"…Yeah. Let's go."

Itachi vanished in swirling leaves and appeared atop the outer wall nearest the woods ringing Tanzaku-Gai. Kisame shot the blond jinchuuriki a conspiratorial grin and likewise disappeared. Naruto hesitated one last time and turned his head towards the town. He mouthed something that Itachi couldn't hear, and then crimson youki swirled around him and he materialized alongside the two criminals. The three Nukenin then leapt down into the woods in near unison and sprinted into the wild, leaving the town in their wake.

Nine-Tailed Serpent, Chapter 27: Outlaw of the Marsh – Those Left Behind

Disclaimer: Naruto ain't mine, not making any money here, you know the deal.

Sarutobi ambled down the hotel's wooden stairs with more agile movements than one might expect given his age, resting one gnarled hand against the railing. The retired Hokage arrived downstairs and looked around, not spotting who he was seeking, but instead glimpsed his errant pupil sitting at the bar. Emptied wine bottles surrounded her position at the counter, even at this hour. The Sandaime shook his head, lamenting that a person who was once so talented and bursting with spirit could have descended into this.


The Slug Princess continued sipping at her wine, without deigning to acknowledge her mentor with a look. The Third noticed that the bartender was absent, and that the small room had a strange presence about it, as though some tense altercation had taken place not long ago. Tsunade growled and shook her head when Sarutobi didn't take her hint to leave.

"…Old man. You're like a damned pestilence, I swear…"

The old man ignored his likewise old, despite all appearances, student's rudeness. At least she still seemed sober enough, he mused as he gauged her voice.

"I was hoping that Naruto might be down here. He's not in his room."

Tsunade sighed and shrugged her shoulders, tipping her sake bottle in a dismissive manner. A little wine sloshed out onto her ample bosom, but she paid no mind and proceeded to down the rest. The sight might have been quite appealing, where this not a person that Sarutobi almost looked upon as his own estranged daughter, and the situation not so critical. She kept her back to him as she spoke in a careless, dispirited voice.

"…I haven't seen him."

For most people, that might have been enough, as there was little in Tsunade's voice or posture to indicate that she wasn't telling the truth. However, Sarutobi was the Sandaime Hokage, and had been seeing through such subtle lies longer than she had even been alive. Moreover, he had trained her, and helped to raise her. She could never lie to him, and knowing that she was attempting to, Sarutobi bore down on the woman and barked in his most authoritative voice. The Slug Princess being almost as tall sitting down at the bar as he was standing over her made the gesture a bit less intimidating than he would have liked.

"Do not lie to me! Tell me where he's gone to, at once!"

Tsunade winced and massaged her temples, and turned to regard him with a scowl.

"Tch, don't shout so damned loud. Fine…the brat went outside a little while ago. He said he had some appointment to keep."

The old man threw his arms up in exasperation. He knew that Tsunade was aware that Naruto was being hunted, and she'd still let him walk right out the door against the Third's standing orders. No matter what her current status might be, she was still a Konoha kunoichi, and thus obligated to heed his will as Hokage. Sarutobi would have been within his prerogatives to command her to return to the village with him, though making her submit to such an order was another matter altogether. The Sandaime punched the bar hard enough to leave a small dent in the expensive wood, which looked rather mundane in comparison to a much larger crater that Tsunade had no doubt made in her own ill temper at some point earlier. No matter, the gesture still drove the point home.

"You should not have allowed him to leave!"

Tsunade snorted and peered down into her emptied sake bottle, rolling it around in her palm, and then grunted as she crushed the small ceramic container in her hand and looked hard at her old master. The Sannin brushed the bottle's remnants onto the abused countertop as she spoke, having reduced the damned thing into white powder using her obscene strength.

"I'm not his mother. He can do whatever the Hell he wants. I'm not going to stop him."

Sarutobi pinched his nose with irritation, knowing that she had a certain point but not pleased with having to acknowledge it. Nor did he have to, as at that moment, the retired Konoha leader's other ANBU guard emerged in the stairwell.

"…He's not down here either…"

Uzuki Yuugao's voice was calm, but the old man could tell that she was simmering with rage underneath that placid pretense. Though he was quite pissed with Naruto in his own right, Sarutobi still pitied the blond when she got her hands on him. More than that, the Third was concerned with that his subordinate had meant when he'd told Tsunade about having an 'appointment,' assuming that she was even telling the truth about that. One probable scenario came to mind, and it chilled the old man's brittle bones to the marrow.

'…No, he couldn't possibly be that reckless or stupid.'

"No, it would seem that our…errant teenager has decided to take a little stroll into town."

Yuugao nodded and draped a hand around her katana's handle, and then spoke a moment later in a deadpan.

"Then I'll have to sever the tendons in both his legs when we catch him."

The Sandaime was a bit too preoccupied with the present situation to wince, and instead resorted to giving orders.

"I am quite tempted to do something similar. Finding him, however, is the more pressing issue right now. Please return upstairs and rouse Kiba."

Yuugao nodded and did as instructed, and returned in what seemed like less than a minute with a dazed and unwilling Inuzuka Kiba in tow. The woman hadn't even permitted the poor lad time enough to get dressed, it seemed, as he was dressed in nothing save some paw-printed boxer shorts and a weathered tank top, along with his mismatched shinobi sandals. There was little time, however, and the Inuzuka would need to live with it. Kiba's tired grumbling got underneath Yuugao's skin, and she snapped at him in a hissing voice.

"That's enough complaining, maggot. You're a shinobi, pretend to act like one."

The canine teenager reddened, with his expression indicating embarrassment as he realized how he was acting in the Hokage's presence. Sarutobi didn't mind. He'd seen much worse in his time, and was too incensed and disappointed at the present time with his other adolescent charge to spare much irritation on Tsume's son. The old man waved his ANBU guard's comment aside with a grunt.

"Never mind that nonsense now. Naruto's gone missing. You will track his scent and lead me to his location, on the double."

The lad sobered up at once when the Third revealed that Naruto might be in trouble. Kiba marched out the door in such a manner that proved one thing: that he was shinobi, no matter what Yuugao had sniped in her anger. Nor did the Genin missed the term that the Third had used. 'Gone missing' was a phrase that had a particular meaning to someone raised in a shinobi household. Sarutobi allowed a small grin as he made towards the exit. His aged hand touched the door, and Tsunade's voice sounded behind him.

"Hold on one second."

This time, it was Sarutobi who didn't stop to acknowledge her.

"I don't have a second to spare right now, Tsunade."

The old man pushed the hotel's main door open and stepped out into the street, with Yuugao right behind. Kiba was going about his assigned task in earnest, working to isolate Naruto's unique scent and get a lead on his whereabouts. The streets were more or less deserted at this hour. The sun had risen less than an hour earlier, and Tanzaku-Gai's remained asleep in their homes. The hotel door split behind the Sandaime a moment or so later, and then crashed to the pavement in two pieces. Tsunade stepped out through the ruined entrance, radiating with stern resolve.

"I'm tagging along too. I helped create this mess with the kid, and I'll help clean it up. I've asked Shizune to wait at the hotel, in case he comes back while we're out looking. You're too damned old to be handling something like this alone no matter what, sensei."

