He woke at dawn once more, wishing he had the will to sleep in. But he was in his... home? His home. He was home. And the thought of sleeping away the hours drove him mad. There was too much to do. Too much to address. The Uchiha, the Hyuuga, what might remain of Akatsuki, and other threats he could not even consider right away - Orochimaru. Mizuki? What of Gaara? Could he alleviate the suffering of the jinchuuriki? And why was Cloud in Konoha? Were they gathering intelligence to attack? To steal one of the Hyuuga away? He had already changed history by preventing tragedy, so he could not rely on whatever memories he had of the future.

He found it odd how clean his hole in the wall was. Since revealing he knew kage bunshin (and so far happy to notice that nobody seemed to blink at it), he'd left one on task of arranging and tidying up. The clone found the source of that awful mouldy stench and disposed of it, scrubbing the walls with old soap and tap water.

He had slept in the nude, his only set of clothes drying above the sink. They were dry enough for his tastes, so he dressed and ate, stepping outside, blinking as he caught sight of Anko, the door to her apartment opening just he closed his.

She was clad in a tight purple tee, fishnet peeking out from underneath the short sleeves. Shimmery black spats reached to her knees. And he really couldn't pull his eyes away from the strong swells of her thighs. The purple-haired teen noticed his eyes.

"Oh, hey there cutie." She teased, "Like something you see?" she sounded refreshed as she turned, angling her tight butt to his eyes. Naruto was skilled enough in shutting out his perversions (unlike certain sensei of his) that he just met her sharp eyes with a slight bend of his lips.

She grumbled at how easily he resisted her charm, a pout marring her soft face, "Did anything happen while I was out?"

"While you were out?"

"Yeah. I think I slept... wait what's the date today?"

Naruto sighed, but a wicked smile adorned his face, "Oh it's the fifteenth."

"The fifteenth?!"

"Yeah. I didn't realize. Were you sleeping the whole time in your room? Are you alright? I hope you went to the bathroom at least-"

"S-Shit! Hokage-sama didn't give me that much time off! Ibiki is gonna kill me!" and she ran, jumping off the balcony, dropping down several stories with her leap. She landed in the lobby down below in a crouch, speeding off immediately, not even seeming to care that it was gray out, wet drizzle softly pelting the streets.

The prankster laughed, "Oh, I shouldn't have done that. I think. That was mean." He snickered, wondering what Ibiki could threaten to do that would spook Anko so, "But she was dumb enough to buy it, so, it's really her fault."

Naruto one. Anko zero.


They listened to the sound of the rain pouring outside. There was a leak in the roof, so water dripped into a bucket by the door.

The hallway was brightly lit, white stone blocks coarse against his skin, stiff against his bones.

The tall man was without his emblematic cloak and green vest. He was dressed loosely in blue and white - a white baggy gi hiding his muscular features, blue mesh pants puffed around his legs. He looked like he was going to go train, rather than what he was there for.

His head was buried into a plane created by three calloused fingertips, his eyes staring into his left hand.

"The blood tests confirmed his identity." The blond said tiredly, "The biopsy confirmed Hashirama cells, as well."

"So it's as we feared." Another blond said, his body also propped against a white wall, the flat of one foot hoisting him up. His retreating blue-green eyes staring into the abyss of the never-ending hallway.

Silence filled the void for a while.

"Yeah. It's exactly as Shimura-san and Hotaru-san guessed." The Yondaime said, his voice no so subdued, a barely restrained fury leaking into his tone, "Somehow. Under everybody's watch. My student became a... an experiment for that traitor. He must have recovered him, the boy barely clinging to life, and restored him using the cells. Then he must have tortured him until he broke. All under our noses! He would have still been wish us! Using the brainwashing techniques he learned from-"

"Hokage-sama." Inochi said calmly, "It isn't your fault."

The man grit his teeth, "I can't believe I let this happen. I can't believe I didn't consider the possibility. We never recovered his body!"

"Nobody knew, Hokage-sama." he pleaded in a soothing tone, true empathy leaking into his words, "We hadn't a clue. That boy was as good as buried. Even I had heard about it - the famous Hatake Kakashi, obtaining his own Sharingan...no one expected him to be still alive. Besides, it cannot be your fault. It was war. There was no time, no way we could ever hope to do thorough searches, or even recover the body. It wasn't even your call, Hokage-sama." He insisted, the man looking at his hands without a breath.

His voice grated, "Minato."

"Pardon?"

"Call me Minato." The blond lifted his gaze up, a lone wet streak on the man's face, his eyes quaking, "This is personal. This goes beyond my duty as the Hokage. That man in there-" the blond's fist clenched into a boulder as fire burned in his bright eyes. He slammed his fist into the wall behind him like a hammer, an echo bouncing off into the otherwise empty hallway, "-no, he's still a boy. He's still the same thick-headed, chronically late, persevering perverted prankster who left us! Even if I barely recognize him, he needs my help. He needs our help."

Inochi met the pooling eyes of his sworn leader, his focus flickering as he hesitated, his hands burrowing into his pockets, "Before I give you my full report, Minato. I have a request."

Minato nodded curtly.

"After what happened with Naruto. After what happened today, with the prisoner-"

"His name is Obito."

"-of course." He cleared his throat, "I will be frank. I barely escaped with my life early this morning."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"I would normally not complain, as it is my duty to serve, but I recently became a father. I think you can understand that feeling very well. And... I'm just not like I used to be. With all due respect, which I have much for you, I will try my best to help with Obito, but... please... I... I have to draw a line on this. I've faced death so many times in my life, but I was always in control. Even in the most tense of situations, against the most disciplined minds, I have only ever put myself in danger when I knew the risks, when I was able to mitigate them and know that my very best would result in an almost certain success." He rambled, "But, whatever you knew of your Obito is probably not in that room. The thing that I entered moments ago, was not a mind, I would hesitate to even call it "another Obito". There was no organization. No focus. No identity. It was like staring into madness. In all the years I've worked, I've never seen a mind so totally ruined. The clan techniques aren't even supposed to work on vegetative minds like that, but for some reason, that...boy is able to barely hold himself together. I was only able to glimpse five memories before being forced out, so it's shocking to even think he could fight you at all! It's shocking to think he can even manage words in his current state, it defies all my understanding of the mind. If I even wanted to pierce deeper into his psyche, it would likely destroy whatever fragile sanity remains. I could get trapped in such a mind. It's only by sheer luck that I was able to throw myself out!"

Minato's face hardened as he listened. He wiped his eyes and banished his hidden tears.

"I understand."

"Good. I'm glad. I know what I'm asking of you is above my station, I will try again if you order me to. I am willing to die for the village, but I do not want to throw my life away, not when there's so much ahead of me. If he improves, I would be happy to enter his mind again. If he improves, I would be happy to do a full psychological evaluation. I would be happy to help you see this through to the end, wherever it takes us, now. But I will not lift a finger if he stays as he currently is or further degenerates. It would be suicide and I'm absolutely certain we would gain nothing from the attempt." Inochi swallowed, "But even more than that, I would like to humbly request this be my last assignment. I would like to resign and enter into retirement, as soon as this case is closed."

"Inochi-san, you know your limits better than I do. I know you're not fifteen anymore. I'm not going to push you past your limits. If you don't think it's safe, then I agree completely. I cannot afford to lose you. I will allow your retirement, you're now head anyway, you have more pressing duties here at home. I can agree, provided you still lend your assistance in times of need. If that you continue to lead your clan and offer us with others as talented as yourself in the future, I have no problems with letting you leave active duty. Perhaps not a total retirement, I could put you into the reserves, but then again, your record - we both know is very good. You deserve as close to a complete retirement as any shinobi of Konoha can attain, so if you're insistent... there won't be any problems with that request."

Inochi brightened slightly, "Thank you."

"You've done great work for Sarutobi-dono and I." Minato smiled weakly, "Hell, I'll be happy to let you loose." He sighed wistfully, "I know what you're feeling. I'm going through the same problems with Kushina-chan right now. Just, promise me you'll try your best. I can't do this alone and you're the best I've got. I've failed Obito once already, I want to give him the very best chance to...get through this tragedy."

Inochi took a very deep breath, "I guess I should get on with it, then, huh? Sorry for all the melodrama." He chuckled, stiffening his lip, "Of the five memories I viewed, Hokage-sama." Inochi collected his thoughts for a moment, his tone muted now, "The first memory I viewed was genuine to Obito. It was not implanted or hallucinated. It was of the traitor Nohara, Hatake Kakashi's chidori piercing her very heart. I felt an emotion unlike any other move through me, as the memory played over and over again."

Minato sighed, slumping against the wall at that, "So he saw it through Kakashi's eye? I had been wondering..."

"Perhaps. Is that possible? That's a question for Fugaku-dono. I suspect that Orochimaru may have used it to gain a foothold in Obito's mind. It is only a theory of course, but what better way to poison him against us than one he loved most?" he sighed, "There were no thoughts associated with the memory, just raw emotion. It was very vivid, likely something the Sharingan may have enhanced. It was like I was out there in the field, I could even smell the girl's hemoglobin, the very fracture in her core as Hatake-san reached inside her; a horrified expression like many I have seen before. Obito's memory ends when Kakashi pulls his arm out and stares at the blood coating his forearm."

