Chapter 22 - Caged Servant

Shino felt unusual; chagrined, even. He mused on the strange feeling as he walked towards home, weighing the reasons for his unease. He knew one ultimate source, of course. The silence. For several days now, a total absence of sound had pervaded his body, something that he had not experienced in his entire existence since his memories of early infancy were spotty at best. The constant twitching of little feet was absent as well, the slow squirming that had become a sign of good health rather than that of disease as it was in others. Shino pressed his dark glasses straight with a single finger.

Kikaichi, the insects that the Aburame bred and lived in symbiosis with, were very picky about their particular host. Only very rarely did one of his family ever become utterly devoid of them as he now was. Between his wounds and the toxic demonic chakra that was responsible for his revival, it was a small wonder he would even recover use of his chakra pathways at all.

Shino frowned as he thought back to that moment of revival, when the numbness of dying had made way for the sharp pain of renewed life. Uzumaki Naruto, someone Shino had barely even spoken to in class, had always seemed more peculiar than most. A goof, generally uninterested in intellectual pursuits, Shino had largely written him off as someone of no importance, who would be a nuisance more than an asset.

Then the boy had saved his life.

He thought back to that confident figure that had stood in his mind, that image of his savior. He didn't know if Naruto had noticed, when he had entered the heart of the bughouse that represented his thoughts, he had looked older, far older than his physical age would betray. Tired eyes had looked at him, betraying sadness or regret, set in a face that had reminded him starkly of the Fourth Hokage. Shino suspected that, for a long instant, he had seen into Naruto's heart. He had seen the effect of his burden.

Shino considered the gift he had been given by someone who might as well have been a stranger. His arm had grown back from nothing by the Nine-Tailed Fox's toxic chakra. Capable of killing thousands, that terrible power had seeped into him and had left him healthier than before in many ways. Granted, his new arm was slim and untrained, and it missed the interconnected kikaichi-tunnels that his former one had received in early youth, but it allowed him the manual dexterity he needed for hand signs. He could still be a shinobi.

Walking up the path to the Aburame household - he would have sent messenger bugs ahead, if he'd had any left - he considered the pain he would need to go through to adapt to a new colony, and the limitations that his new arm would lead to, even as he acknowledged that he might well have faced permanent disability or death if not for Team 7's arrival. His regenerated arm would never be fit for techniques that utilized kikaichi, but it could become stronger than the rest of him, which could be helpful. If he were to train that limb with pure strength in mind, he could potentially use it for a powerful deflective style, even. An Aburame capable of both advanced Taijutsu and high-level Kikaichi-related Ninjutsu would be quite a surprise on any battlefield.

His musing was interrupted by a sharp cry. "Shino!"

The Aburame paused, and he looked up with creased brow. "It is very rude to break off someone's thought processes. Why? Because I could be thinking about something very imp -" He faltered as he realized who he faced, and the downright shocked expression on the man's face, and he sighed wearily. "Ah. Father."

Aburame Shibi stepped forward swiftly, and he reached out almost hesitantly. "Son." For a brief moment Shino found himself in a stiff embrace, completely alien to both of them, before his father retreated again to a mutually comfortable distance. There was a long silence in which the two just stared. At last, Shibi spoke again. "...So. You have returned. I thought you might have..." He shook his head slowly. "The reason is, when I sensed the return of your team but failed to find your chakra among them, I grew restless."

"Ah," Shino noted dryly. "An understandable conclusion. Yet, as my presence indicates, I am alive," he said matter-of-factly. Then, he hesitated. "That said -"

"I can sense it. Your hive is dead," Shibi concluded. He sounded downright disturbed, and his hand clasped around Shino's shoulder. "This chakra, I recognize it from another time. It is unmistakable." He hissed under his breath. "The Jinchūriki did this?"

"No," Shino said with finality, and he shrugged off his father's grasp. "This is not Naruto's fault. In fact, he is probably the reason that I remain alive."

Shibi frowned. "Yet, your chakra has been corrupted," he noted. "The source of this corruption is unmistakably the corrosive and erratic chakra of a Tailed Beast. There is only one who could have a power such as this, so vile. I was there, Shino, when such chakra was unleashed upon our village."

"That may be true, but do not let it cloud your judgment. Haste is unhelpful." Shino raised his hand in a symbol for silent warning, and his father paused. "I will take your word for the state of my chakra system, since I cannot sense it as of yet. Why? Because my body has had to adapt to the new type quickly, while I was dying. My chakra sensory capabilities are stunted as a result, until I can adapt to the change. Still, I am alive."

"...What led to this regrettable situation?" Shibi wondered, eyes narrowed. "To come so very close to death that your hive suffers death, it is a rarity. Most would perish alongside."

Shino revealed his arm carefully, uncovering unblemished skin. It was pale and unmarked by the entrances of his kikaichi's nests, which would be expected there, and Shibi reacted with a predictable expression of shock.

"Yes. You see correctly. The Jinchūriki you refer to, Uzumaki Naruto, healed my body after it was damaged in a fight with a Missing-Nin. That battle happened several days before his team arrived, so I was bleeding out from what remained of my arm, and had lost most of my chakra in the interim. If there were still kikaichi alive, I could not sense them." He grimaced. "Seeing no immediate alternative, and with no time to spare, Naruto employed a dangerous and forbidden technique. The Nine-Tails Chakra revived me from my near-death state, but it seared my chakra pathways. It will take time before I am once again capable of channeling chakra directly. The Medical-Nin agree, however, that I will recover."

"You were healed with the Kyūbi's chakra... The boy has such control?" Shibi murmured as he grasped Shino's arm curiously, his gaze hardening. "You are speaking of true regeneration, similar to that of Tsunade of the Sannin. Such a technique has not been seen in this village for a long time, and it is far beyond elementary use of a Bijū's chakra, as I understand it. Indeed, I would consider it extremely advanced." He frowned. "I was under the impression that the boy was untrained."

"Hmm. I know no differently. Nevertheless, I speak the truth about what occurred." He adjusted his glasses. "Naruto may have harmed me with his healing, but just as a side-effect of the chakra. The loss of my hive is... regrettable." He pressed his fist to his chest, sighing. "Still, there are worse fates. Perhaps a new hive can clear my system of the Bijū's chakra, while they adapt to my own chakra circulatory system; the very least we can do is attempt it. Alternatively, I may be able to adapt to the echo of the Kyūbi's chakra, and use it for myself. It would be a considerable advantage over most shinobi, who have little defense against such potency."

"I see," Shibi noted. "Can you explain the reason for your arm's... disability?"

Shino looked away uncomfortably. Truthfully, he had been very close to his demise as it was, since he could remember attempting to send a last message with what remained of his insects, followed by strange visions of a vast greenhouse, slowly degrading into a stale and unvisited museum, with only a lonely pool as a reminder of life. He had fashioned it a last border between life and death, and it effectively had been. There, he had at last met Naruto.

He gestured at his pale hand, and shrugged as if unconcerned. "The truth is that I was very nearly... decapitated by a Jōnin-class enemy, one who had the element of surprise on his side. The details are with the Hokage, of course. Though I created a clone before he was fully in range, the enemy seemed aware of my new position, and I just barely managed to divert his attack away from striking its target." He twitched his fingers, as if demonstrating that they all worked. "At that time, I lost my arm from nearly at the shoulder. The resulting hypovolemic shock and chakra imbalance sent me in and out of unconsciousness, and though my kikaichi attempted to rebuild my blood vessels and succeeded in clamping them down, they were doomed to ultimate failure. The wound was far too large."

"This was a powerful foe, then," Shibi said calmly. "On friendly soil."

