Disclaimer: I do not own any of the following and do not claim to. This story is for entertainment purposes only.
Uryu Ishida sat anxiously in the Fourth Division's medical ward. Rukia and Chad were too injured for Urahara to risk healing them himself. Instead, he had transported them directly to Soul Society. A soft biting laugh escaped Uryu's lips. If only his father could see him now, once again in the Shinigami city accepting their assistance.
He wasn't too concerned with the miser. Ryuken had served his purpose by restoring his powers. It didn't really matter if he kept a promise to that man anyway. No, Uryu's pride as a Quincy was more important than the wishes of someone who turned his back on all of it in the name of money.
His pride demanded he be there to fully explain to the Shinigami what happened to one of their own. While he owed nothing to them as a group, he did owe his life to Renji Abarai and would honor the man by retelling of his heroic last stand. The circumstance was ironic really, given the bloody history between the Shinigami and the Quincy.
Still, there was no bad blood between Renji, or Rukia, and him. Their willingness to disobey orders to help save Orihime made them okay, despite the Shihakusho they wore.
Ichigo blinked as he trudged into the doorway. Uryu could feel how his normally impressive spiritual power hung low. How badly injured had he been for his presence to be so diminished? How emotionally battered was he for it to be so solemn?
"I see you didn't fair any better than the rest of us, Ichigo." Ishida readjusted the glasses over his nose. "In fact, I seem to be the only one with minor injuries."
"Guess all your bragging about Quincy superiority was true." Ichigo's chuckle came across forced as he collapsed onto the edge of a spare bed.
"This time it came down to luck of the draw." Uryu studied Ichigo as he laid flat on his back and stared up at the ceiling. "Orihime, was she okay?"
They fell into silence, a hundred unanswered questions hanging heavily in the air. Uryu knew questions weren't going to help right now and there were probably few Ichigo could actually answer. From the bits of information he was given, their rescue attempt only served to kill two Espada and pick up a strange new Shinigami that annoyed, and unwisely fought, Genryusai Yamamoto. The general consensus from the whispers was Renji wasted his life.
"The Sixth Division will be holding a memorial service for him tomorrow morning."
"He deserved better."
Uryu dropped his head and stared at the polished tiles of the floor. His jet black hair fell down around his face and tickled his jaw line.
"I'm sure they will give Renji a proper send off."
"That's not what I meant!" Ichigo mouth twisted into a scowl. "There shouldn't need to be one!"
"We don't have a say in that anymore. That choice was taken away from us."
"It doesn't change-"
"We failed, Kurosaki!" Uryu's ice blue eyes glaring at the ground cut any protest short. "Our strength was abysmal in comparison to what we faced, and he died as a result. There is no disputing that, or arguing about how the things that happened shouldn't have."
He brought his hand within his field of vision. The skin tingled under the bandages as blisters and bruises gradually healed His bow, his Ginrei Kojaku, could fire over a thousand reishi arrows in a single moment and not one of them possessed enough power to kill the eighth Espada. Renji and he only survived because of the Arrancar's vanity. They damaged his clothes so he left to change. It was the ultimate dismissal and insult, and there was nothing they could do but be glad he left.
They didn't even pretend they could stand up to Ulquiorra when he appeared to exterminate them. Exterminate – like pests, they were insects compared to the upper Espada.
"I'm sorry, Uryu. If we hadn't split up, if I had been there …"
"You would have never gotten to Inoue-san. Whether we succeeded or failed to bring her home, she now knows we didn't give up on her."
"You don't think things would have changed if we'd stayed as a group." The finality in Ichigo's voice ensured it wasn't a question.
"I think you're being selfish." Ichigo whipped his head around as Uryu looked up. The Substitute's face portrayed raw pain like he'd be slapped. "Renji didn't die for you. We didn't get hurt for you. All of us jumped into that hell to save Orihime and make sure she was safe. I never saw the look on her face when you appeared to rescue her, or that goofy smile she always had when she did something a little foolish. None of us got to see that except you. You are the only one who saw what we all fought for."
Ichigo's teeth clenched and he focused back on the ceiling. Slowly closing his eyes, he sucked in a sharp breath and let it out between his teeth.
"You're right." Ichigo sat up and let his head droop. "I'm so angry at how stupid I was. I honestly thought rescuing Orihime would be like when we charged in here to save Rukia."
"I think we all did in a way."
They probably all felt similarly. When Rukia was falsely charged with treason, the odds were against them. Divided from the onset, there were many times when one person's reiatsu would disappear entirely. They won though. Perhaps, it was that victory that formed a bit of arrogance on their part. They could do the same thing again in Hueco Mundo. They could accomplish the same feat again.
