I Disclaim ownership of Naruto.

Alert! Boy-love will smack you in the face if you're not careful! Some spoilers from the latest Manga chapters are present as well!

Pickled Brains: Okay, I have to admit I'm pretty hooked on the idea of this story. Maybe because I get to go overboard with Naruto's abilities or because I can't keep the picture of a hyperactive kid like him as a ten story tall fox outta my head.

Just thinking about it makes me smile and giggle (in a completely devious, manly, evil way, of course).

Now, this chapter marks the end of my foundation-setting. After this, Naruto himself comes into it to brighten thinks up! Still, read on and leave me a review!

-o

Third Chapter
of
Transcendence

-o

The westernmost bunker on the mountain was mostly used to store supplies of all sorts, should the need to defend the walls arise. As such, it was smaller than most of Konoha's hiding places, and while quite secure it wasn't a strategic point within the village's defenses. At most, it was just a place for Leaf-nin to resupply quickly while in battle, or to set up a closer point of retreat.

Because of Orochimaru's invasion a lot of the supplies stored in it had been moved to other, more needful, places. It hadn't taken much to clear what remained and convert it into something they could use.

With Tsunade in the lead, their rather big procession snuck into the bunker somewhat undetected. Using every trick they could to hide the three meter tall, nine-tailed silver fox that tip-toed ridiculously in the middle of their party. With the ANBU spread out and keeping a perimeter, the liberal use of genjutsu, and enough orders and security codes being spilt from Tsunade's mouth to make her thirsty, well, it was a wonder they made it as fast as they did.

Not that they didn't leave quite a number of curious shinobi in their wake, of course. Thankfully, when an ANBU tells you that you don't need to know what's happening, few dare to argue. When they tell you to look the other way for a few moments, everyone knows the best thing to do was to shut up for now and look for gossip later.

Still, it wasn't until the entire group was inside, the massive (but still hidden) doors closed behind them, that multiple sighs of relief were expelled. Tsunade saw the three gaping medics standing along with Hyuuga Hikari at the entrance, and looking around she was surprised at the amount of people who already knew about this.

Shit.

"Right, let's see who the hell we have here," she called for everyone's attention; the three member field medic squad that had come with Kakashi and Naruto were standing in a white cluster, looking tired but relaxed. The ANBU squad, who numbered four, were scattered around the edges of the entrance corridor, and her own guard detail was right behind her.

That was six ANBU altogether.

If you added the two Chuunin gate guards as well, that made eighteen people, counting herself, Kakashi and the bratty fox.

Crossing her arms, she surveyed the lot of them. "Alright, Hikari?" she asked the Hyuuga, who stepped forward, "You're in charge of the medics and the field team, so Tetsu, was it? Your team is to help her in figuring out what happened to the brat. The faster you do it, the faster you'll be able to get out of here," she gestured at one of the ANBU, "gather enough supplies for those staying in this bunker to last a week, at least."

When that ANBU nodded, she called on another. "You're in charge of informing family and friends about their unexpected assignment and of collecting any personal effects. Make sure that those working here are comfortable." Turning to the two Chuunin she noted that they understood the seriousness of the situation. "You both are to make sure that no one who isn't here can enter unless I accompany them personally is that understood? For now, help the medics set everything up. Later on, we'll figure out a better distribution of duties."

Turning to the two remaining ANBU, she gestured to the tunnel leading to the rest of the bunker. "Make sure this place is secure. I want alarms set up to catch any intruders. After the trouble we had getting in here, I've no doubt some will become curious."

"Tsunade-sama?" Kakashi spoke up before she could give him a task of his own.

"Yes?"

"Would it be possible for me to go and check on Sasuke?" he asked.

She eyed him for a moment, ignoring the pleading expression from the silver fox. "Why?" she asked. She knew Kakashi wouldn't just want to 'check up' on the Uchiha, so the man had to have an ulterior motive.

"Ah, well, Sasuke was able to see Naruto as he is now. If he were to wake up and say something . . ." he trailed off, his lazy gestures expressive enough to make his point.

"And what do you want me to do with him, then?" She already had a fair idea, and it wasn't a bad plan. Especially with all the specialists that could check in on him and the consequences of having the curse seal removed already in this bunker. In fact, the boy's medical treatment should have already been over, so bringing him here for observation would really be for the best. The fact that an ANBU squad was already keeping guard here and that Naruto wouldn't let the little Uchiha go without raising a fuss, took care of the security of the matter rather nicely.

In fact, with how stretched the villages resources were at the moment, the more she could streamline this operation, the better.

When Kakashi began to explain what she was already thinking, she waved him off. "Fine, go now and secure the boy. Make sure he is unconscious when you move him here, though."

With a nod, Kakashi disappeared, everyone dispersing into the bunker as he did, with the field medic, Tetsu, leading Naruto deeper into the tunnels.

