Thank you for waiting for this long overdue update. All I can say is life interfered. The writers among those who read my chapters know of what I speak, I think! Please continue to grace me with your precious readership and critiques.
Ultimately, I've realised i write not for myself but for you, the reader. I'll try my best to be more timely with my updates.
And I wish anyone who reads this a most prosperous and fortunate 2015!
The burial of Gaara was an occasion as solemn as any Naruto had attended. No expression, not even a sliver of sadness crossed his face as he watched the Jinchuuriki lowered carefully into his grave, accompanied by the tears of only his siblings and Yugito. No one else from Suna had bothered to turn up for their former Ichibi Jinchuuriki's funeral save for the other Jinchuuriki and the sand siblings. As the headstone was erected with Gaara's name upon it, Naruto reflected quietly to the Kyuubi. Why did Rikodou even bother with separating the Ten Tails' chakra, Kurama? He should have known that the greed of men would turn his gift into a curse soon enough. Sometimes I feel despair for these foolish Shinobi…we wretches who cannot learn from generations of death and misery.
Cynical of you, but very true, Hashirama. I must admit that the Sage made a mistake with his divide and conquer policy. But then again, if he had kept us as one…no one could have possibly defeated the Juubi. Well, perhaps Indra and Ashura could have done it if they fought together but that was never going to happen. Those two brats were as bad as Madara and you, replied the Kyuubi sagely as Gaara was covered by earth completely. Temari's lost wails tugged on Naruto's heartstrings, and Kankuro's still shocked look was painful to see. The pain of losing your beloved sibling was harder to accept than anything else, and never did heal. Itama and Kawarama's premature deaths still weighed on his psyche, no matter the years that had passed.
"That was gracious of the Raikage, allowing Gaara to be buried here", he said softly to Yugito.
"Our last rest should be where our heart was", she replied quietly, and walked away with Bee. Naruto watched as the two Jinchuuriki departed with body flickers, leaving him with Gaara's grave and the sand siblings. A small wind blew in the desert, causing his shoulder length hair to whip around chaotically. He could feel Temari's stare at him, and he looked at her with compassion. "What will you do now, Temari-san?", he asked gently. Kankuro was paying no attention to their conversation as he stared at Gaara's headstone only. Temari wiped her eyes in reply, and sniffed.
"What will I do? I will fight on for my village, Naruto-san. Can I ask something of you?"
"Please do", invited Naruto. Temari sighed as she started tugging on Kankuro's hand as if prompting him to attention. "I knew exactly what my brother underwent as a Jinchuuriki. All I ask is this: in my brother's memory please don't let the Akatsuki gain any more Bijuu. I want no one to undergo our loss, with no one to mourn them but one or two friends. Can you do that?", she asked intently. Naruto nodded respectfully, the idea he had conceived on the return journey to Suna taking stronger shape in his mind. There was no way to fight the Akatsuki with divisive tactics; there was no way the Alliance of Kumo and Konoha could fight them all separately.
Even if Kiri weaseled out for neutrality's sake, he had to get Kumo on Konoha's side. The Akatsuki bloc was already too strong with Ame, Iwa, and many other minor villages already forming an alliance. I can leave the alliance of nations to Danzo. He will carry it out with more ruthlessness than Tsunade ever will, thought Naruto. But his train of thought was interrupted by a certain highly annoying fox. Exactly what gives you the authority to make decisions for your village? You are neither the Hokage, nor on the Council. You are merely a famous Jounin now, the fox said slyly.
Famous being the keyword. They will listen to me when I put forth my proposal, Kyuubi.
Well, you really have changed. Who would have thought Hashirama Senju would actually desire war as a means to peace? Your plan to assault Iwa with a high-damage battalion is a good one, but what will you do if the Akatsuki comes out in full force? You simply got Pain by surprise back there. He will not be caught by that technique a second time,pointed out the fox. Naruto sighed. In his mind, he had already drawn up the battle plans and the members; it was convincing the Kage that would be the problem. Adjusting his white trench coat painted with the Senju double trident on the back, he looked out at the vast expanse of the desert. It was perfect for open battle, and perfect for the techniques he liked to use.
But all that could wait. This mission had drained much from him, and he sought the company of his wife. Mito had gone off god knows where, and after three years Naruto couldn't wait to join her in her endeavour. It was why he had sent the rest of the ANBU their way, asking them to report to Konoha on his behalf and tell the Hokage that he was joining Mito at Kiri. You're right. It's totally not because you're afraid of failure reporting, said the Kyuubi sarcastically which he duly ignored. Perhaps he was not keen on reporting his first failure in a long time to his granddaughter, but the truth was he needed Mito. And seeing his mother again wouldn't be bad either.
The sand around him stirred as he disappeared with a Shunshin. Oh you blind bat of a former Hokage, sighed Kyuubi as he raced through the desert towards the direction of Kirigakure, I keep telling you your mother's not right in her heart and yet you repose your ridiculously naïve faith in her. It will come and bite you in your ass, mark my words. In fact I bet that is why Mito even bothered to go there in such haste- some stupid notion of protecting you I think. But why she let your clones know where she was is something I cannot fathom the reason for.
