Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. If I did, I totally wouldn't be doing this anymore. Actually, let's not go that far. Writing fics might still be an interesting way of soundboarding ideas on the low.
Chapter 84: What Is It Good For?
As training on Mt. Myoboku continued, Jiraiya found himself marveling at Naruto's progress. He knew that once the domino of his student learning to gather natural energy fell, the rest would follow in short order. Still, he hadn't anticipated that a process that required one to sit perfectly still for long periods of time would come so quickly to the jinchuuriki.
Even Naruto's father, the most natural genius shinobi Jiraiya had ever been around, didn't manage to pick up Sage Mode as quickly as Naruto did. Part of it had to do with Naruto's use of Shadow Clones, of course, but that only provided a certain amount of explanation.
"Okay, I need you to check this out," Naruto said, having summoned Jiraiya and Fukasaku in the middle of the day when he usually would have been neck-deep in training, "You watching, Ero-sensei?"
"Yes, Naruto," Jiraiya said patronizingly, "You dragged us all the way out here for this, so you've got our full attention."
Naruto either ignored Jiraiya's tone or refused to let it get his mood down, "Okay, so I was using clones to try and get a feel for gathering senjutsu chakra faster-."
"-Dammit, I told'ya not ta do that, ya durned idjit!" Fukasaku scolded, causing Naruto to wince, "Ya think turnin' ta stone'll be fun or somethin'!?"
"Shh-shh-shh!" Naruto waved his arms in a preemptive defense, just in case Fukasaku decided to come at him with his stick, "Let me finish! Let me finish!"
"Yeah, Pa," Jiraiya said with an amused grin, "He's got the whole meditation thing down by now. If he wants to dick around with his clones, he can handle it. Keep talking, kid."
"Well, instead of talking, it'd be easier to show you," Naruto said, gesturing to a nearby meditating clone. Upon being given the verbal cue, it dispelled. In that same instant, Naruto took on the physical features that came with his more refined mastery of Sage Mode.
"Oh-ho!" Jiraiya reacted first with great enthusiasm, "Hell's bells, that's a new one! But I thought I told you no shortcuts."
Naruto grumbled at that, "'Shortcut', my ass. My clone still has to sit there and meditate for just as long as I would to get the same amount of energy."
"That's scary potential though," Jiraiya mused aloud, "You could make enough clones to supply you with senjutsu chakra for as long as you need," At that, he saw Naruto shake his head in the negative, "No?"
Five fingers went up on Naruto's right hand, "Five's the absolute limit that I can make as long as I have any gathering energy for me."
Jiraiya's eyebrows rose, "Five huh? That's a conveniently set number."
"Yep. 5's the key number here," Naruto continued, "Think about it. 5 Great Shinobi Countries. 5 chakra elements. 5, man, that's the number. 5 chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch. You know that old children's tale from the sea. It's like you're dreamin' about Gorgonzola cheese when it's clearly Brie time, baby. Step into my office."
"'Cause you're fuckin' fired, 'ttebayo!"
Jiraiya and Fukasaku looked at each other oddly before the former responded, "...What are you talking about?"
Naruto put a hand on his head as his eyelids fluttered, "I'm sorry. I've been skipping meals... and I've been in the sun all day. And I'm pretty sure gathering all this natural energy is screwing with my head."
Jiraiya nodded, "That tracks; happened to me. There was a clan that had a serious problem with that too. Can't remember what they were called though," He looked around and scratched his belly, "Alright. Yeah. That's big progress for the day. Want to knock off and get a drink with the toads?"
Excitement quickly gave way to confusion for Naruto, "Wait, I thought you said I couldn't do that until I was done?"
Fukasaku hopped over, landing on Naruto's shoulder, "Hell, boyo, ya just about are done," He said, "We've got a few kinks ta work out, and we've gotta figure out a way for them clones o' yours to be more practical for ya, but all that's left now is gettin' ya used ta fightin' in Sage Mode."
Naruto still wasn't quite convinced, "But... shouldn't I be moving faster? You know, because of the war and everything?"
"If sensei needs us, he'll call for us," Jiraiya reassured Naruto, throwing his arm around the boy's shoulder, "This ridiculous war will be there tomorrow. Tonight, I'm going to celebrate my student, my godson, becoming an honest-to-goodness goddamn sage."
Because there was no question in Jiraiya's mind that eventually Naruto was going to step foot on the front lines, and when he did, there was no guarantee that the young man he knew wouldn't change fundamentally as a result of the things he would see and would have to do.
At the end of the day, Naruto was a jinchuuriki. Even if Akatsuki wasn't a factor, this meant that he would be a key player in the way the war transpired, no matter what anyone intended for him.
(Hi no Kuni/Kawa no Kuni Border)
For all his poise and preparation, for all his natural talent and hard-earned ability, Hyuuga Neji had absolutely no experience with open warfare. Neither did any of his teammates, and yet as the jounin amongst them, he was supposed to be responsible for them. His sensei Gai was one of Konoha's most powerful shinobi, period. That meant he would be a valuable resource in the field, on the front lines. Where Gai went, Rock Lee would wish to follow, and quite frankly, Neji and Tenten weren't that far off from thinking like him.
