Naruto: Potential Realised

Posted: 28-12-13

Updated: 30-12-13

If you thought you weren't getting one last chapter before 2014, you were wrong, sucka! And it's a pretty lengthy chapter too! Also, I've recently updated The Uzumaki Descendant if any of you care. Also, a big, big thank you goes out to Rainord who created an AWESOME piece of fanart of Rei. It's bloody awesome. Check it out on my profile page.

I sincerely suggest you re-read chapter 13 if you're a bit foggy on some of the stuff that goes down, i.e. the summit. OK, that's all I'm saying for now. Enjoy, and please do review. Last chapter didn't review so well compared to others, but I promise this arc will be the last slow one in a while, or ever really.

Enjoy and please remember to review!

Currently unedited

Spelling checks by goku90504


CH21: The Climb


(Mount Kongōurin Jungle)

The earth trembled and rumbled forebodingly as the trees shook as though they were about to be uprooted, casting leaves and fruits to the ground. A shout could be heard from a distance in the lush, tropical jungle afoot the great mountain, followed by the distinct sounds of a feral roar and an angry trumpet as Naruto ran for dear life, jumping over bushes and trunks, ducking under low hanging branches and side stepping a lounge of lizards, hissing and snapping their razor sharp teeth at his ankles.

"Fuuuuuck me!"

It had been three days since Naruto had set foot in the jungle, by which time he had gained new appreciation for the challenge he had set himself with. His clothes were torn and he looked like he had lost some weight. The bags under his eyes indicated it had been a while since he had a good night's sleep.

He would have taken the time to berate himself some more if it were the time or place, but given the fact he had a pissed off jungle cat and elephant on his tail, now was neither the time nor the place. In fact, now wasn't the time much for anything other than getting the hell out of there.

A feral growl prompted him to look over his shoulder for a second. It looked like his new friends got in a tussle with the lizards. The jungle cat swiped at the reptiles and bore it fangs whilst the elephant behind it reared in terror.

Naruto sighed in relief. 'Well that was lucky.'

As soon as he finished that thought a rhino charged through the jungle and made a beeline for the young shinobi. Quick on his feet, Naruto jumped on its horn and used it as a springboard to launching into a tree. The jungle trees were rather dense and usually occupied by all manners of creatures he usually avoided but he wasn't exactly in a position to be picky.

Crouched on a thick branch, he looked down to the animals. It seemed that his presence had set off some kind of battle royale amongst them. The rhino joined the fray, charging into the jungle cat with its horn. Naruto felt a pinch of guilt; it hadn't been his intent, but if he hadn't been sighted by the jungle cat and cut through the elephant's territory, it wouldn't have led to this. Then he reminded himself of the fact that they would have killed him and tore up him open just like they were doing to one of the lizards if they had caught him. The guilt quickly faded.

Interestingly enough, the conflict kind of reminded him of his history lessons in his academy days. An odd sensation roused him from his thought as he found a snake slithering up his arm. Suffice to say, he hadn't been aware of the sounds a man could make when truly terrified.

He had no reservations of guilt whatsoever when he jammed a kunai in the snake's skull and furiously shook it off. He rubbed his arm to get rid of the disgusting sensation tingling in his limb. A high-pitched laugh caught his attention as he turned and found a monkey hanging upside down by its tail.

"He nearly had you!"

Upon closer inspection of its red fur and amber eyes, Naruto recognised the monkey for the leader of the pack of rascals that had accosted him on his first day. "You!"

"Me!" the monkey replied cheerfully. "The name's Yanchazaru!" The mischievous ape held a particularly enticing piece of fruit in its hand. "Want some?"

Naruto grudgingly accepted the banana and peeled it immediately. He was famished, and beggars couldn't be choosers. "Naruto."

"Is that your name?" Yancha asked.

He nodded took a bite. He immediately felt rejuvenated, as though he had taken a handful of soldier pills. "Wow." He blinked a few times.

"Do you like it?" Yancha looked expectantly. "It's from the centre of the jungle. It's super dangerous to get but it's really tasty and ener-something."

"Energising?" Naruto suggested.

"Right! My dad says that's because the earth is super special in the centre of the jungle so all the fruit that grow there are really tasty. We have some on the mountain too but that's too easy."

"You purposefully came down here to pick fruit you can get at home because it's more exciting that way?" The monkey nodded as though it were the most understandable thing in the world. He stared for a moment, somewhat surprised he could relate to that. "Well okay then."

"Hey, wanna be friends?" Yanchazaru asked with the same enthusiasm. "I don't know any humans from the outside world."

'Yep, he definitely reminds me of Konohamaru.' He mirrored the little monkey's grin. "Sure," he said as he grasped Yancha's tiny hand in his own. "Friends."

"Alright! Now that we're friends I can help you! Follow me!"

Naruto chomped on the remaining piece of his banana as he followed suit. He had a feeling his new friend was going to be a handful but a worthwhile companion.

-ooo-

(Konohagakure)

Tsunade smiled pleasantly as the door to her office opened and Hyūga Hiashi strode in. "Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice, Hiashi-dono."

"My pleasure, Hokage-dono," the Hyūga clan leader gave a modest bow.

Tsunade gestured to he take a seat by her desk. "I have called you here to discuss matters regarding your most recent clan report."

Hiashi raised an intrigued eyebrow. "I am listening."

Tsunade opened the document in question and pointed to a highlighted section. "In your report you made a particular comment regarding shinobi discipline, or lack thereof."

"I did," Hiashi nodded. "I take it your own investigation in the matter has validated my concerns?"

"It has," Tsunade acknowledged.

Hiashi stroked a crease in his fine kimono. "Have you come up with a solution then?"

"My investigation concluded that the Home Garrison is structured in a way that is inefficient when it comes to dealing with complaints and exercising disciplinary action to an acceptable standard." Tsunade knew Hiashi knew where she was going with this but carried on anyway. "Division authority figures are expected to uphold standards and to discipline their own. Naturally this level of trust comes with its risks and judging from the inordinate amount of complaints I've received in the short time I've been in office, it is clear to me the current model doesn't work and something must be done."

"You have my full attention, Hokage-dono," Hiashi said politely.

"My granduncle created the Military Police to uphold standards, and he entrusted the Uchiha clan with full authority as a means of a peace offering when my grandfather was elected to Hokage over Uchiha Madara." The Godaime gave pause as she considered her words. This would take some finesse. "Now the Uchiha are no longer with us and the Military Police has been shutdown for the better part of a decade."

"And you wish for the Hyūga to revive the Military," Hiashi anticipated her words. The proud clan leader shook his head. "If that is the case, I must respectfully decline, Hokage-dono. The Uchiha were orchestrated and alienated due to their ties with that particular organisation. I will not have the Hyūga clan suffer the same fate."

Tsunade forced a smile. She had expected his initial response. "I'm afraid I must insist, Hiashi-dono."

The Hyūga clan leader did not like that and his expression reflected it. "I beg your pardon. You insist?"

"I'm afraid I must." Tsunade opened a drawer and withdrew a dossier and dropped it on the desk. "This is a condensed log of the Hyūga clan's contribution to the village over the past ten years. Taxes, missions, and virtually every noteworthy fact or figure is in here. Including your offshore investments, on which you pay next to zero, if any at all, taxes through means of loopholes and privileges as a registered shinobi force of Hi no Kuni."

Hiashi gave a hard stare. "Where are you going with this, Hokage-dono?" His voice rang cold as ice now, void of all pleasantry.

"This," Tsunade replied as she withdrew three significantly thicker dossiers and piled them up. "These files alone belong to the Akimichi clan. As you can see for yourself, Hiashi-dono, the Hyūga have contributed next to nothing when compared to a clan of similar size and prominence. I should add the Akimichi clan's assets are estimated at barely a third of the Hyūga."

"I do not appreciation the implications, Hokage-dono." Hiashi composed himself. "The Hyūga clan has time and again proven itself to be loyal to country and village. The Byakugan-"

"Is and remains a valuable asset," Tsunade interrupted calmly. "However, and forgive me if I offend you, Hiashi-dono, it is my opinion that value has been sorely overstated."

"I beg your pardon!" the Hyūga clan leader outraged.

'So much for finesse,' Tsunade thought. Then again she was a straight shooter, always had been, and always would be. Hiruzen never seriously considered her to inherit his mantle for precisely that reason. The Sandaime preferred to play the game of politics, but Tsunade was a little too blunt.

Like a brick to the face.

"My predecessor felt the need to pander to your needs after the Uchiha Massacre by allowing you special privileges, tax allowances and many other benefits," she cut to the chase. "He even took great risk in manoeuvring through a tense political climate after you killed a Kumo ambassador and nearly trigged a war in the process. A war we would have very likely lost I might add." Tsunade's hazel eyes bore into his. "You have given nothing of value in return, until now. It is time the Hyūga repay their debts and earn their keep once again."

Hiashi regained his composure. His dignity as a clan leader prevented him from allowing further outbursts. "Even if you strong arm me into accepting this responsibility, the clan elders will never allow it," he informed. "The Hyūga will not allow themselves to be the sole bearers of responsibility and the resentment of the village."

"You make quite the assumption there, Hiashi-dono," Tsunade said with an unnervingly pleasant smile. "I have no intention of emulating my granduncle's mistakes. I am fully aware of the consequences leading the Military Police had for the Uchiha and I will not visit such ill repute on you."

