Sit Upon the Frozen Heavens
James D. Fawkes

For NaruHina version, see "Chapter IX: B-Side".

Chapter Nine: Tower of Lost Souls

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The sun hung high in the midday sky, casting a bright glow over the lush forests and the shining river hidden within the chasm. A sturdy wooden bridge closed the gap between the two sides, arching up slightly and protected by a thick roof. A figure stood stoically atop its pale planks, his face and all distinguishing features hidden by a cloak.

Another figure suddenly appeared as well, all but his eyes hidden from the world. He wore a dark piece of cloth over his nose and mouth and a conical bamboo hat on his head. Thin strips of paper fell from the hat to obscure the sides of his head. His hunched over body was hidden within a black cloak decorated with blood red clouds.

"It's been a long time, Sasori-sama," the first figure stated plainly, reaching for the hood of his cloak. He pulled it down, revealing a stoic face with long, silvery hair pulled into a ponytail at the base of his neck. His dark eyes, framed by a pair of glasses, betrayed nothing of his emotions. "About five years."

Naruto, hidden away behind the cover of a large rock, felt his eyes go wide and a lump form in his throat. Anger leapt unbidden to forefront of his mind, overwhelming the shock that had initially flooded him. His hand clenched into a fist so tightly that his knuckles turned white and shook.

"It can't be," he whispered almost inaudibly. "I killed him."

A hand on his shoulder drove his attention over to Kakashi, who nodded reassuringly and gave him a sharp, light squeeze. A wave of gratitude washed through him, but the anger still simmered beneath the surface. How had Kabuto survived? The attack Naruto had used on him a year prior should have killed him.

"Followed…?" the fake Sasori asked with a grunt.

"Not an issue," Kabuto said calmly.

"How's the situation?"

"A weird feeling still remains from the time I remembered who I was, unsealed by Sasori-sama's technique," Kabuto said. "My head is still a bit heavy."

"I have a few questions," Sasori said with a growl.

"We have very little time, please make it quick," Kabuto said, a hint of worry in his voice. "I'm risking my life just by coming here and away from Orochimaru-sama's eye."

"Give me information on the emplacement of his hideout," Sasori said firmly.

"There are many hideouts," Kabuto said. "To keep his whereabouts from being discovered, he's moving from place to place by one week units. Of course, these are also in countries away from the Hidden Sound. Orochimaru-sama's spies are given intricate directions. His means of travel are also various and can't be told either. He's now hiding in a hideout in a small island of the north lake. He'll move in three days."

Kabuto caught something out of the corner of his eye and turned suddenly in alarm, but let out a soft sigh of relief. It was only a rabbit. That had startled him. He turned back around, "By the way…about that task you asked of me, Sasori-sama. After changing bodies, Orochimaru casts a jutsu on the cellular specimen of the leftover corpse, meant to preserve it. I was unable to perform an analysis on that specimen."

Sasori's expression didn't change, "I see."

Kabuto held out a hand, "On that note, please give me the item we talked about. I can't continue to stay here much longer. If it's found out that I'm meeting you here like this, I'll be killed."

"Very well," the fake Sasori grabbed something from inside his cloak, then his hand shot out, grasping a kunai.

"Your conversation seems quite amusing," a silky voice said suddenly, from behind Kabuto. Orochimaru stood back to back with him, a snake curling away from his body and reaching for Kabuto's. "You wouldn't mind if I joined in, would you?"

The snake suddenly squeezed around the teen, but he was already gone, leaving his cloak behind to get crushed. He turned to face the pale man, saying, "I almost wasn't able to step back in time. But, thanks to you taking out your kunai, Sasori-sama, I was."

"That get up of yours brings back memories, Sasori," Orochimaru said, his voice like velvet.

"So you followed Kabuto, then?" the fake Sasori asked neutrally.

"I just wanted to thank you. This boy you sent me…I was able to make quite good use of him," Orochimaru smirked. "In order for me to create new jutsu, I need to conduct experiments on well over one hundred live humans. Thanks to this boy, I am able to use the same specimen any number of times I please. I had quite a hard time coming across test subjects, after all…"

Kabuto's hand glowed with chakra and he spun around, lopping off Sasori's head to reveal a black haired ninja inside. Captain Yamato leapt from the wooden body and tried to retreat, but Orochimaru flung out a hand and hundreds of snakes shot forth, coiling around his body. One bit him on the neck, but he vanished, replaced by a piece of wood shaped roughly like him.

"Mokuton ninjutsu…you couldn't be."

"Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto said, "is that the real Sasori?"

"No, it's not," Orochimaru said. "Are you telling me that you, one of his own subordinates, don't even know what his real face looks like?"

"He was a dark individual, after all," Kabuto said in his defense. "He was always hiding in that puppet of his."

"What are you talking about?" Yamato clutched his injured right arm. "You should be an Akatsuki spy. Aren't you still under the effects of Sasori's ninjutsu?"

"Ah, yes, that jutsu," Kabuto grinned. "Orochimaru-sama freed me from it quite some time ago."

"So," Yamato said darkly, "you fell pray to Orochimaru's jutsu, then."

"I chose this path of my own will," Kabuto said, laughter in his voice. "But tell me, who are you?"

"I'll tell you about this boy later," Orochimaru said. "But first…why don't you call out those four little mice hiding in the brush?"

Scowling, Yamato made a hand sign and four people leapt from the woods. Namikaze Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke, Haruno Sakura, and Hatake Kakashi landed on the bridge, each one glaring seriously at the snake-like man in front of them. Kabuto tilted his head back arrogantly, "You again."

"I've seen that face a number of different times," Orochimaru said with a chuckle, staring at the blonde. "Why don't we have a little fun? It seems the Kyubi boy brought Sasuke-kun to us all wrapped up as a gift."

Naruto snarled, his fists shaking with rage. An oppressive aura was unleashed, and gravity suddenly seemed to quadruple in that instant, driving the air from Team Seven's lungs. Kabuto staggered backwards, clutching his chest and his eyes wide with fear. Orochimaru's own eyes had widened slightly in surprise, but he showed no other reaction.

Naruto drew his sword slowly, producing a long, sharp, ear-grating ring. In a flash, he was gone and Orochimaru leapt away from his slash, which sliced cleanly through the bridge and out the bottom. Taking advantage of the moment, he spun around and, with a fierce strike, lopped the shocked Kabuto's head off. There was a violent gush of blood, but Naruto paid it no attention.

"Damn you, boy!" Orochimaru growled menacingly as his yellow eyes glared a hole in the blonde's forehead. "Do you realize just how much I had to go through to keep him alive a year ago?"

