Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Damn you, Santa. Another year, another missed opportunity to give me the greatest gift I could be given!

...No, not a full lifting cage and an Olympic bar with a full set of barbells. I mean the rights to Naruto.

But I will accept the cage, bar, and weights as a substitute.

Chapter 83: Sage Advice


The safety and security of Konoha did little to take away the fear that resided in the hearts of Shikamaru and Ino. They had long since left the threat of Akatsuki's Pain in the dust, had long since left the treacherous soil of Ame-held territory behind. But the specter of their teammate's fate hung in the air. All of Team 8 couldn't leave a scratch on him, and Naruto had chosen to face him down in order to buy the others time to get away.

That they had made it back meant he had succeeded, but that he hadn't managed to catch up to them left them worried. That worry held up all the way as they made a beeline for the Hokage's office. Team 8 was greeted by a worried Kurenai outside of the building. Upon seeing her, they all allowed themselves to be hugged by their relieved sensei. Asuma smiled at the sight, but noticed his former students going right inside, heading straight for the Hokage's office. They only paused for the two seconds that it took to knock on the door and receive an 'enter' for their troubles, allowing Asuma to catch up.

Both Shikamaru and Ino looked antsy as they stood in front of the Hokage's desk. Hiruzen regarded the young pair of shinobi closely, taking a deep breath before speaking, "I'm aware."

Shikamaru and Ino spared each other a confused glance, "What?"

"I said, I'm aware of the circumstances involving Naruto," Hiruzen elaborated.

"...How?"

"Are you aware that Mt. Myoboku has a direct portal leading to Konohagakure?" Hiruzen asked rhetorically, "I received a message from the toads long before you ever arrived here. Naruto is safe amongst them, in one piece. His training is underway."

At that, a weight seemed to be taken off of Ino and Shikamaru's shoulders. Their postures visibly relaxed, "I'll be damned," Shikamaru said, "Ino was right."

Hiruzen nodded before continuing, his tone slightly terse, "I will have to have words with him on his lacking sense of self-preservation-."

"-You and me both," Ino muttered.

"-But the mission was accomplished, as well as could be expected," Hiiruzen said.

The small bit of praise triggered sadness in Team 10. Both of their expressions fell as Ino cleared her throat, "Yamashiro-san didn't make it back, Hokage-sama. He died trying to stop Pain before we could get there."

Behind his two students, Asuma winced at that bit of news. Aoba had been conspicuous by his absence when the teams had arrived. Now he knew why.

Hiruzen continued, his tone more measured and solemn to reflect the severity of the incident, "We've lost a splendid shinobi in Yamashiro Aoba. But know that you all did what you could to save as many of your comrades as you could," That they had volunteered for the mission at all had been commendable.

"We weren't fast enough, Hokage-sama," Shikamaru said.

"Sometimes you won't be," Hiruzen said, "However, the fact that you went at all may have prevented four deaths instead of one."

It didn't provide Shikamaru or Ino much solace. Yes, they had set out to save their friends, and they had accomplished that, but knowing that another comrade had died without them even getting the chance to assist him stuck with them. Even worse, knowing that had Naruto not been there, there was a chance that none of them would have made it out at all.

The thought stayed with them even after they were dismissed by the Hokage, all the way out of the building and onto the street.

"Good job," Asuma made sure to tell them once they were all clear, "You guys carried that as well as you could have on such short notice. You'll hear it from Kurenai too, once she's done fussing over Team 8."

The fatigue of the last day set in on Shikamaru. All of the stress and nonstop travel had worn on him, "So, now what?"

"Now, we do the only thing we can do," Asuma said, setting a hand on both of his students' shoulders, "We make sure we're ready for this war."

A war by itself would be difficult enough to deal with. But with Akatsuki running around, and with one of their members in possession of the Rinnegan, there were bound to be complications that they needed to be prepared for one way or another.

XxX

(With Naruto – Mt. Myoboku)

It had been a while since Naruto had properly trained with his godfather, and very little had changed in regards to what Naruto had come to expect from him. Jiraiya had two modes when it came to training a student.

The first was a hands-off method that encouraged exploration and self-development. Sometimes you had to rely on yourself for progress. There would come a moment when someone else wouldn't have an answer to a problem you had, when you had to innovate a solution that no one had successfully developed before.

Then, there was the nose-to-the-grindstone, shoulder-to-the-plow approach. When Jiraiya needed to force something into your head, or get you up to snuff physically, only bitter work would do. There was nothing complicated or introspective about this approach. You simply grit your teeth and pushed forward.

When using the latter approach, Jiraiya was ruthless.

They had already gone over the basics of senjutsu. It was just that they had run into a wall very early in their previous attempts to train. Because of the Kyuubi, Nauto had been unable to fuse with Fukasaku to channel senjutsu chakra. That had caused Jiraiya to postpone that aspect of teaching Naruto in exchange for other things that he could see the immediate benefits of and use on his Guardian Ninja missions.

Now though? There were no distractions or responsibilities that would draw Naruto away from pouring his full energies into senjutsu. If the wall that had stopped them before was still there, Jiraiya would make sure Naruto smashed through it with his own skull if he had to.