Thus, when they found themselves scouting and performing skirmishing maneuvers in the very place where all conventional wisdom led experts to believe the first flames of real combat would break out, it took a lot for Neji to fight down the butterflies in his stomach. War was something he had no familiarity with. He and the rest of his generation had all been born years after the last major one that Konoha had been involved in. Hopefully, the learning curve wouldn't be as harsh as he expected it to be.
There had been no action to speak of yet. It was expected that a town on the Hi no Kuni side of the border would be the center point of an eventual battle. Thus, it was the job of Team Gai and other scouting groups to find key points in the nearby area that Konoha could use to dominate the flow of conflict. When Suna attacked, they planned for their defensive line to bend before snapping back like a rubber band.
The team paused to take a temporary rest on the frontier. This was a welcome reprieve to all but one. That one, of course, being Rock Lee.
"Why do we have to stop here?" Lee asked, pointing at the map in his hand, "We can find six more strong points before we have to report back."
Tenten fixed him with an exasperated look, accustomed to his overachieving ways. It was usually a good thing, but here it could be construed as a problem, "We're supposed to be back by 1800 with what we have. Besides, we've already gone as deep into Kawa no Kuni as command wants us to go."
Neji quickly followed up with more reasoning, "Too much activity could provoke a full-scale battle before command is ready. Don't be too hasty to head into combat, Lee. We'll likely see our share soon enough."
At that, Lee let out a sigh, "I know you are right," He admitted, "I just feel... anxious, I guess."
"We're trying to establish a favorable front line," Neji said, "While Suna's position in a neutral country would paint them as the aggressor in this conflict, we can't justify simply marching into that same country for a fight to outsiders."
No matter what, it seemed that at least the initial portion of the fighting would take place in the Hi no Kuni frontier. Once Suna's opening offensive was repulsed, then Konoha could counterattack and approach the war more offensively.
Even when things turned hot, there was always the political angle to keep in mind. That the lives of Konoha shinobi would be altered or extinguished as a result was merely the high cost of doing business.
"You know what they say, Lee. The calm before the storm," Tenten said with an uneasy grin, "With as calm as things seem... we might be in for a hell of a storm."
As if triggered by those words, all three members of Team Gai leapt into action. Tenten unleashed a barrage of projectiles, aimed startlingly accurate despite her blind aim. They used the shock to split up and rush their hidden enemy. The squad of six Suna shinobi were caught off-guard. Right before they intended to spring their own ambush, separated into functional pairs for the eventual attack, they found the tables turned on them as they were beaten to the punch.
"Konoha Otoshi (Leaf Drop)!" Lee unleashed a falling ax kick that shattered the frame of a puppet, effectively disarming one of the two shinobi he had been assigned.
While Rock Lee was the fastest to reach his intended mark, Neji was more efficient in how he dispatched his foes once he reached them.
"Hakke Kuushou (Eight Trigrams Vacuum Palm)!" Using a quick palm thrust, Neji unleashed a compressed vacuum shell that let him assail his targets from a distance. Worst case, it would serve as a distraction that allowed him to get close and continue his work from there, but here, it managed to blast one of the unprepared Suna shinobi off of their feet entirely. The one 'fortunate' enough to avoid it found themselves quickly put down with the precise finger taps and palm thrusts of Neji's Gentle Fist fighting system.
By now, Neji's other adversary had gotten back up, sneering as he drew a kunai to fight back, "How did you know we were waiting here?"
Neji smirked, activating his kekkei genkai, "You're going to war with Konoha and can't recognize the Byakugan? I saw through you from half a mile away."
"Damned bloodlines!" The shinobi growled before quickly throwing down a smoke bomb, "Retreat!"
Unfortunately for him, as he exited the smokescreen of his own creation, he found Neji running right along with him. To his surprise and horror, he found himself eye-to-eye with the aforementioned Byakugan, "What part of 'I saw through you' did you misunderstand?"
Before he could react, Neji struck him down with a well-aimed tap to the forehead. The man's eyes rolled back and he dropped to the ground motionless.
During the conversation held as a distraction so Team Gai could position themselves properly for their counter-ambush, Neji had never lied. Despite marching into what they had already seen as a trap to instigate a skirmish, Konoha wasn't going to be the ones to attack first. Taking out Suna's skirmishers would either force them to back up into a better position, or goad them into making the first major move.
(Amegakure no Sato)
Ever since the sham of a battle with the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, Nagato had been fuming. To think, he had been had by a ruse of such a nature. His mistake had been to expect Uzumaki Naruto to stand and fight at all. Despite the young man's reputation as a headstrong combatant, even he knew better than to try and test his might against the god of what would be a new world.
As wise as it may have been in the moment, it would only ensure that he would incur that much more of Pain's wrath when the time finally came. That he had the opportunity to put himself at the precipice of his dream, only to find himself in the same position as before was deeply vexing.
Now the Kyuubi was safe within the confines of Konoha. And with the closest border between Ame and Konoha rife with combat-ready shinobi, poised and ready for war, making his way in that direction would prove to make for more difficulties than necessary to achieve their goal.
