AN: Here we are, chapter 24. For those not in the discord, this chapter marks the beginning of a hiatus. It'll be about a month or two until I'm back. Some family things have gone on and I need to shift focus for a little while. I'll make an announcement on my discord when I'm returning. This also means there will not be an advance chapter out on the pat today either, so for now, I'm afraid this will be the only thing up for a little bit. Sorry for the inconvenience, but see you all when I can.

Discord Server: discord dot gg/JBqZGzrZKR

Pat: /Philocipher


The Road to Tsunade ~ Approaching Storms

Tayuya was allowed into the Hokage's office without much fuss and Minato glanced up at her from the stacks of papers on his desk. His hand continued to move in the familiar pattern of his signature despite his distraction. Tayuya couldn't imagine having to sit in that seat all day and sign papers. She was glad she'd never had any aspirations to be a Kage. This sight would have ruined it for her.

"My anbu made it seem as though you had urgent information for me?" Minato asked. Tayuya nodded.

"Yeah. You've been worryin' about the Akatsuki, right?" Tayuya asked. Minato's eyes narrowed and he set his pen down. Steepling his hands before him, he leaned forward a bit.

"Yes. You have information? Why didn't you say anything earlier?" Minato inquired.

"Orochimaru had been part of the Akatsuki for a little… but he defected from there too," Tayuya snorted, "it hadn't been relevant until now. Not like I'd ever met any of the shitheads. But I know what their cloaks look like, and I just saw two of em' walk into the village."

"Black with red clouds?" Minato asked, his face hardening. Tayuya nodded and with a calming breath, Minato spoke again, "Neko. Mobilize the anbu and begin to search the city. Keep your distance and do not engage. Report to me when they're found. Also, have a squad watching over Fū."

From somewhere behind her Tayuya heard, "Yes, Hokage-sama." before whoever was there simply faded from her senses.

"Thank you for this, Tayuya," said Minato. Tayuya just shrugged.

"That old lady of yours would probably be fuckin' pissed if I didn't say anything… besides, I don't see how Those guys would do any good with the Kyubi," Tayuya grunted. Minato shook his head and decided he wouldn't tell Kushina what Tayuya had said about her.

"Is there anything else you can tell me about them?" Minato asked.

"It was brief… but pretty sure I saw that one of them had blue skin. And a huge wrapped sword on his back," Tayuya responded. Minato scowled deeply at the news. He knew of a man that fit that description. That was a problem.

"Tayuya, I need you to do something for me…"

Blood dripped to the dirt below as Kabuto limped into the Oto base before him. It was hidden in an underground cave system and only accessible from a large hollowed tree. No base was closer to the one Hijiri had invaded than this one was. That worried him. He was unsure if she'd known about this one's existence as well and left a trap for him but he couldn't afford to travel further. He would not make it if he made such an attempt.

Each step he took spilled more of his blood and sent pain shooting up his body. He didn't know what kind of wind Hijiri had used to kill Orochimaru, but it had managed to graze him even as far away as he was. The pain was indescribable, and though he hadn't lost any limbs to it, he could hardly twitch a finger without his entire body screaming. Kabuto was thankful to be in the base. The relief that filled him actually caused his exhausted and battered buddy to give out and he dropped to the stone floor, unconscious.

When Kabuto next opened his eyes he found himself lying on a soft bed. His wounds had been bandaged, but he was in no less pain. Every twitch of his fingers still sent pain lancing through his body, but it was at least more manageable now than before.

"I see you are awake." Kabuto looked to his left at the sound of the voice and found Kimimaro sitting in a chair at his bedside. The man's face was set in a scowling visage, and Kabuto was not surprised by this in the slightest. Kimimaro's loyalty to Orochimaru was unquestionable, and he had just returned in terrible condition without their master.

"How long have I been out?" Kabuto asked.

"A day and a half. Your wounds aren't closed, but you will recover eventually. What happened, Kabuto?" Kimimaro asked. Kabuto sighed and replayed the events in his head.

"We were ambushed by a member of the Akatsuki… and she killed Orochimaru.-sama"

"Despite you being there…?"