Hyuuga Hikari, thankfully, remained behind.

"I sealed most of the equipment we would need and brought them here, Tsunade-sama, but you'll need to confirm you authorized their move in person before people start getting suspicious," the Hyuuga informed her.

"I'll do so when I get out of here," she told the woman absently, nodding when her ANBU guards returned from their security sweep and disappeared from sight. Satisfied when the Chuunin also took up stations, she turned her full attention on the medic. "Alright, you're in charge of the medics here, Hikari. The ANBU will take care of security. Later today I'll come along and we'll hold a briefing so everyone's on the same page, but regardless, I'll be leaving Kakashi in overall command of this operation. Make sure those working with you know that that fox is Naruto, and that Kyuubi is gone for good, understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then I want you to run every test you can think of on that brat. While finding out if his chakra is neutral is one of our goals, at the moment I'm more interested in finding ways to get him his body back. I want ideas when I get back . . . and answers."

The Hyuuga straightened up in response, and Tsunade smirked at the image of Naruto being poked and prodded to hell and back. However, it was all for the gaki's own good. "You can count on us, Tsunade-sama."

"Good."

With a sharp nod, she and her guards left. She still needed to settle things in the hospital, check in at the Tower, make sure that mission assignments were on track, and smooth things over so Naruto's absence and the sudden habitation of the bunker didn't become too noticeable. Hopefully, by the end of the day she'd be able to go over the results of some of the tests and come up with a solution to the boy's dilemma, or at least a better sense of what to do.

But before all of that, she needed some sake, and she needed it now.

-O●O●O●O-Black eyes snapped open and stared blankly ahead before wearily taking the room in. When they didn't find anything or anyone, they flashed, taking Kakashi aback.

Thankfully, the sharingan eyes faded back to black in a moment, and he hoped he hadn't been detected. With the boy suffering from chakra exhaustion, it was a wonder he could even open his eyes in the first place. From the grimace on Sasuke's features, he was also sure that forcing the dojutsu to activate had been painful. Kakashi remembered being in the same situation enough times to sympathize; but only the barest amount.

In truth, he didn't know what to think of his student. He didn't understand why the boy had done what he did.

But he intended to find out.

He just needed to think on where to start. At the moment, he had not the slightest idea. Why had Sasuke left? What were his reasons? Was it his own choice, or had he been influenced in some way?

The curse seal made everything all the more difficult, since they didn't know much about it and its effects on a person.

Kakashi's thoughts were interrupted by the only occupant of the room before they could go any further. "Naruto," the Uchiha uttered in a low voice, as if the name itself explained his situation. It surprised Kakashi that Sasuke didn't spit the name out like a curse; in fact, there was a grudging respect in his tone and a certain amount of weariness as well. The thing that truly took Kakashi aback, however, was the near infinitesimal amount of relief in his student's features. Had his normal eye not been closed and Obito's sharingan open, its tomoe spinning lazily around the pupil, he doubted he would've been able to pick up the gesture.

What did it mean, though?

Watching silently for any other sign that would shed light on the situation, he waited, and minutes passed. But Sasuke remained silent and calm. Looking at him, Kakashi saw something else he could not ignore; the boy's face was smooth, relaxed. The strain he now knew had been there since he came out from the Forest of Death had disappeared; something he had before dismissed as a consequence of the stress and pressure he was putting on himself. The corners of Sasuke's eyes weren't as tight either; his mouth wasn't downturned in the beginnings of a scowl or a grimace. The boy wasn't as twitchy and strained.

This changed things. Kakashi thought Sasuke would try to escape; that he'd become angered and calculating. He'd hidden in the room and observed him with his sharingan so he could spot any attempt on the younger shinobi's part.

The last thing he expected was to see a compliant Uchiha, much less a seemingly relieved one.

Maybe, just maybe, Sasuke was not beyond hope . . . or out of reach.

With this in mind, he stepped out of the shadows silently and sat down in a nearby chair, covering his sharingan as he did so.

"Kakashi." It was an acknowledgment, though the boy didn't look at him. Those black eyes remained fixed on the ceiling, looking pensive and worn out now that he was in the open. He stopped himself from being surprised any longer; it was clear something else was afoot in this situation. Something he wasn't aware of.

Silence permeated the room for long minutes but Kakashi wasn't the one to break it. While he wasn't an interrogation specialist, he knew a few things. And right now, he just didn't have enough information.

However, what he'd been able to pick up from Sasuke was at odds with what he knew of the boy.

At the moment he could only think back and wonder where his student had gone astray. If he could pinpoint the problem it would make it easier to evaluate how much of a risk the boy truly was. Had it been his quick, sharp reprimand before going on his last mission that drove the Uchiha to Orochimaru? Only now, looking back on it, did he see it as a bad move on his part.

