Naruto collapsed bonelessly to the ground, every part of his body feeling—pretty OK, actually. His nerves had long since given up on attempting to convey information. He had an abstract awareness of his own body, much as he did of his Chūnin Exam scores, or Hinata's unbearably cute smile. Jiraiya would probably tell him if he still had limbs, assuming Naruto had the energy to ask.
Naruto had read that total chakra drain was invariably fatal. Since his current chakra levels were definitely in the negative, he supposed that made him some kind of undead.
He clearly wasn't a skeleton, since he'd just collapsed bonelessly to the ground.
He didn't crave brains, though somewhere in there was a joke about Jiraiya being the only person around.
Ghouls ate the dead rather than the living, so that was a possibility. Wait, no. Ghouls weren't cool. Forget that.
Vampirism, on the other hand, would be great. Vampires had all sorts of special powers. Unless they were hopping vampires, of course. That would just be embarrassing. Forget vampires.
Ghosts were an option. There were enough varieties of ghost to pick from, some of them very cool. But he still had a physical body (allegedly), so he wasn't optimistic.
Now liches… Immortal (like, seriously immortal, not just undying), magic powers, command of lesser undead (there were bound to be some around here somewhere, or he could always make his own), no downsides whatsoever… yes, he could work with that.
No, wait. Did that mean his chakra would always stay in the negative? And he'd never be able to use ninjutsu again? And he'd have to give up the Uzumaki Style? And he'd creep out Hinata if she ever used her Byakugan near him?
Clearly, this would require some serious thought.
"Hey, kid, you still alive down there?"
"Good answer." Naruto could hear Jiraiya grin, which was testament to the amount of suffering he had endured at the man's hands this past month. "'Yeah' would mean you hadn't worked hard enough and needed another round. 'No' would mean you had enough energy to be flippant, meaning you hadn't worked hard enough and needed another round.
"Anyway, as your master, I hereby pronounce your training complete. You have learned everything I can be bothered to teach you."
Jiraiya lay down on the grass next to him, and gave a profound yawn, as if he was the one who'd been doing all the work.
"Hey, kid," he said after a while. "What do you see when you look up there?"
Naruto duly looked up at the night sky. Not that he had much choice, being sprawled on his back with no energy to move.
"Well, Perverted One, that thing up there is a cloud. The first hint is how it isn't falling down on top of us."
Naruto could hear a sigh.
"Trying to have a master-apprentice bonding moment here, kid. You're leaving tomorrow, so the timing's as good as it's going to get."
Huh. Jiraiya actually wanted to bond with him. Whatever that meant. Given that Naruto wasn't expecting to be back for a while (the Rasengan could wait; his amazing new technique was already at the limit of what his chakra reserves could handle), he couldn't think off the top of his head what Jiraiya had to gain by manipulating him here and now.
"You've had your gruelling and pointlessly cruel physical training. You've had your deep metaphysical insight that sets you up for cool powers later down the road. You've learned your new technique offstage—that is, as far as your competition back home is concerned—so the first time you use it, it will be hugely dramatic and nobody will know how to counter it. Now you get your master-apprentice bonding moment. Just don't overdo it in case you invoke a mentor death trope."
Naruto laughed. "No promises."
But where to go from here? Bonding in and of itself was something he didn't understand. Jiraiya was an authority figure, placing him in the same basket as the Hokage and Iruka-sensei (though he'd probably never understand what an honour it was to be named alongside those two). Over the years, he'd never had anything you might call a truly personal conversation with either of them, that one necessary confrontation after Wave notwithstanding. The closest he'd come was Kakashi-sensei, who made a point of being opaque—and, limited to fiction though his comprehension of the concept was, Naruto was pretty sure that bonding was a two-way street.
Hinata? The only person he truly trusted. Maybe the only person he'd ever truly trust. Did she qualify? They'd shared some very personal things with each other (even if Naruto was still keeping secrets the size of the Hokage Tower from her, while she avoided with equal determination any discussion of her home life). He hoped they would share many more.
