Chapter 6: Invasion

Naruto sighed as the feathers came falling down, attempting to coerce him to sleep. Benihime was quick to remedy that with a mental prod to Naruto, dispelling the illusion. It was far more precise and effective than a usual genjutsu dispel, and it cost Naruto no chakra at all. Forming twenty Kage Bunshin to guard the princess, some posing as everyday objects like litter on the ground, Naruto promptly dispelled the genjutsu on Ino and Chōji. Both woke up groggily, although a quick slap to the cheek startled them to full consciousness. Naruto was a picture of complete calm, and it served to help allay the fears of both Genin.

“Right now, we’re under an invasion. I want both of you to go join Shikamaru, and look for your sensei. He will give you further orders. Shikamaru is down that way,” Naruto pointed. “I will have a few clones along with you two, just in case.”

Both of them nodded frantically, standing up. Naruto created another five doppelgangers, and ushered his peers towards the resident genius. His eyes sweeping the stadium, he noted that the Konoha shinobi have reacted well to the attack, with the Oto and Suna ninjas being cut down quickly, especially by Kakashi and Gai. Turning his attention to the roof of the Kage box, he noticed grimly that there was a purple barrier enclosing the roof, and preventing a squad of ANBU from helping Sarutobi. Naruto created another clone, sending it over to see whether any help could be rendered.

Finally, he swivelled his eyes to the centre of the arena, where the entire Suna Genin team was present, along with Baki, their Jōnin sensei. The two Genin seemed frightened to hell of Gaara, which made Naruto even more worried. Baki didn’t look flustered though, which could be a sign that nothing was wrong. That didn’t bode well for Konoha. Leaping into the arena, he quickly reached the side of Genma, who clamped a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder.

“Kid,” Genma murmured. “Go find Kakashi for orders. This kid is not your responsibility.”

“This is my fight!” Sasuke protested, only to receive an intense glare from Genma. “I am your superior, and you will do well to listen to my orders! The Suna team is not your responsibility. It has been assigned to Naruto here. Now scram, before something bad happens.”

Sasuke looked furious at the decision, particularly the one where Naruto was asked to handle Gaara, but he relented, and left to seek Kakashi. Genma turned to Naruto, who nodded solemnly. “Baki’s all yours, Genma-senpai. Although you might want to avoid killing him; Yūgao-san wants to be the one to finish him off.”

“That’s going to be tough,” Genma chuckled. “Can you handle it, kid?”

“There’s a reason why I was assigned to deal with them, you know,” Naruto pointed out, before becoming thoughtful. “Actually, there are plenty of reasons.”

“Enough talking,” Genma said. “Time to show everyone why the Sandaime had so much faith in you.”

“You betcha,” Naruto grinned, his hand reaching for Benihime.

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Temari was, frankly, anxious. Suna wasn’t in the rudest of health in terms of ninja strength, and their trump card, Gaara, was already raving mad in his desire to kill Uchiha Sasuke. Not the best start to an invasion on the village touted as the strongest of all the five great villages. Baki told her not to worry, to get Gaara to the centre of Konoha as soon as possible, so he can go nuts and hunt down Sasuke, destroying as much of Konoha along the way. It would also serve to strike fear into the hearts of Konoha-nin, who have endured the attack by the Kyūbi, and would most likely be pissing in their pants when another bijū turns up right in the middle of their beloved village.

Now, that was a pretty simple and straightforward plan, and without sounding arrogant, was one of the best plans that would all but ensure victory against Konoha. But from the conversation between the Chūnin Exam proctor and the blond Chūnin that came from nowhere, Temari gathered that the Hokage knew of the invasion beforehand. It would explain the multitudes of ANBU lurking about, and the high level Jōnin littering the stadium and tearing through the Oto ranks like a hot knife through butter. It would also explain why there was a ninja assigned to deal with Gaara and by proxy, Kankuro and her.

And from the blond’s words, he sounded like he knew what he was getting into, and knew he could get out of the thing unscathed. It wasn’t arrogance, Temari noted in fear; the Uchiha kid was arrogant to think he could fight Gaara and come out tops, but the Konoha-nin was just that confident. He implied that he knew of Gaara and the entire team’s abilities, and he can handle them all. When one of them is a psychotic jonchūriki who kills Jōnin-level assassins after his life since he was six years old, that signals that the blond was either very stupid, or just very, very good. As the Hokage assigned him to the task, it was most likely the latter, but Temari really, really hoped it wasn’t the case.

Despite the threat to her life, Temari did care for Gaara in her own way. She tried to reach out to him, but the redhead had been too far gone by then. So she resolved to grow strong, so that she can fight beside Gaara, and protect her baby brother in some sense. Now, faced with an imminent threat (she have a gnawing suspicion that the blond wasn’t all that different from Gaara if he was assigned to deal with a demon vessel), she could only pray and hope that Gaara would not die in the ensuing meleé. One she doubted she can survive, as the Chūnin disappeared from view, only to smash his fist through Kankuro’s puppet like it was wet paper.

“Kankuro, take Gaara into Konoha!” Temari called, as she leapt away and pulled her fan off her back. “I’ll hold him off!”

Kankuro nodded, having barely escaped having his spine crushed like his puppet Karasu and wasn’t exactly keen on going toe to toe with the person who did the crushing of said puppet. Discarding the remnants of his tool, he gingerly took Gaara’s untransformed arm, and led the slobbering and half-mad jinchūriki out of the arena, towards the doors that led to Konoha proper. Genma was busy with Baki, the two ninjas clashing too far away to interfere or get in the way. That left Temari free to launch devastating Fūton jutsus at Naruto without any cause for concern.

Not that Naruto was concerned, his speed being enough to avoid the wide area effects of the Kamaitachi no Jutsu. Naruto resolved to wrangle the jutsu out of the girl when it’s all over, provided she didn’t die in the invasion, and wasn’t turned into a prisoner of war. As one particular blast of sharp, cutting winds blew far too close for comfort, Naruto decided to stop thinking about other things, and focus on defeating Temari as quick as possible. Naruto had a plan.

Creating several shadow clones wordlessly, Naruto sent them to distract Temari as he prepared a Fūton: Gufūken. The Suna Genin dispelled them easily enough, but the momentary disruption in her attack pattern left her unable to continue pressing Naruto into a corner. As she returned her attention back to the original, she found him with a powerful wind jutsu swirling around his forearm and hand with a high-pitched whine. Gulping, Temari attempted a Daikamaitachi no Jutsu, only for the blond Konoha-nin to raise his hand, and create a shield of wind chakra that protected him completely.