Yuugao shot Tsunade a scathing look, not at all appreciating the blonde woman's insinuation that her presence counted as nothing. However, against enemies such as Kisame and Itachi, the assessment was more or less correct. Normal shinobi were little more than ants in comparison with such monsters. Tsunade's help would prove invaluable in the worst case scenario, and her willingness to render it cheered the old man's heart somewhat, even though he knew that she wasn't doing so on his account. Kiba motioned down the street, and the group began to move behind him. The path led right towards the old castle in a straight line, down streets and over buildings. The old man winced due to having to scramble up and down buildings at his age.

'Ah, I'm much too old for this shit…'

For her part, Tsunade was still able to move with all the ease and grace that Sarutobi remembered, as though she were still in her prime. The Slug Princess seemed to be in much better condition than the Sandaime would have guessed, given her general routine. His embittered pupil looked back at him with a vicious grin, taking some twisted delight in his struggles.

"You're moving like a desiccated corpse there. I sure hope I never get that slow."

The Sandaime might have expected Yuugao to take some issue with Tsunade's snide remark, but her tunnel vision was locked straight ahead. He doubted that the other woman had even heard the comment.

"Hmph! You're no spring chicken now either, Tsunade."

The group reached Tanzaku Castle soon enough and crossed over the outer wall into the pristine palace grounds. Naruto wasn't there, and neither were the Akatsuki. The entire place was as still and silent as the grave, and the grounds were in pristine condition, with not so much as a pebble misplaced.

'No signs of a battle here…damn it all.'

That should have been a good thing, but Sarutobi was more concerned than ever. Naruto had been here, at a place that he would have had no normal reason to visit, and was gone now. The old man looked towards Kiba, though he had two ideas about what might have happened here, and neither one was pleasant. And since the blond had gone to this meeting on his own…

"There was someone else here too, and something reeks like rotten tuna."

Yuugao provided the obvious answer to that in a low growl. Meanwhile, the Sandaime Hokage's chest turned into lead and threatened to sink through his bowels. There remained no reasonable doubt as to what had transpired now.

"Itachi and Kisame…"

Sarutobi cut his plum-haired subordinate short and stepped towards the teenager.

"Tell us where the trail goes now. It's plain to see that we've missed him."

Kiba pointed towards the western horizon without a word with a deep scowl, over the palace's crumbling high walls. He seemed to understand the situation as well. There was no need to mention that all three had gone together. Naruto's apparent treason was lost on no-one present. 'Apparent' being the critical word, as more than three decades serving as Hokage had taught Sarutobi better than to make such rash assumptions. The old man looked out along the wall, guessing where the Akatsuki and Naruto must have gone.

'Right towards the Nakano River…and from there, the Kami only know.'

Perhaps he had taken Itachi's threat to heart, and had gone with them in order to preserve Konoha. No, not the village, the old man amended in his mind. To protect those people most important to him. Though Naruto held some bitterness towards Konoha over his poor treatment, the Sandaime wasn't inclined to believe that he would 'give in' and go rogue due to it. He would no doubt have accepted Orochimaru's proposal otherwise, and in doing so, placed a poisoned blade in the village's back at its most vulnerable moment.


The old man turned to Uzuki Yuugao with a sigh, knowing quite well what she wanted. He motioned her to continue regardless.

"I'm requesting permission to hunt down and eliminate the traitor Uzumaki Naruto."

Sarutobi shook his head in the negative. He had lost one stellar shinobi this morning, and he wasn't about to allow a second. Unavoidable death would be her portion in such a mission. Even were Yuugao able to overcome Naruto in a serious battle, not at all a sure proposition in its own right, there still remained Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame to reckon with. Those two would not surrender their prize. The Sandaime wished that he knew the reason behind the Akatsuki Organization gathering the jinchuuriki, but he did not, and there was little use dwelling on the matter right then. The retired leader looked at his subordinate, and gave her another reason to veto her request.

"Request denied. You would never be able to catch him, and I'm still not certain that he has turned against our village."

The Nakano had countless tributaries branching out in all directions along its length. A prepared Hunter-nin pursuit team wouldn't be able to track the Missing-nin on the river. That label now encompassed Naruto also, no matter what his intentions might have been. A single ANBU would accomplish nothing at all. There was no telling which direction Naruto and his new comrades…or abductors, whichever the case were, might have taken upon reaching the water. Yuugao seemed to want to argue, but realized that Sarutobi was right and acknowledged his decision with a short, harsh nod.

"Fuck! I can't believe that moron!"

Kiba snarled and kicked the ground, raining moist earth into the air. No-one bothered to make a comment on his lapse in decorum. Sarutobi would have liked to have been able to rage and storm in his own right, but being Hokage disallowed such things. Uzumaki Naruto was to lead Konoha in the generation to come. He had the strength and the will to handle such a burden. And now he was gone, and the Sandaime wasn't naïve enough to pretend that he would be coming back home, not until he had accomplished whatever he had set out to do on this cold winter's morning.

"He's still a criminal, sensei. Konoha's laws are damn clear when it comes to handling renegade shinobi."

The Third Hokage glowered, not needing Tsunade to remind him. Neither did the Slug Princess have much right to comment, as it was through his grace alone that she had never been placed on the Nukenin register. The old shinobi's lips curled into a grin. She had given him an idea.

"Not so, because he hasn't abandoned Konoha. I've sent him on a long-term undercover mission, into the criminal organization 'Akatsuki.'"

The two kunoichi both stared at the man once renowned as Kami no Shinobi as though he'd sprouted a second head. Sarutobi knew that what he was planning to do was most illegal, but he couldn't quite be bothered to care. He would not see Naruto placed on the list and hunted as a traitor, when he had committed no true crime against Konoha. Leaving the village in order to protect his precious people, though misguided, was still nobler than what the Sandaime's own students had used as their reasons. Minato would have done the same thing in his son's unenviable position, and the Hokage could give no higher compliment than that despite being quite disappointed in the blond jinchuuriki.

"Don't be ridiculous. You're talking about covering up high treason, old man…"

The Sandaime Hokage replied in a cold, clipped voice, quite unwilling to listen to dissent. His grim smile remained etched in place.

"You can accept the commission, become Godaime and recall him, then. Until such time, Tsunade-hime, I wield the Hokage's powers. And as such, ANBU member Uzumaki Naruto is mine to command however I deem appropriate. The Elder Council has no voice in this matter."

Sarutobi looked around, almost daring the others to argue with him. Yuugao would heed his command, as that was her sworn obligation, no matter what her opinion. Kiba would keep his mouth sealed with Naruto's well-being at stake, and Tsunade would have to return to Konoha in order to do something about the situation. She seemed to consider the matter, but at last turned her back to the Third with a choked snort.

"…You wish, gramps."

The old 'gramps' grinned, despite his own loss. Tsunade was beginning to resist the idea less and less.