Finally finding Nagato in an approachable enough mood, Konan sought him out for direction, "Madara and the rest of his Akatsuki are still out there."
"His bastardized offshoot is no way, shape, or form Akatsuki, Konan. But he will be dealt with," Nagato said, "No matter what happens, whether we obtain the rest of the tailed beasts, or whether Madara does, they still need to be sealed within the Gedou Mazou. And without the Rinnegan, he can do nothing from that point forward."
The ball was in their court. While there was still work to be done, Nagato and Konan had the initiative.
Much like Madara, the Nine-Tails' time would come. In the meantime, there were two other targets of opportunity that still needed to be captured – the Seven-Tails and the Eight-Tails.
(Kumogakure no Sato)
Nii Yugito winced as the Raikage's desk went flying through the reinforced windows of his office. While this wasn't a foreign occurrence, she was usually able to avoid being present for it, "I really hope nobody was down there..." She muttered.
The village budget on desks and windows was absurd. Why the Raikage's assistant Mabui gave the man a desk hard enough to withstand being thrown against the reinforced windows was a mystery, seeing as how he still managed to break the desk with his bare hands during lesser rages anyway.
This time, the reason for the offense against furniture and the decorative opening was a heated argument between brothers. The Raikage and his tag team partner. A and B.
"This is not the time to put two of Kumo's most powerful, valuable assets at risk, B!" A shouted, muscles tense and rippling as he asserted his point, "What happened to Yugito, it was a miracle you were able to get her back alive."
"'Cuz Konoha sent a pack!" Killer B argued back, "Made sure they had jinchuuriki-sama's back!"
"Good!" A roared, "Akatsuki is Konoha's mess in the first place! It's spawned from their failures! Let them be the one to fix it! I'm not dispatching you or Yugito to go after what's left! I won't risk giving the enemy what they want!"
"Even if Akatsuki ain't dead, they're hanging by a thread," Killer B rhymed back at him, "Can't just sit back like a jerk! The Killer B wants to work!"
They had been arguing for hours. Leaving the village and getting a taste of the action that existed outside, getting a glimpse at the turmoil that existed beyond Kumo's limits, it stuck in B's head. No matter how much he tried to focus himself on other things – training, writing rhymes – he couldn't. He had forgotten how big a world was out there, and how precarious things were elsewhere.
A decided to change conversational tactics, as outright strongarming B didn't seem to be working this time, "You have your role, B," He tried to reason, pushing Killer B's responsibility as village guardian as a reason to keep him in place, "Kumo needs you here as its protector now more than ever. Between Akatsuki and the war... dangerous times could be in store for our village."
"That's a good point," Killer B replied, "...Still doesn't explain why Yugi-chan's stuck in this joint."
Despite herself, Yugito couldn't help but find herself interested in what B was saying. She had long since recovered from her incident with Akatsuki, yet had not been granted an assignment outside of Kumo's limits since. It was admittedly jarring, given the workhorse schedule she had become accustomed to, and was proud of, beforehand. Her status as an asset to the village was one of the things that had granted her all the respect she had managed to gain over the course of her life as a jinchuuriki.
She wasn't even asking to be sent after Akatsuki. Were she to be honest with herself, she wanted no other part of them. She had tangled with Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame and had gotten a taste of just what the organization was capable of. She simply wanted to get back to her version of normal, and that meant putting her back in the field where she could do what she did best.
A regarded his two most powerful shinobi seriously before making his case, "I know both of you are aware of the war between Konoha and Suna."
Yugito raised an eyebrow, interjecting before A could launch fully into his reasoning, "That's on the other side of the continent, sir."
"It's just a matter of time until it spreads," A said, "I won't let us be caught with valuable assets away from the village and vulnerable when it does."
"So, you're benching me?" Yugito asked incredulously, "Raikage-sama, I can still-!"
"-My decision is final," A declared, his tone showing that just like with Killer B, he was leaving no room for discussion, "If you two really care about the well-being of Kumo, you'll understand that this is in the best interests of the village," He said, a flash of sadness and anger rolling through him before he stamped it down, preventing another outburst, "I've already lost Darui. That man was going to be the next Raikage..."
And Killer B had simply gallivanted off with his killer, and the killer of his own student Omoi. Granted, it was to save Yugito, but it wasn't a choice that A would have made. All heads would have rolled in short order. Uzumaki Naruto's, and that of the Akatsuki. He couldn't see himself ever going for any other outcome.
In any event, he had lost his successor and had almost lost one of his village's most significant assets in short order. Now was not the time to reach out and try to fix the rest of the world's problems. That was never how Kumo operated. To the contrary, it was the time to close ranks and consolidate. The rest of the Five Great Shinobi Villages could set themselves on fire if they wanted to. Kumogakure would simply have to make sure it was still there to sift through the ashes once the smoke cleared.
(Konogakure no Sato – Uchiha Clan Compound)
Sasuke was an annoying patient.
