Author's Notes: Hello there! Sorry about the wait, things are unfortunately still rather busy on my end. We had a brief reprieve from the mandatory overtime at work, but we're back on it now. It's not quite as bad as it was before, but still hardly a good time. At least the money's good.

Not much more to really say at the moment. Chapter's longer than I had originally planned, but I think it worked out for the best. I'm certainly happy with it, and I hope you lot will be as well.

Enjoy!

Chapter Twenty-Six: Old Wounds

One year later…

133 years before Rukia Kuchiki's arrival in Karakura Town

The sudden gust of wind caught Jiraiya by surprise as he departed the Squad Nine barracks, and he clutched his latest manuscript tightly. After getting the seal of approval from Mashiro and the publishing department for the newest entry into his ongoing and quite popular series, the last thing Jiraiya wanted was for the pages to fly all over the Seireitei.

Not before I get actual copies on the shelves, at least, Jiraiya mused with a smile, I'd hate for spoilers to start flying before the official release, after all.

Making sure that all the pages were securely bound, he slipped them into a bag that hung from the sash of his Soul Reaper robes. Another chill gale blew in from the north, and Jiraiya could not suppress a shiver. Autumn had the Seireitei firmly in its grip and, if these cold winds were anything to go by, Jiraiya suspected that they'd be in for a rather severe winter.

"I'll have to talk to the Lieutenant later," he murmured as he made his way down the winding streets on his journey back to Squad Eight's barracks, "We need to make sure that our provisions get topped off before the first snows hit.

Do my eyes and ears deceive me?, asked the spirit of his Zanpakutō, Are you actually trying to be proactive and productive with your official duties? Perhaps these winds come from Hell itself; I wouldn't be surprised if it's frozen over.

Jiraiya chuckled, drawing odd looks from a few passersby. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up."

Strictly speaking, monitoring Squad Eight's supply stores wasn't actually Jiraiya's responsibility. However, the Soul Reaper that normally handled such things had come down sick and was currently recuperating in the care of Squad Four, and the officer that had been assigned to pick up the slack was still struggling to adjust to their new duties. Logistics and requisitions weren't exactly Jiraiya's strongest area of expertise, but he'd still felt compelled to step in along with Lisa to help out where he could. If nothing else, he reasoned that it was a good way to start getting experience in administrative and managerial tasks, something he knew he'd be seeing a lot more of should he climb higher in the ranks.

And he certainly intended to climb. For the moment, he was still the Tenth Seat of Squad Eight, but Captain Kyōraku had been strongly hinting for the past couple of months now that a promotion was in the offing. His performance leading part of their unit in holding the line against a particularly determined bunch of Hollows in Terra while the Academy students being protected by Squad Eight had performed their Konsō training a while back had won him no small amount of praise, even including a commendation from none other than Head Captain Yamamoto. Jiraiya didn't expect the bump to be more than a rank or two, but it was still definitely a step in the right direction.

The trip to the Shinobi World a year ago had only served to provide further fuel for his ambitions. The cooperation between the Soul Reapers and the spiritually sensitive Shinobi during the clash with the Hollows was additional proof for Jiraiya that the Soul Society had much to gain by working together with groups outside of their organization. Yoruichi's efforts to keep tabs on those Shinobi with the Stealth Force had paid off, and their collaboration during the mission had been a fruit of those labors. What Jiraiya saw as the next logical step was increased communication and the sharing of intelligence between the two groups, something that Yoruichi had hinted she was working on. However, Jiraiya knew that she had to proceed with care.

Central Forty-Six is as hidebound and paranoid as ever, he thought, I know Yoruichi's got no problem with bending the rules, but even someone with the combined authority and influence of a Captain, head of the Stealth Force and the heiress of a Great Noble House needs to tread carefully. There's only so much she can do on her own to work around the stifling orthodoxy of the judges and so-called 'wisemen'.

If there was another Captain working in tandem with her, though…

Jiraiya had considered broaching the subject with his own commander, but he wasn't sure how best to make the approach. Captain Kyōraku was an open-minded officer, yet his close ties with the Head Captain put him in a somewhat delicate position. Yamamoto rarely felt the need to bring Captain Kyōraku to heel, as it were, and in fact tended to let him operate as he pleased so long as he got results, but he still had Squad Eight's leader under slightly closer scrutiny than those of other units. The same went for Captain Ukitake of Squad Thirteen; being former students of the Head Captain was definitely a double-edged sword. If Squad Eight began making moves that skirted the lines of what the Soul Society deemed to be acceptable behavior or conduct in the field, it had the potential to invite some very unwanted attention.

That was why Jiraiya was determined to become Captain in his own right. With his own command, he'd have much greater influence and standing. More importantly, he likely wouldn't draw quite as much attention as some of the more famous and established officers; new Captains usually enjoyed a brief period of stardom before becoming just another leader in the lineup, taking a backseat to those with greater experience and reputation. There was a certain freedom found in blending in with the background, and when that was combined with the authority of rank it opened the door to all manner of possibilities.

Don't put the cart before the horse. You're doing well, but you've still got a long way to go before you'll be in a position to start acting upon your ambitions.

I know. Still, it's good to keep one eye on the prize.

Quite so.

When he eventually reached Squad Eight's barracks, he found Lisa in the central training courtyard. A few Soul Reapers were engaged in sparring matches, but the Lieutenant's focus wasn't on them. Instead, her gaze was upon the gateway that Jiraiya had just strode through, and she stepped forth to meet him. Jiraiya expected a friendly quip from her regarding his soon-to-be published tale; he had told her of his errand before leaving, and she'd always teased him about his books even though she was an avid fan herself. However, the look on her face wasn't the usual smile or smirk that he'd come to know and love about her. Instead, she was very much all business now, which raised a quiet alarm in the back of Jiraiya's mind.

