-July 23rd, 347 NE-

-2:15 PM-

-Hokage's Office-

The Hokage swallowed thickly before he replied, his voice hoarse. "You're bluffing. You have no proof that will happen."

Kuushou smirked condescendingly. "True, I can't prove that destroying this body will cause destruction of that magnitude without actually doing so. However, if you'll recall the Death God's words, he specifically said 'banished once again'. Why would he say that if I had never been banished before?"

The Hokage stared at Kuushou for several seconds before he slumped back in his chair. The explosive seals slowly faded from view, though the privacy seals and other seals protecting the office from infiltration or eavesdropping remained active.

Kuushou nodded in satisfaction; the Hokage's gamble had failed while his had succeeded. Kuushou himself wasn't entirely certain what would happen if some external force destroyed his body, but he suspected that it would not, in fact, result in such devastation. With Ino still inside Konoha he also had no intention of destroying the seal himself, but the Hokage certainly didn't need to know that. It was debatable whether anyone else in the village would stay his hand, but it was a moot point at the moment.

Silence reigned for nearly a minute as Kuushou watched the Hokage. The old man's face was hidden from view by his hat, but his overall demeanor spoke of defeat. Kuushou was actually rather surprised when the Hokage finally looked up, as his eyes were still sharp. It seemed he had not entirely broken the Hokage's spirit after all.

"I am still not convinced that you are not a threat to this village," the Hokage said finally, his voice firm.

Kuushou stifled his irritation, instead nodding respectfully at the old man as if he had made a good point. Of course he was a threat, but a combative attitude would probably not help at this point. "What would it take to convince you then?"

"I need more information," the Hokage replied immediately, his voice sharp. "I need to know what you are and what you want. Once I have those answers then perhaps we can come to some sort of understanding."

Kuushou snorted slightly at his choice of words, but nodded in agreement. "Ask away then."

"Why were you approaching this village twelve years ago?"

"Honestly, I can't say I was 'approaching the village,' as I didn't even know it was there. Even if I had known, I would not have cared. There was no sign of my brethren in the area and so no reason for me to remain. I had far more important things to do than bother with an insignificant human settlement."

That he would have been perfectly willing to blast his way through the village should he have decided it was necessary or expedient he left unsaid; that particular insight wouldn't steer the conversation the way he wanted it to go. The Hokage seemed particularly weak to guilt, so guilt he would get.

"Why did you kill all those ninja then?" the Hokage asked, his voice biting.

"Because they attacked me." Seeing the Hokage flinch, Kuushou smirked and nodded. "Yes, that's right; if you had simply left me alone, none of those ninja would have died, including the Fourth Hokage and his son."

The Hokage looked away, his expression pained, before his eyes snapped back to Kuushou. "You know?"

"Of course I know," Kuushou replied, "I was aware of everything that happened to this body. I know who Naruto's parents are and I'm also aware of that confrontation you had with this body's mother. And still you dare to claim that didn't seal me for my power. You stole her son because you were unwilling to let go of your newfound jinchuuriki. Among my kind such an act would be considered... sacrilege. Yes, that is the closest word; a crime of the highest order."

Guilt warred with anger on the Hokage's face before he regained control of his emotions. "When did you kill Naruto?" he asked rather than responding to Kuushou's latest accusation.

Kuushou just laughed. "Oh, I never harmed him at all. You can think the Fourth for that one."

"Minato would never kill his own son!" the Hokage shouted, slamming his hand on his desk. "You killed him and took over somehow after the sealing."

Kuushou just shook his head. "I'm sure it makes you feel better to think so, but you already know exactly what killed him, and when. 'All within Death's domain and the boundary shall be taken in payment'," he quoted, repeating the words the Death God had spoken that day. "You merely assumed Naruto was excluded from that because he was still alive after the sealing. He was not. Every moment after the sealing has been me, and only me."

Seeing the horror etched on the Hokage's face, Kuushou couldn't resist adding one more jibe. "Face it, old man. The only time I ever harmed anyone or anything related to this village was in response to something Konoha started. You literally have no one to blame but yourselves."

