“The eight-tails’ jinchuuriki is dead,” Jiraiya said, by way of greeting.
Dust swirled across the deserted square as they stepped forward. Tsunade and Jiraiya of the Sannin, with a younger girl standing a few paces behind, carrying their bags and a fat little piglet dressed up in pearls.
Naruto could see with his byakugan the transformation being sustained on Tsunade even now; she was young and attractive to one eye—voluptuous to the point of absurdity, but to his other eye she was wrinkled and thin-lipped, with dry hair and leathery, liver-spotted skin.
Naruto had decided to face the Sannin openly in Sound village and to ask what they wanted, rather than spending all his chakra running for his life—he had other bodies well ahead of them, already, and he’d had the sense this time to suggest that Hinata and Sasuke send their own shadow clones off, too, before they found themselves fighting against both of the remaining Sannin at once.
“Presumed dead,” Tsunade amended. “Killa-Bee’s corpse has yet to be recovered.”
The Third had said Jiraiya was the only one who’d known his father’s secret, and that he’d been entrusted to keep an eye on the Hokage for Naruto’s sake. Whatever sense of betrayal Jiraiya must have felt when Naruto had fled his father’s village might easily have justified tracking him down. Whatever the eight-tails had to do with that, or with Orochimaru, was anybody’s guess.
“I’m Uzumaki Naruto,” he said. He’d been practicing his confident tone of voice, lately, with Kabuto around so often. “Did you want something?”
There was a faint purple diamond visible on Tsunade’s forehead, dense with chakra; supposedly some kind of amazing medical technique. Jiraiya had streaks of red war paint beneath his eyes like tears of blood, and long, unkempt, stark white hair, with a small toad nestled inside it.
He eyed Kabuto suspiciously.
“Keeping good company, I see.”
“Well, we’re all very busy here, so—”
“Ah, and you…” Jiraiya said, sauntering toward Sasuke. “You were his new vessel, eh? When’s your mother’s birthday?”
Sasuke smirked. “June first,” he said. “Do I pass?”
Naruto almost didn’t notice as Jiraiya kept walking; a single step too close—before he could think to react Jiraiya had pressed his palm up against Sasuke’s forehead.
Sasuke recoiled from his touch. “—The fuck are you doing?”
“Cleaning off a little smudge,” Jiraiya said.
“Your seal’s gone…” Naruto said.
Sasuke’s clone hadn’t burst, so it probably hadn’t been directly harmful, whatever he’d done.
Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t think it’s a little rude to touch a shinobi’s face without his permission?”
“You’re a little young to be telling me what not to do.”
Kabuto leant in to speak in Naruto’s ear. “I believe the Sannin are attempting to assert their dominance over you, sir. Shall I have them escorted out?”
“If I wanted to stroke my own ego I could find a better way to do it,” Jiraiya said. “Say, by betraying my home village and fleeing to a foreign country, for example, and then putting a knife in the back of the one who took me in, to seize power for myself. That’d probably work.”
Naruto took a deep breath, trying to regain his sense of composure. “I think you might have a few misconceptions about what we’ve been doing lately, but if we’re going to talk can we move this inside?”
Jiraiya bowed theatrically. “We’re at your mercy, your highness.”
“I don’t like it.” Tsunade said, wrinkling her nose. “Reminds me too much of him.”
Naruto ignored their comments and led them down into the underground lair, sending Kabuto away as he did to simplify the situation a little. He wasn’t sure what might need to be said, but it would probably be a lot easier if he didn’t have to keep up his façade on two fronts simultaneously.
The six of them seated themselves in the meeting chamber, where Kakashi had once negotiated the treaty for Leaf. A pair of civilian girls came in with platters of food and drink. Jiraiya eyed them from behind as they left. Guys like him who spent a lot of time in hostile territory didn’t always remember how civilization worked when they got back.
Tsunade folded her arms. “So,” she said. “Why’d you do it?”
“Do what? Leave Leaf?” Naruto asked.
“Sure. Let’s start with that.”
“The new Hokage tried to kill us,” Naruto said. “We had no choice. Nothing we could do but run.”
“Tried to kill you?” Jiraiya scoffed. “A pack of genin fresh from of the womb?”
Naruto ignored the jab. “My teammates know about the nine-tails, and who my father was, and I’m assuming that since you know, then Tsunade and your assistant, uh…”
“And Shizune already know too,” Naruto said. “I’m not sure if that was the motive, but there were several reasons someone might have had to kill us.”