Tsunade knew that he would be, as he had seemed the type. After all, she had treated more than enough shinobi over her lifetime to see a troublesome sort coming from a mile away. It was the entire reason that she had allowed him to dictate where the surgery happened. Had she been the one to suggest the place, she knew that the moment he was able, he would have shambled out of bed back to familiar surroundings.
At least this way, doing the surgery at his home, she could convince him to at least do his recovery the correct way. Even that was proving difficult.
"Kid, you're not taking those bandages off until I say so," Tsunade barked as she caught Sasuke touching at the outer edges of the protective wraps around his eyes.
"Tch," Sasuke lowered his hand, lest he incur the wrath of a sannin, "Kakashi was able to use his Sharingan right after it was given to him."
"Kakashi had goddamn battlefield surgery to get his Sharingan," Tsunade replied. Kakashi also only got one eye implanted while Sasuke got both, "I want to make sure your body doesn't reject the transplant. If you burn these new eyes out right after I put them in your head, you can do the next surgery yourself."
Sasuke had no idea how such a thing would be possible. Even if he was medically trained to the extent that such a thing would be within his capabilities, he couldn't see how he could consciously pluck out his own eye and maintain enough focus through all of the pain to replace it. Perhaps he could look into learning Shadow Clones from Naruto and how exactly those worked. Massive chakra drain aside, it clearly had its uses.
A part of him had always been a bit jealous of how liberally Naruto could use such a jutsu, even when they had been kids. Not that he would ever admit as much aloud, however. Improvement was necessary, not just because war was on the horizon either. There were plenty of things that he needed to sort out in regards to Konoha.
One way or another, he needed to ensure that he was as prepared as possible, no matter what the future had in store. Whatever decision he made down the line, he would not allow himself to be anything less than ready.
(With Naruto – Mt. Myoboku)
The toads knew how to party. Naruto readily came to this conclusion after the celebration that had transpired once he had shared with Gamakichi that he had just about mastered Sage Mode to Fukasaku's satisfaction. He had hopped off to inform Gamabunta, and within the hour an impromptu shindig was underway.
...Jiraiya had confirmed that they would have taken any halfway decent excuse to drink, but that still didn't make the ensuing festivities any less fulfilling.
What followed was hours of food (that Naruto did his best to avoid), alcohol, pats on the back from all of the amassed summon creatures, and music. Toad singing was surprisingly diverse. All of this carried on deep into the night.
The moon was high in the sky and most of the toad denizens of Mt. Myoboku had turned in by the time Naruto was able to eventually stagger away from what was left of the proceedings. The loud chirping of insects that usually permeated the night air found itself overpowered by the loud snores of the great toads that had passed out.
Light from the moon bathed a cliffside just outside of the toad village, providing a fantastic view of the mountainside below. As Naruto approached to take in the view, he found he hadn't been the only one that decided to do so, "Ero-sensei."
Jiraiya sat at the edge of the cliff, peacefully looking out at the view until he noticed his student, "Hey, brat. Managed to get out of there without throwing up on your shoes, did you?"
Naruto nodded, hoping that his status as jinchuuriki of Kurama meant he would not only sober up fairly quickly, but would also avoid the fate of a crushing hangover, "How did you?"
Jiraiya chuckled, "I've been hanging out with the toads way longer than you. This isn't my first rodeo."
Humming in understanding, Naruto took a seat near Jiraiya and basked in the peace and tranquility of Mt. Myoboku. Jiraiya used the bright light of the moon to help him write in a notebook, while Naruto picked a cigarette from a case he kept on his person. He hummed in annoyance as it took many flicks of his cheap lighter to get a flame going.
Naruto would never admit it aloud, but sometimes he envied Sasuke's natural fire affinity. It seemed a lot more useful in mundane settings than Naruto's natural wind affinity. Hell, Sasuke had two affinities. The competitive side of Naruto felt the need to catch up in that respect at his nearest convenience.
"Something on your mind, kid?" Jiraiya asked, offering an ear to hear him out.
Naruto took a drag from his cigarette and breathed out heavily, smoke billowing forth and dissipating in the air in front of him, "Too much. The war, Akatsuki, this Nagato guy, getting promoted... more stuff too."
Kurama... Sasuke and 'Madara'... how Team 8 was getting along after returning from Ame – and here Naruto was, training and getting drunk with his summon creatures in the wilderness.
Jiraiya could see there were heavy thoughts circulating through his pupil's head, and let him mull them around in silence. He himself thought about just how far the teenager next to him had come since even before meeting him.
Naruto had been dealt a rough hand growing up. He'd been born to an outstanding pedigree that he knew nothing of for the longest time, and thus could not take advantage of. He had been deemed socially untouchable due to his status as a jinchuuriki, with no support system to help offset the stigma against him. That he managed to keep his head for twelve years until he could finally turn things around for himself was a credit to his fortitude.
With much time and effort, he had earned his respect in Konoha. His tenure as a Guardian Ninja, one of the most difficult assignments possible, established his dedication and professionalism. His track record against powerful enemies, known and feared around the Elemental Nations, had painted him as a top flight shinobi. His accomplishments and escapades, such as helping to cut Danzo's Root out of Konoha's foundation, his capture and escape from Iwa, and beyond had garnered him reputation as an individual who got things done.
