Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. I need a bank to let me take out a loan so that I can buy the rights. There's no way that'll backfire. I'll definitely get approved, and with a low interest rate to boot! I mean, seriously, this is a winner of an investment. How could they possibly turn me down?

Chapter 81: Ahead of the Storm


After dealing with Orochimaru, Jiraiya was rushed to Mt. Myoboku along with Tsunade. One of his last actions performed while still physically capable was to send a message to Tenzo, Anko, and Shizune, telling them to slip away back to Konoha if they were able.

Then it was up to Tsunade to tend to him. Even for the greatest medic-nin that ever lived, repairing the damage done to Jiraiya's body through combat and the poison coursing through him was no small task. Sage Mode had been the only thing keeping him moving. Once he'd let it subside, it was fortunate that he had already been laying down at the time, because his body more or less shut down.

It took all of Tsunade's ability and a lot of help from the toads to stabilize him so she could actually find the time to come up with an antidote.

She hoped that Jiraiya would actually respect her efforts by heeding her medical advice. She should have known better.

It took everything she had to keep from throttling him when he kept trying to get out of bed in order to putter about the toad refuge.

"Jiraiya, you do realize that I can fix anything on you that I break, don't you?" Tsunade warned, "So it would behoove you to keep your ass in bed until I say it's alright for you to get up and go."

Jiraiya kept himself in the bed of a hut set aside for him by the toads for his recuperation. Tsunade would certainly follow through on her threat if he tested her, "Tsunade-hime... I'm hurt. Not dead."

"You should be dead," Tsunade shot back, "If I hadn't shown up, you would be dead."

"Then I'm lucky you were here, aren't I?" Jiraiya cheekily rebutted.

Tsunade simply glared at him. She'd bitten her tongue on the poisonous thought that had permeated her mind when she'd first seen Jiraiya on the battlefield. After all, there had been more pressing issues, such as the fully transformed jinchuuriki that had been their former teammate. Now, however? There was nothing more important to distract her.

She sat down on a wooden chair left for her while she observed Jiraiya's recovery. One leg crossed over the other, she sternly started grilling him, "You went out there prepared to die, didn't you?" She accused.

Jiraiya was almost insulted. He wasn't the sort who saw the nobility in marching off to one's certain demise, "Of course I didn't. I'm no quitter. I don't walk into anything expecting to die."

If he undertook a mission, it was because he expected himself to pull it off. There were few more capable in the Elemental Nations than he was.

Tsunade knew this yet didn't fall into Jiraiya's careful choosing of his words, "I didn't say you expected to. I said you were prepared to."

"And there's a difference?" Jiraiya asked, playing dumb.

Tsunade dropped one leg from over top the other, her heel shaking the ground once it made contact, "You know there's a fucking difference," She growled, "Jiraiya..."

He was quick to end the current line of conversation. It was irrelevant, seeing as how he had succeeded and lived, "It doesn't matter now. It's over. We survived, mostly in one piece," He absently rubbed at the stump where one of his arms used to be, "I'll do what you said and heal up here, then get back to the village once I'm good enough to travel. No one ever has to know how messed up I am."

At that, a smug expression crossed Tsunade's face, "About that."

A creeping sense of dread filled Jiraiya, "...What did you do?"

Tsunade gleefully held up two fingers, "Two people know."

"What?"

Tsunade nodded and launched into her explanation, "I had to let sensei know, seeing as how if this war kicks off, he's going to see you as one of his major players. If he doesn't have access to you, he needs to know now so plans can be adjusted."

That much was understandable. But that only explained one person, "And?" Jiraiya asked.

Tsunade shrugged, "I used the toads to get the message there, which means to get there quickly they had to go through someone."

Jiraiya had a feeling he already knew who she was talking about, because there was only one possible candidate to move messages to Konoha through toad summoning, but if he'd had any doubts, the loud cry that disturbed the peace and tranquility of Mt. Myoboku put them to rest.

"Ero-sensei! What the fuck happened to you!?"

Jiraiya winced and looked toward the door of his quarters to see Naruto standing there, gaping at him and his injuries. He spared a sheepish grin to his most recent student, "Hey, brat."

Naruto was not mollified by Jiraiya's failed attempt to play things cool. There was no downplaying missing an arm and being pale and green, "Don't 'hey, brat' me! What is this? You look like shit!"

"Thank you, Naruto..." Jiraiya deadpanned, fully aware of his current state. Looking at it was one thing. Feeling it was another.

Wanting to get some kind of decent explanation for his godfather's condition, Naruto ran up to Tsunade, getting uncomfortably close to the woman, "Give it to me straight, Tsunade-baachan. How much time does he have?"

Tsunade sighed and pushed the younger blond out of her way with an index finger, "Naruto, I spent twelve hours patching his arm and curing the nastiest poison I've seen since back when Chiyo was active. He'd better not be dying anytime soon."

Naruto listened and found himself dumbfounded at what had befallen Jiraiya, "Who could do this to you?" He asked the white-haired sannin.

At that point, Jiraiya realized that even though he'd said goodbye to Naruto when he'd gone off on his mission, just in case he didn't make it back, he never told Naruto what he had been sent to do. Just like he hadn't told Tsunade what he'd been sent to do. Looking off to the side where Tsunade stood, he noticed her glaring at him. Apparently, she had made that connection as well.

"I went chasing after a three-tailed snake," Jiraiya said.

It took Naruto a moment to break down Jiraiya's allusion. When he did, a dark look passed over his face, "Orochimaru did this? Where is he?"

