Naruto: Potential Realised
Admit it, you didn't think I'd be updating this soon, did you? Well, I can't blame you given my track record. The chapter pretty much wrote itself since you guys left a ton of reviews full of excitement and questions I wanted to answer ASAP. Also, I'd appreciate it if you guys check out The Uzumaki Descendant. A new chapter for that should be out soon.
CH23: Combat Ready
(Three Weeks Later: Konohagakure – Hidden Underground Facilities)
Tsunade stood facing a wall of monitors in the encrypted communications facility located directly beneath the Hokage Tower. The only sources of light were the monitors and the ceiling light positioned right above her. Though she stood by her own there was undoubtedly a tension in the room.
"You mean to tell us you have no means of stopping him?" the stern voice of the Minister of the Right echoed through the room.
"That is correct," Tsunade answered.
"Though it has been three weeks since you found out where your jinchūriki was headed?"
"Uzumaki Naruto has proven himself difficult to track down, Udaijin-dono," Tsunade answered neutrally. "Though unlikely, it is possible he has successfully broken past Kusagakure's stringent security measures and infiltrated the village, but we presently have no means of verifying that."
"This is preposterous!" said the Minister of the Left. "You are the Hokage! The jinchūriki is your responsibility. How can you have let this happen? Undoubtedly this aggression will be seen as a declaration of war!"
"The blame lies with me," Tsunade acknowledged without thought for covering her own hide. At the end of the day she was a shinobi first and foremost, not a politician. She had no interest in playing the blame game when that could potentially cost the lives of her subordinates. "The consequences will be what they will be, but now is not the time for infighting."
"What are you doing to prepare us for the worst, Tsunade-dono?" the Daimyō spoke from the largest monitor in the wall, hiding behind his ornate golden fan.
"Your Lordship, I have sent orders to recall all foreign diplomats in or near territories allied with Kusa no Kuni. The entire shinobi force has been put on alert for combat readiness. As we speak all preparatory procedures and protocols are taking effect," she reported dutifully as she held his gaze. "We are reaching out to our allies just incase while we attempt to establish diplomacy with Kusagakure before anything happens. We're not looking for war but, respectfully, Daimyō-sama, I will make damn sure that we're ready if it comes to that."
"Very well, Hokage-dono."
"Daimyō-sama, surely that is not all?" the Minister of the Left outraged. "Her assurances mean nothing in the big scheme of things. This country cannot afford a war at this time!"
The Fire Lord was unimpressed with the minister's outburst and turned his head in the monitor, an impassive look in his eyes. "If you have any suggestions, my dear minister, my ears are open."
"I…" Unable to come up with an answer the Minister of the Left turned to his right. "Minister of the Right, as the executive of all military branches, I believe this is your area of expertise. I submit to your superior knowledge."
"Thank you, Saijin-dono," the Minister of the Right nodded. He turned his stern countenance in front of him towards Tsunade. "War is absolutely out of the question. Though our army stands strong and our navy is powerful, our shinobi force remains significantly weakened with the loss of the Sandaime and the many lives lost in the invasion not so long ago. We had hoped your reputation would inspire fear in our enemies but it appears it is not so, Hokage-dono."
Tsunade bit back a scathing remark. He wasn't insulting her to be petty; he was merely giving his assessment of the situation as a professional. "What do you propose, Udaijin-dono?"
"Cut all ties with Uzumaki Naruto effective immediately," the Minister of the Right stated without hesitation. "Disavow all knowledge, involvement in and support for his actions. Declare him a rogue shinobi and enemy of Hi no Kuni. Let the world know we do not support nor condone his actions and that a bounty shall be paid for his head."
Tsunade's eyes widened.
"A fine idea, Udaijin-dono!"
"That is not going to happen!"
"Do you value the life one shinobi over that of potentially millions, Hokage-dono?" the Minister of the Right demanded with a disapproving look. "Regardless of your personal attachment to the jinchūriki, we cannot claim responsibility for his actions. We must sever all ties for the greater good, and we must do so convincingly."
"You say you don't want us to look weak but do you really think losing our only jinchūriki will make us appear stronger?" Tsunade firmly shook her head; she wasn't even going to consider it, not even for a second. "And must I remind you who his father is? It would be a disgrace to the Yondaime's legacy to make a sacrificial lamb of his only son!"
"The Yondaime would not put his son above the country!"
"Gentlemen, let me make this perfectly clear," the Godaime said in an as composed manner as she could muster. "Uzumaki Naruto will not be disavowed. Under no circumstances will we abandon him."
"You think yourself irreplaceable, do you, Hokage-dono?" the Minister of the Left challenged, his plump cheeks shaking with rage. "If you will not do as you are told then perhaps it is time we find a new Hokage. One that can still strike fear into the hearts and minds of our enemies!"
"Now, now," the Daimyō chimed in airily. "There will be no talk of replacements. Tsunade-dono has done fine work as Hokage. I trust her judgment."
Tsunade bowed her head. "You honour me beyond deserving, your Lordship."
"The Yondaime's son will not be renounced," the Fire Lord paused and glanced at his ministers. "For now. I trust Tsunade-dono will resolve this issue in a timely fashion."
"Did you say the Yondaime's son? I didn't know he had a son!" a new voice said enthusiastically in the background.
Tsunade tensed for a moment. Who the hell was listening in on their conversation? The Daimyō looked troubled. "Your Lordship?"
A regal looking young man with silky black hair and fair complexion leant over the Daimyō's shoulder directly into the camera. "Father, is that the Godaime? She's quite beautiful!"
"My eldest, Ryūken," the Lord of the Land of Fire introduced tiredly. "I suppose this is where we conclude our meeting."
"Wait, what? I want to hear more about the Yondaime!" the Fire Lord's son said petulantly. "I didn't even know he had a son!"
"I bid you good day, ministers, Hokage."
The Daimyō's monitor went blank.