Hiashi seemed, ever so slightly, relieved, though he was too dignified to acknowledge it. "Then what do you propose?"

"I propose you assume the position of Chief of the Military Police," Tsunade proposed. "Appointing members will be up to you and the Shinobi Assignment Department. You will be free to recruit outside your own clan of course. I believe the Akimichi, Nara, Yamanka and Inuzuka clans in particular would not be opposed to contributing."

"And if I refuse this proposal?" Hiashi attempted one last challenge.

Tsunade rested her chin on folded hands. "Then consider all privileges revoked effective immediately and be assured that I will personally see to it the Hyūga are reviewed with all due scrutiny. One way or another, you will repay your debts, Hiashi."

Hiashi held her gaze, a light frown permeating his otherwise elegant features. After a moment, the Hyūga permitted himself a light, conceding smile, not doubt masking his contempt for her. "You drive a hard bargain, Hokage-dono."

Tsunade smiled inwardly. She had him by the balls and he knew it. "I expect to hear from you soon, Hiashi-dono." The Godaime rose out of her chair and gestured to the door, signalling the end of their meeting.

"What of the Uchiha boy?" Hiashi asked as he stood. "By our laws, he is entitled to a seat on the board of the Military Police."

"He is not yet of age and therefore he can claim neither his clan seat nor his seat on the board," Tsunade assuaged. "Even so, I will see to it he is informed. From what little I know of him, he is not unreasonable. He will understand."

"I leave it in your capable hands, Hokage-dono," the Hyūga clan leader said with a respectful bow before taking his leave.

Tsunade sat back down with a satisfied grin. That had gone smoother than she thought it would. No doubt, Hiashi wasn't done resisting her yet, but she was confident she could handle him. She may have been a poor gambler, but there was one thing Tsunade never lost at when gambling: herself. She'd put her reputation and future as Hokage on the line to get things done.

-ooo-

(Forest of Death)

Three gruelling days had passed by the time Sasuke found Anko on an elevated rock formation in a clearing surrounded by tall grass under the stars in the company of four tigers stretched out lazily with signs of puncture wounds apparent on their hides, most likely from her more venomous snakes. The specialist jōnin sat on the back of one particularly large tiger, an exotic looking drink in her hand and a novel in the other.

"Hi there! Took you long enough to find me, you're only past the deadline by..." she glanced to her watch, "Forty-eight hours. Not bad."

Clothes torn, skin bruised and stomach painfully grumbling, Sasuke was in no mood for her antics. "Take off… the seal…" was about all he managed as he lumbered towards her. If he could, he genuinely would have killed her. He had been barely out of his coma when she dragged him out here and had him fend for himself without the means of chakra for three days straight. "Now!"

Anko jumped off the rock formation and sipped her drink. "Tsk! Tsk!" She wagged her finger. "That's no way to ask a favour from a lady. Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"

The look in his eye didn't bode well.

Anko feigned embarrassment, placing a hand her mouth. "Oh, right, my bad. Too soon? I mean, it's only been about seven years."

Sasuke's skin tightened painfully over his bony knuckles. "I'm going to kill you."

She stared at him blankly for a moment, and then snorted, guffawing as she carried on laughing for nearly a full minute. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I know you were supposed to look scary just now but you've got bird shit in you hair and you look like you just fought off sexual advances from a bear, unsuccessfully I should add."

Temper flaring, the Uchiha used the remainder of his strength to charge at her and swing an angry fist. Anko simply leant back and took another sip off her drink as he fell to the ground.

"That famous Uchiha temper!" she chided as she put a foot on the back of his head. "Before you pass out, I'm going to make this nice and easy for you to understand, OK? You listening?" She pressed her foot down harder. Sasuke responded with an obscenity that earned him another mouthful of dirt. "That is most certainly not a word you should call a lady!" She relented only to prevent him from suffocating. "Now listen up, I'm going to use my infinite wisdom and awesomeness to teach you how to deal with Orochimaru's little love bite, and no, this isn't optional. Until ol' Scarecrow comes and claims your sorry ass, you're my bitch, understood?"

Sasuke gave a muffled response.

"I'm going to take that as a yes," Anko decided cheerfully as a purple serpent slithered from out of her sleeve. "You're too weak to get started right now so I'm going to put you in a nice slumber for the next, oh, I don't know, ten hours? That oughta do it. When you wake up, we'll get started for realsies."

The serpent struck Sasuke before he could do so much as shake his head, sinking its fangs in shoulder. Sleep followed shortly after.

-ooo-

(Kōseki no Kuni)

A wave of nostalgia washed over Jiraiya as he hiked up a deserted dirt road into a remote, relatively well-hidden mountain terrain. His journey had brought him to Mineral Country, or more specifically, the surrounding territory of Ishigakure. It had been a while since he had visited the village hidden amongst the stones, little over two years if he recalled correctly.

Ishigakure was hidden in a maze of stone mountain terrain. Finding it without an up to date map was difficult to say the least. The shinobi of Ishi periodically rearranged the mountain with doton jutsu in case of an attack. Jiraiya had personally installed their barrier jutsu at the village's inception decades ago, and though he figured he could locate the village with a few hours, he decided to politely inform them of his presence by spiking his chakra levels.

Most jōnin were skilled enough to suppress their chakra subconsciously. It was common for S-ranked ninja to suppress their chakra to the extent they could even fool the average sensor ninja. A particular young man he knew was born with the ability to suppress his chakra like most jinchūriki were.

Jiraiya smiled at no one in particular as he continued to rapidly increase his chakra output. He steadied his chakra levels once they reached a level just above that of an elite jōnin level. It had been a while and he wasn't expected, thus he decided against alarming them. A minor village like Ishigakure likely had little contact with Kage level chakra.

The sage counted the seconds in his mind. If it took them longer than ninety seconds for one of their squads to find him, they'd be considered sloppy. Konoha had an average response time of fifty seconds on the dot in case of a situation like this, due in part to their large Barrier Team division.

Eighty-five seconds later and Jiraiya was surrounded by at least fifteen shinobi in standard grey Ishi-nin attire, weapons drawn. 'Not bad.'

"Identify yourself!" the shinobi in charge ordered. He was tall with a lean build, and wore a slate grey Ishigakure flak jacket over black shinobi trousers and turtleneck. The shinobi carried their standard climbing gear; hooks, cables and a small oxygen tank to name a few. He had a crop of short black hair, brown eyes and a stern look about him.

Jiraiya knew the man, though he didn't recognise him immediately. "That's no way to talk to an old friend, Kuroki," he said with arms raised in mock surrender.

"Ji- Jiraiya-sama!" The Ishi-nin rounded on his subordinates. "Lower your weapons! This is Jiraiya of the Leaf, a legendary shinobi and friend to our village." Kuroki approached Jiraiya with an outstretched hand.

They clasped arms and embraced briefly. "You're in charge of a squad of your own now, huh?" It felt like it was only yesterday when he met the Ishi jōnin twenty-odd years ago. He had been a rambunctious child, eager to learn ninjutsu and prove himself useful to his newly found village.

Kuroki beamed. "It has been too long, Jiraiya-sama. Two years was it?"

"Sounds about right," the sage affirmed. "So, are you going to escort me to the village?"

"Of course." Kuroki signalled his squad with rotating gesture. "Move out, we're escorting Jiraiya-sama to the village."

Moments later the Ishi-nin were escorting Jiraiya down a series of turns in the maze-like terrain. They made small talk during their trek; Kuroki had a great many questions and Jiraiya was in a good enough mood to humour him. It was clear from their expressions that Kuroki's subordinates weren't used to their captain being so cheerful.

Jiraiya had some questions of his own after they spoke at length of his travels. "How is Kinzen doing?"

"Kinzen-sama is in good spirits," Kuroki informed with sudden apathy. "I am sure he will be delighted to have your company."

He wasn't being completely honest but Jiraiya decided not to press it. "He drank me under the table last time, I'm here for payback. Even brought some sake from Mount Mybōku for the occasion!"

The Ishi-nin merely smiled and muttered a forced response before picking up the pace, his initial excitement now clearly overshadowed by something heavy on his mind.

"We're here," Kuroki announced a short while later.

They had arrived at the stone gates of Ishigakure no Sato; thirty feet tall, complete with steel doors and watchtowers. They were welcomed back with relatively little fanfare. Jiraiya noticed the looks as Kuroki led him through the modest village. For whatever reason, his presence seemed to puzzle the people of the Hidden Stone. That was odd in and of itself considering the village's amiable ties with Konoha and, in the past at least, considerable admiration for the Sannin in particular. Jiraiya and Orochimaru had trained a great many of their youngsters who were now most likely jōnin like Kuroki. Jiraiya had fond memories of when the women used to throw themselves at him. There were decidedly less people out and about as well, far less than what Jiraiya had expected. He had fond memories of the village's liveliness, which was nowhere to be found now.

They arrived at the largest building in the village located at its northern walls. It was a square, grey building made of concrete, surrounded by steel gates and barbed wire. 'Looks like Kinzen renovated.' An uneasy feeling was gradually growing in the pit of Jiraiya's stomach. He was well aware of the tense political climate between Stone and Rock, and how it had reached new heights shortly after the invasion when Konoha was weakened. There had even been a few skirmishes, of which Ishi had lost significantly more than they won.