"How are Chad and Rukia doing?"
"Unohana-san is seeing to them right now. In her hands, I'm sure they will be fine."
"Good, that's really good to hear."
Uryu thumbed the metal symbol hanging from a band on his wrist. His Quincy cross was the accumulation of his pride, the talisman that allowed him to focus his power. He knew Ichigo was still silently berating himself for not being stronger. Uryu understood that was the burden of being the strongest. The failures weighed heavier on the broader shoulders. However, they all underestimated their enemy and suffered for it. By some strange mercy, they were alive and it fell to them, all of them, to see things through.
"I'm going to get stronger and stop Aizen from destroying our home town." Uryu stood to his full height and headed for the door. "I'm not going to allow any more victims, and I'm certainly not going to be indebted to a Shinigami longer than I have to."
"So can you explain to me why Naruto has a bunch of his Kage Bunshin running around the city transformed into different people?" Karin lifted her hands with a shrug. "I'm all for him surveying the area of course. You'd just think he would have done that before we actually entered this place."
"I was not aware he was doing so." Lee glanced around as they continued to walk side by side. "You can actually tell who they are, Karin-san?"
"A person's charka signature never changes under Henge. The same holds true for reiatsu."
"Most people are unable to sense energy so precisely."
"It was something I was born with. It can be a pain knowing everything going on around you all the time, but it's kept me out of trouble many times." She cast a sly grin at him. "And it comes with the perk of seeing the quality of your energy."
"It's like looking directly at your spirit. Your true emotions, your power, the quality tells me all of that."
Lee scratched at his cheek and looked up as a light blush highlighted his cheeks.
"Do you lik- I mean, what is mine like?"
"Your energy is buried deep right now." She placed a hand over his heart and stared through him. "It's a lot like that Commander guy's, but yours seems more like a fire that gives life instead of burning it away." She took a step back and gave a cute smile. "That's how I'd describe it at least."
Lee felt his face heat up and he bowed low.
"Thank you, Karin-san. I had always wondered what it would be like."
"Hey, hey, don't make such a big deal about it." She waved her hand embarrassedly. "You should have already had an idea of what it was like when you used chakra."
"My old body could never mix my physical energy with my significantly greater spiritual energy." He rose to his full height and beamed at her. "You are the first person to ever see it."
"You're messing with me."
"Not at all."
"I overheard Naruto talking to Gaara. You were on his final team that took on Madara, the strongest ninja in history. How the hell did you fight him?"
"I never fought Madara. I fought a subordinate of his, a shark man of incredible power. Unfortunately, I lost my life defeating him."
Her eyes nearly bugged out of her head.
"You beat Kisame Hoshigaki without use of any ninjutsu or genjutsu?" People walking by paused as the question came out as a shout. "How?"
She stared at him incredulously. He found the look endearing, but couldn't understand why she found it so odd he defeated his opponent using viable hand to hand techniques. Of course, people used to doubt his ability to be a ninja who only used taijutsu. Yes, he'd forgotten about how unusual he was in the ninja world. it would be surprising for someone who had not seen his growth, and to be fair, his innate … gift to diminish the risks of the Eight Gates was a large reason why he could succeed with only his body.
"Wow." Karin blew out a rush of air in a failed whistle. "Naruto, and even Gaara, I thought were incredible even for Jinchuriki. You and Hinata are probably even more so."
"It is merely the outcome of hard work."
"No Lee. You don't get it." The teasing nature from earlier slipped away as Karin hugged herself uncomfortably. "If Kabuto-sempai was Orochimaru's right hand, I was his left. Even with mental barriers in place, I knew a little about his regenerative abilities and the experiments tied to them. I didn't know how. I just knew of them. The timeline of events Jugo, Naruto, and I pieced together starting from Danzo conquering Oto to Madara's defeat could be off by entire months and it still wouldn't be possible."
"What wouldn't be possible, Karin-san?"
"Hinata's body." Karin's face tightened in sadness. "Orochimaru-sama introduced the alterations to his anatomy slowly, over many years in deliberate steps that took months of recovery each time. He never fully perfected the process, which is why his body kept breaking down into snakes. Danzo didn't know what the hell he was doing. The madman only saw the results, not the risks that needed to be carefully calculated nor the intricate processes necessary to ensure the proper outcome."
"You are saying Hinata was lucky."
"I'm saying she should be dead, or a grotesque lump of mutated flesh, or at best a drooling vegetable. If a miracle occurred and the procedure did work, she would have needed months, maybe years, to recover and halt the potential devolution. She was battle ready within days." She leaned in close, her warm breath lightly brushing his face. "You guys don't realize how insane what you have done is. You don't realize how special you are."