Minato nodded.

"The second memory I viewed was of his childhood. Well, it's incorrect to call it a single memory. It is still hard for me to describe it to you, but it's as though I saw Obito's childhood flash before my eyes. There were fragments that were not cohesively connected. I would guess the fragments range from age four to age nine, all of them take place within or on the grounds of the Uchiha Clan. Most of them are centered around his training and peer relationships. The memories, as you might guess, are very negative. I was not aware that Obito's father was verbally abusive, either. It's not in his file, though it could be a distortion."

"Obito survived adversity, bearing the sins of his parents. I don't doubt his father mistreated him while he was alive."

"Yes, well, the memories themselves are what I would expect to find in a sane person, someone who has coped with much stress growing up. They were detailed and evocative. His mind often dredges them up often, I'd assume. It is likely a great source of anguish, truly, the claims that that clan has a pathological history of abusing its children is well founded; some of the things his mother told him when he failed to perform well in the academy... would scar most children in ways I could never heal."

"I've been hard on the founding clans of Konoha." Minato admitted, "It will take some time, but we can use this, I think to help them change. They won't like to hear it, but I think we have enough evidence now, after this..."

Inochi nodded, "But what is not especially right, in this case, Hokage-sama-" he cleared his throat, "-is that the memories are disjointed. Colors are wrong, sounds are eerie, misplaced; feelings are inconsistent and erratic. Happy to fury, sadness to rapture. These are generally signs of a fundamental breakdown in a sense of self and identity. Obito has his childhood memories, but he does not understand their full significance. He may not even be aware it is him in them, it could be a coping mechanism."

"So you're saying it's normal, but not?"

"It's hard to tell. I may be a little biased, given the third "memory" is witnessed. I cannot call it that in good faith, as it stinks of manipulation. I think a Sharingan, or a powerful genjutsu may have planted it, but I'm not sure. It doesn't feel genuine, however. It is nearly what got me killed."

"Oh?"

"I was forced to end the memory abruptly. There was terrible agony when I began to experience it - something like that shouldn't even be possible - Obito was tied to a cross. A man with an orange mask - the same one Obito was seen wearing - stabbed him over and over, counting the seconds as he did it. It is very rare for the sensations of the subject to influence me, they're just memories, they aren't direct recordings. But it felt like I was being lanced through the stomach with a hot blade. I nearly lost myself to the agony. I am still... it's going to take me a few days to collect myself after experiencing that. Right now, my heart is still pounding. When I walk, I wince, like I have open wounds." Minato finally noticed his friend was visibly quaking, though he was able to restrain it to a slight tremble after a breath.

"I'm sorry." Minato murmured, "You will need to be examined. Go to the hospital immediately after we're done here. Actually, I'll take you there myself, I need to see Kushina before she starts throwing another fit anyway. But what of the other two memories?"

Inochi smiled weakly, holding his side at last, feeling a little comfort in releasing the tension in his body, no longer afraid to show weakness, "I stumbled into them, as I tried to leave his mind. They were hasty, hazy. They seem genuine, but I cannot understand what they mean. The fourth memory had to do with the current Mizukage. Obito was speaking to him in a very familiar manner but the words were muffled and his face was blurry, I don't know what they were speaking of exactly, I only understood the last thing he said to him, which was, "Cursed Blood." I don't know if anything else will be recoverable, but I will share the memory with you and Ibiki-san another time. I'd guess it was a recent memory that is fading, or being prepared for long-term storage. I'm not sure how Obito's mind functions, as I said, it's honestly baffling."

"Interesting. Perhaps Orochimaru was using him as an agent, trying to reach out to others?"

"I don't know. The Mizukage did not look happy to see him, though he didn't look upset either. His eyes were the most clear thing I could examine, they were glazed over, perhaps from exhaustion or worry. But it could just be a flaw in Obito's recollection."

"What about the fifth memory?"

"It isn't of much use for understanding your student, but it is worth later discussion. It was the most recent occurrence and the most disturbing, from an intelligence point of view. He was fighting our interesting nuke-nin friend, some intriguing thoughts filled his mind during that brief battle, who performed marvelously by the way. The blond said some interesting things to him as well. He recognized him by the name 'Tobi'. What I would guess what that means... I'll give you in a written report tomorrow. My head's not in the right way to do it at the moment. What's important is that the fifth memory did confirm his intentions to control of the Kyuubi, to exploit the weakness in Kushina's seal. Apparently, he was able to enter Konoha through the use of his Mangekyo Sharingan, which can manipulate time-space, if you can believe that. The entirety of his fight with Kurama-san consisted of him trying to teleport to safety, but Kurama was unrelenting in his assault."

"Fugaku-san has been kind enough to confirm the existence of such dojutsu techniques. And what I fought definitely matches the Mangekyo's documented patterns. I'm going to have to wring more information out of him though. That man shouldn't keep secrets from me."

Inochi sighed, "That's good then. I was a little worried Obito's mind was so bad he was simply making up things he could do and getting frustrated when he couldn't do them." He chuckled, "As for Fugaku-san, knowing him, I doubt you will get him to budge on that issue. You will have to take it up with the elders."

Minato laughed, "Obito did have a pretty active imagination under me, so you should be careful about that. He was a competent shinobi, you know. He wounded me!" The man seemed almost giddy at that, for some reason, "It's probably not worth bothering the elders about it. Sarutobi-dono probably has files on the Mangekyo Sharingan. He just hasn't volunteered to show me yet." He confided, "The Professor has studied everything."

"Indeed." Inochi smirked wearily, well aware of the Sandaime's mysterious ways, "That's all I have to say for now. But While I'm here and still standing on my feet." He laughed more heartily, feeling exhaustion creep over him, "I wanted to ask if you looked at the full psychological analysis I did on young Kurama-san."

"I did look at it, though not too thoroughly yet."

"I understand."

"You did a good job, from what I skimmed through, but I think it's going to be full of holes where it counts." Minato put a hand on his hip, happy to divest himself from the serious matters for a moment, "I haven't met too many ninja from Grass, unfortunately. I'm thinking on extending a rather big invitation for the next Chuunin exams so I can get a better idea on them. They might be a whole lot better than I gave them credit, to produce a missing nin like that."

"He is atypical, yes. Even for a foreign shinobi."

"I haven't gotten an update from ANBU yet on his latest behavior, but what Kakashi already said has me a little worried. But at the same time, if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have Obito back. He'd still be out there, as Orochimaru's sick, twisted pet. I almost want to just overlook him, you know? I wish you could make sure Obito has nothing to do with the blond gaki. But that seems like that theory's a wash." He shook his head, "It's fine. I won't trouble myself over it. Jiraiya-sensei promised to give me a hand dealing with him for now. He knows my head isn't clear at the moment."

"Obito does not have the cursed seal, correct?" Inochi asked.

"No."

"It is odd that one of Orochimaru's most successful projects lacks one." He said thinking about the Hashirama cells, "He wouldn't just throw it away like this... not from the psych profile."

"That is a good point." Minato hummed, rubbing his chin, "But Kurama-san does not have one either. And he did abandon Tenzou, though that was a mistake."

"Do you think perhaps, Obito is meant to be in our hands right now?"

"What do you mean?"

"It's obvious, this could all be a trap."

"Anything is possible when you look underneath the underneath enough. But blondie doesn't act like any of Orochimaru's sleeper agents. Nor does he act like any of his thugs. And the seal he possesses is beyond Orochimaru's capabilities. But perhaps he has a lost Uzumaki in his employ? Or he could have joined Orochimaru long after having the seal. That is more likely." Minato grimaced, "That would be horrific, actually. It could explain a lot of this mess. How else would they know about the vulnerability in the seal? You're right in that this could still be a trap. I'll have to run a thorough check on Obito for any seals again, just to make sure, Orochimaru has always worked in layers."

"It is simply not a coincidence." Inochi said, "For Kurama-san to arrive just in time and give us this critical information. Your former student was not even a blip on our radar, correct? No intelligence on another Mokuton user, let alone a foreign Sharingan user. But if he isn't working for Orochimaru, perhaps one of the other countries? The man has been busy since he left us, he's more than earned his infamy in the other countries. Perhaps Iwa is invovled? They could have recovered Obito and sold it to Orochimaru." He sighed, "But now I'm just pointlessly speculating. There's no evidence for that yet."

Minato shook his head, "I almost want to interrogate the blond myself, but... it can wait. It's as you said, he seems easy going. He's very relaxed, at least when he's not agitated by an interrogator. He doesn't hide his emotions well too. He'd make a terrible infiltration specialist, yet he is doing a good job right now by making our heads spin." He chuckled, "He's a bold-faced liar and probably knows we don't believe half of the statements he's said. Most spies would be sweating bullets, probably abort the mission already. But he's been acting rather cool, excusing that little blowup with you."

