Naruto: Potential Realised

Posted: 20-01-14

Yo! There's a good a chance you might have missed the previous update over New Year's so if you haven't read it now you know. Please leave a review on it since reactions are mixed and that might influence what comes next. Anyway things are picking up story-wise so enjoy and don't forget to review! The Uzumaki Descendant is also a thing.

Unedited.

ARC6: The Missing Sannin


CH22: The Missing Sannin


(Approximately One Year Later)

"He'll be here in a matter of weeks, Tsunade-sama."

"I know."

"He'll be angry."

"I know."

"He's going to want answers… and revenge."

"I know."

"What are you going to do?"

Tsunade massaged her temples as she felt a migraine building up. "That I don't know."

Nearly a year had gone by. Naruto would be returning soon, and she wouldn't be able to keep the truth from him then.

"He's going to hate my guts when he finds out."

"At least for some time." Though Shizune idolised the Godaime, she knew Tsunade wouldn't appreciate her sugarcoating the issue. "But you did the right thing, Tsunade-sama. The time wasn't right for Naruto-kun to return. He would have done something reckless and maybe even gotten himself killed in the process."

"He still might," Tsunade sighed. "I should be happy the kid is coming back but honestly I wish he would just stay there for a few more years."

Shizune understood where her teacher was coming from perfectly. "Hiruzen-sama did say he had improved a lot. He may be able to protect himself now."

"He'll still be young, and inexperienced, and stupid," Tsunade moaned regretfully. "That's not fair," she then immediately acknowledged.

"No, it's not," Shizune agreed, hugging her clipboard. "You'll have to keep an close eye on him when he gets back."

Tsunade rested her head and outstretched arms over her desk. "I know, Shizune."

"It can't just be anyone," the assistant added thoughtfully. "Do you think Kakashi-san will agree to it?"

"It'll be too obvious if it's just him," Tsunade said as she sat upright.

Shizune hesitated for a moment. "How about Uchiha Sasuke?" she suggested carefully. It was common knowledge the two rivals had a rather heated spar over a year ago, during which they had tried to kill one another with lethal ninjutsu.

"Maybe…" Tsunade considered the suggestion for a moment. "Get them in my office. Actually, get Sakura too."

At that moment the door opened and Sakura walked in holding a clipboard of her own, as though she had been summoned by her teacher's words. "Tsunade-sama, I have the new supply orders from the hospital as you requested." She looked quite different, taller and with more feminine features. She wore simple field medic attire.

"Just get me the other two," the Godaime said to Shizune before turning to her younger student. "Sakura, I'm going to need you to do something for me."

"Of course," Sakura agreed immediately.

-ooo-

(Mount Kongōurin)

Hiruzen sat cross-legged and enjoyed a smoke as he observed the fight. They had moved to a wide plateau on the mountain where the Sarutobi clan did much of their sparring. The Sandaime had aged significantly over the past year, his hair now completely white and long, due in part to Tsunade's treatment. He had lost all of his excess weight and looked to be in great shape, wearing a loose fitting tunic and a robe over his shoulders as he watched. "That's it, Enma. Go for his left, he's still favouring it after you broke his arm last time."

Naruto was in the middle of sparring against the Monkey King and seemed to be holding his own. "Whose side are you on, old man?"

Over the past year he had grown nearly a foot. He had turned fifteen years old a few weeks ago. His gravity defying hair had grown to shoulder length, and his face looked considerably more mature now. Naruto wore a white short-sleeved shirt under a simple blue, sleeveless tunic with the Sarutobi clan insignia that showed off much of his matured physique. He hadn't grown more muscular per se, but rather grown leaner with a much more balanced build. He was both light on his feet and had considerable body strength to go with it. He wouldn't have been able to keep up with Enma if he didn't.

"You should be more concerned with focusing on your opponent!" Enma delivered a crushing palm strike to his chest.

Naruto went flying but managed to flip midair and land on his bare feet. "Fuck, that hurt!"

"Language," Hiruzen and Enma said simultaneously.

Naruto ignored the aching in chest that was sure to be a bruise and charged head on. "Either you're getting old or I'm getting faster, either way you're on the slow side today, Enma!"

The Monkey King howled with laughter as they exchanged blows at high speed. "Humility certainly isn't your strong suit, is it?"

"Nope!"

Hiruzen watched them continue to spar with a faint smile. 'He did it. He completed his training in just under a year.' The Sandaime could only wonder how much farther he could go. At times it was as though he were training with the Shodai. They were both so lively, so full with potential. "You should be able to give Kakashi a considerable run for his money now, Naruto-kun."

Naruto froze, eyes wide with shock. "Really? That's awesome- ouf!" Enma punished his lack on concentration with a punch to the face.

"Focus on your opponent at all times! We've been over this."

Naruto picked himself of the ground with a pained groan. "That was dirty, old man. You did that on purpose, didn't you?"

"Hmm?" The Sandaime feigned not to hear him and chewed on his pipe instead.

"I fucking knew it!"

Enma dropped his elbow in the youth's stomach. "Language!"

"Ack! Can't bre..athe!""

For a moment the Monkey King relented out of concern, only to then realise he had been tricked as Naruto wrapped his legs around his neck and pulled his arm in an attempt to force Enma to submit.

"Trickster!"

"There's no such thing as a clean fight!"