The vivid color in her hair and eyes was so striking. Her scent almost had a light cinnamon quality to it. Had he ever been this close to a girl outside of a fight or training before? His heart skipped a beat and a nervous tremor raced through his veins. Why did his legs feel so fatigued right now? No, his entire body felt odd.
Was he getting sick?
"Am I making you nervous, Lee – kun?"
He gulped anxiously and shook his head in the negative as his face reddened. Her face scrunched up and she started to chuckle, then her shoulders began to shake, until she held her sides and was laughing so hard tears ran down her cheeks. He didn't know why, but her laugh put him at ease and the occasional snort made him smile.
"You are so innocent, Lee. No wonder your energy is the purest I've ever seen. I-" she stopped laughing and her fingers squeezed the fabric of her coat. "I've never been around many truly kind people. I guess it makes me a little overzealous. I'm sorry if I'm teasing you too much."
Lee placed a hand on her shoulder and gave thumbs up.
"Tease me as much as you like, Karin-san. Friends should be able to be overzealous around each other."
Her eyes watered up again.
"You really mean that don't you?"
He removed his hand as she dabbed her eyes with the sleeve of her coat. If he had been younger, he would have declared undying love for her like he had Sakura-san. Such a youthful blunder, but one he still cherished. He knew better now. Being smitten, as Gai-sensei had called it, could pass quickly. For now, becoming true friends was more important. As his teacher had said, the rest would arrive as it needed to.
Gaara waited patiently from the shop's doorway as childish laughter filled the room. A flash of pink hair was quickly followed by green as the two girls raced between shelves of candy. While he appreciated the help when picking out a few clothes for his charge to wear, stopping for candy was a cost he didn't really want to incur. He supposed it was better than dealing with Nel pouting. Honestly, the Arrancar didn't even know what that was until two minutes ago.
It didn't really matter though. It provided another potential guardian for Nel if he and the others were called away. Granted, the child lieutenant, Yachiru Kusajishi, was known for sowing chaos within the walls of Seireitei. It was playful mostly harmless pranks, but still chaos that made many adults fear what she would come up with next.
And he allowed an equally energetic Nel to be mixed in.
"You look so tense, Gaara-taicho." Rangiku crept up behind him and peaked over his shoulder. "Who's the squirt running around with Kusajishi?"
"I'm sure word has already spread through the hell butterfly network. Besides, I doubt you missed the Commander's reiatsu."
"I wanted to hear the story from you."
"I'm sure the Commander explained it in an honest and respectable manner."
"I don't buy it. You've got that look."
"I don't have a look."
"Your chin dips down whenever something is bothering you." She walked around in front of him and put her hand on her hip. "Spill it."
Nel's eyes lit up as she sampled the piece of candy Yachiru handed her. She hopped from one foot to the other holding her cheeks as the other one laughed and danced alongside. How could someone once ranked third among the Espada be so enthralled by a simple sweet?
How could Naruto completely ignore he kept that information hidden?
He risked being labeled a traitor and executed, keeping what Naruto told them a secret. If Yamamoto-dono was furious with merely a child Arrancar, having one of the most powerful inside the city would have ensured all of their deaths on the spot. No, he did not leap headfirst into an unwinnable battle like his friend. That never meant he wasn't still trying to protect everyone with a method likely more successful than challenging the Commander. But because of that, Naruto felt the need for someone else to watch his back. His first friend, the one who exemplified all of his best traits, considered him a potential threat.
Something Naruto never once did with the Sasuke Uchiha.
"Maybe when everyone is settled in. I can make no promises."
"Run for it!" Yachiru barreled past them with an armful of candy, Nel following with a similar heist. "Master thieves never get caught!"
Gaara turned to the shopkeeper and offered an apologetic bow.
"Have someone deliver the bill to the Ninth Division headquarters. Sorry for the hassle." He moved away from Rangiku and headed out. "I need to get going."
"Yeah," she said softly as her eyes drifted to the floor. "Maybe next time."
He disappeared in a whirl of sand.
"Tighten up your movements, Naru. You're too flashy."
"Say that after you catch me, Sensei!"
Shikamaru sighed as the brown haired child leapt over his shadow with a happy shout. The Rokudaime's attack shot up vertically, snagging Naru by the sandal and flinging him into a nearby stream. The kid bounced across the surface like a smooth pebble then unceremoniously sank into its depths.
A girl of similar age came up behind, her red eyes focused on Shikamaru's back as her straight black hair fluttered behind her.
"Hiru, if you're going to let someone risk being a distraction, you need to react faster to the opening they make." His shadow caught her in the air and then halted his other two students as they flanked him from opposing sides. "Jiraiya, Tsunade, you two have good teamwork together, but you are sloppy coordinating with other people."