'Naruto, I can only hope you understand the consequences of what you have done…'

He would see his surrogate son again. Sarutobi knew this to be true. Perhaps he would repent his impulsive actions then, and the old man would absolve him, even though Konoha might never were his abandonment to become known. First, however, he would cane the moronic brat with the Kongou Nyoi until his muscles split. Then, he would pardon him.


A week or so later, Konoha Missing-nin Uzumaki Naruto sat at an outdoor restaurant located in a small, remote village in Kawa no Kuni. The blond shinobi's travels since leaving his village behind and 'surrendering' to Akatsuki had taken him on a meandering path towards the west, along rivers and through swamps. Naruto had been surprised upon realizing that Itachi and Kisame had no particular destination in mind at the moment, but his two 'leaders' weren't telling him much else. The shark still didn't trust him, and Itachi remained as stoic as the jinchuuriki had come to 'know' him to be, in his rather limited experience with the older teenager. As he thought, a rough hand grabbed into his hair and twisted him upright. Naruto glared at Kisame across the table, incensed with the manhandling but rather powerless to stop it.

"Eat, brat, or else I'll have to use some persuasion to open up that cute little mouth."

Naruto looked down at his meal, not all too willing to eat on their coin. He hated being indebted to others, no matter what the situation. Then again, it was Kisame covering the meal ticket, and the grinning shark bastard had wrecked his apartment complex back in Konoha, so it wasn't like he wasn't owed something. The blond-haired demon vessel dug into his vegetable stew when the shark released him, which was quite good to his surprise.

"You know, I hope we'll be going somewhere sooner or later. Traipsing through stinking marshes gets boring…not to mention wet."

Kisame snorted as he ate, though whether it was in derision or genuine amusement, Naruto wasn't sure, though he assumed the latter. The shark was in a dour mood at present because the restaurant wouldn't serve him sake, and his partner wouldn't allow him to intimidate the proprietor into changing his mind. He glowered as he grabbed a roasted chicken and ripped through the bird, bones and all, with his sharpened teeth. The jinchuuriki watched the huge swordsman devour his enormous meal with a morbid interest. Itachi's quiet voice spoke through his steaming hot tea, answering Naruto's gripe.

"This is somewhere, Naruto-kun. Konoha's Hunter-nin would never venture to search here."

Naruto couldn't argue the Uchiha's logic, though he doubted that Konoha would send hunters at all. The more time he spent around Itachi, the more the other shinobi unnerved him. The Uchiha seemed to be watching him at all times, as though Naruto were some riddle to be deciphered. He was doing it again now, staring through him with his revolving Sharingan, his bamboo kasa tipped enough to make the swirling orbs visible. The spiked blond demon container looked back towards the chuckling Kisame with an invisible shudder. Itachi was a weird creep, and now Naruto had trusted his existence to him. Kisame downed his ice water with a single huge swallow and sneered at his partner's caution.

"Oh, let them come. I could use some wholesale slaughter to keep the old blood moving. I'm sure the kid agrees with me."

The blond didn't take the shark-nin's bait, but the comment still struck a nerve. He would have to do battle against his old comrades at some point. His accursed luck wouldn't permit it to be otherwise. He'd cross that particular bridge when he came to it, however. For now, he resolved to do whatever he could to not kill them when that time arrived. Naruto shrugged, as he didn't have an honest response that would appease the barbaric man.

"…I guess so."

Kisame wasn't content with the noncommittal answer either. He leaned over the table and prodded at Naruto's temple with his part-eaten, saliva-ridden drumstick. The jinchuuriki reddened and seethed with anger, but did nothing about it. Tempting though it was to punch the taunting shark man across the restaurant, the beating he was liable to get in return deterred such a course. He wasn't willing to have to depend on Itachi to protect him either, like some helpless child. Kisame smacked Naruto upside the ear using the ragged bone with a vicious leer, and the teenager's cursed seal pulsed.

"You don't sound enthusiastic there, gaki. You're a Missing-nin like me and Itachi-san now, remember. There's no time to get homesick."

Itachi glanced over at hearing his name, but then returned his attention to Naruto. The blond grabbed the drumstick and snapped it in two, glaring right back at the monstrous Nukenin and then down at the chicken pieces in his hand. Naruto tossed the mangled meat back onto Kisame's wooden serving platter and dragged a grease-covered thumb along his slashed protector, staining the neat linear groove with oil. The jinchuuriki then returned to his seat with a glower, his rage spent, and raked his clean hand through his hair.

"I'm not homesick. I haven't even got a home to miss, thanks to some asshole wrecking mine a while back. Imagine that…"

He was telling the truth. He wasn't homesick. There were people he would miss, sure, but never the village. Never mind that he hadn't even been gone long enough to let such a pathetic longing set in, he had no interest in going back, not that he ever could now. Naruto was a traitor to Konoha now, and he hadn't needed Hoshigaki Kisame to remind him. Rather than losing his temper, the shark man grinned again.

"Hee, now there's the spirit! I'd hate to have to live with the knowledge that some passive limp prick was able to wound me."

Naruto's gaze darted towards the swordsman's shoulder that he'd pierced with the Kusanagi during their previous battle in Konoha. He couldn't see the spot now due to Kisame's Akatsuki cloak, but he had glimpsed the man disrobed at camp one night and knew that the stab wound had healed, but that a wicked scar remained. The jinchuuriki had resumed eating his cooling stew when a girl's voice screamed out across the street.


Naruto and Itachi looked towards the source. Kisame meanwhile continued eating his lunch, not showing even the slightest concern. Several armed, rough-looking men were having words with a local storekeeper outside his shop, with his sobbing little daughter present. The merchant seemed to be pleading with the thugs, but one struck him over the head with a cudgel and two others began kicking him on the ground. The girl wailed and pulled at the ringleader's arm, while a third accomplice broke the shop's windows and ransacked the place. The miscreant shoved the girl to the ground, soiling her immaculate kimono, and pulled her bleeding dad upright. There were other villagers in the street looking on, but none moved a muscle to help the poor man as the goon barked in his ear.

"You'd best have our tribute next time we come 'round, pops, or else we'll take that cute little brat an' sell 'er to the slave traders."

Naruto sucked a breath through his teeth. He hated these sorts more and more each time he ran across them, which seemed to be all the time. The blond stirred in his seat and reached towards his sword, but Uchiha Itachi's cold iron grip encircled his wrist as he made to stand. The illusionist turned his attention back towards the blond, dismissing the loud commotion outside as immaterial, but still held onto Naruto's wrist, though his grip loosened somewhat. The demon carrier's attention remained on the scene, at which point Itachi murmured across the table so that Naruto could hear, but quiet enough so as not to permit the restaurant's other patrons to listen in.

"That's not our concern, Naruto-kun. Don't intervene."

The blond both agreed and didn't at the same time, but acquiesced and returned to his meal all the same. The thug hurled the beaten merchant to the ground and departed with his criminal underlings in tow, brandishing their weapons as the intimidated townspeople rushed to avoid their path. Kisame grunted between bites in response to Naruto's enraged mood and motioned with a painted hand towards the crowd outside, which was now moving to take the victim to the local hospital.

"Don't get too worked up, gaki. Things like that happen all over. Get used to it. Most places out here aren't 'civilized' like Konoha."

