It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Thirteen

The larger ninja world starts talking about Akatsuki, and what to do about them. Naruto is hustled off to the Island Turtle with his team, where he meets B and reaches a certain cooperation with the Nine-tails. Drama, Angst, I-5

Warning: Features a brief section of suicidal thoughts.

Kakashi slid past the Hokage’s door rather warily and waved a handful of message-paper strips at her. “Latest batch from the relays; Shizune asked me to bring them up with me.” He swapped himself reflexively with the coat hanger as a cup went hurtling past where his head would have been and smashed into shrapnel against the wall. “I can see why she did,” he added.

Tsunade stood over her desk, clenched fists planted on it, breathing hard. “Give them here.”

“You’re sure about that?” But he came out of the corner and handed over the slips.

Tsunade flung herself back down in her chair hard enough to roll it back from the desk and started reading, glowering down at the paper with tight lips. “Idiot,” she hissed, tossing one over her shoulder. The next one got a sour “Moron!”. The third didn’t rate anything more than a glare, but the fourth shot her up onto her feet again yelling, “Don’t you try to patronize me you dried up old fart!”

“The other villages still aren’t responding well?” he hazarded. An easy guess; the traffic of messenger birds had been heavy over the past few months and every time he saw the Hokage she seemed more pissed off.

She stalked around her office, now, glaring at anything that fell in her way. Kakashi prudently removed himself to the top of her file cabinet.

“I’m going to have to haul them in to a meeting in person,” she finally growled. “Gaara is willing, of course, and I think the Mizukage is too, but that blowhard A and Oonoki, old sot that he is, are being stubborn. They don’t think Akatsuki can truly threaten a strong village, because they’ll never be able to control or secure the loyalty of more than one or two hosts.”

“And the smaller villages?” Kakashi asked. Presumably, with enough of the small village Masters on her side, Tsunade would be able to swing even the other Kage to her course. He had a difficult time imagining that many of the Masters were truly willing to have Akatsuki running around with any tailed beasts at all.

Tsunade’s lip curled. “So far, I’ve mostly gotten variations on ‘you first’. None of them want to be caught in between if the great countries disagree badly enough over this to go back to war.”

“Hard to blame them,” Kakashi murmured. Tsunade just snarled.

“And then there’s the Master of the Waterfall, who says that, if Akatsuki is behind this, the Leaf must have hired them! Because we’re the only one whose host hasn’t been attacked!” She paced another round, hands flexing ominously. “Hanzou refuses to get involved at all, the bastard. He thinks Rain can hold out no matter what Akatsuki does, and if we all reduce our strength taking Akatsuki down without him all the better!” She snatched up the sandstone paperweight from her desk and slowly crushed it to rubble in her hand, growling.

“It was already sure that Rain wouldn’t get involved,” Kakashi couldn’t help pointing out, though he kept a cautious eye on the erstwhile paperweight. “They never go beyond their borders, these days.” Which was, honestly, a nice change for everyone else.

Tsunade let the rubble fall and snorted. “He’s gotten paranoid ever since that civil war in Rain. I was kind of hoping he’d bite this time, though; the leader of the other side become a member of Akatsuki, after all. But no such luck.” She finally sat back down, leaning back with a sigh. “The one bright spot is the Master of Sound. He seems to have seen this coming, and his latest message offered Hidden Sound as a meeting place for us.”

“Mm. About as neutral a location as possible,” Kakashi agreed. A new village with no axes to grind and no history of war with anyone but Leaf, and as close to centrally located as possible. It disturbed him just a little that he was starting to know all these things off-hand.

“Exactly. And if A and Oonoki know that Gaara and Terumii and I are all going, they’ll come too just out of suspicion.”

“Not the most productive mindset for negotiations,” Kakashi murmured.

“No, it’s not. Which is why,” she fixed him with a sharp eye, “you and Nara Shikaku are coming with me as aides and bodyguards."

Kakashi froze and then tried to pretend he hadn’t. “Taking the Jounin Commander makes sense,” he said as casually as he could, “but wouldn’t someone like Jiraiya-san be more impressive as your other attendant?” Someone who was not him. He’d figured out exactly what administrative job she thought he’d be good for, once she started sending him around as her personal representative, and he’d been doing his damndest to deflect her from the idea.

“Jiraiya is out looking for more of Akatsuki’s bases and hideouts. And quit playing dumb,” she told him sternly. “I won’t live long enough to see Naruto come off active duty and learn the rest of this job, and I’ve come to the sad conclusion that there’s no one else qualified. It’s going to have to be you in this chair after me. Live with it.”

“The jounin have to confirm the Hokage,” Kakashi said a little desperately. He couldn’t do this; he knew himself, he knew how deeply he bonded to his teams even when he tried not to, taking on the entire village would kill him. “Are you really sure they’ll—”

“They approve of you more than anyone else,” she cut him off. “Shikaku won’t have it; I asked. Jiraiya’s refused it twice and he’ll probably be dead before me the way he lives, and I won’t see it go to Danzou.”

That shut him up. He’d been trying, for years, to get proof of what he was sure Danzou was doing, and the thought of that man in charge of his village sent a sharp prickle of rage down his nerves. Even taking on a commander’s responsibility for the whole village, crushing as he knew it would be, was better than that. “Yes, Hokage-sama,” he gave in at last, voice low.

“Better.” She waved a hand at him. “Go tell Shikaku to start packing while I get the messages ready.”

Kakashi nodded quietly and slipped out, trying not to feel like doom had come to hover over his shoulder.

A couple of weeks later, Kakashi watched five Kage and ten attendants all trying to keep an eye on each other as the Master of Hidden Sound led them up a flight of wide, spiraling tower stairs. At least, he reflected, this meeting promised some amusement. They finally emerged at the top of the tower and he raised interested brows. There was a curving hall of red stone, with narrow windows in the outer wall at regular intervals, and a single door in front of them. Naridasu turned to his gathered guests.

“This room has only one door, and the tower below it is solid stone for two floors. We are high enough to see any attempt at attack or eavesdropping coming. Given that security, I believe this meeting will be,” he paused judiciously and finally decided on, “least chaotic if only the Kage are present, and your attendants stand guard in the hall here.”

