Chapter 19 - Extensions of the Self

The clones were fast – but Naruto was faster.

His hands whipped forward in an instant, sending a dozen kunai flying before the horde could reach him. They slashed through the air with a screech that resembled nails on a chalkboard, and two clones popped instantly as the vicious blades tore into them, unable to muster a defence, and a few others only barely avoided the projectiles.

No memories came to Naruto from the destroyed clones - only a vague sensation of confusion. Whatever was left, then, was too unlike him to integrate as any normal one would. He switched his aim, hurling a single knife as hard as he could, directly towards Muneyoshi. It whizzed by the man's ear as he leaned to the side; the blade cut straight through the trunk, and continued onwards. It was not a wasted blow, though - in the split second that his foe was distracted, Naruto's clones got in between his team and the dark-eyed versions of himself.

"Get behind me!" Naruto barked as he formed his favourite seal, and a dozen more shadow clones popped into existence around him, forming a wall that provided cover for his team. "Sasuke," he said sharply. "You've got the best eyes – protect Sakura's blind spots, and make sure you don't get ambushed. Sakura… I don't know where you got the strength from that you showed me, Kakashi must have been training you more than I expected - but use it to keep these bastards off you. Don't hold back even a little."

He turned as he reached for his hitai-ate, tightening it around his forehead, and in the same movement, conjured a dozen more clones to face off against their dark-eyed counterparts.

"If that's you, dark me – I thought we worked this out?" Naruto asked. "The waterfall of truth, you remember that? I figured we had our little face-off already? Really don't need a re-do when it would just end up like last time, right?"

The clones did not answer, staring balefully. They were definitely not his darker half, then – that vision of himself had been tragic, terribly familiar, and a part of him - as uncomfortable as that was. No, these were void, mindlessly obedient, empty. Slaves. He had never had someone take over a clone without it popping instantly, not even when he sparred with Ino, who loved to use those kinds of tactics, especially when she became a Jōnin in her own right. This was something else. Still – he could deal with this. Compared to Madara, Itachi, or the Sasuke he remembered from the end of things, this guy was an upstart, a rookie.

Kakashi knew enough about his abilities, Naruto was sure, that he would be unsurprised about anything else he could throw out, here. Sasuke suspected things already, and Sakura could not be ignorant, given her intelligence. The fallout of channelling Kurama's chakra would probably be far greater than anything he could do now. He cracked his knuckles, and a ghost of a smile appeared.

"Clone squad – you're responsible for keeping my team safe," he said, glancing over his shoulder. "Sasuke, Sakura - I am a better bet to test this guy's strength, so I think you should let me handle this one. Conserve your chakra and be ready to team up when needed." Without waiting for a response, Naruto rushed to meet the enemy clones, with more of his own popping up around him, springing into formation without even a word.

Each of them sparked a Rasengan into existence, and the wave of death exploded forward at high speed. He glanced up at the Missing-Nin with a stormy expression as he wielded two wind-enhanced Rasengan against the darkened clones, one in each hand, screeching with power. Then his clones barrelled in by the dozens, and all was chaos.

"Kill them all."

The dark-eyed copies wielded only their fists against the oncoming wall of destruction, but they were fast, very fast, evading and ducking under the whirling chakra and delivering powerful Taijutsu attacks from odd angles. Naruto flashed forward again along with his clones, another wave of Rasengans swinging to meet the enemy. It was a simple strategy – but if these clones were even a little like him, then the sheer carnage would divert their attention from other, more vulnerable targets. Meanwhile, dozens of his clones looped around, looking for a fatal blow, moving like the wind or burrowing up from below.

The forest was lit in unnatural blue light as twelve Rasengan detonated simultaneously, their grinding power utterly decimating the trees around them. Horrible tearing sounds echoed through the forest as huge trunks came crashing down from the sky, thundering to the ground with incredible force. Naruto was reminded of the Forest of Death, where a desperate Team 7 had faced off against Orochimaru. Muneyoshi, unlike that man, seemed content to watch Naruto deal with his traitorous clones from afar, uninterested in coming to fight himself. Or perhaps he was too weak to fight his own battles.

Naruto narrowed his eyes as he considered that. He knew shinobi that fought by proxy, that avoided the field entirely, sending out surrogates in their stead. Nagato did so with his Paths of Pain, and puppeteers like Kankurō, or Sasori of the Akatsuki placed mechanical contraptions in their stead. This technique was not quite the same, but perhaps Muneyoshi stayed away for the same reasons as the others did; he was supporting the technique. He was the weak point.

Naruto plunged a chakra-laced kunai into a clone's trachea and popped it after a brief gurgle. He knew the clone should have been able to avoid that attack, since it was a very predictable assault - instead it had only pulled away at the last moment, too late to matter. That could only mean one thing – these clones did not have the memory of his techniques, or even his fighting style. That was good, since it meant that the Missing-Nin was probably unaware of the extent of his techniques. He could use that.