"She was beyond us. It did not take her much effort to dispatch me. Though I am positive Orochimaru put up a fight, I woke up in time to see her finish him. That's where my injuries are from. I was only on the outskirts of the technique and yet this is my state… Orochimaru-sama… she turned him into mist," Kabuto responded. Kimimaro's fists tightened and he grit his teeth.

"We need to bring him back as soon as possible," said Kimimaro. He wanted to offer himself, but he would not allow his body to impede Orochimaru after his rebirth.

"I know… but we'll have to find a proper candidate. And wait another three years…"

"What?" Kimimaro asked, surprised. With a sigh, Kabuto explained the course the invasion took and how Orochimaru was ultimately forced to give up his body again. Their master would not be able to return for some time.

"This might be a good thing, though," said Kabuto. A moment later he found a Kunai at his throat.

"You dare?" Kimimaro seethed.

"Don't misunderstand me… let us use Genyumaru and properly prepare his body to house Orochimaru-sama when the time comes. Then we make that woman regret this," Kabuto responded.

Sasuke walked next to Sakura, finding that he couldn't stop from glancing in her direction. She was just reading. Her eyes hadn't come up from her book once. She didn't try and give him any longing gazes or try to talk to him at all. It was odd.

She'd been doing a good job at reducing how often she pestered him for dates and the like ever since a little before the chunin exams, but it wasn't as though she stopped completely. Sasuke had found that she had just become far more bearable. So much so, that he had even entertained her once. It hadn't been anything more than the two of them doing some training alone together, but he would have never done so in the past.

Sasuke could admit it was smart of her to suggest training instead of something more traditional as a date. He didn't think of it as a date, but he knew she must have. Now that she didn't bother him at all though, Sasuke just found it kind of… unsettling. He didn't know how to explain it.

"Sasuke-kun?" The sound of Sakura's voice drew him from his thoughts. He blinked and saw her looking up at him in confusion. "Are you alright? Is there something on my face?" she asked.

"Yes and no. I was just lost in thought," Sasuke replied.

"Oh. Okay." Sakura went back to her book. Her reply was simple and to the point. Nothing was wrong with it. Yet, Sasuke couldn't seem to just let it be.

"What are you reading?" Sasuke asked. Sakura looked up from her book again, some genuine surprise on her face. As she closed the book–her finger still inside to keep her place–Sakura let her hand drop to her side, and responded.

"It's a book on advanced medicine. I want to be able to heal others without always needing my chakra, so I'm reading up on various techniques to do so."

"Hn… it must be taking up a lot of your time.," Sasuke commented. Sakura just nodded.

"Yes… I mean, I could take more breaks. My mom think I'm pushing myself too much between this, the practical side of things with Oyone, taijutsu, and genjutsu training with Kurenai… but I don't want to be as helpless as I was during the invasion," Sakura said, looking down at the dirt path as they continued onward.

"You healed plenty of people during the invasion," Sasuke countered.

"But if I'd been equipped since day one, I could have saved more lives. Maybe I would have been able to help more against our enemies too. I've wasted too much time," Sakura sighed.

Sasuke observed her for a bit longer as they lapsed into a silence. He'd thought her distance lately to be odd but if there was one thing Uchiha Sauske could understand it was the regret of 'd been too weak to save his clan. That feeling had eaten him alive for years. It was only recently that Sasuke had even begun to think letting his grief and anger consume him might have been a bad idea. Sakura didn't need to shoulder the burdens he had.

"You're being too harsh. Even if you'd trained from day one of the academy until now, we simply weren't ready for the invasion. The deaths were not your fault," Sasuke said. Sakura looked at him sharply.

"Did you believe that when people said that to you about your family?" Sakura retorted with a scowl. Sasuke honestly hadn't expected her to take a shot at him like that. He forced down his knee jerk response and curbed his anger. She was no different than he had been over the years. If he responded to her in kind, he'd be of no help to her.