"Kuroki, I haven't heard from Kinzen in a while, so I'm going to have ask you." The younger man tensed. "Did Iwa pull anything recently? I'm not talking about minor skirmishes. Did something happen?"

"I'm not at liberty to speak for the village, Jiraiya-sama," Kuroki replied respectfully, a somewhat apologetic look in his eye. "I am sure Kinzen-sama will answer your questions. This way, please."

Jiraiya followed his lead as the squad broke off to stand guard at the entrance. The interior of the village headquarters was plain and modest, grey like seemingly everything else in the village.

"Through here, please." Kuroki gestured to a set of double doors leading to an office and took his place by the door.

Jiraiya gave him a curious look over before turning the handle and pushing through into the office.

"Jiraiya, old friend."

The Toad Sage looked across the room to a man roughly his own height and somewhat bulkier build, with a lighter tan, brown shoulder lengthy hair and green eyes. The man wore Ishigakure garb with a white robe over it, much like a Kage. 'That's new.'

Kinzen grinned. "It's been too long."

"It sure has, Kinzen." Jiraiya grinned as they met in a brotherly embrace halfway across the room. "You've put on weight!"

Kinzen patted his considerable gut, though his arms were still muscly and well defined even through his clothes. "I suppose I have. Come sit with me. I hope you brought some of that Mount Mybōku sake."

-ooo-

(Oto no Kuni – Otogakure Headquarters)

Orochimaru finished rereading the letter in his hand and lazily discarded it. "Feel free to read it," he permitted from his throne as Kabuto lurched over to pick it up. "It is of no interest to me."

Kabuto moved under a torch in the poorly lit cavern, spectacles shining in the light as he read the contents of the letter. "Interesting," he mused as finished reading. "So the time and date of the summit have been finalised." He paused a moment. "I take it you have no plans of attending, Orochimaru-sama?"

"None whatsoever," the Sannin confirmed as he reached for a glass beside him, swirling the blood red concoction in it. It was one of many tonics his modified body required him take every so often.

Kabuto pushed up his glasses. "Your absence will be noted. The Shogun is known to hold grudges, Orochimaru-sama."

"As am I," the villainous snake reminded his subordinate. "If Sōgen decides to take this as a slight and does something foolish, he will know precisely why neither Akatsuki nor the Great Five have been able to take me down."

"I have no doubt you can crush him if you wish it so, Orochimaru-sama, but…" Kabuto said as he folded the letter and walked up the steps to the throne. "If I may speak freely?"

Orochimaru nodded. "Speak your mind, Kabuto."

"Orochimaru-sama, there is no reason why you shouldn't attend this summit. You could use Sōgen's support to settle matters with Akatsuki. They've been a thorn in our side for quite some time." The bespectacled spy placed the letter on the stand next to a tray of potions. "Powerful friends are always of use, one way or another. Is that not why you wished to recruit Tsunade to your cause?"

"Perhaps," Orochimaru considered. "However it is unlikely Akatsuki don't already have him in their pocket. In his earlier letter he stipulated I hand over the ring if I wished to attend."

Kabuto gave some thought to the facts. "How likely do you think it is the leader will be present, Orochimaru-sama?"

"Highly improbable," Orochimaru answered, tightly gripping his armrest with his free hand. "Most likely Pain will send Kakuzu to pose as the leader of Ame and Akatsuki. He is far too secretive and self-important to reveal himself at such an occasion."

"I see…" Kabuto pushed his glassed. "If it is Kakuzu he sends then there is far less to worry about. I believe this summit could be very informative, Orochimaru-sama."

Orochimaru unhinged his jaw with a sickening pop and poured the potion down his throat, grimacing at the putrid taste. "Very well," the Sannin breathed heavily. "If you feel so strongly about it, I will consider it." He wiped his mouth and reclined as the disgusting taste stuck to his freakishly long tongue. "Perhaps this summit could prove fruitful in unanticipated ways." The tonic took its toll on his body. "Leave me."

"Very well, Orochimaru-sama." Kabuto bowed and showed himself out.

Orochimaru growled in pain. His vessel was beginning to reject him already, sooner than the last and that one had been unusually short already. It became apparent to the Sannin that battling his former sensei and teammates along with his intensive experiments were taking their toll on his body.

He needed a new vessel.

Soon.

-ooo-

(Mount Kongōurin Jungle)

Clouds captivated his eyes as Naruto stood at the bottom of the mountain, head turned back so far it he neck was starting to ache. "That's… some mountain."

"Yeah, it takes super long to get up there," Yanchazaru hopped off his shoulder. "Not for me though. I'm super fast, I can climb it no problem."

"Ahuh," Naruto acknowledged absentmindedly. How many times had he regretted declaring a deadline for himself again? He had lost count by now. "I guess it'd be cheating if I flew up there, huh?"

Yancha's eyes widened with childlike awe. "You can fly?"

"No, but I have a buddy who can." Well, Senzaru wasn't exactly a buddy. It was perfectly clear to him the falcons only allowed him to summon them because they wanted him in their camp because of his strong chakra. It was flattering, but Naruto wasn't going to let that blind him to the facts. His old self might have, but he'd been listening to and learning from the old man and Jiraiya. Hell, even Tsunade had her occasional nuggets of wisdom to share. "Don't be an idiot" was a particularly good piece of advice the Godaime had parted with him. If only he had remembered before the absurd deadline popped into his head.

"Yeah… I'm an idiot," he said quietly to himself, continuing to look at the mountain. It seemed even more insurmountable after looking at it for so long.

"You can summon?" Yancha asked. "Is it apes? Dad tells me only human Sarutobi can summon monkeys."

"Human Sarutobi?" Naruto tore his eyes from the mountain and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"We're all Sarutobi here, apes and humans," the monkey explained simplistically. "We belong to the same clan. All of us. We're like a big family. Cool, huh?"

Naruto's expression softened with envy for a moment. "Yeah, it is." He extended his arm and let his new companion climb on his back. "I think I'm going to have to climb this on my own, so hold tight."

"Hold on tight for what?" Yancha asked as he began to step back and fixed his bracer on properly. "Cool!" the young ape exclaimed when the blades protruded from the rare metal.

Naruto figured he had gotten a long enough lead and checked his equipment before taking a runner's stance. "You ready?"

"Ready for what?"

"Hold on tight!" Naruto began to run, quickly reaching his top speed whilst charging chakra to both his legs and his hands.

He leapt off the ground with a massive, chakra-enhanced jump and converted the chakra in his hands to wind. "Fūton: Shuishin Shō!"

Naruto timed the release of his Propulsion Palm technique to the best of his ability, aiming to release at the optimum time to gain as much air as possible. As gravity began to take effect, he released a power stream of air.

He expected the worst, but hoped for the best. The strain on his wrists was already becoming apparent, and it was painful enough for him force him to close his eyes.

"So you can fly!" Yancha squealed excitedly.

Naruto opened an eye and could hardly believe how high he was. And he was still going! Quickly, he shifted torso and corrected his course to the mountain. He could hardly believe how high his feet were from the ground. Usually he released his jutsu in one big burst, and it hurt like hell, but as it turned out, while releasing in a stream hurt even more, he got a whole lot more of a bang for his buck.

He couldn't help but shout to the heavens as he soared. "HELL YEAH!"

"HELL YEAH!" Yancha screamed in his ear.

Lost in euphoria, Naruto forgot about the pain, and failed to keep track of how much chakra he was expending. Like a pool with a giant hole in it, his chakra was rapidly draining, and if that wasn't bad enough, for some reason his body kept pushing more of it into his jutsu.

He had aimed for a boost but had taken off like a rocket instead.

And like all rockets, he eventually hit something. Hard.

The last thing he Naruto could remember of his flight was a lot of screaming and hard mountain surface.

-ooo-

(Elsewhere)

Uchiha Shisui's body lied on a slab of stainless steel. The colour was drained from his grey and bloated skin. A man in a lab coat stood by the corpse speaking into a recording device.

"The individual identified as Uchiha Shisui has likely been dead for period between forty-eight and seventy-two hours. The blood on his fingertips and trauma on the optic nerves in the eye sockets indicate deliberate removal. A curious note: there is considerable more trauma in the right eye socket, possibly indicating forceful removal by either the individual or another party." The man in the lab coat paused the device. "Take that as you will, Uchiha-sama."

"The cause of death?" Fugaku's stern voice echoed through the morgue.

"I was just getting there, Uchiha-sama." The device resumed with a click. "The cause of death is asphyxia caused by drowning, however there are defensive wounds present on the forearms. These consistent with defending one's self from multiple attackers. The wound in the subject's lower left abdomen would have likely killed Uchiha-san before long without intensive medical care. It's quite a peculiar wound. At first glace it appears the entry wound was caused by a short blade, a kunai or tantō perhaps, but upon further investigation we found residual wind chakra going as far as the exit wound, indicating Chakra Flow usage." The device clicked again.

"Wind chakra?" Fugaku repeated. He looked troubled.

"Yes," the pathologist affirmed. "It is quite rare in Hi no Kuni. Do you perhaps know something, Uchiha-sama?"

"No. That will be all." The clan head remembered his etiquette and nodded respectfully. "Thank you, doctor."

"My condolences, Uchiha-sama." The doctor gave a polite bow. "I shall go prepare the body for burial then."