Well, I don't care, announced Naruto as he cut through the desert air with unrelenting body flickers. Mito is there and our reunion is long pending.
Who knows, perhaps you'll even get some. I bet half the reason you were so happy and goofy as a Hokage was because of Mito's Uzumaki vitality, wasn't it? I mean, you are Senju Hashirama with stamina off the charts. Makes sense that only an Uzumaki like Mito could satisfy you. I'm actually surprised Mito didn't have an army of-
KYUUBI, ENOUGH WITH YOUR BAWDY CONJECTURES!, yelled Naruto angrily as he approached the Konoha border which he intended to skirt in order to reach Kiri. The laughter of the fox followed him as he picked up even more speed, leaving him blushing and turning over old memories. What the fox had said was partially true, but the circumstances of his and Mito's meeting was far more involute than anyone could have believed.
Even though he had eventually come to love Mito as much as her, the Uzumaki princess was not his first love. A face flashed through his mind's eye, and his heart lurched as he beheld the delicate, feminine and sharp features of his closest confidante and most trusted associate after his brother Tobirama. Specters of the past. Your illusions haunt me even beyond death, Toka, he thought sadly. Dismissing Senju Toka's crystal clear image from his mind he formed the ram seal to exert ever increasing amounts of chakra.
It would do no good to dig up memories of the ancient past; Mito was his beloved, and he would return to her and cherish what he had.
It had been ridiculously easy for Uzumaki Mito to slip past the Kiri Border guards, despite the state of high alert they were in. Tensions between Villages were very high at this point, with pressure mounting for the neutral parties to choose either Akatsuki or Konoha. Mito slightly adjusted her Kimono, its rich seams and crispness causing several Shinobi to bow to her as they mistook her for some Lady of Kirigakure. She still remembered Kiri's culture, having spent considerable amounts of time here during the Second Hokage Summit. It had happened just after she had married Hashirama…it was just like her husband to snowball Village business and honeymoon into the same thing.
She stopped in front of the doors to the Mizukage's castle, and waited for the guard to approach. "Greetings", she said, and bowed that fluid bow she recalled from her younger days, an intricacy of the Hozuki clan. "I am here to meet with the Konoha Ambassador Kushina Uzumaki regarding exchange of Shuriken Jutsu between our villages. Is she available?", asked Mito in a clear voice. Before the guard could refuse her, she channeled chakra into the Fuuinjutsu tags she wore as an ear ornament. The compulsion seals written there glowed slightly, and the guard shook his head as if dazed.
"Of course. She resides in the first room in the third corridor from here", he directed with a glazed look. Mito smiled slightly, and proceeded onward with a dignity that befitted one of her royal lineage. Shinobi automatically gave way to her, and she kept her senses alert for the Mizukage. Mei Terumi, she had heard, was no pushover. She had no intention of fighting anyone here…except some people perhaps. Swiftly reaching the room the guard had mentioned, she extended the senses she had inherited from her time as a Jinchuuriki to feel Kushina's Chakra. The evenness of the emotions she was feeling led her to believe Kushina was in a relaxed state, possibly asleep.
Raising her hand, she softly knocked twice. No reason to be impolite; that would come later. The door opened slowly to reveal a haggard looking Kushina Uzumaki in standard ANBU attire. Mito's eyes flickered over to the Katana belted to her side, and stained with red still near the edges. "Kushina", she greeted quietly, watching sadly as her kinswoman paled somewhat at seeing her. Mito's eyes narrowed as Kushina's hand inched towards her sword. "You don't want to do that. You might be strong, but I am far older and more experienced than you. I am not here to fight you."
"Then why are you here, Mito-sama?", asked Kushina, sighing and stepping aside to allow Mito into her quarters. Mito watched interestedly as Kushina activated several seals placed around the doorway and windows, immediately deciphering their use as privacy seals. She traced a finger upon one seal, noting its calligraphy and structure with mounting sadness.
"You know why. I am convinced now that you were the one that drew the seals that were used to constrain me. If it was up to me, I would execute you here and now", she said, forcing steel into her voice. "But that is not going to happen. My husband has this unhealthy propensity of giving second chances to the ones he holds dear. He did not kill Uchiha Madara until the latter grew truly dangerous to the village, and kept on giving the man second chances. It was only at my urging that the battle at the Valley of End happened, and it was by my encouragement that he found the will to finish off Madara. But with you, even my advice to Hashirama will find no purchase."
"I did not know that would be the purpose of the seals Pain made me create. I do not question his orders", Kushina stated in a pained voice. Mito's heart fell- her husband would be devastated at this turn of events. It appeared Kushina was indeed working for the enemy, the same enemy who had torn the village apart sixteen years ago. She folded her hands carefully as she stared at Kushina, as hurt at an Uzumaki betraying her made itself known to her.