And, like before, using Shadow Clones to assist in the training proved an invaluable resource. With them, Jiraiya was able to refresh Naruto's memory and move forward with the process of gathering natural energy.

Jiraiya couldn't help the smile that pulled at his lips as he watched Naruto meditate. His ability to balance the chakra inside of him, and do so quickly, was ahead of what Jiraiya had expected, especially when their training had started with remedial drilling. Fukasaku hadn't gotten to use his staff to smack the extra natural energy out of Naruto nearly as much as he'd liked after the stunt the boy had pulled the day before.

They still needed to talk about that, in fact. Which was why, when Jiraiya and Fukasaku called for a break, Jiraiya pulled Naruto aside to speak with him.

"About yesterday," Jiraiya said, "What you told us, about your battle with-."

"-Pain," Naruto finished for him, a pensive expression on his face, "That was what the guy, or... whatever, called itself," He shrugged, "It was six guys. Well, six guys and one girl. They just all said they were the same person."

It was hard for him to believe, but the way Pain fought, both from when he was there and from what his clones had sent him back after his departure, there wasn't much he could say to debunk it. Pain didn't fight like any team he'd ever seen, not unless they had a Yamanaka-level telepathic bond. Their communication and cooperation were wordless; without cues or tells. Individual Pain bodies could avoid attacks they would have no conceivable way of knowing was coming, unless they could see it from a different angle.

Too much made sense for him to dispute Pain's claim of being a single individual. Even with Naruto's clones, they were left with the idea he had in mind when he made them, but once that original objective succeeded or failed, he would have to guide them verbally just like any other standard teammate.

"And they had the Rinnegan?" Jiraiya asked, honing in on what he had perceived as the most pertinent piece of information. Naruto nodded, and Jiraiya felt a pit in his stomach, "...Do you remember what Pain looked like? Could you show me?"

"Yeah, one sec," Naruto created six Shadow Clones and had them transform into his best recollection of Pain.

When the smoke cleared and Jiraiya got a good glimpse at what Naruto's clones had transformed into, he found himself looking at ghosts from his past. Some were more significant in his mind than others, but with the exception of the piercings, Akatsuki cloaks, and orange hair, many looked similar to shinobi he had come across in the past.

One more so than others.

"Yahiko," Jiraiya gasped, nearly choking on his own saliva from shock.

Naruto put a hand on his godfather's back and looked over his clones, trying to identify what it was that had spooked him so, "Yahiko? Is that the Pain guy's real name?"

Jiraiya pointed to the spiky-haired man in the center of the formation, "Him. That's Yahiko. But it doesn't make any sense. Why would he have the Rinnegan? It wasn't with him, it was with... with Nagato."

Squinting, Naruto looked between his Jiraiya and his transformed clones, "You're throwing these names around, and I have no idea who you're talking about."

"You aren't my first student," Jiraiya said.

"I know that," Naruto replied, "You trained my dad and his genin squad."

"Yes," Jiraiya agreed before revealing more, "But between you and them, I had three more students. They just weren't from Konoha."

Naruto's eyes lit up, "You trained another village's shinobi? How in the hell did Hokage-ojii let you get away with that?"

Jiraiya grinned and chuckled, remembering times from the past, "Oh-ho-ho, he beat my ass red for it when I got back to the village. You'd think my being away for three years would have made him miss me more. Then again, I did ditch in the middle of a war to hang out in Ame, so maybe he slapped me around because he did miss me."

There was more that needed to be told, and Naruto was eager to hear it, "...Ero-sensei, I'm feeling there's a story here that you never got around to telling me."

It was a long story to tell, one Jiraiya would rather tell with a few drinks in him. The finer details could wait for that night at dinner, but there were basics he could tell in the moment, "Between training Minato and training you, I had three students born in Amegakure – Konan, Yahiko, and Nagato. All three of them were orphans of war, struggling to survive. I hung around to teach them enough to stand on their own in a dangerous place," Again, reminiscing put him in a positive state of mind, "They were good kids. Strong-willed. I think you would have gotten along with them. You and Yahiko would have butted heads at first for sure, though."

There was a fondness there that was unmistakable. So how did anyone Jiraiya had such an influence on turn to Akatsuki, "What happened after you left then? Why are things like this now if you're the one who taught them?"

At that, Jiraiya heaved a large sigh, "I don't know, Naruto. It obviously couldn't have been anything good. They just wanted to protect each other. Yahiko was the one with big aims, but he just wanted to make Ame a better place. But Nagato... he was the one who had the power to really change the world. Just like the Great Toad Sage said..."

Naruto tilted his head in confusion, "Fukasaku?" He'd never heard Jiraiya refer to the old toad who'd spent the day hitting him with a stick by any other title.

"No," Jiraiya said before realizing that if Naruto was going to be a sage, it would be prudent to introduce him, "Huh. I probably should introduce you to the Great Toad Sage later. Anyway, he told me I would meet the Child of the Prophecy – a student who would grow up to either save or destroy the world... depending how I taught them."

He'd originally set it to the back of his mind when he'd first been told about this in his youth, but as he grew older and began teaching, first a genius like Minato, then a boy with Rinnegan like Nagato, it made him take it more seriously.