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist this stays off the books, doctor. The Uchiha clan will be investigating this matter internally. We are prepared to compensate you for your silence."

"But, Uchiha-sama-"

"If that is all, doctor, one of my clansmen will come to retrieve the body. I thank you for your cooperation." Fugaku looked to this son. "Itachi, we're leaving."

Itachi stared blankly at Shisui's face. There was a ghost of a smile on his features. Shisui's life had ended early and in tragedy, yet he had welcomed death with a smile knowing he had done his duty.

"Now, Itachi!"

Itachi woke with a start, gasping for air and coughing. He was drenched in cold sweat and shivering. Shisui plagued his mind when he closed his eyes, so he kept them open, and though unfocused his mind vaguely recognising his surroundings. They had found a cave to spend the night in on the way to their assigned mission. Itachi rubbed the sleep from his eyes and got up, reaching for his cloak.

Kisame stoked a shallow fire by the entrance to the cave. "You're up early," the former Kiri-nin remarked.

"I'm not tired," Itachi lied as he sat down and rubbed his hands. After a long silence he said, "It looks like we're in the clear."

"From Leader?" Kisame stoked the fire some more.

Itachi nodded. "I had a feeling he might have lied to us."

"Can't hurt to be paranoid." Kisame shrugged and offered the stoking stick to his partner. "If you're not tired, I'm going to get some shut-eye."

Itachi nodded and focused on the fire as the large shark-man reached for Samehada. "Hey, Itachi."

"What is it, Kisame?"

"Who's Shisui?"

Itachi looked over his shoulder. "Why do you ask?"

"You said his name a few times in your sleep." Kisame almost sound worried. "It's none of my business, but there's only one Shisui I've heard of, an Uchiha by the moniker Shunshin no Shisui. He was young but even I heard of him on occasion."

"Goodnight, Kisame." Itachi turned back to the fire and poked at the flames. His partner lumbered off without so much as a grunt, evidently respecting their boundaries.

Itachi was grateful, both for Kisame's understanding, and the opportunity to reflect by himself. It had been years since Shisui haunted him. The last time he had such dreams was before the massacre. It was to honour Shisui that he agreed to carry out the mission.

"You're my best friend and the only one I can count on… Protect the village… and the Uchiha name."

He had a promise to keep then. He had stained his sole but the dreams had stopped. Why was Shisui once again haunting him? What unfinished business did he have in Konoha that his promise demanded he deal with?

-ooo-

(Kōseki no Kuni)

Jiraiya pushed his away his plate and dapped his mouth with a napkin. "Alright, I admit it, that has to be best steak I've ever had." The sage gave a word of thanks to the servant that took away their plates away.

"I told ya," Kinzen said as he refilled their drinks. "As good as it is to you see, old friend, unlike you, I do have some responsibilities, so this'll be my last one for the night."

"How did you get to be in charge of this village, Kinzen?" Jiraiya reached for his drink. "I thought you guys ran this place as a council. I've noticed you got yourself a fancy white robe as well."

"No need to be suspicious, old friend," Kinzen said belching as he waved him off dismissively. "A lot has changed since the last time you were here. The village council agreed that it would be best to restructure our village. I don't know how I got this job either, I didn't even volunteer for it. The robe was the council's idea, it's supposed to make me look more imposing. They think the world will take us seriously if I dress up like one of the Gokage. I know it's stupid."

"Then why do it?" Jiraiya feigned indifference but he knew better. It was often the little things that betrayed the bigger picture.

"Beats me." Kinzen rose out of his chair and pat his stomach with a depressed sigh. "Can you believe it, Jiraiya? I'm an overweight shinobi. How does that happen?"

"You kidding? You could pass for a swimsuit model next to an Akimichi." They shared a good laugh at the joke, exaggerated as it was. Ever observant, Jiraiya had noticed Kinzen's appetite seemed somewhat odd. He never knew his old war buddy to be much of an eater. What had changed, was it stress from his responsibilities new? Something else perhaps?

"Why are you here, Jiraya?" Kinzen seemed eager to get to the bottom it. "I mean, I love ya like a brother, but the last time you were here you were gone in minutes."

"You know why I'm here, Kinzen." Jiraiya put his drink down and held the village leader's gaze. "I'm here for the summit, Kinzen."

It was apparent Kinzen was displeased by that. He looked pale for a moment, as though horrified by the news. "Look, Jiraiya, I told you I've got it covered. Ishi will stand with Konoha. You have my word on that. Isn't that enough, anymore?"

"I trust you with my life, Kinzen," Jiraiya lied smoothly. Maybe he did once, but something was definitely off. He had sensed it the entire evening. "It's not like Konoha thinks Ishi is up to something nefarious. We've bled together, old friend. I'm simply here to make sure things go without incident."

Kinzen frowned at him. "And how do you expect to do that?"

"I'll be escorting you to the summit in Shimo no Kuni." Jiraiya reached for his drink as he let that sink in. "I'm not going to let you go in there unprotected. Sōgen is no joke."

"You insult me, Jiraiya. We both know your concern for my safety isn't what spurred this." The Hidden Stone leader gave a hard stare. "I'd rather you keep your distance, Jiraiya. For all our sakes."

"It's precisely for all our sakes that I have to accompany you, Kinzen," Jiraiya asserted bluntly. "Come on, it'll be fun." The Sage tried to lighten the mood by patting Kinzen on the shoulder and cracking a smile. "Just like old times. The two of us doing something stupidly dangerous and getting away with it."

Eventually Kinzen's stern gaze relented; he shook his head, chuckling a little. "You're a stubborn son of a bitch, you know that?"

"I wouldn't know." They laughed heartily over the old inside joke. Neither of them had known their parents.

-ooo-

(Mount Kongōurin)

Naruto awoke with a groan and a throbbing headache. It felt like he'd split his skull. Hell, he might have. 'Is that… blood?' Naruto removed his hand from the back of his head and found a thin coat of mostly dried blood. "Fuck."

"You're awake!" Yancha bounded over the small plateau they were situated on. "I thought you'd died."

"I might have." Naruto sat up with a pained grimace. "Fuck that hurts… I'm definitely shelving that jutsu till I know how to control it."

"You flew!" Yancha exclaimed with awe. "It was awesome! Can we do that again?"

Just the thought of repeating the experience got another groan out of him. "Hell no. Don't you see the state I'm in? I need to figure out how to control the jutsu before I can use it."

Yancha pouted and offered him his water flask. "You look thirsty."

"Thanks." Naruto carefully raised the flask to his lips and swallowed a mouthful. "How long was I out?"

"Like a few hours."

Naruto looked upwards. It was night time. The stars littered the indigo sky and shined beautifully through the clouds. "For better or worse, I sure could get used to this sky." He looked to the young ape. "Hey, have you got any fruit left?"

Yancha shook his head. "Sorry."

"Well, might as well get started climbing then, huh?" Naruto reached for his bag. His head had started to clear up and the pain had subsided significantly.

"Hey, why are your eyes like that?"

"Huh?" Naruto raised an eyebrow, then reached for his kodachi and unsheathed it. Blue, slit eyes reflected on the blade. For a second he panicked, he feared something terrible had happened when he was unconscious, but he quickly connected the dots. 'I must've hurt myself worse than I thought.'

Exactly how close had his brush been with death? It scared him just thinking about it.

"Hop on, Yancha." Naruto found his footing and began to climb slowly but surely. It was a good thing his new companion was so light. "We've only a got a few days to get up there."

"Why?" the monkey asked.

Naruto didn't answer at first. Why was he in a hurry? To save face? Was it to prove to the old man he wasn't just full of shit when he vowed to make it in a week? 'No, that's not it.' It was out of necessity. He didn't have the luxury of time. He had made a promise, one he intended to keep. "I've got people waiting for me back home."

"Family?"

He was about to say no, but he felt that wasn't the truth. He might have been orphaned shortly after coming into the world but he did have a family, unconventional though it may be. Iruka, Ayame, the old man, Jiraiya, Tsunade, Shizune and Kakashi – they were all family to him. It didn't matter whether they weren't related by blood or he'd come to known them fairly recently. They were his family. "Yeah. Family."

Naruto began to find his footing faster and more efficiently, driven not by the desire to meet some foolish deadline he had set for himself, but by desire to go home. It had only been a few days since he had left but he already longed to be back in Konoha. The only way that could work was if he completed his training here. Until then, he was better off being separated from them. He'd only attract dangers he couldn't protect them from the way he was. He needed to get stronger. A lot stronger.

He vowed to never let himself be so powerless again. Not before Itachi, not before Orochimaru, not before anyone ever again.

-ooo-

(Days Later – Shimo no Kuni)

Frost Country was as cold as one could expect. It snowed perpetually and the temperature never rose above a single digit. The country was part of a buffer between Lightning Country and the other Great Five Shinobi villages. For a country with a rather harsh climate, it managed to stay self-efficient for the most part and modestly prosperous, largely due in part to their vast supply of natural resources ranging from crude oil to minerals and ores. Its ruler, the Daimyō of Shimo no Kuni, was known by many to be something of a hard ass. Old and prolific, the Daimyō had a reputation of being prideful and easily angered, a foul spirited man when crossed, and conniving in equal measure. He was sure to benefit in one way or another from allowing the summit take place in one of his royal estates, though exactly how far his involvement extended wasn't entirely clear. Shimo no Kuni had a standing shinobi force, but they were nothing more than glorified thugs that enforced the Daimyō's rule and rarely operated abroad.