"I would have died, but for him", she said harshly, anger foremost in her mind. Only experience and wisdom she had accumulated over the years helped her keep her mind in check, and even that was hard thanks to her youthful body's effect on her mind. "You have no idea how close you are to death at the moment, Kushina. Please, tell me what prompted you to this traitorousness, before I decide to end this right now", prompted Mito quietly, her right hand discreetly forming the Ram seal.
Kushina wiped away the tears that fell at Mito's speech. "It was for Minato. I love Minato more than you can possibly imagine, Mito-sama. At the time, I was not certain Naruto would have anything to do with me. I saw that man resurrect an army of two hundred Shinobi from death, after he resurrected me. So when he told me he could resurrect Minato for my co-operation, I believed him", she finished softly.
Mito could not accept that excuse. She would not. "Don't you dare use that reason with me", she said in a cold voice, "I lived for more than half a century without my husband, and died without him to hold my hand. If you say such drivel again, I will not hesitate to finish you here and now –"
"But it is true", whispered Kushina helplessly. "At the time I thought it was a deal I could manage. All I had to do was give him information, an S-class secret to begin with…and later everything upto A-class secret was game. And I had to draw seals for him, seals no one else could craft. I need not fight for him, nor do I owe allegiance to him. I can even end our arrangement when I choose!", she said, her voice growing stronger as she spoke. "How is what I do different from what Itachi does? Itachi has told Akatsuki every A-class secret he knows. He killed Konoha ninja during his cover…he slaughtered his entire clan, his own family! I have done nothing-"
"We knew what Itachi was doing", said Mito scathingly, cutting into her monologue. "His existence was an S-class secret, and it became known to the enemy by your foolishness. Your actions put our entire nation into jeopardy, and you have the gall to disguise treason as intelligence gathering? It is pure selfishness! You deserve to die for it!"
Kushina was silent, her tears finally ceasing at Mito's tirade. Mito herself seethed with rage, unable to digest this most cruel treason by a kinswoman. The only reason she did not execute Kushina was due to sentiment that became feebler by the second…she had once seen this woman as a vulnerable child, and had transferred the Kyuubi to her for she was of the same clan. Killing her here would be vengeance, but it would likely not be on the right person. Kushina was guilty perhaps of selfishness, but not malice towards Konoha. Perhaps this travesty of a situation could be put right, even used towards their advancement.
"I…never felt loyalty to Konoha", began Kushina hesitantly, refusing to meet Mito's eyes. "Never. My loyalty was for family, and family was Uzumaki to begin with. Minato was my husband, and I was loyal to him because I loved him more than life itself. He was Konoha's Hokage, so I saw his duties as extended to mine. Make no mistake, Mito-sama, I am regretful for how I betrayed the trust of Konoha. But I feel nothing strong for it, not the loyalty I feel for my family and clan", she said, now with conviction enough to look deep into Mito's eyes.
They were silent for several more minutes, the moderate room only admitting sounds of chirping birds and conversing Shinobi, but the seals upon it letting no sound escape outside. "That is better", Mito said finally, in a calmer tone. "I sense no deception in your Chakra. Yes, I can see how you came to this foolhardy decision now….but I cannot forgive you for putting my husband, your son, in mortal danger. You must pay the price."
The Chakra in the room grew slightly denser as Kushina grasped the hilt of her Katana, and said in a haunted voice, "I am ready to pay. But not with my life. If you try to kill me, I will stop you. You are who you are, but I am strong enough to fight you. I can also not stop adhering to the deal. If there is the slightest chance of Minato coming back, I will take it…even over the Village, if necessary."
"You are selfish", murmured Mito. "If your nonsensical actions had not harmed Konoha, we would have no problems. But your betrayal has made things complicated. I cannot kill you, and not only because your son would be heartbroken. Your absence would be noted by the person you are dealing with, and we cannot let him know we are onto his trail. No…you betrayed Konoha to him. It is only fitting you betray him to Konoha now."
The faint feeling of Chakra vanished, and Kushina jammed her half drawn sword back into its sheath, her mouth falling open in surprise. "I cannot let you kill him, if he can bring Minato back", she said after a moment, her voice steely.
Mito sighed. "Then I must tell Naruto of your activities. You can be certain the outcome will not be very pleasant. If he still retains the characteristics of Hashirama concerning the Village, then you can be fully sure that he will not forgive you. He would not even forgive me if my actions harmed Konoha", she said.
Kushina's face twisted in indecision, and Mito felt no pleasure in seeing the woman's turmoil in this manner. But she had brought it upon herself; it was now time for the consequences, and Kushina had to bear the weight of her foolish deal's fruits. She understood the longing for a lost love, longing for a husband. She had lived that very loss for many years, living alone when Hashirama had moved on to the afterlife. That had been unbearable but she had learned to live with it. But Kushina's actions made sense if she felt so frail a loyalty to Konoha in the first place. It was understandable, but sadly it was not sanctionable.