Tsunade and Jiraiya exchanged a skeptical glance.
Naruto decided to try feigning a little less certainty for once. “Do you know if any other teams have died in the last few weeks, somewhere near the border with Mist, maybe?” he asked.
Jiraiya smiled mirthlessly. “You might have heard. There’s a war going on.”
“I meant before that,” Naruto said. “Do you know if any Leaf teams might have died down there right before the war?”
“…What, you didn’t hear about it?” Jiraiya asked, “Some academy students were down there, learning to scout. Third’s grandson. Mist ninja killing them is what kicked off this whole mess.”
Naruto nodded. “We’ve been out of reach of news for a few days. But that’s where we were, too. They sent us down there to die, but we were lucky enough to escape. Sounds like the other group were our replacements. I can’t say for sure, but I would predict that that scouting trip probably hadn’t been originally scheduled to take place where it did, at that exact time, if you wanted to try to confirm it somehow. Someone had to take our place to justify the attack.”
Tsunade beat her fist on the table. “Mist and Stone are the ones threatening us. Waiting any longer would have been suicide.”
Jiraiya leaned back, crossing his arms. “Alright… suppose someone did mean to kill you, and you fled for your own safety. Treason, murder—all in self defense. Why attempt to seize power in Sound, then? Why not go somewhere safe?”
“We thought Sound was safe,” Naruto said. “It’s the one village we’d ever been to, outside of Leaf, and the guy in charge had helped Sasuke unlock his sharingan and given him that seal on his forehead, which had been useful. But then he turned into a giant snake and we had to kill him. We didn’t know who he was until after the fight, and by that point there wasn’t anybody left to run this place. It wasn’t an intentional power grab; it just sort of… fell into our lap. None of us have any family left in Leaf, anyway, or anywhere else, so where should we have gone?”
“You could have come to me,” Jiraiya said.
“You?” Naruto asked. “You, Jiraiya of the Sannin?”
“You said you knew about me and your pop. Should’ve known I’d look out for you, even if it was the Hokage on your back.”
“I’d never met you before today,” Naruto said. “I wasn’t even sure you were still alive, let alone how to contact you in an emergency. According to legend you were off battling demons somewhere. That’s not much help when we’re fleeing through the forest with a short head-start and a dead body to hide.”
“Hey, we all have our demons, kid. You’re ninja; it’s your job to find people.”
“Where were you then? Where should we have gone?”
“Me? I was in Hot Springs.”
“Hot Springs is the first place we went!”
“Hmph,” he sniffed. “Can’t have been looking very hard then.”
“We weren’t!” Naruto said, exasperated. “We’re just kids, we were trying to hide! I never even had the idea of looking for you.”
Jiraiya frowned. For a moment, Naruto almost thought he’d managed to hurt his feelings.
“Well, let’s just agree that it could have been handled better.”
Naruto said nothing.
“I would have come and found you at some point anyway, now that you’re grown,” Jiraiya said, “but I didn’t come all the way here just to say hello to the son of a pupil. I came to tell you that you’re in danger. Like I said: the jinchuuriki of the eight-tailed beast is dead.”
Naruto actually relaxed a little, hearing this. He could hardly imagine a worse threat than being hunted by the Sannin—but as for him coming “all the way” from neighboring Hot Springs…
“What kind of danger could require two of the Sannin to warn me about?”
“There’s a gang of missing-nin you might have heard of; they call themselves ‘Akatsuki’. They’re led by a guy called Pein, and he’s managed to recruit some of the toughest ninja I know to work like dogs for him, all because he’s apparently reawakened the rinnegan somehow, and lately they’ve been taking out the jinchuuriki. No particular village affiliation, just all the hosts of the tailed beasts, one by one. That’s a pretty short list of people, and it includes you.”
Naruto looked over at Sasuke. Kabuto had said that Itachi was a member of a group called Akatsuki.
“Why would they want to hunt me down and attack me?” he asked. “They want the beasts in their clans that badly?”
“That’s one theory,” Jiraiya said. “Trouble is, most of these ninja have never shown much interest in founding their own clans. We know that at least two of them are celibate, and they’re all too old to reap any personal gain by boosting their own chakra capacity. If they were cooperating to get themselves a beast each, well, we’d need some other explanation for why Sasori of the Red Sand is involved, for one thing… That guy’s smooth as carved wood down there. I’ve seen it.”
Naruto decided not to ask him to clarify.