The thought of Naruto wanting to fight Orochimaru would have once left Jiraiya feeling quite ill. But now that he was no longer a threat, it warmed the cockles of the toad sage's heart.

"Oh, we dumped his ashes in a lake somewhere on Mt. Myobuku," Jiraiya said, summing things up as succinctly as he could, "He's dead, kid. We killed him."

The news put a smile on Naruto's face, "Akatsuki's not gonna like that."

Even though the Three-Tails had been in the hands of someone as dangerous as Orochimaru, at least they had known where to find it. At least they could have gotten to it. Now? It was gone, and it would take some time before it would reappear again.

Their plan to seize the tailed beasts had depended on obtaining them all in succession. In a matter of months, they needed the plan done, so that the hidden villages they were going up against didn't have time to come up with a method to deal with them. Now, even if they got all of the remaining jinchuuriki tomorrow, they still had to wait for the Sanbi to return in order to complete their plan. For now, they had been foiled. At least, Naruto hoped they had been.

Speaking of Akatsuki, at the reminder of the existence of the rogue group, Jiraiya remembered something important that Orochimaru had told him. That his old student Nagato was the leader. There was always the chance that Orochimaru had been lying to throw Jiraiya off in the heat of battle.

Jiraiya's state of mind was all over his face, easy enough for Tsunade to notice, "What? What's wrong now?" She asked.

"Nothing," Jiraiya lied, grinning at his sole living former teammate, "I was just thinking about whether or not I still had that mask I borrowed from Naruto's temple."

"You'd better!" Naruto said, "It's not even mine! It's a clan heirloom! You said you'd take care of it!"

Jiraiya rolled his eyes, keeping up the facade to keep attention away from his own troubles, "The way you took care of Tsunade-hime's necklace, right?"

Naruto looked nervously between Jiraiya and Tsunade, his gaze lingering on the latter, "I'll... get that back. Somehow. Eventually," He assured her.

"Hm," Tsunade harrumphed, crossing her arms sternly.

Jiraiya breathed a sigh of relief at successfully changing the subject. Dealing with the possibility of one of his students heading up one of the greatest threats in the world wasn't something he wanted to confront while in his sick bed.

Defeating Orochimaru had taken a major piece of him. Dealing with Nagato? Well, he remembered what he said to Tsunade about never taking on an assignment with the expectation of dying, but as she said, expecting to die and preparing to die were two different things.

Tsunade left the hut to get more medicine for Jiraiya. That left the man alone with his godson and student.

His student.

Being reminded of Nagato, and what he might have become made Jiraiya think about Naruto. He was good, but there was no amount of preparation that was too much. Especially if he was the target of the man that possessed the Rinnegan.

"The mask is in my things," Jiraiya said, gesturing to a side of the room where his equipment had been placed, "Grab it now so you have it when you go back," Naruto nodded and jogged over to reclaim his temple's mask. All the while, Jiraiya made final considerations for his aims, "…Now that I think about it, I'm thinking you're ready."

"Ready for what?" Naruto idly asked as he picked up the mask Jiraiya had borrowed from him, analyzing its design up close.

Jiraiya grinned, "The technique I needed that mask for," He noticed Naruto's body stiffen in place, and knew he'd gotten his attention, "You're interested, I take it."

Of course, he was. Naruto loved learning new jutsu. He always had, even if the training for whatever the jutsu was happened to be difficult.

"The war's about to start," Naruto pointed out begrudgingly. Even if he really wanted to learn whatever it was Jiraiya felt was prudent to teach him, there was still the issue of reality rearing its ugly head.

Jiraiya readily agreed, "Right. And you're going to need all the tools you can get when it does," He said, "You said you were going to get Tsunade's necklace back from the Tsuchikage. Even if you were just giving lip service, and I doubt you were if you somehow stumble across him anyway, you aren't going to run, are you?"

Naruto thought about it; the idea of fighting a kage. For so long, he'd held those types up on a pedestal. No matter how strong he'd gotten, no matter what he'd dealt with up to that point, it just didn't seem to measure up to what that word, kage, meant.

Even though he fancied his chances against just about anyone else in Konoha, he still felt that if he fought the Hokage one-on-one, he'd get his tail handed to him. If the Tsuchikage was anything like that, and Naruto had no reason to believe he wasn't, he could count on much the same there.

Even so... Naruto shook his head in the negative, confirming Jiraiya's thoughts.

"Even though he'll kill you?" Jiraiya added on, trying to prompt Naruto to change his answer. He did no such thing, "And that's why, when I'm ready, you're going to stay here for a little while. At least until you learn what I'm going to teach you."

Croaking laughter turned their attention to the entrance of the hut, where a diminutive old toad entered.

"What yer gonna teach him, Jiraiya-chan?" Fukasaku said, amused, "Only thing yer gonna be teachin' him is what not to do with Sage Mode."

Jiraiya took offense, "Hey, I'm not that bad at Sage Mode. I'm just not a master of it. What human is?"

Fukasaku nodded and pointed at Naruto, "But you think this tadpole can do it?"

Jiraiya looked between Fukasaku and Naruto, his gaze lingering on the younger man for a moment as a smile spread across his face, "Yeah. Not a doubt in my mind."

Why would there be? He'd yet to receive a reason to doubt him.

Naruto, on his end of things, found himself confused, "Wait-wait-wait, slow down. What is Sage Mode?" Naruto asked. He'd heard about it in passing before, and knew it was something strong, but didn't know the specifics, "Why do I have to stay here to learn it? And I'm sorry, but who is this?" Too many things were being thrown his way at once to keep up with.