"The Rinnegan made Nagato that Child of Prophecy," Jiraiya continued, "And if he's leading Akatsuki, trying to capture all of the Tailed Beasts... let's just say I don't have high hopes here."

The Sage of Six Paths was the closest thing to a living god Jiraiya had ever come across in Shinobi lore. If Nagato possessed even a tenth of his strength and ability, with Akatsuki at his back, Jiraiya had doubts as to Konoha's ability to handle him along with the war.

While Naruto, on the other hand, could see where Jiraiya was coming from, it wasn't as though they had much of a choice. As long as Naruto held the Nine-Tails within him, eventually Pain would come for him. After what had transpired in Ame, if Pain had any kind of ego, he would likely come sooner rather than later.

When he did, and if they faced off again, Naruto would fight him the same way he would anyone else.

"Mmm... Rinnegan is just a stupid kekkei genkai though, isn't it?" Naruto said, "Sasuke has M-, I mean, Sharingan, and no one's all boned up saying he's gonna destroy the world," He corrected himself, almost casually letting slip that Sasuke had an enhanced, forbidden version of the Uchiha Clan's signature doujutsu.

Jiraiya could appreciate the boy's spirit, but he was lacking the proper context, "Sharingan, Byakugan; any doujutsu you're aware of pales in comparison to the Rinnegan. They're the eyes that belonged the Sage of Six Paths," Jiraiya said, noticing that his reference had drawn a blank, "...You don't know the old tales? What are they teaching you kids these days?"

At that, Naruto rolled his eyes, "Yeah, because there were tons of people around to read me bedtimes stories back in the day," It had been a while since he had leaned on the orphan card, but there was a time and a place for everything. Petty sarcasm during a conversation with his sensei and godfather on a remote mountainside was that time and place, "Even when I got my book learning crash course from Shiho-chan after graduating, she didn't really throw fairy tales into all of the crap she made my clones read."

"The point is," Jiraiya said, trying to steer the conversation back on track, "Someone with a Rinnegan is someone strong enough to cause a paradigm shift in the shinobi world. If the prophecy is true, there's two possibilities. Either I failed, and the world is in danger, or we're the ones on the wrong side."

Given Akatsuki's aim, approach, and the reputations of the notorious figures they had brought into their employ, he sincerely doubted that they were the undercover good guys. Just how had things come to this? He needed to know more, but approaching Ame would have been a difficult task had he been at full strength and had a war not been on the way.

By now, Naruto was tired of talking about 'would be's' and 'could be's', "Feh... you're talking about prophecy, destiny, fate... blah-blah-blah. You know I don't care about any of that crap, right?"

"Naruto..."

"No, just... let me finish, Ero-sensei." Naruto continued before Jiraiya could admonish him, "You don't have to tell me anymore for me to get that these students meant a lot to you, but Yahiko, Nagato, Pain, whatever they want to call themselves, I've seen what Akatsuki's done. If that's saving the world, my name's Menma," He cracked, "Either way, to get what they want, they have to go through me. And there's no way I'm letting that happen, 'ttebayo."

Jiraiya didn't respond, instead scrutinizing Naruto closely for any semblance of doubt in him. As he'd said what he needed to, and the situation began to feel awkward, Naruto walked past Jiraiya, giving him a pat on the shoulder as he left.

"I'm gonna go train some more," Naruto declared, "I've still gotta get better at holding nature energy after I gather it if I want to start really messing around with it."

Jiraiya watched him go, lingering in place instead of following to supervise. Naruto would be okay on his own for a bit. In the meantime, he had left Jiraiya with plenty to think about. One thing was for certain, however. If Naruto failed, it wouldn't be due to a lack of confidence.

"Got some guts on him, don't he?" Fukasaku asked as he approached, having listened in from nearby. He hopped onto Jiraiya's shoulder, "Told him 'bout what he's got comin' his way, and he didn't bat an eye."

"He's the one who already faced down the Rinnegan," Jiraiya said. If Naruto had done that, and still felt as strongly as he seemed to about winning in a real battle, dissuading him would be next to impossible, "So, what do you think about him?"

"I'm thinkin', I'm miffed ya didn't bring that tadpole my way earlier."

Despite the severity of the previous conversation, Jiraiya found himself grinning with pride, "He that good?"

"Jiraiya-chan, if ya need me ta tell ya that..." Fukasaku said, shaking his head, "Ya only had him do this for a little while before, then years later we drag him here and he gets better at it every time he pops a squat and puts his mind to it," It was astounding to him. No one had ever picked up on Sage Mode this quick, and while Naruto was using clones to speed the process, even that could only be so much of an excuse, "He's gonna surpass ya, and quick. At this rate, boy'll be stronger than ya ever were before he's old enough ta legally drink."

"If he lives," Jiraiya said, the smile fading from his face as he thought about the things his student still had to face.

Between Akatsuki, Pain, and the war that would take up much of his time, efforts, and abilities, there was no shortage of treacherous pitfalls. Any of those things alone would be dangerous enough to end his life. If they intersected and became problems all at the same time, his probability of surviving while being the focal point of these things drastically went down.

There was a good chance that Naruto was stronger than Jiraiya as things stood. But he was still just one person, no matter how many copies of himself he could make.