"It's that bloodline of his, that's how he's taking them over," Naruto murmured in realization. Chakra absorption, that was all the Bingo Book had mentioned, no details. Clearly it was meant far more literally than he had anticipated. Muneyoshi subverted techniques by taking over the underlying chakra, and then turned them back on the user with a vengeance. That sounded like an incredibly dangerous and powerful bloodline, capable of countering a vast array of techniques – yet Naruto had never heard about it before.

Either this guy was one of the only ones to have the kekkei genkai, some remnant of a barely known clan – or alternatively, the bloodline had a glaring weakness, something that made it a liability more than a boon to those who used it. Given the Missing-Nin's unwillingness to fight in person, Naruto would bet all of Tsunade's gambling money that it was the latter. Muneyoshi had a weakness, and his attack on Shino had to be the key to the whole thing. What about the Aburame had been so dangerous?

Naruto considered the attack on Team 8 – Muneyoshi had taken down Hinata after Shino was already down by using her Gentle Fist style against her. He had to have manipulated her chakra to attack its own tenketsu; that's why blood had erupted from her arm, which fit with his observations here. The Missing-Nin had also hit Kurenai-sensei with a single punch and knocked her down. She was a Genjutsu specialist – had he turned her illusions inwards, perhaps? In either case, there was only one possibility.

"You absorb a technique while it is still in use, don't you?" Naruto asked slowly, mildly amazed. "That's supposed to be impossible."

Muneyoshi sneered. "What you consider impossible is no concern, Leaf-nin," he said. "The Nine-Tail host has come to find me, then – quite an honour, even if you do not measure up to your brethren. Still, you will make quite the prize for the leader."

Naruto ignored the jibe, narrowing his eyes. He forced a few dozen more clones into existence, and for once, he actually felt the chakra drain of the technique, a little. It seemed he was actually overdoing things. Though his chakra reserves were huge, they were finite, and definitely smaller than what he was used to. He had dozens of clones running around, and a large group was protecting the Genin of Team 8 as well, which diminished that considerably; on top of those, some were on the hunt for Akamaru and Kurenai-sensei across the border with Ame. Healing Shino with Kurama's chakra had not helped matters either. He was actually getting to the point where he might run out.

Crap.

He gestured forward sharply, and his clones pressed the attack on his behalf, smashing once more into the protective line of black-eyed clones, aiming for a knockout blow. Naruto turned to his team, and thankfully Sasuke and Sakura were fine, transfixed by the unfolding events. He ignored the din as he attracted their attention with a whistle. "Sasuke-"

"I remember," Sasuke yelled back, raising his fist, revealing a seal strip already on his forearm.

Naruto gave a quick nod as he readied himself for his best. Chakra poured into his muscles, reinforcing them, boosting his speed higher than they should have been able to handle. It was costly, especially as he was slowly running out of juice, but he used the boost to force himself up the bark of Muneyoshi's tree with great speed, evading the opposing clones with deft movements as he flung his hand forward with his fingers stretched out like a claw, chakra burning into existence on his fingertips. The sickles of chakra almost cut into his fingers as the concentrated wind chakra sought for something to eviscerate, but he could keep it together, if barely.

He smiled as he slashed his hand sideways in a crude imitation of the Kyūbi's claws, the invisible extensions of chakra tearing through the air with the force of a storm. Naruto had never really named this technique, since it was essentially an extension of his chakra control training, but he knew it was lethal. Kabuto, eat your heart out!

"Don't get so close, you idiot!" someone yelled, and Naruto realized only belatedly that it was one of his own clones, a loyal one. He tried to slow down; who were you going to trust, except yourself? The panicked clone in question overtook him with speed born of desperation, and slammed into him from the side just before he could reach Muneyoshi.

As Naruto caught himself from the sudden blindside, his attack went wildly off target. Muneyoshi grinned and caught the clone by its wrist, where Naruto's own would have been. Just then, Naruto's attack nicked it, and it burst into white smoke.

The world narrowed to a point.


The light faded, and something seared through his veins like fire, tearing through his heart like a spear. His arm felt strange, like it had been dunked in ice water. There was blue light – some small sphere of power, far away, shimmering.

The light was bad. He was sure of it. It felt strange, alien, like some malevolent power. For an instant, Uchiha Madara crossed his mind, and the man with the orange mask. Then they vanished, and he wondered what an Uchiha was, and why he had been thinking about it.

He was forgetting things, he realized suddenly. Important things. Crap. He was - He muttered a mantra to himself, hoping to keep steady. "I am Uzumaki Naruto, Jōnin of Konoha, ANBU veteran, Fūin... Uzumaki Naruto, ... of Konoha... He was from Konoha...

He looked down at his arm and wondered why he was looking at it, as his mind seemed to twitch in agitation. The limb looked strange to him, utterly grey and lifeless.

Dead. He stared up again at the light, and wondered. Was he dead? Was that light the afterlife, maybe? He felt that it was a bad place, though – he should not go there. Yet, what options did he have?

