Naruto balled his fist over his mouth. “This could be really bad…”
Once Hinata had reached the village she’d explained that Jiraiya had shown up a few weeks ago. He and Tsunade had been talking about the rinnegan ever since, and about the threat from Akatsuki, and the village of Rain where they thought the Akatsuki’s leader was hiding. Pein.
They had left her in Waterfall village last night, trusting her to make the last leg of the journey herself while they went off on some romantic adventure to handle the whole problem themselves. One big battle to win it all, just like the good old days.
After fighting that shark ninja, Naruto was no longer very confident that he could actually beat another Akatsuki member in a fight, yet, even with the advantages of his not yet entirely-unlimited chakra pool. There was just too much potential in the weirder sorts of bloodline techniques—and Jiraiya had already warned that they might be specifically recruiting ninja who could fight even while massively outnumbered.
“If Pein really does have the rinnegan, like Jiraiya thinks, then our best chance of surviving would have been to gang up on him all at once,” Naruto said, “not to send our strongest allies into battle unaccompanied.”
“They think we’re too young to even matter,” Sasuke said.
“Damn… and Kabuto’s not here either, so I can’t even get any help from the Sound ninja. I never publically put myself in charge when I had the chance.”
“Should we go help?” Sasuke asked.
“I should, definitely,” Naruto said. “It’s probably not much added risk, and I’ve already got clones moving through Leaf. There’s a good chance I might even catch them before they get to Rain—I might be able to convince them to wait and help me get stronger. I could use their protection to build more factories. You two aren’t in any danger, though; you should stay here and—”
“Fuck that,” Sasuke said. “You just said our best chance would be to gang up on him. If he doesn’t have the rinnegan then he’s no threat anyway, and if he does then I don’t want to be sitting here on my ass while you and the Sannin get killed.”
“I won’t die, I’ve got my clones,” Naruto said. “And Pein’s not after you, Sasuke. You don’t owe it to me or anything, either; you’ve helped me out plenty already. Being my partner doesn’t mean you have to die for me.”
Sasuke shook his head. “If you didn’t think Pein was any risk to you, you wouldn’t need to fight him. Besides, I said I’d help you with all your world-changing shit now, so if you’re fighting, I’m fighting…” He shrugged. “What else are ninja good for?”
“I—I would also like to help,” Hinata said. “If that’s okay with you, I mean. Tsunade said I was good student—she even taught me her Reserve Seal technique.” She pointed to the small purple diamond on her forehead. “It’s made of concentrated healing power—enough even to bring someone back from the verge of death, in a second.”
Naruto rubbed his face. “I guess I really could use the help… My chakra’s still too low, and I was too stupid to get more when I had the chance. If you want any chance of catching up to the Sannin though, we should leave right now. I’ll carry you both.”
“What about Hinata’s eye?” Sasuke asked.
“Oh, right, yeah. I guess it’ll have to wait,” Naruto said. “Unless you can do surgery on yourself while we run, Hinata? Sasuke’s giving you his spare sharingan.”
She put a hand to her face. “But, I still—I have your eye…”
“Yeah, you can finally get rid of that old thing. But we can do it once we’re back—it probably wouldn’t have been any help yet anyway, since you wouldn’t be used to using it. You ready to go, Sasuke?”
They set off for Rain village, where diplomatic contact with Akatsuki had apparently been seen routing through, and where there had recently been an upset in power by a much smaller faction than the one that had previously been in charge. Hinata said that Jiraiya had been speculating for weeks that the entire administration of Rain country was just a front for Akatsuki, and that all the wealth of the local soil and trade was already under Pein’s control.
Hinata had burned chakra most of the way to Sound’s border from Waterfall, so Naruto made use of his rudimentary chakra-transferral ability on the way to refill her and Sasuke a little on the way, but his control didn’t allow them to take in more than a meager two points of mc/sec from him at once, so it would take most of the full length of the journey just to bring them both back up to around their full capacity.
They needed to be ready to fight, if it came to that, but hopefully a battle could be avoided. There wasn’t time to scale up his chakra-factory first; for that he’d have to recombine into one body, which would leave him very vulnerable, especially if Pein truly could read minds. If he already feared the endurance of jinchuuriki, though, it would hopefully prove unnecessary.