Jiraiya was no Hinata. They'd known each other for about a month. They had no intention of ever holding hands—and he was going to cut that analogy off right there, because he really didn't like where it was going. Still, Jiraiya, who had an ironclad persona second only to Naruto's own, had occasionally allowed a few chinks to open in his armour, especially when it came to Naruto's parents or the Three. And while you could manipulate people by weaving together truth and lies, some part of Naruto wanted to believe that Old Man Hokage's personal apprentice, his father's master, and his mother's friend, whose treatment of Naruto had consistently been nine parts casual mockery and one part wry affection, was a man with a heart less blackened than most of the adults Naruto had met.
"Just say whatever's on your mind," Jiraiya said. "As an author, I can tell you that the good stuff tends to come naturally."
"Huh," Naruto said. "You make it sound so easy."
He resumed his scheduled staring at the sky, which was to say he kept his eyes open.
"It's the sky—it's not like I've never looked at it before," Naruto said, wishing he was able to monitor Jiraiya's reaction and adjust accordingly. "Some of the places I've lived in had big holes in the roof. Even in the ones that didn't, sometimes looking up beats looking down and seeing the world you live in, y'know?"
Jiraiya might have nodded, but all Naruto could hear was the subtle movement of the grass.
"I don't know if it's better, though, or just different," Naruto reflected. "It looks cold up there, and empty. Whatever's there is infinitely far away, and no matter how incredible I am down here, on that scale it's like I don't even exist. So on second thought, maybe looking down is better after all. At least the Earth has ramen."
"I used to feel like that too," Jiraiya confessed. "Not about the ramen, the other stuff. Especially when those two left me, and it seemed like it was colder and emptier down here. Why did a war hero become a brilliant, best-selling author? Because sometimes all you have left is fiction."
That brought Naruto up short. He got that Jiraiya's past wasn't all sunshine and roses—he had people who actually liked him, and then they went away—but all of a sudden he caught himself identifying with the man, and something about the very idea of it felt unreal. The fact that Jiraiya understood what it meant when the real world had nothing to offer you, and all you could do was immerse yourself in stories where other people were happy…
"But you know what, Naruto?"
Naruto had half-expected the bonding session to be already over. A single piece of meaningful insight about themselves was already more than most adults offered, and certainly more than they wanted from him.
"Since then, I've travelled the world, many, many times. I like to think I've seen the best and the worst that mankind has to offer. And do you know what I see when I look up now?"
Naruto tried to shake his head, failed, and decided it would be easier to treat the question as rhetorical.
Jiraiya's voice became more distant, but warmer at the same time.
"I see that however cold and dark it may be out there, here on Earth there is love, and hope, and a hunger to know more and become more than we are. One day, we'll find a way to bring all of that to the endless abyss of space, carrying our humanity with us like a torch lit from the hearthfire of our home. From that day forth, it won't matter that the stars seem so far away and their light seems so weak, because our descendants will be the ones lighting up the dark."
It was mid-afternoon at the Inuzuka Clan compound, and Kiba was lying lazily on the grass of the private training ground, his daily duties done. Next to him, Akamaru curled up approvingly.
There was a growl from Barbarossa, who was basking in the sunlight near the main building exit and probably wasn't happy at being disturbed.
"May I have your permission to enter?"
Kiba jumped to his feet. There was only one person who'd bother being this formal on such a beautiful sunny day.
"I'll allow it," Barbarossa said, laying her head back on her paws. "Make sure you behave."
Barbarossa was definitely on the tolerant side as far as Inuzuka went. Then again, she was Akamaru's mother and Kiba's stepmother. If she hadn't long since learned saintly patience, she'd be completely crazy by now. (Also, he'd given up trying to explain to Shino why Akamaru technically outranked him.)
Shino bowed his head in appreciation, then walked past her onto the field.
"Hey, Shino!" Kiba called. "You keep that up, and you'll be part of the pack in no time!"
Behind Shino, Barbarossa gave a snort. "Good luck with that."
Bit by bit, Kiba had teased out the admission that Barbarossa had mixed feelings about Shino. On the one front paw, he was frail, hesitant and passive—all classic prey animal traits. On the other front paw, he showed her due respect, he'd earned the loyalty of multitudes, and he had the guts to keep coming back no matter how many times Kiba beat him to a pulp. Barbarossa grudgingly agreed that if Shino ever overcame his flaws and crossed the Great Divide between prey and predator, she might eventually consider him to be a pack candidate. Kiba had told Shino none of this, in case the massive praise went to his head.
