Chapter 23 - Loyal Traitor

Naruto followed his old teacher on leaden feet. The halls of the Hokage's tower were eerily empty of their usual comings and goings, except for the watchful ANBU that stood vigilant at every floor, their placid masks betraying nothing. They served as thinly-veiled intimidation, of course, but there was no arguing with the shivers their blank stares sent down his spine.

Now that the moment of truth had come, and his future would be placed in the hands of a bunch of old farts that had little to no knowledge of what was coming. Naruto's doubt reemerged from wherever it had been hiding, yet somehow he still kept his head up. Maybe it was that part of himself that he'd been ignoring, that bright-eyed boy who accepted him with all his problems, that gave him the strength to walk on with some degree of hope. He could definitely use a little optimism.

They were headed for the Hokage's office; it was hardly the usual place for any kind of criminal trial, but that was hardly a surprise. Odds were that the decision had already been made, the debate long since decided. Kakashi had relayed his findings, and this was just a walk of shame.

Naruto glanced to his side, managing to suppress his turbulent emotions. There were some things he was curious about, and the answers were very near. "...How is Gaara?"

The Sannin stopped in his tracks at Naruto's question, glancing over his shoulder. He hesitated for a moment, then leaned against the wall with a sigh, frowning. "I figured you'd ask. He's still in your home, for the time being. He seems stable enough to last."

Naruto smiled. "Good. I knew he'd be fine. He's got more control over Shukaku than you give him credit for," he said, a little relieved. "I'll give you my notes on how I plan to enhance the seal after all of this is over - I'm not a master at sealing, but I know my stuff. I suppose that cat is out of the bag, too." He smirked momentarily. "We could use another seal expert around here, so I won't apologize for delving into that."

"Just 'cause you modified something complicated doesn't mean you're an expert," Jiraiya muttered shortly. "I've only just started teaching you. Don't get cocky."

Naruto rolled his eyes. "I'm not. Seals are probably the only thing I haven't been lying about. I actually do like making those - even if I'm not nearly as natural with the things as either of my parents were." He ruffled the back of his head, smiling sheepishly . "The many uses of shadow clones can't be overstated." He let his arm drop to his side. "Anyway - that's all beside the point. Will the others be up there? Sasuke? Sakura?"

"Doubtful. They haven't been invited," Jiraiya muttered with a tinge of distaste.

"Huh. The council members wouldn't allow it, I assume?" Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Or maybe those old bags just happened to forget sending them a notice? It seems like something they'd do..." He frowned. "Kakashi-sensei will be there, won't he?"

"Doubtful," Jiraiya said again, glowering. "Look, I'm not happy about it, but the council's adamant that this is done quickly and quietly, and the Hokage's agreed with that. There are only a few people who even know that you're in trouble at all…"

"So this is Danzō's work, I'm sure." Naruto grimaced. "That doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. That man has it in for me."

"Should've thought of the consequences before you wandered into Rain or insulted that man so thoroughly," Jiraiya responded dryly. "Anyway, this isn't supposed to be the time to catch up. Though - I suppose I can't blame you for delaying that."

There was a long, tense silence as the two stared at each other.

"Anyway, just…" Jiraiya sighed, and despite his harsh words, his expression softened. "Just don't do anything stupid, alright? I know we've only gotten to know each other for a short time, but I'd hate to see you get sent to some prison camp. I know a few more things than most, and I owe your father a thing or two - that's why I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here. Don't squander it."

"I won't. Thank you… Ero-Sennin." Naruto let out a short sigh, perhaps of relief. Jiraiya and the Hokage knew effectively everything, now - most of the illegal things he'd been up to since he returned to the past, and even his disastrous trip to Suna which only barely worked out in his favor. Maybe when all this was over, he could walk out of the office with something of a clean slate. "Thanks for the honesty," he said at last. "I shouldn't be surprised that you're on my side."

He smiled as he thought back to the other Jiraiya with an odd sense of nostalgia. During their long training trip together, he had tried his best to be as tolerant as possible, despite Naruto being a loud and incompetent eyesore at the time.

"Well, don't get used to being spoiled," Jiraiya muttered irately, before he hesitated. "Out of curiosity - how do you intend to defend yourself?"

Naruto met Jiraiya's eyes and raised his eyebrows. He had the urge to grin as he crossed his arms and huffed exaggeratedly. "I hardly have to justify myself to those people. Certainly not to Danzō, but the rest of the council is just as guilty of hypocrisy." He hesitated. "...Even the Third cannot really be trusted to look at some things objectively. It's a bummer."

"Naruto -"

He shrugged. "You know I like the old man, Ero-Sennin - but he went from overprotective to suspicious rather quickly, didn't he? I've noticed the looks he kept giving me before this mission - it's probably gotten worse, now… I never really noticed it before, but he's so - paranoid."

"Can you blame him?" Jiraiya wondered wearily, rubbing his forehead distractedly. "He's - worn. Not just old. And I know what caused it."

"Hm. It must have been there all along, but I just looked right past it." He frowned. "Dad chose a hell of a time to get out."

Jiraiya sighed. "Ever since the Kyūbi's attack, things haven't been the same. Sensei still has a hell of a reputation, and he can probably back up much of it, but it's not the same." He smiled sadly. "That's probably why all this is so hard on him, you know. Why he's doubting you. Who else would he see in you but his lost successor? And at the same time, maybe he sees you as a grandson of sorts. And here you are, breaking the rules and flirting with death before you're even a proper adult. Imagine how this looks to him?"

"The old man knows I'd never intentionally hurt him," Naruto said. "And if he thinks I'd ever get along with that creep Danzō, he must have been smoking something really weird in that pipe of his! You'd think he'd trust his own instincts on this stuff." He scowled slightly. "My team's figured out what I can do, and they're probably the only reason I'm sane…" He glanced aside with a raised eyebrow. "You've been keeping an eye on me, too. That should have set the old man's mind at ease, I'd think. At least where it comes to my loyalty…"

"So you'd include me among your allies, huh?" Jiraiya observed easily.

Naruto blinked. "Of course! You have a pretty good reputation when it comes to things not involving, er - women. It's clear that even your sensei agrees with that. Why else would he send you to escort me?" He nodded to himself. "Let's not forget that dad made you my godfather, and that you gave me that Uzumaki sealing style despite knowing that I could abuse it. It says something about you, y'know."

"I suppose…" Jiraiya frowned. "So, you're not going to deny what happened at all, are you? Yesterday was - a bit of a revelation."