"You would make me choose between my husband and son?", asked Kushina finally, in an agonized voice of indecision. Now Mito was infuriated. Kushina's face fell to the side, and her hair obscured her face like a curtain from the side as Mito slapped her hard.
"Stop speaking like a deluded child. Your husband is nothing but a weak promise by your enemy, while your son is alive. He is breathing, his blood flows and he is alive!", said Mito angrily, her chest heaving as she paced around the rather well-appointed room. Kushina seemed shocked into silence at being physically struck by Mito, and merely followed her with her gaze. After a moment of inspecting the seals on the walls of the room just to calm her recalcitrant rage, Mito turned back to Kushina.
"You will be interrogated thoroughly before we proceed with any course of action. I must be convinced you do not intend harm to Konoha, even if your somewhat apathetic to it. Will you submit peacefully?"
"Yes", replied Kushina after a moment. "I submit peacefully as long as I am left alive and with reason after it."
Mito nodded, satisfied for the moment. She pointed to a chair, and Kushina sat down upon it wordlessly. "I am not so crass and inelegant as resorting to torture, Kushina. I am a Seal Mistress, not a clueless Chuunin", she said, while reaching for the calligraphic supplies Kushina herself had stored. "You have done well with these privacy seals, and your supplies are good. Now brace yourself…we must be done before Naruto arrives. He will not be amused with me when he does, and I must be convinced of being able to work with you before then."
"Anything if you will keep this from my son", said Kushina quietly, not flinching at some of the more unpleasant seals Mito was drawing deftly. "Anything at all."
Deep under the stony terrain of Iwagakure, quite far from any habited region, lay a labyrinthine structure carved with almost scientific precision. It was void of people for the most part, but for the singular pair of footsteps echoing off the cold walls. Yakushi Kabuto adjusted his glasses as they glinted in the torchlight, and went over the readings he had taken some time ago during the destruction of Otogakure. Every time, analysis reveals far more than mere instinct and fumbling through the dark. Fie on those fools who still think of Chakra as just a weapon, he thought contemptuously.
"Orochimaru-sama", he announced, pushing his way past the partly closed door into the Snake Sannin's private laboratory, "your hypothesis has been verified to be correct. The metal provided us by Pain responded to the Chakra of Uzumaki Naruto", he said, handing over the pad full of his observations to his master. Orochimaru smirked, receiving the data with a satisfaction that was almost alien in its intensity.
"Kukuku…though this is no longer necessary, Kabuto, you have done well", the Sannin smiled. "That which is created by the Sage's Doujutsu will respond only to his chakra, be it Yin or Yang. Yin gives form, while Yang breathes life…and the metal expanded merely by being in the vicinity of Uzumaki Naruto. There is no doubt anymore, I believe", he said, handing the pad back to Kabuto who sported a smug smile as well.
He was justified in his smugness, he believed, for it was he who even brought up the notion of Hashirama's reincarnation. Orochimaru-sama had been quite skeptical of his theories despite the failed summoning during the Chuunin Exams, but he had steadily worked to gather proof to support his seemingly wild conjecture. It had taken much of his negotiation skills to convince Orochimaru-sama to lure the Uzumaki to Otogakure, but it had been done. The loss of Otogakure was nothing in the face of the precious information they now possessed.
By just whispering this to the right people, we can spark a Fourth Shinobi war, he thought, savouring the thought of holding power over the fate of nations. "I have further news, Orochimaru-sama", he continued, this time letting his mouth curve in a full smile. "I received word from the Konoha base that Akatsuki met Uzumaki Naruto for yet another confrontation. The spy was unspecific in his communication, but he is quite certain that Sasori-sama has been killed. Deidara has been injured, but we do not know to what extent."
"Delicious", said Orochimaru, cruel delight dancing in his inhuman eyes as he seated himself. "I have wanted to finish Sasori for long, but it appears our ambush is quite unnecessary. Let Akatsuki dash itself to pieces against the might of Senju Hashirama if it wants, we will not stand in either of their ways. What can those poor fools do where Uchiha Madara himself failed?", he laughed softly, and this time Kabuto joined in.
The very name sent shivers up Kabuto's spine; to seekers of truth such as Orochimaru-sama and he, the Shodai Hokage was a shrine of information. With Hashirama's cells, Orochimaru-sama had accomplished things that were normally thought impossible. It was only due to those cells' potency that the Snake Sannin's durability and vitality were so high, and even that much was but a thimble from what was a veritable lake. But even Orochimaru-sama's physical energy seemed pale and stolen to what I felt at Oto. The fairytales are true it seems, he thought, his hands shaking slightly as he recalled the feel of that unearthly Chakra. His attention returned to the room as Orochimaru-sama resumed speaking.
"All that remains is gaining our insurance from Akatsuki, Kabuto", hissed Orochimaru, the light of the single candle flame flickering in his snake eyes. "I hope you have deduced that the one masquerading as Madara is not really who he says he is?", he queried, tilting his head to look at Kabuto.
