-April 28th, 348 NE-


"Do you understand your orders, Kisame?" Nagato said coldly, barely keeping a rein on his temper as he stared across the desk at his subordinate.

"Loud and clear, Leader-sama," Kisame replied easily, a grin stretching across his face and revealing a mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth. "This one will be a pleasure."

"As long as you get the job done, you may be as inventive as you like," Nagato added as he allowed a matching smile to grow on his face. "And while you are out, keep an ear to the ground for any news about Hidan. The man was far from stable and his loyalty was only to his so-called god, but it's not like him to just disappear."

"I hear that," Kisame grunted. He paused, a slightly plaintive note entering his voice. "Can I be inventive with him too?"

Nagato paused for a moment, considering, then shrugged. "Depending on what you find. He still has his uses, if he can be brought back into the fold."

Kisame nodded then turned and flowed out of the room, his body tense with anticipation.

Nagato watched him go, then raised one eyebrow curiously as Konan entered the room in Kisame's wake. It was unusual for her to be away from Kyoko; the girl had taken Jun's death hard and had clung to either Konan or, surprisingly, Fuu ever since. Konan wasn't handling it that much better, and had barely let Yahiko out of her sight since they returned.

Orochimaru's betrayal had been well-timed, a serious blow to Akatsuki that they were still trying to recover from, but his threat against Yahiko had crossed a line even beyond that.

It was almost a shame he wouldn't be there to see Kisame correct that.

"What is it, Konan?" he asked, observing the pensive expression on her face.

Wordlessly, she handed him a small note.

The teacher calls his student for a talk.


P.S. Nice job! I told you she'd be a hottie when she grew up!

Nagato didn't bother to ask if it was real; despite the many years that had passed he could still recognize Jiraiya's hand-writing and his... mannerisms.

"Where?" he asked simply.

-Same Day-

-Near Ame's Border-

Nagato stared down at the man leaning against the tree, looking for all the world like he was watching the river flow past and paying no attention to his surroundings. Konan hovered in the distance, ready to raise the alarm or come to his assistance should this meeting turn out to be a trap. As far as either of them could determine, Jiraiya was alone and had made no preparations, but that meant very little with a ninja of his caliber.

Nagato's right arm twinged as he flexed his muscles, a reminder that the seals keeping his arm fro being a complete loss were slowly losing their effectiveness. The visible damage was hidden by his cloak at the moment, but he had no doubt that Jiraiya would pick up on it immediately.

"You gonna keep staring all day?" Jiraiya called out, his eyes still fixed on the river.

Nagato considered for a moment, then slowly descended through the air, coming to rest a short distance away from Jiraiya. It wouldn't do to get too close before he was certain of the man's intentions, after all.

"That's more like it," Jiraiya said, finally looking up. Nagato had to force himself not to take a step back as he caught sight of his teacher's expression. It was... cold, colder than he'd ever seen on the normally animated pervert. His movements were still the same grandiose gestures and graceful, if strange, mannerisms, but his face told a different story.

"You've stirred up a shitstorm, brat- no... Nagato, and I don't think you have a clue just how bad it's going to get."

"So Konoha has sent you to threaten us, then?" Nagato asked.

Jiraiya chuckled darkly. "Konoha has even less of a clue than you do, and right now they're in no position to threaten anyone. No, it's the Bijuu you have to worry about. They didn't like you before, but now you're an honest to Kami threat."

"I am well aware of the danger those beings can pose. Akatsuki's records are far more detailed and accurate than any of the villages, even Konoha."

"The villages, sure," Jiraiya said, shrugging. "Tell me, what did you make of your encounter with the Kyuubi jinchuuriki?"

"Are you here to brag about your newest stude-"

"That thing," Jiraiya snarled, rage flashing in his eyes and his killing intent flaring wildly, "is no student of mine." He stopped himself with a jerk, breathing deeply and slowly relaxing his clenched fists.

Nagato eyed him warily, gathering his power for a Shinra Tensei and keeping it coiled and ready. That was another expression he'd never seen on his teacher before, and it wasn't any more welcome than the coldness he was displaying now.

"The jinchuuriki had transformed himself into a large fox-like creature," Nagato finally answered, "though it appeared physical rather than a shell like the other jinchuuriki I have observed. He also appeared highly constrained by the Death God's seal, though he was able to perform one attack that greatly exceeded the range he had displayed before."

