One Hundred Weeks
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack
Prelude: Meetings and A Parting
Disclaimer: Contrary to its status in several improbable alternate universes, Naruto does not belong to me. It belongs to Kishimoto Masashi; I'm just borrowing it without permission. However, the blame for the actual text of this fanfiction is mine. Also, cucumbers.
The village council of the Leaf Village was, in many ways, nothing but a useful fiction. No document spelled out its members, its procedures, or its powers. Not a single ninja wearing the Leaf on her forehead, when asked, would proclaim that her loyalty was to the village council. There was, in short, no authority vested in the council that existed beyond the personal power of its members, most importantly that of the Hokage. That was the only kind of power that mattered, in the end.
The group meeting late at night in the Hokage's private chambers had even less formality and fewer members than the usual meeting of the council. Yet by that most important metric it was as powerful as many of the largest and most elaborate incarnations of the village council. None of the few present were in this room due to political connections, due to past glory that was not reflected in present wisdom, nor due to accident of birth.
The Hidden Leaf's Fifth Hokage, Tsunade of the legendary Sannin, did not think that this night would produce decisions of great importance. It was unlikely that any formal proclamation at all would come from this meeting, and she was probably the only one to think of it as a council meeting at all. But in Tsunade's mind, this gathering had more claim to the title than many of the scheduled council meetings she had held.
"Thank you all for coming," she said as she poured sake for her guests, as though she were nothing more than an ordinary woman who had invited her neighbors over for drinks. There were no servants or retainers in the Hokage's mansion, not under Tsunade's reign.
Seated at Tsunade's left, Shizune accepted a cup from her mentor. Shizune herself was likely the only member of this council who did not consider Tsunade's long-time student an equal member of the group. She might not yet have the infamous reputations or recognized titles of the others, but she had learned from Tsunade for over a decade, and was one of the premier medical ninja in the world. Shizune murmured thanks to the older woman, then glanced across the low table at the only other person to match her relative youth.
"Are you feeling all right, Kakashi-kun?" she asked softly. Sharingan Kakashi, the infamous Copy Ninja, had only recently been released from Shizune's care at the Leaf Village's hospital, recovering from his, thankfully brief, captivity in the Cloud Village.
"Of course," he answered cheerfully as Tsunade poured him a cup as well. He took it, and when he sipped even Tsunade's keen eyes didn't see his cloth mask disturbed. "With both you and Hokage-sama looking after me, was there any question?"
"Yes," Tsunade answered shortly. Kakashi had almost killed himself, trying to fight with chakra-inhibiting drugs still in his system. That the alternative - letting Orochimaru kidnap Naruto without a fight - had been unacceptable did not reduce Tsunade's irritation, but it did redirect it at the Hidden Sound's leader. She turned her attention to her right and poured for her final guest.
Jiraiya the Toad Hermit took his drink, then when Tsunade set the bottle down lifted it and returned the favor, filling his former teammate's own glass. With a rudeness Tsunade would have found offensive in almost anyone else, he emptied his whole glass in one gulp and refilled it himself. "Been a long few weeks," he said simply.
Shizune gazed into her own glass for a few moments, then drained it with only slightly more decorum. "A longer few months," she said in agreement, holding out her empty glass. Jiraiya filled it, then placed the bottle back on the table.
"Do you realize," Tsunade said, "that over the course of the past year, all five Kages died?"
The sentence hung in the air for several moments. Then Kakashi held out a suddenly empty cup. As Tsunade refilled it, he shook his head. "I never thought of it that way, but it's true, isn't it?"
"Orochimaru killed Sarutobi-sensei," Jiraiya said darkly.
"The Kazekage first, if we can believe the Sand," Tsunade said.
Kakashi blinked his visible eye. "Do we think they're lying about that? I don't know why else they'd have been so eager to rejoin the alliance. We weren't - still aren't - in any position to invade them."
"The whole conspiracy with the Sound was part of a power play against the Wind Country daimyo," Jiraiya said. "It's awfully convenient that as soon as things started to go sour for the Kazekage's faction, he turns up dead in a way that lets the Sand avoid any responsibility for his actions."
"They're still arguing over who will be the next Kazekage," Shizune commented. She refilled Tsunade's almost empty cup. "It looks like that could go on for years at this rate."
"The Raikage was killed by the High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon," Kakashi said after a brief silence. That had happened as Jiraiya, Naruto, and he had escaped the Cloud Village.
"Kaida," Jiraiya said bitterly, naming the woman who had been second only to the Raikage in that village. She had been Jiraiya's friend and ally, and he had trusted her to examine Naruto's seal when it began to weaken. She had also been a member of the criminal organization Akatsuki.
"It's weird to say," Kakashi said, "but do you think we can convince the Cloud that I didn't convince her apprentice to turn traitor? I actually feel kind of bad for her." Sinobi Junhime had been the one to capture Kakashi. She had also been the one to reveal Kaida's treachery, giving her life to kill the High Priestess.
Tsunade shook her head. "I'm afraid to say anything to them about that mess," she said. "The last thing we need is for the Cloud to decide that you let yourself be captured in order to infiltrate the their village and assassinate all three of them. There's no telling what might set them off."
"My network's weak in Lightning Country," Jiraiya said, "but I hear things are starting to get ugly there. Might even be a civil war in the making." He sighed. "I'd rather it happened to the Mist, but there's rumors that they've already selected a new Mizukage."
"That's fast," Shizune said. "Less than a month after his death." No one was rude enough to point out aloud that Jiraiya was the one who had killed the previous Mizukage.
"The Mist are never going to agree to peace now, not when they think I broke truce to ambush the Mizukage," Tsunade said. "And Orochimaru got away too, the slippery bastard."
"At least we caught a lucky break when that old fart in Rock finally kicked the bucket," Jiraiya said. "I can work with Hojo."
