Yugito remained still and silent as she regained consciousness, feigning a deep sleep and trying to assess her surroundings without giving away anything to her captors.
The first thing she noticed was the fire. It called to her, resonating with the thing she kept contained, and she knew that with the smallest effort she could snuff it out or cause it to rise into a towering inferno. If it came to a fight, that would be her first avenue of attack.
She took stock of her own body after that, quickly discovering that she not bound or restricted in any way she could detect. That, coupled with the easy access to fire, could mean many things, most of them bad. These Akatsuki ninja had clearly come prepared - far more prepared to face her than she had been to face them, though it galled her to admit it.
She had been stuck in an awkward position, attempting to recapture Konoha's missing jinchuuriki while taking out the S-rank missing-nin protecting him and fending off another missing-nin also after the prize. She had agreed to cooperate out of expedience, fully expecting her temporary ally to attempt to turn on her or at least steal her target. She had not expected the target himself to fling a lightning bolt that actually managed to hurt the form she had manifested.
She hadn't been knocked on her ass like that since her last spar with Kirabi, and even that hadn't hurt like this had.
She breathed in quietly, trying to get further information on her current position. Her nose told her she was outside, near a river, and the noise of shallow water running swiftly over rocks confirmed that. As she listened, there was the faint scrape of a pen on paper. There was at least one other person nearby, then.
"You aren't in Akatsuki's hands anymore, you know," a woman called out calmly.
Yugito considered maintaining her ruse for a moment, but the casual way the woman spoke convinced her that her potential captor was fully aware that she was awake.
Her eyes snapped open, scanning her surroundings in the space of a moment, then she mustered all of her considerable power and flexibility to push herself from her prone position into a long leap, landing halfway up the trunk of a nearby tree. She immediately started her odd ritual with the beast, pushing her chakra towards it in preparation of unleashing its fury on whoever threatened her.
She held off on acting further, however, taking in the terrain that placed her somewhere in central Kumo - she could make out the mountains surrounding her village in the distance - and the fact that there was only one other person in sight.
It was a young blonde woman of middling height wrapped in a thick black cloak. She was pale and thin, but had a large bust and delicate features that would have drawn attention anywhere. Her most distinctive feature - aside from her chest, which could easily rival Samui's, she noted sourly - was the blue diamond tattooed on her forehead. The young woman kept most of her attention on whatever she was writing, though she did spare the time to give Yugito an amused glance.
"Nice distance," she commented. "I have no intention of keeping you captive or in any way delaying you," the woman continued more seriously. "I will make no effort to stop you if you want to leave now. I'm sure you can spot your village from here, and could probably make it there in a day or two if you wanted. I would recommend taking this with you, however," she added, hefting the small stack of papers for emphasis.
"And I should trust you?" Yugito countered warily. She flared her chakra slightly, testing for any signs of genjutsu and finding nothing. In fact, she couldn't even feel any scrapes or bruises or even general soreness that usually followed a difficult battle.
"How long has it been?" she snapped, suddenly concerned that she had been kept unconscious for days or even weeks.
"Since I rescued you? Roughly ten hours. Given the situation when I found you, you must have been subdued minutes before that at most."
Yugito frowned, glancing up at the sky. It was the right time of day, at least, and there were no obvious signs that more time had passed.
"And you fought a powerful ninja to rescue me and then release me?" she asked skeptically.
"To rescue you? No. I thought you were someone else."
Yugito tensed. "And just who did you think I was?"
"My friend. She was in this general area, and has every reason to tangle with Akatsuki. I'm hoping that you have some idea of where she is, actually."
"Would this friend be Kushina Uzumaki? Otherwise known as Sword? Which would make you Hammer?"
The blonde finally showed something other than calm amusement as her face grew both hopeful and wary. "Yes."
"She personally killed several Kumo ninja who were merely performing their duties to their village," Yugito spat.
Hammer grimaced, then her eyes narrowed. "She wouldn't have done that without a reason. Would that duty of theirs have anything to do with capturing or otherwise harming Naruto Yamanaka?"
"All missions are classified," Yugito responded flatly.
"That'd be a yes, then," the blonde sighed. She looked down at the papers in her hand, then placed them at her feet and stood. "I have no quarrel with Kumo, but I also have no control over what Kushina may or may not have done in defense of her son. If you want to do something about that, despite the fact that I rescued you from whatever fate Akatsuki had in mind for you, then now would be the time."
Yugito seriously considered it. She was confident that, however powerful a ninja Hammer actually was, she could take her one on one, especially if she called on the tailed beast to do so. The calm, almost bored air the woman was projecting made her hesitate, though, and regardless of her reasons the woman had rescued her. Even among the most pragmatic of ninja, it was considered bad form to immediately turn on someone who saved your life.
The woman seemed calm and reasonable, and she seemed to know something about Akatsuki and their goals. If she truly wanted to know about Sword's fate, then perhaps she would be willing to exchange information.
If it became necessary, she could always attack later, after she had seen what Hammer would willingly part with or bargain for.
"You weren't personally involved," Yugito said after a few seconds of contemplation, making a show of relaxing, "and you do seem to be responsible for my current freedom. I'm not about to forget what Kushina did, but I won't blame you for it."
"That's all I can expect," the blonde said, sitting back down.
Yugito slowly approached, still wary of attack but also making sure she didn't give Hammer cause to think she was about to attack either. She finally settled on a small log across the fire from Hammer, ignoring the way the flames bent slightly in her direction. Hammer eyed the fire for a long moment, but made no comment as she resumed her work.
"How did you get me away from that Akatsuki ninja, anyway?" Yugito asked finally, preparing to get as much information out of Hammer as she could.
"I took her by surprise and got in a lucky hit," Hammer replied evasively. "The woman dissolved into paper and fled after that."