"It's you!" Akamaru barked. "Are we going to play again?"
"What's up, Shino?" Kiba asked, shaking to get the stray bits of grass off his jacket. "Back for more sparring? Your turn for a beatdown, you know. You just had your three wins. It's all me from here."
"Our ratio is six to four," Shino said peevishly, "and that is not how probability works.
"Just so we're clear," he added quickly, "the six is me."
Kiba rolled his eyes. "Whatever makes you feel better about the upcoming curbstomp."
He was about to roll up his sleeves, then stopped. Something smelled off.
"Hey, Shino, what's wrong?"
Shino shook his head. "Nothing important. We should make a start."
"Nuh-uh! It's no fun fighting you when you're down in the dumps."
Kiba knew a few ways to snap Shino out of a funk, and since he was pretty sure what was going on this time (or rather, who was responsible—that woman's scent was thick today), he also knew what to do.
"Girl trouble, huh?" Kiba winked. "Why don't you tell Big Brother Kiba all about it?"
"It is not girl trouble," Shino snapped. "I merely have something on my mind."
"Don't worry, I know my way around the ladies better than anyone. Lemme guess, you've got the hots for that Tenten chick, but you've got no idea how to talk to her because nobody's got any idea how to talk to her."
"I do not have romantic feelings for that girl. I don't even know her! We weren't even in the same Academy cohort! The most extensive communication we have experienced was when she happened to sit next to me at lunchtime, and I asked her to pass the salt!"
"Uh-huh," Kiba said. "You still remember the one time you talked to her, from over a year ago when she was still at the Academy. If that doesn't scream 'crush', I don't know what does. Relax, Shino. Everyone fancies an older girl some time in their lives.
"Hey," he exclaimed as if suddenly struck by inspiration, "Hinata's got a boyfriend now. How about the two of us go ask her for advice? C'mon, follow me!"
"Improved Venom Tide!"
"Perverted One, you keep saying you're a great sage," Naruto said off-handedly as he tried to shove the box with the dragonfly hairpins into an already overflowing bag. "Is that you just showing off, or does being a sage mean something?"
Jiraiya gave a look of fake indignation. "I don't need to show off, kid. This aura of rock-solid masculinity and deep wisdom is all natural. But since you ask, a sage is someone who has awakened to the hidden final teaching of the Sage of Six Paths and attained enlightenment."
Naruto was sceptical. He didn't know what enlightenment was, but it didn't sound like something the drinking, bragging, womanising old man in front of him ought to have.
"So what's enlightenment, then?"
Jiraiya's voice took on a solemn tone that could have been real, or could have been another opportunity for Jiraiya to test him for gullibility (it had been days before the man had admitted that summons weren't mutants originally created by scientists trying to replicate the chakra-controlling power of human resolve by infusing animals with human chakra).
"No one can be told what enlightenment is. They have to experience it for themselves."
Jiraiya was getting lazy. At least the story about the genius genjutsu user had left Naruto sufficiently engrossed in the puzzle of giving perfect orders that he temporarily forgot that a real smart person would have just commanded everyone to "obey".
"If that line really works on people," Naruto told him, "I'm giving up what little faith in humanity I've got left."
Jiraiya laughed. "Sorry, kid, but it's true. Here, let me show you what I mean.
"So when I was back at the Academy, there was this one gorgeous Nara girl. Luscious black hair down to here. Sparkling amber eyes. Early bloomer. You get the idea. Obviously, I asked her out every other day. So eventually, she got fed up and told me that she only dated the smartest kids. If I wanted to date her, I had to prove how smart I was by passing the Nara Test the fair way, by studying rather than cheating."
"What's a Nara test?"
"There was this snotty Nara woman who decided that it wasn't good enough for her kids to 'only' get the same full marks as everyone else, so she demanded a special test to show everyone what geniuses they were. The kids themselves were as mortified as you can imagine, but she was so relentlessly obnoxious that eventually she got her way. Since then, assuming the Academy's still running it, the brightest kids sometimes get invited to take this optional crazy-hard test. If they pass, odds are they'll end up in one of the jōnin-led teams even if, say, their taijutsu scores stink to high heaven."
Naruto, of course, not only never got invited, but hadn't even been told such a test existed. He wondered, now, how many other doors had been closed to him without him ever knowing. How many others were yet to close.