If Naruto couldn’t convince the Sannin to hold off on their attack for a while, he could think of only one other good way to quickly boost his strength—one last trick he hadn’t yet taken full advantage of.
Jiraiya’s “reverse-summoning scroll” had been meant for emergency use only, but if this didn’t count he could make it up to the toads later. He hadn’t needed it to learn sage mode, so he’d planned to give it back the next time he saw Jiraiya, but if there was a chance he could quickly befriend some giant ninja creature to fight beside them, then it was probably worth at least dispatching a single clone for. Maybe he could cut some kind of deal.
Back in Sound village one of his clones unrolled the scroll on the floor, working through the potential outcomes in his head.
He might find himself summoned into a dark cave, or to some island very far away… he might even be summoned underwater, or into a cave underwater. He didn’t even really know what kind of animals counted as viable options for a ninja to have an affinity with, but some philosophers suspected that the world was full of tiny little creatures even smaller than the eye could see—if any fraction of those had yin and yang chakra, or there were any Sages among them, then they would be the most likely choice by far. The Sannin’s three distinct species suggested otherwise.
Alternatively, he might have an affinity for a species that didn’t even have any ninja, and then what? He might end up summoned to the home of a beetle that was merely larger than average. “The home of the most powerful among its kind”, Jiraiya had said.
It felt a little nerve-wracking to do something with such a wide range of possible outcomes, but with so many clones he really didn’t have much reason to hesitate. If it didn’t work with a single clone, he wouldn’t do it at all. The worst case would be if it instantly removed all of his other clones from existence, somehow, or brought them along for the ride, but nothing so far had affected him that way, or given him any reason to suspect that Jiraiya’s scroll would work like that.
He placed his hand in the circle on the paper and channeled his chakra into the calligraphic seals as he’d been instructed.
The ink pulsed with life, and the world seemed to tear around him, revealing unknown expanses of dizzying blackness.
Disoriented, he landed on his backside.
He was sitting on what appeared to be the hardwood floor of a richly decorated bedroom.
That didn’t seem right. Of all the places he’d imagined turning up in, the middle of a village was not one of them.
Still flustered by his landing, he was slow to react to the sound of heavy footsteps approaching the room. He turned just in time to see a squat middle-aged man storm through the door.
The two looked at each other for a moment in mutual confusion.
“And what, pray tell, is this?” the man said, his face contorting with anger. “Am I being robbed?”
Naruto actually recognized him—he was that rich civilian merchant from Leaf, the one whose garden they’d had a mission to weed once, as genin.
He was in Leaf?
“I asked you a question, boy—but I think even a thief would have had the sense to stand. What rank are you?”
Naruto picked himself up off the floor.
Why would he have been sent to Leaf?
“Hmph!” the man snorted. “Then I trust you’ll recognize the name of Utatane Koharu of the Leaf village council, at whose invitation I attended dinner just last week. You may think you can just stomp through—”
“I’m sorry,” Naruto said, interrupting, “I must have made a mistake. Do you have any pets?”
The merchant’s chubby face twisted at the affront. “Do I have any pets?”
“It’s very important,” Naruto said, trying to present something at least half-coherent out of his muddled thoughts. “I’m on a high-priority A-rank mission, cataloging all the local animals. It’s for the war effort. I didn’t see you were home, sir.”
“I was right outside!”
“I apologize, sir, but we can’t keep the Hokage waiting,” Naruto said. “Do you keep any cats or dogs, or have you seen any unusually-large animals of any kind hanging around recently? Particularly any known to speak, or wield ninjutsu?”
“Wh—what in… I suppose I briefly possessed a bird, last year? But this is highly unorthodox.”
“I see,” Naruto said, nodding seriously. “You’ll hear back from us soon. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Naruto strode purposefully out of the room before the man could object further, pretending to take a note of what he’d heard about the bird. He found his way out through the front door and quickly activated his invisibility technique.
The merchant came hurrying out behind him a moment later, having taken a second to double-check the security of his belongings, first. On seeing his front garden empty he soon returned inside, scratching his head.