Jiraiya made a note to look into exactly what the Daimyō stood to gain at a later date as he stifled a yawn. His cohort ploughed along, clad in thick winter clothing. He massaged his arms trying to warm up; he wasn't a man for the cold. How he longed for the warmth of Hi no Kuni. "Kinzen, did we really have to get up this early? The summit isn't until tomorrow!" He had to raise his voice over the screeching wind. His skin felt raw on his face and his teeth clattered uncontrollably.

"Trouble keeping up at your fragile old age?" Kinzen jibed childishly, laughing at the sage's expense.

Jiraiya bristled with mock indignation. "Hardly, old friend."

A member of their Ishi-nin cohort approached with another cloak in hand. "Please take this, Jiraiya-sama."

"Thanks." The Toad Sage was already wearing three layers of clothing but the cold still got to his bones. "Why the hell would Sōgen hold this meeting all the way out here? Why not on his own turf?"

"I told ya already, I don't know," Kinzen said annoyed. He had been rather difficult about it. Perhaps being babysat by Jiraiya didn't sit well with him even now. "And I don't want to hear you complain after you twisted my arm into letting you come."

"I didn't twist anything, I merely insisted," Jiraiya denied as he caught up and matched his companion's pace. "What's with you anyway is my presence making you feel inadequate in front of your men?"

Kinzen frowned, not at all amused. "You don't trust me, do you?" He spoke at a register at which only Jiraiya could hear him. "That may not be the case but that's how it feels," he added before he sage could interrupt. "I don't like this hand-holding, Jiraiya."

"I trust you with my life, Kinzen," Jiraiya said seriously. "But not with that of Konoha. I'm sorry, but you know how it is. You know how this works."

Kinzen muttered something, something self-deprecating perhaps, under his breath and shook his head. "I understand. We might be friends but we have different priorities when it comes down to it. Konoha will always come first for you and Ishi will always first for me, no matter what the cost…"

"For what it's worth, I do worry for your personal safety," Jiraiya said sincerely. They were like brothers after all. "Sōgen is a dangerous man. He's preferred to stick to his own turf for the most part, but if he's reaching out to the villages, whatever he's planning has to be big."

"What do you think he'll want from us?" Kinzen asked curiously.

"Manpower would be my first guess," Jiraiya hazarded an educated guess. "When it comes down to it that's what sets the Great Five apart from the smaller villages. That, and resources of course."

Kinzen rubbed his chin in thought. "Kusa has been stockpiling weapons for as long as Sōgen's been in charge."

"True, but he's never had enough hands to put swords in," Jiraiya pointed out. "Which is a good thing for all of us." What little balance existed between the Great Five and minor shinobi villages was fragile to say the least. If there ever was a power shift, and an abrupt one at that, the consequences would almost certainly be dire for all of them. Sōgen had bide his time since his ascension to leadership, carefully picking his battles and generally avoiding direct confrontation with any of the Great Five. It was in a shinobi's nature to avoid unnecessary conflict, and so was planning to take a stronger foe down when the opportunity presented itself. The odd feeling Jiraiya had been feeling all morning in his stomach got a touch worse. "How much longer?"

"We'll arrive at the royal estate soon, you'll have to disguise yourself before we get there," Kinzen replied. The Ishi-nin hesitated for a moment. "Look, Jiraiya, if you're having doubts then just don't come. Wait for us here."

Jiraiya responded with a stern look. "My mind is made up, Kinzen."

"Alright, old friend." Kinzen finally surrendered completely, nodding as he picked up the pace and joined his other guards at the front of their march.

For a second Jiraiya could've sworn he heard him muttering something again.

-ooo-

(The Next Day: Mount Kongōurin)

Naruto blurred into motion, dashing between ledges and footings, his new companion riding on his shoulder, and his eyes set in a permanent glare, in the middle of fighting off a tribe of mountain apes. "This is the last time I'm following your advice, brat!" he shouted as he dodged a melon sized rock aimed for his head. "Shortcut, my ass!"

Yancha blurted a string of apologies as they took off, though he wasn't entirely apologetic. "They usually sleep during the day, and I did tell you to be really, really, really quiet!"

"You're the one that woke up them up!" Naruto outraged as the apes gained on them. He was starting to think he was cursed maybe, given how he had experienced next to no luck since he stepped foot in the valley. "Why are they even attacking anyway? I thought you guys were a clan!"

"They're not Sarutobi clan members. They belong to another clan. Their clan lost to the Sarutobi clan centuries ago when they tried to take over the mountain, so Enma-sama banished them!"

"Thanks for the history lesson!" Perhaps he would've been more interested in learning about the Sarutobi clan's history later down the road. When he wasn't getting chased by a pack of bloodthirsty orangutans perhaps. A sparkling light caught the corner of his eye. A split second later a spear lacerated his left bicep and drew line of blood. "Son of a bitch!" Naruto responded in kind and threw a hale of shuriken back. "Shuriken Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

He didn't have time to look, but if their angry screeches were any indication, he had repaid at least on them. "Yancha, stop fucking laughing! This is not funny!" When did he become such a hard ass? It was a good question, but now wasn't the time to give it serious thought. "Suiton: Mizurappa!" He stopped on a ledge and spat a torrent of water for good measure.

Yancha pointed to the sky. "Look, we're almost there! See, there is a shortcut after all!"

"We didn't take your shortcut, you little psychopath!" Naruto grit his teeth as he continued to make his way up. He hadn't eaten for some time now, and his reckless new companion had a way of effortlessly pushing his buttons. Maybe his hunger and lack of sleep was making him paranoid, but he had a feeling the little ape wasn't an innocent child but rather a diabolical mastermind sent to thwart his progress.

Yancha was right though. They were getting closer to the clouds now, and the biting cold was far from pleasant, but he was getting there.

-ooo-

(Konohagakure – Forrest of Death)

Onyx eyes set in a hateful glare widened upon impact as Sasuke dropped on his back painfully and the air rushed from his lungs. Anko towered over him, an infuriating grin on her face. "Anyone tell you sound like a bitch when you take a beating?"

Sasuke jammed a kunai in her leg, which subsequently turned to mud along with the rest of the clone. "Bitch!"

"Potty mouth." Anko stepped from the surrounding forestry, sticking out her tongue, and a hand on her hip. "You look about tapped." She dug her hands in the pockets of her trench coat and turned to leave. "Well, this was fun. See you soon, Sasu-chan!"

Another projectile whizzed past her hair, taking a few strands of hair as he narrowly cocked her head. "Where do you think you're going?" He was breathing heavily and leant on his knees to stay up, but he wasn't done yet. "I'm not done with you yet."

Anko grinned in a feral manner. "You coming on to me, kid?"

"That's disgusting," the Uchiha spat. The humiliation he was feeling was far worse than the pain she had visited upon him. As much as he hated to think it, it was highly probably not even his kekkei genkai would make a difference. She was simply too fast, and too vicious, and she punished him without hesitation whenever he left an opening. "You're a fucking sociopath."

The sociopath in question raised an arm. "Sen'eijashu!" A knot of snakes hurled toward the young Uchiha.

Sasuke ignored the screaming pain in his thighs and jumped and threw a kunai. Anko caught the first between her index and middle fingers like child's play. He wasn't done however, and quickly equipped more projectiles whilst airborne and threw them in quick successions.

Anko continued to dodge with minimal effort without moving from her position until she noticed the odd trajectories her new student was throwing them in. Surely she couldn't have actually inflicted brain damage to cause his aim to be so off? It was until a split second before it was too late that she noticed the odd vectors were set up for a ricochet attack pattern. Anko moved the kunai she caught early in front of her in the nick of time as she deflected a projectile aimed for the base of her of neck. 'He's managed to do it without his Sharingan… Not bad.'

Sasuke touched down and instantly collapsed to the ground under his own weight. He was absolutely spent but managed a satisfied smirk as the purple-haired snake charmer noticed the line of red on her cheek. She hadn't even noticed the second projectile.

"Ohoho, you are so lucky you're about to pass," her voice echoed as he drifted into unconsciousness.

Anko stooped and grabbed him by the back of his shirt and unceremoniously dragged him off.

-ooo-

(Hi no Kuni - Kusa no Kuni Border – Root Base)

The room was dark, lit by just one industrial light. A man lied strapped to a chair, screaming and writhing with agony as another pulled a syringe from his arm and tossed it aside. The man in the chair wore Kusa-nin attire. The other wore a black cloak over shinobi gear and a badger ANBU mask.

"Talk," the torturer commanded in a monotone voice. "We know you were the on duty cryptanalysts who sent out the encrypted messages."

The Kusa-nin writhed some more, his face red and jaws clenched, saliva drooling down his chin as he tried to contain himself. "FUCK YOU!"

Badger turned his head questioningly. "The summit… where is it taking place and what is its purpose?"

"Ask your mother!" The Kusa-nin spat on his face.

Saliva dripped from Bandger's mask as the Root operative turned to the shadows with an outstretched hand.

Rei stepped from the darkness carrying metallic tray with more syringes. She wore a pure white mask and similar dark attire. The senior operative reached for another and administered another dosage.

