission.

These were two people he wanted to fight, to prove himself against. Two of the only ones in his generation that seemed to be worth the effort of fighting.

Which was why the rumblings going around Sunagakure made him excited. Rumblings of a sort that hadn't been heard in nearly two decades. These were the rumblings of war. It was time to take back what belonged to Suna, or so people said.

Everyone was talking about it; in the streets, in the mission assignment area, in the standby lounges. Kankuro and Temari seemed to be concerned. Even their old sensei Baki seemed to feel trepidation whenever the topic came up around him. None of this mattered to Gaara. He just wanted it all to start so he could have an excuse to do what he wanted.

Do battle with the strongest and kill them.

In the middle of a break the siblings took in their travel to Kaze no Kuni's coast for a mission, the discussion came up between the three of them. Gaara quickly let his opinions be known.

"What does it matter if we go to war with Konoha?" Gaara said, "Everyone knows what these alliances are. They're nothing but non-aggression pacts. The words on those papers are worth less than the words that come out of people's mouths."

Kankuro could agree with that, as disregarding as his brother's remarks were to the concerns of everyone else, "Yeah, the old-heads all keep saying things like that. I don't know. A war hasn't happened in a long time."

Before they were all born, in fact. The Third Shinobi World War had come to an end while Temari had been an infant, "You ever notice that most of them don't talk about the last one very much?" The eldest sister of the trio asked while checking on her giant iron fan.

Gaara didn't care one way or another what the veterans had to say, "If it happens, it happens. There's nothing we can do about it, so all any of us can do is be ready," The war that was on the horizon was the one that mattered, and it was going to take place, whether anyone liked it or not.

Kankuro bristled at a perceived slight, "We are ready, Gaara. We're as ready as we're going to be. More ready than any other village. "Just because we're ready doesn't mean the whole thing won't suck."

"It's absolutely going to suck," Temari said, following up, "No matter what kind of strategies father has come up with, or how we deploy. That's just the way it is."

Suna had contemplated war time and time again over the past several years, and so had always been prepared for it. They had plans and procedures in place for dealing with their closest adversaries – Iwa, Taki, and of course Konoha.

Temari continued where she'd left off, "If a war starts, people are going to lose things precious to them. The enemy will, and we are too."

"Well said. I guess even greedy children of the sand have some common sense every once in a while."

Those words came from none of them. Quickly moving to prepare for combat and protect each other, they caught sight of a man in the notoriously colored cloak of Akatsuki. A black mask with a large orange swirl rested on his face.

"Who the hell are you?" Kankuro demanded to know. He had come from nowhere, seemingly out of thin air.

They had never seen anyone like this before. Temari, the one among them who kept track of these sorts of things the best, had no idea who had chosen to confront them. Bingo books that were updated had no image that looked like this person whatsoever.

The masked man slowly approached them, unconcerned with the strength of the trio that stood before him, "You can call me Uchiha Madara, and I've come for something precious to your village. I hope you're prepared to lose it."

XxX

(Hi no Kuni – Capital City)

Ino had never been to the capital city of Hi no Kuni. She was the only one in the current Hokage's guard party that hadn't, therefore she was the only one impressed by the scale of what she saw. What a town.

"This place is a lot to take in," The purple-clad kunoichi admitted, eyes straying all around as they moved through the clean, neatly paved courtyard. She felt out of place, "Walking around here makes me feel like a yokel."

"We are yokels," Shikamaru said, not flinching when Ino unleashed a barrage of smacks on the arm, "What? I was agreeing with you!"

"Of course that would be the only thing you ever agree with me about!" Ino complained, continuing to wail on her friend, "That's not what a girl like me wants to hear! I work hard to be in vogue, Shika!"

Shikamaru should have known better that Ino would have been self-conscious about her image. That didn't make it cool to have to deal with a tantrum, "Ino, quit it! Naruto, make her stop, damn it!"

Naruto was at a loss, keeping a safe distance away from Ino's flailing arms, "How am I supposed to make her do anything?" He asked rhetorically before deciding to step in, "Ino, I promise we'll try to go back to town to go shopping or something before we leave."

That actually made Ino pause in her assault for a moment, sparing Naruto a look that showed she was thinking about it, "Like you know where to go."

