Yes, I live. I'm sorry that it took so fucking long to update, but I've had a really busy life in college up till now. Switching majors really tends to fuck up your priorities. Anyway, here's the next chapter. Read and Review!

Chapter Twenty

Tsunade stared at her distant relative from across her desk, while Shizune stood behind her with a mental evaluation form on a clipboard. "You want to explain your tantrum on the training grounds to me, gaki?"

"No," Naruto growled.

"Well tough shit. You're going to explain it, or I take you off the duty roster. What the hell got your panties in a wad? No wait, don't tell me, snake eyes. Am I right?" Taking the downward shift of his eyes as an affirmative, the hokage plowed on. "Naruto, I don't know what is going through that thick skull of yours, but you need to get over it. Orochimaru did what he did for his own reasons. They don't apply to you, and they never will. The village accepts you like they never accepted him. Don't shitcan it by throwing a fit and almost killing the Hyuuga heiress because you're too teary-eyed to fucking AIM!"

Naruto hissed. "The only reason those bastard villagers out there accept me is because I'm willing to do whatever it takes to protect their sorry asses. The snake-teme was doing the same thing! What about-"

The jolt from the slap couldn't have been harder if Tsunade had put chakra into it. "Don't you EVER compare yourself to him!" she snapped. "You're better that he'll ever be. Your father had the same attitude, but he never sank that low. If you think you need to take a header off the slippery slope, then the Yondaime is probably rolling in his grave!"

Naruto's eyes flew open in shock. "What? My dad is the Yondaime?"

The senju's tirade screeched to a halt. "Sensei and the pervert never told you?" When she was answered by a vacant stare and a soundless mouthing of "yondaime," she gritted her teeth. "When Jiraiya gets back here, I'm going to kill him…"

*break*

A silver-haired man picked himself up from the wreckage of a tree before popping his right shoulder back into place. "STOP USING ME AS A FUCKING SHIELD! THAT FUCKING HURTS!"

"I thought you enjoyed pain," his companion replied as he used a wind jutsu to blow away several large and explosive bubbles.

From his side of the impromptu battleground, Utakata observed with incredulity how the silver-head took what should have been a fatal hit from his bubble bomb and simply shrugged it off. Before that though, he had been aiming that the man with black threads around his mouth. That guy had simply grabbed his ally and used him as a meat shield.

"I only like it when my enemies share the pain! That's Jashin-sama's blessing!"

The other man extended his arm far more than any person should, and grabbed his partner's neck. "Oh shut up," he breathed before whipping the silver-head at the bubble-master jinchuuriki.

The former Kiri shinobi barely managed to duck under the airborne immortal's scythe before firing off another wall of bubbles at Stitch-Face to keep him away. Then he turned his attention evading the next overhand slash from behind before slapping away the man with a water whip.

"Hold still, damnit!"

"Having trouble getting blood for the blood god?"

"SHUT THE FUCK UP KAKUZU!"

Utakata grimaced. From the looks of it, the guy with the scythe would just soak up his damage until he ran out of chakra. Stitch-face seemed to be the heavy artillery, given how he had previously been slinging out ranged techniques like no tomorrow. Even if I call on my bijuu, I can't win here. I'd need to take out the threaded freak first, but I don't have anything fast enough to catch him, and I can't get close to him while this guy is in my face.

Kakuzu lazily took his time clearing out the floating mines in front of him. "You can fight all you want, jinchuuriki. Hidan can take whatever you throw at him. Sooner or later, you'll lose."

The former Kiri shinobi opted not to answer verbally, launching an acidic barrage at him before using a Teppodama to send Hidan sailing into the lake. Kakuzu sighed as his rock armor absorbed the acid before sloughing off harmlessly. Kids these days, no respect for their elders…

*break*

"This is a very bad idea!" a tanned shinobi with a sucker in his mouth complained. "What if Kiri is watching us right now and they come to sink us? Or if Konoha catches us when we land?"
"Shut up Omoi! Now is not the time for your paranoid fantasies!" a redhead yelled at him.

Samui put her face in her hand as her two more immature teammates bickered. Even my hot-headed brother knows when to keep his mouth shut on a mission.

Omoi did have a good point however. The idea was to bring a force to the back lines of Konoha and create a staging area to cut off the Leaf from Mist reinforcements. The only problem was the fact that they were deep inside Kiri territory, and on water to boot. It would be only too easy for a Kiri jonin to wipe out the entire task force with a single Daibakufu. But at least the Raikage had recognized how high risk the mission was, and sent a small force so as not to lose too many men. And our chances of getting through this alive would be much greater if those two could shut the hell up. In this, she was somewhat thankful for the rapidly rising fog. Their voices wouldn't carry as far, and it would be more difficult to be seen on the water.