Naruto shrugged. "There's no point in hiding anymore. You know what I've been up to already," he replied dully. "It's… almost freeing, in a way. I've already slipped up a bunch of times, and I showed Kakashi some things before the mission even started. It'll be a matter of time before someone says something to the wrong person, and maybe Nagato has guessed already. The Leaf isn't toothless anymore."

Jiraiya shook his head. "You think that you're safe from repercussions, just because of that fox in your gut?"

Naruto shook his head. "I'm safe because I didn't do what I'm accused of. The claim is that I've committed treason. Treason. As if I'd ever betray Konoha." Naruto scoffed, a spike of bright fury briefly alighting at the edge of his mind. He took a deep breath, releasing it even as he reached out for the natural energy that suffused everything around him; he'd absorbed more than enough of it to turn himself into stone, back when he was fighting Muneyoshi, and he could still sense it on his skin. He subdued his almost subconscious attempt to call fully on that powerful force, feeling for the flickering of chakra sources around him, the bright glow of Jiraiya's standing out most clearly. He was not using Sage Mode, but it was close enough.

"That's…" Jiraiya mouthed, eyes lighting up, though there was no real surprise there. Kakashi had to have relayed what happened to Muneyoshi in the end, and if there was one person to recognize the effects of petrification, it would be Jiraiya.

"It's natural energy, yes. Something I should not have messed with," Naruto agreed, balling his fists. "But I've done a lot of things that are stupid in hindsight."

"I wish I could understand what drives you," Jiraiya observed. "All this - manipulation, these hidden facets you keep showing…"

"Hm. Can't you guess my motivations?" Naruto wondered. "Danzō knows, I'm sure. I could see it in his eyes. There's a certain desperation there. Even though he ditched Root, he doesn't see that he's the same as ever. But I think we've both seen a future that's drenched in blood." He grimaced. "I'm foolhardy and overconfident in my own abilities, that I'll grant you, but I'm not wrong. And I think you're aware of that."

Jiraiya sighed to himself. "You are the third to share that sentiment with me in as many days."

"Hmhm. People start to notice things when they're on edge, and I haven't exactly been passive. I was the one that shared my fears with Gaara, you know."

The Sannin shook his head. "It was not the boy that alerted me." His eyes darkened. "I heard it from his father."

The Fourth Kazekage. Naruto shivered as he thought back to his meeting with the man, to that dangerous moment when he'd feared to be discovered, hiding under Jiraiya's face in the midst of people who would have stabbed first, and asked questions later. In retrospect it was completely idiotic to even attempt an infiltration like that. Had he been caught, he would have been killed on the spot, drowned in golden sand.

"Orochimaru's been scuffling with Suna," Naruto mumbled, a smile peeking through. "So I'm guessing someone else came to take a peek while that nation was busy?"


Naruto nodded. "I doubt they would've taken Gaara already, but that doesn't matter. If they know that he's absent from Suna, then they'll soon find out who has him, if they don't have spies here already. There are very few who would dare to come after a village like ours."

"Right. An inevitable attack on this village - from Suna or Akatsuki - has been delayed through my timely intervention," Jiraiya said mockingly, but the corners of his lips twitched up. "You're an irresponsible idiot of a brat - but you're pretty good. Taking their Jinchūriki weakened and strengthened the Sand at the same time. Now, they don't have the creature's power anymore - but they never truly did, anyway. They couldn't control it."

"And you arranged for a few high-profile missions to go Suna's way, just to keep them afloat," Naruto guessed wryly. "If Suna can stay focused on fighting Orochimaru's forces, that would be best for us, anyway."

Jiraiya's eyes gleamed dangerously. "Indeed. I run Root now, Naruto. Danzō's little troops jump at my beck and call, however unhappy they are to do so. They were swift in uncovering the same facts you did - I found the sword that you held at the Kazekage's throat."

Naruto smirked. "The Kazekage was about to commit treason against our alliance. Life's little ironies, huh?" He pouted. "Here I am, saving the entire village from an invasion or a war or something, and what do I get? Nothing! Bah."

Jiraiya grinned despite himself. "The Hokage knows enough to take that into account. If you had done it within the chain of command…"

Naruto scoffed, rolling his eyes. "You're not stupid, sensei. You know about the Akatsuki and what they're after, and I know for sure that they've got people in the village already. What I did was sort of short-sighted, but it was certainly unexpected!"

He looked forward again, blinking as a spark of natural energy surged through him once more, momentarily lighting up the world around him with brilliant spots of chakra. There was an all too familiar presence there, barely noticeable but much closer than he'd ever have suspected. The Sharingan of Uchiha Itachi looked out over this meeting. Interesting.

"I can't promise you my future actions will be any more, um, lawful than the last," Naruto said after a moment. "I have to acknowledge that I am who I am, or I'll just be in a heap of trouble with myself. Don't ask - it's complicated." He glanced up to meet those distant eyes, as if he could see them through solid stone and wood. "My loyalty has never wavered."

"That's about the best I'm going to get, I suppose," Jiraiya observed. "Come on, then. We've put this off long enough."

The Hokage's room seemed especially cavernous, the windows shuttered nearly closed, though there was only the darkness of early morning beyond them. The two honorable elders flanked the Hokage, sitting behind the shared desk with scowling faces; neither even attempted to disguise their disgust. The Third was seated in his usual chair behind his desk, and his eyes betrayed a weariness that went beyond age and exhaustion. Behind them all, half-covered in the shade, Shimura Danzō's hateful eye gleamed.

Alright. Deep breaths. They're just dodgy old people.

There was a long, drawn-out silence as Naruto took his place on the single chair that was set out for him, facing the desk - two ANBU stood on either side of it. Judging from their builds, neither of them were Kakashi, though one could be Yamato wearing another mask than he usually did. Naruto's eyes slid away from them after a while, meeting the Hokage's gaze with not a trace of humor.

"Hello again, old man," he murmured weakly, as he sat down heavily. He wiped his hair out of his eyes, suddenly distinctly aware that someone had taken his hitai-ate - Iruka's gift to him. He supposed he didn't quite count as a shinobi, right at that moment. "Fancy meeting you like this, huh?"

"So rude! You will show -" Utatane Koharu, one of the Hokage's council, began vehemently. She was interrupted by an almost immediate gesture by the Third, his eyes dark like coals.

"Koharu - whatever the boy may have done, he is still allowed to speak as he wishes." The Third leaned back in his chair, distractedly tapping his pipe. "We must respect him at least that much for the burden he bears, wouldn't you agree?" His stare was remarkably sharp despite his lax mannerisms. "Wouldn't you agree?"