"Good," Naruto said coldly, icy blue eyes gleaming. "He was supposed to die that night a year ago. That he survived is indeed a testament to your skill and ingenuity. That ice should have immobilized him completely, cutting off all escape while he bled his life away. He was given a year's extension and I decided to collect."

The blonde's eyes narrowed, "Orochimaru, you aren't worthy of being a ninja, or a Sennin. Swinging your blade out of a sense of duty, that is what ninja and Sennin do. Swinging your blade out of hate is nothing more than base violence. Ninja do not refer to that as fighting. You…aren't worthy of being a ninja, especially a Sennin."

"How amusing," Orochimaru smirked. "Do you mean to tell me, then, that there is no hatred in the blade that you hold right now?"

There was a pause, then a wave of pressure swept out from Naruto as an icy rage burned in his eyes, "You're exactly right, Orochimaru. My blade…is full of hate. I didn't come here to fight you. I came here…to violently hack you to pieces!"

Orochimaru grunted slightly in panic as his knees jerked and threatened to buckle beneath him, his lips curling back as he struggled to throw off whatever it was that was pressing down on him. The sheer power radiating out from the blonde was blurring the edges of his vision and he struggled to claim each breath.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Kyubi brat was strong, but he was still just a boy. He, Orochimaru, was one of the Sannin and was hailed around the Elemental Countries as one of the most elite of ninja. He had been a ninja of elite status while this boy's grandfather had been sucking his thumb.

But this power. This power. It was strong and it was harsh and it was frightening. Two and a half years the brat had been gone for, and after a single year of training, he hadn't seemed to improve substantially enough, only barely capable of defeating Kabuto. At that level of growth, it was fair to say that he wouldn't pose a threat for many more years, and he probably wouldn't get the chance to get that far.

However, something seemed to have happened between that year and the end of the second year. The blonde boy before him had gone from being simply level with someone like, say, Kakashi, to being an S-class ninja. He had not yet become level with someone like Itachi or especially Pein and Madara, but his rate of growth was astounding.

Standing unsteadily, his knees still shaking, Orochimaru opened his mouth wide and summoned his sword, the Kusanagi no Tsurugi: Kuu no Tachi. He threw it up in a horizontal block just in time to defend against Naruto's vicious slash, the pressure disappearing as the blonde focused on the battle.

"If your blade is filled with hate, then you aren't worthy of being a ninja either," Naruto said, calm forced into his voice. "That's what you're getting at, isn't it? You're right. But…I don't care if this fight costs me my status as a ninja. As long as I get to kill you…it doesn't matter."

The swords jingled and clattered as each wielder tried desperately to overpower the other, glaring at their opponent. Orochimaru let out an angry breath through his teeth, yellow eyes glinting in dark anger. Naruto's mouth opened and words tumbled out, his wide blue eyes focused solely on the Snake Sennin, "Sôten ni zase, Hyôrinmaru!"

Naruto pushed away and jumped into the air, sending forth a titanic water dragon with a single downward swing of his sword. Orochimaru leapt back and dodged as it ploughed into and through the wooden bridge, flinging his arm out and launching a torrent of thin, gangly snakes through the towering water. As they reached the other side, they were sliced to bits by the blade that swung around and through them, attached to a chain on Hyôrinmaru's hilt.

The area in front of the black haired ninja blurred, and, suddenly, Naruto was standing there in front of him, sword soaring through the air. Orochimaru swung down and met his horizontal strike, sending both their arms backward in a vicious recoil. They swung at each other once more, this time holding their blades in a stalemate.

"You're just like your father," Orochimaru hissed. "You're meddling, annoying, and always ruining my plans! I should have severed his head when I had the chance!"

"My father was a greater person and ninja than you'll ever be," Naruto said lowly, snarling. "If it wasn't for people like you, he wouldn't have had to die!"

A kunai appeared in the blonde's hand and he swiped towards Orochimaru with it. The black-haired ninja deflected it with his sword, but wasn't prepared for the gleaming silver blade that sliced cleanly through his stomach and sent his torso flying. A thick trunk of snakes extended from both halves of his body and latched onto one another, pulling him back into one piece.

Taking advantage of Naruto's distraction, who was too surprised by the man's vile ability, Orochimaru lashed out with a vicious punch, flinging the blonde backwards and into the ground. Coughing at the ache in his ribs, Naruto rose to his feet slowly.

"Naruto!" Sakura cried worriedly. She made to go and help him, but Kakashi's hand and arm prevented her from moving. "Kakashi-sensei! Let me go! If we don't help him, Naruto could…!"

"If we help him," Kakashi said seriously, watching the events unfold in front of him, "what will become of his pride? If we were to jump into this battle now, we might save his life. At the same time, we will have destroyed his pride."

"Pride?" Sakura asked incredulously. "What does pride matter? His life is more important than that!"

"Sakura-san," Kakashi said, still using his serious tone with narrowed eyes watching fiercely, "remember this. There are two types of battle. Whenever we fight, that fight must be one of these two types. The fight for life and the fight…for pride."

The blonde rose to his feet, spit out a glob of blood, muttered something that sounded like, "Cheap shot," and vanished.

"Right now," Kakashi continued, "he's fighting for pride; Sarutobi Hiruzen's pride, his father's pride, Konoha's pride, and, most importantly, his own personal pride."

Naruto swung downwards and once more their swords locked in an epic and equal inverted tug of war. Naruto glared, hissing, "You're disgusting. You've traded everything, even your humanity, for an impossible dream. You've pissed off the wrong person this time, though, and I intend to follow through with my promise to kill you."

"Go back to your sandbox, boy," Orochimaru sneered. "Even you, with all of your training, cannot kill a ninja of my caliber."

A gasp tore itself from the man's lips as a sword of gleaming silver pierced through his chest and heart, spearing him on it. The blonde in front of him disappeared in a puff of smoke and from behind him a voice whispered, "Can't I?"

The body burst into a horde of snakes that twisted around as they hissed, biting the blonde viciously in several places. He, in turn, fell apart into water and splashed to the ground. Neither side, it seemed, had actually been injured in that exchange, as was evidenced by the substitutions they had pulled off.

From a place a meter or two away from his previous spot, liquid mud bubbled up to form the black-haired, yellow-eyed Orochimaru. With the sound of a curtain fluttering in the breeze, Naruto reappeared as well, his blue eyes glaring daggers at the pale-skinned Snake Sennin.

Orochimaru tilted his head back arrogantly, his lips pulled back into a smirk, "I thought we were going to skip the warm up."