"Something the matter?" he asked, suspecting that the usual banter and pleasantries wouldn't be appreciated by her right now.

He was very much correct, for Lisa gave him merely a curt nod before gesturing towards the main building. "You're needed. The Captain's waiting for you in the briefing hall."

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow as he followed her across the courtyard. "What's going on?"

"You'll find out soon enough," Lisa answered, a bit more tersely than usual.

With his mind now freshly alert, Jiraiya allowed her to lead him to the briefing hall in silence. She set a brisk pace, and Jiraiya didn't fail to notice the tension in her frame. Whatever was up, it had her genuinely worried.

When the reached the sliding door, Lisa sighed. "You're a bit too popular with the ladies for your own good, Jiraiya. If you're not careful, it could be the end of you."

Jiraiya blinked in confusion. "Excuse me?"

Lisa took a deep breath while smoothing over a wrinkle in her robes. "Sorry. I just don't like having surprises like this dropped on us. Some old friends have come by, and they're asking for your help."

Before Jiraiya could inquire further, she opened the door and stepped aside, gesturing for him to enter. As he did so, he saw Captain Kyōraku sitting at the far end of the hall. A series of cushions were laid out on the floor before him, and two of them were occupied. The figures taking them had thick cloaks draped over them, their cowls obscuring their heads. Said cloaks were lined with wolf's fur, and Jiraiya immediately realized just where these visitors were from.

Sure enough, as Lisa stepped inside behind Jiraiya, Captain Kyōraku and the two figures stood up. The Captain inclined his head in greeting, while the two figures turned around and lowered the cowls of their cloaks. Two women, each wearing a blue tunic and leggings, now looked at Jiraiya, and he recognized them both: the lovely blue-eyed and blonde Ingegerd, still wearing her hair in the usual ponytail, and the dark green-eyed Eidunn, who had actually grown her raven hair out since the last time Jiraiya had seen her, to the point that it fell to her shoulders. Both apprentices respectfully bowed before turning to Kyōraku.

The Captain sighed heavily before gesturing for Jiraiya and Lisa to come forward. "Good, you made it. Let's get things started."

The lack of his trademark lazy smirk or any sort of polite banter or teasing with the ladies did little to quell Jiraiya's growing sense of unease. Stepping forward, he took a cushion to the right of Ingegerd while Lisa occupied one to the left of Eidunn.

"I take it this isn't a social call, then," Jiraiya said as he studied the two apprentices.

Ingegerd reluctantly nodded. "It isn't. I wish it were otherwise, Jiraiya."

"The north is under threat," said Eidunn solemnly, "We come here on behalf of Lady Gunnr, who requests your aid in resolving this crisis."

Jiraiya looked back and forth between her and Captain Kyōraku. "The aid of Squad Eight, or of me specifically?"

"The latter," Kyōraku answered, "That's the only way we can lend any kind of aid without turning this into a bigger mess than it already is."

Now Jiraiya was really worried. "What's happened? You don't have another cold drake that I need to help protect from Menos Grande, do you?"

Ingegerd sighed. "Believe me, I wish the situation was as simple as our excursion to defend Fafnir during his passing. Our mission wouldn't require such secrecy otherwise."

Jiraiya glanced at the Captain. "Secrecy… this little meeting isn't on the books, is it?"

"Not officially," Kyōraku confirmed, "If anyone asks, our two guests are just that and nothing more."

"We're grateful for your discretion in this matter, Captain Kyōraku, along with that of your Lieutenant," said Eidunn before turning to Jiraiya, "We hope that we can count on the same for your Tenth Seat."

"Of course, you can," Jiraiya earnestly reassured her, though privately he was beginning to dread whatever required such secrecy.

Ingegerd and Eidunn exchanged looks before the former spoke. "Jiraiya… Lady Gunnr places great faith in you, and so do we. We would not come here asking for your aid if the matter was not of the utmost urgency."

"Your unique expertise is required," Eidunn added, "for the threat we face is one that has its origins in the Realm of the Living that you once called home."

Jiraiya was quite taken aback by that. "From the Shinobi World? What is it? A former Kage or rogue ninja?"

Ingegerd shook her head. "If the threat was human, we would not be seeking outside help. This is something far more powerful than one of your old comrades or foes, Jiraiya."

"Do you remember the period of time you spent with us following Fafnir's passing?" Eidunn suddenly asked.

Jiraiya hadn't expected that question, and it took him a moment to formulate a response. "Yeah… I had to winter with your Order after that mission; the southern passes wouldn't be safe until spring. I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with you all, but what does that have to do with your current situation?"

"Remember the nights we spent in the main hall?" Ingegerd pressed, "Those raucous feasts, with food and drink followed by the swapping of tales? We regaled you of our homeland, and in return we asked for stories of your own."

Jiraiya slowly nodded as the memories began to surface. "That's right… the taboo that the Seireitei has regarding asking about one's past life isn't as strongly held in the north as it is here… and we had quite a bit to drink on more than a few of those nights. Perhaps my lips might have been a bit too loose."

Eidunn smiled in reassurance. "You have nothing to fear, Jiraiya. Everything that you told us has remained in confidence. What happens within the walls of Steinskjöldur does not tend to go beyond it, and the rights of hospitality are sacred for us. Knowledge of the Shinobi World and its many peculiar people and creatures has not spread in our lands."

"That being said," Ingegerd chimed in, giving meaningful looks to Kyōraku and Lisa, "one of the topics that you broached back then has come back to haunt our homeland in a most deadly fashion. We spoke of beasts one night… those that roam our lands, and those of the Shinobi World. One of your homeland's beasts is now on the prowl in the Soul Society… and it's one of those that you said were the most dangerous of all."