There was a silent moment, full of sidelong looks and suspicious frowns, before Gaara spoke up. “That will be quite acceptable.” He nodded briefly to Temari and Kankurou, and paced forward to the door of the meeting room. He paused on the threshold to look over his shoulder with bland inquiry.

Kakashi smirked just a little. Gaara was learning how to play politics very quickly; he was impressed.

“It seems reasonable, yes,” Terumii, the Mizukage, murmured, and waved off the muttered protests of her older attendant.

“Fine,” the Raikage growled, stomping forward, and Tsunade sauntered after him, nearly grinning.

Oonoki of Hidden Rock stumped after them, muttering complaints about stairs and his back and insolent young whippersnappers, completely ignoring his attendants. The young woman who had come with him rolled her eyes.

“Well,” the older of the two from Cloud said slowly, as the door closed. “I suppose we should spread out and each take an approach to watch, then.”

No one moved. Kakashi sighed to himself; he hoped Tsunade knew what she was getting herself into, trying to pull together some international cooperation. It wasn’t looking like an easy job. So, since it was unfortunately clear that he wasn’t going to be able to escape politics much longer himself, he supposed he’d better start doing something to make it work.

He raised his forehead protector to show his Sharingan.

A frisson of tension swept the group.

Slowly, Kakashi reached into a pocket of his vest.

Hands dropped to hidden weapons or slid toward scrolls. The older of the Mist nin flicked up his own eye patch to reveal a Byakugan. The younger of the Cloud nin slid his hands together into the Ram, expression grim.

Kakashi pulled out the latest Icha Icha book and flipped it open. He smiled sunnily at the chokes of absolute disbelief and the way a few stances wobbled. “Well! Clearly, the pair from Mist should take the stairs, as the Byakugan will see even an approach that’s cloaked in illusion.” He nodded cheerfully to the young Cloud nin, who was looking outraged, and the elder, who was looking thoughtful and had a hand on the younger’s shoulder. “And since illusion appears to be one of your specialties, perhaps Cloud should take the opposite approach, so we’re as well covered as possible by the sensing specialists.”

Everyone was staring, except for Temari who was looking grudgingly impressed.

“Can’t take you anywhere,” Shikaku muttered, through the hand he’d clapped over his face.

Kakashi flipped pages to find his place and started strolling along the curve of the hall. “We’ll take the left, if that’s agreeable.”

“Hatake Kakashi,” Temari said, in a tone that suggested that was all the comment needed, and clapped Kankurou on the shoulder. “Sand will take the right.”

After a moment of vibrating conflict, the young woman from Rock hissed something annoyed, and probably very rude, under her breath and stomped off after Temari, dragging the large young man who was her partner along. Kakashi nodded with approval. With a Sharingan on the left, it was the right that should have the extra pair to watch. If that girl was who he thought she was, Rock would be well served when she eventually took over as Tsuchikage. He settled his back against the wall of the meeting room, noting with satisfaction that he could see both Mist and Cloud teams from the corners of his eyes, and turned a page.

Shikaku slumped against the wall next to him. “May the Hokage live for a hundred years,” he said, low and fervent, “because I don’t want to be the one who has to pick up after you, when you take over.”

Some bass roaring reverberated through the wall, followed by Tsunade’s more piercing shout of, “You never hired them because you were doing the dirty work with your own hands, now sit down and shut up and listen!”

“You sure I’d be worse than Tsunade-hime?” Kakashi asked, delicately turning another page. Shikaku gave the book a dour look.

“Yes, Kakashi-kun, I’m very sure. Don’t think that’s going to stop me from approving you, though, no matter how cack-brained you try to act.”

Well, the Nara clan was known for their intelligence, after all. Kakashi sighed and tucked the book away, giving up his pretense of frivolousness. That reflex of concealment was one he might just have to break, now, anyway—at least among his own people. Instead, he amused himself trying to follow the progression of the Kage’s arguments by the things that were shouted loudly enough to be heard through the stone walls.

The howl of “Madara!” was more than one person, he thought. So Tsunade had decided to tell them of Itachi’s words, unconfirmed though they were.

A shattering crunch followed by a softer but sustained impact against the wall was, he thought, most likely the Raikage breaking something and the Mizukage taking exception.

It was only a guess, but he thought that Tsunade’s shriek of “Absolutely not!” was most likely in response to a proposal that the two remaining hosts be killed to keep their beasts out of Akatsuki’s hands. At least, it was followed by a cracked shout of “You’re naive!” from the Tsuchikage, and everything Kakashi knew of the old man suggested the kind of ruthlessness that would think killing the hosts was perfectly reasonable.

Those shouts were followed, though, by a long period of someone speaking low and steady. Either Gaara or Terumii, Kakashi thought.

It wasn’t long after that that the door opened again, and all of the attendants gathered quickly back to their Kage. The Raikage was frowning, but that was nothing unusual. The Mizukage looked relieved, as did Tsunade herself; negotiations must have succeeded well enough to go on with. The Kazekage looked as calm as ever, but the Tsuchikage was watching him with thoughtful eyes that weren’t as hard as they had been when they all went in. Kakashi wondered what Gaara had said to the others, to put that expression on the face of a hard-bitten old shinobi like Oonoki.

Tsunade beckoned him. “We’re going to sequester Naruto and Cloud’s Killer Bee under a multi-national guard while all of us work on flushing out Akatsuki in our own countries. I think the smaller countries will be willing to participate, now, with Sound to lead the way.” She scowled. “And Hanzou will damn well keep them out of Rain if I have to go bend the old bastard’s ear about it in person. At any rate, I want you to find people for our part of the hosts’ guard.”

"How many?” Kakashi asked, already tallying in his head who he could truly trust with Naruto’s safety. It couldn’t be just anyone, even now. He wondered if he could convince Jiraiya to command the detachment.

“At least a dozen from each of the great nations,” the Raikage rumbled. He nodded at the older of the Cloud attendants. “Darui, you’ll lead ours. Take Samui and her team, too. Keep my brother safe.” Darui nodded soberly.

The Mizukage had a hand on her younger attendant’s arm. “Choujuurou, I’ll want both you and Suigetsu to go; try to keep him out of trouble.” The boy looked dubious, and Kakashi wondered whether this Suigetsu was another of the Swordsmen; all the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist tended to be a little wild. Maybe it was the tooth filing that did it to them.

