An: I'm sorry for such a long wait between chapters. But with work, the general hustle and bustle of the holidays. Not to mention a general amount of laziness on my part before I knew it months had flown by instead of the usual weeks. Anyhow, I'll try and get back into the swing of things but can't promise anything since I plan to put in a lot of overtime in order to save up some cash. Let me thank all those who take the time to read and review as always since honestly I feel you're the ones I've let down the most, sincerely S. o. t. A.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and I'm doing this for fun not profit, which is sadly why I can't dedicate as much time as I would like to write this.

Chapter 63: Here Kitty, Kitty

Naruto ran to the Hokage mansion as the mobilization alarm continued to blare. Hearing it again so soon after they had dealt with Sky Country made him wonder if the last remnants of the once great mobile nation were staging some sort of suicide attack. Landing on the roof of the Hokage mansion he found it covered in shinobi of all ranks and ages. Seeing his team he took up a spot between Sakura and Hinata asking, "Any idea what this is about?"

Both kunoichi shook their head in the negative with Hinata saying, "No, but there was a clan meeting this morning which has probably just ended. The alert may be related to something that happened during it."

Naruto nodded and seeing Kakashi and Shikamaru talking with Tsunade said, "Well whatever it is we're probably going to be in the thick of it."

Finishing her conversation Tsunade moved from the two jounin, who took up positions behind her, to stand in front of her assembled shinobi. Clearing her throat, she said, "Time is of the essence so I'll be brief. We have received a mission from Hot Water Country to stop a potential invasion from Kumo." Tsunade remained silent as her shinobi began speaking to each other in hushed tones. She knew to expect as much, however she quickly reined them in shouting, "Silence!" They quickly obeyed her order so she continued by saying, "Good. Now before you jump to the conclusion this might be a start of a new war, we believe that it is in fact a search party looking for one of their jinchuriki who may have been abducted by Akatsuki. Still our honor as Leaf-nin demands that we take the Daimyo's request for assistance seriously. But that doesn't mean we're going to let those Akatsuki bastards get what they want. Therefore, you'll be broken into two groups. The group led by Kakashi is to stop Kumo from recklessly crossing the border in a way that might kick off a new shinobi war. Shikamaru will take charge of the squads assigned to search Hot Water Country. You will be doing so under the pretense of searching for advanced scouts or ambush parties while officially you'll be looking for potential sealing sights or Akatsuki bases. Now grab whatever gear you'll need and be prepared to leave in fifteen minutes."

As the other shinobi began to scatter over Konoha to follow Tsunade's orders, Naruto headed straight for Kakashi followed by his team asking, "Kakashi-sensei do we know who the jinchuriki is?"

"Sorry, I'm afraid not. The message we received didn't go into details and truthfully we aren't even really sure we're reading this situation right. This can get pretty nasty quickly if we're wrong."

"Are we being assigned to your group Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked.

"No, I figured Naruto would prefer being assigned to the one searching for the jinchuriki." Seeing Naruto's nod Kakashi added, "But I've found someone to take my place in the squad. He'll be at the gate when we assemble." A moment later Kakashi shunshined away to grab a few more supplies knowing if things did go badly it would be days before reinforcements arrived.

Although already wearing most of his ninja tools Naruto followed Kakashi's example as he began leaping over the buildings on the way to his home. Followed by his girlfriends and teammates he was making a list of what to grab when Haku asked, "Naruto did you ever met the Jinchuriki in Kumo?"

Shaking his head, he answered, "Not really. I talked to one of them once, but I was busy pretending to be her as Pervy Sage made contact. They were pretty highly regarded so it wasn't easy to draw them out."

"That could pose a problem then," Sai said as he leapt next to Haku.

"Why?" Naruto asked looking over his shoulder.

"I doubt Kumo would risk their jinchuriki foolishly. They are notorious for their lust of bloodlines and legendary weapons. That means Kumogakure must have believed they held the advantage, and if Akatsuki is behind this then they were still able to not only turn the tables but get their hands on the jinchuriki."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Naruto said gravelly, "You weren't with us when we faced Akatsuki but their members are all unbelievably strong."

"It truly doesn't matter," Haku said as the neared the former apartment building that was now the Uzumaki clan building and living quarters where they all lived, "We can't be sure of anything at this point so speculation serves no purpose."

Landing on the roof, Naruto said, "Besides we already know the most important thing."

"What's that Naruto?" Hinata asked sounding a little nervous which Naruto couldn't fault her for considering her history with Kumo.

"That this mission is going to be anything but easy," Naruto replied turning to face his teammates who nodded grimly in agreement. Trying to pick up the mood though he said, "It's just a good thing you guys have me around since I know I'll be able to handle it."

"Naruto, you shouldn't be so cocky," Sakura admonished him although he noticed a small smile on her lips.

"When has he not been overly self-confident?" Sai asked making his way down from the roof.

"Hey," Naruto shouted indignently.

"I can't honestly remember a time," Haku replied as he walked past Naruto noticing the wind being sucked from his friend's sails.

"That's so cold," Naruto said, but a moment later he was surrounded by warmth as Hinata and Sakura each grabbed an arm pressing up against him.

Kissing his cheek, Hinata said, "Come on. I've always enjoyed how confident you are."

"Thanks Hinata."

"But you probably could stand to learn a little humility," she added a moment later which caused Sakura to giggle and him to pout as the kunoichi dragged him along.