"I don't, but we're in the court," Naruto said, "We're probably gonna see Kotoko and Akira, if they're not on missions. I can talk to them about it. We'll probably have to come back though."

Ino nodded, "Yeah... I guess. Not a lot of time to do anything while we're guarding the Hokage," Even though Asuma was the only one who was going to sit in on the talks with the Fire Daimyo, the rest of them had to remain at the ready.

"Funny, it doesn't look to me like you're doing much of anything at all right now."

Naruto perked up at the sound of a voice from his recent past. Grinning like a loon, he quickly found who he was looking for and ran over, past surprised nobles, guards, and other attendants to his former comrade-in-arms. The field leader of the Guardian Ninja – Sadao.

Naruto ran over and gathered up the black-clad monk in a massive hug, lifting him off of the ground, "Sadao! You non-seeing son-of-a-bitch! It's good to see you!"

Sadao laughed at being hoisted and shaken around by his former junior, "I wish I could say the same!" He got Naruto to put him down and went to greet Shikamaru as well, "It's good to have you guys back for the time being! I knew when I sent the message to the Hokage about this meeting, the Daimyo would ask him to bring you two," He greeted Ino with a sly smile, "Hello, Naruto's girl whose name I still haven't learned."

Ino giggled and waved before she remembered she was waving to a person who couldn't see her, "Hi again. It has been a long time, hasn't it?"

Sadao nodded and gestured for the Konoha trio to follow him. That was fine, as until then, they had nowhere to go, "Yep. I wish we could have reunited under better circumstances, but my job being what it is, I only ever see anyone for bad things."

Naruto let out a snort of amusement, "And that why we're here? Because of bad things?"

Sadao lifted his sunglasses and rubbed at his blank eyes out of stress, "Oh, brother... you have no idea. It's coming close to hitting the fan."

"I've got an inkling," Shikamaru muttered to himself, "It's war right?"

Sadao seemed surprised that Team 10 were taking the idea so casually. Ino explained for his benefit, "We've been getting our heads wrapped around it ever since Goldie was captured by Iwa."

It had been on the table, and would have happened had the team sent to retrieve Naruto and Sasuke failed to do so. The only reason it hadn't happened right after was because Konohagakure had remained in a powerful position with their jinchuuriki still in play, and Iwagakure without one. Of course, that didn't stand as far as Suna was concerned. They were on the rise. They knew it. Everyone knew it. And they had one of the five remaining jinchuuriki in the Elemental Nations.

Any day now, it seemed as though anything could happen that would set it all off. There would be no going back, and it would be like the good old bad days again, with all-out war enveloping the land.

"Unfortunately that's just the tip of the iceberg," Sadao told them, "It isn't just the hidden villages playing their games this time. The samurai have come out to play."

Naruto's eyebrows raised at that bit of news, "Samurai are coming here?" He said, reacting in astonishment, "Holy shit. I haven't even seen a legit samurai in forever. You mean from Tetsu no Kuni, right?"

The more he learned, the less Shikamaru liked, "I didn't know samurai traveled outside of that country."

He wasn't the only one displeased. There was enough trouble brewing to begin with before adding in everything else that was set to transpire, "They don't. And we shinobi tend not to go there ourselves. The chunin exams that you were all involved in... that was an outlier, an experiment. Samurai and shinobi try to avoid mixing business."

It had been that way for as long as any of them could remember. Since before they or their fathers could remember, even, "I don't get it then. What's the big issue that made them come all the way here this time?"

"Orochimaru."

That one name made two jaws drop and one shut tight. Naruto narrowed his blue eyes at the mention of the snake sannin. He had not forgotten the sight he had been present for when Orochimaru unleashed the full wrath of the Sanbi, just to flex his muscles. It had been one of the most terrifying moments of his life. And the man had been a constant spectre around his life for some time.

After all, it was his agent Kabuto that had fooled them all and betrayed them. His agent Kabuto that had killed Naruto's first sensei, Iruka. There were many bones that needed to be picked with that particular faction, and this was just Naruto talking. Not to mention Konoha as a whole... or the world for that matter.

"What did he do?" Naruto ground out through his teeth.

Sadao wondered what Naruto's major issue was, but chalked it up to many things happening since his departure from the Guardian Ninja, "Reports say he crossed the border into Tetsu no Kuni, somewhere sanctioned shinobi know better than to tread. A whole lot of people are dying up there. Samurai... civs... it isn't good."

