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

Sasuke attends his first Council, called to deal with Danzou’s actions, while Naruto and Sakura figure out how to heal the Nine-tails. That second turns out to have risks none of them quite realized before-hand. Drama, I-3

Sakura leaned on the rail of the ship as they swung away from the Island Turtle and turned toward the coast of the Fire Country. It had been a curious experience, working with so many shinobi from so many different nations. It had tugged at her memories of working in Sound, undercover, except that no one had pretended any allegiance but their true one.

Except for Sai.

She leaned down to rest her chin on her folded arms, staring over the choppy waves, growing into swells as they drew away from the Turtle, and turned over her thoughts about Sai. About ANBU and Root. She was pretty sure that she’d been given to Miuhara as his mentee because he was ANBU, and her mission to Orochimaru had been one that ANBU would normally have handled—as had a handful of others since. But she’d never asked, because you didn’t. Even if you suspected, even if you were pretty sure you knew, you didn’t ask. ANBU needed that bit of uncertainty and ambiguity, even in their home village, to do their work and still come home from it.

It must have been so easy to hide yet another secret group inside that.

And there’d been a lot of orphans after the Nine-tails’ attack. How easy would it be, in the confusion after that, to take in a handful, to raise them and train them.

And kill half of them. It made her shake every time she thought about it, thought about what Danzou had done, made her vision haze with red.

“Still wound up from the attack on Naruto?”

Sakura started a little, straightening to find Temari beside her. “Temari-san.”

The other woman smiled a bit crookedly. “It’s not surprising if you’re still angry, you know. He tried to kill your teammate. Your family, as close as the three of you are. You’ll be angry for a while.”

Sakura scrubbed her hands over her face, trying not to shudder; if anyone would know that, Temari would. “I know. I’m… trying to save it up for the people who are really responsible.” She snorted softly. “There’s going to be a lot of anger to go around, on this one, for a lot of reasons.” Enough that it was affecting her—impairing her—she suddenly realized, feeling the wound-to-snapping tension in her shoulders. Enough, obviously, that outsiders could see it. Which was the other thing Temari was telling her. Shit. She looked up at Temari with a sigh. “Thanks.”

Temari only nodded quietly and turned her head to look out over the gray-green texture of the water. “I owe Naruto,” she murmured. “My teams from Sand will protect him like our own.”

Every little bit helped, and Temari was very strong. Sakura reminded herself of that, and took a breath, and acknowledged that she was enraged, furious enough to spit nails, ready to slice Danzou open like a piece of fruit. She felt and accepted that, and then she set it aside, the way Miuhara had taught her to. There was work to do. Anger might strengthen her, but it must not blind her. She would do what was necessary with cool judgment, and spit on the corpse later. “Thank you, Temari-san,” she said quietly, feeling her shoulders finally fall. “That does help.”

“Good. Well, then.” Temari glanced at her sidelong with a tiny smile. “I hear you pulled out something kind of special during the fight on the Island. Is it something you can tell me about?”

Sakura laughed. “Did Fuunotora-san put you up to asking?” The older kunoichi had spent years trying to winkle the details of her seal out of her.

“She might have mentioned something in passing.” Temari turned, leaning back against the rail on her elbows with a grin that showed her teeth.

Sakura hesitated, actually considering it. They were allied with Sand. Naruto and Gaara were friends; she couldn’t see that changing. But every iota of her Intelligence training was screaming at her that one did not share that kind of information with another nation’s shinobi, be they ever so allied. In the end she sighed. “Maybe someday. I’d like that.”

Temari considered her for a long moment and finally nodded, firm. “We’ll work on it, then. It’s what Gaara wants too; the more I see, the more I approve.” And then she straightened, tilting her chin to gesture past Sakura’s shoulder. “Looks like your team is here. Time for me to go and write more dispatches for home, and you to remember what you need to do with that anger of yours." She smiled faintly, pushing up from the rail. "It is your team that’s always talking about protecting what’s precious to you, isn’t it? Everything that’s precious to you?” She saluted Sakura lazily and strolled away down the deck.

“What did Temari-san want?” Naruto asked, looking after her curiously as he and Sasuke leaned against the rail beside her.

“To remind me that we have help, and to deal properly with being really fucking pissed off,” Sakura admitted ruefully. “Good thing, really, otherwise I might have tried to slice open Danzou’s belly with my nails as soon as we got back.” Which would relieve her feelings a lot but wouldn’t necessarily protect Naruto very much, and would definitely upset the village. A village that was also precious to her, no matter how stupid some members of it sometimes were.

“Yes,” Sasuke murmured, “we’ll have to wait until he’s been officially denounced to do that, so no one complains. And until we have a little free time to devote to it.” They smiled at each other, complicit and bloodthirsty. Naruto turned rather red, the way he always did when someone else got protective of him, and Sakura threw an arm around his shoulders. She really did love both of them.

“So we’re about to be busy. One demon fox to heal. One traitor to uncover. One madman to prepare for.” She nodded firmly. “Let’s do it.”