After the two kunoichi let him go to enter their apartment, Naruto stepped into his and spotting a note on the table quickly picked it up to read it. The note informed him that his mom had already left the village on a fact finding mission that supported the large one. Smiling at the part that told him to be careful, he put it down and grabbing several scrolls began loading them with everything from more ninja tools to emergency rations. Throwing some clothes into his backpack last he stepped out of his apartment pulling up his mask ready to deliver a serious hurting to Akatsuki.

"You're going to have to work on your endurance if you're going to be my apprentice," Kushina shouted behind her to a struggling Hanabi.

"Y-yes sensei," she replied redoubling her efforts to keep up with Kushina and Jiraiya as they leapt through the forest on their way to the Hot-Water Village. However despite her wanting to impress her sensei sadly she just didn't have the energy to keep going. As a result her chakra faltered as she landed on a branch causing her to slip and begin to fall towards the earth.

However Kushina was ready for such an outcome leaping from the trees behind the falling Hyuuga and easily caught her in her arms in midair. As they landed on the ground, Hanabi noticed that the Kushina that had yelled at her to keep up disappeared into smoke revealing that it was a clone. Confused, she looked up at the real Kushina, who could see the question in her eyes so said, "It's good you want to impress me, but you shouldn't do so at the expense of your safety or your health. If you were tired you should have said so." Placing her student on the ground Kushina said to Jiraiya as he joined them on the forest floor, "We'll rest here till Hanabi is ready to continue."

"I'm sorry," the Hyuuga said disappointed in herself although as she sunk to the ground she was glad they were resting.

"Don't be," Jiraiya said as he dropped down on a nearby rock, "I expected you to need to rest several miles back. Besides we're only about a day away from the village and will reach it before Kakashi's force reaches the Northern border."

Kushina handed Hanabi a canteen but instead of taking it and drinking she looked lost in thought so the red head asked, "What's the matter?"

"I guess I'm just wondering why you took me along if this mission is so important. I don't have any real experience to speak of. I'll probably just get in the way."

Crouching in front of her, Kushina put a hand on Hanabi's shoulder saying, "You'll do fine. All we need to do is get from the edge of the village to the administration building without being seen. We'll be fine."

"But I've never done anything of this sort before. What if I screw up?"

"Ha-ha don't worry about it," Jiraiya said amused, although still on guard around the girl having never forgotten the demon child that wounded him at the hot-springs several years before, "Learn by doing that's what I've always believed. Why… it takes me back to when I was training Naruto in how to summon. The kid just wasn't getting the hang of it so I threw him off a cliff so that in his desperation he'd…irk.

To Hanabi it almost appeared that Kushina's presence faded from in front of her since the woman moved so fast. Reappearing in front of Jiraiya, she delivered a kick to the side of his head that lifted the man from the rock and deposit him several feet away. Glowing with anger, she approached the Sannin her hair moving of its own accord as she said, "What did you do to my son?" in a voice that Hanabi was sure would give demons nightmares.

Realizing the danger he was in Jiraiya quickly faced the angry mother, "Now Kushina, I was positive the kid would come through. Besides aren't you doing the same thing kind of with Hiashi's daughter?"

"Are you accusing me of being reckless with her life because she's not mine? Do you really think I'm such a horrible mother that I'd risk someone else's baby recklessly?"

"Um…no," Jiraiya said praying he lived to see the next day as he wondered why his life was filled with such horribly violent women.

"Okay…good," Kushina said turning away calmly like the end of a sudden thunderstorm. Facing her student again she smiled at the girl saying, "Don't worry Hanabi. You'll do fine and if we do get caught I'll protect you no matter what."

Hanabi stared up at the smiling woman feeling a sense of calmness descending over her from the way Kushina spoke as if because she said so things would go exactly as she said. She nodded her head, but felt a small sliver of fear go through her spine as Kushina turned to look over her shoulder at Jiraiya who was retaking his spot on the rock he had been sitting on and with a voice once more filled with ice said to the Sannin, "Now let's you and I discuss what other training methods you used on my son." Hanabi couldn't help the small giggle that escaped as the Sannin's eyes grew wide in fear as the woman closed with him cracking her knuckles and hoped she didn't slip up during the mission if only to spare any defenders of Hot-Springs Village from having to face her teacher.

"Welcome to the annual Big Eaters contest, if you are contestants please sign in," a friendly woman said as Zabuza and his team approached her booth

Oi, what's the big idea," Mugen shouted annoyed at what he perceived as a distraction to his upcoming mission especially as Zabuza walked up to the booth and began writing. "Hey, we don't have time for some stupid contest we got a damn mission to get too."

"This is the mission," Zabuza said amused at the three faces gawking at him although only two of them seemed to be less than pleased.

"Surely you jest," Jin said calmly pushing his glasses up his nose.

"Yeah," Mugen shouted just as displeased becoming even more so at his agreeing with his teammate. "You told us this was a C-ranked mission and that we'd even be facing a shinobi."

"That's right. It is and you are." Zabuza pointed towards a small platform where a ninja was being interviewed by several reporters. "That's Chouji Akimichi and he's won this competition for the past three years running."

"I see," Mugen said a dark grin appearing on his face, "We've been hired to take him out."

Zabuza brought his fist down on top of Mugen's head causing him to bend forward nearly in half. "Don't be a moron," the jounin said angrily, "He's a Konoha-nin. Do you really think the Mizukage would risk the alliance for a paltry C-ranked mission? Your job is to beat him but to do it fairly."

