Disclaimer: Anything you recognize isn't mine.

A/N: I'M SO SORRY! This chapter is pretty much the pivotal point; whatever I just posted dictates what follows without deviation. It... it became way larger than I expected. O_O The plot is vast and conspiracy-level, and honestly, I forgot a lot of details. If you guys catch any mistakes, please tell me, and I'll fix them! Thank you for all the kind reviews~ I'm going to start replying to questions with PMs so that it doesn't clutter the story, but honestly your reviews are my guilt trips to write more.

I'm supremely happy with the end result. It could be refined further, but it's good enough to post right now. Originally, it was half this length and heavy; I've added in some scenes to balance that. It was kind of ready during Christmas, and was an okay length at New Years, but it wasn't something I wanted to start the year with. This version is much better.

IMPORTANT: I think the Chapter 5/6 thing is fixed? When I look at them, they look fine, but I re-uploaded them just in case. I think it's just being glitchy.

Chapter 6

"Fate has decreed-" he began, but his voice caught in his throat when the air whooshed out of it. The blond faced him, posture slouched, hands cupping the back of his neck, and gazing at the audience instead of at him. It was insulting.

But there was nothing Neji could do. He tried to slowly suck air beck into his lungs, but the edges of his vision blurred further. He used his Byakugan to pinpoint the seal, but found that the air was entwined with thin tendrils of Uzumaki's blue chakra, enough that the whole arena lit up. He struggled harder; he wasn't going down like this.

The crowd murmured.

From his tunnel vision, he saw the boy turn cold blue eyes onto him, and on command, air trickled into his lungs, slow enough to keep him dizzy, but enough to keep him from passing out.

"Fate decrees many things," the blond smiled, "but she confers only to those who have something to offer her."

Neji readied his stance again, shaken by the control the blond had over air.

Could a technique like that even be stopped?

Naruto stepped closer, but each step was light, fading. The closer he came, the more transparent he became, the more soundless his steps, the more ethereal his form.

Soon, he stepped in front of Neji and whispered, "What does a bird in a cage have to offer Fate?"

Neji lashed out, five Juuken strikes towards the heart in a second.

Each strike struck air as the boy's body disappeared.

"Come out, you coward!" he spat, but the arena remained silent.

A prickle on his neck caused him to deliver another flurry of strikes behind him. Uzumaki's laughter followed, his body phasing out again.

"Fight me!" he groused. It felt humiliating, striving to find this younger boy who never went to the Academy, who didn't have a bloodline, who wasn't a prodigy.

"Did Fate not predict this for you?" the blond taunted, but reappeared. He stood laxly, hands shoved in his pockets.

Neji bit back a growl at the disregard.

He attacked again, especially when it became apparent that his opponent wouldn't.

"Even if you were not in a cage, I would take the wind from underneath your wings."

Neji felt his heart stutter at the declaration, the cruel smile, but kept fighting.

'Kurama would be proud,' Sarutobi thought sardonically, 'this is turning out rather sadistic.'

Below, Naruto grabbed the Hyuuga's arm and flung the boy forward. A counterattack led to Naruto placing a paralysis seal (written on rice paper) on the rising knee. The other boy faltered, nearly pitching forward into the first before he caught himself.


"Fate-!" Hyuuga began, only to gasp at the knee in his stomach. Naruto graciously let the other boy put space between them to gather his wits.

A breath.

A new stance.

"Hakkesho Kaiten!"

Very impressive. For a Branch member to learn one of the Main Branch's pride was unheard of and only reinforced the prodigy title, but Sarutobi saw the differences. A palm struck lower here, but higher there, a leg moved back… this boy learned this technique by himself.

Sarutobi felt pity for the Hyuuga. Had the boy had any other opponent, he would have made Chuunin indelibly, but glancing at the crowd, Sarutobi realized that only a select few realized the genius of the boy. The Nara head saw, as did Hiashi, and some council members, but the rest couldn't recognize the talent splayed in front of them because of the way Naruto played with him. They didn't see what the boy accomplished; they saw his stumbles and his 'poor aim' as Naruto danced around him with grace. Naruto subdued the boy, kept him under his foot.

The problem wasn't just that Naruto was so much stronger, but the fact that Neji stilled feared what Naruto did at the beginning. Sarutobi saw the way the Hyuuga's chest stopped heaving and knew what Naruto must have done.

Neji was afraid of suffocating, of dying, of not being able to prevent the attack. Afraid of not being able to fight back. For a Branch member, being helpless on the field was their greatest fear, not because they feared their eyes being taken. No. They craved control in the field because they had so little of it at home.

Naruto knew. Naruto knew and gave a threat towards the other boy, and that boy was still afraid, waiting for some indication that the technique would be used again. The Hyuuga didn't know what Sarutobi knew, didn't know that it was taxing for the blond to use that technique, that the reason Naruto wasn't bouncing off the walls was because his muscles were strained from holding onto air, and that his chakra control was haywire because there was so much in the air.

Sarutobi wanted to tell the other boy to let go, that he could fight, but all shinobi had moments like these, when faced with an unstoppable jutsu or much stronger opponent. If the boy could overturn his one-sided battle with his wits, Sarutobi was willing to promote him immediately.

"You are Fated-"

"-to be Hokage? Thanks for the vote of a confidence," Naruto laughed mid-flip. The Juuken strike brushed against the bottom of his sandals, and allowed the blond to plant both hands on his opponent's back.

Neji stumbled forward, but recovered quickly. He snatched Naruto's hand as it was retracted and pulled the blond closer. With his other hand, he readied the next strike.

Sarutobi watched with disinterest. Naruto could easily slice through the other genin's arm, or cut gashes deep enough to render the tendons there useless.

But he didn't.

He watched as Naruto let himself be dragged closer, watched as the Juuken strike hit the heart. Then poof. Kage no Bunshin.

Interesting. The boy could have ended the match, but he was dragging it out further.

Naruto reappeared underneath the ground, grabbing the Hyuuga's ankles. A Juuken strike down.

Poof. Another bunshin.

"Coward!" Hyuuga spat, but the arena remained void of the blond.

"Sorry," Naruto unraveled himself from the air (his disconcerting wind affinity shushin). "I was chatting with Fate."

Sandaled feet grazed the ground before Naruto was off again, headed towards Neji.

"Hakkesho Kaiten!" A blue dome of chakra erupted from the teen's palms, causing Naruto to divert his course.

"With this, Fate has given me the perfect defense!" he cried.

'Amazing,' Sarutobi thought to himself. What a formidable last defense. There were holes, certainly, but those could be plugged up with experience. But the boy had at least one more hurdle.

When Sarutobi fought, politically or physically, he always kept the option of a future alliance or favor in the works; the world was never black and white. He would have left Neji with his pride, as cracked as it was, defeated him soundly, but in a way that let the boy raise his head afterwards. Naruto wouldn't. Sarutobi knew he wouldn't. Kurama was a slash-and-burn teacher; Sarutobi had no doubts that if Naruto followed his mentor's methods, there would be nothing left of the Hyuuga prodigy, just a mindless, obedient puppet.

Sarutobi watched the blond swerve around another Juuken strike, small blades of wind cutting tiny scars into the other's body.

"The outcome is inevitable." He bit back a snort.

Fated indeed.

"You are-" the brunette panted.

"-Fated to lose? By your hands? Unlikely," the blond replied smoothly. He danced away again, wind wrapping around him in an impenetrable shield.

"People like you are-"

"People like me aren't Fated for anything, Hyuuga. Even we know that," a twist of his foot caused a sand pillar to shoot in front of the other's nose. The brunette's dome deflected it away.

Sweat beads formed.

Naruto continued throwing himself at the dome, the thud of his body resonating through the arena.

"It's pointless! My defense is absolute!"

Again, Naruto threw himself at the dome. Several of his tenketsu points were closed; they could be opened with Kurama's chakra, but Sarutobi knew that the boy didn't want to expose that skill to Orochimaru.

Another thud.

Sarutobi felt it. The dome's smooth surface rippled a second after Naruto rammed into it, and saw sweat pour off the Hyuuga as he straightened out the deformation.