Even if the old guard still didn't appreciate his ability, they were on the way out. The younger generation that grew up with him, fought with him, and watched him achieve things that they could not saw him for what he was, what he had strived to be the entire time – an outstanding shinobi.
And from what Jiraiya could see, the kid had good taste in women, if the one he was in a relationship with was anything to go off of. This was also extremely important in his view – all important aspects of growing up.
Jiraiya took it upon himself to sate some of his own curiosity and properly distract his thoughtful student, "So, this little Yamanaka girlie of yours. Tell me about her."
Caught off-guard, Naruto leaned forward with a start, catching himself at the edge of the cliff. Turning to see Jiraiya grinning at him cheekily, Naruto gave him a glare with no real heat behind it, "Her name is Ino. You've met her before."
"I know her name," Jiraiya said with a roll of his eyes, "When a girl is willing to run headlong into an enemy hidden village to drag your dumbass student out in one piece, you make sure you remember her name."
Aside from that, Naruto had been more or less pining over her the entire time he had been away from Konoha training and working for the Guardian Ninja. He might have thought that his little back-and-forth letters to her were a secret from everyone other than Shizune, whom Naruto got to take them for them when she traveled to and from Konoha during that time, but Shizune could never keep a secret from Tsunade; and if Tsunade knew, Jiraiya knew.
"So," Jiraiya continued, "Seeing as how you're obviously head-over-heels for this 'Ino', and as your godfather I need to be all up in your business, tell me about her."
It didn't take much prompting for Naruto to do just that. After all, he thought the world of Ino, so talking about her was no problem. Still being somewhat drunk also helped loosen his tongue, "I used to think she was a mean girl, way back in the Academy," Naruto said, thinking back to when they were younger, "She was never really nice to me back then. Not a whole lot of people were though. And with all of the girls in class mooning over Sasuke; ugh."
Back in school, he had thought that Ino was pretty, but personality-wise, he hadn't been a fan. There weren't many people Naruto could say he had been enthusiastic about during his Academy days anyway.
"But then...?" Jiraiya prodded.
"Then we got put on Team 10 together," Naruto said, "I saw she wasn't bad at all. I mean, she's a good girl, really. And she liked me; she trusted me. Ino-chan believed in me out loud."
Once they had warmed up to each other as teammates and friends, Ino was dogged in her attachment and wore her affiliation on her sleeve. She defended Naruto from others who still saw him as a failure and a nuisance, helped him out when she could, and cheered him on unashamedly. If anyone his age had believed in him before Ino did, he hadn't been aware of it.
That she felt as strongly about him as he did about her, and had felt that way long before he'd figured himself out wasn't something Naruto took lightly. And she wasn't some perfect figure he held up on a pedestal. Ino had her flaws. She did things that got on his nerves, and sometimes they fought. But that was okay.
"She can be catty as fuck though. Really annoying sometimes, Ero-sensei," Naruto commented, "Sometimes, it's like nothing makes her happier than finding ways to tease me. And she's so hard-headed. Once she has an idea in her head, she follows it through until the end, no matter what," People often said the same about him, which probably explained why they butted heads from time to time.
But she was passionate and loving. God, the contact. Ino had never been afraid to be touchy-feely with touches and hugs for friends and loved ones. Naruto could have counted on one hand the number of people that gave him positive physical interaction before her. It had taken him a while to get used to the friendly PDAs, but when he did it had been a comfort he had never really experienced before. With Ino's attention and actual positive reception to him, the schoolyard crush he'd nursed for Sakura vanished., and she only got more familiar over time.
He didn't know quite when Ino had truly won him over, but he knew when he had realized it – watching an enemy shinobi kill her when they went to bring Tsunade back to Konoha.
Naruto gazed out at the moon-bathed mountain expanse, his expression deep in thought, "She's gorgeous," He said, "I haven't found anything that picks me up more than hearing her laugh, or seeing her smile and knowing it's for me. Nobody inspires me more than her. I want her to be proud of me, more than anyone else in the world."
Jiraiya had spent the last few moments just listening, his mouth slowly falling farther open as Naruto kept speaking. Eventually, however, he found the response he wanted, "Wow... that might be the sappiest thing I think I've ever heard you say, you sentimental cream puff."
"Screw you!" Naruto replied, flicking his cigarette at Jiraiya, "I should have just blown smoke in your face!"
Jiraiya laughed, catching the butt in his hand, "I'm messing with you," He said, then getting serious, "That's good. I'm happy to hear that. This girl sounds like she means the world to you."
Naruto nodded, "She does."
"Yet another thing you have on me, kid. You and your dad," Jiraiya said with a sigh as he laid back and stared up at the sky, "I can't say I ever had something like what you might have; like what your dad had with your mom."
Ino had spunk. She had the kind of fire in her that someone like Naruto needed. A kid with his ambitions would need someone capable of stoking those flames in him when the world threatened to put them out. That was what Kushina had done for Minato. She helped to drive him forward. It might have been bold of Jiraiya to believe, but in his opinion, Minato might not have made it to the seat of Hokage without Kushina at his back.