The old lady swallowed thickly as she glanced away. "...Of course."

"Jiraiya," the Third continued swiftly. "For lack of alternative, please stay at Naruto's side - you are his teacher, after a fashion." The Hokage's dark eyes became a little less icy in that moment, a little more recognizable.

Jiraiya nodded. "Of course, sensei."

"Very well." The Hokage sighed, clasping his hands under his chin as he frowned. "Naruto."

Naruto swallowed nervously.

"You are aware that we listened to your interrogation, I'm sure," the Hokage started. "At least, the part that we were able to get to. After your explosion at Shimura-san, it was considered too dangerous to continue the attempt. The Nine-Tails was becoming - rather irate."

Naruto snorted derisively. "Not just the fox, either." He met Danzō's eye momentarily, his contempt barely hidden at all. "You know that I barely told him anything that I wouldn't have admitted to you, right? Besides, I knew you'd be listening." He waved his hands. "I'm a prisoner, I guess. Though I don't have the usual chains…"

"An oversight that I would gladly resolve," Danzō said mildly, despite his glare. "The attempted assault on my person should be considered an indication of the boy's state of mind, regardless of the Kyūbi's presence." He leaned in next to the Third. "He was unsuccessful in his attempt - but had he been free, I could have been killed."

Naruto snorted. "With Tenzō-san in the next room? Not likely," he said, glancing to his guards, though neither of the ANBU reacted. "In fact, you sent that man out of the room just before you assaulted me, remember?The fact that you were unable to permanently harm me hardly excuses that. I didn't even touch a hair on your head."

"There is no reason to consider might-have-been's," Mitokado Homura cut in sharply, the second of the Council, and a former member of the Third's team. "We are here to judge the boy's actions with regards to Amegakure. The facts there should be more than sufficient for condemnation." He stared at Naruto for a moment, scowling. "The boy is correct - the risk to your well-being was limited, Danzō. He clearly tired himself out with his demonstration of power, and was unable to protect himself in its wake. This was also supported by Jiraiya-san's observations."

Utatane hummed in momentary agreement. "A momentary lapse of control can be excused, given his - situation. His mother had a similarly volatile reaction to Genjutsu, if you recall."

Naruto blinked in abject surprise, staring at the council members that both avoided looking at him in turn. That had almost sounded like a defense, even if it was couched in rhetoric. And what was that about his mother? Danzō did not seem at all appeased by the elders' words, but the Hokage's gesture interrupted the inevitable response.

"Let it be known now that I am not interested in the use of Kyūbi's chakra. I am aware of Naruto's progress in that particular area," the Third explained shortly. "He admitted his propensity for training with the creature's power some time ago, after he vanished from the village for a week, and I questioned him upon his return. Jiraiya has since shared details as to his whereabouts with me."

"Hiruzen!" Utatane murmured, blinking. "You had the boy shadowed?"

Naruto just stared blankly at the Third, which was thankfully enough to hide his surprise. The Hokage had just blatantly lied to his council members. The week he described, after all, was when he'd gone to Suna and freed Gaara - and Jiraiya had doubtlessly informed the old man of that particular mess already, now that it had been exposed. Which meant that the Third was intentionally keeping it a secret from his closest confidants, as well as Danzō.

"These 'training sessions' were just two lonely boys meeting, and exploring their power," Jiraiya stated. "It's a troubling fact that such a thing could happen under our very noses, but that is all. Suna is our ally, so no actual crime was committed beyond disobeying orders, and during the lion's share of the period in which these meetings happened, Naruto wasn't even a Genin yet."

"Civilian law has no clauses dealing with Jinchūriki, needless to say," the Hokage observed dryly.

"Then - it could have been going on for years," Homura concluded, paling. "Which means Uzumaki lied in the academy, too! Its teachers almost universally describe him as an untalented troublemaker - and he has never disrupted that image, until very recently."

"Don't have to talk like I'm not here…" Naruto mumbled.

"It is not an unprecedented situation," Jiraiya argued, raising an eyebrow. "In fact, most of the village's geniuses blazed through the academy, or ignored it entirely from the outset. I have it on good authority that the Nara boy could have graduated six times over if he'd bothered to try, and there's a few others, too. Let's not get started on what happened to the likes of Hatake Kakashi or -"

"Yes. He might be talented," Danzō cut in sharply. "But we know that the Suna host is unstable, barely able to control his Bijū even in peacetime. From what I've seen, Uzumaki is no better, lashing out with the creature's power violently after even the mildest of interrogations. We cannot afford an explosive situation such as Suna's to form in our village!"

"Oy, I'm right here!" Naruto protested, a little louder.

The Hokage glanced at Danzō with narrowed eyes. "Suna's host is an ally - and besides, Gaara-kun would react poorly to anyone harming a friend," he noted, taking a puff from his pipe. "The boy has also shown no sign of the murderous behavior he's known for in his home country, voluntarily keeping away from the inhabitants of Konoha and spending a lot of his time sleeping."

"In other words, Naruto's seal is working," Jiraiya concluded. "And let's not forget that the boy's presence here is not a whim. Naruto has already relayed to the Hokage and myself that he can sense other Bijū to some degree - I've no doubt he can communicate with them too, at least when they're close." He raised an eyebrow. "These are elementary shinobi tactics in action, you see. Gaara doubles as Naruto's backup, in case things go badly."

It took the council members a few seconds, though Danzō seemed, as usual, unsurprised.

"You're not saying - he would use a Tailed Beast as a weapon against Konoha?" Koharu barked sharply, glancing at Naruto again. "You would dare to threaten -"

Naruto glared at her with such sudden focused Killing Intent that she stopped mid-sentence, and Homura's eyes widened in surprise. "Would you people shut up and talk to me?" he huffed. "I thought you listened to Danzō's little interrogation? Gaara isn't some insurance against Konoha, you idiots! You all know about Akatsuki, right?"

The Third nodded slowly in assent.

"Then what's so hard to get about Gaara?" Naruto demanded. "There's a reason these people are after the Bijū - we're gamechangers. With Gaara in our village, Konoha has twice the power to counter whoever comes here, so Akatsuki will think twice about taking us on. They might be able to take out an isolated Bijū, but can they deal with two at the same time, backed up by two of the Great Villages?" He sniffed. "Besides, I'm in control of myself, thank you."

"We are on par with Kumo now," Jiraiya explained shortly. "Even if our Jinchūriki are not as well-trained as theirs, two hosts still make for an excellent show of strength."

