And So It Begins
Kakashi stood at the entrance to the cave and watched the rain pour down. The torrential downpour had started two days after he and his team had set foot into Rain Country, and it became obvious rather quickly that this was not a normal rain storm. For starters, it hadn't let up in twelve days now...and no matter what they had done to hide their presence, the enemy shinobi managed to find them and attack...usually at the most inopportune times. So now, his hand-picked ten-man team was holed up in a dark and dank cave, counting the moments until the enemy tracked them down once more.
Kakashi frowned. It wasn't supposed to go this way. When they had left Konoha three months earlier, it had been with the intention of tracking down the Akatsuki and ending their existence once and for all. He had promised himself, and all those who'd been injured or killed over the course of the last year, that his main mission as Sixth Hokage would be to remove the threats to Konoha...starting with the Akatsuki. He shook his head at his own stupidity...he should have realized it wouldn't be so easy.
Kakashi turned away from the opening to take a good look at the group of Konoha shinobi who had foolishly followed his lead. The team was split into two distinct groups...the older shinobi, and the members of the younger generation. The older contingent – consisting of Raido, Aoba and Genma – were against the far right wall – took the moment of quiet for what it was, and rested while they could. Against the left wall, the remaining members of the team sat talking quietly to each other – somehow unable to relax during this lull in their mission. Shikamaru was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, while Ino was fiddling with her long blond ponytail – her eyes firmly fixed on the third member of her team, Choji. Sakura was bending over Choji while her hands glowed softly with her healing chakra, and she tried to reverse the damage done to the young man in the last attack. Meanwhile, Kiba had his face buried in his battle hound, Akamaru's, thick white fur – clearly distraught, while Neji sat with his back pressed against the cold stone wall...his dark hair fading into the shadows, while he kept a watchful eye on all his friends.
This had been yet another failed attempt to reduce the numbers of the Akatsuki...and worse yet...this time three members of his team were injured. Kakashi wondered if Minato-sensei ever felt this useless when he was Hokage. He shook his head, trying to remove that thought from his mind...it wouldn't help if he started doubting his actions...or his purpose. After all, every one of these shinobi were well trained and perfectly capable members of Konoha.
Neji Hyuga walked up to join him. The younger man's white eyes were never easy to read, but Kakashi had learned to tell quite a bit from the other subtle signals of the man's movements over the course of their adventure. For instance, at the moment...with Neji's head cocked to the left ever-so-slightly, and his lids fully exposing his blank eyes...Kakashi knew it was time to have his chakra network released and reset. This was probably the only thing about the mission that he simply couldn't get used to. Having those sharp blows along his arm and shoulder multiple times a day was truly becoming an issue.
Still, it's purpose couldn't be faulted. Because of Neji's treatments, the Akatsuki could no longer use their porcelain ring to control him as their tool...and with a slight adjustment to the chakra point blows, they'd even found a way to block the Akatsuki's Leader from pinpointing his exact location anymore. Of course, that also meant he couldn't use that same link to track the Akatsuki down. But regardless, the areas which needed to be hit by Neji were starting to react in their own way to the constant abuse. There were deep bruises at every point he struck, and even with the combined efforts of Sakura and Ino's healing abilities, the areas were never completely without some level of pain.
Kakashi sighed and turned to face the Hyuga jonin. "Let's get it over with."
Neji bowed his head slightly and activated his Byakugan, the veins around his eyes swelling in an instant. "Yes, Lord Hokage."
Kakashi cringed at his response. You'd think that by now he'd have gotten used to the title...but those words still brought visions of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Hokages to his mind, making Kakashi feel less than worthy of the position. He stood perfectly still while the first series of blows were delivered. The flow of chakra released back into his right arm felt as though that arm was dipped into an icy-cold river of water, but before he could feel more than a bit of that discomfort, Neji's fingertips struck Kakashi again – sealing the flow off once more.
Kakashi flexed his fingers and grunted a bit at the uncomfortable sensation left behind, but he knew it was a thousand percent better than the feeling of having his chakra bottleneck within his body – like it had once before. He glanced down at the porcelain ring still seared into place on his finger – the character marking him as the Akatsuki's tool standing out plainly on its face – and clenched his hand into a fist. Without Neji's treatments, he knew the agony he had once felt from the Akatsuki's connection to him through the ring would be restored and render him useless.
Pushing those thoughts away, Kakashi shifted his attention back to the young man at his side. "Neji – before you deactivate your Byakugan, tell me what you see outside."
Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck and met the young man's confused gaze with his mismatched eyes. "There's something out there, Neji...in the rain...and my sharingan can't quite catch it...but it's there."
Neji looked surprised at Kakashi's confession that his sharingan, which he'd been gifted with so long ago, might miss something. But, considering he'd almost lost the eye less than six months back, he knew his skill with it was far from where it once was. It was continuing to get better...but the eye tended to wear on him more than before, and his ability to track movements was still slower than it once was. The Mangekyo ability that once helped him send his comrades far from the Akatsuki's grasp was not an option for him in the eyes current state...and he was starting to doubt if it ever would be again.
He watched Neji do as he asked without another word, and paid careful attention to the Hyuga's body language as he looked out into the pouring rain. As expected, Neji's eyes widened and his neck muscles tensed before he deactivated his eyes and faced Kakashi once more.
"Your instincts have proven correct once more, Hokage. The rain is infused with chakra. The levels are very low – barely perceptible unless you are specifically looking for it. How did you know?"
Kakashi sighed, crossed his arms and leaned casually against the cave wall. "I figured there had to be a reason we were getting tracked so easily over the past several days. And the only thing that had changed since the previous days was the presence of this rain."
Neji tipped his head to the side and he narrowed his eyes. "That was why you used the Earth jutsu to bring us into this cave from below, rather than have us walk straight to it."
Kakashi shrugged. "Yup."
Neji turned to face outside once more. "It may be troublesome, but we can't stay here too much longer."
Kakashi grinned at how the young man's mind was already thinking multiple steps ahead. "Careful Neji...you're starting to sound like Shikamaru."
Neji met his eyes and shrugged. "I can think of worse things, Hokage."
Kakashi had to agree with that. "Eventually our absence in the rain will bring search teams from the Akatsuki – so you are correct, Neji...we need to move."
He watched Neji shift his attention to the rest of the group. "They may not be ready?"
Kakashi followed his gaze and saw he was referring to the three injured members of their team. He sighed again. "They're going to have to be. We can't afford to stay here much longer."
Kakashi noticed that Sakura looked up from what she was doing and he met her eyes. The pink-haired kunoichi acknowledged him with a nod and then pushed herself to her feet. She crossed to his side...a slight frown gracing her lips.
"Kakashi-sensei, we've done all we can for now, but Choji needs some serious nourishment soon if he's going to have a chance at a full recovery. Soldier Pills and nutrient bars won't do it for him."
Kakashi frowned. He'd never expected the young man to need to use quite so much of his energy in that last battle. But considering Choji's teammates, Shikamaru and Ino, were being threatened by Deidara's clay bombs, Kakashi should have known better.
It had seemed like the logical choice to bring the Ino-Shika-Cho trio on this mission, but it was becoming obvious that Choji had the same narrow-minded view as Shikamaru when it came to protecting his precious people. A theory which was proven when the fool took one of his clan's chakra pills to gain the necessary strength to wipe out the threat...absorbing the damage from the clay bombs and protecting Ino and Shikamaru from the explosion.
Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck. "What about the others?"
Sakura's mouth turned up into a small smile. "Genma's arm took to the healing well. He'll just be a little sore for a few days."
Kakashi nodded his head at that information. Served the fool right for thinking he could take on Aigaki's duplicates on his own. At least the Akatsuki's youngest member was no longer able to create eighteen of the deadly duplicates...so far they'd only seen him manage four.
"What about Kiba, Sakura?"
The medic-ninja let out a deep breath and shifted her eyes over to where Kiba was lying with his bandaged head on Akamaru's side. "He'll heal physically...but he keeps blaming himself for that last ambush. He told me he couldn't believe he and Akamaru failed to smell the enemy at all."
Kakashi shook his head. What was it about the infamous 'Rookie-nine' that made each of them bound and determined to take blame for things that were never in their control? His sharingan eye chose that exact moment to throb painfully...likely it was Obito's way to tell him that they sounded a lot like a certain pig-headed Hokage. Kakashi smiled to himself at that thought.
"Send Kiba over here. I need to talk to him."
Sakura nodded once and went to fetch the Inuzuka teen. He watched the young man snap his head up when Sakura told him to go to the front of the cave, and Kakashi couldn't help compare the reaction to one of his own hounds when they were about to be scolded.