Jiraiya's eyes widened in shock; there was only one kind of creature that she could possibly be referring to, especially if it was one that was giving even the fearsome Valkyries problems. "There's a Tailed Beast in the north, isn't there?"

Ingegerd slowly nodded. "Yes."

Jiraiya turned to Kyōraku. "Captain…"

Although knowledge of the Tailed Beasts wasn't something that Jiraiya wanted widely spread in the Soul Society, he had felt an obligation once he'd settled into Squad Eight to inform both Kyōraku and Lisa of them as a precaution. He hadn't done so lightly, but he also hadn't wanted them to be caught off guard in case one of their missions wound up involving them or the beings who were forced to play host to them. His main fear had been the possibility of a Jinchūriki dying and becoming a Hollow; Jiraiya had no way of knowing what might become of the host's Tailed Beast under such circumstances, and he'd wanted to make sure his new friends were prepared for the worst. Fortunately for him, both Captain and Lieutenant had immediately grasped the gravity of the matter… along with the importance of keeping such knowledge away from those who might want to target the Tailed Beasts for their own gain.

Kyōraku's appreciation of the situation's severity was evidenced by the look he gave Jiraiya. "No one outside this room knows, Jiraiya. With a bit of luck, it'll stay that way."

"That luck may not last for much longer," Eidunn interjected, "Our only saving grace in this matter has been the beast so far sticking to the most remote regions of the north, but that won't matter eventually. Our Order's attempted to contain the situation, but we are still bound by oaths to serve the Starmont Clan, and they've begun to take notice of our sudden concentration of resources in the far north at the expense of other areas."

"If they have not yet begun conducting their own investigation yet, they will soon enough," Ingegerd added, "We're running out of time to properly address this matter. It is our Order's desire to resolve this situation in a manner that hopefully keeps the Great Noble Houses out of it, and that includes the one governing our homeland."

Jiraiya was puzzled at that. "Why, though? As you said, you've sworn oaths to serve the Starmont Clan. Wouldn't keeping them out of the loop be in violation of those oaths?"

Ingegerd and Eidunn traded uncomfortable looks before the latter spoke. "Lady Gunnr was the one who impressed upon the Council the need for secrecy here. We fear that if the Starmont Clan, or any Great Noble House for that matter, learns of just how mighty this Tailed Beast is, armies will be dispatched in an attempt to capture it and put it to use for them. While we do serve the Starmont Clan, we also serve the north as a whole… and we believe any attempt to confront this creature with a conventional army is doomed to failure. Many of our countrymen and women would surely perish in the attempt, and it is our sincerest wish to avoid such bloodshed if at all possible."

"Rather circumspect for an organization renowned for its fearsome warriors," Lisa noted.

Kyōraku appeared sympathetic to their plight. "Your Order is walking a very fine line here. One misstep, and the repercussions will be immense."

"Believe me, we are well aware of that," Ingegerd replied before turning to face Jiraiya again, "We are prepared to face those consequences should circumstances take a turn for the worse. With your help, though, we may be able to salvage the situation."

"Before we get into that, there's something I need to know," said Jiraiya, dreading the answer that his impending question would bring, "Which Tailed Beast are we dealing with here?"

Ingegerd took a deep breath. "It's the Nine Tailed Fox."

Time seemed to freeze in Jiraiya's eyes, and everyone else in the room momentarily faded from his consideration. His chest became heavy while his throat suddenly tightened, and a strange sort of dizziness threatened to overtake him. Jiraiya blinked rapidly as his mind processed the information… and the implications that came from it.

If the Nine Tailed Fox was in the Soul Society…

"Naruto…" he choked out, his voice barely more than a hoarse whisper.

It's wrong… it has to be wrong.

"Ingegerd," he said as he fought harder than he ever had in his life to keep what little of his composure remained, "are… are you certain about the number of tails?"

The apprentice nodded. "I am."

"What is the significance of it?" asked Eidunn, "You told us that all the Tailed Beasts were powerful; is the Nine Tails a greater threat than its brethren?"

A hand fell upon Jiraiya's shoulder, and he nearly jumped out of his own robes. Looking up, he saw that Lisa was now kneeling next to him; he'd been so shaken that he hadn't even seen her move. He met her gaze, and the look in her eyes was a knowing one.

Of course, it was. After all, how many times had Jiraiya boasted to her and Kyōraku during their drinking sessions about his last apprentice? How many nights had he regaled them with stories of the boy's efforts, his struggles to become stronger and be accepted by a village that had shunned him for so many years? How many glasses had he raised in happy inebriation to toast that student's name?

He had just seen him a little over a year ago…

…and now he was confronted with the knowledge that that was the last time he'd ever see Naruto alive.

"Jiraiya, focus," Lisa gently but firmly chided him, "They're only reporting sightings of the Nine Tails, not Naruto."

Jiraiya shook his head. "Lisa… if the Nine Tails is here… then that can only mean… a Jinchūriki can't survive the extraction of their Tailed Beast…"

"To your knowledge," Kyōraku pointed out, "You told us yourself that there was much about these Tailed Beasts you and your fellow Shinobi did not understand."

"No one in your order has spotted a human travelling with this Tailed Beast, have they?" Lisa asked the apprentices.

Ingegerd shook her head. "No, we have not."

"For a human to approach such a mighty creature on their own… it would be suicide," Eidunn added.

Jiraiya shook his head. "Not for Naruto. His connection with the Nine Tails is stronger than you know."

"Even so, the fact remains that we've seen no humans in the proximity of the creature," Eidunn replied, "Not counting members of our Order conducting scouting missions, of course."