"Am I doomed to some hell?" He asked slowly, looking around. What was his name again? He was from Konoha, he knew, but who...? An image of a blond-haired man appeared to him momentarily, wearing a cloak with flames on the end and a kind smile. A woman appeared as well, with bright red hair. Then there was a little baby, with whisker marks on his cheek – who were they? Wait, what had he just been thinking about? Life? Had he lived?

There was nothing – only him and the light.

Well, there was no reason to wait around, he had nowhere else to go but up. He moved towards that bright blue spot, eyes wide in wonder, marvelling at what he might find on the other side. He stretched out a finger-

Wait... what were fingers, again? And eyes?

With a whimper, his consciousness vanished.


Naruto dropped to his knees in shock as his stomach revolted against the sudden barrage of images; instantly two clones landed in between him and Muneyoshi, kunai ready. Naruto shuddered as he realized he had received a memory of dying – a memory of disappearing into nothingness, directly from his clone. He had popped the clone an instant before its mind evaporated, and he had gotten what was left of it, its last horrible moments. He used the brief pause – Muneyoshi would certainly assume he had never experienced near-death before – to come to a solid conclusion.

Muneyoshi's bloodline needed physical touch to work, and his clone had figured that out before him!

He could definitely not fight this guy at close range.

"You're a freak!" Naruto accused with feigned horror, as a disturbing hypothesis made a roaring comeback. He jumped back a ways to make some room, though he stuck to the side of the tree. "I didn't even know that was possible… to actually wipe a clone's mind!"

Muneyoshi scoffed. "What use is a slave, whenit has a mind of its own? Don't patronize me, boy," he said, and his smile evaporated. "You dispel them without even a thought of their minds. Why would you ever consider their well-being? You brainwash them with your own personality, with the delusional belief that they are versions of you, rather than a vague imitation given life only by proxy." He shook his head. "It is irrelevant. If you had simply died the first time, you and the Ichibi Jinchūriki, this whole mess would never have been necessary. Instead, you struggle, and you heap punishment upon yourself."

Naruto nodded, a hypothesis confirmed, and he grit his teeth. "So you did try to kill me, huh? You controlled my clone and made it help Hidan, made it bring blood to the one who could use it. You. Tell me – did you make that seal, too, the great one imprinted into the soil? It seemed to absorb chakra, like you do." He frowned. "You are in Akatsuki, aren't you? Where are your cloak and your fancy ring? And why are you after me? Your group doesn't want me dead. Quite the opposite – don't you want what I carry within me? Tell me, what is your motivation?"

"I don't have to explain myself to a brat, much less to a Jinchūriki," Muneyoshi answered coldly, scowling. "It was your kind that made international relations so unstable that we were necessary. Those like you are a perpetual massacre waiting to be unleashed, making every negotiation a matter of fear and injustice." He shook his head. "It was through unchecked power that the destabilization began. The Jinchūriki were not the engines of equality, but the creators of war, their power too great to contain. It would be better if you died, if the Bijū were gone, and the world found peace."

"That doesn't answer my question," Naruto said after a moment. "You attacked Team 8, and apparently you brought their sensei to the Land of Rain. Kurenai – where did you take her? Did you bring her to him? To this leader of yours?"

Muneyoshi sniffed. "I don't care for your insinuations about my motives. And your little team was unlucky – I came across them by chance. I was searching for someone else, and they crossed my path. Their sensei made a suitable gift."

"Nagato is going to kill you for attempting to murder me," Naruto replied, and he smirked at the man's sudden stare.

"How do you know that name...?" He scowled. "So, I see. You have infiltrated the Village of Rain, then. I thought Konoha was more honourable these days, but it seems that even your people could not hesitate to return to these killing grounds." He shook his head. "I remember, you know. I remember Konoha's massacre in the Village of Rain, when the village burned."

Naruto blinked. "Did Nagato tell you about that? There were only a few survivors…"

"Nagato, Konan…" Muneyoshi shrugged. "I did not hearabout it, as you say. I lived it."

Naruto was not sure what to say to that, cocking his head to the side. He had never heard of survivors besides the three orphans that Jiraiya had come across. He wondered if Nagato knew this person - and whether or not killing him would have unfortunate consequences. Last time around, Jiraiya had done it - and then ended as a victim of the Paths of Pain. "I don't come to apologize for past wrongs that were done before my time," Naruto said sharply. "We came here to help another team. We already have the Genin - if you let Kurenai go, then we can end this whole mess without more bloodshed. If you want an all-out fight, I can give that to you after this is over; just leave the others out of it. We can arrange a date and a place, and I will be there. I give you my word."

Muneyoshi snorted. "So that you can conscript your ANBU? Do you think I'm mad?"

"I would come alone – I never go back on my word." Naruto said flatly, narrowing his eyes. "You don't get it, do you? I'm being charitable." He shook his head. "If you kill me here, and Nagato finds out - he will destroy you. Alternatively, if I win, and I think I will, odds are you'll die."