"Yes, Orochimaru-sama", agreed Kabuto immediately. The orange masked man who pulled the strings of Akatsuki from within the shadows could not be the real Madara…this much was certain to Kabuto in the light of the new information they uncovered. "Hashirama's and Madara's chakras are like beacons to one another; we would likely have had another Valley of the End by now if Madara really were alive and well as the impostor claims. But the impostor knows too much about Madara", Kabuto mused, recalling their conversations with the man, "far too much. Personal details no one but the real Madara would know. It makes me wonder how he has come to such information?"
"A good question; this impostor is pulling Akatsuki's strings through shadows and lies, gathering and keeping S-class nuke-nin in a single place in a unified purpose. He's probably controlling Pain with some brainwashing and ideology – no one can cast a Genjutsu directly on the Rinnegan. This, Kabuto", said Orochimaru, his long snake tongue flickering out to lick his own mouth, "is as intriguing as our recent shocking intel. What is the motivation behind this impostor's actions? He even convinced me to rejoin Akatsuki, and I do not like acting without all the facts."
"Are we to investigate Akatsuki too, then, Orochimaru-sama?", asked Kabuto quietly. Making observations from a distance was one thing, but spying directly on Akatsuki itself was quite another. "If Pain discovers our subterfuge, he will…not spare us", he said, grinning slightly at his own understatement. Pain would not just 'not spare them'; he would erase every particle of evidence that they ever existed upon this world. The Leader of Akatsuki's retribution was absolute.
"Kabuto, Kabuto", said Orochimaru, shaking his head and smiling in a way that made even Kabuto's hackles rise slightly. "When are you going to learn the importance of leverage? It is leverage alone that shields us from the wrath of Hashirama, and it will be leverage alone that will allow us to control the situation with Akatsuki. The impostor likely shields his identity with great fervor, all his action in the shadows point to this. All we need to do is uncover his true identity, and hold it over him."
Kabuto leaned towards Orochimaru, intrigued by his master's craftiness. "How would we do this, Orochimaru-sama?", he asked, ways already forming in his sharp mind.
"The past, Kabuto. We gather facts of the past, and we piece together a coherent picture. Fortunately, we have an excellent place to start", said the Snake Sannin thoughtfully. "Tobi has atleast one Mangekyo Sharingan, and that places him definitively as an Uchiha. With this fact, we must start compiling a full picture of Konoha's recent history. See to it, Kabuto. The past thirty years' data should do", ordered Orochimaru.
"As you wish, Orochimaru-sama. I will contact Danzo-san for it, immediately."
"There is absolutely no need to glare at me so, Nagato. After all, it was I who had to deal with the consequences of your arrogance", said Tobi, his mellifluous voice echoing in the cavernous meeting room of the Akatsuki. Patting the Amber Sealing Pot sitting innocently by his side, the orange-masked Uchiha continued speaking to the infuriated Leader of the Akatsuki. "Whatever possessed you to go after Uzumaki Naruto as you did? I thought we agreed to deal with him last, to work around him to capture the other Bijuu", he queried, his tone making his displeasure very well known to the only two other occupants of the room.
"I will do as I wish, Tobi. Decisive action needed to be taken to prevent him from reclaiming the Ichibi, and none else but I could do it. I did not foresee the boy's use of that confinement jutsu, however. It drained my chakra every time I gathered it, causing my own techniques to wither. A cunning prison", Pain replied with a curl of his upper lip. Tobi sighed with no little exasperation, and turned to the other Uchiha in the room.
Itachi met Tobi's single visible eye with his own, his stoic countenance giving away not a whit of his true emotions.
"Pain has never lost a fight until now. His credibility suffers presently due to his tendency to underestimate his foes. Thus, Itachi, the responsibility of the next mission falls on your shoulders; perhaps you will succeed where others have failed", said Tobi, shooting a snide glance at an impassive Pain. Itachi was uncertain of who would overpower the other if Pain were to go against Tobi…he was certain the two were allied by a strongly shared ideology. If only he could deduce what it was, he could begin subtly driving a wedge between them.
"I am ready", he however replied calmly to Tobi. He is not pleased, thought Itachi grimly as he glanced at Pain. The Rinnegan was the paramount Doujutsu, the crowning jewel, the source of all Ninjutsu and bloodlines. Even with what Itachi knew to be a basic knowledge of those legendary eyes, Pain far outstripped every Akatsuki member save for him and Tobi. Without the Eternal Mangekyo, Itachi was quite certain he too would fall in a contest against the Leader.
"Excellent", said Tobi, in that faux cheerful tone he sometimes reverted to; it grated on Itachi's ears unpleasantly, to him it bespoke of how unhinged the man could possibly be. "Now, it was certainly not fun extracting the Ichibi. We very nearly lost him but for my intervention, which cannot happen anymore. Every turn the Akatsuki takes, we meet an obstacle called Uzumaki Naruto. I have no doubt that the Niibi's capture will be even more frustrating, possibly with a bitter end if we allow this to continue. We must keep him occupied", said the unknown Uchiha, his Sharingan gleaming beneath its eyehole.