"Paper, is it?" Yugito mused. "She used paper wings to fly, it looked like, and commanded slips of paper with seals written on them as her primary form of attack."
"She also made a blade of paper that seemed quite sharp," Hammer noted.
"How would you rate her in close combat?" Yugito pressed.
"S-rank," she replied firmly.
"That high?" Yugito asked in surprise. "Your fight sounded like it ended quickly, and you took her by surprise. What makes you think she's that good?"
Hammer had a small frown as she replied, "I hit her when she wasn't expecting it, and she's still alive."
Yugito eyed Hammer warily as she considered that. She wasn't certain if the kunoichi was trying to make herself seem more threatening, or if she genuinely believed it would take S-class skill to accomplish that feat.
"Who are you, anyway? How did you end up working with Kushina Uzumaki, of all people?"
Hammer blinked at her, then smiled wryly. "I honestly thought you would have recognized me on sight," she muttered. "Guess I'm not as famous as I used to be."
"Used to be?" Yugito echoed. "You can't be more than twenty-five, and Sword and Hammer have been showing up for over a decade."
Hammer smirked. "The name's Tsunade Senju."
Yugito couldn't help it; she openly gaped. "Bullshit!" she sputtered a moment later. "Tsunade would be fifty years old by now! And she disappeared over a..." over a decade ago, about a year before Sword and Hammer showed up.
"I'm well-preserved," the woman replied smugly.
She wanted to argue that, but focused her attention on other matters. "You and Kushina Uzumaki... just what the hell happened in Konoha? Is this all tied in with the Kyuubi jinchuuriki?"
Tsunade's face darkened. "His name is Naruto," she said firmly. "I would think someone like you, more than anyone, would view the jinchuuriki as people."
"I'm perfectly fine with what I am, as is the rest of Kumo," Yugito snapped. There was that cult who went way beyond fine with it, but that was another matter.
"Didn't stop you from trying to capture one of your fellow jinchuuriki, now did it?"
"I'm a loyal ninja of Kumo," Yugito replied.
"Piece of advice, miss Nibi jinchuuriki," Tsunade said, leaning forward. "A truly loyal ninja is going to value you for the beast you contain first and your status as a fellow ninja second. After all, the beast does more to protect Kumo than any one ninja, now doesn't it?"
"Is that how things really are in Konoha?" Yugito answered with a small sneer. "I suppose your vaunted Will of Fire doesn't amount to much, if you value your comrades and allies by their usefulness to you rather than your bonds with them."
Tsunade sat back, a contemplative look on her face as she studied Yugito. "I'm not in Konoha anymore, now am I?"
Yugito was silent for a moment, then nodded. "No, you aren't."
They both lapsed into thought then, both watching the other silently. Eventually Tsunade set her pen aside and turned her attention solely to Yugito.
"What happened to Kushina?" she asked.
"To the best of my knowledge," Yugito replied carefully, "she escaped with the aid of the- with the aid of Naruto Yamanaka." She frowned thoughtfully as she began to recall more details of the last moments before her capture. "The Akatsuki kunoichi mentioned something about the Hiraishin," she added, watching Tsunade's reaction carefully.
"So he got it to work after all," she grinned.
"That... the Hiraishin is back? And in the hands of a jinchuuriki who is wandering the Elemental Nations doing who knows what?"
"Sounds like," Tsunade replied smugly. "Any kid of Kushina's is bound to end up causing trouble somehow."
"Do you realize what that means?"
"It means that Naruto is even safer than he was before, and that he's already put it to good use saving himself and Kushina."
"That's the technique that almost single-handedly crushed Iwa!" Yugito shouted, jumping to her feet. "In the hands of a missing-nin! A jinchuuriki missing-nin!"
"You think the other villages are going to just let that go? They can't let that go! He could use that to attack anywhere, at any time! Or, even worse, the technique could fall into the hands of a rival village!"
"He was already hunted, just for the fact that he was a jinchuuriki," Tsunade commented idly, her expression visibly bored. "His life has been in danger since he was born. All I've done is give him another way to keep himself and those he cares about safe. Since you're here and he and Kushina aren't, it looks like it's working out perfectly to me."
"What you have done," Yugito repeated slowly. "You make it sound like you gave him the Hiraishin."
Tsunade grimaced briefly, then returned to her bored expression. "I helped him get access to it, yes."
"Which means you had access to it."
"Not at all," Tsunade replied. "Through various circumstances, I had one of the keys, but not all of them and I didn't have access to the safe."
Yugito wasn't convinced, but didn't push for now. She would mention the possibility that Tsunade Senju - and wasn't that going to create a furor all on its own - also knew the Hiraishin, and had openly confirmed that Naruto Yamanaka had access to it.
"What are your intentions? What is Naruto Yamanaka aiming to do? Why was he..." Yugito trailed off, her eyes narrowing in thought.
The Kyuubi jinchuuriki's movements had already been suspicious simply based on his travel speed, but knowing now that he had the Hiraishin and could use it, they made even less sense. And then there was what he was saying when Akatsuki showed up, and the way he tried to talk Kushina down...
"He wanted to get captured," Yugito muttered. She looked up at Tsunade accusingly, frowning darkly. "With the Hiraishin, he could have escaped easily, and we wouldn't have known to even try to counter it, if we even could. He kept talking about Akatsuki, like he was... what? Trying to warn us?"
Tsunade looked thoughtful. "I can't tell you what he was thinking. We've been looking for him since he went missing, just like everyone else. Kushina bolted at the first solid lead we had, and clearly managed to make contact with him. If he was trying to warn you, however, I think you'd be smart to listen."