"He was an A-rank Missing-Nin from the Bingo-Book, as I understand from Uchiha-san's description," Shino agreed. "After my downfall, the enemy nin continued to attack my team, and seemingly captured them all, though he left me for dead. Kiba-san and Hinata-san were kept aside, perhaps as a bargaining chip, while Kurenai-sensei was transported away towards the border. Team 7 came for us, to fulfill Kurenai-sensei's request for assistance from before the attack."

Shibi sighed as he shook his head. "Such luck... They found you, then?"

"Yes. Naruto healed me at that time, and retrieved Kurenai-sensei from the enemy. I understand that he and his teammates were also responsible for defeating the man who attacked my team." He pressed a hand against his shoulder and grimaced. "I presume he used the Kyūbi's chakra once again, given its power. Naruto was placed under arrest before I was capable of speaking to him again, and Kakashi-san brought him back to Konoha while unconscious. I imagine he is in some trouble due to his use of the Bijū's power."

"Hmm. Or because of other allegations," Shibi murmured contemplatively, peering at his son for a long time without saying anything. "I have heard many rumors about Uzumaki-san since even before his return, but none about your own survival." He cocked his head to the side. "It seems that your presence was once again ignored. A pity."

"It is a burden to bear," Shino agreed wearily.

"Indeed. Alternatively, it is possible that this lack of direct information was intentional." Shibi raised an eyebrow. "Your rescue at the hands of Uzumaki had not even reached my ears, and you are my son. It implies that someone is ensuring there are no leaks of information." He shook his head. "That boy has made powerful enemies, it seems."

"Maybe," Shino said softly. "Or perhaps someone is helping Naruto. At a prospective trial, revelations such as healing the son of a Clan leader would be persuasive evidence, as long as the other side is ignorant of the matter so they can muster no solid defense." He cocked his head to the side. "Who would have the power to manipulate such matters?"

Shibi did not respond immediately, but he stiffened. "There is one thing I must admit, presently. If Uzumaki-san is indeed primarily responsible for your safety... It is my duty to give him a formal apology for past actions." He looked away. "Both my own, and those of others in our clan, in truth. I may have misjudged both his character and his work-ethic, judging from your clear respect for the boy, and his apparent gifts."

"Father?" Shino blinked in confusion. "You have never-"

"I have not. Not out loud. But that should not matter," Shibi interrupted, holding up a hand. "If Uzumaki-san is in trouble as you indicate, then he will certainly want a character witness before the Hokage. You will provide testimony of events that you experienced, of course." He nodded before his son could answer. "I believe I must contact old acquaintances. Shikaku-san would be interested in seeing justice done."

Shino refused to call it a smile, but the corners of his mouth turned up. "Thank you, Father."


Night turned to day in an instant. Naruto blinked wearily as his head lolled back and forth. He scrunched up his nose as he took in the stale air; it smelled like he was under a mile of rubble and sewage. He let out a disgusted noise, and was evidently heard.

"Tenzō-san, please prepare your Mokuton jutsu," a voice spoke clearly. "We cannot afford a... spectacle. Do not hesitate to subdue him if necessary."

Captain Yamato?! Naruto's sluggish brain caught up with him and recent events rushed back. Momentary panic overtook him as his meeting with Nagato sprang to the forefront of his mind, and the defeat of the Missing-Nin Muneyoshi. Both of those events were washed away by the realization that moments later, Kakashi had knocked him out from behind. A flash of betrayal forced itself up to him, even though he knew it was irrational, a bitter feeling that refused to leave.

He was back in Konoha, that was certain. That meant it would not be long before he was dragged in front of Homura Mitokado and Koharu Utatane, the Hokage's old team members and council. Maybe the Third himself would be there as well, without the customary warmth that Naruto remembered from another lifetime. Those people would have his fate in their hand. He had known that from the moment he had collapsed and found himself in front of Kurama's cage.

He was utterly screwed.

Still, despite the risk of getting into this much trouble, of getting his lying noticed properly for the first time since his return through time, Naruto refused to regret his actions. He didn't have a choice about that, really; he had done as he felt was right, and he'd have to reap the consequences either way. The easiest way to avoid everything now was to go full-on Missing-Nin, and he had no interest in that road. Self-recrimination was pointless when he tallied up his options.

At least Shino was recovering from his ordeal, Naruto thought with relief. Kurenai-sensei was also back in home territory now; he doubted that Nagato would break his promise so quickly. Team 8 had been rescued from the encounter they never should have had to face, and with no real losses. Whatever trouble he'd gotten himself into, he had made up for his mistake.

Kurama had so confidently stated that things would just get worse, that Naruto's meddling would destroy the balance of time and other such things, as if it could be broken so easily. Instead, Naruto had made contact with Nagato without any true violence, Team 8 remained alive, and Muneyoshi was in captivity. In another world he had died with all his secrets. Naruto might not have beaten everything, come out on top, but at the very least he had broken even.

Hah! Take that, you overgrown fox!

"Well, well, Uzumaki," the baritone voice of Ibiki began, and Naruto only then recognized him in the dim light, his eyes gleaming from the shadows. As he tried to move, he found himself strapped down to a table that was raised at an angle, his arms and legs secured with solid leather and metal to the hardwood back. The room was utterly featureless and drab grey, making it was hard to gauge distance since there was nothing to distinguish floor from wall, but far up at the roof, pipes ran every which way. They betrayed this location as being somewhere in the depths of the village, as his nose had already told him.

That doesn't make sense... The T&I department is in the Hokage's tow- Naruto hissed suddenly as pain rushed up his spine, and he groaned in momentary agony. A surge of sparks burst down his back, and perfect blankness took over as everything seemed to just stop. His thoughts fluttered away.

Ibiki stared down at his victim contemplatively, before nodding in mock-respect as Naruto gathered himself, his expression fiercer than before. Naruto winced as another stab of discomfort spread across his throbbing head; he had an absolutely blinding headache that seemed ready to spring on him at the slightest provocation, and it was a chore to avoid showing his weakness openly.

"You know why you are here, I trust," Ibiki stated dryly, gesturing to Captain Yamato. "Tenzō-san will remain nearby, as he is able use the First Hokage's Mokuton jutsu, and is thus capable of subduing the beast that was sealed within you. He can hold you for the duration it would take to end your life. Do you understand?"

Naruto gave a wry nod. He rather doubted that Konoha authorities would kill him, unless he went nuts and ripped the seal open right in front of them or something. Having a demon-host around was an important factor in discouraging other nations from trying anything too fancy; none of the Kages were fooled into thinking that the Kyūbi had simply vanished after the attack on Konoha. It was one reason why Orochimaru's plan at the Chūnin Exams had depended so heavily on Gaara's presence. There were few more dangerous foes in this world than a raging Tailed Beast.

Naruto met Ibiki's eyes easily. "Yeah, I know why I'm here. What's the charge?" he asked, trying to ignore the pain that flashed through his scalp.

There was a glint of what could have been victory in Ibiki's eyes, but it was gone almost instantly, drowned out by a cold and eerie blankness. "There are several. Treason. Conspiring with the enemy. Providing information to forces outside the village without proper authorization. Not that it matters, as the usual punishment for treason is death."

"Fun times," Naruto muttered sarcastically. "Unless you're going to assassinate me right here, I suppose the old bats want to see me. When will that be?" He wondered momentarily why he was being so rude, but the thought fluttered away as did the others. Why was that, anyway? It hardly mattered.