"That's bullshit," Mugen shouted, "I didn't become a shinobi to stuff my face."

Zabuza scoffed but seeing the sentiment mirrored on Jin's face as well asked, "Then why did you become one?"


"It's a simple question," Zabuza said walking past the two boys of his squad, "For what purpose did you become Shinobi?" Thinking of his two previous students he said, "The boys I trained before you had dreams and goals they wanted to accomplish. If you can't even answer that question then you'll never discover what it is that will make you stronger. Anyhow, you three are signed up to compete. If you don't the, we'll mark this mission as a failure and you'll be suitably punished by taking more D-ranked ones."

As Zabuza took a place in the stands, Mugen mumbled, "Fuck him. D-ranked missions might suck but at least then we'd know what we were in store for." However looking over his shoulder at where his teammates should have been he saw them already taking their places among the many tables that had been set up. "Oi you bastards wait for me."

Zabuza chuckled as Mugen ran to join his two teammates. He had been a little surprised by just how fiercely the wild boy had complained, but remembered he hadn't been much different in his youth. Still considering that Zabuza had made the three run along the ground the four days to the village on light rations he figured their hunger would override their pride. Mentally shrugging, he figured in the end it didn't truly matter so long as they got the mission done. He doubted that any of the three would be able to beat the current champ but seeing the three nearly salivating as the cooks prepared the shrimp rice bowls he figured they might be capable of the second place spot which was their actual goal so that a local gambler could make a killing betting on his team.

He cut his mental musing as he felt a presence take a seat behind him in the stands. Despite her trying to do so unnoticed Zabuza felt it would be a cold day in hell before someone from the current generation could get the drop on him. Letting the young woman know she failed he said, "I trust your Hokage has the same principles about attacking allied shinobi as my wife."

Taking her being spotted in stride Ino moved down a seat and sat next to him saying, "She does, but there is more than one way to influence the outcome of this competition."

Looking out the corner of his eye, he could see that she was currently dressed as a civilian wearing a pair of hip hugger jeans and a white tank top. "True," Zabuza conceded before saying, "So you're here as more than just moral support."

Nodding Ino said, "Yeah, some of these other competitors have sponsors and others are hoping to pick one up. Needless to say, there are a lot of people who have the means and money to try and win with shinobi assistance." Eyeing his team she changed the subject saying, "You can't really believe those three have a shot at beating Chouji without your aiding them in some way?"

Zabuza shrugged before saying, "Who can say? But they have a shot at beating everyone else which is the client's true goal."

Ino smiled upon realizing that due in part to Chouji's dominance of the eating tournament over the past three years the person that had hired Zabuza was banking on another shinobi being good enough for second place and by betting on the newcomers planned to make a bundle on what would be considerably higher odds. Seeing that their missions truly didn't concern each other, she said, "Well in that case good luck."

Grunting in response Zabuza focused on his team as one of the two men he guessed were the announcers of the competition began speaking after the starting gong sounded and the contest began. "Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the Big Eater's Competition. I, Ichieimon, will be your announcer today. Sitting beside me is the Fire Temple priest Ingen who is best known for his cook book, "To Hell with Vegetarianism."

After the scrawny spectacled man introduced his thickly built partner, Zabuza listened with half an ear as they introduced the other competitors while he began to observe them. He chuckled despite nearly going deaf due to Ino's yelling when they introduced Chouji. He noticed several of the other contestants pausing in stuffing their faces to scowl at the name before they resumed eating especially as they noticed that the Akimichi was already a bowl ahead of them. One of the jealous competitors was introduced by Ichieimon next as, "One of the few people expected to be capable of taking down the current champ is the Bottomless Gullet Sounosuke. He's been training hard ever since suffering that crushing defeat last year."

"Yes," Ingen said, "I heard he's sequestered himself deep in the Black Woods of Grass Country since then. It will be interesting to see if all his training pays off."

"Indeed…wait what's this one of the competitors has dropped out after one bowl. Why would this strange glasses wearing man even enter?"

"That is enough. I'm already ashamed."

Hearing the announcer and the clipped reply Zabuza could see the first drop out was his student, Jin. He felt a sudden desire to bury his fist into the top of his student's head like he used to with Naruto especially as Ino began snickering. He took a deep breath to calm himself before he disrupted the competition in order to teach his student a lesson. Still seeing Mugen stuffing his face, Zabuza held out some hope his team could complete the mission.

As the competition wore on and several of the other contestants dropped out, Zabuza noticed Sounosuke give one of the people delivering the food a pointed look. Ino noticed it as well sitting a little straighter and said, "Watch my body for me." Zabuza nodded, so she made the handsign for her family's jutsu and sent her soul into the waiter's body just as he was discreetly pulling a small vial from his jacket.

Taking over his body, Ino pulled the stopper of the vial and downed the contents of it. Almost immediately she felt a rumbling in the man's stomach. Ending the jutsu, she smirked as he dropped the bowl he held in order to grab his behind in a vain effort to hold at bay the sudden case of explosive diarrhea he was about to suffer from. Running off into the crowd she heard a woman yell in disgust as he lost his battle of will power.

As the uproar the man caused died down, he asked Ino, "A rather dirty trick."

"Who, me or him?" Ino replied amused.

"Oh definitely him," Zabuza said amused, "especially now. I'm also guessing it was that Glutton guy that hired that loser. So why not see that he ends up eating a bowl laced with that stuff?"