"Of course," said Lisa, her gaze still focused on Jiraiya, "and until any other sightings confirm otherwise, I think it would be wise to assume that it's just the Nine Tails involved here."

He knew what she was trying to do here; offer him a thread of hope that Naruto was still alive. It was the thinnest possible strand, but Jiraiya had nothing else to seize upon.

It's denial, he silently told himself, but what else can I do? I'm not ready to accept it… not yet.

It didn't matter that Naruto being dead meant that he would come to the Soul Society and, therefore, Jiraiya now had a chance to see him again. Sure, it might lessen the blow a bit, but when Jiraiya thought of just how happy Naruto had been as both the Seventh Hokage and a loving husband and father, it made the idea of him being taken from the Realm of the Living all the harsher. So, Jiraiya would willfully delude himself, at least for a time, and hold out hope that the appearance of Kurama in the Soul Society didn't mean what the Legendary Sannin was all but certain it actually meant.

"How the Nine Tailed Fox came to the Soul Society… and if anyone came with him… is a matter that can be considered later," Kyōraku interjected in an effort to get the meeting back on track, "The fact that you two have come down here means that his presence is a problem that the Order of the Valkyries cannot solve on its own. Thus, your mission is to request our aid… and to keep that aid off the books."

Ingegerd nodded. "Precisely. Strictly speaking, this is an internal affair… but it will not remain so forever. One of the reasons why the Order swore an oath to serve the Starmont Clan is because that Great Noble House has traditionally acted as a responsible steward of the North. The family has focused primarily on the governance of its Principality, and it has done so as much due to the limitations imposed by geography as it has due to demographic constraints. Our lands are the least hospitable of all the Principalities; we cannot support a population nearly as large as those of the other Principalities, let alone that of the Seireitei. Those limits have long served to check any major ambitions of our land's overlords and thus keep them focused on ruling with an eye towards long term stability."

Eidunn cast a nervous glance at her compatriot before addressing the Soul Reapers. "Should our land's ruling family marshal its army against the Nine Tailed Fox, we fear that the power it holds will make it a tempting target for capture, regardless of the risks involved. If the Starmont Clan and its vassals find some way to accomplish such a feat, they may start to get certain… ideas."

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed. "You can't mean territorial expansion, can you? They'd be violating the treaty with the Seireitei and the other Great Noble Houses. There's no way that the Head Captain or the Central Forty-Six would stand for it, and that's not even getting into the rival families."

"Even entertaining such a notion would be highly unusual for the Starmont Clan," Lisa remarked, "The current head of the family has a reputation for caution and great deliberation. A major move that would upset the balance of power is completely out of character."

"Not necessarily," Kyōraku countered, "It's true that Lord Torland Starmont does not move quickly or rashly; he's methodical and wary to the bone, traits that serve him well given the difficult land he rules over. That being said, he's not without ambition."

There was something more to the Captain's words, and Jiraiya had a suspicion as to what that might be. "You've met the man, haven't you?"

Kyōraku nodded. "On a handful of occasions. Not frequently, but he definitely leaves an impression."

The Captain spent a moment in thoughtful silence before continuing. "He doesn't make his way down to the Seireitei very often; he prefers his family's ancestral seat in Wolf's Haven. However, that's less because it's home to him and more because he rules there. Within the borders of a Great Noble House's Principality, the words of the head of the house are law. That kind of power can be a heady cocktail, and it's actually why most leaders of the Great Noble Houses stick to the Seireitei; the jostling of families while the Central Forty-Six and the Head Captain loom overhead actually serves as a useful counterweight and keeps the ambitions of individual family heads from exceeding their grasp. Thus is the balance carefully maintained. However, Torland resents that balance."

Jiraiya was curious, though also a bit skeptical. "How can you say that when you yourself admit to having only met the man a few times? Aren't you drawing a bit too much from a handful of encounters?"

Kyōraku shook his head. "No, and here's why. The few times I've met him have been at large ceremonial gatherings that are always attended by the Soul Society's cream of the crop, as it were. Beneath the traditional pleasantries that are exchanged at such events, there's always an undercurrent of competition, but it's just that; an undercurrent. It flows below the surface, implied and referenced indirectly but not explicitly acknowledged. Through such niceties, the peace is kept. Such niceties, though, are not Lord Torland Starmont's style."

Jiraiya was concerned. "What, you mean he just straight up insults his fellow nobles? That's got to ruffle some feathers."

"I wouldn't say that he outright insults them," Kyōraku corrected, "but he doesn't exactly hide his disdain for them. He's blunt, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but when combined with his pride… well, it can cause issues."

Kyōraku then let out a heavy sigh. "The truth of the matter is that he's a bitter and resentful old man. The brutal cold of the north makes for hardy people, and while their strength in the face of constant adversity is admired by many, their strict adherence to certain local customs and a general wariness of outsiders can often rub visitors the wrong way. As a result, residents of the north bear a mixed reputation. Their toughness and valor in the face of great danger is beyond reproach, yet their more insular nature causes many outside the north to view the inhabitants of that region as a somewhat backwards people. Words like 'barbarian' and 'savage' have an unfortunate tendency of getting tossed around whenever others think that they're out of earshot, and Lord Torland has sharp ears and a long memory."

Jiraiya could see where this was going. "If he somehow managed to corral and harness the power of the Nine Tails, regardless of the cost his local forces might pay in the effort, he'd have a weapon that he could potentially use to begin addressing perceived slights against him."

"Exactly," Ingegerd chimed in, "and if he's given the means to do so, the consequences would be dire. While the Order of the Valkyries would be bound to answer should he call upon us to cooperate with any effort to contain or subdue the Nine Tails, he has not done so at this time. That is because we have endeavored to steer the beast's path as far northward as possible, keeping him away from any settlements or trade routes. Given the incredible power of the Nine Tails, though, there is only so much that we can do… and our backs are now against the wall."