What was the boy trying to accomplish? Why was he purposely ramming into a shield he knew would hold? Why not go after the obvious weak spot?

Blue eyes sought his, and in the moment the blond was flung back, he nodded towards Sarutobi.

Oh. Naruto was giving the Hyuuga a chance to prove himself, a chance to lessen earlier's humiliation.

Naruto charged and Sarutobi watched in surprised as Hyuuga ripped down the dome, thus hiding the dome's destabilization and ambushing Naruto. Fingers wrapped around Naruto's wrist and another Juuken hit the heart. Then the Hyuuga used Naruto's momentum to fling him against the wall.

Naruto flew, but shifted his center of mass in time to be able to use his hands to cushion the blow instead of his back.

He still slammed against the wall.

Oh. Hyuuga broke Naruto's wrist. That was smart of him.

Naruto scowled before his expression smoothed over, and he smiled.

"Guess you earned that arrogance, Hyuuga. Didn't expect that," he manually rotated his wrist, eliciting a grimace from the arena.

"You're more creative than that duckbutt-teme at any rate," he shrugged. The Yamanaka heiress caught on first, and yelled, "Sasuke-kun's hair doesn't look like a duck's butt, blondie!" which set off a chain reaction from the younger female audience members.

Another nonchalant shrug. The blond gave his opponent a familiar crooked grin.

"The interesting thing about you-" Naruto danced towards the apprehensive brunet. He coated his arm with a thin layer of wind, grabbed the other's wrist, and smiled as the small winds tore small slices into the brunette's arm: not deep enough to bleed, but enough to sting.

Hyuuga lashed out with a firm kick, which Naruto took as a chance to lean forward and whisper, "-is that you're the kind of bird that learns to fly away, not the kind that waits for its master to let you out."

Sarutobi saw the other boy's eyes widen. It was true; a boy who created his own jutsus, who taught himself how to fight didn't listen to Fate, didn't wait for the owner to feed him.

A bird like that slipped between the bars when backs were turned; a bird like that never thought of itself as a bird that sang, but a bird that could fly.

Naruto dodged every Juuken strike with gentle taps laced with wind chakra that sliced the Hyuuga's skin, small enough to escape detection, but deep enough to sting.

"You know nothing of Fate!" was the token reply. Sarutobi saw the gears working in Hyuuga's brain.

Naruto smiled. His fingers flexed before he curled them in front of his face.

"Fate dictated that today arrived after yesterday, but this? We weren't destined to fight, Hyuuga, we chose this."

Naruto slammed the hilt of his kunai against Hyuuga's neck, and the match was over.

Sarutobi smiled, pleased. Perhaps Naruto wasn't what he wanted from Minato's son, but he certainly wasn't what Kurama wanted either.

The screen flashed: Uchiha Sasuke vs Sabaku no Gaara.

Right. Fuck that.

Naruto ignored the audience's gasps and focused on the arena. Around him, Konoha nin twittered, for once questioning the bluenette's competency. Or perhaps they questioned the fairness of the fight; it was, after all, notoriously hard to fight against crazy, as Naruto just reinforced.

Beside him, Sakura shushed their tremors.

Kiba cursed.

Ino wailed.

In his seat, the Hokage smiled and gently asked for Sasuke to step forward.

Naruto focused on Orochimaru's stretched lips, the contraction of his pupils. He tasted the pungent air the man exhaled; reeking from the aroma of necrotic tissue and the taste of staleness from how long the man held false life within him.

Orochimaru wanted this match even less than the Hokage did. Naruto knew that a freshly dead body was better than an alive one to the man; no soul to fight against, but he also knew that the Sannin's failsafes weren't ready this early in the matches.

"He's not here, yet," Naruto replied neutrally.

"I see. Then this match will be delayed until he arrives, if that is acceptable to the other Kages?"

They would agree, Naruto thought bitterly. None of the Kages wanted to miss out seeing the Sharingan; Orochimaru didn't want to lose his vessel, and the Hokage didn't want a riot from the village on his hands.

If this happened to any other genin, they would have been immediately disqualified.

The screen flashed again: Shino vs. Kankuro.

It may have been rude, but Naruto wasn't particularly interested in that match. He knew that Shino would flourish, but-

"-I forfeit!"

-Kankuro just didn't seem to be pumped about the match. Naruto watched the Suna nin avoid the irritated gazes of his sensei and sister, then his gaze settled on Gaara. The redhead looked highly annoyed, probably because his fight was postponed, and veritable waves of bloodlust were pouring from him.

Huh. It made sense that not all of that crazy came from Shukaku, but Naruto didn't even humor the theory that the demon was a dampening force to Gaara's own crazy.

"…Aburame Shino wins by forfeit!"

Oh well. At least Shino's techniques would surprise their enemies, now.

Nara Shikamaru vs Temari

Sasuke had to admit; he'd underestimated his sensei. Sure, he knew that the man had once commanded ANBU and that his assassination record was flawless, but it was hard to remember those things when faced with the porn books and the mountains of complaints from other shinobi. The complaints were usually from new jounin and chunin, those that thought that Kakashi wasn't training his students, and after the mission to Wave Country... well, the complaints became quieter, but barbed.

And then Naruto joined and the complaints were louder, more frequent, more absurd. For weeks, Konoha pitied him because of his team and not because of his clan.

(Which was absurd. How could the deaths of an entire Clan hold up to being around two outcasts?)

He thought about accepting some of the other jounins' offers; they promised to train him better, stronger...

He almost accepted those offers.

And then he met Kurama. Or, more accurately, he met Naruto's Kurama.

From the moment he laid eyes on the man, he knew he was more than a priest. Underneath the demure pretense, the kind eyes, Sasuke saw another Itachi, a crueler one. He loved his family, but it could not be contested that they bred psychopaths.

So Sasuke saw, and knew. Knew that this man was the same flavor of monster as his brother, as Kakashi-sensei, and knew that those jounin could only offer him power because they didn't know what real power was.

Sasuke stayed. He watched Naruto like a hawk, not (just) because he was jealous, but because Sasuke knew that he wouldn't be the next Itachi or Kakashi or Orochimaru, but he could be the one that sounded the alarm.

But now, hunched over the wet leaves he was trying to set aflame, he thought that he could be one of those people, given the stimuli.

"Maa, the river must be warmer than I remember," Kakashi drawled above him. One of Kakashi's favorite punishments/chakra exercises was to dunk Sasuke in the icy cold river and then have him slowly heat the air around to dry his clothes without burning himself.

Sasuke didn't have any body hair left.

He shivered. If he got hypothermia, he was going to find a way to poison Kakashi.

"I wasn't expecting to see two wet dogs this late in the afternoon."

Oh Kami. Psychopath number 1.

He knew this day was going to suck.


Sasuke ignored the icy atmosphere behind him. This was like family dinners all over again.

"Hatake. Seems like that gray of yours is not as hereditary as you claim."

Ouch. Right in the age.

"Neither is your red hair."

...was that an accusation of hair-dyeing?

"Sasuke-"Kurama barked, "-warm-ups are over. Time to go."

"Stay. Sasuke is my student." That had a nice ring to it.

"And he will eternally be your student if he misses his Chuunin exam."


"Sasuke, time to go."

He really wanted to punch Kakashi-sensei in the face.

"Teme! Smile for the cameras!" Naruto heckled from the side, his voice easily carrying. His scowl deepened, but beside him Kakashi-sensei smiled and waved.

"No one wants to see your old, wrinkled smile!"

Kakashi stiffened beside him, gave him a quick pat on the shoulder, and zoomed away to potentially pummel the blond.

Sasuke's eyes flickered towards the rails again, conscious of the spectator's eyes on him.

"Ahem," the proctor coughed, "if both participants are ready, we shall begin."

Kakashi, who was focused completely on Naruto, failed to see Sakura strike the back of his knees.


Oh. Sakura was sadistic.


He spared his opponent a glance. Red hair, 'love' tattoo. Controller of sands, Naruto's brief said. Crazy. Psychotic.

That was fine. Sasuke had a lot of experience with crazy. (Note: Itachi and Naruto)

"You shall feed Mother."