Naruto remained still a short while longer to collect his thoughts before slipping off to find a better place to hide.
It seemed, somehow, that he’d been taken back to Leaf village, and into the home of an unusually powerful civilian, in particular.
Assuming that the technique hadn’t somehow misfired, he should have been taken to the domain of the most powerful member of whatever species his personal affinity was oriented toward, like Jiraiya’s toads, Orochimaru’s snakes, or Tsunade’s slugs… and there didn’t seem to be any unusually large creatures around—not that he could see with his byakugan, anyway, and he was reluctant to believe that the traits he’d taken on in sage mode were that of the common termite.
A more repugnant conclusion seemed unfortunately plausible. He’d read books where the philosophers spoke of civilians being just another kind of animal—he’d always assumed it was just a natural prejudice; sure, civilians got their food directly from the land, like lesser creatures, and unlike the ninja their yearly labors fed, and he could see for himself that they only had nature chakra in their veins, but they were the descendants of the ancients, too—perhaps even more closely descended from them than ninja were. The ancients didn’t have any ninjutsu, and they’d still built incredible things. It didn’t seem right that they could really be nothing but a bunch of animals.
Well, the scroll could call them what it liked; clearly they were an unusual member of the category, in any case, and there were often fuzzy borders around things like that. He didn’t have to let it smuggle in the connotation that he should start eating their limbs for dinner or anything. Even when the nine-tailed beast had got loose he hadn’t wanted to eat farmers. It was a little weird, actually, in hindsight; he could remember very clearly wanting to exterminate all the ninja he could find, but he hadn’t desired at all to burn down the fields or eat anyone who didn’t have ninja blood. Maybe his close contact with the spirit of the beast had had some kind of influence on his mind, somehow, and given him his apparent affinity. It seemed that in his sage mode he was taking on the natural characteristics of the civilian animal, somewhat disappointingly. He could have had deadly hammer-claws, or giant tusks—but instead he had to make do with… with very slightly smoother skin. Skin made of human flesh.
In any case, he certainly wasn’t going to be carting an overweight merchant into battle, even if he was the most powerful civilian alive.
It seemed the scroll was a dead-end after all, but it wasn’t as if he’d been expecting much in the first place.
It was something of a rare opportunity, though, to be back inside Leaf again, without even having to have fought his way in. There was no particular reason to bite his tongue right away; he had other bodies on their way toward Rain already, and there wasn’t much real risk in staying, even if he was spotted.
He was curious, now; he’d left Leaf behind months ago, with Sai, not realizing that he wouldn’t be coming back from their mission. He felt a little nostalgic for the place, already. Terrible as it had been, at times.
He made a clone and then broke it, to inform himself of his intentions. He turned up the hood on his cloak; he might still be recognized, but it was unlikely that many people in a village of thousands would have paid enough attention to the life of one unremarkable chuunin to know he was a missing-nin, now. His eye would still be conspicuous to any Hyuuga that looked, so he deactivated his byakugan as a precaution.
He strolled down the village streets somewhat absentmindedly, gradually making his way back to his old apartment.
The council had assigned it to him years ago, as an orphan of ninja blood, but whatever he’d left behind there seemed to be long gone now. Some other kid’s clothes were hanging outside the window.
He didn’t think there had been anything in there to miss—a bunch of old notebooks he might never have read through again anyway, but nothing sentimental—he’d never really had much to spare for non-essentials. He felt something, though… Just looking at the place from the outside, remembering the frantic confusion of his first attempts to cooperate with a half dozen copies of himself, trying to figure out the mechanics of the shadow clone technique through trial and error… Mostly through error.
That itch of curiosity had started him down a strange road. He remembered having to struggle to come up with something good to say when Kakashi had asked him on his first day what his dream was, in life, but now… now even world conquest seemed like a small step on the way to solving his real problems. And that had all only been a matter of months ago.
A pair of Leaf ninja rounded the corner, interrupting his thoughts. Naruto continued on down the long, sloping road to avoid earning their suspicion; he’d recognized one of the pair as the fat instructor who had taught another class at the academy, once. Daikoku was his name. He could hear him talking as they walked behind him.