Yugito remained tense as she eyed Tsunade. "You have to know that I can't just let you leave, now. You know far too much that could be critically important to Kumo."
Tsunade smiled wryly and nodded. "I figured something like this was coming."
"Look," Yugito said slowly, "if you come with me willingly, and just talk to the Raikage, I'm sure we can work things out. You personally haven't done anything to Kumo, you saved me, and your information about Akatsuki could save lives. We might even be able to do something about Kushina - if she agrees to stay out of Kumo territory from now on, we could possibly not actively pursue her, perhaps. Something," Yugito offered.
"How about everything I know about Akatsuki and your rescue in exchange for not putting a bounty out on Kushina? If individual ninja want to pursue their own revenge, well... it's their funeral."
"That might work," Yugito allowed, surprised at how accepting Tsunade was about this whole thing.
"Good enough," Tsunade replied, nodding sharply. "You'll find everything I've got on Akatsuki written there," she said, pointing to the stack of paper at her feet, "including speculation about their total membership, base of operation, everything."
Yugito glanced down at the papers, back to Tsunade, then sighed. "You're a clone, aren't you? Fucking Konoha and their fucking shadow clones," she growled.
Tsunade shrugged, a wide grin blooming on her face. "I didn't really feel like dealing with you if you woke up in a foul mood," she commented. "The paper's real enough."
Her face darkened as she fixed Yugito with a glare. "I'm sure the might of Kumo could take the two of us out eventually, but I'd think about just how much damage we could do before that happens if I were you. This is a fight neither of us wants or needs, and I'm content to let it end here. If you really want to push us... well, my godson is a jinchuuriki who can use the Hiraishin," she added, her face twisting into a dark grin before she burst into smoke.
Yugito scanned the area, checking for any signs of deception or impending attack, then sighed and rubbed her face wearily. This was far from her finest hour as a kunoichi, and she was probably in for it when the Raikage found out just how badly this mission had gone.
Standing with a sigh, she gathered up the papers, scanning through them and noting that Tsunade had been honest as far as the contents went. She began to move away before pausing and looking back at the fire.
The flames were stretching towards her, pulsing in time with the blood pounding in her veins and the suppressed anger that thrummed through her body. Her face twisted into a snarl as she slashed her hand through the air, causing the fire to tear itself apart into small sparks that swiftly burned themselves out.
By the time the last spark faded, she had already vanished.
~ Scene Break ~
"... and after seeing those memories, feeling like they were my own..." Kuushou trailed off, an earnest expression on his face. "I couldn't just ignore it, not anymore. It would have been like someone had abducted Ino and locked her away simply to steal her power."
Kushina had a pained expression on her face as she slowly nodded.
"I told Ino about it, and she agreed with me. Then Gaara showed up in Konoha, and I had the chance to prove once and for all that the memories were real or not." He didn't have to fake the rage that rippled over his face. "They were torturing him," he spat.
She jerked in her seat, one hand reaching out towards him for a moment before it fell back to her side. "Torturing... Gaara?" she asked hesitantly.
He smiled wryly. "Him as well, it turned out. But no, I meant the Bijuu Gaara had sealed within him. There was no reason for it, no benefit to the village, just endless pain and agony while they stripped away his power. They abused jinchuuriki and Bijuu alike, all because they wanted more power for themselves."
Kushina's face twisted, a small bit of killing intent leaking out as her eyes grew distant. "Yes," she muttered, "that's what they do. They just take and take, not caring who gets hurt in the process."
Ino shifted uncomfortably. "They aren't all like that," she protested. "Konoha didn't-"
Kushina's eyes snapped to hers, and Ino flinched back in her chair. Kushina blinked at the reaction before she visibly calmed herself. "Konoha," she replied after a moment, "took my son from me. They weren't nearly as cruel to him as other villages were, but don't pretend that they haven't taken their own steps to secure their power."
His sister nodded reluctantly, and Kushina slowly relaxed.
"After fixing Gaara's seal, I knew we had to make sure the others weren't in the same situation. I tried various things, and was even making some headway in Konoha, but then the Iwa invasion happened and Akatsuki made their move. They've already captured four of the Bijuu, and they are openly using them as weapons to attack the other villages. They were after Gaara and I both, and nearly killed Ino when they attacked some of the Konoha reserves as a diversion.
"After that, I knew I couldn't afford to waste time playing with Konoha. I could do much more acting on freely than I could tied down by Konoha's rules and regulations. At the same time, I couldn't dismiss the advantages of having a village's resources at my disposal. Which is how I ended up here."
Kushina frowned, her eyes narrowing as she looked around the basement again. "You haven't said where we are," she pointed out.
Kuushou opened his mouth to reply, but stopped when he sensed Itachi and the Mizukage approaching the house. He glanced over at Ino, who met his gaze with a slightly worried expression.
"They're early," he muttered in annoyance. "Delay them for a few minutes," he told her, and she nodded before standing and heading for the stairs.
His container's mother looked on in confusion, but he pulled her attention back to him. "Kaa-san," he said, "there's still a lot to tell you, but there's some things you need to know right now.
"First, in order to get the people I'm working with to take me seriously, I had to convince them I wasn't just a jinchuuriki - I had to convince them I was the Bijuu itself."
Her eyes widened in shock. "How- why would they think that?"
"I have all of its memories, which includes how to control its energy like it was my own," he told her, letting a stream of youki emerge from his hand. Kushina watched in fascination, and then smiled widely for some strange reason.
"Like mother like son," she said, pride evident in her voice.
He didn't quite understand what she meant by that, but pushed ahead. "The other is that I had a contact here, one I've actually known for a very long time. Despite what you may think, he is not now and never has been an enemy, nor has he ever had any ill intent towards me."
Her brow furrowed. "Why would I think that he did?"