"I didn't," Sasuke replied after taking a deep breath, "Not at first. Honestly, I didn't believe it until I talked to Kushina. I'm not saying it will be easy, but you have to accept that it wasn't your fault. You did everything you possibly could have," said Sasuke. Sakura continued to frown at him for a few more silent moments before she sighed and went back to her book.

"Well, next time I'll do more," Sakura grumbled. Sasuke didn't bother trying to argue with her anymore. She needed her time. He certainly had. Still, he had no intention of letting her wallow in this like he had for years. He didn't think she could afford it, anyway. Sakura had too many things she was focusing on at once. Eventually, she was going to burn out. Sasuke didn't doubt that for a moment.

Hinata sat at Fū's bedside as Ino replaced the flowers on the girl's nightstand. Neither of them could bring themselves to really look at the girl, however. She'd become so frail and pale since Hijiri had struck her down. No one could be blamed if they thought she was already dead, but the girl and her biju clung to life desperately. The only issue is that no one was sure how much longer that could last.

Chomei was powerful. All biju were, but the decline of Fū's condition was proof that her biju was not omnipotent. Speaking of, that had been quite the revelation for the genin. They'd all heard Orochimaru call Naruto, Fū, and Gaara jinchuriki during the invasion, and they'd heard Hijiri mention the Nanabi when she stabbed Fū, but had ignored it. It wasn't surprising that they had, either. They were still genin and were in the middle of a life or death battle at the time. Though heard, that tidbit of information didn't click for them until later when Shikamaru had gone to visit Fū in the hospital himself.

Hinata had already known Fū was a Jinchuriki, of course. It didn't take her much work to piece it together after Naruto had been revealed as one. For her, it had done a good job of explaining why the two of them had grown close so quickly. Knowing they had something so significant in common was all the explanation Hinata needed. That information set her at ease, even if it just worried her now.

"Do you think Tsunade will be able to heal her?" Ino asked, "she's getting worse by the day."

Hinata looked at her before letting her eyes finally fall onto Fū. She looked away quickly and sighed. "I-I'm sure Tsunade will be capable of it. She's the best medic in the world. And Fū has her biju to help too. She'll make it," Hinata replied. She was only giving platitudes in the end, though. She had no idea if Fū would make it. And Ino knew she didn't know.

The blonde brought her gaze back to the flowers on the nightstand and shifted the vase this way and that needlessly. Ino supposed it was unfair to ask Hinata the question she just had but she was just so anxious. She hadn't known Fū very well, but she knew that the girl and Naruto had a bond that only seven other people in the world could ever hope to understand. Fū was important to her newest crush, and Ino was never one to ignore the interests of the people she liked.

And Fū was far more to Naruto than just an interest. She was basically family to the boy. He would be devastated if she passed, that Ino knew without doubt.

"Yeah…" Ino agreed absently. She didn't have much faith in her words, though.

Naruto waited at their newest inn for Jiraiya to return as he continued to work on his rasengan. He still hadn't managed to burst the rubber ball, but he knew he was getting closer. He consistently made a hole in it now. Naruto's hands were in quite a bit of pain, though. He'd stopped taking breaks when it became apparent he was getting closer to success. His heart was filled with an odd joy.

This should be the city Tsunade is in and his rasengan training was about to move on to the next step. If he could just wrap the training up by the time they made it back to Konoha, he would have secured Fū's savior and gotten that much closer to strengthening himself for the next time Hijiri or anyone like her showed up.

Naruto swore he wouldn't let anyone suffer the way Fū had again as long as he was there.

A brat like you can't pull that off by yourself, Kurama scoffed. Naruto frowned and wondered why he was trying to put a damper on his good mood.

I'm getting stronger. I'll be able to do it, Naruto responded. Kurama scoffed again.

No, you won't. You puny humans are not capable of much alone. Not without being freaks of nature. And you certainly aren't one.

So… you want me to fail? Naruto inquired.

No, you fool. You better make sure you kill that woman. But remember you have teammates. If you die because you wanted to go it alone I'll eat your soul.