“Second theory’s even less likely,” Jiraiya continued, “this one’s just a rumor spreading between panicky clan heads that got their positions more by virtue of birth than by brains. They’re saying Pein’s discovered some heretofore unknown procedure to combine the nine separate tailed beasts into a ten tailed beast, which you’ll note is not how addition actually works—and that he plans to somehow control this beast and use it to either destroy the world, or to destroy the moon, or to rule the world, or possibly to rule the moon, or some other thing along those lines depending on who exactly is telling the story… Needless to say, the odds that one random shinobi just happened to manifest the long-lost rinnegan eye-technique and came up with a way to put the tailed beasts together under his control isn’t something anybody worth taking seriously is taking seriously.”
“So is there a third theory?” Naruto asked.
“There is,” Jiraiya said. “You jinchuuriki are some of the toughest ninja around, once you’re trained right. Not always in terms of killing power, but I’ve had to personally grapple with more than a few people like you, and the worst part of fighting one is always that if you can’t take them out fast, those bastards just keep on fighting until everybody else runs out of breath. We think Pein really might have reawakened the rinnegan, or at least he got his hands on some technique powerful enough to bring all those other ninja into line, but whatever it is, it’s probably not something he could sustain for six hours straight in an endurance battle. We think that he might be planning a kind of large scale world conquest, and the first stage of his plan is to wipe the jinchuuriki out of contention so that he’s got a few years of leeway before the spirits find new hosts. You’re probably not any real threat to him yet, or even to his buddies, but if endurance battles are his chief weakness then clearing the nine of you out of the way might make the rest of his work a little easier. At least two of the ninja we know he’s recruited so far are in possession of bloodline techniques particularly well suited to one-versus-many battles, and a country like Hot Springs or Sound probably wouldn’t be able to stand up to them even with the advantage of numbers. These guys are some of the strongest ninja alive. Once he’s actually established a large enough powerbase to look like a potential threat to the established order, the turncoats will flock to him and it’ll be too late. With a core that powerful already gathered beneath a single banner, he might really have a shot at pulling it off.”
It sounded a little crazy—that some guy he’d never even heard of with a few friends and no territory might already be threatening world conquest, but if Jiraiya took it seriously then some danger must exist.
“Uchiha Itachi’s been seen around Leaf lately,” he continued. “We think he might be the one who got Killa-Bee, and that you’re his next target.”
Sasuke’s eyes widened. “Itachi’s coming?”
“Don’t you worry about that, kid,” Jiraiya said, “It’s Naruto he wants. Keep to yourself and you’ve got nothing to fear.”
“I’m not afraid—” Sasuke said, “wait—no. That isn’t true… I am afraid, but I want to fight him anyway. I want to become strong enough to kill him.”
“Well I wish you the best of luck. Itachi probably doesn’t know who the host of the nine-tailed beast is yet, Naruto, but since it still hasn’t re-emerged anywhere else he’ll probably start by looking into your mother, and then you’ll naturally come under suspicion,” Jiraiya said. “I heard you put on quite a display during the tournament, too. If anyone suspects you’re the host, you can be sure that Akatsuki will find out. They seem to have unusually good information for just a handful of ninja, and legend has it that the rinnegan enables mind-reading.”
Naruto couldn’t really believe that this “Pein” guy had the actual legendary rinnegan at his disposal. He could think of a few ways to fake something like that, but more importantly if any ninja really had reawakened the eye of “the first son of the first ninja” then they wouldn’t need underlings, or even any complicated plan for world conquest—they would have already won.
“Now, I’m a pretty busy guy,” Jiraiya said, “I’ve got a lot of work to do and no time for fun and games, but I promised your father I’d take care of you, and I keep my word. Maybe you did have a reason to desert, I don’t know yet, but I have my duty. Tsunade and I want to protect you—”
“You want to,” Tsunade corrected. “I’m still very reluctant.”
“Right,” Jiraiya said. “We’ll let you accompany us as we travel, despite your status as a missing-nin of Leaf. You can stay indoors, keep out of sight, and not speak unless spoken to. We’ll go about our own business, but if anyone tries to attack you, we’ll be there.”
The conversation had taken a pretty sharp turn from its beginnings. Naruto rubbed his head, trying to digest what they were saying.
“Um… thank you both, for the offer, but—”
“Kid, do you have any idea what most ninja would pay for this kind of offer?” Tsunade asked.
“I thought you were reluctant?” Jiraiya said.