"Did he gather energy into a large ball and compress it multiple times?" Jiraiya asked.

"Yes," Nagato replied simply.

"The Imari, then. It's very slow on the buildup, as I'm sure you noticed."

"It was," Nagato conceded, nodding his head while continuing to study his former teacher.

"What if I told you," Jiraiya said slowly, his expression growing even more intense, "that what you faced was not the jinchuuriki at all, but the beast that was supposed to be contained within?"

"I am aware that some jinchuuriki can manifest their Bijuu to an extent. In some ways his transformation was even less impressive than others I have seen."

Jiraiya just shook his head. "Not like that. I've recently become aware that, in his case, the jinchuuriki and the Bijuu are one and the same."

Nagato stilled as his mind processed that. "How... Naruto Yamanaka was a well known figure in Konoha, and there was never any indication of that."

"Oh, there were plenty of indications, at first," Jiraiya chuckled darkly. "Nobody saw them for what they were, though, and eventually he learned how to pretend well enough to fool everyone. Well, almost everyone."

"How did you learn of this?" Nagato asked, still studying Jiraiya for any sign of deceit.

His former teacher sighed and shook his head. "The Toads went through a lot of trouble to arrange matters so that they could let me know what was going on. Up until that point, I didn't have the first clue, even if a few people in Konoha already knew."

"Konoha is aware of this?" Nagato asked, surprised. "Have they struck some form of bargain with it?"

Jiraiya barked a short, humorless laugh. "Konoha was used from start to finish, and now the Bijuu is running free doing Kami knows what. Konoha has proven that they can't do what needs to be done, and the rest of the villages would be no better. Which is why I've come to you."

"And just what is it you want from us?" Nagato asked, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. He was prepared for his teacher to plead with him to set aside their differences and assist the villages in controlling this danger, or for Akatsuki to provide information to assist in their tasks.

"What I want," Jiraiya said intently, "is for Akatsuki to capture every Bijuu and create jinchuuriki using your newest seals."

Nagato blinked, trying to hide his surprise at that declaration.

"Did you know," Jiraiya continued, "that Akatsuki has created a seal even more effective than that of the Death God's? That your seals completely eliminate any chance of a Bijuu escaping under their own power?"

"Perhaps," Nagato hedged. He knew that their seal was highly effective, but not to that extent.

"I intend to see every Bijuu locked away behind one of your seals, controlled and powerless for the rest of their existence, and I intend to help you do that by any means necessary."

Nagato felt a small burst of hope blooming inside of his chest. Akatsuki had suffered several major setbacks recently, not least of which was the loss of Jun and Hidan. Gaining another S-class ninja would go a long way toward replacing those losses, and even among S-class ninja Jiraiya was at the very top of the heap.

And a small part of him that he'd thought long buried still remembered the funny man who had taken in three orphans and taught them how to survive in the middle of hell. He'd learned long ago that trust was easily abused, however, and those days had long since passed.

"I'll need more than just your word for that, Sensei," he said finally.

Jiraiya nodded, not looking at all put out. "I've got two presents for you," he said, pulling out a scroll. "First is the latest information on all jinchuuriki, including a full profile on the Kyuubi's known abilities that I compiled personally."

Nagato nodded slowly. If the information was accurate, that would undoubtedly be very useful.

"The second might take a little more time to arrange, but... how'd you like to get your arm fixed?"

-May 8th, 348 NE-

-Outside of Kirigakure-

Mei approached the designated meeting location with her escort of ANBU, her senses working full time to ferret out the slightest hint of a trap. Her village stood to gain much from this, if all went well, but she normally preferred to have far more control over the situation that she currently did.

The first person she sighted was the young man who called himself Watanabe, among many other aliases. He was tall, just shy of six feet, and carried himself with an easy confidence. His current persona had close cropped black hair and soft brown eyes that matched the relaxed smile on his face. She was, so far as she knew, the only person in Kiri who was aware of his true identity: Itachi Uchiha.

The second was roughly a foot shorter than Itachi and swathed in a thick cloak that obscured his entire form. As she stared at the being, trying to make out any details under the cloak, she wondered again why she had agreed to this meeting. Itachi could be very convincing and his reasons seemed to make a great deal of sense, but at the same time she'd never been so certain that she was courting disaster.

