Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. I need Kishimoto to help me get Shonen Jump on the phone to buy the rights to the franchise. Times are hard, so I'm pretty sure I can haggle them down to an affordable price.

I'll have you know, I'm an expert negotiator.

Chapter 82: Duty Calls


Much to Naruto's amazement, Jiraiya had gotten the training excursion with Naruto cleared. Naruto had no idea how he'd managed to accomplish such a thing with a war looming, but Hiruzen saw it prudent for Jiraiya to fill Naruto's brain with more knowledge and skill to prepare for the ordeals ahead – of which there were plenty.

A part of Naruto felt like a heel, knowing that he would likely be skipping the opening salvos of whatever form the war wound up taking. Even so, it had been decided already. He would be off.

That left him with things to see to before heading out. There was plenty of personal business to take care of around Konoha before his sojourn to Mt. Myoboku.

"Come back soon so you can teach me something new, Naruto-oniisama."

"What do you mean, 'teach you'? He'll teach me first!"

One of those things just so happened to be informing those close to him of his whereabouts and saying goodbye. That included the two genin that had just so happened to imprint on him.

Naruto rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly as Konohamaru and Hanabi proceeded to bicker in front of him. He stepped in to separate them before they could get any louder, or start exchanging blows, "Er... I'm not sure if what I'm leaving to train on is something I can teach either of you when I get back, but I'll figure something out."

If Jiraiya was just now getting around to really teaching him Sage Mode, it probably wasn't something he could just hand off to green genin if he cared about their well-being. Jiraiya said it could kill him, after all. But lots of things Jiraiya had taught him ever since he'd been Hanabi and Konohamaru's age had the potential to kill him.

...Did that make for a double standard? Questions for later.

He slipped away, something that Konohamaru and Hanabi ignored in exchange for shouting at each other. Rejoining Ino, who had stood back letting Naruto talk to his juniors, he shook his head, noting the amused smile she had on her face, "Enjoy yourself watching that, did you?"

Ino neither confirmed nor denied the accusation, "They really love you. Why are you so good with kids?" She asked.

It was something that she had wondered for a while. Even going back as far as when they themselves were genin, even if Naruto's introduction to a child was rocky, eventually he would win them over, whether he meant to or not. She'd never seen him spend a considerable amount of time with a kid that didn't eventually think he was the greatest.

Not really knowing how to answer, Naruto simply shrugged his shoulders in return, "I dunno. I just treat 'em the way I wished someone would have treated me when I was little."

Ino, after a moment of allowing Naruto's remark to sink in, clicked her tongue pitifully, "...That is the saddest thing I've heard all day," She admitted, giving her confused boyfriend a kiss on the cheek.

It made sense though, given Naruto's background. Someone who didn't have a very nice childhood might very much keep in mind what it was they wanted out of their interactions with other children and adults, and hold onto that as they grew older – for better or for worse, depending on the individual.

It was like how he was fiercely loyal to his friends and loved ones. Having not had any for the first part of his life, he didn't take the ones he'd manage to obtain for granted.

This was a reason why Ino wasn't too sore about Naruto taking off for training with Jiraiya – because she knew he wasn't crazy about leaving either. That, and he wouldn't be gone nearly as long as he had been last time.

'I can live without him until he gets back,' Ino thought to herself, and not for the first time since hearing the news of Naruto's pending departure, 'I'll be busy with war stuff anyway. Time will fly by.'

Between work in the field, either in combat or in communications, and the possibility of heading up interrogations of prisoners, there would be no shortage of things that would require Ino's skillset and her full attention.

...If only there wasn't a task on the horizon connected to something as potentially devastating as war.

Ino didn't even realize she'd let out a sigh until Naruto brought it up, "What's wrong, Ino-chan?"

"Nothing, Goldie," Ino replied, smiling at him as she slipped her hand into his. She savored the warm feeling of his fingers laced with hers.

There was no need to make Naruto feel bad about going off to train. Knowing him, he was probably just as down on being away from everyone than she was to lose him for a while.

XxX

Konoha was abuzz with activity. Even though war hadn't officially been declared, it was expected. There weren't many holding out hope for the possibility of a peaceful intervention. The boulder was rolling downhill at this point, and it was inevitable that things would end in violence.

Shikamaru had never been alive during wartime. It was amazing to him just what kind of well-oiled machine the village turned into in a war environment.

Instead of running chores and odd jobs for D-rank missions, genin squads were put to work getting supplies together that would be used on the front lines. Older, quicker genin were being introduced to the concept of being frontline runners. The shinobi with experience from the previous wars knew the drill already, and had taken up the task of overseeing preparations both large and small.

It was a hallmark to the sense of community the village prided itself on fostering. The Will of Fire, as it were. It was simply unfortunate that it had to come at a time when many lives were set to be lost.

Shikamaru took all of these things in as he walked with Asuma through the village streets. The older man took the opportunity to tell his student what his role would be, at least at the outset of hostilities.

One hand shoved in his pocket, Asuma held a lit cigarette to his mouth with the other, "When the Hokage sends the message refusing Suna's demands, he's dispatching twenty platoons behind it, set to head out for frontier actions while the rest of our mobilization takes place."

Shikamaru nodded in understanding. So, vanguard duty. They would scout and be the first line in case the enemy tried to mount an offensive before they did. Shikamaru did the probabilities in his head, hoping that the most they saw in that phase of the fighting would be a skirmish or two.

"Okay," Shikamaru said, accepting his placement, "With Naruto out training, who's taking his place until he gets back?" When he didn't get an immediate answer, he turned to Asuma who was smiling at him. It didn't sit well with Shikamaru at all, "What?"

"I've got good news and bad news," Asuma replied.

Of course.

"Jeez... troublesome..." Shikamaru said, waving his hand as though gesturing for Asuma to proceed, "Bad news first then."

Asuma chuckled, choosing to answer Shikamaru's question with a vague statement, "You asked your question like I'm leading your team."

"You're not?" Wheels turning in his head, Shikamaru quickly picked up on where Asuma was going, "Wait... I don't like the way you said 'my team'."

"I'm needed elsewhere," Asuma explained, "And Ino will already be pulling double duty for the time being with communications and intelligence. You're being put with Kurenai's old squad."

Shikamaru closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Okay, no Asuma or Ino with him in the field, at least in the beginning. But at least he knew Kiba, Shino, and Hinata well enough to work with them, "What's the good news?"

"You're in charge," Asuma said, clapping Shikamaru on the back. He grinned when he saw the genius' posture slump in defeat, "Come on. You can't be that surprised."

Straightening back up, Shikamaru had the feeling that Asuma was enjoying this somehow. It made him want to nick his cigarettes and throw them into the river, "Surprised isn't the word. How is that good news?"

"Right," Asuma snorted, "I keep forgetting – you lack any sense of ambition."

"You don't forget, you just keep ignoring it," Shikamaru muttered before his eyes went wide at realizing what this likely meant, "Wait... is this my jounin test?"

Asuma wasn't certain, but given the circumstances, it was more than likely, and he wanted Shikamaru prepared for the possibility, "We're going to need people capable of filling the position. You know that. It's not just you. Naruto was already getting fast-tracked, you know."