The Tsuchikage was already stumping toward the stairs. “Kurotsuchi! Akatsuchi! Hurry up, we’re going. And Kurotsuchi, fetch your father when we get home. He’s going to be in charge of our unit.” He gave her a beady look. “You’re going too.” The girl groaned and he glared. “And don’t complain! You’re not the one having to take creaky old hips down these damn stairs again…” His complaints trailed down the spiral stairwell.

“Temari,” Gaara said quietly. “For everything Naruto’s done for us… keep him safe.” Temari drew herself up and saluted sharply.

“So where are we putting them?” Shikaku asked as Tsunade followed Oonoki down the stairs.

Tsunade’s mouth quirked. “Well. I suppose you could say they’re taking a cruise.”

Naruto stared around the dark, wooded crags of the island, wide eyed. “This is really a turtle?”

“Indeed. I’d heard of it,” Jiraiya said behind him, “but never visited. Outsiders have never been welcome. Fascinating.”

The old pervert was showing his true colors, Naruto thought, with an affectionate glance. For all he acted like he didn’t have a thought in his head but the next drink and the next pair of boobs, there was a lot more to him. Even Sasuke admitted that, though it just seemed to make him that much more pissed off over the pervy act. He was giving Jiraiya That Look this very moment—the frustrated one that hinted he might try to strangle the man with his own ponytail.

“The encampment is this way,” their guide, Motoi, said meaningfully, and Naruto sighed and trailed along with everyone else, gawking around as they went. This was one huge turtle.

What did I just step in?” Ino’s voice echoed up the line of Leaf shinobi.

“Please be careful of the island’s wildlife while you’re here,” Motoi added blandly.

“Big animals all around, huh?” Naruto asked, with perfect innocence, and grinned when Sakura had to stifle giggles.

“Very big,” Motoi agreed. “B-sama has tamed them, and they seem to accept the encampment for his sake, but they’re normally quite savage. Do be careful.”

B was the other host, wasn’t he? Naruto walked on, thinking about that. Maybe he could make friends with B, the way he had with Gaara.

Even that possibility couldn’t distract him from the island itself for long, though. There were even buildings on this turtle! About a hundred shinobi, from what he could see, were scattered around the narrow valley they were led down, going in and out of a clutch of weathered, moss grown stone buildings.

“A temple?” Sakura wondered, at his shoulder. “Look at the approaches.” She pointed to a wide, paved way heading off into the crags.

“It was part of a temple complex, once,” Motoi agreed. “It’s well hidden, defensible, and close to the best concealment for the hosts.”

“A fine choice,” Kakashi-sensei murmured, not taking his nose out of his book as he paced along at Jiraiya’s side. Naruto exchanged glances with Sakura and Sasuke, and they all rolled their eyes a little over their teacher’s personal security blanket. He’d been using it a lot more, lately, and Naruto was starting to wonder if something was actually wrong.

Well, aside from Akatsuki and all that. Besides that. Something personal, maybe. Mission stuff never bothered Kakashi-sensei this much.

Motoi showed them to their very own building. “We thought it wise to give the different nations separate quarters.”

“Yes,” Kakashi-sensei sighed, finally snapping his book closed. “I’m sure it will be just a joy to integrate this group.” He raised his voice. “Everyone find rooms and settle in! Don’t make trouble, and don’t let anyone provoke you into making trouble. We’re here to complete a mission. Remember it.”

Naruto nodded to himself. Personal, definitely. As soon as he was doing mission stuff, Kakashi-sensei was just fine, if a little scary at times.

“Be quick about it, you three,” Kakashi-sensei added as Naruto and his team filed past. “You and I will be going with Jiraiya-san to meet the other people in charge of this effort.”

They threw their packs into an empty second floor room and, as they hurried down again to join Kakashi-sensei, Naruto heard Ino arguing with Kiba about who should take the rooms beside it, and Iruka-san’s aggravated voice raised over both of them, telling them to knock it off. The fifth member of Ino’s Intelligence team, the lean pale guy, smiled wide and cheery as he stood aside for them on the stairs, apparently oblivious to Ino’s temper; maybe he was used to it already.

“It’s too bad Shikamaru and Chouji stayed in the village,” Sakura muttered. “I mean, I’m glad for Ino that she was put in charge of the unit from Intelligence, but she’s a lot calmer when they’re both around.”

“She is?” Naruto asked, skeptical, dodging aside for Genma-san and the pack-loaded chuunin he was directing into the first floor rooms. He’d never noticed Ino being calm about anything, ever. Sakura’s mouth quirked.

“Deep down.”

They emerged into the misty chill of the valley again, and Kakashi nodded, pushing away from the wall. “Good, that’s all of us. Let’s go.”

Naruto looked around some more as they trailed after Kakashi-sensei and Jiraiya across the cracked, grass-grown plaza toward the last building before that broad avenue and stairs out of the valley.

“There’s always some friction when shinobi from different villages try to work together,” Kakashi-sensei told them as they detoured around a woman with the Mist insignia and a man with Cloud’s, up in each other’s faces and arguing about the best way to keep watch for an attack from the air. “So I’ll repeat this. Keep your tempers. Don’t provoke anyone and don’t let yourselves be provoked.” For a moment, the cool, businesslike tone left his voice and he glanced over his shoulder at them with a rueful tilt to his eyebrow. “And when someone does lose his temper, I expect the other two to sit on him. Or her.”

“Not a problem,” Sasuke murmured.

“Hey, who said it would be me getting sat on?” Naruto bridled. As if Sasuke actually had any better of a temper than he did.

“Who said anything about that? I just said it wouldn’t be a problem.” Naruto growled at the bland look on Sasuke’s face, and Kakashi sighed, and Jiraiya laughed, and they were all satisfyingly relaxed when they went into what Naruto guessed was the headquarters building around here. The low, square building turned out to be pretty much one big room with boringly blank, windowless walls and a huge oval table made of black stone. The camp chairs looked flimsy, circled around it.

There were a bunch of people already there. Checking forehead protectors and insignia, it looked like two from each of the five great nations plus Sound, Grass, and Valley. He waved cheerfully at Temari, who rolled her eyes in response even as a corner of her mouth twitched. Cloud had an extra three people, sitting a little back from the big table. One of them must be the host of the Eight-tails, he figured, wondering who it was. The huge guy? One of the two young shinobi, about his own age? That might be kind of cool.