Kakashi frowned. He still hadn't completely accepted the fact that he had lost three of his nin-hounds to the Akatsuki's attack six months ago...along with Ibiki Morino, and far too many other comrades from the ANBU. Their loss was one of the driving factors to this current mission. He had to do something to keep any more of his precious people from dying at the Akatsuki's hands. And he had to keep them from using him to kill Naruto to get to the Kyuubi...no matter what.
His resolve firmly set once more, Kakashi waited for Kiba and Akamaru to join him. Neji moved to leave them alone once the pair arrived, but the Hyuga was stilled by one movement of Kakashi's hand.
Kakashi cut straight to the point. "Kiba, it's time you stop blaming yourself."
He watched the young man's shoulders hunch, and when Kiba lifted his head to meet Kakashi's eyes, the guilt was plain in his gaze. "But Hokage...there's no one else to blame. We failed to scent even one of the enemy...and now Choji and Genma are injured because of it!"
Kakashi sighed and tilted his head toward Neji. The Hyuga understood the motion for what it was, and took over the conversation. "Kiba, the Hokage is correct when he said to stop blaming yourself. No one – not even in the entire Inuzuka clan – could have picked up a scent in this particular rain."
Kiba spun toward the dark-haired jonin...anger clear in his glare, and in the snarl curling his lips. "What the hell would you know about it, Neji? You're a seer – not a smeller. You can't know what my clan is capable of...and you can't begin to understand what this failure means."
Kakashi was impressed when Neji's only reaction to Kiba's verbal attack was for him to raise one eyebrow. "That may be true Kiba...but I do know enough about what you do to know that chakra-laced rain is likely going to hide even the strongest odor."
Kiba looked like he was about to argue again, when he frowned and glanced out into the storm instead. He narrowed his eyes, walked over to the opening and tentatively sniffed at the air...then he turned back toward the inner stretch of the cave and sniffed again. His eyes went wide.
Kakashi chuckled lightly. "Like I was saying, Kiba...it's time you stop blaming yourself. Even your mother wouldn't have been able to scent that ambush. Am I clear?"
Kiba turned back to face Kakashi and slid one hand into Akamaru's fur at the dog's neck. "Clear as freshly spilled blood, Hokage."
Kakashi grinned at the Inuzuka's choice of comparison...glad to see he understood. "Good – now go help Sakura and the others. I want the group ready to leave within the hour."
Kiba grinned wide enough to bare his pointed canines. "You've got it, Boss!"
Kakashi grimaced at the newly bestowed title, even as Kiba and Akamaru joined the others. Neji's quiet voice next to him gave him something to focus on. "How do you propose we avoid the rain this time, Hokage?"
Kakashi's mask was firmly in place over the lower half of his face, so he allowed his eyes to curve in a way that he knew Neji would read as a smile. "I don't plan to avoid it Neji. No – this time we'll be waiting for the bastards to show up. It's high time we reminded these fools just why it's unwise to cross Konoha shinobi."
Itachi watched the Leader as he stared out into the driving rain. The red-haired man had stood there, unmoving, for the last four hours. Itachi knew he was trying to locate some trace of Kakashi Hatake and his band of Konoha shinobi within the net of chakra-laced rain, and was more than a bit upset that the Sixth Hokage was nowhere to be found.
The Leader turned toward him – his black and white ringed eyes boring into him with such an intense stare that Itachi had to keep himself from trembling at the sight of it. Itachi bowed his head in respect before presuming to speak.
"Leader, Zetsu has returned from evaluating the location of the last encounter with Kakashi Hatake and the others."
The Leader narrowed his gaze. "And?"
Itachi met the man's eyes steadily. "He tasted three distinct blood types amidst the ground samples."
This caught the man's attention, and Itachi noticed the Leader's mouth twitch slightly. "Was Hatake among the samples?"
"No. The blood came from three other shinobi. Zetsu claims one is an Inuzuka, while the other two are barely noteworthy at all...tasting sour to his tongue."
"Heh...Zetsu's taste buds are seldom wrong. So Kakashi has once again managed to slip through our grasp. This is becoming a pattern which I would prefer we end in the near future. Mishobi has located the six-tailed jinchuriki, and we will need to at least neutralize the Hokage's potential threat in order to perform the extraction jutsu without fear of interruption."
Itachi watched the Leader turn back toward the rain – evidently finished with their discussion. Itachi frowned and turned to leave, but he froze to the spot when the Leader's words reached his ears.
"One more thing, Itachi. I will not accept it should you disappear again during our next encounter with Kakashi Hatake. Do you understand?"