The old toad was more than happy to introduce himself, "Name's Fukasaku. We'll be gettin' to know each other while yer training here, since I'll be in charge," He emphasized, mostly directing it at Jiraiya, who rolled his eyes.

Jiraiya took the opportunity to take over the explanation, "And Sage Mode is-… well, I'll tell you the specifics when we get to it. But trust me. You're going to love it. Maybe not the training, but the fruits of your labor," Knowing what he knew about Naruto, Jiraiya knew he was going to detest the training, "We have to do it here because it would be nearly impossible for you to get a feel for it outside of this place. You're going to need to start with those kinds of training wheels."

While it wasn't a slight, Naruto seemingly took it as one, "I don't need a crutch."

"Yes, you do/Yeah, ya will," Both Jiraiya and Fukasaku insisted.

Naruto pouted at their unity on the subject. But quickly got over it. If what Jiraiya was going to teach him was as great as the last thing he'd taught him, he could say just about whatever he wanted, "When do I need to be ready?"

"I have to talk to Sarutobi-sensei," Jiraiya said, "Either I'll let you know, or he will."

If Jiraiya's old student was out to take his new student and godson's life, he would ensure Naruto was prepared for him. The haze of war wouldn't give Akatsuki their opening to capture him. Not if Jiraiya had anything to say about it.

XxX

(Tetsu no Kuni - Otogakure Hidden Base)

Orochimaru was dead.

Kabuto had been on the way to join him and meet with his unit in Tetsu no Kuni when everything had taken place. By the time he reached the base designated as the rendezvous point, he was met with the startling news, courtesy of a convalescing Guren.

Karin had been the one to inform him. She had felt Orochimaru's chakra fade; had felt him die from miles away. With the keen nature of her sensor abilities, Kabuto didn't doubt her for a moment.

Guren, in that time, had been injured fighting against three elite Konoha shinobi, including Orochimaru's old apprentice Anko, Tsunade's apprentice, and the only living Mokuton user in the world.

Though she was on the mend, that didn't make her any less furious when approached by Kabuto.

"You weren't there when he needed you! And now Orochimaru-sama is dead!"

Kabuto endured her ranting as she casted blame and threatened both him and Karin with all the stoicism of an adult dealing with a tantruming child, "Are you finished? Because the last time I checked, we're still deep in Tetsu no Kuni with samurai breathing down our necks."

With their biggest deterrent now dead and gone, they would need to move quickly to stay away from what would certainly be a vengeful enemy. There had been no shortage of blood spilled across the Tetsu no Kuni countryside while Orochimaru tested his pseudo-jinchuuriki creations.

There was also no chance that a kage-level battle like the sannin clashing wouldn't draw every blade within the realm to the area. It wouldn't be long before the base was discovered.

He needed all hands on deck, so to speak. If anyone was more concerned with their personal vendettas or petty emotion, they needed to keep it buried for the time being. Otherwise, they would all be buried in short order.

Guren couldn't get that through her head, however, and Kabuto had long since had enough.

"If you're going to focus on this right now, why don't you make yourself useful and go straight to Konoha to get revenge," Kabuto snapped, "Go on. And do us a favor on the way and make all of the noise you can. Draw some samurai to you."

Guren rose, forming a crystal blade around one of her forearms, sneering hatefully, "Ungrateful, four-eyed bastard... I'll kill you."

Kabuto slowly tilted his head at the threat. In the low light of the chamber, a glint shone off of his glasses, "You'll what?" He asked, an unreadable tone to his voice, "Guren... you seem to misunderstand what the word 'expendable' really means."

Guren scoffed, "Unlike you, I spent years preparing to be the perfect vessel for Orochimaru-sama. I was going to give my life so that he could have my body. I get what being expendable means perfectly."

"No, I don't think you do," Kabuto replied matter-of-factly, "That wasn't you being expendable. That was you being a pawn. Being expendable though? It doesn't mean you're weak. It doesn't mean that you're useless. It just means that one can do without you if need be."

As far as Orochimaru was concerned, losing the lot of them was perfectly acceptable as long as his own aims were furthered. He wouldn't have hesitated to sacrifice any one of his underlings, or all of them combined, if it served a greater purpose. If it preserved his own life for even a second longer, any one of them could consider their own lives forfeit if Orochimaru had a say.

Guren tensed defensively as Kabuto raised a hand-seal. Even with everything she'd said, and her efforts to goad him into a fight, she was still aware that he was a dangerous shinobi. No one who had been around Orochimaru for as long as he had would be able to last if they couldn't hold their own.

"What are you doing?" Guren demanded of him.

"I'm not going to bother threatening you to keep you in line," Kabuto said with a shake of his head, "This much shows that you can't be relied upon to help keep us alive. And you know what that makes you? Worse than expendable, it downgrades you to being a liability. And we definitely don't need that. Katsu."

*POP!*

Prepared to react to any aggressive action against her, Guren hadn't been prepared for her organs to rupture on their own. At Kabuto's behest, a small explosion went off inside of her body. With the sound of a balloon bursting inside of her, she dropped lifelessly to the ground.

Orochimaru may have been powerful enough and charismatic enough to keep his rank-and-file in line, and his cursed seals might have worked to keep his stronger shinobi under his thumb, but Kabuto didn't have any of those things on his side. There had never been anything put in place by Orochimaru to keep his more unstable underlings from attempting to take out their displeasure on Kabuto. Otogakure was dog-eat-dog, and had Kabuto been a weakling, his position as the number two would have made him a target for anyone looking to get into Orochimaru's inner circle.