The 'old' Naruto who had gone on that mission to Sakai with Anko would have had no problem accepting the hulking warrior's perspective. The blond still remembered how he'd looked down upon the downtrodden people in Wave, convinced that the oppressed populace deserved Gatou's actions. He was no longer that person, though he knew that he might need to revert to that heartless mindset in order to thrive in this harsh new world he'd entered into upon taking Itachi's deal. The training he'd received in Konoha had made him stronger, but perhaps his old village and the bonds he'd nurtured there had also made him weaker as well.

"You're right. This isn't our business."

And so Naruto hardened his heart, or tried to. The little girl came stumbling into the restaurant, cheeks wet with tears. The jinchuuriki tried not to look at her, to keep to his resolve not to leave and chase down and massacre those goons no matter what Itachi and Kisame had mandated. The shark man was indeed right. The blond would have to learn to ignore and stomach some things, or else he was certain to lose his mind as a Nukenin. Naruto couldn't protect the whole world, right all its wrongs and purge all its lowdown miscreants, and that wasn't his mission either. And still, he also knew that his mentor the Sandaime Hokage would never have allowed that child to watch her parent be beaten and mugged as he had a moment earlier.

"You three are ninja…"

The little girl was standing next to their table, looking right up at Naruto's cut hitai-ate. The awe in her whisper was unmistakable. Kisame grunted and looked down at her with impatience beneath his kasa. His hand twitched towards Samehada, which was within his reach as usual, leaning against the next table over. Butchering an inquisitive child was lower than even he was willing to stoop, however, and he proceeded to ignore the girl. Naruto and Itachi both glanced at her as well, but neither acknowledged her presence more than that. The restaurant's owner stormed over and reproved the girl in a stern voice.

"Tomo-chan! Don't harass the customers like that! This isn't their problem to deal with."

The little girl, who couldn't have been much older than seven or eight, didn't listen and knelt low on the ground, bowing to the three renegade shinobi.

"Please save our village. Those bandits are robbing us blind, and hurting whoever doesn't meet their demands."

Kisame removed his Akatsuki kasa and leered down at the child, baring his pointed teeth in a snarl in an attempt to scare the girl into leaving the three dining shinobi alone with his monstrous appearance. The attempt worked, and the girl paled and hid behind Naruto's chair, as he was less intimidating than the two older men in their thick patterned robes and large hats. The Mist-nin snorted and reached over to swipe Naruto's untouched rice bowl when the blond glanced towards Itachi.

"Forget it, girlie. People like us don't do humanitarian work."

The child stammered through more tears, and the blond was quite aware that the remaining customers were watching. Not that he cared too much. He still wouldn't even look at the kid, and instead glared over at Kisame, who was now shoveling his steamed rice down his massive gullet. The swordsman noticed the glare, grinned and took a mocking, deliberate pull on the rice with his disposable chopsticks.


Uchiha Itachi removed his bamboo hat and placed it on the chair next to him, and then looked around the restaurant. His swirling Sharingan took in the other diners and their hopeless, downtrodden expressions, though his own remained cold and impassive.

"Tell us the situation, at least."

Kisame's expression soured as he swallowed his rice, but he knew better than to argue in public. Naruto stared over at the other teenager in utter bewilderment. Moments earlier he'd restrained the blond, claiming that this poor village's problems weren't theirs, and now he was requesting details as though he were planning on lending a hand. He hadn't pegged Itachi as someone to change his mind on a whim. Kisame grunted to the proprietor, his previous 'good' humor spoiled.

"And bring me some damned sake this time, the warmer the better."

The old restaurant owner sighed and walked across the room, pulling loose some wooden planks on the ground to reveal a hidden compartment beneath. He removed a small case, inside which were a couple sake bottles that he seemed to have been holding in special reserve. Naruto didn't doubt that his normal stock had been pillaged, which explained his not having wine on hand to serve to Kisame. The proprietor set the wine to heat and proceeded to begin explaining the town's woes.

"Those brutes outside earlier belong to the Black Marsh Brigands. The gang demands regular tribute, terrorizing all the local residents and businesses. Those who can't give the robbers their due are beaten and have their homes ransacked like this little girl's…"

Itachi cut the tale short as he sipped his tea, unmoved and not the least bit interested in listening to sob stories. Kisame'a mouth quirked into a savage grin as his partner interrupted, while Naruto was listening in silence with a neutral expression.

"Armed brigands are nothing unique or dangerous. River's daimyo should have no problems quelling miscreants like those."

The restaurant owner's voice wavered, and he nodded with an inclined head, handing Kisame his now warmed sake.

"You're quite right, sir. However, a month or so ago, two renegade shinobi came and killed the group's previous leader..."

The shark man slugged down his wine and then cleared his throat. Kisame seemed to be in a much more pleasant, though that term was quite relative, mood now that he had a little swill in his stomach. His grin was still downright unpleasant, as he picked up on the proprietor's implication.

"…And then took over the whole operation. Hee, so that's how it is."

Naruto reached over the table while Kisame was preoccupied, intent on avenging his lost rice with its liquid alternative. The swordsman still had one bottle, but as the container's hand move, so did the shark man's and right towards Samehada's handle. He abandoned his scheme, deciding that a little revenge wasn't worth losing his head. The owner nodded again.

"The local lord's men are powerless against trained shinobi. Knowing this, the village headman dispatched a runner to Konohagakure to beg assistance, but we've heard nothing since. The brigands must have intercepted and murdered the poor lad."

Either that, or Konoha had declined to help. Naruto understood the situation outside Konoha's borders; that a Fourth Great Shinobi War was even now looming on the near horizon. He doubted whether his old home would have been willing to send shinobi to help out some poor village in the sticks when the bloodshed could escalate at a moment's notice. That was the reason he'd made his decision to leave. The last thing Konoha needed was to have a menace like Akatsuki lingering around with a war with other Hidden Villages raging.


The jinchuuriki cut his thoughts short and looked over at Itachi, who continued once he had Naruto's complete attention.

"You will handle this problem. Locate the brigand stronghold, devise an attack and neutralize them. You have until sunset."

The demon vessel stared hard at the other teenager, and Kisame almost spit up his precious sake onto the table, but managed to hold onto his bearings. The blond tried to read Itachi's motivations, but the stoic Uchiha's blank expression revealed nothing.

'Another damned test…fuck this…'

His irritation with being singled out aside, Naruto couldn't complain too much about his 'mission,' since he had wanted to do something to help to begin with. He stood and looked around the restaurant; taking in the patrons' incredulous expressions that one person was going to go up against the group that was victimizing their entire town.


He was gone a second later, headed in the general direction that the bandits had gone. Itachi motioned towards a scowling Kisame, who grunted and placed down enough ryo to cover their and Naruto's bill, slugging down his last wine bottle in one swallow. The Kiri Nukenin grabbed Samehada and departed with his partner, leaving the villagers to their mutterings. Both men replaced their large bamboo hats onto their heads, and the shark man turned towards Itachi once the two were in the street.

"I don't agree with this, Itachi-san. There's no reason to bother helping these people."

