Insert disclaimer here

Blah Blah Blah basic text (i.e. description, speech, etc)

Blah Blah Blah Thought or some transaction within someone's mind

Blah Blah Blah Kyuubi talking Jutsu will also be bold

BLAH BLAH BLAH yelling or emphasis of some sort

Naruto of the Nine Tails

Rated M for language, violence, adult content, and graphic imagery

Chapter 30: Brainstorming

Offices of the Hokage…

Thirteen hours.

They had been in this gods forsaken office for thirteen hours.

Admittedly, the first three or four were probably her fault for spending so much time yelling at Jiraiya and Sensei, but the pair of idiots really had deserved it. In her opinion, they'd gotten off lightly. Then it had taken at least five to get her up to speed on the general state of things and the highlights of what had happened while she was gone.

She was going to have words with so many people about the Hyuuga incident. There was no way their emissary should have been able to slip away from his hotel room, much less make it across the village and into one of the most thoroughly guarded residences they had without help.

And don't even get her started on their handling of the Uchiha clan. She had bones to pick with Sensei on that topic and he was just lucky that she was willing to heal them once she was done.

Suffice it to say that they'd lost another couple of hours as Tsunade vented her sheer, radiant frustration at the state of things. Then? Then they had finally gotten to the topics at hand. Those being Naruto and the strange behavior of the Akatsuki.

Which is what they had been doing ever since.

"Give it to me again, but shorter and without your storyteller drama," Tsunade demanded, pointing her chopsticks… pointedly at Jiraiya.

Jiraiya swallowed his yakisoba. "Tobi has some kind of stupidly advanced space-time technique or set of techniques," he explained with a tired sigh. "The ability appears to allow him to trade matter or space between our dimension and one that he has access to. It is fast acting but appears to require him to be in contact or in extreme proximity to his target in order for it to work properly. Applications include but may not be limited to walking through solid everything and banishing someone to an empty plane of existence."

"Well fuck," Tsunade summarized, absently popping sashimi from their take-out platter into her mouth.

"That is… extremely disquieting," the Sandaime Hokage observed as he took a long sip of his sake, a pair of empty takeaway containers set off to the side of his desk.

"That's what I said," Jiraiya replied, absently poking at his yakisoba as he spoke. "But then he came in contact with Naruto repeatedly and just… played tag."

"You're sure?" Sarutobi-sensei queried, his face drawn into a severe frown.

"As sure as we can be," Tsunade replied, shaking his head. "The toads couldn't find anything wrong with him. Jiraiya checked him for seals. My inspection came back the same as what I got in Tanzukagai even with Katsuyu helping me. Uchiha checked him twice; which reminds me, I need to check his eyes. Mangekyo is a bitch. Hell, the gaki's little Hyuuga girlfriend couldn't even find anything but dirt under his nails and she knows him more intimately than anyone else in this village. We even found a Yamanaka with enough guts to do a surface scan that came back as an improvement. Brave soul, I want him for my personal unit at the hospital."

The Sandaime rolled his eyes. "Just fill out the transfer orders and bring them to me once you have everything in order," he told her. If the boy didn't like his new position, he could always request to be moved to another unit. "That said, I find this agent's lack of follow-through… concerning."

"His partner wasn't much better," Tsunade pointed out. "From the information Jiraiya gave me, none of the Akatsuki's agents are shy about collateral damage. Half the time they seem to be hired just for that purpose."

"I know for a fact that Onoki hired them on more than one occasion to complete a job knowing that the damage they would cause would finish at least one other objective," Sarutobi mused. "He likes to play innocent about it, but even Ae isn't fooled. That business in Mountain Country…"

Jiraiya winced. "Yes, that," he muttered, shaking his head. The entire infrastructure of the region was still being reorganized. He shot Tsunade a look. "But then Hoshigaki just challenges you to a game of dice with no real stakes," he sighed, shaking his head.

Tsunade nodded in agreement. "He tried to pass it off like they wouldn't gain anything from him attacking the rest of the group."