"And your first deal with him," Tsunade replied, "left Rock ninja squatting all over the Rain and Rice Field Countries and on our borders again. We spent generations kicking those bastards back behind their mountains, and now we're almost right back where my grandfather started."
"It also," Shizune said, "crushed the Sound and helped us get Naruto out of Orochimaru's hands." Shizune had lead the team of fresh chuunin that had gone on that desperate rescue mission into Rice Field Country.
"I know." Tsunade wanted to bury her face in her hands, but settled for taking a large sip. "But now I have to deal with the costs."
"Once is chance," Kakashi said after a moment's silence. "Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy ninja," he quoted the famous maxim.
"So what the hell is five times, hmm?" Jiraiya asked. "I'm tempted to blame Orochimaru."
"He certainly has his fingers in all this chaos," Shizune said.
"The Tsuchikage was just old age," Tsunade said, "and I doubt you're his agent, Jiraiya."
"He wanted me at that battle," Jiraiya said darkly, then shook his head. "I don't think to kill the Mizukage, though. He isn't a god. There's no way he could have predicted that particular outcome."
"I think he wanted you there to keep the Leaf from falling apart after he killed me," Tsunade replied. "He said he wanted the war to keep going."
"Possibly," Jiraiya said. "It's twisty enough to be his motive." He groaned. "Trying to think like him makes my head hurt."
"I believe this is where I ask you to give me a reason not to kill you," Orochimaru asked. Shadows obscured the legendary missing ninja's face. If he hadn't known his master so well, Yakushi Kabuto would not have been able to tell that he had once again discarded the seeming of his original body. Most likely he had been forced to shed his skin to escape the battle between the Leaf and Mist, and had not yet had time to regrow his disguise.
"Must you ask?" Kabuto said as he kneeled before his master's throne. This chamber, deep underneath Orochimaru's new hideout on an abandoned island in the Water Country, was identical to the one beneath the Rice Field Country stronghold Kabuto had fled a month prior. It was not surprising, considering that both fortresses had been created by a custom summoning technique the renegade Sannin had invented.
"I'm told I have no tolerance for failures," Orochimaru said. He smiled. "I'm not sure I've ever had to discipline someone for losing a country before."
"Temporarily mislaid, Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto said. "The Rice Field Country has a long history of fighting foreign occupation. If anything, this will help us bring the wayward clans like the Fuuma back into the Sound Village."
"Perhaps," Orochimaru said. "I'm not sure whether that village has outlived its purpose or not."
"A Hidden Village is a tool with many uses, even if one doesn't need it at the moment." Kabuto pondered the possibilities for a moment. "Perhaps if we had it reform under an agent, rather than ruling it directly?"
"You may be thinking too far ahead," Orochimaru said. "There's supposed to be more groveling first before I forgive you, at least from my reading."
Kabuto sighed. "Icha Icha In The Grasp Of The Dark Ninja Daimyo, Orochimaru-sama?" he asked, naming Jiraiya's most recent work. How the Toad Hermit found the time to churn them out, the medical ninja could never figure out.
Orochimaru laughed. "Do tell me if you're planning to fall for a captured kunoichi I desire for myself, please. I'd hate to be surprised by your inevitable betrayal in the name of love and justice."
Kabuto let himself grin slightly. "Not for those, Orochimaru-sama."
"No, I suppose not." Orochimaru leaned forward, a hungry light seeming to glint in his inhuman eyes. "So."
"I managed to get out of the country with your… apprentice in hand," Kabuto said, "as you well know. And Tayuya-chan, so that plan can proceed."
"I don't suppose she's managed to get herself pregnant yet?" Orochimaru asked.
"Sasuke-kun has proven uninterested in subtle prompting so far," Kabuto said. "I suppose he's still young, after all. I hesitated to order her to force the issue without your permission."
Orochimaru waved a hand lazily in the air. "We have time."
Kabuto just nodded.
"What of the rest of them?" his master asked.
"Kidoumaru-kun is here," Kabuto said. "Jabisen-kun and Midori-chan were lost in the fighting with the Leaf."
"I suppose I'll need two new ones then," Orochimaru said, "if we're to keep this little tradition."
"I'm sure I can find a few ninja willing to join the Sound Five," Kabuto said. "With luck, two will survive gaining their seals."
Orochimaru smiled. "I've done a little work in improving that," he said, "since you insisted. The last two both survived, did they not?"
"It was touch-and-go for a while with Midori-chan," Kabuto said. "I'm afraid I don't know what happened to her teacher. I suspect the Leaf killed or captured her, but I can't be sure."
"A renegade Mist jounin, or even the genin, would be inconvenient now, in any case," Orochimaru said.
"So we are still allied to the Mist, then?"
"Of course," Orochimaru said, shifting in his throne. He leaned forward again, his stolen face grave as it came into the light. "I am deeply sorrowed that I was not able to predict the depths of my former teammates' treachery. Rest assured, I and my village will do everything in our power to help the Mist avenge this foul deed." He sat back and laughed. "There's no one left to claim I struck first except Tsunade-hime, and who would believe her?"
"I would," Kabuto offered generously. "Not that it is any help to her." He paused. "Are those enough reasons to spare me, or should I give you more?"
"I suppose I won't kill you for now," Orochimaru said. "I do need someone to run things here while I go to meet with the new Mizukage. Try not to let the Leaf conquer the Water Country while I'm gone."
"I'll try," Kabuto replied. "Who did they pick?"
"Terumii Mei," Orochimaru said. "She might have received the title the last time, but she declined rather than fight it out when some of the old guard objected to such a prominent reformer taking the title."
"Hmm." Kabuto said. "I wonder why she didn't go missing ninja and found her own village."
"Don't be silly, Kabuto-kun," Orochimaru warned. "I might still kill you when I get back." Despite the words, there was no anger in his voice.