That seemed to have broken his spirit at last, judging by the haunted look in the old man's eyes. Which meant now was the perfect time to start getting something useful out of this conversation... other than the satisfaction he took from mocking one of his chief captors. He knew that Sarutobi wasn't directly to blame, but then the old man had just threatened to destroy everything he had spent the last twelve years working for; a little payback seemed appropriate.

"However...," Kuushou said slowly, pulling the Hokage's attention away from his self-recrimination, "that isn't to say I view Konoha as my enemy."

You aren't worthy of such a distinction.

"Even if you didn't know it was me, you have been... kind over the years."

Access to your knowledge has been very useful.

"Having seen what my younger brother went through, it's also clear that my situation could have been far, far worse. Although if anyone had tried that with me personally, they would have come to regret it very quickly."

Get any ideas of changing my seal and I will destroy you.

Kuushou plastered a pleasant smile on his face as he stared at the Hokage. It didn't matter whether the old man took his words at face value or not. Either message would suit his purposes.

The Hokage mustered up enough energy to look confused. "Younger brother?"

"Yes, the one you know as the one-tailed beast. Currently bound within Gaara, though under much improved conditions. He seems to have come through the experience mostly intact, thankfully."

Sarutobi stared at him for a long moment. "What are the tailed beasts?" he asked finally.

"Well, first of all, we are not 'tailed beasts'. We are properly known as Bijuu, and we are something rather unique. You already think of us as immortal beings of immense power, but we are also intelligent. We have lived many, many years, after all, so it should be no surprise that we've learned a few tricks here and there. If we were truly bent on destroying the world, we would have had plenty of time to do so."

The Hokage seemed to be recovering from his earlier depression and responded quickly. "The tailed beasts – or Bijuu, rather – only appeared a little over a hundred years ago, and immediately began causing destruction wherever they went."

"Wrong," Kuushou replied flatly, an annoyed expression on his face.

The Hokage frowned at his response. "That is the earliest recorded sighting of a ta- Bijuu. No one has ever reported any peaceful contact of any kind."

"And wrong again. We have walked this world for hundreds of years. I won't claim we never killed anyone at all, but we did not view humanity as an enemy or even a potential threat. If anything, you... amused us."

"We amused you?" the Hokage asked angrily.

Kuushou shrugged. "As I said, we have lived a very long time, and you humans were something new and different. With so many of you doing so many different things, there was always something interesting to witness."

"When did you first enter the human realm? And why is knowledge of the different realms forbidden?"

Kuushou began to respond, then blinked. With a grin slowly spreading across his face, he replied, "Oh, 'forbidden' is it? Someone's been letting things slip."

"Why is it forbidden?" the Hokage asked again. "Why is it so important that we don't know about it?"

"Well, it rather depends on your perspective, I suppose. Such knowledge is not forbidden to me or my brethren; we may travel as we wish and share it with anyone we care to. For the ones you know as summons, however, the situation is very different. To put it in terms you would be familiar with... they started a war in someone else's country, lost, and had to pay reparations."

The Hokage thought for a few moments, attempting to translate that vague statement. "What 'country' did they start a war in?"

"The human realm," Kuushou replied, grinning.

"They attacked the human realm?" the Hokage asked, shocked and disbelieving.

Kuushou shook his head. "No, they've always had rather friendly relations with humans, actually. They attacked us, but they made the mistake of doing it here."

"... I don't understand," the Hokage finally admitted. "Why would it matter if they fought you here or elsewhere?"

"Well, since you know enough to be asking these questions in the first place, I suppose I should fill you in the rest of it. It'll be an interesting experience, lecturing the 'Professor'." With a small smirk at the slightly irritated look on Sarutobi's face, he began.

"Reality as you know it is divided into four realms: the human realm, this one; the outer realm, where the so-called Summon Tribes live; the demon realm, where myself and my brethren originate; and the divine realm, where the one you refer to as Kami resides. There's rather more to it, of course, but that will suffice to give you the basic idea."

The Hokage's jaw dropped open. "Kami exists?" he asked, stunned.

Kuushou just raised an eyebrow. "You know of the Death God but didn't think Kami existed? That's rather... ironic, since they are for all intents and purposes the same being."