“Hatake Kakashi, of the Leaf,” Kakashi-san was introducing himself, distracting Naruto. “Jiraiya-sama, of the Leaf’s Sannin. Our host, Uzumaki Naruto, and his teammates Haruno Sakura and Uchiha Sasuke. Pleased.”

“We’re all here, then,” the dark, serious looking Cloud guy said, only to be interrupted when one of the two from Mist sat bolt upright and pointed at Sakura.

“Ah! Wall!”

Naruto was pretty sure everyone was blinking along with him at that one. Sakura sure was. “I beg your pardon?” she asked.

“At that Sound lab! I almost had that snake bastard and you stopped me!” He frowned. “Wait a minute, if you’re Leaf…”

Sakura’s mouth tightened, and Naruto edged closer to lean his shoulder against hers. “Orochimaru was a Leaf renegade,” Sakura said quietly. “I was there to execute him.”

The Mist guy crossed his arms with an exasperated huff that blew his silvery bangs out of his eyes. “Well then why did you stop me?”

Naruto could feel the shift as Sakura’s spine straightened and she answered coolly, “Your chance of success was too low. You’d been captured, so he knew at least some of your abilities and weaknesses. He appeared inattentive, but that was almost always a ruse with him. There were ten other shinobi present who would support him. I calculated you had less than a fifty percent chance of success, whereas defending him at that point would considerably increase my later chances of killing him.”

The Mist guy was a little wide-eyed by the time she was done, and the red-haired girl from Cloud whistled. “That’s pretty cold,” she said.

“It’s good strategy,” countered the sharp-eyed, dark-haired girl with the Rock insignia, with an approving look at Sakura.

The guy from Mist eyed Sakura thoughtfully. “So, did it work?”

Sakura twitched against his shoulder and Naruto was pretty sure she was forcing herself not to look at the two from Sound. The guy they’d met before, Tomita, he just looked serious, but the woman with him was definitely glaring. Sakura took a deep breath. “I drove my hand through his spine and saw the body burned,” she said flatly. “Will you accept that as restitution for your capture?”

The first part of that had made Naruto suck in a quick breath, because Sakura wasn’t the type to boast about her kills, but the second part made it all make sense. And the straight line of Tomita’s shoulders softened as he listened to Sakura offering her kill to shield Sound from repercussions.

“Huh.” The Mist guy smiled, mouth full of sharp teeth. “Yeah, I guess I will.”

Naruto snuck a sidelong look at Sakura, smiling. She nodded back just a little, relaxing against him. He and Sasuke shared a satisfied glance behind her. Yes, their teammate was just that awesome, and thoughtful, and caring. And scary, but Naruto thought it was probably okay if the other villages appreciated that part too.

“As I was saying,” the Cloud leader said quite calmly, “perhaps introductions are in order. I’m Darui. This is my second in command, Samui,” he gestured at the pale woman beside him, “and her team Karui and Omoi,” that was the two younger Cloud nin, “who are particularly assigned as bodyguards to B, the host of the Eight-tails.” The really big guy leaned back in his chair, which creaked.

Naruto tried to keep track of everyone as they went around the table, even though he kept getting distracted by watching B out of the corner of his eye. Tomita from Sound, he knew, and the glaring woman was Karin. The sharp girl from Rock was Kurotsuchi, and her father Kitsuchi was in charge of the Rock contingent. Haruto of Grass looked like the serious type, while his lieutenant, Souta, was lounging in his seat watching everyone lazily. Temari had come from Sand, and she’d brought Baki, the scary half-veil guy. Hidden Valley had sent a brother and sister from the Yasumori clan, Takuma and Yuzuki; Sasuke murmured that that clan was supposed to be really good with Wood techniques. The Mist guy who knew Sakura was Suigetsu, and the other one, who seemed to be really shy, was Choujuurou. They were both part of the Seven Swordsmen, apparently, and Naruto still wondered what was up with the filed teeth thing.

When everyone had been introduced, it was Darui, again, who said, “We need to choose someone to lead this mission. There are too many of us to try to command by consensus.”

Silence fell while everyone at the table looked warily around at each other. Naruto nearly groaned out loud; it was going to take forever to get anywhere at this rate. Well, fine, if it wasn’t obvious to anyone else…

He kicked the seat of Jiraiya’s chair, providentially placed right in front of him. “Hey, ero-sennin. It had better be you hadn’t it?”

Jiraiya looked around to glower fearsomely at him. “Naruto!” Naruto just crossed his arms and glared back.

"What? It’s true!"

“Why him?” the red-haired Cloud girl, Karui, demanded.

“He’s the oldest here, isn’t he?” Naruto waved his hands; why wasn’t this obvious? “And that means he’s got the most experience, and he’s survived all of it! And that’s kind of the point of us being here, isn’t it?”

After a quiet moment, Samui murmured, “He does make a good point.”

“Sand knows things to the credit of Jiraiya,” Temari allowed, though she added, “if he’s being serious.”

“And will he?” Kitsuchi wanted to know, leaning his stout elbows on the table. “Will he take on this kind of responsibility? Jiraiya of the Leaf is known to have left his village some time ago. He doesn’t even wear Leaf’s insignia any more.”

Yuzuki stirred beside her brother. “Perhaps that would be well, in a situation like this. Perhaps we need someone whose first loyalty is not to a specific village. The River Country also knows of Jiraiya-san. He has never acted against Leaf’s interests, but on his travels he has always been willing to lend his strength to the other villages and countries in time of trouble.”

Jiraiya finally left off glowering at Naruto and sat back with a sigh. “Leaf is still my home village. But it’s true that the dictates I try to follow are those of Mount Myouboku.”

“Hatake-san,” Choujuurou of the Mist said quietly, looking down at his folded hands on the table. “Will you vouch for the ability and dedication of Jiraiya-san?”

Kakashi-sensei was quiet for a long moment. “Jiraiya-san has both great knowledge and great wisdom,” he said at last. “No matter how much he sometimes pretends he doesn’t.” Naruto and Sasuke caught each other’s eye, and Naruto grinned at the look of grudging agreement on Sasuke’s face. “If he accepts leadership of this mission, he will lead it well and, I think, impartially.”