"So there you have it," Jiraiya said, oblivious. "Either I prove I'm a genius, or I had better not so much as look at her again. Now, being me, which is to say the paragon of confidence and courage, I accept those conditions on the spot.'
"Perverted One," Naruto said impatiently, "is there a point to this story?"
"Hush, you. I'm building up to a valuable life lesson here. Now, do you know what she does the second I tell her I'll beat that test of hers fair and square?"
"Before I can leave, she steps between me and the door, and tells me all the answers."
Naruto took a second to absorb this.
"Yeah," Jiraiya said. "How she got hold of them, we will never know. It's almost as if she was a ninja. But the point is, the second I heard those answers, I could no longer use the test to prove my book smarts.
"Enlightenment is exactly like that, except you can't pull any clever tricks like stealing the exam papers in advance so they have to change the content. Once you've got the answer, you're locked out of finding it the way that actually gets you enlightened."
Naruto found himself offended at the idea of a test, any test, that you couldn't cheat your way through if you were smart enough (the fact that sometimes it would be easier to do it the normal way was obviously irrelevant).
"Why are you telling me all this, anyway?" Naruto asked. "Not that I mind the idea of being called 'Great Sage Naruto' while I'm growing out my beard and getting the badass tattoos"—Jiraiya gave him a rare confused look—"but you haven't exactly sold me on the idea of enlightenment so far."
Jiraiya sighed. "Well, in the first place, you're the one who asked. In the second place, you've asked too soon, so now I have to give you the warning while you're still a dumb kid who can't appreciate it."
"What do you mean, give me the warning?" Naruto asked. "When in this conversation have I said that I want to become enlightened?"
"Naruto," Jiraiya said with unbecoming seriousness. "Do you know what a lineage disciple is?"
Naruto shook his head.
"There is a lineage that traces itself from the Sage of Six Paths, the father of all shinobi, through Senju Tobirama, through Sarutobi Hiruzen, through me, through Namikaze Minato, through Hatake Kakashi, and finally to you.
"Properly speaking, Kakashi should be the one telling you all this, but Minato died young and didn't have a chance to finish the job, so Kakashi's got troubles of his own.
"Either way, you're part of the line. But you're also nowhere near ready, so if you're not interested right now, I reckon that's for the best."
"I am totally ready!" Naruto exclaimed, only afterwards remembering that he didn't care. He refused to be treated like a child just because Jiraiya knew something he didn't.
"That so?" Jiraiya chuckled. "And if I tell you that some of the greatest minds in human history not only gave up after a while, but bitterly regretted the amount of time and effort they'd spent trying?"
Naruto opened his mouth, and his lips were already forming words of challenge when he finally, finally understood the lesson Jiraiya had been trying to teach him all month. Naruto's problem wasn't thinking that he was always smarter than everyone else. It was thinking that it always mattered.
It hadn't been lack of intelligence that got him manipulated into racing through the defences of No Man's Land without even his towel. It hadn't been lack of intelligence that got him briefly eaten by Gamabunta. It certainly hadn't been lack of intelligence that nearly got him killed, or worse, humiliated, by Hyūga Hiashi. If he'd had different kinds of thought, if he'd paid attention to things that had nothing to do with winning or losing… maybe he wouldn't have been forced to rely on his intelligence in the first place.
Was he about to step in another trap, relying on raw brilliance when what he needed was patience, or diligence, or humility, or any of the other virtues that the Academy tried so hard to inculcate that he was suspicious of them by default?
But if it was, he was going to step in it anyway, he decided. If he hesitated to use his greatest asset just because it might be the wrong tool for the job, then he might as well just buy a ton of manga and never leave the flat.
Actually, that didn't sound so bad.
Ahem. The point was that if there was some undiscovered way of living that didn't get him eaten by giant toads, he was only going to find it the same way he found everything else—creative experimentation and good reflexes to dive for cover. He was still going to fall for Jiraiya's provocation, but, for a change, he was going to do it on his own terms.
"I'm ready," he repeated in a more measured voice. "Show me what you've got."
"All right," Jiraiya said. "Let's go with something simple. Naruto, what is truth? What does it mean to seek truth?"
Naruto blinked. "You don't start them easy, Perverted One."