Shikamaru gestured uselessly to the area beside him, as though Naruto were standing there with them, "I know, but that's him. Me and that guy... we aren't the same."

Asuma readily agreed, "And that's good. We need all types," He said, "In a pinch, Naruto's the swashbuckler you send in to get shit done when it needs to get done. And you? In a pinch, we need a guy capable of looking at the bigger picture and figuring out how to make the most of what we've got."

Asuma believed that if Shikamaru was assigned just about any objective with whatever minuscule amount of resources could be spared to him, he would manage to make it work and succeed.

Both of his students could work through what most would see as impossible odds. They would just do it in different ways, according to their strengths. Some tasks required a hammer and grit, some required a scalpel and cunning. However, both measures at their highest levels required determination that the pair of them possessed. When the moment they were needed came, both would do their best to rise to the occasion.

As evidence of this, despite his reluctance, Shikamaru seemed to eventually take everything in stride, accepting his placement, "Where are Kiba, Hinata, and Shino anyway?" He asked, "I haven't seen them around."

Asuma shrugged, "Kurenai said they were out on a mission in Kawa no Kuni."

For some reason, this left Shikamaru unsettled, "Shouldn't they have been back by now? The recall went out to everyone still in the field days ago."

Also, that team in particular had a track record of traveling very quickly. They should have been among the first to return.

Shikamaru shook his head, not liking how this looked, "I don't want to be paranoid, but..."

"No... no," Asuma cut him off before he could doubt himself, "Suna's probably just as geared up for war as we are. Kawa no Kuni will probably see its share of fighting."

Neither of them wanted to say it out loud, but if someone was late at this point, there was a chance that they could have been in trouble.

"Shit," Asuma cursed under his breath, "Fine. I'll take this to the Hokage right now," With that, he vanished in a Shunshin, set on dashing to his father's office.

It was important for multiple reasons. Lives might have been at risk. Not just Hinata, Kiba, and Shino's, but if Suna was moving already and had the initiative on the frontier, that would mean Konoha was already starting on the back foot.

XxX

(Amegakure-Held Territory)

Taking the long way around to get home, along with dodging the Suna contingent chasing after them had tacked an extra day onto their trip. But the extra time had served no benefit to them. There had been no rest, only constant motion. Fear and adrenaline kept them going.

Both Hinata and Kiba kept the team informed on the presence of enemy forces. Suna kept their distance to what the presumed was the border, but continued to shadow them. Aoba had ordered the team to ride the border as much as possible. They had alternated utilizing Kiba and Akamaru's sense of smell and Hinata's Byakugan to preserve chakra, just in case.

They'd had a low stock of soldier pills, and chose to reserve them just in case they felt they would find themselves in battle without fail, or for one final push of full-speed travel once they felt they were close enough to safety. That, however, was a ways off.

For the time being, they found a small cave to take temporary refuge in – out of sight, with multiple traps set up to protect them, and the sensor skills of the former Team Kurenai to warn them of any problems on the horizon. It was a much needed few minutes to rest their feet and get their bearings.

While they were resting, Akamaru let out a quiet whine, which Kiba interpreted for the group, "Akamaru says there are patrols moving through the area. It's not Suna."

Aoba cursed inside of his own head, but kept a professional demeanor for the sake of his squad, "Amegakure," He said, hoping they'd covered their own tracks well enough, " I've got an idea. Think we can make the two sides run into each other?"

Hinata, Shino, and Kiba all perked up, with the latter actually grinning his consent to the plan, "Hell, it's worth a try. I'm game."

Anything was better than just running and hoping not to get caught by one side or the other. Turning both potential enemies on each other would at the very least buy them a window of opportunity to put distance between themselves and danger.

A strategy was quickly fashioned. Shino had his bugs absorb enough of his friends' chakra to fool possible sensors. He then utilized them to create Insect Clones in the forms of each of them.

It required most of his active hive, but it was worth the risk.

Once the prep work was complete, Shino dispatched the clones to serve as a distraction, rushing to the nearest border. They would attract the attention of their Ame pursuers, and hopefully whatever commotion that brought would attract Suna.

Hinata kept her Byakugan active and alerted the rest of the team of any changes in the situation, "The Ame shinobi are going after Shino's clones," She maintained watch as they got farther away, "We should be okay to move."

Aoba nodded and turned to Shino, "Are you good to continue?"

If Shino was short on chakra, or was affected by the departure of so many of his kikaichu, it didn't register any change in his expression, "I will be fine. Let's proceed."

Nodding, Aoba gestured for the trio of chunin to follow him, "You heard the man. This is our chance! Get the lead out!"

It was only a matter of time before they lost their chance. If they were ever going to get away, they needed to get moving.

XxX

(Amegakure no Sato – Pain's Tower)

The eyes of Nagato's Deva Path snapped open as he found what he had been looking for in the rain. He'd been scouring the countryside for the intruders that had reportedly infiltrated their territory, and he finally got a good feel for who and what he was dealing with.

Four people and one animal with well-worn chakra pathways. An animal partner or a summoned creature. Then, there were many smaller chakra signatures scattered nearby, like insects infesting the area.

"Konoha ninja," Nagato said to himself, a small smile emerging on the face of the Deva Path.

There was a chance he was wrong, but there was enough evidence to take a chance on his hunch. If he was wrong, he would still be busying himself by disposing of outsiders.

Konan stood behind the Deva Path as it walked out onto the balcony of the tower, looking out over the village, "What do you intend to do?" She asked.

"An opportunity may have fallen into our laps, Konan," Nagato said, the Deva Path not flinching despite the rain impacting off of its face, "Madara thinks he has us under his thumb. We are not collecting the biju for his aims. We never were."

Konan agreed with that sentiment, "I believe I understand," They were Akatsuki. Even if Madara had been their benefactor for several years, it had all started with the two of them and Yahiko.

"He can have the replacement we sealed away," Nagato declared, "We're going to take steps to obtain the actual Nine-Tails for ourselves."

"What will you have me do?" The blue-haired woman stoically requested.

Nagato was quick to issue his orders, "Tell Madara whatever you need to keep him from interfering. The same goes for Zetsu. I will handle everything else myself."

"Understood, Nagato," Konan said with a nod, "I'll tell him you used a security breach to test the synchronization of your new Paths."

Acceptable, as it wouldn't entirely be a lie. Nagato expected that this wouldn't end without some kind of conflict. All the same, for the first step of his plan, it likely wouldn't be too much trouble.

"This shouldn't take long," Nagato assured Konan before dropping off of the edge of the balcony.

XxX

(With Naruto – Konohagakure no Sato)

It was just about time to leave for Mt. Myoboku.

Naruto had spent the day taking care of all of the business around the village he needed to see to before departing, Ino at his side. Once everything he could think of had been handled, it looked as though the moment had finally arrived.

Ino stood, dragging her foot through the grass, fingers laced behind her back, "Well..."

Naruto nodded, having a good idea how she felt about everything, "Yeah."