'I have done the best I could, Tsunade,' Hiruzen thought as the two wrestled it out in the dirt. 'He's your problem now.' The Sandaime stood up dusting himself off, his robe falling of his shoulders. "Enma!" the Sandaime called as he joined the fray.

"Alright, old friend!" The Monkey King jumped into the air and transformed into an adamantine staff as the Sandaime caught him.

Naruto grinned enthusiastically. "Alright, gramps, try not to break a hip or something."

"You're going to pay for that one," Hiruzen said dryly as he twirled the staff dexterously.

-ooo-

(Amegakure)

The highest tower of Amegakure was an immense building with four humanoid faces facing the cardinal directions. The people called it the Kami no Tō, where they knew their godly protector resided, high in the heavens, amongst the clouds that rained perpetually. Pain sat on the outstretched tongue of the humanoid facing north.

"Don't look so displeased, Konan."

Ame's Angel put little effort in hiding her distaste. "I do not understand the need for secrecy and deceit, not like this."

"How many times must I explain it to you?" Pain looked to her, his voice as devoid of emotion as his face. "Secrecy and deceit are a necessity."

"You are a god, Nagato." Konan said the words with absolute confidence. "You do not need to stoop to the level of that man and manipulate from the shadows. It is beneath you."

"You know better than to address me by that name when we are expecting company, Konan." Pain moved inside the tower through a canopy as heavy downpour fell.

The paper goddess hung her head. "I'm sorry."

"Forget it. Raise your head, Konan, he is here." The Akatsuki leader looked to the door as it opened. "Kakuzu."

Kakuzu entered the room, nodding respectfully. "Konan," the former Takigakure shinobi acknowledged.

"Kakuzu," she returned coolly.

"Takigakure?" Pain queried sat at the head of the table in the room.

"Subservient, for now. I may have to incite a coup and replace Gurēkami with his number two. Suiben seems open to assuming control." Kakuzu drew a chair to his one seat away from his immediate left as Konan sat at his right.

"Use your best judgment," Pain permitted.

Kakuzu nodded. "Will Madara be joining us?"

"No," Konan spoke up before he could.

The god of pain made note to talk to her soon. "Madara is off doing his clandestine, nefarious business, though what that is remains unknown to me."

"So long as he does not meddle with our affairs let him stay far away," Konan said.

Kakuzu chuckled in his baritone voice. "You despise him still, far more than I. What has he done to earn your ire?"

"None of your business."

"That's enough, Konan," Pain rebuked sternly. He preferred it when she was her usual, quiet self. "Where is Hidan now?"

"I left him to oversee things in Takigakure for now," Kakuzu answered promptly, adding: "I reminded him any misdeeds would displease you greatly. He will not behave too erratically."

"Where did Sasori find that beast of a man, I wonder."

"He has his uses." Pain looked to Kakuzu. "One of them being that Kakuzu can't kill him."

"Unfortunately," Kakuzu and Konan said in unison, though it was not their intent, and they ignored it happened.

"What of the hunt for Orochimaru? I haven't heard from Sasori in a while," Pain swiftly moved on. The snake Sannin had proved to be quite elusive since he had left Akatsuki and taken his ring with him to spite them. "We must retrieve the kū ring."

Kakuzu considered his next words carefully. "Sōgen has tried to retrieve information from Jiraiya the Gallant but to no success," he shared a moment later. "His mental barriers are quite formidable. We were fortunate to have his number when we took him down."

"Just now you paused," Pain said almost accusingly. "Why?"

"You know they are torturing him still?" Kakuzu queried apprehensively. "Given your past ties, I thought-"

"You thought wrong," Pain cut him off, his displeasure both evident in his voice and godly eyes. "We cut our ties with Jiraiya a lifetime ago. He no longer means anything to us. Isn't that right, Konan?"

She nodded with hesitation. "It is."

Pain averted his gaze to Kakuzu. "Make sure Sōgen understands that my patience is wearing thin."

"I don't understand the need for that man's involvement," Konan voiced with a look to Pain. "You could retrieve whatever information Jiraiya has with a simple touch if you would just-"

"Quiet, Konan."

The Angel of Ame fell silent without another word.

Pain set his Rinnegan eyes on Kakuzu. "Make him understand."

"As you wish," Kakuzu nodded once more. "I will send word as soon as I leave."

"Good," Pain said. "Now tell me what the Fence Sitter has been up to."

-ooo-

(Mount Kongōurin)

Naruto followed Hiruzen and Enma up the mountain path towards the Sarutobi stronghold atop the mountain. The stronghold was essentially a small village surrounded by lush, tropical jungle and bodies of water all over. It was a truly unique ecosystem he doubted he could find anywhere else in the world. The Sarutobi lived in modest wooden houses and slept in hammocks and in trees. The weather was always the right temperature: comfortably breezy during the day, delightfully warm in the evening and cool at night. It was like paradise living there.

On the way back they greeted several Sarutobi clansmen, humans and apes alike. Naruto had gotten to know most of them to an extent in his time living with them. The apes were more or less the exact same as the humans. There were even a few grannies that occasionally sent him on errands. He even had to look after the kids every now then, usually on days he was made to relax after arduous training the day before.

"You return to Konoha soon," Enma said as they walked past a group of young Sarutobi humans and their monkey counterparts. "How do you feel?"

Naruto smiled a little, he hadn't had the time to think about it. "I'm looking forward to seeing my friends again, but I'm not sure if I'm ready."

"You're welcome to stay for as long as you'd like."