"This isn't over, Hokage-dono," the Minister of the Left promised.
The Minister of the Right agreed with his counterpart. "You will hear from us."
Tsunade held her tongue as their monitors turned blank. If it wasn't for the fact the monitors were costly she would have destroyed them.
A hooded figure moved through the bustling streets of the Hidden Grass village, wearing a poncho reaching his midriff to obscure his identity. It was raining heavily and the masses rushed through the streets to find shelter. The figure passed a pair of Kusagakure shinobi who, judging from the pieces of cloth attached to their waists, were part of the Village Patrol Unit, the Kusagakure equivalent of Military Police. Neither shinobi recognised the hooded figure; their suspicions piqued when he turned from them and sped up his pace.
"Village Patrol! Stop!"
The hooded figure continued to ghost through the crowds of scurrying villagers and shinobi alike, and reached into his poncho as he disappeared into a dark alley. The Kusa-nin gave chase and ran into the alley. There was no one to be seen, it was as though the hooded figure had simply vanished from the face of the Earth.
They turned with tensed fighting stances to see an orange and blue toad hop past them.
"What are you getting so jumpy for? It's just a toad."
"Shut up, you jumped too!"
"Only because you did and I thought you saw something!"
The Kusa-nin continued to argue as they left the alley. As they left, the hooded figure emerged from the toad's mouth.
Naruto threw back his hood, a distasteful grimace on his face. "The smell is going to take getting used to, buddy." He stooped and picked up the toad and placed it in his poncho, patting the small bulge. "Thanks for the help though."
It had been nearly two weeks since he managed to infiltrate Kusagakure. It hadn't been easy. He had spent the first week simply observing the village from the outside under several disguises whenever he could. The security was no joke. All civilians carried papers at all times and all visitors, with the exception of licensed merchants and other visitors, were denied entry. It would have been impossible for him to get in without the help of the toads.
"If you're serious about infiltrating Kusagakure of all places you're as reckless as your are stupid, kid," Gamabunta had told him when he had explained his intentions. "But if you're going in anyway then you might as well use Jiraiya's infiltration toads."
Jiraiya's Gamagakure jutsu proved to be dead useful all right. The Hiding in a Toad technique made it possible for him to not only infiltrate the tightly secured village but also hide at a moment's notice. It also provided him with a place to sleep, though the stench was far from pleasant.
"No offence." He patted the toad under his poncho again and went about his way, fixing his hood as he left the alley.
The third floor of the Hokage Tower consisted entirely out of one large conference room at rare occasions such as times of crisis. It was such a time now word had spread that the entire shinobi force was to be at combat readiness at all times without exception.
Shizune stood on an elevated plateau designated for the Hokage and her top shinobi as she tried to call for order whilst Tsunade finished up business. "Everyone, calm down! All will be explained soon!"
The floor was packaged far past capacity with dozens and dozens of shinobi eager to hear from their Hokage why the village was preparing as though war was imminent.
"Where is Hokage-sama?"
"We want answers!"
"Are we going to war?"
"No way, idiot! Who the hell would we go to war with?"
"Were you not alive two years ago?"
Tumultuous arguments broke out all over the floor as all kinds of theories began to float around. Tensions were rising and a riot certainly wasn't out of the question by the look of it. Shizune looked quite distressed as she tried to call for order and quiet.
Nara Shikaku sat cross-legged on a cushion behind the Godaime's assistant next to several other high-ranking shinobi. The Nara clan shifted his weight as though he were about to stand and address the men himself.
"That is not your duty, Shikaku-san," Koharu said.
"You will only make the Hokage look weak if you do her job for her," Homura agreed. "We can't have that, not now."
Shikaku didn't believe their intentions but knew they spoke and so sat back down nonetheless.
Sakura watched Shizune eventually give up and disappear from sight, probably looking for the Godaime who, by her report earlier, was in a meeting with the Daimyō and his top ranking ministers. 'What is going on?' She could only speculate but decided against it. They would all know soon enough.
The rosette in question turned to find Ino heading her way, dragging along Chōji and Shikamaru by their arms and followed by the members of Team 8. Like everyone else on the third floor they were in full Konoha shinobi attire. They had all grown considerably over the past year. "You guys, what are you doing here?"
"Damn it, Ino, I'm supposed to stay with my platoon," Shikamaru frowned at the Yamanaka heiress as he shook her off. "This isn't a social gathering. Stop getting excited like a kid."
"Oh, shut up, Shika!" Ino stuck her tongue out at her childhood friend. "How long has it been since all of us have been together?"
"Four months and twenty-three days," Shino droned monotonously. "Though not all of us are here."
"Sasuke-kun refused to come," Ino lamented theatrically. "Unlike Chōji he takes his job as part of the Military Police seriously."
"You dragged me here," the Akimichi said annoyed. "And it was my lunch break!"
"You're always eating, what does it matter?" Kiba fell in with a sneer at the Akimichi.
"Quiet," Sakura called as the arguments died down.
Tsunade stood on the stage wearing her Hokage robe. "I have called this meeting to inform you all as to why the shinobi force has been set to combat readiness."
"Are we going to war, Hokage-sama?"
Further argument threatened to resume but Tsunade wouldn't let it. "I will not allow any interruptions. Whatever questions you may have, save them for later." The Godaime cleared her throat. There were few brave, or foolish, enough to continue whispering amongst themselves but she ignored them. "Most of you, by now, have become aware of the changing political climate. Tensions are rising in and it may very well be true war looms on the horizon."
"I knew it! We're going to war!"
"SILENCE!" Tsunade commanded loudly, her chakra momentarily spiking to remind them whom they were interrupting. It was perhaps a tad excessive but she would not allow her own subordinates to openly defy her. "Moments ago I spoke to Daimyō-sama and his ministers," she continued in a calm, collected tone. "War is not an outcome we seek, though it may not be up to us. The politicians will play their game of politics to see where the road leads us, but in the meantime we shinobi must prepare ourselves should the need arise that we must fight for country and village."