The Hokage's jaw sagged even further before he closed it with an audible snap. Collecting himself, he cleared his throat and said, "That's just... rather surprising. We have proof of the Death God, but no one has ever summoned or even claimed to have communicated with Kami in a meaningful fashion."

"Well, they wouldn't, would they? Kami only manifests in the realm as the Death God."


Kuushou shrugged. "I couldn't tell you the reasoning, only that everything Kami does has a law behind it. Which leads us back to my little lesson.

"The Summon Tribes had been visiting the human realm for many years before we showed up, and they didn't like our intrusion. This was not our first encounter with the summons, of course; they have always showed a tendency to explore and had actually entered the demon realm several times in the past. Their incursions have always been met with fierce resistance and resulted in what you would call a war. Of course, to demon-kind war has very different connotations, since it's so much harder to kill us."

"You said you were immortal," the Hokage interrupted.

"The Bijuu are immortal; other demons are just very hard to kill. Even in the worst wars it's actually very rare for a demon to permanently die. Instead they merely lose some of their power or energy, or in extreme cases lose cohesion entirely for a long period of time. They will eventually recover, however.

"At any rate, our relationship with the outer realm was set by that first encounter, and they have always met us with hostility thereafter. This was the first time we had met in the human realm and they reacted as they always did, by attacking us. And, as they always did, they lost. Our battle did considerable damage to the human realm, however, and that's where Kami got involved.

"You see, Kami also views the human realm as under his protection, and unlike the summons Kami has the power to enforce his rule. Apparently one of his laws is that the human realm is to be considered neutral ground; any damage caused by battles that were not instigated by the natives will be punished."

Sarutobi's eyes widened. "Then you-"

"Yes, I would not have started anything. Unfortunately for you," he said, patting his stomach where the seal was located, "this most certainly counts as instigation."

"Then why would the Death God seal you away if you were not at fault," the Hokage pointed out, thinking he had found a flaw in the Bijuu's story.

"That is an entirely separate law," Kuushou replied easily. "You'll notice that he said quite clearly that demon-kind do not fall under his domain. Without studying the jutsu used to summon the Death God, however, I could not tell you what that law is, merely what it does. My best guess is that it is some form of exchange; the lives of everyone and everything in the area to seal the target.

"Getting back to the matter at hand, since the summons started the war, they were held accountable for the damage. As part of their reparations, they had to give up their right to travel the realms."

The Hokage nodded thoughtfully, reconciling what the Bijuu had told him with what Jiraiya had gathered from the Toads and his own discussions with Enma and coming up short; there were some definite gaps in the story. "How are the Summon Tribes able to travel the realms now?"

"Strictly speaking, they don't. When you summon one of them, you actually get what amounts to a very powerful and durable clone; the real summon is still in the outer realm."

"I see, that would explain why they never retain their wounds... except for when Gamabunta fought you. How does that work?"

Kuushou smirked, holding up his hand and letting a small bit of his youki curl off of it. The red energy streamed into the air and waved slowly about, causing the Hokage to tense slightly. Kuushou noted that none of the seal in the room flared in warning or reacted to his youki in any discernible fashion. "That... is something you don't need to know," he said finally, still smirking.

He was of course leaving out a great deal of information, information that would either present the Bijuu in a more menacing light or that could possibly be used against demon-kind in the future. His youki, as with that of his brethren, was actually incredibly dangerous to the Outlings, which is part of the reason they reacted so negatively to the Bijuu's presence in the human realm. Damage inflicted by the Bijuu went far beyond the physical where Outlings were concerned, and his own youki was worse still. Gamabunta was lucky the residual youki in his wounds had been pulled into the seal along with the rest of his energy, or the Outling would not have survived the hour.

"How do you know what happens when we summon one of them?"

"The contract spells it out rather clearly," Kuushou replied offhandedly.

The Hokage blinked slowly before asking, "You can read the contract? What language is it?"

Kuushou shook his head. "Let's save that topic for another time, shall we?" Jiraiya's summation of the terms of the contract had been quite accurate, actually, if lacking in the particulars. Allowing the Hokage to think there was more information to be gained than there actually was would strengthen his position for later talks.