“Hey, wait a minute, why are you asking him?” Suigetsu wanted to know, poking Choujuurou in the ribs. He stopped and drew back, though, when Choujuurou looked up. He didn’t look shy at all, now.

“Hatake-san was the one who sent Kisame-senpai’s body and sword back to us,” Choujuurou said, low. “Intact. The Mist will accept his judgment, in this.” He gave Jiraiya a level look. “Will you accept it, Jiraiya-san?”

Jiraiya’s mouth quirked up at one corner. “It’s always the quiet ones,” he murmured, and straightened. “If this command group can reach a unanimous decision, I will accept it.”

Temari shrugged. “Mist and Leaf seem to agree. So does Sand.” She raised a brow at the two from Valley, and Yuzuki nodded.

“Hatake Kakashi is Haruno-san’s teacher,” Tomita observed. “And we have cause to trust her judgment, as Mist has cause to trust Hatake-san’s. Sound will accept her teacher’s judgment as well.”

Kitsuchi was watching Kakashi-sensei, who had gotten very still, looking amused. “You didn’t really think no one had noticed, did you Kakashi? Your judgment was what carried more than one engagement in the Leaf’s favor. Considering that, Rock agrees also.”

“Good enough,” Souta of the Grass drawled, and nudged his commander. “Haruto-san?”

“If my intelligence specialist agrees, then Grass accepts Jiraiya-san as well,” Haruto said calmly, ignoring the annoyed look Souta gave him. Naruto figured Souta hadn’t wanted anyone to know his specialty; Intelligence people tended to be like that, if Ino was anything to go by.

Everyone looked at Cloud. Darui considered Jiraiya for a long breath.

“Jiraiya-san,” he finally said, “it’s known that you have a close relationship with Leaf’s host. Can you tell me with surety that you’ll guard B as closely as you will Naruto?”

“I will,” Jiraiya answered without hesitation, assurance ringing in every word, and Naruto smiled a little. Just like Kakashi-sensei had a particular tone he used when he was being serious about mission stuff, Jiraiya spoke like this sometimes and you just believed him.

Darui nodded. “Then Cloud agrees, also. Jiraiya will command this mission.”

“If you can give me a similar assurance,” Jiraiya shot back immediately, “I would like you to act as second in command, Darui-kun.”

Darui smiled just a little at that, and gave Naruto a long look. “Yes,” he finally agreed. “I will defend Naruto of the Leaf as if he were our own.”

“All right, then.” Jiraiya glanced over at Kakashi-sensei. “Kakashi, you’re in charge of the Leaf contingent. Tell Genma he’s your second.” Kakashi nodded silently and Jiraiya turned back to the rest of them. “If I’m to plan well for this mission, I need to know the abilities of the people you’ve brought.”

Naruto tried to pay attention, but it was hard to be all that interested in lists. His attention kept wandering to the Cloud host, B. Sakura had gotten all the gossip available on Cloud’s host from Intelligence, before they left, and she’d said whoever it was was supposed to be one of the few hosts who completely controlled the power of the beast sealed inside him. Naruto had to wonder what that would be like.

“…well supplied with sensors and scouts, then,” Jiraiya was saying, when Naruto tuned in again, hands folded loosely under his chin as he thought. “I’ll want everyone’s input on how to best place the rest of our people for defense, if we’re discovered. Before that, though, Motoi mentioned that there was a place on this island where the hosts could be completely undetected?”

B finally spoke up. “The Tailed Beast temple. Chakra doesn’t pass its walls, either in or out.”

“That may be very useful for keeping the two of you from Akatsuki, if they find the island in the first place,” Jiraiya said approvingly. “If they can’t sense you at all, they may be convinced this encampment is a decoy.” Naruto sat up straight at that.

“Hey, hey, wait a minute,” he protested. “You can’t just stuff us in a temple if there’s trouble! I mean, I’m not just going to hide while everyone else is fighting!”

“You’re their target,” Jiraiya told him inflexibly, so level and serious that Naruto knew, with a sinking feeling, he really meant it. “And we will not permit them to take you. If that means hiding, you’ll do it.”


Sakura laid a hand on his shoulder. “Naruto,” she said gently. “I know you’re worried. You want the people you care for to be safe, even if you have to put yourself in danger to make sure of that, right?”

He crossed his arms, vindicated, and nodded firmly. “Yeah!” At least someone understood.

And then he yelped as Sakura grabbed the front of his shirt in her fist and dragged him up nose to nose with her. “Then what the hell makes you think we feel any differently?!” she yelled.

Naruto blinked at her, ears ringing. “Oh. Um.” He rubbed the back of his head, sheepish; he hadn’t quite thought of it like that. “Right.” He glanced around the table, face getting a little hot. Darui-san was looking amused, Temari wryly approving, and Tomita looked downright nostalgic. Sakura sniffed and dropped him back into his seat. She didn’t quite dust her hands, but Naruto thought she might as well have. He took a breath and rallied. “But! Itachi is gone, so whoever comes can’t just put that eye thing on us. They have to beat us first, right? So, so!” Naruto just about bounced; this was important. “So if you guys are defeated because we weren’t there to fight with you, we’ll have a worse chance of winning by ourselves!” He folded his arms again. “So we totally should fight with everyone else.”

“And what if it’s Madara himself who comes after you?” Jiraiya asked sharply.

Naruto scowled, but he supposed that was a point. “If it’s Madara, I’ll hide,” he agreed. “But if it’s anyone else, I’ll fight too!”

Jiraiya opened his mouth and closed it again. “Hm.”

B stirred. “You really going to be that much good to the fight?” he asked, leaning his protesting chair back on two legs. “How much of the Nine-tails’ chakra can you draw, anyway?”

Naruto lifted his chin. “Enough to give a jounin a complete chakra transfusion,” he said challengingly. A soft murmur of surprise rustled around the table and he sat back, satisfied.

B snorted. “That’s nothing compared to what the Nine-tails has on tap.”

Naruto bristled. “Fine, then! Show me!” B cocked his head and Naruto jumped up, pointing at him. “You’re supposed to be able to access all of the Eight-tails. So show me how! And I’ll do it! Because I’m not leaving my friends to fight alone!” He jammed his fists on his hips, glaring. “The fox already agreed to pay me rent. I bet I can get him to do this too!”