Right. Maybe he hadn't encountered this type of crazy before.

Sand tendrils whipped past him, vicious monsters that attempted to stab through his vital organs. A breath too long resulted in a graze against his ribcage, but a thought cut short resulted in punching the redhead in the face.

His opponent shrieked, a mix of anger and supernatural tones.

Sasuke dodged ten tendrils aimed for his head.

"Your blood will prove my existence!"

A wave of sand rushed at him.

"Katon: Ryūka no Jutsu!"

The dragon curled about him once before flying towards the wave. The jutsu came easier to him after Kakashi's affinity training and it showed; upon colliding with the sand, the dragon turned it into glass.

Sasuke burst through the wave, smashing it into a rain that Gaara couldn't evade.


Sand pulled away from his feet, receded from his half of the arena. Sasuke knew what that meant: a tsunami. He leapt backwards, giving himself precious seconds to think.

He unsealed his Fūma shuriken and immediately imbued it with his lightning affinity, concentrating it until lit sparked red with heat. He stood still, his back by the wall and watched as the wave of sand raced closer. Fifty paces, then forty. At twenty, he sprinted, forward, his arm numb from the chakra and fingers seared from the metal.

Instead of throwing it, he used it like a machete, his shuriken sliced through the sand, and at the last moment, he let it go. Slowed by the loss of momentum, it hung in the sand, which trapped it in a sphere. The gap it left just big enough for Sasuke to slip through and wrap ninja wire around his opponent's limbs.

Gaara took a step back and the wire wrapped around a sand clone. Sasuke cursed and threw another barrage of shuriken. When improperly used, his lightning affinity caused numbness in his nerves and the feeling of needles dancing on his skin. Kakashi-sensei warned him against using it without grounding, but Sasuke figured with the vast amount of sand around him, he was safe.

He watched as Gaara dodged swiftly and hid behind a sand pillar.

'Gotcha,' Sasuke smiled to himself.

He felt the lightning travel to his toes on fingers, flowing like bee stings. He magnetized a handful of senbon before sending them towards his opponent.

They flew in a flight pattern that defied basic physics. The gallery gasped as they watched the senbon weave through the pillars as if guided by an invisible hand. Gaara shielded himself with a sand dome, but the senbon was so thin they pierced through his skin. When sand pillars rose, Sasuke directed the chakra in the senbon and directed them.

Gaara dodged the next barrage, but Sasuke crooked a positively charged finger, and they took a hard left and rushed back towards him.

Right into an unsuspecting Gaara's back.


Right. Sasuke was pretty sure that most people didn't turn into half genin and half sand tanuki when fighting. Unless this was a… unique Suna bloodline?

He leapt backwards and up, trusting his team to take over if there was something (else)… wrong.

Sakura snagged the back of his shirt just as the stadium went to hell.

Civilians became shinobi who slashed their neighbors' throats. Kakashi-sensei was already arms deep in someone else's guts.

Sasuke cast one last look at Gaara, who was being sedated by his team and Naruto. A demon mouth roared skywards, formed from the sand pooled at their feet. It glared at him, and Sasuke sensed the wicked chakra that licked at his skin, dark hate and blood tainting the air.

Yeah. He may hate his brother, but aniki did give him the best survival instincts.

Sasuke took a look around, grabbed the nearest shinobi with a musical note forehead protector (…which wasn't fierce at all, he scoffed), and kneed him in the face. It wouldn't hurt to blow off some steam while his team dealt with the Suna genin.

With Gaara subdued, Team 7 headed towards the northern gates, where Naruto has it on good authority that there was trouble brewing.

"Guess it's time to earn our chuunin vests," Naruto joked as they leaped over the carnage below.

"We don't have them yet, baka," Sakura scoffed, but she was pleased. She leapt from a roof and landed on an Oto nin with the spikes in her sandals activated.

She landed with a squelch.

"These guys are barely good enough for a genin exam."

Sasuke was pretty sure that the crazy purple-haired proctor gave Sakura a thumbs up.

He turned to a nin coming at him and killed him with a flaming roundhouse kick.

"Fire-nado?" Naruto waggled his eyebrows at him.


"Okay," he sighed.


"Yeah, that's the stuff," Naruto beamed at the uncontrollable death storm that made headway into enemy territory. Together, the three of them marched in the tornado's path as Konoha nin stared at them in shock.

"Kashi-kun trained some cute brats!" Anko sang as she pranced over to them.

Oh no. Not another one.

"No." He grabbed his teammates' collars and dragged them faster, ignoring the woman's excited monologue.

"She seemed like a nice kunoichi," Sakura pouted.

"Where did you say the trouble was?" he continued over her protests.

Naruto pointed lazily over Sasuke's shoulder.

"Just head any way over there. There's plenty of trouble everywhere."

Sasuke watched as the fire-nado fizzled out, and enemies charged back into their path.

"It's not too late to become a farmer, right?" he groused as twin fire dragons blazed through the ashy path.

"You'd miss us," Naruto cheered as he sent his own dragons.

"He'd probably murder us to fertilize his field," Sakura stated factually. Naruto paused, glanced over at her while strangling a man with his chakra, and nodded.

"Yeah, sounds like something teme would do."

Naruto skipped atop rubble and faced the formation of shinobi; Doton in front, summoners in the back. The enemy looked intimidating, but Naruto fixed that.

"Doton: EXPLOSION PIT!" The army leapt from the ground, anticipating a mine. Naruto shushined into the area they abandoned as Sakura and Sasuke covered them.

"Suckers," Sakura laughed as friend and foe stared at them in confusion. Sasuke hummed as he struck enemies through the neck with senbon.

"No one taught you kiddies about high ground?!" A shinobi laughed as he showered them with kunai.

This time it was Sasuke who mocked them.

"I guess no one taught you about not giving a fuuinjutsu expert flat ground." A gust of wind batted the kunai away, giving Sasuke an opening to retaliate. Beside him, Sakura did the same. Together, they subtly signaled the Konoha nin backwards until only the Oto nin and they stood within a ten meter radius.

Naruto shook out his folded rice paper, unraveling it gently. On it was a complex seal that any onlooker knew could never be reproduced by anyone less than a Master. The blond smoothed it quickly without ripping any part of the thin material and pinned the edges with senbon. There were circles pointed towards the four cardinal directions.

He bit his thumb and swiped it on the Western gate

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu: Byakko"

A tiger erupted from the seal. Its magnificent coat crackled with lightning. Its mane ruffled in the breeze, gaze daring the enemy to come closer.

Sasuke immediately switched places with Naruto and pushed his chakra through the Southern gate.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu: Suzaku."

A phoenix screeched as it caught sight of summoned snakes. The bird didn't bother with orders from its summoner and went straight towards them.

Sakura switched.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu: Genbu."

A soothing green, much like healing chakra, flood outwards before it formed into a turtle. It stomped its foot and the earth cracked underneath them, splitting ground in their enemy's ranks. Naruto finished by placing three chakra storage seals atop the blood. They worked much like soldier pills and gave an extra jolt of chakra when needed. One-time use, but still very useful. Team 7 had prepared theirs days ago.

Naruto's godly seal was finicky; it lasted as long as the seal was intact and as long as there was chakra in it. The months of preparation for it, however, were well worth it, and it intimidated their enemies while also destroying them.

Naruto gave a proud smile to Byakko who was busy chomping through the front soldiers and giving Genbu, who ambled towards the soldiers' rear formation, berth. He never mixed well with Doton. The blond surveyed his teammates as well, their exhilarated smiles covered in dust and sweat. The blond picked up a fallen nin's machete and went to town.

Anko was the first to comment after the gods disappeared. Orochimaru's army at the gate was decimated; no survivors.

"Good thing Kakashi isn't here, huh?"

Naruto turned his head towards her, irises tinged red from demonic chakra.

"Not really," a fang slipped past his lips, "we share Byakko."