The Hokage frowned, but didn't press the issue. "Why were the Summon Tribes on the verge of extinction?" he asked next.

Kuushou shrugged again. "They lost badly," he answered. And the Bijuu may have traveled to the Outer Realm and may have laid waste to great swaths of it in retaliation for their attacks in the human realm. Another bit of knowledge Sarutobi didn't need to know just yet, if ever. Kuushou chuckled slightly, remembering his personal visit to the lands of the Dragon Tribe. That tribe had been particularly aggressive in their attacks in the demon realm and he had taken great pleasure in wiping them out permanently. That they were also the ones who had killed Ryuudo – or so it had appeared at the time – may have also had something to do with it.

Yes, he had enjoyed that very much indeed.

"If the Summons are so outmatched, why would they continue to attack you?"

Kuushou shrugged again. "Why does Kiba insist that he can beat me every time we fight? Why do the minor villages insist on competing with Konoha? They just can't admit that they have no chance, and so continue to throw themselves into battle again and again."

The Hokage knew the the Bijuu wasn't telling him everything, but he had no idea what it would be or how to pull it out of him. Frowning deeper in frustration, he moved on.

"That still doesn't explain why the Summon Tribes can't share that knowledge."

"That was my sister's idea, actually. You see, the Summon Tribes had been visiting the human realm for a long time, but no humans have ever traveled the realms, have they? Which means that the Summon Tribes never shared that knowledge before, preferring to keep it to themselves. However, they had also become rather used to dealing with humans on a frequent basis, and certain aspects of their existence had become dependent on your kind. Now that they could no longer travel freely, it seemed rather fitting that their prior secrecy come back to haunt them. And, as the 'injured party', we had the right to influence their punishment to a certain extent."

Sarutobi mulled that over. He got the feeling that the animosity between the Summon Tribes and the Bijuu went a lot deeper than he was making it seem, but there was also a certain amount of truth there. Enma himself had admitted that the Summon Tribes had been visiting the human realm for thousands of years, and yet no humans that he knew of had ever traveled the realms without the Summon Tribes' assistance. In fact, before the Toads made Jiraiya that offer, Sarutobi didn't think any human even knew there was such a thing as another realm. He had certainly not been aware of it on the few occasions he visited the home of the Monkeys.

"If the Summon Tribes are forbidden from talking about the other realms, then why could they tell us now?"

"That I do not know the answer to. As they have not triggered Kami's wrath, however, they did not violate their punishment in doing so. I myself would be most interested in finding out what loophole they have discovered. How did you find out?"

"That doesn't seem relevant to our discussion," the Hokage replied quickly.

Kuushou scowled. "If you are going to refuse to answer my questions then I don't see much purpose in answering yours."

"You are attempting to convince me you mean no harm to this village," the Hokage countered, a matching scowl forming on his own face, "something which you have yet to accomplish."

Kuushou's face settled back into a neutral expression as he eyed the Hokage. The old man was proving rather stubborn, despite the many painful revelations he had endured so far. Upon further consideration, it shouldn't be so surprising, though – the man had been Hokage for the majority of his life and he would surely have experience dealing with unpleasant topics.

"Then it would seem we are at an impasse, Hokage, as you still seem to think you can dictate the terms of this conversation. I am not some foolish child or insubordinate ninja to be reprimanded. I am older than you by millennia, and have led a village of my own for centuries."

"So you claim," the Hokage pointed out. "There is no actual proof of any of that." His expression shifted into a triumphant smirk as he stared at the Bijuu expectantly.

Kuushou's face darkened and twisted into a snarl, and he almost lashed out to destroy the old man where he sat. Almost.

Instead, his face cleared and he began chuckling, startling the Hokage.

"Oh, you're good, aren't you?" Kuushou said, his voice filled with mirth. "You've been trying to play me this whole time." The Hokage's eyes widened slightly in surprise before he mastered his expression once again, but that was all the confirmation Kuushou needed. "You've been trying to trick me into revealing something, either by shocking me with the explosive seals, playing up your defeated attitude, or pretending to dismiss everything I have said in this conversation as a fabrication."