Tsunade could see the looks of uncertainty and apprehension clearly in the eyes of the young, those who had not served in war. The older, more experienced shinobi retained calm expressions as though they were receiving their usual briefing.
She prayed it would not come to war. Not again. She didn't know if she could handle the bloodshed, the pain, the suffering, and the loss countless lives… But she needed to be strong. Tsunade knew they would look to her for leadership and guidance. It was her duty as Hokage to lead by example and to inspire those under her charge, and so she banished any and all thought of anxiety and fear and focused on the task at hand.
"Pray that it does not come to war, and if it does, pray for the strength needed to keep your loved ones safe." She glanced to her advisors and top shinobi with a searching look. It appeared none of them wished to speak, so she sat down on the cushion in front of them and nodded to her shinobi. "If you have any questions, we will answer what we can for now."
Countless hands raised and shouting began as many rushed to learn the answers to their questions.
"Yes, you," Tsunade looked to one of the shinobi nearby. "State your name and question."
"Mibu Shinobu, Hokage-sama. Will missions continue as normal under combat readiness?"
"For the time being we are recalling our shinobi and are limiting all missions to within our own borders," Tsunade answered before pointing to another.
Most questions were along the same vein. Some even came up twice, but for the most part, it seemed as though they were all otherwise remaining calm. That was until she pointed to a shinobi in the front. "You there, you have a question?
"Saragaku Tsuzumi, Hokage-sama." The chūnin was noticeably embarrassed; probably due in part the Hokage hadn't recognized him.
"Ah, yes, team leader of 312 of the Nijū Shōtai," Tsunade recalled a moment later much to his apparent relief. "Your question?"
"Hokage-sama, what has caused the sudden shift in tension? For the past year we've experienced some noticeable changes but the combat readiness doctrine-"
"That is classified, Sarugaku-san," Tsunade cut him off once she realised where he was going with his question. "Next."
"Hokage-sama," Koharu spoke up suddenly from behind her. "In light of the severity of this situation, I believe they deserve a degree of transparency.
Tsunade glared at the older woman over her shoulder, ever a thorn in her side. "Oh?"
"I concur," Homura agreed predictably.
'Of course you do,' Tsunade fumed silently, refusing to let it show their interference bothered her. "Very well," she conceded as she stood up once again to address the entire floor. "Three weeks ago one of our shinobi, Uzumaki Naruto, was scheduled to return to the village. He did not. Instead, he headed for Kusagakure, our staunchest opposition as of late. There is a distinct possibility that conflict will be inevitable."
The outrage was predictable, and equally deafening. Tsunade could hardly make out what they were shouting save for a few.
"You mean to tell us we're risking going to war because of that fool?"
"What does 'distinct possibility' even mean? Give us straight answers!"
As this went on Naruto's peers looked one another with mutual expressions of shock and disbelief. "OK, what the hell?" Ino looked across the group. "He isn't even home yet and he's already kicking up a storm?"
"He must have had a good reason," Shikamaru said seriously. "Naruto is not an idiot, and he sure as hell wouldn't put us all at risk over nothing."
"He's a fool." The group turned and looked to Sasuke as he joined them. He wore the traditional Konoha shinobi garb, indicating his rank as chūnin, as well as the black Military Police cloth tied around his bicep. He had grown considerably taller and more handsome over the years.
"Sasuke-kun," Ino hugged his arm to her chest. "I thought you didn't want to stand with us."
"I came here incase I had to restrain her," Sasuke said looking to Sakura, whose eyes were set in death glare aimed towards a group of shinobi badmouthing their former teammate.
"I told you they shouldn't have let him become a shinobi!"
"They should have just drowned him at birth and saved us all the trouble!"
"Don't you think that's a little harsh? I heard he helped us out a lot during the invasion, even beat the Ichibi."
"I thought that was Uchiha Sasuke? I guess it takes a demon to defeat a demon, huh?"
Sakura began to approach them without thinking, her fists clenched tightly, with every intention of pulverising them on her mind. The shinobi noticed her intent and looked at her suspiciously.
"You got a problem with what we're saying little girl?"
"Don't get cocky just because you're the old lady's pity project!"
Sasuke grabbed Sakura by the arm before things could escalate and began to pull her back. "It's nothing."
"Let me go, Sasuke-kun," Sakura tried to shake him off as nonviolently as she could. "They need to be taught a lesson."
"What good will fighting them do?" Sasuke released her as they rejoined the group.
Sakura actually glared at him. "Doesn't it bother you, the way they talk about him? I know you care about him too, even if you did try to kill him the last time you saw him." Her words clearly stung
"Sakura!" Ino said angrily.
"Of course it bothers me," Sasuke said quietly. He felt the same way as the rosette, though perhaps not entirely for the same reasons. "But that doesn't change anything. You're the Godaime's student and I'm with the Military Police. We can't go around attacking people for badmouthing Naruto."
"The two of you changed," Kiba said with clear disapproval. "If anyone talked shit about my team I'd lay them out, no questions asked."
"Lack of forethought and mindless violence is common with your kin, Inuzuka," Sasuke spat, his patent Uchiha sneer on his face.
"You want to go, asshole?" Kiba challenged aggressively stepping forward.
"Quiet," Shikamaru called as Tsunade once again regained control of the crowd. It was troubling, he thought, how much of her support was dwindling. There used to be a time no one dared to speak out of turn against her.
"That's quite enough theorising!" the Godaime shouted over them. "This information was meant to stay classified until we knew all the facts, but I have no choice to reveal the reason behind Uzumaki Naruto's actions."
"Tsunade-sama, no!" Koharu hissed at her.
"You opened this can of worms trying to make me look weak, you old bitch, now let me clean it up," she replied at a lower register before continuing to address her men. The situation was far from favourable, and she had undoubtedly made a blunder by allowing Koharu and Homura to attend, but not all was lost. There was an opportunity to raise support and she took it.