She held up both hands, and Naruto laughed and did the same, and they both stared at Sasuke expectantly until he sighed and held up his as well.

“Team Seven, go!” Naruto declared, and they smacked palms, all three at once.

Sakura smiled, true and light for the first time in days. They would make this happen.

Sasuke didn’t want to be sitting where he was. It was a nice room, wide and airy with comfortable chairs of sleek wood set around a polished ring of table. He didn’t even have anything against most of the company. He wasn’t fond of Hyuuga Hiashi, but Hinata was at his side looking alert instead of crushed; Akimichi Chouza had given him a solemn and welcoming nod; and Aburame Midori had murmured, as she passed behind his chair, that it was good to have all four clans present again. Certainly his encounters with Nara Shikaku, the Jounin Commander, had been encouraging; the man seemed level-headed and just as intelligent as his son. And Sasuke was fairly sure that the ANBU Commander was the same man who had let him and Naruto into the Intelligence complex once or twice to pick up Sakura when she’d had a hard debriefing. Tsunade, with Kakashi-sensei standing in attendance behind her shoulder, was almost comforting; her temper was, if anything, worse than Naruto’s, and he’d learned to trust that kind of straightforwardness. He didn’t like how any of the three Elders looked at him, but he’d known for a while that that was the faction who had been against him since the massacre and would likely stay that way for years, no matter what happened today.

Under other circumstances, he might have enjoyed being here, his first Council as the acknowledged head of Uchiha. But he didn’t want to be here today, looking at that smug bastard Danzou across the table. He wanted to be with his team, helping Sakura and Naruto research something it was already clear would be a dangerous procedure. And making sure no one made another attempt on Naruto.

If there was one thing he’d learned as a child, though, it was his duty as a son of Uchiha, so here he was. Not killing Danzou even a little, either; he hoped everyone appreciated his restraint.

“We are here,” Tsunade said, hands folded on the sleek wood in front of her, “to consider the actions of Shimura Danzou. You have all seen the report of Sai’s attack on Uzumaki Naruto, and what was learned from him. You have seen the lists of Root members and missions we have been able to confirm. I will hear what the Council has to say.”

The ANBU Commander clasped his hands under the chin of his cat mask. “ANBU is divided,” he said quietly. “It’s true that Root members are skilled and have a high success rate. And we all understand the need for what we do. But if we can’t trust our assigned teammates, if any of them might have secret orders… it will tear all our working teams apart and imperil our missions themselves.”

“Divided loyalties are something the rest of us already had to deal with,” Aburame Midori pointed out dryly. “I don’t see a great deal of difference between Torune being ANBU and being Root. He is divided in his loyalty to his clan already, and he chose that himself.”

“He chose that, yes.” Shikaku frowned darkly across the table at Danzou. “I’m considerably more disturbed by the handful of younger members, who seem to have been drawn from the orphans of the village and then set against each other in deadly trials. As if we were Hidden Mist! Where’s the excuse for that?”

“That was done before the Third proscribed Root,” Danzou answered, quite calm.

“That was why the Third proscribed Root,” Tsunade cut back. “That much is clear, now. ‘Actions Hidden Leaf and the true Will of Fire could never condone’ indeed.”

The lines around Danzou’s eye tightened. “I acted always for the good of the village.”

“And for your own,” Sasuke drawled, folding his hands over his stomach as he leaned back, remembering the things Kakashi-sensei had said and implied during Sai’s interrogation. “You set yourself up with the power of Hokage, without even any pesky Elders to restrain you, and you didn’t want to give that up.”

Danzou drew himself up. “I would have the Council note that Uchiha Sasuke is biased particularly against me because Root’s last mission, of unfortunate necessity, targeted his friend.”

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. Now he understood what his father had said to his mother, one night over dinner: that meetings of the full Council were just another kind of combat, where you had to keep your eyes activated for the openings. What counter would strike through the defense of bias… ah! It was what Kakashi-sensei had once told him. “As it should be,” he returned, as matter-of-fact as he could. “That’s why we fight, every one of us: for friends, clan, loved ones.” He curled his lip. “No one gives their life this way for an abstract. ‘The good of the village.'” He snorted with contempt. “No human fights with all their strength for that.” And there, there it was, the opening he’d felt, and he glared at Danzou. “You had to take away their humanity before they’d do that, didn’t you? So they’d fight for whatever you told them the good of the village was.”

Danzou’s mouth thinned, and Sasuke knew he’d connected.

Chouza leaned his elbows on the table, vest straps creaking over his shoulders. “You mentioned Root’s last mission. You say it was necessary, Danzou, but I don’t see why. The Uzumaki boy had not lost control of the Nine-tails; quite the contrary, from what I hear.”

“And you believe we should have risked it?” Danzou asked, with every appearance of injured dignity. “We have all seen what happens when the demon escapes. You were there that night, Chouza!”

Every older face at the table tightened, and Sasuke had to stifle a growl; Danzou was skilled at this. Risk, risk, what would counter… hm. He smiled faintly and leaned an elbow on his chair arm. “So, you believe we should all trust your assessment of the risk?” he asked.