"I appreciate that, Enma, but I made a promise." His smile turned into a grin just thinking about it. "Do you think I'm ready, gramps?"

Hiruzen laughed. "That is not a question for me to answer."

"I figured you'd say that." He had gotten to know Hiruzen a lot better over the past year. As a child he had put him on an obscenely high pedestal, believing there wasn't anyone stronger or wiser than his jichan, who he perceived to be infallible and would live forever.

Naruto knew better now.

He knew Hiruzen as more than a surrogate grandfather or as the Sandaime Hokage; he knew him as a man of great responsibilities and experience, and as man who not only had many accomplishments but also many regrets. Hiruzen had shared many things with him, and taught more than just ninjutsu. He taught him discipline, what it meant to be a leader, decision-making and so much more. At first it seemed as though every day he learned something life changing, but after a while Naruto realised that Hiruzen was simply sharing his own experience, lessons he had learned from mistakes he had made a long time ago hoping he would learn from them.

"You have undoubtedly improved," the Sandaime acknowledged after a while. "What I said earlier, I meant it. If you simply continue to hone your skills and sharpen them with experience you will surpass me in no time."

Naruto looked at him through squinted eyes. "You're just saying that, aren't you?" There was simply no way he believed a word he said. It sounded too good to be true, and amongst many other things he had learned Hiruzen wasn't a saint. The man was a shinobi through and through, and would lie, cheat, and play dirty just to mess with him. "But seriously though, really?"

Much to his chagrin Hiruzen and Enma started laughing and continued on ahead.

-ooo-

(Kusa no Kuni – Kusagakure Black Site 341)

In the shinobi world the value of intelligence cannot be overstated. It the highest valued currency for a shinobi trades in death and he is blind without it to guide his blade.

Regardless of time, location or the people involved, death always follows. One way or another, as direct or indirect consequence, death shall occur and lives will be lost. It is for that reason shinobi villages put great time, care and precision in their information networks as they methodically gather and meticulously analyse intelligence from across the world.

Kusagakure took exceptional care in gathering information. Little was known of the Shogun as far as his personal life went, only that he was extremely cautious, a recluse who at times hadn't been seen in public for years after his meteoric rise during the civil war. Sōgen made it his top priority Kusa knew everything both inside and outside the country. Two of the three great wars had been fought on Kusa soil before the civil war, and both could have been prevented if they had all the facts, if they knew what their enemies were thinking, what they were planning. Sōgen would never allow war to befall his beloved country ever again, no matter what the cost.

The Hidden Grass leader was known for his cutthroat methods with reason. No line was too blurry to be crossed and no price was too high so long as Kusa was safe.

With that thought in mind Sōgen had left Kusagakure to visit one of many black sites near the Ame no Kuni border. The black site was an underground base in the countryside, far removed from prying eyes. The Shogun travelled without envoy, both out of lack of trust and necessity. He wasted no time to enter the hidden base. Normally there were five shinobi assigned to every black site: four guards and one interrogator, who was usually the site supervisor.

This particular base had twelve personnel and an ANBU squad stationed nearby to provide back up.

Torches flickered as the heavy doors opened. There was no electricity used in this particular black site to avoid suspicion.

The site supervisor waited by the entrance and bowed respectfully. "Sōgen-sama."

"Kei."

"How is your houseguest?" the Hidden Grass leader wasted no time. "Bring me to him."

"This way, sir."

Sōgen followed the supervisor down a labyrinth with many turns and eventually wound up before a heavy steel door covered with fūinjutsu markings. A minute later they were in an observation room with one-way mirrors connected to the interrogation room. There were two men in the room: one dressed in the same black attire as the interrogator, and the other was their houseguest.

"I was in the middle of interrogation when you entered, sir. Habara is covering for me"

"Have you made any progress?" Sōgen queried as he looked to the interrogation room, his eyes on the houseguest.

Jiraiya the Gallant had seen better days – much better days. He hung half collapsed to the ground by the arms, his bare chest covered in scars and burn marks. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight and appeared malnourished and dehydrated. His eyes were vacant and devoid of any life, it was as though he simply was not there, as though he could not even feel the whiplashes his interrogator was subjecting him to.

A large fūin covered the floor beneath his feet, the walls and ceiling – every inch surface was covered in sealing arrays.

"No, sir," Kei reported dutifully. "We have been unable to break him. As I wrote in my most recent report the subject appears to be able to perfectly shut out pain. Mind probes are equally ineffective due to pre-setup barriers. They are quite formidable, sir, unlike anything I have ever seen."

"You say physical punishment does not affect him?" Sōgen spared the supervisor a glance before turning back to the one-way mirror. "Then why is your junior interrogator whipping him?"

Kei swallowed, hesitating. "Revenge, sir."

"Revenge?"

"Like I said, the subject's mental barriers are truly formidable. Habara tried to probe his mind a week ago and was nearly taken over. We found him trying to hang himself."

"I should like to speak to your houseguest." Sōgen glided toward the door to the interrogation room and entered.

The Shogun's presence immediately alarmed Habara.

"Sōgen-sama!" the junior interrogator bowed low. "I did not know you were coming."

Sōgen ignored him and looked to Jiraiya, whose eyes became focused upon seeing him. "It's been a long time, Jiraiya-dono."

Jiraiya spat blood on the floor.

"Show some respect, filth!" Habara whipped the Sannin once to seemingly no affect. "You are in the presence of-"

"Silence."