However, Kabuto was also the chief medic for Otogakure. Anyone Orochimaru took an interest in and deemed worthwhile to invest in had been brought before him. And they were all sent to Kabuto as well for treatment and constant checkups. That gave him ample opportunity to secretly plant a failsafe on them, just in case anyone stronger than him in Otogakure's employ ever tried to lash out against him.

Kabuto had always been certain that Orochimaru knew about his precautions, but let it go, likely as he found it amusing.

As a potential candidate to be Orochimaru's new host body, Guren had been spared this treatment for years. But when the call had been made to use Yukimaru's potential jinchuuriki body instead, that took her immunity to Kabuto's tender mercies off the table. After switching to Yukimaru, Guren's well-being would no longer matter to Orochimaru.

...Which was when Kabuto planted the same seal inside of her that he had every other elite that had been sent to see him.

He stood there and coldly watched what little life remained in Guren's eyes drain out of them, making sure that she could see him at the end. He wanted her to know for absolute certain that he had been the one to do this to her.

Karin could only watch from the side. She had been afraid of Guren perhaps lashing out against her, but after seeing her be dispatched by Kabuto, it left her wondering if there was something similar planted sonewhere inside of her. The sound of his voice startled her out of her reverie.

"Karin, are you ready to continue?" Kabuto asked as though he hadn't just killed one of the most powerful individuals left in Otogakure's employ.

Karin adjusted her glasses on her face, tearing her gaze away from Guren's rapidly cooling corpse, "Y-Yeah."

What else was she going to do? Fight him? Over Guren? Not a chance. Run away? Where? Into the welcoming embrace of the samurai? A graphic public execution was likely in her future if she did that. As things stood, Kabuto was her best chance at survival.

"Have the shinobi we have left simply release the pseudo-jinchuuriki into the countryside," Kabuto ordered, "With your jutsu masking our presence while we leave, they should provide enough of a diversion that the samurai have to focus on them instead of searching for us."

Karin nodded at the order relayed, and went off to carry it out, only to stop when she felt a new chakra signature suddenly appear among them.

"Oh, but it would be such a shame to get rid of such promising tools so easily."

From the voice echoing in the chamber from one end of the room, Kabuto turned to find a man with a mask covering his face - black, decorated with an orange swirl. More notable to Kabuto was the telltale black cloak with red clouds.

"Akatsuki?" Kabuto recognized, "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there's no Sanbi here for you to take."

The smooth voice of the masked man let out a hum of disappointment, "Because Orochimaru went and got himself killed. Yes, I'm painfully aware," He said drolly. At the ease in Kabuto's body language, the masked man found himself curious, "You're aware that your master is an enemy of my organization, yet you don't attack?"

Kabuto gestured vaguely, "What would be the point of doing something like that when you're anticipating it?"

"Fortunately, I haven't come here to fight," The masked man said, "It seems we both have something the other could use, Yakushi Kabuto."

"Oh?" Kabuto seemed unconvinced that there was an opportunity for mutual benefit, "The last time I dealt with Akatsuki, Sasori tried to make me into one of his spies."

The masked man didn't deny the fact that Kabuto had been exploited in the past for Akatsuki's benefit, "Yes, I'm aware. But you survived that, didn't you? In fact, you've survived many things," He said, sounding impressed, "You've been deep inside of every hidden village of note over the years, haven't you? Seen and learned much. More than you even let Orochimaru know."

The implcation hung in the air between the two men.

"What are you getting at?" Kabuto eventually asked.

From that point, the masked man didn't bother mincing his words, "I will remove you from this situation. In return, you will join Akatsuki," He offered, "I've been watching you for a very long time. I have great interest in your skills."

"And if I refuse?" Kabuto asked.

"Like I said, I didn't come here to fight," The masked man said, "But how much do you fancy your chances of standing alone against the wrath of the samurai?"

He didn't need to say anymore. He had given his pitch and had left Kabuto to make his decision. As a show of his power, the man disappeared into a swirling vortex formed in the air

With Orochimaru gone, Kabuto had nothing keeping him anchored to Otogakure. He had no interest in the village. No interest in leading. No interest in using the village to further his experiments. Otogakure would do nothing for Kabuto now other than drag him down. And since that was the case, why not move on to Akatsuki? He'd done the same with ROOT, after all. It was how he got ahead and moved up in the world.

He'd learned all he could about the world from his station and had survived long enough in it to watch it begin to burn down. It was time to cut his losses and move on.

With that in mind, Kabuto spared a glance back at Karin before turning his back to her. He smirked to himself as he stepped through the portal offered to him, 'Well, on to the next one,' He thought to himself.

XxX

(With Naruto – Konohagakure no Sato)

The day had turned out to be a busy one for Naruto. After running off with the toads to see Jiraiya and inquire about his condition, he returned to Konoha only to be summoned again, this time through conventional means in order to receive what was supposedly his reward for taking down a member of Akatsuki.

Apparently killing an S-rank missing-nin was a big enough deal that the villages they came from would pay top price for it, as long as one could provide proof of their demise. If Naruto had known that, he probably would have done a better job of trying to make sure Hoshigaki Kisame's body had been left in one piece.

Oh, who was he kidding? Iwa would have just swiped that from him too, the way they had Tsunade's necklace.

Naruto had handed the sealed body off to the Hokage during his debriefing, and word had been sent to Taki. Within a day, they wasted no time sending a team to retrieve the remains. That team included one of the village's most powerful shinobi in their jinchuuriki Fuu.

It was good to see Fuu again. Naruto hadn't seen her in a while. Of course, it also helped that she seemed to be in awe of his most recent accomplishment – his complete dispatching of Kakuzu.