“The Elders are appointed so that their experience may serve the village,” Danzou answered, smooth and calm again.

“And your experience told you that the Nine-tails was too great a danger to risk the chance of it breaking free,” Sasuke murmured. “I see.” He waited one silent beat and inquired casually, “So, you were in contact with the mission after all?”

Danzou frowned. “Of course not. That would endanger Leaf shinobi unnecessarily.” There were tiny nods and judicious looks around the table, and Sasuke had to work very hard not to let his smile spread. He had him!

“Ah? But if you weren’t in contact, how could you possibly judge the danger?” He frowned. “Are you telling us that you gave non-discretionary orders before a mission even began and made no provision to alter them based on what actually happened?” As the listeners stilled, he added, very softly, “Are you telling us that you let your fear dictate your orders?”

“No!” Danzou was half standing, glaring at Sasuke.

“Ah.” Now Sasuke smiled, holding Danzou’s gaze. “So, it was only your complete arrogance, that gave those orders blind and never once thought that you might be wrong, or even that the situation might change.” He swept his eyes around the table. “I think everyone who’s ever worked in the field may have some thoughts about the kind of experience and judgment that indicates.”

Even Midori was frowning now, and Sasuke sat back. He was breathing light and fast, and his legs were actually trembling with the urge to stand, to strike, to do something. He’d have preferred a field mission to this! He’d never spoken during clan meetings; he’d been the second son and it hadn’t been his place. He’d only listened. He’d had no idea it was this hard! Kakashi-sensei, standing quiet guard behind Tsunade, caught his eye for an instant and nodded just a fraction. Sasuke took a slow breath, steadying himself on that silent assurance that he was doing all right so far.

“There was indeed judgment lacking there,” Hiashi agreed, and frowned at Danzou. “More than that, you have acted entirely alone. You have not consulted the Hokage or the other Elders.”

“I have access to all intelligence materials.” Danzou looked a bit ruffled now.

“Unauthorized access,” Tsunade-san pointed out coolly. “The Third, at the risk of repeating myself, proscribed Root. You still have that access only because you suborned members of the Intelligence division to your personal use.”

“Personal use, yes.” Hiashi’s glance at Danzou was also cool. “We have a Council for a good reason. And while the noble clans are not often involved in the orders the Hokage gives to ANBU, the Elders are. Even the leader of our village does not act unrestrained. But you have.”

“We might well say that Danzou has been restrained, or at least guided, by his dedication to the good of the village,” Mitokado put in, looking sternly over the rims of his glasses at Hiashi.

“Should the Council take note the the Hokage’s first councilors have a bias in favor of Danzou?” Shikaku murmured dryly, brow raised. A faint gust of laughter ran around the table, stealing the edge from Mitokado’s defense, and Sasuke made a note of the tactic to himself.

“He has been guided, but he has not been restrained,” Hiashi said firmly. “This is unacceptable.”

“Then the answer would seem to be to revive Root as an accepted arm of the village,” Utatane suggested, frail fingers laced in front of her, spine straight. “That will bring Danzou back into the stream of decisions reached by, at the least, the Hokage and her first councilors”

“Making it three against one, hm?” Tsunade looked very sour, and Sasuke had to wonder just how much friction there was between her and those two Elders.

The rest of the table was looking alarmingly thoughtful, though. Sasuke sighed to himself; he’d have to attack first this time, and hope he could defend himself as he went. “The question of whether Danzou’s guiding principles are acceptable remains unanswered,” he pointed out. “So far, it’s merely been evaded.”

After a long, silent moment, Shikaku stirred. “I am not pleased with Danzou’s decisions. They’ve been too extreme.”

“If Root is accepted as a hand of the Council, even if it remains proscribed to outside eyes, that problem will be alleviated,” Utatane argued.

Chouza tilted his head at Tsunade. “The Hokage appears to feel differently. It seems that you and Mitokado are already sufficient voices for direct action.”

“Are you displeased with the outcome?” Mitokado snapped. “The village has been kept safe and made strong!”

“The village was almost fatally weakened by his actions!” Sasuke snapped back, and in the silence that followed tried to catch up to his own thoughts. He was right, he knew he was, because Naruto… ah. Yes, of course.

He spread his hands on the glossy wood in front of him and glared at Danzou. “You would have killed our host for loosening the Nine-tails containment. You still would, if you could convince us!”

“Of course I would,” Danzou answered calmly. “It is a threat, and must be contained as strongly as possible. If the Uzumaki boy cannot keep it bound, then it must be killed. I regret that he must die with it, but that is the nature of the Sacrifices.”

“Contained, you say,” Sasuke returned, quiet now, seeing the moves he needed unrolling in front of him. “Contained and doubly bound, that’s how you would keep the Nine-tails?” At Danzou’s solemn nod, he showed his teeth. “You would have us be weaker than enemy villages? I have to wonder about your precious dedication to Konoha. You would weaken us against Hidden Cloud! Who betrays the village, then?”

“What do you mean?” Mitokado demanded, frowning at him. Sasuke leaned back.

