Author's Note: So…it's been a while, and for that I apologize. Unfortunately I experienced a case of writer's block for the ages halfway through this chapter, and it lasted long enough that I lost my inspiration for writing fanfiction. A poor excuse, I know, so I'd like to thank those of you who are still with me.
And I'd like to say that I'll be churning out chapters as fast as I used to, but I can't promise that. Especially considering how busy life's been keeping me. But hopefully I can start updating again with some degree of regularity.
Oh, and I'm sure there are some people who've noticed that I usually do my author's notes at the end of chapters. But for this particular chapter, I think having this at the end would cheapen it. Here's hoping you enjoy it.
Ishiki no To-Remu: Translates to Senses of the Totem. User's eyes change to resemble that of their totem. Chakra will also outline the user's ears. This stage of To-Remu Yajuuki greatly enhances all five senses of its user.
Shitai no To-Remu - Translates to Limbs of the Totem. Outlines the user's limbs in shimmering energy and greatly increases their speed.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, nor do I understand why anybody would think I did. This is being posted as fan fiction after all.
The newlywed couple spent several days enjoying their retreat at the hot springs. The time spent there was certainly enjoyable; relaxing soaks, sumptuous meals, relaxing hikes through the mountainous terrain, and certainly a great deal of secluded trysts. A wonderful experience by any measure.
But, like anything, it reached its end soon enough. And it was with a touch of reluctance that the couple checked out of the resort. But they were shinobi above all else, professionals, and weren't about to let something so minor bother them overmuch. The journey back to Kumo started out leisurely enough. But the desire to stretch their muscles, and the competitive nature of both blondes, eventually sprung to the fore. A small increase in pace, a triumphant grin as one deliberately cut the other off as they turned a corner, chakra-enhanced leaps across the rough landscape, and soon enough the couple was streaking across the mountains as Shitai no To-Remu blazed upon their limbs. And the feeling, the exhilaration, of the wind in their faces and the cool mountain air banished any reluctance they'd had to leave the onsen soon enough.
And, of course, they made great time; arriving at the village gates as the sun was lowering into an evening sky. It was actually Yugito who got there first, touching down in front of the checkpoint a bare fraction of a second ahead of Naruto. Still, as the smug grin on her face evidenced both experienced shinobi were easily able to note that sliver of time and she was well aware of her minor triumph.
They were waved past the gates with barely a second glance, something that had become relatively commonplace since their return to the village those months ago. After entering the village proper the couple decided that their first order of business would be to get dinner, and Yugito grudgingly agreed to the ramen stand that Naruto had decided was the village's best. Coincidentally it had experienced a huge upswing in business after that decision, only some of it Naruto's.
After eating they headed back to their compound to drop off their luggage. And, after briefly considering heading back out into the village, opted to stay in and wash the dust and grime of their day's travel off of them before resting for the remainder of the night.
They were awoken as the sun rose by the manor's door bell. Yugito quickly decided that Naruto would be the one to climb out of the comfort of bed and answer the door. He was understandably groggy upon opening the door, but snapped to alertness almost immediately upon seeing that it was an ANBU standing at the door. "Trouble?"
"An investigation, Araiki-san. One of the village's jounin was reported missing and his corpse discovered."
"That sounds like a job for the ANBU, or hunter-nin perhaps. What are we needed for?"
"The trail has gone cold. Raikage-sama is hoping that your enhanced senses might be able to find something that everybody else has missed."
"And you're supposed to guide us to the scene I assume?"
"Give me a few minutes then. I need to tell Yugito-chan and we'll have to get our gear together."
"Of course, I'll wait here."
It didn't take the couple long to get ready, it rarely did for seasoned shinobi. Time was a luxury in the ninja world, and one never knew when they wouldn't have enough of it. When a fraction of a second could be the difference between life and death, one quickly learned hot to take advantage of every one of them. So they were on the road with their ANBU guide inside of five minutes, bounding back over the terrain they had traversed only the day before.
The pace wasn't as hard as that set by the Araikis on their journey back to the village, but the distance to cover wasn't as far. And it was nearing mid-day by the time they arrived at their destination. Two squads of ANBU were in the area, both securing the clearing and guarding the Raikage. The hulking man turned towards the Araikis as they approached, "Takahashi Kanaye."
The Raikage stepped aside, allowing the Araikis their first glimpse of the deceased shinobi's corpse. "Takahashi Kanaye, my murdered shinobi." There were traces of simmering rage in the depths of his rumbling voice. "He was promoted six months before your return at the age of nineteen. Not on your level perhaps, but a promising shinobi nonetheless. Or at least he was."