“Not if he’s going to give up that easily.”
“I’m not giving up, I just—” Naruto paused, considering how to word it politely. “I don’t… think… I don’t think I can be killed? And I have a lot of things to do, and—”
Tsunade’s jaw went slack.
“You think that little byakugan will save you?” Jiraiya said. “Illusions are just one of Itachi’s weapons.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Naruto said, “I mean—like, I really can’t be killed, even when I lose a fight. I have spare shadow clones spread out everywhere. Like, right now—I’m sitting in a cave in Cloud country, and I’m also in Grass, and in here with you and in other places as well. If they get to one of my clones it’ll just burst and I’ll replace the body somewhere else. Other than by pulling off a whole lot of perfectly coordinated attacks all over the continent I don’t think anyone can really hope to kill me, anymore.”
“Even jinchuuriki have limits. Shadow clones can’t keep you safe forever.”
“There are limits, but I’ve been working really hard to figure out exactly what they are, and it looks like if I manage it right, my chakra regeneration is actually enough to cover the cost of maintaining a few clones indefinitely. Even taking into account the potential for measurement errors, and a big safety margin.”
Tsunade looked at Jiraiya. “…That couldn’t be right.”
“Hard to say… Very hard to say. I’ve certainly seen stranger things,” he said. “Like that guy with the mouths on the palms of his hands. Remember when we caught him—”
“They don’t need to hear that.”
“Right,” Jiraiya cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t think you’re nearly as safe as you seem to believe, Naruto. There are many strange and powerful techniques in this world. Even a coordinated attack may be possible, by some means.”
“I’m not trying to be reckless, but I don’t think I can really afford to devote a number of my shadow clones to just following you around with my head down,” he said. “I have my own plans… if you’ve got any powerful secret techniques I could copy, then that’d be great, but I need to get stronger.”
“…A secret technique, huh? How about the strongest technique theoretically possible?” Jiyaira smirked. “Just a little something your father and I were working on before he died.”
“Does it… does it happen to be shaped like a sphere?” Naruto asked. “Or… maybe like a very thin straight line?”
Jiraiya’s brows creased. “It’s a ball. Yeah. The Third told you?”
“Uh—no, I was—I was working on something similar, actually. A while ago. It’s pretty useful.”
His eyes narrowed. “Show me.”
Naruto put his hand out on the table and carefully shaped his chakra into the drill-like form of the whirlpool technique.
“It’s not as efficient for space as a sphere,” Naruto explained, “but I thought this might be more practical.”
Jiraiya examined it up close, seemingly unconcerned with the danger of having his head so close.
“Hmm… not a bad shape,” he said, rubbing his chin. “I suppose the trade-off isn’t unreasonable, but you’ve only got one element in there. Anyone could do that. Your father and I were aiming for all four.”
“Yeah, but I’m still—wait, four? You mean all five?”
Jiraiya sniffed. “Hmph. Call yourself the boss here, do you? Any jounin with half a brain knows you can’t put more than four elements into a single technique. It’s logically impossible.”
“Logically impossible?” Naruto asked. “Well, I’m not a jounin, anyway—but why would the limit be four instead of five, if there’s five elements?”
Jiraiya pulled out his notebook and opened it to a blank page on the table.
He drew a circle, and a person’s hand cradling one side of it.
“Imagine this circle is your technique. The shape doesn’t matter—it’s just chakra coming out of your hand. Let’s say it’s fire element.”
He drew a second hand on the other side, and then a line cutting the circle down the middle, between them.
“Now, out of this other hand you’re making some other kind of chakra. Lightning or whatever.” He pointed to the line between the two halves. “This edge here, where the two sides meet—that’s where the power comes from. That physical interface between the two different natures is what makes the whole thing double in strength. You won’t get the real benefits of having two natures just by throwing fireballs one minute then thunderbolts the next. You need to put some of both into the mix with a common edge they can touch across.”
He added a third line to his diagram, splitting one half of the circle in half again—three parts now in total.
“This works fine too, you see? You might need three hands or a spare leg to do it, but if you’re good enough to do three different kinds with three fingers, then you can have all three of these elements in contact with each of the others. That’ll double your output again, so if one element alone is worth maybe twice as much as the regular unrefined mess, and two elements doubles it to four times, then with three, naturally, you have eight times the power. Problem is, every new kind you put into it has to be adjacent to every other kind—it needs to have its own direct connection to all of the others. With two elements that’s trivial, and with three you can just cut it up like a pie, but at four it starts getting tricky; you’ve got to either wrap the pie in a crust, or you can stick some meat into the center of the pie—but you can’t have both your crust and your meat, because for the meat inside to touch the crusty outside they would have to cut through the pie somewhere, and you’d lose whatever connection had been there before. That’s why five elements can’t be done.”