"Yep. If he lives," Fukasaku readily agreed. Though, the elderly toad was more positive in his outlook, "But ain't that why we're here? To make them odds just a lil' bit higher?"

Jiraiya used his remaining arm to touch at the empty space where his missing one used to be, "I just wish... old timers like us could clean up our own damned messes, instead of leaving them behind for the next generation to deal with."

"Old timers?" Fukasaku repeated questioningly, croaking out an amused laugh, "I'm the only old timer here. Yer still just a tadpole ta me, Jiraiya-chan."

XxX

(Hi no Kuni – Konohagakure no Sato – Konoha Hospital)

Sasuke was not a people person. He hadn't been for a long time, upwards up ten years by this point. Meeting new people was a pain, and having to interact directly with the people that hired the teams he was on always served to be his least favorite part of the job.

Even more than getting kicked around and nearly killed in battle.

When he had asked Naruto to get in touch with Tsunade on working with him, he had done so with the expectation that Naruto would be there to mediate and do most of the talking. Instead, Naruto had gone off to who knew where, with no timeframe for his return.

This was a problem, because Sasuke needed his Sharingan situation sorted out soon; preferably before he and Team 7 were shipped off to some war front. With his kekkei genkai, and Kakashi's reputation, he expected he, Chouji, and Sakura would have to do a lot of heavy lifting.

He still didn't want his team knowing the particulars of his Sharingan, so, Sasuke endeavored to seek Tsunade out on his own, no matter how much he didn't want to.

This brought him to the hospital. It normally wasn't a place he had much business at, unless he was badly injured. He had most recently had a short spell there after he and Naruto had been recovered from Iwa, and had never felt comfortable there. Despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses, hospitals made Sasuke feel more prickly than usual. Being in a hospital usually meant you were vulnerable, at your weakest.

The smell, the lights, the sounds, even if he wasn't a patient in one of the beds, all those things gave Sasuke similar feelings as though he were. He didn't like it. It was a good thing he didn't need to spend much time searching before he found the dark-haired kunoichi that he knew was often found around Tsunade.

Shizune was walking through the halls, files in hand when she noticed Sasuke approach. His eyes honed in on her, she preempted him with a greeting, "Hello there," She said, "You're here to see Tsunade-sama, aren't you?"

Sasuke found himself momentarily alarmed, "How did you-?"

"Naruto," Shizune said with a gentle smile that eased Sasuke's tension, "He told us he'd probably be bringing a friend to see Tsunade-sama soon. I guess you couldn't wait?"

Sasuke fought the urge to roll his eyes at how she'd worded things, "Naruto told me he would take me to talk with her, but Ino and Shikamaru say he's off somewhere training. I figured I'd try to get a meeting without him."

Shizune nodded in understanding, "Well, things aren't too busy right now, so I think this is a good time. I'll take you to her."

Sasuke fell in step with Shizune as the woman led him through the hospital. It was a good thing that she didn't seem to be the type to make small talk with him. He was a man of few words around people he actually knew well, which usually left people who didn't know him feeling like they had to fill the silence. That was good, because Sasuke hadn't yet finished thinking of how he would convince Tsunade to do what he needed.

Before he could come up with what he felt would be a half-decent sales pitch, Shizune stopped them in front of the open door of an office. Inside, Tsunade seemed to be busying herself with straightening things up and moving things around.

"Tsunade-sama," Shizune said, getting her attention, "You have a visitor."

Tsunade glanced back at the doorway and gestured Sasuke in, "Come on in, kid. Thank you, Shizune."

Shizune bowed and closed the door, leaving the two of them alone. Sasuke simply stood and patiently waited while Tsunade finished up what she was doing in the moment. Normally, he wouldn't have been as accommodating, but he still hadn't figured out just how he wanted to explain things.

"So, what brings you here?" Tsunade asked as she continued shuffling around the office, "Haven't seen much of you since the whole bounty thing."

"It's been... busy," Sasuke said. An understatement, to say the least, "I didn't know you had a residency here. I thought they reserved that for medic-nin."

At that, Tsunade looked over her shoulder and smirked, "Kid, I'm the reason that term even exists," She said, her demeanor shifting into one of reminiscence, "This is the office I used to have back when I was an active shinobi, overseeing the program back when it started. I guess sensei never had it in him to clear it out."

That, or he always figured she would eventually come back.

Sasuke ignored the bite of annoyance that rose in him at the mention of the Hokage. Though there was still a smoldering anger inside of him at the man who led the village, he'd already come close to blowing up once and had to be talked down by Naruto of all people. It wouldn't do to lose his temper at someone he was set to ask a favor from, especially over an innocuous comment.

With a deep sigh, Sasuke decided to just start speaking. Hopefully he'd come up with something good as he went along, "I have a request. A medical request."

"Yeah, I figured," Tsunade said, "It must be serious if the brat tried to drag me into it, so I told him I would hear you. It's not like it was often any Uchiha ever reached out for medical assistance away from the battlefield."

Sasuke could think of several reasons why. Even before the massacre, his clan had plenty of reasons to guard their medical histories and secrets carefully from elements even inside of the village. It was another reason why he had been hoping that Naruto could mediate for him. But then, Tsunade had recently returned to Konoha after decades away. Her loyalties were notoriously shaky, more to individuals in Konoha than to the village itself. She had been re-registered as a shinobi in order to cancel a massive bounty on her through a technicality, but as far as Sasuke knew, she wasn't active and working missions.