"His spiritual pressure is beyond anything we've ever felt before," Eidunn added, "With all due respect, I believe that even your revered and vaunted Head Captain would struggle before his might. Unfortunately, we are not the only ones who can sense his power. The Nine Tails is drawing in Hollows like moths to the flame, and he is a very large flame. Menos Grande are swarming the deep north, and the Tailed Beast's clashes with them are nothing short of cataclysmic in scope. The very land itself is reshaped by his attacks, much to the chagrin of our Order's chief cartographer. With the manner in which the Hollows are hounding him, our efforts to keep the Nine Tails out of the Starmont Clan's eyes cannot hold for much longer. His path is taking him southward, and it's only a matter of time before the Order's work to forestall an encounter between him and the people we're sworn to protect is undone. If we are to both protect our homeland and preserve the balance of power in the wider Soul Society, then we need help."

"Your help specifically, Jiraiya," Ingegerd finished, "Your expertise regarding these creatures would make you an invaluable advisor, and the Order has already seen your combat prowess firsthand. If anyone can aid us in bringing this crisis to a successful resolution, it is you."

Jiraiya took a deep breath. "I appreciate that you have such a high opinion of me, but you may be overstating my worth here. I can definitely provide information that you'll find useful, but that alone probably won't be enough to properly resolve this situation. As for my combat prowess, I don't know if it'll make much of a difference against the raw power of the Nine Tails."

Ingegerd smiled. "Lady Gunnr feels otherwise, and so do we."

"You have far more to offer than you seem to believe," Eidunn remarked, "When your knowledge is combined with the might of our Order's finest, I believe that we will triumph."

Their praise was appreciated, but Jiraiya was still uneasy as he turned to Kyōraku. "Captain… I know we need to play things close to the chest here, but… it's not going to be just me going up there, is it?"

Squad Eight's leader scratched his chin in thought. "I'd normally offer help, but any officers in our unit powerful enough to lend meaningful aid would also risk drawing attention to what's going on here, and that's the last thing we need. Above all, we have to keep this in the shadows. If word spreads to the other Great Noble Houses about what the Valkyries have found in the north, the ensuing political shitstorm would not be fun."

"That's an understatement," Lisa deadpanned, "It wouldn't surprise me if they started raising their own armies to go after the Nine Tails. We're potentially sitting on a powder keg here, and one mistake might be all that's required to light it."

Kyōraku reluctantly concurred. "I can cover for you, Jiraiya, by logging your trip as another vacation. You've spent time in the north before that wasn't duty-related, so it'd be easy enough to sell this as just another sojourn. Adding more Soul Reapers from Squad Eight into the mix would undermine that deception, though."

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed as a possible solution surfaced in his mind. "What if it's only one other Soul Reaper that comes with me? One that's not from Squad Eight… and one that I'm already considered to be a known associate of."

Lisa's eyes widened in comprehension. "You're referring to Itachi Uchiha, aren't you?"

"A good friend of yours, right?" Ingegerd chimed in curiously, "That was the impression I got whenever you spoke of him during your time with us, at least."

"I do not wish to question the character of someone that you consider to be a comrade," said Eidunn nervously, "but I must ask… can he be trusted with something of this magnitude?"

Jiraiya nodded without hesitation. "Absolutely. In fact, of all the Soul Reapers in the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, I'd say he's the one you'd want for this situation more than anyone else. He has experience with the Tailed Beasts, including the Nine Tails. His knowledge is worth just as much as mine, possibly more. More importantly, he has certain talents that would be very useful in this situation."

Jiraiya knew he was treading on dangerous ground here. No one in Squad Eight knew about the Sharingan, and the same went for the Valkyries. He couldn't let the Captain or Lieutenant pry too deeply, but at the same time he needed to sell them on the necessity of Itachi being involved in this mission if there was to be any chance of success.

Thankfully, Kyōraku seemed willing to take Jiraiya at his word, though the look he gave him suggested that the Captain suspected there were things that the Tenth Seated wanted to keep unsaid. "If you think he can help, then I have no objections to his involvement in this operation. It's Captain Shihōin's call as to whether or not he can take part in the mission, though."

"Eight Seat Uchiha's become an increasingly integral part of Squad Two's operations," Lisa noted, "I don't know if Captain Shihōin would be willing to release him for a mission like this. You two would be gone for quite some time. It's already well into fall; even leaving as soon as possible, by the time you reach the north, winter will have started setting in. You know as well as the rest of us by now just how treacherous travel can be when the north's famous snowstorms get going. The two of you wouldn't be able to start the return trip until the spring thaw."

Jiraiya nodded. "I'm well aware of that, Lieutenant. I do believe Captain Shihōin would be willing to go along with this, though… if she's told the truth regarding the operation."

"Can she be trusted to keep these sensitive matters to herself?" asked Ingegerd.

"She's from another Great Noble House," Eidunn remarked with some trepidation, "and one that hasn't been on the best of terms lately with the Starmont Clan."

Jiraiya gave the apprentices a reassuring smile. "I understand your concerns, but the two of you have nothing to worry about. Captain Shihōin isn't interested in playing the games of the aristocracy when matters are as serious as this. We can trust her here. I'd stake my life on that."

"I agree," said Kyōraku, "Tell her the truth, Jiraiya; we'll owe her that much since we're going to be borrowing one of her most valuable subordinates for this mission. She'll be able to cover Itachi's prolonged absence easily enough."