"Yeah, sure," Jiraiya snorted.

"That does seem… breathtakingly unlikely," Sarutobi agreed, looking troubled. Tsunade's lineage alone made her worth a significant ransom. The same could be said for Hinata and Sasuke. "However, if we assume that he expected his partner to succeed without difficulty?"

"Or with difficulty," Tsunade mused, looking suddenly more alert.

Jiraiya swiveled in his chair to fully face her as the Sandaime eyed her steadily.

"What if they suspected Naruto might… go Kyuubi?" Tsunade theorized, not really paying attention to either of them as she thought out loud. "Then it would make sense for him to hold back. It also explains why Hoshigaki would be chosen as this, uh, Tobi? Tobi's partner. He specializes in capturing people with indirect ninjutsu and that chakra-draining sword of his. If things escalated…"

"Hoshigaki would be able to wear Naruto down," the Sandaime concluded with an approving nod. "A solid theory… if grossly and disastrously misguided. Assuming that was indeed their strategy." The second part came out as an amused chuckle.

"No shit," Jiraiya muttered, shaking his head.

Tsunade glanced between the two of them. "What am I missing here?"

"We developed a technique a few years ago that allows the user to drain chakra in much the same way the Aburame do, but without the need for their insects," the Sandaime explained. "We tested it on Naruto for several reasons. I won't bore you with the details, but the short version is that it had absolutely no effect on him… nor did the other three practitioners or the twelve Aburame we convinced to assist us."

Tsunade's mouth fell open. "But-but even Kushina-"

The Sandaime interrupted her. "Put simply, something about Naruto's condition allows him to regenerate his chakra at a truly absurd rate," he told her. "So, in a war of attrition? Theoretically, Naruto will always win. Unless he had something other than Samehada to incapacitate Naruto, Hoshigaki would have found himself outlasted. And then, it would only work if he could contain him long enough for it to work."

"Huh," Tsunade muttered, looking surprised. "Well, that's damn useful… I wonder if there's a way we could use that."

"I already have a team looking into… alternative applications," Sarutobi explained, his eyes shining with the delight that only shone through when he was talking about research and innovations. "I'll introduce you to them. You'll be interested in some of their more medically minded projects."

Tsunade's grin was just a little too wide at that offer.

"Okay, you fucking nerds. Restrain yourselves, we have shit to figure out," Jiraiya groaned, rolling his eyes.

"That's rich, coming from you," the Sandaime snipped.

Jiraiya shrugged. "I won't deny it," he admitted. "We're all nerds here. I'm just the nerd with self-control."

Tsunade gave a derisive snort as the Sandaime rolled his eyes.

"Anyway!" Jiraiya said, raising his voice over the pair of them as he dug his chopsticks into his food. "Putting aside Hoshigaki's lack of interference and concerning behavior (since it's pure conjecture and we're going to run ourselves in circles without some kind of new evidence), let's get back to Tobi and his… whatever the fuck that was."

"Could it possibly have something to do with the Kyuubi?" Sarutobi wondered aloud.

"Hm?" Jiraiya responded through a mouth full of food.

"Tobirama-sensei always told me that ninjutsu dealing with space and time were… delicate," Sarutobi explained. "Could the presence of the Kyuubi's chakra have disrupted his technique or made it too dangerous to use?"

"Or too heavy to move," Tsunade chipped in. "Like when we summon Gamabunta or Katsuyu," she clarified. "Because of their size and chakra, they require more chakra and concentration in order to be summoned."

Jiraiya frowned thoughtfully. "I've never had any trouble summoning or reverse-summoning him," he mused, tapping his chopsticks together as he puzzled over the question. "So, I think we can throw out the idea that he's somehow heavier or more difficult to move."

"Could it be something to do with the contract?"

Jiraiya shook his head. "Summoning is summoning, you know that," he responded. "The contract just… specifies. Makes sure you're summoning what you want to summon and not some void abomination or new and exciting demons."