Sasuke's mind was clear as he fought with Suzaku. The god helped thin out the invading swarm, and the leftovers were easily subdued. When the warm presence of the bird disappeared, Sasuke realized that he'd drifted from his team. In front of him were four smirking Oto nin. Sasuke eyed the cursed seals on their necks warily. Kakashi-sensei had blocked the seal, but Naruto was the only capable of canceling it entirely, and he hadn't yet.

'-you need to infiltrate Sound,' Danzo had said. '-As Ne, you will be the elite of the elite…'

As if Sasuke really believed that being a zombie was the best way to fight his brother.

He restrained his tumultuous emotions and released only enough to jumpstart his own seal. Black curves fanned from his neck, mirroring those of his opponents, but he suppressed them. They shrank like worms hiding from the sun.

Danzo told him that he was 'special,' that he had the unique circumstance to infiltrate Otogakure, to be the shinobi that took down a monster, a Sannin.

Sasuke agreed quickly because all he wanted was power, right?

He left the meeting blacked out as a Ne agent returned him to the Uchiha compound. When he opened his eyes, he stared at twinkling starlight, fading as dawn approached. His sighe blew white clouds that brushed against hair of the same color.

The slap was instinctual.

"Maa, so cruel, Sasuke-kun," Kakashi-sensei smiled with a reddened cheek.

Sasuke glared and stormed back inside, where he hoped to nap before training. As his head rested on his pillow, he grinned.

He wondered how long it would take Danzo to figure out that Team 7 planned the same op months ago with the Hokage's blessing.

The thought kept his heart light as he drove a kunai through a girl's arm, exactly where Sakura told him to and nearly separating it. He chuckled as she cursed.

These people thought that they could defeat him? As if, he scoffed. These were little imps that stumbled onto a devil's playground.

In another sector, Kurama watched disinterestedly as enemy nin passed the Eastern gates. They flooded the empty roads before they stopped, confused. The alleys blew metaphorical tumbleweeds.

He stretched, pulling non-existent joints into alignment. Lazily, he watched the nin mutter to each other.

"You will all burn," he murmured to himself. The seals he etched into the buildings flared.

Kurama jumped into the crowd, claws out as he slashed through the trembling humans. They scrambled backwards, but were blocked by the seals.

He dug his claws into flesh, rendered muscles from bones, gnawed tendons from necks, snapped bones free from flesh. He didn't play with his prey; he was merciful. He lapped the blood that covered his hands, slurped fresh blood from veins.

Delicious. Refreshing. Rejuvenating.

The 'fight' was over in seconds. He burned the mutilated corpses of his victims, dancing on the wind all the while, and sang an ancient prayer into skies.

"…may all their souls be set free."

He cracked his neck and hummed in pleasure. Doing a fourth of the work was enough of a good deed; it was time he found entertainment of the selfish kind. A Ne agent hid herself behind an illusion, but Kurama sniffed her out.

Then snuffed her out.

Sarutobi was not yet a father when he taught the Sannin, so he understood why he treated them the way they did. Jiraiya, he remembered, had never been his favorite child; he fooled around too often and at that age, Sarutobi was not a patient man. It was ironic that Jiraiya was the only one who stayed. For Tsunade, he found the best nin in the field, the best tutors because Sarutobi was fully aware that there were many things in the world that he did not excel at. Orochimaru had been his gem; the teen was all a father could aspire his child to be; smart, ambitious, and attentive.

The more Sarutobi doted on Orochimaru, the more twisted he saw him become. He denied it, at first, because his students were reflections of him, and what did it mean when his tutelage caused sickness? He persevered, trying to thwart the path the teen was on, but to no avail.

Even when the demons behind the man cast shadows that stretched to Sarutobi's toes, he swam in denial. When the Police Force found the experiments, he could not turn a blind eye any longer.

When Asuma was born, Sarutobi was already swamped with being a Hokage and terrified of raising his son as he did Orochimaru.

(Decades later, when he saw what an honorable nin Naruto had become at the hands of the Kyuubi, he wondered if he shouldn't have given parenting a second try.)

Through a curtain of blood blocking his left eye, Sarutobi felt the tiniest bit proud at how strong his former student had become. There was an innovation there, a power created from hard work and brains, not just talent and blood. Orochimaru had no bloodlines, but he had plenty of blood on his hands; Sarutobi supposed that those equaled out.

Enma stabilized his posture as he stumbled back from the snakes. With a swift cut, Enma beheaded them as Sarutobi faced off against Orochimaru. Like a hydra, more snakes sprang from their fallen brethren.

They were evenly matched. Old age slowed him enough that Sarutobi feared that he might lose.

Then Orochimaru sent another barrage of snakes, and Sarutobi recognized it for what it was, a cover. He prepared his own counterattack.

"Katon: Hosenka no Jutsu!" Sarutobi shot out the fireballs in clusters, thus fully disintegrating the snakes. Their burned skins disappeared, but even as he rushed through the smoke, he saw that whatever his former student had planned had come to fruition.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu: Edo Tensei!"

He heard the creak of the wooden doors opening and threw kunai at them before his brain registered the words on the coffin covers.



They stepped out and gave him sheepish grins.

"You didn't age well, gaki," chortled the elder brother.

Sarutobi's throat seized up; these corpses sounded like living men.

'We're sorry,' the younger mouthed before a barrage of attack rained down.

"Enma!" The summon engaged in the Nidaime while he engaged the Shodaime.

Orochimaru's laughter chilled his spine.

"You'll need to find one more summon."

He knew, knew, which coffin would be revived next.

"I suppose that's my cue," came a smooth baritone. Sarutobi startled; he hadn't expected the fox to actually help out of his own volition. Seeming to read his thoughts, Kurama turned a toothy grin at him.

"We have a score to settle."

"Sensei?" The blond said as he stumbled from the coffin.

"It's quite the day for reunions," Kurama hummed as his announcement. The blond's eyes narrowed.

"Reunion? Who are-" the redhead's fangs lengthened and his pupils narrowed.

"It can't be! HOW DID YOU BREAK THE SEAL?" The previous Hokage rushed at him with fingers outstretched as if he were about to reseal Kurama.

Kurama's fan deflected pronged kunai, and a memory twitched in the back of his mind. This human used those for a special jutsu; he remembered Iruka telling Naruto about them.

His twitched a metaphorical tail and white flames engulfed the metal, melting them.

"Where is he?" the human snarled as he stabbed the fox through the void. Kurama pulled his arm, but the man twisted until it pulled out of its socket and freed himself.

"Playing with his friends, I suspect," Kurama growled as he sent foxfire rushing towards his opponent, and when the man jumped, the flames continued on until it burnt through the wood cage the Shodaime created.

The Yondaime lifted an eyebrow; he countered with more fire. The man was quick, but he was also dead, and it wasn't long before Kurama trapped the man.


A pulse shook Kurama's form, and though he looked corporeal, he sensed the bonds holding his body vibrating.

Across from him, the Yondaime's arm fell off.

They ignored the sensation and kept fighting; they were monsters of the vicious kind, after all.

'Thud… Thud.'

The Shodaime's trees collapsed, and the Nidaime faltered enough that Enma took him out.

Kurama gritted his teeth as he held his form together; he sense Danzo's presence nearby and refused to give the man any leverage on him.

"Is he?" the blond whispered to himself.

Kurama glared.

Chakra swirled in the man's palm and the thuds came faster.

'Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.'

The ground beneath them was sandy, not because they uprooted the soil, but because the grass had disintegrated. The corpses and Kurama were all using natural energy at an exponential rate, which caused an imbalance in the area. The 'thuds' were the sounds of the remaining natural energy trying to fill the holes left behind.

If he didn't end the fight immediately, Kurama would dispel back into Naruto's body.

Apparently Minato realized that as well.


The blond was trying to isolate him in the seal again.

Fuck no.

"How dare you!" he snarled as he swung at his opponent, cautious of the depleting amount of natural chakra in the immediate vicinity.

"Doton: Shinjū Zanshu no Jutsu!" Sarutobi surprised them both and sealed the Yondaime and his coffin into the ground, which Kurama immediately ignited.

When the wood became ashes, Orochimaru struck.

"Shiki Fujin!" Sarutobi expected that attack.