Sasuke had been exposed to the snake-nin and marked with his curse seal, and later experienced defeat after defeat; his efforts and training seeming paltry when compared to Naruto's own achievements in the same amount of time. Then he suffered Itachi's tsukuyomi and faced his brother's disinterest, if Gai's account of events were to be believed. There were other instances that, while small, could very well have tipped the scales of Sasuke's psyche; like seeing the rasengan when compared to the chidori.

Only now could he imagine the boy's utter frustration; it had been piling up for months.

Since that eventful first mission in Wave and the young Uchiha's first defeat at the hand of Zabuza's subordinate.

In fact, Kakashi could see that isolating Sasuke on his training for the chuunin exam finals had been a bad choice as well. It had allowed the boy to stew and fester on Orochimaru's words. Kakashi hadn't been kind to Sasuke either; his training had been harsh and impersonal, and then he had acted like nothing had happened and left Sasuke to deal with the curse seal without support, explanation or encouragement.

On top of that, only he and Sakura had known of the curse seal itself. While it was Sasuke's wish, he could see how keeping it a secret from Naruto had been detrimental. That knucklehead would have provided everything Sasuke would have needed without a conscious thought; without knowing, without asking, Naruto would have grounded Sasuke and made him see his own worth. With knowledge of the seal, Naruto might have been inclined to explain his own progress and talk about his own burden, bringing things into perspective for the Uchiha.

In a way, the fact that the blond hadn't known made things worse, since the boy treated Sasuke no differently. Naruto kept pushing at the Uchiha, kept improving himself, kept remarking and highlighting his accomplishments with boasts and taunts still thinking and acting on their early rivalry, while Sasuke himself took each of Naruto's words as a near physical blow, hurting his mind, wounding his pride, highlighting his supposed lack of progress.

Not to mention that the only person who had been able to crack through Sasuke's self-imposed isolation had been the blond ball of sunshine and empathy himself, making any of his remarks, made in ignorance and believing that Sasuke was fine, stab deeper and hurt more than they should. By the time Naruto noticed anything amiss, the damage was already done; Itachi had taken a raw wound and pored poison on it and let it fester until Naruto had managed to bring Tsunade back and Sasuke awoke from a month of torment; his mental wounds putrid.

For his part, instead of providing at least a minimum of support, what had he done? Nothing.

The last time he'd seen him, he'd been short with his student, tied him to a tree and barely allowed him to speak. And then he'd left only to return and learn of the boy's defection.

"What is Naruto?" Sasuke finally spoke, his eyes clouded now.

The question itself was interesting, and it brought Kakashi back to the present. There was no use for what-ifs, though his journey through memory lane had made a few things clear to him. For one, if he were to answer that question in the current situation, it would be better in the long run to speak truthfully. Kakashi needed to figure out what was going through Sasuke's mind at the moment; he needed answers of his own about what state his student was in. At the same time, giving information to a possible traitor was against every rule on the book.

Yet, he decided to indulge Sasuke this last time; he would give him this one chance. And as actions speak louder than words, Kakashi would look at the boy's reactions instead to answer his own questions.

"He's a sacrifice," he answered the boy carefully.

Those black eyes finally focused as Sasuke stared silently at him; uncomprehending. "But what about that power? And what he turned into . . .?" The young shinobi trailed off, looking as if he were relieving the event.

"Naruto is a sacrifice," Kakashi stated again, softly, before explaining. "When the Kyuubi no Kitsune attacked, it could not be killed. To save the village —to protect Konoha— the Yondaime sacrificed himself, his soul, to power the technique that would seal the Bijuu away. However, a being of Kyuubi's power could not be sealed in a regular vessel. Only a newborn whose umbilical cord was recently cut and whose chakra pathways were undeveloped could contain such a being."

Understanding seeped into those dark eyes before they closed. The expression on the boy's face was telling, however, and Kakashi felt a stirring of hope within himself. He had tried to connect to Sasuke before, all of them had. They had tried to draw the boy out and make him part of team seven. Before the Chuunin Exams they had succeeded, but only partly. Their bonds had been fragile still, and Naruto was the only one who'd been able to actually reach the young Uchiha in some significant way; and only now did he understand how deeply their connection ran.

For Sasuke to feel sympathy now; for him to give an expression of understanding this deep after being defeated could only mean that such a bond was still strong. Kakashi had seen it then too, of course, but only partially, and did his best to nurture the bond between them. But he hadn't seen the depth of their relationship; he had though them merely rivals; comrades. Not friends.

From the beginning something had always held Sasuke back in his interactions. He had hoped some of those barriers would drop during the exams; that the self-proclaimed avenger would be able to depend just a little more on his teammates. Never in his wildest dreams had he ever suspected that Orochimaru would come into the picture and ruin it all.

But now; now the curse mark was no more. It's possible influence erased.

And Sasuke looked more vulnerable now than he had ever seen him.