"I'll keep that in mind, Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto promised.
"I admit," Kakashi said as he stared at his half-empty cup of sake, "that I did not expect to be discussing such matters when you invited me here, Hokage-sama. Now I'm feeling depressed."
Tsunade let out a grunt. "Don't expect me to apologize for that. Try my stupid hat on for size, then see how you feel about this mess."
"What did you expect to talk about, Kakashi-kun?" Shizune asked. Her cup had been empty for some time, but she had waved off all attempts to refill it.
"Given the company," Kakashi said, "I had thought the topic was my students." The folds of his mask twisted into a grimace. "Or my former students, rather."
"I'd expect the brat to have already talked your ears off," Jiraiya said. His face was slightly flushed, but he gave no other sign of the copious amounts of sake he'd imbibed this evening.
Kakashi's visible eye wandered over to the male Sannin. "He did, but to be honest I don't know how much of what I remember him saying was real and how much was Shizune-san's… entertaining medical concoctions. You should sell those on the black market, by the way, if you aren't already."
Shizune's face reddened briefly. "Kakashi-kun!" she protested, but the copy ninja waved the complaint off.
"Be nice to Shizune, Kakashi-kun," Tsunade said, "or I'll stick you on sewer duty for the next six months."
"Sorry, sorry," Kakashi said with a laugh. "But, Jiraiya-sama, did you really make Naruto dress like a girl all the way from Earth Country to Lightning Country?"
Jiraiya grinned. "Halfway," he said. "It was good for him. Practice for his best technique."
"Really?" Tsunade said dangerously.
"Bah," Jiraiya said with a sigh. "You have no sense of humor, old woman." Tsunade's eye twitched, and she almost stood. Shizune placed her hand on her teacher's shoulder, and the Hokage settled back into her seat.
"If you want the details, Kakashi-kun," Jiraiya said, "I'm basing my next book on that little adventure." His grin widened. "It has everything: cross-dressing, snow maidens, the fate of nations, and a beautiful kunoichi out to avenge her fallen village! I'm thinking it'll be called 'Ice-Cold Icha Icha'."
"Ooh," Kakashi said, a distant look in his eyes.
Tsunade's fist slammed into the table, shaking him out of it and sending sake flying out of her cup. "That's quite enough of that."
"Thank you," Shizune muttered.
"All right, all right." Jiraiya laughed. "You know most of what happened, Kakashi-kun. The important parts, anyway. You were there for the tail end of it."
Kakashi nodded, glancing at Tsunade. "What about Sakura-chan, then? You've been keeping her busy, Hokage-sama, so I've barely seen her. I know she made chuunin at the exams."
"Before she became your apprentice," Jiraiya said dryly, a slight smile creeping onto his face. "She was very clear on that when we met up." His expression smoothed. "I'm a little curious why you let Anko-chan make her a snake summoner, though."
"Anko-chan is Anko-chan," Tsunade said, and that was all the explanation that was needed.
Jiraiya shook his head, and Kakashi laughed. "Anything else happen with my cutest little student while I was… gone?" the copy ninja asked. Tsunade and Shizune exchanged a look. Jiraiya straightened up in his seat at their reaction, and Kakashi blinked. "What happened to her?" he asked quietly.
The younger woman spoke first. "She… hasn't talked to you about her mother?" Shizune asked.
"No," Kakashi said carefully. "I suspected when I left that she was having family problems, but…"
"Haruno Amaya," Tsunade interrupted angrily, "was a traitor, a spy for the Hidden Mist. During the Mist attack on the village, she was killed in battle by Leaf chuunin Haruno Sakura."
"Oh," Kakashi breathed.
"Gods preserve," Jiraiya said, his voice sickly. "That… and she was thrown back into combat so soon after, to rescue Naruto. I don't know if I could have handled that at thirteen."
"We're keeping an eye on her," Shizune said. "It was… bad, for a little while, but she's holding up for now. Other than that," she trailed off with a sigh.
"The worst thing we could do is to make her think that she should be breaking down," Tsunade explained, "and make her feel guilty for handling it as well as she has."
Jiraiya sighed. "We have to watch Naruto, too. Or rather, his unruly house-guest." He shuddered.
"We talked briefly," Tsunade said, "but you never did explain exactly what was wrong."
"The seal is weakening. That's why we cut training with Hojo short and went to see Kaida in the first place." He took a deep breath, then began to speak clinically. "Naruto is experiencing manifestations, where a visible red chakra shroud in the shape of a fox covers him. As more chakra comes out, he grows tails."
"That's not good," Kakashi observed dryly.
"No. At one tail, he has some control, but not much. At two, he goes berserk. I haven't let it go further, for obvious reasons." Jiraiya sighed. "Worse, the evidence is that the seal is starting to work both ways. Naruto is able to use the demon's chakra." Jiraiya stopped for a moment, then finished quietly. "The fox is able to use Naruto's chakra."
"Damn it," Tsunade cursed. "That's not supposed to happen."
"It's a miracle that seal worked at all," Jiraiya said. "It was a desperate, hasty gamble, reverse-engineered from a half-complete, stolen scroll. Those two did great work with what they had, and Sarutobi-sensei and I shored it up the best we could after the fact."
"But it's trying to do two contradictory things," Tsunade said quietly. "Keep the demon contained, and let its chakra out."
"And the chakra is the demon," Jiraiya agreed. He paused a moment. "And Kaida was doing something to the seal, while she had Naruto. She was supposed to be strengthening it, but I don't think she was."
"Bad," Kakashi said after a moment.
Shizune reached for the bottle of sake, and poured the last of it into her cup. "May the gods watch over both of them, and all of us," she said before taking a long drink.