Shikamaru let out a groan, knowing where this was going, "...And I'm guessing this crap is falling down on our heads," He said, "They're blaming Konoha, aren't they?"

Ino's head whipped towards Shikamaru in disbelief before pleading her case to Sadao, "But he's not one of us. He isn't a Konoha shinobi."

Sadao shook his head. That wasn't good enough. Plausible deniability didn't mean much of anything at all in the world they lived in, "He used to be. You guys trained him, and when even you had enough of him, you couldn't take him down. Now he's loose, he's stronger than ever, and this time he screwed with the wrong country," He explained, "Everyone's had enough; not just the samurai. It's just that their wounds are the freshest."

That, and the samurai were notorious for not taking any garbage from anyone else. For them to actually come down out of their territory to the north, it had to be huge.

And if that weren't enough, there was more, "It's not only that either," Sadao said, heaping onto the bad news, "Akatsuki had a presence there too. The problems of the Five Great Shinobi Villages are spilling over to everyone else, and some of them aren't willing to sit back and just let you all hash it out."

They wanted results. They wanted compensation for what had been done by this man since before he had left Konoha and beyond that point. Even if they had been doing their own dirty deeds against Konoha and others themselves, that didn't matter. It wasn't what you or anyone else knew, it was what you could prove.

Shikamaru was the quickest to accept this. He'd had the talk with Asuma before they'd taken the mission where the man had somewhat smartened him up, "It's just a matter of time. It's been building up for a while. We were involved with some of it," The writing was on the wall for the straw that was set to break the camel's back, so to speak, "If Orochimaru doesn't cool it, or if we can't stop him, all of the hidden villages will follow the samurai's lead."

It couldn't have been put into layman's terms any better by anyone else. Sadao had to admit, Shikamaru had a decent understanding for these sorts of political things, "And here I thought you quit the Guardians to get away from all of these state affairs."

Naruto threw an arm around a reluctant Shikamaru, who couldn't pull himself out of Naruto's grasp, "Well, I want to be Hokage, and I'm taking him with me. He should have known he was always doomed when it came to that," Shikamaru responded with a disgusted groan.

XxX

(Kaze no Kuni – Near the Western Coast)

An onslaught of sand, cutting wind, and bombs did nothing to the man who called himself 'Madara'. He simply stood in place and endured it all, not receiving a scratch for all of the trouble Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro went through.

No, endured wasn't the correct word to describe what the masked man did. Nothing seemed to make contact with him at all. Everything seemed to pass right through him. He didn't even seem bothered at the prospect of having to fight the three of them at once.

Who was this man? Whoever he was, it was clear what he wanted – Gaara. More specifically, the Shukaku that resided within Gaara's body.

Over Kankuro and Temari's dead bodies.

Tobi, meanwhile, felt a measure of annoyance. Unlike most other jinchuuriki, Gaara was a skilled long-range fighter. Were Gaara more inclined to hastily get in close to try his luck with an attack, he could end things quickly. Add onto that, Kankuro and Temari were also very good at fighting and keeping their distance with their puppets and fan respectively, it only compounded the trouble he had to go through.

Oh well. If this was how it had to be, there was nothing else that could be done. He would simply have to deal with the siblings one-by-one.

Using a plume of sand knocked into the air by Temari, Tobi vanished through a portal, out of sight of his enemies.

Walking through dimensions was always odd for him. It was like stepping through a door into an alternate room, and then back out through another one... with little time passing in the original world – a second or two at most.

When he popped back into the regular world, this time much closer to the Sand Siblings, the dust was still settling from the last barrage sent against him.

Poor Temari. Still watching, waiting. Completely unaware of someone so much more powerful than her within arm's reach... reaching out for her neck.

When Tobi made contact with her throat, moving to crush it once it was in his grasp, it turned to sand against his fingertips. Sand that tried to turn the tables and immediately grab onto him desperately, "Huh. Clever boy."

He wanted Sand Binding Coffin. That technique proved to be the most basic and reliable coup de grace that Gaara had in his arsenal. Tobi had come prepared, knowing what his enemies could do and how they would try to battle anyone if they had the option.

