"Home." Jiraiya said wistfully and turned to look at the person walking besides him.

The other person was only marginally shorter then Jiraiya himself and was wearing a large grey cloak with hood to protect himself from the heavy rain. Naruto's clear blue eyes gazed back at Jiraiya from underneath the hood of the cloak, his face displaying equal parts annoyance and tiredness.

The collar of the cloak was pulled up in front of his face similar to how many of the Aburame wore their clothes, it wasn't a fashion statement though; it was done in a futile effort to conserve what little body heat he had left.

Naruto pulled the cloak around him tighter, shivered, and then glared at the toad sannin. Jiraiya wasn't the least bit bothered by the rain and cold, he had used a seal/ninjutsu hybrid to ward of most of the rain, something that infuriated Naruto as he had refused to teach him the technique.

It wasn't done out of malice or spite, the technique itself didn't require much chakra, but the seals were rather complex and most of it was currently beyond Naruto's understanding.

That didn't make Naruto despise Jiraiya any less though.

They passed through the main gate, after a quick inspection to confirm their identities; none of the guards wanted to stay too long outside, not with the rain and the cold weather, not when they had a warm and dry hut.

"We should go and report to Tsunade that we're back." Jiraiya said as the duo made their way through the partially deserted streets, it would be dark in another hour.

"You can do that; I'll just head back to my apartment and report in tomorrow. I need to catch some sleep." He said and yawned.

Jiraiya silently observed his second apprentice, he was cold, wet and tired and ever since their encounter with the akatsuki a few days ago he had seemed to favor his left leg. With the pace they had held since then, with only a few scant hours of sleep he hadn't been able to heal his bruises and cuts and he hadn't been able to recover more then a small part of his badly depleted chakra reserves.

Jiraiya finally nodded, the brat needed the rest.

"See ya tomorrow, ero-sensei. Have fun explaining to Tsunade why we're two months late." He gave the older man a tired smirk then took a few steps backwards and faded into the shadows.

It wasn't a technique, simply a ridiculous natural skill in stealth that had been honed to perfection during his training journey.

"Damn brat." He said with a grunt, he had completely forgotten how late they were, and Tsunade would be less then happy with them. The brat wouldn't need to face the brunt of Tsunade's anger though, she would vent on him and by tomorrow she would have calmed down. The damn brat had tricked him.

The white-haired ninja looked in the general direction where Naruto had disappeared, and sighed in defeat, there was no way he could get out of this one.

"Crafty bastard." He muttered, and turned towards the Hokage tower and his punishment. With heavy steps and lowered head he began to walk towards his impending doom.

Tsunade wouldn't have any mercy with him. He didn't have to fear a corporal punishment, that was reserved only for when he acted perverted, no his punishment would be far worse.

She would rant and rage, and then she would give him the look. The Look, with capitals, was when she looked at him in disappointment for a few moments before she broke eye contact and looked away, her eyes would then begin to water with unshed tears. He caved in completely every damn time she gave him The Look.

Even Sarutobi-sensei had been completely defenseless against The Look, and in their youth it had been able to reduce Orochimaru to a remorseful child without a backbone in less then a second. It had been so effective that Sarutobi-sensei had actually added The Look to his private copy of the scrolls of forbidden techniques as an S-rank torture technique.

Well, the old monkey had done it as a joke, but it didn't diminish the fact that it was effective.

The only technique that offered a semblance of protection against it was a taijutsu technique he had picked up from a fat traveling martial artist that wore glasses, but he only ever used it in emergency.

While the "Crouch of the Wild Tiger" sounded like an impressive taijutsu style it was humiliating beyond belief.

He sighed again

"Guilt trip, here I come" He muttered to the heavens.

-------------------------------

Naruto was meanwhile making his way towards his apartment by the rooftops. He landed on an exposed ledge with a grunt and rubbed his right leg; the exertion of jumping around together with the cold had made it throb in pain.

He spotted a squad of ANBU slowly making their way across the rooftops; they were obviously doing a routine patrol of the area.

He really didn't want to stop to explain what he was doing outside so late so he darted between cover, always keeping to the shadows. He quickly scaled the wall the old fashioned way, he didn't use a chakra assisted jump as the chakra burst would alert them to his presence.