"Thank you for seeing us, Mizukage-sama," Itachi said, bowing deeply. "We are honored that you would grant us an audience on such short notice."

Mei tensed slightly; "honored" was the keyword to signal that everything had gone smoothly on Itachi's end, but the lack of "truly" also indicated that Itachi had encountered an abnormality of some kind.

"Of course, Watanabe-san," Mei said regally, easily hiding her tension. She glanced at the ANBU lurking in the shadows around her and motioned towards them. "Make sure that our conversation is not disturbed."

Her ANBU dutifully moved out to take up positions a short distance away, leaving her in relative privacy with the two others. Once they were clear, she turned back to her two guests, making sure to remain poised and ready to react at a moment's notice. She trusted Itachi more than most, but she trusted his guest not at all.

The cloaked figure threw back his hood, revealing his young, almost childish features and bright blonde hair. Her eyes locked onto his for a moment, fascinated in spite of herself at the strange color and oddly-shaped pupils, then trailed over his face taking note of the deep lines that swept across his cheeks.

"Five million ryo," she said casually, a small smirk on her lips.

Her guest blinked, eying her oddly for a moment before he shook his head. "Five million ryo?"

"That's how much you're worth to Konoha. Five million for information that leads to your safe return."

"That's all?" the young man asked, his lips curling into a grin. "I'm almost insulted."

"I was also surprised at how cheaply they valued you," Mei agreed, nodding in agreement. "Then again, they seem to be under the illusion that your status as a jinchuuriki is still a secret. But you aren't really a jinchuuriki, are you, Kuushou-san?"

"That's a matter of perspective, I suppose," he demurred, his grin widening.

Mei's eyes narrowed as her smile vanished. "I may have agreed to meet with you, Kuushou-san, but I am far from convinced that you have anything to offer that Kiri would be willing to accept. Why are you really here?"

Kuushou dropped his grin, leaving a cold and calculating look behind. "I am here," he began, "because we are each in a position to help one another. With the fall of Iwa and the losses incurred by Konoha and Suna, Kiri and Kumo are currently sitting at the top of the heap, so to speak. Unlike Kumo, however, you do not currently have any jinchuuriki and are thus at a distinct disadvantage."

"And I suppose you are offering to join Kiri to give us a jinchuuriki?" Mei asked drily, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Hardly appealing given that you abandoned Konoha in the middle of a war less than a month ago."

"Of course not," he scoffed, sweeping one hand through the air as if to brush aside the very idea. "I have had my fill of following orders."

"What then?" Mei pressed.

"An alliance."

She chuckled, amused. "Given what you are, I am not so foolish as to dismiss your personal power outright. Nonetheless, a single being seeking to work with us for his own convenience is hardly an appealing alliance. You could leave us just as abruptly as you left Konoha."

"Ah," Kuushou responded, grinning once more. "I'm afraid you are mistaken on two counts. First, I think you will find that I have much more to offer than mere power. And second... whatever gave you the idea that the alliance was only with me?"

She caught Itachi shifting out of the corner of her eye and noted that he was studying Kuushou intently.

"What do you mean?" she asked slowly. "To my knowledge, Kumo has two of your... brethren held captive, Suna one, and Akatsuki has managed to capture or subvert the rest of the jinchuuriki, including the previous Mizukage."

Kuushou shook his head. "How disappointing... to think you would have so little faith in your predecessor."

Mei stiffened, her eyes widening in shock before she managed to control herself. "Yagura? He's been presumed dead for years."

"Yagura has been fighting Akatsuki longer than anyone. Indeed, much of what I know of them came from him."

Mei kept her expression neutral, but inside her mind was racing. This changed a great deal, but also raised many questions. If Yagura truly was still alive, then why had he never contacted his village? If Kuushou was to be believed, the former Mizukage had been working against Akatsuki ever since he first disappeared, but to what end? And, most of all, just what was his relationship with Kuushou?

"And just what are you expecting to get out of this?" she asked carefully.

"For the immediate future, I merely require a place to work with complete privacy. There are certain tasks that I need to take care of quickly, before they become any more annoying."

Mei noted that Kuushou was smirking slightly, although if there was a joke somewhere in that she certainly didn't see it.