He remembered seeing the boy after the massacre; a blank, emotionless, unresponsive child. Now it was different; as if the floor had been ripped from beneath his feet.

He looked lost.

At that moment ―in that single expression― Kakashi saw a way to nudge Sasuke into another path; to give him someone who he could relate to. Someone he could look up to; someone he could trust. Someone who he knew would help him, even protect him, should he need it. He only hoped that Naruto would forgive him for what he was about to do. That he could carry this burden, even after he had rid himself of the Kyuubi's weight.

"Naruto's mother died at childbirth," he began. A story he had never spoken out loud; a story only a few knew about. But when those black eyes opened and focused on him once again, looking empty, resigned and alone, it was a story he knew would help. Somehow a bond still excited between Sasuke and Naruto; the young Uchiha had been unable to sever it at the Valley of the End. But they had never understood each other. The bond they shared was a tenuous one . . . and he saw a chance here to remedy it, no matter the risk. Nevertheless, it could be his only chance to save his precious student from the consequences of his actions; all of their actions. "She was a strong and passionate kunoichi. Loved my many, she was the last survivor of the Village Hidden in the Whirlpool. And still she gave her life that day for Konoha."

Seeing he had Sasuke's full attention, he focused solely on the boy, doing his best to avoid falling into memory. "Only a few people know of this, but Naruto was born prematurely. His mother found out the only chance Konoha had of surviving was through sealing the Bijuu. But no child was to be born that day. All other newborns had stable chakra pathways by then. Like the Fourth Hokage, she gave her life for this village by inducing labor early and then giving her life by sustaining Naruto through the umbilical cord, avoiding the stabilization of his chakra pathways until the sealing preparations were finished and it could be cut."

Kakashi almost closed his eyes in remembrance of that day. Kushina's determination had been incredible, her resolve unchangeable.

"She died of blood loss. She exhausted herself during the procedure to make sure Naruto could live; so that Konoha could be saved. That day Naruto was sacrificed for the sake of us all. That day he became a Jinchuuriki like Sabaku no Gaara; a cursed existence. A living reminder of the massacre a large part of Konoha's forces suffered at the Fox's hand."

The copy-nin chose his words for maximum impact, and saw success in Sasuke's wide, almost-innocent looking gaze.

Kakashi explained from there and told a tale of sacrifice and loneliness. He told Sasuke things Naruto didn't speak of; that few people even acknowledged. A child sacrificed for their survival only to later be ignored by the populace. Without a loving family, without support, without care or love . . . Naruto grew alone. How his greatest desire was to be acknowledged; to earn the respect of the village.

To find a family of his own.

Even when he entered the academy, Naruto was disregarded. The teachers were reluctant to teach him and sometimes outright ignored him, so the boy had had to forge onward by himself, just as he always had. It made him ill-prepared and under-educated . . . the dead-last. But alone and because of his incredible determination, he still managed to become a shinobi.

He drove it home to Sasuke as much as he could; ruthlessly. "While he might not have lost anyone like you have until the Sandaime's death, his pain was not all that different from yours. He knew deep, earth-shattering loneliness. He found what it meant to lose someone dear to him, someone who he considered family when the Third Hokage perished. And now you've shown him betrayal, just like Itachi showed you."

Kakashi almost relished the wince Sasuke gave at that statement.

"He told me he thought of me as a brother," the younger shinobi muttered absently, rubbing his arms in what Kakashi was sure was a subconscious gesture.

"And you made him use the Kyuubi's tainted power to stop you," he told the boy flatly, "the very source of his pain, of his loneliness. A cursed power he would give up in an instant if he could; a power that eats up at his life, at his body and at his mind." Now he was exaggerating a bit, but he didn't care. Shinobi were supposed to use everything at their disposal to achieve their ends. And seeing that his words were sinking into the boy, shaking him, Kakashi struck.

Quick as lightning, he grasped the Uchiha's chin and locked their gazes together. He almost flinched when he saw the tears gathered at the corner of those black eyes, but he didn't falter, he needed answers now. "Why did you do it Sasuke? Why did you leave?"

"I—I didn't have a choice," Sasuke answered in an almost dead tone of voice. "Right after you talked to me that day, I was attacked by Orochimaru's personal guard. I—I defended myself, but I wouldn't have been able to defeat them, I couldn't do anything, even with the seal active," the boy explained, his words tumbling out of each other now. "It made me so powerful, so strong! The lure was too much! With Naruto growing stronger and stronger and leaving me behind, weak; and with Itachi suddenly interested in him, and not me. I couldn't help it. I had to use it; you understand that, right, Kakashi? Only Orochimaru seemed willing to help me with my goal! His seal made me stronger, faster, my eyes sharper! Sometimes, I lost myself, my reason. But I gained in strength and power! It was a worthy exchange. But, then . . . after our fight, Naruto did something to me. I feel so empty. Where is my rage? My determination? My Pride! Where has it all gone? What's happened to me?" he asked frantically, tears falling from wild eyes, "Tell me Kakashi! Where is my HATRED?"