And as it was he would either overshot the edge or slam face first into the wall halfway up, depleted chakra reserves coupled with exhaustion fucked up chakra control something fierce.

He moved across the deserted rooftops, and then slid down a drainage pipe that ran outside his window.

It took him less then five seconds before he had opened the window and slinked inside the darkened apartment. He closed the windows and pulled the old curtains over it.

He threw the drenched cloak on the rickety table and then turned on the lights. His apartment was more or less like he had left it; the furniture and his few personal possessions that he had left behind looked undisturbed.

The only sign that anyone had been inside was the stacks of neatly folded mail on his kitchen table and the general lack of dust in his apartment showed that someone had cleaned the place regularly. If someone hadn't been watching his apartment the potted plants that rested on one of the shelves would have been nothing more then a wilted mess.

He removed his fingerless leather gloves, similar in style to Kakashi's, and promised himself to find a good pair with fingers, the gloves were of no use to him if his fingers were frozen stiff. He'd improvised and used a pair of wool socks the last few days, but he really needed to make some adjustments and updates to his gear.

Though he had found amusement in annoying Jiraiya with improvised sock-puppet displays; new ways to piss off and tease the old pervert was always welcome.

He discarded his backpack and then sat down on his bed with a loud thump.

With a sigh he began to unfasten his combat harness.

He was adequate with seals and sealing techniques, but even then he had to reseal all his gear every couple of weeks as the seals bleed of all their chakra. Normal storage seals didn't have long lives, and if he wanted something sealed for more then a few weeks you needed advanced seals or an extreme expertise with them. Fortunately ero-sensei had both, so he had convinced him to seal most of the stuff he didn't use regularly.

As they were constantly on the move he didn't have a place to stow his gear so he was forced to carry with him every piece of gear he acquired. He had gone through five different backpacks in the first ten months alone, each one larger then the one before.

He had learned the problems with that particular method when he had found himself out of ninja-wire in the middle of a fight and his spare roll at the bottom of his backpack.

The moment he had found a store that catered to ninjas he had bought a combat harness with attached equipment pouches that were used by ninja on longer missions. The harness consisted of a thick black belt and straps of sturdy nylon that went around and over his stomach, chest, back and shoulders.

It had been a drastic improvement compared to his backpack, but even then he hadn't been able to have all essential gear within reach. Two months after he got it he had simply customized the harness to fit his own needs.

He had removed all of the standard equipment pouches and replaced them with larger dull-green pouches that were universally favored by the different countries non-ninja military forces.

It allowed him to carry roughly three times more gear then the original had been capable off, but in turn it hampered his movement somewhat.

He considered it a worthwhile trade though, as much as he hated to admit it in an extended fight a ninja had to rely more on his gear then on his jutsu.

With a series of soft clicks the harness was removed and placed on the table next to the cloak. Unlike most ninja who preferred to wear their vests on the outside he was wearing his below a baggy olive green jacket.

He zipped open his tactical protection vest, a vest he had earned a year into his training journey with Jiraiya. The thin turtleneck he wore underneath was drenched, not from the rain but with sweat.

A disgusting smell assaulted his nose, a smell some unnamed chunin many decades ago described as "goat-piss". The smell came from wearing the vest for long periods of time without opening up to vent moisture or change undershirt.

He doubted anyone actually liked to wear the vest. The vest trapped virtually all moisture and heat from the upper body, so even while resting you got sweaty. With extended physical activity there was a very real risk to dehydrate, even in Konoha's relatively mild climate. In for example Suna it was a killer.

When the drenched clothes dried up if left behind layers of salt-crystals, which irritated the skin something fierce. It got really bad on missions where the means to wash or change clothes regularly didn't exist, to the point that it felt like someone had poured fire-ants inside the uniform.

There wasn't a single shinobi who actually liked to wear the damn thing. Most either only used their vest for semi-formal purposes and inside Konoha itself, or customized to make it more comfortable.

There were shops in Konoha that added good seals that reduced most of the vests problems, all for a rather reasonable fee. They still had the same problems as all seals; they bled chakra and a skilled ninja could detect it.

Those vests were useful in high profile missions were a ninja didn't need to keep themselves concealed. Unfortunately high profile missions were strangely enough not his specialty, so he couldn't use one of those vests.