"The Kyuubi's chakra, then," the Sandaime pressed.

That gave the Toad Sage pause. "It's… possible," Jiraiya hedged.

"But you feel it's unlikely," the Sandaime observed.

"I… just don't know, Sensei," Jiraiya sighed, shaking his head. "Nothing about that fight makes any sense! He didn't show any signs of frustration. No surprise. He was barely even aggressive! He literally shouted in victory and ran away after tagging Naruto. It really was like they were playing."

"I see," the Sandaime mused thoughtfully.

"I don't," Tsunade grumbled.

"And that's why I will be staying on as your advisor," Sarutobi replied blithely. "I'd like to have the time to die in peace before the next real crisis."

"Fuck you, old man."

"Ew," Jiraiya muttered, giving an exaggerated shudder.

The Sandaime just rolled his eyes. "We'll put that aside for the moment," Sarutobi decided, turning his full attention to Tsunade. "You mentioned you were able to inspect Naruto?"

"Sure did," Tsunade drawled, giving her teacher the evil eye. "And I'm still going to give you an earful about allowing him anywhere near active duty in his condition."

The Sandaime Hokage shrugged. "My decision was made based on the information I had at the time," he explained, unbothered by her accusing glare. "I knew there would be significant risks to allowing him close to any kind of conflict. However, our assessment at the time was that he was more or less stable. His behavior was consistent and improving. His ability to de-escalate left something to be desired but was manageable even without Hinata's help. Once we determined that Kakashi would be able to suppress his abilities enough for Naruto to calm himself down enough to accept rationalizations… well, the risk assessment was in clear favor of deploying him in some capacity."

"And your bright idea was to put him on a fucking gennin team?!"

"The alternatives were to keep him in the village while Hinata participated in missions, risking separation anxiety, or turning the both of them over to Anbu for special training and deployment to where they could do the most good for the village," he explained dispassionately as if he had explained it a hundred times before and was just damn tired of repeating himself.

Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "What's wrong with just keeping them both in the village?" she demanded.

"Politics," Sarutobi drawled with a grimace that made it seem like he was spitting up poison.

"You're… going to have to explain that one," Tsunade admitted reluctantly. She was a soldier, a medic, she'd never been trained for politics.

Hell, until Sarutobi-sensei, ninja hadn't really had a concept of politics. Not their own, anyway. They'd never needed to play politics, only understand them in so much as how they affected their clients. Ninja solved problems made by politics… and they were paid very well not to ask too many questions (not that that stopped them). The closest ninja had gotten to their own politics was when they made truces that everyone knew they were going to break anyway. Then Sarutobi-sensei had come along and, where his predecessors had been characterized by their sheer power… he had set himself apart as an intellectual. Where others called for action, he called for talks. When he needed resources, he negotiated his own supply lines. When he needed money, instead of begging for work, he built an economy. When he dealt with other villages, he wrote contracts and offered trades and compromises. He talked and signed treaties and generated more paperwork than anyone thought possible. His preference for planning and talking had earned him scorn. At first, there had been no end to the ridicule, some people had even started mockingly calling him The Paper Ninja…

The irony was that a piece of paper was all he had needed.

Tsunade wasn't sure when it had happened, history wasn't her greatest subject. All she knew was that Sarutobi-sensei had signed a non-aggression pact with Sunagakure. No one had taken it very seriously because no one ever did.

No one… except Sarutobi Hiruzen.