The Chūnin dashed towards her, his jutsu having turned into what resembled a blade. Temari tried backing off, firing shorter jutsus, but they were evaded handily by Naruto. Naruto easily shredded Temari’s fan, metal struts and all, as the girl tried to hit Naruto with the heavy weapon. Just as the fist coated in liberal amounts of wind chakra reached Temari’s face, all the wind chakra dissipated, leaving Temari with a nasty blow to the head and blissful unconsciousness.

Naruto smirked, giving himself a mental pat on the back. Well done, Naruto!

Benihime snorted. You could have just blasted her into oblivion using me.

The whole point, Beni-chan, is NOT to blast her into oblivion, Naruto replied amusedly. Alrighty then, it’s time to stop Gaara!

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Kankuro shivered as he felt Temari’s chakra signature drop off into obscurity. As with most puppeteers, he had a good chakra sense. It helped with tracking the enemy, and was a useful byproduct of the excellent chakra control all puppeteers possessed. And it told him clearly that his sister had been incapacitated by the Konoha-nin. Or raped and killed, the cynical side of him sneered maliciously.

Taking a short glance at the person beside him, Kankuro felt relief flood him as the jinchūriki seemed to have regained some sort of control over his bloodthirsty, savage side. A mad Gaara was someone Kankuro had no wish to be anywhere close to. But with increased clarity, Gaara seemed even more intent on seeking Uchiha Sasuke, judging by the obsessed glint in his teal orbs. Abiding by orders, Kankuro halted his advance, which earned a murderous glare from Gaara. Kankuro raised his hands in a classive surrender pose.

“Gaara, your…mother wishes for you to spill the Uchiha’s blood, yes?” the brunette ventured lightly, receiving a feral growl in return. Judging that as a positive reply, Kankuro continued. “Does your mother want even more blood spilled then?”

“Hurry up!” Gaara snarled bestially.

“Gaara…please let Shukaku out, right here,” Kankuro gestured around him. “You can spill much blood as you carve your way to Uchiha Sasuke, no?”

Gaara’s lips curled upwards in a bloodthirsty grin. A massive burst of chakra emanated from the redhead, which had Kankuro backpedalling as hard as he could. Sand poured forth from out of nowhere, forming a veritable sandstorm around the Suna jinchūriki. Slowly, the rotund figure of Shukaku emerged, beady eyes and maleficent grin in place. Gaara rose to the top of the sand incarnation’s head, hands clasped in a seal. Head lolling to the side, the insane cackle of Shukaku burst forth from the maw of the monstrous being. Swinging its club-like tail about smashed various buildings, ripping them off their foundations. Akin to paper-mâché, the remnants of those structures crumbled to the ground in a cloud of dust and debris.

Giggling maliciously, the demon began to carve a trail of destruction as it hunted down Uchiha Sasuke from his scent. Sniffing the air, the bijū grinned as it picked up the odour of the Genin. Lumbering its way towards the teen, Shukaku paid no regard to the architecture around it, decimating everything in its path. For every Konoha shinobi in view of the monster, it was a quick turn south for morale. Pushing back the invaders was far too simple a task, given the mediocrity of Oto-nin, and the small numbers of Suna. However, no one had the ability to defeat a bijū, with the exception of perhaps the Hokage. A Hokage most knew was tied up in a life-or-death struggle against his former protégé back at the stadium.

And the worst part of it all? Uchiha Sasuke was ordered to help out at the Academy.

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Naruto’s Kage Bunshin landed adroitly beside the team of ANBU outside of a large, purple barrier on the rooftop of the Hokage viewing box. Within, the barriers were held up at four corners by Oto shinobi, protected from the Sandaime from an extension of the same barrier. The blond frowned as he studied the barrier. “Can anything get in?”

The ANBU dressed in a white cloak, presumably the captain, shook his head. “One of my team rushed the barrier, and was fried.”

“So…nothing can penetrate it, am I right?” Naruto inferred, loud enough to reach the ears of the Oto-nin nearest to him. The nondescript ninja sneered, a smirk plastered on his face. “That’s right, Chūnin! We are the newly-selected Oto Yonnin, Orochimaru-sama’s personal guards! Our barriers are foolproof!”

“Thanks for the info,” Naruto replied smartly. Turning to the ANBU, he grinned. “Ne, ANBU-san, have you tried cooking him? You know, like an oven?”

Naruto almost swore he saw three light bulbs above the ANBU’s heads lighting up. Grinning at the ninja that replaced the Oto Yonnin, the Uzumaki formed a couple of hand seals. Taking a deep breath, he gathered chakra in his lungs and throat, before a Gōkakyū burst forth from his lips, washing over the barrier. The Oto-nin laughed. “Your puny attack isn’t going to get through, leaf scum!”

But when the ANBU joined in too, he started to feel the heat. It began first with sweating; it didn’t take long before beads of perspiration dripped from the ninja’s tanned skin. Then, came the blisters. Heating the air within the airtight area was quickly turning it into a furnace for the Oto-nin. And, despite all the experimental augmentations that Orochimaru no doubt put him through, the shinobi still needed to breathe. And so he took a big gulp of hot, blistering air into his lungs, literally cooking his entire respiratory system. Screaming hoarsely as the heat grew unbearable, the barrier started to waver as the unknown man’s focus crumbled.

When the barrier finally collapsed at his corner, the continuous stream of fire roasted the half-dead shinobi, ending his life painfully. Naruto kept up the flames to kill him off, while the ANBU spread out, one to each of the current Oto Yonnin still alive, to prevent another barrier from forming at their supposedly adept hands. With the collapse of the highly visible purple barrier, it was an unspoken signal for all remaining Konoha-nin in the stadium to wipe out their Oto opponents, and aid their ailing Hokage.

Naruto smirked victoriously as Kakashi and Gai burst onto the scene, the former ripping a hole in the Nidaime with a fistful of lightning, and Gai smashing the Shodai’s face in, literally. With his two trusted lieutenants taking on his former mentors, It gave Sarutobi the freedom to deal with his wayward student, who did not look too confident of victory all of a sudden. As the Sandaime barked orders to Kakashi and Gai about the fūin in the former Hokages’ necks that ceded their temporary existences to Orochimaru’s control, the Naruto clone dispelled, confident of a smashing victory on that particular front.