Quickly, he rendered Sasuke unconscious, before the boy could do himself serious harm.

Still, even as convoluted as Sasuke's explanations were, Kakashi had at least some answers now. The problem was that he also had a whole slew of other questions.

Standing up, he gently picked his student up and looked around the room.

A second later, the hospital room was empty, though he was sure to leave a note for Sakura with a nurse.

-O●O●O●O-

"Tsunade!" Jiraiya crashed through the window, glass flying everywhere.

Tsunade took one look at the desperate, broken look of her former teammate and knew something had happened. Standing slowly up from behind her desk, she looked around for any threat, extending her awareness as she did so. "What is it?" she asked curtly.

"I came as soon as I heard. Do you know what happened?" Jiraiya babbled at her before sweeping her into a hug.

She didn't want the lecher anywhere near her, however, so she sent the grabby pervert crashing. "What the hell are you talking about you old pervert?" She demanded. With the paperwork for the day almost finished, she was itching to go check on the brat. Which brought the question, "And what the hell are you doing here? You weren't supposed to be back until tomorrow at the earliest!"

"You don't know?" Jiraiya asked from his place in the floor, some sense creeping back into him, though he still looked like the Daimyo had ordered all bathhouses to be closed. Tsunade wasn't used to seeing her old teammate in such a state.

"What don't I know?" She was losing her patience now, her foot tapping impatiently. "Well?" she demanded.

"Naruto — Naruto's dead!" He told her, his voice breaking.

For a moment, her heart stopped. But then, she shook it off. If the brat had died she would have been told immediately. Hell, she would have probably felt it all the way here! Still, for Jiraiya to look like that, it was obvious he thought he was telling the truth. Heck, she should've noticed when he tried to hug her and didn't try to grope her!

She'd taught him not to do that when they were genin, after all. "Where did you hear that?" she asked him.

"Where did I hear it? Where did I hear it?" he asked, standing up suddenly and appearing right in front of her, pissed. "Didn't you hear what I told you? Naruto is dead!" A sudden crash from the other side of the door startled her but she focused on the idiot in front of her first.

"Jiraiya!" she snapped. "The brat is not dead, so calm the fuck down and tell me where you heard such a thing!" Without waiting for an answer, she stalked toward the doors and yanked them open, only to find Shizune picking up a box full of papers, tears streaming down her face. "Get in here Shizune," she told her apprentice curtly, before pointing at the closest shinobi, "And you, pick up this mess."

When the door was closed and Shizune was sitting down, she turned to Jiraiya, who looked stunned. "I'm waiting, you pervert!"

"The toads; Naruto's name on the contract faded to black," Jiraiya told her slowly, "they informed me immediately of it and I came running."

Shizune gasped, however. It was common knowledge that when a summoner dies, their link with their summons vanished, their name on the contract —which was linked to their living blood— was burned into the scroll and remained the only record of the accord between animal and shinobi. Of course, since Naruto's body disintegrated, it meant there was no living blood to link him to the toads, and so his name was burned into the scroll.

She hadn't thought of that. At all.

Rubbing her temples, she cursed the brat for giving her another headache.

"He's still alive," she told them, "but something did happen to him."

"The complication," Shizune muttered in realization.

"C'mon, I'll take you to him. In fact, we needed you to check the seal, Jiraiya."

With that, and a glare directed at the remaining paperwork, she stalked off, Shizune and Jiraiya scrambling to follow.

If nothing else, at least the old pervert arrived in the village early. She wanted to make sure the Kyuubi was really gone and the seal wouldn't do anything unexpected. More than anything else, she'd feared a complication in the seal would've happened before Jiraiya showed up. Now, however . . . well, now at least they could find out what happened.

"Wait, Tsunade, what complication is this?" Jiraiya asked when he caught up. "What could have happened to Naruto that would end his contract with the toads?"

Seeing how confused the pervert looked, she started to fill him and Shizune in on what had happened so far, at least in a general way. The disbelief of the two was palpable, of course, but she asked them to wait and see. Really, she could understand why they would be so skeptical. She hadn't believed the field medic either when he'd told her about it. She was a bit irritated that Jiraiya wasn't taking her word for it, however.

Thankfully, they were almost at the bunker and would be able to see Naruto with their own eyes.

She nodded at the two chuunin guards and entered through the door, only to find two ANBU in her path. As soon as the door closed and their identities verified, she walked on, Jiraiya and Shizune now following silently in her wake, even as her security detail stayed behind at the entrance, just to make sure they weren't followed.