"Kusanagi!" The blade zipped through the air from where it slew Enma.

Kurama saw its approach in slow motion; he had two options here. Either he prevented Sarutobi's death and gained the suspicious gratitude of those closest to him, or he let the man die and throw Konoha into chaos and possible have to deal with a Hokage who wasn't as lenient. Either way, he had a front row seat, just the way he liked it.

With an impassive face, he watched Kusanagi spear through the Sandaime's heart.

In all honesty, he wouldn't be worthy of being called a demon if he chose the first option.

"I told you not to cross me," he sneered.

Danzo said a prayer for his friend's soul.

The Hokage was dead; long live Konoha.

The battle was over. The dome atop the Hokage Mountain disappeared, and the snake summons disappeared. By that point, there weren't many Oto nin left. Around the village plumes of smoke rose from pyres of burning enemies; a special select few were carted to T&I.

Naruto knew that he had a chakra bond with those who frequently ate at the compound. He'd used the sensor ability before, but it wasn't a skill that he found useful or powerful. He underestimated it. The loss of the Sandaime's chakra felt like a chasm in his mind. His chakra curled around the gap, trying to ease the void. It was a vacuum, sucking in his emotions and leaving him with emptiness.

Team 7 stood victorious over their enemies' bodies, but it was their enemies who won.

'The Hokage is dead,' he tapped.

"Naruto-kun?" Sakura asked quietly. The other shinobi turned their gaze to him.

He paid them no mind and waited.

'Confirmed,' Kakashi replied. 'Oro has fled.'

His nails elongated and pierced his skin. The air was hot, scorching. He needed… he needed to get away.

"Come on, dobe," Sasuke draped on uneasy arm around the blond's shoulders and steered him towards the Namikaze compound. Beside them, Sakura fought back tears, eyes glistening. Team 7 managed to make it off of the rubble before Naruto wrenched himself from their arms and spun on his heel.

Sakura's expression morphed as she nearly snapped at him, but Sasuke held her back with his arm. Together, they watched Naruto breathe deeply and face disorganized shinobi with an impassive stare.

"The Invasion is over!" murmurs quieted. "Konoha still stands, but she is not unharmed. We are vulnerable right now." Murmurs grew.

Naruto raised his voice.

"Three teams of chuunin need to secure and scourge the northern sector," he waved off the cluster closest to the northern wall, who nodded before disappearing, "Those injured-" 'Hospitals full. Serious only.' "-should report to Haruno Sakura," she stepped forward, "or to your team's medic. The hospital is full and can only accommodate serious injuries at the moment."

'Chain of command?'

'Hokage Tower.'

'Sending Sasuke.'

The other boy leapt onto a nearby (structurally sound) roof and shushined away.

'Your commands?'

"Why should we listen to you?!" Tall, brunette, jounin vest.

Naruto fixed her with an impassive gaze.

"These are orders from Hatake Kakashi," he dismissed her and switched his gaze to the crowd encompassing him. The clamor died.

'Use best judgement.'

"Our orders are to secure the area and begin clean-up. Fallen comrades are to be sealed, living enemies are to be sent to Morino Ibiki, and their dead are to be disposed of."


"Why's Hatake giving orders?" came a whisper. Naruto bit his lip in anger, but it was Sakura who responded.

"This is a shinobi village, not a democracy. You will follow your orders or you will cease to be a shinobi."

Her threat was met with silence, and before anger could develop, a shinobi shushined into the crowd.

"Field promotion given to Haruno Sakura, Uzumaki Naruto, and Uchiha Sasuke. If I could demote the rest of you, I would," Shikaku commanded coldly.

"Commander, Sir!" The crowd, including Team 7, bowed as one.

"At ease!" They straightened.

"You heard the boy! Anyone with adequacy in Doton is on clean-up! Katon users set up pyres! The rest are mules! Injured, to her!" in Shikaku's wake the shinobi fled, attending to their orders with vigor.

Shikaku laid a hand on Naruto's shoulder, who still stood at attention.

"Hatake sent me. Good work, chuunin. Sound orders, no respect or rapport with them, but that will come with experience," the man commented kindly. Naruto's gaze didn't flicker.

"Your orders, sir!"

"Aid the others. You are still in contact with Hatake?"

"Yes sir!"

Shikaku nodded.

"Oversee this area. Report to the Hokage Tower when you are done."

"Yes sir!"

Sakura celebrated becoming a chuunin by sewing people together like rag dolls. She pinched and stitched, and felt accomplished when she breathed life into her patients. She felt like Kami when they breathed back.

Naruto's kage bunshins hefted rubble as the real one sobbed under the same trees the old man used to smoke under. He directed genin to organize the civilians and waited for orders; for now, he needed to let someone else make the decisions.

He'd learn to be a leader with experience, but for now he was still a child playing grown-up.

Sasuke sped around the village, relaying information back to Kakashi-sensei, and pretended that the image of war hadn't been immortalized by his Sharingan. He passed through the silent streets, unrecognizable without their trademark businesses, and wondered if this was how Itachi saw villages now, as gray buildings without meaning.

Kakashi stared at the porcelain mask Kotaru handed to him. Once upon a time, he would have drowned himself in missions, soothing his cold heart with the warm blood of enemies, but not today.

Today, Hatake Kakashi retired his porcelain mask just as his sensei and his sensei's sensei did before him. Being strong, he finally realized, wasn't going off to war and winning, wasn't watching comrades and friends buried in unmarked graves; it was condemning the children he raised to the same life he lived.

The day of the funeral, Kami wiped the world of its colors. The skies cried like a Suiton jutsu, with torrents of rain battering the mourners. Mist lifted from their feet, like ghosts of past processions.

Naruto stood at the back, silent under the grieving robe Kurama dressed him in. Beside him, Sasuke was dressed in a similar fashion while Sakura wore a civilian black dress. Together they listened to their sensei's speech. Then heard the Council's. Then Sarutobi Asuma's.

Naruto watched Konohamaru huddle against his father's leg, no longer the boisterous boy with an outrageous cape. Naruto cried the same way when he discovered the Kyuubi's seal; Sasuke must have cried the same the day after the Massacre, when deaths had time to sink in, and Sakura must have cried when her mother was declared dead.

Kakashi-sensei must have cried like this. Jiji too.

Maybe the legacy of shinobi wasn't the jutsus they learned or the battles they won; maybe it was the amount of tears they left behind.

The procession lasted a week, and at the end of it, Hatake Kakashi had been named as the interim Hokage. The Council flipped through lists of substitute instructors for Team 7, but Kakashi shut the idea down.

"Arrangements have been made."

Jiraiya was training Naruto while the two searched for Tsunade.

Sakura was on loan to the hospital while training with Gai on her off-days.

Sasuke was learning how to spy on Orochimaru from Ibiki and Anko.

With his genin taken care of, Kakashi turned to concerning matters.

Firstly, Kakashi didn't know who sealed the bathhouses from the Tōmegane no Jutsu, but they obviously needed to loosen up.

Secondly, Kurama.

The compound was shielded, but according to Pakkun, the man was active in the community. He brought fresh linens and towels to the families around him along with necessities, and dropped off baskets of fruit and vegetables at the Jounin station. He even passed out rolls of gauze and bandages to the temporary medic tents scattered around town.

Gossip from the shinobi were singing the man praises, but Kakashi knew better than to listen to the masses and ignore his instincts. There was something sinister under that genial façade, and Kakashi wouldn't let a few pretty acts deter him.

He originally tried to use the crystal ball to scry for the man, but couldn't recall his chakra signature, which was odd considering he'd spent so much time with him. He ordered Pakkun to tail the man, but the ninken couldn't find him either.

It was possible to seal one's scent, especially on infiltration or assassination missions, but to do so while in the village was unheard of. Additionally, other than the smoke that clung to his clothes, there was nothing. Now, why would a nice priest even think to hide their scent?

It was unlikely that the man was a spy, given that the Sandaime himself vouched for him, which left one possibility; the man was known in Konoha. Not just known, but famous enough that shinobi paid attention to him and had enough interactions with him to recognize his scent.