Naruto wasn't quite sure how his attempt to take Sakura on a date had turned into a massive group dinner. Looking back, the critical moment had been when they'd run into Ino while arguing over whether they were actually on a date. The blonde kunoichi had been heading to meet up with Shikamaru and Chouji for dinner, and Naruto and Sakura had somehow wound up agreeing to join them.
Shikamaru had been on gate duty - according to Sakura, who normally worked with him as one of the Hokage's chuunin assistants, he had said something sexist which had annoyed Tsunade enough to stick him with the duty for a month - and had told them that Kiba and Shino's team was back in the village, for the first time since the Chuunin Exams. That had prompted an effort to track those three down and invite them along.
When they'd tracked Hinata down, she'd been finishing up a spar with Neji - apparently those two were getting along reasonably now, Naruto was glad to see. After some stammering and flushing - the girl was just weird like that - Hinata had agreed to come, then hesitatingly asked her cousin if he wanted to come too. Rather shockingly to Naruto, he'd agreed, but on the condition that they extend invitations to Rock Lee and Tenten also.
Now, after about an hour running all over the village finding teammates, eleven young genin and chuunin were stuffed into a private room at the back of Chouji's favorite barbeque place. He couldn't complain too much about losing the chance at a date; the Akimichi Clan was apparently picking up the tab. Apparently the owners were a couple of retired ninja from that clan, and Chouji claimed that, with the friends and family discount, the Clan's budget wouldn't notice the expense.
More importantly, it had been a while since he had seen everyone, and that was… good. More than good, really. He'd been away from the village for months, longer than he ever had in his life. It was good to see his friends again, to be living in his own apartment again. Although that was kind of weird now, since Sakura was living in the spare bedroom some of his caretakers had lived in when he was younger. He wasn't about to kick Sakura out, though.
"So," Naruto said around a mouthful of meat as the conversation came to a lull. Everyone turned to look at him, and he swallowed. "Who all made chuunin?" he asked. "I know Sakura-chan, Lee, Neji, and Ino."
"I told you all that," Sakura said from her seat beside him.
"Eh," Naruto said, "we talked about a lot of things. I don't remember it all."
"Of course not," the pink-haired girl muttered. "That's about it," she said. "Except for Tenten-san." Sakura gestured down the table at her.
The thrown weapons expert nodded. "And the guy from Waterfall who had the crush on you."
"Wh- he didn't," Sakura began.
Ino laughed at her from across the table. "You're blind, Forehead," she said. Beside her, Shikamaru rolled his eyes.
"Oh, shut up," Sakura said grumpily. "I had more important things on my mind."
"Waterfall?" Naruto asked. "What was his name?" Was it the one he'd met when traveling through that country? He'd said he was planning to go to the exams. Ara-something.
"Hiraki Arata," Shino said, and Naruto was pretty sure that was the right name. "He was at the battle." There was no need to specify which one; the Waterfall, the Sand, and the Grass had only participated in one major battle against the Mist.
Shikamaru grunted. "How're things?" he asked, glancing down the table at Shino's team. They had been in the field since that battle.
"As you'd expect," was all Shino said.
Kiba rolled his eyes and elaborated. "We've been staring angrily at the Mist across the bridge to Wave Country, and they've been staring right back at us. We haven't got the strength to try anything since the allied nations had to head back out west to keep the Rock from getting hungry."
"But they left enough squads so that the Mist don't know that," Sakura finished. Naruto guessed that she must have overheard discussions about the issue while working in the Hokage's temporary offices in the repurposed academy building. Damaged in the Mist's raid, the Hokage's tower was deemed a low priority for reconstruction by Tsunade, doubly so when the hospital had been almost completely destroyed.
"That can't last forever," Chouji rumbled.
No one said anything to that, and Naruto decided to break the dark silence with another question. "So what's everyone up to now?"
"Academy teaching," Ino said with a groan. "Teaching flower arrangement to bratty eight-year-old girls. I hate kids!"
"Our team got broken up," Tenten said, "since we all made chuunin." She glanced at Neji. "Thanks for inviting us, by the way. We don't get to see each other too often."
"Indeed!" Rock Lee exclaimed. "This is a most youthful evening, thanks to everyone!"
"Don't mention it," Neji said. "Please."
"Same thing happened to us," Chouji said. "Well, except I didn't make chuunin. I think they're sticking me on one of the genin teams from the class below us that lost a member."
This time Kiba broke the silence that followed. "Well, we're all still together, since thanks to certain people we're all still genin." He favored Sakura with a glare.
"Huh?" Naruto asked.
"Umm…" Sakura quickly swallowed a mouthful of barbeque. "Chouji, Ino, and I kind of took their scroll in the second exam."
"K-kind of?" Hinata protested quietly.
Naruto stared at Sakura. "Why would you do that?" he asked in horror.
"It's an exam!" Sakura almost shouted. "Every team for itself. You beat the crap out of Kiba yourself in the preliminaries the time before!"
"That's different," Naruto said.
"No, it's not," Tenten interjected.
"This is not a useful conversation," Shino stated.
"Doesn't sound like one," Mitarashi Anko said as she suddenly appeared sitting in the empty twelfth seat at the far end of the table, which Naruto had been trying not to notice during the meal.
"Where'd you come from?" Kiba growled. "And why are you here?"
The special jounin grinned. "Well, I was coming here for dinner, and then I heard some of my favorite little ninja, so I thought I'd drop in and say hello!"
"Your favorite little ninja?" Shino asked.
Anko's face was serious for a moment. "Well, a bunch of you did break me out of Orochimaru's prisons in Rice Field Country. I figure that's worth a whole ton of bonus points."
"I'd hope so," Ino muttered.
"Are you still annoyed at me for those snakes I put in your bedroll on the way back?" Anko pouted.
"You did ask her what she did to help me get stronger, Ino-pig," Sakura reminded her rival with a laugh.