"Yep," Jiraiya continued, "Something like that's hard to come by for guys like me. To be happy is not our fate."
Naruto joined his master in laying back to look up at the stars, "You say that like it's too late for you or something."
Jiraiya scoffed, "Brat, I'm 54-years-old with one arm, and possibly an STD."
"I said 'possibly'," Jiraiya griped before getting back to his point, "Besides, I have my responsibilities to the village."
"Responsibilities?" Naruto repeated incredulously, "You mean skulking around for the last twenty years, digging up dirt on Akatsuki and Orochimaru? Ero-sensei, you've done enough. I'm gonna get the old man to bench you ASAP."
"Good luck with that."
"Fine, then when I take his spot, I'll do it myself."
Jiraiya couldn't help but chuckle at the certainty with which Naruto spoke, "My spy network aside, settling down just isn't in my nature. That's for the good guys like you and Minato. I can give a woman the night of her life. Past that? I'm diminishing returns to the point of loss."
"You say that like you've tried," There was something about Jiraiya's responding silence that struck a chord with Naruto. He turned his head to look at the man, "...You did try, didn't you?"
Jiraiya kept his gaze to the sky, but his lips curled in a bitter smile, "It was a long time ago, and I dropped the ball," He left it at that, "I've failed at every important task I've ever set for myself. I failed her back then. I failed those kids in Ame. I failed Minato. I failed to bring my best friend back to Konoha alive," At that, he felt himself choke up a bit and paused for a moment to regain his composure, "And in my obsession over that, I failed you. I'm a failure."
Naruto frowned and turned his eyes back to the stars. The two lay there in silence until Naruto couldn't tolerate it anymore, "You're not a failure, Jiraiya-sensei," He said, "...There are three people in the world that I wanted to be like. Iruka-sensei, Asuma-sensei, and you."
Upon Naruto's admission, Jiraiya felt tears prick at his eyes, "When we're done here, you won't need me anymore. Anything that I am, you're going to surpass in no time," That is, if he hadn't already, "The best advice I can give you now is to just keep doing what you're doing. Don't be anything like me."
Sage Mode truly was the last thing of real substance that Jiraiya had to teach Naruto. Once this training trip was done, Naruto would be a sage officially recognized by the toads of Mt. Myoboku. In a short time, he would also be a jounin. They would be equals.
If this was the last time he would truly be able to impart something worthwhile upon his student, he would make sure that the boy didn't carry on his legacy of failure. Naruto was going to be great.
Naruto heard Jiraiya's words and ardently rejected them, "I can't promise that. You're the best shinobi I know. I'm always gonna look up to you," He said honestly, "And you say I won't need you? That's not true. I definitely need you around. I want you around."
This time, Jiraiya couldn't fight back his own feelings. Silent tears started trickling from the corners of his eyes.
Oblivious to the effect he was having on his sensei, Naruto continued talking, believing that he had to illustrate his point, "And I'm not talking about you teaching me jutsu and stuff. When I end up getting a genin team or something, I'm gonna want you around to tell me what to do with them. I'm... I'm gonna want you there to watch me become Hokage."
Still weeping, Jiraiya tried to interject, "-When you marry the Yamanaka girl, you're going to want someone to keep you from running away at the altar," He joked.
"Ahem," Naruto cleared his throat, going red in the face at the thought of marrying Ino. That was quite the step, "Err, no, I'm pretty sure Shikamaru's gonna have that covered," It would probably be in Shikamaru's best interest to make sure Naruto didn't get cold feet if the time ever came, if only to avoid a wrathful Ino, "...You can handle the bachelor party though."
Jiraiya let out a boisterous laugh, "That's what I'm talking about! Now you're speaking my language."
The boy was a gem, truly.
(Meanwhile – Hi no Kuni – Twenty Miles Inside the Border)
The Sand Siblings – children of the Kazekage himself, were two of the most powerful shinobi in Suna. Therefore, it was obvious that as war loomed, they would find themselves at the head of an entire division. Normally, they would have been split up into separate divisions to spread their merits across as much of the army as possible, but with the recent loss of Gaara, Temari and Kankurou had insisted on sticking together to better cover for one another.
For the duration of the upcoming operation, their forces would be temporarily consolidated into a surprise attack division. While it was a strategic decision, meant to provide Suna with enough power to drive deep within Hi no Kuni with their first strike, it was one Temari and Kankurou were grateful for. The two of them needed one another more than ever in the moment.
The mood was serious and somber across the forward camp as the teams involved with the initial strike force made their final preparations.
"Man..." Kankurou said, standing by and observing the remainder of their forces, "...I wish Gaara was here. We sure could use him for this one."
There was a hard look in Temari's eyes as she tended to her iron fan, "That's the reason we're fighting this war, Kankurou – for Gaara."
Kankurou was quick to correct her, "No, that's the reason we're fighting," The rest of Suna had never cared much for Gaara, even after he had mellowed out significantly. Their father, the Kazekage, had started coming around by the time of Gaara's disappearance, however, he had still been markedly detached from his own blood, "But to hell with anything else. All we need are our own reasons."