The two sat off to the side while representatives from Taki spoke with the medic-nin from Konoha that had been in possession of Kakuzu's corpse. Even without the body in plain sight, Fuu found herself staring at the scroll that sealed away the body. She couldn't help it. It was like looking at the remains of the boogeyman. Doubly so for her; Kakuzu had been the most powerful criminal her village had ever produced, and he had been a member of Akatsuki set on capturing her.

Fuu couldn't keep the look of astonishment off of her face, "Wow. I knew you were strong, but Naruto... I can't believe you managed to do this."

In a similar vein, Naruto couldn't keep the smug expression off of his. It had been a while since he'd managed to stun someone with one of his accomplishments, "Believe it, " At that utterance, a shiver went down his spine, "Ugh. Something felt really off about saying that."

Fuu ignored the non-sequitur and instead focused on the very dead international criminal, "Kakuzu was, like, the strongest ninja Takigakure ever had."

"I know," Naruto grumbled, "He wouldn't shut up about it."

Fuu put her hands on her hips and fixed Naruto with a glare that admonished him as much as being presented with a hot bowl of ramen for free would have, "I really wish you wouldn't downplay making a corpse out of a living legend from my village."

"Well, it's not like he's living anymore, is he?" Naruto cheekily replied.

"Touche," Fuu admitted, and the two settled into a comfortable silence as the village bustle passed the jinchuuriki duo by, "So... looks like we're going to war."

A confused expression found its way to Naruto's face, "We? Who's Taki going to fight?"

Fuu figured he was being facetious and nudged his arm with her fist, "Probably Iwa and Suna, dummy. Just like you," After a moment, he realized he had been serious and explained herself, "Taki and Konoha are allies, so if nothing else, Shibuki is going to have us watch the border with Tsuchi no Kuni to make sure they don't send people into Hi no Kuni through our territory. I doubt the Tsuchikage is going to like that."

Naruto frowned upon the old man in charge of Iwagakure being mentioned. He'd never even met the old codger, yet disliked him, "You could just let him. I can't see a reason your village would have to fight."

Fuu scoffed, "If Taki folded on that, and Konoha lost, what are the chances Iwa would stop there and leave us alone?" She asked, "It's in our best interests that if a war happens, Konoha doesn't lose. We're a minor village."

True enough, for a minor village like Takigakure, such a slight against its sovereignty could be dangerous in the long run. As much sense as it made, it didn't make Naruto any more eager to go out and kill for the sake of politics.

"Does this really have to happen?" Naruto griped aloud, "And now of all times? Seriously! What better time to try and snatch a jinchuuriki than during a goddamn war!?"

Fuu could admit that Naruto had a point, but it didn't matter to anyone unrelated to them, "What do Suna and Iwa care about Konoha and Taki losing their jinchuuriki? If anything, it'll level the playing field since they lost theirs too."

The way Fuu spoke, she made it sound like they were tools – without family, without any attachment other than the tasks directed of them by their villages. Naruto knew this was how they had always been seen by a lot of people. He'd just hoped that after years of doing his best, something had changed in that department.

Maybe it had in Konoha, to a degree. But what did that mean in the rest of the world? Nothing, evidently.

"We're not weapons," Naruto said with a tired sigh, "We're people."

Fuu reached out and gave him a pat on the back, something she'd have rather cut her entire arm off before doing only a number of years ago. It was a testament to just how much she had changed that she had reached out to someone she easily considered a friend.

And why not? With what was coming, they specifically would need all the friends they could get.

XxX

(Kawa no Kuni)

With Kurenai pregnant, the world still kept spinning for Team 8. Kiba, Hinata, and Shino still needed to take missions. Normally, as a trio of chunin, they were able to go out on their own, but for higher ranked missions, they were assigned a ninja of superior rank to work with them.

For their most recent mission, tokubetsu jounin Yamashiro Aoba was assigned to them. They'd had so many jounin rotate through working with them that they had grown accustomed to working with new people. Things had gone smoothly.

Then, they received a messenger hawk requesting that they return to Konoha A.S.A.P.

Given the tumultuous state of things before they had set out on their mission, all of them knew what that more than likely signified. After tying up whatever ends they needed to before leaving, they beat a swift pace back home.

Kiba grumbled the loudest out of all of them as they traveled, "Seriously, we couldn't have waited until after the reception? We went through all the trouble of escorting the guy to the wedding. He invited us. I was looking forward to it."

He had been complaining since they'd received the message. It meant he hadn't been able to reap the rewards that came with certain missions.

Hinata, to her credit, attempted to keep Kiba's complaints to a minimum with a dose of reality, "It can't be helped, Kiba-kun. It isn't just us. Everyone is being recalled."

An uncomfortable silence settled between them. While they weren't as grizzled and experienced as some shinobi, they had been around long enough and had heard enough old stories from their clans to be aware of what that could have meant.

Recalling all standard ops shinobi only happened for two reasons in Konoha; the passing of the Hokage, or war.

"It really must be happening then," Kiba chuckled nervously, "You know, for a while there, I was kind of thinking that I wouldn't end up seeing a war in my lifetime. Stupid thought, huh?"

Shino replied, endeavoring to preserve Kiba's spirit, "There's nothing stupid about being hopeful, so long as you remained prepared regardless."

Kiba grinned back at his teammate, "Heh. You don't have to tell me that. Right boy?" Akamaru let out a supportive bark from his side, "Hey, Yamashiro-san, you were around during the last war, weren't you? What was that like?"

As far as skill and notoriety went, Yamashiro Aoba wasn't some kind of bigshot in Konoha. When it came to the real elites, he was completely outclassed. However, he was a good ninja, and he did have experience that Team 8 didn't. It stood to reason that they would reach out to him for advice.