Unbeknownst to any but his aides, Sarutobi-sensei had filed signed and verified copies of the pact as a matter of public record in the Land of Wind, the Land of Fire, and the Land of Iron. Busywork, they'd called it. A waste of time and good card stock. Then Sunagakure had broken the pact as everyone had known they would. When the Wind Daimyo was called on to enforce the pact or punish the ninja he was responsible for. He had refused, trying to claim ignorance. Iron Country had not taken kindly to this because the Wind Daimyo had signed the pact. Such a flagrant breach of contract was… unsettling, dishonorable. There had been no shortage of displeased and worried merchants willing to share their worries about Wind Country's lack of moral fiber and as the foremost supplier of raw metal on the mainland, word had spread like wildfire. Suddenly, the integrity of every treaty, contract, and dealing the Land of Wind had was being brought into question. Rumors spread that the people of the Land of Wind were not to be trusted. They were liars, backstabbers who dealt in little more than sand and bad faith. Suddenly, the Daimyo needed every available ninja to help suppress food riots and protect him from his rivals' attempts to capitalize on his misfortune. Suddenly, Sunagakure did not have the time, men, or resources to properly secure their own borders, much less go to war.

Sarutobi Hiruzen had gutted an entire country without ever leaving his office and he had done it all with words and paper.

"Imagine a well," Sarutobi-sensei told them, bringing them her back to the present and her question about why he hadn't kept Naruto in the village as he side-eyed Jiraiya in a way that clearly implied that this was meant for him as well. "Imagine this well is in some populous part of a city. It is a convenient spot for many people and so they wish to use it. However, some idiot dropped a sack of peanuts down the damn thing."

Tsunade shared a lost look with Jiraiya.

The Sandaime rolled his eyes. "Hold your horses, you damn brats, I'm getting to it," he grumbled as he drew out his pipe and started stuffing it with his favorite leaf. "Now, there are two problems with this scenario. The first is that the well could cause harm to anyone with the appropriate allergies or sensitivities. The second is that the peanuts could go rancid and sour the water, hurting even more people. The logical thing to do, would be to either fill in the well or clean it, yes?"

His students nodded.

"Of course, it is," Sarutobi said as he lit his pipe. "However, the resources it would take to clean the well either don't exist or are so rare or costly that it simply isn't practical. Additionally, in this example, Naruto is the well… So, I'm sure we can all agree that doing away with 'the problem' is completely unacceptable?"

Jiraiya and Tsunade agreed once more with pained grimaces.

"Now, the next logical option would be to prohibit the people from using the well. Your solution in this metaphor, Tsunade," he continued as he began to smoke in earnest. "But people are generally more concerned with what they want than what would be best and would rather risk being poisoned than be inconvenienced. So, they'd rather take the risk. That is more or less what I've been dealing with since this entire mess started. I have no shortage of solutions to Naruto's furry little problem, but they're all useless because people want more badly than they reason. I could keep Hinata in the village, but the Hyuuga want their little heiress to be seen. I could hold Naruto back, but our Daimyo and our patrons want to be seen paying for the services of a living calamity the way a child finds it more important to be seen cleaning their room than they are concerned about actually doing it."

"But… why?" Tsunade wondered, baffled. That made no sense! Naruto could level entire cities if he got out of control and they just wanted him to be seen?

"Because people are damn idiots," Sarutobi-sensei replied drolly.

Tsunade grimaced. "That's just so-so-gah!" she cried, throwing her hand up in frustration.

Jiraiya gave a derisive snort. "Ain't that the truth," he muttered, shaking his head. "You know, almost no one has caught on that the brothels I visit are almost all connected to my network?"

Tsunade rolled her eyes. "I know it for a fact and I still have trouble believing it," she snarked as she threw back another cup of sake.

"Oi!" Jiraiya protested.

Sarutobi rolled his eyes. "We are getting off-topic," he said, pulling them back to the topic of Naruto's condition. "What were you able to find out about Naruto?"

Tsunade sighed, collecting her thoughts. "Physically? Other than the weirdness with his hair changing color for no damn reason? (Which reminds me, we need to either dye it or cut it. He's starting to look like Minato and that's more trouble than it's worth) He's fine. Better than fine. Muscle mass, bone density, organ function, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera are all above average even when adjusted for the Uzumaki clan's freakish constitution. That is, of course, if we handwave a little humanity and assume that the extra bits like the tails, claws, and eyes are 'normal.'"