“That can’t be right…” Sasuke said, taking out his own pencil and paper. He drew a circle with a bunch of lines cutting through the center, like a pie cut into a dozen slices. “Look, that’s like ten elements. They all touch in the middle.”
Jiraiya shook his head. “The tip of a point doesn’t count; it has to be a real edge. If you can manage to cut that pie into more than four pieces that mutually touch you’d be the strongest ninja in generations, so good luck to you. Even the ancients knew it was impossible, and they didn’t even need ninjutsu to prove it. Personally I’m not sure why they would have cared, but the point is it can’t be done. There are some tricks if you draw the pictures in three dimensions, but that doesn’t work out in reality.”
Naruto looked up from Sasuke’s drawing. “Why wouldn’t they work? Chakra is three dimensional, isn’t it?”
“It is, but I was simplifying a little for the sake of explanation,” Jiraiya said. “I don’t want to get too technical on you, but what you’re really doing is applying your elements to the surface of the shape, and the outside layer can’t form an interface so its equivalent to doing it in two dimensions, like on paper. I’m told the ancients had a word for it—homeomorufiku. It means that the spirit of everything is the same; circles, squares, whatever. We’re all one with the universe, or something. Not even the Third Hokage could cram five elemental multipliers into a single technique, and he’s the only one who’s ever even had all five on hand to try… Well, technically I suppose you could say he really had all seven, and he could have tried to shove some pure yin and yang in there too, but everyone has those and they’re too hard to shape at the same time as anything else—but in any case, four is the absolute limit. That’s why it’s called the four-color theorem.”
Naruto jotted the words down in his notebook.
“Has anyone ever managed to actually wield a fully four-colored technique?”
Jiraiya cracked his knuckles, smiling.
He put his own hand on the table, palm-up, forming a loose claw with his fingers. A scowl of concentration spread across his face as a small, pale-green ball began to form inside his fist. It hissed with potential energy as each of his fingers worked individually to redirect the chakra in around itself, simultaneously applying four different elements to mix on its surface.
“Got everything except fire in there,” he boasted. “That little cone of yours might break through a wall or two well enough, but this thing will raze the roof.”
Naruto grinned. “Could you teach us how to use it?”
“Nope,” said Jiraiya.
“What? But you said—”
“Took me twenty years just to get these four all flowing at once, kid,” Jiraiya said, releasing the technique. “I thought I might try teaching you the shape of the thing, maybe how to put your first element in it, but your cone is already close enough to—”
“It’s a whirlpool.”
“Yeah, well your whirlpool cone is close enough that I don’t think it’d do you any good. There’s no shortcuts to mastering the elements, you’ve just got to work at it, and you’ll be an old man like me before you get anywhere close to this kind of power.”
Naruto slumped back in his chair.
“But hey, you don’t live to my age without picking up a few extra tricks along the way, and I still owe your dad something. What do you think of that seal thing your buddy had? Orochimaru’s seal.”
“You can make those?” Naruto asked.
“I can do you one better,” Jiraiya said, clearly satisfied with himself. “I can show you the way to Mount Myoboku, where I learned from the Great Toad Sage what Orochimaru learned from the White Snake Sage. Whatever nature chakra he might have managed to pass through that little seal has nothing on the real thing.”
Sasuke stood up from his seat. “Take me with you.”
Jiraiya frowned at him. “Don’t recall owing anything to any Uchiha.”
Sasuke moved his chair aside, and knelt with his head touching the floor. “I’ll beg if it will help. I’m not like the rest of my clan—I won’t flinch from sacrificing my pride. All I want is the strength to defeat my brother,” he said. “You’re the only ninja who rates as high as Itachi, by Kabuto’s estimate. I’ll carry your things on the road and I won’t interrupt Naruto’s lessons at the mountain or use up any of your time, or the Sage’s. Just let me follow you to the mountain to watch. Please.”
Jiraiya looked a little put out, seeing an Uchiha with his head on the floor.
“Well—it’s not up to me, even if I wanted to,” he said. “The toads never take on more than one student in a generation, and I’m not about to risk offending them for no reason.”