Ino leaned forward as she stared at Chouji and Zabuza could just make out an admiring smile as she replied, "Chouji wouldn't want to win that way." Sitting back lazily she said, "Although it looks like your mission is about to end in failure."

"What!," he said noticing that Mugen's chopsticks were slowing down. Cursing, he tried to will the boy to swallow the stuff already in his mouth but his student proved unable as he suddenly keeled over backwards off his bench. His view of Fuu was blocked by the panicked Sounosuke now that his ace in the hole had failed, but he doubted she was still in it.

However he received a shock when he heard Ichieimon say, "Well it appears it's down to the Glutton Sounosuke or the Champion Chouji. But to my humble eyes it appears it's only a matter of time before…wait a second. I'm sorry folks but it appears that hidden behind these two colossuses of food there appears to be a small waif-like girl and she seems to be holding her own. It's incredible we're nearing the twenty-seven bowl record set by last year's champion and this girl that looks like she could be blown away by a stiff breeze is eating like there's no tomorrow."

Sounding almost sage like the monk Ingen said, "This girl's stomach must be connected to the void that exists within all of us. She must be taking in this energy to help a new cosmos to be brought into existence."

"I don't know about all that," Ichieimon shouted as he stood feeling the energy of the crowd some of whom were now chanting for their favorites, "but I do know that Sounosuke's chopsticks have stopped moving which means if he doesn't get going pretty soon… wait that's it the ref has made the sign. The glutton has been eliminated leaving only Chouji and…" being handed a piece of paper he read the name it held, "Fuu who is a kunoichi from the village of Kirigakure both of whom have just started on their twenty-ninth bowl."

Zabuza watched as Fuu and Chouji ate seven more bowls but growing bored said to Ino, "Hey, I need you to do me a favor."

After explaining his plan Ino bit her lip sending another look towards Chouji before saying, "I don't know he wouldn't want to win through cheating."

"It isn't cheating if she was never supposed to win," Zabuza reasoned. Ino nodded and using the jutsu her family was known for her body slid into Zabuza like she had fallen asleep. A moment later the announcer shouted, "I don't believe it… for a moment I though the champion had met a true equal but it appears this match of epic appetites has ended as Fuu has made the sign of surrender. I'd like to take the time to thank those who've…"

As Ino sat up she quickly went to congratulate Chouji while he slowly moved towards his team. As he walked he noticed the man that had hired them jumping up and down in excitement as Fuu had the highest odds so he stood to make a tidy sum from his bet on her. Shrugging, and missing the days when his village actually took missions that made them ninjas he chuckled to himself as he remembered that being a complaint of Naruto's after he had been blacklisted back during his missing-nin days for killing one of his handlers when the man had betrayed Him, Haku and Naruto. Feeling a little nostalgic for those days he could hear Mugen as he asked his teammate, "Oi, why'd you quit you might have stood a chance of beating that guy?"

"I don't know," Fuu said confused, "I blacked out for a moment and then it was over."

"It was most likely that kunoichi sitting next to Zabuza-sensei." Jin said surprising both his teammates and Zabuza to a certain extent. "She was of the Yamanaka clan was she not sensei?"

"She was," Zabuza answered, "I asked her to do it since our goal was achieved."

"What goal?" Fuu asked and despite eating enough to feed a small battalion of soldiers added, "I'm still hungry."

Arching and eyebrow as well as making a mental note never to reward his team with food he said, "I'll fill you in later and in any case good job, you too Mugen. Jin, you and I are going to have a conversation that you aren't going to enjoy later."

Fuu beamed under the praise while Mugen tried to look like the compliment didn't matter to him and he succeeded for the most part. However Zabuza having been a similar student could pick up the small smirk that did attempt to appear on his face. "I understand," Jin replied dispassionately to the threat of a stern talking too.

Feeling annoyed at the fact that Jin seemed underwhelmed by his threat and missing the days were such a statement was all he needed to get Naruto to fall in line, he let it slide since Chouji and Ino were closing with him and his team. "What can we do for you," he asked as they stopped in front of him.

Chouji gave a warm smile to Zabuza and his team before saying, "Well I wanted to compliment your kunoichi…Fuu was it... on a well fought battle. Also Ino told me what she did and if you wanted I'd be willing to accept a challenge from you some time."

"Really… you'd pay right?" Fuu said practically salivating at the idea.

Chuckling Chouji nodded saying, "Sure, if you're ever in the Leaf then look up my family's restaurant." Turning serious he faced Zabuza again to say, "We also thought you should know that Ino and I will be joining a team led by Asuma-sensei to look for the Three-tails and were wondering if you had heard any rumors about it on your way here."

Shaking his head, Zabuza answered, "Afraid I can't help you there. But if you get a chance to pass a message to your Hokage let her know we may be close to locating Utakata as he's been rumored to be near Mount Katsuragi."

Chouji and Ino nodded at the news with the kunoichi saying, "We'll pass that along to Asuma-sensei. I'm sure he'll be able to get word to Lady Tsunade. "

Zabuza nodded before raising a hand and with a half wave towards his team said, "Alright Squad One let's get going."

Fuu nodded towards the Leaf shinobi before following after her sensei saying, "Can we stop to get something to eat? I'm hungry."

"Sure if you're buying."

"I don't have any money, Zabuza-sensei."

"Looks like you're not eating then."

Ino and Chouji smiled at each other as they watched the two boys silently following their teammates. Ino's smile turned flirtatious as she ran a finger over Chouji's chest after moving in front of him and saying, "Now before we join Asuma-sensei I believe you owe me a day of shopping."