He flung them into the water in the same manner as the first.
Kushina burst out laughing as the children surfaced, drenched and looking like miserable kittens. Tsunade glared daggers while blowing bubbles as Naru tried to splash water far enough to hit their sensei while yelling about water jutsu. Hiru and Jiraiya remained silent while their eyes calculated the next move.
"Since all of you are already there, swim ten lengths of the training ground and then go directly into tree climbing." Shikamaru shoved his hands in his pockets with a grin as she walked up next to him. "They almost got the tag on me that time."
"They'll be able to graduate soon if they get much better." Kushina grabbed at her arm and hid her worry. "I know how eager they are to start doing missions and really growing."
"Our upper ranks have finally bounced back over the past three years, and we have plenty of active genin. These guys can season a little bit more. I'd rather they go straight into C-Rank missions anyway, instead of watching them weeding plants for half a year."
"I thought you had discussed the idea of giving those kinds of chore missions to Academy students."
"We are playing with the idea. It really comes down to how well the revamped curriculum bolsters new graduates' field readiness. D-Ranks have traditionally been used to solidify teamwork while still bringing in money for the village. If the new curriculum works well enough, new graduates won't need as much time before starting real missions. Then, we probably will split the current D-Ranked missions into E and D-Ranks. Regardless, it will be after these guys graduate."
Naru and Tsunade shouted back and forth as they swam harder. Kushina chuckled. Those two were always competing or arguing about something.
"You're doing a great job with them, Hokage-sama."
"It's just Shikamaru, Kushina-san, and all of them have good teachers at home." He shook his head as Tsunade attempted to drown her competitor, allowing the other two to pass them both. "Tsunade, Naru, another five laps."
Kushina smiled embarrassedly.
"I'm sorry. She's got my temper. Jiraiya is the only one of the three to get his father's cool head."
"She'll learn to control it, just like Naruto did. Naru will as well. Honestly, it's kind of nice having that hyperactivity around."
"It's not too troublesome?"
"I didn't say that."
The water bubbled near the shore and a toad climbed out onto solid ground. A scroll was tied to its back over the top of a dark blue vest. Kushina felt a lump form in her throat. Unless Minato summoned them, there hadn't been a toad outside of Mount Myoboku since Konoha fell. There certainly hadn't been any messengers.
"Hey, Hokage." The amphibian hopped a few feet. "I've got a message for you from the Great Toad Sage."
Shikamaru dismissed any anxiousness with a shrug and sauntered over to the toad.
She checked the children. Her lips curved up in a small smile as Jiraiya stubbornly inched up on Hiru. Tsunade swam furiously against Naru as fresh taunts echoed within the splashes. What would Naruto think of them? Tsunade definitely carried more of his outward traits, but Jiraiya held that same unwavering spirit everyone said her eldest possessed.
Everyone else said, it seemed like that was the only way she could reference her oldest. Everything she personally knew came from two unbearably brief meetings – meetings filled with him trying to be as understanding and gentle as possible. He calling her mom almost broke her heart. She had no right to be called that by him, but he was too damn kind for his own good. He was a wonderful person even when his own heart was getting torn up. He charged straight ahead, sacrificing his future as a true ninja should.
A ninja, it still caused a sense of pride to build up in her chest. It shouldn't. Being a family of ninja ruined her son's life. It made her bitter and hateful of wonderful people, people like the Sandaime. The God of Shinobi on the battlefield and a grandfatherly figure to the entire village should deserve nothing but praise for his accomplishments and character. She couldn't help but resent him though, or even consider his second turn as Hokage a complete failure.
He let Danzo and the two Elders become too powerful. They committed genocide upon the Uchiha, children and all. Danzo rebuilt Root and took control of nearly every aspect of village security. They took her from her son. And the Sandaime just sat quietly and let them because he didn't have the energy to put his foot down and actually act like a Hokage. He didn't protect Naruto from loneliness.
It didn't absolve her though. She could have taken action and lopped Danzo's head off his shoulders while they stood in that office. Hell, maybe she would have gotten lucky and he would have revealed all the Sharingan on his arm. Outing him as a lunatic might have even kept her out of life imprisonment. At a minimum, she could have left Naruto something to show she loved him. How many times had she considered sending a letter with all of her thoughts, but let the fear of him rejecting her prevent it? For that matter, would Danzo have even let the message get to him?
You should have done better when you returned though.
She bit her lip as her nails dug painfully into her arm. Why did everything she do involving Naruto feel like the wrong decision? She hugged him and felt pushy and selfish. She gave him space and felt like she wasn't giving him the chance to lash out at her. She let him take the lead and felt like she let him die.