Ibiki was evidently surprised by Naruto's candidness, as he paused. "Hm. Attempting to interrogate me in turn, are you? It is true that recent intelligence suggests you are less... naïve than you appeared to be. It is a dangerous revelation." He looked terrifying for a split second, a disapproving frown etched on his face, and Naruto was mildly impressed by the menace the Jōnin managed to exude without even a whiff of Killing Intent. "In fact, one could almost think that this moment is one you expected."

Naruto snorted. "Heh. Thank you for the compliment, I suppose," he said dryly, forcing himself to ignore his racing heart. "It's neat to hear someone like you would ascribe such cunning to a lowly Genin." Then, very childishly, he stuck out his tongue, knowing it would annoy the Jōnin to no end. One part of him was horrified by his lax attitude, while another was laughing.

Ibiki sneered. "Such hubris. Do you even understand where you are, boy? This is the Konoha ANBU Torture and Interrogation Force, and you will find that we are the best at what we do. Your flippant attitude will be corrected."

"You think I'll believe that? You wouldn't do anything drastic without the Hokage's permission, and he's not about to give it without seeing me in person. I think I know him well enough for that. Scare tactics only work when the threat is likely." Naruto rolled his eyes. "What's next, you're going to threaten to chop off my fingers? I'm sure it's a good way to get Kyūbi antsy, but they would just grow back, and I can handle pain. It'd be pointless."

Ibiki paced, staying silent for a long moment. "You believe you are invulnerable, don't you?" he asked at last. "You are... lucky, Uzumaki. I do not tolerate disloyalty, but I do not like to waste potential either." He cocked his head to the side, his eyes glinting. "Since the day of your graduation, there have been great concerns over your loyalty, as you must know. You have been seen slipping out late at night to do whatever subversive thing you desire. Thus far, your status as demon-host has protected you from ramifications of your actions." He shook his head. "Until now, there was hardly enough public information to convict you, or you would have long since been put away."

Naruto shivered at the knowing smile on Ibiki's face that looked entirely wrong there. No compassion shone in those eyes, nor the slightest hesitancy. How much did Ibiki know, about everything? Perhaps even the events in Suna had been discovered? Manipulating the Kazekage into a truce via an assumed identity made a foray into Rain look like child's play. The thought of the Third tossing him into some deep, dank hole seemed disturbingly reasonable now - the old man had done worse things for the sake of peace.

The Torture Specialist nodded lightly towards Tenzō, who crossed his hands and closed his eyes; trees sprang from the floor at the slightest movement of the man's fingers, bursting up from unseen seams and entangling Naruto's legs and arms. The Wood Element user's chakra was pervasive throughout the newly formed branches, and a few errant leaves sprouted on their own as the wood strained itself into a form-fitting prison. Naruto felt Kurama's chakra dwindle away within him, and if not for his extensive experience with the fox's power, he would have lost all control over it at that moment.

"You have been accused of treason," Ibiki said again. "What do you have to say to this charge?"

"It's nonsense, of course. I'm not a traitor." Naruto's rude disinterest made way for a sort of wordless rage that pooled in the bottom of his stomach, though Kurama had nothing to do with it. The blatant accusation of disloyalty set his teeth on edge, wiping out his reason with an emotional outburst that seemed uncommonly vicious. Had Ibiki slipped him something to make him talk, to make him emotionally unstable? Or was he that messed up from meeting his other self, from realizing he was the embodiment of his own darkness?

Probably the latter, Naruto realized with a disquieting finality. His loyalty to Konoha was the one thing that had never wavered even a little, not even through years of harsh life at the forefront of the worst that shinobi did. He was well aware he was not a good person by any stretch;'he was an experienced shinobi, and very few could fill that role and retain a moral high-ground. He was a liar, a thief, a lawbreaker on occasion, a murderer, and perhaps a bit insane to top it all off, but if there was one thing he had never been, would never be, could never be, it was a traitor. That truth was sealed the day he had taken down Sasuke in his first life.

"Hmm, you say you are no traitor, and you are telling the truth. The truth as you see it," Ibiki noted with a glint in his eye, and Naruto refused to meet his gaze again. "That is interesting, very interesting. Treachery is subjective, perhaps? Most would argue that betrayal of the Hokage's orders constitutes treason in itself, as the Hokage stands for the village. You crossed into the land of Rain, and made contact with natives of that country to retrieve a kidnapped colleague. Those actions were well outside your mission brief. Worse still, outside the express orders of the Hokage."

"I was made the team's leader," Naruto forced out, remembering that short moment when Kakashi had deferred to him over Shino's dying body. That brief instant, Kakashi had truly obeyed his orders, no matter the danger involved. That is why he could not truly be resentful of the man, because clearly the seeds of trust were there. "I did what I thought was right," Naruto continued. "A team leader is allowed to extend his mandate if he believes it to be safe to do so. Out of the team, I was the only one who could do so without a risk of capture by a third party. To inform the others would be useless, and would endanger my success."

"Hmmm." Ibiki pursed his lips as he stared into Naruto's eyes with clear suspicion. "Going above and beyond your assigned duty may be an admirable sentiment in many situations, but you were assigned as a team leader in a provisional capacity, at Hatake-san's whim. You were never truly the team's real leader."

"That was hardly made clear to me," Naruto snapped. "Even when it became clear that the mission was more than a C-rank, Kakashi-sensei allowed me to continue. He believed I could do it. I did do it."

The interrogator cocked his head to the side, and Naruto felt scrutinized by eyes far more devious than Ibiki's had ever been. A creeping doubt began to sneak into Naruto's mind, an uneasy feeling of wrongness, and without conscious thought he grasped onto that feeling, that sudden realization that was on the tip of his tongue but refused to spill out. He recognized it, even if he didn't quite know from where. He forcefully squashed the flashes down his spine, the spiky claws that seemed to have been driven into the back of his neck, and he focused on driving back the oncoming tide of thoughtlessness. Miraculous he managed to avoid showing much of his discomfort on his face, masking it as indignation.

"You know the truth, don't you? I was the reason that the mission was a success at all! I am the reason that Kurenai-sensei survived!" Naruto blurted, the pain down his back slowly fading. "Doesn't that count for something?"

Ibiki sniffed. "Your teacher made a questionable decision regarding the internal structure of your team, but you were never authorized to reveal anything to foreign forces, and that is the same whether you are a Genin or Jōnin. Success of what amounted to an A-rank mission is admirable, but besides the point."

"Is it?" Naruto asked harshly. "So, a few clones hopped across the border, that's what all this mess is about, right? Just that? Is that truly enough to make you consider the kinds of punishments you mentioned?" Naruto closed his eyes and considered the wrongness that echoed inside his head, the pain that continued to pulsate in the back of his mind.

Genjutsu!

The realization clicked almost audibly, and his breath hitched. Kurama was snoozing on the inside from Tenzō's technique, and Naruto had no way to easily hurt himself right now, to cut himself free from the technique that was weaving itself in between his thoughts. For once, he wished that he was good at breaking illusions without breaking his own knuckles.

Ibiki's eyes were empty of feeling as he beheld Naruto's struggle. "Hatake-san informed the Hokage that your Kage Bunshin travelled in an organized fashion. They were headed directly for the capital of Rain country at the time he noticed their covert movement. Two hours later, an unknown kunoichi was spotted traversing the border with Konoha to deliver Jōnin-sensei Yūhi Kurenai. These events are doubtlessly connected."