Jiraiya's mouth twitched into something resembling a smile. He was missing a few teeth along with some fingernails and patches of hair. "Finally worked up the courage to see me, did you?" His voice sounded different; dry and raspy.

Sōgen looked to Habara. "Get him some water."

"Yes, sir!" Habara left the room in a hurry.

The Kusa leader looked to Kei with a look that only hinted at his disapproval before focusing on the sage. "I don't catch your meaning."

Jiraiya didn't elaborate and the room fell into silence until Habara returned.

"Slowly," Kei instructed as the junior interrogator forced a bottle in Jiraiya's mouth and tipped it.

Jiraiya didn't think to resist and drank the entire bottle, greedily gulping giant mouthfuls before his sadistic tormentor could deny him.

"I hear you've made things quite difficult," Sōgen said conversationally. "Mental barriers and such. Must be quite intricate fūinjutsu."

"You would know."

Sōgen decided to humour him. "Would I now?"

"This was obviously your hand," Jiraiya spoke slowly but clearly, a touch of knowing amusement in his voice. "Although certainly not of your own creation."

"Oh? Do tell," Sōgen invited calmly as Kei fetched him a chair.

Jiraiya looked around the interrogation room. "I've been here for what, a year now? I've been examining these seals for a long time but I couldn't even come close to understanding them." He laughed a little strangely enough. "That's when it hit me. I've seen similar designs like this before."

"I doubt that very much," Sōgen replied as he sat down.

Jiraiya smiled knowingly at him. "No… I've seen these sealing arrays before."

The castle exploded, scattering chunks of debris in the air. He blurred into motion, successfully evading four masked spectres. They were out in the open now. He wouldn't have to fight alone. He bit his thumb and performed the necessary hand seals before placing his bleeding hand on the snowy surface. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" The moment he pushed is chakra through his fingertips and a seal appeared followed by the arrival of his familiar, he felt it. The summoning seal suddenly changed, covered in a series of spirals, and remained etched on the cold earth.

"These fūinjutsu aren't of your design, and the seal you used to block my summoning wasn't either, was it?" His host's silence confirmed his suspicions and his smile grew wider. "You stole these seals from the Uzumaki clan."

Habara backhanded the sage. "Know your place!"

Blood bubbled in the corners of his mouth as Jiraiya started to laugh. "You look uneasy, Sōgen. What, you think we didn't know the surviving Uzumaki had scattered after the fall of Uzu no Kuni? Oh, we knew," Jiraiya spat some more blood. "So, what did you do with the ones in Kusa, did you butcher them before or after you stole their jutsu?"

For just a second it appeared as though Sōgen's one visible eye narrowed, but the anger disappeared just as quickly as it appeared and the village leader changed the subjected. "I have some questions for you that I'd like you to answer truthfully."

"And I'd like a cold one and a woman right about now but you don't hear me complaining."

"Perhaps we can work out a compromise," Sōgen proposed much the shock of his subordinates. "I need to track down your former associate. Orochimaru has proven to be quite elusive."

"Good luck with that." Jiraiya openly laughed athim. He briefly wondered if the snake had made good on his threat to kill Kakuzu yet. A man could dream.

"I'd like your help seeing as you know Orochimaru better than anyone."

"Which is why I know you'll never find him, and even if I did know where to find the slimy fuck I sure as fuck wouldn't tell you." Jiraiya brushed the lengthy hair out of his face with what little movement he had available to him. "You can keep looking but you'll never find him before it's too late."

"Perhaps not," Sōgen admitted airily. "But I will find your protégé. Uzumaki Naruto is his name I believe. Perhaps I'll put my talent in butchering Uzumaki to good use?"

Jiraiya narrowed his eyes in a hateful glare for a moment, and then suddenly burst out in genuine, hearty laughter. "That was good. I needed that."

"You won't be so amused when I deliver him to you after the Akatsuki have ripped the Kyūbi from him," the Hidden Grass leader said in a quiet, icy tone. "Perhaps he'll still be alive. The Uzumaki have such incredible vitality after all. What do you think, Jiraiya-dono, could he withstand the pain you went through?"

Jiraiya finished chuckling, thoroughly pleased he was able to get under Sõgen's skin. "In his sleep," he said sounding as smug and confident as possible. "The kid has twice my talent. If you pissants couldn't make me talk after a year then you're not going to get a peep out of him. But do me a favour, Sōgen, and try to go after him. I'd prefer to rip your throat out myself but I wouldn't be opposed to my protégé doing it for me."

"We shall see…" Sōgen said as he rose from chair and nodded towards Habara.

"And by the way, I appreciate you letting me know you're not just some peon and actually know of Akatsuki's true objective," Jiraiya said to his back, an actual grin of his face. "I'd love to know how the other villages would feel about you luring them into a sham alliance under false promises to wage a war against the Great Five. How soon do you think it would take for them to form an alliance or pact of their own and muster an army to destroy you? I'm guessing about a week – ack!"

Habara went into a mad frenzy as he whipped the sage relentlessly. Nobody talked to the Shogun that way. Offending Kusa's guardian was unforgivable.

Sōgen watched on coldly as his subordinate beat the Sannin, too angry to even utter a word. After thirty or lashes he intervened with a simple, calming word. "Enough."