The Hokage didn't reply, although there was a calculating gleam in his eye.

"A dangerous approach, to try my temper so, but you've already shown that you were prepared to sacrifice your own life to defend this village."

Kuushou lapsed into thoughtful silence for a moment, then nodded decisively. "Very well, I'll play along for a bit. Let's look at things from your perspective, shall we?" He stood and moved closer to the Hokage's desk as he began to pace back and forth.

"I think we can both agree that I am intelligent, or at least sentient, so I can possibly be reasoned with. At the very least I am not a mindless beast, yes?" As he spoke, he released several small streams of youki from his feet and sent them towards the Hokage, making sure that they were hidden from the old man's view. The released youki began to pool under the desk, out of sight.

The Hokage nodded carefully, betraying no emotion.

"Have I done anything in my time as Naruto to harm this village?" Kuushou asked. He kept careful watch on the seals around the room as he continued to pace back and forth, but none of them showed any signs of reacting to his youki. The Hokage seemed similarly unaware, as expected. His experiments with Ino had shown that when he twisted his youki the right way it was very difficult for humans to detect. The seals gave off enough chakra of their own to mask the few traces that remained.

The Hokage frowned before replying, "Not that I am aware of, no."

"So we have two options to explain my behavior... either I have no intention of harming this village, or I am still too weak to do so. Would you agree with that analysis?" The youki began seeping through the Hokage's sandals and into his skin. It was incredibly fortunate that he had taken the time to experiment within the Forest of Death and managed to figure out how to send his youki into other people's bodies without being detected. He would have been forced to take a far more direct approach otherwise.

The Hokage watched him warily. "There is also the possibility that you have managed to harm this village in ways that we have yet to detect, or that you are biding your time for some reason other than inability to act," he added.

"You must think very highly of my subtlety and patience, then," Kuushou said, smiling pleasantly. "I'm flattered."

The rest of the youki hidden under the desk exploded upwards, wrapping around Sarutobi's form and slamming him into the wall in the blink of an eye. The youki already present within the Hokage's body was hard at work disrupting his chakra control. Despite the sudden and swift attack Kuushou barely managed to interrupt no less than three separate techniques the Hokage had tried to perform in those first moments. He personally could only recognize two of them as the kawarimi and some variation of a clone technique. The third was a complete unknown.

The Hokage's eyes widened in shock as he felt his techniques fail. He swiftly came to the conclusion that the Bijuu was responsible for that, though for the life of him he couldn't imagine how it could be accomplished. He tried to activate the warning seals located around the office, but that chakra pulse too was disrupted.

Abandoning that approach, he paused to take stock of his situation. He quickly noted with some surprise that he did not feel any pain despite the tailed beast's chakra that was holding him against the wall. His mouth was still free, as well.

"You won't get away with this," he said, his voice filled with equal parts anger and conviction. "Even if you kill me the other ninja in the village will fight you."

"And you are still missing the point, old man," Kuushou growled. "You are completely powerless, yet still alive. If I am capable of defeating you in any fashion, do you honestly believe there is a single ninja in this entire village I couldn't take? In any other village? How many times have I been this close to you, or even closer? How many times could I have killed you before this? How many time could I have killed someone else?"

Kuushou pulled back his youki slowly and deliberately, easing the Hokage to the floor. The Hokage stared at him as he did so, his face a mixture of confusion and disbelief.

Kuushou shook his head. "You refused to believe my words, so if this doesn't convince you that I am perfectly capable of harming this village and have chosen not to, then nothing will," he said, settling back into his seat.

"So I ask again, what will it be, Hokage? Are you going to accept that you can work with me, or shall we begin a battle that will result in my banishment and the destruction of this village?"

The Hokage slowly straightened up and moved back to his desk, noting that, other than the overturned chair, no damage had been caused by the Bijuu's attack. He slowly picked up his chair and set it back on its feet before sitting down. He leaned forward, his elbows resting on the desk and his hands laced together in front of his mouth as he simply observed the Bijuu in contemplative silence.