As he swiped his sword to the side, a blue and white aura lit up around the blonde's body, "I was giving you a chance to regret all of the things you have done in your life."

The aura flared and the pale man's eyes widened in horror as a single word rolled past Naruto's lips, "Bankai."

The wings, tail, dragon-head gauntlet, claw, feet, and flowers of ice all made their reappearance, forming around his limbs and in the air. In an instant, Naruto had done what Orochimaru had feared he would do: he had called forth his full power and leveled it in the Snake Sennin's direction.

In a blur, Naruto vanished. Orochimaru barely had time to throw up a block and defend himself, Hyôrinmaru pressing down on the black steel of his blade. A chill crept down the dark metal and instantly the feared Kusanagi grew cold in his pale hands. His eyes flew wide open as an old emotion, one he hadn't felt since that fight with Sarutobi, crept into his body:


Leaping backwards, Orochimaru flung out his free arms and sent a horde of snakes in the blonde's direction, desperately trying to destroy his foe. Naruto merely backed away to give himself some room and pointed his blade at the dark green and brown serpents. He intoned but a single word, "Hyôrinmaru."

Three dragons of frigid water leapt from the tip of his shimmering steel, each one in possession of gleaming red eyes and a pair of feathery-looking wings. They twisted around each other, rushing forward and consuming the horde as if the scaly beasts were nothing and continuing on toward Orochimaru.

With a scream of terror, the Snake Sennin's mouth fell open and from it came a new body, even as the old one was overwhelmed and fell victim to the trio of dragons. The new body slithered along the ground at an astounding speed, rushing toward the cover of the trees in hopes of escaping.

As Naruto stabbed his sword into the ground, he had no such luck, "Hokkyoku." (Arctic)

Faster than he could dodge, two pillars rose and captured each of Orochimaru's arms holding them as far apart as they could comfortably be. As his momentum stopped, a third pillar rose and consumed his lower body, from his feet all the way up to his waist, trapping him where he stood.

He struggled to get loose, pulling at each encased arm with all of his might, but the ice would not relinquish his captive flesh. Naruto appeared in front of him, a scowl on his face and his sword pointed in the black-haired man's direction. Consumed by his terror, Orochimaru threw his head back, opened his mouth wide, and screamed for all he was worth.

From his body burst a giant white snake, which hissed as it curled its body and turned its slit black pupils and yellow eyes onto the blonde boy, who merely stared back. Giving its harsh, wispy version of a shriek, its mouth dropped open and revealed meter long fangs that could cleave Naruto in half. It dived for him.

The wings of solid ice curled protectively around Naruto's body, holding up against the white snake's assault as it tried to sink its fangs into his flesh. Naruto's scowl deepened and he hefted his sword, preparing for a finishing move, "So this is your true form?"

With a burst of energy, he knocked the beast away, stunning it at his sudden maneuver. That presented the opportunity that Naruto would have had to have been crazy to pass up, and the blonde rushed forward, sword poised for a killing stroke. The snake could not have hoped to be prepared in time to dodge.

With a harsh clink and the sound of flesh being rent asunder, Hyôrinmaru sunk past scale after pale white scale as it cut into the transformed Orochimaru, the gleaming silver disappearing into the creamy underbelly. The beastly snake screeched at this and writhed around, but it appeared unable to move its lower body.

"This is the end," Naruto said coldly, ice spreading from the open wound (which would not bleed) and slowly consuming the creature's massive body. Orochimaru seemed unable to hear these words, as he only continued to thrash around desperately. "Your nerve receptions have been cut off below this point and I've damaged or even destroyed several of your internal organs. Only Tsunade could heal you now."

The ice started to move faster, creeping up like a demonic vine and consuming the beast's neck and throat next. Desperately, Orochimaru turned his gaze downward and tried to catch Naruto's stare, but the blonde's eyes were shut tight, a ghost of a smirk on his lips, "Hoping to achieve eye contact in a desperate bid for your immortality jutsu?"

With a final shriek, Orochimaru was at last entirely consumed, standing as a solitary statue in the middle of a battlefield. Sighing, Naruto pulled his sword loose and sheathed it as his extra appendages evaporated away into nothingness. Scowling slightly, he leapt high into the air and landed on the tip of the snake's nose.

"This is to make sure there's no escaping this time," Naruto murmured under his breath, crouched atop the beast's frozen snout. He held out a single finger and pressed it up against the ice that covered the monster's forehead. In a soft but firm voice, he whispered, "Hadô no Yon: Byakurai."

A thick bolt of erratic white lightning ripped forward, straight through both the nigh indestructible ice and the flesh and organs of the snake trapped within. Orochimaru's brains, Naruto knew, were likely nothing more than mush and lumps of fried gray-matter now. He could never harm anyone again.

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura cried ecstatically. "Your Curse Mark! It's gone!"

Naruto stood and let out a breath of relief. Orochimaru was dead. And this time…

For good.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The office was quiet and almost empty, the silence pressing down on the sole two occupants of its wooden walls. Sunlight streamed in through the large windows positioned on the rear wall, casting bright light on the planks that covered the floor and the large, hardwood desk that sat near the center.

There were two, solitary figures in this room, occupying its hallowed space. Their faces were serious and dark, as though they were facing a decision they would rather not make, or remembering memories they would rather forget. Between them, this expression was shared, varying only in the way it was etched onto their faces: did it bring lines, or soft curves of the lips?

The first figure was tall and powerful, standing on thick red geta sandals near the windows and staring out at the giant stone monument that watched over the village. His untamable hair was white and spiky and long, reaching all the way down to his knees, if not farther. He was dressed in olive drab with a metal plate on his forehead. Jiraiya of the Sannin. The Toad Sage.

The second figure was a woman, apparently in her twenties, with womanly attributes that seemed almost impossibly large and ill proportioned for her body. Her amber gaze was solemn as she read the paper in her hands, feeling, for one of the first times in a long time, the burden of being Hokage the Fifth.

This woman was Tsunade of the Sannin, renowned throughout the underworld as the Legendary Sucker and generally thought of as the worst gambler in history. She was also somewhere in her fifties, despite her youthful looks, and was a master of both genjutsu disguises and medical ninjutsu.

Tsunade set the paper down on her desk and sighed, rubbing her forehead with a single shaking hand. Quietly, she asked, "Is this the truth, then?"

"Yes," Jiraiya said, his voice sounding so stern it was as if he were handing her own death sentence to her. "I checked it out for myself, just to confirm the reports, but it's just as they said it was."