"Right," Temari agreed.
Suna skirmishers had been probing Konoha's forces and how they responded to different approaches of attack. Suna ANBU had been back and forth behind the lines, attempting to map out the terrain and determine the best path for the division to take. Eventually, the targets were determined to be two towns at the southern outskirts of Hi no Kuni, Hachou Village and Tonika Village. With them, Suna would have a decent foothold in the country. They were as ready to escalate things as they were going to get without waiting too long. Konoha was bigger and had greater resources. If Suna allowed them to take the initiative, it would take a monumental occurrence to get it back.
Deep into the night, as the time for the attack drew nearer, nerves began to set in. It was now or never. When zero hour finally arrived, all of the teams set out, each aware of their objective.
Though Hachou Village had its uses, Tonika Village was the true prize that Suna wished to obtain. The land surrounding the village was an ecological oasis in the middle of a barren wasteland. In addition to the resources it provided in of itself, they wished to annex the territory in order to study it and take what they could learn from it to put to use in the desert conditions around Sunagakure. It was merely the first of many concessions Suna would demand from Konoha once they were victorious at the conclusion of the war. It had to be secured first, though.
Tonika Village and the lush environment it was built in the midst of sat in the middle of an odd body of water, seemingly unnaturally carved into the wastes. To get to it, Suna's forces first had to pass Hachou Village – Tonika Village's sister settlement.
As it wasn't the priority, the plan was to attack it in a trident-patterned approach. The middle prong would be most responsible with subduing the village, while the two outside prongs would hit the village from the outskirts, lending a hand where needed, but their objective would be to move on to attack Tonika Village before word of the attack could get to them.
Temari was faster, so she was in charge of the flanks, while Kankurou headed up the middle prong that would do the lion's share of the early fighting.
In the rocky hills surrounding the town, they took a moment to regroup. In the quiet of the night, Hachou Village seemed to be such a lovely place. The light from the moon overhead bathed the water of bay that the village sat by in light. It was almost a shame, Kankurou figured. Hopefully they stood down before too much of the place was destroyed.
Despite descending from the hills as stealthily as possible, they were still prioritizing speed over discretion. A sentry in a guard tower was able to catch sight of them and sound an alarm before he could be neutralized.
"It's an attack!" Bells rang throughout the village, "An attack!"
The element of surprise lost, Kankurou let out a loud whistle, signaling his force to attack in earnest. Paper bombs attached to kunai flew through the air, many of which landed on rooftops.
Fires broke out, adding to the panic as people began to flee burning homes. While many ran away from the chaos, many adults rushed out of their homes dressed hastily in simple plates of armor across their chests, wielding basic weapons such as swords and staffs. Bravely, they set out to meet their foreign attackers with cold steel.
"This shouldn't take too long," Kankurou heard a nearby Suna ninja – a fellow puppeteer – boast, "They're civilians," An arrow whizzed past his head, almost within the same breath.
"They're militia," Kankurou corrected, "Underestimate them if you want to just because they're not shinobi, you dumbass," He chided insultingly, "Don't worry. I'll make sure your puppet goes to someone who'll use it better."
They may have been civilians, but they were armed and fighting back. That made them just as dangerous a set of combatants as a proper shinobi brigade, and they would be treated as such. Keeping this in mind, Kankurou summoned his heavy assault puppet Karasu and steeled himself for what was to come.
Many people would die tonight. More than likely, far more would meet their fate before this war came to an end.
(Konohagakure no Sato – Uzumaki Clan Grounds)
2 AM was far too late to be running around the village, Sakura decided.
Sakura and the other members of Team 7 were temporarily being kept in reserve until open battle started with Suna. With their abilities, they would be utilized as a quick strike force, meant to turn the tide wherever they were needed before being swiftly re-dispatched to wherever else they would be needed. It would be restless work once it was underway, thus Sakura deigned to enjoy all the sleep she could get until things started.
That was, until Ino contacted her telepathically with an urgent request. One moment she had been warm and comfortable in her bed, and the next she was dressed and moving to the outskirts of Konoha.
Fighting the urge to yawn, Sakura followed behind her platinum blonde best friend as they made their way to the property belonging to Ino's boyfriend, "Are you sure something's wrong?" She asked, "It can't be bad, right? You said the security seals weren't triggered."
"No, they were deactivated," Ino said. And that was just as alarming, "Goldie is the only one who should be able to do that."
"-And you~!" Sakura added, teasingly, "Aww... he gave you the keys to his new house and everything."
Despite how serious the moment was, Ino couldn't help but have to fight down a grin at that. Instead of just his apartment now, Naruto had not only given her the key to the house he was set to move into, he had marked her with a seal that coded her into the security seal array that ran around the property. While such an act could have been construed by an outsider as Naruto simply covering his bases and making sure someone could watch his house while he was gone, that explanation didn't fly to anyone in the know, as he had done it before he knew he would be leaving to train.
He may as well have put a ring on her finger by this point. The fact that it seemed to be becoming more of a reality as time passed put butterflies in Ino's stomach. But this wasn't the time for such thoughts.