The captive released a bloodcurdling scream as he trashed against his bindings. The serum ravaged his nervous system, resulting in blinding pain so intense, his bleeding gums paled in comparison as he tried to clench his jaws shut forcefully. Denying them results was the Kusa-nin's only means of resistance now.

As he continued to scream, Rei watch on unperturbed by the scene. She was more concerned about the time it was taking. Danzō had recently started to send her new mission orders out of the blue. What little time off she could scrape together, she spent working with Root. Perhaps he no longer trusted her? Did he know Itachi had removed his seal? She dismissed the notion for what seemed the hundredth time. If he knew than he wouldn't be sending her on missions. She would have been dead already. Unless it was some kind of test…

"Your sister, is she alive?"

Why had Uchiha Itachi undone her seal? The only way he would've known would be if he had been Root himself at one time, meaning he couldn't have lied when he said he had once been a Root operative.

Her mind started to drift. How long could she keep up living two lives? She wore a mask with Team 312. Not even the astute Nara knew what she was hiding. How would they react if they ever found out? How would Naruto react? She had tried not to think of him as much. Her new assignments were sufficient distractions at first, but lately she had been thinking of him more than usual. She knew she couldn't ever admit it, but she missed him. Of course, if she were to ever admit she could possibly be compromised when it came to him, she would most definitely be terminated.

The torturer withdrew and discarded the second syringe. "What is the purpose of the summit? What will be discussed and who will be attending?"

"Hnng…" The Kusa-nin shifted his tongue in his mouth.

"Don't bother, we took out your cyanide capsule," Badger said coldly as he backhanded his captive. "Talk."

"Go… fuck… yourself," the Kusa-nin whispered.

"Perhaps you could use some perspective," the torturer droned mechanically as he grabbed his victim by the mouth. "There is no question whether you will die here, alone. You will die. The only question that remains is how you die, and it is you who will determine that. Will you die a peaceful, dignified death, or will you subject yourself to pain beyond your wildest imagination before you draw your last breath?"

The Kusa-nin held his tongue, eyes filled with hatred.

The Root operative sighed. "Where is a mind reader when you need one? Another," he ordered with an outstretched hand.

Rei complied without hesitation, though not without adding, "The next shot will kill him."

"You heard that?" Badger relayed to his prey. "Perhaps I'll administer smaller dosages over a longer period of time?"

"That would work," Rei agreed, though it was a lie. The Kusa-nin didn't have much left in him. His death wasn't going to pleasant even if they stopped now.

"No more…" the Kusa-nin moaned pitifully as he finally gave in. "Please… no more…"

The Root operatives looked at one another for the briefest of moments. "Then tell us what we wish know," Badger said coldly.

"The summit… the summit… it's a lie… a trap…"

"A trap for who?" the interrogator demanded.

"Just kill me…" The Kusa intelligence operative simply began to laugh. Slowly at first, and then reaching a sudden crescendo as his laughter turned manic. "KILL ME! PLEASE! JUST KILL ME!"

His laughter turned to screams as Badger jabbed one final syringe of toxic in his neck.

Rei remained unflinching behind her mask, calmly retrieving the discarded syringes before returning to the shadows.

-ooo-

(Shimo no Kuni)

The summit was on.

Village leaders from various minor villages sat around a large circular table. Representatives of the hidden villages of Stone, Waterfall, Rain, Star, Snow and Rain were amongst those present judging by the seating arrangements. There was also a seat assigned to the Hidden Sound, but whether or not it would be filled was up in the air. If there was anyone that could identify him though Jiraiya knew it would probably be Orochimaru.

It was for that reason he had gone through the trouble of and using some extensive semi-permanent body-modifying jutsu to change his body mass, scent and the colour of his eyes from grey to brown to match his dyed hair, which he had cut short. He even made sure to manipulate his larynx with chakra to produce a different a voice that more closely resembled that of his comrades. He was disguised as one of them, wearing the standard Ishi-nin attire and gear. It had been a while since he needed to disguise himself so carefully, but he wasn't going to take any risks, certainly not when Orochimaru was involved.

Jiraiya looked around the meeting room from his position, taking note of several potential exit strategies if worse came to worse.

Kinzen looked anxious in his seat, already on his second glass of water, his eyes wandering to the entrance every few seconds in anticipation.

'Calm down,' Jiraiya willed. Not only was it disappointing, it was incredibly worrisome Kinzen looked so beleaguered. He was starting to consider whether his presence was a mistake. From the look Kuroki was giving him that was probably the case. 'Too late to bow out now,' Jiraiya thought as they were joined by a grey old man in purple robes. 'The Hidden Star leader,' the sage identified. 'He was a mean old fart in his day.'

The self-proclaimed Sandaime Hoshikage was one of the few that once met Sarutobi Hiruzen in battle in his prime and lived to tell the tale. (1) "Ah, I see I am not the first, Akahoshi." (2)

Kinzen nodded politely. "Well met, Kitahoshi-dono."

"Well met, Kinzen-dono." The Hidden Star leader sat in assigned seat and dismissed his bodyguard.

Jiraiya glanced to the man identified as Akahoshi and reverted his gaze back to the table as more individuals poured into the room. The sage recognised the leader of Takigakure, Gurēkami, accompanied by his son Shibuki and right hand man Suien. (3)

Next were the shinobi of the Hidden Snow village. Rōga Nadare (4) had recently come to succeed the previous village leader. If Jiraiya recalled correctly, the Yukigakure-nin had once bested Kakashi and forced him to retreat on a mission long ago. He was accompanied by armour wearing bodyguards: a pink-haired kunoichi and a muscular, purple-haired shinobi. They took their place by the other bodyguards.

Jiraiya wondered if a Shimogakure representative would show up at any point, seeing as they were guarding the castle. The mutual animosity between Shimo and Yuki-nin was notorious. He didn't give it much as thought as the leaders of various others minor villages poured in.

Eventually only three seats remained unfilled: Grass, Rain and Sound. Jiraiya kept his eye on the door in anticipation. Maybe Orochimaru was going to be a no-show? 'Wouldn't that be nice?' He didn't know what to make of Rain's representative whomever that would be.

The room fell silent after pleasantries were exchanged. They weren't here to chitchat after all, and most of them were most assuredly rivals if not outright enemies once it was over.

Jiraiya felt a mixture of apprehension, anxiety and a pinch of exhilaration in the pit of his stomach, though he steeled himself as masterfully as only a shinobi of his calibre could. He was an uninvited guest in a room filled with some of the world's most dangerous and powerful individuals with limited exit strategies if things went sour. Undoubtedly, his presence would be seen and treated as an act of war if he was found out. 'Keep it together, Jiraiya. You're not a rookie at this, you haven't been for a long time.' The Toad Sage had become quite the adept infiltration artist over his lengthy career. This wasn't the first time he had found himself in a situation like this, and God willing it wouldn't be the last.

Heads turned to the entrance of the meeting room.

Sōgen no Shogun, the leader of Kusagakure entered the meeting room, unaccompanied, gliding like a ghost towards his seat on the far end of table from Kinzen. Jiraiya had never actually met or even seen the man in person. The Kusa leader was something of a recluse, and until now had never been cause for immediate worry. As distasteful as it, was the sage likened him to Kusa's very own Shimura Danzō.

Sōgen was a tall, imposing figure that matched the sage's height, with tan skin covered in scars. He had long white hair tied in a ponytail and a lengthy white goatee. He wore a fine green cloak over his shinobi attire. A thick scar covered his seemingly permanently closed left eye; his remaining eye was amber. "I thank you all for attending." For a man who was feared far and wide for his ferocious, cutthroat methods, Sōgen had an unusually soft spoken, vaguely grandfatherly voice. "Forgive my tardiness, there were pressing matters that had to be resolved beforehand."

"You are not the only one, Sōgen-dono," Gurēkami of the Hidden Waterfall said. "It appears the representatives of Ame and Oto have yet to arrive."

"I just had words with the both of them and they will both join us shortly," Sōgen informed as he got comfortable in his seat.

As though on cue, a man wearing a straw hat and a long, black cloak with red clouds strolled joined them. "Evening," he greeted with a baritone voice.

The Hidden Waterfall leader rose from his seat, a look of outrage on his face. "Akatsuki!" There were similar reactions of shock amongst the other leaders and their bodyguards, but none quite as vitriolic. "So you vermin were hiding in Ame then?"

Sōgen looked from Gurēkami to the other leaders, taking in their reactions appraisingly, before finally turning to the Akatsuki member and nodding. "Well there is no reason to forget our manners."

Jiraiya tensed. This was what he came for. Where there was trouble, you could bet the farm Akatsuki had their finger in the pie.

The straw hat came off, revealing an Amegakure headband, a white hood, and dark sclera and green pupils looming over a facemask. "My name is Kakuzu. I am here as the Hidden Rain's leader representative and as well as the leader of Akatsuki."

A tumultuous reaction followed.

'You've got to be kidding me,' Jiraiya thought beneath a veil of calm. Never in a million years could he have anticipated something like this. But could he have?

"I thank you for revealing yourself," Gurēkami roared as water condensed from thin air in his hands and spiralled to form into a sword. "Until now Takigakure has had to wage war against a faceless enemy. It will be easier to destroy you now we know where you sleep."

"Gentlemen, calm yourselves," the Shogun called patiently. "We are not here to declare war. This summit's purpose is so we might find peace amongst ourselves as we endeavour on an opportunity that shall benefit us all far more than revenge over petty grievances."