Sasuke looked around, trying to identify any discrepancies that could mean that there was a bug planted or a hidden eavesdropper.

"This room is clean," Tsunade said without turning around, "Believe me, I've been looking, just in case. I do a thorough sweep at least twice a week."

That solved one issue on Sasuke's end, at least, "...What is the confidentiality arrangement here?"

Tsunade stopped her busy work and sat down at her desk in front of Sasuke. Her demeanor was grave enough to match his, "Seeing as how whatever you want me to do won't be done here, and I'm not working as a medic of Konoha, it starts and ends with me."

She was serious because it was obvious that whatever he wanted was serious. There was a time and a place for being belligerent and sarcastic. One thing Tsunade didn't screw around about was medicine. She had a reputation to uphold as the premier medic-nin in all of the Elemental Nations.

"I trust Naruto..." Sasuke said, "And he knew about this when he sent me your way, so I'm trusting you too."

Tsunade nodded, saying nothing so that Sasuke wouldn't clam up.

The Uchiha boy sighed and revealed his Sharingan to her, then allowed it to morph into its Mangekyou form. Again, Tsunade said nothing, but her face reacted to the sight, "Do you know what this is?"

"An evolved form of the Sharingan," Tsunade replied, "My grandfather and granduncle fought with your clan a lot back in the day before the village existed. They knew about the Mangekyou Sharingan."

-And they shared what details they had with their other clansmen, no doubt. As they should have for many reasons, even after the Uchiha became members of Konoha. Just knowing that it existed and that it was stronger than the standard Sharingan wasn't some major discovery, however. The real specifics were still a secret, including the one that was pertinent to Sasuke's being there.

"Did they tell you that overuse of this form of the Sharingan makes the user go blind?" Sasuke asked.

Tsunade's eyes went wide. Blindness? But he was so young and healthy, "No," What a curse to come with such a power, "How do you know?"

"I've been trying to work on it since I reached this state," Sasuke said, his expression wracked with difficulty, "It's hard on the eyes, to say the least."

"I'll bet," Tsunade muttered, already thinking of ways to help, "I'll be honest, kid. Optical medicine is tricky. If I had some time, I could probably come up with something that would slow the effect, but I'm not sure I can find a way to stop it completely-."

Sasuke held up a hand, "You don't need to worry about that," He said, "I know what to do to stop it."

"And you need me for that?" Tsunade asked skeptically. If he had a solution, what purpose did he have bringing it to her,

"Well, yeah," Sasuke said, awkwardly diffusing some sarcasm into his tone to soften what he had to say next, "I can't implant Itachi's eyes into my head on my own."

It was dark enough of a concept that Tsunade could have taken it as a joke, had Sasuke been the joking type. There wasn't an ounce of that in his being, however, "Come again?" She asked abruptly.

Realizing his attempt to lighten the mood had fallen flat, Sasuke decided to go the direct route, "The only way to stop the blindness the Mangekyou Sharingan causes is to transplant the Mangekyou of an Uchiha with strong blood ties."

Somehow all mentions of the Sharingan from the Shodai and Nidaime Hokage had lacked that detail, "That's just..."

"I know," Sasuke sighed, having wrestled with this endlessly ever since he had unlocked the Mangekyou Sharingan for himself, "Believe me. Whatever you're thinking, I've had the same thought more times than you can count. But it is what it is."

When he was alone, Sasuke had spent no small amount of time just staring at the scroll that contained the last of Itachi's preserved remains. He had cremated his brother's body shortly after retrieving it from Iwa, save for his eyes. Those he had kept for just this situation. As reluctant as he was to take that step, the political climate and the necessity for the conflict ahead was forcing his hand.

"Do you feel like it's inevitable that you'll use it?" Tsunade asked.

"We're about to walk into what's probably going to be the Fourth Shinobi World War," Sasuke deadpanned, "You tell me."

"Does anyone else know?"

"Just Naruto," Sasuke shrugged, "And now you, I guess."

Not even anyone on his team knew. Not Kakashi, nor Sakura or Chouji. He hadn't dared to reveal the Mangekyou Sharingan in front of them, for all of the questions he would have to answer in the aftermath.

Given the history of their two clans, Tsunade felt a deep respect for his initiative, "The balls you've got, bringing this to me, a Senju of all people," At that, she breathed out a small laugh, "I guess there's something humorous we can pull from that."

"Will you help?" Sasuke finally asked.

Tsunade thought about turning him down for a moment before relenting, "Hell... I know too much to just let you run off and find someone else to do this," As if there would be anyone else in Konoha with the ability to help who would also keep something of this nature under wraps from higher-ups. And a major part of her was interested in the procedure, "Alright. I'm in."

Sasuke stoically nodded in acceptance of Tsunade's consent, though internally he felt relief. At least that was one less thing he would have to worry about in the coming days.

XxX

(Kawa no Kuni)

A contingent of Suna's frontier force stopped their seemingly never-ending patrol of the buffer nation between Hi no Kuni and Kaze no Kuni. One of the numerous rivers that populated the countryside served as their temporary resting place.