He glanced westwards, then. "I have clones who can reach Nagato far quicker than even you could. I'm sure his Paths will destroy them with ease, but not before he finds out about your betrayal. Give me Kurenai, and you can prepare your departure, find a way to escape the influence of the organization."

"Or what? You think a Genin has a chance against me?" The Nin scoffed. "You don't control the power of the creature you carry. I can feel it. I can sense from here that you are tiring, that your chakra's dwindling. You may be very good for your rank, but so am I." He raised a hand, and one of the possessed clones landed next to him, standing at attention. "These clones of yours, they're responsive, even for Shadow Clones. I imagined they would be an issue, but they're quite pliable." He smiled, and put a hand on its shoulder. Quite suddenly its eyes turned to blue on white, indistinguishable from the real deal. Naruto froze as the implications sunk in.

"I see that you understand," Muneyoshi continued mockingly. "Misdirection is a vital tactic for a shinobi - you thought you could tell my clones apart from your own. Think again. Before I arrived here, I changed more than a dozen of your clones into mine, and sent them on their way. Do you think your little friends will notice the difference in time, Uzumaki?"

Naruto snarled as he raised his hands, still alight with chakra. "That's a cute trick, but if you think you can treat me like an imbecile, you should be prepared to eat your words." He refused to gaze in the direction that Team 8 was hiding, knowing that his gestures could give them away. Still, he was calm enough to reason that Muneyoshi would not have easy access. The clones that guarded Team 8 were even more alert than the ones right here, and would question any newcomers, just as he would.

He had learned enough. He pushed off against the tree, falling quickly, enjoying the sensation for a split second before he landed neatly besides Sakura and Sasuke, in complete control of his movements the entire way down. He had his arms to his side before the dark-eyed clones surged forward to reach him, focusing his chakra into his attack. He gathered far more than he had ever attempted in training, for fear of the damage that could be inflicted.

"Fūton: Kaibutsu Nakigoe!"

There was no sound, at first. A ripple travelled upwards through the air, warping even the sunlight; for a moment a band of intense chakra spanned all across the sky. It crashed upwards along the trees and the pile of broken trunks and torn-up root systems and it ripped them to shreds as it passed – the shockwave kept moving, and even the echoes tore apart the bark around them as the whole mass travelled inexorably, and very quickly, towards Muneyoshi's position. Only then did the noise start – a grating, horrible sound, resembling a thousand trees cracking and breaking – which was not very far from the truth.

The wave hit with the sound of a gong - Naruto followed Muneyoshi's frenzied flight for as long as he could, before the first echoes of his blast returned to him - in a moment, he knew he would need to protect himself, or face death at his own technique. Bark was ripped from the trees, layer by layer, as they were torn apart by the pressure differential, and a great rain of twigs and broken wood filled the sky with debris and dust, obscuring his view.

In all that destruction, in a jutsu that was so ludicrous in scale that he could feel his legs wobbling - it had managed to stretch his over-sized chakra coils - he knew that the target had gotten away. Fuck.

He really needed to stop holding back.

"Fūton: Shahei Kabe!" Naruto barked, almost collapsing to his knees from the drain, and a wall of whirling air spun into existence an inch from his hand, a shield of air resembling a huge flattened Rasenshuriken, wide and only partially transparent. The whole thing was thin as a knife but broad enough to cover him as well as his two teammates from the reverberations that could shatter bones, and he propped himself up against it as best as he could. It took only a few moments for the buffeting to slow down, for the intense pressure to dissipate, and he slowly dropped his technique, breathing heavily as he nursed his shoulder, which had supported the construct. That had cost him more than a quarter of his remaining chakra – and he could not even sense the fox's.

Double crap.

"Dead Last-" Sasuke said from behind him, sounding a little shaken. "What the hell-"

He turned slightly, smiling sheepishly. "Yes, I know, I'm sort of not your usual Genin. Can we discuss it later? I'm kind of busy right now."

Sasuke sniffed, but a thin smile appeared anyway, as if Naruto's words had finally confirmed something he'd known all along. Naruto didn't doubt it, and he could not keep his grin hidden, even when he sensed something unwelcome at the edge of his perception - his attack had not been enough.

"Watch it- !" he cried, just as Muneyoshi reappeared, his hand outstretched with a long knife clutched in a bloodied fist - he looked terrible. A long gash ran down his arm, seemingly interrupted at intervals by horizontal tears, and Naruto recognized the damage. Direct exposure to his attack - the skin and the layers of flesh beneath it had only barely survived contact. Whatever technique the man had used - it was powerful, and costly. Unfortunately, so was another attempt at that jutsu. The man seemed to gather himself for a split second, then aimed his grasping hand at his enemy's shoulder - and Naruto was slow in evading the hit, still winded from his own assault.