"Approximately one year ago, Kusagakure called a secret summit, inviting a number villages with significant military strength. There was talk of Akatsuki attending. In order to determine why, Jiraiya went to investigate. He has since gone missing and though his status is currently unknown, we know for certain Kusagakure was involved in his disappearance. We suspect Uzumaki Naruto went to Kusa to retrieve Jiraiya!"
A long and tense silence reigned, like the quiet before a storm, and ended then just as abruptly. At first, Tsunade feared her on the fly plan had failed, that their outrage would reach unprecedented levels and that she had potentially lost all of her support, and then, much to her relief, a loud wave of support flowed through the floor.
"THE NIJŪ SHŌTAI STANDS PROUDLY BEHIND ITS OWN!" Kizu Enrō bellowed in an uncharacteristically loud voice for the otherwise laidback Platoon Leader. "If those Kusagakure bastards want a fight, they've got one!"
Similar sentiments followed shortly just as loudly, some even louder. Tsunade thanked her lucky stars and hid a sigh of relief. It wasn't unanimous but the general sentiment was most definitely positive. Playing the "us versus them" card would have left a bad taste in her mouth under usual circumstances, but beggars couldn't be choosers, and she had to deal with Koharu and Homura's interference before she lost their support. The two advisors had been a pain in her ass for a while now but she hadn't expected them to break the façade of unity and openly try to sabotage her like that. There wasn't a doubt on her mind that Danzō was involved. The old crones would get theirs soon, but she knew when to pick her battles, and decided to repay their betrayal when the time was right.
The barbecue restaurant was roaring with debate and laughter in the background as eight of the Rookie Nine sat in their booth. Blue flames stoked the grill and the aroma of vegetables wafted from the broth on the stove.
"I can't believe we're going to war," Ino bemoaned stretched on the table mere inches away from the low burning fires, her hand clutching a large mug of beer. Though they were technically too young to be served alcohol (shinobi were allowed to drink from 16) the waiters had been too busy to even think of asking for their IDs, thus Ino had taken advantage of the situation and ordered drinks for everyone.
"Don't get ahead of yourself, Ino," Shikamaru admonished with a frown. "We don't know that yet."
"No? In case you didn't hear that idiot Naruto is on a war path by himself, Shika." Ino sat up and chugged the rest of her drink.
Sakura glowered at Ino across the table and opened her mouth to say something when Sasuke raised his arm in front of her. "She's right to be angry at him," he told her. "Naruto's actions may lead to war. You can't blame her or anyone else for being angry."
"But he only went because of Jiraiya-sama," Sakura argued as though she were indignant on their former teammate's behalf.
"No one person, no matter who that person is, is worth more than an entire country, Sakura," Sasuke replied with wearing patience. "You know that."
"He's right," Shikamaru nodded.
"I'll kick his ass when he gets back," Kiba said baring his fangs. "Just you watch, I'll rip him a new one."
"I'd like to see you try, Inuzuka," Sasuke sneered at the Inuzuka.
Kiba growled aggressively. "What, you want a piece of me too, pretty boy?"
"Let's not start fighting amongst ourselves now," Shikamaru fell in before things escalated. "What's done is done. All we can do now is pray he gets home safely."
"If he doesn't we might have to go war anyway," Sakura thought out loud for a moment. Then, quickly catching her error, she feigned clarification. "Because Tsunade-sama is so fond of him, you know?"
Sasuke merely shook his head though he didn't seem too disappointed. Shikamaru looked at her sternly for a second but otherwise held his tongue.
"Yeah, what is up with that anyway?" Ino looked across the table for the answered. "How come Naruto is so close to Hokage-sama, and Jiraiya-sama for that matter? Now I think about it the Sandaime was always really fond him too."
"Maybe it's pity," Kiba hazarded a guess between glaring at Chōji who eyed his section of the grill hungry. "Don't even think about it."
"Perhaps there is more to Naruto than we know," Shino suggested in his monotone voice. "What do we really know about him in the first place?"
Sakura, Sasuke and Shikamaru exchanged discreet looks.
"That doesn't make sense, of course we know him." Ino disagreed. "He's Naruto. We've known him since we were kids. You three were like best friends with him," she said looked at Chōji, Kiba and Shikamaru.
"We were detention buddies, that's about it," Kiba declined the very notion of friendship with the blond. "My ma was pretty pushy about being friends with him though."
"Same here," Chōji said sounding surprised. "My dad always told me to be nice to him. I just thought he wanted me to make more friends."
The Akimichi and Inuzuka looked at Shikamaru expectantly. "My parents were the same," he admitted reluctantly, though he knew it was unlikely they'd figure out more.
"Now that I think about it my mother told me to stay away from him but my dad told me to decide for myself if he was nice," Ino said wondering out loud. "She told you the same thing, right, Sakura?"
"It was a long time ago, Ino, I don't remember," Sakura lied before raising her glass of water to her lips to avoid further elaboration.
"Sasuke?" Ino looked at the Uchiha. "You're like Naruto's best friend. Did-"
"No, they didn't," Sasuke answered before she could finish her question. He didn't want to dampen the mood any more by bringing up his deceased parents. "And we're not best friends. That's Nara."
"You sound jealous," Shikamaru said jokingly with a lazy smile. "Well it's fine by me. You guys have hardly spent time with Naruto since graduation so I guess that title goes to me by default, huh?"
For some reason they all laughed at that, even Sasuke cracked a rare smile. Who knew how many times of smiles and laughter they had left?
Naruto followed his mark from a safe distance. One of his first instincts upon infiltrating the village had been to wreak havoc and level the entire damn village if he had to, but he knew better than to follow his most basic instincts. Before he could do anything, he needed to gather information. Hiruzen had taught him any shinobi worth his salt placed a great deal of importance in intelligence, especially when behind enemy lines, so the first thing Naruto had done in Kusagakure was simply to observe.