Chouji gulped heavily remembering that one of the things she wanted to buy was a new swimsuit so with a small fantasy of her trying on different ones playing through his head he allowed her to lead him away. Although the fact that their next mission could have them facing Akatsuki was never truly banished from his thoughts despite the pleasant images running through them.

Kushina landed silently beneath the window where Jiraiya was currently meeting with the Hot-Water Country's Daimyo. The guards that had been stationed on top of the roof of the building had been easily and quickly eliminated by a combination of shadow clones with even Hanabi taking one of the men out. She could tell the young Hyuuga was proud of herself at that as well as making it to the village center undetected. Kushina made a mental note to not let the Hyuuga get a big head because of it by reminding her that Hot Water Village shinobi tended to be nothing but semi-skilled security guards due to the village's switching its focus from tasks usually associated with Hidden Villages to becoming a resort town.

It would probably be a conversation Hanabi took to heart since when the young kunoichi in training landed next to her it wasn't as silent as it could have been. "Hmm, what was that," the Hot Water Daimyo said looking away from Jiraiya to the window behind him.

"What was what?" Jiraiya said looking up from the tea he had been served calmly. Looking past the man to the darkened window since he had timed his arrival to be just before sunset so the two kunoichi could move under the cover of darkness the Sannin asked, "I trust you aren't trying to change the subject."

"Not at all," the Daimyo replied refocusing on his guest, "What were we talking about again? Ah yes, you were asking how it was that I'm so sure Kumo is on the warpath."

"Warpath is a rather strong way of putting it," Jiraiya said after taking another sip of his tea picking up the small smirk on the man's face as he did so, "But considering the cost of hiring Konoha to act as a border force one does tend to wonder what makes you so sure."

"I see and you're here then to see if my village and I are up to no good then?"

"The thought has crossed my mind," Jiraiya admitted as he sat his cup down having finished the tea it held which caused a small amount of concern to appear on the Daimyo's face. It wasn't due entirely to the admission though since the man was no doubt surprised he had finished the drink. Deciding to enlighten him Jiraiya said, "It isn't going to work you know."

"B-b-beg your p-pardon," the Daimyo said now quite aware he was sitting across from perhaps one of the shinobi world's greatest fighters and despite putting enough poison in the man's drink to kill an elephant , said shinobi appeared none the worse for wear.

"The poison you laced my tea with." Chuckling as the Daimyo's face broke out into a mask of fear he explained, "A problem with becoming a resort town whose shinobi are more suited to protecting VIP's then doing actual shinobi work is it tends to make you rather lazy. Couple that with the fact that you haven't made a breakthrough in new poisons in years and that Tsunade has had an antidote to your most lethal ones for even longer, well I'm sure you're beginning to see the picture." Standing and with an air of menace about him, Jiraiya said, "But that you would try to poison me already answers most of the questions I would otherwise have."

Feeling slightly emboldened by his position since he doubted Konoha wanted to create an incident between their two countries. Smirking, the man said, "I guess you caught me. But what are you going to do about it? Konoha is far too weak willed to do anything to me for fear of disturbing the balance of power with the lesser shinobi countries."

Jiraiya shrugged before turning from the man who wanted to breathe out a sigh of relief that his bluff worked. "It's true hurting you would likely ruffle a few feathers. But I'm afraid you miscalculated on two things."

As Jiraiya's hand reached the door handle the man asked fearfully, "T-two? What would those be?"

Pausing in his action of opening the door, Jiraiya looked over his shoulder to meet the man's eye saying, "Well the first is assuming that Tsunade would mirror the Third's policy of appeasement with allies that have proven to be untrustworthy."

"T-the other…"

"That you could seemingly ally yourself with Akatsuki without consequence," Jiraiya paused as Kushina who had taken the opportunity to slip in through the window pressed a kunai up against the Daimyo's throat. The Daimyo looked up at the woman surprised and saw that her violet eyes were cold like steel and fearfully he turned back to Jiraiya as the Sannin added, "By the way you should know that your new friends are interested in her son. Therefore, I think I'll leave you two alone to chat since I'm sure before too long you'll tell her all we want to know. Come along squirt."

"W-wait," the Daimiyo said as Hanabi ran pass the man's desk to follow Jiraiya from the room.

As they entered the waiting lounge, they found it full of shinobi who had been waiting for the signal from their leader should the poison not finish Jiraiya off quickly enough. Still it was easily apparent to see the last thing they expected to see was that he appeared to be fine or that at some point he had been joined by a young genin. Looking around the room and counting thirty shinobi, he said, "Well squirt how about you take half and I'll take half." Laughing at the wide-eyed stare the young girl gave him, he jokingly said, "Alright I'll take them all then but only because you asked so nicely." As Jiraiya tore into their ranks the young Hyuuga watched awestruck and wondered how it was that she had ever laid a hand on the Legendary Sannin.

Yugito was beginning to worry about the fact that she couldn't even feel the pain coursing through her anymore. She didn't know how long she had been running or even when the last time she had eaten was. All she knew was that she was being hunted and that anytime she sat still for more than a half-hour she stood the chance of being caught by the masked black tendril masses that had been hounding her since she escaped from the Akatsuki pair that had turned the tables on her and the Anbu ambush team.