You can do that!? Naruto spluttered. Kurama chuckled as Naruto seemed to stiffen and go pale even outside of his mind. And though Naruto couldn't see it right now, the fox bared his fangs in a menacing smile.

You wouldn't want to find out, would you? Do not fail, brat. The fox didn't say anything more after that. Naruto shivered. That had not been a threat he'd expected. At all. It certainly didn't help that he wasn't sure what the fox meant by that. He wasn't trying to tackle things alone. Am I? I'm not, right? Naruto wondered. He shook his head and redoubled his efforts on his training. By the time Jiraiya arrived back in the room, Naruto had successfully destroyed his third rubber ball.

Naruto was ready to move forward to the next step of training, but Jiraiya managed to calm him and force him to wait until they'd taken care of more pressing business first.

"Tsunade was here," Jiraiya said. He paused, expecting some sort of reaction and he was proven correct a moment later.

"What!?" Naruto yelled.

At the same time, Sakura said, "was?" Jiraiya nodded with a sigh.

"She hit a big winning streak in the casino here and hit the road according to my sources," Jiraiya responded.

"Do you know where she's headed?" Kushina asked. Jiraiya grinned in response.

"We're in luck. My informant tells me she overheard a customer mention a stacked blonde, her companion, and their little pig talking about sightseeing before leaving the area completely. The customer had offered to be their guide, but Tsunade shot him down quick with some choice words. My guess is he perved on her a bit and got rejected because of it," Jiraiya replied with a shrug.

"So there's still a chance we can find her here! What are we waiting for? Let's go!" Naruto hopped to his feet with his exclamation, only for Jiraiya to grab him by the collar.

"Now hold on a sec, kid. You've got the right idea, but you can't just go running out of the hotel. Tsunade's a sannin. She's got better senses than you and can tell when someone is approaching her. Especially someone who's a bit too rambunctious about it. So, here's what we're gonna do. We'll split into four teams of two and act as tourists. Well, the others will. You and I will take the direct approach and just go looking for her. She'll try to avoid us, which will hopefully lead her right to one of the other teams. Oh, make sure you all aren't wearing your headbands or any clan crests. That'll get you spotted in a second," Jiraiya informed.

Naruto could admit, his plan was a good one. He had no complaints. It was definitely better than her running away from all six of them on sight. With both his mom and Kakashi being there to catch her too, there was no way she would slip past them. One of their teams was going to get into contact with Tsunade for sure.

"Okay… can we go now?" Naruto asked. Jiraiya chuckled with a shake of his head.

"So eager… don't worry, we'll leave in a sec. First, I need to tell you about the next step–the final step–in your training," Jiraiya replied. That shut Naruto up and had him finally stand still again. He'd been shuffling the entire time Jiraiya had been explaining the plan. "You've mastered rotation, and you've mastered power… now you need to combine the two, and then add this."

While Jiraiya had been talking, he pulled a balloon from his pocket. Quickly inflating it, he held it in his hand and then… nothing. Naruto's brows scrunched in confusion.

"I don't get it…" said Naruto, squinting at the balloon as if expecting it to suddenly explode in his face. Jiraiya just grinned.

"The final step," said Jiraiya as he fished into his pouch and grabbed a kunai. He popped the balloon, revealing the perfect form of spinning chakra in his hand,. "Is containment. You need to form a shell of sorts around the rasengan. This will allow it to keep its shape and essentially stabilize it for actual use. This will be the hardest step as it takes very good chakra control. I'll give you some more balloons, but this time you need to make sure it doesn't pop, or even move. If it does, you've failed to create a proper rasengan," Jiraiya continued, his explanation having Naruto's full attention.

"Right… okay, that sounds really tough," Naruto replied. The other steps had given him an understanding about how powerful a rasengan was. Trying to contain that much raw energy was daunting, but he wouldn't give up. He couldn't afford to.

For Fū. For everyone I care about…

"Bring it on," Naruto said, his eyes sharp. The determination showed clearly on his face. Jiraiya grinned back.

He's definitely their kid…

AN: That's that! CH 25 will be out after the hiatus. Feel free to leave reviews and I'll see you all in the next one.