The bunker in and of itself wasn't all that big. It had a large reinforced entrance, with smaller storage rooms and armories lining the main hall and a long, wide tunnel that led somewhat deep into the mountainside and ended in a big cavern. Rooms with all the necessities of survival were scattered the length of the tunnel. All of the bunker's walls were reinforced and inaccessible through any way but the entrance. There was a sealed exit at the end of the cavern, obviously, but it could only be unsealed from within the bunker and then, only in case of an evacuation. The small exit led to an even smaller passageway that came out somewhere on the other side of the mountains.

Where, she didn't know.

She acknowledged the two remaining ANBU guarding the end of the corridor and stopped after crossing the threshold. Hyuuga Hikari, her three assistant medics and the three field medics where to her right, occupying more space than they should, with long tables and benches holding scrolls, notes and various diagnostic equipment, not to mention a few odd chakra analyzing doohickeys that she rarely, if ever, saw.

If anything, that lot looked busy as bees.

To her left, a conference table had been prepared in one corner, while the other held a single small bed ―Uchiha Sasuke's unconscious form occupying it― and a nine-tailed, silver fox wound around it, sleeping belly-up . . . one of its hind legs twitching slightly when Kakashi scratched its chin.

Relieved to see no apparent changes on the brat's condition, she turned towards her stupefied companions.

"There, Jiraiya," she gestured to the fox. "Go and check the seal while I get an update from the medics. I'm sure Kakashi can fill you in on everything, and give you the details of what happened." She smirked at the dumbfounded expression on the old pervert's face as he walked cautiously towards the silver fox, but sighed at the blank look on Shizune's. "Naruto is still there, Shizune, just a different body. He's still a goofy little brat under all that chakra and as determined to become Hokage as ever. Just wait until he wakes up and see for yourself."

Shizune nodded slightly through she still looked shaken. Tsunade left it at that; she had little doubt that when the brat woke up, he would convince her apprentice he was still himself.

"Tsunade-sama," Hikari made her presence known, handing her a file which she assumed was full of their conclusions thus far. She flipped through it quickly and headed to the conference table where she could be better debriefed on the situation. Hikari and Shizune followed her, and she handed her apprentice a report of events Kakashi had written after perusing it herself.

She was more interested in Naruto's own account of the mission and what happened in the Valley of the End, which someone had jotted down for him. More important, though, was the brat's perspective on how he ended up as he was.

After reading the report a few times, it took her a bit to skim through most of the data accumulated thus far. There were theories and results to a great many tests, but the picture wasn't complete yet, and she was sure it would take a few more days before any of those theories could be proven to any degree. Still, she was relieved to see Naruto's condition had not fluctuated in the slightest. According to reports, he'd been practicing chakra control and the more time passed, the smoother the flow of his chakra became, and the easier he said he could manipulate it. His cells remained undisturbed too, so he wasn't in any danger of cashing in his chips.

"Alright," she called out when she finished reading, glancing over to Jiraiya, who was engrossed in looking at the sleeping fox's stomach while chatting with Kakashi. "While we wait for the pervert, why don't you fill me in on what isn't in these reports yet, Hikari?"

She didn't let it show, but she was hopeful Jiraiya would have some insight into what happened to the brat. At the same time, her mind was whirling as she tried to come up with a way to link billions upon billions of individual cells and get a boy's body as an end result.

It would be the biggest challenge of her medical career . . . and the first step of Naruto's.

However, when Hikari shuffled her unorganized notes around, Tsunade turned her attention to the matter at hand. "While we have a lot of research ahead of us so we can understand the how's, whys and the possible uses of it, along with how it became the way it is, the more we find, the more the theory of Uzumaki-san's body being made of neutral chakra is validated . . . but not in the way we've always thought neutral chakra would be. We've done the quick elemental affinity tests, and checked his chakra to see the positive and negative ratios," Hikari paused and took a steadying breath. "Tsunade-sama, so far everything we've found points to his chakra having absolutely no leanings, affinities, preferences or predilection. It is, as far as we've been able to ascertain, completely balanced."

"Balanced?" Shizune questioned, her apprehension washed away by the seeming impossibility of the Hyuuga's statement.

"Yes, balanced. We always assumed that truly neutral chakra would hold no alignment at all; that it would be above preferences and affinities. Pure and impartial, you could say. Uzumaki-san's chakra, however, does have affinities, it does have positive and negative sides, and it isn't at all independent or impartial. It isn't exactly pure, either. What his chakra is, however, is all-encompassing; it is in a completely stable equilibrium. Attuned to every element . . . it is both positive and negative in equal measure."

Tsunade sat back in her chair, her mind whirling in new directions. However, before she could ask for more details, her old teammate approached with Kakashi. "Minato was a genius," Jiraiya stated as he sat down on the conference table. He had a scroll in hand and was unsealing writing material from it, probably to take notes on what he'd seen of the seal.