"Not that I'm complaining," Shikamaru interjected, "but shouldn't you be in jail or something, Mitarashi-sensei? You did technically help those Mist genin escape. Twice."
Anko shrugged. "Helps to have friends in high places."
"Who else went to Rice Field?" Shino asked quietly. His gaze swept the room.
"Well, Sakura-chan, of course," Anko said. "Lazy over there, the girl who doesn't like snakes, Gai's little clone, and the only Hyuuga I've ever met with a sense of humor."
"She only remembers Sakura's name?" Ino grumbled quietly.
Kiba had focused on something else entirely in Anko's recitation. "Huh? Hinata couldn't have been on that mission, she was with us!"
Anko blinked, staring for a moment at the Hyuuga heiress, who flushed under her scrutiny. "Not her," Anko said, flicking a finger at Neji. "The other one."
Everyone stared at Neji for a moment. "Neji has a sense of humor?" Naruto asked in disbelief.
Neji deliberately took several bites of meat before speaking. "Why did the missing ninja use the Replacement Technique?" he asked in a monotone. "Answer: it doesn't matter, because the second kunai the ANBU hid in the first's shadow still killed him, as was fated from the beginning."
There wasn't even a groan. "You're making me look stupid," Anko complained after a moment.
"Is that so?" Neji asked dryly, then returned to his meal.
"That's it!" Anko exclaimed, standing up and pointing directly at Neji. "Tomorrow morning, I'm having you assigned to my interrogation team! The horror of a witty Hyuuga will have those scum begging to talk in no time at all."
"My - my father might have a problem with that," Hinata said.
Anko grinned. "Your father is no problem at all, trust me."
Neji snorted. "I might have a problem with that."
"You don't get a choice," Anko replied. "Well, anyway, now that I've said hello, I'm off. Have fun, kids, and don't get caught doing anything I wouldn't get caught doing!"
There was a silence after she left, but it was much more comfortable than the earlier ones. "She is seriously crazy," Kiba offered after a moment.
"Tell me about it," Sakura said with a laugh. "But she really is nice, once you get to know her."
"You're seriously crazy," Ino said.
As the dinner wound down a while later, Sakura turned to Naruto. "You've been quiet tonight," she commented.
"Yeah," Naruto agreed. "I've been thinking."
"With what?" Sakura asked. Naruto gave her a hurt look, and she grimaced. "Sorry. Habit."
"It's okay," Naruto said, and then he slammed his hand onto the table, grabbing everyone's attention. He'd made a decision, and he wasn't going to waste any more time thinking about it. "When we're done here, would you all mind coming with me to the training grounds? There's something I'd like to do in private."
Sakura looked at Naruto curiously. "Sure, I guess," she said. There was general agreement, and twenty minutes later, the group of young ninja had regathered at the same training ground where, over a year ago now, Kakashi's Team Seven had managed to pass the infamous bell test.
Naruto thought that somehow appropriate. "Everyone, thanks for coming."
"So what's the big deal?" Tenten asked. A kunai appeared in her hands, and after a moment's consideration she sent it flying into one of the wooden posts. Naruto thought it might have been the one he had been tied to, which he hoped wasn't a sign.
"Neji, Hinata-chan," Naruto said seriously, looking at the pair of Hyuuga. "Do you mind making sure we have privacy?"
"Byakugan!" the two uttered in unison. After a moment, Hinata spoke. "I don't see anyone."
"Two ANBU," Neji corrected. "Cloaking genjutsu."
"R-right," Hinata agreed a second later.
"That's fine, I guess," Naruto said.
Neji shook his head. He waited a moment, then said. "They're out of earshot now."
"This is something big?" Chouji asked.
Naruto nodded. "There's something I need to tell you all about." They deserved to know. They were all friends and allies.
"Hey, Naruto," Shikamaru said, worry in his voice.
Sakura blinked. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" she asked quietly. She and Shikamaru had figured out Naruto's secret while he'd been gone. It had actually been a relief, because he would never have been able to work up the courage to risk telling Sakura.
"I've actually talked about it with Ero-sennin," Naruto told them. "He agreed it was a good idea. All my enemies already know. There's no reason to hide it from my friends any longer."
Ino crossed her arms across her chest. "Are you going to spill the beans on what the hell makes you so important that Shizune-sama was willing to drop everything and potentially go against Orochimaru himself with only five chuunin for backup to rescue you?"
"Bloodline Limit?" Shino speculated.
Naruto shook his head. "Not quite." He took a deep breath. "You all know how the Fourth Hokage died, right?"
"Everyone knows that," Chouji said.
"He's one of the village's greatest heroes!" Rock Lee exclaimed. "Sacrificing himself to kill the demon fox Kyuubi!"
"You see," Naruto began, and then he had to stop, taking another breath to gather himself. "What I learned, around the time we all became genin, well except for you, and Neji, and Tenten…" Naruto shook his head. He was trying to delay, and it was far too late now. "That story is a lie."
Once the sake had run out, Tsunade had relocated her meeting to a grove of trees on the grounds of her mansion. Legend stated that they had been grown by the First Hokage himself during the negotiations before the Leaf Village had been founded, to demonstrate that he had recovered the lost art of wood element ninjutsu. If Tsunade knew one way or the other whether the legend was true, she had never told anyone.
There was a cool breeze in the night air, a memory of a winter that was rapidly turning to spring. None of the four ninja made any show of checking for listeners - a possibility, even in so secure a location - but there was little risk that anyone could escape the attention of all four of them.
"So," Jiraiya said, "since we seem to be making the circle of troublesome topics this evening: Akatsuki."
"I thought they weren't supposed to move again for a few years yet," Kakashi said. "Itachi didn't seem inclined to wait, when you fought him."