B’s chair wobbled on two legs for a moment and his brows vanished under his forehead protector. “Rent?” After a long moment, he laughed. “You’re a feisty one. I kind of like that. All right, kid; let’s see if you can do it.”

“Well,” Jiraiya said dryly, “that much seems to have been decided. Have fun. Let us know how it’s going.”

Naruto grinned at him and gave him Gai-san’s thumbs up sign, which made Sasuke groan faintly and Kakashi-sensei twitch. “You bet!”

B stretched up out of his chair, just as huge as he looked sitting down, and clapped his hands on Omoi’s and Karui’s shoulders. “Come on, you two. You can keep an eye on us.” Sakura and Sasuke promptly stood too, at Naruto’s back.

Karui gave them all a smirk. “You’ll never be able to do it.”

“Just watch me,” Naruto told her, and strode out of the building after B.

“These are the Falls of Truth,” B said over the low thunder of falling water that filled the little clearing. “The temple is behind it. To reach the temple, though, you have to face yourself first.”

Naruto puzzled at that for a moment and finally tilted his head at B and just asked, “Huh?”

“Sit there,” B pointed to a flat stone at the foot of the falls, “and meditate on the water. You’ll have to pass whatever appears out of the falls, to get to the temple.”

Was this where some of the giant animals would come in? Naruto shrugged. “Okay then.” He took a step toward the river, focusing his chakra for water walking, only to be stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

“Naruto,” Sasuke said quietly, “while you’re doing this… remember us. Okay?”

Naruto blinked. “Well of course I’ll remember you. You’re right here.”

Sasuke gave him an exasperated look. “That wasn’t what I meant. It’s… look, just…” he finally huffed out a breath, pulled Naruto around, and kissed him.

Naruto made a startled sound, but this… this was one of the special kisses, the ones that were slow and coaxing and like Naruto was the only thing Sasuke was thinking of in the whole world. So Naruto mentally tossed over his shoulder all the questions about why now and leaned into it. It made him feel like he was special when Sasuke kissed him like this, and Sakura was warm against his back, arms wrapped around them both. Sakura would protect them from everything; she always did.

“Don’t get too knotted up inside your own head, okay?” Sasuke said softly, when he finally drew back. “Remember this.”

“Okay,” Naruto agreed, husky.

Both Karui and Omoi had their brows raised when Sakura and Sasuke let him go, but B was wearing a tilted little smile. “Good guess,” he told Sasuke, and added to Naruto, “Well, go on, then.”

Naruto thought maybe he could have walked on water without any chakra at all, after that. But staring at the falls was boring. He shifted on the rock and sighed and stared some more.

And… was there a shadow in the water? He swore he could see his reflection, only the water had to be too rough for that…

The reflection solidified and himself stepped out of the waterfall.

It was definitely himself. Himself with the still, distant look on his face that Naruto never, ever, ever showed anyone else. What good would it do, after all, for anyone to know when he felt that way? That face was wet from the waterfall. Wait, no…

Wet with tears, running down from those dark, empty eyes without stopping.

“They don’t think you exist,” himself said quietly. “They look at you and don’t see you. Only the Nine-tails. You don’t exist at all.”

The words were like a fist against a broken bone. “That’s not true!” Naruto burst out.

“Sometimes they see the Fourth’s son, now,” his own voice said, his own face, looking straight at him. “But who’s that? You never knew him, except that he’s the one who chose this life for you. Does that really make his son something good? No. Just another empty form.”

“But I’m not,” Naruto wavered, remembering the times he’d wondered how his dad could do this to his own son, and he grabbed reflexively at his oldest shield. “I’m not! And it doesn’t matter! I’m going to be a hero!”

“Only until you fail,” himself said, soft and flat. “Like you did with Gaara. Too late. Not good enough. Then they’ll all say it’s no surprise, won’t they? Because you’re nothing, after all.”

Naruto wrapped his arms around him, suddenly cold in the blowing droplets from the falls. People would say that, yes. He could hear them, like he’d heard them for eighteen years, cold words spit at his back, and even his face, whenever he tried to succeed. They piled up like rocks on his shoulders until he was hunched down under the weight.

“How will you live, then?” himself asked. “Without anyone who really sees you at all. Wouldn’t it be better not to? The Nine-tails will die too, that way. Akatsuki won’t get it. There will be time for someone who actually chooses this to step up to be a host. Isn’t that what your father should have done?” He took a step closer. “And if you kill the fox that way, maybe then they’ll finally say you were a hero.”

“I won’t!” Naruto yelled, putting his hands over his ears. His own eyes were burning, now. “I won’t, I won’t let them win! I’m better than that! I am!”

“Who says so?” himself asked, so disinterested Naruto could tell he thought it was impossible.

“Sakura says,” he shot back, “and…” He stopped and blinked. “And… Sasuke. Sasuke said…”

Don’t get too knotted up inside your own head, okay?

“And, and Shikamaru said,” Naruto whispered, remembering.

We’ll keep ours safe.

"And Hinata," Naruto said softly. "And Kiba, and Chouji…"



Hey, Naruto…

He remembered faces smiling at him. “And Gaara said I’d helped.” He felt again the little roughness of sand, swirling around his hand and lifting it to meet Gaara’s and clasp hands good-bye like friends. “And that ero-sennin said it would help if I fought beside everyone. Even though he didn’t want to!”

“Are they really telling the truth, though?” himself wanted to know. He was very close now, and the emptiness in his eyes was everything that had terrified Naruto when he woke up alone at night for years and years. But…

“Sasuke and Sakura love me,” he said, and knew it was true. And in knowing, himself got a little see-through for a moment. Naruto took a deep breath. He knew what this was, now. “All that… that’s from the past. It’s not now. Now is different.” He could feel the warmth of Sakura’s arms around him, of Sasuke’s mouth on his, and he smiled even if it was wobbly, holding tight to them. “Now is different.”

“How do you know for sure? What if it’s just a lie? What if it goes away?” himself whispered, and Naruto had to laugh out loud even though his own eyes were wet with that fear, too.

“I know because of this,” he said, husky, and reached out to wrap his arms around himself, just like Sakura had for him. And kissed himself, gentle and careful, the way Sasuke did for him.