As she ran along the forest floor no longer trusting in her ability to stay up in the trees she hit a patch of moss and tumbled to the ground. Cursing her tired and achy body, she noticed a fast moving stream nearby and carefully approached it to drink some water. As the water passed through her parched throat she felt some of her strength returning but not nearly enough to think she stood a chance against the two men hunting her. Hearing the soothing sounds of the forest, she guessed that for the time being she had lost the masked creatures that acted as the hounds driving her towards the hunters.

She decided that maybe it would be best if she tried to attack the masked creatures in order to get past them and actually head towards Kumo instead of south. Therefore, she climbed under a small ledge of rock to rest and gather her strength for the coming fight. She knew it was a slim chance but was confident that unless she did something soon her slim chance would turn to none so closing her eyes waited to see if luck was on her side.

"Nervous Kakashi," a familiar voice said from behind him as the masked Jounin observed the forest for the large number of Kumo troops heading for the Leaf's position despite the fact that the sun had set several hours ago. Despite the belief that Kumo wouldn't reach them till morning it wouldn't do for them to let their guard down.

"Hmmm, did you say something," he replied and although it often was a tactic he used to annoy the man that had spoken this time he had meant it having been lost in thought.

Guy must have sensed the difference not replying with his usually passion instead asking, "Is it the mission that has you so worried?"

"I suppose that's part of it," Kakashi said surprised at himself for answering, but figured perhaps it was a result of his relationship with Shizune. "I mean we do have a large number of Kumo-nin heading straight at us and even if they are looking for their missing jinchuriki. I can't imagine they'll be too pleased to find us blocking their path."

Nodding seriously Guy said, "True, but even a sense of urgency doesn't give the Raikage the right to disregard Hot Water Country's borders."

"I know," Kakashi replied, "But can you imagine if it was Naruto that was taken. There isn't a rock Lady Tsunade wouldn't kick over to find him. I'm thinking that's a mentality the Raikage shares with her. I suppose that's admirable in a way."

Hearing something wistful in Kakashi's voice, Guy made a leap of logic saying, "I suppose it would make one question his own dedication to say his old teammate." To his surprise, Kakashi didn't deny it so he continued saying, "Kakashi…Rin made her own choice to go over to Root. There was nothing you could have done to stop her. You looked for her for months after she went…"

"Missing," Kakashi finished for him. "That's the problem…I only really started to care when it was too late. What if I had bothered before Danzou got his hooks into her then…"

Placing a hand on Kakashi's shoulder Guy said, "There's no point in what ifs. I trust you shared these thoughts with Shizune."

"She tells me it's not my fault," Kakashi said looking up at the sky as he thought of his lover, "Still she's hardly unbiased when it comes to this matter. She's probably afraid I'll begin moping around the Memorial Stone again."

Laughing boisterously Guy said, "Indeed, but that doesn't mean she's wrong. There'll be a time when we meet up with Danzou and his forces where you'll likely once more face Rin again. Whatever happens from that struggle know that there are those who will support you."

"Hmm, did you say something," Kakashi replied his tone the usual teasing one of his being uninterested.

"Gah, Damn you Kakashi and that hip attitude," Guy shouted before turning to head back to talk with Kurenai.

Before he got completely out of earshot Kakashi said softly, "Guy thanks."

"Hm, what was that Kakashi," Guy said having heard him but decided to turn the tables on his fellow jounin.

Kakashi chuckled in response to which Guy nodded his head before heading back. Alone once more Kakashi looked up at the sky and allowed himself to remember the good times of Team Minato.

Tsunade read the note that had been delivered by messenger toad several moments ago. Finding that Jiraiya's hunch about the Daimyo was right she regretted accepting the mission since Konoha was still honor bound to defend the Hot-water border. Reading about how Kushina had beaten the man to a pulp before he admitted his involvement with Akatsuki she was glad the red-head had left him alive, and after she had made him admit to his crime in front of his village's elders, they had agreed to select a new Hot Water Daimyo.

Turning her chair to gaze out the window, Tsunade began to worry not just about Naruto but all the Jinchuriki. But she was thinking of one in particular since it appeared that some of the lesser shinobi countries were willing to work with Akatsuki. And while it appeared the Hot-Water Daimyo had done so for money she didn't doubt others could be bullied into doing so as well. It was making her believe that the wall of silence she was receiving from Taki might be more than them being tired of her constant requests to aid them in protecting Fū.

Turning back to her desk she began to draft a plan of action. One in which she would go around those in charge of Taki and offer her aid to the jinchuriki directly and if that meant she had to encourage the young woman to defect then so be it. Knowing that what she had planned could very well lead to war since she'd be in effect stealing away someone Taki considered as their greatest weapon, Tsunade knew she'd need to wait until most of her shinobi returned from the border. Not to mention that she'd need the Clan Council's blessing as well as to inform the other Kage's in the alliance before proceeding so as to limit the impact of her actions.

As she began writing the messages that she would send to Gaara and Mei, Tsunade considered that perhaps the young Kazekage was right and it was time for all five Kage to finally meet in order to discuss what to do about their common enemy, Akatsuki.

Naruto rolled out of the way as one of Sai's Fu-Dogs tried to pounce on him. Cutting its head off with his blade so that it turned back into ink, he didn't realize that it had been a distraction for the new leader of Team Kakashi, Captain Yamato. As he scanned ahead for more threats several large blocks of wood began growing from the trees behind.

"Look out!" Hinata shouted as she landed behind him shredding the wood as it smashed against the Rotation she had thrown up between Naruto and the jutsu.