The bells on Itachi's kasa clinked when he stopped walking and glanced towards the much taller man.

"Please don't be so simple-minded, Kisame. A remote village like this is immaterial."

The renegade Kiri-nin bared his teeth a little in response to the taunting, though the Uchiha's impassive demeanor did nothing to indicate it as such. Itachi reached into his Akatsuki cloak and parted the collar, and then tucked his right arm inside as he continued his explanation. The rogue Uchiha's mouth twisted into a slight, but sinister grin beneath his hat as he spoke.

"I want to measure Naruto-kun's real capabilities, without exposing him to excessive peril. That's all."

Kisame shouldered his massive sword and continued down the simple earthen road. His partner made a rapid hand seal and a single shadow clone popped into existence beside Itachi. The Uchiha commanded his doppelganger to mark Naruto as the blond carried out his orders, but not to assist him or reveal its presence unless the situation required it. The muscular swordsman watched the clone with a pointed sneer.

"You're assuming the brat doesn't decide to run while we're not there to stop him. One little clone isn't going to stop a jinchuuriki."

Uchiha Itachi's response was crisp and immediate, showing no emotion or doubt.

"He won't do that now. He's abandoned his village. He'll remain with us, because he has nowhere else to go."

Kisame grunted again, acknowledging the point but still displeased overall.

"And that part bothers me too. That kid's attitude's done a complete turnaround compared to the last time, and I don't like it. You know as damned well as I do that the Leader isn't going to let a gaki like him waltz into the group."

Itachi didn't deign to shrug, as his blank expression showed his attitude well enough.

"That's not our issue. All that matters is that we have him, and have completed our mission. The Leader can do as he pleases."

Kisame grinned, at last accepting his partner's logic.

"Hee, I suppose that's…"

The shark man stopped short and pressed a large palm against his temple, gnashing his pointed teeth. Itachi inhaled and exhaled a low, prolonged breath, but otherwise showed no reaction to the sudden interruption. A moment passed in silence, and the two Akatsuki members looked at one another.

"Damn, talk about bad timing…"

The slate-haired Sharingan master gestured towards an isolated, secluded spot down the road outside the village limits.

"Let's go."

The shark man nodded, and the duo quickened their pace, and knelt down into meditative poses upon reaching their destination. A hand sign apiece later, and Itachi and Kisame moved across entire nations, their consciousnesses headed to Akatsuki's meeting place.


The sun was beginning to wane overhead as two armed bandits dragged a bloodied Uzumaki Naruto across a wooden bridge leading across a rushing river into their stronghold. A turbaned shinobi with a bandanna covering his mouth was in charge, and he and several other rough-looking brigands escorted the blond-haired prisoner. To Naruto's credit, his captors were all wounded in various places too. His walk slowed as he considered the place he was being marched into, and a bandit slapped him in the back.

"Keep moving, chump. This ain't some damned guided tour."

Naruto spat a little blood down onto the rotting planks below him, but then quickened his pace like a good captive ought to, and stepped out onto the distant river bank along with his 'guards.' The main stronghold was built quite well and occupied a commanding position atop a hill, and seemed to be a Konoha outpost that had been used during the previous war, using the architecture to hazard a guess. The remaining pillagers seemed to live in the various rundown shacks that dotted the marshes between the river and the main base. The jinchuuriki could see several putting about as his captors let him along the path to the walled stronghold. The group reached the main entrance and the Suna-nin motioned to the armed brigands guarding the door, as well as those in his own group.

"You louts, keep watch over this prisoner while I go inside and explain the situation."

A bandit guardsman opened the door and the Suna Missing-nin strode through. The sunset helped to obscure Naruto as he continued to be held captive at the entrance, but he heard a rough-sounding voice inside the stronghold.

"You're bleeding, Masaki…"

The Sand-nin, named Masaki it seemed, gestured back towards the entrance. A bandit prodded the demon vessel in the shoulder with a spear. The blond hissed in anger but moved into the building nonetheless, with the thugs surrounding him with weapons bared. The Suna Nukenin pointed over towards the bleeding Naruto with his thumb, sneering at him through his bandanna.

"I ran into this one nosing around near here. He's a tough one. The bastard killed three men in the melee and wounded the rest."

The jinchuuriki looked up at the other bandit leader as he approached. He too was a Suna Missing-nin, tall and rough with a copper hammer girded at his hip. The weapon was linked to a chain that hung coiled at his side. Naruto examined the thing, while the bandit leader examined him. The Nukenin leader gave a speculative grunt upon taking a closer look at his prisoner.


The Sand-nin reached into his pants pocket and pulled out what Naruto recognized as a Bingo Book. The bandit thumbed through the pages, and the blond struggled a bit against his captors. The leader's stern, brutal expression widened with glee when he stopped on a particular page and he looked over at his turbaned colleague Masaki with a loud, roaring laugh that caused his shoulders to shake.

"Ha ha ha…excellent! This punk's in the Bingo Book, an A-Class! Uzumaki Naruto, the Konoha-nin who took down Momochi Zabuza!"

Masaki blinked and replied in a low voice. For his part, Naruto was also surprised to learn that other Hidden Villages seemed to view him as a substantial enough threat to place him on the same Bingo Book rank as Hatake Kakashi. Perhaps his secret had been leaked, or had never been one to begin with. He recalled that Sarutobi and Konoha had known about Sabaku no Gaara being a demon container.

"You're shitting me…"

The leader shook his head, still ecstatic with his good luck, and tossed the Bingo Book to his partner in crime.

"No, I'm positive! He's got rewards posted on his head all over the continent. All we've gotta do is kill him and we'll be rich, Masaki!"

"There is one little problem though."

The brigand leader turned around, looking towards Masaki with a suspicion creeping into his voice.


Masaki's bandanna was pulled down, revealing whisker marks on his cheeks. The masquerading Naruto spewed poison onto the unprepared Sand-nin, who wasn't able to react to the sudden attack in time to escape it and caught the blinding acid head-on.


The tall Missing-nin staggered back, and the two bandits holding Naruto's arms released him in unison. A split second later, the man's severed head was rolling on the ground, the Kusanagi in its owner's right hand. The other brigands in Naruto's escort all moved at inhuman speeds to dispatch the guards in the room with their various stolen killing instruments and then dispersed their Henge to reveal more identical clones. The real Naruto, the one who had been pretending to be Masaki's captive, leered down at the headless leader and smoothed down his spiked blond hair, motioning all his clones to head upstairs and out onto the stronghold's outer terrace, to execute his plan's next phase.

"Hah, like some worthless muggers could ever take me prisoner…"

The real Masaki and his men were rotting beneath a swamp, their corpses anchored to logs with the Sand-nin's own shinobi wire. He'd run into them while tailing the ones that had assaulted the girl's dad in the town. He'd routed them and stolen their clothing, then replacing Masaki and his men with Naruto's own clones. A little mundane torture had made the regular bandits squeal their stronghold's location once their Nukenin ringleader had been cut down. Anko had trained him well in that regard, at least. The jinchuuriki heard a commotion outside the entrance and vanished in swirling crimson chakra, reappearing next to the large door, where he ran through several rapid hand seals.