"Is this for real?" Shikamaru's voice cut over her thoughts. "Tell me his senility is affecting his ability to see the future."
When had he gotten so pale?
"Look Hokage, I don't know what's on that message, but I do know Ojiji-sama ain't never wrong when prophesying." The toad hopped back to the edge of the stream. "You have a reply or anything?"
"No." Shikamaru rolled up the scroll and tucked it into his vest. "Tell the Sages I got the message."
The toad dove back under the water. Shikamaru waited for a moment, his face tight as a thousand thoughts played through his head. Suddenly, he whirled around and made his way past her.
"Kushina-san, you're coming out of retirement. Get these four to the academy and if you have any way, contact the Yondaime and get his team back here." He held his hand up high and twisted his fingers into a special seal. Four ANBU leapt out of the trees and landed around them. "I want every, and I mean every, ninja still able to function on the battlefield in the tower's assembly hall in the next three hours."
The four rushed out in separate directions.
"Get them back here, Kushina. We're already short on time."
For what seemed like forever, Naruto felt completely at ease. He didn't have to worry about fighting some enemy or training until he passed out. There weren't any scheming Danzo's, or bad relationships, or ridiculously bearded fire wielders. Maybe, it was because Hinata had snatched up his hand within minutes of them starting to walk through the city. Maybe, it was the relief of knowing Hinata and the others were okay. Maybe, it was the little ramen bar located in a discreet corner just off the central district, and it didn't taste half bad.
He didn't really care why, because for the moment, he was pretty happy.
"You're smiling again, Naruto-kun."
"So are you." He gave her hand an extra squeeze. "Any place you want to check out? Gaara says we can go anywhere except the other divisions' barracks."
"I found a place where we could commission them to make kunai and shuriken. Also, since the Ninth Division is responsible for a citywide magazine, it should be easy to have some blank scrolls made up for you."
"You used your eyes didn't you?" He stopped and looked down at her. "You didn't have enough time to scout out a city this size without them. You told me they just fixed them this morning."
She placed a finger against his lips.
"I need to truly master them this time, Naruto-kun. They are my mother's legacy, and allow me to access my strongest technique. Kurotsuchi-san says the risk comes from my energy as it grows more powerful, not their use."
What if you don't train? You shouldn't have to worry about it then.
He bit back the thought as it threatened to spill out of his mouth. No, Hinata had the right to make her own decisions. It didn't matter how the idea of her fighting again made him worry. The feeling was like a transparent glass splinter hidden in the back of his heart, small enough to ignore if he tried hard enough. It wasn't like she'd let him fight on his own, just like he wouldn't with her.
And everything pointed to them needing to fight.
There goes being at ease.
"You don't need to worry about me." Her soothing tone carried a gentle firmness as her hand cupped the side of his face. "I'm not the one who blows himself up on a regular basis."
Whether out of instinct or because he saw other couples as a child, he clasped her hand and lightly kissed her palm.
"You're right." Lacing his fingers within hers, he brought it back down to his side and began walking again. "Come on; let's see if these Shinigami guys have a clothing store. These baggy clothes are a pain in the ass."
"And they don't have any orange."
"Exactly!" His face lit up excitedly. "Hey, you should get a coat like your old one, or a battle kimono, or something else you want. We're not Shinigami so no need to dress like them."
"Battle kimono? You mean like the ceremonial Hyuga garb or …Danzo's." Her voice squeaked out as even her hands reddened.
"I- uh- no, um- I was just listing clothing I had seen you fight in." That Sharingan stealing creep's choice still made him tongue tied. "Yeah, the one you had then wouldn't be good. Nope, too distracting."
"Di- distra- stracting?"
Damn it! Think then speak, think then speak!
"Do- don't be." She tipped her chin down as the blush lessened. "It's okay if you find me … distracting."
"O- okay." He looked to the sky with an embarrassed expression. "So, that Ramen was pretty good."
"Yes, it was very good."
"It wasn't Ichiraku but I can deal with it for now."
"Once we kick this Earl guy back into a hole, I think I'd like to open my own Ramen bar."
"Do you know how to make ramen?"
"I know how good ramen is supposed to taste. The rest should be easy to pick up."
She giggled lightly into her free hand.
"Have you forgotten that time we tried to cook?"
He leaned over and kissed her gently before backing away with a grin.
"Not a chance."
"This whole thing feels like a waste of time, Yondaime-sama." Kiba tossed a charred stone down from his perch halfway up the rubble pile that once stood as Madara's tower. "Akamaru and I are only getting normal earthy smells. You know, that musty sent when buildings start degrading back to nature."