Jiraiya grimaced. "It may have just been a target of opportunity," he said, "since I was foolish enough to leave Naruto alone with Kaida." He clenched his fists. "Or the intelligence may have been suspect to begin with. I can't trust anything for certain. Kaida is… was… an important part of my efforts to keep track of those people. She could have corrupted my whole network."
"Then what do we know for certain, without that?" Shizune asked softly.
Jiraiya grunted. "One: Akatsuki is an organized alliance of powerful missing ninja from numerous villages. Two: Akatsuki has shown interest in acquiring beings of power, among them and of greatest importance to us personally, the Kyuubi."
"Three," Kakashi said, "known members. Uchiha Itachi, formerly of the Leaf's ANBU. Hoshigaki Kisame, formerly of the Mist's Seven Swordsmen."
Jiraiya nodded. "Kaida, formerly the Cloud's High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon, recently deceased. Akakawa Tetsu, formerly a general of the Cloud, long deceased." He sighed. "Orochimaru, formerly of the Leaf's Legendary Sannin and currently leader of the Sound, resigned." Tsunade spat on the ground.
"That's it?" Shizune asked. "You've been tracking these people for over a decade, Jiraiya-sama!"
"I told you," Jiraiya said, "almost everything I thought I knew is suspect, and Akatsuki didn't start moving openly until recently." He sighed. "One more member. An unknown former Rock ninja, with blond hair, and apparently more than the usual number of mouths on him, recently joined. I… briefly encountered him with Naruto, but we didn't fight." He paused. "Hmm. He didn't show much interest in Naruto, actually. Claimed the Kyuubi wasn't his target, which implies that each member or team has a specific one."
"Wait; back up," Kakashi said. "Akakawa Tetsu was a member of Akatsuki? I fought him, during the war with Cloud."
Jiraiya nodded. "He went missing ninja after the war. I ran into him when I was trying to track down Orochimaru, about the same time I met Kaida. She actually killed him in that fight." He shook his head. "We didn't realize what those outfits meant until Orochimaru's relatively public disagreement with Itachi-kun, though." A bitter look passed over his face. "I don't understand why Kaida joined them."
"Are we certain this Tetsu actually went missing ninja?" Tsunade asked.
"It is awfully suspicious," Shizune said. "Two of our known members are a respected Cloud general, and the High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon."
Jiraiya grunted. "That High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon killed the Raikage, you might recall," he said. "And I doubt Orochimaru, or Itachi, would sign on with something as simple as a rogue Cloud faction."
"Probably not," Tsunade agreed. "So, what do we do about this?"
Jiraiya grunted. "I'm sticking with the original plan. I take Naruto with me on my travels and train the kid in secret. We've got another three-year deadline to deal with, after all. Getting closer to two years every day."
Kakashi's visible eye closed. "Sasuke-kun," he whispered.
"Hmph." Tsunade laid a hand on a tree trunk. "That Uchiha brat has given us no end of trouble. I wish I hadn't woken him up."
"My fault," Kakashi said.
"No it isn't," Jiraiya said angrily. "That boy is responsible for his own damn choices, even with Orochimaru's seal on him. It can't bring out anything that wasn't already there at least a little, and you blocked its influence before it had too much time to work. Only his will could have let it loose again."
"He's just a kid," Kakashi said.
"So was Anko-chan," Jiraiya retorted.
"If anyone is to blame," Tsunade said, "it's Orochimaru." She smiled bitterly. "I also wish I'd answered when you sent me that message asking for help killing him when he first defected."
Jiraiya shrugged. "If wishes were fishes," he said. His face was hard. "I just hope I can beat enough sense into Naruto that he'll do what needs to be done, if it comes to that. Or at least not hate me, if I do it for him."
"You think he's beyond saving?" Shizune asked. Her voice was soft.
"I wish he wasn't," Jiraiya said. "But there isn't anything restraining that seal anymore, and he went with Orochimaru of his own free will."
"So did Anko-chan," Shizune stated.
Jiraiya winced. "That was a little different, Shizune."
"Everyone is different. Naruto-kun and Sakura-chan still think he can be saved," Shizune said, her voice rising. "This isn't your story retold with new faces! Sasuke-kun doesn't have to be his generation's Orochimaru."
"If we don't manage to end this one way or another in time," Tsunade said, "that won't matter, because he'll be my generation's Orochimaru."
The fire left Shizune. "Right," she whispered.
"Shadow Replication Technique." Everyone turned to look at Jiraiya, who sent his replication off into the night.
"I'd been thinking about it," he said. "But now I've decided. There's no time to waste, is there?"
"You're leaving tonight, then?" Tsunade asked.
Kakashi's eye widened. "On such short notice?"
"Last time the beans got spilled because Naruto's teammate's mother turned out to be a spy," Jiraiya said. "This time no one knows when he's leaving in advance." He paused. "Tsunade," he said.
"Unless you've got other plans for him, I'm stealing Kakashi-kun."
Kakashi's eye managed to widen further. "What do you mean?"
"He still needs regular medical attention," Shizune protested.
"I'm not you two," Jiraiya said, "but if you give me instructions I can keep him from killing himself, I think." He sighed. "I need to rebuild my network almost from scratch. I need to train Naruto. Even shadow replications only go so far to help me be in two places at once.
"And it's a good idea, anyway," Jiraiya continued, "for there to be someone else to pick up the pieces if… well, I'm not able to finish the job, for whatever reason."
"Why me?" Kakashi asked.
"Don't be an idiot, Copy Ninja Sharingan Kakashi," Jiraiya said.
"…Right," he said. "I'm not… used to considering myself on your kind of level."
"Don't be arrogant either, kid," Jiraiya said amusedly. "You aren't, not yet." He grinned. "But with my help, you will be soon enough."
Tsunade grunted. "And any experience we can give Naruto fighting the Sharingan won't hurt either." Her face was grim. "For multiple reasons." She sighed. "All right. Kakashi-kun's already off all the duty rosters, anyway. Less paperwork to keep him off. Do you want me to relist him as missing in action, presumed dead? Thanks to this damn war, few enough people have been back in the village to know he's been rescued, and I can frighten them into staying silent."