An unwitting thought rose to his mind. Orochimaru sure has crappy guards, if both sets of them die so quickly.

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Ino was in morbid awe. She knew Naruto was on a different level in terms of shinobi prowess; his dominance during the spar they had before the Chūnin Exams was proof of that. Team Ten was no slouch in terms of their ability; their family techniques complemented each other so well, they took out five Oto-nin in the first few minutes of combat. But to see clones of Naruto, clones, ripping through the enemy ranks like a paper shredder was an indication that Naruto’s strength was far beyond what her entire team could reach in a jiffy. Or anywhere within the timespan of two years.

But what scared Ino the most was how the clone tore through the enemies. They didn’t use flashy ninjutsu, nor subtle genjutsu. Taijutsu was at a minimum, utilised only when the clones needed to defend themselves. The Naruto doppelgangers used speed. They got behind their attackers, and slit their throats. Or stabbed them in the kidney. The lungs. Heart. Brain. Spine. It was cold, efficient, and the epitome of ninja. Ino knew what being a ninja truly meant; to skulk in the shadows, striking out at the enemies and killing them in one swift blow. But the allure of grand jutsus captured her heart, just like every other Academy student. Naruto was once like that; being his classmate, the Yamanaka knew very well.

But in a short five months, Naruto turned from a jutsu junkie wannabe, into a ruthless assassin. Ino bet Naruto had far more ninjutsu under his belt than her entire clan anyway; but to see clones of him blazing a trail of death with nothing but a kunai and quick legs was a reminder that while top students in the Academy could wow the instructors with their impressive techniques, it was going to be useless when they met someone like the new Uzumaki Naruto; a true shinobi. And when speed and kunai failed, well, the blond Chūnin still had plenty of ninjutsu tucked up his voluminous sleeves.

And that sword of his, Ino mused. Which he still hasn’t drawn. Just how far ahead is he now?

Shikamaru turned to her at this point, as if reading her thoughts. The team was taking a break, as most of the enemies have been dealt with accordingly. Naruto clones were sweeping the stadium along with Asuma and Kurenai for stragglers. The Nara genius sighed. “From what he did here, I would say he’s easily a Tokujō. Everyone has weaknesses, of course, and I’m sure there’s one to find on him. But even Sasuke is nowhere near close to him in terms of sheer ability. Remember that spar they had?”

Ino nodded mutely. “Five months, Shikamaru. Five. In five months, he turned from dead last to a Chūnin, before even Hyūga Neji from the year before.”

“Imagine if he had that kind of training from young, like most clans provide,” Shikamaru murmured.

“He would probably be as strong as a Jōnin now,” Chōji replied, his mouth chomping on chips. “It’s kinda scary, huh? To think that he couldn’t even make a proper Bunshin in the Academy.”

“Well, Naruto is still Naruto,” Ino huffed. “Still that cheerful, bumbling idiot in my opinion. He’s still dense enough not to see Hinata’s crush on him!”

And we thank Kami for that, all three simultaneously thought, wincing as a nearby Naruto clone decapitated a dying Oto-nin.

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Naruto (the real one) muttered several expletives loudly as the hulking form of Shukaku burst into existence. As it stomped linearly towards the Academy, dread formed in Naruto’s stomach. Taking a deep breath, Naruto’s mind went into overdrive as he tried to figure out a way to stop Shukaku without causing too much collateral damage.

Kill Gaara, Benihime supplied helpfully. He’s that little red speck on Shukaku’s head.

Naruto blinked once, having stopped his dash towards the sand bijū in surprise. Tilting his head up, he noticed that indeed, there was a red, swaying speck atop the monster’s head, and yes, it was the jinchūriki he was supposed to defeat. But if I kill Gaara, won’t that release the bijū for real?

Perhaps, perhaps not, Benihime murmured.

I’m not taking chances here, Naruto declared. I’ll just have to wake him up then.

Continuing his run towards Shukaku, the blond smiled with grim satisfaction as Konoha-nin continued pushing the invaders back. His surroundings free of deterrences, Naruto cruised to an intact rooftop near the rampaging beast. Gaara was perched on its head, his lower body completely encased in the sand. Unsheathing Benihime, he swung her in a wide, horizontal arc aimed in Gaara’s general direction. The concussive wave of energy was detected by Shukaku; having a large wall of crimson chakra blasting towards your head was pretty obvious to spot. But the bijū was far too slow to block it.

The Chikasumi no Yaiba hit the Suna jinchūriki with tremendous force, ripping him from his rather secure position on Shukaku’s head. Had the medium that made up the bijū been any harder, Gaara would have been bifurcated in two by the impact. As it was, the son of the Yondaime Kazekage was rendered conscious while Shukaku was banished to the depths of his mind. The sand construct of the Ichibi crumbled, leaving a large pile of sand where it once stood.

Crashing onto a relatively close rooftop painfully, Gaara was thankful for the cushion his sand formed. But any other thoughts were banished from his head as he detected a large chakra presence powering its way to him. Realising that the person was most likely the one who ended his short rampage, and stopped his hunt of Uchiha Sasuke, the redhead decided to feed the person to his sand.

He was interrupted in his thoughts of murder when Naruto landed in front of him, too close for comfort. Thrusting his open palm forward, it was a signal for his sand to burst forth and engulf Naruto. But the blond was equal to the attack, hopping nimbly away from harm. Swinging Benihime vertically, Naruto sliced through another spike of sand aimed at his sternum. This continued for a while, Naruto equal to all of Gaara’s efforts of smothering him.

While it was turning into the battle of attrition Naruto was aiming for, it was getting nowhere. Gaara required little to no chakra to control his semi sentient sand, and likewise, Naruto was barely using any chakra to evade his attacks. Deciding to kick it up a notch, Naruto halted in midstep, slicing a path through the grains of sand flying towards him. Darting between two floating masses of sand, Naruto found himself within slashing range of a vulnerable Gaara. And the blond promptly gave the redhead a long cut from left shoulder to right hip.