This would mark the second time he would have to leave her behind for reasons of self-improvement. Granted, he would (hopefully) be gone for a mere fraction of the time he had been when he and Shikamaru had gone to work at the Capital, but it didn't change the fact that once again she couldn't go with him.

The couple stood in silence until Ino gave Naruto a bright smile; a brave face, "Make sure you learn whatever weird thing Jiraiya-sama and the toads want to teach you, okay? And learn it quick," She requested.

Naruto gave her a thumbs up, "Pretty sure I don't have any other choice," Since if he screwed up, it was supposed to kill him. But he didn't need to tell Ino that, "But for you, I'll do it double-time."

"Double-time?" Ino scoffed, giving Naruto a swat on the chest, "For the guy that can clone himself? Get a thousand Narutos in on the action and thousand-time it."

Naruto raised an eyebrow, amused at the additional demand, "Goddamn, you're bossy."

Ino did nothing to deny this, "Mmm-hmm," She inched closer, head tilted up as she stood on her toes.

Naruto moved closer and wrapped the girl up in his arms, "You won't even notice I'm gone," He said, giving her a peck on the lips.

Ino leaned into Naruto's touch, wrapping her arms around him tightly, "Yes, I will," She shut her eyes tightly, "But it's okay. You do what you have to do. I know you'll be back eventually."

He always came back, even if she had to go and drag him back herself; which had only really happened once. Ino didn't know where Mt. Myoboku was, but she was prepared to find it if he dilly-dallied for too long this time.

Speaking of which, they supposed it was time to get on with it.

"Kuchiyose no Jutsu (Summoning Jutsu)!"

It had been a while since Ino had seen Naruto summon any of his toads. She was used to them being far larger than the diminutive creature that stood before her once the smoke cleared. She wasn't used to seeing one quite so... elderly either.

Fukasaku regarded Naruto with a smile upon being summoned, hopping the short distance over to look up at the young shinobi, "Ya finally summoned me. Took ya long enough," The toad scolded lightheartedly, "Ya ready to get to it then?"

Yes, but no. Yes, as Naruto wanted to advance as a shinobi and get stronger. No, as he didn't want to leave everyone behind when they might need him in a pinch. The rest of his friends would have to deal with the opening of the war.

Whatever. The sooner he left, the sooner he would get back.

"Naruto! Ino!" Everyone turned when they heard Shikamaru call out. He rarely sounded so urgent, and never within the confines of the village, "I've been looking all over for you guys," He said once he got close enough.

"Come to see Goldie off?" Ino asked, "Didn't think you'd get up before noon on your day off, Shika. Let alone shuffle yourself out here for this," Shikamaru didn't react to his longtime friend's attempt to tease him. The grave expression on his face quickly registered with Ino, "Hey... what's wrong?"

Shikamaru addressed both of his teammates, "Team Eight never came back after the recall."

"They're still not back?" Naruto wondered, "That was days ago! Where the hell are they, the moon?"

"Kawa no Kuni," Shikamaru said, "At least, that's where their last mission was," He let out a sigh and ran a hand through his hair, "I don't like it. The only reason I'm bringing it up at all is because I was supposed to be heading out with them ASAP for frontier movements."

"You're going to get them, aren't you?" Naruto asked, already knowing the answer.

Shikamaru nodded, "Asuma-sensei talked to Hokage-sama. He can't spare much, but I was given permission to take whatever volunteers I could get on my way out of town."

And he wanted Team 10. There were no others on the planet he could trust as much on short notice.

Ino bit her lip and gestured her head in the direction of Fukasaku, who was just out of earshot, "Goldie's supposed to be leaving, like, right now."

"Fuck that!" Naruto bellowed, forgoing any subtlety. This was what he'd been afraid of - his friends being caught up in something awful, and him an entire world away, unable to help, "I want to bring 'em back!"

Ino let out a huff, "You think Jiraiya-sama's going to let you put your training off?" She understood, but doubted that Naruto's master would be pleased with the delay.

Naruto thumbed his nose in response, "Ero-sensei's not here to make me do anything," And even if he was, Naruto doubted Jiraiya was in any physical condition to force the issue regardless.

Ino raised an eyebrow, "Okay, well what about him?" She asked with a smirk.

Naruto turned around to see Fukasaku, still waiting patiently on him. Turning back to his friends, he made a face as though he'd just sucked on a lemon, "Just... give me a minute."

He would have to reason with the elderly summon creature. That was all there was to it.

Steeling himself, Naruto walked over to Fukasaku, who could immediately tell that something was off due to the boy's expression and body language.

Taking a deep breath, Naruto decided to just come out with it, "I can't leave yet," He said, sparing a glance back at Ino and Shikamaru, "There's a thing... I have friends that need help. I can't leave without bringing 'em back."

Fukasaku couldn't believe it, if the look of surprise on his face was any indication, "Yer supposed 'ta be off trainin!" He exclaimed, "Ya damn tadpoles! Always so wishy-washy when it comes 'ta-!"

"-18 hours," Naruto interrupted before the old toad could get off on too much of a tangent.

"What?" Fukasaku replied.

Naruto clasped his hands together, just about pleading for leniency, "Give me 18 hours to get to my friends, get them out, and get back."

Fukasaku sized the young man up. From what he'd learned about Naruto from Jiraiya, he was acting far more reserved given the situation than to be expected, "...Yer serious."

"Dead serious," Naruto insisted, "Tell Ero-sensei or Tsunade-baachan that they can kick my ass if I'm late or whatever you need to get them off your back."

After all, what was another half a day? The last time he checked, there was no hard timetable where his training needed to be done, just that he needed to do it. And he would when he was good and ready. But there was no way he could just leave and focus to any useful degree knowing that there was already trouble afoot in his absence.

If Fukasaku refused him, Naruto was prepared to beg; get down on his hands and knees and beg. He had never prostrated himself for anything before, but he would do what he had to for the sake of friends that could have used his help. If even begging didn't work, he was prepared to make a run for it.

Fortunately, it wasn't necessary.

Fukasaku gave Naruto the sternest look the boy had seen the toad give him up to that point, "Boy, I plan on draggin' ya there and whippin' yer tail myself," He threatened, "I'll give whatever's left to Jiraiya-chan."

Naruto stood in place, blinking dully. He hadn't received a straight 'yes' or 'no', "So, I can go?" He asked.

Fukasaku jumped up and gave Naruto a whack on the head, "Dunno what yer wastin' time talkin' to me fer! Ya got 18 hours, and not a second more! So get goin'! Get!"

Naruto didn't need to be told twice, taking off with Shikamaru and Ino right alongside him. Though Ino wasn't packed, Naruto had brought enough for himself to last at least month, given that he hadn't known how long he would be gone. It would be more than enough for a quick trip, especially one where they didn't expect to stop and rest.

It took until they were a few minutes outside of Konoha and into the Hi no Kuni countryside proper for Ino to bring up the last point in particular.

"You realize how much butt we have to haul to make that timeframe, don't you?" She asked to Shikamaru.

"Yep," The lazy chunin replied, not looking forward to the pace he would have to keep. Just getting to the nearest western border would take six hours at full travel speed.