'Tch, this is just too easy…'

A bandit threw the door open with a shout, and Naruto was waiting there at the threshold to greet them, stomach swollen with his technique. He gave a mocking wave, and then his Karyuu Endan enveloped the entire group, incinerating the oncoming brigands down to a man. The red skies then glowed as a scorching hail showered the gang's outer shacks. Naruto's positioned shadow clones all used the Housenka technique to rain a crimson Hell onto the ramshackle camp. The entire bandit compound was quite soon ablaze and radiating black smoke into the air. More brigands exited the burning shacks. Flaming missiles hit some, and others made it to the bridge and attempted to escape across the river. The summoned snakes hidden in ambush on the other side completed the slaughter. Naruto started to walk down the path when his instincts pricked behind him.


The blond reached behind his back and caught the incoming hammer in mid-throw. He'd handled Anko's random kunai to the point that he could avoid those, and some untrained moron couldn't even hope to match her skill. Naruto sidestepped an incoming spear and removed its wielder's arm at the elbow in one quick cut with the Kusanagi, and then impaled the brigand's heart as he rolled on the ground screaming. He sent an electric pulse through the copper chain connected to the dead leader's hammer using chakra. The person holding the weapon on the other end collapsed to the ground in convulsions. The jinchuuriki turned to look down at his assailant, and his lips curled into a demonic grin.

"Oh…it's you."

The person who had stolen the dead Suna-nin's weapon and then thrown it at Naruto was none other than the ringleader who caused the scene back in the village. The blond was pleased to see him now, as he would have the chance to attend to the scum's execution in person. Naruto grabbed onto the man's hair and pulled him upright, and then looped the metal chain around the brigand's neck several times and tossed the hammer end over a painted wooden support beam located near the building's wall. The blond didn't bother to look at the man again as he pulled, reaching down to grab the other dead bandit's spear.

"You shouldn't have messed with that little girl and her dad, asshole. Too late to regret it now…"

Naruto wrenched the subordinate leader into the air with one hand and used the spear to pin the chain to the wall with the other. There was an audible snap as he started down the path towards the burning shacks once more, intent to going back to the village to report his success. He would leave the carcass to rot where it was now hanging, to send a message to the next group that might attempt to move into the place.

"Impressive work, Naruto-kun. I've been watching."

The blond almost leapt into the air upon hearing the haunting voice. He looked over to his right where the sound had originated, between two burning shacks. The slate-haired illusionist emerged through the smoke, his cloak immaculate despite the roaring blaze.


He shouldn't have been surprised, as he'd guessed all along that the Akatsuki would be keeping hidden tabs on him during the operation somehow. That was the main reason he hadn't taken the direct approach to his mission and come across the bridge with sword in hand, instead devising a more elaborate scheme to achieve his goal. He had wanted to impress Itachi in particular with his skills, in stealth and deception as well as killing, to prove that he deserved the place that the Uchiha genius had invited him to take. Itachi looked up into the darkening skies. The sun was now disappearing into the horizon.

"Don't bother returning to the village. Kisame and I will come here in the morning. Rest inside the compound until then."

The blond opened his mouth to respond, but Itachi exploded into smoke and disappeared. The jinchuuriki glared at where the shadow clone had been, the smoke in the air burning his nostrils, and at last shortened and sheathed the Kusanagi.

'Creepy bastard…'

Naruto turned and started back towards the compound, dismissing his snakes across the river and not at all relishing a night spent alone in a slaughterhouse. He hoped that those Missing-nin bandit leaders had at least managed to pillage some decent accommodations.


Six cloaked caricatures were arranged in a triangle within Akatsuki's cavernous meeting place. Pein and Konan made up one side, Itachi and Kisame another, and Sasori and Deidara the last. Zetsu was nowhere to be seen, and neither were Kakuzu and Hidan. The mood within the cave was tense, the still air radiating with malicious intent.

"You managed to make contact with the nine-tails in Konoha, and you let him escape…"

Konan's voice dripped with disgust as her gaze swept past Sasori onto Itachi, and then to Kisame. The shark man began to speak, but his partner cut him short with a look. The puppeteer instead responded in his growling voice, Hiruko's segmented scorpion's tail moving about in random directions, addressing both the attractive kunoichi and the Leader. Itachi meanwhile looked over towards Deidara with a cold expression, as the blond bomber rubbed his hands together with absolute glee at seeing his nemesis in the proverbial doghouse.

"That is the case. That decrepit Hokage chose a most inopportune moment to arrive with ANBU at his back."

Pein's voice boomed through the dark cavern next to Konan, the Akatsuki Leader's normal tight rein on his temper slipping a little. Even the implacable Itachi shuddered in his place in response to the monumental spiritual pressure that the Rin'negan wielder's rage created. Indeed, the entire cavern seemed to shake due to the Leader's malevolent power.

"I don't want to hear excuses! Failure is not an option!"

Deidara crossed his arms and smirked, concurring with the Leader while staring over at Itachi with a superior expression.

"That's right, un. You're the one who devised our attack plan, Itachi."

The remaining Akatsuki members, including Deidara's own partner, turned their heads in near unison to glare death at the presumptuous artist. The blond Iwa Nukenin wilted due to the collective scorn and said nothing more. His 'rival' silenced, Itachi then moved to mince salt into the other man's wound, reporting his later success as he addressed Pein in his mechanical voice.

"Naruto-kun is traveling with us now. The Sandaime was so reckless as to bring him on a mission outside his village to locate the Sannin Tsunade. He meandered into us, and I have been able to convince him that his best interest lies in cooperation with Akatsuki."

The violent atmosphere in the cavern dampened to a considerable extent. Pein did not praise Itachi's success, however. Accomplishment was expectation within Akatsuki, and not something to be rewarded. The Rin'negan wielder's dark chuckle echoed in the air.

"I see. I suppose old age does not beget wisdom…."

Kisame moved Samehada onto his lap, running a hand down its length. He waited until Pein's voice trailed and it became obvious that he was not going to continue, as he dared not interrupt the Leader, and then grinned and continued in his partner's vein.

"More than that, the gaki thinks we're going to let him into the group. He's sharp, but a little gullible at the same time."

Rather than reacting to the statement with outright contempt, as the shark man might have expected, Pein's head instead titled in a contemplative manner. Neither did Kisame notice Itachi's lips tugging into a slight smile. Konan did, however, and looked upon the impassive illusionist with suspicion. She said nothing, however, and then Zetsu materialized within the cavern, bringing the group's collective interest elsewhere. Pein looked over at the Kusa Missing-nin with an imperious expression.

"You're late Zetsu, and Kakuzu and Hidan haven't reported in since arriving in the Hidden Sound. I want some answers, now."

Zetsu bowed low and then spoke in his 'black' voice, beginning his latest report. The plant man's subordinate, a man with cropped black hair and an orange swirl mask, was now visible behind him.

"Forgive us, Great Leader."

The 'white' voice continued in its cultured accent, its tone somber.

"The tidings we bring are not good. Kakuzu is dead and Hidan is missing. Orochimaru has long since vanished."