Despite his Suna no Yoroi, compacted sand was no defence against Benihime. A thin line of blood joined the scab on his chest, the one Sasuke gave him with a Chidori. Unused to physical pain, Gaara went berserk once more. His sanity teetering on the edge, he bum-rushed Naruto. Surprised by the jinchūriki’s sudden switch in tactics, Naruto strafed a considerable distance to the left, avoiding the clumsy roundhouse punch to the face. But Naruto was left rueing his mistake the next moment, as Gaara reunited with his sand.

The grainy particles crawled up his arms, forming a grotesque mimicry of Shukaku. More sand covered his torso, legs and face, and some was devoted to creating a tail. Soon, all that was left was a slobbering, monstrous being. Snarling malevolently at Naruto, Gaara dashed towards the Konoha Chūnin with surprising speed. Naruto’s cerulean orbs narrowed as he studied the new form of his opponent, all the while dodging wild but powerful attacks from the bestial jinchūriki.

Instead of relying on his sand as his medium of attack and defence, he’s encased himself in it for extra protection of his vulnerable parts, and using the sheer mass of his sand arms to destroy his enemies, Naruto analysed, avoiding another death blow with an adroit sidestep. His defence is almost inpenetrable by taijutsu specialists, and his defence is strong enough to soak up ninjutsu damage until he gets into close combat range. Only powerful piercing or cutting techniques have any chance of punching through that hide.

Genjutsu isn’t going to cut it either; any demonic chakra running through his body will disrupt it in an instant, Naruto thought frustratedly. Which there most like is, judging by how his skinny and somewhat frail body is carrying all that weight on his body and still fast enough to matter.

You are underestimating my powers, Naru-kun, Benihime tutted, somewhat displeased. I can easily slice through that sand!

The mental conversation was halted when Gaara stopped his barrage, eyes glinting with madness. “Why are you not fighting back!”

Naruto’s eyes were glacial as they pierced Gaara’s teal orbs. “Because you are not worth the effort. You are just a bloodthirsty monster that has no regard for anything except yourself. Your egocentric and narcissistic views are a disgrace to jinchūriki everywhere.”

“I’m not worth the effort?” Gaara growled. “I kill you!”

Gaara rushed Naruto even faster, but the blond was prepared. Sending a word of apology to the miffed Benihime, Naruto Shunshin-ed out of the way as Gaara conpletely wrecked the house Naruto had been standing upon mere moments ago. With Gaara relatively far away, Naruto could prepare his next move. Coating his hand in wind chakra, Naruto pressed the palm on the cool metal of Benihime. Her chakra-reactive metal happily accepted the wind chakra, Emboldened by success, Naruto slid his palm over the flat of the blade, coating the sword in a sheath of sharp winds.

The blond ninja then waited, slipping into a defensive stance as Gaara geared himself up for another attack. As the demon vessel charged with impunity, Naruto ran straight at the Suna-nin. Stunned but undeterred, Gaara cocked his right arm backwards in preparation. Throwing all his weight into the attack, Gaara grinned as his sand claw was about to connect with Naruto. Instead, his sand arm was split into two longitudinally, the cut missing Gaara’s real arm by inches. Before the redhead could even react, Naruto twirled around, adding momentum to his horizontal slash across the jinchūriki’s body.

Blood spurted out in generous amounts from the shell-shocked Suna Genin as his run came to a juddering halt. Naruto didn’t let up his attack however. Although the wind chakra had faded from Benihime’s blade, she was still far sharper than any weapon. True to her earlier words, she easily cut through the sand armour to reach Gaara beneath. The blond Chūnin added a succession of soon-to-be scars across the Ichibi container’s torso. The Uzumaki made sure they were shallow cuts; there was no need to kill Gaara and risk having a real bijū on the lose in the middle of Konoha.

Once Gaara got over his mental trauma of being hurt more than he ever had, he regained his vigour for murder. He swung his massive, club-like tail at Naruto, hoping to score a hit. The blond, careless, barely managed to pull up a Chikasumi no Tate before being sent careening across rooftops, akin to a skipping stone on water. Howling in anger and fear, Gaara swung his intact sand arm, unleashing several balls of hardened sand that smashed tiles and formed small craters upon impact.

Bracing himself, Naruto took the hits, still dizzy from his impromptu flight. Blown back by the sheer force of the poorly named Suna Shuriken, Naruto found himself ever further from the enraged Gaara. The redhead was too far out for any of his ninjutsu to be useful, bar Fūton: Daitoppa and Fūton: Tatsumaki. He didn’t think anyone would appreciate his efforts if he was the one to rip up half of Konoha due to collateral damage.

But the distance was fine for Gaara. Despite his preference for massive close range demolition of opponents in his current form, Gaara had other abilities. He couldn’t be killing assassins since six if he didn’t pick up new tricks. The jinchūriki inhaled deeply, before unleashing a veritable sandstorm in Naruto’s direction. Cursing, Naruto opted to jump off the rooftop, hiding in an alley between two buildings as the attack sandblasted every roof within range.

Forming a Kage Bunshin, Naruto kept the clone in his place while he snuck away, his knowledge of the streets far better than even the city planners. His stealth was a touch better than some Jōnin too, thanks to his elaborate pranking schemes. After all, one did not paint the entire Hokage monument in broad daylight and escape scrutiny (while wearing a bright orange jumpsuit) without having some form of stealth. Let’s not forget to mention that the Hokage monument could be seen from everywhere in Konoha.

Anyway, Naruto suppressed his chakra levels to almost nil, a skill he never demonstrated in front of anyone. In his mind, a picture of the rooftops guided him towards where Gaara was positioned. Sneaking into the house which Gaara stood atop was no easy feat, although in Gaara’s defence, he was raving mad at that point and could barely care if some civilian happened to return home during an invasion for some god forsaken reason.

With Gaara occupied by Naruto’s clone dancing across the rooftops of Konoha, Naruto could safely pinpoint the demon vessel’s position from within the house, and launch a surprise attack from below. That was until a hand sheathed in lightning punched through the concrete like wet paper, leaving a gaping hole where Gaara once stood. Naruto groaned.

Uchiha Sasuke had arrived.

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Sasuke was livid. Kakashi had the gall to eye-smile at him when the Uchiha approached to complain about his opponent being stolen from him, and ordered him to help at the Academy. The Academy! Protecting little children was grunt work that Chūnin with no talent did, not an Uchiha. But nonetheless, he complied; it was wartime, and the consequences of ignoring orders from a higher authority could wreck his career.

And that would put me even further away from killing him, Sasuke thought, frustration fuelling his rage against his brother.