“Cloud’s hosts, in this generation, are known to be the strongest, the ones best able to manage their beasts and the ones who can gain the most of their power to fight with. That is done, not by binding the beast completely, but by holding it lightly contained and reaching an accommodation with it.” He paused to let that sink in and struck. “Naruto has done this, and that’s the only reason we won against Nagato and Konan of Akatsuki. We have a host as strong as Cloud’s now!” He lifted a hand to point across the table at Danzou. “And his judgment would have stolen that strength from us and left Cloud the only hidden village with a host. What do you think would have happened then?” He flicked a meaningful glance at Hiashi and Hinata.

“No one knew this at the time,” Utatane started, only to be cut off by Midori.

“That is the point Uchiha-kun is making, I believe. Danzou did not know, and yet he took it upon himself to act.” She gave Utatane and Mitokado a keen look. “And you would not have stopped him, would you?” The two first councilors were silent at that.

“Very well.” Tsunade straightened, lifting her head, and every eye in the room went to her. “The Council has debated this issue, and I have heard your words on it. My judgment is that Root must be truly disbanded. The conditioning of the members will be undone as far as possible, and if there are keys to release it, those must be surrendered. Further, Shimura Danzou has demonstrated a lack of trustworthiness that I cannot accept.” She met the eyes of each person in turn. “If he meant to place Root in the service of the village, why was I told nothing of it, when I became Hokage? Why did he continue to operate on no authority but his own? That is not the act of a man who seeks to serve anything at all. I say that Shimura Danzou must be stripped of his office as an Elder of Konoha. What does my Council say?”

“Agreed,” Shikaku said promptly.

“Agreed,” Hiashi murmured.

“Agreed.” Chouza nodded firmly.

“We will need to address the fate of Root members further, and how they can be returned to duty,” the ANBU commander said quietly. “But that will not require the full Council. For the matter of Danzou: Agreed.”

Midori sat back with an air of satisfaction, and Sasuke remembered her first words, that a son of her clan was a Root member. “Agreed.”

“Agreed,” Sasuke murmured, nearly holding his breath as everyone looked at the other two Elders.

Utatane’s mouth was tight. “There will need to be another Elder appointed, then. If you are concerned that no one person shape policy too much, then let your first councilors approve the appointment.”

Tsunade’s eyes flashed, but after a scowling moment she nodded sharply. Sasuke wondered if it was his imagination that a corner of her mouth flickered upward for just an instant.

Utatane sighed. “Agreed.”

Mitokado was frowning ferociously, but after a taut moment he sat back, not looking at anyone. “Very well,” he said, low.

Sasuke didn’t think for one moment that he imagined the flash of rage on Danzou’s face before the old man stood from the table. “If that is the will of the Council, very well.” He bowed shallowly to them and whirled around to stalk from the room.

Sasuke let out his breath, feeling his muscles trembling with the tension of this new form of combat. He hoped it wouldn’t always be this bad. Everyone was stretching and sighing as they rose, though, and he had a bad feeling that it got to everyone this way.


He pried himself up out of his chair and tried to discreetly shake out his legs only to find Aburame Midori looking at him with a faintly amused curve to her lips. She patted his arm as she passed. “Not a bad first appearance.”

“Thank you,” Sasuke managed past gritted teeth.

When he emerged from the room, the last one so he could walk with one hand on the wall to prop him up in decent privacy, Tsunade and Kakashi were lingering. Faint smile-lines creased the corner of Kakashi-sensei’s eye and he rested a steadying hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. “Good work.”

“I need to practice this,” Sasuke answered, even though his teacher’s approval warmed him.

“Ask Shikamaru,” Kakashi-sensei advised.

“You might also speak with Hinata.” Tsunade leaned against the wall, arms crossed, with a crooked smile. “She’s learning this, too, and I suspect the two of you will be allies in Council, when she takes over.”

Sasuke took a deep breath and let it out. He had a plan for training. That helped. “Thanks.”

Despite that affirmation, he was still very glad to get back through the falling dusk to his own house, and even more pleased to find people there and the lights on. Normally, he might feel called on to needle his teammates about spending more time at his house than they did at their own apartments, but tonight he was glad for the company waiting.

Naruto was sitting cross-legged at the low, round table in the living room with books and scrolls spread out around him and his fingers buried in his hair as he read. As Sasuke came in he was groaning, “How can we power this twice? Fuck, maybe we should just summon some demons or something.”

Sasuke blinked. Demons?

Sakura stuck her head through the doors from the kitchen, half-full bowl of rice in one hand. “I don’t think we want to do this by sacrifice; I mean technically the Nine-tails is a demon and I don’t think he’d like that.” She spotted Sasuke through the wide entry hall, kicking his sandals off in the genkan, and eyed him for a long moment. “You look wrung out. Sit down and I’ll dish up some food for you, too.” She vanished back into the kitchen with a grin over her shoulder. "It’s your rice, after all."

Naruto looked around and smiled, just a little wan. “Hey.”