"Yeah. That's true. I went after Kurenai-sensei," Naruto admitted, eyes narrowing as he studied his captor's face, his head pounding to the beat of his heart. "I got her back. That's what the mission was all about, helping Team 8. We succeeded. Yes, it's illegal to cross borders, but that's implied to mean without permission." He noted ruefully to himself that Nagato's acceptance of his presence was mostly after-the-fact, since the leader of Rain had not actually met his distant cousin until Naruto had stepped out into the rain. It didn't matter. He had acted with Konoha's best interest in mind, and even if it was a twisted sort of truth, calling upon the spirit of another timeline, it was better than a blatant lie as he was so used to telling.

"You got permission, then? From who, I wonder?" Ibiki inquired calmly.

"From Nagato, of course," Naruto said at last, and he took in Ibiki's briefly perplexed expression with interest. The back of his mind itched incessantly, scraping at the Genjutsu even as awareness of it threatened to slip away.

"Nagato, you say...?" Ibiki repeated softly.

Naruto nodded forcefully. "Uzumaki Nagato, the current leader of Ame. Everyone in Team 7 was fighting or keeping an eye out on the rescued members of Team 8, and Kurenai had been taken away, kidnapped. I figured I could multi-task, seeing as I have a talent for the Kage Bunshin, and they could slip away. I called in a favor with Nagato, since we're family. I didn't think -"

"You certainly did not think," Ibiki agreed harshly. If Naruto's words had any meaning to Ibiki, the man's expression betrayed none of it. "You are close acquaintances with this Nagato, leader of Rain country, a nation that has been less than hospitable in years past. We have stood upon the brink of war, even. Are you alluding to being a genuine spy, sneaky little Genin?"

Naruto let out a strangled laugh that held no humor in it, and his eyes were like daggers. "I already told you I'm not a traitor. I would never spy on Konoha." His indignant rage rose up again from just below the surface. "Nagato and I, we're family. We share a history, a legacy that is treasured by this village to the present day, that is worn upon the very clothes you wear. That bastard Muneyoshi smuggled Kurenai-sensei into Nagato's territory, and was provoking conflict. I did what I did for the sake of Konoha, and to prevent war. I asked Nagato to release her, as an offering of peace." He shrugged lightly. "You can call it acting without good foresight, or inexperience, and you can even kill me over it if you can convince the Hokage. But don't question my loyalty again."

For a moment, the strange expression on Ibiki's face made sense, then it twisted, and Naruto's insides revolted violently. His head spun as his mind warred with itself over the acceptance of reality as it was, and against the illusion that was suffusing everything. Naruto seemed to teeter on some endless cliff, his resistance crumbling away, and he found himself in freefall. From somewhere deep inside, there came a surge of power, and pain. Pain and terror and anguish and the knowledge that one is a passenger on a ship that's headed for destruction, a spectator in one's own mind, unable to touch the world.

The Genjutsu shattered, errant thoughts stopped whirling wildly in his every direction as the world settled down. The illusion's hold had been destroyed by two wills, strong in very different ways. Two very different minds behind the same eyes. Two minds that at that moment shared the exact same thought.

Naruto looked up swiftly, and took in his interrogator's face with no real surprise, though considerable apprehension. The man was not Ibiki, as the Genjutsu had been telling him quite insistently, as it had forcefully proclaimed in between his every thought.

"That was a tricky one," Naruto murmured, and he was gratified to note the momentary surprise in the bastard's visible eye. The other was covered in bandages, though they were ruffled from repeated removal. "I should have known it would be your doing, Shimura Danzō." He stared at the leader of Root with narrowed eyes, and he did nothing to conceal his annoyance, even though the Genjutsu that had been affecting his actions had worn off. He was still angry, and the pit of fire in his belly refused to simmer down at this new face. If anything, it burned brighter. Danzō. It had to be you, again.

The bandaged spymaster leaned on his staff with one hand, the other brushing distractedly against the bandages that covered his stolen Sharingan. His one-eyed gaze was piercing in its intensity, far more disturbing than Kakashi's could ever be, though it held no real malice, which Naruto had expected there. No, there was a certain amusement there, perhaps even a gleam of interest, which was all the more disturbing. "So, young Genin. You know my name. I suppose I should not be surprised at this juncture."

Shimura Danzō was familiar alright; Naruto was uncomfortably aware of this man's exploits, and he well remembered what happened the last time around, when Danzō had snatched the Hokage seat after Tsunade's collapse, in the wake of Nagato's attack. He also knew how dysfunctional Sai had been after his messed-up training under this person, and how many others had suffered the same terrible treatment. Even though the two of them had met but a few times, the impression Danzō had left behind in Naruto's mind was one of bitterness and disgust, of someone who held onto old ideals no matter how impractical they were.

And yet, Naruto thought uneasily, the really disturbing thing was that he could understand Danzō now, more than ever before. He could hardly respect his methods, since they were crude and ultimately ineffectual; there was nothing about training Root to be emotionless automatons, or forcing them into subjugation with seals, that he could tolerate as necessary or helpful. But, as Kakashi would put it, there was always underneath the underneath. Below all the political grandstanding and manipulation had to beat the heart of a true shinobi, or the Third would never have respected him at all. Down deep below the grime he had to be made of adamant, like the old man.

Look at me now, empathizing with Danzō, feeling sorry for someone like that. If that doesn't tell me how screwed up I am, what the heck will? He frowned. Or maybe...

On some level, Naruto knew that the man before him had stepped onto the road he walked to protect the village, to protect Konoha, or at the very least to further the ideal that the Shodai Hokage had sought to bring into being. Danzō certainly believed that what he had done was for the greater good of Konoha, even if he was completely wrong on that count, even if his way of protecting the village led to its destruction. Perhaps, in the grand scheme, Danzō was as much an example of a wrongly taken path as Nagato was, or Obito for that matter. Another way that he himself could have been, given different choices. Perhaps, in some ways, he was what Naruto had become. A knife in the shadows, merciless and blind to consequences beyond the immediate.

And a coward in a hero's clothing.

"You are so silent, now. Perhaps you have finally realized your plight?" Danzō asked as he glanced to his side, and he made a quick hand sign. Captain Yamato - Tenzō - perked up, and then inclined his head warily before he stepped to the side of the room, vanishing through an invisible doorway. Danzō and Naruto alike listened as the sound of his footsteps vanished down the hall. Then Naruto's clear blue met the half-lidded dark gaze of Danzō's single eye.

"Why'd you send him away?" Naruto asked, swallowing thickly, refusing to meet Danzō's eye.

"He was unnecessary. This wood will last." Danzō hesitated momentarily, but did not reveal his Sharingan as Naruto suspected was his intent by removing the last witness. Instead, there was a long, long silence. Just as Naruto was about to make an annoyed remark, the old man spoke again, sounding tired. "I knew about your nature, of course. I knew of your plight as a Jinchūriki, ever since you were a child." He paused for a long moment. "Naturally, I had you watched for several long years, had you followed through every day of your young life, but I admit that I gave up on you. It became clear to me that you showed no particular affinity for the shinobi arts, nor any inclination that you were going to be any more than a loudmouth. You seemed hopeless. My actions were premature, in retrospect."

Naruto stared at Danzō with genuine bafflement. He had been watched by Root, even during his childhood, during those long dark years when he had been little more than a pest to everyone around him, too big to ignore, too little to be a prankster? Even in the original timeline it had to have happened, he imagined, if Danzō's words were true. And he was totally right about me, the first time around.

Danzō smiled thinly, though his eyes were as sharp as ever. "I see that you understand. I forgot about your presence, until the day before your third consecutive Genin exam. You made a mistake. Your facade crumbled. It was surely not the first mistake you had made, but it was the first that was witnessed by one of my... associates." He paused. "There was a problem building in a neighboring country, though it had not yet become bad enough to interfere without real risk to our forces, in case our intel was faulty. I had in fact planned to slip the issue into the usual missions, ostensibly as an anonymous tip. To my surprise, someone else took the initiative."