"He's gone," she whispered. A single tear leaked out of her eye, but she paid it no mind. She chuckled derisively, mirthlessly, at her own reaction. "For so long, I've hated him for leaving us, for abandoning our team the way he did. But…a part of me is sad that he's gone. A part of me remembers our time as Genin and can't help but cry."

"I know how you feel," Jiraiya murmured. "He may have been one of the worst traitors to have ever come from Konoha, and he wasn't even really human anymore, but…I think he was the only one of us three that managed to truly sever those friendship bonds."

Tsunade sighed and hung her head, "So, Naruto was the one to do it?"

"From what I understand, yes," Jiraiya responded. "According to Kakashi, he fought the way he was expected to and took revenge for Sarutobi-sensei. Uchiha Sasuke-san's Curse Seal is also gone, which confirms it. Orochimaru is really dead this time."

Tsunade glanced at him, "And what of Akatsuki?"

Jiraiya shifted, "According to my spies and Itachi himself, we've taken down Deidara, Akasuna no Sasori, and Hoshigaki Kisame. That leaves the leader, Pein, his right hand, Konan, their spy, Zetsu, and the two man team, Hidan and Kakuzu. Also according to him, that clone they fought on the way to rescuing Gaara was a mere thirty percent of Hidan's full power."

The older man frowned, "I've also been informed that there is a new recruit by the name of 'Tobi', though nothing else I have on him is concrete. And also…"

Jiraiya walked over to look at the portraits of the Hokage, "Also…I think…I think I know who Pein is."

Tsunade's head whipped around so fast, he could have sworn her neck cracked, "What?"

"It's been bothering me for a while now," Jiraiya told her, "this information I was given. So far, most of it's just speculation and I've drawn my conclusions from that, but…I think Pein is a kid I taught once a long time ago."

Tsunade eyed him, "How long ago is 'a long time ago'?"

Jiraiya frowned, his voice wistful, "Long ago. Before even Minato-kun."

"But you're not sure?" Tsunade repeated his words. "You've got some information but it's not solid enough for you to go on?"

"Yeah, but…" he started.

"Then don't bother with it," she told him firmly. "If you're not sure if it's valid, then don't bother with it. We need as many strong ninja around as we can get if we're going to defend against the Akatsuki. And they will come here. It's just a matter of time."

Jiraiya sighed, "You're right. I think I'll just forget about it for now. You're right, it's probably nothing. I mean, what are the chances that he's actually shown up again after all these years, huh? Hah! I must've been crazy to think that he was the one behind all of this! I mean, I'm not even sure he made it through that war!"

Jiraiya laughed, but it was hollow, and it seemed, just like his words, as if he were merely trying to convince himself. They both knew his hunches were usually right, so he was probably right about this one, too. But Tsunade didn't want to let him go, not now, when she knew he was likely to get himself killed in a battle like that.

She didn't have all the information, but she knew Pein wasn't someone you mess with casually. After all, he had to be damn tough to be leader of the Akatsuki. He wouldn't have had eight loyal, bloodthirsty murders on his side if he wasn't the strongest of the bunch. Considering the level Itachi was on, this guy had to be a veritable god.

No, she decided, she wouldn't let Jiraiya go on this suicide mission, not without someone of equal strength as back up. For that, she would have to wait for Kakashi to bring back Naruto from the Tower. She shivered. She had to sympathize with her fellow blonde. The Tower was a horrible place, even if it was one of the most effective training tools out there.

"Well," Jiraiya waved and turned around, opening the door, "I'll see you around, Tsunade-hime!"

What Jiraiya didn't say was what he thought next, 'Nagato-kun…what have you done?'

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The sun was bright, casting its yellow rays down upon the foliage. The grass and the leaves were as lively a green as they could possibly be and stretched towards the sky. In the breeze, the tree branches swayed and they looked to be waving at the sun, saying hello to another beautiful day and a bright morning.

Through these trees did two figures travel, moving forwards at amazing speeds. Their forms were a blur, indistinguishable as they rushed toward their goal so fast that they seemed nothing but a mirage from the hot sun: there one second, then vanishing a mere moment later, as if they had never been there.

The first figure was tall, with spiky gray hair that stuck up at an odd angle, almost as if it were deliberately defying gravity. Slung over his left eye was a blue headband with a metal plate stuck in the center, a swirling leaf carved onto it. He wore a green flak jacket and a blue shirt and pants. Hatake Kakashi.

The second figure was just as tall as his older counterpart with golden, sun-kissed blonde hair that was even spikier than Kakashi's. His headband was tied around his right biceps with the metal plate facing out. He had blue eyes and three whisker marks on each cheek. He wore his usual zip-up, sleeveless turtleneck and black pants. Namikaze Naruto.

"Where are we going, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asked for the first time. Indeed, it was the first time they had talked at all during the entire trip. Both had remained silent, but Naruto couldn't stop himself from asking. After all, "It's been three days since we started traveling, and you still haven't told me where we're going!"

Kakashi was silent for a moment, as if pondering how to answer the questions asked of him. Finally, he said, "Jiraiya-sama left your training in my hands, now, and there's nothing I can teach you that you could learn anymore. You're a Suiton master and I'm horrible with Fuuton element Jutsu, so I'm going to do something I promised."

"Promised to who?" Naruto asked.

"Your father," Kakashi said seriously. "It's a promise I made that fateful night nearly sixteen years ago, just moments after you had been born. He asked me, no, he begged me, Sensei begged me to do this for him. He made me promise that, when I could teach you nothing more, and when Jiraiya couldn't teach you anything else, that I take you to the final training."

"Final training?" Naruto repeated curiously.

Kakashi nodded, "It's something of a tradition for potential Hokage, or those who are to succeed the current Hokage. Shodai was the first to take it, then he led his brother the Nidaime to it and had him take it, and then your father took it, and the Sandaime took Jiraiya-sama, Orochimaru, and Tsunade-hime and had them take it."

"Wait," Naruto interrupted, jumping off another branch, "what about the old man? Didn't he…?"

"No," Kakashi said. "Sandaime-sama didn't take this training. For him, the prospect was too difficult and he could not bring himself to experience the horrors of this method of training. This is no normal training, you see. The Hokage used it as a way to find and strengthen their resolve to protect the village."

"Wow," Naruto whistled. "This training's that hard, then?"

"Yes, it is," Kakashi answered. "For this isn't just physical training, training of the body. This training is to hone the mind and to cast aside weakness and indecision. A Hokage must be able to look at his warriors and see the people, but treat them as if they were pieces in a shogi game. To do so, he must first complete this training and face the one person he could never bring himself to battle. This training is both emotional and physical."