“I mean, I know it’s supposed to be unsafe, I just don’t understand why.”
The slender ninja alongside him sighed. “Maybe you should try it then, next time, and you can find out for yourself?”
“I know something bad will happen,” Daikoku said, “I just don’t know what… Just—all tied up like that she might as well have been a civilian!”
Naruto slowed down to let them pass, but they seemed to be moving pretty slowly themselves; it would have looked strange to speed up again, now.
“Think of it this way,” the thin one said. “Where’s the easiest place to shape chakra?”
“No, that’s most practical. The easiest is inside the mouth cavity, or some other cavity. And what are the easiest circumstances to mold chakra?”
“A… tranquil, meditative trance?”
“Maybe, but better still when you’re insane with rage or fear, or you’re backed into a corner fighting for your life. So, tell me… how much chakra do you think it would have taken that poor Mist genin to snip your little sausage off inside her?”
Daikoku swallowed. “…Not very much?”
“Not very much indeed,” his companion said, “and that’s why everyone sticks to civilians. But let’s hurry; they’ll start eating without us, soon.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Do you think there’s time to get Hana some more of those imported doggie treats, first? The ones shaped like the little bones? She loves those.”
Naruto turned into an alleyway to let them pass. He’d seen a lot of things since he’d been given the byakugan; lots of civilians being treated roughly by their owners, in private. The lives of the farmers living out in the mud were no better, though. With such a natural imbalance of power he wasn’t sure if anything could really be done about it. Putting one of his all-seeing clones on every street corner seemed a little heavy-handed, and even that would stop working once he got old and died.
He wondered if a heart attack would just spread out among his clones like any other injury, and leave him still living. Something would have to stop him eventually, though; maybe the pieces would just decay more and more until it wasn’t possible for any part of him to keep going. Maybe he’d live to be a hundred years old, but everybody died eventually.
Well, everybody so far, anyway.
He wandered out to one of the training grounds near the edge of the village, out of habit more than anything else. He could see Rock Lee training there, alone. He looked a lot less cheerful without his teacher. Or, his father. Or whatever Might Guy had really been.
He stood there watching Lee beat his limbs against a wooden stand for a minute or so before he was noticed.
Lee crouched into his fighting stance almost immediately. He’d always been quick.
“N—Naruto? You’re back?” he asked. “Have you been recaptured?”
Naruto didn’t see anyone else around to cause Lee any trouble if they spoke.
“Just visiting,” he said. “Still a missing-nin for now, I guess.”
“Y—you admit it, then?” Lee said, his fists clenched. “You betrayed the village?”
Naruto sighed. “I didn’t have a choice, but it’s pretty complicated and I don’t really feel like explaining the whole thing again. Unless—actually, do you want to come help us fight some really dangerous people? Maybe I should explain after all. Leaf tried to kill us.”
He wasn’t sure whether or not to mention the Sannin—it could cause them a lot of trouble if they were known to be associating with Leaf missing-nin.
“I won’t fall for that,” Lee said. “I’ll recapture you. For the honor of the village!”
“I’m not even really here, Lee,” Naruto said. “I’m just a clone.”
Lee seemed uncertain how to proceed. If Naruto was just a clone, then attacking and bursting him would accomplish very little, and he’d miss a useful opportunity to gather information on an enemy.
“Like I said, I’m just visiting,” Naruto said. “I haven’t seen this place in a while, and I had a few spare clones nearby, so I thought I’d come see how things were going. I’m not even spying, I promise. How’s Tenten’s leg, now? She all healed up?”
“Tenten is dead.”
Naruto blinked. “…Oh…”
“She took her own life, shortly after you left. I think… the stress of the exams. You understand.”
“Sorry,” Naruto said. “I didn’t know…”
“It’s fine,” Lee said. “Danzo says she lacked the burning will to power. That’s all. No-one is responsible for anything except themselves.”
Lee’s mother was gone, and his father too, apparently, as well as his teammates, now. Neji first, then Tenten… even Haruno Sakura seemed to have meant something to him before she’d died.
“Lee, aren’t you… you know, mad? At Leaf? For Guy?”