"You have my ear, Sōgen-dono," Kitahoshi of Hoshigakure croaked from his side of the table. "I am too old and my blood does not run quite as hot as others, but I have no time for games, as I am sure you know, being of the same era as I."

The Shogun nodded smiling. "I do indeed. If you would please be seated once more." The leader of the Hidden Grass looked expectantly to Gurēkami, who grudgingly sat down, though his eyes did not leave Kakuzu. "Thank you."

"Well that was entertaining."

Heads turned once again to the entrance as Orochimaru quite literally slithered into the room. "I believe now is the time you were referring to?"

"Not quite, but since you are already here…" If Sōgen wasn't pleased, he did an impeccable job of hiding it.

"More vermin?" Gurēkami said with disgust.

Orochimaru smirked. "Can't we let bygones be bygones, old friend? After all, we are all going to be such good friends, aren't we?" Only Orochimaru could stroll into a room full of people that wanted his head on a spike with supreme confidence and mock them while he was at it.

"I believe an explanation is in order, Sōgen-dono," the Hoshikage spoke up.

The Hidden Grass leader nodded. "There is. If we can all be seated and keep our calm and wits about us."

Orochimaru took his seat and crossed his arms, an amused grin on his serpentine features. "You may want to adjust that scowl, Gurēkami-kun, it's rather intimidating."

"I believe you gave me your word you would behave yourself," Sōgen rebuked the Sannin with a stern look. "Please do not disrupt us again." It wasn't a request. Far from it. Looks were deceiving, but no one in that room took the Hidden Grass leader's soft-spoken imago for his true self. They all knew what he was capable of.

Orochimaru bowed theatrically. "Of course, of course."

Jiraiya wondered how long Orochimaru could continue like this, how many more bridges he could burn, how many more allies he could betray? It was damn near miraculous he had survived this long. There was something off about his presence. Something told him the serpent probably wouldn't have shown up were it not for his bespectacled toady.

As the room finally settled down, Sōgen cleared his throat. "My honourable guests, as I said before you have been invited to this summit to discuss a matter of great importance, an opportunity that could benefit us far more than any infighting over the table crumbs of the Great Five ever could. Kakuzu-dono came to me some time ago and revealed himself as the leader of Amegakure and Akatsuki, and the true purpose of his organisation. Naturally I was intrigued, and after hearing what he had to offer we came to form an alliance."

"Such information is typically not shared," Kitahoshi stroked his beard in thought. "I believe this is where the opportunity comes in."

"It does indeed," Sōgen nodded slowly. "At my request, Kakuzu-dono allowed me to call a summit so that we could ensure a greater success through beneficial partnership between all of us."

Kakuzu took his cue. "I created Akatsuki many years ago to oust Hanzō. During the civil war I vowed to have my vengeance against the Great Five whom exploited the war that tore my country apart. The day Hanzō fell was the day Akatsuki was reborn. Few outside of Ame knew of our existence. It was easy to escape scrutiny as I separated the Akatsuki from Ame and propped them up as an independent mercenary organisation and successfully usurped business from the Great Five all over the world and taking missions no one else would of fear of political and military ramifications."

"A sound strategy," Nadare Rōga of the Hidden Snow commented. "You gave us a quite a bit of trouble some years ago."

"Such is the nature of our business," Kakuzu replied evenly. "Until now Akatsuki has been a faceless, highly profitable and efficient organisation. Most noteworthy mercenary organisations are part of Akatsuki one way or another. Many don't even know who they really answer to."

Gurēkami grew impatient. "I take it there is a point to this tale of yours?"

"Akatsuki is cheaper and more efficient than any one village out there, but there are things that not even we can accomplish. I have come here to invite you to join our alliance and share our profits." Kakuzu paused to look across the table. "In exchange for your assistance to overthrow the Great Five."

The room fell silent.

Jiraiya clenched his fists. 'It doesn't get much more nefarious than that.' His eye fell on Kinzen. 'If he says no, he might be killed on the spot.'

Even Nadara burst out in laughter, teal pupil-less eyes wide with amusement. "You don't mess around, do you? Well, I'm listening."

"You can't be serious!" Gurēkami raised his voice. "Take on the Great Five? We'd be crushed!"

"Individually, most assuredly," Sōgen agreed calmly. "But together," he spread his arms theatrically. "Together we are a true force to be reckoned with."

"If you agree to join the Akatsuki Alliance, then you will become equal partners effective immediately, and you will enjoy both anonymity and spoils of war, including in bijū redistribution," Kakuzu added with a sinister chuckle. "But perhaps Takigakure does not see the need, given how close they have been to Konoha ever since the Shodai gave them the Nanabi."

Close was nothing short of a gross exaggeration Jiraiya thought, though they probably all knew it as well. Taki had once been close to Konoha, decades ago, but they had grown apart during the Nidaime's era over various disputes. The Nidaime was a great shinobi but not half the diplomat his brother was and thus did not hesitate to strong arm the Hidden Waterfall whenever they opposed him. By the time Hiruzen ascended to the position of Hokage, numerous bridges had been burned, and the Hidden Waterfall was one of them. Things had turned around since, the Sandaime had worked hard to accomplish that, but they were far from how they once were.

"I am no more fond of Konoha than you, but I am no fool," Gurēkami spat with distaste. "Nor I will deny the Nanbi's worth, but you speak of matters you know nothing of, outsider."

"Your jinchūriki is a diagnosed sociopath with no regard for your authority," Kakuzu stated holding his gaze. "She comes and goes whenever she pleases and will not hesitate to kill even you if you oppose her."

"How do you know this?" the village leader demanded.

Kakuzu sneered with no small measure of condescension. "Amongst many other assets, Akatsuki has a vast and very reliable network of spies and information gatherers. We know a great many things about all of your villages and your top shinobi." The Akatsuki leader rose from his seat. "Including your bodyguards." He averted his gaze from Gurēkami to Kinzen.

Kinzen tensed under his gaze.

"Is he here?" Kakuzu said much to Jiraiya's confusion. Who was the masked shinobi talked about? Surely…

He found his answer after a long, tense filled moment as Kinzen looked to his direction with a look pure regret. "I'm sorry, old friend."

Jiraiya felt his insides go cold.

"So he came…" the Sōgen spoke up softly, his voice quiet like the storm. "Excellent work, Kinzen-dono."

"Oh, well isn't this interesting?" Orochimaru's laughter echoed. "We have a spy in our midst!"

"This is no laughing matter, Orochimaru," Kitahoshi rebuked severely. It appeared not even the calm and collected Hoshikage could stand him.

The serpent ignored him and threw his head back with laughter. "I wonder who it is."

Jiraiya's eyes remained wide with shock as he came to realise his mistake.

It was all a trap.

They had been counting on this happen on this, and they had managed to get Kinzen on their side. 'But why?' It didn't make any sense…

"I understand. We might be friends but we have different priorities when it comes down to it. Konoha will always come first for you and Ishi will always first for me, no matter what the cost…"

'Kinzen, you didn't…' Jiraiya looked to his friend, no, his betrayer. How could he have been so blind? There had been signs back in Ishi, and there had been signs on the way to Shimo, but he had dismissed them and blindly believed in their friendship. 'How could have I been so stupid?'

As the shock settled in Kuroki whispered, "I'm so sorry, Jiraiya-sama… We had no choice. I only found out last night."

The other bodyguards heard and quickly backed away. His reputation preceded him even now. It wouldn't save him now though, there was no way he would get out of there without a fight.

"Who is it, Kinzen?" Kakuzu asked as the village leaders, save Sōgen and Kitahoshi, rose of their seats. Their bodyguards joined them in anticipation.

"Oh, I know who it is," Orochimaru cackled gleefully as he licked his lips predatorily. "There is only one Konoha shinobi I know Kinzen calls old friend. We have some old unfinished business, Jiraiya."

Jiraiya stood alone now, a serious look on him as he undid his concealment jutsu. He glared at Orochimaru for a moment and turned his gaze to Sōgen and Kakuzu. Undoubtedly they had arranged the summit because they knew they could count on Konoha sending a spy. They could use it to get the support of the minor villages. They had had played him perfectly. Sōgen, Kakuzu, Akatsuki… they were all far more dangerous than he had imagined. They had to die. All of them. "I never thought you would betray me, Kinzen."

"It's nothing personal, old friend," Kinzen said with a stony expression.

"You call me friend even now?" Jiraiya laughed humourlessly. This wasn't going to be pretty. "You are no friend of mine," he said coldly. He would have killed him then and there if he had the chance.

"Jiraiya the Gallant," Sōgen addressed him. "I have heard a great deal about you. Your reputation truly precedes you. We hadn't expected you would show up."

"You have quite a bounty on your head," Kakuzu remarked confidently as he discarded his cloak and readied himself for combat.

Jiraiya smirked as he put up a brave face. "You're welcome to try and collect.

"Unfortunately, you're too valuable to collect," the Akatsuki member replied a s he stretched his arms.

Jiraiya looked for an exit. There were none that would let him get out of there without hassle. 'It looks like I'm going to have to fight my way out of here.'

"This one might be a challenge even for you, Kakuzu-dono," Sōgen interjected as he too finally rose from his chair. "I shall assist."