"Of course," the Sandaime agreed. "We've mostly cataloged his physical changes. I'm more concerned with his mental state and anything you might be able to tell us about his… condition."

"Well, like I told Jiraiya before, the boy is in a coma," she explained, staring up at the ceiling as if it was a medical chart she was reading from. "Quite frankly, that's the only part of any of this that makes sense. He suffered a traumatic injury, the brain shut down, the end! Except, everything after that just… isn't playing by the rules."

"Give me an example," the Sandaime prompted. 'Other than the fact that Kushina's boy is up and walking around when he should apparently be a half-dead waif in a hospital bed,' he thought sardonically. Naruto's mother must be laughing herself sick, wherever she was.

"The kid healed through brain damage, apparently," Jiraiya chipped in.

Sarutobi shot him a look.

Jiraiya held his hands up in surrender as Tsunade continued her explanation.

"His brain is exactly where it should be if he was this old and otherwise normal," Tsunade explained, giving her old sensei context to Jiraiya's interruption. "The language centers are more or less fully developed. His reactions to stimuli are all there, just… dull. Again, coma. It's what we could expect if we performed a scan on a coma patient while someone they knew was speaking to them. The strangest thing… is that when he speaks, there is no activity to indicate that he's doing so."

Sarutobi glanced between the two of them. "...What?"

"When Naruto talks, his speech centers aren't lighting up," Tsunade clarified. "Motor function? Yes. The brain contemplating a message and ordering the words to form language? No."

"How… how is that even possible?" Jiraiya wondered, dumbfounded.

"Hell if I know," Tsunade replied, shaking her head… but she was going to have so much fun figuring it out.

Sarutobi tapped the mouthpiece of his pipe against his chin in thought. "But he reacts normally to stimulus, you said?" he clarified.

"Yup," Tsunade responded. "Pain, light, sound, faces, all normal… more or less."

"What was his reaction to something he should remember?" Sarutobi wondered.

"As blank as Jiraiya's face if he were asked what it meant to respect woman," Tsunade answered with a little smirk as she took a sip of her sake. "Same with the centers that deal with short-term memory."

"Oi!" Jiraiya cried. "I totally respect women."

No one believed him.

"But you say that his brain is fully developed?" Sarutobi pressed, ignoring Jiraiya's attempts to protest innocence.

"Yep," Tsunade replied. "It's all there. It's all healthy. Everything's exactly like it should be… even though there's no way it should be."

"Interesting," Sarutobi mused, stroking his beard thoughtfully as he took a long draw from his pipe. "Very interesting…"

"Care to share with the class, Professor?"

"My first thought was some bastardized form of puppetry," the Sandaime replied. "That's what we initially feared. That the Kyuubi was controlling the body using chakra. However, the Hyuuga disproved that, and you just said that the actual movement of the body is still precipitated by the associated brain functions… but not the hallmarks of the thought process that should precipitate those."

"Precisely," Tsunade agreed.

"My next thought, which you have now disproven, was brain damage," Sarutobi continued. "I had assumed that Naruto's ordeal caused such an injury and that his progress was simply… rehabilitation. Working through the injury as I've seen others do."

"Except that he's all healed and has been for years from what I can tell," Tsunade drawled.

"Yes," the Sandaime replied absently. "I've had a few other ideas over the years, but those were all stray thoughts and conjecture. Now you say that he's in a coma. He should be bedridden… and yet he functions normally."

"Normally?" Tsunade grumbled dubiously.

Sarutobi waved a hand dismissively. "In a mechanical sense," he clarified. "The neurons fire. The body responds. The body receives input. The brain interprets the input."

"But the brain's output is missing," Jiraiya realized.

"Yes…" the Sandaime mused. "How does he compare to what you know of sleepwalkers?"

"Not. Even. Close," Tsunade told him with a smug grin.

The Sandaime nodded. "I thought that might be the case," he mused. "It certainly doesn't sound like any kind of sleepwalking I've ever heard of."