Kuushou laughed lowly at that. "Because the contact is Itachi Uchiha."
Kushina was on her feet the next moment, the chair she had been sitting in launching backwards to tumble end over end and slam against the wall. One hand reached over her shoulder to grasp at the air, while the other curled into a fist.
"He's here?" she spat.
"He's an ally," Kuushou insisted calmly.
"He tried to kill you!"
"That entire scene was staged."
"Staged?" Kushina let out in a strangled yelp. "I got the report directly from Shizune-chan! You were mere inches away from death!"
Kuushou shook his head before stepping forward to place his hands on Kushina's shoulders and fix her with a calm and serious gaze. "I was never at risk. At no point did Itachi threaten me or inflict serious harm. That entire situation was set up to allow him to escape Konoha while drawing attention to himself and away from me. He has helped me several times in the past, and is at least partially responsible for allowing us to reunite now."
Kushina's face crumpled, tears leaking from her eyes as she wrapped her arms around him. "I missed so much," she whispered to herself.
"It's not your fault," he assured her, returning the hug. "You're here now, that's the important thing."
Her arms tightened, and they remained like that until he sensed Ino and their guests approaching the stairs. He gently shook her loose, letting her know that they would soon have company. She hastily wiped her eyes and straightened her clothing, dropping into a professional demeanor with surprising speed.
"... so you don't have any reason to worry," Ino was saying as she walked down the steps.
"I disagree," came Mei Terumi's flat reply. She was wearing her customary blue dress while her red hair spilled down her back and across her chest. Her eyes flicked around the room the moment it was in view, honing in on Kushina and narrowing. "First you disappear after leaving the village, and then you return without passing through any of our gates or encountering any of our patrols. Not only that, but you have brought someone else back with you, again without prior warning."
Itachi's reaction was much more muted, but Kuushou caught the brief hesitation in his gait as he realized who was in the basement. His eyes settled on Kuushou, narrowing slightly, and a small quirk at his lips suggested a frown.
"Is this going to be a problem, Naruto-kun?" Itachi asked, stopping at the bottom of the steps while Mei continued forward for a few steps.
"I don't know, Itachi," Kushina growled. Kuushou could see her muscles dancing beneath her skin as she struggled to keep herself under control. "You ran away before we'd finished our... discussion the last time."
Ino palmed her face, sighing, while Mei looked back and forth between the two suspiciously. "Do you know her, Itachi?" she asked, the warning in her voice clear to everyone in the room.
"We have met," Itachi replied shortly, not moving from the foot of the stairs.
"He tried to kill my son," Kushina answered.
"Which was faked," Kuushou reminded her.
Mei's glanced between them before understanding bloomed. "Kushina Uzumaki, I take it?" Her eyes drifted between them, her mind clearly working on how and why Kushina would still support him, despite his true identity.
Kushina nodded tersely, not even glancing away from Itachi to acknowledge the other woman.
"So now you've brought a foreign ninja into my village," Mei groaned, turning back to Kuushou. "You have done much for us, Kuushou-san, but there are limits to what I can accept. I need to know how Ino and now Kushina have managed to slip into my village undetected, and why."
"Your village," Kushina repeated, finally looking away from Itachi and taking in Mei's form for the first time. "Mei Terumi, Mizukage," she recited dully, clearly recognizing the woman now that she'd actually looked at her. She turned to Kuushou. "You've been hiding in Kiri?"
"Yes," Kuushou answered Kushina, then turned back to Mei. "How exactly did you know Kushina was here, anyway? She hasn't been out of this basement since she arrived. Not even Itachi knew she was here yet."
"We have our ways," the Mizukage answered vaguely. "How can you not know you were in Kiri?" she asked suspiciously.
"Easy," Ino chimed in, grinning. She waited until Mei was looking at her before disappearing and reappearing next to Kushina. "She took a shortcut."
Mei slowly turned, her eyes wide and disbelieving. "That was..." she breathed.
"The Hiraishin," Itachi finished, finally moving deeper into the room.
"You knew?" Mei asked, whirling on Itachi.
He shook his head. "I did not. I was not informed of this part of the plan," he said, his eyes lingering on Kuushou and somehow conveying his irritation without changing facial expression or tone. "However, what she did was not merely move quickly, but instantaneously move from one place to another. There is only one technique capable of that."
Ino's grin grew wider. "It's awesome," she agreed.
"I don't suppose you would consider sharing this technique," Mei said, her eyes studying Ino intently.
Kuushou let out a sharp bark of laughter, not even bothering to reply to that suggestion.
"So this was your grand plan? Sneak Kushina Uzumaki into the middle of my village using the Hiraishin? What was the purpose of all this?"
"Hardly," Kuushou replied. "The plan was to retrieve either the Nibi or the Hachibi from Kumo. That was going well until Akatsuki interfered. Now Kumo has been attacked in their own territory, possibly losing a jinchuuriki in the process."
Mei understood the ramifications of that immediately. She paled slightly and let out a slow sigh. "And so Kumo has the excuse to mobilize their forces they've been looking for. And with former Konoha ninja involved," she added, nodding towards Kuushou, "they may just decide to take a swing at Konoha while they're after Akatsuki... assuming they don't just blame Konoha outright.
"And, since Kiri has been sheltering Konoha's missing jinchuuriki, along with three other Konoha missing-nin, there's plenty of reason to pull us into it as well if they wanted to."
She let out a low chuckle, shaking her head. "And I suppose your original plan would have been to come to me, either with a jinchuuriki willing to turn against Kumo or a freed Bijuu, and call for Kiri to start moving as well. Now we have to respond, simply to be prepared in the event that Kumo turns their sights on us."