At that, Ino directed her attention to the impulsive actions of her boyfriend, "-And that everything would have to go perfectly for us to make it back fast enough for your summon to not kick your butt?"

"Uh-huh," Naruto said, eyes squinted as his imagination ran wild. It was hard to envision how the diminutive Fukasaku could beat him up, but a part of him didn't doubt that it was very doable, "You saying we can't make it?"

Ino was very blunt in her outlook, "Yeah. There's no way in hell we find them and get back in 18 hours," She said, "You just threw a number out there that sounded good."

"There's a chance."

"Not a good one."

"At-ta-ta-ta-ta!" Naruto made a series of random noises to temporarily stop Ino's dissent, "Look, I just needed to come up with something that would get him let me go. We're going, so it worked! Let's not dwell on it any more than we need to."

"Naruto's right," Shikamaru said, "We're here now. We've got to figure out how we're going to find Team Kurenai, and how we're going to get them out if they're in trouble."

Ino refocused on the task at hand. Her temporary reprieve from losing Naruto wasn't for pleasure. This was serious business, "If they're this late, they're definitely in trouble. Well, boys? Thoughts? You're more up on this than me or Goldie, Shika."

True enough, Shikamaru had been the one to wrangle Naruto and Ino into action. Odd, as normally it was the other way around.

"Traveling through Kawa no Kuni shouldn't have been a problem, unless Suna frontier units were already dispatched in the country," Shikamaru said, thinking aloud, "If they couldn't fight through them and had to run, they would have to go somewhere where they could lose them."

"Or somewhere Suna wouldn't follow," Naruto followed up in a grim tone.

For once, Naruto was ahead of Shikamaru in the thinking department, at least as far as likely routes that Team Eight could have been forced into. It didn't take long for Shikamaru to see where he was coming from though, "Oh, goddamn it..."

Ino raised an eyebrow at the gloom and doom radiating off of both boys, "What is it?"

Naruto took it upon himself to explain for Ino's benefit, "From where they were, they probably went north, close to Amegakure."

Things quickly sank in for Ino. Memories from Academy geography lessons started playing in her head, "Oh, no. That's bad, right?"

"It's really bad," Naruto confirmed, "In the Guardians, they always used to tell us to stay the hell away from that border. Nobody goes anywhere near that place."

Even the Guardian Ninja had no desire to tangle with a legend the likes of Hanzo. How Amegakure worked, and the way their shinobi system operated in the current era was a mystery. There was an iron curtain that kept any new info from coming out about the village. It had been that way for decades, since the Second Shinobi World War.

Shikamaru eventually offered the course of action they all knew they were leading to, "We should start at the border there. I'm pretty sure Ino's sensor abilities can reach far enough from there to see if they're around."

"And if they're past the border?" Ino asked.

A stony expression formed Shikamaru's face, "Let's not dwell on it any more than we need to."

XxX

(Hidden Akatsuki Lair)

After sealing away the chakra of the Kyuubi that had remained inside of the Guardian Ninja Hidan had managed to capture, the silver-haired immortal sat with Deidara nearby. With the downtime provided, the two Akatsuki members went back-and-forth on the most recent happenings.

"So, taking the chakra from this Sora kid," Hidan said, kicking the corpse of the recently drained individual in question, "That was supposed to be a backup plan, wasn't it? Can't believe we actually had to rely on it."

Deidara rested his back against the wall of the hideout, "Everything at the Capitol went sideways," He commented, chuckling after a moment, "Heh, well, not for me. I did my job, un."

He'd been sent to create as much chaos as possible and deal with the rest of the Hokage's escort, to keep them from assisting the Kyuubi jinchuuriki. On that front, he had accomplished that goal.

Hidan felt he had done his job as well. He'd been sent to procure a failsafe, in case the Kyuubi jinchuuriki was somehow lost. It had been Kakuzu that insisted he could deal with Uzumaki Naruto once he was separated from his team.

"It's all because Kakuzu couldn't pull his weight," Hidan insisted, "The Nine-Tails kid put him in the dirt. Another one bites the dust, eh? Kisame, Itachi, Kakuzu, Sasori..."

"The body count is really ramping up around here, huh?" Deidara remarked, creating a small clay bird in his hand that flew from his palm, "My only regret is not getting to blow Itachi to pieces myself," The bird detonated, blowing apart some of the far wall.

"Want to pour some out for our dead brothers-in-arms?" Hidan suggested.

"Not really, un. Kinda hated 'em all," Deidara said, "Kinda hate you too, actually."

"Same," Hidan admitted, a scowl forming on his face, "Tch. But I bet 'Madara' has plans that don't account for the loss of fucking manpower. Meaning we'll have to pick up the slack."

Deidara shrugged. As long as he kept getting good assignments and had the chance to show off his art, he was fine, "I mean, I can fly, un. Tough luck for you, though," Hidan flipped him off in return.

Both men took notice of a new arrival, as Tobi appeared in a portal. He had caught the tail end of the conversation.

"It was always expected that we would lose a few of our members once we began moving in earnest," Tobi said, "Luckily, I've been taking measures to replenish our numbers a bit."

Both Hidan and Deidara recognized Kabuto, newly garbed in the same Akatsuki cloak they all wore.

"Isn't that Sasori's bitch?" Hidan asked before correcting himself, "Sorry; Orochimaru's bitch?"

Instead of taking offense, Kabuto smirked, "Last I checked, the two of them met their untimely demises."

Tobi spoke up in support of Akatsuki's newest recruit, "Kabuto is his own man. And he possesses a number of skills our organization will find useful in the coming days."

Kabuto 'humbly', accepted his sponsor's endorsement, "Oh, you know. Just a few things I picked up here and there."

Deidara hadn't interacted with Kabuto. He had been Sasori's mole, and Deidara had never cared much about the puppet master's pawns. He had always been more about action than intrigue.

Speaking of action over intrigue...

"While we're talking about the coming days, what's next?" Deidara asked.

"Yeah," Hidan grumbled, "We've still got the Nibi and the Hachibi to seal. But good luck getting to them now of all times."

Obtaining Yugito in the first place had been a task and a half. In fact, getting to all of the jinchuuriki had required planning and opportunity. In failing to extract the tailed beast from first Yugito, then Naruto, it would make it that much harder to make a second attempt at the two of them. And then, there was Killer B.

To get their hands on him in particular, they would need to make absolutely sure that their 't's were crossed and their 'i's were dotted.

Looking at Tobi, however, there was no lapse in his resolve.

"Where there's a will, there's a way, gentlemen," The masked man said before stepping back through another portal, Kabuto in tow.

In his absence, both Deidara and Hidan shared a glance. If this man really was Uchiha Madara, there was no will in the Elemental Nations stronger than his when it came to accomplishing his goals.

XxX

Having checked in on his underlings, Tobi returned to one of his own personal lairs. Its location was kept a secret even from other members of Akatsuki. The only way anyone would ever see a glimpse of it would be alongside Tobi via portal. And no one was allowed to wander.

Although Tobi referred to him as the newest member of Akatsuki, Kabuto knew that he was more or less a hostage.