"Is the seal stable?" she asked him. While she wanted nothing more than to find out about this 'balanced' chakra, and how they came to such an off-the-wall conclusion after only some preliminary testing, making sure of Naruto and the seal's condition was paramount.

Jiraiya just laughed at her question. "Stable? Princess, the seal is stronger than it has ever been!" He continued laughing and grinning while rapidly writing on his scrolls. She waited for him to continue, but the pervert completely ignored her.

"Well?" she demanded.

Nothing.

She was about to knock some sense into him when Kakashi cleared his throat. "Tsunade-sama? I have something else to report before we discuss Naruto's condition any further."

Hand closing into a fist, Tsunade glared at Kakashi before looking at Jiraiya; the man was scribbling seals and notes down like he was possessed; his focus complete. She took a deep breath, pushing down her need for answers and her curiosity for later and focused and the Copy-nin.

What she heard during the next minutes left her almost speechless. She's only known the Uchiha a short time; but the boy had been a distant and arrogant little shit in the time she had known him. To hear Kakashi's description of his conversation with the kid was enlightening, to say the least. That his personality seemed so changed also brought about some old suspicions that the Senju had had about the Uchiha Clan as a whole.

"There is only one more thing worth mentioning," the Jonin concluded his report. "When Sasuke first woke up, he activated his sharingan; probably on instinct. However, it wasn't the normal sharingan at all . . . It was silver instead of red."

Looking blankly at the Hatake, the legendary medic blinked once, twice and on the third blink, a hand was already massaging her temples. Right. "When Naruto wakes up, I want a more detailed account of his removal of the Uchiha's curse seal. His report doesn't cover enough if it resulted in a change in the sharingan. Hikari! I know you have your hands full, but run the pertinent tests on the stupid brat's cocky teammate. Later, procure one of the Sound-nin's body from the Hunters and see if Naruto can remove those seals before we call in Mitarashi Anko for a live test."

"Yes, ma'am," the Hyuuga answered while obviously trying to smother her mirth.

Luckily for the medic, Jiraiya finished what he was doing at that very moment. "What is it, then?" She snapped at the pervert when he didn't immediately tell her what he'd found.

Looking uncharacteristically serious, Jiraiya pocketed his scroll. "To understand what happened, I have to give you some background information. As you know, Minato ―the Yondaime― sacrificed his soul to the Shinigami to power the sealing. It is a misconception that the Shinigami is the one who actually sealed the Kyuubi away. The contract with the God of Death is a simple exchange; a soul given for a soul captured. Normally both souls would be consumed by the Shinigami and supposedly battle for eternity inside of his stomach. Minato used the wording of the contract to his advantage, however, since it never stated explicitly where the captured soul should be imprisoned, only that the given soul was the payment needed to summon the Death God."

They were silent while the Toad Sage seemingly gathered his thoughts. "What this means is that while the sealing was made possible because of the Shinigami, since there was no other way of capturing the Kyuubi and hold it long enough to be sealed, that it was Minato who designed the seal that would hold the beast back along with all of its functions." Jiraiya looked around the table and Tsunade noticed the silence in the entire bunker. Everyone was listening to what was being said; in fact, she doubted anyone had even heard of this before.

"The important thing to know is that when the Kyuubi was captured, it was separated into two parts, which were then sealed independently within Naruto. With the Shinigami's power backing him, Minato divided the Kyuubi's mind from its chakra. A small trickle of the Fox's chakra was made to naturally mix with Naruto's, and the seal allowed him to tap into more of it when needed." Jiraiya leaned forward in his seat, fingers interlaced. "The Fourth left behind a key to the seal as well, so that when Naruto was old enough, he could make the Kyuubi's chakra his own by 'taming' the Bijuu."

Shizune gasped at this, and Tsunade was sure they were all trying to imagine what something like that would take. It was Kakashi, however, who gave voice to what they were all thinking. "It seemed that Minato-sensei had planned farther ahead than we all knew, but how would Naruto be able to tame as being like the Kyuubi? Was that what happened at the Valley of the End?"

Jiraiya shook his head, looking deep in thought. "Alright, I'll tell you what should have happened before I explain what did happen."

"To command the Kyuubi's power Naruto would have needed to pull out its chakra and make it his own; using the key to be able to tap into all of its chakra, along with its entire mind. However, when trying to take its chakra, the mind of the Nine-Tails would have come along with it; a mass of malevolent hate. The only way to control and 'tame' a Bijuu is to have a strong enough will with no hatred, and filter out the hate from the chakra. This wouldn't have turned Naruto into the Fox, but it would have allowed him to harmonize the Bijuu's chakra with his own, along with removing the Kyuubi's rage so that it wouldn't influence him."

"In fact, it was my intention to start training Naruto in accessing the Kyuubi's power soon. With the key, I would have been able to open the seal just a bit, and try teaching Naruto to filter out the Bijuu's mind when he tapped into its chakra. It would have taken years of training however, and more than that, it would have taken a great deal of discipline on Naruto's part."