"Once that is dealt with... I think you will find that Kiri, out of all the ninja villages, is uniquely suited to benefit from my plans. After all, you are the only major village without a jinchuuriki and thus the only major village which is not directly opposed to my goals."

"The same could be said of Konoha, given that until recently you were their sole jinchuuriki."

"The situation within Konoha was... complicated, and recent events have made my presence there no longer viable."

"Where is Ino-chan?" Itachi asked suddenly, his eyes narrowed. "Officially she was listed as killed in action, but I do not believe you would have left so quietly were that truly the case. There are quiet rumors that she was with you or, barring that, that you went missing to find her. I would have expected one of your demands to be for assistance in that matter."

Mei observed Kuushou's reaction carefully. Itachi had explained his suspicions about Ino's relationship with Kuushou, but they had both agreed that it was a subject best left alone until they had more information. Hopefully Itachi's sudden interruption would reveal some of that information.

Rather than looking upset or angry, Kuushou appeared distinctly amused. "Oh, she's perfectly fine, and I know exactly where she is. It goes without saying that any deals made with me must include her as well."

"Do we need to send a team to escort her to Kiri, then? Assuming we come to an agreement, of course," Mei offered. It was a simple gesture that would give her ninja time to study and interact with the girl while she was away from Kuushou, possibly gaining some insight into the situation.

"That will not be necessary," Kuushou said, that same half-smirk still on his face. "I'm sure she'll find her own way here eventually."

Mei continued studying him for a moment, then shrugged. "So you want a place to hide for yourself and Ino Yamanaka and our assistance in your efforts against the other jinchuuriki, including, I'm sure, acting against the S-rank ninja that make up Akatsuki."

Kuushou nodded. "Summed up nicely."

Mei hummed thoughtfully, absently playing with a strand of hair that fell over the front of her shoulder.

"I'm afraid that I'll need something a little more substantial than that," she said at length.

"You don't see the benefits of working with us?" Kuushou asked, his eyes narrowing and seeming to darken slightly as he met her gaze.

"I don't see the benefits of working for you," she corrected. "I haven't heard the first mention of working with you yet."

"I see," Kuushou said slowly, his head tilting slightly and his eyes slowly drifting around the area. "What, then, would satisfy you?"

"I require something up front, something of immediate, tangible benefit to my village before I can even consider any long-term alliance between my village and your... group. As it stands I have little reason to trust you and many reasons to be wary of you. I do not seek to make an enemy of you, but taking you into my village and committing resources to assisting you is an entirely different matter."

"I gather you have something specific in mind."

"Several things, actually," she said, shifting her weight and leaning forward slightly. "Kiri has gathered a great deal of information on you over the years, especially after you began to train under Jiraiya of the Sannin. You are known to have quite a few skills and jutsu that are both powerful and versatile. Those could benefit Kiri greatly."

Kuushou eyed her for a moment. "You'll have to be a little more specific than that."

"I want a full accounting of your medical training; everything you know about medical jutsu and especially everything you learned from Shizune Katou. I want a list of all the seals Konoha has access to and everything Jiraiya has taught you about fuinjutsu. I want information about the Toad Summoning Contract. I want the Rasengan. Give me all of that and you will have a place in Kiri."

Kuushou began pacing back and forth, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He made several circuits before turning back to her.

"Writing all of that out would take a considerable amount of time, and I have no doubt that you would insist that I train your ninja in the skills and techniques as well. That could take months, years even, which would hardly allow me to pursue my own goals."

"You wouldn't be required to spend all of your time training my ninja, but I must have some way to verify that what you are providing actually works as stated."

He paced back and forth twice more before he turned to her again. "A compromise, then. I will spend three days a week training one ninja in healing techniques, another in ninjutsu, and a third in fuinjutsu. They may then spend as much time as they like training whoever you wish."

"That could take months before the village sees results," Mei countered.

"Which is why I will make a trip to your hospital and heal whoever you wish today, as a gesture of good faith. I will also provide two B-rank seals of whatever type you wish for your ninja to study.

"In exchange for that," he continued, his voice firm, "you will show me to whichever house or compound I will be staying in and give me three uninterrupted days to take care of my own tasks. After that, I will begin training whatever ninja you have selected."