A fireball streaked by his shoulder. Naruto almost jumped in panic before he realized who had sent it on its away; the flaming projectile gave him just enough time to avoid the Missing-Nin's attack, ending up sprawled on the ground. The billowing red-hot flames spread out across half a dozen of his clones and charred Muneyoshi's clothes before they finally petered out. Sasuke panted and rubbed his throat after the huge attack, but he grinned in satisfaction. Sakura jumped in at that moment, placing her fist squarely in the Jonin's face - and that punch was so hard that Naruto could practically feel his own jaw aching in response. Muneyoshi backed away, nursing his arm and a richly bleeding nose, before a dozen dark-eyed clones made their way in between him and Team 7.

"We can't trust my clones anymore," Naruto snapped. "Back to back!" As he turned to cover his team's flank, he prepared several kunai, quickly tying seals to the end that he had in pockets all across his jacket. He tapped Sasuke on his shoulder and quickly passed one of the knives along, filling his own with chakra as he did. "Charge and throw it when I do, and then duck. I mean it." He paused. "Sakura - ration pills - give me three."

Sakura obeyed instantly, biting her lip. "Too many - "

Naruto ignored her warning, swallowing all three at once - Kurama would handle any damage he would do to himself - and he steeled himself. He felt Sakura and Sasuke literally against his back as the enemy clones surrounded them, looking for a weaknesses. Naruto had no choice; if he could not trust his clones, then they were of no use, just as much a boon as a liability. With a single gesture, he dispersed all of his own that were still in the clearing. More than a dozen clones vanished, but six of the remainder turned on him, their eyes bleeding to black, eerie smiles appearing on their faces. Six infiltrators had snuck in without being noticed - Muneyoshi was good.

"Stay close to me. Avoid physical contact!" Naruto ordered, glad to note that his team did not even hesitate to follow his instructions - even if they might have their misgivings. Proper teamwork - that was key, here. He whirled a kunai around his finger, and then threw it in a seemingly lax manner. Sasuke did the same, and it took Naruto only an instant to lock onto the fragment of fūinjutsu bound around that kunai's handle as well. He used his free hand to make a one-handed seal, and then he released the technique, smirking.

"Kunai Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Three dozen kunai slashed through the air, spinning end over end as they whizzed at the enemy. "Duck!" Naruto yelled as he dropped to the ground, and the others followed immediately; a layer of wind burst into existence over them, and only just in time.

"Katsu."

The explosion was enormous and deafening, and for a moment it was as bright as the sun, vaporizing trees and soil alike as the shockwave moved outward and into the distance; not nearly as powerful as the one he had made before, but the explosion was powerful enough for it not to make a difference. The fireball exploded overhead, bursting outward with ferocity and tearing apart clones with ease - some attempted to make their way into the surrounding shrubbery - only for there to be no such thing a moment later. Fire licked at what remained of the surroundings, which was quickly becoming the newest clearing in the forest. In the middle of it, keeping up a thin shield of chakra, was Naruto, his hair whipping around wildly in the wind.

He heard Sakura suck in a breath behind him, and smiled victoriously as he turned slightly. That had been no ordinary exploding tag, but a heavy-duty Jōnin variety, with a little twist of his own attached; technically this seal had not been invented yet. The clearing was empty, save for the three Konoha genin - mostly because there was no more clearing. They stood on the edge of a gigantic crater, at least a few dozen meters wide, completely blanketed by a thick haze of vaporized trees and simmering fires.

"Sasuke? Sakura?"

"We're alive," the Uchiha replied, sounding a little winded, as he stood up and brushed off his soot-covered clothes "Those seals of yours are way too chakra-intensive, just so you know that. Seriously."

Naruto winced, realizing his mistake; he had made these seals with Sasuke in mind, true, but the future Sasuke was a lot more capable than the present one. He doubted the older version would even get winded from using overpowered fireballs or explosions, considering how much he spammed his favourite eye-techniques. "I guess you're right - I'll fix them up later. Now - this guy's serious business, and still not dead yet. Get ready."

The Missing-Nin, as if to confirm that assessment, stepped out of the billowing smoke with a soft tread, clapping softly. He was bleeding from dozens of small cuts, and his face was practically a single huge bruise, courtesy of one awfully strong Kunoichi. Still, he smiled, and he moved unhindered.

"Those were remarkable techniques - though I'm sure that it's not one you can repeat often, even with your ludicrous chakra reserves." Two black-eyed clones dropped in next to the man. "Did you really think that I would reveal my technique's ability to replicate your appearance, only to have you destroy them all moments later?" He shook his head. "I'm afraid that many are already tracking down the captives I lost. By the time you reach them, they'll be dead."

Naruto gritted his teeth, raising his hand. "If that is how you want to play it, so be it. Release them – or I'll-"

"Or what?" Muneyoshi snapped.

Naruto thought back to Hidan, taunting his clones and almost butchering his real self - and killing the medical-nin that has sacrificed his life to save him. He gritted his teeth. "Release them, or I'll cut your head off, like I did to yourchatty friend," he spat, and he heard Sasuke and Sakura start at his vehemence. He was silent for a long moment. "You killed a good man - I know you did. Without you, Hidan could never have gotten access to my blood; you took over my clone, and caused all of that to happen." He narrowed his eyes. "I blame myself, but you were just as responsible. Hidan's out of the picture. Now it's your turn."