Unfortunately he had also learned that not wearing a vest could be fatal. The vest could deal pretty well with shuriken, kunai and most other thrown weapons, small standard attacks that once in awhile managed to catch even the best shinobi unaware.

Once you managed to get in one hit and wound the enemy, hitting and wounding again became much easier. A random hit to the torso with a kunai would in most normal cases mean a noticeable drop in combat ability, if not death.

He had learned to never count on the vest to take the blows for him though, it was for those times he turned out to be a little too slow to evade. Just pray that whatever your opponent hits you with isn't strong enough to punch through.

His vest was more or less standard issue, with the optional reinforced seams and thicker armor plates. He had removed the standard scroll-pouches on the chest, but it was also the only visible change.

He shrugged of the vest with stiff shoulders and hung it dry over a chair.

Underneath all of this he was wearing a standard grey Konoha turtleneck; with all the training and fighting he could go through a full set of clothes in a weak, so it simply wasn't feasible to buy the clothes he wanted. It was cheap and sturdy.

He removed the shirt and it hit the far wall with a wet splat. He pulled up his right leg on the bed with a groan and then began the arduous task of unlacing his boots.

After Jiraiya had stepped on his exposed toes the fifth time in less then twenty minutes he had decided to get a pair of sturdy boots with steel protection for his toes. The thick but soft rubber sole was perfect for stealth and protected well against caltrops and similar enemy traps, that and the steel protection made his kick even more dangerous.

He didn't even want to think about the number of times his toes would have suffered frostbites if he still had used the ninja sandals.

Apart from the occasional sock change he hadn't removed the boots in more then a week and the smell nearly made him gag.

The boot hit the door to his apartment and was joined a few moments later by its partner.

Sandals were extremely comfortable for short stretches of time, but for longer periods of time there were no substitute for a solid pair of quality boots. They were waterproof among other things, and currently his feet were the only thing that weren't frozen stiff.

Ninja field rule 1: On longer missions you sometimes won't have time to properly maintain all your gear. The thing you should prioritize first is your feet. This important and classic among a ninja's arsenal not only transports a ninja to his target zone but can also be used as a weapon (see section about Taijutsu: Kicks).

Not only that, but when a mission without fail goes straight to hell well maintained feet will prove essential to a ninja's survival (see section about Taijutsu: Running-Away-Fast-As-Hell-no-Jutsu!, Taijutsu: Tactical-Retreat-no-Jutsu! and Taijutsu: Charge-in-the-opposite-direction-no-Jutsu!)

Make sure you also take your time to dry and air your boots or ninja sandals (see section about maintenance of Personal Leather Carrier) and change socks regularly. Make sure your feet are warm and dry.

Two holsters twice the size of the standard kunai pouch joined the rest of his gear on the table. A pair of baggy olive-green pants with a series of ragged cuts was thrown onto the floor, they couldn't be salvaged.

He quietly inspected the wound he had received during his run-in with the akatsuki a few days earlier. Above his right knee there was a ragged red-scar an inch wide and a good ten inches long.

"Stupid scythe wielding fanatic." He muttered and brushed his finger across the marred skin. It hadn't been deep, but having that much skin torn off had hurt like a bitch, and it had bleed so fucking much he had been worried the bastard might have nicked an artery.

He'd applied a tourniquet on his leg once they had managed to get away, and once they were sure they weren't being followed Jiraiya had managed to patch the worst with a healing jutsu. He hadn't used one himself because it was generally inadvisable to use those on yourself, especially if you were in pain.

He and Jiraiya had trailed the duo for more then two weeks, and they had managed to lay an ambush when the two missing-nin were about to cross the border into Kumogakure.

The duo had seemed only marginally bothered by the anti-personnel explosives that he had littered the area with. He hadn't bothered with explosive tags seeing as skilled ninja could detect the chakra they leaked and had instead gone straight for standard explosives covered in senbon needles, shards of glass and common household nails and screws.

Despite the fact that both had suffered wounds extensive enough to kill even him, Kyuubi regeneration or not, it had taken them only a split second for them to close the distance and go straight for melee.