As they took a moment to check their supplies, freshen up, and regain some of their strength, they chatted between themselves. Word had spread of the events of the previous days, including the fate of the enemy they had chased into what they had all been certain at the time had been a death sentence.

"I can't believe those Konoha shinobi made it back from that far past the border," One Suna kunoichi said after the topic had been broached, "Since when was Hanzo not in charge of Amegakure?"

"Since fucking now, apparently," A salty, older-looking man in a turban replied, "I can't believe someone actually took him down. For as long as I've been around, he was the boogeyman in the Elemental Nations."

A third, younger man chimed in from where he stooped down by the river, scrubbing his face, "'Get too far over the border in Ame and may God have mercy on your soul, 'cuz your ass belongs to Salamander Hanzo,'" He said, remembering a saying that had been around for decades, "Times are a'changin', I guess."

"Not really," The older shinobi grunted, "Names and faces change, but it's still the same crap from when I was a kid," He then gestured to their surroundings, "Case in point – another stupid war."

The kunoichi frowned, trying to take a more optimistic view, "You don't know there's gonna be a war."

The older shinobi smiled at her as though he were about to lecture a child, "We're out here looking for frontier forces that we know for a fact exist. The war's already happening, even if nobody wants to be the first one to say it out loud," No one did want to say it out loud, and they didn't. From there, he changed the subject, "So what do you guys prefer?"

"What do you mean?"

The older shinobi explained his intended question, "Do you prefer big, pitched battles where you're part of the mob, or are you a skirmish, small engagements sort?"

The young man took a moment to think about it before replying, "Both suck for different reasons."

"How so?"

"I know my limits. When the shit hits the fan, and the A and S-rankers come out, I'm not the one that's gonna put a stop to 'em," The younger man said, "If it's a big battle, hopefully I'm not in the part of the mob they wipe out with their massive jutsu. If it's a small engagement, I hope the mission I'm on isn't important enough where they don't let me retreat."

"Wow," The kunoichi drawled, "You're a glass half-empty kind of guy, aren't you?"

"I'm a realist," The young man replied before noticing an approach, "Hey. We've got company."

The remainder of the team tensed up until they got a look at the ones that had disturbed them. They had remembered seeing them before when everyone was given orders and coordinates to explore. It was another small unit that had broken off to scout another nearby portion of the border area, "Yo," One of them greeted, "Isn't it time we meet back up with the main force?"

The older shinobi of the group rose to his feet with a grunt, "Yeah, you're right," He said, stretching to warm his muscles back up before they traveled again, "Baki isn't the kind of guy you leave waiting. Especially now of all times," While they had only seen any Konoha shinobi at a distance, as no combat had been reported yet, everyone was on edge, their commander included, "Let's go. Everyone, fall in."

There was plenty more that needed to be done. No word had come of an attack just yet, but more shinobi were being called from Suna to integrate into the frontier forces every day. That Konoha hadn't launched their own skirmishers into Kawa no Kuni yet was a means for concern, but it also could have meant that they were preparing to fight a defensive war on their own turf. All of the scouting they were doing was meant to reveal this, yet they had still to turn up anything concrete they could use.

It left many of them feeling antsy. There was so much tension, it would almost be better for everyone's nerves if an attack just happened, from either end, just so they wouldn't have to worry about it anymore.

"What the hell?"

From seemingly nowhere, they found themselves surrounded, despite moving in travel formation to prevent ambushes. It didn't make sense. One moment there had been nothing, no sign of anyone, and the next, dozens of... creatures came from the ground, the trees, everywhere.

They didn't look like Konoha shinobi. They didn't even look human. They looked like white plant people.

There was very little time to absorb these details. There was little time to react in general. The moment attention had turned to the plant people, the tagalongs that had just joined the group seemingly turned on the rest. Being attacked from all sides, it was over quickly.

Mortally wounded they were victimized by three of the plant men who opened their bodies like Venus flytraps to trap them and absorb their chakra. It had all happened in a matter of seconds. In a few moments time, not even their bodies were left as evidence.

The task completed; the plant people responsible for the deed transformed into perfect copies of their victims. Duplicates down to the last detail; appearance, scent, even chakra. Once the process was complete, they stood next to the turncoat Suna shinobi. All of them smirked at each other, "Man, do we really look that ugly now?"

"All these humans look the same, so yeah," One of the traitor 'Suna' shinobi replied, "Get used to it. We're gonna be like this for a while."

"We won't be alone though," Another one said as another plant man, this one, half black and half white dressed in an Akatsuki cloak appeared. The original Zetsu.

"You know what you're meant to do," Zetsu said to the newly transformed, "Take whatever intel they give you, but don't root around for more. Don't raise any suspicion. Help your brothers ingratiate when more arrive. We'll get you updated orders when we need you."

The transformed White Zetsu nodded and took off to join the main portion of Suna's frontier force while the rest of the naked White Zetsu slunk back into the environment, biding their time for the next ambush, when more could substitute themselves into Suna's ranks.

Suna made for the softest target right now, but this was how it would eventually be for all shinobi nations. Tobi's plan was horrifying in its potential effectiveness. War created chaos, and chaos provided no shortage of opportunity for the White Zetsu to infiltrate all sides. The more there were, the easier it would be to strike even higher up. The higher up they reached, the more vulnerable the great villages would be when Akatsuki launched its final gambit.