Mei kept her gaze focused on Kuushou as she pondered his offer. There were several ninja currently in the hospital who were teetering on the brink of death, and quite a few others who were beyond the skills of Kiri's med-nin to restore to full health. If the Bijuu was true to his word and was capable of healing them, Kiri would regain nearly a dozen veteran ninja far sooner than they had dreamed possible. That alone would be a significant boon.

The seals might or might not prove useful in the long run ― she would need to consult with Kiri's sealing experts to determine what they should ask for ― but the three days he was asking for could also provide enough time for Kuushou to complete whatever his "task" was and flee Kiri, reneging on the rest of their agreement. She knew better than to think they would be able to stop or delay him without significant loss of life, even if they could eventually manage to contain him using fuinjutsu. If he did choose to flee Kiri rather than outright attacking, the wisest course would likely be to allow him to do so and deal with him at a later time, away from the village.

"What are these tasks you need to accomplish?" she pressed.

"A strictly personal matter on my part, I assure you. Kiri is not involved in any fashion. Technically I don't even need to do it there, but having privacy and the assurance that I will not be interrupted is much preferred."

Mei frowned slightly at his evasion, but it seemed clear that she was not going to get anything else out of him. She turned to Itachi, silently asking his opinion on the matter. He gave a slight nod in return, his expression impassive.

"Very well," she said, turning back to the Bijuu. "Let us proceed to the hospital while I call for my sealing experts. Once you've proven you can do what you claim, we'll see about the rest."

-Same Day-

-Kirigakure no Sato (Village Hidden in the Mist)-

-4:00 PM-

Mei studied Kuushou as they walked towards the hospital; their small group - comprised of herself, Kuushou, Itachi, and an escort of ANBU - was drawing quite a lot of attention as they moved through the streets. Some of the looks were directed towards herself, she was sure, but she spent enough time within the village that she was hardly an unusual sight. Itachi himself was much more unusual, but he played the part of a wandering merchant turned information broker well.

No, most of the looks were directed towards Kuushou, who had drawn up the hood of his cloak once more, but still allowed tantalizing glimpses of his face and eyes to be seen. His eyes especially would send the rumor mill into overdrive, as Kiri had many bloodlines but lacked a doujutsu of any kind. Kuushou's inhuman eyes bore enough resemblance to the Sharingan that a cursory look might mistake one for the other.

Ironic, since the true Sharingan was walking on her right, hidden behind placid brown contact lenses.

The Bijuu remained silent as they entered the hospital and were approached by a civilian nurse, her frazzled brown hair hanging just short of her shoulders and her blue uniform looking rumpled. "How can I help you, Mizukage-sama?" she asked.

"We're here to see Yuunochi," Mei replied, her gaze scanning the lobby and noting that most of the waiting patients were civilians, and only two looked to be even moderately injured. Nothing here that would tax an average med-nin, nevermind someone of Kuushou's claimed skill. "He will be expecting us," she added.

"Right this way, Mizukage-sama," the woman replied, moving quickly and leading them down a side corridor. She knocked on the door to an office a minute later, sticking her head in and speaking for a moment before she turned and bowed, motioning them inside. She left as soon as they entered, closing the door behind her. The office was small and cluttered, stacks of paper covering every available surface.

"Welcome, Mizukage-sama," Yuunochi said easily as he stood from his desk. "I received your requests and believe I have located a suitable patient." His gaze flickered to Kuushou's cloaked form. "Is this the one who...?" he trailed off.

Mei nodded tersely. "Assuming he can do what he claims, yes."

The med-nin's gaze sharpened, but he just nodded. "If you'll follow me, then."

He left the office, leading them deeper into the hospital, down two floors into the underground area and past three security checkpoints. The last checkpoint balked at letting so many people in at once, even with her own presence, but finally backed down at her direct order. She might have been more annoyed if that tenacity wasn't exactly why they'd been picked for this duty in the first place.

Yuunochi finally led them into a circular room that was occupied by a single large bed. The sole occupant was spread out upon it, his arms and legs stretched out wide and wrapped in the thick bandages. Seals were drawn upon the bed and the cloth that was wrapped around his body.