Naruto scratched his lip in thought. “You said Orochimaru learned the technique from the ‘Snake Sage’? The way to use nature chakra, or whatever it is—which you learned from the Toad Sage?”
“Yeah?” Jiraiya said. “I call it my… ‘Sage mode’.”
He struck a pose with his arms out, fingers splayed like a kabuki actor on stage. He even made his own sound effects.
“Right,” Naruto said. “And in the war, you were famous for fighting alongside a giant toad, and Orochimaru had a giant snake. The story I heard was that lady Tsunade fought alongside a giant slug, so… would it be wrong of me to guess that there is also a Slug Sage, somewhere, who could also teach this… ‘Sage mode’?”
Tsunade pinched her lips together, shaking her head as if pained.
“We, uh… we try not to bring up the Slug Sage, actually,” Jiraiya said.
“I didn’t need any stupid Slug Sage’s help to score a thirty-five on those cards you all seem to care so much about,” Tsunade said.
Jiraiya flinched away from her. “N—not every creature called Sage is of equal use, to ninja. Yin and yang chakra are rare among the animals, and great Sages rare among them—it is a difficult technique to master, at the best of times.”
Tsunade turned to him. “Are you trying to say you’re better than me?”
“No, no! And before you ask, Naruto, I can’t just teach it to you myself. I’m sworn to keep it secret. If word got out about how to use this stuff, us Sages would lose our special advantage, y’know?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Tsunade said.
“How about the White Snake Sage then? Would he accept a pupil?”
“I don’t think anyone should go looking for the White Snake Sage right now. He’s got to be pretty mad, and at you three in particular,” Jiraiya said. “Orochimaru might have been kind of a weird guy, but those snakes loved him. And if any other Sages are out there, I’ve never met ‘em.”
“Well if any of us should get the single available slot it should be Sasuke,” Naruto said. “He’s already had some practice with the seal, and it fits his style better than mine, anyway. He’s got a better chance at succeeding if it’s difficult, too, with all his natural talent. If you still feel like you owe me something for my dad, I’d count it as a big favor to me if you took him to the Toad Sage in my place.”
Jiraiya leant in, scrutinizing him. “You said you needed to get stronger. You have your reasons,” he said. “Are you really ready to give up that kind of power for his sake?”
Naruto fidgeted, uncomfortable so close. “Well, I’d probably still try to meet this Slug Sage to give it a try, if I can,” he said, “but we’re partners. I made an agreement with Sasuke to help him get stronger whenever I could, and I think in this particular case he probably has a better chance to make good on the opportunity than me… That’s all.”
Jiraiya leaned back again, smiling, his arms open wide. “Then you have truly understood the way of the Sage, and passed our test… the power was inside you all along.”
“No, you idiot! You’re going to walk into the forest and turn into a rock and die!”
Tsunade shook her head. “There’s just no helping some people.”
“Oh…” Naruto said, a little disheartened. “But, you will take Sasuke to the mountain, won’t you?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jiraiya said, waving his hand, “if it means so much to you I guess I can take your little sweetheart to see the toadsies. Would you like me to drop off your other friend on the way, at the cavern of the snakes?”
“Is—is that a good idea?”
“Of course not!”
Hinata let out a breath, relieved.
An idea came to mind—something Sasuke had said on their way north with Kabuto. He couldn’t offer Hinata any really deadly secret assassination techniques, but she’d been a quick study of medical ninjutsu, and the world’s number one medic-nin was sitting right in front of him. What better way to apologize?
“Actually, Lady Tsunade, if Sasuke and I might be gone for a while, then—I wonder if, maybe, you could allow my friend Hinata to accompany you. Like as an apprentice?”
“She’s really good! She—oh, but I mean, only if you’d want to, Hinata, of course—”
“What about what I want?” Tsunade asked. “I came along as a favor to—”
“They were chasing you with pitchforks,” Jiraiya said.
“I came as a favor. There’s no way I would ever agree to carry around this little floozy for however long it takes you to die in the woods, let alone teach her any of my personal skills, all as an extra favor for some kid I’m only helping out as a favor to this overgrown child in the first place.”
Naruto recalled the rumors he’d heard back in Leaf, weighing them against what he’d seen of the Sannin so far.
He cleared his throat. “Well, uh, I’ve heard that you may have run into a sort of… money-related… problem… at some point.”
“You can’t judge me,” she said. “I don’t have problems.”