Sasuke trudged over to the table, slumping down half over it. “You look about like I feel.”

Naruto reached over to rub the back of his neck. “Was it bad?”

“Well, Danzou is booted off the Council and Root is really, seriously disbanded this time. Supposing that can be done. So there’s definitely progress.” He sighed as Naruto’s fingers found a knot.

“And it was a pain in the ass to get there,” Naruto guessed, and made a face. “When I’m Hokage, I’m gonna fire all the Elders.”

“Maybe they’ll die off before then,” Sasuke muttered, half serious.

“No revolutions at the dinner table,” Sakura declared, dumping bowls of rice and pickled vegetables in front of both of them as she settled down with her own.

“Yeah, save ’em for dessert.” Sasuke levered himself back upright and picked up his bowl. “So how’s the research coming?”

Naruto glared at his scrolls and growled around a mouthful of rice.

“We know approximately what has to happen,” Sakura supplied. “The part we’re stuck on is how to actually do it.”

Sasuke made an inquiring sound, scooping up some more pickles.

“There’s two parts to it,” Naruto said, swallowing. “For one, we need to give the Nine-tails a huge” he waved his chopsticks demonstratively, “transfusion of yin chakra. But in order for it to take hold properly, first we have to deal with his scar.”

Sasuke frowned. “The severing left a scar? Even though there wasn’t a specific physical counterpart?”

“That’s the hardest part.” Naruto propped an elbow on the table, frowning. “It wasn’t a specific ‘part’ of his chakra. It was a little bit of all of it. So the scar is… well, it’s everywhere.”

Sasuke made a thoughtful sound, even as he absently batted Naruto’s elbow off the table. “I can see that would be a hard one, yeah.”

“We need to soften or dissolve it,” Sakura said, leaning back on one hand with a sigh, pushing her feathery hair back with the other. “And that will take almost as much power as the transfusion. I can probably supply the second part, and Tsunade-sama says she can transform it into yin chakra. But I don’t quite have the endurance to pull up that volume of power twice. So what are we going to do for the first part?”

Sasuke swallowed his last bite staring at the wall as he thought. Power like Sakura’s seal gave her access to wasn’t common, it was true. In fact there was only one other person he’d ever seen do anything at all similar. Slowly he said, “You know. Jiraiya also uses nature energy sometimes.”

Naruto sat up straight. “Jiraiya!” His face was bright and excited, weariness forgotten.

"That’s right, I completely forgot! Orochimaru even mentioned that, once!" Sakura’s eyes gleamed. “He should be back from escorting Konan and Nagato home soon.”

“Yes!” Naruto punched the air and snatched up a pencil and paper, sweeping their bowls out of the way to scribble diagrams across it, tip of his tongue sticking out one corner of his mouth in his concentration.

Sasuke looked up at Sakura from the floor where he’d dived to catch the bowls, and they grinned at each other. "Maybe, when we’re done, I’ll ask him if he can teach me any of his sage techniques, too," she said, reaching over to relieve him of one bowl. "I remember hearing he has some really interesting ones, and if Madara comes for us we can use the edge."

"He’s a good teacher," Sasuke admitted, "as long as you can keep his eyes where they’re supposed to be."

"Yeah." She grinned. "Tsunade-sama has had a few things to say about that, now and then. I think she’s really glad he’s back with the village, though."

“You’re back. Good.”

Jiraiya paused just inside the door, and Tsunade wondered if she should have tried to sound less fervent. She might have just warned him what was coming. Oh well.

“Sit,” she ordered, pointing at a chair with one hand and sealing paperwork with the other. Jiraiya sat, eyeing her warily. “So, how did it go? Are they back safe?”

Jiraiya cleared his throat. “Rather safer than I expected, really.” That made Tsunade look up, brows raised and he shrugged, looking a bit bemused. “Hanzou… well, he’s made Konan his successor.”

Tsunade blinked at that. “His…” Her eyes widened. “He made her the next Master of Ame?”

Jiraiya waved his hands helplessly. “You know how he is, when he decides he likes someone’s fighting spirit.”

Tsunade buried her face in her hands. After a moment, she started laughing. “Master of the Rain! An S-rank criminal! One of Akatsuki!” She laughed herself breathless and finally leaned back, wiping her eyes. “Oh, I can hear the other villages howling already. The old bastard probably did it just for that.”

“Not just for that,” Jiraiya said, a little reproving. “Konan is a powerful shinobi, and she cares deeply for her village. I think, now she’s come home properly again, we’ll be able to work with her.”

“Mm.” Tsunade folded her arms, considering what she knew of that pair. “And Nagato?”

Jiraiya sighed, straight shoulders slumping just a fraction. “He… will take longer to recover. Part of Konan’s bargain with Hanzou was complete amnesty for Nagato as long as he stays out of village politics until Hanzou’s dead.”

“Wise of them both, perhaps.” It would give Nagato time to get himself together, after all, and give Konan time to stand on her own and let the village see her doing it. Tsunade wondered whether Konan had understood all that; it was a given that Hanzou had, of course. “Well, we’ll see. In the meantime, and speaking of village governance,” she pointed a finger at Jiraiya, “we finally kicked Danzou out. So you’re going to replace him as Elder as soon as I can get those other two old goats to agree; shouldn’t take too long, they always favored you over me anyway.”