Naruto cast a look down thoughtfully, murmuring, "Hinata-chan, Tenten-chan."

Kakashi shook his head, "No, you will not face Hinata-san or Tenten-san. They are strong in their own right, but nowhere near strong enough to match you in an all out battle. The person you will have to battle will be someone who means something to you, but someone you also view as superior to yourself."

Naruto blinked, "Like who?"

"Jiraiya-sama," Kakashi said, his voice slightly unsure, "or perhaps Sandaime-sama. I cannot say for sure who it is you will have to fight against, but I know it will be someone powerful that you have known or consider important or close to your heart. Perhaps they will be all three, and you will lose."

Naruto looked alarmed, but Kakashi allayed his fears, "Don't worry, you won't die. Like I said, this is training. It's supposed to help you get better, not kill you off."

"Oh," Naruto said lamely. "You know, you never did answer my question. Where are we going?"

Kakashi was silent for a few moments, merely continuing his forward momentum and launching himself through the trees as they moved onward. After a little while, though, and Naruto was about to ask again, the Cyclops-wannabe gray-haired Jônin announced in a solemn voice, "We're here."

Naruto looked forward and landed gracefully as the line of trees ended. He was about to ask where 'here' was when the words died in his throat and his eyes went wide as he caught sight of what stood in front of him. Beside him, Kakashi was smirking beneath his mask, obviously amused at the blonde's reaction.

"Whoa," Naruto whispered, staring straight ahead. In front of him, standing in the middle of a plot of barren land, was a large tower the likes of which he had never seen. Its top was invisible, hiding inside of a group of ominous looking black clouds. The rest of the sky, strangely enough, was clear and bright blue. "Where are we?"

"This, Naruto-kun, is the Final Destination," Kakashi said, as though he were a showman introducing an act at the circus. "This is the Tower of Lost Souls."

The outside, Naruto decided as they walked through the thick wooden doors, was very impressive, but it didn't hold a candle to the inside. The floors were made of solid stones that looked as if they weighed several hundred pounds, and the walls similarly made, each piece carved to perfection.

Stain glass windows filled the entire place and the rooms of the Tower were a great deal more spacious than the outside led one to believe. Light, dim and low, painted patterns on the bronze floor, but the Tower seemed to have its own invisible light source that illuminated the rooms.

In silence, Kakashi led him up stair after stair, passing floor after gilded floor and going up staircase after staircase. The winding steps started to make him dizzy, but he kept his gaze firm and resolutely forward, following the gray-haired man in front of him. That was the tenth floor, now, and he had yet to see anything.

At the fifteenth floor, he was starting to get nervous and broke their quiet vigil, "Hey, Kakashi-sensei, how far up are we going?"

"To the sixtieth floor," Kakashi answered solemnly. "There, the Tower Guardian awaits us, and will choose the form he believes best suited to battle you."

Naruto swallowed apprehensively, muttering, "Tower Guardian, huh?"

The silence of the tower itself didn't end until they reached the thirtieth floor, where Naruto could here the beginnings of thunder as it crashed against the walls of the Tower, but did not shake the tall structure. Flashes of lightning passed in front of the windows now, and the dim light was gone, leaving only the artificial light source to lead them.

At the fortieth floor, Naruto began to hear other noises. There were moans and groans, the lamentations of lost souls, those who could not depart the mortal plane, but Naruto could see nothing. He settled for biting his lip nervously, following his gray-haired teacher as they continued to ascend, heedless of the noises.

The fiftieth floor was when Naruto discovered that they weren't the only occupants of the tower, for there certainly were others. Warriors of all kinds and civilians dressed in rags filled the floors, their bodies transparent and intangible. With a shiver, Naruto tore his eyes away from the suffering figures and marched onward.

At the fifty-ninth floor, Kakashi suddenly stopped and turned to the side, gesturing with his hand, "Only you can continue onward. This is your fight; you must do this alone."

Hesitantly, Naruto stepped forward, schooling his face into a neutral expression to hide the anxiety flitting just beneath the surface. There was a crack of vicious thunder and a flash of bright lightning as he ascended the last step, blinding him and hiding the room from him. His vision came back slowly and he reached up to rub the spot from his eyes.

A gasp tore itself from his lips when he could see again, for he had discovered who it was he would be facing. In a whisper, he uttered, "Yondaime Hokage."

And, indeed, that was who stood at the opposite end of the tower, his back to the stain glass window behind him. His blonde hair was even spikier than Naruto's and his hitai-ate was tied snuggly around his forehead, his piercing blue eyes gazing forward with a seriousness that caught Naruto by surprise.

The man looked much like what Naruto had seen in his textbooks as a child. He was tall, just a few centimeters more so than Kakashi, and lean with squared shoulders and a strong stance. His hair was bright golden yellow and refused to be tamed by methods man or nature. His eyes were like blue sapphires…or chips of ice.

Overtop of the standard Jônin outfit, he wore his trademark white coat, the short sleeves ending about halfway down his chiseled but lean biceps. Red flames danced around the bottom hem, licking at the white and immortalized in cloth and thread. Black sandals left the front open to reveal tanned toes.

There was one thing, though, that set Naruto on edge, for it hadn't been mentioned at all in the many books and biographies written about this legendary figure. Slung over his right shoulder and tied there with a green cloth was the familiar blue-wrapped hilt of Hyôrinmaru, sheathed in black.

Reaching up for the instrument of destruction on his back, the Yondaime walked forward, intoning four words as he unsheathed his weapon, "Sôten ni zase, Hyôrinmaru."

In a blur, the man disappeared, but Naruto was already prepared for him and had drawn his own sword, intoning his own command phrase, "Sôten ni zase, Hyôrinmaru!"

In a crash of ice and water, the two identical swords met, Naruto's defending and Namikaze Minato's attacking. With an angry scoff, Naruto pushed with all his might against the opposing steel, but he could not knock the sword away. Seemingly oblivious to his strain, Minato had a neutral expression on his face.

Naruto wracked his brain, trying to find logic behind this strange revelation. How did the Yondaime Hokage, his father, have a copy of Hyôrinmaru? The dragon was supposed to be an original, wasn't he? Incapable of being reproduced? Then how had this spirit masquerading has his father pulled out another Hyôrinmaru?

He couldn't find any sense in it. Kakashi would have told him if his father had had these abilities. No, Naruto knew that his skills and Hyôrinmaru itself were unique, even if Tenten, Hinata, and Sasuke had swords capable of similar amazing feats. Somehow, though, this spirit had copied his weapon.