Itachi? No, that was preposterous; Itachi didn't hold a candle to the manipulations of Kurama. But-

Kakashi tightened his fist.

Jiraiya-sama smelled of oil and swamp, Orochimaru of snakes, and Kakashi himself smelled like wet dog. It was possible that Kurama smelled of animals the same way they did, and the only smell that Konoha recognized and would suspect was the Kyuubi.

Kurama was the fox.



Why did the Sandaime allow it to escape? What did Konoha have to gain from letting it roam free?

(Didn't his sensei die to keep it contained? Why was it out again?)

-unless there was a greater threat. Danzo? Was Danzo the reason the Kyuubi was free again? Was that old warhawk a bigger threat than Kakashi assumed?

He growled. No. Danzo was loyal to Konoha, so there had to be something else.

Kurama gave him the key to shut down Ne, but what were his intentions? Did the man want to stop Danzo because Danzo was a threat to the demon or because Danzo was involved in plots that even demons didn't approve of?

Just that morning Kurama dropped off a scroll outlining the elusive Ne seal. Kakashi didn't have to speculate on how the man obtained such knowledge. The scroll listed no known counter seal, but the scroll would be invaluable once Jiraiya returned. It was also proof that Ne was still active. If it wasn't, bodies and missing person reports would have made the news, but they hadn't; those shinobi had no one looking for them, no families or friends who would question their disappearance.

ANBU hadn't reported disappearances either. Deaths were common in the Corps, but Kakashi knew that the Commander would have been suspicious. Unless Danzo filled those empty gaps like raindrops on uneven sidewalks.

Ne weren't the roots of the village; they were the parasite that fused itself with the tree trunk.

Naruto woke the morning of his trip with a migraine and not enough sleep.

"Congratulations on your promotion."

…perhaps he was still dreaming because there was a trespasser in his garden.

Well, was it trespassing if Naruto never changed the seals after the man left?

"'Tachi-nii. Have you come to pay your respects?"


Naruto smiled. He smelled the sweet scent of lilies on the man's fingertips, probably from the bouquet he laid at the Sandaime's grave.

"Liar~ But I guess you've had a lot of experience with that, being a spy and all."

In hindsight, Naruto knew that he should have prepared his winds. He could have willed them to curl around the man's ankles as they talked, or perhaps he could have weaved an invisible wall in front of himself. In all honesty, however, even if he had those precautions, he wouldn't have had time to execute them.

Itachi shushined in front of the blond, his nails digging perfect crescents into the soft skin of Naruto's neck.

"You can't kill me," Naruto breathed. "You need the Kyuubi, or rather, whoever you're spying on does."

The hand squeezed in warning.

"I know that a man named Uchiha Madara is still alive even though he should have died decades ago. Rama said that anyone who wants immortality that much needs the bijuus' power to achieve invincibility."

The hand loosened.

"And like, he's probably crazy. Like, insanity is a given for people who want immortality, but that's pretty much a requirement to be in your clan," Naruto finished cheekily.

A finger tapped in warning above Naruto's carotid artery. A vine tapped Itachi's ankle in retaliation. The man pretended that he wasn't startled, but the blond could feel his pulse.

"Sasuke's strong too, not as strong as me, obviously, but he's great too." Itachi's face remained stoic.

"He's going to spy on Orochimaru."

A fingernail cut through skin before Itachi gave another tap. The vine tugged at the man's foot and inserted a poisoned thorn.

"Yeah, like, he's a Sannin, and Kakashi-sensei thought that we could play up the avenger card and have Sasuke defect in order to learn techniques from Orochimaru in order to beat you."

At this information, Itachi snorted.

"I beat that loser out of Akatsuki."

Naruto blinked. Then he laughed.

"Oh my Kami! You sounded just like the teme right now! And really? You beat up that snake? Because that's hilarious and sad at the same time-" a sharper tap, "-not because you're weak, nii-san, but man, that guy is twice your age and a Sannin," he continued chortling.

A rumble emanated from beyond the compound walls.

"Hoshigame Kisame, my partner. He has encountered Jiraiya-sama."

"Oh yeah! Totally forgot that Ero-Sennin was coming to pick me up. I expected him to be later than this, really," Naruto shook his head.

"Run if you see shinobi with cloaks like mine."

Naruto nodded as much as he could with Itachi's hand still at his throat.

"Ok, but… Kurama says that there's a conspiracy in Konoha. Was that why you left?"

"You've grown," he replied as he pressed warm metal into Naruto's hand. The teen's fingers ran over the loop and arms. Itachi's favorite ankh.

"For strength." Ah, for when Sasuke infiltrated Sound. Naruto nodded when Itachi lowered him back onto the ground.

"May your Will of Fire remain bright," he blurted as the man disappeared over the wall with a swollen right leg. Naruto grinned at the man's unsteady posture and pet Hanako's leaves fondly. He made a mental reminder to put extra nitrogen in her soil.

"You can come out, now, Rama," Naruto called. He wasn't sure if Itachi knew that the redhead had been nearby. Unlikely, since Kurama's chakra melded with the compound's, but it was never wise to underestimate an Uchiha.

"So my theory was correct. Madara is as foolish as I feared," the man snorted.

"You don't look worried," Naruto narrowed his eyes. He expected his guardian to be wary.

"Foolish men meet foolish ends of their own making."

Naruto snorted. He hoped that Kurama wasn't the most foolish of them all.

Danzo felt pressured; Hatake always held his sensei's distrust, and now he was digging into Ne. It began innocuously. Uninjured shinobi were given temporary teams to complete missions so that the village would have funds to rebuild while those without life-threatening injuries aided in rebuilding. Several Ne agents went missing or died in the Invasion, but the rest of the operatives sustained minor injuries, yet each and every one of them were relegated to construction.

Danzo recognized the strategy; Hatake kept his enemies close, where he could eliminate them immediately if necessary. He appreciated the action; it was this sort of paranoia that kept Konoha strong. As much as Danzo hated dealing with Hatake as the Hokage, the man's loyalty to his village was never in question, unlike Kaneshiro Kurama's.

Hiruzen had been wary of him, and now Hatake was too. They trusted the man to a degree; Hiruzen approved of the man's credentials, but there was steel in his eyes, as if the priest was a wolf who barely tolerated hiding in sheep's clothing. Hatake too, looked at the man the same way, but more of a reverse Pandora's box, as if the man showed 'hope,' and kept the darker emotions hidden, ready to be released at a moment's notice. It was rare that Danzo may have underestimated a threat.

Danzo had his own assessment. The man was loyal only to the Kyuubi boy. The boy was raised well; he showed subtly when necessary, but retained the playful intelligence necessary for an inventor. Uzumaki was an asset to T&I, perhaps the first civilian (then genin) that Ibiki Morino ever approved of. If the blond was an indication of how well the man taught, Danzo was willing to give the man leniency (i.e. not death) to train Ne.

Secondly, Kaneshiro was proficient in fuuinjutsu. This was speculation. The redhead raised an Uzumaki in Namikaze's house; there was bound to be a library on fuuinjutsu there. Jiraiya had also been seen entering and staying for long periods of time; considering that there wasn't a hidden brothel in there, the man would only stay for fuuinjutsu.

The man, despite the Mokuton rumors, likely had a fire affinity. In the battle against Orochimaru, the man's flames were stronger than any Katon, burning white. He wielded them fearlessly, as if scorched skin was common and painless.

The man had an agenda. During the fight, Danzo's eyes were glued to Hiruzen as Kusanagi flew towards the man, but he saw stillness from Kaneshiro. Perhaps Hiruzen was fated to die, but the dispassion Danzo saw spoke not of fate, but design.

Kaneshiro was no priest. He did not pray to Kami for his rivals to be struck down where they stood; he made it happen with his bare hands.

How had anyone been fooled by that painted exterior? A thin coat of smiles and shinobi and civilian alike approved of the man. Few recognized the Machiavellian nature behind the respect, no one realized just how drenched in blood those red locks were.