He knew about Gatō. Fuck.

"Yes, I see that you know what I mean. Assassination at your age is not unprecedented, but for an academy student without even the slightest excuse for orders it was most definitely peculiar," Danzō continued, still with that strange smile. "It quickly became apparent that the victim was guilty of considerably more than I expected, which implied that you were quite diligent in your research. The fool was making in-roads with high-rank Missing-Nin and lowlifes, and could have been quite the hassle in the future."

Naruto stayed his tongue, trying to find out Danzō's purpose in bringing these things up. The interrogation about his visit to Ame had taken a sudden backseat to this line of inquiry, which implied that it might just be far more important. But there was nothing about Gatō's demise that could honestly make things worse for him, since he was already standing on the block for treason. So what was going on? Why mention Gatō at all? What was Danzō's game here?

Regardless of their political impact, the discovery of Gatō's death was troubling, of course. That man's terrible reign was the very first thing that Naruto had set out to fix upon returning, and he had been spotted right away, detected on his very first outing. Naruto would have laughed if it didn't imply numerous uncomfortable truths. It meant he had been wildly overconfident in his abilities to remain undetected; not only had the Hokage discovered his theft of scrolls from the tower, which could be attributed to the Sandaime's incredible skill, but now Root had been snooping on him too? He had gone for assassination right away, and of a relatively minor player in the grand scheme, and had managed to even screw that up.

I was just doing what I knew. Naruto swallowed thickly as he realized that he had been acting the way he had drilled into himself, like a machine. Years and years of assassination and infiltration and solving problems through death and deception. When the hell did I get this arrogant, this overconfident? Now I've got the personality of a veteran killer without the body or skills to truly back it up, to make up for my hubris... Perhaps this is a level of stupidity and short-sightedness that not even my child self could have reached...

"You imagined yourself undetected?" Danzō noted. "That is... amusing. In the wake of those events, I had you followed again. Your efficiency suggested that I had miscalculated your ability and drive." He shifted his bandages, his expression unchanging. "It is true that a Jinchūriki who murders at a whim is a known risk. At first I imagined you were like the holder of Shukaku, who found a violent outlet for his more savage urges. But this murder was too planned, too intentional. Then, of course, came that excuse for a teacher."

It was no surprise he knew about Mizuki, now. Naruto was just disturbed that he had never picked up on anyone spying on him while he was out and about like that. He would need to improve his awareness, or Danzō's Root were a lot better than he remembered. Gatō, Mizuki, had anything he did slipped by this man? He had been deceiving himself all along, believing his web of lies to remain intact even as it grew larger, while it had been cut from its branch from the very beginning. Far more than his overestimation of his own ability and his twisted sense of right and wrong, so recently adjusted to something more reasonable, it was clear that his arrogance knew no bounds, and it was blinding him to his limitations.

No wonder Kurama was disgusted with me...

"I admit, you had acceptable reasons for your actions," Danzō continued with a creepy, knowing smirk on his face, clearly unaware of Naruto's internal struggle. "The execution was quick, unflinching. It betrayed experience in the art of silent killing. Prodigies such as Uchiha Itachi and Hatake Kakashi are commonly expected to begin so young, and they had considerable training." He turned slightly, eyes gleaming. "Your information gathering regarding this person was also remarkable. I had not yet made the connection you clearly did, most likely due to your increased access to him in and around the classroom."

"He was working for Orochimaru."

"Indeed. You have already put the Hokage and his ANBU operatives on the trail of another spy from that Sannin, hiding in plain sight, though you were rather ham-fisted in the way you excused your knowledge, there. This person is one that I have some... history with. He is now in custody." Danzō walked closer to Naruto and put a hand on Tenzō's wooden prison. "You are aware of your heritage. Indeed, you have been following in their footsteps, perhaps more so than expected. You have your mother's regrettable lack of patience, but a considerable amount of your father's talent. Including a disturbing penchant for deception. I am, quite frankly, impressed."

Naruto met Danzō's eyes with barely disguised incredulity. "Um, thanks?" Getting compliments from this creep is kind of disturbing...

"Hmm. You're still a brat." Danzō shook his head. "In a few hours, you will be called before the council members and the Hokage, to face the charge of treason. You have become a danger in their eyes, a liability. Even the Hokage, so tolerant of your actions thus far, has begun to doubt your intentions, your loyalty. You will require my aid to make it out of these proceedings."

So, that was the rub, then. It made sense. Danzō wanted Konoha's Jinchūriki under his private control, now that it turned out he wasn't an untalented blot of orange, now that it was clear that a talented, but overconfident shinobi was hiding in the rough. Instead of listening to the Hokage, Danzō preferred that such a person danced to his tune, and he had no doubt that it would not be long before something like Sai's seal or Uchiha Shisui's Sharingan would be used to force him to tell Danzō everything he knew. It was not an option.

"I'm not joining your Root club, Danzō," he said at last.

"Perhaps not. That road is closed to both of us," Danzō answered. He seemed unsurprised about Naruto's knowledge of his secret organization, and smiled at the Genin's expression. "Ah, you were out of the village, that is right. Root is no longer under my control. I voluntarily relinquished control over their care to that bothersome Sannin. It was quite a public spectacle."

Naruto blinked. "You did what?"

"You are hardly deaf," Danzō said blandly, smile slipping. Naruto was not sure what to make of this bizarre revelation, one that had no counterpart in his memories. "There is something I would like you to clarify. You prefer the way of subterfuge when it comes to certain matters, that is obvious. You chose infiltration followed by assassination or theft, rather than bursting in as your public persona. Yet, in recent times and especially in this mission, you were careless."

Naruto kept his mouth firmly closed.

"It seems clear that you could have slipped into Ame unnoticed, yet you did not. Perhaps you wished to be caught?" Danzō nodded to himself. "You miscalculated the severity of your actions. In the worst case, we reseal the Kyūbi into someone else, and that would kill you. You will need my assistance, as I said. If only to reduce your sentence enough that the Hokage will just be forced to restrict some of your freedoms, but no more than that. I am not an unkind master to serve."

Naruto scoffed. "Heh, you'd reseal it?" he repeated, and he smiled knowingly. "Are you prepared to die to do so, Danzō-san? Do you think it would be any easier than last time, hmm? Do you have an Uzumaki to spare? It is a family tradition for more than sentimental reasons, you Fox would reform without a host, and it would tear this place apart, leaving mere ashes."

Danzō scowled. "Is that a threat?"

"Yeah, I'm totally going to destroy my home," Naruto muttered sarcastically. "You know that the punishments for treason would never work on someone like me, so nobody will be stupid enough to try anyway. Killing me would just hurt the village. Sealing my chakra is useless too, since even if you got Jiraiya-sensei to do it, I still know a trick or two myself. I'd break myself out within the week, or the fox would supercharge it and erode the seal away even if I couldn't."

"For a supposedly loyal shinobi, you're talking an awful lot like a criminal," Danzō said darkly.

"I am loyal. I would give my life for this village." Naruto said confidently. "Believe me, that won't ever change. If I wasn't loyal, do you honestly think I'd still be here? Do you think that I would have tolerated the appalling behavior of the civilians if I was not willing to look past it and see the goodness in them, too? Do you think I could have fought for this village at all, if I didn't keep it safely in my heart?"

Danzō shook his head. "You are still a loudmouth."