After all, if one couldn't ensure that they held all of the cards in the game, why not ensure they controlled all of the players at the table?

XxX

(With Naruto – Mt. Myoboku)

It had been good for Naruto to see Jiraiya back on his feet. He wasn't back in proper form, and the jarring sight of his missing arm was still something Naruto had to adjust to, but at least he was cleared to get some fresh air and help him train.

Speaking of the training...

"This place is nice and all, but this training is for the birds, 'ttebayo," Naruto observed after dinner, "The food too."

'Dinner' had consisted of grubs, worms, and other insects. Jiraiya had begrudgingly partaken of Shima's cooking with all the resignation of a man that had long since accepted that it was all he would be getting while on the mountain. Naruto had tried, trying to envision the worms as ramen noodles. This had failed spectacularly for him.

Jiraiya chuckled at his student's visceral reaction to his training plans, "What, you don't like all of the peace and tranquility? The local cuisine?"

Naruto scoffed and turned away, a scowl on his face, "No, I don't like sitting perfectly still in the middle of nowhere for eight hours a day, or eating bugs, thanks."

"That's too bad then, because we're doing it until I'm satisfied," Jiraiya said, taking a small amount of amusement in the immediate change in Naruto's expression and body language, "Don't make that face. You'll thank us for making you do this when the time comes."

Having a thought, Naruto quickly brightened up, "Do I get to drink with Gamabunta and Gamakichi when I'm done?" He already smoked. What was indulging in another vice at that point? After all, he would be in the company of his summons, "Boss Toad said I could when we were equals."

He couldn't wait. He'd seen Gamatatsu around earlier and had caught up with his large, good-natured yellow friend. Gamakichi was a different kind of hoot to hang out with; more Naruto's speed. Business before pleasure though.

'Do you want to die from alcohol poisoning?' Jiraiya thought to himself before kicking that particular can down the road, "Err... finish your training and we'll talk about it," He pulled out the mask he had borrowed from the Uzumaki Clan Mask Temple, running his thumb across it carefully, "You have no idea how much Sage Mode saved my ass against Orochimaru."

Naruto went wide-eyed at the sight of his clan's property, "What? You had my mask all this time and you're just now bringing it up? I forgot you even had that! Gimme!" If he could use it to do half of the job that Sage Mode required for him, he wanted that action for himself.

Jiraiya pulled it back when Naruto reached for it, holding it just out of his reach, "Tch, in your dreams, boy," He teased.

"What?" Naruto groused, "It's mine anyway. I lent it to you."

"And I'll give it back when I think you're good enough," Jiraiya said, "If you had it now, you'd just rely on it to gain natural energy for you, instead of mastering how to do it yourself," At that, he shifted into stern lecture mode, "We're not just here to teach you a cool jutsu. We're here to make you a proper sage. The toads won't tolerate any shortcuts."

"Fine. No shortcuts. I'll do it myself," Naruto conceded, "But when I do, I want my goddamn mask back. That's clan property."

Jiraiya chuckled and gave Naruto a pat on the head before heading back inside, "Make sure to get some rest. Now that you're getting a grasp on the material, we're going to take things up a notch."

That sounded... ominous. Naruto quickly set it aside, however. There was nothing he could do about it until tomorrow.

Alone with his thoughts for the first time in a while, Naruto remembered that he still wasn't exactly alone, and with hardly a thought and a blink of his eyes, his consciousness found itself standing ankle deep in water in front of the Kyuubi's cage.

There was no angry greeting or an attempt at intimidation. The Kyuubi seemed slightly annoyed at his presence., but nothing more, "It's disturbing how easily you can reach my prison these days. You used to have to search a bit."

"What can I say? I've been doing a lot of meditating lately," Naruto replied, "It's not my fault the key to tapping into your chakra is my mind."

While they weren't friendly, their relationship had become significantly less contentious since Naruto had escaped from Iwagakure and they had their open airing of grievances. They had a common goal; not wanting Akatsuki to get their hands on the Kyuubi, because that would mean the Kyuubi's capture and further exploitation, and Naruto's untimely demise.

"What do you want?" The Kyuubi ventured to ask.

Naruto looked up at the mammoth creature through the bars of the cage, "You knew the Sage of Six Paths, right?"

The Kyuubi snorted with enough force to blow Naruto back a step, "That pretender wielding the Rinnegan is no Sage of Six Paths," The fox rumbled, "He is no inheritor of the Sage's will. Don't be fooled. He never would have wished for the tailed beasts to endure what he intends for us. He wants to make us weapons. We are not weapons, no matter how many times humanity tries to yoke us into subservience."

While creating jinchuuriki was a comparatively recent phenomenon, only occurring regularly during the last century, treating the tailed beasts like monsters had been happening for as long as they had existed. If only the humans knew just what a real monster was; if they knew what the mere existence of the tailed beasts was protecting them from...

"I have a question for you," Kyuubi said.

Naruto perked up, prepared to respond, "I have an answer... err, hopefully."

More or less given the okay, not that it mattered to the Kyuubi, it asked, "If you had the means to release me without dying, would you?"