Of course, even if he hadn't. Tobi could solve this issue at will, passing right through the sand attempting to ensnare him, as though it weren't a concern at all, "Please. You're all just embarrassing yourselves. The three of you by yourselves can't stop me," He said, upon freeing himself almost casually.

Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara watched as the trap Gaara had set when they'd first lost sight of Tobi was rendered worthless, "Uchiha Madara is dead. We're not even from that tree-hugging village and we know that," The puppet-using brother of the three said, "But whoever you really are doesn't matter! The sand'll sort your corpse out all the same, freak!"

Bold words with no foundation to set them upon. This was a man who walked through all of their attacks as though they were an inconvenience.

"You Suna shinobi are so hurtful," Tobi said, placing his hand on his heart to sarcastically show how much he was affected, "And you're prepared to fight another worthless war. The only people who'll benefit are those in places of power, while people like you and underneath you will die for something you don't care about or believe in."

Temari's hands gripped her war fan tightly, "We fight for our village! For our people! Something you wouldn't know anything about, you disloyal Akatsuki bastard!" Every second words bought them gave her time to try and think of something, anything that could help them gain the upper-hand, "You're just a mercenary!"

Tobi let out an exasperated sigh, "We're all mercenaries. We're shinobi, aren't we?" He argued, "But you're even wronger than you know. I'm fighting for more than a village. I'm fighting for the world."

Kankuro scoffed, "What are you talking about?"

Tobi shook his head and began slowly walking forward, "You don't need to know that. All you need to know is that when it's all said and done, everyone will have everything they want, and no one will suffer anymore," His progress was impeded by a massive geyser of sand bursting into the air from the ground between them.

"I don't care about any of that," Gaara said raspily, his hand still extended from his show of force, "I don't care about the village. I certainly don't care about the world. My brother and sister... I don't mind them. But that's as far as any of that goes," He said, his cold green eyes narrowed as he stared down the man who would hunt him, "You could be fighting for a greater good. But what does it matter here? Just shut up and fight."

Tobi could hunt him, but he refused to be anyone's prey. He refused to flee for his life the way others did from him. This jinchuuriki was no one's victim.

Temari stared at her baby brother in shock, "...Gaara."

Gaara's eyes never left the man that had ventured across the world to see him destroyed, "If he wins, he carries on with his plans. If he loses, his plans end. It's as simple as that. This isn't complicated. Now come. Show me what you can do, Uchiha Madara."

To Temari and Kankuro, this was a battle against a man meant to take Sunagakure's most prolific deterrent against the rest of the world at a vital time in its ascent.

To Gaara, this was just another individual in a lifetime of people who would see him dead because of the biju inside of him. Just like the rest of them, this man who tried to call himself 'Madara' would not live to understand just what kind of mistake he had made.

Tobi was glad that this jinchuuriki would face him directly. The sooner he was captured, the closer he would get to moving forward with his plans, "As long as you do the same, Sabaku no Gaara."

Temari and Kankuro looked over at their brother. It was clear what this was; a one-on-one challenge. And Gaara would accept, even though it flew in the face of everything they were taught as shinobi. He did not disappoint.

"Go. You'll just get in my way," Gaara commanded, crossing his arms over his chest, "I can't go all out and ensure the two of you stay alive at the same time."

"You'd protect us in this fight?" Kankuro asked sardonically, knowing Gaara's mindset.

For a split second, Gaara averted his gaze from Tobi to Kankuro. The closest thing to a laugh free from cruelty one would hear, "Don't misunderstand. I would rather not have to hear father complain if one of you died here. If you got between one of my attacks and him, I couldn't guarantee you'd live," He turned his attention back to Tobi, "You'll let them leave the battlefield?"

"I don't need them. Just you. I couldn't possibly care any less about them or what they do," Tobi said, "You're the only one who matters here, Gaara. The only thing in Suna that matters to Akatsuki."

That was all the murderous redhead needed to hear, "Temari, Kankuro, leave."

They weren't comfortable with that order, but they would have been less comfortable with being flung toward the ocean by a giant hand made of sand, or whatever worse thing Gaara would come up with to make them comply. When he got something in his head, there was no reasoning with him. Besides, he was the strongest among them – easily so. If there was anyone in Suna who could fight a lone member of Akatsuki and come out on top, it was guaranteed to be Gaara.