"As always, you restate the obvious Tobi", Pain interjected, seemingly unimpressed by the conclusion drawn.
"I suppose I do", replied Tobi dryly. "But this mission is for Itachi, who is somewhat more well-versed at subtle dealings than you are, Nagato. Unlike you he understands that to overcome a stubborn problem by crushing it into powder is not quite the only way", he added sardonically. The air seemed to vibrate with menace as Pain flared his chakra for just an instant, and Itachi knew the Leader had taken deep offense at Tobi's adolescent insinuations. The fracture in Akatsuki was openly visible for the very first time in his long years undercover in the organization.
"Do not insult me again", Pain said quietly. "You will not live further if you do, Tobi."
"If you say so", returned Tobi doubtfully, chuckling as Pain disappeared with a Shunshin. "I did not quite anticipate this facet of Nagato's personality, to tell you the truth. He automatically assumes his eyes sets him far above humanity, very much like the arrogant Uchiha clan you slaughtered. Alas if it were my choice alone, I would have you lead the Akatsuki", said Tobi whimsically to Itachi who just blinked at the unexpected statement.
"I am honoured you think so", he replied, ascribing to rote courtesy. "What mission do you have for me, then?"
"Straight to business, then", said Tobi approvingly. "Very well. Kakuzu brought me news from his old Village; apparently, the Jinchuuriki of the Nanabi cannot be tracked anymore. She has hidden herself quite well, I suppose, for even Zetsu to be unable to find her. She could be anywhere in the Nations. I need you to capture her, Itachi, while Uzumaki Naruto's attention has not fallen yet in that direction. We might as well capture those we can and hold them, even if their order is not quite right, don't you think?"
"Yes", replied Itachi shortly. It did make sense, but something about the mission did not quite sit well with his instincts. The disquiet amplified the moment Tobi began openly humiliating Pain in front of him just moments ago…and had begun with Pain's completely unnecessary assault on the Konoha Shinobi who had come to rescue Gaara Sabaku. Try as he might, he could not get a read on Tobi even with his eternal eyes nor could he do so with Pain. It was as if their emotions were walled off even to his discerning gaze.
"Good. Find the Jinchuuriki and subdue her; it should be no issue for one with the ultimate Uchiha Doujutsu. Do it as soon as possible, Itachi, preferably within the month. Hidan will handle Han, and Deidara will be sent after Roshi. In one fell swoop we will capture three Bijuu", the masked man said.
"I will do my part", Itachi said quietly. I will. My life does not look to be as bleak as I had envisioned it to be just after the slaughter, he thought with a sigh as he lifted his hand to perform the Ram seal. Fate had interfered again, bringing from the mists of legend the Shodai Hokage and his wife to aid Konoha. There remained no purpose in his original plan of meeting justice at the hands of his innocent little brother…that desperate plan sickened him when he now thought of it. He greatly longed to meet Sasuke now that the last fetters of his self-imposed penance were burned away.
Perhaps this is the opportunity I have dreamed of for so long, thought Itachi, soundlessly disappearing from the Akatsuki base. It is time to chase the Nanabi Jinchuuriki to Konoha, it seems, he said to himself, a faint smile on his face as he left Iwagakure behind with his efficient Shunshin.
"Does he have absolutely no regard for matters of Konoha? He's romping around like he owns the entirety of the Elemental Nations. It's as if I'm Hokage in nothing but name, with him making all the decisions for me. I have my self-respect, Jiraiya, and I won't tolerate insubordination any longer, not even from him!", Tsunade yelled, her fist breaking her desk into pieces once the background, Shizune sighed; Tsunade seemed to be taking a leaf out of the Raikage's book in expressing temper.
"Is this because he ditched the team to go off on his own? I've done that loads of times. I think he deserves atleast the courtesy you extend me", Jiraiya said absently, lost in thought as he folded the missive from Naruto. Some people knew better than others what needed to be done, and he believed that they should be given free reign to do it. Of course, he placed himself in this category quite comfortably. But Naruto too was certainly there. He was more concerned about what Mito-sama had discovered that had prompted her to go back on her original plans.
But Tsunade, it appeared, was in quite another mood. "Jiraiya, it would appear as if I don't control him. If I can't control what my Shinobi do, no one is going to take me seriously!", she told him heatedly. Jiraiya had a feeling she was taking out her frustrations of losing a Jinchuuriki to the Akatsuki on everyone else, but even he had limits on what he was going to tell Tsunade to her face. Casting off thoughts of concentrating his spy network's attention on Kirigakure, he looked down at Tsunade.