"Hey, I had just made it to chunin back then, so it wasn't like they were sending me deep into enemy territory or anything," Aoba tried to downplay things to no avail. He relented when he realized that Kiba, Shino, and Hinata were all giving him their full attention, "But... from what I saw. Let's just say the last 18 years have been a blessing."

Even if Aoba had never been on the most dangerous missions during the war, he had been stationed on the front lines and seen his share of battles. He'd seen some of what Konoha and Iwa were both capable of when the gloves came off. And this time, there wasn't a Namikaze Minato with a jutsu in reserve that could help them wipe out an army in a matter of seconds. Whether it was against Iwa, Suna, or both, it was likely that a war would drag on and be an ugly back-and-forth.

If Team 8 wanted stories, that was too bad. They could ask their clan members for any gory details. He didn't have any magnificent war stories for them. The best he could do was, 'And when we came to reinforce those guys, I saw a bunch of people with their limbs blown off and crushed under boulders.'

Not exactly an anecdote chock with meaningful counsel and detail. That was likely why he'd never been slated to lead a genin cell. He might have told them that if they stayed together, they would be fine. But he wasn't much for platitudes. Sometimes fighting at that degree was as much a crap shoot as it was reliant on one's skill and strength.

After a while of travel, Akamaru perked up and barked a message at Kiba. One that left him a bit confused.

"Hey, guys," Kiba sai, getting everyone's attention, "Akamaru says he smells people. A few miles that way," He took a moment to sniff at the air, "Yeah... he's definitely right. I'm picking up some scents too."

It was odd, because there were no villages or dwellings mapped. The part of Kawa no Kuni they were in was mostly wilderness.

"We're in the middle of nowhere," Aoba muttered to himself before speaking up, "Maybe it's just shinobi from another village working on a mission of their own?"

At that, the usually quiet Shino piped up, "Given what we're all sprinting home for, I would rather not take the chance."

The rest of Team 8 seemed to agree. He had a point, as much as Aoba hated to admit it. If there was the chance that there was something nasty brewing, it was better that someone was aware of it than letting it slide and come back to bite Konoha as a whole later.

"If it's nothing, we could end up forcing a fight just by being there," Aoba warned, as if that would coax them away from wanting to check things out.

Kiba, of course, was the first to shoot those hopes down, "Then we don't let anyone know we're there," He said, "Come on. Last time I checked, we were supposed to be ninja."

He insisted, yet Aoba was in charge. At the end of the day, the decision rested with him. Then again, he'd already been persuaded, "…Fine. We'll take a look. But then we're out of there."

No hero crap would be tolerated under his watch. Their job was to make it home and be available for operations during the actual war. Not that Aoba could imagine any scenario they could stumble across that would require them to stick their necks out.

With that, they headed off at the guidance of Kiba and Akamaru's powerful senses of smell. Normally, Aoba would have believed in the adage that curiosity killed the cat, but they were being led by a dog. Regardless, at a time like this, with so much that could be a potential threat to Konoha floating around, they couldn't really afford to ignore anything that they saw as odd.

The 4-man team pressed on, until a low growl from Akamaru prompted Kiba to relay the message to the others.

A serious expression was on the chunin Inuzuka's face, "Akamaru says we're close, and there's a lot more than he could sniff out at first," He shook his head, "I don't like this at all, guys."

"Hinata?" Shino prompted.

Without needing to hear anything else, the lone kunoichi on the team activated her Byakugan. Once she did, and got a good look around, her mouth fell open in horror, "There are so many," She whispered, shaking her head, "I-It's Suna!"

'A frontier detachment' Aoba thought to himself, "How many is 'so many'?" He asked. After a few minutes of noticing Hinata's eyes focus in and out on their target, the feeling of dread in his stomach started to grow, "It's taking that long to count!?"

This wasn't good. They needed to get a headcount, and get out of there as fast as they could. The sooner they got to the border of Hi no Kuni, the sooner they could warn the patrol groups there.

While Aoba's brain stormed, Hinata let out a gasp and Kiba cursed aloud, "Shit! They're coming this way!"

Of course. They had to have sensors. A platoon meant for scouting had to have some means of making sure they weren't about to approach a force that they didn't mean to.

"Get the lead out!" Aoba yelled, pushing Team 8 ahead of him as they began to flee.

They had a long way to go to be considered even remotely safe.

XxX

(Konohagakure no Sato – Uzumaki Clan Grounds)

With Sakura and Ino as friends, Chouji and Shikamaru as friends, and... whatever Naruto and Sasuke could be classified as, Team 7 was quite close to Team 10.

When Team 10 stopped using the public training fields in exchange for Naruto's newly instated clan property, an invitation had been extended to Team 7. Granted, if they wanted to do that, Sasuke had his own clan territory. But by comparison, the Uchiha Clan District was a spooky ghost town. While much smaller in size, only with a temple, a half-finished house, and a lake and field close to the two, Naruto's clan grounds seemed warm and cozy. Bright and full of life.

Given Sasuke's state of mind lately, it was a much better environment. That had been the whole idea behind Naruto's open invitation in the first place. It was an appreciated gesture. Ever since Sasuke's episode with the Hokage and the masked man claiming to be Uchiha Madara, she'd stuck to him as much as she could. Even without knowing the exact specifics involving Itachi, she was aware that leaving Sasuke alone with himself for too long was a bad idea.

Thus, Team 7 arrived on Naruto's property to find Naruto himself sitting on a hillside just off the path leading to the temple and the house. There, they saw him observing hundreds of his clones in a field. In front of them, Shikamaru stood, holding the rat hand-seal, his shadow stretched out over as many of the clones as he could manage. Ino stood next to him, holding her hands in the seal of her family techniques.