Inochi chuckled, but it was strained. He didn't want to think about the other day. And now he'd be going to the hospital a second time this week! "It would be more productive to ease him into our ranks, Hokage-sama. I think he would be receptive to the idea. You or Ibiki would only close him off. Let him make friends. You know, he's already on Anko's good side? His friends will tell us all we need to know about him. That's my advice, anyway."

"It's sound counsel. Definitely where I was going to go." Minato walked forward and wrapped his arm around Inochi's upper back, "Lean on me, alright? I think I've talked you to death enough today. Let's get you on a stretcher."

"Thanks, Minato." Inochi murmured, limping at his side down the hall.


Naruto went to see the Hokage again that morning.

And again. He was out. How annoying.

He was standing in a huge wing of the first floor, where dozens of secretaries where lined in rows, each stationed at a small wooden desk, working their way through paper work and reports, making analyses or taking appointments.

"But I really need to speak with him." He told the big-bellied secretary, staring down at his fat Akimichi face, a bag of potato chips in his lap, teeth grinding food at he spoke, "Sorry kid. Both Sandaime-sama and Yondaime-sama are out."

"Don't they at least have the sense to leave shadow clones behind to meet people, or something?"

"Afraid not." He shrugged, "Hokage tradition or something. Anyway, you don't have an official appointment anyway-"

"I did yesterday! And it was interrupted! And- ji-Sarutobi-sama- he said to come in today! Mou, don't waste my time like this."

"Uh huh." Chew. Chomp. Crunch. "Well, I'm sorry. What is it you need an appointment for?"

"I don't know. That's just it. There's something he wants to talk about. Considering I did apprehend a highly ranked enemy of Konoha, it may have something to do with a reward?" he hesitated, "Not that I know shit." He said coarsely, rolling his arms over his chest, "Do I really need an appointment?"

"Yep." Chew. Chew. Crunch.

Naruto shook his head, wondering if this slob had been killed by the Kyuubi in his time. How fortunate he'd never met him until now. "Can I get an appointment, then?"

"Huh? Sure, I guess. Like, when?"

"I don't know! Any time is fine. It's not like I have a job or anything." He glared at the man, expecting him to be roused by that insinuation at least.

The man blinked, taking out a folder and planting it on his desk. He sighed and looked through it, "What your name?" he droned.

"Uz-er-no, it's Kurama Naruto."

"I see. Well, actually, I apparently have a notice here for you. It's from the Sandaime. He scribbled it down under your appointment log from yesterday."

"Oh. Really?" he sighed, "That's good. What's it say?"

"You have an appointment with... Jiraiya-sama?" he frowned, "Actually, it was five minutes ago."

"Five minutes ago? Where exactly am I-"

"He's waiting for you around the corner. Room four thirty."

He didn't even bother to thank the man as he left, rushing through the hall.


The room was foreboding. Nearly empty and made for no apparent purpose. No windows. A single light source. White walls, a white floor. Two chairs opposing each other. A dark desk the only separation between them.

The only word that could come to Naruto's mind was: interrogation.

Really, again? How many times was this gonna happen?

"Jiraiya-sama." Naruto's voice wavered under the strange phrase. He'd prefer to call the pervert like he was, but that could probably wait until he caught him peeping, "Sorry for being late. It's not my fault."

"Take a seat, kid." Naruto blanched under being called a kid - he was not thirteen anymore. Yet he supposed a couple of years wouldn't mean much to the old bastard, even though he was now thirteen years younger than when they had fist met; his face softer, mood far lighter. And he didn't know Naruto this time around. Not yet. Actually, nobody did. He had to get over trying to expect more from them.

He was totally alone in this fabrication he dared to call a home.

"It's nice to finally meet you...Naruto." He said the name with an odd inflection, as though there was some puzzlement, doubt, and humor over his identity. Most of that went over the blond's head, who just wrote it off as Jiraiya being Jiraiya.

Naruto had trouble keeping a mask over his emotions. He couldn't help but see the grisly death of his short-lived sensei. Blood was dripping from his eyes and the weak laugh that left excised his lungs echoed in his mind.

"So what's this about?" He said ignoring the tone; killing his emotions as best he could. Jiraiya's games could be dangerous, he was one of the Sannin, so he didn't want to take any part of it. Whatever this was about, he wanted it over and done with. Taking the offered seat before the desk, he plopped down with a huff, "I was supposed to see the Hokage today." He actually managed a smile, though he wasn't sure if it was convincing.

"Well, ya got me instead, brat. Why do you care?"

Venting his ire, Naruto tapped the desk lightly with his fist. Which made it shake loudly. He almost dented the thing, "Because the Hyuuga know about my Fuuinjutsu knowledge, they're having me work on...some stuff. I can't really say..." he sighed, realizing there was no point in complaining to Jiraiya, since he'd promised to keep things quiet, "But the Yondaime has a lot to answer to. I want to give a piece of my mind." His eyes narrowed, "I'd also like to give him a piece of my mind for making you interrogate me. Aren't I in the clear? Or do I need to kill Orochimaru for you guys on top of it?"

Jiraiya blinked, a scowl making his lips squeeze, eyes wrinkling into tiny pinholes, "This isn't that kind of interrogation. Consider this a job interview kid." He schooled a smile onto his face, a strange curl creeping along his lips, "Well, at least you've got guts to talk to me like that. I like that. Rather unexpected. Interesting tidbit to start with too, why are you helping the Hyuuga? What did they offer you?"

"Why does it matter?"

"Because you want to impress me, right?"

"I don't need to impress you." Naruto grinned, feeling a bit spunky around the old pervert. He felt like a renegade wanderer again, so he shook his head, "I'm not helping them for any particular reason. They asked me. If I can help, I will."

Not that he could tell Jiraiya his real reasons for accepting so easily - anything he could do to keep Hinata's mother alive would surely prevent Neji and Hinata from growing up to be broken and haunted. Besides, it seemed like she was a staunch supporter against the caged bird seal, and he, like the Yondaime, would eventually like to see that awful thing removed. That sort of thing going on in his village, was vile and wrong.

"Hmm. No pressure at all then? I'm serious you know. This is the real deal." Jiraiya prodded, "I'm asking you. Are you interested in joining Konoha? You have guts. You have skills, some of which arouse even my interest. You could be useful to us."

Naruto smiled. He wished he could just say he didn't want the man's praise. But it felt damn good hearing that. Even if he knew Jiraiya was just feeding him some kind of line.

"I'm interested." Naruto said simply.

"Well, then. Great! I hope you understand that this is going to take a while. I don't exactly like filling out paper work, but it's messy to let nuke-nin join Konoha, yanno? We're not some third-rate rabbit hole in the middle of nowhere. Konohagakure no Sato endures ramifications for the kinds of shinobi it hires. So, I need to know. When you were on the lamb, what kind of missions did you perform? Who were your contractors? How much did they pay you? Where did you go? Why did you do it?"

"That's a lot of questions."

"As I said, there's no way I can sign any of these papers -" and here the old man took a large stack of them from his lap, plopping them on the desk, "-without knowing who you really are."

"It's been a pretty one-sided discussion so far." He accused, "You know something."

Jiraiya was pleased, "Good. You aren't dumb."

"I aint." Naurto smiled, earning a disarming chuckle from the man.

But Jiraiya did not come forward. They sat in silence for a breath.

"You aren't going to tell me anything, are you?"

"Nope."

"Damned pervert." Naruto cursed under his breath, making the Sannin's brows rise.

After a breath, he said, "Well, for your information, I didn't work for anybody."

"Yeah?"

"Like I said. I was a missing-nin, but I didn't do it for profit. I just wanted to... live on my own. I was an outcast my whole life. Some things happened, so I just made it official after that."

"I see. Why were you an outcast? Did you commit a serious crime?"

"I guess my parents did. Nothing I ever did. Well-" he paused, "I was the king of pranksters for a while. But I didn't do enough to earn the status I had."

The spymaster frowned, but nodded anyway, "So, you left. How did you survive with no income?"

"Roughin' it." Naruto said seriously, "Are you suggesting I couldn't survive in the wilderness on my own? What kinda ninja couldn't do that? It's not like you need money or a boss to kill bats, rabbits and porcupines for food or make campfires from blood and spit." And it was mostly true, while on the run from Akatsuki, he'd never done any mercenary work. The most he'd ever done outside the wilds was hide in Suna for a few weeks. He did agree to help Killer B with a few oddities outside of his country; return with some information on the movement of missing-nin and Akatsuki agents, but Killer B worked for Cloud and it was all pro bono anyway. He'd never been anybody's lapdog or muscle.

Jiraiya studied Naruto for a beat. Naruto wasn't sure if he could just tell if somebody were lying, but if he did, the man gave no indication. His lingering stare left him on edge, unsure of what to say next, if his words were any appeasement.

"Alright. Let's say I believe you. There's still a lot of detail missing from that story. Let's start from the beginning so I can write it all down."

"If you insist..." Naruto said wearily, his mind going into crazy mode. How did one fabricate an entire life story that stayed consistent enough to his own life to be believable, while still being believable enough to a stranger, while still being believable enough that it would stand up under close inspection, while being easy for him to remember so he wouldn't fuck it up down the road? Oh, and it had to make sense in the time period he was in, which he almost knew nothing about.