For several minutes, total silence reigned within the dark cavern, with each remaining member digesting what Zetsu had revealed. Pein in particular seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts. As the Leader now seemed to have no interest in speaking, Konan pressed in his stead, in her role as his partner. Meanwhile, Sasori's metallic tail twitched in anger where he set in brooding silence.

"And the rings…"

The mechanical 'black' voice replied again, explaining in one simple sentence.

"Orochimaru has stolen them."

That was even worse news. Members were all replaceable to some extent or another, no matter how skilled or unique. The rings, however, were essential and couldn't be replicated. Pein snapped right back to attention upon learning that Zetsu hadn't even managed to retrieve the rings that Hidan and Kakuzu had possessed, and turned to the puppeteer.


The rogue Sand-nin looked over without a word, recognizing the Leader's tone and thus knowing that new orders were coming.

"You have a sleeper within Orochimaru's ranks. Summon him, and learn where that miserable serpent has slithered to."

Sasori inclined his, or to be more accurate, Hiruko's head in acknowledgement.

"Yes, Leader."

Pein continued on without pause, looking to Zetsu and then back to Sasori.

"You will then cooperate with Zetsu in hunting the snake down. Killing Orochimaru is now our number one agenda. Those stolen rings are critical to our plans and must be recovered at all costs. The extraction ritual cannot be completed without them."

The puppet master straightened, and his tail swept up to attention, tripping Zetsu's masked underling as he strode past and causing him to stumble into Deidara. The latter grumbled under his breath and shoved the klutz backwards to the ground. Sasori was most pleased with his new assignment, and his growling voice was loud and clear when he made his response.

"I shall not disappoint. I have been waiting too long to have revenge, and I so hate being made to wait."

Pein was in no mood to listen to token reassurances and dismissed the puppeteer.

"Depart at once, and waste no time. I want positive results this time, or else."

Sasori grunted, swallowing Pein's threat, and ended his transmission jutsu, vanishing into shadow. Zetsu also disappeared a moment later, not waiting to be ordered to leave as his assignment was the same. Deidara was quite isolated with Sasori gone, and puzzled at not having been ordered to participate in his partner's mission. The Leader addressed him next, with another new assignment.

"Kisame and Deidara will rendezvous at our secret base at the Kawa and Suna border and monitor developments within the Sand, while guarding the Ichibi jinchuuriki. A new war is looming, and Suna is a powder keg. Report to me the instant something happens."

The shark and the explosives expert looked to one another. Both seemed discontent with having to work together. Deidara didn't care to stomach Itachi's partner while Kisame hated being used as a watchdog, but both knew better than to argue given Pein's current mental state. The two Nukenin nodded and disappeared with near identical scowls. Itachi now remained alone with Pein and Konan, along with Zetsu's odd subordinate.

"Itachi. You are to travel to Amegakure, and bring the nine-tails. I have an important mission that will require some…backup."

The illusionist's brows rose a bit, but he said nothing. Konan also looked over at her partner in total surprise. Zetsu's subordinate cleared his throat and removed his orange mask, revealing a scarred visage with a single glowing Sharingan. Itachi glanced up at his mentor, as though seeking permission. Uchiha Madara nodded and the teenager dispelled his own astral transmission technique, vanishing into nonexistence without a sound. Once he was gone, Madara turned his attention onto Pein, reproving the Akatsuki Leader with a measured stare.

"Two members are now dead, and their rings are gone. I am not pleased with these missteps, Pein."

Pein and Konan stood as one, with neither Ame rebel showing willingness to kneel or bow down to Madara. Rin'negan met Sharingan, and neither bloodline nor wielder gave in to the other. The Uchiha Clan's grand patriarch snorted, though he wasn't amused, but made no issue otherwise. Pein replied with his own opinion.

"Neither am I. Hidan was a useless imbecile, but I…regret the other. Kakuzu's loss represents a crippling blow to Akatsuki."

Kakuzu, skilled and experienced though he was, brought still more to the table. His resources, accrued over a period spanning back prior to the Hidden Villages themselves, had provided much-needed backing to Akatsuki's, and Pein's, initiatives. Now that he was no more, the organization would have to replace those invaluable assets somehow. Madara nodded his head in a slow motion, agreeing with the other man, but in a reserved manner.

"True, and under these new circumstances, we will have no choice but to retrench our plans…"

Pein gave no indication that he either agreed or disagreed with Akatsuki's shadow leader.

"I see no real point to capturing the tailed beasts when we cannot unseal them, never mind the need to guard them."

Madara replaced his mask, and began to turn around.

"Then we are in concurrence. Fine, that will be all. You know what must be done. No more mistakes."

The Rin'negan bearer said nothing, not acknowledging the warning. Madara began to retreat into the cavern's darkness, as though he were there in person rather than via holographic transmission. Right as his silhouette was about gone, the masked Uchiha looked back over his shoulder.

"Oh, and…one last little matter, Pein."

Pein stared back at Madara again, waiting in silence.

"The nine-tails and Itachi-kun…those tools both belong to me. Remember that and do not mishandle them."

Madara's presence then vanished, leaving Pein and Konan standing alone in the cavern. The azure-haired kunoichi spat onto the ground and glowered in the place where the masked man had been, cursing the notorious Uchiha patriarch in a low, hissing voice.

"Pah, I despise that revolting wraith. He ought to die."

Pein's Rin'negan glowed in the dim cave, and the man who would be God chided his partner in a gentle voice.

"Patience, Konan. The old charlatan still has his uses, and we have more pressing matters to be concerned with now."

Konan stood silent a moment and nodded, understanding his meaning.


Pein continued on, allowing a low sigh to escape his lips, the closest thing to a weakness he would ever be willing to show.

"Kakuzu's demise has ruptured our scenario. Now that our principal backer is dead, our resources will run out soon…"

Konan crossed her arms over her breasts and looked to the side, her sharp brow creasing in thought.

"I'm still rather unconvinced that he died to a crippled Orochimaru. Perhaps we were mistaken about his condition."

The heir to the Rikudou Sennin's bloodline shrugged, not interested in speculating on Kakuzu's demise. All that mattered to Pein was that he was gone, and that plans would now need to be revised in accordance. He had observed his moment to mourn earlier.

"Yet he remains dead, no matter how. I will have to place the last phase into motion. Time is too short."

Pein started to walk through the cavern, headed towards the exit, and Konan matched pace with him. The two Ame rebel leaders strode past the Hell King statue, which would now have to wait a while longer to have its sustenance. The wide cavern soon narrowed into a passage, and the interior changed to represent a modern technological construct rather than a cave. The passage was lit with dull electric lights, but became brighter as Pein and Konan approached the entrance to the outside world. The kunoichi attempted to reason with her partner, not liking what he seemed to be scheming.

"Still, I don't like bringing the jinchuuriki into our war, much less Itachi. That kid is Madara's little puppet and I don't trust him, or the nine-tails. I would much rather we handled this ourselves, or used the Ichibi. Please, reconsider this plan."