"As long as the circle of those in the know regarding this operation doesn't spread any further, I think we should be okay," Lisa added, though her brow was still furrowed in worry, "Even so… we need to be damn careful here."

Jiraiya couldn't have agreed more.

….

Sitting on a cushion next to Jiraiya, Itachi studied his Captain from across the low-set table. Yoruichi's gleaming golden eyes were narrowed in sharp concentration as she carefully considered all that Jiraiya had just revealed. The only other person in the office with them was Soi-Fon, who was sitting on the other side of the table to Yoruichi's right and looked more than a little uneasy. Jiraiya could hardly blame her for that; with her experience in both Squad Two and the Stealth Force, the head of Yoruichi's personal guard understood better than most the thorny situation that he'd just dropped into their laps.

A long moment of silence passed, eventually punctuated by a deep breath from Yoruichi. "Well… this is a damn mess. Nine Tails in the north battling it out with the Menos Grande while the Valkyries try to limit the collateral damage… I figured you had a real doozy for us when you popped up here in the dead of night, but this is way beyond what I was anticipating."

"You're certain it's the Nine Tails?" Itachi pressed.

Jiraiya nodded firmly. "The apprentices were adamant about it, and they said Gunnr saw the beast firsthand. If she says it was the Nine Tails, it's the Nine Tails; I wouldn't doubt her on something this important… no matter how much I might wish she'd gotten it wrong in this case."

"Your last apprentice…" Soi Fon said softly, giving Jiraiya a rather rare sympathetic look, "He really was the host for this creature?"

Jiraiya sighed. "That's right… and the Nine Tails being here means…"

Jiraiya clearly didn't have the heart to complete that sentence, and could only let his voice trail off as Soi-Fon respectfully inclined her head. "I'm sorry, Jiraiya."

"Aren't you being a bit premature here?" Yoruichi asked, "You were told that they only saw the fox, not Naruto, right?"

"That's true," Jiraiya conceded, and Itachi could see that the Legendary Sannin wanted desperately to cling to that tiny shred of hope despite knowing better, "however…"

He turned to Itachi. "You know what happens when a Jinchūriki has their Tailed Beast taken from them."

Itachi reluctantly nodded before meeting Yoruichi's gaze. "I do. I saw it firsthand when I was with the Akatsuki. A Jinchūriki losing their Tailed Beast is universally fatal for the host. There are no exceptions. The closest one came was the Fifth Kazekage, and the extraction of the One Tailed Tanuki did kill him; he was only revived afterwards, and my understanding is that revival came at the cost of another Hidden Sand Shinobi's life. That being said, part of that might simply have come down to the Akatsuki's method of extraction. We don't know the exact circumstances of what happened with Naruto and the Nine Tailed Fox, so variables beyond my experience could be in play. Also, there's the fact that the Akatsuki's goal back then was to capture the Tailed Beasts, not kill them. I honestly wasn't completely sure that one could be killed, though it seems that question has since been answered. Something that could actually kill a Tailed Beast… well, if it slew the Nine Tails, I have a hard time seeing how the host could've survived. It would be prudent to assume the worst."

"I see…" Yoruichi said softly before turning to Jiraiya, "If that really is the case… I'll put the word out to have our patrols keep an eye out for Naruto. I can't promise that we'll be able to find him, but if we do, you'll be informed as soon as the report reaches my desk."

Jiraiya bowed deeply. "Thank you, Captain Shihōin."

Soi-Fon tapped her chin in thought. "These Tailed Beasts… they're intelligent, right? Seems to me that if you find the Nine Tails, you'll be able to get a concrete answer as to your apprentice's fate. All you'll have to do is ask."

Jiraiya grimaced. "Tailed Beasts aren't exactly the chatty types, Soi-Fon. They're more like giant walking natural disasters. The north's finding that out the hard way. As much as I want answers, I don't think that the fox is going to be in the mood for a little talk."

"Aren't you being a bit too hasty here?" Itachi countered, "You told me that when you encountered Naruto during your visit to the village last year that he seemed to have found a new kind of balance with the Nine Tailed Fox. It's true that the Nine Tails as we knew it back in the day was a force of raw destructive power and not shy about using it on humans, but we might not be dealing with the same sort of creature anymore. Naruto was able to bring Sasuke back to the Hidden Leaf Village; it's not out of the question for him to have made a positive impact on the Nine Tailed Fox."

Jiraiya was skeptical. "His reported behavior in the north suggests otherwise."

"Not quite," Yoruichi interjected, "If what the apprentices told you is correct, then it sounds like his aggression so far is really just aimed at the Hollows hunting him. In my book, that's justified self-defense, not a rampage. Sure, I bet his power can cause all kinds of collateral damage, but we've heard no evidence so far of him acting in a deliberately destructive manner as far as the inhabitants of the north are concerned. If his fight is just with the Hollows, then he might be open to some help. If you and Itachi provide that help, who knows what doors it might open?"

It was an intriguing line of thought, but then Jiraiya gave voice to understandable skepticism. "Maybe, but according to the apprentices, he hasn't exactly been friendly towards the Valkyries whenever they've tried to approach."

"He would have plenty of cause for suspicion and animosity," Itachi argued, "Don't forget that we humans saw his kind as nothing more than mobile calamities and living weapons, and we treated them accordingly. Even if Naruto left an impression on him, that would've been just one human at a late point in the Nine Tailed Fox's life. Compare that with all the prior generations of Shinobi that he'd encountered up to that point and his interactions with them. The Valkyries might not necessarily want to do him harm, but given the history of Tailed Beasts and humans, the Nine Tails can't exactly be blamed for his wariness."