Iruka should have made him learn history better.

Really. There wasn't any way it would work. He didn't know shit about Grass. And even if Konoha knew as much as him, Jiraiya was the kind of guy who would probably walk over there and bang a few heads together until he found out he was sewing stories together with tissue paper, or something. Really, he was absolutely fucked unless he came clean.

But he couldn't do that. He couldn't come clean. He was through this. A dozen times now. He'd had fragments of blurry dreams where he told somebody the truth. And their reaction was always a mixture of laughter, horror, and misguided enthusiasm.

Just like the Kyuubi, his own past was his responsibility. He couldn't let anyone else bear it. It was wrong to take away the lives of these people, even if they were ninja sworn to protect and serve.

His shoulders fell. "I really, really, honestly, have no idea how you guys came to the conclusion I'm a missing nin from Kusa."

Jiraiya blinked. He looked up from the papers on the desk. Then he blinked again.

Then he smiled.

"Oh?" he giggled.

"Could you tell me that much at least? What gave you guys that idea?" Naruto said seriously, "I only ran with it 'cause I was laying in a hospital bed with no clue what was going on."

"Hn. Well, we found you with a headband - or rather - your saviors did. It was in your hand, according to Yuuhi Kurenai and Hyuuga Hizashi - two upstanding members of Konoha, by the way."

"I'm aware of who they are. I don't doubt them. So I had a headband? It must be somebody else's, 'cause it's not mine. I don't even get that tradition, to be honest. Is it messed pride? Why wear a headband of a village you hate, even if it's got a slash through it."

"I see."

"So, I was with a headband?" Naruto shakes his head, "I don't know how that's possible. But truthfully, I'm not from Kusa."

Jiraiya sighed in relief, "Finally, some progress!"

"You're not surprised?"

"Of course not! You dolt! Of course, I wasn't expecting you to come forward with it so easily. But your previous story really didn't add up. Besides, I called in a few favors. Let's just say, I have many eyes and ears around the elemental countries and nobody had ever heard of a guy like you matching any of the stories you sang. If you were hated by the village, I'd have at least gotten your name back to me. But there was nothin'. You're way too unusual kid. Like that seal? And those foxes? You would have been noticed."

Naruto nodded weakly.

"So. Let's have it then. Where are you from?"

Okay. Now this was going to be tricky. Jiraiya was someone he couldn't underestimate. The guy would put two and two together a bit too quickly for his liking. The last thing he needed was the Yondaime finding out he had the Kyuubi stuffed inside him. He had things to do. He did not want to end up in a prison ward somewhere, bound by thousands of chakra-repression seals.

There were a couple cards he could play. In a matter of a few milliseconds, his crafty prankster brain concluded he could claim to hail from Uzushiogakure; but he knew next to nothing about the village his clan supposedly came from. And considering he had prevented the Kyuubi from killing maybe several thousand ninja, there was now a high chance some other Uzumaki still remained in Konoha somewhere. As soon as he had time to, he'd send a clone down to the library to figure out where potential relatives of his lived, but at the moment, there was a high chance of that ruse not working. Especially if his real mother had not died in childbirth or from the Kyuubi, this time.

The second card was the Orochimaru card. He knew the sick bastard well enough. He could claim to have been a captive of his, trained to be a sleeper agent or something. He could claim to be a rogue agent of his; that he wanted to get revenge on his hated master. But that was about as bad as telling him he had the Kyuubi inside him. No way, actually worse. They'd never let a known agent join under any circumstance; he didn't even know how Anko had gotten to special jounin in his 'previous' life. It might be a plausible story, but it wouldn't be long until he was underneath a microscope or locked away somewhere. As far as he was concerned, any story he spun this time would have to do nothing with the Snake Sannin, or he'd get nowhere.

The other elemental nations - he knew enough about them he could maybe pass as a former ninja from there. But he didn't know enough considering the current time frame. Plus, all Jiraiya would have to do is use his extensive spy network to eventually verify his claims were total bullshit, again.

Basically, the only way he could get anywhere is if he claimed he were born in a non-ninja village. But even that could be traced back.

He was so fucked. Someone with a seal like his couldn't expect Jiraiya to nod and smile.

Telling them he was born in Konoha could work, but they would have records. Somebody in Konoha would know of him, right? What kind of story could he give for being where he was at the time? He had nothing there. Who had trained him? Where had he lived? There would be physical evidence that wouldn't be there.

His only options were to claim that he was born on the road somewhere and had lived on the road his whole life. No permanent residence. That was a little more believable, but it was exactly the kind of story a spy would spin. He wanted to be trusted. He wanted to be given important missions. Where he could make a difference. He wanted to get close to the Yondaime, so he could influence his decisions - so Konoha would have a brighter future. So it wouldn't be a fucking crater littered with bloody humps.

He needed something so completely off the wall, something so mind-boggling, that Jiraiya'd have no way to recover from it.

And time began to slow, then, as his mind worked. The world around him turned to gray, like ash. He could see every hair of detail on Jiraiya's middle-aged face. He could hear the subtle tick of his heart.

His eyes shifted to the left and he stared back into the impassive abyssal eyes of Kurama. A person he had once called sensei, if only for a very brief time. One that ended once he had been given the contract to the foxes.

"What's going on?"

"I have slowed your perception of time." The fox-man said, his illusionary body sitting on the edge of the table, "You are in a bind, of course. You possess the seal of those accursed Uzumaki. But you are correct in believing there are others alive who would not back up your claim - that you are not one of them."

"Right. Why do you care, exactly?" His lips did not move, but his thoughts sounded in his hears, "There's nothing you can do to help me."

The man spoke with a profound calmness he realized had only begun once he had ventured into its soul and returned the demon his true nature, "I wish to be in a place to manipulate events myself, of course." He smiled, as if knowing something Naruto didn't.

That smile only served to put the blond on edge, "What makes you think I'll let you have any say in anything?"

He laughed happily, "You will. You have already done much for me."

"I don't exactly trust you."

"You don't need to. In-fact, it is better if you don't. That way, my plans will be perfect. You may not be as shrewd as I wish you were, but you are cunning... like a fox." He chuckled with a glint in his eye.

"Uh huh." Naruto stared at the loose garment doing little to obfuscate his pectoral muscles, "Would you mind dressing yourself a bit, I don't know, warmer from now on? It's kind of creepy." He nagged.

"You are overly sensitive to such things." He chortled, "But as you wish. I will find something more appropriate to wear, Kurama-sama." He bowed his head mockingly, "I grow tired of you using my name, by the way. You are sure to ruin my reputation."

"Too late. Now, tell me. Why are you here? Do you know what I can say to Jiraiya to get him off my case?"

The man's white fox-ears and tail twitched in amusement, "I do. Just tell him you are not from this world."

"Um, I'd rather not. That's kind of the point." He looked away, "It would be great to come clean, but you know that won't work. And even if he did believe me, Jiraiya's the type to screw everything up in his desire to do right. He's not much different than the old man."

"I don't think you understand, child." He snapped, "Do you really think yourself so special? There are many others who dwell in the middle kingdom, between the world of the spirits and the world of demons."

"I don't think... I follow."

"Tell him you are a demon. The man is familiar enough with the supernatural to believe you, with a little proof I could supply. It will also be useful for explaining how you can summon foxes and kitsune. Humans do not possess that contract for a reason you know? One he will be surely able to realize in time."

"Right." Naruto shivered, not wanting to remember the trials the fox put him through, to prove his right of that summoning contract, "I get what you're saying. But that won't do me any good. Telling him I'm a demon? They'll definitely lock me up and throw away the key. Use me for some crazy research-"

"Why would they? No, they would dare not offend a demon. They might be tempted to examine you. But Jiraiya knows there is little to be gained. Those of the middle kingdom do not summon demons any longer for good reason. They will respect your body and your desires for freedom. Nothing good could be gained from your study."

"What?"

"Another time. I will explain then." A cruel smile split his lips, "Tell him you were born near Uzushiogakure. I know you cannot hope to convince him the body you wield isn't human, so, tell him you are actually a demon possessing the body of a human. It is a common enough occurrence for the souls of demons to escape into the bodies of infants through the permeable net that protects this realm."

"What, really?"

"Yes. Though it is not exactly advertised. But how else do you think "bloodlines" begin in the middle kingdom? Demons inhabit the bodies of the "lucky" few. They have offspring imprinted with a part of their entangled essence. The one whom you called Haku? He was the last of a particular potent line of Yuki-onna. I could taste the taint in his blood."

"Kurama, thanks for your offer and all, but I'm not going to tell Jiraiya I'm a demon." He scowled, "Besides, what do you get out of all this? Why do you care?"

"Hmm?" His thin, light brows raised as his lips sprang into a mocking smile, "I suppose you would have troubles with it, given what you were called most of your life. For others to truly know you as a demon in Konoha once again, that would be painful, no? It would like be returning to... 'square one'."