He motioned the couple closer, pointing out the brutal wound in the dead man's chest. "He was killed by a single stab to the chest, the blade was driven straight through the sternum into the heart. It was a poisoned blade, not that it made any difference."
"What poison was on the blade? It must provide some clue."
"The medic-nin have never seen anything like it. They can't even figure out the ingredients. As much as we've tried we haven't found the slightest clue as to who killer was, where he's from, or where he went. Hopefully you'll have more luck."
Naruto and Yugito exchanged a quick glance, before limning their bodies with the sheen of Ishiki no To-Remu. Both of them winced, visibly recoiling as soon as they did. The Raikage's expression twisted into one of curiosity and confusion. "What is it?"
Yugito backed up a step, letting her kekkai genkai fade as she did. "That poison. Ugh, it stinks something awful."
"I can't smell a thing."
"If you had our bloodline you could." Naruto was walking a slow circle around the edge of the clearing as he spoke. "It's seems to be able to linger quite strongly, we'll be able to track him." He pulled up short, motioning to the south and east. "Whoever did this, went that way."
A grin of fierce triumph spread across the Raikage's face. "You can track him. Can you catch him?"
"Hard to say without knowing anything about how he travels. But with Shitai no To-Remu I'd bet the answer is yes."
"Do it. I want the bastard's head." The pair nodded once, and were gone.
Naruto and Yugito practically flew over the landscape. The trail was almost ridiculously easy to follow, to their enhanced sense of smell whatever potent poison the assassin used laid a trail impossible for them to miss. And with Shitai no To-Remu active they were able to eat up the ground at an astounding pace. Despite their late start they were nearly to in the border countries between their homeland and Ho no Kuni by the time they made camp for the night, following the trail to the south and west. Another two days' travel took them all the way through Ho no Kuni and into Kawa no Kuni. And it was as they were approaching that country's border with Kaze no Kuni that they finally reached the end of their pursuit.
It was Naruto who noticed it first, by a bare instant. He went to earth in a forest clearing, landing in a crouch with Yugito alighting beside him almost instantly. They spent several seconds in silence, processing the information their obtained from their keen senses before Naruto spoke. "You smell it too?"
"Yeah, the poison, a lot of it. And dust too, a mile or so to the south."
"Think we should check it out?"
"I don't see any point in following a trail when we already know where it leads."
Naruto couldn't help but grin, "Logic like that is hard to argue against."
Naruto took the lead as the two made their way south, the poison's scent seeming to grow ever more prevalent as they went. And at last they reached it, a break in the trees where the cloying scent saturated the air. A brief glance around the area showed that they were standing near the edge of a small canyon, supposedly carved by the river they could hear running below them. Oh yeah, and a big chunk of the cliff at this side of the ravine was gone.
Naruto walked over to the edge of the crater his features screwing up in disgust as he deactivated Ishiki no To-Remu, granting himself a reprieve from the scent. "No doubt about it, there's a lot of that poison down there."
Yugito joined him, casting a disparaging eye over the rubble that comprised the crater's floor. "It doesn't look very stable, I don't think we're going to be able to dig down in order to figure out what happened. Even if we could, some of the river water has to be washing through all those rocks. It would be damaging what little evidence the cave-in left."
"So in other words you don't think we're going to be able to figure out what happened here."
Naruto sighed, his frustration evident. "Trying to pick up his trail here is going to be difficult. All the other poison here is going to wash out his trail for some distance."
"That's true, or we could follow this trail."
Naruto's gaze snapped over to her, "What trail?"
In response Yugito leapt over the lip of the canyon, landing on one of the many logs that seemed to span its width. "Two women, both of whom seem to be medics. One of the scents is pretty familiar, but I can't quite place it."
Naruto leapt down as well, landing beside her in a crouch as he reactivated his Ishiki no To-Remu. "You're right. It's a bit difficult to pick up, but definitely there."
Yugito just rolled her eyes in response, leaping off to follow the new trail. "Of course I'm right." They quickly found that they had to move much more slowly now, as the scent they were following was much more faint than it was before. It was also fragmented, as their quarry's contact with solid surfaces was intermittent due to the constant leaps from log to log. But the pair was nothing if not persistent. And before long they followed the trail into a forested area, and found it much easier to follow across solid ground.