With a snarl, Naruto leapt backwards and swung his sword down, unleashing a giant beast of a water dragon that soared towards his opponent. Minato stood firm as it bore down on him, taking a single step forward and slashing his blade downward as the beast came crashing towards him. It split in half and evaporated into thin air.

Growling, Naruto unleashed a second water dragon at the blonde man, but Minato jumped deftly over top of the winding creature and released one of his own. It was slightly darker than Naruto's, more of a purple than crystal blue, but it held no less power and ferocity. Naruto leapt to the side and out of the way, dodging it as it collided with the floor and splashed around.

In a blur, they disappeared again and, in the center of the round room, clashed once more, blades locked in a fierce, inverted tug of war. Yondaime clearly had the upper hand, so Naruto knocked the sword to the side and went for another swing, this time a vertical slash. It was blocked nearly effortlessly.

Naruto would not be deterred, however, and swung a third time. It was blocked once again and Naruto wound up for fourth slash. It too was blocked, but Naruto would not allow his opponent time to set up an adequate defensive base and pointed toward the right side of the man's chest, chanting, "Hadô no Yon: Byakurai!"

Almost effortlessly, it seemed, Yondaime moved to the side and the bolt of white lightning discharged from Naruto's finger missed him, if only just. Then, he swung back around with a punch straight to Naruto's nose, sending the blonde boy flying back into the wall, where he slid to the floor, groaning.

Minato walked forward slowly once more, stopping once he was at a reasonable distance, not too close but not too far, and raised his free hand, pointing with his index finger. In the same flat tone he'd used to unleash Hyôrinmaru, he recited a new phrase, "Hadô no Yon: Byakurai."

Eyes snapping open, Naruto dodged to the left just in time to miss getting hit with the ferocious bolt of lightning that crashed into the wall. Miraculously, the wall itself remained undamaged, as though it had never been attacked in the first place. Naruto, however, felt the heat of the attack in the air next to him.

Leaping forward as fast as he could, Naruto lashed out with all his strength against the spirit impersonating his father, the creature that had stolen the Fourth Hokage's image. The spirit blocked, but it had apparently underestimated him, for its defense wavered and shook during the initial collision.

Jumping backwards and away from the blonde boy, Minato reached into the holster tied to his right leg and pulled out several kunai. Settling into a defensive stance, Naruto waited, but didn't have to move at all. Each and every throw sent one of the projectiles to a point that wouldn't have even hit him unless he jumped in front of it.

Then, as the man in front of him disappeared with a yellow flicker, Naruto realized, with growing fear and horror, why none of the weapons had actually been aimed at him. He spun around, but wasn't fast enough to dodge the punch that slammed into his chin, knocking him backwards.

He was on his feet again in a split second, but Yondaime had already disappeared again. A prickling on the edge of his senses was all the warning he got and he ducked down, watching as the man's fist soared into the spot his head had just occupied. A sliver of his confidence returned for a second, but it was dashed as the man disappeared, only to land a harsh knee to his gut.

Standing up weakly, Naruto sloppily dodged the next blow, only to turn around and do something he had sworn he would never do again. He ran away. As fast as he could, he headed towards the stairs, but Yondaime reappeared in front of them and slashed downwards. Naruto stopped and desperately flung himself to the side.

Rising to his feet as fast as he could, Naruto stumbled as he rushed to get away from the impossibly strong man in front of him. Yondaime disappeared again and was suddenly running alongside him, before turning abruptly to slash at him. Naruto dodged around it, but just barely.

"This is so pathetic," Naruto thought as he turned and continued to flee. "What am I doing? Why am I running away?"

Yondaime reached out with a hand and grabbed him by the high collar of his vest, pulling him backwards and flinging him into the ground. Raising his sword high, the blonde man swung downwards, as if to cleave the boy in two. With a short cry of fear, Naruto rolled out of the way.

"I'm so disgusted with myself!"

Rolling to his feet, he continued to run, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste to escape.

"It's pathetic! Pathetic!"

"Yes, that's you," a familiar voice answered, and suddenly the world was frozen around him. Surprised and with adrenaline pumping through his veins, Naruto looked wide eyed up at the towering form of Hyôrinmaru. The dragon's red eyes bore deeply into his, and at once, a second set of eyes appeared, more humanoid, but just as red. A deeper, darker voice asked, "Why are you running away?"

"You still haven't discovered my next power yet," Hyôrinmaru stated matter-of-factly. "Face forward and you should be able to find it. The only thing blinding your eyes…is your own fear."

"There's only one enemy and one of you," the second voice told him, "so what is there to be afraid of? My container…are you so pathetic?"

"Abandon your fear," Hyôrinmaru stated calmly.

"Turn and face him," the Kyubi growled.

"Don't give an inch."


"Never stop!" they cried together.

"If you retreat, you will age."

"If you hesitate, you'll die."

Hyôrinmaru growled, "Now…"

"Kimi no Na wo Yobu!" Naruto cried as time started again, spinning around to face his enemy. "Hyôrinmaru!" (I call your name, Ice Ring)

A tidal wave of intangible power swept throughout the room, followed by a billowing cloud of smoke that obscured Naruto from view. Holding his arms in front of his face, Yondaime's lips twitched upwards just the slightest bit. His cloak fluttered and his hair rustled, but he stood his ground.

As the smoke cleared, a new from could be seen. Naruto stood still, his sword virtually unchanged save for the eight-pointed star hand guard. A diamond shaped ice block was attached to his left forearm and a pauldron of solid ice had formed on his right arm. A pair of feathery wings, also made of ice, but much thinner than the normal Bankai wings, sprouted from his shoulders. The entire floor was frozen over.

"Bishamonten," Naruto said calmly, "Hyôrinmaru."

Lifting his sword up, he stabbed it into the frozen ground with a grunt. At once, spikes of ice shot up and speared through each of the tri-pronged kunai lodged in the stone blocks. The metal shattered easily, as if it had been made of glass rather than steel, and fell to pieces around the room.

With that stoic frown still on his face, Yondaime leapt back and unleashed a purplish dragon of water from his sword. Without batting an eyelash, Naruto jumped right into it, holding up his left arm in defense. In response to this action, the diamond shaped configuration on his left forearm transformed into a large shield. It cleaved through the dragon like paper.

As the beast dwindled to nothing and he came closer to the spirit impersonating his father, Naruto swiped the remnants to the side with the shield, which shrunk back into its original shape as he stabbed forward. Yondaime didn't move fast enough to avoid the full damage of the attack and a thin cut carved itself into his right cheek.