She began pacing back and forth, one hand idly playing with the hair draped across her chest. "If they truly have lost a jinchuuriki, the Raikage will move to get the other villages involved, simply to spread the risk out and cover more ground. They don't know about our alliance yet, and the longer we keep it hidden the better." Her eyes drifted over to Ino. "Even if you don't share the Hiraishin, you now have a massive advantage in mobility. If the stories are correct, you need to have a kunai to warp to, yes?"
"It doesn't have to be a kunai," Ino replied, shrugging, "but I need something to attach the anchor seal to, yeah."
"Kiri can assist in spreading those far and wide as needed, in exchange for your assistance in certain matters. I think we would both profit from that," Mei continued.
Ino didn't answer immediately, but she was clearly interested.
Mei's eyes turned to Kushina, sweeping over her form carefully. "Kiri has heard many rumors about the prowess of Sword and Hammer. To the best of our knowledge, you have never directly opposed us or our efforts, so I do not believe there will be any issues in working with you. Will Tsunade-san also be joining you?"
"Eventually," Kushina answered evasively.
"Let her know that Kiri would welcome the opportunity to work with her, especially if she can contribute as much medical expertise as Kuushou-san. I also note that you do not have a sword at the moment...," Mei said, a small smile growing on her face. "Have you misplaced it?"
"It was destroyed," Kushina replied sourly, her hands clenching. "I haven't had time to get a replacement."
"Kiri has the finest swordsmiths in the Elemental Nations. I'm sure you will be able to find a blade to your liking here. Or...," she trailed off thoughtfully, her smile growing wider.
"Tell me, Kushina-san, what's your view of the Seven Swordsmen?"
~ Scene Break ~
Nagato stared impassively at Deidara as the missing-nin finished explaining what had happened.
The former Iwa ninja had burns criss-crossing his arms and torso, with one particularly long, thin line running across his cheek and into a small, stubbly patch of hair on his head. His face had twisted slightly in pain several times throughout his explanation, indicating that either the burns or other wounds he had sustained were still bothering him.
Fuu was barely functional. She had trouble focusing for more than a few seconds before her eyes grew distant and a vapid smile appeared on her face. Fortunately, Deidara had developed a method of keeping her, if not cognizant, then at least placid. He would gently touch her every few seconds, stroking her hair or holding her hand or wrapping her in a brief hug, which served to draw her attention back to him. He then quickly retreated, calming her down as she began to take the contact as a signal for something else. She would soon begin to drift back into her haze, and the cycle would repeat.
Konan had been the worst off, and hadn't even been conscious when they had arrived. According to Deidara, she had attempted to treat her own wounds, attached several seals to her body, then placed herself in a coma. Nagato had recognized some of the same stasis seals that had kept his arm from completely withering away when he looked her over. He was worried for her state, but had already ordered his ninja to take her to the hospital immediately. His initial plan had been to stay by her side as much as he could while she recovered, but Konan herself apparently had other ideas.
"You are certain," Nagato said slowly.
Deidara met his gaze calmly, if a little nervously. "Yeah, un. She made sure I got it right before she knocked herself out, un."
"The Kyuubi is capable of using the Hiraishin."
He let out a slow breath as he closed his eyes. Several seconds passed in silence, even Fuu sensing the rising tension in the room and reacting to it by making herself as unnoticeable as she could.
"See to your wounds, and to Fuu," he said finally, still not opening his eyes. "Report back to me in three days. You may go."
"Come on, un," Deidara muttered, and there was a rustle of cloth and the soft echo of quiet footsteps.
Nagato remained still for several minutes, his thoughts whirling as he tried to find any way in which this latest mission wasn't a disaster. They had openly attacked Kumo, failed to capture the Nibi, and all three members of the team were injured. None had died, fortunately, or suffered permanent injuries - he hoped, in Konan's case - but other than that it was a complete failure.
And the Hiraishin... that technique, in the hands of the Fourth Hokage, had brought Iwa to its knees during the Third War - and that had been a very brief application of it. The true limitations of the technique were unknown, but the sheer mobility it gave to the user was an incredible advantage.
And it was now in the hands of their greatest enemy.
He finally opened his eyes and turned on his heels, moving at a rapid pace towards the more secluded part of their base of operations. The few ninja allowed in this area gave him wide berth as he passed, some blanching and paling as they caught sight of his form. He attempted to rein in his emotions, but ultimately paid them little attention as he focused on his destination.
He came to a stop outside a large wooden door and paused for a moment to gather his self-control. When he felt he was ready, he knocked sharply and then pushed the door open.
The interior of the room was a study in contrasts. Seal diagrams and notes were strewn about chaotically, splotched with spilled ink or crumpled into wads and tossed carelessly into a corner. Discarded clothing and bits of food and drink were mixed in as well, and there was a faint but persistent odor of stale wine.
In the middle of the room, however, was an oasis of perfect order. A wide circular area stood clear of any debris or even dust, as if the accumulated mess was held back by an invisible barrier. Inside that circle was a large seal design, nearly four feet across, and every inch of it was covered in precise and intricate markings. Even without knowing the purpose and function of each, he could still appreciate the sheer artistry of its construction.
Whatever its function, it was beautiful, and clearly the work of a master of his craft. The man responsible for that was currently bent over the design, his brush moving in sure, rapid strokes as he filled in another section.
Nagato couldn't help the frown that crossed his face as he took in his former teacher's appearance. Jiraiya's hair was a tangled, unkempt mass of white that hung in thick clumps around his head and face. His distinctive clothing had been cast aside for a crumpled brown robe that hung loosely from his frame. His face had a slightly pinched look about it, as if he had not been eating well, and his face and hands were practically covered in ink.
It was his eyes that worried him the most, however. Jiraiya's eyes burned with a feverish light, and his expression had a strange intensity about it that he could never recall seeing until the last few months.