Jiraiya gaped at her. “Me?!”

“You.” She glared at him. “And don’t think you’re getting out of this one. You stuck me with the job of Hokage. In fact, you dodged that one twice. But I need someone I can trust to have my back on that damn Council, instead of reaching for a bigger sword every time there’s a problem, and that means you. Suck it up.”

“But… but… my research,” he started plaintively.

“You’ve traveled enough to have all the background you need for another eight books at least,” she told him ruthlessly. “And you’ve peeped at the baths enough for another ten. So don’t give me that.”

He hesitated, one hand lifting slowly to touch his forehead protector. “My allegiance is to Mt. Myouboku, Tsunade,” he murmured, eyes dark. “Is that really acceptable, for Konoha’s Council?”

Tsunade spent a moment fighting the urge to shake him until his teeth rattled; she didn’t need more obstructionism, she needed him to say yes! But the truly troubled lines of his face softened her frustration. When she spoke, it was more gently than she had thought she could. “Jiraiya. You never abandoned your allegiance to Konoha. Your hunt for Orochimaru, your books, your travels, none of those changed what’s truly important to you.” She stood and came around the desk to lay her hands on those broad shoulders, the ones she’d cried on when her brother died, the ones she needed now to help her carry the village. “What is the most important thing to you, Jiraiya? Truly the most important? Tell me.”

He had looked up when she came to him, but his eyes fell, at that. His mouth twitched a few times with unspoken words, but at last he sighed, deep and quiet, and closed his eyes. “The village of Hidden Leaf,” he admitted. “When I ask myself, what is the most important thing… I see the sun over the roofs of Konoha.”

She smiled, eyes prickling with sudden water. “You’re such an old sap sometimes,” she said, husky. “It’s pitiful. Really.”

He smiled crookedly up at her. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“Do you still wonder if the Council will approve of you?” she asked, soft.

He sighed again, rueful this time. “I suppose not. Can I still have vacations now and then for research?”

“Only after Utatane and Mitokado are dead.” She wasn’t entirely joking about that, and judging by his wince he knew it.

“That good, hm? How thrilling this will be, I’m sure.”

“Well, if it’s any comfort, your student will be there, too,” she said a bit dryly. “And he’s a little firebrand.”

Jiraiya looked pleased, and she laughed. “Tell me what they’ve been doing,” he said, smiling again. “I know Naruto was pretty determined to heal the Nine-tails, when I left.”

“Oh yes.” Tsunade hitched herself up onto her desk and grinned down at him rather wickedly, feet swinging. “That was the other thing.”

“Are you absolutely sure this is a good idea?” Jiraiya asked one more time as he settled in the nested circles of Tsunade-baachan’s channeling seals, and Naruto rolled his eyes. “I mean, aren’t we rushing this a little?”

“Madara is still out there,” Tsunade-baachan said, so acidly that Naruto knew she didn’t like moving this fast either.

Well that was just too bad. He knew what had to be done, and they were going to do it just as soon as possible.

As soon as possible without killing yourself was the deal, the fox pointed out, filling Naruto with the sense of being eyed suspiciously. I have no desire to be scattered through the land’s chakra when I’m flung free of your unraveling spirit, and take who knows how long to pull myself back together.

I’m so touched by your concern, he sniped back. Now shut up and let me concentrate. He ignored the faint growls about insolent brats and triple-checked the seals that led from the old pervert to him.

“So how are those combined patrols going?” Jiraiya asked as he inspected the seal rings around him.

“There are no signs of him yet, but no one really trusts that.” Tsunade-baachan sighed as she shrugged out of her jacket and hung it by the door, rolling her shoulders to loosen them. Sakura, still studying the seal diagrams, absently whacked the old pervert on the back of the head when he paused to ogle the way that made Tsunade’s boobs bounce. “Temari is especially suspicious, considering how Akatsuki got past Sand’s sentries. She went and harangued Hiashi herself to get experienced Hyuuga assigned to each patrol, to look out for illusions.”

Sasuke, leaning by the door, chuckled. “No wonder Shikamaru was looking like he had a headache the other day. I bet he wishes you’d assigned someone else to be liaison to the volunteers.”

“It could be worse.” Tsunade smiled, wryly. “It could have been Suigetsu busting up the bars again.” She pulled tight the cord tying her hair up in a high tail and sighed. “All right, I think we’re as ready as we can get, short of another few months of research. Jiraiya, get started. Sakura, be ready, I’ll want you as soon as the channeling seal is closed. Sasuke,” she looked up, sober, “keep watch over us. If one of us falls into chakra exhaustion, pull them out. If any technique will let you do it without disrupting the seals, it’s the Sharingan.”

Everyone nodded seriously, and Naruto couldn’t resist piping up, “What about me?” His teacher gave him a familiar glower.

You get in communication with the fox and quit giving me lip, brat.”