Muneyoshi snorted derisively, his wounded arm still bleeding slightly - but it was no disabling wound. He could still go on - but Naruto could already feel his chakra returning, at least a little. He still had at least five times as much as he probably ought to have. He could go on for a little while still. He snarled, and any mercy he was willing to give to a survivor of the Rain massacre vanished as two spheres of screeching energy burst alight in his palms.

"Fūton: Rasenrengan!"


"We must have crossed the border a while ago, I reckon," one of Naruto's clones muttered as he glanced aside at its eight brethren who were travelling along a small stream, one of many that gushed forth from Amegakure. "It's not raining yet, but I'm not sure how far Nagato's reach is, so it could be that he's already aware of us."

"Let's not assume he's ignorant, at least. I mean, he's Nagato. I'm pretty sure that he's the only person who could have gone toe-to-toe with freaking Madara, if he was at full power. That Rinnegan is ridiculous," a second clone responded. "Still, the Boss clearly intended us to go all the way into Ame, or he wouldn't have sent us in the first place... Kurenai-sensei has to be in here somewhere, and if we can get her out, then we can still succeed in the mission. That's the only thing we should be worrying about. If that means dealing with Nagato early, then that's what we'll have to do. It's not like he can do anything terribly permanent to us." He shrugged.

The first nodded. "Fan out, and keep an eye out for any uninvited guests," he ordered, gesturing to his sides. "Kurenai was probably taken into the village itself, and we all know that we're not going to out-sneak Pervy Sage, not when Nagato's still got his superior sensory jutsu active. He will find us the moment we step into the rain, and he won't wait long to dispatch some of his puppet-bodies. We don't have much of a choice."

"Those Paths will pop us on the spot," a third murmured dejectedly.

"Perhaps. If so, then we know that much about Nagato's state of mind," the first agreed. "I doubt he will, though, considering his actions in the past. Information is far more important to him than knocking out chakra constructs, and we have enough to share with him, should it come to that. Perhaps we can have him hear us out if we don't even try to be sneaky. Who knows?"

The second clone sighed. "Man, I really don't want to be here."

"None of us do, but getting into this mess will have to be the price for getting Kurenai-sensei back. It was our own mistakes that led to her capture in the first place, it's our duty," the first argued. "I will take first duty - if he pops me, then I expect one of you to continue the conversation. Either way, try to avoid the Path that can absorb chakra - I'm not sure if the memories would reach the boss if we got caught by that one. Above all, boss needs information."

The Land of Rain was quite small compared to the Land of Fire, and its Hidden Village was surprisingly easy to reach, so the real Naruto had been here often enough in his old life to get a pretty good idea of where everything was. The rain clouds high above were rumbling ominously, and Naruto knew that within the walls of the hidden village, Nagato manipulated the weather to give him constant rainfall. Each drop was saturated with a little chakra – enough for him to get a bead on any intruders, and he had six bodies, ready to deploy at a moment's notice. It was a nightmare for anyone trying to sneak in, which Jiraiya had found out in the worst of circumstances. This was where he had died, the first time around. That would not happen again.

The cursed rain started to fall barely ten minutes later, and the first clone, who had taken charge of the squad, perched himself on the outermost wall of the village, unconcerned by the water that immediately started dripping through his orange-and-black uniform, chilling him to the bone. Meeting with Nagato would probably be messy, but trying to literally break Kurenai out was about as plausible as running up to Tobi and asking him to knock off the world domination schemes, or maybe bribing him with a bowl of ramen.

Lightning flashed through the sky and the rain seemed to intensify suddenly – the clone ignored it, staring out into the gloomy streets curiously, knowing that he had received Nagato's attention. He realized that he had never really visited when Akatsuki was in charge, here; he had heard stories from the toad that had accompanied Jiraiya on his last mission, but it had been a broken ruin by the time that Konoha had once more sent troops across the border. Though the streets were silent, he could see villagers moving across, wearing thick protective clothing. This village was still alive, still surviving even under Akatsuki's unflinching dominion – perhaps he could spare the inhabitants from their grizzly fate in the Fourth war.

Between one thunderclap and the next, three of the Paths of Pain appeared, standing on the wet street dressed in their dark cloak with red clouds, their faces studded with piercings that facilitated their connection with Nagato. Naruto's clone had expected them, and was only momentarily surprised, ruthlessly suppressing his urge to get away very, very quickly. Imagining the Nagato he knew lurked inside Pain helped to mitigate the Killing Intent that was sent in his direction, though he could still only barely suppress a shiver.

The orange-haired Paths with pallid skin stared at him with oddly neutral expressions. The Deva Path stood at the front of their little phalanx, the one-time body of Yahiko. Flanking him stood two others, each with long orange hair. Before Naruto could figure out a way to greet an S-rank terrorist without sounding completely foolish, Nagato spoke through Yahiko's form. "Who are you, Konoha shinobi?"