Lee clenched his jaw. “Might Guy made an attempt on the life of the Hokage… I don’t—I don’t know why he did it. I don’t know what he was thinking, but there can never be a reason to betray your home. Everyone knows that—even a child in the academy would know that. Leaf is my home, and even if the village was nothing but a stinking hole in the ground, I would still work hard to become Hokage. To protect it.”
Naruto frowned. “…What did Leaf ever do for you, to earn that kind of allegiance?”
Lee shook his head. “It didn’t have to do anything, Naruto. Maybe you’ll never understand, but that’s what it means to be loyal to your homeland—to the people of your village. They don’t need to do anything at all.”
This was the face of the real enemy. This thing that called itself virtue—this selective callousness that could make someone as sincere and hardworking as Lee devote his entire life to the furtherance of war, because if he didn’t destroy his enemies first, they would destroy him and everything he loved in pre-emptive self-defense.
Mutual disarmament was impossible. If any country chose to devote fewer resources to war, they would be swallowed up and replaced by actors less squeamish. The First Hokage might have hoped to lead by example, and he’d had the power to do it, but even refusing the opportunity to feed on a weakened enemy had its costs.
Mercy was a luxury only the strongest could afford, and in matters of state, mercy wouldn’t keep you on top for long.
The Third Hokage had probably known all this—this was that ancient art, Game Theory. People like Rock Lee were doomed to fight forever against their foreign counterparts. The only way out was a kind of perfect mutual-cooperation that just wasn’t possible with so many thousands of ninja entangled.
But they didn’t have to be involved in the decision. Naruto knew how to cooperate with himself, now. He could replace them all in the hierarchy, and impose peace from above like a father reconciling two brothers, or a clan head between hostile branch families, or a strong Kage between the clans of a village. Through the influence of a sufficiently larger power the incentives could be changed, and cooperation could become the right decision.
But there had never been anyone strong enough to place themselves above the greatest Kages. Not even the First had been that strong. Strong enough to give the entire world the luxury of mercy.
Lee moved to attack, and Naruto recalled the strange-sounding title he had heard used to refer to such people, in ancient times… a title he would have to earn, now, with the strength of infinite chakra.
They reached Rain in the late afternoon, having cut directly through the north of Leaf country.
He’d had Rain village surrounded for a while before his clones arrived with Hinata and Sasuke, but there’d been no sign of the Sannin yet. The distance suggested that they probably would have chosen to stay the night in Grass village, or somewhere else along the way, but he’d sent clones to intercept them everywhere along the obvious paths and found nothing.
The only way they could have beaten him to Rain is if they’d burnt chakra the whole way, in which case they’d be exhausted now and were probably resting inside the village, or maybe doing a little preliminary reconnaissance before they sprung their attack.
He’d already been on edge about waiting outside for Sasuke and Hinata to arrive—if the Sannin were found, and were attacked too soon they might miss their chance, so it wasn’t long after they showed up that he decided to investigate the village more closely, to try to find them. He would have liked to be able to leave shadow clones of Hinata and Sasuke safe behind, even just outside the village, somewhere they could avoid any risk, but if one touch was all it took to send them miles away, then they might as well not have come; he’d learned that lesson the hard way in the chuunin exams, but it was Tenten who had suffered for it.
They entered Rain village with their hoods raised, giving false names to the local genin keeping records at the gates. The town was unusual in appearance—isolated pillars, and walls of smooth stone; the last remnants of whatever monumental constructions had stood there in ancient times. Much of the material had already been harvested for reuse, but it was said that the walls had once contained long rods of pure steel, merely to reinforce their strength. The question of how they had been forged by the ancients inside of the stone was still an area of active debate among philosophers.
The weather was terrible, and it was hard to take everything in with only the two bodies he’d brought along, but he focused his attention on the taverns and indoor places, looking for some clue about the Sannin.
It wasn’t until the three of them had reached the central square that he noticed the tall, copper-haired ninja watching them from a rooftop. He wore a black cloak with red clouds, and there were five more just like him surrounding the square.
In the eyes of every one he saw concentric rings in pale-blue. The legendary rinnegan, manifest.