"Does it sound like something you have heard of?"

"Not even remotely," Sarutobi sighed, shaking his head. "It's as if someone has simply… reached in and plucked Naruto out of his own body. Everything is as it should be but he's just not properly there."

Tsunade sighed along with him, nodding tiredly. "That sounds about right."

"Like a shitty radio connection," Jiraiya agreed.

"That's a horrible analogy," Tsunade complained.

"Sue me."

"You're a writer," she accused. "You're supposed to be good with words!"

"I'm good with writing words, not saying them," Jiraiya argued, brandishing his chopsticks at her. "That's why you get to be Hokage, not me."

"Which is a horrible idea, by the way," Tsunade grumbled.

Jiraiya shrugged. "There were worse ideas."

"It's still a bad one," Tsunade repeated. "Speaking of, any more bright ideas to explain… whatever the hell this is?"

"Nada," Jiraiya replied, picking at his food.

"I will point out again that you are a writer," Tsunade grumbled. "It is literally your job to have ideas."

"Yeah? Well, I got nothing. Well's dry," Jiraiya sighed. "What about you two?"

"I'm out," Tsunade replied, shaking her head. "I've got no good ideas left."

Silence greeted them.

"...Sensei?" Jiraiya asked, finding the old man staring out the window with a faraway look. "You have an idea?"

"All out of good ones, I'm afraid," the elderly Hokage answered.

Jiraiya sagged as Tsunade groaned in frustration.

"But… I might have a bad one," the elderly Hokage added tiredly, looking for all the world like he'd rather be anywhere else doing anything else than whatever it was he was considering.

Jiraiya and Tsunade shared a look before returning their attention to their sensei.

"Um… What are you going to do?" Jiraiya asked.

"Disappoint Tobirama-sensei," Sarutobi sighed as he stood from his chair. "And hope that he doesn't hurt me too badly for breaking my promise when I summon him."

Omake: Paperwork and Danzou

"Gods and powers," Tsunade breathed as Sarutobi explained his duties to her. "How do you have time to sleep?!" In fact, how did he have time for anything? She barely remembered a time when Sarutobi-sensei wasn't Hokage, but he always seemed

Sarutobi-sensei gave her a strange look. "I delegate," he told her as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.


"You didn't think I put up with my council because we grew up together, did you?"

…Well, she had, but she wasn't going to admit it.

But something must have shown on her face because Sarutobi-sensei sighed, shaking his head. "No, Tsunade," he told her, "I keep Homura and Koharu around because they have the experience and clearance to deal with important matters and because I know them well enough to know when they are being stupid enough to try lying to me."

"And Danzou?"

Sarutobi-sensei paused, considering his answer carefully. "Danzou is a… convenient evil," he explained with a thoughtful frown.


"Yes," the Sandime replied. "I do not agree with his politics, and he has created almost as many headaches as he has created results, but his position means that nothing he does can be directly tied to Konoha. Even though we regularly benefit from his actions, Danzou's actions are entirely his own. Which allows for certain problems to be… handled, without the village being part of the equation."

Tsunade's eyes narrowed shrewdly. "He's a scapegoat," she reasoned.

"Yes," the Sandaime agreed. "As far as the outside world is concerned, he is a dissatisfied old zealot acting outside of the chain of command. If he ever becomes too much of an issue or someone comes forward with evidence of his crimes, I'll kill him."

"Simple as that?" Tsunade wondered dubiously. She'd always thought Sarutobi-sensei was more… sentimental than that.

Sarutobi nodded. "Simple as that," he answered as if he were simply commenting that the sky was clear, or the birds were singing. "Besides, he's already tried to kill me once. I owe him a little reciprocity… for old times' sake."

Tsunade shivered at her sensei's tone. Sometimes it was so easy to forget what a stone-cold son of a bitch Sarutobi Hiruzen could be.

Omake: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

"You're the Hokage, you could just change it!" Jiraiya argued.