"Hiruo Taguchi, jounin," Yuunochi began, clearly reciting from memory. "Brought in three weeks ago by his genin team after he was severely injured battling a missing-nin. He suffered multiple broken bones and a significant abdominal wound, but the largest issue has been the three distinct poisons that were introduced into his system.

"Initial attempts to heal him were only partially successful, and we have been unable to identify one of the substances used against him and thus have not been able to clear it from his system. He has been placed in partial stasis to buy time for the missing-nin to be tracked down and the third poison identified so that it can be safely countered, but we are running up against the limits of that technique.

"We can only maintain the stasis for another two days, and we estimate only a ten percent chance of even partial recovery without the antidote."

"In other words," Mei said, "he's likely to be dead within the week."

"Correct, Mizukage-sama," Yuunochi replied, not sounding at all disturbed by her blunt assessment.

Mei turned to Kuushou, who had thrown back his hood and was studying the seals covering the bed closely.

"There's your patient," Mei pressed, her tone cold. "You've got two days to figure something out. Unless, of course, you aren't up to it?"

It probably wasn't a fair test, but she had specifically asked for something her own med-nin couldn't handle. If he failed, then he would have to provide more in other areas to make up for it. If he succeeded, then she regained an experienced jounin and the knowledge that allowed him to cure a patient where her own ninja failed.

Kuushou shrugged, then turned and began walking around the bed until he was standing next to the ninja's head. He reached out one hand and laid it on the ninja's forehead while he placed the other on one of the seals that covered the bed.

Every ninja in the room was a veteran, so they weathered the abrupt flare of chakra that filled the room with an oppressive aura stoically. Only Yuunochi showed any outward reaction, and even he seemed more interested in what Kuushou was doing than taken off guard.

The seals glowed brightly for a moment before burning away, the careful black script and elegant loops of finely crafted seals fading into splotches of ink. The sound of Hiruo's breathing immediately filled the room, labored and heavy. The muffled groans and clenched teeth spoke of the pain he was enduring, and Mei's sharp eyes noted that his muscles stood taut against his skin even as he held his body almost unnaturally still.

And then red chakra poured out of Kuushou's form and into the wounded ninja, completely covering his body in a matter of moments and raising the oppressive aura in the room even higher.

Mei endured it without a twitch, her eyes studying the Bijuu rather than the ninja he was working on. Not for the first time she wondered just what it was that he planned to gain from all of this, and why he was being so open about powers that he had carefully hidden for over a decade prior to this. Placing himself in the middle of a ninja village would make it easier to hide in some respects, but then he wasn't actually hiding all that much at the moment.

There had to be something more than simply a place to rest for awhile. Though only other factor she knew of was Ino Yamanaka, and she failed to see how the girl would be safer in Kiri than in her own village. Unless...

The red chakra abruptly withdrew and the oppressive feeling vanished, drawing her out of her thoughts. Kuushou turned to look at her once again, a wide smirk on his face.


-Mizukage's Office-

-6:00 PM-

"Completely healed, according to Yuunochi," Mei said with a small frown on her face. "They're keeping him for observation to make sure this isn't some sort of trick, but every indication is that the Bijuu was true to his word."

"Partially," Zabuza grunted, his arms crossed over his chest. "I don't see Yuunochi pumping out those chakra limbs or whatever any time soon, do you?"

"Definitely not," Ao said, shooting Zabuza a glare before turning to face Mei. "Those limbs contained more chakra than most ninja have in their entire bodies, and the aura that surrounds him did not dim noticeably while he was using them."

"In other words, he still hasn't demonstrated a technique which we can actually use ourselves," Mei concluded. "Still, we have regained a jounin thought lost and stand to gain several more."

She turned towards Ao. "Have you seen anything in the house we provided?"

Ao shook his head. "He did a quick walkthrough, then immediately went to the basement and began placing privacy seals over the entire area, including the floor and ceiling. He'd already finished one full layer before I left, and seemed to be adding more. Depending on how many he adds, even I may not be able to see through it."

"Does he know you have a Byakugan?" Mei asked sharply.

Ao shrugged. "There's no indication that he does, but I can't really say for sure."

"Don't take any chances," Mei ordered. "He might give away something we can use if he lets his guard down on that front. Konoha is supposed to have a monopoly on that particular bloodline, after all."