"Maybe. But still, I would never tell people about Konoha's weaknesses, or about any of my friends, or their secret jutsu, or anything remotely like that at all. My first loyalty is always to the village." He raised an eyebrow. "I figured you of all people would understand that."

"Hmm." The man paced around the wooden prison impatiently. "Why should I believe such bold words from a liar? How would you prove your loyalty?"

Naruto's eyes caught Danzō's at last, and they bled blood-red, their pupils thin and vicious. The lines on his cheeks seemed gouged into his skin and his teeth were razor-like fangs. Danzō froze as an incredibly potent Killing Intent flooded the room, licking at the air around the wooden prison with relish. "Isn't it obvious? Understand this, Danzō-san: If I went all-out, I could rip everything to shreds. Everything. That is the power of a Bijū."

"Stop," Danzō hissed, revealing his Sharingan eye. Tenzō rushed back into the room, holding at the door as the wooden prison tightened, though it had hardly any effect on the corrosive chakra of the Kyūbi which was eating through it swiftly.

"Shimura-san!" Captain Yamato barked worriedly.

"The Hokage told you I could manage one or two tails, I'm sure," Naruto snarled viciously, his nails digging into his skin and disrupting whatever illusion Danzō attempted to place. It was not a strong one; the man was not desperate yet. "That was true, at the time. I trained, I got better at this. This last mission was productive, it jarred the door a bit. Four is how many I can keep under control when I'm well-rested, and I just woke up from a three-day nap. If I set the beast free, all of it, it would raze the village. Do you understand?"

Naruto smiled for a final moment at the terror he spread, then he let the fox's chakra go. it vanished as soon as it appeared, leaving just a few branches to hold down his legs and arms; all the rest were gone, burned away by the power. Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Of course, I won't actually do something like that. I could, but I won't, and I haven't ever done so. If that is not a show of loyalty in the face of how people here treat me, then I don't know what is."

"Are you trying to get your throat slit?" Danzō grasped a kunai tightly, knuckles white. "The Hokage certainly sensed that outburst. Are you so unstable, that you would so casually risk yourself for a petty intimidation tactic?"

"I'm not the Hokage's enemy. He has no reason to worry," Naruto said, and he smiled dangerously at Danzō. "Quite the contrary, in fact. I've offered myself as the Hokage's weapon, and suggested that he use my talents as a Jinchūriki where they are most useful. He seems unwilling to take that particular offer, but I cannot change what I am any more than you can. Do you understand, Danzō-san?"

It may be my nature to be a weapon, but I would never let you wield it.

There was a long, long silence. Suddenly there was a swift movement that broke the tense pause. Danzō's kunai sank deeply into Naruto's upper arm, cutting through wood, severing muscles and scratching past bone as it reached the other side, pinning the limb to the table as blood leaked out from the branches, and sprouts erupted with red leaves. Pain rushed up the nerves and Naruto almost screamed, but he caught himself at the last moment, as the first moment of agony quickly dulled due to Kurama's presence. He looked down at the wound, and the edges were already closing around the metal of the knife. "You sure are touchy..."

"You will never threaten the village again." Danzō noted, his eyes betraying a cold hate, and Naruto was not sure what had inspired it. He doubted Danzō was upset about the potential damage to the village, just to his precious plans. As the man stepped out of the room, he glanced back one last time, grimacing darkly. "Foolish boy."

"Threatening the village, eh? Nah, I'll settle for threatening you." Though Naruto briefly strained to hear a response as Danzō vanished down the corridor, none came. His eyes slipped closed as he succumbed to exhaustion from his use of the fox's chakra, straight through Captain Yamato's technique. Still, a small smile played around the corners of his mouth. It didn't matter what happened, now, since he had already eliminated any likelihood that Danzō would want him; he had no need for an unstable vessel.

Whatever would come, he'd deal with. I'm not gonna run away and I never go back on my word, that is my nindō!

Across town, in the Hokage Tower, the Third sat back from his shining crystal sphere, and he turned to his neighbor with a troubled expression. Shikaku Nara kept watching with narrowed eyes, nodding to himself. Across from him, Jiraiya's mouth had fallen open, and it refused to close for a long, long time.


Naruto smiled as he blinked awake again; there had been a good dream for once, a memory from a long time ago. It was the first in a long, long time. He and Jiraiya had been out among the people of a quaint gambling town, and he had begged the old perv for new techniques, while the latter visited every seedy bar along the way.

The super-pervert had been less than pleased when Naruto had snuck in after him, when he stayed gone for rather a long time, and found him in bed with three rather voluptuous women. Before his teacher had managed a coherent thought and taken a swing at him, Naruto had rushed out of that place so quickly that he had inadvertently destroyed three doors and a wall on his way to the pavement. Then he had stopped and admitted reluctantly that, yeah, he was jealous of the old bastard.

That was the day he had finally given up on denying that he, Uzumaki Naruto, was a pervert as well. Honestly, he had never been given a fair chance, as the student of both Kakashi and Jiraiya. He idly wondered if his father had anything to do with all of it, as the teacher and student respectively of those two people. Did he stash copies of Icha Icha inside that voluminous cloak of his? He couldn't stop a goofy grin from erupting as he imagined that. He knew where the dream had to have come from, and his smile refused to budge.

Naruto opened his eyes slowly, and was taken aback by Jiraiya, looming over him with an expression that promised the same kind of wrath as he had promised on that day, but with none of the humor, none of the joking nudge and twinkle in the eye that he was familiar with. It made him uncomfortably aware that this was another Jiraiya. One that had barely been his teacher for more than a week or two, though it felt longer.

"You're an idiot." the man stated dryly, his tone calm even as his eyes bored holes into him. "A complete buffoon."

Naruto jerked upright in his chair, a different one from before, and realized that it lacked all the chains and wood to keep him down; he was in fact completely free. He had to have been moved sometime after he fell asleep, as his shoulder only ached slightly. Several hours, then, at the very least. "I've been told that before," he murmured at last, rubbing his shoulder as he stretched his cramped legs. Then, before he could think twice about it, he sunk his fingers directly into the healing wound with a single, sharp jab. The instant of furious pain almost made him collapse off his chair, but the room remained the same, and the person before him did not waver.

Jiraiya's expression became rather disturbed. "...Yeah, that's definitely not helping the case for sanity," he said with an appalled glance at the thin trickle of blood that dripped down Naruto's fingers.

The Genin wiped them off against his jacket distractedly. "Fool me twice..." he muttered. He narrowed his eyes after a moment, any evidence of pain evaporating as he straightened. "So... are you my next interrogator, sensei? I'm sure you know all about the things I told Danzō-san, before and after his Genjutsu. First was the stick, then the carrot." He lifted his chin. "Are you going to be the blade that cuts the stem, then?"

"Naruto..." Jiraiya said with a little resignation, his expression tinged with worry. "You must know you threatened a very power individual, one that has considerable influence even among shinobi, let alone the civilian sector. In fact, quite a lot of people sensed your use of the Kyūbi's chakra, and fear that the creature may be breaking loose. I know it's not true, but you are in enough trouble as it is to add more to the list of offenses." He shook his head. "Shimura Danzō will not let this matter lie. What he wants, he tends to get. Unfortunately, that is the way of things."

Naruto shrugged. "I know. Danzō's dangerous, but I had to show him that he can't push me around. I had to show him that his ace in the hole was useless against me. I did that in the easiest way I knew. If he thinks I can snap at any moment, or that I'm as ruthless as he is, he would never dare try to control me like his puppet. He could never trust me." He frowned. "On that note, he said you control Root now?"

"...I do. I admit that I am unsure about Danzō's motives."