Arriving at the Academy, Sasuke helped fend off several Oto-nin keen on destroying Konoha’s future. They were cannon fodder that even Sasuke had little trouble with, despite being Chūnin. It gave the instructors at the Academy even more to praise about the Uchiha, and Sasuke fervently hoped that would lead to a wartime promotion, or influence the judge’s decision to elevate him to Chūnin status. It grated on his nerves whenever he saw the Chūnin vest on Uzumaki Naruto, and he wanted to prove that he was stronger than the dead last.

So, when he saw the massive beast headed towards the Academy, he realised that he had found a wonderful opportunity to fight and prove his worth. Another step towards killing Itachi, the Genin thought determinedly, as he raced towards the Ichibi, uncaring of his current responsibilities. The Konoha-nin on site, enamoured by the Uchiha prestige, did not stop him from going to confront the biggest threat in Konoha at that moment.

Then, Shukaku collapsed into a pile of useless sand. Shocked that someone got there before he did, Sasuke activated his Sharingan. His sharper eyes caught sight of a blond speck duelling with a monstrous, sand encased being the Genin had no doubt was Gaara. As he arrived near the battle, Sasuke hid away, biding his time. When he noticed Naruto being forced to run from the maniacal Suna-nin, he struck.

Chidori in hand, he leapt high into the air, aiming to kill Gaara in one swift stroke. But for all the sand weighing him down, the Suna Genin was surprisingly agile and quick, avoiding the airborne Sasuke with relative ease. Sasuke’s hand punched through the concrete roof Gaara once stood upon, and when he retracted his hand, he spotted an annoyed Naruto glaring at him from below.

A smug smirk found its way to Sasuke’s lips. That’s one-nil to me, dobe.

Until he was bashed by Gaara’s sand arm and sent flying across three houses before coming to a painful stop. Groaning, he wondered how his Sharingan didn’t pick up Gaara’s movement. Disorientated from the blow, Sasuke tried to focus on the battle before him. Having ruined Naruto’s ambush, he effectively forced the blond to fight in the open once more. His Chidori has since dissipated, and having performed it twice already, he wasn’t sure he could pull out another.

Sasuke’s jealousy rose as Gaara seemed entirely focused on Naruto, when just moments ago, he was hell-bent on ending Sasuke’s existence. Gaara lived to fight the strongest; that, Sasuke knew. For the redhead to concentrate on killing Naruto, while ignoring Sasuke, was a blow to his pride. A red mist descended on the Uchiha, as he forced his body to draw upon bone dry chakra reserves. The Fūja Hōin on his neck weakened, his Juin burst into life, spreading flame-like marks all over his face and left arm.

Revelling in the ill-gotten powers, Sasuke powered up another Chidori. The incessant chirping of the ninjutsu alerted Naruto to Sasuke’s intent, and he quickly beat a hasty retreat as Sasuke tore across the rooftops to attack Gaara. The blond ninja had no wish to be standing between two obsessed Genin going all out to kill each other. Gaara was about to give chase to Naruto, when he finally noticed Sasuke’s presence. Grinning predatorily, Gaara threw a couple of Suna Shuriken which Sasuke dodged handily. The self-proclaimed avenger charged the demon vessel, his hand aimed for Gaara’s heart.

As he thrust his Chidori forwards, Gaara met the attack with his sand arm. The piercing technique ripped Gaara’s remaining sand arm apart, but Gaara still had his tail, which he utilised with great aplomb. As Sasuke went past the redhead, the jinchūriki smashed his tail against Sasuke’s side, breaking his left arm and sending him soaring into the air. Crippled by pain from the cursed seal, and left arm disabled, Sasuke was officially screwed. Gaara stalked towards the fallen Uchiha, his grin menacing.

“I’ll kill you first, Uchiha Sasuke,” Gaara licked his lips. “Then the blond.”

Sand from his tail slithered onto his right arm, forming another claw. With a delighted roar, Gaara slammed the sand arm into Sasuke, crushing him. Blood spurted from the raven-haired Genin’s lips as the pressure grew unbearable. Then, Gaara was blown away by a red blast of energy. Naruto landed where Gaara stood, casting a glance at the injured Sasuke. “Just wait here, and don’t do something stupid again. I can sense Sakura’s chakra signature approaching. She’ll take you to the shelters.”

Sasuke gritted his teeth as Naruto disappeared from view, reappearing behind Gaara to give him another wound, this time across the back. As a mop of pink hair hovered over his body, the Uchiha cursed his weakness.

I will not be weak again!

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Naruto had had enough of playing games. Holding back had been imperative for the blond; he could not unleash large-scale destructive ninjutsu for fear of collateral damage, and he couldn’t kill Gaara because it might just unleash Shukaku. But the battle of attrition was going nowhere; his cuts were healed almost immediately by the massive quantities of demonic chakra flowing through Gaara’s coils, and Benihime’s anti-coagulant properties were just not enough. Any attempt to control Gaara’s blood was a failure; the demonic chakra made sure of that. And dragging out the battle just meant more collapsed houses or smashed roofs. He was going to end it, one way or another. There wasn’t going to be a lot of property damage, but he was aiming to kill.

Forming two clones, they simultaneously formed hand seals. Their sun-kissed locks lengthening tremendously, the two spiked masses of hair resembled massive lions’ maws as they rushed towards Gaara. The jinchūriki howled his approval, and tried to attack them head on. Having underestimated the jutsu, Gaara found himself trapped in a rapidly hardening coffin of wild, spiky hair. It was ironic, given his constant abuse of Sabaku Kyū. Gaara struggled, but with each try, the entrapment only tightened, piercing his thick sand armour and inching closer to his bare skin beneath.

Having held him in place, the real Naruto sheathed Benihime. What he required at that point was a piercing technique, and while Benihime was a wonderful blade, she just wasn’t meant for thrusts. Ignoring her muted protests, Naruto flipped through several hand seals, pointing his right hand to the ground. A massive wind picked up, ruffling the hair of all three Narutos. The slicing winds condensed into the familiar whirlwind, which Naruto left unshaped.

At this point, most ninjas would go into a spiel about their superiority, or demanding the opponent to surrender. Naruto had no qualms just charging towards Gaara, and when he fell in range, thrusting his hand forward while extending the wind construct forwards like a spear. The attack punched through the thick layers of hair, Gaara’s sand armour and disabled his right shoulder completely. The Gufūken was not done; it continued piercing through layers of skin, muscle, bone, sand and hair until it emerged from the other side. Blood erupted from Gaara’s heaviest wound yet, the crimson liquid splattering on the roof they stood upon.