"And we're supposed to believe that was intentional?" Homura cut in, staring at Naruto with narrowed eyes. "That this incorrigible prankster planned such things from back in the academy? That's preposterous!"

Jiraiya groaned. "No. He is hardly the only one who can make plans in the village," he stated, stepping forward as he reached into his pocket. He retrieved a yellowed letter that sparkled with the remnants of golden dust. "Suna cannot afford to lose our alliance, since without us they would fall prey to invasions by even minor nations. Naruto's interaction with the Suna host was instrumental in allowing a plan of mine to come to fruition." He glanced to the Hokage, nodding. "It ran into some problems on the way, but… they were resolved."

Koharu cut in, then. "Problems?"

Jiraiya nodded as he stopped next to Naruto, retrieving another object from his jacket - a very familiar scroll. Inscribed upon it was a complicated mess of symbols, centered around the swirling sign of the Uzumaki Seal. There wasn't much in it yet - except for a certain someone. Naruto understood almost immediately, and fought to keep a grin off his face.

"Release it," Jiraiya said shortly. "You are the only one who can."

Naruto quietly bit his finger, tracing a trickle of blood across the seal. It shone for but the shortest of moments, before it disgorged its contents onto the desk. What appeared was a pale grey-haired head, sheared cleanly from its body, its eyes closed.

"Who is - ?" Utatane began carefully.

The disembodied head's eyes opened with a snap, and it snarled furiously. "GOD FUCKING DAMNIT! COCKSUCKER!" it belted, and a kunai flashed out from Danzō's hand, embedding itself hilt-deep into its forehead; the missing-Nin bounced down to the ground with a thud, and immediately began another series of loud curses that became progressively less intelligible as his face was squished into the floor.

"That man - he's still alive." The Third rose to his feet in alarm, catching his student's eyes. "Is it the Second's jutsu?"

"No - no. Thankfully, it isn't." Jiraiya grasped the head by its hair, pulling it up even as it tried viciously biting at his fingers. "This is the A-Rank Missing-Nin Hidan, former shinobi of Yagukare, the Village Hidden in Hot Waters. His immortality is derived from being a committed Jashinist - he can survive like this for quite a while." He nodded to the Hokage. "This man is an associate of the Missing-Nin Muneyoshi, whom we currently have downstairs - he is the person that Team 7 brought back home."

Naruto finally understood how Jiraiya had found out, then. In the past twenty-four hours, Naruto himself had not been the only one who had been interrogated - and the real Ibiki could do nastier things to someone like Muneyoshi, who had no demon to protect him from excesses. Somewhere between yesterday and today, Muneyoshi had spilled his guts, and informed the village about Hidan, and that he had intentionally spilled Naruto's blood for his associate to use.

"He underestimated me," Naruto explained mostly to Jiraiya. "He knew about my use of Shadow Clones, and assumed that his kekkei genkai was the perfect counter to my techniques. That's why…" He grimaced. "That's why he won the first time around. This cursing fool was taken, but he got someone from our side in return." He looked to the Hokage. "This man murdered the doctor at the hospital. He killed the medic-nin Ryosuke."

The old man nodded slowly at that, even as the council members glanced at each other. "I see now. So that is how he saved your life…" he murmured, narrowing his eyes. "Gaara-kun was the executor - but through the wound transference ritual, another victim was affected..." He frowned for the briefest moments. Something about the Third's gaze was different when it met Naruto's eyes again. It wasn't any friendlier than before, but some of the eerie quality seemed to have faded. All the lies were being uncovered, it seemed, and even the Hokage realized that. And perhaps, they weren't quite as bad as the old man had been expecting.

"Hm. We are straying very far away from the matter at hand," Danzō said after a long moment. He seemed utterly unimpressed by the muffled cries of Hidan, and gestured vaguely. "The charge is not that Uzumaki was affiliating with people of an allied nation, nor unwillingness take down the enemies of this village. His off-the-books associations seem utterly irrelevant."

Jiraiya shrugged wearily as he resealed Hidan's head into one of his own scrolls, stifling the man's raging cries at last. "Maybe. Nevertheless, it has to be established that much of the 'suspicious behavior' that you have referred to in the past is accounted for. Thus far, I have seen no evidence of ill will towards this village."

"Yeah, as if he cares..." Naruto muttered, scowling at Danzō. "I know where this is going, so can we just skip all the nonsense? You sure didn't have any trouble accusing me before!"

The one-eyed man shrugged. "Alright. Let's move on to treason, then," he noted deftly. "Or more precisely - colluding with an enemy nation. That is the charge which we must consider."

"Firstly - Rain isn't the enemy. They're neutral," Naruto corrected immediately. "And I'm not colluding with anyone. That would mean I'd have some kind of secret loyalty, or made a hidden contract. I have a verbal understanding with its leader - and that is all. It's not even to this nation's detriment, either - as if! My loyalty is clear to any half-wit in this village. I yelled it off the rooftops often enough, y'know."

Danzō scoffed. "So, you have a verbal agreement with the leader of Amegakure, you say." He shook his head. "For most of its history, that village has been Konoha's enemy, as you certainly know. Their current neutrality is a detail. The people of that nation hate Konoha, and it's only the weakness of their shinobi that prevents them from assaulting us outright."

Naruto snorted. "You're wrong about that. I'm sure some people there do hate Konoha, because of certain - nasty events in the past. Like when Konoha slaughtered half their country." He looked darkly to Jiraiya at that. "It's been a while, but that sort of thing lingers. What's false, though,is that they lack power to do something about it. There are several extremely powerful shinobi that call Rain their home - including Nagato himself."

"Uzumaki Nagato, as you mentioned yesterday," the Third mused. "A member of your scattered clan. You argue that this man could be a threat, then?"

Naruto grimaced for a moment at the way that sounded. "Well - if he wanted to be? Hell yes. He's up there with you and the other Kage. Put an Uzumaki's toughness together with those eyes, and, well…" He glanced to Danzō. "I'm sure you know what I'm talking about."

The cyclops just scowled.

"Those eyes?" Koharu inquired carefully. "Not the Sharingan, surely..."

"Much worse. I know this, because Nagato is... an old student of mine," Jiraiya explained with a sigh, drawing all gazes to him. "You remember my stories, don't you, sensei? Nagato was one of the orphans I raised in the war." He smiled warmly at that. "He is the proud owner of a unique dōjutsu - one that has only been seen once before."

Koharu took in a sharp breath. "Impossible!"

