Inheritance, Book 2
The sun rose over the border of Mizu no Kuni much the same as it had upon the jungles of Mt. Myoboku for the past two years. Of course, here there were no flies to contend with, and the sticky humidity was blissfully absent, but it was much the same experience at it's core. The first tickle of warmth kissed his back, fighting away the night's cold; and Naruto could sense almost immediately the change in the world around him.
With the sun's warmth, came life bursting out of every pore of the forest he was meditating within. Every creature for miles reacted to the return of the light, from the birds in the trees, dipping and diving between the branches and undergrowth for the day's first meal; all the way down the tiniest of insects, scuttling amongst the decaying foliage on the floor. A single square inch could contain more life than the whole elemental nations had people, and if he concentrated, he could sense each and every one.
It was more than meagre awareness—he could feel their life force, connect with it in a way that was beyond his capability to describe. Stretching out his awareness as far as he could was humbling. Millions of lives, each full of passion and energy and determination to survive, and he was but one of them. Little more than a grain of sand on a beach, just trying not to be washed away with the tide.
Of course, if he chose to, he could change that. Two years of training had allowed him to tap into the natural energy around them and mingle it with his own, augmenting the chakra he possessed naturally with the natural energy of the surrounding creatures. The process was dangerous, and even after two years of work, he could only focus the tiniest amount of the energy—Sage chakra—and use it safely. But even that was enough to increase his strength dramatically; enough that Jiraiya had even confirmed he could fight on a level with some Jonin—if only for a short time.
Suddenly, Naruto twitched, breaking his near-perfect stillness. As though merely speaking the man's name was enough to summon him, the older man had left their camp, and was ambling easily towards the clearing Naruto had chosen for his morning meditation. Naruto bit back a wave of sour irritation and tried to refocus, but he couldn't find the same level of calm as he had achieved before. With a frustrated click of his teeth, he hopped to his feet and stretched deeply, trying to shake off the stiffness in his muscles as his master approached.
What will it be today? Training or target?
Minutes passed until Jiraiya finally strode into the clearing, his face so hard it could have been carved from stone. It was an expression that had become all-too commonplace since Danzou's coup. Naruto never thought he would miss his teacher's exuberance, but now when it appeared, it only did so as a paper-thin veneer. A mask so brittle that when Jiraiya wore it, Naruto thought he could see the cracks appearing on its surface.
Target it is.
"Sensei." Naruto said, unable to keep a hint of shortness from his voice.
"Brat." Jiraiya replied. "The toads have sent word—the hit is happening today. It's time to move."
Naruto swore quietly and hopped to his feet, heart-rate already climbing at the thought of moving into Water Country proper. Before anything else though, Naruto sent a ripple of chakra pulsing across his skin—the smallest he could manage with the enormous reserves he had at his disposal—to feel for the seals holding the vast majority of his ninja equipment tattooed, invisible until activated, upon his skin.
As usual, he was well-prepared for pretty much anything. Without a fixed home to return to, he and Jiraiya needed to be prepared to fight for their lives at pretty much any time. Even Mt. Myoboku itself wasn't entirely safe, and over the two years that had passed since leaving the village, he and the toads had fought off several missing-nin hired to capture or kill him and Jiraiya—from both Akatsuki and Danzou.
"Do we know how turbulent things are along our route?" He asked his sensei, whose frown deepened at the question.
"Not as well as I would like. Kiri-nin from both sides of the civil war are on high alert for outside threats since we leaked them information about Akatsuki's plans for the Sanbi. We're probably heading into a fairly volatile situation, so prepare yourself."
Naruto nodded, but winced internally. The war in Mizu after the death of the Fourth Mizukage had begun explosively, with the two sides fighting several brutal pitched battles where hundreds had died. However, as either camp entrenched themselves into defensive positions, the nature of the conflict shifted. Mizu shinobi specialised in stealth and assassination, and soon, most offensives launched by both sides were under the cover of thick, chakra-laden mists that would cover a defensive position.
Then, blades and assassination jutsu would flash forth from the grey at opportune moments, stealing the life of their victim and disappearing back into the mist as quickly as they had appeared. Men and women died in their sleep, poisoned or throats cut as they tried to catch a few desperate hours of rest. By all accounts that had reached their ears, conditions on the front-lines, whilst physically acceptable, were exacting a hard toll on the psyche of the shinobi stationed there.
Strange shinobi would not be welcomed by anybody, least of all foreign missing ninja.
"I'm ready, sensei."
Jiraiya glanced him over before turning towards the trees. "Follow me closely—there's no guarantee this isn't a trap."