He had always been proficient in blending in and giving people the slip when necessary. You didn't become a successful prankster in a shinobi village without a talent for stealth. He was as careful as possible when stalking around the village in plain sight to get a good bearing on his surroundings, the infrastructure and the people.
The headquarters of the village lay squarely in the middle of the village in the sizeable military district. It was a military district surrounded by high, barbwire walls; behind which neatly tended patches of tall grass lead to a courtyard and several smaller buildings. There were a great number of sealing arrays in the vicinity (some of which were in plain sight and likely dummies, and others were hidden), various sentry squads marching about and guards on all nearby rooftops. Entry was strictly monitored. Only certain shinobi were allowed in and out of the district, and hardly any of them appeared particularly strong, and thus Naruto came to the conclusion they were intelligence officers in charge of communicating with the outside under Sōgen's watchful eyes.
He had heard a great deal about the Hidden Grass leader since his arrival. Most of it was merely blind praise bordering on the fanatical, but every now and then he heard Kusa-nin discussing the cruelty he inflicted on others, including his own men. Naruto didn't want to think what the Shogun had put Jiraiya through over the past year. It only made him more anxious, though he knew he couldn't afford to be impatient. If anything went wrong there was no guarantee he could escape. It had troubled the Toad Chieftain greatly when he told him.
"We lost connection with Jiraiya shortly after he summoned Gamaken. Something made it impossible for us to Reverse Summon him. The same thing might happen to you, so be careful."
Naruto knew he had hit a dead end with the village headquarters. There simply wasn't any conceivable way to successfully infiltrate the steel compound, uncover the information he sought and withdraw. Perhaps Jiraiya could have pulled it off but he sure as hell knew he couldn't. He was having a hard time keeping it together as it was.
A true shinobi knew when to admit weakness, Hiruzen had taught him that.
Thus came in the mark: a Kusagakure shinobi by the name of Hajime Isao who served as an intelligence officer at the headquarters. Naruto had been following the Kusa-nin for a full week now after a few failed attempts to establish a routine with others. Out of all of his potential marks, Hajime Isao was easily the most routine, and therefore the most vulnerable.
The intelligence officer woke up every morning at 5AM and left his apartment at 5:30, stopping on the way by his favourite bakery on the way to work. He worked until 7PM every day before being relieved. Hajime always went straight to home, where he would stay for about two hours before heading out for drinks at a bar nearby. A strange and rather risky choice of patronage for an intelligence officer Naruto had thought, but true to his habits, Hajime always arrived at the bar around 9:15PM and stayed there until any time before midnight, drunkenly stumbling home. He was troubled, that much was obvious, though he wasn't very vocal. He always sat at his regular spot close to the tap and drank by himself, ignoring everything and everyone around him. Naruto had seen him spur advances of attractive women without even looking at them.
On this particular night, at 10:17PM the mark left particularly early, probably due to the louder than usual music.
Naruto followed the man from a fair distance. He had several clones in the area under disguise, though he had to be frugal with the way he managed his chakra. Kusagakure undoubtedly had some kind of barrier set up to detect, monitor and track chakra signatures. If he allowed his large reserves to go unchecked he would be found out in a matter of seconds. Fortunately Hiruzen had taught him how to more efficiently manage his innate talent to suppress his vast amount of chakra.
'And now we take a right,' Naruto thought as he stalked his mark. 'Huh?' Much to his surprise the man took a left turn instead and continued down the opposite direction. 'Is he so drunk he doesn't even know the way home?' He briefly considered it but dismissed the notion. He had see Hajime Isao consume his own weight in alcohol, the man was anything but a lightweight. Perhaps he was aware he was being tailed? It was a scary thought and an all too real possibility. 'No,' Naruto shook his head. 'He doesn't know I'm here.'
He didn't know why he was sure of it, there was a good chance he was being set up for a trap after all, though he argued with himself that if he was being lured into a trap then surely his mark wouldn't have risked potentially spooking him like this by taking the opposite turn? It wouldn't make much sense… Right?
As he continued to debate the merits of staying on his mark, the man stopped by a late-night pharmacy stand and offered the vendor a ticket he withdrew from his pocket. The vendor in return handed him a bag in return and bid him goodnight, though not without complaining about his patron's tardiness as he began to close up.
'Strange,' Naruto thought, though he was relieved his concerns were unfounded. He wondered what the medicine was for, his man didn't look sick, at least not judging by appearance alone. Whatever it was it wasn't important so he pushed the thought away and continued to follow the man home.
(Kusa no Kuni – Black Site 341)
"Get him on his feet and put the binders on him."
"Are we moving him?
Jiraiya hung from the ceiling with his arms spread. He looked in even worse shape as the black site supervisor entered and gave instructions to his guard. After he killed the last interrogator he'd been on the receiving end of several beatings that had left him looking even worse, though it was mostly just fresh lesions, bruises and a broken rib or two. It wasn't anything he could handle.
The supervisor, Kei, glanced to the Toad Sage, and then nodded once. "Yes. Sōgen-sama's orders."
"I was just getting used to this place," Jiraiya said tauntingly.
"Why?" the guard asked.
"Don't question orders," the site supervisor said threateningly. He stopped by the door, looking to his prisoner for a moment.
"You looked scared, Kei-chan," Jiraiya said grinning menacingly. "Did your master mention why you're moving me after a year? Maybe found more competent interrogators, huh?"
"Silence!" The guard reared back a whip, but the supervisor stopped with a raised hand, and looked the Toad Sage in the eye, smiling. "You might have some company soon."
"So the kid is on a warpath, huh?" Jiraiya burst out in loud, heartily laughter much to the Kusa-nin's confusion. "You poor fools, you don't know who you pissed off, do you?" Jiraiya curled his awkwardly curved broken fingers; they were amongst his latest injuries.
The site supervisor snarled at the guard. "Get ready to move him!"