Kuushou forced himself to wait even as he began wondering if he had pushed too far. He was playing a very dangerous game, since he was trying to convince the Hokage he had no intention of destroying Konoha without giving the Hokage enough ammunition to call his bluff. He needed to gain the upper hand in some fashion, but he was all too aware that the combined might of Konoha would eventually overwhelm his defenses. He could outlast any one ninja, or even a group of them. All of them would be able to muster more than enough firepower to penetrate his youki and destroy his human body, thus banishing him from the human realm.

"What is your name?" the Hokage asked finally, his voice neutral once again.

Kuushou relaxed slightly. "Kuushou," he replied. That the Hokage was asking this now showed that the old man was finally accepting him as an individual to converse with and understand rather than an abstract threat to be studied and negated... or so he hoped, anyway.

"Kuushou," the Hokage repeated slowly. "What do you want?"

"Long-term? I want to find and free my brethren, and prevent anyone from ever sealing us again."

The Hokage nodded slowly. Given what he now knew – assuming that Kuushou's words were at least mostly honest, anyway – that answer was to be expected. "And you do not intend to seek revenge on the people who have sealed you and your... brethren?"

"Ah, now that's an interesting question," Kuushou said, smiling slightly. "I'm sure that you mean Konoha and the other ninja villages, but that's a mistake."

The Hokage frowned thoughtfully. "What do you mean?"

"While the Hidden Villages may take credit for defeating the 'tailed beasts', you were not the ones who originally attacked us and sealed us. That particular distinction goes to a group known as Akatsuki. The Hidden Villages don't matter in the end, but Akatsuki I will wipe from existence."

The Hidden Villages would also have their price to pay, but they were a mere nuisance compared to the real threat of Akatsuki. Akatsuki was the group that had created the seals in the first place, the group that had sealed his brethren. Once he and the rest of the Bijuu were free and Akatsuki destroyed, then they would consider the fate of the Elemental Nations. And really, after how useful Konoha had proven to be, he couldn't muster much anger towards the village anymore. That Ino wouldn't like it was, of course, the deciding factor. What his brethren wanted was far more important than meaningless, if satisfying, destruction.

Suna, on the other hand, had no such protection. The only question was whether Ryuudo would handle it himself or allow his brethren to participate.

"I've never heard of this... Akatsuki," the Hokage said slowly. "If they were the ones responsible, is it not possible that they were wiped out when you destroyed your seal the first time?"

"I'm sure at least some of them were," Kuushou replied, "but I have come across information that the group survived, or has reformed and become active once more in the years since."

"What information?" the Hokage asked.

Kuushou shook his head. "I don't think we've reached the point where we can fully trust each other yet... unless you want to ask my earlier question about how the Summon Tribes were able to talk to you?"

The Hokage inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the point. "Another time, perhaps," he replied. "So, your attention is focused on this Akatsuki as the group responsible?"


"And you are willing to... forgive Konoha for attacking you?" His mouth twisted around the words as if they had a bitter taste.

Kuushou shrugged. "Honestly, my situation is not without its benefits, and knowing what I know now, I can understand why you reacted as you did, even if you were mistaken in your beliefs. I would not say that I have forgiven or forgotten, but I have no need or desire to seek further retribution from this village."

"Then I think...," the Hokage said slowly, "that we may be able to come to an understanding."

"I'm glad to hear that," Kuushou said honestly. "Our mutual destruction would have benefited no one but our enemies."

The Hokage grimaced, but nodded.

"So what now?" Kuushou asked.

"I need time to think on everything we have discussed so far. I am willing to trust you to a point, but I will verify as much as I can."

"Of course," Kuushou said, waving off the Hokage's words. "Just as I will be watching carefully to make sure you do not change your mind once I am away from the village on some mission."

The Hokage smirked. "I won't claim that the thought didn't occur to me," he admitted.

"There's something else you should keep in mind, Hokage.," Kuushou said slowly, teasingly. "You may be aware of the potential consequences of making me an enemy, but you should also consider the benefits of becoming my ally. I find that work as a ninja can be highly entertaining, and am inclined to continue as such for the foreseeable future."

The Hokage nodded slowly. "That is indeed something to consider," he admitted.