"Hardly. He has the Rinnegan," Naruto said with finality. "Nagato has the eyes of the Sage of the Six Paths, and sees himself as one of his successors because of that. I admit he's not very friendly, and he has a lot of dislike for the shinobi world in general, but he's not unreasonable. He just wants a lasting peace…" He smiled sardonically as he focused on the man in the shadows. "But you know all about that, don't you, Danzō? Wasn't it you that sided with Hanzo the Salamander against Yahiko, Nagato and Konan, the very orphans that Jiraiya mentored? You sided against their little rebellion, back when it hadn't yet been hijacked by others for their own twisted purposes."

"He told you…?" Danzō narrowed his eyes. "No matter. That is long in the past, now."

"Hm. Too late to change it, yes. But you don't really know what you caused, I think," Naruto stated. "The movement which those three founded, do you know what it was called? It's been perverted now, of course, turned into a tool for another madman seeking power - but it started as a noble ideal. These people of Ame were looking for a new dawn, a way to change their village. So they named themselves Akatsuki."

There was a total silence for long moments.

"So, how does it feel, Danzō?" Naruto intoned sharply. "In your zeal to protect this world, you planted the seed for those who seek its destruction. And it's not the first time, either. Must I remind you of what happened with Orochimaru, and the Mokuton-experiments that you had him perform? How about the Uchiha Massacre, or the Wandering Miko? Must I go on?"

Naruto couldn't help smiling ever so slightly as he took in Danzō's grimace, or the wide eyes of the Hokage's advisors. Naruto had never taken up the Hokage hat, that was true - but he had been close to the ones that did reach that seat, and even the worst of Konoha's sins had come to light in the years after the Fourth War ended. Danzō had his hands in everything, and Root was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to that man's sins. It was doubtful he would ever truly pay for those misdeeds, except with his death - but that didn't mean they had to remain hidden.

Only the Third's face was perfectly blank, betraying none of his thoughts.

"Wouldn't you agree that treason is a fair description of most of those disasters?" Naruto leaned back slightly as he said that. "You colluded with Orochimaru, when he was torturing this village's inhabitants. You worked with Hanzo without the Hokage's permission, too. And the Massacre - well, suffice to say that you have very little to talk about without exposing your hypocrisy. You would call it all working for the village, of course, but…"

"This is not my trial, boy," Danzō said sharply. "If there was a price to be paid for my mistakes, then I have long since paid it."

"And I haven't paid for my petty lies?" Naruto returned icily as he glared at the man's exposed eye. "You should be happy that I am no monster. I was made a Jinchūriki on the day that my parents were killed, made to carry hate, and yet I still took their love of this village as my own. Given the right circumstances, I could be this village's most dangerous weapon, exactly as you would've preferred me to be. I have already offered such, and the Hokage said no. If the world had turned another way, I might've become Hokage. Either way, I would never betray Konoha. Even if I lost my way and became like you, that would never change. And I know you realize that."

There was another lengthy silence as the Hokage leaned back in his chair with an intrigued expression, while Danzō's glare remained fixed on Naruto. The Third nibbled on the end of his pipe even as his eyes seemed to see right through everything.

"I know how you tick, you know. Wasn't this the reason you let go of Root, after all?" Naruto wondered at last. "You intended to take charge of the one weapon that you thought would guarantee you victory - before you realized that you had misjudged me." Naruto sighed. "You missed out on my father, so you moved on to me, I guess. But if you didn't think my loyalty was absolute, you would never have sacrificed as much as you did. You thought that you saw your own reflection - and you never realized that it was the Hokage's reflection, too. This entire trial is no more than show, now."

There was a knock on the door, right then.

"And here are the spectators," he finished under his breath.

"I was wondering when they would arrive," Jiraiya said as the tense moment was finally broken when Naruto looked away from Danzō - but he could still feel the man's burning gaze following his every movement.

The Hokage raised his hand to Jiraiya, who had moved to the door. "Naruto - although criticizing others for their mistakes is your prerogative, I must remind you that it diminished none of your own. Danzō is not the one who judges your actions, here. It is, in the end, my decision." He sighed slightly. "Let them in, Jiraiya. It is only fair."

"Who is it?" Homura asked sharply. "Who is interrupting a closed session of the council?"

"Only those who were invited," the Hokage responded slowly, puffing from his pipe with a satisfied smile. "It seems to have slipped your mind, Koharu, that this boy is a Genin, not a prisoner from some foreign nation. There are those among his friends and colleagues who would speak on his behalf, and they have that right." He raised an eyebrow. "As their invitations seemed to have been - misplaced, I sent one of my ANBU to fetch them, just in case."

"...My friends?" Naruto wondered distantly.

The door slid open with a thud.

"My, my, you've started without us," Nara Shikaku said as he stepped into the Hokage's office, glancing past all those present with a bored expression, his topknot looking rather frazzled. "Hokage-sama, honorable elders," He bowed slightly, smiling at the relief that was clear on the elders' faces.

"Good morning, Jōnin-Commander," the Hokage said, his face as expressionless as before. "You are quite late."

Shikaku smiled. "Well, someone tagged along… I was going to come here on behalf of Team 8, since their sensei is still in the hospital..." The scarred man sighed, and took another step into the room, diverting to the side. Behind him, hands hidden in his sleeves and face obscured by a high collar, was Aburame Shino. "Well, you see, one of them recovered already and was quite insistent…"

Naruto's grin threatened to split his face as he took in Shino's remarkably healthy color, in so far as he could see it, and the fact that he was using both his arms without trouble. "Shino!"

"Hello, Naruto," the boy murmured in recognition, cocking his head to the side ever so slightly. "I was told to offer my father's gratitude for my rescue, and I also offer the hospitality of my clan, should you require a place to stay."

"Thanks. But that… is probably something for later," Naruto mumbled, blinking away something in the corner of his eye that was probably sweat. "How's things with the… you know?"

"My health is - acceptable," Shino said shortly, turning to the group.

Homura of the council cleared his throat. "Uzumaki, this is hardly the time to catch up on irrelevancies. If the Aburame boy is your - defense - then I suggest we move on."

"He is not alone." Uchiha Sasuke leaned easily against the frame of the door, the burning red of the Sharingan focusing on each of the elders in turn before it found the Hokage. "If there is a representative of Team 8 here - then there should also be one for Team 7."