"I've always wanted to test my mettle against a legendary shinobi," Nadara joined as his guards stood behind him. "This should be fun."

Jiraiya looked to Orochimaru. "What about you, dear old teammate of mine? You going to join in too?"

"I only came here at the behest of my minion, under the guarantee of safe passage of course," his fellow Sannin said with a look to Sōgen and Kakuzu. "Normally, I'd welcome the opportunity to kill you, but this body is a loaner and not quite up to the challenge, I'm afraid."

"Then leave the ring and be gone, snake," Kakuzu sneered. (5)

"Oh, right, the ring," Orochimaru said dramatically. "How could I forget? Forgive me, Kakuzu, but I'm going to have renege on my promise. You see, I didn't actually bring it with me."

"What?" the Akatsuki treasurer demanded, a dark look in his oddly coloured eyes. "Then rest assured you are next."

"How scary," Orochimaru mocked. "I look forward to killing you personally, Kakuzu. But until then, you're going to have to excuse me." The serpent proceeded to disjoint his jaw and wretch. A white snake emerged his throat and slithered away as the corpse of a Kusa-nin fell to the ground with a dull thud.

A usually large and razor sharp blade of grass impaled the rare reptile, killing it instantly. Sōgen wore a furious expression on his aged and scared face.

"Don't bother," Jiraiya said with a mocking grin on his face. "That's his Hebi no Shoji jutsu." He had run into the Snake Possession technique a handful times already. "It's a real bitch, isn't it?" Who would've thought? Orochimaru's antics actually tickled him even now.

"Tche! I'll deal with him later," Kakuzu promised the Kusa leader. "I told you not to trust him."

"A mistake on my part, I admit," Sōgen replied as he regained his composure.

Jiraiya looked to the table surrounded by shinobi. "I guess this is where it gets ugly."

There were about a dozen of them of the strongest shinobi amongst the minor shinobi villages and just one of him.

He would have to go all out.

-ooo-

(Mount Kongōurin)

His entire body ached as he climbed, his muscles screaming as he forced his body to keep going. He was nearly there. He could see the edge of the cliff. He was so close. The cold didn't bother him, he simply didn't pay it any attention. In fact, his body felt hot, like it was on fire. The veins in his hands and arms were bulged, his hands felt raw, he had chipped a few nails and his clothes were torn, but he kept going.

He was nearly there.

Yancha climbed next to him, making it look easy as his big eyes remained plastered on him. It was as though the young ape was too scared to talk out of fear he would somehow jinx his progress.

"You can talk if you want," Naruto grunted as he continued. Much of the climb had taken place in silence, much due to the howling winds. He had welcomed it at first. The silence gave him a lot of time to think. Too much time, perhaps.

"What?" Yancha shouted over the wind. "Did you say something?"

Naruto shook his head, tired beyond belief. It was a small wonder he managed to keep going, but he doubted he had the energy to carry a conversation. The climb was all the focused on. "Forget it, Yan."

"Okay! Wait, did you just call me Yan?"

Naruto felt like both crying and banging his head against the rock. "Yanchazaru is long."

"I thought that's why you called me Yancha," the monkey said confused.

"That can get long too," Naruto said nearly a full minute later. He was too damn tired for small talk. "Just forget it."

The monkey bound over closer. "Yancha is six letters, and so is your name!"

"You're killing me, kid," Naruto cried pathetically. "Can't you just let it go?"

"I'm not a kid!" Yancha said indignantly. "I'm seven years old!"

Naruto felt what little patience he had left leave him and snapped. "That's exactly the age at which you'd normally be considered a kid!"

"Bullshit!"

"Watch your mouth." Naruto didn't know what possessed him to chastise his new companion, other than the fact he was extremely aware of how young he was.

"You can be really moody, you know that?" Yancha stuck his tongue at him and climbed ahead of him.

They continued to bicker for a while. Naruto knew he couldn't afford to waste his energy on something so foolish, but he didn't like giving Yancha the final word. It was childish, he knew, but maturity be damned, he wasn't going to be silenced by a monkey less than half his age.

Before he knew it he found himself closer to the top than he had had been so far. The temperature was picking up. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?" he looked to the monkey. "Distracting me like that, so I wouldn't be tired."

"Got'cha!" Yancha laughed in a shrieking fashion.

Naruto rolled his eyes, but smiled nonetheless. "I guess you did."

Minutes later his hands, his raw and bloody hands, finally gripped the last ridge. He pulled himself over the top of Mount Kongōurin, onto a flat plateau, breathing heavily, but happy enough he felt like crying as he rolled on to his back.

He was exhausted to the point of nausea, hungry, and dehydrated, but he had made it.

"Finally," he muttered under his breath as he closed his eyes.

-ooo-

(Shimo no Kuni)

The castle lay in ruins.

Black clouds of smoke billowed to the open sky. The ruins of the royal estate were swept by fire and oil. The carcass of a giant red toad lied a distance away, its stomach torn open by countless wounds, its giant shield cracked and sasumata discarded.

Where there was once a meeting hall there was now a crater than dug deep into the ground. A fierce battle had taken place, and the environment reflected it. Several dozen bodies were strewn over the castle turned battlefield, mainly castle guards, and a few shinobi of Ame, Kusa and Shimo.

Jiraiya lied on his back in the snow, blood flowing under him, and on the verge of unconsciousness.

Kakuzu ploughed through the snow, casually picking up his right arm and reattaching it as he neared the Toad Sage. He looked worse for wear, and none too pleased as he recalled his spectres of black. Only one had managed to survive. "He managed to destroy three of my puppets."

"It was fortunate we outnumbered him." The Shogun approached, seemingly unscathed though tired.

Kakuzu didn't acknowledge the statement, though it were true. "What are we going to do with him?" he asked instead. "If we kill him, Konoha will know it was us."

"We make him disappear," Sōgen said as he adjusted his kimono. The cold was getting to his old bones. "We can move him to Kusa and keep him there. I will put my best interrogators on him to uncover as much information as we can."

Kakuzu looked around the plain of white. "Takigakure fleed during the commotion. I'll make sure Gurēkami keeps his mouth shut."

"Then I will see to it Hoshi, Ishi and Yuki stay quiet for now." Sōgen released a deep sigh, seeming even older for a moment. "I must admit, Jiraiya the Gallant was a surprise. It would be poor form to insist on relocating and continuing the summit now."

"I leave that to you," Kakuzu agreed with a nod as he extended his hand and reached for his cloak several dozen feet away and plucked it from the burning oil. "As soon as I get Takigakure in line, I'll advise Pain to let me deal with Orochimaru."

"And what of Kinzen?" the Kusa leader inquired as they both observed Kinzen from a distance. The Ishi leader stared at Jiraiya with a morose look, his immense guilt visible even from a distance.

"It's too late for him to back out now," Kakuzu said confidently. "He is no fool. Even if he turned on us now, Konoha would still crush him for his betrayal. He's ours now." The Akatsuki treasurer put on the tattered remains of his cloak. "If necessary, promise him the Yonbi or Gobi for his cooperation."

Jiraiya fought to stay conscious, though he knew it was futile. He had been overwhelmed despite his best efforts and his wounds were severe.

He had failed.

"Forgive me, Tsunade… Naruto…" Jiraiya whispered as he slipped into unconsciousness.


Author's Notes

So this is where it gets real.

I've spent a lot of time planning out this story, and while it has taken me a while to get here, I'm excited for future chapters. The training arc ends and the post timeskip plot is finally beginning to set itself up. I doubt I'll ever do another training arc again, though it was useful to keep Naruto out of the picture whilst I gave more depth to other characters. I know some of you might be wondering why I'm giving Itachi so much attention. The reason is that I want to develop him a bit more in my story, give him more background and depth so you can understand his actions down the road.

Tsunade had a bit this chapter. I felt like fleshing her out a bit more as far being Hokage goes. She has always been one of my favourite characters and I kind of feel like building a legacy for her in this fic, so I hope you enjoy where I'm taking this. I also really like Anko. She's a bad ass, and it's really a shame she never got as much screen time in cannon. My depiction of her isn't perfect but I hope it's entertaining to read.

Sōgen is an OC of mine I've planned to use for a while, both in NPR and other stories. There's more to him than meets the eye and I hope you'll enjoy his character, even if he's a bit of an unpleasant fellow. He might look like a Danzō copy, but it's not quite like that. His alliance with Akatsuki and their nefarious plot will play a major part in this story so here's hoping I can write him convincingly. By the way, in case anyone brings it up in a review, there is a reason Jiraiya wasn't able to escape through Reverse Summoning or use Sage Mode.

Anyway, that's it for 2013. I hope you guys had a terrific year and I wish you well in 2014.

Notes

(1) The Sandaime Hoshikage from episode 180 in the original Naruto anime during a filler arc. I renamed him for convenience since he wasn't named in the anime. His made up name means "North Star." I don't know why he was referred to as Hoshikage in the anime, he just was. Consider it a moniker.

(2) Akahoshi was introduced in episode 178 in the same filler arc.

(3) These characters were introduced in the Protect the Waterfall Village OVA of the original anime. Shibuki's dad wasn't given a name so I name him Gurēkami, which means "grey hair" in accordance with his appearance.

(4) The badass villain from the first Naruto movie.

(5) Orochimaru took his ring with him when he left Akatsuki. He still has the kū ring in his possession.