Itachi cringed inwardly. He had managed to be elsewhere during the last three battles with the Leaf Shinobi, and he'd known the Leader would eventually call him on it. "I understand, Leader."
With that, Itachi returned to the inner rooms of the Akatsuki's Rain Village headquarters. Although the interior rooms were much better equipped than most of their hideouts, Itachi would never get used to the constant rain. He'd never been particularly fond of getting wet – and every inch of this place smelled musty to him. Still, the rain did allow the Leader to detect most movement within its reach, so it was one of the most secure locations the Akatsuki had.
Itachi sneezed...another unfortunate reaction to the constant cold rain. He pulled his cloak a bit tighter and moved down the well-lit hallways toward the kitchen. Perhaps he could coax a cup of hot tea out of the servants to take the chill out of his bones before he'd have to head out into the rain to face off with Kakashi Hatake once more.
By now, Jiraiya was hoping Kakashi would have finished pretending he could wipe away all of Konoha's problems on his own, and would have returned to release him from the never-ending torture that was the paperwork behind the running of Konoha. He sighed and pushed his pen across the parchment – knowing that if he didn't at least look like he was working, Shizune would spend a good half hour watching him like a hawk.
He sighed and glanced out the window. He'd never really understood just how tiresome the official paperwork could be, and he had an entirely new respect for the fact Tsunade had put up with it at all. He smiled fondly at the memory of the Fifth Hokage leaning over behind stacks of papers and sneaking a sip of saké from time to time. He truly appreciated that act now more than ever.
Jiraiya turned back toward the desk in a moment of inspiration. He reached under the lip of the top drawer, feeling around until his fingertips brushed against the secret catch he'd seen Tsunade manipulate more than once in the past years. The soft whisper of the catch releasing on the side of the desk brought a knowing smile to his lips and caused him to look up to verify Shizune was nowhere to be seen.
Once he was certain he wouldn't be discovered, Jiraiya eased open the hidden compartment and gently removed a bottle of premium saké along with a single cup. A grin stretched across his lips. Leave it to Tsunade to hide away the best stuff for herself.
He pulled the stopper out of the bottle and poured himself a drink. He stared into the clear liquid, and for the briefest moment he could have sworn he saw Tsunade staring back up at him. Jiraiya blinked back a tear, and with that movement, the vision of his long-time crush disappeared. He sighed and lifted the glass to his lips – savoring the taste as it slid past his lips and tongue. He was just about to pour himself another glass when the door opened and he met a pair of wide brown eyes. Thankfully they belonged to the Academy Teacher, and not Shizune. Of course that relief disappeared once the younger man spoke.
"Master Jiraiya! What do you think you're doing?" Iruka Umino stood in the doorway. The chunin's uniform looked rumpled from whatever he'd been doing and his dark brown hair was slipping out of his normally neat ponytail. His fists were perched on his hips, and his face was flushed from anger, but it was his voice that made Jiraiya cringe. That voice made it sound like he'd been caught ravaging one of the Village's children.
Jiraiya frowned and set the bottle and glass back onto the desk. "What does it look like I'm doing, Iruka? I'm taking a break from the endless mountains of paperwork that you and Shizune seem determined to bury me under." He stared down at the desk's surface and sighed. "No wonder Tsunade took up drinking."
"Oh please...Lady Tsunade took up drinking long before taking up the Hokage title...and you know that, Master Jiraiya."
Jiraiya glanced up to see Iruka standing in front of the desk with his arms crossed and a look of disappointment in his eyes. "Stop looking at me like I just kicked one of Kakashi's mutts."
Iruka's eyes narrowed. "You haven't really done that....have you?"
Jiraiya chuckled at the change in direction the conversation was taking. "Iruka – you've known Kakashi long enough to know that no one who kicked one of his mutts would still be breathing."
The chunin scratched at the back of his head and shrugged. "I guess you're right about that."
Jiraiya leaned back in his chair and placed his hands behind his head. "So what brings you into the office without another stack of papers for me to look at, hmmm?"
Jiraiya nearly laughed as he watched the young man try to regroup his mind to its original purpose. But before Iruka had a chance to say a single word, the door to the office was pushed wide, causing a breeze which sent the two nearest stacks of papers sailing off the desk to scatter across the floor.
Jiraiya sprang to his feet – trying desperately to keep the two piles from mixing. "Dammit! I spent all morning separating those!"