"It's not that. I don't care what people think of me anymore - I'm past that. I just don't trust you. I mean - for all the things we've gone through, I know you well enough that you don't care unless it suits you. You stand to gain something behind my back."

He chuckled, "I am changed. A new fox."

"Do we have time? I'd love to hear about that." Naruto challenged, "You act different. You seem different. But in what ways? You want out. And I'm willing to help you find a way that doesn't kill me. I'm sure the Yondaime could help you, if we earn his trust, but telling them I'm a demon would do exactly the opposite. It might be enough to let Jiraiya accept me today, but I'll always be regarded with suspicion."

Kurama nodded, "I admit I don't believe your Fourth can help me. If there were a way to unseal a demon without killing the host, it would have been understood long ago. No mortal, no matter the genius," he seethed, "-will find an adequate solution."

"So what do you get out of this then?" The teen time-traveler grumbled.

"Forget it." That knowing smile finally slipped into a deep, grimace. It was the first time Naruto had seen the fox with a fouler emotion than his anger, "You wouldn't understand."

And then he was gone. The sudden, impromptu conference with a demon, over. The world grew back into its healthy glow and time moved fluidly once more. Over a single second, Jiraiya saw a dozen emotions and facial twitches move across Naruto's face. The master interrogator was flummoxed by the schizophrenic-like event. Enough that he missed Naruto's response.

"Wait, what?"

"As I said." Naruto took a deep breath, knowing he was going to regret this, "I don't exist."

"You... don't exist?"

Naruto nodded, his voice almost challenging, but it sounded more defeated than anything else, "You can use whatever eyes and ears you have. You will never find the origins of me. I don't really exist."

A dangerous glint, "What are you trying to pull?"

Naruto crossed his arms defiantly, tight orange sleeves gripping at the large muscles of his arms, "I am wrong. I shouldn't exist here. But I do."

There was silence once more. The shinobi locked gazes. Naruto was unflinching. He had spoken the truth, as much as he would ever tell anyone.

"If that's all you have to say, it's not going to fly, kid."

"I'm not a kid."

This was all wrong. He could feel the world collapsing all around him. Maybe, maybe he should just tell Jiraiya to kill him? It would maybe send him back again and he could just do it all over.

How could he go forward now? How could he stop this? What had he done? Who had he pissed off? To get in a situation like this - after everything had been progressing so right. Like, maybe he was going to be home again.

Something snapped inside himself.

He reached forward across the table and swiped at the paper work as hard as he could. The white forms bent and flew in all different directions.

Naruto leaned over the desk with mad eyes, his face close to Jiraiya's. He growled like a beast, a feral heat blazing in his deep eyes.

"How many kids go through the things I have and live? How many kids go through the things I have and keep trying? How many kids go through the shit I deal with and fight for the best?" He stood, snapping his chair back, and picked it up, hurling it into the wall. It shattered into a dozen pieces.

"Fuck this. You're not going to believe me no matter what I tell you. And there's nothing you or I can ever prove to each other to change that. So if I can't join Konoha, let's fight then. Let's fucking fight." Naruto's fists slammed into each other, his knuckles cracking as he spread his legs, standing a distance from the toad sage,"C'mon, you're Jiraiya of the fucking Sannin. If you're half as good as that fucking asshole snake, then I can at least die a good death." He gripped the edges of the desk and threw it. It skidded across the smooth surface of the floor, before flipping over with a crash.

"Die a good death, huh?" Jiraiya rose like an ancient giant, his knees bending from his seat, utterly unfazed by the teen's furious display, "Fine. I'll agree to that. Are you going to throw a tantrum here? Or can we take this outside like men?"

Heart beating in his ears, Uzumaki Naruto simply nodded, a grim look of determination on his features. He followed the man as he walked outside the room. It seemed that the thin walls weren't exactly sound-proofed, for as they walked down the ornate halls of the Hokage tower, a few shinobi filed behind the pair, ANBU and secretary-nin alike. Among them, Naruto recognized nobody. They were faceless nobodies. In-fact, no different from all the others he had met so far in this sick world, just that some of them did wear faces he could recognize. Those were the real demons here, for making him feel these things again.

A blessedly short and silent death march from the tower, was a dusty training ground.

There were no upright trees. No fallen leaves. No blooming flowers. Barely any thriving grass. The blasted earth was cracked and splintered apart, like large swollen sores, slight bumps covered the landscape.

They took opposite sides of the perfectly square plot of land, their small audience sitting distantly on the sidelines. A few more joined them from the paved street in the distance, jogging down a grassy slope. They seemed to be gossipping about the fact one of the Sannin was going to fight to the death with somebody. That couldn't be right, could it?

Naruto stared down his old teacher with fury in his cold blue eyes.

He wanted to cry.

He felt pathetic.

Beaten. Useless. Stupid. How could he have lost it? How could he have ruined his only chance at fixing the-

And then, he smiled.

"I have no regrets." He told Jiraiya, suddenly, as if having an epiphany, "So don't hold back."

How could he be upset? He had already stopped Tobi from killing the Yondaime, from doing whatever with his stupid Sharingan. He had already changed history. He had already undone everything. Well, almost everything. Sure, there was so much yet to be fixed, between Kirigakure, the Hyuuga, and the Uchiha, but that single, solitary bloody fucking act alone - it had gone perfectly. He had lived his greatest, unreachable dream. The Fourth, even if he didn't seem to be good enough to do everything right (the state of Hinata's mother the most obvious indication), was probably going to make a great Hokage. Nobody would have to suffer like he had now. He had already unmade his life by preventing the Kyuubi from destroying anything. He had unmade himself, in essence. He did not exist here. In a way, in a sick way, it felt like he had completed his existence now. He had lived his life as fully as he needed to. He could only find peace in his heart, even with so much left undone.

"I've won." He said, his excited nerves burning with the thrill of lethal combat, the wind whipping around his body, his face twisting into a twisted expression of grief, exhaustion, and bliss. His now emptied gaze watched Jiraiya - no longer looking at him - just watching his body. Preparing for the inevitable reaction from him, "Are you ready, you stupid pervert?! I'm going to go all out! I'm fucking serious. You're going to die if you don't take me seriously."

Jiraiya huffed, unsure what to make of the batty brat before him. It was like the kid had a screw loose all of a sudden. He couldn't figure him out - he was dense. Probably denser than himself. Still, he had guts, so he couldn't find himself disliking him, even in a situation such as this, even if he might be a dangerous enemy of Konoha; a pitiful sap under the influence of his former best friend.

Jiraiya really shouldn't have been musing to himself just then, as three things happened faster than he had anticipated:

Naruto performed kage bunshin, creating forty-five copies of himself. That was crazy actually. Thirty was his a safe limit for the Toad Sage, fifty on a very good day. This teen wasn't even eighteen yet, he had a lot of growth still in him.

Secondly, Naruto grabbed the hands of two of the nearest clones, and spun like a tornado, flinging them straight at him.

And finally, Those clones began to channel wind chakra, becoming twirling, spiraling, human-sized bullets, the dusty brown earth becoming chewed and kicked up as they fell towards earth.

The middle-aged shinobi's fingers blurred, "Hari Jiz┼Ź!" And his white mane of hair extended and expanded quickly, forming a strong cone of metallic hair around his body, just in time to take two swirling clones head-on.

The kage bunshin slammed with the force of Naruto's frustration and ire, their wild blond hair swirling so fast it acted like a drill-bit, the spinning cyclone of air around them ground into Jiraiya, whose sandals bit and dug deep into the earth. Despite all the force and continued grinding of wind, the defense didn't budge. The human projectiles lost all their torque and fell down due to gravity, collapsing in a useless heap before dispelling.

Jiraiya didn't even bother to cancel the technique as Naruto and eight other clones rocketed across the training field. Their shrill cries were like music to his ears. Each of them lashed out against the defending shinobi, seven of the attackers managing to dispel themselves on the first attack, their feet or hands striking so hard that Jiraiya's senbon-like hair pierced deep into their skin.

The only remaining attacker was the real Naruto, his remaining clones hanging out far behind him, observing with careful anger, their hands twitching at their orange camo pants, the many pockets that lined the sides of them frustratingly empty. He would have loved to have some ninja wire - he'd taught himself some brutal wind techniques that he was not going to be able to use in this fight.

Boss didn't stop attacking. He wailed into Jiraiya, screaming with every one of his punches. Harder. Harder. Harder. The man's sharp hair penetrated his fists, skewering them and drawing blood with disgusting sounds, but this just angered the blond more. He continued to punch as hard as he could, using wind chakra to enhance the speed of his fists. Each strike created a massive surge of wind around his body, making his cheeks flap. Each punch sent Jiraiya grinding back a hair and blew up dust into the air. Naruto's eyes watered, red veins bulging as his pupils began to elongate.

Jiraiya spoke through his impenetrable defense, his voice undulating with the force of each strike, further distorted by the constant bursts of air, "You aren't going to even scratch me like this-" but his voice stopped short as his eyes widened, feeling an incredible amount of chakra surge through the teen.