Kuushou grinned. "And don't forget that my family will need somewhere to stay in the human realm, somewhere friendly and accommodating. Other villages don't treat their jinchuuriki well at all, which makes Konoha rather appealing in contrast, wouldn't you say?"

The Hokage's eyes widened as he contemplated what Kuushou was suggesting. There were risks, quite a few of them, but the potential benefits, in terms of both power and knowledge...

Kuushou smirked when he saw the Hokage considered his words. "So, shall we meet again? Say... in a week?" he said, interrupting the Hokage's musings.

"Yes... that should be sufficient time," the Hokage muttered, shaking off his thoughts. "You do realize I'm going to have to reveal your real identity to certain people?"

Kuushou shrugged. "If you must. I certainly can't stop you. Just be very careful about who finds out... I may not seek retribution for past events, but I will not tolerate any future attacks on myself or my brethren."

"I will keep that in mind," the Hokage replied tersely. "If anyone asks, we have been discussing your inevitable promotion to chuunin and some additional duties and training that you may take on, with the potential for fast-tracking you to ANBU. I asked you to keep the exact details to yourself, but you are free to share that much. As far as ANBU are concerned, we discussed that topic in addition to some recent developments in your condition that I wanted to let you know about privately."

He deactivated the seals protecting the office before he continued.

"Make sure you think carefully on what I've said, Naruto-kun," he said for the benefit of the people outside the office. "It's an important decision and you should consult with your family and teammates before committing yourself to anything."

"I understand, Hokage-jii-san," Kuushou replied solemnly. "Thank you for this opportunity." He turned and opened the door, revealing the ANBU clustered nearby.

"Of course, Naruto-kun," the Hokage said pleasantly, smiling. If his smile was a little strained and didn't quite reach his eyes, no one noticed. "Any time."

-July 23rd, 347 NE-

-5:00 PM-

-Yamanaka Residence-

"What did the Hokage want to talk about?" Ino asked once Kuushou had returned home.

"He'd come across some new information regarding the state of the seal," Kuushou replied, giving Ino a significant look.

Ino blinked for a moment before she paled. "Is everything alright?"

"We had a... frank discussion about things. It's hard to say right now, but I think everything will work out favorably," he said.

Ino nodded shakily, the color slowly returning to her face. "That's good," she said finally. All sorts of questions were swimming through her head, but she was mindful of their surroundings. Any open discussions would have to wait until they could retreat to their training ground, since that was the only place they felt comfortable using the Mind Delve. Naruto could wake them should anyone approach, and if anyone was curious they could simply claim to be taking a break or napping.

"By the way," she said suddenly, changing the subject, "after you left, Temari mentioned the idea of taking another tour tomorrow, by which she means she wants to hang out with us. I don't think they have many friends back in Suna," Ino admitted, looking pensive.

"They probably don't, given their situation. Anyway, that sounds like a good idea. In fact, that will give me the chance to have that talk with Gaara that I wanted to have today. I'll need your help to keep his siblings occupied for as long you can while we have our chat."

"Of course," Ino replied.

A/N: Hopefully that was worth the wait.

Not everything has been resolved, but I couldn't justify having them work through their (considerable) differences in a single afternoon. That process will be slow and painful, but there is a foundation for it now.

The backstory of the Summons' current situation and their relationship with the Bijuu is still missing a couple of pieces, even with Kuushou's perspective. I have the answers in my head, but it'll be a while before they are detailed in the story. Some facets will be just interesting trivia, others will be rather important to the plot.

The last bit serves as a teaser for the next chapter, which will be posted Sunday.

Looking over my story notes, there's a surprisingly large amount of material to cover prior to the third phase in terms of plot importance not least of which is the second meeting between Sarutobi and Kuushou.

I also have some random ideas for omake (that may or may not actually be canon for this story). Things like what would happen if X found out about Kuushou first, or how would some of Kuushou's abilities play out in a less serious setting, or other misadventures in jutsu experimentation. Is that something you guys would want to read? If so, I'd probably post those in a separate story. Reading "Odd Ideas" and "What If?" by Rorschach's Blot also makes me want to start a random story idea file of my own, though I'm trying to focus on this.

As always, thanks for reading!