Her gratitude for the weather conditions abruptly vanished when she sensed chakra in the air. Then the prows of their ships started grinding to a halt, literally grinding into the ice that formed ahead. Finally, as if it weren't enough, she started to hear screaming from the other two ships.

She whirled around and moved closer to her now alerted teammates, knowing that the simplest countermeasure to the style of Kiri's assassins was to stick together. Unfortunately, that strategy only tended to serve up large groups of dead people where shinobi of Zabuza's caliber were concerned.

"Just like old times eh, Ao?" the swordsman asked as he and his two teammates walked out of the mist toward the Kumo shinobi, blood flowing down his blade.

"I wouldn't put it quite that way. You're softer than you used to be."

Omoi and Karui's eyes bugged out while Samui glared at two of the most proficient Kiri assassins alive and Zabuza's little helper, and with others to back them up if the continued screaming was any indication. Well, it was a gamble. I can't say I'm surprised it failed.

"Since you've obviously won this, will you allow us to surrender and avoid more death?"

The Demon of the Mist scratched at his chin. "Hmm, let me think about it…no."

The Kumo shinobi leapt back as a hail of ice needles stabbed into the deck where they'd been, and then Omoi used both hands on his own sword to block the diagonal shoulder slice from the massive zanbatou. Karui attempted to flank, but the swordsman casually fired a Teppodama into her chest and blew her up against the wall. Samui wanted to help, but knew she could not afford to take her eyes off the older hunter-nin in front. Strangely though, he seemed content to just watch his comrade fight a two-on-one battle.

"You're not helping your partner," she stated.
"Of course not," Ao replied. "He's stronger than me, and all I need to do is stand here in order to keep you from interfering. Besides, killing you guys is not my mission here."
Saumi raised an eyebrow. "The Ghost of Kiri isn't here for killing?"
"Orders from the Mizukage are to incapacitate you all and send you back to the Raikage. The idea" he turned to regard her directly. "is that your leader might stop thinking with his dick when he wonders why we left your people alive instead of sinking all of you. Then he might send out an envoy, proving that he's calm enough to listen to other people."
"You seem to know just how to manipulate him," she commented, internally wincing as Zabuza flew between the two, using Omoi's body as a surfboard on the soaked wooden deck.
"I wouldn't be much of an assassin if I didn't study my potential targets."

*break*

After the scene in Tsunade's office, Danzo felt he needed to do something to correct Naruto's mindset. He decided to do so by meeting with the boy in the graveyard, in front of Minato's grave marker.

Naruto gave no indication that he noticed the village elder, even as the man stopped beside him. For the longest time, they stood there, and then the boy looked over to catch a slightly wistful expression on the one-eyed man's face.

"Your father was a great man," Danzo commented. "More than anyone else, he understood the sacrifices required of himself to be hokage. It was his genius and his nature that led him to be a candidate for when the Sandaime chose a successor. The other candidate was Orochimaru."
Naruto's eyes flashed crimson for a moment, and a noiseless snarl crossed his lips. Danzo pretended not to notice.

"They were very much alike: both self-sacrificing, both willing to shoulder burdens and risks far beyond themselves, both only desiring the best for the village. But only one of them could become hokage."
"And how could that snake bastard ever be considered for the old man's seat?!"

Danzo looked at him. "Orochimaru had the best of intentions, Naruto. His work before he was rejected from the village is partly what has allowed Konoha to maintain an edge over the other villages to this day. His downfall and descent is partly my responsibility. It was I who encouraged him to delve into questionable subjects and methods."

Naruto's response was in no way unexpected. In a flash, a red shroud of chakra enveloped his frame as he unsheathed his knife and lashed out. "YOU!" Danzo easily evaded, subtly signaling to his guards to hold off as he made ready to defend himself. "BECAUSE OF YOU THE OLD MAN IS DEAD!"

Danzo allowed himself to be driven back by Naruto's rampage, casually sidestepping or dodging as the boy attacked furiously. Sooner or later, his rampage would end. He was proven right when Naruto stopped, leaning against one of the grave markers while panting and glaring at him.

"It is not solely my fault that Sarutobi was killed, but I do bear a great deal of the blame. It was my manipulations that ultimately led to it. Had I known what would happen…" he grimaced.