Jiraiya shook his head. "No need for that. Akatsuki and Orochimaru already know he's alive."
"If we're leaving tonight," Kakashi said, "I need to pack, Jiraiya-sama."
"Go," the Toad Hermit ordered. "Be at the gate in two hours, and if you're late you can see if you have any better luck than Itachi-kun did trying to copy Rasengan. The hard way."
"Understood," Kakashi said, and then he was gone.
There were only two ninja present in the cave. The other six figures standing in the rough circle were flickering and indistinct, transmitted from the corners of the known world by unique ninjutsu and incredible amounts of chakra. Together, they were eight of the most dangerous people in that world. Together, they were the criminal organization Akatsuki.
One of the two ninja present swept the group with his strange, ringed eyes. "Losing Kaida hurts us," he said. "There's no way around that fact. We've lost easy access to promising targets. We can no longer consider Lightning Country a safe haven, and there's no telling how much the Cloud will learn of us once they sort out their… issues."
"I could collect a few bounties from their enemies," one of the flickering images offered. "Keep the chaos going."
"She was your partner, Kakuzu," a female voice stated. It came from the other physically present ninja. "I suppose the least you can do is avenge her death."
"It's not my fault she decided to play host to the Kyuubi without letting me know," Kakuzu replied.
"And it slipped through our fingers again," a hunched-over figure stated.
"We were faced by two of the legendary Sannin." The one who now spoke was Uchiha Itachi. "I saw no purpose in dying stupidly."
The first speaker's ringed eyes met the blurry image of Itachi's Sharingan. "I'm not pleased with you two, either," he said. "You've failed twice to capture the Kyuubi now. What am I to do with you?"
The figure standing next to Itachi raised a sword from his shoulder and pointed it at the man. "Hey," Hoshigaki Kisame said. "You might be the founder of this organization, 'Pain', but that doesn't make you a Kage to just hand out punishments. If I wanted that, I could have stayed with the Mist."
"Akatsuki is an alliance of equals," Itachi said softly.
"Hmm," another figure, until now silent, said. "I might be new here, but they are right."
"You would leave this organization over being chided for failure?" the woman who had spoken earlier said. "I'm surprised."
Itachi's eyes closed. "We have almost three years to capture our target still, by the original schedule. Even if we had captured it, we'd still have needed to keep it secure until we were ready for it. Orochimaru proved that wouldn't be easy."
"Orochimaru is a fool," the hunched-over figure stated.
"Enough," the man called Pain stated. He closed his own eyes briefly. "I apologize, Itachi-san, Kisame-san."
Kisame reshouldered his massive blade. "Apology accepted."
"We're down two members now," Itachi said after a moment, eyes still closed. "One we still can't replace, but Kisame and I were able to reach Kaida's body before the Cloud could search the battleground."
"There are some promising candidates," Pain said. "I will arrange tests. Konan will arrange a rendezvous with you to acquire Kaida's ring."
The woman who was with him in the cave bowed shallowly. "As you command."
"As for Orochimaru," Pain continued, "we will deal with him in due time."
"It's fast becoming due time," Kisame complained.
"You may be right," Pain said, "but we can't afford to strike hastily at him. He's too powerful and too crafty for us to be able to just show up at his base to try to kill him and hope to succeed. We slip up even a little, and he'll just kill as many of us as he can, then go so far underground it'll take years to find him again."
"I know that," Kisame grumbled.
"So accept it," Itachi said quietly.
Pain nodded, as though in gratitude for the Uchiha's support. "Are there any other difficulties with the other targets?" he asked after a moment.
"I'm still looking for a good one, hmm," the figure who had admitted to being a recent recruit said. "But I still have plenty of time, yes?" No one objected.
"Then let's get back to work," Pain said when it was clear no one had anything else to say. "We are Akatsuki. We are the dawn of a new era, and no force in this world can stop us."
"That went well, I think," Sakura said as she and Naruto ascended the steps to his apartment. Naruto gave her a look, and she shrugged. "There was some yelling at first," she admitted, "but nobody hates you." She grimaced. "Not like the jerks you've got living in this building." She made a rude gesture at a random door.
"Eh," Naruto said with a weak laugh. "You get used to it."
"Well, you shouldn't have to," Sakura said firmly. "Idiots, all of them."
They paused in front of Naruto's door. "Thank you," Naruto said, "for…"
They exchanged a look. Sakura drew a kunai, and Naruto summoned a shadow replication, which kicked in his unlocked door. When nothing attacked the replication, it vanished, and Sakura looked into the room.
Jiraiya was sitting at Naruto's kitchen table, a heavy pack resting in front of him. He looked up, seemingly having barely noticed the replication's earlier entry. "Where the hell have you two been?" he grumbled. "I've been waiting here for almost an hour. You better not have gotten her pregnant, brat. That's a complication we don't need right now."
Sakura flushed as she sheathed her weapon. "What the hell are you saying -"
"I guess not, then," Jiraiya interrupted with a grin. "I suppose you're still a little young yet."
"Ero-sennin," Naruto growled. His hands twitched.
"We were eating dinner with our friends!" Sakura exclaimed, still beet red.
"You left that restaurant almost the same time I showed up here," Jiraiya said. "And then the ANBU who were supposed to be watching you let Neji-kun call them off like a couple of sentimental idiots." His grin widened. "I know what my friends and I would have been up to at your ages."
"Tsunade-sama would have killed you," Sakura replied.
"Wait, Neji called off the ANBU?" Naruto asked.
The pink-haired kunoichi rolled her eyes. "We aren't supposed to know, so I didn't tell you before, but he got recruited into ANBU after the Chuunin Exams. That's why his team got broken up."