Temari pulled on Kankuro's sleeve, beckoning her black-clad brother to bid Gaara's request to retreat, "Alright. We won't be far."

"...You should get far."

With that verbal warning issued to his family members, the desert exploded in activity. The dunes churned and rocked like waves on the sea that rested nearby.

To challenge Sabaku no Gaara was to challenge the very desert itself.


Omake: What's Mine Is Yours (2)

Inoichi Yamanaka was an incredibly important and imposing figure in the hierarchy of Konoha's shinobi system. Even amongst the higher ranks of jounin, he was seen as a top-level ninja, and his incarnation of the Ino-Shika-Cho trio was accepted as the most powerful that had ever existed in the long relationship between the three clans.

All of this came into play before you took into account his status as one of the heads of the Torture & Intelligence division, earned in part because of his ability to read and control the mind of the people around him. Telepathy was a scary thing, and those who could master such a technique were appropriately held in a measure of regard and fear.

However, there was always one thing that could turn him to mush.

"Daddy!"

Inoichi let out a sigh of relief. Finally back through the gates of the village, he and his Ino-Shika-Cho teammates parted ways, with Choza giving him a hearty slap on the back as they did.

Even after a long mission away that tried his nerves, hearing Ino so happy to see him would always brighten his day. No matter how old she got, no matter how responsible she became, no matter what rank she was, she would always be his little girl. That was that, and there was nothing anyone could do to change it or convince him otherwise.

"Dear, I was going to come straight home," Inoichi laughed as he wrapped his arms around his daughter. It felt like she was five years old all over again, "You could have just waited for me to get there."

"We knew you were coming back today, so I had to come greet you!" Ino replied, "Even Naruto woke up early to make sure we met you at the gates! Do you know how hard it was to make that happen?"

Inoichi turned his attention away from his daughter to the uncomfortable-looking young man standing fifteen feet away behind her. He was keeping his distance to let them have their moment. That was smart.

"Oh, did he now?" Inoichi admitted that it was mean of him to enjoy making someone who was unarguably stronger than him squirm from a glance. Being a father had its share of perks.

Even so, Naruto tried to be polite instead of tentative or confrontational, "It's nice to see you, Yamanaka-san."

Was it really? Because he seemed like he would rather be anywhere else at the moment. Granted, Inoichi didn't really help him relax with the way that he looked at him.

It wasn't that Inoichi hated Naruto in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. He'd liked him ever since the boy had first become better acquainted with Ino in the budding days of Team 10. Even before then, when Naruto had been a pranking ne'er do well, he'd believed all Naruto really needed was someone to get his head on straight. Lo and behold, he'd received several someones, and the results spoke for themselves. Naruto was an outstanding shinobi and an upstanding individual.

But Naruto was also dating Ino – his baby. And it didn't matter how good of a guy Naruto was. It was obvious what the physical end goal to his relationship with her would be.

Not with his daughter, he wasn't.

This wasn't a 'Naruto' thing. The same would have went for anyone. It was the reason that he didn't do much to convince Ino away from the whole Sasuke thing back in the Academy days. There was no chance of anything happening there from Sasuke's end. For years, people figured the boy was asexual. This was not the case for Naruto, who had come up with the Sexy Jutsu, who had been trained by Jiraiya. To think that he never pondered inserting rod A into slot B was sheer foolishness.

"Please son, call me Inoichi."

He knew that Naruto would not do that. Not out of respect, because Naruto was casual even with people he respected. It was more than likely out of some sense of fear. Fear was good. Fear kept a man alive. It also kept this particular man off of his little girl, which wasn't a bad thing.

"No... I think I'm good," Naruto said, squinting his eyes at the man. He was being civil, as he usually was, but Naruto didn't trust him.

Naruto wasn't the paranoid type. Nor was he a mistrusting sort, especially when it came to a loved one of his girlfriend, but he would have had to have been a new level of daft if he didn't recognize that Inoichi saw him as a threat to Ino's innocence.

That poor, poor bastard.

The man was fighting a battle that had already been lost, and lost repeatedly. In fact, it had been lost the night before. How else had Ino convinced Naruto to get up early when he didn't have to, just to wait by the main gates? Not by asking nicely, that was for certain.