"Tsunade, you know him. No one expects you to actually control a Shinobi of his stature despite them not even knowing who he really is. He changed the politics of Konoha completely when he destroyed that Iwa army three years ago", Jiraiya told her patiently. Tsunade actually pouted at this, making him look askance at her. She seemed to be off her game if the mission's failure was affecting her this badly. No, this is something else, he thought, watching her slumped posture and the way she buried her head in her palms.
"Tsunade, what's wrong?", he asked seriously.
"I didn't expect him to be thwarted", she muttered, not meeting his eyes. "I thought he could never be denied something if he put his mind to it. I read Kakashi's mission report, and I know that the impostor used the Kohaku no Juhei-"
"Naruto isn't Hashirama. He isn't infallible, Tsunade! He doesn't think the way I would expect Hashirama to think…he's far more emotional than he lets on. And Sensei told me the Shodai was very carefree, but Naruto as he is now is more reserved than that man. Something changed during the Sealing, and it created a new person. He's a curious mixture of legendary Shinobi and innocent child. Don't expect him to be your grandfather entirely!", Jiraiya told her sternly. This life had changed his godson considerably, and even Jiraiya wasn't quite sure of Naruto's true identity despite travelling with him for three years. He doubted if even the young man knew, and he wasn't going to prod that subject anytime soon.
That issue was going to come up sooner or later, and he could only trust that Naruto would resolve it. It was Naruto's fight alone, and no one else's. Orochimaru bringing Mito-sama back complicated things in more ways than once. It made his old life more dominant in his mind. I wonder how those two will resolve their issues, he thought, grinning pervertedly as a few possible avenues became known to was positively rubbing his palms with glee.
"Quit thinking whatever you are thinking, Jiraiya!", Tsunade told him with some asperity. "And you're right. But I still feel I must be able to do my job without depending too much on him. I think I'll take your advice, and give him the same privileges we Sannin enjoy. It must be done fast too; our Shinobi seem to think no one can defeat us as long as we have Naruto around! Its subtle but it's there. You know that's dangerous."
"Oh, it's dangerous alright", agreed Jiraiya. He stood up, and looked at the expanse of Konoha visible from the wide windows of the Hokage tower. "Especially with the war that will eventually come. Nagato will eventually tire of Naruto denying him the Bijuu. To even get the Ichibi, he had to come personally. His frustration will eventually spill over, and result in a war the likes of which we have never seen before", Jiraiya predicted gloomily.
Not a day passed by when he did not regret for what Nagato and Konan had become.
"That's going to happen sooner if Orochimaru decides he wants to help things along, and tell Akatsuki everything. We can do little to stop the war entirely, short of taking out the entirety of Akatsuki", she gave a humourless laugh here, "but we can slow down its approach. I think I have something that we can do that doesn't need to involve Ojisan at all", Tsunade said determinedly.
"What?", asked Jiraiya curiously. Tsunade's desire to stand out was admirable…indeed, one did not get called a member of the Legendary Sannin without that quality.
"Orochimaru and that stupid four-eyed kid", growled Tsunade. "We need to take them out of the equation, as soon as possible."
"We can't kill him! Who knows what contingencies-"
"Oh I know that snake atleast as well as you do", said Tsunade disgustedly, stopping him mid-rant. "He would have covered every possibility. No, what I meant is this Jiraiya: he must be rendered unable to act on the knowledge he has. As long as he holds that leverage, he controls when the war will happen. Once the Akatsuki know exactly who they fight, they won't bother with individual extraction missions. They'll plunge every nation into war and death."
"But how do you want to deal with Orochimaru?", asked Jiraiya with a frown. "Capturing and brainwashing him won't work, he'll have surely set things up so that his failsafes are activated if such a thing happens. And the slimy snake is way too hard to capture, anyway, even for me. The only other alternative I can think of is a Genjutsu powerful enough to alter his thoughts of the subject", he listed off the possibilities. Tsunade leaned forward, her dejected face now bright with eagerness as she seemed to consider every facet of her idea at top speed.
"Exactly!", she concurred, clapping so hard Shizune jumped. They didn't care, both immersed in their scheming. Jiraiya suddenly saw what she was suggesting, and they both did what they hadn't done since training as children under the Sandaime. The Hokage tower resounded with another slapping sound as they high-fived each other.
"Shisui's eye!", they both yelled at the same time. Shizune again coughed politely, presumably seeking to bring them back to ground zero. Jiraiya impatiently shushed her as he looked into Tsunade's eyes, rapidly listing off what they knew.
"Naruto told us he sensed Danzo's arms covered with numerous Sharingan, and possibly a Mangekyo Sharingan on his left eye. I just didn't want to believe what Itachi told me in a communication - about Danzo doing such a thing, but we must confront it. But reusing it frequently would take extremely powerful lifeforce, on the scale of-"
"Senju Hashirama's!", joined in Shizune with amazement. They nodded impatiently at her again, before snapping back to each other.