Jiraiya groaned, his body gone limp and trembling. Blood gushed from the side of his head, chest and back. "Enough… please…"

"Tell me where I can find Orochimaru and the pain shall stop."

Jiraiya mumbled something inaudible. "You..re… go.. t… fer…"

"Speak up!" Habara shouted in his ear.

He mumbled again even quieter.

"You've had worse than this!" Habara shouted as he leant in. "I said speak – UEAGH!"

Jiraiya clenched his jaws on the screaming man's neck, clamping down with all his strength as his teeth tore through fat and tendon and ripped into arteries. He tasted the coppery taste of blood gushing into his mouth at his shook his head like a wild animal before releasing him. Blood covered most of his face, neck and torso as he smiled at his captors. "I said you're going to suffer before you die."

Kei was on him a moment later, raining blows on him as Habara lied dead on the floor, blood flowing from under him, his eyes still wide in terror.

Sōgen repressed an angry snarled as he left.

-ooo-

(Konohagakure – Nara Clan Compound)

Shikamaru lied stretched out lazily over the deck in the backyard wearing his comfortable off duty clothes as he gazed at the clouds yawning. True to his bones as Nara he enjoyed spending his days off quietly, playing shōgi and watching the clouds.

"Shikamaru!" his mother called.

He groaned figuring he was about to get scolded again for lazing around. "What?" he called back.

"Don't shout back! I raised you better than that! Get in here!"

"You're the one that's shouting." Shikamaru picked himself off the hardwood with one last longing look to his comfy spot before heading inside. "What is it?"

Nara Yoshino stared him down. "Don't scowl at your mother."

"Sorry."

"Ino-chan is at the door," his mother informed.

"You didn't invite her in?"

"Of course I did. She said she's just dropping by on her way to work."

Shikamaru yawned, scratching the back of his head. "OK, thanks."

"Say when are you going to settle down? That girl you're currently dating, Shiho-chan, was it? She doesn't seem so eager to settle down soon. Your father and I have been talking, perhaps it's best you-"

"Mother, please, not now." Shikamaru ignored her as he walked down the hall to the door where he found an amused Ino waiting.

"Don't come crying to me if Chōji-kun ends up marrying her!"

"Ignore her," Shikamaru said with an annoyed frown. "She's just getting restless with her clock ticking."

Ino looked a little less amused now but excited nonetheless. "I've got good news, Shika."

"What is it?" Shikamaru asked yawning. "Don't tell me something I don't want is on sale."

"You think I'd stop by just for that?" Ino said with false indignation. "I heard from Sakura your boyfriend is coming back to town soon."

"WHAT?"

"It's nothing!" Shikamaru shouted over his shoulder, before turning to Ino scowling. "That's not funny."

"It is to me," Ino laughed at his expense. "Anyway, I thought you'd want to know since you guys were like best friends before he left."

"Right, thanks," he said dryly, looking over his shoulder once he heard soft sobbing noises. "Great, she's crying. Thanks a lot."

"You're welcome," Ino sang cheerfully as she left. "Keep your calendar open, we'll throw a party when he gets back!"

Shikamaru shook his head as he closed the door and shouted, "She was just joking, ma!"

The lazy genius made a note to get back Ino, though he had to admit he was somewhat glad she had dropped by.

-ooo-

(Mount Kongōurin)

Naruto emerged barefooted from the house wearing a fresh tunic, his hair still wet from the shower and feeling content as he walked across the grass to join Hiruzen. The cool evening breeze felt great on his skin. He found Hiruzen blowing smoke rings under the evening sun.

"I have something to tell to you," the old man said with his back still turned to him.

"And what's that?" he asked sitting down next to him.

Hiruzen lowered his pipe and exhaled the remaining smoke through his nostrils. He gave the blond a long look over and sighed. "Jiraiya went missing shortly after you left Konoha."

Naruto sat stunned for a moment. "What?"

"There was a summit between a number of minor shinobi villages," Hiruzen carried on without halt. "He had his suspicions the Akatsuki and Orochimaru would both be present so he infiltrated the meeting to gather information."

"What are you saying?" Naruto felt his heart beating faster, and loud enough the thumping rung in his ears. "If he went missing during the summit with Akatsuki and Orochimaru involved then… Is he dead?"

The thought was simply horrifying.

"We simply do not know yet," Hiruzen said simply. "Tsunade has tried to get to the bottom of it but thus far we've been getting the silent treatment. I don't know if you remember your history lessons but Ishigakure used to be a particularly close ally of ours. Now they, too, have fallen silent."

Naruto was still trying to wrap his head around the information he had just received. It simply didn't make any sense. How could Jiraiya have been defeated? The more he thought about it the more unlikely it sounded but just as he was about to argue with the old man he realised that he had once thought that of Hiruzen who was far from invincible. If the God of Shinobi were fallible, then surely Jiraiya was too?

"You're saying Ishigakure was in on it?"

"We don't know but it is very likely given their refusal to cooperate with us," Hiruzen answered truthfully. "I know it must be hard to comprehend but you need to understand we are currently in a very tense political climate."

"I don't give a shit about the climate, old man!" he burst out rising to his feet. He began to pace from one end to the other trying to make sense of it. "Jiraiya's been gone for a year and you kept it from me? He's my godfather! You had no right to keep this from me!"

Hiruzen remained unimpressed with his outburst. "You flatter yourself if you think you could have made a difference, Naruto-kun. The summit was hosted by the leader of Kusagakure and attended by some of the world's most dangerous and formidable shinobi. There was nothing you could have done thus I saw no reason to inform you."