Everything blurred through the water on his lashes, and when he blinked them clear he was looking at the waterfall and himself was gone. He looked around hastily, and found Sasuke and Sakura on the river shore along with B and Karui and Omoi. Naruto scrubbed a sleeve over his face and sucked in a deep breath and stood up. He felt… light.

Also a little dizzy, and he wobbled as he stepped back off the water and onto land.

B put a hand on his shoulder to steady him, looking down at him with a cocked brow. “So?”

“Well… I’m pretty sure I dealt with what I found, yeah.” Naruto’s smile got a little crooked for a second, and B’s matched it. Yeah, B was a host too, after all; he probably knew.

“Good. That was the easy part.”

Naruto thought about that. He guessed he could believe it; the falls had hurt some, but he’d already known all that stuff wasn’t true any more. He’d just needed to, well, to tell himself.


“Can we get something to eat first, then?” he asked.

He didn’t know why everyone seemed to find that so funny. It was a perfectly natural question.

The next morning, after a good breakfast, the six of them went back to the temple, all the way inside this time. It felt really weird, not being able to sense anyone’s chakra but theirs. The wall carvings were kind of cool, though, with lots of tentacles.

“All right,” B told him, once they were inside the inner building, arms crossed. “You’ve talked to the Nine-tails before, right? So you need to do that again. The more you talk, the more reasonable he’ll get. Probably.”

“Probably?” Sakura asked, wary.

“Well.” B scratched his head. “See, thing is, the tailed beasts don’t normally have much in the way of human thought. Or speech. They get that from us, the hosts. The more we talk, the more of our kind of sensible the beasts get. But Eight-tails, he says that Nine-tails is kind of an ornery bastard all the time, so he might stay pissed off longer.”

“Huh.” Naruto thought about that. It made sense. The Nine-tails did seem to spend most of his time really pissed off. “So I’ll just keep talking until he settles down. I can do that. Um.” He glanced around at them and cleared his throat. “So. Um.”

“Naruto,” Sasuke asked, eyeing him suspiciously, “do you actually know how to do this?”

“Of course I do!” Naruto drew himself up, indignant. And then deflated again. “Except, um. The times I’ve done it before I’ve kind of been about to die.”

Sasuke buried his face in his hands with a groan. “I knew it.”

B snorted a laugh. “You’re something else, kid.”

“There is another time you’re close, though,” Sakura said slowly. “When you’re really upset about one of us. When someone you care about is in danger. That’s when the Nine-tails’ chakra gets visible and…” she hesitated and finished, eyes narrow, “when you don’t seem to hear words any more. The Nine-tails must be really close, then.”

“So if I think about how much I need this, to protect all of you,” Naruto started, perking up. He could totally do that, and it would be a lot easier than getting one of them to throw him off the falls for something.

“That’s a dangerous way to do it,” B rumbled. “It might just send you out of control.”

Abruptly, Sasuke swung around, back to all of them.

“Sasuke?” Naruto asked, worried, reaching out a hand to him.

“If it’s necessary,” Sasuke said to the floor, tight and stifled, “I can get you back. But that will probably piss the fox off twice as much, so try not to need it, okay?”

“O…kay?” Naruto hazarded, not sure exactly what was going on behind that except that something sure was.

B stirred, where he was leaning against the stone steps of the little inner pyramid. “Uchiha,” he said, like the answer to a question. Sasuke twitched, and Naruto scowled at B. “The records from the founding say Madara was the first one to bind the Nine-tails—and not by sealing it.”

“I’m not him,” Sasuke said, flat and hard. “But a powerful Sharingan can control the beasts, especially if a host isn’t helping them resist.”

“But the fox would be even more pissed off to be reminded,” Naruto worked it out. “Yeah, I guess I’d be pissed off too.” He came and jostled Sasuke gently. “Don’t worry. I won’t let him get loose.” So his teammate wouldn’t have to do anything like what Madara did.

Sasuke huffed a soft laugh at that, finally looking around. “Yeah. If you’re going to be stubborn about it, I won’t worry. You’re more pig-headed than an elemental demon fox any day.”

“Of course I am.” Naruto smiled, satisfied, and climbed up the stairs briskly to sit on the platform at the top of them. “Okay, here I go.”

He closed his eyes and thought about the village. About Tsunade-baachan and the ero-sennin. About Kakashi-sensei and Iruka-san. About his year-mates, sitting around a grill table and fighting over yakiniku and bragging about their latest missions. About the hospital, and the way the other medics and the doctors smiled when he came in for a shift. About the kid whose hand he’d held through a tooth extraction, and the man whose bone he’d set and bonded because he had to take a mission in a week to pay for a new baby on the way, and the screaming panic inside him when he’d attended the birth and had to stop a hemorrhage, and how everyone in the room had cried when they knew the mother and baby would both pull through.

He thought about Sasuke and Sakura.

He thought about Akatsuki. About Gaara’s lifeless body and what it had cost to bring him home again. About what Akatsuki would do to everyone between him and them, if he didn’t find the power he needed to stop them.

He opened his eyes and glared at the Nine-tail’s cage. “Hey! Fox! I need to talk to you!”

An earth-shaking growl rumbled through the hall he was standing in, vibrating the water underfoot. “So, it’s you again, brat. What do you want this time?”

“I need your power!” And then he remembered that he was supposed to be talking, and probably cooperating, and coughed. “Um. Please.”

The fox stepped forward out of the dark and curled a lip up, showing one massive fang. “You’re in no danger. Why should I?”

“Shows what you know,” Naruto muttered. “Look, if I can’t fight with all your power, then Akatsuki is probably going to get us in the end, and you’ll be stuck with Madara and whatever he’s—”

“Madara!” The fox reared up behind his bars, roaring so loud the walls vibrated and Naruto’s ears hurt. “Show me where he is, and this time I’ll devour him!”

Naruto folded his arms and snorted. “And he’ll just do that eye thing on you, and you’ll be stuck again.”

A whole lot of really big teeth were bared right at him as the fox growled.

“But Sasuke said that a host can help you resist that,” Naruto offered, determined not to edge backwards.

Nine-tails stopped growling, ears cocked. “Just so you can keep me bound to your own purposes instead,” he said suspiciously. “Like three generations of your damn village before you.” He spat with disgust, which was actually kind of impressive to see, coming from something that size.