Jiraiya considered it for a moment. "Perhaps… and being hounded by Hollows would hardly improve his disposition. I suppose if we can avoid being instantly vaporized by one of his attacks once we get up there, we might have a chance at convincing him that we're not his enemies. Won't exactly be easy, and there's no guarantee that a diplomatic approach would work. I hate to be a pessimist, but I'd say building any new bridges here would be a long shot at best… and we need to be prepared for the worst."

The Legendary Sannin fixed his gaze on Itachi. "The Sharingan's going to be our ace in the hole here."

Itachi slowly nodded; he'd been expecting this, though he wasn't exactly thrilled with the notion. "I know, although I wish it were otherwise. The history between the Uchiha Clan's eyes and the Nine Tails… well, you know the story just as I do, Jiraiya."

Soi-Fon blinked in confusion. "What story?"

Itachi turned to her to offer clarification. "You know that one of the aspects of the Sharingan is the Eye of Hypnotism, right? Our clan's genjutsu can be used on more than just humans or Hollows; Tailed Beasts are susceptible if the Uchiha trying to control them is sufficiently powerful and skilled. The Nine Tails has been on the receiving end of this before from none other than Madara Uchiha."

"That was back when he fought against the First Hokage, right?" Yoruichi chimed in.

"Good memory," Itachi complimented, "I originally thought Madara had done the same during the attack on the village that resulted in the Fourth Hokage sacrificing himself to seal the Nine Tailed fox within his son, but thanks to meeting Sasuke last year I learned that it was a different Uchiha who had committed that act. Regardless of which particular Uchiha controlled the Nine Tails and when, though, the fact of the matter is that our clan's eyes have the ability to put the fox under genjutsu and harness its power for our own ends… and the Nine Tails will be exceptionally wary of it. That will be doubly so once he recognizes me in the field. We've met, albeit indirectly, thanks to my encounters with Naruto."

Itachi then took a deep breath. "While I did use the Sharingan on Tailed Beasts during my time with the Akatsuki, the abilities I used were more direct and offensive in nature. Trying to control a Tailed Beast outright is not something I've ever attempted. Pulling that off against one that will undoubtedly expect just that sort of move from me once I'm recognized… it's going to be a challenge."

"It'll be even worse given that you two won't be acting alone here," Yoruichi remarked, "The Valkyries will be involved in the inevitable confrontation; you'll have witnesses."

"The chaos of battle might provide sufficient cover," Soi-Fon suggested, though Itachi could detect more than hint of doubt in her tone, "If the confrontation takes place while Hollows are still trying to attack the Nine Tails, that may be enough to keep the Valkyries occupied while you use the Sharingan."

Itachi closed his eyes for a long moment, attempting to imagine just what such a confrontation would look like. His mind's eye had other plans, though. It took him not to the frozen plains and hills of the north, but to a dark night from many years ago. A night when he'd been but a child, his beloved little brother a mere infant…

…and the Nine Tailed Fox a rampaging monster threatening to tear his home and everyone he loved apart.

A heavy hand on Itachi's shoulder snapped him out of his nightmarish reverie. Looking at the source, Itachi saw Jiraiya staring at him intently.

The Legendary Sannin's concern was clear; he'd already guessed just what Itachi was thinking of. "You alright?"

Itachi let out a heavy sigh, knowing that the eyes of everyone in the room were on him and not wanting to lie to them. "Not really. This confrontation with the Nine Tails… however it's going to play out, I can't say that I'm looking forward to it. The last time I encountered this creature in its true form, unfettered by a host… it was catastrophic."

Looking across the table, he saw the understanding in Yoruichi's eyes as well. "If you don't think you're up for this, Itachi, now's the time to say it. I could get Shisui on this mission if you prefer. You've spoken highly of his genjutsu mastery in the past; his talents could substitute for yours here."

"Would that even be possible?" asked Soi-Fon, "He's out in the field right now, and his current mission is not expected to end for at least another week. From what Jiraiya's said, this matter is extremely time sensitive."

Itachi saw Jiraiya reluctantly nodded. "I'm afraid she's right, Captain Shihōin. The apprentices will linger in the Seireitei for no more than a few days at the most. The situation up north is dire, and quick action is needed."

"I was afraid you'd say that," said Yoruichi before giving Itachi a solemn look, "Even so… I'm not going to force you into this one, Itachi. This mission will be strictly voluntary."

Itachi smiled, grateful for the out she was giving him even though he knew that he couldn't accept it; the stakes were simply too high here. "I appreciate that. Whatever my reservations might be, though, the facts of the situation are clear. The Valkyries need our help protecting the people of the north from the Nine Tails, along with preserving the Soul Society's delicate balance of power. My abilities and experience can aid them in resolving this crisis. I will go with Jiraiya, and we will see this done."

Jiraiya patted him on the back. "I won't forget this, Itachi. Neither will the Order of the Valkyries. Trust me; they know how to honor their debts."

"I'll take your word on that," Itachi replied, "As long as we're able to accomplish our mission and prevent the north's civilian population from getting caught up in this storm, that'll be enough for me."

"As long as it's all done away from prying eyes," Yoruichi gently reminded him, "The north's rulers will be suitably rankled should they learn of Soul Reapers being deployed in their territory without their consent. Measures will have to be taken to ensure you depart the Seireitei without drawing too much attention. Even then, your prolonged absence will eventually prompt questions."

"My cover's already more or less in place," said Jiraiya, "I've journeyed to the north for both official duties and as a recreational sojourn of sorts… though the latter wound up being a bit more exciting than I had initially counted on. Regardless, the fact remains that I've got an alibi in place that'll stand up to nominal scrutiny, though a determined investigator will probably smell trouble. Itachi… you're a different matter. The closest you've ever gotten to the north is the Whitefell Mountains, right?"