All Gaara could think of was the pain. He had never felt such physical pain in his life; his sand was always there to protect him. Faced with Uchiha Sasuke, he bled, but it was a minor scratch. Faced with Uzumaki Naruto, he was slashed by a sword, impaled by numerous spikes of hair, and stabbed through the shoulder by a wind jutsu. He always thought he was strong, but the inevitability of the situation suddenly sunk in with the final attack of Naruto. Said blond released him from his confines, allowing the dumbfounded redhead to collapse on the ground, his sand flowing off his body in gentle waves.

Stupefied by the sudden upheavals in his world view, Gaara crawled away as soon as his temporary shell-shock passed. His wounds were slowly healing, slowing the bleeding, but fear had a vice grip on Gaara’s psyche at that point. As Naruto took measured steps towards the container, Gaara covered his face with his arms, his voice tinged with fear.

“Don’t kill me!” he cried, more frightened child than bloodthirsty killer.

Naruto crouched down, a bitter smile on his face. “Don’t worry. I won’t kill you. You are like kin to me. We both share similar burdens after all.”

“Why?” Gaara half-sobbed, his voice croaky. “I destroyed your village!”

“Konoha is more than just a collection of buildings,” Naruto shook his head. “Konoha is about the people. We are a family, and not even the utter destruction of the village infrastructure can put us down. Because we have each other, and that is enough.”

“Family?” Gaara rasped. “What a foolish concept! One should live for himself. That is the only way to live without pain!”

“But pain defines us, does it not?” Naruto said sadly. “It makes us human, just like everyone else. Gaara, I understand you more than you think. I, too, have a demon sealed within me. All our lives, we never gained a sliver of positive acknowledgement from anyone. We were branded monsters in human skin. Is that what you want to be? Do you want to prove their words right? Or do you want to fight, fight for your identity?”

Gaara stayed silent, his sleep-deprived eyes widened in confusion. Naruto continued passionately. “Why do you want to let them define who you are? You are Sabaku no Gaara! Not the Ichibi no Shukaku! Not a monster, not a demon, not a weapon, but Gaara, son of the Yondaime Kazekage! You are stronger than me, Gaara. You have survived assassination attempts since six. You never had a day of proper sleep. So if I can gain acknowledgement, so can you!”

Naruto’s tone softened as he clasped a comforting hand on the redhead’s shoulder. Neither seemed to notice how Gaara’s sand did not spring up in retaliation. “Prove them wrong, Gaara. Prove your doubters, your haters wrong. Because at the end, they will be the ones cursing their own stupidity.”

Naruto’s words seemed to get to the jinchūriki, whose eyes lost any hint of bloodlust for the first time in six years. Finally, the redhead spoke. “You are strong. Why?”

“Because I fight for others, precious people whom I care for,” Naruto smiled genuinely. “They give me the motivation to fight, to win against the odds.”

“Will I find someone precious?” Gaara asked simply.

Naruto gestured at the two approaching figures. “You already have two.”

Temari and Kankuro rushed at Naruto, their faces full of concern for Gaara’s well-being. The blond leaped back, and when the Sabaku siblings were about to attack, Gaara raised his hand. “Stop! Don’t fight him.”

Kankuro stared weirdly at Gaara, while Temari tightened her grip on her fan. Gaara shook his head. “Let’s go home.”

Naruto raised his hands in the universal gesture of peace, giving Kankuro the time to haul Gaara to his feet, and provide him support. Temari kept a vigilant eye on the unmoving Naruto as the Suna trio ran off into the distance, no doubt to escape Konoha.

As the blond Chūnin became nothing but a small speck in the horizon, Gaara addressed his kin. “Kankuro, Temari…thank you.”

Pleasantly surprised, the older Sabaku siblings could only smile lightly at the youngest of the trio.

Slowly but surely, their family was on the road to recovery.

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Hmm…thrashing the Suna trio’s butts, one-upping Sasuke-chan, saving Konoha from the Ichibi, beating Oto-nin in the stadium, ruining Orochimaru’s barrier…now, what did I miss? Naruto mused, as he left for the stadium where most Konoha-nin seemed to be gathering. I guess there were quite a few eyewitnesses to my battle, so the ‘impress the Council’ bit is settled. But…oh shit! Hibashira-hime!

Picking up the pace, Naruto reached the stadium just in time to see Orochimaru flee with his tail between his legs. The Sandaime looked tired but healthy, and beside him were his trusted ANBU, Kakashi and Gai, all who looked worse for wear. Glad that Sarutobi was safe, Naruto turned his attention to the section of the stadium where the princess was. He heaved a sigh of relief when he noticed all his clones still in formation around the princess. Apparently, the Oto-nin were too focused on trying to defeat the Jōnin around, than to bother with a Chūnin and his clones.

Joining the rest of the shinobi in dispelling the mass genjutsu on civilians, Naruto pressed two fingers to Asuka’s forehead. With a soft moan, the teen’s eyelids fluttered open, blinking away the sleep. “…Naruto-kun?”

“It’s safe now,” Naruto said gently.

Confused, the princess quirked an eyebrow. Naruto chuckled. “We were just invaded by Suna and Oto. But we repelled them. Would you like to look for your father?”

Asuka looked rather stunned she missed all of it. She gained a far greater appreciation for Naruto then; she was sharp enough to notice that she was surrounded by Narutos, who were most likely protecting her throughout. Nodding her head dumbly in response to Naruto’s question, the crimson-haired girl squeaked her surprise when Naruto lifted her off her seat and in his arms. “You looked rather groggy and disorientated, and it’s quicker this way.”

Keeping his clones around him, the blond Chūnin scanned the stands for signs of the Shugonin. Spotting the large entourage, Naruto sped across, while keeping in mind not to jar the girl in his arms too much. Benihime sniffled loudly in his mind; since anger didn’t work, maybe sorrow would. Naruto sighed inwardly; he wondered if he could arrange for Benihime to have a conducive meeting with Asuka one day. Hopefully, he could be spared of further bouts of jealousy from the beautiful woman.