(Late at Night: Kusagakure)
The lights went out.
Standing in the alley under heavy downpour Naruto waited a few more minutes. It had taken his mark a longer time than usual to call it a night. He was completely drenched from top to bottom but he hadn't left his position since, not even when the thunderclaps began. Several clones were stationed nearby carrying additional infiltration toads just in case.
'Now,' he decided, making a straight line from the alley up the steps of the two-story apartment complex. He stopped and listened by the door. He'd broken into many places before in Konoha as a child, mostly when he was bored and had nobody to play with, which was a lot of the time, so he had gotten pretty good at picking locks. Though it had been a while. Fortunately he had waited long and patiently and could afford to take his time.
The door opened with a soft click.
Naruto pushed in slowly and closed the door behind him.
He threw back his hood and looked across the hall. There was nothing noteworthy; some cheap art and withering flowers. He moved to the living room. Oddly enough it was tidy and the smell of alcohol was nowhere to be found. Next was the kitchen. It too was clean. There weren't even dirty plates or utensils out. He resisted the urge to help himself to leftovers and moved on. His stomach growled but it could wait.
He froze as he heard the soft sounds of snoring coming from a room he passed on his way to the bedroom. Odd.
The kodachi glinted under the rays of moonlight that penetrated through the blinds and drapes. He pushed the door and silently entered the second bedroom. Sure enough he found his man soundly asleep on a futon.
Naruto released a deep breath he hadn't realised he was holding. He gave himself a moment to steel his resolve and threw up his hood again before kneeling by the man. His hand covered the man's mouth and his sword lingered mere centimeters from his jugular.
Hajime Isao woke up with a startled look in his eyes.
"Not a sound or you die," Naruto whispered in a voice so cold and threatening part of him didn't recognise it for his own. "You try to move or make a sound and I will kill you. Blink twice if you understand."
Isao blinked twice. His eyes were filled with shock and fear.
"Good," Naruto whispered slowly. "Before you get any smart ideas I am not alone. There is no escape for you. If you try anything you will die. Fortunately for you I have absolutely no intention of killing you if you do as I say. Blink twice if you understand."
Isao blinked twice again.
Naruto lifted his hand and rose. "On your feet," he ordered with a gesture of his sword. "To the kitchen, now. Keep your hands where I can see them or you lose them."
As he said the words the same part of him asked: 'Who am I?'
Isao did as told and moved with arms raised over his head. "Please," the Kusa-nin began to plead. "I don't know who you are or why you're here but-"
"Good, let's keep it that way," Naruto cut him off as they entered the kitchen. "Sit." He pushed the intelligence officer into a chair by the kitchen counter. "Hajime Isao, correct?"
Isao nodded nervously. "Ye- Yes."
"You're an intelligence officer at the headquarters in the military district. Don't try to deny it, I already know that for a fact," he said before the man could say otherwise. "Do you have anything to eat?"
"Uh, check the fridge."
Naruto looked around a found a light switch. He flipped it on and moved to the fridge with his sword still leveled at the man. "I need information."
"I don't know if I can help you," Isao said immediately. "I'm an intelligence officer, I won't deny that, but our intelligence network is very compartmentalised so I don't know if-"
"Is this red bean paste still good?" Naruto retrieved a plastic container from the fridge and put it on the counter.
"Uh, yeah. I mean I think so."
Naruto found a spoon in a draw, noting he saw no knives or even forks, and peeled the lid off. "Smells pretty good to me." He began to dig in though his eyes didn't leave Isao.
"Aren't you going to heat that up?"
"No." Despite it being cold it was still edible. Hunger made even raw beans taste sweet. "About a year ago Sōgen took Jiraiya of the Sannin for captive. I need to know where he is being held."
Isao visibly tensed. "I don't know anything about that."
"You really don't want to be lying to me right now," Naruto warned coldly. "You work at the village HQ. There is no way you didn't receive any word on that."
"Look, I haven't received any transmissions myself," Isao stammered nervously. "It's against protocol to even ask about what anyone else has received. That being said I did hear rumours."
"O- Okay. So the rumour goes like this. Sōgen-sama called for a summit to discuss matters above my pay grade. There was supposedly a spy at the meeting," Isao swallowed hard under his gaze. "The spy was supposedly betrayed by one of the people there. The rumour says the spy Jiraiya the Gallant. Sōgen supposedly defeated Jiraiya and had him dragged off to a black site for torture and interrogation."
Naruto chewed in silence as he processed the information. So it was true, Jiraiya had been taken. And his own friend betrayed him… He pushed that matter aside, he would deal with Ishigakure later.
"Look, that's all I know, I swear!" Isao promised frantically, put off by his silence. "Please, you have to believe me. I don't know anything else!"
"Keep your voice down," Naruto hissed angrily tossing the food aside and closing the distance between them. He grabbed Isao by the neck and lent him over the countertop. "Where is he being held? Tell me."
"I don't know!" Isao gurgled between gasps for air. "I swear!"
His grip tightened. "I don't believe you." He lifted the man of his feet and dangled him several inches off the ground. "I don't believe for one second you don't know anything!"
Naruto froze, his eyes wide with shock as he turned and found a little boy in pajamas hugging a stuffed animal. He looked frail and sickly with tubes still attached to his arms.
"Let my daddy go!" the little boy demanded.
Lightning followed by the rumbling of thunder and Isao's foot in his face sent him stumbling back in a dazed state. It hadn't hurt particularly but it was most unexpected. By the time he had regained his bearings Isao had grabbed his discarded sword and charged at him. Naruto reacted in the nick of time and managed to stop him. It should have been easy for him to disarm the man but there was such pure and instinctual desperation born from paternal instinct in Isao's eyes that Naruto couldn't ignore as they struggled. The little boy watched on as their struggle across the kitchen sent pots and pans clattering and plates and glass shattering to the floor.
"Stop struggling! I'm not going to kill you unless you force me to!"