"My Kikaichu are also failing to detect any traces of chakra or other abnormalities."
Minato carefully scrutinized each stone as his lips dipped into a frown. He didn't know whether not finding anything comforted him or made the situation worse. It meant they didn't have to deal with Madara and biju, and the fact only the spiritual energy seemed to be disappearing in children left a very narrow range of options. Could Naruto defeating the Death God have caused repercussions after seven years? It seemed unlikely, even with the abstract nature of anything involving the soul. Even if it did have potential, there was no way to test it.
It wasn't like he could inspect the seal on his son's belly.
He shoved the bitterness swelling in his gut aside. They were in the middle of the unknown, and they didn't have the luxury of time to figure things out.
Kiba dropped down in front of him.
"There's nothing left here. Even the acid has dried up and faded, thankfully."
Minato nodded absently. All of Naruto's friends steered clear of the tower. While most ninja visited it as a great memorial to the heroes, for that group it served as a reminder of their loss. They only came once to help bring back whatever remains could be found. Kiba and Akamaru had the hardest responsibility attempting to find the bodies alongside Shino and Neji. For him, any smell played out like an active scene rather than a passive aftermath. The beast-nin performed his job bravely until he caught whiff of the acid ... and hints of his original teammate within it.
Knowing how rapidly her seal vanished, Minato immediately realized what had happened. Shino, Shikamaru, and Kiba probably knew as well, but no one was willing to speak it out loud. Just as he spared everyone else what he'd witnessed of Lee and Naruto's final moments.
"I'm picking up a scent coming in fast." Kiba sniffed the air and Akamaru let out a low growl. "It's him."
The disdain lacing the last word told Minato all he needed to know.
Nagato, once feared as the Akatsuki leader Pain, leapt out of the tree line, landing far enough away to remain unthreatening. A midnight blue cloak had replaced the black one adorned in red clouds from before, and the scratch in his forehead protector was absent. However, the unsettling rings within his Rinnegan eyes still shown powerfully.
"Yondaime." Pain gave a respectful nod.
"Amekage." Minato reciprocated the gesture.
"You do not need to address me by my title. I do not deserve that level of respect from you."
"Damn straight," Kiba scoffed and twisted his nose up in the air.
"What are you doing here?" Minato forced himself to remain passive on the surface. "Did Hokage-sama tell you we were coming here?"
A few blades of grass shifted behind the orange haired man as a camouflaged Shino moved within striking distance. If Pain noticed, he made no action indicating so.
"I am aware of the malady harming the children from various nations. After investigating those villages directly, the trail led me here."
"There ain't anything here. Both my partner's nose and mine can tell you that."
"Perhaps a different set of eyes could tell you something different."
"You see something." Minato uncrossed his arms and let them fall to his sides. "Is it the tower?"
"The tower is nothing but a potent reminder of debris." Nagato pointed up in the sky above the spire's remains. "The Rinnegan blesses its wielder with the power over life and death, the ability to see a person's soul outside of their body. All over our world, there are weak patches, wounds, within the veil that separates the living and the dead. The largest one is here, where the clash of demonic energies weakened the barrier after it was torn open.
"Naruto's technique ripped open a hole to the afterlife?" Minato couldn't hide the surprise from his voice.
"No, I believe Naruto's seal was the gate. His technique only aggravated the effect."
Kiba switched back and forth between the two with a confused look.
"You mean Naruto's seal was the catalyst?" Minato shook his head. "That's not right. The Shiki Fujin on his stomach had been used by hundreds of others. None of their deaths, mine included, caused this to happen."
"None of them ever came back to life, as you did."
Minato gripped his chin. He never truly died because he split the Kyubi's chakra and linked to Naruto. His eyes widened.
"The link, that's what was different." Minato refocused on Nagato. "Naruto's and my seals reacted to one another, pulling him into the Death God's belly with all the other souls. Naruto ended up killing it."
"Naruto killed a god?" Kiba shared a stupefied look with Akamaru.
"The Shiki Fujin summons the spectral being to take the soul of the user, the victim, and in the case of Naruto, fill the vessel. When the task is done, the seal should be complete and close access between the spiritual plane and the physical." Nagato made a fist to emphasize the point. "Your link prevented that, and by killing the Shinigami, his soul must have retained some type of connection to the spiritual plane."
"That can't be it." Minato shook his head. "I saw the door in the Kyubi's cage that linked Naruto to the Death God disappear. We're missing something."
Pain looked back up at the sky as his eyes watched something only he could see.