"Depends. Are you gonna go destroy Konoha or some other village when I do it?"

"No."

Naruto shrugged, "Then yeah."

Really? Just like that? No hesitation? The Kyuubi doubted it was that simple, even if Naruto himself was, "You would do so, even if it meant making yourself that much weaker? Isn't your goal to become Hokage? The strongest in your village?"

That was a good question. While being bonded to the Kyuubi had come with no shortage of trouble since the day he was born, it was no question that having the Kyuubi with him had saved his life countless times. Having it sealed inside of him made him stronger than he would have been in the same situations without it.

Surviving Gaara, living through his first battle with Guren, juggling training under Jiraiya and the workload of being a Guardian Ninja... those were just a few of the early examples. Tapping into the Nine-Tails' chakra had given him the knockout power to go toe-to-toe with enemies he otherwise wouldn't have been able to. But it wasn't the end-all. It couldn't be.

"There were four Hokages already that weren't jinchuuriki," Naruto said with a grin, "Not making it there with them because I don't have you anymore just sounds like an excuse."

The Kyuubi was simply one aspect of Naruto's repertoire, albeit a significant one. But if taking the Kyuubi away from Naruto would make him that much of a non-factor as a shinobi, he couldn't say he would deserve being Hokage even with it.

"What about you?" Naruto asked, now curious about the mindset of the Nine-Tails, "What would you do when I released you? You know, if you're not gonna go on a rampage across the Elemental Nations, or whatever?"

'When', not 'if', the Kyuubi noted.

"I'm tired, Naruto," The Kyuubi said, "Tired of being used by humans. Tired of being hunted down just for existing. Tired of being bound to those who would keep me imprisoned just for that existence, and the desire of others to use me," The way it spoke, just the act of using Naruto's given name instead of calling him 'boy', it sounded just as weary as it was trying to convey, "I'm tired of being angry. If I ever get out of here, I plan to disappear. For at least a few of your human lifespans, no one will know where to find me, as far as I can help it."

Naruto frowned at the thought, "That sounds lonely..." Doing something like that would drive him insane in short order.

While the Kyuubi agreed, it wasn't a difficult choice to make, "Solitude over subjugation any day."

Understandable. But did the choice have to be between two options that were so bleak? What if one could be made markedly more tolerable, "Do you have to be alone?"

"What are you getting at?"

"If you're confident you can disappear, get away from humans altogether, what are the chances the other biju would feel the same?" Naruto asked, "Akatsuki has most of them sealed up, and we're fighting Akatsuki..." He trailed off, allowing the Kyuubi to fill in the blanks.

"You would free them instead of returning them to the villages that claim them?" The Kyuubi said incredulously. It didn't dare have hope, "This would start a war."

Naruto looked up to the fox with a deadpan expression, "We're already at war because Suna thinks we nicked Shukaku, and everybody else thinks Orochimaru taking the Sanbi was Konoha's fault anyway."

True enough. But there were still factors that left the Kyuubi skeptical, "The Hokage would never allow you to."

Naruto replied with the ease of a teenager used to covering up misdeeds, "Eh, what the old man doesn't know won't hurt him. I'll just say they got away. And if he has a problem with that... it's like I told Pain. I'm nobody's weapon. I'll do what I think is right."

The more Naruto explained away the issues at hand, the more the Kyuubi felt hope. Hope was a feeling that it hadn't felt in a very long time, "You can't be serious about this."

Naruto smiled sadly, "We were both dealt a shitty hand. We didn't ask to be put together. I know I sure didn't volunteer. If there's a way out for the both of us that won't kill me, I swear I'll take it – after we defeat Akatsuki. I'll free the other tailed beasts to prove it."

The Kyuubi couldn't sense a hint of a lie from him. Every word that had come from Naruto's mouth was, as far as he was concerned, the solid truth. He meant every bit of it.

Resolutely, Naruto gave the Kyuubi a thumbs up, "It's the promise of a lifetime, Kyuubi."

And the Kyuubi believed it. There was just one problem though.

"That's not my name," Kyuubi said.

Naruto knew that. They had talked about it before, "It's the only thing I've ever heard anyone call you."

"Calling me 'Nine-Tailed Fox' is like calling you 'Two-Legged Human'." The Kyuubi said with a roll of its eyes, "The One-Tails has a name – Shukaku. The Eight-Tails has a name – Gyuuki. I have a name."

Even though the Kyuubi itself had been the one to lead the conversation this way, it still hesitated when the time came to complete its statement. No one had used its name in so long. Definitely not a human. It hadn't even heard its name at all since it had first been sealed away.

"My name is Kurama, Naruto. Never forget it."

"It's nice to meet you, Kurama."


Well, guys. That's the chapter. In time for Christmas, my gift to those who give a crap. Something to read while you're taking a break from dealing with family for the holidays or whatever it is any of you do on Christmas. Hell, even if you don't celebrate Christmas or any religious holiday in particular, I don't care. Anything goes.

Anywho, I'm done for now. Next time, sage training continues! The war kicks off for real! The rift in Akatsuki leaves both the left and the right hands operating independently of the other! Loud noises!

I hope you enjoyed, and I'll catch you later.

Kenchi out.