Calling upon the Kyuubi, Naruto's entire left arm clenched into a tight piston, his fingernails extending into claws. The veins on his arm began to bulge and pop, the deep red whisker scars on the blond's face now a smoldering red, hot like a smith's glowing furance.

He could feel his connection with Kurama stronger than ever. He could control the rage too, or at least, almost could. He built up the incredible chakra in just his one arm, shrieking as he left it go. Jiraiya concentrated, focusing chakra in front of him, reinforcing his hair, but Naruto's fist was so pent up with force, that it crunched the man's technique. Not a single senbon pierced his flesh as he dented an entire patch of white hair, some stiff strands coming loose.

He followed it up again, and again, and again, hammering into that spot until it shattered, forcing Jiraiya to drop the technique with an exasperated grunt. He evaded the strike that would have sent him flying, stepping into but beside the thrown out arm, a hand gently laying atop it.

"Tch, you have some anger issues, brat." But he shouldn't have spoken as Naruto turned gracefully and threw a back-hand with that same fist.

It collided with his teacher's soft cheek.

Jiraiya was airborne, flying sideways through the air right into a cluster of clones. Some of Naruto's blood was on his cheek and he was missing a large chunk of his long white hair.

"Don't underestimate me!" He cried, his clones preparing to knock Jiraiya upwards in an old-fashioned Naruto Rendan, but Jiraiya easily recovered mid-air, slapping two clones across the face as they tried to redirect him. His foot extended into the ground, kicking up dirt as he spun around, meeting the charging Naruto and the nearby clones.

And then it was just a free-for-all. Thirty-some clones and their boss engaged in one of the most intense taijutsu fights of recent history. For all the flaws in his style, while enraged and serious, he wasn't a slouch. The growing audience in the distance struggled to comprehend what was happening as Jiraiya fought in the ring of several dozen clones. Jiraiya turned and spun on his heel every second, parrying, dodging, block and striking at opponents who attacked from every angle. He could tell who the real Naruto was, because he was pushing him back as his clones gave support.

Naruto's strikes blurred with the whipping winds, his clones sailing through the air even as their attacks were negated, graceful orange bullets that slid and skidded as they recovered from their lunging pounces, turning around and leaping again and again.

Absolutely unrelenting, Boss Naruto used his entrenched, heavy feet to move forward and just his fists to make the way. Jiraiya tried to use fancy strikes with his feet, knees, elbows and hips, but between the clones and Naruto's wind-enhanced strikes, Jiraiya was doing all that he could to keep the lethal gusts of wind from shredding apart his neck. For every strike that he blocked, wind exploded, opening up small cuts on the jounin's skin and clothes. Blood dripped from his brows, forearms and thighs, small dents forming in the metal band that sat upon his forehead.

Jiraiya breathed cool and calm despite the situation he was in. He was clearly testing his opponent, following his movements, evaluating his style. He was capable of enduring his coordinated assault, capable of handling all the blows they traded, so he looked down with a mere frown, studying ferocious, snarling lips and vacant, scarlet eyes.

There were times when it was tempting to back off and attempt more long-ranged wind ninjutsu, but Naruto had witnessed first hand how powerful Jiraiya's fire techniques were. Any technique which gave Jiraiya the chance to prepare, be it Fuuinjutsu or his own blend of ninjutsu, was just bad. Keeping the pressure on him was the only way to keep the fight fairly even. The last thing he needed was another explosion like with Kakashi.

Naruto was vicious, his unorthodox style difficult to adjust to. Naruto was not simply one opponent now, but at least four. If Jiraiya were forced to grade the brat, he was at least as good as a full team of chuunin in his current state. He wasn't sure if anger improved Naruto's skills or reduced them, but he was very impressed. Few shinobi the teen's age could probably match him like this.

It was then, when he heard something crack in his arm; when he raised a forearm to block an incredible strike; that Jiraiya made his decision.

"Sorry kid. I guess this is the end for you." He formed two seals and shouted, his words garbled by the wind blowing dust around, unbalancing Naruto wish a sudden push against his pectorals. Boss stumbled back, the earth giving away in a ripple. He barely jumped in time as an incredible explosion of earth shook him. Jagged spires of stone lanced upwards and out, destroying the ring of clones and creating a small arena of churned, upturned earth.

And just as he rolled backwards through the jagged, rocky dirt and pushed himself onto his feet, he saw a swirling sphere of blue coming straight at his face.

"Rasengan!"

Time slowed to a crawl.

There was only one way he could survive this technique. And that was to cancel the technique out with his own.

But he simply didn't have time to form one.

So he grit his teeth and threw out one hand, catching Jiraiya's spiraling sphere.

Chakra swirled inside Naruto's own hand, his entire being focusing on creating a counter-rotation of the exact same speed and frequency of Jiraiya's attack. Although he didn't have time to properly form a Rasengan of his own, he managed to form a swirl of chakra strong enough to catch the technique without having Jiraiya turn his hand into a corckscrew.

The techniques clashed and ground against each other with the sound of metal scraping against a chalkboard.

A cloak of scarlet began to heat the air around Naruto as he palmed Jiraiya's rasengan, holding it. Because of his own incomplete counter, some of the technique gained momentum and bit into his palm, drawing blood the chakra ground shallowly into his skin.

But the technique stopped after that. It could go no further. Naruto had done the impossible. He was holding his rasengan.

For all the surprise that clearly shone on Jiraiya's face, he was quick to respond by unleashing a twin Rasengan in his other hand. Only, Naruto was even quicker this time to counteract, their other arms striking one another. Naruto caught his second sphere and yelled as he was pushed back, his heels grinding the dirt, blood dripping from his hands, his center of mass lowering as he leaned forward. His abs clenched as he grunted with the core of his body. Rasengans halted, it was now the two shinobi pushing at each other in a tug of war; a game of brute strength.

If he was going to die here, it was at least worth it, the look on his teacher's face, as Naruto continued to hold his own against those broader, taller shoulders.

The rasengans stabilized further in Naruto's grasp. Seeing that Jiraiya wasn't making any progress, especially as the cloak of red began to strengthen around Naruto's skin, toxic chakra licking painfully at Jiraiya's palms, he cancelled the techniques, jumping back, causing Naruto to stumble forward, barely catching himself.

Naruto breathed deep, his skin quickly regenerating over some of the exposed, bloody bone of his hands. He was leaning forward, a single tail of bright red chakra now swaying from his tailbone.

"You are a jinchuuriki." Jiraiya observed, watching claws extend from Naruto's other hand, a deep frown on his features, "Or at least, a demon with tails." He hummed, "You have put me in a difficult situation now."

Jiraiya took a defensive stance, sliding forward with one outstretched hand, his open palm pointed at Naruto, the same-side leg sliding forth, his other arm reaching behind his back.

They fought. No, to the onlookers, it was a brawl. Naruto did not even bother to summon clones. He was a one-man army all his own.

Naruto met his challenge by launching himself forward into a run, he lashed out with a furious spinning kick resembling Gai's Leaf Tornado, getting in close as Jiraiya was too slow to catch it. They continued to dance like that, Jiraiya's new stance giving him the ability to move nimbly about, Naruto's hands swiping sometimes, sending long-distant lashes of burning red chakra at him. Other times, he sent powerful bursts of scarlet wind, whipping and shredding the ground straight in front of him. He was power, speed, agility, and the embodiment of unrestrained fury.

Jiraiya quickly realized that Naruto had to have had more than a little experience fighting highly skilled opponents, as he was able to evade blows intended to knock-him out, disarming his attempts at setting up the blond for a fall. He took the bait often enough, lunging right into the fray, but he also knew when to back off. He was a troublesome opponent, with limitless stamina and a dangerous edge, the wounds inflicted, though shallow, caused white hot agony on impact. A deep gash marred Jiraiya's left cheek. It didn't even bleed, as the wind-chakra cut deep, the bijuu-chakra burning so hot that it cauterized the flesh.

The blond pressed himself forward and forward, hurling a hook, spinning on his heel when it missed and throwing up his foot, striking like a mule. He tumbled forward and swung his feet, attempting to sweep out the Toad Sage's feet. But the man leaped high into the air and crashed down into a belly-flop, cracking the ground apart. Palm strike, palm strike, palm strike - Jiraiya nailed three hard blows into Naruto's rib-cage, sending him backwards, but it seemed to do absolutely nothing. All he did was shake his head and shoulders a bit, before launching himself into battle again.

It all came to a head when he decided to hurl an uppercut into the man's chin, stepping into Jiraiya's open side. The strike was caught though, Jiraiya spinning backwards, his palm catching Naruto in his own chin. Jiraiya grunted as the intense red chakra burned his skin on contact, but he had prepared an immediate follow up strike with a hand behind his back. He slammed his open palm into Naruto's belly.

"Gogyou Fuuin!" The ethereal-hued seal burned bright as it took effect underneath the rippling orange top. The blond stumbled backwards, his chakra cloak cut off like a light as he sailed backwards, landing painfully onto his back.

Not giving him any way to recover, Jiraiya pounced forward, slamming his weight into Naruto's chest. He gave a heave, Jiraiya's hands pinning Naruto's apart on the ground.