-Kuushou's Residence-

-7:00 PM-

Kuushou finished applying the third layer of privacy seals and activated them by shoving some of his body's chakra into them. They lit up immediately, dyeing the basement workshop with an even brighter blue tinge.

"I'm starting to think you're paranoid," Ino muttered inside his head. "It's not like there are any Hyuuga around."

"Which is why I'm only bothering with three layers," he replied easily. He turned and moved back to the center of the basement where a large table stood, the smooth, flat surface covered by a simple white sheet of cloth.

"You might not want to pay attention to this part," he added as he pulled out a small scroll.

"I've already seen it, remember? I lived it."

"Up to you."

With that, Kuushou activated the sealing scroll. When the last traces of smoke cleared, Ino's physical form lay spread out on the table, the smell of charred flesh and blood already beginning to assault his senses. He smirked to himself, as despite Ino's words he could feel her unease at the sight; she didn't say anything, however.

He poured his youki into the body a moment later and focused.

He started with the burns first, the blackened skin and seared tissue regenerating as he worked, leaving not a single sign that there had been any damage at all. Once the outer layers were restored and smooth, pale flesh had replaced the devastation the upstart jinchuuriki's attack had wrought, he set to work on her bones and tendons, and then from there to her muscles and nerves.

The room was eerily silent as he worked, his pulsing youki the only movement as it swept back and forth over Ino's form. He lost track of time, blocking out everything to focus on his task as he adjusted her body to mimic all of the improvements he had made to his own over the years. He would have to repeat this process several times over the coming weeks to fully incorporate everything, but it was a start.

"What's taking so long?"

"I'm nearly finished," Kuushou said distractedly. He paused for a moment, contemplating whether he should adjust her vision or not, but decided to leave it be for now. She would have enough to adjust to already, and she might even have her own ideas for how to proceed there.

"And done," he declared as he pulled his youki back into his body. Other than the damaged clothing and stains on the cloth covering the table, there was no sign that Ino's body had suffered any injuries at all.

"About time," Ino complained. "I can only stare at myself for so long before I get bored, even if I am hot."

Kuushou chuckled for a moment, shaking his head. "You can transfer back in whenever you..." he trailed off, suddenly feeling the loss of the second presence within the seal, one that he had grown accustomed to over the last few weeks.

Ino didn't waste any time; the moment Kuushou gave her the all-clear she was moving, eager to return to her own body at long last.

Not that she'd minded staying in the seal, exactly. She'd been in there before, many times, but it was different when she couldn't return to her own body whenever she wanted. The knowledge that it wasn't simply for a matter of hours or even minutes, but was instead going to last for days, weeks, possibly even months had been difficult to adjust to. She had struggled with it for some time, and if she hadn't had Kuushou with her for company she wasn't certain how well she would have managed.

It had certainly given her a new perspective on the situation with Kuushou and the other Bijuu, though. A small taste of the complete isolation they must have experienced constantly, an echo of the helplessness and frustration that defined their situation. She shuddered to think what Ryuudo must have gone through, with constant torture piled on top of that.

She shoved those thoughts aside as her spirit flowed back into her body, filling it and settling in like she was putting on her favorite shirt. There was a disorienting moment where she felt like she was both in and out of her body, an odd doubling of sensations that she had never experienced before, but it slowly smoothed out and then vanished entirely.

She drew in a deep breath, reveling in the feeling of air in her lungs and the slightly scratchy quality of the sheet she was laying on. Even the slowly dissipating scent of burned flesh was oddly welcome, if also a little nauseating.

She was still aware of that sixth sense ― or seventh, or eighth ― that had slowly become more acute ever since Kuushou had done whatever he had done to change her. Kuushou's presence filled her mind, his almost overwhelming power centered so close to her fighting with the strange quality of the mental image that identified him but that she couldn't quite figure out.

She was still annoyed that he had refused to explain just what it meant.

Akkai's power had been simple to understand and identify, and even Kounori's she had been able to puzzle out when they'd met a few days ago, even if she knew she would never really understand it as Kounori herself did. She hadn't encountered any of the others to get a sense of their power yet, but she had a feeling they would still be more understandable than Kuushou's.

She'd even tried throwing out random guesses based on what she could figure out, but his amused insistence that "When you know, you'll know," had ended that.