“Let me phrase that a little better,” Naruto said. “What if… I offered to bet you—”
“You’re on.” She slammed the table with her fist. “What are the stakes?”
“Err… if I win, you take on Hinata as your apprentice.”
“Done. And if I win?”
Shizune stiffened behind Tsunade. “Done? What do you mean ‘done’? What about me?”
Tsunade waved her hand in her direction, not bothering to look. “The grown-ups are talking, honey.”
Jiraiya wiggled an eyebrow in her direction. “My offer’s still open. I have a lot I could teach you. That is to say, I have a… large endowment, if you follow.”
“If you win, we’ll pay off your gambling debts from the Sound village treasury.”
“Holy mackerel,” Tsunade said, rolling up her sleeves. “This is what we’ve been waiting for, Shizune. This is the one.”
Sasuke leant in toward him. “Is this wise?”
Naruto nodded. He had good reason to be confident.
“So what’s the game?” Tsunade said, rubbing her hands together. “I’ve got dice, I’ve got cards, I might even still have a coin we can flip, somewhere.”
“Do you have any tokens we could use?” Naruto asked. “Actually, cards will work. We’ll just turn them over and use the backs.”
Tsunade clicked her fingers, and Shizune handed her a well-worn deck of playing cards. Naruto put about half of them to one side and laid the rest down in three rows in the table.
“Alright, you can rearrange these cards into long and short rows however you like, before we start,” he said. “The game is to take turns removing as many cards as you want from one of the rows. Whoever takes the last card from the last row left is the winner. You can pick who goes first.”
“Hah!” she smiled, “I remember playing this against the second Raikage, years ago. He was a crafty bastard too.”
“Did you win?” Naruto asked.
“Could have gone either way.”
Naruto took that as a “no”, which suggested she didn’t know the trick to the game.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If I do win, and you teach Hinata your medical ninjutsu, then when I get back I’ll teach you everything I know about gambling, so that you can go and personally win back your losses.”
“Please don’t encourage her,” Shizune said.
“Hah! I’d like to see what a kid like you thinks he can teach me about gambling.”
Naruto had actually played this game for money once before, back in Leaf. He’d read about it in a book of mathematical games as a kid, and since there was an easy way to win using only a few calculations, he’d set up a little game in an alleyway to try to earn a little spending money. Unfortunately, he’d been too young at the time to understand the importance of losing, on occasion, to make the game seem fair. That afternoon hadn’t ended well.
Tsunade shifted around the cards into rows of 13, 10 and 6, and elected to have him go first. Naruto thought it over for a few seconds, and then took the first card from the first row, leaving 12, and gestured for her to make her choice. Tsunade took three cards from the second row, leaving 7.
The trick was that you had to break down the numbers into powers of two—groups of ones, twos, fours, eights and sixteens, depending on how big the rows were. With rows of    that translated to an 8 plus a 4 in the first row, a 4 plus a 2 plus a 1 in the second, and a 4 plus a 2 in the third. All you had to do was to make sure there was an even amount of each number, in total. So in this case, there was one 8, three 4s, two 2s and one 1. By removing all but one card, now, in the first row, he could balance that out to  [4+2+1] [4+2] with just two of each kind.
Naruto took the eleven cards from the first row—leaving only the last one. Tsunade rubbed her hands together and after a moment’s thought she took a single card from the third row.
Rows of   , now, translated to  [4+2+1] [4+1]. He had to remove an extra 2 and a 1, so, he took three cards from the second row, leaving them once again evened out and thus again in a position where any move of hers could only disturb the balance. He didn’t remember exactly why it worked, but one of the nice things about mathematics was that the rules kept on working even when you had forgotten why.
Tsunade stared long and hard at the rows of    before finally choosing to remove the lone card in the first row. Naruto quickly took one from the third, evening out the remaining two rows to  , and this time she charged ahead, taking three from the middle. Naruto copied her by taking three from the other row, leaving  . Whichever card she took now, he could take the other, and win.
She threw her hands up in defeat. “Dammit! I almost had you!”
Naruto smiled weakly. “Almost…”
She leaned forward. He could smell alcohol on her breath.
“Alright. Double or nothin’.”
“You know what? Let’s stop here for now,” Shizune said, leaning over to gather up the cards.
“Alright, alright…” Tsunade said. “Well, you won. Fair and square. I’ll keep an eye on your friend while you’re gone; see if I can’t teach her something medical. If you get back alive though you’re gonna make good on that promise. I know a prodigy of the artform when I see one, and I’m not too old to learn a thing or two from a kid if it’ll keep my head above water.”