"We also cannot dismiss this tower originally served as the final resting place for the Rikudo Sennin." Nagato tilted his head as their faces fell in disbelief. "What, did you think Madara chose this spot at random? Regardless of how, the greatest wound is above this and it is what is causing the others to form. What the bigger concern is, for everyone, is how we survive."
The grass waved again as Shino shifted his weight uneasily and Akamaru whimpered.
"These creatures are only susceptible to my attacks if I use my Rinnegan to place my spiritual energy at the forefront. That is an ability only I possess as the holder of the doujutsu that controls both life and death." Nagato's eyes almost seemed to glow as the sun began to dip into the tree line. "While I do not have the power to defeat the larger ones fighting to tear through the wound, I can repel them if I were to reconnect myself to a broadcast machine like I did in my original body."
"What are you saying, Nagato?"
"I am saying if the gate completely comes down, the only possible safe place will be within the barrier I construct. I am saying everyone must come to Amegakure."
Naruto steeled himself as he stood outside Ichigo's room. He knew what he wanted to accomplish and carried a vague idea of how to do it. The problem was making sure it worked. The kid was in a vulnerable spot and that could work out to his advantage or make everything blow up in his face.
"Not like worrying about it is going to help," he mumbled and stepped inside. "Hey, Ichigo, got a minute?"
"Naruto?" Ichigo sat up and blinked. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be out catching up with that woman, Hinata right?"
"She's getting dinner with Nel right now. Besides, we're roommates so we'll have lots of time together." Ichigo quirked an eyebrow and Naruto frantically waved his hands in denial. "It's not like that!"
"You're adults. What you do is up to you." Ichigo's face remained stoic even as a light blush crept up on his cheeks. "So what's up?"
"I wanted to talk to you – find out where your head is at."
"I lost my cool a little while earlier. I'm okay now."
"I'm guessing you're still trying to figure out a way to sneak out of here and back to Hueco Mundo."
Ichigo's eyes narrowed a sliver.
"How do you guess that?"
"Because it's the same thing I would do."
Naruto sat down on the bed across from him. Ichigo wasn't outwardly pissed so that was a good sign. The Substitute seemed to be sizing him up more than anything, like he didn't know whether he was being baited. Naruto couldn't blame him. He'd already been placed under something similar to a house arrest. No one could say the Shinigami wouldn't try to limit him even more if given a reason.
"I appreciate what you've done for me, Naruto. You kept Nel safe and saved me." The youth's reiatsu rose slightly. "But you don't know enough about me to make assumptions."
"Did you know my Kage Bunshin, my clones, relay their memories to me when they dispel?"
"No, I really don't know much about any of your techniques, other than that you are still trying to adapt them to your soul."
Naruto rested his forearms on his knees.
"I sent them out shortly after the old guy tried to roast me. You're right. I didn't know enough about you."
"So you asked around."
"Yeah. You care a lot for your friends and charge headfirst into danger if it will help them. You invaded the city and beat several captains in spite of barely understanding your own powers. You did the same thing trying to rescue Orihime."
"I had to."
"I know. In every story I hear about you, it always comes down you jumping in without being aware of your opponent's strength, and that you always have succeeded through sheer guts. That's why I know you are planning to go back and will try again as soon as you get the chance."
"You don't think I should." Ichigo swung his feet over the edge of the bed. "You think I should leave her there at Aizen's mercy."
Naruto stayed completely relaxed as Ichigo's voice rose. He needed to clamp down on his normal instinct to get loud and out-shout the person arguing with him. He'd been there. From Jiraiya's question to Hinata's kidnapping, he understood how the liquid burn built up in the pit of your stomach until you almost go crazy if you don't do something. It was so much easier to act than think, to move rather than wait and prepare. He needed to remember the patience Ero-sensei had with him and his outbursts.
"I think you have time. I think instead of hoping that your real strength will show up through pure determination and desperation, you use this opportunity to get better."
"We have no idea how much time that is. He could get bored with her and then what will happen? He stabbed his own lieutenant when he no longer needed her." Ichigo shot to his feet, his torso leaning forward slightly as his emotions boiled over. "She worshipped him and he discarded her and called it a mercy. You keep telling me she's okay, but you don't know. Every minute she's with him gives us less and less chance to get her home safe. You don't get that! You can sit there and act all wise and collected because you don't get what it's like to have a friend who could die because you're stuck sitting around!"
Ichigo's body shook as his fists clenched by his sides. How many times had he been in a similar state? Sasuke before the training trip, Sakura on the hospital bed, and so many more times in between. Should he share his own challenges? Would it sound patronizing or help establish common ground? Yes, he had to use that experience now. He needed to convince Ichigo to understand that history.