'If you only knew, old man. If you only knew,' Naruto thought to himself, leering thoughtfully at Inoichi, 'If I didn't actually respect you…'

If Naruto didn't respect him, he would have let spill by now that he and Inoichi's daughter had done the deed, time and time again. Of course, self-preservation was also a factor in Naruto's unusual use of tact. He didn't need his mind erased just for the sake of being a royal ass to his girlfriend's daddy.

Things were fine though. Ino grabbed onto to both of their hands and pulled them along, "This is nice though. We can find somewhere to go get breakfast so daddy can rest for a bit."

Inoichi smiled warmly at his little girl. She was headstrong, but very sweet with those she cared about, "Honestly, Ino," He said as Ino started pulling the two blond men along, "We could have had lunch later. You didn't have to go all the way to Naruto's house and wake him up just to bring him out here."

Ino stopped and looked over at her father strangely, "Huh? What are you talking about? We woke up together. I was with him all night."

The early morning street had already been very quiet, but at that moment it seemed as though even the birds had stopped chirping.

The other two members of Ino-Shika-Cho lingered for a bit to eavesdrop, and Shikaku couldn't help but laugh to himself, "Oh... this is gonna be good," Choza couldn't help but agree. Now this had their full attention.

Naruto, still locked in place by Ino's grip on his hand did his best to keep from making eye contact with Inoichi. He was grateful, if nothing else, that Inoichi's closest hand to him was held in Ino's grasp.

Inoichi's voice was harder than stone, "You were with him last night?" He noted Naruto flinch. He had better have kept his hands to himself.

Ino chuckled and shook her head, "Daddy, I stay with Goldie all the time," She told him, "His house is closer to the T&I Department than ours is."

Inoichi turned away from the pair and started looking at his own hands, as though he would find an answer in the lines on his palms, "All the time? I mean, I knew you did back when you were watching his apartment while he was gone. But that was different!" As in, there wasn't a boy living there at the time.

Ino shrugged, not seeing what the big deal was, "Yeah, and I legit started staying with him a bunch a few weeks after we started dating. It's really convenient," He knew about this, knew that she slept over at Naruto's place sometimes. It wasn't a secret.

She kind of knew that Inoichi would be weird about the whole arrangement, which was why she never told him. She just let him put together the pieces on his own at some point. Such as Ino rarely being around their home at night or early in the morning and rarely eating dinner with her parents. In time, she figured once she grandfathered him into knowing about the current arrangement with all of the hints she had been leaving out in the open, he would have had the time to accept it.

Her mother knew and told her not to expect any miracles. But Ino had hope that her dad would come to terms with it. She was a grown woman that had been fighting for her life and the prosperity of her village for years now. She could stay at a different address with her boyfriend if she so desired!

Inoichi ceased with his internal conflict and suddenly turned to said boyfriend, pointing accusingly, "Naruto! What do you have to say about this?"

Naruto had been dreading this moment for quite some time. But once it was there in front of him, there was only one way he could answer, "...Why in the hell would I not let her stay?"

"The kid has a point there, Inoichi!" Choza bellowed from across the plaza where he and Shikaku were spectating.

"I can handle this myself, Choza, thank you!" Inoichi shot back.

A business owner took a moment to poke his head out of his storefront and yell at the crazy shinobi in the streets, "Hey! All of you, shut up! It's too early for this crap!" His piece spoke, he went back inside, "...Fucking ninjas. First those two screaming assholes in green, now this. What is wrong with this village?"

The irritated civilian put an end to the heated discussion, at least for the time being. It would more than likely continue in some manner once they were out of the open, but for the time being, Inoichi was willing to live and let live, right after he got his point across of course.

He looked between the two teenage blondes with a stern glance, "Just as long as you two know to keep your hands to yourselves, of course!" Naruto and Ino just stared at him owlishly in response. Taking this as both being cowed into agreement, his demeanor brightened, "Alright, kids, let's go get breakfast!"

"I want breakfast!" One of Inoichi's Ino-Shika-Cho teammates called out.

"No, Choza! Go home!" Inoichi snapped back before calming himself down again, pasting a smile on his face as he led the way to find a place to eat.

Ino was left dumbfounded by the simple statement her father had made just moments ago. She fortunately had the good grace to wait for her father to get well out of earshot before saying anything, "Does he... does he seriously think I've never slept with you?"