Jiraiya gave no sign that he had noticed his entrance, but Nagato waited patiently rather than disturbing the man in his work. After a few minutes, Jiraiya finally stepped back, setting the brush aside and wiping his hands over his face, smearing even more ink and sweat across his features.
"Ah, Nagato!" Jiraiya called out, a smile crossing his face as he finally acknowledged him. "Come to admire my work?"
"Not today, Sensei," Nagato replied. "Konan just returned."
"Gotcha. So you need me to tweak the Nibi jinchuuriki's seal. Can do, can do. I'll have to figure out just what seal they used, of course, but I should be able to pull out at least a forty percent increase in available energy, and that's just-"
"They did not capture the Nibi, Sensei."
A dark look crossed Jiraiya's face. "It got away?" he growled. "I warned you about The Enemy's abilities, Nagato! You should have been prepared! You should have-"
"The Kyuubi knows the Hiraishin," Nagato interrupted before Jiraiya could get lost in his rant.
Jiraiya abruptly cut off, his eyes bulging widely.
"It... it stole Minato's technique?" he snarled. "How could it have- the house! Minato's workshop! Dammit, Tsunade! Why did you let it in? How could you-"
"Sensei!" Nagato yelled, pulling Jiraiya's attention back. "Do you know the limitations of the Hiraishin? Do you know how it can be countered?"
Jiraiya looked at him oddly for a moment, like he didn't quite understand the question, then started nodding slowly. "I helped Minato with that, you know," he said wistfully. "That sealing array was when I first realized that he'd finally surpassed me as a seal master. Proudest moment of my life, like my own so-" he cut off abruptly, looking away.
After a few moments, he turned back to Nagato. "Yeah, I know the limitations. You have to have a anchor tag to travel to. That's it."
"That's the only limitation? Is there a limit to the distance traveled? Is the cost excessive?"
"No limit on the distance, and according to Minato it's actually pretty cheap, comparatively. All of the real work happens in the seals, and there's no way to keep a seal from-"
He stopped abruptly, a stunned expression crossing his face. Then, slowly, he began to grin. He soon started laughing, the sound full of vicious delight and joy. Eventually he recovered, scurrying over to a desk and sweeping the accumulated off to the floor. He pulled out a clean set of scrolls and began scribbling rapidly, muttering to himself as he did so.
Nagato watched him for a minute, then turned and left the room. Sensei rarely paid attention to anything around him when he got like that, and it would be some time before he snapped out of it. By the sound of it, he may have had an idea that could limit the effectiveness of the Hiraishin, so it was best to leave him to it.
His thoughts turned to his next destination, one that he looked forward to even less than his visit to Jiraiya's workshop. The reasons were very different, however, as under normal circumstances he would have taken any excuse to spend more time with his son.
It was time for his son to take up his role as a Guardian, however, and he did not look forward to bringing his son into the world of ninja. Part of him had hoped this day would come in the distant future, or not at all. The failure of the latest mission and the knowledge that the Kyuubi, and the Bijuu in general, were only growing more powerful with time meant that delay was no longer an option.
He approached the rooms reserved for himself and his family, steeling himself for what he was about to do. He knew Konan would understand why he was doing this, why he had to do this, but she would probably like it even less than he did.
He finally came to the room directly across from his own and pushed open the door. For once, the room was actually in good order - the books were placed on their shelves or stacked on the desk, Yahiko's discarded clothing placed in a basket, and no trash or other mess scattered around the floor. The only sign of disorder was the slightly ruffled appearance of the bed.
His eyes finally settled on his son, who looked up from the scroll he had been reading and grinned widely from his perch on his desk chair.
"Dad!" Yahiko called out as he launched himself forward. Nagato reflexively caught him, swinging him around in a wide circle before setting the giggling boy back on his feet.
"Is Mom back yet?" Yahiko asked then, putting on his best pleading expression.
"Not yet," Nagato replied. He would wait until Konan was in a more stable condition before letting Yahiko know about that aspect of the situation.
"Aww...," Yahiko muttered, his face falling. He recovered quickly, though, and looked back up with a wide smile on his face. "Are you here to play with me?"
"Not this time, Yahiko," Nagato said. "I'm actually here to..." he trailed off, noting the way Yahiko's lips were twitching as he fought back a smile.
"Yahiko..." he said sternly.
His son burst out laughing, stepping back and spinning in delighted circles as the sound filled the room. "I got you, I got you, I got you!" he chanted.
"Yahiko," Nagato began again, "what have I told you about doing this outside of training?"
"Not to!" Yahiko giggled, hopping up and sitting in midair. His small form began rotating sideways, spinning in small circles as he orbited Nagato. His hair shifted from the light blue of its normal hue to a deep red much like Nagato's own, then shifted back upon it was predominantly blue with dark red streaks.
"Stop playing, Yahiko," Nagato commanded sternly. "I am here to talk to you, man to man, ninja to ninja. Of course, if you can't behave..."
Yahiko's form vanished abruptly. Nagato blinked and shook his head, taking in the suddenly messy state of his son's room, the discarded clothing scattered around the floor or shoved in one corner and the books and papers strewn haphazardly on his desk. The covers of the bed were on the floor instead of only slightly ruffled, and he could make out what looked like a technique scroll poking out of the pile of cloth.
The boy himself scrambled out of his desk chair, looking just like the illusion that had managed to completely fool him.
"I can behave!" Yahiko said quickly, coming to a stop in front of his father and adopting a serious expression. "See? The real me, front and center!"
Nagato dropped down to one knee, placing his hands on his son's shoulders and regarding him seriously. "I have talked to you about your duty as a Guardian before, have I not?"