Naruto noticed Team 7 approach and smiled, waving to them over his shoulder, "Hey, guys," He knew they'd been coming because of the security seal he'd set up at the main torii gate leading to the clan grounds, "How's it going?"

Chouji pointed at the display before them, "What are you three doing out there?"

Naruto chuckled and explained, "Ino-chan and Shika are training," He said, "Shika's got his shadow possessing all of my clones, so he's spread thin. Ino-chan is using Mind-Body control on some of them. If she can get ten of them to break free before time runs out, she wins. If she can't, he wins."

True enough, there was a large gouge in the ground in front of Shikamaru – the escape line for any of Naruto's clones that Ino managed to get out of Shikamaru's grasp.

"Seems like a lot of work for Shikamaru," Sakura remarked.

Naruto shrugged, still smiling, "I'm sure he'd much rather be playing some kind of war game with us, but Asuma-sensei isn't here, so he'd just smash us at any of those. Besides, you can be as smart as you want to be in a fight. You kinda need some brute force to make it matter!" He shouted the last part, turning to yell at Shikamaru.

"Shut up, would you?" Shikamaru replied, keeping his eyes on the field of clones, "How much time is left?"

"I thought you told me to shut up?" Naruto taunted while checking the clock sitting near him to answer the question, "You guys have three minutes. Ino-chan needs to free two more clones to win."

"Ugh," Shikamaru grunted, but otherwise didn't complain, " I have no idea how you got me into this."

Shikamaru had to admit however, for being the twisted brainchild of Naruto to get his teammates stronger, there actually was some strategy involved in the game. Nuance as well. Ino couldn't just jump between controlling one clone after another or she'd burn through her chakra. She had to pick and choose her spots wisely. Also, if she were too obvious about it, it didn't matter how tired Shikamaru was, he could adjust his focus to stop whichever clones she tried to take control of.

Since he had control of them via his shadow, Shikamaru could also position them on the field to make it easier to keep track of certain clusters of them and move them away from the safety line.

If it weren't for the fact that it was utterly exhausting, he probably wouldn't hate this game. Shikamaru wasn't a fan of the nauseous feeling that came with being utterly drained.

"One minute left!" Naruto called.

If there was any solace he could take in having to actually put in effort at something, it was that Ino seemed to be just as tired as he was. She'd been quiet for a while as well. Probably trying to focus and think of one last push to try and get her two remaining needed clones through the line.

She wound up getting more than two.

As one, the entirety of Naruto's remaining clones in the field began to move. Shikamaru panicked and tried to grab them all with his shadow. He somehow managed to get a grasp on all of them, but it was too many bodies to keep under control. Some broke free and made it over the line. Both Shikamaru and Ino collapsed to their hands and knees.

"That's game!" Naruto called out, surprised at the outcome, "Huh. Could have sworn Shika would've had that one."

"Oh, ye of little faith," Ino said, between panting breaths, "Whew!"

Shikamaru flopped down onto his stomach and rolled over onto his back, greedily sucking in as much air as he could, "She cheated! There's no way she can control that many at once!" He said, "All of them? Seriously?"

Ino laughed, despite her fatigue, and pushed herself back up onto her feet, "I'll never tell how."

When Naruto dispelled his clones, the information from all of them drifted into his head. Ino had at some point bribed all of his clones that she would do something special for him if they would all coordinate to move as one near the end of the game, if she hadn't won by then, of course.

What a remarkably underhanded way to pick up the win.

"Shika actually still wins, you know," He thought out loud, knowing that Ino would hear him if he made sure to focus on her.

Ino let out a tired chuckle, "I know. But he doesn't have to know that now, Goldie. He'll figure it out on his own by the time he gets home later. If not, I'll tell him tomorrow. It's not like this would ever work again in a million years anyway."

Then again, it didn't need to. Even if Shikamaru had managed to win, Naruto doubted that he would be up for playing such a grueling game again. They hadn't even been competing over any sort of wager. The guy wasn't one for exerting himself too extensively. Despite his best efforts to make Shikamaru more active, years of work in that department had yet to pay off.

Naruto turned to Team 7, pleased that he'd managed to give his teammates a good workout, "So, I hope you guys didn't come all this way to train. I kinda wiped Shika and Ino-chan out. I mean, I'm still good to go if someone wants a piece of me."

He eyed Sasuke specifically, as it had been quite some time since the last time they'd gotten the chance to go toe-to-toe in any kind of spar.

Sasuke smirked and seemed ready to take Naruto up on that offer, when Sakura stepped in front of him, "Gonna have to take a rain check on that one. It's not why we came," Sasuke glared at the back of her head, and Sakura must have felt it because she rolled her eyes, "Sasuke has something he wants to ask you."

Sasuke grunted at having someone speak for him, and decided to use his own words, "Do you have a medic-nin that you can trust? There's a procedure I need done."

Naruto looked Sasuke up and down. He didn't seem to be hurt, "What kind of procedure?" He asked, idly lighting up a cigarette as he listened.

For a moment, Sasuke flashed his Mangekyou Sharingan so that only Naruto could see. He didn't know exactly what that meant, but he guessed that it was eye related.

"I mean, I guess I do?" Naruto said, squinting his eyes at the Uchiha, "Is skill or privacy more important?"

At that, Sakura scoffed, "I'm guessing privacy, because he won't even tell us what he needs a medic-nin for," She said, crossing her arms as she pointedly turned away from Sasuke.