"Fat lot of good that does now!" Naruto snarled.

The elder's gaze hardened. "The past is written in stone. What is done is done. If I had the opportunity to go back and correct my mistake, I would do everything I could to ensure that the Sandaime lived and that Orochimaru never went astray. But that is beyond me. The only thing that I can do now is accept the consequences, and move on."

"I'll never forgive you for what you've done," Naruto hissed as he sheathed his knife.

"I neither require your forgiveness, nor expect it. I only require that you do what you can to ensure the survival of the village."

Unable to formulate a response to the logic behind the blunt statement, Naruto could only seethe as the object of his hatred, the man behind the snake, turned and vanished. At the same time, Jiraiya stepped out from behind a grave marker, a suspicious frown momentarily on his face before he moved to put a restraining hand on Naruto's shoulder.

"Come on, gaki. Get ahold of yourself. Forget about Oro-teme and let's get some ramen."

*break*

Inoichi, Kakashi, and Tsunade leaned back from the crystal ball, and the hokage pinned the yamanaka with an inquiring stare. "Well?"

The man ran a hand through his hair. "The villagers really fucked him up, I'd say."

"Elaborate."

He sighed. "In the first place, he was unconsciously sensitive to their emotions, and internalized them over the years. No one really helped him to try and let go of that hatred. We were too busy training him to get control over his abilities, and giving him a reason not to go nuts."

"I thought that we were helping him with that," Kakashi commented. "Damn sure he smiled and acted like a normal kid more when we were training him."

Inoichi shook his head. "He buried his hatred. He focused on us, but still kept his hatred. There's a difference between burying your emotions and letting go of them. You of all people should know that."

Kakashi's eye narrowed, but Tsunade cut him off before he could speak.

"Focus on the issue, not your personal histories. Naruto holding on to his hatred of the villagers is not the root of the problem here."

The male blond nodded. "Like nearly everyone out there, Naruto has a need to feel accepted. Since he couldn't win over the village with his personality or history, he tried to do it with actions. He's putting the village first, trying to go with the best impersonal decision even if he doesn't like it at all. Case in point: Sasuke Uchiha's undercover assignment."

"Not entirely," the cyclops countered. "He fought harder than necessary to maintain Sasuke's cover story. He tried everything in order to stop him from going on such a high risk mission despite Sasuke agreeing to it and the potential gains."

"Yes, and that brings me to another aspect of Naruto's personality. You mentioned before that he hates losing people close to him. Sasuke Uchiha qualifies as someone close. Hinata Hyuuga, the Sandaime, Iruka Umino, all of them close. And Naruto responded very violently against Neji, and according to the last mission report deliberately provoked Orochimaru. He took his hatred of the villagers and transferred it to Orochimaru. And therein lies the problem."

"What do you mean?" Kakashi asked. Tsunade remained quiet with a grim look on her face, behind her clasped hands.

"Naruto has based himself on earning accepted from his actions. He put the village first in nearly every way. Now however, he found out that Orochimaru had done the same. The same person that he hates so much for killing a close father figure was very much like him a long time ago. He recognizes that similarity, and he's very uncomfortable with it. Think about it. How comfortable would you be to see yourself in the murderer of a close family member or friend?"

An awkward silence greeted the question. Kakashi knew that feeling very well, having committed many revenge kills for his subordinates during his time as an ANBU Captain. Tsunade had felt many of her patients experiencing that same feeling after approaching enemy territory during the last war, and seeing things very reminiscent of their own homes and families, rather the monstrosities that the enemy had been made out to be.

"So that's Naruto in a nutshell right now. He hates Orochimaru, but he also sees himself in the man. He wants to be accepted, but he's also afraid of becoming like someone he hates, especially because of their similar beginnings. And what he needs right now is the knowledge that at least someone out there will accept him for what he is, no matter what he does," the mind walker finished. He locked eyes with Tsunade. "But you didn't need me to tell you that. You just wanted a second opinion."

The barest of smirks crossed her lips. "I did. And now that you've confirmed my observations, I know just how to get that gaki's head on straight. There's one person who's perfect for the job."

Kakashi hung his head. "Oh hell no. With all due respect, she doesn't have the confidence for it, Tsunade-sama."

The blond woman shook her head. "You'd be surprised, Kakashi."