With a dangerous glint in his eyes, Yondaime made his own stab. Naruto didn't bother to dodge, as it collided with his protected right shoulder and slid right around the icy armor. In close, Naruto reared back his left hand and curled it into a fist, then let if fly into the man's stomach, sending him crashing into the wall.

Standing up with a wheezing pant, Minato's left eye was half-lidded as he stared at the boy across from him. His left arm hung at an odd angle and his right arm was curled protectively around his midsection. His hitai-ate slipped off and fell to the icy ground with a sharp clang of steel and a clatter of metal.

In a blur, Naruto vanished and Yondaime couldn't move in time to dodge the attack that was delivered to him. Before he could stop it, the cold steel of the blonde boy's sword had stabbed straight through his stomach and out the other side. Red began to blossom on the back of his white coat as he gave a grunt and lurched forward onto the boy's shoulder. The second half of his sword fell to the ground, broken off when he had attempted to block.

"Kono Hyôrinmaru no sekai," Naruto whispered in his ear. "Kono ore no sekai…" (This is Hyôrinmaru's world…this is my world.)

As Naruto wrenched his sword free, Yondaime stumbled backwards but maintained an upward stance. He held tenderly to the stab wound in his stomach, but looked up at the blonde boy in front of him with a smile. His body began to fade away, small blue particles floating up towards the ceiling.

"I'm proud of you," the man whispered, "my son."

In a flash, he was gone, leaving nothing behind but the infamous coat of the Yellow Flash. As his Bankai faded away, Naruto picked it up curiously, looking at it. There should have been a hole in it from the stab he had given the man, but it was in perfect condition, and even the right size for him, too. Turning it over on to the back, the words "Konoha no Ryûjin" were stitched on there in red.

With a smile, Naruto draped it over his shoulders and headed for the stairs. The ice in the room had melted and all evidence that a battle had taken place was gone, leaving it just as it had been before he had come. As he reached the top step, Naruto stopped and looked back, whispering, "Thanks…Tousan."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The door to the vast room opened with a loud creak, alerting anyone in the room that someone else was entering. There was a loud clip clop, as though whoever it was stood on tall, hard wooden sandal instead of the normal shinobi sandals. Still, the room's sole other occupant made no move and did not turn around to see who had come.

Papers of all kinds filled the desk and were piled on top of it, burying it until none of the hard wood was visible from above. A single bottle of sake sat amongst them, the only break in a monotonous stream of wood-derived sheets. The bottle was only half-full, proving that someone had indeed been drinking from it.

Jiraiya crossed his arms, looking at the woman behind the chair seriously, "So, you sent the squads out, did you?"

Tsunade looked up at him, "I had no other choice."

"Then," Jiraiya said, "I take it you've heard that the Akatsuki is in the area? That they've taken Chiriku's body after having defeated him rather soundly?"

"Yes, I've heard all of that," she said gloomily. She reached for the bottle and took another deep swig, ignoring the frown Jiraiya gave her for her actions. "That's why I sent them out in the first place. Until Naruto and Kakashi get back, you and I are one of the few ninja who could actually fight on level with these people."

"True as that is, Tsunade, you're sending several good ninja out to their deaths," Jiraiya said sternly. "You and I both know that half of the people you sent out there, half of the shinobi you commanded to search for these two men, are unable to hold their own against enemies of this caliber, of S-rank caliber."

"I know Jiraiya," Tsunade said angrily. "I know what I did, and I'm not happy about it, but I'm Hokage, damn it, and I had to do it. Even if all they turn out to be is a distraction to keep Akatsuki's attention for a few hours, it's a few hours that we desperately need. In a few years, Naruto will be the strongest Shinobi we have. Already, he's at least Kakashi's level!"

"Maybe!" Jiraiya's voice rose to match hers. "But we can't pin all of our hopes on a single shinobi! We should have learned that the day Minato marched off to battle the Kyubi! Every shinobi is capable of dying, whether we want to believe that or not! Shodai died, Nidaime died, Sarutobi-sensei died, Minato-kun died, Orochimaru died! None of us is immortal, Tsunade, least of all a fifteen year old boy!"

"Maybe not!" shouted Tsunade. "But he'll surpass all of us! Shodai, Nidaime, Sandaime — Sarutobi-sensei —, Yondaime — Minato-kun —, Godaime — me —, Densetsu no Sannin, Hanzo the Salamander, Rikudô Sennin — he'll be better than all of us! You can see it, too, Jiraiya! That's why you started training him in the first place!"

"But that's the point, Tsunade!" Jiriaya said angrily, pounding his fist on the desk. "He hasn't yet! He's strong — damn strong! — but he's not strong enough yet! He's still growing. He still needs time before he has broken all of those previous records. But the way you're going, he might die before he gets the chance!"

"No, he won't!" Tsunade denied vehemently. "You and I have both seen it! No matter what the odds, no matter who he faces, Naruto has never been forced to use the Kyubi's chakra in all the time we've known him! And you and I both know, Jiraiya, that the Kyubi would force its chakra on him if he thought Naruto was going to die!"

"Damn it, Tsunade, that's not the point!" Jiraiya growled angrily. "You're risking his life unnecessarily! He's strong, but even he can't face the entire Akatsuki and come out with his life! All of them are dangerous S-class shinobi who have their names practically engraved into the Bingo books! Naruto is only one person!"

"And once he kills these other two, that'll leave the Akatsuki with a total of four people!" Tsunade responded in kind. She flashed four fingers in his face. "Four, Jiraiya! Four! With a number like that, you, me, Naruto, and Itachi could annihilate them! They wouldn't stand a snowball's chance!"

"But, Tsunade!" Jiraiya started.

"Jiraiya," Tsunade said seriously. "As soon as Naruto defeats these two jokers and recovers from all his injuries, I'm going to allow you and him to check up on that lead you were telling me about the other day."

Jiraiya paused, "You're serious."

"Yes, I am," Tsunade said.

"Fine," Jiraiya said through tight lips. "But keep one of these" — he stabbed a tri-pronged kunai into her desk — "on you at all times, just incase things get hairy and we need to make a hasty escape."

"If that's what it takes to get you to drop this issue, Jiraiya," Tsunade replied evenly, "then that's exactly what I'll do."

Without another word, Jiraiya left her office.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The building was long and white, with red panels along the awnings on the sides. It wasn't much to look at, considering that it was run down and decrepit, but it served its purpose well and the disheveled look made it all the less suspicious. After all, who would think that this humble and crumbling building was actually an exchange point for bounties?