Kaneshiro Kurama planned for the Hokage to die via his own hands, whether physically or indirectly. Danzo remembered the rage pouring off the man when he appeared at the compound and marveled when the emotion was capped, sealed in a heartbeat. Frosty respect met the Councilman instead of rage. He had no doubt that Kaneshiro threatened Hiruzen then.

(He thanked Kami that the man let his friend die in battle with his honor intact.)

Kaneshiro was the type of man Danzo appreciated in theory but hated in actuality. The intelligence and cunning were worthy of being studied, but he never wanted to be put against such an opponent; the result would be volatile.

In the end, it boiled down to the amount of pawns either side had. Without Ne, Danzo was restricted, but he still had control of the Council, and he still had a heroic past. At best, Kaneshiro had the skeptical, theorized past with the citizen's finicky approval. However, the man had access to the Kyuubi, whereas Danzo struggled with a nearly blind Sharingan. He had no doubt, though, that if made to choose, Hatake would choose the enemy he knew and aid him in taking down the redhead.

(Unless Hatake uncovered bodies Danzo tried so hard to bury.)

But in times of desperation, people solidified their opinions. Kaneshiro spread goodwill from morning to dusk every day, and that was enough for most people to form their impression of the man. Even some shinobi failed to recognize the deception, so blinded by exhaustion.

Danzo snorted. There was a reason why he never spared those nin a glance; they hadn't the acumen to become more than fodder.

Fortunately, with the youngest Uchiha spying on Orochimaru, Danzo would be able to rebuild that section of his intel. Orochimaru destabilized over the years and Danzo lost contact. He had been hesitant to approach the teen, but rationalized that it if the boy was going to defect anyways, Danzo would be able to benefit from it.

It was a shame that there were so few Uchiha left. Itachi would likely die on the field as would his younger brother, thus making Danzo hesitant to send Sai into the field. But, Nature had a way of balancing herself, and he had no doubt that if the Sharingan disappeared, another doujutsu would make its way into the world.

For now, he'd let the world turn without his input; sometimes it was best to let things run their course.

The days after the Chuunin Exams were harder than the months leading up to them.

Sakura focused on healing as many shinobi as she could, but she never forgot her team. She focused on those with burns in memory of the scarred skin on Sasuke's hands from his many Katon; she focused on pressure points, because even though Naruto healed quickly and never became sick, he did have frequent migraines; she focused on nutrition, because Kakashi ate like a child and had sallow eyes to match his greying hair.

She spent her mornings at the hospital, attempting to reverse time on peoples' bodies, and at night, she trained with Gai, lifting weights like they were corpses and running with ankle weights so heavy she felt like she'd done another 12 hour rotation at the hospital.

It would be worth it in the end, she knew. Orochimaru had Yakushi Kabuto, but Team 7 had her.

Sasuke pointedly ignored the dog panting on the sidelines. Mitarashi-sensei left him with a list of drills that would increase the speed of his footwork, and Morino-san instructed him to memorize the fundamentals of T&I.

"Rule number one-" jab, jab, kick- "go for the distal appendages: fingers, toes, hands, ears."

Jab, cross, jab, kick.

"Two: Enemy eyeballs are not necessary for-" back left kick, back right, front left, front right- "-interrogation. They will not die."

Jab, jab, jab, jab, roundhouse kick.

"Example: Hatake Kakashi."


"Three-" a flurry of kicks "-Beware of prisoners biting off their tongues." Huff.


"Four: Men don't need their genitals."


"Oh wait. That's Mitarashi sensei's personal rule."

Woof, woof! Lolling tongue.

A flurry of jabs.


"Uchiha-san." Sasuke sighed and stared up at one of the Hokage's personal guard.

"Yes, ANBU-san?"

"The Hokage is needed for a meeting. We request your assistance in locating him."

Sasuke blinked.

"You are misinformed, ANBU-san. I do not know where he is."

The man gave a slight nod.

"We were hoping that your summons could find him."

"My summons?" Sasuke stressed.

The man tilted his head towards the dog on the sidelines.

"I don't-"

Woof! Woof woof!

Sasuke sent a vicious glare at the dog.

"That's not-"

Woof woof! The dog glared back.

'You owe me!' Sasuke thought exasperatedly. He wasn't sure how he would pull this off.

"Right. Let me… summon Pakkun." Sasuke hesitantly bit his thumb and swiped it on the ground.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

Nothing happened, no puff of smoke, not that Sasuke expected it to, but it felt humiliating for the ANBU to stare at him blankly as his jutsu 'failed.'

"…they don't-"

"What's up Boss?" Both nin swiveled their heads towards Pakkun's voice. The pug stood next to the other dog, and the two were conversing via barks.

"Ah, you need me to find the Boss?" Pakkun addressed the two. Sasuke nodded hesitantly. Pug and ANBU sped through the trees in the completely wrong direction.

When they were well out of sight and range, Sasuke glared at the wolf-like pup.

"You look ridiculous. A puppy? Mid-life crisis much?"

"Maa, I'm still young in dog years," Kakashi replied as he transformed back. Sasuke snorted.

"But you're old in everything else," he replied. Age hadn't slowed down the man's speed as he kicked the back of Sasuke's shins.

"Maa, I'm the Hokage, now. You have to respect me."

"You just hid from your ANBU as a dog," he deadpanned.

"…but it worked."

Sasuke shook his head.

"I'm defecting for real. This place is a cesspool for insanity."

"Now, now. You need to be able to pass the background check to work for me."

"…I'm a shinobi? And your student? I already work for you?"

Patented eye smile.

"Is that so?"

"Sensei?" Sasuke asked worriedly. Maybe it was him? Maybe he was the cause of insanity? That was the simplest explanation to why his brother and every one of his sensei were mentally unstable.

No. That was victim-blaming, and he would not go down that road.

"Stay away, or I'll kill you," he said instead.

"Well… shinobi do tend to fail background checks quite often."

And that was how Sasuke became the secretarial aide to the Hokage.

Kakashi used the ploy quite often. He summoned his ninken, transformed into one himself, and had them scatter. Instead of being in stuffy meetings, he was found sun-bathing on rocks or being cuddled by buxom women at the bathhouses.

"You're a disgrace," Sasuke grumbled as he carried the pup in his arms.


"Your ANBU are a disgrace."


"You're a gray dog with a forehead protector slanted over your left eye."

"That's right; stay silent," Sasuke continued sassily.

"You know, you're not always going to be around when they ask me to summon your ninken…"

A paw thumped on his arm. Now the man was just being obtuse.

"You should have me sign the scroll, just to prevent further confusion."

The pup wiggled out of Sasuke's arms and stared up at the teen.


He exhaled slowly.

"Maybe asking Pakkun for the scroll would be better."

"Do you really want to summon ninken?" Kakashi asked curiously. He cracked his neck and back.

Sasuke shrugged. The dogs were warm and affectionate; there wasn't much to hate about them.

Kakashi ruffled his hair.

"We'll start you off with a puppy. It'll be your trial run."

Sasuke perked up.

"Do I get to pick the breed?"

"Maa. No need to be greedy. Kami-sama will take care of it."

If the newest pup to the family ended up being a proud, vicious Doberman named Isamu, well, Kakashi wasn't jealous; Pakkun had his own merits.

Really, not jealous at all.

Although well-rounded, each of Kakashi's ninken had a specialty, and Isamu was no different. Sasuke bottle-fed the pup every day, and after pampering him Sasuke taught him to differentiate between poisons, a skill that would be handy in Orochimaru's lair. Surprisingly, Hyuuga Hinata helped him that.

Not only did she use Naruto's gardens to make balms, she also dabbled in poisons, some of which were being tested by T&I. They frequently ran into each other at the Namikaze compound, and when Sasuke decided what skill he and Isamu would practice on, her poisons came to mind.

If Isamu could distinguish between the 108 types of poisons the heiress brewed, Kakashi swore to promote the ninken to ANBU effective immediately, which would be hilarious if Sasuke had a ninken with a higher rank than him.

Sasuke cuddled next to the pup as he slept and gave a small sigh.

Who needed murderous brothers when they could have ninken?