"Yes, Father," Yahiko replied soberly. "One day I'll be working right beside you and Mom and Fuu-nee-chan and Kyoko and... and I'll make Jun proud of me," he finished, his expression falling for a moment.
Nagato squeezed his son's shoulder comfortingly. "I'm sure Jun was already proud of you," he told him. "He often told me he couldn't wait for you to join the Guardians as well."
Yahiko nodded silently, sniffling for a moment.
"In fact, I think you're finally ready, Yahiko," Nagato continued. His son's face lit up, and he smiled warmly. "There's a very important mission that only you can do. In fact, we're going to fight back against some of the people responsible for Jun's loss. Are you ready to help me with that, son?"
Yahiko nodded rapidly, a fierce expression on his face. "I am!" he said firmly.
Nagato pulled him into a sideways hug, smiling down at his son's eagerness. "With your help, son, we'll make sure Jun can rest easy knowing that his loss was avenged."
~ Scene Break ~
Kiku Yamanaka smiled and waved as her customer walked out of her shop with her purchase. The small bell placed above the doorway jingled happily as the door swung closed, leaving her alone in the store for the time being. Her husband was in a meeting with Shikaku - the new Hokage, which was gradually getting less and less strange as time passed - and Naruto and Ino were-
She bent over the counter, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands gripping the edge of the scarred wooden surface so tightly her fingers turned white.
She'd promised herself she wouldn't do this. They were alive, they were safe, they would come home in time. Naruto wouldn't let anything happen to Ino, and Ino would keep Naruto grounded and focused. Hatake-san and Hinata-chan were looking for them too, so it was just a matter of time.
They were alive, they were safe, they would come home in time.
Kiku drew in a ragged breath and quickly wiped her eyes before straightening. She was just glad that no one had been in the shop to see her momentary loss of control; she'd told Inoichi that she was handling the situation just fine, and she'd be damned if she gave him any reason to worry about her in addition to their missing children.
She focused on straightening up the area behind the counter, filing away receipts and sweeping up fallen petals and bits of dirt. After a few minutes, the bell above the door rang again and she looked up to greet her next customer.
It was a young girl, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. She had straight brown hair that fell to her shoulders and lightly tanned skin. Her pale blue sun dress hung from her shoulders to past her knees, the bottom swirling around the girl's calves as she turned to push the door shut. Her brown eyes scanned the shop slowly, taking it in with an odd intensity before finally settling on Kiku.
"Welcome to Tanaka Flowers! I'm Kiku Yamanaka," Kiku called out, smiling softly.
The girl just stared for several seconds, then a wide smile bloomed on her face and she stepped forward.
"You have a wonderful shop," she said.
"Thank you," Kiku replied, her cheeks dimpling. "Is there anything in particular you were looking for?"
"I was looking for something for my mother," the girl said. "I haven't seen her for a while and I wanted to get something nice for her."
"How sweet!" Kiku said, focusing on the customer and pushing aside the thoughts her story stirred up. "I would suggest an arrangement of white anemones and dark red carnations, both of which we currently have available."
The girl nodded. "That would be beautiful! One of my friends told me that I should get an arrangement of irises and white chrysanthemums, though."
Kiku nodded thoughtfully. "We have those as well... does your mother follow the meanings of flowers at all?" she asked.
"She loves flowers," the girl replied, "so she must. Why?"
"Well, the arrangement your friend mentioned would mean 'good news' and 'truth,' which is certainly a nice sentiment. However, white anemones represent sincerity and dark red carnations represent deep love and affection, which would mean a great deal to your mother coming from you, I think."
The girl nodded thoughtfully, bringing up one hand to tuck her hair back behind her ear. "I see... I guess there's a lot more to this than I thought. I see why my friend suggested those, but I really like the meaning behind your arrangement, too." The girl scanned the shop for a moment. "I'd kinda like to get both, actually, but... I don't get to see my mom as much as I'd like, but I want her to know that I'm safe and happy despite that. Are there flowers for something like that?"
Kiku thought for a moment. "Well, nothing that specific, but-"
The doorbell rang again, and she turned away for a moment to greet the new customer. Her smile widened when she realized it was her husband returning early from his meeting with Shikaku. He waved and smiled back as he shut the door, then turned to nod at the girl standing next to her.
Kiku gasped and whirled as she heard a soft thump behind her and turned to find her husband pinning the girl against the wall, one arm pressed against her throat and holding her off of the ground while the other held her wrist and was twisting and extending her arm in what looked like a painful manner.
"Dispel the henge," he ordered, his voice cold and harsh.
"You're good... I didn't think anyone would catch that. Still... you're overreacting, don't you think?" the girl wheezed out, making no move to resist.
"An unknown ninja approached my wife while concealing their identity; be glad I haven't killed you already. Now, I won't ask again: dispel the henge." He accompanied his words with a sharp twist on the girl's hand, and Kiku felt a little sick when she clearly heard the dull crack of bone.
And then gaped in shock when the girl burst into a cloud of smoke.
Inoichi stumbled forward for a moment, but quickly righted himself. He stared at the rapidly dissipating smoke for a moment, then turned and moved towards her. He pulled her into his arms, one hand stroking her back soothingly while the other cupped her cheek.
"Are you alright, Kiku? They didn't do anything, did they?"
Kiku felt herself shaking slightly as she processed what had just happened. "No... no, I mean, yes, I'm fine. No, they didn't do anything. She was just... ordering flowers for her mother. I didn't even realize she was a ninja. She didn't do anything strange or threatening at all."
"Good," Inoichi breathed, his arms tightening for a moment. "Good. They must have wanted something, though. What exactly did they say?"
Before Kiku could reply, a masked and cloaked ninja appeared next to them. She gasped in surprise, noting absently that she hadn't even heard the bell ring.