"Both," Sasuke said, ignoring his pink-haired teammate's hissy fit, "You know Tsunade, right?"

"You also know Tsunade," Naruto deadpanned, not seeing why he needed to be involved if that was who he wanted to see, "We all know Tsunade."

After all, they had almost started a war protecting her a while back.

"But she actually likes you, Goldie," Ino said, wrapping her arms around Naruto's neck from behind. She pressed her cheek to his as she continued, "I really don't think she knows any of our names."

"She knows your name," Naruto argued, "She sees you all the time when you're with me."

Ino plucked the cigarette from Naruto's mouth and flicked it away, "I don't think my given name has ever come out of her mouth. She's like, technically your distant cousin or aunt or something, right? And she comes to check on you all the time; when I'm around. You'd think she'd at least try to learn the name of the girlfriend to the closest family she has left. Rude."

"She kind of hates everybody but Naruto," Shikamaru chimed in from the ground where he'd settled into staring at the clouds, "...And Shizune. But that doesn't count."

Naruto could tell that he was steadily being outnumbered and threw in the towel, "Alright! Alright! Fine! Fuck! I'll take you to see Tsunade," He snappily conceded, also a tad irritated that Ino had tossed a freshly lit cigarette, "But she's busy right now. She might not have time."

Jiraiya was probably still in serious condition on Mt. Myoboku. She wasn't going to sidetrack herself for some optional procedure while her oldest friend was still in danger. If Naruto brought it up to her, she'd probably finger-flick him through a whole row of toad huts.

Sasuke didn't seem to be in a rush though, apparently fine with waiting, "As long as I can get this done at some point, I don't care."

Now, Naruto found himself intrigued. More weird Uchiha eye stuff that required Sasuke to seek help from someone like Tsunade? Naruto endeavored to get real details from Sasuke the moment he got the chance, because clearly, he didn't want to talk about it in front of others.

There seemed to be a number of secrets that were starting to be built up between the two of them.

XxX

(Kawa no Kuni – Near the Northern Border)

It had been a bad time for Team 8. After they'd been discovered, they'd fled as quickly as they could. To their chagrin, they'd never been given an opportunity to slow down from top speed.

Suna's pursuit tactic took advantage of their great numbers advantage. They would have a group push ahead, keeping Team 8 moving to stay ahead of them. Meanwhile, the bulk of the force would remain behind at a more moderate speed. Then, another cluster would surge ahead, taking the place of the previous forward force, while the others dropped back to follow at slower pace.

It was an exhausting method of pursuit, and by then, Team 8 realized that if/when the Suna frontier force caught up to them, they would be much easier pickings; as if they needed the extra advantage.

Fortunately, Shino had provided a cushion of his kikaichu behind them to deal with whoever got too close. Eventually, an approaching group would figure out a way to get through them, but it bought Team 8 time to figure out what they were actually going to do to solve their problem.

Aoba could feel his lungs beginning to rebel against the constant exertion he'd been putting them through. Hiding it from the rest of his team didn't get rid of the fact that it still existed, "They can't keep this up. They have to stop before we get to the border."

Kiba reacted irritably, "We're nowhere near the border!"

The way home was east. They hadn't been going east for quite some time. If they started to look like they were headed that way, their Suna pursuers would double-time it to cut them off.

Aoba recognized this. He didn't have eyes that could see for miles, insects that could drain chakra, or a nose that could track a person from half of a country away to do so. But he was the highest-ranked and most experienced among them.

"I wasn't talking about the border with Hi no Kuni," Aoba responded. A tense silence settled over the team for a moment. Aoba then continued with what they were all thinking, "If they keep chasing us this way, they'll push us into Amegakure."

Amegakure, and any surrounding territory that it clearly claimed, was a no-go area. It had been for decades. The constant warring between other villages led Ame to be incredibly insulated. Its shinobi rarely left its borders, and when they did, they were tight-lipped about life there. The place was a veritable mystery to everyone who didn't live within its confines.

Given the longstanding standing edict for all shinobi of the great villages to stay out of Ame, being pursued that way was far from a good thing. However, given the circumstances, it was either that, or try to fight their way through an entire platoon of Suna ninja.

It was a bad situation. And when presented with that kind of decision, there wasn't really much of a choice to make. They kept going forward. Perhaps, that was what Suna wanted. But Aoba and Team 8 fancied their chances of slipping through Ame more than they did turning to face the enemy.

"They're pulling back!" Hinata informed the team, her Byakugan able to see behind them.

"All of them?" Aoba asked, getting a nod from the girl, "…Must be over the border then."

Kiba let out a sigh of relief. No fighting against Suna would happen on this day, "This is just a detour. All we've gotta do is ride the border and head east. We'll be back in Hi no Kuni before you know it."

One could only hope so. Aoba certainly did, "Keep pushing this pace, guys. I don't want to linger in this place any longer than I have to."

None of them did. If that was the closest call they had on their way home, they would thank their lucky stars they avoided disaster. They weren't out of the woods yet though.

They hadn't brought a map for where they were traveling, and even if they had one, it was likely outdated by upwards of a decade. Hopefully they didn't draw the attention of locals.


Alright everyone, we're going to end things here this time around.

Next chapter, what will befall Team 8 as they try to skirt the border and get back to Konoha in one piece. Really, what are the chances that something could go wrong?

Plus, how much training will Naruto be able to get in before hostilities start in earnest? And when they do, will he return in time to make a difference. That's if he's permitted to go at all.

And there's so much more! No action here, but it's coming. We must build to the mayhem, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway, I hope you guys enjoyed. Until the next time.

Kenchi out.