That was fine. He'd been surviving all his life surrounded by powerful people because he had skills that others found useful. This would be no different.

Tobi didn't see Kabuto as a threat at all, walking ahead of him, his back presented as a potential target, "Onto the business I brought you on for, Kabuto."

"Which one, exactly?" Kabuto asked, a smugness in his tone that caused Tobi to pause mid-step and turn around.

One red Sharingan eye glared at Kabuto through the eyehole of the mask, "The one you're allowed to speak about and keep your tongue in your head," Tobi said, an edge to his tone.

Realizing that he might have overstepped a boundary, Kabuto wisely nodded. After everything that had happened, he wasn't keen on allowing his mouth to get him killed, "Right. Of course."

Kabuto hurried ahead and pulled out a large scroll. Drawing some of his own blood, he opened it and rolled it out on the table. Tobi then stepped through Kabuto's entire body to get in front of him and check over it himself. A chill went down his spine, and he took a step back. Better that the man go through him then some kind of weapon though.

"Hm," Tobi read through contents of the scroll, "And you're certain about this list?"

"I've been in and out of every hidden village in the Elemental Nations since I was a child," Kabuto said, moving to Tobi's side, "This is as complete a list of elite shinobi as anyone will ever make in this generation," He channeled chakra to his fingers and dragged them across one of the names, bringing up every spec of information he had managed to gather on that person, "If you can get to even a third of those in top positions... the entire landscape of the shinobi world would be altered."

"I'm not looking to alter the shinobi world, Kabuto," Tobi said, "I'm going to end it."

The Eye of the Moon Plan would be carried out. Constant interference had resulted in deviations from the original plan, but the end result would be the same regardless. The success of the recent operation at Hi no Kuni's capital city gave him an idea, and Kabuto's list would serve him well as he moved his pieces into place.

XxX

(Sungakure no Sato - Kazekage's Office)

The feeling around the village had been one of tension. All searches for Gaara had come up empty. It was unfortunate, but Suna had learned from the previous disappearance of the Sandaime Kazekage. At such a tumultuous time, they couldn't afford to spread themselves thin.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but with no way to track Uchiha Madara, the powers-that-be in the village had to turn their attention elsewhere; to the village deemed responsible for all of this getting so far out of hand.

Leaning against a wall in the hallways, Kankuro suddenly looked up when he noticed his old sensei heading his way, just back from another search effort.

"Baki-sensei," Kankuro said, waving the man down, "Anything?"

Baki shook his head in the negative, a remorseful expression on his face. He'd taken the responsibility of coordinating the search for Gaara. Every failure to turn up a sign of the jinchuuriki ate at him more and more.

Kankuro heaved out a sigh and fell into step with Baki, "Temari's been flipping her shit for days. There's no way this doesn't just set her right on the warpath."

"That was where we were all headed anyway," Baki remarked.

"Grr..." Kankuro growled in frustration, "Sensei, level with me here. What are we about to get ourselves into?"

He had never fought a war. Suna had never found itself in one at any point in his life. For as harsh and as unforgiving as life as a shinobi in the desert could be, Kankuro was a stranger to the cruelty of all-out war.

It made him feel uneasy, not knowing what to expect. Training and drills would only go so far once the bodies started dropping. Stories from veterans left from the last great war could only paint the picture so well, no matter how descriptive and visceral.

Baki didn't know what to tell his former charge to assuage his fears. All he could do was assure him that there was a plan, "We didn't just mobilize to scour the countryside for Gaara. Those same units were dispatched as first-strike teams. When war is officially declared, we're going for a quick strike."

"Where are we aiming?" Kankuro asked, "What's the objective?"

"Vital areas as close to Konoha as we can get before they get their act together," A simple broad objective, though individual objectives would be assigned to smaller groups on the ground, "Bite and hold. From there? Well, you'll have to ask Kazekage-sama for battle plans. I don't think you're cleared to learn any more than that right now."

It was a good thing then, that Baki was on his way to speak with the Kazekage, Rasa. Upon reaching the office, Baki walked up to the man's desk and bowed. Kankuro noticed that Temari was already there. The bags under her eyes looked awful.

Out of the two of them, Temari took Gaara's capture the hardest. Gaara had always been prickly, to say the least, but he'd softened up considerably before Akatsuki took him; more to Temari than to anyone else.

"Hey, sis," Kankuro said to her. Even that much was enough to elicit a flinch out of her.

"Kankuro. Baki," The Kazekage directed attention towards him, cutting Kankuro's analysis of his sister's short, "Any updates?"

Both Kankuro and Baki shook their heads in the negative. The Kazekage closed his eyes and allowed the gravity of the situation to settle, "Then Gaara is lost. Taken by Uchiha Madara."

"That couldn't possibly be true," Kankuro said in disbelief, "That guy was killed before the First Shinobi World War."

The Kazekage raised an eyebrow at his middle child's outright denial, "If you can name anyone else with a Sharingan capable of defeating Gaara one-on-one in the middle of the desert and leaving without a trace, be my guest," He suggested.

When Kankuro had no explanation for him, Baki spoke up, "Uchiha Itachi was killed at Sora-ku. The only other one left is Uchiha Sasuke. And Konoha is not willing to hand over information on the clan."

At that, Temari slammed her fist against the wall, "What are they protecting? The Uchiha Clan is one fucking person at this point!"

"Temari," Rasa chided his daughter sternly. Once Temari settled down, he continued, "The point does stand though. Such a powerful clan, instrumental in the founding of Konoha itself..."

"You think it's a ruse?" Kankuro asked.

"I can't say for certain, but it is suspicious," "Konoha has had the most S-rank missing-nin join Akatsuki that we know of. Two of its known members are from a clan thought wiped out almost a decade ago. And Konoha still has its jinchuuriki."

Konoha had been sitting far too comfortably since the Third Shinobi World War, and now they had the only jinchuuriki in the western Elemental Nations. Between Konoha, Iwa, and Suna, the former had grown the most in strength since the last time they had all challenged each other on the battlefield.

That left the latter two villages with a desire to take them down a peg. With Akatsuki's interference, that may or may not have had roots in Konoha, the desire had grown into a need.

It was inevitable that things would come to a head like this at some point. Suna losing its jinchuuriki and the Kazekage's son to potential treachery from a rival village was a better excuse to go to war than most expected would be the eventual reason.

XxX

(Amegakure-Held Territory)

The temporary Team 8 were cut off from heading back to the southern border with Kawa no Kuni by Ame patrols, which left them with the longer option of having to go east to get back to Hi no Kuni.

They had seen its share of close calls since heading out again but had managed to keep any pursuers off their tails. Having managed to turn the Suna force away from them via Shino's diversion, they only had Ame shinobi to contend with.

Hinata, Kiba, Shino, and Aoba were all tired from the desperation and duration of their flight. They were cold and wet from the unceasing nature of the rain. Their nerves were frazzled due to their situation, made worse by their lack of familiarity with the terrain. Thanks to some attempts at genjutsu from Ame shinobi to throw them off, the group had no idea how close they were to the friendly border – just that they were still heading east.

It was at this time that they ran into the worst opponent of all.