Not a question of why he was there, then – Nagato had probably already received Kurenai as a prisoner, and was unsurprised by Konoha support troops coming to retrieve her, at least in principle. He probably had not expected someone to just walk in. If Kurenai had been dead, Nagato would likely not have bothered with coming out, simply dumping her body on the street; that meant he was probably still in time. Good. The clone slipped off the wall and landed lightly, nodding in recognition to the Deva Path as his eyes briefly wandered over the other two.

Well - he might as well be honest, now that he'd gone this far. Lying to Nagato's face seemed like a terrible way to start things, considering they had become something like allies in the other timeline. "My name is Uzumaki Naruto - from Konoha, yes. You are the Paths of Pain – well, some of them, anyway."

"Uzumaki, you say…?" The Path narrowed his eyes. "You are a Shadow Clone."

"And you are an extension of your true self as well," Naruto replied easily. "It's fitting that we meet like this, I guess. The boss has good reasons to stay out of sight, just as you have for keeping your real body hidden, Nagato. Precautions, if you will, to prevent our worst sides from coming out to play." He saw the Path's eyes flash, with anger or surprise. "I come to talk, not to fight. It wouldn't be very interesting, anyway, like this."

The Deva Path seemed to consider the answer, setting a step forward, followed silently by its two counterparts. "Does Konoha have spies among my forces, that you know my true name? You spill such things so easily, and you step into my rain as if you knew its properties before you came here." He reached out slowly, and the clone knew full well that the terrifying gravitational attacks could be unleashed in an instant, blasting him to bits. "Why should I not crush you where you stand? What is your purpose?"

The clone bolstered his courage, and stepped forward. It was easier than he'd expected - probably because he knew that the boss would be unharmed, whatever happened. "Be a little more charitable to your guests, please. Konan would disapprove of acting too hastily," the clone said as he smiled at the Deva Path's slight pause. It was subtle, but shocking such a powerful individual was a small joy in itself.

"Do not avoid my questions."

Naruto nodded, and for a moment, he focused. A single burst of natural chakra, momentary, rippled outwards. If the Path noticed, he did not betray so, as it travelled onward unimpeded. He sensed nobody but the Paths and clones - the villagers had already fled further down the village, no doubt. He relaxed, a little. "Alright. Truth is, I thought we would be able to understand each other, as students of the same sensei. Besides, you know that violence for its own sake is pointless, right?" He smiled slightly. "If you destroy me, there are others around who can take my place, and in the end all you do is dissipate chakra." Half a dozen of his fellow clones showed themselves on the wall behind him, arrayed like his own Paths, and the Deva Path took a moment to look at them. Naruto was convinced, right then, that the Paths were fully aware of everything around them - far more than Naruto could manage. Between the rain and the three pairs of Rinnegan, there was no wonder that some would consider someone near-omniscient like that god-like.

"Who are you, truly?" the Deva Path asked.

"I told you the truth about my name - Uzumaki Naruto. I know we share a heritage, an Uzumaki ancestor, and we both studied under the same teacher as well, Jiraiya of the Sannin. I hoped I could call on your better nature to return one of Konoha's Jōnin-sensei, who was taken by one of your people. I want to bargain for her safe return. I offer information – far more valuable than that which can be obtained from a fresh Jōnin like her."

"The woman is nothing to me," Nagato answered coolly. "She was brought here as a gift. Her loss would mean little, but I will demand a high price from those who would so brazenly walk into this village." He paused. "If the information you supply is insufficient, she will die."

Naruto's clone had an urge to roll his eyes. "Free her, and I will tell you what I can. I know about your eyes, and their origins, for one, and I have information you might wish to know about the person who is leading you on like a dog on a leash. The so-called Uchiha Madara."

The Path hissed, and gestured. A fourth Path appeared almost instantly - the machine-like one that seemed to perpetually smile. Under its arm was the unconscious form of Kurenai, tied and bound. She was dropped to the ground, and Naruto could see her breathe, very slowly. "Speak."

"I suppose that will have to do." Naruto's clone frowned, his eyes fixing on the vaguely purple Rinnegan without fear; having seen those eyes turned to him in hate and indifference, he rather appreciated the overt curiosity that seemed to be reflected in them now. "The most important information should go first, then," he said, steeling himself, hoping that the boss would approve, even as he knew that he was the closest thing to a reflection. "I know that a masked man came to you, Yahiko and Konan, many years ago. He came to speak to you of the future - you already had your eyes, your Rinnegan, and he told you that his name was Uchiha Madara."

The Deva Path paused. "How?"

"That man you met, the true leader of Akatsuki, he is using you to his questionable ends," the clone continued. "He's asking for your assistance in his schemes, which he has doubtlessly decided are in your benefit as well. He manipulates you through your desire for peace – or more precisely, in order to create that which he considers peace. He does not want to make people stop war, as you do, by constraining their actions. He means to do it by constraining their will."

"Explain." The Path lowered his arm, and Naruto wondered if he saw a spark of the real Nagato in those dead eyes. "Quickly."