She didn't believe her father could be that naïve. He worked in intelligence for goodness sake. He had to be more worldly cognizant than that.

Naruto wasn't as surprised; more relieved that he had dodged an uncomfortable bullet, "The other day, Shika said if nobody told him and he didn't see it, he wasn't going to figure it out for himself," He muttered, "I didn't think he was serious..."

Ino blinked, her blue eyes open wide, "S-Should I tell him?"

Naruto's expression turned grave, "Do you want me to die?"

Ino flinched, despite knowing that Naruto was exaggerating just a tad, "No! It's just... I don't want to keep something like that from my daddy, Goldie."

"You kept it from him until now!" Naruto argued in return.

Ino threw her hands in the air out of exasperation, "I thought he'd have figured it out! Or mom would have told him!" She turned away from Naruto, arms crossed. Even so, she could feel his gaze boring into her back, "Don't look at me like that! I don't know! If he finds out on his own it'll be awkward!"

Naruto raised an eyebrow, "How are you gonna have a sex conversation with your dad and have it not be awkward?"

Ino scoffed and whipped a blonde bang of hair out of her face, "Please. We went through those graphic sex ed classes when we were in the Academy. I could have had it then with him instead of with mom," It was true, no matter how creepy the thought of 12-year-old Ino doing that was in hindsight.

Naruto rolled his eyes and threw his hands up behind his head as he started out after Inoichi, "Sure. You go ahead and do that. Just let me get way out of town first. Like on a mission. Hey, maybe I'll die out there instead of having your dad kill me in my sleep?"

Ino gave Naruto a knock on his shoulder, "Idiot. Be serious, would you?" She said, despite the smile clearly tugging at her lips.

"I'm barely joking," Naruto replied, "I mean, if this is how he is with you just staying over, how am I supposed to-," He quickly clammed up before he could say more than he meant to.

His attempt to cut himself off failed, as Ino had picked up that he was going to trail into something else, "Supposed to what?"

Naruto thought fast to come up with some kind of excuse, "Uh... get you alone again? Yeah, he'll probably put a tracker or a leash on you to keep you from coming around my way."

Ino leered at him for a moment. She didn't believe him. But she could let him have this one. Besides, Naruto was awful with secrets. He'd let this one slip sooner rather than later if it kept coming up. And she had the patience to wait it out, "A leash on me, huh? Didn't know you were into stuff like that, Goldie. That's interesting."

Naruto sent a double-take look her way to see his girlfriend grinning slyly, "Well, last time I checked, I'm not. But if you break one out sometime, we'll see what happens. Don't forget who trained me."

"Huh. Didn't know Asuma-sensei was into that kind of stuff either. I should talk to Kurenai-sensei more."

Naruto laughed and pulled Ino against him, feeling comfortable as she snuggled against his side. He loved her sense of humor. He loved their banter. There was so much about her that he loved, and even the parts of her that made things difficult sometimes, being without them would be like Ino missing a chunk of her essence that made her special.

He wanted her with him. He was absolutely certain of that. The more, the better, as much as possible. It was just that taking that next step would be a difficult proposition, because of the protective figure that hovered around the outskirts of her life – Inoichi.

How was Naruto going to get that guy to give his blessing to him to ask Ino to move in? Naruto figured he was the one who would need mind control powers in order to pull that off!

Oh well. Nothing worth having was easy to get, and struggling for something just made you appreciate it that much more.


Yippee, boys and girls. It's time to open the cans of worms that I've been building to for quite some time. All kinds of crap is happening on several fronts.

The samurai are pissed, and want answers and restitution from Konoha. They're on the way to Hi no Kuni's capital to get them.

Jiraiya is trying to take out Orochimaru as quickly as possible to try and assuage international outrage before most of the world decides to take whatever chunk they can get out of Konoha for the sake of 'justice'.

Suna and Iwa are ready for war and are looking for any half-assed excuse to set one off. Suna may have just been given one depending on what happens.

Akatsuki is regrouping with their remaining members and have plans to move forward and continue their goals of obtaining the biju. Boy... do they have plans.

Yep. Let's do this shit. Until I can get the next update to you guys, I hope you enjoyed the chapter.

Kenchi out.