Naruto caught sight of the former Anbu and created two clones to attack him but they only made it a handful of steps before being cut down by several senbon thrown by Haku. The masked boy was forced to retreat though as Sakura appeared throwing several shuriken at him.

"Thanks Hinata," Naruto said as Sakura landed next to them. Pressing their backs against each other they scanned over the surrounding trees but could find no sign of their assailants.

"I believe that I have all the relevant information I need," Yamato said before stepping out of the woods with Haku and Sai following behind. Having paired them up in different grouping to see how they worked together he began to give his impressions, "All of you work well together which considering your team leader is Kakashi is to be expected. Not to mention how long some of you have spent working with each other. But that isn't to say there aren't some problems, Naruto you tend to focus only on the threat in front of you leaving you open to surprise attacks."

"I considered the possibility Sai's attack was a diversion. But with both Sakura and Hinata backing me up I knew they'd protect me," Naruto replied defensively.

Yamato noticed both girls' cheeks coloring at the compliment as well as an amused look which passed between Sai and Haku as a result of the girls' reactions. Guessing that Naruto was the Kakashi of his team having seen the various kunoichi that had worked with the eccentric jounin act similarly he felt a little reserved about going with the team formation he had planned. But sensing none of the usual hostility that resulted from these types of love triangles figured the two kunoichi knew when to be professional. Still he felt it prudent to say, "Having faith in your teammates in good. But you should still be wary." Naruto nodded so he changed the subject saying, "Now that I've seen all of your abilities I think it prudent that I lay out our strategy. Being as we are one of the teams searching for the suspected missing jinchuriki I think you are all aware we stand an excellent chance of facing Akatsuki." He saw the grim faces and knew they stemmed from most of the young shinobi standing around him having already faced off against the group. Glad their victory hadn't filled them with overconfidence in their abilities he said, "Therefore I think it best we have a stratagem in place should such a thing occur. While it appeared that Sasori and Deidara seemed inclined to work independently of one another, we cannot assume this is a matter of course. But it is something we should aim for."

"You mean our goal should be to separate them," Sakura said as she began to understand what Yamato was planning.

"Yes," the temporary leader of Team Kakashi said with a nod of his head. "I don't think I need to explain to anyone here the dangers in facing an S-ranked shinobi let alone how much worse facing two could be. The reason for these exercises that I had us engage in was to get an idea of just how good your teamwork is. It has probably been our greatest strength when going up against Akatsuki." Pleased with the nods of agreement he continued, "Should we encounter them our goal will be simple, divide and conquer. Naruto, Sakura, and Hinata will form one team, while Haku and Sai will partner with me in order to drive them apart from each other. Hopefully without the ability to back each other up they will fall as Sasori and Deidara did." Standing the team captain said, "Let's gather our gear and resume searching our quadrant before moving on to the next."

Moving to their respective packs, Hinata had just picked hers up when Naruto said, "Thanks again Hinata. I probably would have been lectured more if you hadn't backed me up."

Hinata smiled up at her boyfriend saying, "You don't need to thank me Naruto. It's what any girlfriend would do for her boyfriend…well unless she was mad at him."

Naruto chuckled, at her joke and making sure Yamato wasn't looking quickly pecked her on the cheek. "Hey," Sakura whispered seeing the small affectionate kiss, "I thought we agreed no public displays of affection while on missions."

"Sorry," Naruto said turning towards his other girlfriend before whispering, "I'll make sure you get one too later."

"Well then it's okay," Sakura said, causing the other two to smile at her.

Naruto slung his pack over one shoulder as he walked with the pink-haired girl to join the others. Hinata took a moment longer to adjust her pack but paused as she saw a figure off in the woods. She quickly looked away but could still feel it staring at her but since it was the woman that had appeared to her from time to time the first one being during Danzou's trap in Suna; she made no move to warn the others or investigate. She knew from experience that anything she did to call attention to it would just make her look crazy since she'd simply disappear. Strangely she got the feeling the woman was amused at her trying to ignore her, but with everything going so right in her life, namely being with the love of her life, she just didn't want to deal with a figment of her imagination.

Yugito eye's snapped open due to a sudden silence descending onto the area. Seeing that it was almost morning, she cursed at falling asleep for so long. Due to the stillness of the forest, she guessed that the time of confronting the creatures chasing her was upon her. Pulling herself from the small recess where she was hiding Yugito looked around for some sign of where the attack would come from. She didn't have to wait long as a bolt of lightning shot from a canopy of leaves behind her. Nearly avoiding the blast she threw several kunai in retaliation. One of the kunai had an exploding tag wrapped around the handle, but the creature must have sensed as much as it leap to another tree as the top of the one it had just been in exploded.

Cursing, she was hit from behind and blown off her feet by a stream of water. Bouncing and sliding across the ground as the water pushed her along she still managed to notice the creature that used the lightening element maneuvering along the tree tops. Understanding its intention to fire a jutsu into the stream of water to electrocute her, she managed to pull a kunai from her pack and threw it to the side. After it impacted a tree she pulled on the ninja wire attached to it and pulled herself free of the water and rolled behind the tree to block the spray from connecting with her again. The Water Element creature kept the jutsu up blasting the bark from the tree between them. Yugito knew she needed to keep moving or the Lightening Masked creature would simply move to hit her as she was pinned down. Running up the tree she was hiding behind she waited until she reached the top to leap upwards from the canopy of leaves. Spotting the Water Mask she was about to throw another explosive kunai at its face when she was tackled from the side.