"Sasuke!" Naruto managed to blurt. "You're…"

"Yes, I'm here. Close your mouth, dead last - you look ridiculous," the Uchiha said, the tiniest glimpse of a smile appearing before his gaze moved to Danzō. "You got yourself into a sticky mess, it seems. It figures that the moment you wander off alone, you would end up in trouble…"

"Hm. Uchiha-san and myself are here to speak for the team leader's defense," Shino said, gesturing at Naruto with a raised eyebrow. "Why do I consider Uzumaki Naruto to be the team leader? It is simple: after the loss of our own sensei, Team 8 was without leadership, and we were all put out of commission shortly thereafter." He twitched his arm for an instant, probably involuntarily. "Team 7 was the first to intercept one of our team; myself. At the time, I was very nearly dead. The leader of that team, as it appeared to me, was Naruto."

Sasuke nodded sharply. "That's true. It was decided ahead of time, before things went bad - before we even left Konoha. It worked out so well that Kakashi-sensei never actually got around to taking command back until everything was over."

"I had heard as much," the Hokage noted softly. "It was claimed that Shino-kun here was rather beyond conventional aid."

Naruto scowled. "He was - dismembered by your guest downstairs. The wounds had been festering for days before we caught up with him."

"Yet now he stands before us, healthy? Impossible," Homura noted, frowning.

"I was the one who detected Shino first," Naruto said, shaking his head. "He was holding on with the last of his strength." He closed his eyes as he tried not to remember that terrible smell. "Shino died the instant that he recognized me - he just let go, probably because of the familiar face. I'm sure that his motive was to preserve the secrets of his clan, and he held on to ensure that his remains would be taken care of properly." He took a deep breath. "I could not let it end like that, though. Shino's hive was dead, or at least nearly, so I could hardly make things worse. I shocked his heart back into rhythm with a seal, and then - then I went to work."

"He used the fox's chakra," Sasuke added, grimacing. "It was foul and powerful, and the creature spoke through him as he channeled it, but I don't think Naruto ever really lost control. Kakashi told Sakura and I to keep a distance, but we didn't listen, of course. He wasn't our team leader." He smirked at that. "The beast crawled back inside the seal when the healing was over, without killing anything. It was - rather a show of power."

"The fox didn't have a choice," Naruto said, meeting Danzō's eyes. "The Kyūbi's awesome healing comes with a steep price - but I think Shino is willing to pay it." He glanced over. "His arm will take time to recover, but that is better than having no limb - or no time, for that matter."

"You are speaking of regenerative healing," Danzō said after a long moment. "You are capable of healingwith the chakra of the Kyūbi - that is far beyond the control that the previous Jinchūriki have displayed. To share that much of the creature's power…" His eye gleamed with interest. "It is intriguing…"

"Well, I hardly think Kurama would entertain the ideas you are cooking up," Naruto murmured. "Could you show them, Shino?"

Hesitating for but a moment, the Aburame rolled back the sleeves of his jacket, exposing two very differently-shaped arms. One of them wiry but strong, with the small holes of the kikai's nests barely visible - the other was pale and somewhat flabby, the skin unbroken.

"The fox's chakra is highly corrosive," Shino said after a moment. "My limb was returned - but in exchange, I will have to retrain much of my previous chakra control, as my coils have been severely damaged in the process. It is possible I will never be as strong as before." He ducked his head slightly. "Nevertheless - I thank you for your rescue, Naruto."

"Heh. Any time."

Danzō sighed. "Again, I find myself wondering where all these diversions are leading," he said. "It is very interesting that such remarkable control has been achieved, and I'm certain none would be upset over using its chakra to save a life - but have we not already declared the use of this chakra irrelevant?"

"The mission, however, is anything but," Jiraiya cut in. "The rescue of a Leaf nin and the controlled use of his tenant speak in favor of Naruto's intentions." He shrugged. "It is only half the story, but it is a part that speaks to the boy's state of mind. Would a traitor perform such potentially self-destructive actions for this village only hours before he allegedly betrayed the same country?"

Sasuke snorted. "Wait, you're actually calling Naruto a traitor? I can buy that he's a secret Jōnin, ANBU, whatever. But a traitor?" He shook his head. "He's a damn good actor, but let's not exaggerate here. When he's at his most serious, there's no way…" He took a deep breath. "There's no way he'd lie about those things."

"Hardly a rational argument, Uchiha," Koharu replied testily.

"Maybe not. But trust me when I say that these eyes can see a lot more than you think." His Sharingan twirled as he shook his head. "You know, after that attack, Naruto came to find me in the hospital." He glanced to the Hokage momentarily. "I don't know what got into him that day, but I could tell he was telling me the whole truth about what he foresaw to be our future. And he certainly wasn't speaking about abandoning Konoha." He snorted. "He was talking about replacing the Sannin."

"What? Oy!" Jiraiya protested. "This one doesn't need replacement!"

"Heh. It'd be Naruto as you, Sakura as Tsunade…" Sasuke smiled thinly, and he shook his head. "On this last mission, he really pushed all of us to make that fantasy a reality. He's clearly better at a lot of stuff than us, but he doesn't want to be. He's been ensuring that we'll catch up. He activated my Sharingan, and he probably has something to do with Sakura's new style, too. He got us to take out our first Missing-nin, too. Tell me, why would a traitor want to make us more loyal?"

"Sasuke…" Naruto said slowly, eyes wide. "You're… talking!"

The Uchiha rolled his eyes. "It's your fault for getting in trouble, idiot." He gestured to Shino. "Between healing Shino and saving the rest of Team 8, including their sensei, you're effectively the whole reason the mission was successful. Considering our enemy - I don't know if even Kakashi-sensei would have succeeded easily, seeing that man's specialty is Ninjutsu. He would have been, if anything, worse off."

"Ah. Chakra absorption against someone with fairly small reserves," Jiraiya muttered in disturbed realization. "There's no telling which techniques would have worked…"

"Breaking the law in order to finish a mission is how most interstate wars get started," Koharu observed with a frown. "Ame has never been very stable. A successful mission is commendable, but not if it leads to something much worse."

Naruto sighed. "Again, I retrieved Kurenai-sensei from a neutral nation with a leader that I knew and who demanded nothing from me in return for her. If you're going to just ignore everything that anyone else says, just get this show over with." He took a deep, shuddering breath. "Punish me for disobedience or something, and be done with it."

The Hokage frowned. "Uchiha-san - your spirited defense speaks to the loyalty you have for your team member, but that does not erase the mistakes that were made." He leaned forward. "Still, we must take into account that this transgression was most likely not committed out of malice. Certainly, it is a grave mistake, but not a fatal one." He nodded. "Therefore, I am willing to decrease the charge from treason to acting without orders, or insubordination of the highest order - against myself."