"He could be dead for are well know!"

"Yes," Hiruzen acknowledged flatly. "He could be."

Naruto covered his face with hands and groaned. He felt angry, upset, and sick with worry, and yet at the same time he couldn't fault Hiruzen's logic. There was a world of difference between the person he was now and the person he was then.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"That's quite alright." Hiruzen chewed on his pipe. "For now there is no reason to think Jiraiya is dead. The toads have contacted us and have reported no change in their contract."

"So he's alive!" Naruto said relieved. "Right? If his name is still on the contract then he has to be."

Hiruzen stroked his beard. "There is no way of verifying that for now, Naruto-kun, but it is good to stay optimistic. For now Jiraiya is unofficially considered to be missing in action."

"What is Tsunade doing to find him?" he asked.

"There's not much she can do at the moment," Hiruzened sighed with a shake of his head. "Tsunade and I have kept frequent correspondence over the past year and the information she shared with me is troubling."

"What do you mean?" Naruto asked as he sat opposite the older shinobi. "Are you talking about the other villages?"

Hiruzen nodded. "The past three great wars started out much the same. Lack of communication under mounting political pressure giving rise to various factions grouping together for any numbers of reasons or pretences… I can feel it in my bones. War is coming."

"You think it's time I go home," Naruto realised the meaning behind his words. "Konoha needs to look strong. They need their jinchūriki back in the village to bolster their position." The old man had taught him a great deal of history and politics. He understood his role as Konoha's jinchūriki now more than ever. He wasn't just the jailor to the most powerful bijū. He was a considerable military asset. "The situation has to be worse than I thought if Tsunade's name alone can't shake their boots."

"Maybe once it would have been enough," Hiruzen considered as he drew from his pipe. "But Tsunade is long past her prime and the shinobi world has not forgotten the Suna-Oto Invasion that forced me to retire. You may yet achieve your dream sooner than you realise, Naruto-kun."

Naruto frowned sceptically. "The old lady is still a lot stronger than I am."

"Oh, she'd likely pulverise you," Hiruzen agreed easily as though it were comical. "But what I said earlier was no form of flattery. Time and experience will sharpen your skills."

"If you say so," he decided to humour his surrogate grandfather. He knew he had improved considerably but the notion of achieving his dream so soon felt foreign and unrealistic. "They'll pick Kakashi-sensei before they pick me."

"That is a likely possibility," the Sandaime conceded. "For now it is important you return to Konoha and remain there. Your presence alone will bolster morale."

Naruto's expression fell. "I doubt it." He had tried not to give it much thought but he knew he was still in poor standing with the majority of the village. "They still think I'm some kind of demon."

"If you are the man I know you to be then you will find a way to change their hearts and minds," Hiruzen spoke with conviction as he looked him in the eye. "You have a strange affect on people, Naruto-kun, though you may not even notice it yourself. Listen to me very carefully and know that I means these words: there will come a time the village will look to you and acknowledge you for the man you were destined to be." Hiruzen grabbed him by the shoulder. "The Will of Fire burns brightly in you. I have known it since the moment I first held you in my arms all those years ago on the day you were born. You will become Hokage one day. I have nothing but faith in you."

Naruto couldn't find his voice, not that he would know what to say, as he was simply overwhelmed with emotion. He was barely able to form a coherent thought. All he could think about was the letter he had received the day he was promoted. "You're-"

"Serious? Very much so," Hiruzen affirmed as he got to his feet. "You will have to make decisions for the greater good, Naruto-kun. It won't be easy, and there will times where you will hate yourself and feel as though none of it is worth, and sometimes it won't be, but you will have to make them. That is what it means to be Hokage. To take on the burden of responsibility for the lives under your care, to make the tough decisions that protect your country and village."

Naruto watched Hiruzen go as he contemplated his words and the weight behind them.

-ooo-

(Konohagakure)

If there was one thing Tsunade hated most about her position as Hokage that wasn't related to actual shinobi affairs it was sitting in her office all day. It wasn't the paperwork per se that made it intolerable. She had plenty of experience dealing with paperwork all day as the head of the hospital in her youth though that didn't require her to stay cooped up in her office all day. Every now and then she would get up and pace around her office to get some exercise in, partly to avoid clots but mostly out of boredom or anxiety.

"Kakashi, good, you're here," she said to seemingly no one in particular.

The shinobi in question sat perched on her windowsill. He had gone through some changes himself over the past year. One of them was the fact he was clad in ANBU attire and wore dog mask. "You called for me, Tsunade-sama?"

"How's ANBU treating you?" the Godaime made small talk as he climbed into her office. She knew he was slightly disappointed he hadn't gotten the drop on her. 'You're going to have to try harder than that, kid. I've had to deal with Jiraiya's perversion my whole life.'

"Well enough, Tsunade-sama," Kakashi said as he took off his ANBU mask, under which he still wore his regular facemask. "I'm sorry to report in this late at night."

Over the past year the Copy Ninja had returned to ANBU to work with Rooster. His presence alone in the clandestine branch had improved their performance. There was even talk he would soon be chosen to replace the current ANBU commander Neko, whom he had personally trained years ago. That was mostly conjecture though Tsunade had considered it. She doubted Kakashi was interested in the job anyway.

"I spoke with Sasuke earlier so I'll get straight to it," Tsunade as she took her seat behind her desk. "Naruto is coming back soon."