Naruto grinned as Jiraiya’s two oldster toads popped into being at his sides. “Quit worrying, old bag, we’re gonna be brilliant.” He touched his fingers to the small, simple seal in front of his crossed legs. “I’ll signal when we’re ready to go.” He closed his eyes, still grinning, and Tsunade-baachan’s yell of Naruto! followed him down to the place he met with the fox.

Nine-tails was lying on the surface of the water, there, chin resting on his crossed paws. “Your teacher is a reasonable being,” he said, as ripples followed Naruto’s steps across the water to him. “I suppose it wouldn’t have been completely dreadful to be sealed to her. At least then I’d have been spared the appalling exhibitionism.”

“Hey!” Naruto defended himself. “That was a stroke of genius! Sexy no Jutsu got a whole bar full of Mist Swordsmen and border patrollers to quit fighting!”

Nine-tails curled one enormous lip, but all he said was, “Are you ready?”

Naruto straightened and took three breaths, the way Tsunade had taught him to before any procedure, clearing his mind and preparing his body. He laid one hand on the fox’s shoulder and focused, tighter, wider, until his chakra was flowing in the smooth pattern of Mystic Palms, ready to provide a template for the one he would heal. With his other hand, he traced the opening for the signal seal.

One breath, and Tsunade-baachan’s chakra touched his, perfectly parallel; Naruto never stopped being amazed by the absolute control she had, even though he’d never say it out loud. She matched his chakra flow so closely he could feel their hearts beating in the same time, two of them as one to heal Nine-tails’ scar: Naruto to connect and Tsunade to direct.

Two breaths, and their paired flow swept out to the fox, and that almost shocked Naruto loose. The fox’s chakra pattern was structured like any other vertebrate’s, but it was huge, wild, a raging torrent like nothing Naruto had ever seen. It was like a forest-fire with a soul.

Three breaths, and another energy surged through Tsunade’s hands and into his, just as wild, just as raw, and somehow it fit. Dizzy, Naruto wondered if this was what Sakura felt every time she activated her seal, thought that now he understood what Nine-tails meant when he said he was a spirit of the land. This wild, inhuman power, untempered and uncaring, matched him perfectly.

He shook himself and kept breathing, holding his contact with Nine-tails and fighting to stay in rhythm with Tsunade-baachan’s technique, to move with her, bit by bit through the fox’s body and spirit. Or spirit-body. Or whatever. The shoulder under his hands flinched constantly and the fox whined as they touched bit after bit of torn or unnaturally smooth chakra and struck it like a bell, forced a resonance with the flow of their own chakra, dissolved the scar in the raging stream of nature energy. The fox’s body drank it in like parched ground under rain.

Naruto was light-headed with the strain of another bit and another and another, but with each tiny scar-bit they dissolved, with each rush of nature energy that vanished into the fox without slowing, the more he was angry too. He knew the attack eighteen years ago had had to be stopped, he knew that, but this was wrong. There had to be a better way to keep the fox from Madara. He would find a better way! He gritted his teeth with that resolution and kept going.

One more bit. And one more. And one more. And… there wasn’t one more? Naruto wavered on his feet, stumbling against the fox’s shoulder, as the rush of wild power tapered off. Oh. They were at the second part already.

He could feel that they had to be fast about it, too. The Nine-tails’ chakra was unscarred now, flowing under his hands, but it wasn’t whole. It was tilting, shuddering, on the edge of falling into disorder or consuming itself, and his eyes widened as he realized how much that scar had stabilized the fox’s chakra.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, Sakura, Tsunade-baachan, hurry up,” he chanted, pressing his hands tight to the fox and reaching out desperately to try to steady his contract partner, feeling every fiber of his chakra creak under the wavering weight of Nine-tails. “Hurry up, hurry up, come on you guys…”

All at once, chakra fell on him like a collapsing cliff face, blasted from Tsunade’s hands into his, and his teeth locked on a groan as the force of it tore at him. His hands, here, were spirit, without the shield of a body, and the new flow of chakra froze them even as the fox’s spirit sucked it out of him as fast as it arrived, ravenous for this dark, sinking chakra. It went on and on until he thought he might be screaming and couldn’t even hear himself to be sure.

And then it stopped.

Naruto slumped, panting and dazed against the Nine-tails’ side, trying to understand why the world suddenly felt strange around him. Something… something had changed. Was he back in the outer world? No, there was colorless and opaque water under his feet, and under the paw next to him.

…the really huge paw.

“Nine-tails?” he mumbled, squinting.

“Sit down before you fall down, kit.” The fox’s voice rolled and rumbled like it never had before. Naruto looked up and sat down, all right, falling along with his jaw.

The fox was huge! He was taller than the cliffs around Konoha! “Oh wow,” Naruto whispered.

The fox laughed, and threw up his muzzle and howled like a storm, like mountains breaking, and Naruto laughed too, delighted. This… this was what the fox was meant to be.

They’d done it!