Both sides had been evenly matched; Jiraiya was clearly beating Kakuzu and was slowly cornering him and going in for the kill. His match hadn't gone as well; Hidan was dodging all of his ranged jutsu and explosive tags, and standard shuriken and kunai hadn't even caused him to slow him down.

Kage bunshin had fared only marginally better, Hidan hadn't bothered dodging the fists, feet and kunai and with every sweep of his scythe he had cut down dozens of his bunshins.

He had used his remaining kage bunshin as a diversion and had launched an attack from behind using the rasengan.

The missing-nin had in a single move decapitated every rasengan wielding bunshin, spun around and had almost managed to cleave him in half with the damn scythe. He managed to dodge most of the attack but did receive that leg wound. He had been forced to pull back and had managed to plant an explosive tag on the man's scythe to cover his retreat.

The leg wound had put him out of the fight, and he had been forced to use the retreat signal. Jiraiya was good but his chance of success fighting against both missing-nin was small. He hated to admit it but it was better to cut their losses and retreat then risk death for a victory that in the big picture didn't really matter.

They had moved towards their predestinated retreat point and when the two akatsuki members had followed he had detonated another series of anti-personnel explosives that he had planted for just that sort of event.

The two hadn't followed them after that, but neither he nor Jiraiya wanted to go back and see if that had finally killed them.

Later that night when they were patching up their wounds he had blamed himself for what had happened. Jiraiya scolded him and told him that it had been the right decision, ninja's were either bold, or they grew old, but there were hardly ever any bold old ninja.

After that they had made their way towards Konoha at their quickest pace, but his leg and Jiraiya's own wounds had slowed them down.

The old pervert had, like many times before, been right about it.

The blonde ninja sighed and threw himself onto the bed and began to think back at the start of his journey. He knew intellectually that Jiraiya had been one of the Three, but he hadn't connected the aging pervert with one of Konoha's best ninja.

It had been during the first few weeks of his training journey that he finally understood what it meant. The Three had grown up in a time of constant war, where death was always only a few minutes away.

They had seen comrades and loved cut down like grass, every day there was a new death to mourn and a new funeral to attend. Despite this they hadn't only survived, but grown stronger as well.

The Three were among the strongest ninja that had ever walked in the elemental countries, virtually unparalleled in the art of war. They had survived all of the different wars at the time, no mean feat in itself, but had also earned the respect and fear of allies and enemies alike.

It was hard to think about the pervert as a ninja that had the blood of hundreds of enemies on his hands. But during the training he had finally seen a glimpse of the ninja that fought all those wars and garnered such a reputation, the ninja who had trained the man who was known as the strongest ninja ever to live.

While Yondaime had been a skilled ninja, it had been under Jiraiya's tutelage skilled became mortal god.

Jiraiya had subjected him to training that had left his chakra reserves empty and physically and mentally exhausted beyond understanding. Once he had become Jiraiya's official apprentice he had pulled out all stops and the training he had received before seemed like child's play.

The old pervert had spent close to a month carefully testing and evaluating all of his skills and abilities to find his strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately once Jiraiya turned serious he didn't tolerate anything done halfway, he had spent the first year slowly picking apart and finding any and every fault in his techniques and education.

The fact that he had been a genin didn't even seem to faze him; the toad sannin didn't accept anything below chuunin level in the basic skills, a fact he had been forced to learn quickly during the brutal training regime.

Every technique the blonde knew was explained to the best of the old pervert's ability, and with more then forty years of being a ninja his knowledge was extensive. The more he learned and the more he trained the more he realized what a gap there was between the two of them.

The rasengan was completely relearned and mastered to the point that his hands were covered in second degree chakra burns. Chakra control techniques, academy and jounin level alike were practiced until he ran out of chakra.

Kage bunshin, kuchiyose no jutsu, even the three academy jutsu was relearned. It had been during the time that he had managed a perfect regular bunshin that he realized what Jiraiya's training was doing for him.

Raiton, Katon, Suiton, Futon, Doton techniques were learnt, mastered and added to his jutsu library. Taijutsu was drilled until he almost dropped from exhaustion, and during the breaks he was taught genjutsu. Seals were explained and taught, stealth, assassination, infiltration, demolition, even basic medical techniques.

He understood Jiraiya was turning him into a one man army, even without all his kage bunshin, a well rounded shinobi that could fill any and every role in a team.