"I'm not," Naruto responded blandly. "He's picking his battles, and I think he realized that a pre-academy Genin just did half the things his Root were meant to do, and a lot more efficiently. He knows that having me as a pawn is infinitely more useful than a hundred emotionless murder machines that have a habit of getting themselves killed." He smirked. "And that's even without the Kyūbi, you know! What a prize to have: the son of the Yellow Flash, a prodigy, and the holder of the mightiest of the Tailed Beasts! Oh, Danzō's playing it smart. A lot smarter than I'd anticipated. I figured it would take him much longer to move."

Jiraiya shifted uneasily. "You speak as if you've got decades of experience, but you are no more than a Genin," he said. "Or at least you display far more knowledge about the seedier side of the shinobi world than anyone I've ever met at your rank, sans one. There was one other prodigy like that." His eyes narrowed, and Killing Intent was unmistakable as he did so.

Naruto stared, his mouth suddenly dry. "Sensei?"

"You know who I'm talking about," Jiraiya said, almost whispering, and he lay his hand calmly on the side of his vest, and a seal flared to life with a burst of chakra. As he did so, the Killing Intent seemed to spike, and Naruto felt short of breath. "Tell me, Naruto. How is it that, while I was travelling across the Land of Fire to return to Konoha by the Sandaime's request, I also managed to visit the village of Sunagakure at the same time?" Naruto grimaced involuntarily. "How is it that I walked into that place, stopped a war that hardly anyone knew was brewing, not even me, and came back out with a Jinchūriki in tow?"

Naruto didn't have to say anything, his pallor said enough.

Jiraiya inclined his head. "Yes. I know it was you, Naruto. The coincidence of your disappearance from the village and the simultaneous events in Suna are damning enough, but then you brought in the Suna Jinchūriki with a nonsense story. All this, after the events that Danzō so helpfully documented." The Sannin's eyes were like burning coals, now. "I can even see why you did it, in a way. To divert a war, and to save someone like yourself. Those are admirable goals. But even then, you avoided the chain of command. At first because you weren't in it, and then I imagine it turned into a personal quest. Something far beyond simple village politics."

"Sens-" Naruto started, but Jiraiya's glare silenced him instantly.

"There is another person in this world who was like you. He was a genius without comparison in this village, who perfected many techniques of deception and stealth before he was old enough to join a Genin team, who showed his capability before he was ever asked to. He saw the imbalance in the world, and the opportunities, and he set out to exploit them to his own ends, as you did." He shook his head. "In the end, the Hokage became a nuisance that stood in the way of his goals, his greatness."

"Orochimaru," Naruto whispered, shivering. "I'm nothing like that sick freak!"

"Perhaps not that much." Jiraiya's smile was momentary, and his eyes never defrosted. "Still, you have acted as he did, and you share much of his nature. I wished to give you the benefit of the doubt. That is why I granted you the tool for perfect privacy, the Uzumaki sealing style. That was before I realized just what I had been missing. You have his disrespect for authority. This latest incident in Rain is but one example." Jiraiya's eyes seemed unusually shiny. "You spoke to Nagato himself, I understand."

"Yes... He and Konan are alive. They were your students, weren't they?" Naruto asked, knowing the answer. "I thought that I could reason with Nagato, that it was safe. And it was, since we spoke, and we made a deal. No secrets of the village, or any such rot. Just... something far more personal." He looked away. "Do you believe me, when I say I am loyal to the village, sensei?"

There was a long silence. Finally, Jiraiya spoke again. "I do. For now."

Naruto nodded slowly. "Hmm. You can compare me to Orochimaru, but there have been others that have compared me to other people. Kakashi-sensei sees my father in me, I'm sure, and his old teammate, Obito, when I'm being goofy. Sasuke imagines his brother, as he was before the disaster, he all but admitted it. The old man and you, I guess you see Orochimaru. Nagato -" He sighed. "Well, he once told me that he saw himself in me."

"And you? What do you see?"

Naruto raised an eyebrow. "It's true that I share things with all those people, In some degree or another. I'm sure that in the right circumstances, you would see Danzō in me, or perhaps even the Sage of the Six Paths." He winked. "Bit much? Yeah, I thought so too. Truth is, I'm just the Leaf's Uzumaki Naruto, the number one most surprising knuckleheaded ninja, and that's who I want to be. And the Hokage, if possible."

"You know that the Hokage is listening," Jiraiya said pensively, the Killing Intent fading from the air. "Though I can sympathize with your position, I must point out that you went against orders. That you quite willfully crossed a line. I doubt you would end up on the chopping block, for the reasons you mentioned, and others, but you will face judgment."

Naruto hung his head. "Maybe this kind of thing is what Kurama means, when he speaks about fate." He brought a hand to his stomach. "I could back out now, if I wanted to. You've left me unbound, you've allowed me control of my chakra. I've still got the fox. On the other hand, I know that this is necessary." He shook his head. "All this time I've been fighting, and this is the first time, the first instant..."

"Kurama?"

Naruto blinked, his train of thought derailed, and he met Jiraiya's eyes. "Yeah. The Kyūbi's name." He smiled. "He told me what it was. We have a truce, of sorts. Actually, we are a bit annoyed with each other at the moment, but I think he's warming up to me. Probably it helps that I'm changing. Little by little." His stomach warmed under his hand.

Jiraiya stood calmly. "Changed or not, your time's up. Are you ready to face the music?"

Naruto rose to his feet, his limbs feeling awfully weak, but his spirit was strong. "Now or never, I suppose." He followed his sensei silently, his footsteps heavy.

Let's hope fate is kind to her servant.


There was a knock at the door.

"Oh, What the hell do you want now?" Sakura shouted, fuming, as she raised herself from her bed with a pained wince, rubbing her forearm with a slight whimper. The knock had been soft, careful, but right now even the slightest noise was enough to set her off. "Didn't I tell you to stop bothering me!? Please, I've got a headache like you won't believe..."

"Sakura?" came a mystified voice from the other side of the door. "Are you okay?"

"...Ino." Sakura sighed in relief as she recognized the new voice. Even if it was from an irksome person, it was a hell of a lot better than another run-in with Kakashi, or either one of her overly worried parents. "Sorry, I thought you were that... Never mind, please, come in." She flopped back down onto her bed, closing her eyes in an attempt to calm down. No such luck.

Ino glanced inside carefully, wiping her long hair out of her face as she took in Sakura's disheveled mop of pink, which had clearly not been washed. "You look... sort of terrible."

"Heh, yeah. I feel like it. Seems like I just ran a marathon on my hands." She opened one eye, tentatively, studying the Yamanaka as she stood uncertainly by the door. "Come on in, get a seat. It's not like I can muster up enough energy to toss you out, anyway..."

"Alright," Ino replied in an unusually small voice, and she sat down heavily on one of the rickety chairs that Sakura rarely ever used, as nobody visited her house much. The door slammed closed behind her due to the draft since the window was wide open. Next to the window was a comically large hole straight through the wood, and splinters were all across the floor.

"Don't mind the mess," Sakura muttered.

Ino stared. "What's... what's gotten into you? I heard you yelling from the street, it was crazy. And you punched a hole in your wall...? How the hell did you do that?" She paused. "You don't even have your fists bandaged up... When did you become that strong?"

Sakura pushed herself upright, forcing herself to ignore her aching muscles, and gave Ino a deadpan stare. "I've been training, of course. And what do you think happened, Ino? I just came back from the worst mission I've ever had, and it was the first C-rank we even did!" She scowled darkly. "And then that happened. I still can't believe that -" She took a deep breath. "Now I'm pissed off and there's nobody to punch over the whole thing! Shannaro!"