*break*

Onoki slapped both hands on his forehead after reading the report of the unexpected engagement in Takigakure. What in the hell happened? Taki had given him their word of neutrality, but his forces had been attacked first. And yet somewhere else on his desk was a letter of protest insisting that Iwa forces had thrown the first kunai. The proof cited lay in the involvement of a certain Deidara, the mad bomber. Which was bullshit!

Deidara had been one of his brightest students, and then he'd had to go rogue and steal that kinjutsu. He was in no way a member of their forces. And as of the last intelligence, he was supposed to be working as a free agent for hire while perfecting his "art."

But what was he doing in Taki? Certainly Iwa wasn't paying for his services, and Taki wouldn't have sent that letter bitching him out for the damage caused by his signature clay bombs if they had been footing his bill. Was there a third party?

He flailed through the stacks of paper on his desk and found that letter again. We strongly protest the unprovoked attack by Iwagakure upon our observing forces. You leave us no choice but to yadda yadda yadda. Do not deny your involvement. We have remnants of Deidara's clay bombs from numerous craters within the Great Tree. Coincident with your attack, the Nanabi has disappear-what?! He pulled the letter closer to his face. Nanabi has disappeared. We consider this attack and the sightings of Deidara near the disappearance areas of other bijuu proof that Iwagakure is behind the kidnappings of the jinchuuriki.

He leaned back. How could he have missed that in the letter? The jinchuuriki for the Nanabi, Fu, now gone. Their own jinchuuriki, Han and Roshi, missing and presumed dead since his forces were unable to locate them. Someone out there is hunting down the bijuu. And Deidara is working for them. He pondered the possibilities. Konoha certainly wouldn't be doing this. They would never attack a historical ally like Taki. Kiri, perhaps? No. They were strong isolationists, rivaling Amegakure in that respect. Suna? Well there were rumbles of an attack on their village, but nothing about their jinchuuriki. Damn, no answers there.

But Deidara is a missing-nin. Some group out there hired him out, and he was an S-rank threat. That took some serious money. And if they could hire him out, they could certainly hire out another S-rank missing-nin. What notable ones were out there? Kisame Hoshigaki, Itachi Uchiha, Orochimaru, Sasori-

He bolted upright. Akasuna no Sasori, the puppetmaster, and behind Jiraiya of the Sannin as a spymaster. He was semi-infamous for his ability to produce sleeper agents. His duplicity was known to be just shy of Orochimaru. What if he was behind the invading shinobi that entered Iwa and Kumo? No wait, not all of them could be his. Some of those shinobi had turned into trees after being discovered. That suggested someone of Konoha. And while the village itself wouldn't sink that low, the Shinobi no Yami himself, Danzo Shimura, certainly would be willing to.

Then again, something like this was hardly subtle. It didn't bear the hallmarks of his past handiwork. Perhaps someone was framing Konoha, by using something that strongly resembled Mokuton. Sasori's work however would be easy to determine. But in his place, someone would have had to pay him a hell of a lot to undertake this kind of mission. The number of sleeper agents essentially thrown away in this mission would have a huge amount of time and resources to be compensated for.

And who would have that kind of money? Only a country would be able to properly compensate for someone like that. Could it be Suna? Suna seemed to be the one nation untouched since their disastrous alliance with Orochimaru. No one had tried for their jinchuuriki as far as he knew. What if Sasori never went rogue? What if it was a deep cover and he was serving Suna? What if Kaze no Kuni was stabbing their allies in the back and orchestrating this war?

Onoki cut off that train of thought. Too complicated. What would Suna have to gain from this kind of endeavor? Nothing that he could foresee. No rational person could possibily look on this sort of plan as viable for any objective. But then again, he reminded himself, no one is ever completely rational.

*break*

In case it isn't already obvious, my version of Danzo is less narcissistic and more focused on the welfare of the village. This means no backstabbing the village when I finally get to the part where Nagato invades.

Also, for those who've bitched about my Naruto being another Jesus-Naruto, this chapter showcases just how messed up he still is. And it also lays the ground for a more believable Naruto-Hinata romance.

And as I said before, Suna keeping the rescue mission of Gaara under wraps will have some consequences. Funny how Onoki is fairly accurate in his analysis of the situation, and yet arrives at a completely different conclusion from the truth.

Who is backing Akatsuki? Amegakure, a village.
Is someone framing Konoha? Yes, Madara Uchiha, or as we now know, Obito.

Interesting, isn't it?

Edit: There was a little inconsistency that was brought to my attention in Chapter 17. Kudos to tavin93 for pointing it out.