They stole through the forests like wraiths, moving quickly and silently as they followed the trail. The couple looked towards each other as they moved, exchanging subtle glances. And then the forest burst into a sudden cacophony of smoke and frenzied movement. When things finally settled down there were six figures arrayed beneath the canopy. The four newcomers had clearly intended to get the drop on the Araikis, and had just as clearly failed. Their kunai were free of their sheaths, but only raised halfway towards the two Kumo-nin. Naruto, by contrast, had a sword in both hands; the razor-edge of his left-hand blade resting against the throat of one would-be assailant while the tip of his other blade was set at the base of the other's skull. The two who'd gone after Yugito were in similar straits. One with a blade ready to slide between his ribs, the other staring at the blade point that was mere millimeters from his right eye.
However, both Naruto and Yugito relaxed slightly as they got a look at the sudden arrivals. Naruto straightened first, pulling both his blades from the Suna ANBU. Yugito followed suit, and the four operatives sagged visibly in relief. "We didn't expect to encounter any Suna ANBU on this side of the border."
"We didn't expect any Kumo-nin on this side of the continent."
Naruto grinned, amused by the comment. Most shinobi would have been to shaken to come up with a decently witty comeback. "A good point. We're tracking a supposed criminal who killed one of Kumo's jounin. He seemed to have been involved in quite the fight back by the river. We lost his trail at the battlefield, but picked up the trail of two women that we've been following to this point."
The ANBU masks may have concealed their facial features, but the way the ANBU operatives tensed and glanced at each other conveyed a fountain of information to the two seasoned Kumo-nin. As such they were scarcely surprised by their response, at least not the first part of it. "We're pretty sure we're here for the same reason. If you're talking about who we think you are he helped facilitate an attack the Kazekage."
"All the way out here?"
"No, the Kazekage fought an opponent wielding explosive clay back in Sunagakure. He was defeated, and after leaving a trap that slowed our pursuit, his assailants brought him here."
"Gaara lost," hints of disbelief, surprise, and amazement tinged Naruto's voice, "in the middle of the desert?"
"His assailant assaulted the village itself," the ANBU's tone was clipped, betraying a hint of anger at the perceived doubt in his lord's abilities, "Kazekage-sama taxed himself to defend it, which is the only thing that allowed him to be defeated."
"How he was defeated was irrelevant," Yugito's voice was calm, measured, "what's important now is how Gaara is faring."
The effect those words had on the ANBU members was as obvious as it was immediate, their posture clearly betraying their worry and uncertainty. "Chiyo-sama is tending to him…his condition is severe."
Naruto and Yugito exchanged a quick glance. "Take us there."
The ANBU seemed to positively bristle at those words. "Two foreign shinobi trying wanting to be brought to our badly wounded Kazekage? That seems quite suspicious."
Naruto shrugged, but despite his casual stance there was steel in his tone. "If we wished your village harm our blades would not have been held a few seconds back."
The ANBU, hardened shinobi though they were, could not help but feel a shiver crawl down their spines at the not so subtle thread. And they couldn't help but wonder just how quickly the "fight" would have been over had the Araikis actually wanted them dead. "Follow us."
In fairly short order the ANBU lead the Araikis to a large group of Suna-nin. But ANBU escort or not, the shinobi guarding the perimeter of the group didn't seem to keen on the idea of letting two Kumo-nin approach. "You two," one of the ANBU at the perimeter was predictably pointing at the Araikis, "Do not come any closer. And you," his gaze swept across the four Suna ANBU that had led Naruto and Yugito here, "What are you thinking? Bringing foreign shinobi here."
"Do you even know who you're talking to?" Neither Naruto nor Yugito bothered to conceal their amused grins as the pompous ANBU jumped in obvious surprise as Kankuro spoke from his position directly behind the man.
"One of the four man ANBU patrols we had securing the area, Kankuro-san. And the two Kumo-nin they lead here in a gross breach of security."
"Those two Kumo-nin are Araiki Naruto and Araiki Yugito, Gaara's friends. "
Silence reigned for a handful of deliciously awkward sentences before the ANBU found his voice again. "Th-these two are the Araikis?"
"Yes, and Gaara would appreciate it if they were treated respectfully." Kankuro turned to look at the two blondes. "I'll take you to see him."
"Thanks," Naruto and Yugito walked forward to pull astride Kankuro as he moved towards the center of the gathering. "Gaara was attacked." It was a statement more than a question.
"Yes, by Akatsuki. One of them, Deidara according to the Bingo Book, infiltrated Sunagakure and attacked him. Gaara engaged him in aerial combat, which prevented anyone else from helping him. Deidara captured Gaara, and took him out of the village. I," he hesitated for a bit, "foolishly went after him on my own. When I caught up the second Akatsuki member, Akasuna no Sasori, defeated me easily."
Naruto rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Akasuna no Sasori, I think I've heard that name before."