The Lightening Mask tried to pull her to the ground but she managed to kick free of it and used the momentum to reach another tree. The two masked creatures began circling around it making Yugito feel like a cat being run up a tree by a pair of dogs. Showing that this cat had claws she took a deep breath and shot a fire jutsu at the creatures below. It took the shape of a mouse which then split into two, before doing so again and again, as the jutsu flew from the tree towards its targets. The two Masks leapt away avoiding the jutsu but the fire mice gave chase. She felt a smile appear on her face as the two masks were herded towards one another and seemingly unaware of their proximity smashed into each other as the fire mice converged on them causing a large explosion.

Dropping down to the ground as the smoke covered the area Yugito was surprised at how moist the air felt. "Shit," she cursed as the smoke cleared enough to show that the creature had melded into one and had used a dome of water to protect itself from her jutsu. Both masks of the now larger creature focused on her and both opened their mouths to prepare a jutsu. Suddenly realizing that it was about to use a combination jutsu, Yugito jumped to the side as a Lightening-Water Combination Bullet flew past her. The jutsu hit a tree behind her causing it to explode and the shrapnel peppered her back with splinters. Managing to get back to her feet, she began to flee but was blown off them again as another jutsu detonated several feet from her. She landed hard skidding in the recently created mud.

The creature began to close with her walking slowly on all fours and she suddenly knew how the mouse felt as the cat played with it before killing it. Trying to get back to her feet, she only managed to get them under her before they slid from under her as she collapsed back to the ground. Hearing the sound of the stream, she quickly rolled into it hoping the water would do what her legs couldn't which was get her away.

The creature took chase as the water carried her away and Yugito panicked as it leapt onto the water. But luckily or unluckily for her the current picked up as the water became rougher opening into a river. Having a bad feeling as she heard the sound of water falling she knew what awaited her at the end of the rough ride. Grabbing onto a large rock with chakra she held tight fighting desperately against the strong current. She had nearly succeeded pulling herself out when she caught sight of the creature, although it seemed to have lost her she knew it would only be a temporary thing since there were two more such creatures chasing her. Not to mention the two Akatsuki. She knew there was no escape and knew what she needed to do. Just as the creature spotted her she let go of the rock and allowed the water to sweep her over the waiting waterfall.

She knew her chances of survival were non-existence, but that wasn't her goal. Denying Akatsuki Nibi was. Closing her eyes as she neared the edge she thought, "I'm sorry Nibi."

"I'm sorry too," was the last thing she heard before disappearing over the edge.

"Shit," Kakuzu said as he ended the jutsu that had temporarily allowed him to "see" through one of his masked hearts. Finding that Hidan was holding him against his back by the collar of his cloak as he carried him, he shook free enraged at his partner's disrespect saying, "You foul-mouthed moron. I told you to watch me, not drag me along behind you."

"You're fucking lucky I didn't drag you through the dirt," Hidan replied. "It was boring just sitting there watching you twitch occasionally."

"You should have used the time to pray to that weakling god of yours."

Gripping his scythe dangerously Hidan pointed it at Kakuzu shouting, "Watch it infidel before Jashin calls upon his power to smite you."

"I'll die of old age before that happens," Kakuzu replied annoyed as he began to head in the direction to where Yugito had disappeared over the waterfall.

Hidan cursed his partner several more times before getting the hint Kakuzu was focused on the matter of capturing the jinchuriki. "Has your jutsu located the jinchuriki?"

"Yes, although it seems she's chosen death over surrender."

"What? Fuck, Leader is not going to like that."

Kakuzu shrugged saying, "He'll get over it. Besides we never did seal the Four Tails either. Instead he let Tobi take care of it. Leader never did say what he did with the jinchuriki. For all we know the Two Tails was going to end up in the same place and if so that means the plan has changed. Whatever the nine-tails did to the statue has probably weakened it so that it can no longer hold all the Bijuu so we're going to concentrate on only sealing the most powerful ones from this point on."

"Then why are we heading deeper into Hot-Spring Country? Let's just cut our losses and head to the base in Sound."

Kakuzu glared at Hidan saying, "I said it appears she has chosen death. I do not wish to compound our failure with a false report of her being dead only to find out she is still alive. The goal may no longer be to seal her Bijuu away, but it seems Leader still wishes to deprive Kumo of its services."


"What do you care?" Kakuzu asked, "I doubt even if he explained his reasons you'd understand. Just kill who I tell you too and keep your mouth shut."

Hidan much as Kakuzu expected flew into a litany of curses before following after him. He took a slow pace to the waterfall Yugito had fallen from as he expected his hearts to have fished her out of the water long before he arrived. He was rather glad for the turn of events since it would allow him to gauge exactly how the Leader reacted to Yugito's death. He knew that something was going on behind the scenes and he intended to find out since money was what brought him to Akatsuki not some sort of foolish dogma like Hidan.

He looked back at his partner and felt nothing but contempt for the fool since he probably didn't even realize they were but pawns for the true power broker of Akatsuki. Who that was he couldn't say, however he suspected Tobi may be the link to the person or persons operating from the shadows. His hunch was born from Tobi being put in charge of handling the Four Tails. For a junior member of Akatsuki to be granted such a responsibility meant he had deeper connections to the supposed Leader of Akatsuki. He intended to find out what those were since whoever was pulling the strings of Akatsuki probably viewed him as a pawn as well and Kakuzu knew full well how valuable a pawn was to the man moving the pieces.