The pair of kunoichi stopped by the torii gates lining the pass that marked the official entrance to the Uzumaki Clan grounds. Ino moved to the first one to check the array to observe the comings and goings. Sakura noticed her brow furrow, "What's up?"
"..." Ino was silent for a moment as she tried to process what she was seeing, "...Okay, it's saying there wasn't an intruder. An Uzumaki Clan member came in."
"See? No big deal," Sakura said with a smile before it sank in just why Ino was reacting so oddly, "Wait. Naruto isn't back yet, is he?"
Ino narrowed her eyes, "If he's home, and went here first instead of telling me he was back, that's his ass," She deadpanned, "He knows that, so no."
"She's not out here. She's still in the village."
Sakura had run out of plausible options as to who could have been on the property. Even Tsunade had been a stretch, as she was related to the Uzumaki Clan by blood, but was Senju by full affiliation.
Ino and Sakura slowly and quietly made their way through the pass, keeping their eyes open and their senses tuned. The night air was deadly quiet. Speaking of sensing... as they approached the house and the mask temple, Ino realized that she couldn't sense anyone on the premises. But she had definitely been alerted to a breach.
It was wartime and everyone was on edge, even within the confines of Konoha, where the fighting was not expected to reach. Still, anything could happen and Suna could manage to put together a raid that could strike at the heart of the village. But for an incursion to start at the Uzumaki Clan grounds, or for that land to be the point of some kind of strike? It didn't make any sense.
Then again, it might not have been Suna. It could have been Akatsuki, on the hunt for Naruto. He had just gone toe-to-toe with what could have been their most powerful member not too long ago. The sleight of hand that he used to get them out of that mess wouldn't easily be forgotten or forgiven.
Still, Pain didn't seem to be the stealthy type. If he had made it into Konoha, everyone would have known about it before long, because a third of the village would probably be on fire in short order.
Whatever this was, it wasn't just an issue because it was on Naruto's land. It was a matter of village security.
The house itself was undisturbed. By this point, it was finished. It was entirely empty, but it was finished, complete with power hooked up to it. While it was good that no one was breaking in, the same couldn't be said for the mask temple. There was definitely someone inside, and that was a much bigger threat, as Sakura could attest to. The Uzumaki Clan Mask Temple boasted its share of powerful artifacts.
Inching toward the open door of the temple, Ino and Sakura peered inside to find no members of Akatsuki waiting for them. Instead, it was a girl their age with red hair and glasses. Her appearance was extremely disheveled, clothes dirty and torn, her sandals utterly worn out. It was clear that she was exhausted.
Still, as tired as she was, she sat on her knees in front of the wall displaying the various masks of the Uzumaki Clan with an expression akin to reverence. So enraptured by the sight of the masks was she, that she didn't notice Ino and Sakura get within six feet of her before finally speaking.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Ino asked, causing the girl to jump and scramble away, banging her back against the far wall.
The girl tried to regain some of the initiative, getting back up as quickly as possible. Still, there was a sway of fatigue in her posture, "W-What's it to you?"
Sakura raised an eyebrow, "Other than the fact that you snuck into our village during a war? This is my friend's place you broke into."
"This place belongs to the Uzumaki Clan," The girl argued back.
"He is from the Uzumaki Clan," Ino stated firmly, "The last time I checked, Naruto was the only one walking around that still called himself one."
The girl bit her lip in uncertainty, "...You don't understand."
That was a cop out as far as Ino was concerned, "Then explain it for me," She said, "Either we do it here, or we can take this to Torture and Intelligence, and you can explain it for me anyway."
That threat was enough to loosen lips, "Uzushiogakure was destroyed; decades ago. Anyone that survived fled wherever they could get to all over the Elemental Nations," The girl wrapped her arms around herself, "Konoha might have been on good terms with Uzu, but they were the only ones. Being an Uzumaki Clan member out in the open made you a target."
"You got a point?" Ino asked, wholly unimpressed at the attempt at a sob story.
At that, the girl seemed to lose her temper, "Just because most of us didn't keep the name doesn't mean we don't have the blood, you bimbo!" She heatedly snapped.
Sakura expected Ino to yell back, but momentarily forgot that Ino's primary job was an interrogator, meaning she knew how to keep her head in the face of an aggressive subject.
"That's great," Ino said, keeping her tone even, "But you never answered my first question. Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
The girl calmed herself with a deep breath and adjusted the glasses on her face, "My name is Karin. I used to work for Orochimaru. And I'm here because I have nowhere else to go."
That's the chapter for this time around, guys. A little bit shorter than normal, but enough points were made that I felt like writing more would have just been dragging things out for word count. Seeing as how I'm not writing an essay for school; I figured doing so would be a moot point.
Anywho, war is underway. Training is just about complete, and the pieces are moving about. Why can't we all just get along? It's like Jackie Moon once said – E.L.E. You know what that means, ladies and gentlemen? It means Everybody Love Everybody.
It worked for the Flint Tropics, and it can work for you too.
I hope you all enjoyed. Until the next time.