Hinata saw the next speck of trouble coming before anyone else, courtesy of her Byakugan. Unfortunately, it came out of seemingly nowhere.

They had left the enemies behind them in the dust, but there was one lone individual in front of them. One individual that made a beeline straight for them, approaching faster than she ever expected. Kiba had also been aware, catching a new scent in the air ahead of them, but something had seemed off about it.

They found their way obstructed by a small woman with piercings all over her face. She had orange hair in an odd ponytail and wore Akatsuki robes. With a closer look, Hinata was able to take note of the lifeless eyes containing the legendary Rinnegan. And then, they were hit faster and harder than they ever could have anticipated.

One moment, they were all upright, the next, Kiba found himself staring at a pool of his own blood on the ground.

At least the rain had stopped.

Pushing himself up from his belly, Kiba's vision spun as he touched at the wound on his head the blood had come from., "Ugh… what the…?"

Hinata, Shino, and Akamaru were all down. Only Aoba remained standing, though he didn't seem much better off than the rest of them. Still, he stood at their defense against six orange-haired shinobi, all with piercings and Akatsuki robes.

Slowly, things started coming back to Kiba through the haze of his head injury. Where there had once been one, there had suddenly been six. They hadn't been hiding somewhere. He would have smelled them or Hinata would have seen them. They had appeared out of nowhere, as though summoned.

However they had gotten there, they had collectively wrecked Team 8 in no time.

Kiba crawled over to Akamaru, rubbing his downed partner's belly. Akamaru returned the gesture with a few whines to let Kiba know he was alright, "Guys?" Kiba said to his teammates, "-The fuck is this?"

"Rinnegan," Hinata answered quietly, beginning to stir on the ground, "...I couldn't warn you all in time. I'm sorry."

"Rinne-what?" Kiba replied. Hinata merely shook her head.

She seemed scared, and not just because they were facing strong opponents. It seemed like something else. Something they didn't have time to truly get into.

"Shino, do you know what that is?" Kiba asked their most cerebral team member. When he received no response, he looked over to find that Shino was the only one amongst them who was out of it entirely, "Shino?"

"He was low on chakra before we were attacked," Hinata said, holding her injuries as she stood up, "I don't-. This isn't a fight we can win."

Kiba wasn't the type to automatically admit defeat so easily, "No way. Just because of this Rinne-thing?"

Hinata fixed him with a hard stare; the most serious one she had ever given him, "Those are the eyes of the Sage of Six Paths."

"Well-informed," One of the Rinnegan-users said before another one continued the thought, "Though, it shouldn't be surprising. A Hyuuga would perhaps be best positioned to know about doujutsu."

"The Sage of Six Paths is just a legend!" Kiba snapped.

"Of course it is," One of the Rinnegan-users said in a patronizing manner.

Kiba growled in irritation, knowing there wasn't much he could do. Before everyone was hurt, they still got destroyed. A reckless attack would only wind up getting him killed.

Aoba spoke up trying to buy his charges as much time to recover as possible, "Who are you?"

"The god of what will be a new world," One of the Rinnegan users said before another continued, "But you can call me Pain."

Aoba looked through the six of them and asked the most obvious question he could, "And which one of you exactly is Pain?"

"Yes," All of them said at once.

"...Walked right into that one," Kiba muttered from behind Aoba, "Well, god or not, I'm not laying down for anyone. We know you work for Akatsuki. Come on, Akamaru," Expecting his partner to back him up, Kiba found himself at a loss when Akamaru let out a whine, "Akamaru?"

Pain pointed at the large ninken, "Your partner is intelligent. You should listen to him, Inuzuka-san. He knows you're outmatched."

Kiba wanted to smash Pain's face more than ever, but he was right. Akamaru had a nose for sniffing out the strength of an opponent's chakra. If he was hesitant to so much as bare his teeth at the man before them, it was the worst possible sign for their chances.

Aoba had long since seen this as well, "Sanzengarasu no Jutsu (Scattering Thousand Crows Jutsu)!" Three hand-seals later, and a flock of countless crows had appeared on the battlefield, swarming menacingly around all of Pain's bodies.

It didn't even serve as a decent distraction to allow them the chance to regroup.

"Shinra Tensei (Heavenly Subjugation of the Omnipresent God)!" An unseen force destroyed all of the crows surrounding the Paths, clearing the line of sight, "I can appreciate your spirit, while condemning your strategy."

Aoba winced at how easily one of his favorite techniques was defeated. This was like a lion playing with its prey before finishing it off, "RUN!" He commanded.

Hinata and Kiba fled, with Akamaru throwing Shino over his back as he followed suit. Aoba took off at the same time the others did, but he was the first in Pain's sights when the Deva Path lifted a hand.

"Banshou Ten'in (Heavenly Attraction of All Creation)!"

Aoba found himself yanked off of the ground and pulled by the Deva Path's unseen force directly into the Human Path's crushing grasp, "You will not die here," Pain said, his grip on Aoba's soul tight, "You all have an important role I would like for you to play."

"Not me..." Aoba said, a wry smirk of acceptance on his face, "I was just here filling in."

Feeling that Aoba was too calm despite his predicament, Pain scrutinized his enemy and his surroundings through the eyes of five other bodies.

On the ground around them were dozens of explosive tags, having been dropped by Aoba's crows when they'd been destroyed previously. Had they gotten any closer, they would have likely been detonated around all of the bodies. As things stood, they were almost done burning down. Aoba had activated them by the time he'd told the others to run.

The Human Path stared Aoba in the eyes, unable to peer past the dark sunglasses on his face, "This won't stop me. You understand that, right?"

Aoba breathed a laugh through his nose, despite being strangled, "Yeah," He said, his soul half removed from his body, "Yeah, I do."

*BOOM!*

XxX

Aoba was gone.

Even if his demise hadn't been accompanied by an earth-rattling, ear-ringing explosion, Hinata, Byakugan active, saw the exact moment it all happened.

They didn't know him very well, really only getting acquainted over the course of their mission in Kawa no Kuni, but he had been a good man and a fine shinobi. He had done right by them in Kurenai's absence, as far as they were concerned.

Tears pricked at Hinata's eyes, while Kiba did his best to set aside such emotions for a time when the rest of their lives weren't on the line as well. Shino was still down and out, and what remained of the team was damaged goods. Even at full strength, they had no answers for Pain. Although, they doubted they could truly outrun the danger behind them either.

Six shinobi, all considering themselves one person, all with eyes thought by many to be a myth around the creation of the ninja world. Just when they thought Akatsuki couldn't get any weirder, and that was saying something, considering they had fought two 'immortals' in the past.

At their side, Akamaru let out a bark of alert, prompting Kiba to focus on his own nose. Taking a whiff of the air, his eyes went wide, "Wait. Is that-?"

Hinata extended the range of her Byakugan in order to check out what Kiba was referring to, "Yes!" She exclaimed.

At that, Kiba kicked his speed up as fast as he could go without losing Hinata. He'd already been pushing himself past what was safe for his body, but he'd caught some familiar scents. That of Team 10. Ino, Shikamaru, and Naruto.