Kurama felt steadily weaker the farther Naruto traveled from the village. With their previous reinforcement, it was unlikely that he would dispel and return to the seal, but the distance left him staggeringly vulnerable. It was fortunate that his only visitors were Hinata and Sasuke, the former staying primarily in the front garden, and the latter keeping to himself to train his ninken away from curious eyes.

He slept most of the days with Momo faithfully next to him.

"I'm counting on those lucky feet of yours," he murmured as he stroked the fur. The bunny thumped its feet on his chest.



"How many?"

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

Uninvited guests. With Team 7 busy, Kurama wasn't expecting a four man team.

It could be a curious genin team, but no instructor would let them near the compound, not after the shinobi learned that Hinata made potent poisons from the herbs in the garden, and the chuunin teams were busy patching up the village. Therefore, it was likely an ANBU team sent to retrieve and interrogate him or to observe him.

None of those options were ideal.

Kurama sighed and slapped his hand on the seal by his bed. A barrier surrounded his room, making any sight through the window blurry and any words unintelligible. Kurama would not retreat into the blood sealed portion of the compound. He wasn't going to let humans dictate where he could and could not sleep.

Momo twitched in his arms.

Ok. Maybe he'll activate the security seal; it was better safe than sorry.

Naruto eyed the blonde Sannin sitting across the table from him and wondered if Sasuke's infamous luck struck again. At least his Sannin was known for knowledge and techniques, unlike the 'Legendary Sucker' and the 'Pervy Sage'. Honestly, he wondered if they were the main cause of jiji's numerous wrinkles.

"Who'sss the gakiiii-e?" she slurred.

"The name's Uzumaki Naruto!" Maybe he was a cause of Kakashi's white-not-gray hairs. Ah, well, hindsight was 20/20.




"Orochimaru already-"

Naruto studied the seal on her forehead.

"I bet between Ero-Sennin and I, we could undo that seal on your forehead, baa-san."

Three pairs of eyes stared at him.

"It probably has a time component, right? That's how you still age with it in place," Naruto said as he eyed the fine wrinkles on her face.

"Really?" Jiraiya peered curiously at the blue jewel.

"We're done here," Tsunade replied irritably. She pushed out of the booth, and Jiraiya grabbed her arm.

"Konoha needs you," he implored. She laughed derisively.

"I swore to never return."

Jiraiya's face tensed.

"Sarutobi is dead."

Shizune gasped at the declaration while Tsunade's expression remained stony. Finally, she replied.

"I knew that job would kill him."

"How dare you!" Naruto seethed. Jiraiya grabbed the boy's shoulder. "Jiji died for his precious people!"

"That place is a curse," she sneered.

"How could you say that?! That's your home!"

"Home?!" Cups scattered from her fierce swipe. "Konoha took everything from me!"

Naruto didn't flinch. Ero-Sennin told him stories about her innumerable strength, but he'd grown up learning about demons who leveled countries with a sneeze. When she raised her fist, he faced her down.

"Since you're drunk, you may have forgotten," Naruto began. Beside him, Jiraiya watched nervously.

"-but hi, my name is Uzumaki Naruto; I'm an orphan. My father died to seal the Kyuubi in me, my mother died in childbirth, and both my godparents fled the village before I was a day old. Before moving into my father's house, I lived on the streets, relying on brothel girls for a warm place to sleep and clean water to drink. Before Kurama, I had no adult figure that I could reliably turn to. Konoha did not take you away from me; you did that yourself." Jiraiya had the grace to look at the table at the boy's words.

Naruto waited another minute to let his words sink in before excusing himself.

"I think…" Tsunade took another shot when the boy was out of sight, "I think I'll return to my hotel room."

"Yeah…I better check on him," Jiraiya slapped a stack of bills on the table and nodded towards Shizune as he left. The bluenette's fists clutched her dress, and she stared at Jiraiya sullenly.

This mission was turning out worse than he feared.

When Jiraiya landed the first punch on Orochimaru, he felt relieved. Hopefully a fight would ease the vicious tension that plagued the mission.

It was nostalgic fighting his former teammate. They fell into a rhythm without trying, jutsu vs jutsu, Gamabunta vs Manda.

Then an explosion. Or two. A chain of them.

The three Sannin paused to watch the explosions that disintegrated spherical sections of the ground.

"That's-!" Jiraiya swore when he caught sight of the seal.

"What are you doing!?" He screamed as he dashed towards where Naruto clones and Kabuto were fighting. Orochimaru intercepted him.

"Your fight is with me," the man snarled as he shoved Kusanagi through Jiraiya's foot.

'I hope he kills me before Naruto does,' Jiraiya thought morosely.

Then Naruto banished Orochimaru's student into a void. The three Sannin paused their fight to stare incredulously at the blond. Orochimaru saw the mounting anger on his male (former) teammate's face and beat a hasty retreat; injuries, he could handle, but not losing limbs in theoretical black hole.

"What the hell were you thinking?!" Jiraiya slapped Naruto upside his head. "You know what happens with faulty seals! I taught you better than that!" he fumed.

"I won!"

"You could have killed yourself! Why did you use that one?! That seal had a 10% chance of functioning properly. You have plenty of offensive seals already!" Jiraiya swore at Naruto and then at Tsunade who was patching him up.

They'd been working on the seal since the beginning of the trip. The Morse code seals had a short range and were only helpful in giving commands, not information. Therefore, Jiraiya and Naruto worked on a space seal which would open up a specific dimensional pocket. The goal was to be able to use it, place a scroll inside, and have someone else use the same seal to open the same pocket and pull an intact scroll out. A completely new seal would need to be devised for a different pocket.

"I didn't need it to work!"

"Excuse me?"

"Look. If it didn't work, I knew that it'd explode and take him out. If it worked, it would send him into the abyss. Either way, I win!"

A vein popped in Jiraiya's forehead.

"It could have taken half the city with it!"

"Well it didn't!"

"That's not the point!"

"My seal works; we have the old granny, and we beat snake-face!"

Jiraiya ground his teeth in frustration before sighing.

"From now on you're going to buy my lottery tickets."

Naruto put his arms behind his head.

"Meh. I'm way better at poker. Besides, imagine how helpful it'll be if we could trap high-profile enemies in a pocket and dump them straight into T&I?"

Jiraiya sighed again.

"Only if it works. By the way, how did you get it to work?"

Naruto shrugged.

"I added an extra tomoe to the first quadrant, and may have written the seal with the blood from my wounds. The tomoe was at this really weird angle though because I had to dodge a syringe to the thigh."

"Right. So we may need to use your blood again to re-summon the dimensional pocket."

"Got plenty of it!"

"Not if you don't let me fix you up, brat!" Tsunade snarled. Naruto gave her a jaunty wave and wiped off the blood on his arm.

"Already healed."

She scrutinized his arm anyways, and ignored his complaints as she took his blood pressure and pulse. Regardless of his light tone, Naruto's eyes were sharp as he observed her.

"Who's in charge, now?"

"Does it matter to you?"

Tsunade packed her supplies.

"We'll travel with you to Konoha."

Naruto stared at her suspiciously.

"I'm not returning to be the Hokage."

"Then why?"

She scratched with her neck before she pulled out a blue necklace. She undid the knot and handed it to him.

"Someone reminded me that I still have precious people that need protecting there."

"Well…I don't know if I need protecting…" Tsunade hesitantly ruffled his hair.

"You don't need to ask for protection to be under it."

A/N: Again, thank you for your patience. I don't think there's much to the story, just this deal with Danzo and Madara. I had an epiphany for the ending a few days ago, so there may be one or two plotlines/loose ends that won't go anywhere, but I'll try to give everything a purpose.

As usual, please review and please correct me on anything I messed up. Additionally, I totally forgot about those Morse code communication seals. Haha. I was looking at a forum and someone asked about the fic with them, and I thought, "How interesting!" and scrolled down, hoping to read the fic... only to realize that it was mine. Lol.

Also, I'm starting a new job tomorrow! My head hasn't been in the right mind space because I've been worrying about it, but with that sorted out, writing should go smoothly. ;) Plus, I'm thinking about cross-posting this to AO3 since some people like that interface better; tell me if you're interested in that.

Have an amazing 2016!