She pulled herself up into a sitting position, then flailed around for purchase as she found she had nearly flipped herself off of the table. Her hand shot around to grab the edge, but the wooden surface broke off under her grip and she tumbled off completely, landing on the floor in a heap.

"Ow," she said after a moment, letting out a small groan. Low laughter was her only answer, and she carefully adjusted her position until she could turn and level a glare at Kuushou, which only seemed to increase his amusement.

"I did warn you about that," he said after he had stopped laughing, though his grin hadn't wavered in the least. "Just be glad I didn't take it all the way immediately."

Ino carefully picked herself up off the floor, testing each motion of her arms and legs as she did so.

"This isn't too bad," she declared finally. "I just have to be a little careful is all." She caught the gleam in Kuushou's eye and frowned, tensing slightly. "Now wait just a-"

He didn't, blurring forward to launch a punch that would have caught her in the stomach if she hadn't twisted out of the way. She stumbled slightly as she found herself off balance, and began backstepping quickly to gain some distance as she recovered.

"Can't you hold on for-"

Apparently not, as she was forced to hop over a leg sweep and found herself hovering in the air as she leapt nearly a foot higher than she intended. Kuushou continued to rotate, his leg lashing out as he rose and impacting forcefully against the crossed arms that she had barely gotten up in time to block. She was tossed several feet through the air and executed a quick backwards roll, popping onto her feet as she finally found herself prepared for the first time since Kuushou started their impromptu spar.

She caught sight of his hands flashing through a sequence of seals that she recognized, and she reacted instinctively to counter the lightning technique he was about to launch in her direction. Her hand swept through the air in front of her as she created an arc of lightning that would catch and-

She squeezed her eyes shut and cut off the technique at the shockingly bright flare of light that filled the room. She heard the sharp crackle of two lightning techniques impacting and the snap of shattering wood and winced.

After a few moments she cracked one eye open, blinking it rapidly to try and clear the spots that danced across her vision. Through the blurry haze she could see the outline of Kuushou's form standing a few feet in front of her.

"Physically you're adapting better than I expected," he said. "On the other hand, it looks like your control is shot. Unless you meant to fry half the room and blind yourself, that is?"

Ino shook her head ruefully, cracking open the other eye and taking in the shattered remains of the table and the jagged lines of charred stone that covered the floor and walls.

"The Hiraishin's definitely out, then. We'll need to focus on chakra exercises for now."

Ino nodded in agreement, then frowned. "What about my official 'arrival' in Kiri?"

"We'll go with Plan B. I'll head out in a day or two to 'meet' with you and carry your body out in a scroll."

"And I just got out of the damn seal," she muttered. She winced, then shot him an apologetic look. "Sorry. I didn't mean to-"

Kuushou just waved her off. "Trust me, I know exactly how you feel." He scanned the room for a moment, then walked over to where the table had previously stood and picked up several chunks of wood.

Tossing them to her, he said, "Start with the leaf exercise, then move up to wall-walking. The sooner you're back to the level needed for the Hiraishin, the better."

Ino nodded quietly and settled onto the floor, holding one of the blocks of wood in her hand. As she focused on the exercise, she immediately noticed that something was off. Her chakra was responding without too much trouble and she could even feel her small youki reserves flowing throughout her body, but when the two met there was the strangest feeling. She'd never experienced anything quite like it, but if she had to put a name to it, it would be...

"Little brother?"


"I think my chakra is vibrating."

Kuushou paused and eyed her curiously. "That's interesting," he mused after a few moments. "I wonder why you didn't feel it before..."

She knew her brother well, better than anyone, so she caught the moment his contemplative look was briefly broken by a flash of startled realization. Before she could call him on it, however, he had already turned and was walking towards the stairs.

"Keep working on your control," he said over his shoulder. "I'll be back shortly with some more supplies and food. I used up a lot of your body's reserves correcting the damage that little jinchuuriki did to you."

Ino was distracted from her thoughts as her stomach reminded her that it was indeed thoroughly empty at the moment with a loud growl. With an annoyed sigh, she plopped down onto the floor and began focusing her chakra.

A/N: And thus begins Part IV.

I've still got a chapter of STC and Ramen Days to post, so the next chapter for TEC will be on the 12th. After that, I'm aiming to return to my every other week posting schedule for TEC until the story is complete.

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for all the reviews!