"Take some time to think about it before you answer," Jiraiya said. "Actually, that's great advice for every situation you'll ever find yourself in that doesn't involve combat, natural disasters or catching the right romantic timing."
So Naruto took the time. What seemed like a complex philosophical question at first wasn't really that difficult when he began to think about it, to the point where he began to suspect another trap for the overly bright.
The sky was blue, for example. As far as he knew, it was blue even if you were colour-blind or had some kind of weird colour-mixing brain, because no matter what you saw or what words you used to describe it, the sky was always scattering certain light wavelengths in the same specific ways. (The properties of light and perception had been covered in an advanced stealth class—Naruto was barred due to his test scores and because the teachers hated him, so he'd taken it as a matter of pride, and irony, to sneak in.)
Likewise, things fell down unless they could come up with a very good excuse for falling up. Two plus two equalled four. The Hokage was sixty-nine years old by the standard calendar. People died when they were killed.
But what about "seeking" truth? That sounded like it ought to mean something special, not just looking out the window or checking the records for the Hokage's date of birth (every year, as a special birthday present, Naruto would go one whole day without pulling any pranks; this had the intentional secondary effect of making the entire population of Leaf celebrate the Hokage's birthday).
Naruto tried to see his experiences through the unfamiliar lens of "seeking truth".
Team Seven had sought the truth about the bell test after they realised that its apparent conditions didn't make sense, and it had made them the first ever to pass it. Hinata had sought the truth about him after he'd given her that perfectly reasonable but somehow misunderstood message, instead of settling for her initial interpretation, and it had been such an amazing experience that it had carried them into a long-term relationship. Seeking the truth about Root's actions, despite the many barriers in the way, had given him the weapon he needed to save Kakashi-sensei.
He and Sasuke hadn't tried to seek the truth about each other, and settled for the obvious answers. They'd paid for it with years of alienation. He'd failed to seek it when faced with an event as improbable as the fake attack on Leaf, and ended up committing suicide for a greater good he didn't believe in. Failing to seek the truth behind Shikamaru's actions after realising that something was wrong, and sticking to his original strategy, had turned him into a shogi piece on Shikamaru's board.
What if the villagers had sought the truth about him, instead of assuming that he was a monster just because he contained one? What if his classmates had sought the truth about him, instead of assuming there was no depth beneath his clownish façade? He couldn't even imagine what that world would be like.
The lens wasn't a perfect fit. All those things could be described in other terms, with other paradigms. And "seeker of truth" sounded like something a manga protagonist might call themselves, alongside "ally of justice" and "protector of the weak"—unquestionably cool, but best saved for dramatic pre-battle speeches, while the rest of the time you just went around quietly upholding justice and protecting the weak because that was what decent people with superpowers/giant robots/custom high-tech battle suits were supposed to do.
But either way, the pattern was there, impossible to deny. The truth, by its presence or its absence, could change everything.
So what was his answer? And how to put it into the words Jiraiya was looking for?
"The truth is just how the world is shaped," Naruto finally said. "I don't see why it has to be more complicated than that. You can know more or less of it, and you can believe all sorts of things about it, and you can have lots of different perspectives on it, but none of those are what the truth is. Those are just ways of talking about yourself. Changing them is just a way of changing yourself. The truth doesn't care what you do. If the truth is the way the world is shaped, then that means everything in the world is part of it, and vice versa. The only way to change the truth is to change the world itself."
The more Naruto said, the more he understood what he was saying.
"You can use it as your beacon, because once you've found it, it's always right there. But if you don't do that, then you're just wandering around lost in the fog, and maybe you've realised you're lost, but you don't know how to get out, or maybe you've picked a direction to march off in, and you're calling loudly for everyone to follow you."
Jiraiya gave a noncommittal "hmm".
"And seeking the truth means… wanting to find it even if it's hard, or if there are lies in front of you that are easier to accept, or if you're afraid of what you might find, or if you feel like you already know it but you haven't checked to see if you're right."
"Is that so?" Jiraiya asked thoughtfully, still without giving any indication of whether Naruto had said the right thing. It was unnerving, like sitting at home waiting for a make-or-break exam result or a letter from the hospital (though Naruto was generally the one to decide the former, and nobody cared enough about his health to keep him up to date with the latter).