"More evidence", said Tsunade quickly. "Ojisan told me he could sense his own cells' potency in Danzo after that meeting. The old relic hides it under bandages, but I'm certain that's how he is gaining control over everything. That Genjutsu is subtle enough to influence the thoughts of absolutely anybody, without them ever knowing of it. The old bastard could have used it on any of us!", she fumed angrily, raising her fist and about to bring it down on the desk to her side.
"This realisation was rather sudden", pondered Jiraiya, as he halted Tsunade's rather destructive punch with some effort. "I wonder if we only realised all this because…you may just be right, Hime", he said, as Tsunade wrenched her hand away from his grip. "You may just be right. His influence over us must have weakened, since we haven't met with him for quite some time now. He must have been stonewalling us from concluding what he's hiding, given all the information we have about it-"
"We must do something. He does not deserve to use Uchiha Shisui's eye!", Tsunade cut in angrily. Jiraiya nodded emphatically. He too remembered young Shisui's burning will of Fire, something that had once given him great hope for the Uchiha clan. It had given all of them great hope; thinking of one of those eyes in the possession of an old schemer like Danzo repulsed him.
A new, truly horrifying thought suddenly made itself known to him. "What if he used that eye on Naruto?", he asked softly, ignoring Shizune's loud gasp of horror.
Tsunade grew still, and her face became pale. "I don't think even he is immune to that Genjutsu, especially if he is not at full strength. Even the Kyuubi within him won't notice the subtle changes in his mind if he is under it", she said in a shaking voice. "Inu! Tori! Neko!", she called out, and the ANBU appeared on their knees before her instantly.
"Assemble your squad immediately", she ordered, glancing subtly at Jiraiya. He nodded his support, knowing what she intended to do. He would lead the mission himself if necessary. "We need to neutralise a potential S-rank threat. We attempt an arrest, failing which a kill will be inevitable."
"Who is the target, Hokage-sama?", asked Kakashi, who was under the dog mask. Jiraiya's expression brightened suddenly as a slew of ideas assaulted his mind, but Tsunade shushed him as he opened his mouth to speak excitably. Later, she mouthed to him, and he stepped back sheepishly as he saw the waiting ANBU. This should be particularly satisfying for the boy, he thought with a grin as he looked at Sasuke under the bird mask.
"Shimura Danzo", Tsunade said in reply to Kakashi's question. Jiraiya shot a discreet thumbs-up to Sasuke, who he knew was grinning maniacally under the mask. Vengeance was sweet, he knew, and would know again as he paid Orochimaru back for the death of Sarutobi-sensei. "You may deal as you wish with his ROOT members, but he is to be captured alive if possible. Do not damage his eyes", she directed firmly.
"And don't get too excited", Jiraiya added with a splitting grin to Sasuke, as Tsunade sighed in the background. "Deal with this as quickly and quietly as possible."
Sasuke stood up, and in a breach of protocol that didn't even register in their minds, threw away his mask. Upon his face Jiraiya saw such a bloodthirsty look that he knew this mission would probably end only in one of two way: Danzo's death, or young Sasuke's death. "I can come along if you wish. Old Danzo might be more than a handful for you lot", he offered, looking at all of them. Sasuke shook his head, and spoke before Tsunade could reprimand him.
"Jiraiya-sama", said the Uchiha in a voice practically throbbing with hidden tension and bloodlust, "you relax. I will take care of this. You will get his head on a tray by tomorrow morning", he promised, not mellowing in the slightest even when Yuugao, who had also unmasked, put a calming hand on his shoulder.
"Excellent! Find ROOT headquarters, Kakashi, and uproot them.", she ordered coldly. "I want ROOT eliminated completely…that bit of housecleaning was pending for a long time. Wipe out every ROOT operative, no questions asked, and burn their headquarters to the ground. I want Danzo, and only Danzo."
No one, not even Jiraiya or Tsunade, noticed the small spiral of air outside the window, or the fading orange mask as it disappeared into that singularity.
Some reviewers have complained on Kushina's plot line. Yes, these are valid complaints, I believe. I thank those of you who appreciate my story despite it...it makes me want to put up ever better content and greater speeds for readers as you.
I admit candidly I was writing myself into a corner with the Kushina storyline, and this chapter was my attempt to begin wrapping it up as soon as possible. After writing for 2 years, I have realised the mistake I made with the Kushina storyline. If the readers feel it is not good, then I will try to bring it to a conclusion the majority feels comfortable with. Do keep in mind I am getting these ideas from those that review.
So it is time for an experiment.
I normally never go for this kind of compromise, but I have realised that at some point I must come off my high horse and start doing at least small things that make my readers happy. Please let me know in your reviews your ideas for how the Kushina storyline should proceed; I promise you, I will read everyone of them, and go for that storyline that seems best.
Get creative with your plots! Go wild!
Not to worry, I will credit each and everyone of your ideas I will borrow for the remainder of Kushina's storyline. If the responses are not in the volume or quality I expect of myself, then I will ask the reader base to kindly forgive me for bringing this to my own conclusion.
Looking forward to the creative output of my readers!