Naruto; the guy that Akatsuki wanted more than them.

A selfish person would have felt relief at this. After all, the only thing they would have needed to do was reach Team 10 before Pain reached them. Undoubtedly, Pain would change targets and focus solely on Naruto.

But Kiba and Hinata weren't selfish people. They had known Naruto for years. He was their friend. Hinata had nursed a crush on him since before they entered the Academy. They also knew how important Naruto was to Konoha as a whole. If Team 10 had come to be the cavalry for them, they needed to get them all to turn and leave the moment they linked up.

"GUYS!"

Never had either Kiba or Hinata been so relieved, yet terrified, to see blond hair.

When Team 10 approached, instead of stopping to brief them and let their relief check them over for injuries, Kiba and Hinata grabbed Naruto and Ino, turning them around the way they had come from. Akamaru managed to snatch Shikamaru's jacket in his mouth to do the same until Team 10 got with the program and fell into step.

Kiba preempted any questioning with a simple statement, "Can't stop here. Hell's coming behind us."

"Akatsuki," An exhausted Hinata said in a short sentence, "Rinnegan."

Upon hearing of the group that had been hunting him, Naruto craned his neck over his shoulder, "Akatsuki's back there?" He asked.

Ino snapped her fingers to get Naruto to direct his attention back in the proper direction, "Hey, we don't have time for you to go pick a fight anyway, Goldie. Time is almost up!"

Yes. Time was almost up. Getting to the border took half a day, then managing to pinpoint Team 8's location and subsequently reach them took a few more hours.

A thought rolled around in Naruto's head when reminded of his own self-imposed deadline, "How much time do we have left?"

"I don't know. We're definitely gonna be late," Shikamaru said, "18 hours have come and gone."

Naruto thought back to pleading with Fukasaku just to get the chance to go. He recalled the only reason that he'd even bothered asking for a delay in the trip to Mt. Myoboku in the first place – because if the toads really wanted him there, they could get him there just as easily as he could bring them to him.

Much to everyone's confusion, Naruto stopped, turning around completely.

"What the fuck are you doing!?" Kiba demanded to know.

"The mission was to get Team 8 back," Naruto said, "So... you guys go. I'm gonna hang back a bit. You know; make sure you make it."

He was far too casual about the threat they faced for Kiba's tastes, "What does that matter if Akatsuki captures you, genius!?" Kiba asked, stomping up to Naruto as he showed off his wounds, "He killed our squad leader and did this to us! Shino still hasn't gotten up yet!"

Naruto let out a pulse of his chakra echolocation jutsu to feel out their surroundings on the wet, rocky plain, "Whoever it is, they're catching up anyway."

Ino reached out and grabbed Naruto's hands, trying to tug him along, "That doesn't mean we have to split off for some sacrifice play. And that doesn't mean it has to be you."

Naruto leaned over and whispered in Ino's ear. Whatever he told her left her with a surprised expression. Naruto pulled away with a parting kiss on her cheek. He took a few steps back and gestured to everyone else before grinning at the rest of his friends.

"Just because we make it over the border, that doesn't mean they'll stop, especially if I'm there," Naruto said with a wave, "You guys head out. I'll catch you later."

No one who would have wanted to stop him could do so in time before he was gone. Shikamaru let out an annoyed sigh, while Hinata was mortified and Kiba was stunned. His astonishment quickly turned to anger once again, "That idiot! He can't beat Pain! There's six of him! He'd at least have a better chance if he had help!"

Shikamaru noticed that out of all of them, Ino seemed the least concerned. Granted, worry was still written all over her face, but it wasn't the abject panic or terror that Shikamaru would have expected. She just stared after him, her brow furrowed in a conflicted expression.

"Ino?" Shikamaru said, "What is it?"

Ino shook her head, her long ponytail swishing behind her, "We need to go while we can, otherwise we're just wasting this. Naruto won't be there long."

"Whoa, what?" Kiba interjected, "Aren't you a sensor? You of all people should be able to feel how legit this guy is," He directed at Ino, "Look, I know Naruto is really strong, but feel that. You're seriously saying Naruto can put Pain down?"

"No, Kiba," Ino replied, "I'm saying he's banking on the fact that he won't have to."

XxX

Naruto would have been lying if he said his heart didn't pound in his chest as he headed all alone directly toward the danger that his friends had nearly died trying to get away from. But it had to be done.

If he'd remained with everyone, it was likely that this Pain individual would just chase them past the border and into Hi no Kuni until he caught them. They would have had to face Pain anyway. Chances were that even if they won that would follow, they would lose at least one of their party during the battle. Shino hadn't even been conscious!

Naruto realized that it was unfair to put his friends in the position to leave him behind. After all, if he had been in any of their shoes, someone probably would have had to physically remove him to get him to leave one of them behind. Still, it wasn't like he was doing it for no reason. He had a plan.

...Half a plan. He had half of a plan.

...One-third of a plan actually. But it was a doozy of a 33 percent! That is, if the gamble he was counting on managed to pay off for him. Because if it didn't, there was a chance that he was likely serving up the Kyuubi to his worst enemies on a silver platter.

Naruto felt six chakra signatures approach and stopped. He only had to wait for a moment before they all landed in front of him, similarly garbed, but otherwise entirely different from one another in appearance. They all had those weird piercings and orange hair though, except for the big one that was bald.

Just as one of the Pains went to open their mouth to speak, Naruto preempted, "You're Pain, right?" He interrupted.

Far from taken aback by the blunt question, one of the Pains nodded, "Yes. I am Pain."

"Awesome," Naruto said, squinting his eyes at the sextet, "So... if I deck one of you, do you all feel it?" He asked, "I mean, I'm gonna hit all of you, a lot. I just want to know what I'm in for here."

People faced with the Six Paths of Pain had given the man behind the Rinnegan a variety reactions over the years - disbelief at facing the Rinnegan, anger at being hunted by Akatsuki, confidence in their own strength to handle the task at-hand, fear at the prospect of facing their own mortality.

Stark acceptance just short of dismissal was a new one though.

"This... is unexpected," Pain admitted.

Naruto wiggled his hand in a maybe/maybe not gesture, "Mmm. Is it though?"

Pain stared Naruto down through all six of his bodies, "...On second thought, given what I know of you and your exploits, no. No, it isn't."

Never one to pass up an opportunity to antagonize an enemy, Naruto grinned and threw his arms wide open, "Aww, you know my exploits. I'm famous!"

"Yes, you are," Pain openly admitted.

"Wait, what?" Naruto replied, clearly caught off-guard. He had just figured Pain knew about him because of his status as a jinchuuriki, "You're screwing with me, right? I was kidding."

"No, I'm being serious," Pain insisted, "...Have you ever actually stopped and thought about some of the things you've accomplished?"

From the blank expression on Naruto's face, it was clear that he had not. To be fair, when you lived your life aiming for the highest goal your village had available, and spent every day trying to get strong enough to fight off a group of the world's most notorious criminals, there was a chance you didn't have the time to stop and smell the roses.

This wouldn't be one of those times either.