The entire time Jiraiya found and explained every weakness in the techniques, and encouraged him to do the same.

He remembered seven months into the training trip when he had managed to spot all of the weak spots in a particular tajutsu combo, and the old pervert had rewarded by taking him to visit at the local hot-springs for a few hours.

The training had left him so exhausted he hadn't even bothered to complain when Jiraiya handed him a sake-bottle. The visit had in certain ways been more enlightening then all of his training up to that point.

They had begun a discussion about some of the people that they knew and he had learned much about Konoha ninja, past and present, about the White Fang of Konoha, Sakumo Hatake, a ninja that had been on the same level as the Sannin.

About the Sandaime when he had been young and their escapades peeking at the hot springs, about some of Yondaime's misadventure Jiraiya used to bring up to ensure his first apprentice didn't get a big ego. About Dan, a wire user that had been in the same league as the sannin and Sakumo.

The old ninja had sounded wistful when he explained about his love for Tsunade, a love that persisted to this day, a love that was never meant to be.

His voice had been filled with pride and sorrow as he told him about his best friend, comrade in arms and brother in everything but blood, Orochimaru.

The sannin had closed his eyes for a few moments in remembrance. He had explained how they had fought together for more then two and a half decades, how they had shed the same blood in the same mud.

It had been painful to see his mentor in such a state and disheartening to see that Orochimaru, despite everything he had seen had once been human and a loyal Konoha shinobi.

He had been told how they, when the duo had been heavily wounded, had spent the night behind enemy lines talking about their hopes and dreams and ambitions in an attempt to keep awake and wait for reinforcements.

He was told about Orochimaru's courage when he had decided to stay behind and hold the line in a futile attempt to buy enough time for their shinobi to retreat and regroup.

He explained that at that time there was no one he trusted more, and that there was no one he wanted more to fight besides. He knew that they would have easily risked death to save each other, and they had, more times then they could count.

The old ninja's voice cracked up slightly as he explained about the time Orochimaru had pulled a young girl from the ruins of a burning building, and when the otherwise stoic shinobi had sat down in the middle of a destroyed village near the Kumo border. The snake sannin's hands had been shaking as he shed silent tears for the dead, faced with the horrors of war.

Orochimaru's decent into darkness had come as a complete surprise for Jiraiya, he had hoped to bring back his friend to Konoha so that things would be back as they had been before. The toad sannin probably didn't realize it, but Naruto could see that the old ninja still missed his friend.

He was humbled to see that the people he held in so high esteem was only human with faults of their own.

Naruto was true enough to himself the he could say that he respected the man Orochimaru had once been, if not the monster he had become, but was also pained to realize that his bond with Sasuke hadn't been anywhere near as strong as Orochimaru's and Jiraiya's.

It hurt him to finally acknowledge that he had only known him for a scant few months, and that at best they were acquaintances and colleagues. He would still keep his promise to Sakura, one way or the other, but he knew that the rest of Konoha wouldn't welcome the missing Uchiha with open arms.

They had never talked about that day after that, but during the times they spent in civilization he always joined the old pervert when he drank sake and silently raised a cup to remember Orochimaru the man, not the monster.

His mind drifted away from thoughts about Orochimaru to what happened after that.

The training had continued, until Jiraiya had decided to augment his training with real missions, he needed the experience of real combat to hone his skills otherwise everything he had learnt would be useless.

Jiraiya had managed to procure a number of missions from Tsunade that wasn't time dependant, mostly inconspicuous missions like hunting missing-nin or even the occasional assassination. But most of the time it had been undercover intelligence gathering and research, as knowledge was Konoha's bread and butter.

He had learned from Jiraiya just how hard it was to get good intelligence. Even then, getting the information was only the first part; you had to analyze it as well. Most of the time you only got bits and pieces from many different sources, pieces of a larger puzzle you slowly had to fit together.

He found out even the most trivial piece of information could in the right context provide detailed intelligence on other groups, even if it wasn't the information you looked for or needed.

Fortunately trying to make heads or tails of the information he had wasn't his job, so in the beginning he had just dumped it all in his reports and sent it to the analyst division back home so they could deal with it.