Jiraiya yawned, stretching his arms out and around Tsunade’s shoulder. “Sounds great…”
She elbowed him in the rib, and he withdrew his arm.
The six of them spent the rest of the evening talking in a more friendly mode, and sorting out the logistics. Jiraiya told Naruto a few stories about his dad, and Tsunade kept the civilians busy shuttling in more alcohol for her consumption. They planned to meet up again in three months, back in Sound village, which Naruto would keep under observation with his clones even as he went to meet the Slug Sage.
The Sannin had a busy schedule, so they departed the following morning with Hinata and Sasuke in tow, but by that time Naruto had already split off a fresh pair of shadow clones to head west, toward the home of the Slug Sage.
It was a long way, to the furthest reaches of Stone country where Shikkotsu forest was said to lie, but with the freedom to burn a little chakra and no teammates to carry he found himself making good progress over the open landscape.
He could have “started” his journey from halfway there, already, using the bodies that had crossed into Stone country days ago, but Jiraiya had given him a big scroll before he’d left—he’d called it a “reverse-summoning scroll”, and Naruto wanted to have it with him when he got there. It could be used to instantaneously teleport a ninja to the home of the most powerful creature among whatever species of animal they had the strongest personal affinity for. It was supposed to be a backup plan, only as a last resort if he couldn’t make things work with the Slug Sage. Only one of the toads had the bloodline to make one, so they weren’t cheap.
It took only part of a day to reach Stone’s border from Sound, and his byakugan helped him to cross the battle lines without any trouble. He left clones behind as he moved; intermittently splitting bodies off to head in different directions, at a slower pace.
The Sages hadn’t personally been the ones helping the Sannin in the last wars; those had apparently just been some of the other big ninja animals they’d befriended. It was possible Naruto could have his own giant fighting animal friend, soon. As far as he could tell, though, the reason that he only ever heard about them being used in wartime was because they probably weren’t actually very much use in a normal fight, between regular teams of ninja—a creature that big was an easy target for any agile jounin with a strong enough attack in hand. It would need a battle line to stay safe behind, from where it could spit some longer range ninjutsu and look tough, while its real effect was mostly against the enemy’s morale. Tsunade’s slug was said to have been skilled in medical ninjutsu before it died, though, and it could split into pieces to contribute its healing to a great many ninja at once. That kind of thing might be worth more than a few ninja in a war, but it was still probably not very useful in individual combat. He wasn’t sure if all slugs were good at medical ninjutsu or just the one Tsunade had known, but even if it was useless there was no reason he couldn’t make friends with more animals later if he ever discovered an enclave of giant ninja-birds to ride around on, or the Sage of Mantis Shrimp.
He’d read that the mantis shrimp had the most impressive eyes of any animal—it could see through three parts of each one, independently, and it had a brilliant rainbow–colored carapace, and claws that could break through solid clamshells. If Jiraiya hadn’t just been teasing him when he’d said that sage mode brought with it some physical characteristics of an animal, then that was exactly the kind of creature he wanted to imitate. Part deadly, part beautiful, and all weird.
The Process (feat. Killa-Bee)
step 1— inspiration…
“And do you, Killa-Bee, take this woman to be yo’ lawfully wedded—”
“If I told her once, I told her thousands of times; déjà vu!
At first sight she had won, my soul was howling out rhymes for ‘I do’.”
step 2— composition…
“Birth of my first child, a magic moment—artistic,
my feelings beguiled, spittin’ affection linguistic.”
“Honey, sometimes—sometimes I wish you could… stop rapping… just for—”
“You wanted naps in the quiet? You should’a found another.
Choose between raps and a tyrant? Kid, meet your single mother.”
step 3— arrangement…
“You sound worse than a mime. Let’s rehearse the recap.
We eat words ‘n breathe rhyme, then sleep verse ‘n dream rap.”
“Dad I’m trying! It’s hard! …How could anyone even ‘sleep verse’?”
“Your mother’s snores are my beats, that’s straight devotion,
Because this octopus sleeps with eight eyes open.”
step 4— wrap.
“Hah! I guess sharks can eat octopus!”
“… … …”
“Did you hear that, Itachi? I said, ‘I guess sharks can—’”
“…My vision’s fading to black… Dying rhymes on my tongue…
For the f—first time in his life… seems… Killa-Bee… got… …stung.”