"Now I've got you." The Master of the Toads growled triumphantly. He was panting, but Naruto was breathing much harder.

"You bastard." He squirmed, "Let go of me!"

"No. Now I've got you." He grinned, "Right where I want you. Do you think you want to talk about the nature of your existence then? What country sent you? Who sent you? Was it Orochimaru?"

"I knew you didn't have the heart to kill me." Naruto grunted, stunning Jiraiya by perfectly countering his hold, one leg pinning Jiraiya's to the ground. The blond hurled his hips off the ground and bucked the man off him, twirling to his feet, he concentrated with all his disrupted energy, possessing just enough control to create azure flames on each of his fingers, "Gogyou Kaiin!" and he slammed his palm into his stomach, eroding Jiraiya's seal with a delirious grin.

Jiraiya watched in bemusement, "An A-ranked Fuuinjutsu counter. Pretty good."

"Well, if you didn't notice, it's how I beat that Uchiha. You should have known I know about that seal."

"Hmm, good call. I guess I'm still underestimating you."

"Of course you are. But you haven't seen nothing yet, tajuu kage bunshin no jutsu!"

And to the onlookers, there was literally a sea of orange. One thousand clones? Two thousand? Three thousand? Nobody had any idea. There were so many camo-clad orange-wrapped blonds that a few even joined the audience, sitting down among the small gathered crowd. They were shouting the name of the home team, clapping their hands to a terrible, asynchronous rhythm.

An ANBU wearing a cat mask stared at one of the calmer ones, "What the hell is this? An illusion?"

The clone jabbered, "Nah, it's just me, Kurama Naruto, believe it!" The clone cackled, "Fucking Ero-sennin is mine now, there's no way he can possibly-"

And then a few more ANBU descended on the scene. They looked at the audience, then the ANBU continued turning, "What's going on here." One stated with a tone less cool and emotionless than Naruto was used to.

"Jiraiya-sama is having a brawl with a new shinobi." A chuunin in the crowd drawled, chewing on something sticky. The Akimichi from earlier was dolling out snacks, it seemed. Naruto had half a mind, since he sympathized greatly with all the hard-working Hokage of Konoha, to call them a bunch of useless slackers.

Neko-san looked down at a clone, "I was not alerted there would be a disturbance of this caliber in the area."

"Yeah, well, get the Yondaime down here if you think it's a big deal." The clone puffed, "Nobody is stopping this fight until one of us is dead."

"A death match? Those are forbidden."

Naruto shook his head, "No they're not. Only unsanctioned death matches are illegal." He knew that, 'cause of Sasuke and his 'little' brawl, "Jiraiya's fighting me, so if he can't just sanction it, nobody can."

"Be that as it may, this is considered a public disturbance. You're fighting too wildly near a civilian sector. I'm going to have to ask you to-"

"Hey, if you want to join Jiraiya-" a few clones in the audience stopped watching to back up their brother, "We can make it two to... four thousand eight-hundred and six- wait, four, no twenty two- twenty-" the clone kept counting.

"Actually, I think I'll pass..."

Naturally, Naruto was not an idiot. He'd fought with his clones against ridiculously strong opponents in the past. There was no way that Jiraiya was going to fight five thousand clones in hand-to-hand combat for long. The main weakness of kage bunshin was that there was only so much a thousand or more copies could do in a given space. At this point, Naruto's clones were hanging around awkwardly waiting their turn against the fearsome Sannin.

Knowing full well Jiraiya was preparing some kind of ridiculous area jutsu to destroy his clones he decided to-

"Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

"Jiraiya! What kind of nonsense did you summon me into?"

Unfortunately, Naruto didn't have any time to exercise a great plan. Within minutes, the great Gamabunta had stomped all over his army, even as their numbers dwindled and they became coordinated, the great toad summon had no trouble lathering them in steaming oil or laying into them with his sword and flippers.

Of course, the size of the audience had now quadrupled, given the spectacle of the toad boss in action.

When all that remained were a few dozen stragglers, Jiraiya hopped down, allowing Gamabunta to return to his nap.

Naruto was tired from summoning five thousand copies of himself, his chest moving in and out with each breath, but it wasn't over. He said just as much.

"This isn't over, Ero-sennin!"

"Ero-sennin?" The man just laughed, "Brat, you can't beat me, if this is the best you can do."

For all his claims about holding back, Naruto didn't really want to show him how many tails he could command. For all his anger, he knew the only he way could make Jiraiya take him seriously now is by bringing his full might to the table, which unfortunately involved lethal amounts of bijuu chakra. Jiraiya was a bloody mess already. He'd paid in enough pain for today. The fury in Naruto's heart ebbed, turning to despair.

He didn't really want to kill the old bastard, when he had at least another decade ahead him. Maybe Obaa-chan would finally get over her stupid problems and appreciate him too? Anything could happen, now that the Kyuubi was wherever it was supposed to be.

"It's never enough. I'm always behind." He sighed. There were a few techniques still up his sleeve, as well as his fox summons, but he didn't want to bring them into the mix.

There really was no way out of this, was there?

"This is stupid." Naruto declared finally, pointing ahead, "I just wanted to be a Konoha shinobi. All you had to do was just accept that. And then, all I asked for you to do was to fucking to kill me like you fucking meant it. But now, I'm too valuable. Too interesting. I'm just a toy for you now, aren't I? You won't kill me unless I threaten the village."

Jiraiya hummed, "In a way, you're right. I was willing to kill you... until you somehow caught my rasengan." He grumbled, "How did you manage that anyway?"

He ignored him, "This is over." He raised his blood-smeared hands, "Just throw me a dark prison somewhere. Conduct your stupid tests. I've already won anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter anymore. I got enough of what I wanted."

Jiraiya scowled at the defeated brat, who stood with his arms outstretched. He stared at him for a moment, before walking forward. At first, he expected a trap or a gimmick, but Naruto did nothing, even when he got in the teen's face.

"That's, what, the second time you've said that now. What do you mean you've won? What is it you've done? What was your mission?"

"To stop that asshole, of course." He shrugged, "Isn't it obvious? I got to stab him in the eye, it was fucking brilliant."

"So that's that, huh? Put your arms down brat, it's already been established we don't have anything to bind your arms with that works." The blond obeyed with a petulant huff.

"Hmm." He stared into Naruto's defiant blue eyes, before letting out a sigh. He reached into his vest and pulled out a scroll, handing it to him, "Here. Take this."

Naruto looked at him like he was an idiot. Which he still was, in Naruto's mind anyway. Letting him die back then, when his death would have prevented Akatsuki from destroying Konoha, at least in the short term, stopping all this madness from happening in the first place. But what Jiraiya did never made much sense to anybody right? Tsunade had said as much at his funeral.

"I said take it! Are you always this stubborn? Or are you just too stupid to understand?"

Naruto snarled and snatched up the scroll, ripping it open.

"W-What the hell!"

"You're welcome." He turned around and started walking upwards toward the assembled audience, but Naruto lunged forward and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him around.

"What the hell is this?!" He breathed, "Did you forget what the last twenty minutes consisted of? Or did you lose too much blood?!"

"Can't you read?" Jiraiya was holding up remarkably well despite looking like a bloody mess.

"Of course I can you baka! This can't be for me-"

"Sure it is."

"B-But- I- but I-"

"Kid, you're good. Good enough to be put on the fast track for jounin. But you need to work on hiding your emotions. Well-" he paused, "-perhaps that's wrong of me to say. The only reason you have that scroll is because I can tell you don't harbor any ill intent to this village, whoever it is you really are." He swatted the hand on his shoulder and continued to walk away, Naruto keeping up with his large strides, "Rest assured, you're on probation. You will be in constant contact with official and undercover probation officers for an undetermined amount of time. But for now, it's unequivocal. You might be an aberration, but you're just as much a chuunin now as any Konoha shinobi now."

Stunned, Naruto stopped walking. His clones stared in awe of the giant who broke through the crowd, which dispersed in clapping as Jiraiya posed in dripping triumph and started to promote his latest book.

Twenty minutes later (of utter silence), "I haven't changed at all have I? I'm still the biggest idiot I know." He said to the empty field, watching the wind scatter dust. He admired his handiwork with a limp half-hearted smile. Toad prints, pits, slag, mud, dirt, stone, scuff marks, crushed bedrock and all.

As the breeze settled around him, a hidden second scroll dropped from within the first.

Naruto picked it up and began to read...

Rank: B+ - Estimated Completion Date : November 1st

Team Leaders: Gama Jiraiya, Yuuhi Denbu

Team Members: Mitarashi Anko (Chuunin 155098), Kurama Naruto (Chuunin 402235), Uchiha Shisui (Chuunin 302345)

Mission parameters will be established tomorrow at 0630 in room 017B. Pack light. You will move out after receiving orders. Bring antidotes for common to exotic toxins, as you can afford.

Jiraiya

"Oi... what the hell. I'm already getting a mission?" When did he have time to write it down anyway?

What hell... he just wanted to lie down, but having a mission in his hand... he had too much to do today for just having gotten his old job back.