"It wouldn't surprise me." The Kazekage came into view as Kankuro guided them past the last screen of onlookers. His voice was weak and hoarse, sounding just as weary as Gaara looked. Despite that, Naruto couldn't see a mark on him. And his gaze took in a few other items of note. The diminutive, shroud-covered body not too far away. And the presence of Kakashi, Sakura, Sai, Lee, Neji, Tenten, and Gai. "He is a nuke-nin from my village, possibly the most accomplished puppet user in the history of the Elemental Nations."
Naruto and Yugito exchanged a quick glance, and Yugito spoke. "So he makes frequent use of poison?"
Sakura frowned, "A very potent poison, even with Tsunade-sama's teachings I was barely able to save Kankuro from it."
"And with Kankuro's defeat Akatsuki had enough time to extract Shakaku from me."
That earned a beat of stunned silence from both Kumo-nin. "I thought that extracting a bijuu from its host was fatal." A thoughtful frown suddenly marred Naruto's features, "Well, unless the ritual is specifically designed not to. But I don't see why Akatsuki would do that."
"It did kill me. But one of my retired Shinobi, Chiyo, had developed a forbidden jutsu that was able to resurrect me at the cost of her own life." Gaara grimaced slightly, falling silent for a few seconds before continuing. "Why are the two of you this far from Kumogakure?"
"Tracking Sasori it seems. A Kumo Shinobi was killed in the mountains outside of the village. When Yugito-chan and I used Ishiki no To-Remu to examine the scene we could smell the poison despite the time that had passed, one of the strongest scents I've ever encountered. We followed it to some sort of cave-in not far from here. That must have been quite some battle. And there was enough of the poison hanging in the air to make it impossible to pick up the trail again. But we did sense the chakra of all the shinobi gathered here, and investigated." He glanced up at the assorted Konoha-nin, "Why are you guys here?"
"Yosh! Konoha received a-"
"Someone other than Gai explain please."
Kakashi sat up slightly, sounding just as weary and drained as he looked. "Suna sent Konoha a coded letter by messenger hawk requesting aid after Gaara was captured. The seven of us tracked Akatsuki to the cave you mentioned. Gai's team took care of the security measures while my team confronted Akatsuki with Chiyo's help. Sakura and Chiyo fought Sasori there, while Sai and I got Gaara's body back from Deidara. Then Chiyo and Sakura arrived, at about the same time as the Suna task force here."
"And the Akatsuki members?"
"Escaped, both of them." Kankuro seemed more than a little disgruntled as he gave that statement.
Naruto sighed. "They murdered a Kumo Shinobi, attacked the Kazekage in his home village, and killed him by extracting his Bijuu. It would seem, that Akatsuki is once more on the move."
There were a few moments of silence as everyone digested that unwelcome bit of reasoning, eventually broken by Gaara. "What does that mean?"
Yugito grimaced, glancing back in the direction of the collapsed cavern. "Nothing good."
He couldn't remember the last time he'd been pushed so far. He'd resorted to using a dozen different jutsus, and twice as many tricks. Some of the most powerful summons the Toad clan could boast had been summoned to the field, and even now Ma and Pa sat on his shoulders as his body was flooded with a carefully monitored amount of natural energy. He'd pulled out all the stops, held nothing back.
And it hadn't been enough.
He was exhausted, and even with the power he'd drawn from nature his chakra reserves were almost empty. His muscles ached from exertion, his body ached from the beating he'd received, and he could feel the mounting toll of several internal injuries. He'd reached his limits, he had nothing left. The most important fight of his life, and he had lost.
Six pairs of eyes, arranged in a circle around the laboring Sage, regarded him impassively. All feeding information to the man that would be a god. "You are too old Sensei. You cannot defeat me, cannot recognize what I've become, cannot accept what must be done in this world. You're a relic of older times, the world has passed you by."
Jiraiya groaned slightly, feeling broken bones grate against each other as he levered himself back into an upright position. The pain was excruciating. And he almost lost the last vestiges of consciousness he clung to. But he couldn't let go, not quite yet. Konoha, Yugito, Naruto…they needed to learn what they were up against. "My vision's not so bad that I can't see a deluded fool for what he is."
His next move wasn't as impressive as he would have liked. Normally he'd have dived into the water around him. But with his ankle on the verge of giving out he just kind of keeled over sideways into it, and depended on the two elder toads to propel him as deeply as they could as quickly as they could. But the move served its purpose, and the Six Paths of Pain sliced almost effortlessly through the water after him. The thing was, a ninja could surface much faster than they could dive. Every ninja learned to water walk eventually, and knew that focusing too much chakra to their feet would repel water. All it took was a misapplication of that basic lesson, and Jiraiya went shooting back up from the depths like a cork out off a bottle.