Naruto opened his mouth and slowly closed it again, thinking. “I don’t really know what my purposes are supposed to be,” he said at last. “I mean, I know what I want. I want to protect the people who are important to me. And I want the village to acknowledge me, but, um,” he smiled, remembering the falls, “people kind of do that already. So it’s mostly just protecting. And, since you’re here, and it’s kind of about you this time, yeah I want your help. But usually? Hell, I can protect people with my own strength.” He looked up at the huge, red eyes above him. “If there’s something more I’m supposed to be doing with you, no one ever told me.” He shrugged, jamming his hands in his pockets. “So screw that.”

The fox blinked at him.

Naruto scratched his nose thoughtfully. “Do you have, um, ‘purposes’?” he asked. “I mean… there must be things you want to do, too.” He’d never really thought about that before. Wow, it must kind of suck to be stuck inside someone else and not be able to do what you needed to.

Honestly, no wonder the fox was pissed off.

“I destroy corruption,” the Nine-tails said after a long, silent moment. “That’s the nature of my being, the nature of all the tailed beasts. I am a spirit of the pure world, and I burn away what becomes twisted.”

“Corruption?” Naruto scrunched up his mouth, trying to puzzle that out. He really doubted the fox meant garbage heaps, or at least if it did he was going to laugh really hard. Maybe less literal. Like gambling and stuff? Only maybe bigger and more serious… “Oh!” His eyes opened wide and he snapped his fingers, pleased with his insight. “Like Madara!”

The fox snarled like stone tearing apart. Naruto took that for a yes.

“Well, that’s easy, then! We can do that.”

“We can what?” the Nine-tails asked, as if it really hadn’t understood a word he’d said. Naruto came closer to the bars, looking up at him seriously.

“I mean it. Taking out the people like Madara, who are hurting everyone and… I guess you’d say corrupting the world. I’m good with that.” He cocked his head. “It’s what I came here to ask for help with!”

The fox actually drew back from the bars. “You say that now, because he attacks you. But if it were someone in your own village, you’d think different. Even sealed away, I could smell the corruption of that creature Orochimaru. But did that damn woman listen to me? Ha!”

“I would have listened,” Naruto pointed out. “I mean, it was my own teammate, Sakura, who killed Orochimaru.”

The fox settled back on his haunches, and his growl turned approving. “The girl you’re so foolish for? A suitable end. She’s touched by the chakra of the world herself, now.”

“I’d have been a lot happier if you’d spoken up and we could have taken Orochimaru out ourselves,” Naruto grumbled, crossing his arms. “That was a really hard mission for Sakura; it really hurt her!”

The fox’s tails flicked out like shrugging, but its eyes were fixed on him. “Do you truly think you can do this? Be the hands and vessel of a great spirit? Burn out the world’s rot?”

“I’m not saying I’m going to just let you rampage off whenever the hell you feel like it,” Naruto snapped. “You don’t get it all your own way! You’re here and you have your own thing, and I’ll help with that whenever we can, but I’m here too! If I help you, you have to help me. Not to destroy—to protect!”

The fox curled up his lip to show a fang again, disdainful. “Mouthy brat, aren’t you?”

“So maybe I get it from you,” Naruto grumbled back. He wasn’t sure this talking thing was really going to work.

But that, of all the things he’d said, made the fox throw up its head and laugh like the rush and leap of a fire. “You claim you’re kin to me? Bargain like it, then!” he declared, and in one stride he was right up at the bars, nose to enormous nose with Naruto. “You will let me watch the world through you. You will hear and heed when I tell you that there is corruption that must be destroyed. I will lend you all my power to do that. And if you do those things, I will also lend it for the protection of your ‘important people’.”

Naruto looked the Nine-tails in the eyes. Or eye, since he could really only meet one at a time, this close. “I’ll let you watch,” he agreed. “And I’ll help with the corruption thing as long as we can do it without destroying anything else.” He ignored the low growl at that. “And you can get words and thoughts from me, so you can understand why that’s important.”

The fox blinked and drew back a bit. “Hmph,” he said at last, and the force of that snort plastered Naruto’s clothes against him for a moment. “I suppose that will do for now. And,” he added, as he faded back into the darkness past the bars, “we’ll see who influences who.”

“Stubborn damn fox,” Naruto grumbled and opened his eyes on the temple again. His butt was cold from sitting on stone; he must have been ‘gone’ a while, this time. Five pairs of eyes were fixed on him, and he grinned back. “He agreed.”

Sasuke and Sakura both relaxed, which made him notice how tense they’d been, and he rubbed the back of his head and gave them an apologetic look.

“Well, let’s see it, then,” B told him, waving him down off the steps.

“Sure thing!” Naruto bounced up, excited by the idea of getting to spar with this kind of stuff. He suddenly wobbled with his foot on the first step, though. His eyes widened. “Hey!”

“Naruto?” Sakura and Sasuke were up the steps beside him in a flash, Sasuke’s eyes red and Sakura’s hands hovering in the first seal of her activation.

Naruto barely noticed, busy glowering at thin air. “The ‘damn woman’ who didn’t listen… He was talking about my mom! That damn fox was insulting my mom!” He brandished a fist in the air, yelling at the flicker of fire he could feel in the back of his head. “Don’t you say one bad word about my mom, damn it!”

A faint chuckle threaded through the temple, or maybe it was just his mind, and for half a breath a handful of tails brushed forward around him sending Sakura and Sasuke jumping back. Naruto crossed his arms and scowled ferociously. He was totally not letting the fox off the hook for this one, no matter how much power or how many tails it waved at him.

“Well,” B broke the silence in the temple. “This’ll be interesting.”

In the inner space where the demon fox curled behind his bars, the seal tag closing those gates shifted ever so slightly.

A/N: Sorry folks, there will be no hip-hop rhymes for B here. I suck at rhyming, and not in an in-character sort of way. My rationale is that, in this universe, B only rhymes at opponents in battle or with people he really likes and trusts, and a dicey international mission doesn’t fit either yet. As for the Nine-tails, the second half painted him as a lot more vicious and toxic than the first half, and I like the first half better; he even seems to have a bit of a soft spot for Naruto in the first half, insofar as an arrogant, pissed off elemental demon can. So I’m sticking with that characterization.