Ino flinched back. "You're kind of aggressive today, aren't you?"

"Of course I am!" Sakura exclaimed, then she sighed and shook her head sadly. "I'm just riled up, and I can't sleep, and I've been thinking way too much about stuff I shouldn't be bothered with." She bit her lip. "I overdid things, and now my muscles are all cramping up, and my team's sprinting ahead of me so fast It's unbelievable!"

"What...?" Ino asked, confused.

Sakura sighed deeply, glad to get a few things off her chest, even if Ino seemed completely bewildered. "Look, I don't know if you have that with your team, with Chōji and Shikamaru, since they're laid-back and such. I've always said I really liked Sasuke-kun, and I lectured Naruto as if I was better, but now..." She faltered. "I am lagging behind. I'm the one that couldn't take another step at the end, you know. I collapsed when my adrenalin ran out. And that's even with my training schedule, which is insane. I hate it!" She looked away, and tears came to her eyes.

Ino worriedly reached out. "Sakura, what... what's happened? I thought I'd hear what your mission was like, I heard stories about you saving Hinata's team, but you're... all sharp edges. What could have happened that -" She swallowed, her voice thin and timid. "Oh. Oh. Already?"

Sakura looked up, her red-ringed eyes catching Ino's, and she knew that the other understood. She was a Yamanaka, trained in understanding people's thoughts and actions. Her father was a long-time interrogator, of course she would have picked up on the tells. "I... It's okay. They were just Missing-Nin." Her voice failed her, and she shuddered.

"Oh, Sakura -"

"They were... just a couple of bastards trying to kill Sasuke-kun..." Sakura pressed on, and she closed her eyes again, but that brought the images into focus. She thought of her fist flashing out, tearing into someone who stared at her with a baffled expression, which was then ripped apart by pain. She could feel the blood still slick on her fingers, longer after it had been washed off

And she could still find no regret, not really. No regret. Just relief. And that terrified her.

"I... my bare hands." She swallowed thickly. Ino was suddenly there in a hug, like in the old days, when they were bestest friends forever, before a stupid rivalry about Sasuke had torn them apart. Tears made their way down Sakura's cheeks, though they were more over relief that someone understood, at least a little. She did not regret what she did, and she knew why. She had been confronted with the reason why a shinobi sometimes had to go to those lengths, up close and personal.

She could understand that look in her parents' eyes when they looked at her, and she knew that the experience could not be put into simple words, that she could not explain it to them. They were terrified of her now, being civilians. They were hardly the type to understand why a shinobi would go through these things voluntarily. Perhaps in time they would come to deal with the realization that their daughter was a killer, but Ino understood.

"There were two of them," Sakura said at last, haltingly, after she gathered herself. She gazed at the floor as Ino sat next to her. "Three, actually, Sasuke-kun got one too. There were too many for him, and I didn't know what to do, and it was all a moment of panic, so I didn't think. I reacted." She quivered. "I killed them. It didn't even seem real, then. It was easy. They were Chūnin, supposedly, but it must've been the surprise..." She pressed her fists tight together. "...Ino, can we forget this whole rivalry stuff? I don't care about all that. Right now I could use a friend again."

Ino didn't need to answer. The two just sat there for a time as Sakura leaned into her old childhood friend, talking about every stupid thing that happened in the mission, every terrible moment, while she just listened. The rivalry now seemed awfully childish in comparison to what truly happened in their profession.

"Sasuke and Naruto - they're strong, Ino. Sasuke's so powerful, and Naruto is a monster." She twitched with remorse for her unthinking words. "I mean that he's a chakra freak, and he flings it around like it's nothing. He went up against a Jōnin, and he basically won by himself!" She shivered. "That Missing-Nin was taking over his clones left and right, and still he figured out a way to keep going. It's absurd. Then, when I thought he was captured... it turns out he had some crazy ace up his sleeve. Kakashi-sensei was barely even needed at all..."

"Naruto, huh?" Ino asked softly. "Didn't think he had it in him, though dad has always been a bit wary about him. Especially lately. Says he's weird."

"Oh, he's weird alright," Sakura agreed with a choked chuckle, and a small smile appeared. "There's no doubt about him being a bit deranged. Out there, he might as well have been the Hokage himself, the way he bossed people around. Strange thing was it felt real, you know? Not like he was doing his usual clownish acting, but... like he could back it up. It was impressive." She frowned. "I think even Sasuke picked up on it. I don't know why, but Naruto's gotten under his skin. Sasuke-kun went and ranted against Kakashi-sensei! Over Naruto! How crazy is that?"

"What did the idiot do to deserve that?" Ino asked dryly, raising an eyebrow.

Sakura shook her head hesitantly, her smile vanishing. "No, there was... something strange. Something wrong. Kakashi-sensei was all serious about it, and he knocked Naruto out. I don't know the details, but I think he is under arrest," Sakura said hesitantly, her eyes pleading forgiveness. "It's... I can't tell."

"Village secrets, Missing-Nin, and a whole shinobi team in the hospital," Ino said, summing it up. "That has to have been one hell of a C-rank mission, seriously. We just got to sit around with a drunken bridge-builder until he finished his stupid project. Three weeks of utter boredom and listening to a whiny brat who hates shinobi."

"Heh, I'm almost jealous." Sakura smiled. "Well, our mission was... good, though," she said, shivering. "Not good good, but... it's out of the way, right?" She sounded desperate even to herself. "This mission will probably be marked an A-rank, since the rogue Jōnin was that strong, so that means it'll be ages before we get another one like this. Maybe when we're Chūnin or higher. Hopefully. I've already seen something of how bad those can get." She nodded to herself, confidence bolstered. "And I'm still here. And I'm not stopping. Not until I am what Naruto -" She stopped, blushing as she realized who was next to her.

Ino smirked. "Naruto, eh? Not Sasuke-kun? Don't tell me -"

"No!" Sakura burst out, her fist raised as she fumed. "Ino - ! Don't you dare!"

"Alright... no need to bash my head in over it." Ino said with her hands raised before her in a gesture of surrender. "I guess he got under your skin too, huh? Hey... what do you say about visiting the hospital? I'm sure that Team 8 could use encouragement, and it could get your minds off things for a bit. Maybe they'll know what's going on."

Sakura exhaled slowly. "That sounds good. I hope everything will turn out for the best. I really do."


When a murderer holds court over another killer, who can claim the cleaner conscience? When a liar stands triumphant in his position of power, even as he blames another for his own sins, who is truly just? In a world that is obsessed with war and bloodshed, people blame each other to demonstrate their own superiority, but they are mired in the same morass.

And what of those who undermine the very idea of law, of fair judgement? I have seen those who would commit genocide before a single word could be heard from accused.

In this world, justice is dead.

Even those with honor in their hearts shall be ruined by this perversion, in time. They will be forced to destroy the last vestiges of a sense of justice, or perish.

Same as I was.

"Foolish boy," said Uchiha Itachi, his eyes gleaming red as he gazed down on his old village, perched atop the Hokage monument.


Author's Note: More or less concurrently with this update, Nauro has most likely updated his own fanfic (Steal My Thunder God) for which I edit and offer suggestions. If you like timetravel tales, you'd probably like it - much like SMTG, it takes a different tack than the usual fair in the genre. You can find it on his channel (Nauro) or at id: 8971041.

I cannot confirm nor deny that the endings of the chapters are in some way, similar. Nor that it is not a coincidence. ;D

The next chapter will deal with Naruto facing the Third and his council, as well as Danzo as an independent agent - and the repercussions for his actions. Yeah, canon is now quite solidly screwed.