"Sorry, Pervy-sensei." That greeting in itself let Jiraiya know who the latest visitor was, and he instantly forgot about the errant papers.
"Naruto!" He stood up and grinned at the boy who'd been away training with the Toad-sages.
The blond-hair was a bit longer than it used to be, and Naruto looked like he'd grown a bit since he'd left, but otherwise he didn't look any worse for wear. Iruka placed a hand on Naruto's shoulder and smiled at his former student.
"Welcome home, Naruto! Does this mean you've finished your training?"
Jiraiya frowned when he saw Naruto's reaction to Iruka's question. The boy furrowed his brow and then turned his face away from them. His voice was barely above a whisper.
Jiraiya crossed to where the boy was seemingly pouting, and waited for Naruto to look back up at him. There was an almost pained look in his blue eyes. "What happened Naruto? You were gone long enough that you should be fully trained by now."
That comment seemed to make Naruto even more miserable, and Iruka stepped in to try and salvage the conversation. "Naruto – why don't you tell us what happened?"
Naruto rubbed one hand across the back of his neck – reminding Jiraiya of Kakashi in that moment – and then sighed wearily. "The Toads sent me back. They said I wasn't ready...and wouldn't be as long as it was there."
"It?" Jiraiya scratched at the top of his head...not quite sure what the kid was talking about.
Naruto lowered his head to stare at his feet. "Kyuubi."
Iruka seemed outraged. "Master Jiraiya....can they do that? I mean – really – weren't they supposed to be helping him?"
Before Jiraiya could answer, Naruto spoke up. "Iruka-sensei, it's okay. They didn't just make up their mind about it, you know. They tried everything they could think of...but I just couldn't do what I needed to do. Anytime Ma and Pa toad tried to merge with me – even if it was with one of my clones – Kyuubi flared up and threw them off. One time it was so bad, the toads got pretty beat up."
Jiraiya frowned. "I was hoping their techniques would have helped you maintain control over the beast, Naruto. I'm so sorry. It should have worked."
Naruto shrugged. "Yeah – well it didn't. Now I'm stuck here, while Kakashi-sensei is out there trying to keep us all safe."
Jiraiya watched a strange look cross over Naruto's face at mention of the Hokage. "Listen Kid, it's not like I know where Kakashi is...otherwise I'd send you out to help him. You know that, right?"
Naruto lowered his head again and clenched his fists. "Yeah – I know."
Iruka's face lit up. "That's right! Master Jiraiya...that's why I was coming in to see you! One of Kakashi's hounds showed up with an update. They've been holed up at the border of Rain Country and are asking for backup!"
That caught Naruto's attention – and Jiraiya watched the light in the boy's blue eyes come back – as though someone flipped a switch. "Let me go – please? I need to get back to Kakashi-sensei!"
Jiraiya frowned. Something in how Naruto was acting really didn't settle right with him. "I don't know, Naruto. You've only just come back – and I have dozens of other missions I can assign to you."
Naruto narrowed his eyes dangerously – and Jiraiya could have sworn he saw a glint of red in them. "Are you saying I can't go, Pervy-sensei?"
"I'm saying I'll think about it Naruto. Okay?"
Naruto rolled his eyes. "Fine. When will you be done thinking about it?"
Jiraiya glared at the kid, while Iruka hit Naruto across the back of his head. "Knock it off, Naruto! Master Jiraiya is in charge until the Hokage returns. Show him a little more respect! He'll let you know his decision when he makes it!"
Naruto rubbed at the back of his head and frowned. "Ow! Fine...you didn't have to hit me, you know."
Jiraiya chuckled at the exchange – glad to see some things never changed. "Now get outta here, Kid. I've got some thinking to do."
Iruka took his words for the dismissal they were and placed a hand on Naruto's shoulder once more. "Come on, Naruto. I'll treat you to ramen and catch you up on what you've missed."
Naruto's face lit up with a smile. "Sure thing, Iruka-sensei! I've been craving Ichiraku Ramen for months!"
Just like that, the whirlwind left the office, with Iruka trailing after him, leaving Jiraiya to clean up the mess while trying to think of just why he was feeling uncomfortable about letting Naruto rejoin his former sensei. He looked back at the bottle on the desk and wondered what Tsunade would have done. Sighing to himself, he took a moment to replace the glass and bottle into the hidden compartment, and then bent to start picking up the scattered papers – all the time cursing Kakashi Hatake for ever forcing him to be in this position in the first place.