Bringing such a massive contigent, while carrying the princess of the country bridal style didn’t sit too well with the Shugonin Jūnishi, who promptly dispelled three of his clones before the daimyō could even say stop. When the order came down, Naruto was left with only three clones, a testament to the quick work of the Shugonin. Placing Asuka on her feet, the blushing girl thanked Naruto, before rushing over to give her father a hug. The daimyō allowed himself to indulge in familial love for once, as his worry for his sole child evaporated with her safe return.

“Once again, you have returned my daughter to me safely,” the daimyō praised Naruto, who bowed deeply. “It is my honour, daimyō-sama.”

The Sandaime landed adroitly beside Naruto, Kakashi and Gai tailing closely. Both Jōnin bowed, while Sarutobi inclined his head in deference. The daimyo smiled warmly at Sarutobi; he was a great admirer of great men, and Sarutobi Hiruzen was a legend amongst legends. It helped that under Sarutobi’s governance, Konoha and Hi no Kuni reached unprecedented prosperity. “Hiruzen. It must be tiring for you to have to step into battle again.”

“Hai, daimyō-sama,” the Hokage replied cordially. “I now realise that I should actively seek a Godaime.”

“Nonsense!” the daimyō chided. “You are a wonderful Hokage, Hiruzen, and while seeking a Godaime to succeed you is important, I’m sure you can still govern well.”

Glancing at Naruto for a moment, the ruler of the country continued. “Although if you wait a few more years, I’m sure the young man beside you will be more than capable of taking the reins. He is a bright young talent.”

“Indeed,” Sarutobi smiled warmly. His voice hardened slightly. “But he is not ready yet. Would you excuse me, daimyō-sama? I need to organise my ninjas.”

“Of course, of course!” the noble tittered. “I shall not hold you up! But do you require young Naruto’s services? I do wish to speak with him.”

“Please do,” the Sandaime acquiesced, leaving with Kakashi and Gai.

“Ah! How rude of me,” the daimyō murmured. “Please, take a seat! We have quite a bit to discuss!”

Naruto smiled politely. Oh crap. I can already imagine the political shitstorm. “Hai, daimyō-sama.”

Hibashira noted that as the three of them sat down, Asuka took the seat beside Naruto. Cogs turned in his head as he noticed his daughter’s obvious affection for the blond, who looked far more suitable as a son-in-law than Uchiha Sasuke. Not to mention he was an Uzumaki, and looked so much like Minato…composing himself, the middle-aged man cleared his throat. “Tell me, Naruto, do you have something you want?”

“Permission to speak freely, daimyō-sama?” Naruto asked.

“Of course.”

“I would like a good night’s sleep, daimyō-sama,” Naruto replied frankly. Asuka giggled, before clasping her hand over her mouth, blushing. The daimyō chuckled lightly. “Then I shouldn’t keep you here for long, ne? The truth is, you have protected Asuka-chan’s life twice already, and I have not rewarded you as you deserve.”

“It is my duty to protect, daimyō-sama,” Naruto intoned.

“Indeed, but your efforts should be recognised anyway,” the man persisted. “If you do not have a request now, it is fine. Consider it a favour the Hibashira clan owes to you, personally. Iie, that should be two favours, no?”

Naruto’s eyes widened. “I couldn’t-”

“If you do not wish to accept the offer from an old man,” the sovereign said firmly. “At least accept it on Asuka-chan’s behalf. She has felt guilt for your injuries during your rescue previously, and would like to repay your kindness. Surely you can accept it from my pretty daughter, hmm?”

Damn…manipulated. If the Council won’t accuse me of casting a spell, they’ll be busy sucking up to me now. “I…arigato gozaimasu, daimyō-sama, Hibashira-hime.”

“Ah, I believe I have held you away from your good night’s sleep for long enough,” the man joked lightly.

“I shall take my leave then, daimyō-sama, Hibashira-hime,” Naruto stood up, bowing deeply once more. “I bid you a good stay in Konoha.”

As Naruto turned around to leave, Asuka suddenly stood up. “Wait!”

The blond swivelled around, to receive a chaste kiss on the cheek from the emerald-eyed girl. A cute blush stained her cheeks as she averted her eyes. “Arigato, Naruto-kun, for protecting me today.”

Naruto nodded bemusedly, before stumbling off to find the Hokage for his debriefing. Asuka sighed dreamily, before she realised she did all of this in front of all the Shugonin Jūnishi and her father, all struggling not to laugh. Pouting, she crossed her petite arms, replacing her embarrassment with fake ire. Deep within her, though…

Kya! He’s so dreamy! Oh, if only…

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UZUMAKI NARUTO! Benhime howled furiously, vibrating ferociously in her sheath. I DEMAND AN EXPLANATION FOR…THAT!

The blond sighed. He really hoped he could deal with it when he wasn’t tired, sore and feeling like shit. Finding an empty alleyway, Naruto unsheathed his sword, stabbing her into the ground. A crimson mist emanated from the blade, before coalescing into an angry woman. Wincing as he regarded her glacial expression, a far cry from her passionate, smouldering stares, Naruto knew he was screwed.

“Beni-chan…” Naruto pleaded. “Please let me explain, okay?”

“You have two minutes,” the woman tapped her foot impatiently.

Naruto nodded. “Beni-chan, from the moment you entered my life, have you seen me do anything that would constitute cheating?”

The crimson-haired soul was about to yell, until she realised that Naruto had been completely smitten with her. Her, the sentient soul of a sword, with no permanent physical presence in the world of any sort. Her hasty retort died before it left her mouth. Shaking her head mutely, it was a signal for Naruto to continue.

“I know you won’t like to hear this, but I do have an attraction to Hibashira-hime,” the blond admitted. “But! I would never act on it. You have seen my life. You have seen into the deepest parts of my soul. Can you really say that I will cheat on you?”

“Iie,” the blade sighed guiltily. “I…gomen, Naru-kun. It’s just that I…I didn’t want to lose you.”

The blond’s lips were upturned at those words. “That means you care for me, ne, Beni-chan?”

“U-U-Urusai!” the beauty mumbled, ducking her head. “You’re embarrassing me…”

Naruto laughed merrily, wrapping the woman in a warm hug. She returned the embrace, but as her guilt ate at her, she realised that she needed to get it off her chest before it ruined their relationship. “Naru-kun…am I destroying your future family?”