"Oh," Naruto said.
"And the ANBU only left earshot, according to him," Sakura complained at Jiraiya. "If you know all that, you know we weren't… we weren't… doing whatever crazy perverted thing you're thinking of!"
Jiraiya's grin just widened even more. Then it vanished and his face turned serious. "You told them all?" he asked seriously.
Naruto nodded. "Yes."
"Good. No one tried to kill you?"
"Of course not!" Sakura said. "What are you, stupid? Who the hell would do something like that?"
"Better and better." Jiraiya stood, and tossed the pack on the kitchen table at Naruto with one hand. The boy stumbled as he caught it. "We're leaving."
"Tonight?" Sakura asked quietly. "So soon?"
"There's no time to waste," Jiraiya said gently. "Not if we're going to have any chance at all to… save your friend." The hesitation was slight enough that Sakura almost didn't catch it, and she decided not to comment.
"We almost got him this time," Naruto said. He turned to Sakura. "We did it together, this time."
Sakura smiled despite herself. "And next time," she promised. "As many times as it takes."
A dark expression passed over Jiraiya's face. "Come on, then. You too, Sakura-chan. You'll want to say goodbye to Kakashi-kun."
"Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked. "Why?"
"He'll be with me and Naruto this time," Jiraiya explained.
"That's awesome!" Naruto said, then put his backpack on. "Did you remember to pack some ramen?" he asked suspiciously.
"Yes," Jiraiya said with a roll of his eyes.
Sakura hesitated, clenching her fists. "Jiraiya-sama," she said hesitatingly.
"What is it, girl?" he asked as he walked to the door.
"If I… if you could wait a minute so I could pack… could… could I come with you?"
Jiraiya stopped and turned around to look at her. He didn't say anything.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto breathed.
The kunoichi flushed again. "The last time I let you leave, and the last time I let Kakashi-sensei leave… it's impossible luck that you both came back safe from everything that happened. I… I couldn't handle it if something happened again, while I was safe back here, and we were less lucky this time." Her green eyes flashed. "I want to be able to protect the people who are precious to me!"
Now Naruto turned red. "Sakura-chan," he said again, but his teammate ignored him, keeping her gaze locked with Jiraiya's.
The Toad Hermit sighed. "You're supposed to be Tsunade's apprentice, Sakura-chan."
"Technically," Sakura allowed. "But she's the Hokage and we're at war." She clenched her fists. "Gods only know if she'll have any time to train me at all. I've learned more from Mitarashi-sensei so far. Like you said, there's no time to waste if we want to save Sasuke-kun."
"Look," Jiraiya said, "you're a genjutsu-type with strong chakra control. That's not my style any more than it is Naruto's. I could teach you a lot, but Tsunade, more than almost anyone else, will be able to turn you into one of the great ones. I guarantee it."
"If she teaches me," Sakura pressed. "I am not going to let myself be stuck just watching Naruto and Sasuke's backs again. Never again!"
Jiraiya sighed. "All right. How's this? Have Anko-chan teach you to use your snakes as messengers across long distances. If you still feel like you're wasting your time in… let's say six months, send me a message. If you do, I'll come back and steal you away from Tsunade. Deal?"
Sakura frowned, but after a moment she nodded. "Deal."
Jiraiya knelt down suddenly, resting a hand on both Naruto and Sakura's shoulders. "You two have set yourselves a great task," Jiraiya said. "The kind of task they tell legends about for generations. It won't be easy, but the Will of Fire burns brightly in both of you," he continued, "and if you don't let that fire be extinguished, Sarutobi-sensei always said that no force in this world could stop you."
Jiraiya hoped neither would notice that he hadn't mentioned what he thought of that.
Author's Random Ramblings
1) Howdy, y'all! Anyone remember me? It's been a while since I really wrote a fanfic, beyond finalizing and posting to this site a couple of small pieces I wrote years back. I'm not sure how this happened. I guess that finalizing got me back in the mood.
2) This story is a sequel to my earlier Naruto fanfiction, One Hundred Days. I'm trying to make it somewhat comprehensible without having read that story, but I do recommend it. I'm told it isn't too awful to struggle through. As with One Hundred Days, to the limited extent that this story has a pairing, if that's important to you, the pairing is Naruto/Sakura, but romance is not the primary focus of the story.
3) Also as with One Hundred Days, canon for this story is taken from the Naruto anime through the conclusion of the Rice Field Country filler arc. Since the original story was started almost six years ago, Naruto canon has gone down strange and unexpected paths. Even if I were inclined to, it would be impossible to match up enough with the various revelations to call this story a 'what if' divergence from canon.
4) So in other words, officially consider this story, and One Hundred Days retroactively, an alternate universe. I promise fewer generic Chosen One prophecies and plots to take over the world with magical moons than the leading competitor.
5) Despite choosing to limit my canon sources, as you probably noticed, I'm not above stealing characters or ideas from canon I'm ignoring if I have a use for them. However, I feel free to alter these characters and ideas to better suit my taste and the needs of the story. So I'd like to ask that you don't get annoyed when I reveal that Tobi is actually Kakashi's long-lost twin sister, Jiraiya's spy in Akatsuki, and also Sailor Moon.
6) Ordinarily, I wouldn't release a prelude on its own. But at over 8000 words and approximately 50 KB, I'd say this counts as a full chapter despite technically being a prelude, no? It also bodes poorly for my hopes for writing shorter, more digestible chapters.
7) Next time, in One Hundred Weeks, Chapter 1: One Year Later, the Hidden Village of the Sand is about to host the Chuunin Selection Exams, and Naruto and Sakura's paths are about to cross for the first time in a year…
Draft Started: April 10, 2011
Draft Finished: April 18, 2011
Draft Released: April 20, 2011
Final Released: April 26, 2011