"So what does this have to do with being a sage, Perverted One?" Naruto pressed, starting to wonder if, between Jiraiya, Kakashi-sensei, and himself, the lineage came with a gift for inscrutability.
Jiraiya's expression turned serious. "Naruto, there are two paths to becoming a sage. One is hard, and the other is very hard."
"The hard path requires patience, dedication, humility and self-awareness. You must spend decades in meditation, study obscure ancient texts, and perform ritual practices that do not make sense to you. You will probably die of old age without achieving enlightenment."
"OK…" Naruto said dubiously. "And the very hard path?"
"The very hard path also requires patience, dedication, humility and self-awareness. But in addition, it requires deep honesty. On that path, you can achieve enlightenment as soon as you ask the right questions and find their answers."
Naruto couldn't help feeling like something was going over his head.
"If it can get you enlightened faster that way, why isn't everyone doing it?"
"Because deep honesty is one of those things that's incredibly hard even if you're deliberately trying to cultivate it, and most people don't try. It means asking questions, and the right questions have a power that can bring hope or despair. You can break a person with a single question, or open their eyes to a new way of seeing the world. You can change someone forever. And that's before you consider the power of answers."
On the surface, it sounded exactly like he'd expect sagely wisdom to sound: deeply profound and incredibly vague. Yet somehow, Naruto felt like there was an insight on the tip of his mind, like a single push in the right place could topple him into understanding.
"Can you give me an example?"
Jiraiya went silent for a few seconds.
"Are you sure, Naruto? Once you step onto the path, you will not be able to step off again."
Another challenge with unknown risks and uncertain rewards, delivered in a voice whose gravity was only amplified by the contrast with Jiraiya's usual jovial nature. If trying to be a sage was supposed to be like this all the time, maybe he should just join some of the greatest minds in human history and go find a better use for his time. Enlightenment? Becoming a sage? All he'd wanted was some light conversation while he finished packing his bags.
There was still time. Forget about this. Go back to Leaf, inevitably ace the tournament, develop the Uzumaki Style until he could clear the hardest missions and skyrocket to being a jōnin, then finally take the hat and become the greatest Hokage who had ever lived. Simple. Easy. There was no need to get derailed right at the start of his quest by the supposed wisdom of a dissolute old man.
The gears of Naruto's mindscape began to spin without his input. What would it even mean to break a person with a single question? It sounded like an extraordinary power, but then again, what if the person broken was him? What if it was Hinata? You couldn't unask a question, as he'd learned when he found out about the Demon Fox. And you couldn't predict the long-term consequences of asking one, even if it was as simple as a request to be taught.
But if he could open someone's eyes to a new way of seeing the world, might the risk it be worth it? Watching someone awaken to a broader, more liberating perspective was a thing of incomparable beauty. Naruto was reminded of that every time he watched Hinata grow. And what was the alternative to honesty anyway? Lying to himself? Not trying to discover the truth when he knew it was out there? Naruto couldn't see himself as a person who would willingly choose to do that. He couldn't see, now that the question had been asked, how he could choose not to step onto the path.
That, he realised with a start, was Jiraiya's example of a question that changed someone forever.
"I'll take it," he told Jiraiya, even if he wasn't wholly sure what he was taking, or what taking it meant. "So what do I do now?"
"Ask hard questions. Find out the answers. Never lie to yourself."
"That's all you've got?" Naruto demanded incredulously.
"It's all you need."
If that was all he got for overcoming that internal conflict, Naruto was half-tempted to ask for his money back. Then again, Jiraiya had said up front that nobody could be told what enlightenment was. If that conveniently got him out of giving Naruto a proper explanation, well, Naruto was the dumb one for not seeing that one coming.
But that didn't mean Naruto had wasted his time.
Ask hard questions. Find out the answers. Never lie to yourself. Here and now, Jiraiya was about to regret leaving him with nothing but those words, because they'd given Naruto the last push he needed.
"Can I ask a question that could change someone forever?"
Jiraiya closed his eyes for a second, as if finding a place of stillness within himself.
"Jiraiya-sensei, you were my dad's master, and my mum's friend. The way you tell it, you were closer to them than anyone in the world. So when the two of them died and left me on my own, with no family, in a village where everyone hated me…
"Where were you?"