"Time flies," Kakashi remarked audibly pleased. "I wish it were under the better circumstances but it'll be good to have him back. The village hasn't quite been the same without him."

"Too quiet, huh?" the Godaime surmised jokingly. "It'll be good to have him home but we need to be careful."

"Jiraiya-sama." Kakashi caught on quickly. "You want me to keep an eye on him when he gets back."

Tsunade nodded affirmative. "That's correct. It'll be too obvious if it's just you though so I've asked Sakura and Sasuke to assist you."

"A reunion," Kakashi eye-smiled. The idea pleased him. "I've never been a real teacher to any of them but I believe this time things can be different. My time in ANBU gave me a lot of perspective, I think now is the right time to once again return to retirement."

"That's good, Kakashi," Tsunade smiled.

"Are you sure Naruto doesn't know anything yet, Tsunade-sama?" the Copy Ninja asked to be sure. "It'll be easier to keep him in the village if he doesn't find out."

"Hiruzen-sensei hasn't told him anything as far as I know," Tsunade replied albeit with a light frown. "You don't think he would disclose that information at a time like this, do you?"

Kakashi avoided giving a definitive answer. "Hiruzen-sama is very wise. If he has told Naruto then I'm sure he had his reasons."

"Well, let's hope he hasn't," Tsunade said. "There's no telling what he would do if he found out too soon."

-ooo-

(Mount Kongōurin)

Naruto tossed and turned in his sleep that night.

He lied on his back breathing heavily. He had just managed to overcome the great mountain. He was beyond exhaustion. He simply couldn't bring himself to get up. It was too much.

"I must say I am impressed, Naruto-kun."

He managed to look to his side and Hiruzen waiting for him. The Sandaime was accompanied by Enma and wore a severe look on his wrinkled face.

"Well done," Enma congratulated.

"Thanks." Naruto hoped he didn't offend the Monkey King by remaining on his back, but he was too damn tired. "Gimme a minute. I'll be up once I can feel my legs again." They didn't share his amusement. Naruto finally got to his feet, though he had to lean on his knees. "Jiichan?"

"You've done well in keeping your deadline, Naruto-kun, I am deeply impressed," Hiruzen said as he pat Enma on the shoulder. The Monkey King promptly transformed into an adamantine staff. "Now it is time to begin your training."

"Wait, what?" Naruto couldn't believe his ears. "You mean now?"

Hiruzen nodded as he twirled the staff and adopted a stance. "There is no time to waste."

He woke with a start, gasping for air as he sat up. It was dark out and the stars littered the sky beautifully like they always did atop the mountain. He hadn't realised he fell asleep where the old man had left him.

The jinchūriki sat up, rubbed his face and ran a hand through his lengthy hair. He had come to a realisation.

Jiraiya was waiting.

He probably had been for a year now.

It went against everything Hiruzen had taught him about the greater good, it went against logic itself for it was so dangerous that he knew, even though he was an optimist through and through, was likely to fail.

"I have to go."

Jiraiya was his godfather. He had been an absent one for the majority of his life, but he was still family. The man was his godfather. It was selfish and foolish of him, he knew that, but even so, despite the irrationality of it all, he had to go.

He didn't give it much more thought as he returned to his small hut in the village where he had lived for the past year and began to pack his things. He was so engrossed in his one-track mindset he simply didn't think about the consequences of his actions. It would simply kill his resolve.

His old clothes didn't fit him anymore so he stuck with his Sarutobi clan tunic and began to attach his equipment, strapping his kunai and shuriken holsters, pouches and scroll bandolier. He put on a simple grey cloak that reached his midriff and fixed his kodachi vertically along his spine.

Lastly his tantō lay on his desk.

He bounded and skidded over the hard ground painfully, sporting cuts, bruises and wounds of all kinds of variations. He was so, so tired. "I'm too tired to fight. I can barely move."

"Enough excuses!" Hiruzen angrily stuck his staff into the ground. "Do you think you will always face your opponents fresh and ready to fight?" The Sandaime actually glared at him. "You've done nothing but complain thus far, and I find that extremely disappointing."

"I just climbed the fucking mountain!" Naruto shouted back, far more tired than angry. "How the hell am I supposed to fight you of all people? You know you're going to win!"

"Coward!" Hiruzen bellowed much to his shock. The Sandaime closed the distance between them in an instant and sent him flying with a swing of his staff. Naruto lied on his back with his arms sprawled, though Hiruzen did not let up and dropped his knee in his stomach before darting back and spinning his staff. "Get up!

"I can't," Naruto cried pitifully, feeling hopeless and miserable and drooling blood and saliva. "I don't have the skill or the training-"

"The training means nothing if you lack conviction!" Hiruzen raised his voice again.

A blade embedded itself several inches deep next to Naruto's head causing him to scramble to his feet. "What the hell-" his protested died upon recognising the blade to be his own.

It had been in Itachi's hands the last time he saw it.

Naruto lowered his hand and shouldered his bag with one last lingering look across the hut. He pushed the curtains aside as he exited and walked down the dirt path he walked up earlier. The Sarutobi clan were deep sleepers; he figured leaving unnoticed would be relatively easy.

A little while later he reached a plateau about a quarter mile from the Sarutobi settlement and bit his thumb as he performed a string of hand seals and pushed his hand on the ground. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu."