He was past all six Pains before they could react to his presence, rocketing past the surface in a spray of water. Ma and Pa were already acting as he did, oil gushing from there mouths and liberally coating the surface of the small lake. And when his Goukakyuu no Jutsu hit it the surface lit up in a sudden inferno.
Nagato watched impassively as all six paths of Pain lost sight of his former sensei. The fiery combination posed no real threat to any of the bodies. But it did turn the water's surface into a hellish mirror. A pulse from the Deva Path broke the smooth surface of the water, scattering spray on burning oil across the area. Not surprisingly, Jiraiya was nowhere to be seen. The distraction had been more than enough for a ninja of his caliber to disappear. He'd even managed to find overhead cover, hide himself from the falling rain. The Toad Sage was fleeing. No matter, the wrath of god was inescapable.
Jiraiya let out a harsh breath as he released the technique, the glow fading from his finger as he looked at the kanji inscribed across the elder toad's back. "Sorry about this, Pa."
"Don't worry, I know how important this is." The toad turned, studying the Sage's face. And for perhaps the first time Jiraiya saw Pa's features soften, worry and concern creeping into its edges. "Are you sure about this? You might still be able to get out of here and deliver that message yourself."
"No." Jiraiya's eyes fell closed as his mind drifted back through his memories. He'd failed…so many times. He hadn't been able to win Tsunade's affections, hadn't been able to stop Orochimaru from leaving. He'd trained Minato to be one of the world's greatest shinobi, only to lose him at a time when he should never have left his side. And he just wasn't able to bring himself to be there for his godson after Minato's death, resulting in the boy being whisked off to Kumogakure. He hadn't been able to stop Orochimaru's attack on Konoha, or prevent the snake from killing Sarutobi-sensei. As much as he boasted…as powerful, accomplished, and feared as he was his life was just a long litany of failures.
But then it all changed. He'd been able to bring Tsunade back to become Hokage. He'd been there for Naruto in the end, when he needed him. And he'd shaped the boy and his girlfriend into a force that he knew would stop Akatsuki and their plans. Naruto…come to think of it, it had all changed when he met the little brat. He always seemed to be able to make those around him better, the kid's most valuable asset. And he'd managed to do the same with the Gallant Jiraiya, even so late in life. The kid certainly was something special. And in the end he'd done the most important thing, passed on his teachings to the next generation. He'd made sure they were capable of finishing what he'd started. Now he just had to make sure they had the knowledge to pull it off. "I have to finish this, the gallant Jiraiya's last great accomplishment."
"All right kid, if you're sure."
Ma's voice cut in before Jiraiya could respond, heavy and solemn. "One of them's nearby, with the crooked nose piercing."
"Then this is it." Jiraiya's face settled into a grim expression, it was time. He held his hand out, opening his body to the flow of the natural energy around him. He brought it in much more quickly than he usually would. And he could already feel his skin begin to change, his joints beginning to calcify. In the past he'd have been worried about the long-term damage this was doing, not even Tsunade would be able to fix it. But he was past that concern now.
Without further ado he hurled himself from his place of concealment, forgoing all the formidable stealth skills he'd acquired over the years as he closed in on his target. He wasn't the least bit surprised as he saw Human Path spin to face him, raise its arm as a black blade suddenly appeared in its hand…but no matter how much you steeled yourself you were never prepared for the shock of a blade splitting your heart in two.
A fatal wound, beyond any shadow of a doubt. But he'd already accepted his death, and Pain had underestimated him. Even as wounded, exhausted as he was he could take out one path on its own. The potent chakra flowing through him almost made it seem easy, as the Oodama Ransengan formed in his outstretched hand with barely a thought. His other hand clamped around his assailants, pinning it to the blade and holding it in place. Holding his assailant in place for a few precious moments.
Then the Rasengan struck. The path of Pain went flying, the blade ripping free of his chest. Pain more intense than any he'd ever known ripped though him as he collapsed to the ground amidst a torrent of blood from his ruined chest. He saw Fukasaku land on the body before it even hit the ground, and the two of them disappeared in a flash of ninja smoke.
If you want people to remember you, you have to give them something to remember you by. It was the last lesson Hiruzen had taught them as their jounin-sensei, before they'd made chuunin. He'd taken it to heart, and tried to live up to it in so many ways.
In the end he'd given Naruto and Yugito everything he could.
In the end he'd passed on the keys that should let them unlock the mystery that was Pain.
In the end…that would have to be enough.
Despite, or perhaps because of, it all…the Great Toad Sage of Mount Myobokuzan died with a smile on his face.