He grabbed the fox’s fur and scrambled up his leg and over his vast shoulder to stand on his head, and the fox let him with only a few disgruntled noises. Naruto was pretty sure he didn’t mean them. He waved his arms at the white sky, triumphant and breathless and happy.

And… not tired?

“Um. Wasn’t I exhausted just a minute ago?” he asked, curious.

An ear taller than he was flicked. “You and I are bound by our contract,” the fox rumbled. “Until you die, our chakra is as one.”

And they’d just fixed the fox’s chakra; okay, that made sense. And also, wow. Naruto grinned. “This is going to be so cool!”

Nine-tails snorted and laid down, lowering his head so fast Naruto yelped and grabbed for a handhold in his fur. “Get back where you belong, kit. I imagine there’s some cleaning up to do after all this.”

Naruto pouted, but not very hard. He’d get to try all their moves out with this new strength soon. “I can tell when I’m not wanted,” he declared, and grinned over his shoulder at the fox as he jumped down. “See you soon!”

The fox just watched him, enormous red eyes steady, as he closed his own eyes and walked forward, up, out, and was sitting crosslegged on the hard tile floor of the operating room.

“Tsunade-sama! Tsunade-sama!”

The frantic edge of Sakura’s voice snapped Naruto’s eyes open, and he started up onto his knees. “What…?” There was Sasuke at the edge of the seals looking shocked, and there was Jiraiya with an old woman in his arms, and there was Sakura with her hands wrapped around the old lady’s, and… where was Tsunade-baachan?

“Tsunade, please, hang on!” The dreadful urgency of Jiraiya’s entreaty shook Naruto’s heart and he was talking… to the old woman.

“Tsunade… -baachan?” Naruto whispered, staring. It wasn’t possible. But the old woman opened her eyes slowly, and they were Tsunade’s eyes, warm and brown and sparkling with sharp annoyance.

“Quit standing there with your mouths hanging open, looking like idiots,” she husked, voice suddenly old and fragile. “I’m not dead yet.”

Sakura let out all her breath, bending over to press her head against Tsunade’s hand, looking as dizzy with relief as Naruto felt. Jiraiya, on the other hand, inhaled deeply, the lines around his mouth carved deep and hard.

“You didn’t tell me you risked your transformation, you idiot!” he bellowed, voice echoing off the walls. “What the hell were you thinking?”

She reached up one thin hand and smacked him on the shoulder; it barely rocked him at all, and Naruto bit his lip, eyes wide with worry. She was so weak, now!

“I thought that I’m the Hokage of this damn village and this is what had to be done,” she snapped, and at least the tone sounded like her, even if the voice was husky and unsteady. “And I knew you’d argue and yell, and we didn’t have time.”

Jiraiya sputtered indignantly until she smiled up at him. Then he sighed. “I’m doomed to be surrounded by reckless fools,” he muttered, lifting Tsunade up to rest against his shoulder.

Sasuke and Tsunade exchanged a very speaking look over Jiraiya’s head, and Sasuke’s lips twitched as a grin tugged at them. Naruto supposed it was kind of funny to hear Jiraiya accusing anyone else of recklessness, though the humor was hard to see right this moment. He took a few breaths to stop his head spinning and glowered inward at the fox. Some cleaning up? he asked, hard.

A little, the fox agreed in his new, deeper rumble. Idiot kit. Are you a healer or aren’t you?

Naruto stared at thin air for a startled moment before smiling sheepishly. Okay, maybe he deserved the “idiot” this time. “Okay, we’re okay,” he assured the rest of the room. “Here.”

Tsunade-really-baachan’s eyes widened as he held his hands over her. “Naruto, don’t do that ye—”

Chakra punched through his system like a fist, not the usual flow of healing but a wild burst of it, and they both gasped. The diamond on Tsunade’s forehead snapped into being again, and it was only then that Naruto realized it had been gone. Tsunade’s hands locked around his with all her usual strength, even if she still looked old.

Her voice was as loud as ever, though, when she hollered, “Naruto! No chakra techniques until you’ve practiced them at least three times each!”

“Um. Yes, sensei,” Naruto mumbled, dazed. He shook his head briskly, trying to clear out the buzz in his thoughts, and swore he could feel the fox rolling his eyes.

Tsunade-baachan straightened up, years melting away with every breath. “Your chakra is linked tightly to the Nine-tails, and your system has an entirely new balance now,” she scolded as she elbowed away from Jiraiya. “You’re my most advanced apprentice after Shizune, these days, you should know this!”

“It worked,” Naruto defended himself.

“Only because I had enough control to harness the surge, and channel it into my reservoir seal.” She frowned at him sternly until he held up his hands.

“Okay, okay, I’ll practice first! Promise!”

“Good.” She patted her hands over herself quickly. “Okay, all back together.” She eyed him and relented far enough to say, “You shaped the technique reasonably well. Just remember to slow down, in your work, for a while.”

Naruto nodded meekly, and accepted Sakura’s hand up off the floor, leaning against her shoulder as Sasuke came to rest a hand on his back.

“And we’ll hope that Madara gives us time for that,” Jiraiya said quietly.