The ninja, stupefied, broke the contact, staring incredulously at her. Benihime continued, her voice soft and contrite. “I am merely the soul of your sword. I cannot give you a family you desire, and because I monopolise you, you cannot find that someone you love.”

Naruto sighed, reaching out to brush errant tears from the downcast spirit. “I’m nowhere near the age of family building yet. Plus, no girl in Konoha will give me a chance anyway. I already have my notorious reputation from my Academy days, and with the Kyūbi’s shadow lurking behind me, it’s never going to work out anyway. In any case, I’ll rather have just you than a bunch of rabid fan girls like Uchiha.”

Benihime giggled weakly, her mood lightened by Naruto’s words. Then, the blond leaned in, whispering conspiratorily. “And you’ve always been the kinky type, so I thought you would be partial to a threesome.”

As the woman turned as red as her namesake, reeling back in shock, Naruto grinned triumphantly. That’s five wins to seventy six for me. Just wait, I’ll be catching up before long!

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“I heard your Ranjishigami no Jutsu was used to great effect by Naruto,” Hiruzen smiled, as his student clambered through the window once more. “From several eyewitnesses, he used it to defeat Sabaku no Gaara.”

Piles of paperwork covered the expanse of Sarutobi’s desk as the elderly man scribbled away on a tome. Jiraiya grinned proudly as he circumvented the neatly stacked of scrolls and paper beside the wizened Hokage’s table, taking a seat across from his mentor. “Well, he is my student. Speaking of which, I really love these chairs. You have to get more of them.”

“Jiraiya, focus,” the Sandaime commanded.

“Geez, take it easy, old man,” the white-haired pervert waved airily. “You stated that you needed a new Hokage, and the daimyō probably thinks I’m a good choice.”

“But you are going to reject it, are you not?” Sarutobi puffed. “And the best choice would be Tsunade anyway. I need you to bring her back.”

“So she can do your paperwork, and with her legendary temper, no one on the Council is going to cross her,” Jiraiya smirked. “Not even on the issue of Naruto. So, what exactly is the view on the gaki now?”

Sarutobi couldn’t help but grin as he thought about the long meeting he had with the esteemed members of Konoha and Hi no Kuni‘s hierarchy. “Well, the daimyō is obviously very pleased with Naruto, and his advisors are grudging in their praise. I think they feel affronted that a lone Konoha Chūnin has done a better job than the daimyō’s forces at keeping the princess safe. Shikaku remains neutral, although he thinks Naruto has a lot of potential. Danzō was all for Naruto learning to control the Kyūbi. I’m guessing it’s a good thing Kyūbi is suppressed by that sword of his.”

“Homura and Koharu are neutral as well, although in partial agreement with Danzō. They agree with his idea, but not with his means of achieving it,” Hiruzen leaned back in his seat, absentmindedly packing tobacco into his pipe. “On a whole, they seem to have accepted the fact that Naruto is a strong shinobi, and deserves his Chūnin status. The testimonials that covered the table at the meeting was testamant to that.”

“How many?” Jiraiya queried, intrigued.

“Forty three, from Chūnin to ANBU,” the Hokage replied, screwing the end of the pipe at the corner of his mouth. “Yūgao gave a particularly glowing recommendation for a fast-track into ANBU. I think she wants to set up a ANBU kenjutsu team in memory of Hayate.”

“He’s not going into ANBU,” Jiraiya stated firmly. “ANBU is too mission-intensive for him to develop to his full potential. He needs dedicated instruction. Plus, I have worrying information. A group of S-rank ninja are hunting the bijū, for reasons unknown. Suffice to say, they aren’t up to any good. Orochimaru was once part of them, but he was considered a weaker member amongst them. Itachi joined the group, and I have a sneaky suspicion it was that boy who made Orochimaru leave.”

“You mean after Orochimaru probably tried to possess Itachi’s body?” Hiruzen questioned, lighting his tobacco with a small flame on the tip of his finger.

Jiraiya nodded. “Highly likely. And what’s worse, they work in pairs. With S-rank ninja like those after Naruto, he’s going to need some serious training to even have a fair chance of running. No one in Konoha right now, besides you and me, have a chance of fighting one S-rank and winning, let alone two.”

“Are you going to take him away to train?” the senior asked, wisps of smoke rising from his lips.

“Still as sharp as ever,” Jiraiya shook his head ruefully. “You’ve guessed it in one. Taking him away can keep Akatsuki from Konoha, and I can keep Naruto safe. Furthermore, without distractions in Konoha, he can be trained harder. And in the wilderness, learning how to use Kyūbi’s powers becomes far easier. He has to learn to control the Kyūbi. Minato intended for it to happen, but don’t worry, I won’t do something reckless. I will consult the Toads first.”

“This Akatsuki…do you know when they will strike?” the Shinobi no Kami asked worriedly.

“If my information is right, they have been doing difficult missions for lower pay to garner cash and work themselves into the good graces of some countries. Their timeline seems to indicate that they will pursue the bijū in about three years’ time. Meanwhile, they might send their members to test the waters. That’s the bit I’m worried about now.”

“With Konoha weakened to such an extent, it would be far too easy to infiltrate the place and steal Naruto away,” the wizened man sighed tiredly. “Why don’t you take Naruto with you on your search for Tsunade? Hopefully if Naruto isn’t in Konoha for the time being, they won’t strike at us directly for information.”

“Was about to do that,” the man mumbled. “Alright. I’m off. Keep an eye out for individuals in black cloaks, decorated by red clouds. That’s their uniform.”

“Before you go, Jiraiya,” Sarutobi uttered, causing the man to pause in his tracks. “Maybe you should teach Naruto the Rasengan. He already created Fūton: Gufūken. The concept shouldn’t be beyond him. That jutsu could be invaluable to him in the years to come…and please be serious about his training.”

The younger man grumbled under his breath. The Sandaime frowned. “As much as I would love the next installment of Icha Icha, please focus on training Naruto. His basics are already solid, thanks to Hayate’s dedication. Don’t let his potential go to waste.”

“Don’t worry, sensei, I know what to do,” Jiraiya nodded solemnly, before a lecherous grin appeared. “But I’m going to corrupt him and turn him into my successor, whether you like it or not! See ya, you old coot!”

Sarutobi Hiruzen shook his head as his strongest, most loyal, and yet least favoured student melded into the night. Arigato, Jiraiya, for staying by this old man.

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>

Chapter 7

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