The smoke cleared and gave way to Senzaru, his peregrine falcon familiar. The falcon towered over him, the size of a small house. "Naruto-sama." The summon dipped its head graciously. "It has been too long." They had last seen each other several months ago.

"Hey, Senzaru," he patted the falcon's beak and smoothened his feathers. "I need a ride out of here."

"Does this mean you have met your unreasonable deadline and completed your training?" the falcon squawked amused, only to look at him at amazement when he nodded. "That is beyond impressive, Naruto-sama. The Sarutobi are known for their arduous training regimen."

"Yeah, it wasn't easy, but now it's time for me to go," Naruto replied as he climbed on the falcon's back. "I need you to take me to Kusagakure."

"Not Konoha?" Senzaru reared his large head confused.

The jinchūriki shook his head. "No, not yet. I have something I need to do in Kusagakure first. It can't wait." They both turned to two familiar chakra signatures approaching them.

Hiruzen and Enma approached with mutual expressions of apprehension.

"I know what you're about to say," he told them before they had the chance to speak. "That I'm being reckless and foolish. Stupid even. That my actions could have farther reaching consequences than I might be able to appreciate right now." He was fully aware of that already, he knew what he the risks were infiltrating another hidden village. "I still have to go."

"I'm not here to stop you," Hiruzen said much to his surprise. "As much as I'd like to, I doubt I could if you're as driven as that look in your eye tells me. "

Naruto swallowed hard. "Then why are you here? I know you sure as hell don't approve of this."

"You are correct I do not approve," Hiruzen acknowledged reaching into his robe. "But my time is nearly up, Naruto-kun. For forty years I have had to make decisions in matters of life and death. By now you should know I'm not as infallible as you once thought. I have made mistakes. Perhaps letting you go without trying to stop you is one of them."

"Maybe I haven't changed much at all," Naruto said quietly. He felt ashamed, more so than he ever had been, and yet it wasn't enough. Why couldn't he just listen? The smart thing to do would be to stay or go straight to Konoha. 'But it wouldn't be the right thing,' he thought. "I'll bring Jiraiya back, gramps. I promise. Before you time's up, you'll have your goodbye."

Hiruzen smiled at him in the same grandfatherly he done since he was a child. It was a stark contrast to his grim and stern persona as the Sandaime, the Professor who had drilled the shinobi arts into his mind and body over the past year. "I came here to give you this." Hiruzen withdrew the tantō from his sleeve and closed the distance between them.

Naruto looked at the sheathed blade. There was a reason he had chosen to leave it behind. "Gramps, I-"

"Take it," the old man insisted pressing it in his hand. "You know what it truly symbolises now. Carry it with you to remind yourself what you are fighting for."

Naruto clutched the sheath tightly and nodded. "Thank you for everything, Hiruzen-jiichan."

"Go," Hiruzen said smiling encouragingly albeit sadly.

"Take good care of him, young falcon," Enma said to Senzaru. The falcon dipped its head even lower in the presence of the Monkey King. "And take good care of yourself, Naruto-kun. You will always have a family here. Remember that, and come by any time you'd like."

Naruto didn't have it in him to say the words of gratitude he wished to convey. They were letting him go despite everything, despite the danger, the risks and the recklessness of it all. They had taken him in as one of their own and taught him everything he knew, and now they trusted him, in his ability to make the right decision even though they had vastly more experience and knowledge.

In the end there were only two words he could say before he took off.

"Thank you."

He didn't look back.

-ooo-

(Konohagakure)

Tsunade was still up working late into the night, a frown of concentration on her face as she caught up on paperwork. She had a wasted a lot of time procrastinating during the day. Normally she would catch up the day after but the documents in her hands were particularly pressing. She took off her reading glasses and pinched the bridge as she leant back in her chair for a moment. "Shi-" she trailed off realising she had sent he assistant home several hours ago.

Poof!

A lesser shinobi would have jumped at the sudden appearance of the Monkey King.

"Enma?" Tsunade asked surprised. Dozens of possible scenarios played out in the back of her mind but deep down she already knew.

Enma looked at her gravely.

"He knows."

Tsunade snapped the pair of glasses. "Shit."


Author's Notes

So there you have it.

I had intended for Naruto not to find out about Jiraiya for a while longer. I thought I'd have him return to the village for a little while and then discover it on his own accord, but given how much exposition I've written in the past arc I figured based on the low amount of reviews you guys were getting rather bored so I decided to speed it up quite a bit.

Naruto has grown up a lot over the time skip and I hope I'm doing a good job at portraying that without putting it on too much. He's a lot more informed and knowledge about the shinobi world but he still has some ways to go. That being said he is definitely a lot more skilled this time around and he'll have plenty of opportunities to show how much he has grown.

I hope you guys enjoyed that scene with Jiraiya and Sōgen. Quite a few people left reviews expressing their shock (and disgust) over his apparent death, but I believe I made it quite clear he didn't die. And now you know a little more about Sōgen. I like to flesh out my OCs over time so for those who are interested in his character you can look forward to learning more about the enigmatic Kusagakure leader and his ties with the Uzumaki clan.

Like Hiruzen said tensions are rising in the shinobi world. Orochimaru has managed to piss off Akatsuki even more and made a few more enemies at the same time and Konoha in particular is beginning to lose face in the eyes of minor village now part of the Akatsuki Alliance, but more on that later.

Hope you enjoyed the chapter. Please leave a review.