"Run!" Isao shouted. There wasn't even a hint of concern for his own safety in his voice. "RUN!"
'Damn it!' Naruto lost his patience very quickly and their struggled ended as abruptly as it had started. "Shit!"
Isao lay bleeding on the floor, blood pouring from the stab wound to his lower abdomen. The little boy began to scream.
Naruto felt his insides go cold. He looked to the little boy crying loudly. "I didn't mean to…" He felt a cold grip on his heart. Why was the kid here? Why the hell was his mark out drinking late at night when he had a sick kid at home? It didn't make any sense. The boy continued to cry loudly over his father's body.
For a moment time seemed to stop as Naruto's mind wandered.
"Why do you think we fight, Naruto-kun?"
"What do you mean?"
"For country and village! Isn't that what they taught you in the academy, to put the village before yourself and the country before the village? What do you think it means?"
"I don't know. To fight for the greater good, I guess."
"Ah, the greater good… You know, I've always hated that phrase. Naturally, being Hokage meant I had to make decisions under this notion that the means would be justified if it served some bigger purpose, but it never sat well with me."
"You're confusing me old man."
"Picture this then, Naruto-kun. You are fighting a war, bravely and patriotically. For country and village, no? Can you justify the killing of others knowing that while your country may benefit of the war, your victory only adds to an endless cycle of conflict, of pain and misery. We kill them. They kill us. And for what, what is it all for? Do we fight so that one day the loved ones of those we kill exact revenge on those we love?"
"Don't know? I didn't expect you to, Naruto-kun. These are simply the reflections of an old man whose time has long since passed him. If there is one thing I want to teach you, Naruto-kun, more than anything, more than any number of jutsu, it is that you should look to the actions of your predecessors and learn from them."
"You're talking about, what was it that Jiraiya called it?"
"The cycle of hatred."
And he was back.
He found his wits and knew what to do. No matter what he wouldn't rob the boy of his father. Not today. Not like this. He wouldn't allow his actions give birth to another sworn enemy of Konoha. "It's okay, kid."
The boy screamed when he picked him up but there was no time to waste. He struck the boy with a light chop to the back of the neck, knocking him unconscious. He put him down in a corner and took a deep breath. His hand sparked green with medical ninjutsu chakra. He was far from an expert, he was hardly proficient, but he knew the basics, and with enough chakra that would do.
"My son…" Isao groaned barely conscious and gripped his hand.
Naruto shook him off. "He's fine."
"Why are you doing this?"
"If it were just you, I'd let you die," Naruto said harshly. It was the truth. Had it been just the intelligence officer, he would have killed him without hesitation and moved on. "But I'd rather not have to kill your kid some years down the line. That's the only reason I'm sparing you."
"I'm not doing this for you." Naruto applied pressure to the wound with his chakra-coated hand as he pulled out the sword. "Tell me what you know."
"I don't know much, I swear… But I do know Jiraiya the Gallant is still alive." Isao grimaced with pain. "I hear they haven't been able to break him, not even after all this time. That's all I know… I swear…"
Naruto didn't acknowledge the man, though he felt a pinch of relief to hear confirmation his godfather still lived, and that he continued to endure. He finished patching up the intelligence officer and rose to his feet. "Don't make me regret doing this." Naruto turned around and headed towards the exit.
"He knows… you're here…" Isao whispered on the verge of slipping into unconsciousness.
Naruto didn't know why that didn't surprise him at least a little. He simply nodded at he headed out. "When you wake up grab your kid and get far from here."
Moments later Naruto was running through alleys again, his footsteps silent and not making a sound as he raced through the shadows towards the heart of the village.
Sōgen knew he was here? He knew that already. Of course he knew. He might have infiltrated the village but he wasn't the spy Jiraiya was, and even Jiriaya had been found out when he spied on the Hidden Grass.
No, Naruto hadn't been so arrogant or foolish to think he could evade detection indefinitely. He knew going in that it was only a matter of time before they found him out, and until they did he would do his best to cover Jiraiya's location.
His time was up.
There was only escape now. Jiraiya would have likely been moved to a more secure location by now. He had failed to rescue his godfather.
Naruto swallowed the bitterness, and the self-loathing, ruthlessly pushing his emotions down as he blitzed past several oblivious Kusa-nin. He might have failed but he wasn't done in the village yet.
There was still something he had to do.
Tsunade massaged her temples in between dealing with paperwork. It was nearly morning and she was still hard at work. The fact entire village (and country) was set on combat ready status didn't mean there would be less of it. It was actually the opposite. Last minute authorisations forms, schedule changes, equipment orders and quota reports – there simply wasn't an end to the files upon files that were coming in. Every last bureaucratic order was being crammed in one day.
The Godaime hadn't even noticed her apprentice enter her office. Kakashi would have cried his heart out if he were there. It was rather worrying but she ignored it. "What is it, Sakura?"
"You're busy, I can come back later," the rosette offered.
"No," Tsunade said a tad too quickly. Her student was a welcome distraction. "What is it?"
Sakura considered her words carefully. "Tsunade-sama, what are we going to do if Naruto doesn't come back?"
"Why do you ask?" Tsunade's expression turned mildly suspicious. "We'll disavow him, of course. He's just a chūnin, we can't go to war over him."
"I see…" Sakura looked downcast.
Tsunade crossed her arms and leant back. "What did you think I was going to say?"
"I don't know… I'm sorry for bothering you, Tsunade-sama." Sakura bowed her head and turned to leave. Her hand gripped the door handle. 'What am I doing?' she thought to herself.
"You know, don't you?" Tsunade prompted her to turn around. "About the Kyūbi and Naruto, I mean. You're not a very good liar, Sakura."
"I only had my suspicions, Tsunade-sama," Sakura tried anyway, though not for own sake, but rather that of Shikamaru who had included her in his theory. "So Naruto really is a…"
"A jinchūriki, yes," Tsunade nodded, smiling for some reason unknown to her protégé. "Then you know why it's important we get him back."