"If that was what was supposed to happen," Tsunade asked slowly, "then what went wrong?"

Jiraiya smiled then; a small proud smile. "Minato was a genius," he stated again. "He included a number of fail-safe's into the seal; by having a constant trickle of the Kyuubi's chakra to flow into Naruto, it allowed his body to get used to it. There were provisions that let Naruto draw chakra from the seal when he was in danger. There were measures put in place to allow some of the Kyuubi's chakra to be converted into Naruto's chakra, giving the boy vast reserves. Then there is the key, which would allow for the seal to be fully opened, should Naruto ever need to control the Fox's power in its entirety or to suppress it further."

By now, Jiraiya was grinning as he listed everything the Yondaime had put into the seal. The medics were all wide-eyed; A seal that did all of that was extremely complex. Some matrixes in the hospital that were only simple focusing seals took almost entire rooms, the seals were so big! This one was tiny in comparison!

"Lastly," Jiraiya explained with a grin, "the Yondaime left a part of himself in the seal." More than one person gasped, and Kakashi inhaled sharply. "Should the Kyuubi be on the verge of escape, this failsafe would activate and that part of Minato would have been able to restore the seal to full strength."

"But it did something else instead, right?" Tsunade pointed out.

"Yes," he nodded, taking the scroll he had scribbled furiously onto just moment before and waving it, "He left a message inscribed with his chakra in the seal, explaining a few things, though now that I've activated it, the message itself should dissipate." This explained why her teammate had been so frantic to write it all down, of course. "In short, Naruto's body was almost beyond repair when the failsafe activated. His coils were ruptured, his body strained past its limits. When faced with this and the boy's stubborn efforts to stop the Kyuubi, Minato, instead of strengthening the seal, changed it."

"Most of the Kyuubi's chakra was already outside the seal, and locking it all back would have left Naruto not only vulnerable and forever crippled, but very close to death. At the same time, instead of Naruto trying to take the Kyuubi's chakra into his own, he began pumping whatever strength he had left, along with his very stubborn, knuckleheaded will into the seal itself!"

"Ah!" Kakashi exclaimed, and Tsunade's understanding was not far behind.

"What?" Hikari and Shizune asked at the same time, looking from her to Kakashi, Jiraiya and back, obviously not getting it.

"Tell me Hikari, if almost all of the Kyuubi's chakra was outside of the seal, then what remained inside of it?" Tsunade prompted.

The Hyuuga gasped, ". . . its mind?"

"Exactly!" Jiraiya exclaimed, "Naruto took almost all of his remaining chakra and shoved it into the seal, probably hoping to strengthen it and stop the Kyuubi from escaping. What he did, however, was overwhelm the Kyuubi's sealed mind with his own and absorb what little of the Kyuubi's chakra was left within the seal! The piece of Minato left as a failsafe saw all of this and acted! Instead of restoring the seal, he modified it, granting Naruto temporary access. When the Kyuubi's mind was gone, Minato then opened the seal completely and allowed Naruto to take control of Kyuubi's released chakra before closing the seal back again and leaving a message explaining things!"

"How could a small piece of Minato do all of that, though?" Tsunade asked skeptically. It sounded a bit farfetched from where she was standing.

"Easy, Naruto was doing all the work. That piece of Minato was another key; it would have taken all of its chakra to seal the Kyuubi back up, but it didn't have to force a Bijuu back into its cage, so it had more than enough chakra to simply open the seal when needed, and enough time to imprint a message for us to find."

"So the Kyuubi is really gone?" Shizune asked tentatively.

Jiraiya nodded. "Completely. All that is left is Uzumaki Naruto," he told them, obviously equally, if not more proud of the brat than he was of the brat's father.

". . . That doesn't explain why his chakra is silver, though. Do you have an answer for that?" Tsunade asked pointedly.

The Toad Sage slumped in his chair, and that was answer enough. "I haven't the foggiest, Princess."

Great. Back to square one, then.

"Then I'm open for suggestions. How do we get Naruto his body back?"

Ideas and theories were bounced around, and even the ANBU spoke up from time to time. They jotted everything down and arranged the ideas in order of feasibility so that by midnight they had more than a few options. It took Jiraiya to point out to them that the boy didn't need a flesh and blood body right away, just a human-looking one, for them to come up with as many solutions as they did.

Still, as she rubbed her temples for the hundredth time, she tried to look on the bright side. The Kyuubi was gone, never to return. Though, as she glanced at the silver fox that had, by now, rolled onto its side and curled around the Uchiha's bed even tighter . . . and apparently was chewing on one of the aforementioned Uchiha's legs, she didn't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing.

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TBC . . .

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Pickled Brains: What do yall think? Let me know in a review!