Jiraiya hadn't been pleased when he found out he hadn't even tried to figure out what all information meant. Apparently Jiraiya took his disinterest as sacrilege, and he had been drafted to help him with the pervert's spy-network. That little stunt had taught him a wide variety of skills, mostly obscure civilian ones.

The one thing that had changed him the most though, had been his first assassination mission.

That mission had opened his eyes to the darker aspects of being a shinobi, he knew it had to be done sooner or later, but he still hated Jiraiya for it.

His training continued, broken up by the occasional mission. He wished he could say that he'd had a good time, but in truth once the missions began it was hell.

A little more then a year after the journey began Jiraiya had without a word handed him a standard chuunin vest, With the number and difficulty of the missions they had taken, most which Jiraiya had convinced him to plan, he had been eligible for a battlefield promotion.

There were three ways to rise in ranks, an individual evaluation see if the person had the right qualities for chuunin was the most common way. The second most common way was to show leadership qualities during the chuunin exam, it was noticeably harder then the first.

The most uncommon, during peacetime at least, was battlefield promotion where a person needed an outstanding mission record with multiple high-ranking missions. It was the hardest way to become a chuunin, as by the time a shinobi had managed to get such a mission record they had probably already joined the ANBU or where well on their way to becoming special-jounin the normal way.

Receiving a battlefield promotion had its perks though, one was allowed to take missions with a higher ranking then normal, and a battlefield promotion actually gave seniority among his chuunin peers, which placed him somewhere between chuunin and special-jounin in the chain of command.

Unfortunately Jiraiya couldn't train him the entire time as he needed to keep an eye on his spy network, so when the old pervert had decided the his skills were "adequate" he had been allowed to act as support for any Konoha shinobi currently in the area they were visiting. He had even been allowed to go on a couple of solo-missions, something that was normally reserved for special jounin or higher.

Twenty months into their journey he had received his second promotion, this time to special jounin. Jiraiya had considered him good enough that he wasn't a liability in combat anymore, his new rank was a reflection of that.

Without the need look over his shoulder every other second to make sure his apprentice didn't mess up the old sannin decided to take a more proactive approach to the akatsuki problem.

They began to turn the chase around, first they targeted suspected akatsuki agents, mostly civilians but there was the occasional chuunin and jounin. They gathered what data they could about the main members, and then began to hunt them.

They had attacked akatsuki directly three times, each time against a different team. The first had been little more then a hit and run against Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame that had lasted less fifteen seconds.

They had run into the duo by pure luck and decided to engage them and see if they could get some easy kills. They didn't want to commit to a serious fight though and had simply launched a couple of quick area attacks followed by a copious amount of explosives tags to cover their retreat.

They were gone before Itachi had even managed to activate his sharingan, and he seriously doubted they had realized who they were, otherwise they would have pursued them.

The second time they had targeted a puppet user that they suspected came from Suna, and a blonde from Iwa. The attack had been to gauge their strength, but once the blonde missing-nin had begun to level the playing field, literally, they hightailed away. Once again he had covered their retreat with explosives, he had been forced to use his entire arsenal and they had only barely managed to get out of the blast radius in time.

During that evening Jiraiya had muttered about crazy blondes and explosives, but he hadn't been sure if he meant him or the Iwa-nin.

The third, and final confrontation, had been last week, where they had actually attempted to take down the duo of missing-nin. That had ended in a spectacular failure, the only saving grace was the information about their combat styles the duo could bring back to Konoha.

He flexed his shoulders and a series of pops from his spine echoed through the otherwise quiet room.

He wrapped himself tightly in a blanket and tried to find a comfortable position to sleep in, the bed was at least a foot and half too short, and the springs on the bed itself were worn out.

He was used to sleeping outside in every possible weather condition though, so it didn't take more then a minute before he was fast asleep.

--------------

Author's notes:

It's been almost four years since I last posted a story, not counting the occasional sci-fi dribble on another site. I've actually spent a lot of that time writing on various stories, but for some reason or another I've never actually gotten around posting any of it.

There were a couple of reasons for this, laziness played a large part, but also because I never felt any of the fics had gotten to the point were they were ready. I think I've been writing on and off on this for about two years now, and once I realized I had more then a hundred pages of pure story I couldn't really justify to myself not posting the first few parts.

Well, enjoy!