The Rin'negan wielder didn't even pause to consider Konan's suggestions, as though he'd debated them all in his own mind earlier. The corridor widened into another open room. Six strange tubes lined the walls, each large enough to accommodate a person. Five were occupied, each containing a sleeping man dressed in an Akatsuki cloak and marked with piercings similar to Pein's, and the last was emptied. The exotic shinobi looked back over to Konan, his glowing doujutsu willing her to comprehend him.

"No. The Sabaku kid is too uncontrollable. I hadn't wanted to involve Akatsuki in the revolution, but we need a decisive advantage. I cannot sport with risk. Too much is on the line, and being beaten at this point would spell certain doom. I must use those two."

Konan exhaled a breath, and lowered her head a little. The room marked the exit, and a harsh winter rainstorm raged outside, pounding the industrial metropolis that was the largest population center in Ame no Kuni with sleet. This was the paradise that the great Hanzou the Salamander had built and nurtured, and the place that was soon to become Pein's divine kingdom.

"…I understand, Pein. Then, I'll begin making the needed preparations on our end."

Konan made a hand sign and dissolved into paper sheets, which arranged themselves into intricate origami cranes in midair. Pein smiled and gestured with his hand, and the storm halted outside at once. The paper birds soared down the mountainside towards the metropolis, with God's Messenger departing to marshal the rebels. Pein watched on as his angel disappeared into the horizon, and then spoke aloud to the heavens.

"There's no need to be concerned. God's will is absolute and undeniable. I cannot lose now. The last battle is nigh, Hanzou…"


Naruto awoke earlier than he would have liked, but snapped to attention as he sensed a presence in the room with him. The blond leapt upright, reaching under his pillow to grab his ANBU bracer that held the Kusanagi, and looked around the room. The sun hadn't risen, so it was still quite dark. Naruto exhaled a breath, unable to locate whoever it might have been, and then dismissed the whole thing as his imagination.

"You're quite a light sleeper, Naruto-kun…"

His soul almost leapt out through his skin, and he leapt back into the room's center. He recognized the speaker, and was quite angered when Uchiha Itachi abandoned his place in the corner and stepped into the light, his Sharingan glowing bright in the darkness. Naruto balled up his blanket and hurled it at the older teen, cursing in a tired voice and not thinking about how long Itachi might have been standing around watching him sleep.

"Fuck! Don't do that, asshole!"

Itachi knocked the incoming blanket aside with a bored expression. Naruto shook out the cobwebs in his brain and cracked his neck. Rather than using the bed in the room, he'd searched out a clean throw blanket and pillow and elected to sleep on the ground. There could be no telling what disgusting parasites those bandit leaders had been crawling with. He ran a hand through his hair, at which point the Uchiha tossed a small bundle down next to his pillow, causing the blond to glare over at him again. Itachi arched a brow.

"Relax. I didn't mean to cause alarm. Now, please get dressed. It's time to leave."

Naruto leaned over the unraveled the bundle, which contained clean clothes. He shot the illusionist a strange look, but shed his pants and started to change nonetheless. To be honest, he was a bit glad to have something to wear other than that travel robe. The blond put on some denim shorts, opting not to change his underwear given that Itachi was still lurking about and didn't seem as though he were going to leave, and then strapped on the new equipment pouch that he had been provided with. He reached down to grab a tan muscle shirt, when his 'companion' stepped right into his personal space.

"That's an interesting wound."

The Sharingan master prodded at the scar tissue on Naruto's chest with a painted nail, right below where his necklace rested. The jinchuuriki repressed a cold shudder. The impassive Akatsuki member was getting under his skin, and Naruto had little doubt that he was doing it on purpose. He took a step back and pulled the shirt on, and then grunted out a vague explanation while attempting to sound intimidating, knowing quite well that it wasn't going to accomplish a thing.

"Assassination attempt during the invasion. You should've seen the other bastard."

As expected, Itachi wasn't bothered in the least, but didn't press the issue either. He instead reached into his cloak and produced two items, held them out to Naruto. The jinchuuriki girded on his sword and bracer, and placed the Fourth's scroll into his pouch.

"Here, eat."

Naruto pulled a sour expression as he looked down at the nutrient bar and water bottle in Itachi's hand. He wasn't the pickiest eater, but those ration bars were about as dense as road tar and not much more appetizing. The blond would almost rather eat his own poop.

'Oh, joy. Field rations, the breakfast of fucking champions.'

Nevertheless, Naruto was starving. He's skipped supper the previous night, and proceeded to rip open the bar and take a large bite. He used the bottled water to wash the horrid meal as well as he was able, not that the acrid drink was much better, as it was laced with chemicals to prevent stagnation. The blond looked around, noticing that something, or someone, was missing.

"Er, I don't see…"

The highborn Uchiha Itachi's mouth pressed into a disapproving line in response to his present companion's crude manners. The blond wasn't in the mood to give a shit, and believed that hanging around and peeping on a sleeping person was much more impolite regardless. The illusionist seemed to understand what Naruto wanted to know, and replied as he chewed through the ration bar, handing him a second bottled water in the meantime.

"Kisame has another assignment now. You and I are heading to Ame without him."

Naruto at last pushed down his 'meal' and tossed the wrapper back over his shoulder. The Rain was about the last place he would have ever expected to travel to. That nation was xenophobic to the core, according to what little he knew about Ame, and didn't allow people to travel within its borders. He couldn't help but wonder what in the Hell there might be to do in a place like that.

"I remember hearing about how people there hated outsiders. Hm, so tell me about this huge mission."

The Uchiha reached up to his brow and brushed an errant hair aside.

"The client was vague, but I could read between the lines and made an educated guess."

The blond had the suspicion that Itachi was hiding something, but he saw nothing in the illusionist's demeanor to suggest it, and didn't dare call the other teenager on it. Naruto motioned him to continue, listening on with a neutral expression, and the renegade Uchiha did so. Itachi scowled ever so little as he spoke, the slightest emotion creeping into his haunting voice.

"That nation is locked in a long-standing civil war. You and I will be assisting the rebels. The mission is to overthrow Amegakure."

Naruto supposed it was a good thing that he was done eating, because he would have spat his meal out otherwise.

'Take down an entire Hidden Village. Well, at least it won't be some boring old shit.'

As he prepared to set out, Naruto couldn't have been aware that this was to become the incident that would cement him into legend. His past actions had set all these events into motion, though he likewise hadn't known that it would be so. Itachi took the lead, leaping into the swamplands through an open window with the blond a step behind.

(End Chapter 26)

Author's Note: So, this was supposed to be pretty much the final chapter of this story. However, I had an idea for a great final battle, and I'm definitely going to use it. The question is whether it should be the finale of this story, or whether I should end the fic here and begin the sequel with the final battle of Pein's civil war in Ame. Let me know what you all think. Also note that I've put up another profile poll for this story, which has been in place for some weeks now. Many of you have probably already seen and voted in it, but I figured I'd make a note here anyway. As with the last one, I'm not promising to use the winning option in the story, but the information is valuable to me nonetheless. Hope the chapter meets expectations after the wait (work really sucks, sorry), and please drop me a line in a review.

EDIT as of 10/8/08: For those who have not noticed already, the sequel is up. Check my author profile.