"You could accomplish more, however," Pain continued, "I already know what your answer will be, but I would like this done peacefully if possible," The Deva Path extended his hand to Naruto, as though he were reaching out for him, "Come with me. I won't lie, your life will be forfeit. But I can assure you, it will be for the good of the world."

Any attempts to bring a bit of levity to the proceedings on Naruto's part ended there, "The good of the world, huh?" He repeated, no small of hostility creeping into his tone, "Is that what you guys are doing? Going for world peace?"

"It is the ultimate aim of Akatsuki," Pain said, "With help from the power you hold inside of you, we will bring an end to the destructive, pathetic, never-ending wars of the shinobi."

Naruto closed his eyes and thought back to what he saw of the Capitol after it had been bombed, "Could have fooled me," He said. If Akatsuki got their hands on the tailed beasts they were after, he could only imagine what they would do with them.

Pain scoffed, "Is it really so much better being your Hokage's secret weapon? Knowing that when things go bad, the plan will be to send you out and unleash- "

"I'm nobody's weapon," Naruto snapped, interrupting his enemy, "If the Kyuubi's power is gonna get used, I'm the one who makes that call. No one else."

"So you say."

"So I know."

"Very well then," Pain said, an unexplained finality in his words, "I never expected your cooperation in the first place. It simply felt right to offer the chance. There is only one way to teach you. The same way everyone else must learn; through suffering."

"Real peaceful of you," Naruto muttered, bringing his hands up into the Shadow Clone seal the moment Pain's Deva Path lifted its hand, "Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu (Multiple Shadow Clone Jutsu)!"

"Banshou Ten'in (Heavenly Attraction of All Creation)!"

A wall of hundreds of Naruto clones popped up between Pain and the original, just as Pain utilized his own jutsu. Many of the clones were yanked off of the ground, sent flying toward the six Paths, who scattered and dove into the mob.

The Asura Path, being the walking weapon that it was, carved its way through the horde via the various tools at its disposal. Hidden blades clashed against machetes, with Naruto clones making clones of their own to attempt a never-ending wave of orange and blue. The head of the Asura Path opened up to reveal a cannon glowing with chakra.

Firing a massive blast of chakra, it managed to take out numerous clones and a large portion of the immediate area. More clones were upended in another section of the battlefield when, in a large puff of smoke, a giant ox, complete with Rinnegan eyes and piercings in its boy, appeared and began rampaging.

Clones were crushed under its hooves and sent flying when it lowered its head to swing its horn. This method of attack left it wide open, however. Several Naruto clones sent out chakra chains that wrapped around the ox's legs and head. The massive creature thrashed and fought as wind chakra was funneled into the ever-tightening chains, cutting into and eventually through wherever they were wrapped, bringing it down.

The Deva Path hovered above the battlefield, looking down at the fray below. Things had quickly turned into sheer mayhem, and the original had been lost somewhere along the way. With all of Naruto's clones apparently adopting the strategy of making more of themselves whenever possible to field an army, he'd expected the original to eventually try to make a run for it. When that happened, he planned on breaking off a few Paths from the battle to chase him down.

The only problem was that the original hadn't tried to flee. Not a single Naruto had tried to do anything other than fight. He was still in there somewhere. Pain just couldn't tell where.

They were all fighting, all slinging jutsu and weaponry across the battlefield. All making more clones. The only way to tell that one was fake was to destroy it, the tell-tall puff of smoke signifying the defeat of a clone instead of a flesh-and-blood human being.

"Where is the real one?" The Deva Path said, unable to distinguish which Naruto was real and which one wasn't.

He would destroy as many of them as he needed to before he could deliver a decisive blow to the real Naruto and bring him to heel. For this important work, he would see to it that it was carried out as effectively as possible.

It was admittedly tedious work, however.

XxX

(Meanwhile – Mt. Myoboku)

*POP!*

Naruto appeared in a puff of smoke, not on a wet, rocky, chaotic field of battle surrounded by his own copies, but in a lush, verdant, and most importantly, peaceful mountain forest.

Blood still pounding in his ears from the frantic beat of his heart, Naruto looked around, stood in a defensive posture. When he realized where he was, a grin slowly spread across his face. Humor started to build in him, from soft chuckling, to uproarious belly laughter. It was a loud, joyous noise that echoed out through the trees, over the tranquil sounds of chirping insects.

Even without anything actively attacking him, he still got the blips of memory from his destroyed clones engaging Pain and falling to his formidable powers. Every one he received told him that as far as he knew, things had gone according as designed. Pain was focused on flushing him out from his clone army, instead of pursuing his friends.

He wished one of his clones would get a glimpse of the look on any of Pain's collective faces once he realized what had happened.

"YEAH!" Naruto exclaimed between laughs, "HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW, 'TTEBAYO!?" He beat his chest, speaking to no one in particular, "MY SHIT ALWAYS WORKS... SOMETIMES!"

While Naruto comments hadn't been directed at another living soul within earshot, he did get a response. For the first time in a while, he heard a voice inside of his head speak up to him.

"You idiot," The Kyuubi grumbled, sounding exasperated, "That would never work again in a million years."

"Don't need it to," Naruto replied, sighing in relief, "...Don't need it to."

No matter how wild things got, Naruto always knew he could count on a few things.

-His friends and loved ones to trust in him to make the right play.

-His Shadow Clones to turn a hell of a distraction for him when he needed it most.

"Time's up, ya galdurned idjit!"

*WHACK!*

"Ow!"

-And cranky summon creatures doing exactly what he expected them to.

In this case, that meant to cut him no breaks on the agreed upon timeframe before dragging him to Mt. Myoboku, kicking and screaming if necessary.

Naruto covered his head as Fukasaku assaulted him with a wooden staff, lumping up his cranium with pinpoint accuracy, "Darned brats with no respect! Always wanna do things their way! I'm an old toad! I ain't got the time ta put off ta tomorrow what'cha can do today!" He admonished Naruto in the midst of the beating, "18 hours is up! I don't care if the whole damned world's endin'! Yer getting your sage trainin', come hell or high water, ya hear!?"

"Fuck!" Naruto cursed, turtling up to protect himself from the angry toad. He knew he'd pissed Fukasaku off before in Konoha, and had expected some kind of admonishment, but it still hurt, "I'm sorry! Ow! I had to do it! I had to go!"

"Yer sorry? Ya don't know what sorry is yet, boy!" Fukasaku continued, "But yer gonna learn today! And pain is the lesson plan!"

*WHACK!*

Pain indeed.


And that's the chapter. Naruto gets his first gander at Pain, and manages to actually get one over on him. Though, it might not be the kind of setback that Pain will just laugh off. Call me crazy, but he doesn't strike me as the type to just accept getting hoodwinked.

Well, at least it won't be Naruto's problem anytime soon! For now, our boy is nestled safely in the croaking bosom of the toads of Mt. Myoboku. He's in good hands... once those hands stop swinging a staff at him, anyway.

Meanwhile, as war touches off, Tobi is planning to make moves, and Nagato realizes he needs some kind of insurance to get out from underneath Tobi's thumb when the time comes.

Let's get freaky with it, chums.

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed.

Kenchi out.