Jiraiya winced, and Naruto swallowed thickly. Insubordination on that level wasn't much better than the previous charge, and Sasuke looked ready to punch someone over it. Shino, of course, seemed utterly unaffected.

"Reckless decisions have a habit of catching up with people," Homura said, looking for a moment her real age. "Fifty years ago, a Genin of this village punished himself for reckless behavior. I request that Uzumaki Naruto receives the same punishment - that he is dismissed from entering the Chūnin Exams to improve his rank."

Danzō sniffed. "Permanently, I should think. Team 7 cannot persist like this. They cannot be held back by a Genin."

Naruto's felt like he'd been frozen in place. He felt like objecting, as he realized that his team - his team - was about to be torn apart. Just when it'd started working properly, with Sasuke coming around to his point of view, and Sakura growing up far sooner than before. This time, it wasn't Sasuke that left, that abandoned the team - it was him.

"It is a harsh punishment," the Hokage said after a moment, sighing. "In exchange for letting that demand stand, however, I offer a way forward. The Guards of Fire Country, responsible for protecting the various villages that are outside the range of Konoha's troops, have requested skilled shinobi to fill out their ranks. It is a - humble task, and as such, it might teach the lessons that have clearly failed to sink in. Through that path, I suggest he seek self-improvement."

"You're banishing him from the village?" Sasuke demanded. "Then I will go too," he added, his eyes gleaming darkly. "I volunteer. Sakura will agree as well, I'm sure of it."

The Hokage frowned, shaking his head. "You seem to be under the impression that this will be a vacation. The Guards will be aware of Naruto's crimes, and he will likely be forced to work long hours to make up for them. He will not have the help of the rest of Team 7."

"You can't just do this!" Sasuke protested, but before he could set a step closer to the elders, he was frozen in place. The Nara next to him yawned slightly.

"We can. Come Monday, there will be a new member of Team 7," Danzō stated imperiously. "I already have someone in mind for the position." He nodded in satisfaction, glancing to Jiraiya.

"No." Sasuke managed to get out as the paralysis of the shadow jutsu slowly retreated. "You were the one who tested my loyalty, weren't you? You were behind that scroll, to see if I would sell out Naruto." He sniffed. "I refused then, and I refuse now. Team 7 will remain as it is - or there will be no Team 7 at all. There are other paths to power."

Naruto closed his eyes, wincing. Damn you, Kurama. Damn you for being right.

"Loyalty is such a fickle thing. I wonder how much worth you attach to this village at all," Danzō murmured half to himself, half to the Hokage. "I leave the decision to Hiruzen. You will abide by his word - or you will have no future at all, no more than Uzumaki does."

The Hokage's eyes met Naruto's for the first time since the arrival of his friends. What he saw - none of the cold harshness from before, but no warmth, either. It seemed as if the Hokage was completely at peace even as the bickering went on around him. He nodded, slowly, as his eyes narrowed at the clamor in his room.

He stood, his pipe clattering onto the desk. "Enough." The word was said quietly, almost in a whisper, but it didn't need to be any louder. "The punishment stands," the Hokage said. "Naruto - you will remain." He looked across the room to Jiraiya. "The rest of you - leave."

"Hiruzen!" his former teammate protested. "This is -"

The old man turned, stepping to the windows behind his chair that looked out over the village. "I believe I told you to leave. This - trial - is over." He shook his head. "You have the punishment you desired. Naruto will be out of the village tomorrow. Now go."

Naruto swallowed nervously as the Elders at last passed him by with barely a glance, except for Danzō's sneer, which seemed to have been etched permanently into his face. Naruto's eyes slid away with contempt. Shikaku looked down on him with a weary smile of encouragement - as if there was any hope to be found here - before he also departed.

"Naruto," Sasuke said as he stopped next to his chair, eyes still spinning red. "This won't stand, you know that. I won't let it lie." He glanced to Shino, then Jiraiya. "You have - allies here, even against the council." He frowned. "Perhaps even against the Hokage…"

Naruto shook his head sharply. "There won't be any revenge, Sasuke. This punishment - was a long time coming." He let out a long breath. "You and Sakura will have to do without me from now on; maybe for a long time." The tiniest smile made it through, then. "Team 7 was pretty badass out there though, so I'm sure you two will make it in the Chūnin Exams anyway."

"Not in the coming ones, certainly," Sasuke muttered. "Our team is gone."

Naruto sighed. "I can see why you think that. But Kakashi did his duty - and so will you." Naruto looked over to Jiraiya, and shrugged. "It's not all bad. I'm not dead, Sasuke, nor banished. Whatever punishment this turns out to be - I'll survive. As for the ban on the Exams…" He sniffed, raising his chin. "I'll make Hokage, even if I have to do it as a Genin!"

"It's not like they could stop you. Idiot. I'll see you around." Sasuke's eyes faded to black as he turned slowly to the door, followed by Shino, whose watchful eyes lingered on him from behind tiny sunglasses. The door closed slowly behind them with a sort of sullen finality, and then Naruto and the Hokage were alone. The silence lingered for a long, long time.

"Old man -" Naruto started at last, feebly, desperate to put in some kind of good word for himself, perhaps apologize for whatever he'd done that had led to the trail in the first place. The Hokage turned from the windows with a glare, one that froze him in his chair. There was no mercy there.

"Kneel, Genin Uzumaki." the man stated slowly.

A long moment later, swallowing the last of his pride, Naruto obeyed and put his knee down onto the floor, lowering his head in a gesture of supplication that he'd known all too well in the future, serving as the blade of the Sixth. At that time, it was a sign of respect as much as mockery; Kakashi had never truly demanded its use, and often felt embarrassed by its use. Now the same gesture felt alien, impersonal. For the first time, he actually meant it.

"You know that this trial was a farce - you saw through my old friend's machinations rather deftly," the Hokage stated after a moment, his tone morose and low. "To preserve the fragile peace with Suna, Jiraiya and I decided upon twisting your actions to our benefit." He paced slowly to his seat. "However - that does not change what happened, and the punishments are not unjust. I am quite aware of your misdeeds."

"I… I know that," Naruto said slowly. "...Hokage-sama

The Hokage's eyes still stared down at him, Naruto was sure, but with his eyes down-turned he could not see the man's expression. He had no doubt it would be vicious, though.