"I have a lot to apologise for to him," Sakura said with her head hung in shame.
"This entire country does, Sakura," Tsunade said neutrally. She didn't known all the facts but she did know her student hadn't always been as protective of the jinchūriki as she was now. "People change, Sakura, and I know for a fact you have. You'll have your chance to make it up to him when he gets back, which he will. I'm sure he'd be happy to know you're worried about him."
"We all are," Sakura nodded. "Even Sasuke, not that he'd admit it, but I can tell he's worried too."
Tsunade sighed. "I know what that's like…"
"He'll definitely come back home safely, right?" Sakura asked, hoping that her teacher would provide some assurances, though she knew it was childish of her. "Naruto has trained under Sandaime-sama, he should be really strong, right?"
"There are a lot of strong people out there, Sakura," Tsunade reminded her as she stood up to stretch her legs. "I'm sure he'll come back with that same old goofy grin of his. I'll make sure to knock the shit out of him when he does."
Sakura giggled a little. "I should go find Rei-san tomorrow. She must be worried sick about him."
"You should go do that, she can probably use a friend now. It can't be easy being involved with that blond idiot," Tsunade encouraged the rosette. "Now, off with you. I've got work to do."
"Got it, Tsunade-sama," Sakura was once again the door, though before she left, a pillar of smoke appeared before them and a small and elderly, toad in a black cloak hopped on Tsunade's desk.
"Fukasaku-sama?" the Godaime said surprised.
"Tsunade-chan, I have urgent news." Fukasaku said gravely.
Sōgen looked over the village from behind his office windows, arms folded behind his back, his wrinkled visage in a thoughtful expression. He usually wasn't up this late, he was too old for such unhealthy sleeping habits, but tonight was different. Something was about to happen. He could feel it. Whatever it was, it was going to be… problematic.
The door to his office opened and a middle-aged kunoichi wearing a bandana to cover her hair and the standard Kusagakure attire entered; she was heavily scarred in the face. As the personal assistant to the Shogun she was the only one in the village that could enter his office without explicit permission. "Sōgen-sama."
"Natsuki, what is it?"
"There was a disturbance at the residence of one our intelligence operatives," the assistant reported apprehensively. "The operative was injured but is in stable condition. It appears the intruder is on the move, sir."
Suddenly the bad feeling in Sōgen's stomach made sense. He had been content with a monster hiding in his village, unbeknownst that his presence known to others, for it would only make it easier to trap it. Now that the monster had no reason to hide in the shadows, there was no telling what would happen.
Sōgen turned to his assistant. "Natsuki-" Before he could even feel his sentence he knew it was too late.
No, he felt it.
A gigantic chakra suddenly spiked throughout the village.
Several hundred feet in the air Naruto stood on the back of Senzaru. He began to spike his chakra. There was an odd, dampened look in his eyes. Their usual spark was gone, and replaced by a darker, colder look that only hinted at the cold rage he felt inside his heart. His melancholic rage was not lost on the falcon.
'I'm sorry, Jiraiya.' His fist shook uncontrollably as he looked down to the village. 'I couldn't save you this time, but I'll come back for you. I promise.'
Until that time came though, he would show Sōgen that there was every reason to fear Konoha. He would show the entire would that the Hidden Leaf was not to be trifled with. No one would ever hurt those he cared about ever again. He wouldn't allow it.
Perhaps this would shatter their resolve to challenge Konoha, maybe then there wouldn't have to be a war.
"Are you sure about this, Naruto-sama?" Senzaru asked tentatively. The falcon was beyond terrified of its summoner, whose chakra had lost all warmth and brightness and turned cold like the quiet before the storm. "I sent word to Father but there is still time to-"
"I'm sure, Senzaru." Naruto placed both thumbs under his fangs and bit down. Hard. The pain barely registered as he began to form a string of hand seals. "I'm going to show them that Konoha still has a monster they can fear."
Naruto leapt off the falcon's back and began to plummet to the ground. The tiny village quickly became bigger and bigger as he soared through the air in straight trajectory for the heart of the military district. It was time. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
Tremendous volumes of chakra surged through his arms and gave way to one gigantic cloud of smoke over the village as gigantic toads and falcons fitted in battle armour descended upon the military district. "GO WILD!"
The gigantic toads came down crashing into buildings, instantly flattening them as they grabbed their weapons and shields and unanimously roared as one.
Hoho, I know, I'm bastard for ending it on a cliffie, but have no fear, the next chapter should be out soon.
I'm curious to find out what you guys thought of the chapter. You guys seemed very pleased with the last chapter (and the number of reviews reflect that) so here's hoping I can keep it going.
Unfortunately for Jiraiya, he won't be rescued so soon. That's not to say all of this is for nothing, of course. It certainly isn't just to show off how much of a bad ass Naruto has become after year of training under the Sandaime. If you've made it this far into the story than you should know by now that I like to explore the far-reaching consequences of actions. In this chapter, the prospect of Naruto on a warpath on his lonesome yet still putting the entire village at risk has the country's leading figures on edge. The entire village itself is splitting in support and opposition of Naruto's actions, which will have consequences good, bad and in between.
Anyway, you'll find out more about that in the upcoming chapters. It's been a while since I wrote some but I hope I can write some epic fights scenes for the next chapter. Kumo Nin readers in particular will like it, I think.
I've been giving Sakura more screen time lately, little by little, which really isn't for any other reason other than the fact that I'd like to try and redeem her character. If there's one thing Kishimoto really screwed up in my opinion it's Sakura. She was a bad ass at the start of Part II before the relegated to cheerleader/damsel in distress. I know he's tried to fix that lately, better late than never I guess, but I'm going to try and mold her into a character that's both likeable and useful.
Anyway, that's all for now. Next chapter should be up soon. If you get restless for more you can give The Uzumaki Descendant a try while you wait.