They took to the trees, cold air whipping past Naruto's cheeks. It had been a while since they had moved so openly, and for a moment, Naruto had to strain to keep the deep red blur that was his sensei within his sights. He soon found his rhythm, however, and began matching Jiraiya stride for stride, their sandals barely kissing the pinewood tree branches before a chakra fuelled leap took them to the next.
Naruto allowed himself a moment to enjoy the feeling of moving freely, of action, his heart soaring as he breathed in the crisp morning air through his nose. Of course, the familiar nerves and tension of leaving on a mission lingered at the back of his mind, and despite the surging joy that had brought a wide grin to his face, his eyes still scanned their surrounding intently, looking for even the slightest hint of danger. Even knowing that they were walking into an active warzone could not dampen that joy, though, it felt so damn good to be doing something—anything—once again.
"Do we know we're up against?" Naruto called out to Jiraiya as he pulled level with the older man.
Jiraiya shook his head. "My informant tells me it's not one of the main group, but given the target, I wouldn't be surprised if we're walking into an S-class clusterfuck. If one of them do show up, you—"
"Get away," Naruto groused, eyes rolling before he could stop them. "I know, sensei. Though at this point I don't see why I should run away and leaving you to fight two fully fledged Akatsuki by yourself. I'm strong enough to help."
Jiraiya snapped to a halt so fast Naruto nearly leaped right past him, and rounded on Naruto with such intensity that he though his sensei was about to hit him. Instead, Jiraiya's hands grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back against the tree they had stopped upon.
"Kami Naruto, it's not about how strong you are!" Jiraiya was half-yelling, and Naruto's protests died on his tongue as he caught a peculiar intensity in his master's eyes—an edge he'd never seen before. "We're long past doubting your strength. Even I have to admit your progress is incredible."
"Then why don't you trust me to help more? I'm not asking you to let me be reckless—I know how important it is to keep the nine tails away from the Akatsuki. But I can use it to help stop them. If not, what else is it for?"
"Trust—" Jiraiya began, but hesitated, and his grip on Naruto's shoulders loosened. "Naruto, if I were to have to fight Danzou tomorrow, there isn't a single shinobi I'd trust more than you to have my back, save perhaps Kakashi or Tsunade, if I could convince her. It isn't a question of trust, or your strength."
"Then what is it a question of, sensei? We have been training, hidden for two years, breaking ourselves—myself—all to be kept hidden away on the mountain; doing nothing while a usurper, a traitor, wears the old man's hat. You keep telling me we can't move against Danzou because the Akatsuki are more important a threat now they are on the move, but outside of a few minor missions like this one, you've not let me do anything to stop them either."
Naruto took a few heavy breaths and fixed his sensei with the steeliest glare he could manage. "You say that you trust me, that you believe I've become strong—but your actions say something else entirely."
For just a moment, his master's shoulders sagged, but it was such a subtle movement Naruto thought he might have imagined it. Jiraiya stepped away, turning back towards the trees laying between them and their target.
"Enough of this, brat—we've wasted too much time already. When you agreed to become my apprentice, you agreed to accept my judgement regarding your training and how quickly it progresses, and gave up any right to question it."
Naruto scowled, frustration bubbling up inside, but he quashed it. His master was right, after all. He had made that agreement all those years ago, albeit without truly knowing what he was agreeing to. The master/apprentice relationship was hugely different from that of a jonin sensei and their genin squad; it was a close, personal bond—a jonin and their genin were commander and subordinate first and foremost, though the training of genin was a main responsibility of their jonin sensei. An apprenticeship was the same way, but the relationship between the two was far closer, more like family than comrades, with its own set of rules and expectations. Naruto had no right to question Jiraiya's decisions—at least while he was apprenticed to him.
Suddenly, Jiraiya turned back, the hardness gone from his eyes. "But when this is done, Naruto, we will talk. Properly. You may not have the right to answers, but you sure as hell deserve them."
Naruto's mouth hung open as his prior frustration bled away. Answers. Perhaps even a chance to convince Jiraiya to make even a small move against Danzou. Even the hint of an opportunity to start wresting control of Konoha from that bastard was enough to set his heart thundering in his chest with excitement.
He kept his smile small, and his nod respectful as he followed Jiraiya into the trees.
"Thank you, sensei."
The last two years had felt like an eternity, watching helpless as Danzou solidified his grip upon Konoha and Hi no Kuni as a whole. But perhaps, finally, it was time for them to fight back.
And off we go with arc 1 of Book 2!
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