The elderly Hokage rolled his eyes. "Forty years as my student and you still don't understand the first thing about politics," he sighed, shaking his head.

"Explain it, then!" Jiraiya demanded. "Explain to me why my godson gets shit on by this whole village and you do nothing!"

"Tell me, Jiraiya," Sarutobi responded coolly, leveling his student with an unimpressed glare, "if it is the entire village abusing Naruto against my orders… Who do you suppose is going to enforce my will, hm?"

That brought Jiraiya up short. "What?"

"You heard me, Baka-Deshi," Sarutobi replied. "You said it yourself, didn't you? The entire village is complicit in Naruto's treatment on some level. Either performing the acts themselves or turning a blind eye to the behavior of others. That being the case. Tell me, what should I do?"

"I was exaggerating-"

"But it is not an exaggeration!" Sarutobi interrupted curtly. "The people are afraid and want something or someone to blame! It doesn't matter that I killed the fool who gave away Naruto's identity because they already know it and every damn one of them is willing to displace a little of their pain onto him in order to avoid confronting how fucking afraid they all are! Kakashi can't even look at him without disappearing for half the week to drink himself into a ditch!"

"I could-"

"You know damn well why you can't be seen in his life without a more tangible excuse than your nostalgia for blond hair," Sarutobi cut him off with an unimpressed roll of his eyes.

"Then make an example of someone!" Jiraiya demanded. "A show of force would-"

"This is not some island kingdom in the tropics, boy," Sarutobi replied scathingly. "I'm not some kind of dictator, in an isolated land with an army of fanatics and sycophants I can use to easily control some unarmed civilian population. I serve at the sufferance of our people and our people are not jelly-legged merchants who are easily cowed. They are well armed and well trained professional killers. Even the most flaccid civilian in this village knows how to properly hold a kunai. This is a military population, an armed population. I cannot simply march some goons down the street and enforce my will. Best case scenario, I would be ousted in a month! Worst case? Civil war. And in either scenario, not only would Naruto be in trouble, the rest of the village would be too!"

Jiraiya glared mutinously at his teacher, struggling to find some flaw in his logic. "You'll forgive me if I find it difficult to believe that the great Professor is so helpless," he sniped, injecting as much venom as possible into the barb.

The elderly Hokage sighed, shaking his head. "This city is a war machine… and as the Hokage, I am its first casualty," Sarutobi told him. "I would like nothing more than to walk into the streets and beat sense into anyone foolish enough to see Minato and Kushina's boy as anything short of the treasure that he is, but a Hokage does not get the privilege of luxuries like principles and morality, Jiraiya. At this level of governance, I must think in terms of what is healthy for our society on a grand scale and, unfortunately, at times that means putting aside what is right or just for individuals."

"Kill one, save a thousand," Jiraiya muttered bitterly.

Sarutobi nodded tiredly. "Yes, kill one and you may save thousands," he agreed, repeating the idiom he had used to explain the moral dilemma of assassination versus murder to his students. "Trading lives. Performing our bloody calculous and making damn sure that you keep more than you've lost. That is what it truly means to be a leader of shinobi."

"I can't accept that," Jiraiya hissed.


Jiraiya reared back as if slapped. "Wh-what?"

"It was never my desire for you and the others to become like me and mine, Jiraiya," Sarutobi told him. "Like all good teachers… I want you to be better," Sarutobi told him as his gaze grew unfocused and far away. "It's so easy for you children to forget where we came from… My father grew up outside these walls. My uncles and aunts died before I was even born, and I have outlived all of my own siblings and their children. We used to send children to war before they'd lost their first milk teeth. Your generation was the first that didn't grow up going hungry in the winters… and I am not proud of how I accomplished that."

"That doesn't make any of this right," Jiraiya growled mutinously.

"Right?" Sarutobi chuckled bitterly. "Baka-deshi, it is not a question of what is wrong and what is right," the old soldier told him. "It is a question of what is right… and what is left."


Happy Holidays, everyone!