"Yamanaka-san, the Hokage requires your presence immediately."
"What? I just left Shika a minute ago. Besides, my wife was just-"
"Immediately, Yamanaka-san. The Hokage was quite specific."
"I'm not leaving my wife alone," Inoichi snapped.
The ANBU paused for a moment, then nodded. "She may come with us, or you may drop her off somewhere along the way. Nonetheless, I must escort you to the Hokage as soon as possible."
Inoichi calmed down slightly, then turned to look at Kiku.
"I'll be fine, and Shikaku isn't one to use words like 'immediately' on a whim. Just drop me off with the Akimichi's," she said. "Akimi should be at home, and there are plenty of ninja around should something else happen. It's on the way to the Tower anyway."
"Alright," Inoichi nodded reluctantly.
~ Scene Break ~
The door opened with more force than strictly necessary to admit a visibly irritated Inoichi Yamanaka. His gaze honed in on the hooded figure sitting across from the Hokage, and he paused a moment to gain control of himself.
"Reporting as ordered, Hokage-sama," Inoichi said professionally, taking up station across from the desk.
"Thank you for coming, Inoichi," Shikaku said, his eyes locked on the figure sitting across from him. "I knew you'd want to be here, and your insight will be invaluable."
Inoichi's brow wrinkled slightly, but before he could ask anything the figure spoke up.
"Come on, Shikaku-jii-san, you don't need to be so uptight," the figure said, sweeping back the hood of the cloak and revealing her blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. She turned a beaming smile to Inoichi as she bounced to her feet. "Hey, Tou-chan!"
He just gaped as Ino pulled him into a hug, grunting in surprise when her powerful arms squeezed tightly.
Ino giggled as she stepped back. Her grin turned into a smirk as she raised her hand and wiggled her wrist back and forth, shaking her head in mock disapproval.
"I told you you were overreacting, Dad."
"That- that was you? Why would you have to hide your identity from your own mother?" He paused, his expression growing more wary as his gaze sharpened.
"No henge this time," she said, settling back into her seat. She then shook her finger at her father, saying, "Just don't go breaking my wrist again, or I'll have to make another clone!"
"It's her, 'Ichi," Shikaku said calmly, "or at least a shadow clone of her."
"A shadow clone?" her dad asked dully as he turned back to her. "Why would you- since when do you know the shadow clone?"
"Naruto knows some very interesting people," Ino replied evasively.
Inoichi paused, glancing over at Shikaku. "Ino, we know about what Naruto really-"
"He is not a what!" Ino snapped angrily. "I know exactly who Naruto is, and I've known longer than either of you have. Whether you call him Naruto or Kuushou, he's the same person he's always been."
"Ino," her father began again, his hands raised placatingly, "I know how much Naruto means to you, but-"
"There is no but, Tou-chan," Ino interrupted him. "He's my little brother, and that's all there is to it. Or are you going to try to ignore the years he lived with us, all the time we spent together? How about the time he saved my life?"
"I'm not ignoring any of it!" Inoichi shot back. "But he was lying to us the entire time! He used us!"
Ino smiled wryly. "Of course he did, Tou-chan. Just like Konoha used him, like the ninja use all of the Bijuu. You kept him trapped and sealed away, and would have been perfectly happy to throw away the key if you could get away with it. Do you expect him to just accept that?"
"No, we don't," Shikaku interjected smoothly. "And the Sandaime was taking steps to work with Kuushou, a process which I attempted to continue. I had the impression that we were well on our way to establishing a solid foundation for a strong relationship between us, when he - and you - just disappeared during the middle of the attack on Iwagakure."
Ino grimaced. "I'm afraid that was my fault... sort of," she admitted. "When Akkai's jinchuuriki attacked the outpost where I was stationed, Naruto was busy fighting off Orochimaru at the time and couldn't help or even respond. If I hadn't managed to escape, I would have died. As it was, I was really hurt and in very bad shape."
She shook her head in exasperated fondness. "He decided that he had to focus on keeping me safe rather than working with Konoha, at least until I could handle myself better. And so he left, and took me with him."
"That's his excuse for going missing-nin?" Shikaku asked flatly. "What could he have done to keep you safe out in the wilderness that he couldn't have done here just as easily, if not more so?"
Ino smirked. "He might object to being labeled as a missing-nin - that assumes that he was serving Konoha to begin with. As for what he did... this and that. To hear him tell it, Konoha was getting very nosy about his activity, and there are some things he didn't want getting out."
"Would that have something to do with the fact that you currently have more than three times as much chakra in a shadow clone as your real body could have held just a few months ago?" Shikaku asked pointedly.
Her smirk widened into a proud grin. "Little brother does good work," was all she said, however.
"Ino... you aren't here to return to Konoha, are you?" Inoichi asked quietly.
"Sorry, Tou-chan," Ino replied gently, giving him a sad smile. "I'd love to spend more time with you and Kaa-chan, but Naruto needs me."
"We're your family, too, Ino."
Her lips trembled and her smile wavered for a moment, but she quickly mastered herself. "Yes, you are, and I love you both," she said fiercely. Her expression shifted, growing calmer and more confident as she added firmly, "What I am doing with Naruto is going to keep all of my family safe. I can't do that if I stay in Konoha."
"And just what are you doing, Ino?" Shikaku asked. "What did you return to Konoha for, if you aren't going to stay?"
Ino turned to face Shikaku directly, squaring her shoulders. "Hokage-sama, as the designated ambassador of the Free Bijuu to Konohagakure no Sato, I am here to discuss the terms of a treaty between our peoples and an alliance against our common enemy, the criminal organization known as Akatsuki."
~ End Chapter ~
A/N: As always, thanks for reading and thanks for all the reviews!