"When we were alive, well, more alive, Hinata and Lee were captured by a man named Danzo. You have to understand in our world certain people carry what we call kekkei genkai. These bloodlines range from unique jutsu elements to special eye techniques, like Hinata's. Danzo was obsessed with kekkei genkai."
Ichigo relaxed slightly as concern began to overwrite his anger.
"None of us new exactly where he had taken them. All we had were a long list of possible bases. It was excruciating not knowing if he would hide her away, locked up and used for breeding like some kind of machine. Would he figure out how to duplicate her eyes and just harvest what he needed from her? Would the same thing happen to Lee? All I wanted to do was to charge in and start tearing every base apart until he had no where left to hide."
"You waited though?"
"I made a plan and built a team. I didn't do it because I was told to. I'm not very good at that sort of thing. I did it because it offered the best chance we had to get them home safe." Naruto rolled to his feet so he faced Ichigo directly. "I get your heart is in the right place and how frustrating it is not doing anything, which is why I'm not telling you that."
"You're telling me to come up with a plan."
"Exactly, and your plan should be to get strong enough it doesn't matter what number an Espada has."
Ichigo looked away with a bitter scowl.
"I've already achieved Bankai and can use my hollow mask. There aren't any more powers to gain."
Naruto shook his head with an understanding smile.
"Don't gain, dig into what you have."
"You saw what happened with Nnoitra. I threw two of the strongest Getsuga Tensho I could at him, and it did nothing."
"You threw two blasts with two completely different characteristics." Naruto grasped Ichigo by the shoulder. "Your control sucks as bad as mine did as a kid."
"You fixed it?"
Naruto gave a huge feral grin.
"Want me to teach you how?"
Shikamaru sat silently as orange gold beams of sunset shone through the windows lining the tops of the walls. He readjusted his hat for the tenth time in as many minutes. How the Sandaime always wore the hat and robes escaped him. The only times he put the garb on was when ceremony called for it, or when he needed a visual aid to show everyone he meant business. When the hat came on, everyone knew the laidback genius was taking a backseat to a fully serious Hokage.
Almost all the ninja of chunin or higher knelt down before him, the others were either on security detail or out on missions. The faces had changed drastically since he was a young chunin amongst them. The Kyubi's final rabid onslaught had taken so many.
"Hokage-sama." Kakashi wheeled up beside him. "All available ninja are accounted for."
"Thank you, Kakashi-san." Shikamaru pulled the toad's scroll from his sleeve and held it up for everyone to see. "I received this from the Great Toad Sage. In it, is the first prophesy he has had since Madara Uchiha acquired all nine biju and disrupted nature itself."
He waited for the surprise to leave everyone's faces.
"All of us have been through hardship. Our brothers and sisters born in Suna faced the destruction of their original home. Some fought against, and all witnessed the destruction of our village in the final genocidal rampage of the Kyubi no Yoko. We all felt the loss of those we cherish … and our heroes." That photograph by his desk flashed through his mind. "The senior ninja carried us to the safety of the Uzu base, and the next generation was hardened by those three years. All of us have triumphed over these hardships, and because of that, you have proven you will not falter, you will not hide; you will not run when your village, your family, needs you. You have earned the right to hear the Great Sage's words in their entirety."
Shikamaru unrolled the scroll and clenched the parchment firmly, being sure to keep any sign of trepidation or fear hidden. He was Hokage, and as the leader, he must be the eternal calm that would lead his forces. He needed to portray absolute faith within the compassion. That was his role. That was what they silently required of him when asked to go out to die.
"I see them come, a wave of beasts hidden from eyes of flesh, beasts with the endless hunger possessing a swarm of locusts. They come from the veil beyond life, steeped in death. They come within the cycle of the moon. Man and beast, spirit and summon, all things blessed with souls will live as prey and fall as grain. So this I have foreseen.
Yet, these heralds precede the true calamity. Entwined like serpents, a man of hate and a man of arrogance shall trample upon the heavens and the earths, rending life and nature into nothingness. The Child of Prophecy shall suffer in these final moments, the past darkening his light, his hope stolen by the man of hate. Not him, nor his lineage, shall stand before the two men before these events transpire. So this I have foreseen.
I have foreseen the end of all days, and recorded these final moments alongside my final breaths. I do not presume to be able to change these events, but the fate of worlds continues to swirl fiercely around the Child of Prophecy. If any salvation is to exist, his light must not be darkened. Only the Will of Fire is capable of that."
I am interested to see everyone's responses in particular of Naruto's parents, the Toad Sage prophecy, and Naruto taking on teacher esque role. I had fun writing this chapter, and even felt alright with how the romantic/flirtatious sections came out. Those aren't really my strong point.
See you next week.