Naruto nodded. "This masked man – he wishes to subjugate the world to his own imagination. He intends to control the minds of everyone in the world to fit within a fake world of his own devising, a world in which everyone is subservient to his own desires. That's not peace, that's slavery. He wants to do it by capturing the Jinchūriki, not to create that which no nation can control, but to extract their Tailed Beasts, and cast the most powerful illusion possible. He means to become the Jinchūriki of the most powerful creature in existence. The Jūbi. He means to use your eyes."

Nagato's extension paused. "My eyes. Why?"

"The Rinnegan," the clone explained. "The eyes you have now... They are not your own."

The Path faltered visibly. "What?"

Naruto walked forward until he was only two arm-lengths from the Deva Path, and the shock on Yahiko's face was certainly a reflection of Nagato's own. "I know that Jiraiya-sensei believed you to be the reincarnation of the Sage of the Six Paths, Nagato, for having those eyes naturally. The power of the Rinnegan, however, does not appear so suddenly. In reality, you are of the Senju lineage, of the Uzumaki, just like me. Your eyes are from the Uchiha side instead, descended from the Sage through another path. Those eyes were transplanted into you when you were young."

The Path shook his head. "Impossible! Why? By whom?"

Naruto paused, grimacing. "The person who transplanted them,meant to use you in the same fashion as the Masked Man does - and they work together. You have access to a technique, a special use of the Rinnegan, which allows you to resurrect the dead – truly bring them back, not as mere shells that a spirit can inhabit, but fully. The person in question was dying, and he required someone who could use his eyes to bring him back, as he was unable to do it himself. He was the true Uchiha Madara. You were seen as a means to an end by him, and by others, who have taken up his name. It should end."

The Path stared with narrowed eyes. "You were not present at these events."

"I was not," the clone agreed. "The source of my information is irrelevant, right now - you can confirm my claims by yourself, I believe. One reason why I came here is that I know Akatsuki is getting ready to begin their plans – and I cannot allow Konoha to become a target." He met each of the Paths' eyes in turn. "I will make a bargain with you. I will give you all the information I can – and if you find it to be false, then the deal is off. In exchange, I want Kurenai - and peace between Konoha and Ame. What do you say?"


"This is not what I want to be doing - definitely not." Jiraiya rocked back, frowning, his eyes flickering over the scroll. "Sensei - let nobody tell you that you went soft in your old age. You still have that bastard streak..."

Jiraiya sighed, glad that the Third was not actually in the room - he would probably get chided about etiquette again, a consistent refrain from his younger years. Considering the old man's opinions on his habits, despite being a closet pervert himself, it was honestly sort of tiring at this point.

And the world had gone crazy.

He stood, clasping the paper under his arm, as he wiped his long white hair out of his face. For the last few days, he had been studying a seal - A seal he didn't know - and that still looked familiar. Not Kushina's style, definitely, he knew that well enough to tell the difference. It resembled Minato's, though he had never gotten all the intricacies of his student's unique methods, even if he was one of his teachers in the esoteric art. Not for the first time he regretted being away from the village so often.

Still, how could he have known that he would lose his student so early? His most promising one, too. He sighed, wondering why he was thinking of those days, knowing that they were gone. Minato wasn't coming back.

Still...

"You're being an idiot," he muttered to himself, more out of habit than anything. Without Tsunade around to chastise him, it was easy to fall into the habit of overestimating oneself - he did have quite a reputation. With recent events, though, his calm life had gone rather topsy-turvy. He put the seal away - something to worry about, later. Perhaps he would contact the toads, and get their opinion. His mind wandered to more immediate problems.

Sarutobi had met with Shimura Danzō - and far from Jiraiya's expectation that it would be a quick decision, involving the former tossing the latter into the nearest prison, they had locked themselves away for the better part of two days - and even Hiruzen's council, his old teammates, were getting curious now. Shikaku Nara had coincidentally wandered by, too, but that was even more transparent. It was unusual - and it was worrying. Jiraiya knew he would be responsible for taking over the Root group, and the thought made him queasy.

Even if that had been all, though, one question kept running around in his mind as he thought back to that moment when the bandaged warhawk was brought to the Hokage's office.

Why had Danzō been smiling?


Author's Note : Hey folks. I know it's been a while - sorry 'bout that. Real life has been busy and I've been otherwise engaged with various things, but my stories are still active.

For this one, the next chapter finishes this arc, dealing with the finale of the Team 7 fight, what happened with the clones and Team 8, and Naruto finds out what his clones have been doing behind his back (really, he should have a better grasp of his own personality...)

After this is over, we're gonna deal with the Third, Jiraiya and Danzo - that's what's been building as you probably noticed. Should be fun. Also - Sasuke and Sakura get to kick ass next chapter. Woo!

Fūton: Shahei Kabe - Wind Release: Shield Wall
Fūton: Kaibutsu Nakigoe
- Wind Release: Monster's Cry
Fūton: Rasenrengan - Wind Release: Rasengan Barrage