"How did it go?"

"Well, you did see Gamabunta out that window of yours, right sensei? Or did you lose your glasses somewhere? Oh and sorry about the blood, brat has a thing for lacerations."

A chuckle.

"Let's hope Minato lets his pretty little lass back on active duty soon. I think we're going to need her special abilities on hand, if the capabilities of that brat are any indication."

"Oh, I have no illusions she will be storming up here one of these mornings. Really Jiraiya, your student has an odd taste in women."

"So suddenly now he's just my student? You never let me win at anything."

"Well, at least he has a woman."

"Okay. I can tell I'm not wanted here. I'm gonna go do some research, see ya."

"At least clean yourself up. You'll give those poor girls nightmares as you are."


The grand Hyuuga archive was not really all that grand. It was musty smelling and there was a particularly rotten stench in one of the ceiling panels, probably a dead mouse or something, not that the all-seeing Hyuuga bothered to clean the nooks and crannies of their house. Rotten lazy bastards.

There were four long book cases. A few bound tomes sat upon their shelves, but the majority of the shelf space was consumed by carefully stacked wrapped-up parchment. The scrolls in the archive were categorized by the year they were written (usually estimated) and not anything else, making the search a pain in the ass, as Hyuuga are winded-bastards who write in sprawling calligraphy, making simple statements difficult to dissect. Their love of flowery speech was only surpassed by their outward stoicism and pride.

There were four Naruto clones working carefully, three of them sitting on the old oaken floor. Unlike the tatami mats that made up the rest of the Hyuuga estate, the archives were made of solid hard wood, with a strong rocky foundation beneath. The walls themselves were supposedly so thick not even the Byakugan could penetrate them.

The Boss was slowly analyzing an interesting historical document on the Hyuuga, rather a collection of writings written by Hiashi's father, the man no longer among the living. It was written in an odd prose that wasn't characteristic of earlier writings.

to reduce, that is that path of men

to some the world is built upon yes

to seduce, that is the path of excess

to others it is known as a game of chess

to pay the price of truth, one cannot use yen

to respect its fleetingness, that is zen

Naruto had already spent hours this morning, or rather, his clones had. And even without dispelling them yet, he could tell the Hyuuga were one messed up clan. All of his poor clones looked like they're going to tear their hair out.

"Boss, please, can we take a break?"

"Break? Can we quit! This is a terrible job. You know I hate to read."

"Dude, we have to read this shit, or Hinata-cha-" a hand clamped tight over his lips, "Don't say that name! We don't want anyone-"

They all turned to the new occupant, an old man with sagging skin, about three-quarters Naruto's size. Almost a dwarf for his age, the shrunken, sunken-faced man with solid white eyes stared from the doorway.

"Kurama-san." An old voice that moved like sound through water, "Correct?"

"Uh yeah." One of the clones answered.

"Understood." And then he stepped further into the old room, taking a seat before one of the clones, his feet folded underneath him.

He was dressed in an over-sized white kimono, its massive sleeves draping over his hands hiding what must have been rail-thin, frail arms. He was bald, with hundreds of creases all along the top of his head.

"Uhh, can we help you?" One of the clones asked to the man that faced the circle of scroll-readers.

"Ooshii." He said.

"Brave?"

He shook his head.

"I think that's his name."

"Correct."

They shared a look, "Boss, what should we do?"

Their boss was too busy reading a scroll, "Get back to work." He grumbled, "We're not even into a tenth of the scrolls yet. And we have a mission tomorrow that's going to take up the rest of the month. We need to get as much done as we can today."

There was a collective sigh, but they continued reading, the old man laughed as he watched them work, his expression inscrutable, though Naruto thought he was amused by his efforts. But who knew? From what little he had read so far, the Hyuuga were just as nuts as the Uchiha. Their elders were probably the craziest of the bunch. Craziness had to be involved if tradition stipulated the sealing of three-year-olds with largely poorly understood ancient clan Fuuinjutsu.

"Hard." The old man commented.

"Huh? Yeah." A clone admitted absently.

Time passed. The man studied with his tall eyes, his wrinkled lips making contortions as he spied openly. It was getting on his nerves. One of his clones beat Boss to the punch, "Can we help you, old man?"

"Maybe."

A bark, "Well, what is it?"

"The council."

And then there was a pause, as it dawned on Boss there were only main branch members with authorization that could be in the room with him. He was a rarity, something that shouldn't be.

"Oh, well, I have permission." Naruto said, lowering the scroll in his hand, "Hiashi-sama said I've got the right to be in here. I'm doing research to help his wife out with- well I guess I can tell you guys. She's sick 'cause of her seal. I'm good with Fuuinjutsu."

"Known."

A grumble, "Great. Could you speak in more than one syllable then? I'm kinda busy, I can't really answer your real questions, be more specific."

He stood, "Sorry." He turned and left, but not before uttering a final word, "Be careful." He closed the door behind him.

Fuckin' weird. But Naruto didn't let that stop him. He kept reading until it was just too dark - he was just too tired. And he was going to be waking up early for a long mission, apparently, so he didn't have the luxury- shit, he needed to buy some supplies too. He'd probably have to mooch of Anko when she got up in the morning.

He was sure that wasn't going to go well.

Naruto stood, instructing his clones to wait a few minutes before bludgeoning him with a nagamaki full of Hyuuga history.

As he left the room, he was surprised to be greeted by four seated Hyuuga. It was nearly midnight and his eyes were red and puffy. He recognized Hizashi among them, a beautiful young woman with long black hair beside him.

"Kurama-kun." She said melodiously, "It is good to see you."

"Oh. Um. Right-"

"Sachiko is fine." She stretched her large plum lips.

Naruto nodded to Hizashi beside her, "Can I help you guys?"

"Your devotion is appreciated, Kurama-san." Hizashi said simply, "We wished to show our support."

Naruto nodded, looking at the small antechamber they were cramped into. "Thanks, I guess. But you guys don't have to do that sort of thing. I have my own reasons for helping, I guess."

"Whatever they might be, I appreciate your help. So does all of the Branch family. I will entrust my sister-in-law to your determined hands."

A lone blond brow raised, "Er, thanks, I guess, Sachiko-chan. I'll do my best."

"I heard that you fought Jiraiya-sama today." Hizashi interrupted, his voice restrained, his face just as emotionless as any other Hyuuga he'd ever met, but Naruto could feel the buzzing in that voice, was it a vibration caused by disbelief? Awe? Pride? He didn't know.

"Really? Word travels fast. Yeah. We had a fight. Wasn't pretty too." Naruto chuckled, "Honestly, reading for all those hours must have done something to my head, 'cause I should be appreciating the fact I'm still alive right now. And not chained up somewhere, too."

"We were right in securing your aid, it seems."

"I wouldn't go that far. Anyway, I'm sorry, but I can't stay and chat." He yawned, "I've got a stupid mission tomorrow, so I'll drop some clones off in the morning, but they'll probably pop after a day or two. My progress on helping out is going to be a little slow at first." He sighed, "My life is just one interruption after the other. But I promise to- I mean, I won't let you guys down. I'll give it my best."

"We understand." Sachiko interrupted her husband.

"Right. Well, anyway, I'm gonna get goin' then." He waved as he moved through the small room, stopping for just a beat to add, "You guys have a great family you know?" he shook his head, "It's huge. Yet you guys are so wasteful. Having such a stupid fight... you have so many people to love. You shouldn't take that shit for granted. One day, you might just have nobody left."


AN: Jiraiya's last name could be Ogata, since that's what it is in the legend he's named after, but I chose Gama, since he's an Orphan. His surname is just something he chose and only uses in official documentation about himself.

This chapter comes across as weak to me, but I'm persevering here. I'd rather just post it and keep the story rolling, because I've exhausted my little mind of ideas. Notably, probably the biggest complaint I've been getting has been about Naruto not knowing his parents and being relatively trusted by Konoha despite his status as an unknown entity. These are on-going conflicts, things to be solved over another ten chapters or more, so I can understand concerns, frustrations, and disbelief, but I hope everyone can understand that I'm doing my best to address these concerns. I could remove these elements from play by just having Naruto know his true heritage and by having him reveal to the Sandaime that he's biologically related to the current Hokage, or something, like every other time travel story seems to do, but I don't want to do those things, because I want to produce a different, interesting story.

Suffice to say, ninja play pretty complicated games. Naruto is under suspicion. Nobody trusts him, not really. Maybe I need to convey this better. Naruto being accepted as a shinobi of Konoha in this chapter might come off as "author intervention", but consider the strategy: keep your enemies close. They could lock away Naruto in some dungeon, and maybe that would be slightly more believable, but I don't think it would produce an interesting story you guys are willing to find entertaining. In the logic of the story, they could do that and they'd be in their rights, but they probably wouldn't learn anything about Naruto. They wouldn't learn who sent him or why. He'd be an entity locked in a cage. Even if Ibiki could get something out of him, who's to say it would be the information they really need. It's a gamble, but Jiraiya is going to get Naruto close at hand, since he's already been recalled to Konoha.