"Naruto - you trampled on this village's laws as if they were mere suggestions," the Hokage said at last. "You risked the death of yourself and others through rash behavior unbecoming of a shinobi. Those actions will not be forgotten. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Naruto managed to get out under the stifling Killing Intent that slowly suffused the room, a galling sort of feeling that had him shivering. "But… why? Why…?"

"Why would I save you from paying the full extent of your dues?" The Hokage sighed slowly. "You know what the duties of the Hokage are, Naruto. It is my duty to protect this village from threats outside and within its walls. All threats, whether intentional ones or not. You conspired with dangerous people, confronted potential foes that far outstripped your rank and ability. It is only through luck and the creature sealed within you that you stand here to be sentenced. The sentence you receive is the greatest that I can give you - while still leaving you a way to reparations."

Naruto didn't respond, staring at the gleaming floor that reflected the early light of dawn.

"This punishment will serve as a reminder of your limitations, even if your intentions are pure. By the council's demand, you will never participate in a Chūnin Exams. By Danzō-san's demand, you are removed from your team, until such a time as you have finished your punishment. By my own demand, you are to serve as a guard of Fire Country, to learn how to harmonize your desire to protect your village with the wisdom that is required to maintain its spirit."

"I… think I understand," Naruto acknowledged with difficulty.

"You do not." The old man sat down in his chair, and the tense atmosphere vanished as if it had never been; Naruto's head shot up in surprise, and he realized that the Hokage's face was not thunderous as he had expected, or filled with anger. What could be tears glistened in the dim light. Reaching out for his pipe, the old man sighed. "Not yet, at least."


The old man stared at him for a long moment, then shook his head. "Ah, you're such a foolish boy. Brave, but foolish." He smiled, an expression so incongruous with his previous ire that it was staggering. "As foolish as Jiraiya, I suppose, as rash as your mother. That is a very dangerous combination."

"...Hokage-sama?" Naruto wondered, blinking.

"You asked me why I would save you from the worst punishment," the Hokage said pensively. "I gave you my answer as the leader of this village, as one who must judge impartially. Your punishment is intended to teach you a lesson, but still allows you a way back, as we can scarcely lose our demon's vessel. That is a cold reason, of course." His expression softened further. "Ah… but I cannot be truly impartial when it comes to you, can I? Your actions have been questionable, even edging on treason at times. You willingly trod upon the chain of command that allows our system to persist. But - I know you, even now. I've known you all your life."

Naruto held in his breath, staring incredulously at the Hokage. "Old man?"

"I have doubted you in recent times," the Hokage admitted wearily. "I feared that your actions would harm yourself and others, and that your decisions would lead you inevitably to this point, to a crossroads. But… something happened along the way." He tapped his pipe, and smiled. "When you first revealed the unseen depths that you hid from everyone, I saw hatred and paranoia. You didn't acknowledge that, rejected it, but your soul seemed twisted, your intentions flawed. I imagined, for a time, that you had already been lost, like Orochimaru was. That is one reason why I recalled Jiraiya to the village."

Naruto blinked in surprise, thinking back to their first meeting, wondering if all the talk about seals had merely been a pretense. Had that test with the seals been about more than just his skill? Perhaps it had been to see how he would retrieve the information he wanted. Whether he would ask - or just take. He shivered as that idea took root. It made a disturbing amount of sense.

The Hokage smiled wearily. "Things have changed since that time. Ever since that terrible event in the hospital, I have seen you act quite differently. Your interactions with Gaara-san, with your team, lost the sinister edge I saw there before. You locked up your demons, pardon the saying." He took a puff from his pipe slowly. "Leaving aside, for the moment, your meeting with your distant cousin Nagato, anyone would admit that you performed exemplary well on this last mission, betraying just how much you have developed from the brat you were. You saved at least one life, one which would have surely been lost if not for your zeal in training with your inner prisoner."

"You mean Shino," Naruto acknowledged.

The old man's eyes gleamed. "The Aburame will not forget it. You also fought a high-ranking Jōnin to a standstill with only a Genin team - a feat that would have been impossible without your advanced use of seals, as well as knowledge of certain other - more esoteric disciplines." He raised an eyebrow curiously. "And then there is Sasuke's rather startling loyalty, of course. It is clear that you have worked to make Team Seven more than the average Genin team. The three of you worked together, and the others treated you as leader, an undeniable result of your own convictions in their inner strength. To improve the others in one's team just by leading them is an admirable trait, needless to say."

Naruto swallowed, eyes wide. "...Thank you."

"Hmm," the Hokage turned slightly. "In light of this, I do not wish to divert you from the road you are walking. I see that it is a good one. Your path is strange, warped, and has diversions that would be unimaginable to other people - but you are your parents' son, that much is clear. I should not be so surprised that you fall outside the norm." The dawn filtered through the blinds and contoured his conical hat. "Naruto - I implore you to keep this village in your heart, no matter where this strange life of yours might lead you. That way, there are ways back from even the deepest darkness you might encounter."

Naruto smiled at that, one hand slipping to his stomach almost without thinking as he thought he could hear the delighted laugh of his other self. "...You're the best, old man." He shook his head slowly. "You know my dream, and you know I would never change that. If I can't keep my friends close… then how would I possibly become Hokage?"

The Hokage nodded slowly. "I cannot let your mistakes pass without repercussion, of course - but I believe that you meant no harm, and that conviction reassures me. Your punishments will be harsh - but fair. They are truly meant to help you as much as it is to remind you of your mistakes. When you return to Konoha, I believe that things will be different. I think that the wisdom your father possessed might have found its way to you, too - it's just a matter of finding it. You will have the chance to find it, as he did." He smiled. "And, there is one more thing."

Naruto blinked in confusion as the man gestured upwards, his eyes gleaming. "What...?"

"Rise," The third said with a small smile. "Rise and serve, Chūnin Uzumaki."

Author's Note: Many thanks to WalkingDisaster and Luckylee for editing this mess, as well as other members of DLP! Also, apologies for the sometimes long waits between updates...

This chapter might still get tinkered with a little, but in form, not substance. ;)

The next chapter will contain several removed scenes from this one, since it was getting awfully long. This includes the continuation of last chapter's Itachi bit, for those who were wondering! Team 7 shows up in its entirety in the next chapter, woo! Except - crap, they're not a team anymore, are they?

Author sidenote: I am moving at the moment so it's a bit hectic, but I have continued writing chapter 10 of The Wizard from Earth, a long-stalled project, and the WaS chapter is also shambling towards completion. I am also thinking of separating The Forgotten from the rest of my plotbunnies since it's clearly gone rabid, so that might pop up as its own story. Cheers for sticking with me. :)