That was the point. If you were a bounty hunter, you wouldn't want other bounty hunters or, worse yet, high-class shinobi to catch you off guard and steal your bounty from you, would you? So what better way to keep your prize safe and get the money you deserved than to hide it in some place no one would ever think to look?

This was the building two figures approached, one with his head and face obscured save for his demonic eyes, and the other with slicked-back gray hair and purple eyes carrying a large, three bladed scythe. The former turned to enter the building, catching the attention of his companion, "Hey, where are you going? The bathroom?"

His partner gave him no response, so, with a smirk, he said, "Fine. Wait up." and followed him.

The bathroom was indeed where they wound up, the masked man carrying a graying corpse over his shoulder. He stopped in the middle of the room, then turned to a blank section of the wall, as if it held the answer to all of life's mysteries. He pressed a hand up against the stone and, after a pause, the wall fell away. The gray-haired man could only stare.

"This is the exchange point," the masked man, Kakuzu, said stoically.

"Why the hell did they pick a bathroom, anyway?" Kakuzu's partner, Hidan, asked irritably.

A man looked out from the fallen section of wall, his head bald and scarred, "This way, please."

They followed him through the wall, Hidan a bit more hesitantly than Kakuzu, and into a large dark room. At the far wall, there were thousands and thousands of what appeared to be filing drawers. As they came upon them, though, and the bald man opened one of them, Hidan realized that this was where the bounties were stored.

"Here, please," the bald man stated.

Grunting in acknowledgement, Kakuzu hefted Chiriku up and set him down on the drawer. Hidan looked on uninterestedly, "Make it quick, will you?"

The bald man was flipping through a book, looking up the face of the man lying on the drawer. As he reached it, the page marked 'Chiriku', he compared the picture to the face on the dead man and nodded to himself, snapping the book shut as he said, "There's not mistaking it. That's Chiriku. You caught yourself a big one, Kakuzu-san."

"Yeah," Kakuzu grunted stoically.

The man walked over to the lateral wall and pulled from a safe a suitcase of money, grabbing it and making his way back to Kakuzu. He set it down and Kakuzu unsnapped the hinges, checking the contents almost suspiciously.

"This place reeks!" Hidan said suddenly. "Let's go already, Kakuzu!"

"Hang on," Kakuzu said, "I need to count the money."

"I can't tell whether the stench is piss or if it's that body," Hidan said, scowling angrily, "but seriously, it's damn gross. I'm going back outside!"

Walking back outside, Hidan marched down the steps and plopped onto the last one angrily. He watched birds feed off of something on the ground, but could find nothing in it that would soothe his anger. He lifted up his sleeve and took a tentative whiff, then scoffed angrily, "Damn, that's nasty!"

He flung the cloth away from his face as fast as he could, "I was in there for all of about five minutes, and already that stench has sunk into my clothes!"

Footsteps from behind him caught his attention and he turned his head slightly, "Took you long enough, Kakuzu."

Whatever else he might have said was cut off as he realized that Kakuzu wasn't the one standing behind him. He leapt to his feet, maneuvering the cord of his scythe as several of his enemy's shuriken came flying towards him. The metal cord deflected them in several different directions, protecting him.

Pulling on the cord, Hidan flung the sharp blades in Asuma's direction. Asuma jumped out of the way, but Hidan's attack had left him vulnerable on both sides to a flanking formation, proved when Izumo and Kotetsu came towards him with their large blades drawn and poised to strike.

In that instant, Hidan also found that he couldn't move, and saw, at his feet, a long shadow reaching towards him. Sitting atop the building was a teenager in standard Chûnin garb with his hands in a hand seal and a long, dark shadow reaching out from his feet. He had a smug grin on his face, as if all had gone according to his plan.

"Too slow!" Shikamaru said victoriously.

Izumo and Kotetsu's weapons sunk past his coat and into his flesh, giving him a mortal wound. Asuma appeared again, his mouth already moving, "That's one down."

There was a long pause, as though the Konoha team was savoring its victory. Izumo and Kotetsu were the first to recognize something was wrong, which became evident as Hidan spoke once again, "Man, that hurt like hell. What's the matter with you?"

"What's going on?" Kotetsu gasped out. "We hit his vital organs!"

"Stop shaking!" Hidan whined. "That really hurts!"

"Is he…immortal?"

"No shit, dumbass," Hidan said sarcastically. "Now, who the hell are you people?"

At this point, he caught sight of Asuma's sash, "Ah, that sash. That belongs to those Ninja Guardians. Aw, man. I'm going to have to go inside that hellhole of an exchange point again."

"We're shinobi from Konoha," Asuma said firmly. "We've been ordered to either capture or exterminate Akatsuki. As you Akatsuki work in two man teams, we'd planned on capturing one of you after eliminating the other. But…" — he pulled out his trench knives — "you've got some serious power."

"Well," Hidan chuckled, "you guys really screwed up the order."

"Where's your partner?" Asuma demanded.

There was a gasp from Shikamaru, and that section of the building suddenly collapsed as it became apparent that Hidan's partner had appeared. The dust from the destruction cleared slowly, but as it did, Shikamaru appeared fine and undamaged. In fact, standing behind him, with Kakuzu's fist trapped in his right hand, was…Uchiha Itachi.

"Kakuzu-san," Itachi said stoically. "It's been a while."

"Itachi," Kakuzu breathed, "you traitor…"

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach

Bishamonten is the Buddhist God of War. As Daiguren, Hyôrinmaru's first Bankai form, is a reference to certain Buddhist symbols and symbolisms, I thought it appropriate that the second Bankai form would also be a reference to a Buddhist symbol. In this case, I chose the God of War, Bishamonten. Thus, Bishamonten Hyôrinmaru was born.

How many of you knew that the second Bankai form was coming when I introduced the Hyôrinmaru Nishiki Shikai last chapter? Be honest, now. And this is the end to Hyôrinmaru's multiple forms. New attacks might be made and used, but Daiguren Hyôrinmaru and Bishamonten Hyôrinmaru are where the different forms end.

And, I've technically done as all of the people who voted on my "Yondaime's Resurrection" poll asked. I brought back the Fourth, and, at the same time, didn't, and I made him more important to the plot, and he only returned for a short time. Oh, the joy of loopholes! I would have been roasted on a spit if I actually favored one over the other.

Kuro ni Aseru, Kimi no Na wo Yobu… (Fade to Black, I Call Your Name)

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes(Signature best viewed in Wendy Medium font style)