Itachi nodded. "That barrow expedition… it feels like a lifetime ago. Some of my more prolonged hunts have taken me in that direction, but none past that point."

"That still gives us something to work with," Yoruichi chimed in, "As it so happens, our patrol presence up that way is precariously thin, and there are rumors of Hollows taking advantage of our absence. The lands immediately south of the Whitefell Mountains are better watched, but less so those on the northern side. Sending you up that way would help address the issue."

Soi-Fon turned to Yoruichi in visible confusion. "Forgive me, Lady Yoruichi, but I've seen no such reports."

Yoruichi gave her a sly smile. "I never said reports, Soi-Fon. I said rumors."

Soi-Fon blinked a few times before comprehension dawned. "I fail to see the… oh. Oh…"

Yoruichi smirked as she turned to Itachi. "Eight Seat Uchiha, would you agree that these rumors merit an investigation?"

Itachi returned her smirk with a small one of his own. "I would, indeed. Given that the Whitefell Mountains encompass a considerable amount of territory, though, such an investigation could take months. In fact, there's a good chance that I'll get caught by winter setting in. Should that happen after I've crossed the mountain range, the weather will most likely prohibit independent long-range travel. There's the distinct possibility that I might have to shelter in place with the locals and may not be able to return to the Seireitei until spring."

Yoruichi gave a theatrical sigh, though Itachi could detect some very real regret hidden in the mostly performative gesture. "It cannot be helped. Such is the nature of Squad Two and the Stealth Force's duties, after all. We're duty-bound to complete our missions, no matter how long they might take."

"All too true," said Itachi, his expression becoming more serious as he considered the full weight of his assignment, "The longer that this mission takes, though, the greater the risk to the wider Soul Society becomes. I will do everything in my power to help resolve this crisis as quickly as possible."

Jiraiya nodded. "That makes two of us."

Yoruichi leaned forward as her eyes narrowed in focus. "Then let's hammer out a plan for your coming departure and rendezvous. If we can't pull this off with sufficient speed and stealth, then the mission will be a failure before it even begins."

….

About an hour later, both Jiraiya and Soi-Fon had left Yoruichi's office. Itachi had remained, and though Yoruichi had not requested that he do so, neither did she send him away. Truth be told, she would've ordered him to stay behind if he hadn't done so on his own. She was worried, and with good reason.

As Soi-Fon shut the door behind her, Yoruichi stood up and moved to the same side of the table as Itachi. Taking the cushion Jiraiya had earlier occupied, she slid it closer to Itachi and placed a hand on his shoulder. When he turned to face her, she gave him what she hoped was an encouraging and gentle smile.

"I'm sure you've got a lot on your mind right now," she began, gazing at him intently, "Come on, talk to me. I've got all the time you need."

Itachi took a deep breath before returning her smile with a small one of his own. "Thank you, although… I'm honestly not sure where to start."

Yoruichi put her arm around him and pulled him close. "That's okay. Let's just go with the obvious and work our way down from there. The Nine Tailed Fox; you're afraid of it."

To his credit, Itachi did not even try to deny it. "I am… and for more than the obvious reasons. It's incredibly powerful, yes. So much so that I have to wonder if even the Head Captain could stand against it one-on-one. It's not the thought of facing off with such power that's the real concern, though. Yes, the notion of having the Nine Tails turn its wrath upon me is a suitably scary one, but that kind of fear is the same one that I've confronted in the past when my mission has been to challenge mighty foes. What truly terrifies me about the Nine Tails… is what it represents for the Uchiha Clan."

Yoruichi pondered it for a moment before venturing a guess. "What it represents for your clan… it's temptation, isn't it?"

Itachi's eyes widened slightly. "Yes… how did you know?"

"It was what you said earlier," Yoruichi replied, "You spoke of Madara using the Nine Tails against the First Hokage. Theoretically, you have the potential to seize the power of the Nine Tails for yourself thanks to the Sharingan. Any Uchiha with sufficiently advanced visual prowess can, right?"

Itachi nodded. "Correct. Madara wasn't the only one who had that idea, either. As you know, when the Nine Tails attacked the village, suspicion fell upon the Uchiha precisely because our clan's eyes were known to be able to control the beast. Though the clan wasn't responsible for that attack, they did wind up taking some inspiration from it."

There was a shadow in Itachi's eyes, and Yoruichi didn't like it one bit. "How so?"

Itachi was silent for a long moment before he answered. "In the aftermath of the attack on the village, my mother took Sasuke and I to one of the local hospitals. I remember her gaze was focused on a newborn baby; it was Naruto Uzumaki."

Yoruichi wasn't sure what to make of that. "The Fourth Hokage's son? Why?"

"The Nine Tails was sealed inside of him following the attack," Itachi reminded her, "My mother had been close friends with Naruto's mother, Kushina. I met her once or twice before she was killed during the attack. After our mission to the Shinobi World last year, my mother brought something up to me in private. I hadn't been aware of this at the time, but when we'd gone to the hospital together, she had actually been seeking to adopt Naruto so she could raise him on Kushina's behalf."

Yoruichi smiled. "She wanted to look after her friend's child… Mikoto and Kushina must've had a really strong bond."

"They certainly did," said Itachi, his voice tinged with regret, "I've wondered what might've been if the authorities had allowed her to bring the boy home and raise him with me and Sasuke… but it wasn't meant to be. Her request was denied. No official reason was given, but my mother had a suspicion as to what the true motive was; she thought that the village leadership feared the Uchiha Clan meant to use Naruto in his new status as a Jinchūriki against them."

A chill went down Yoruichi's spine. "Mikoto… that couldn't have been her true intention… could it?"

Itachi firmly shook his head. "She was sincere in her wish to take care of Naruto and raise him for Kushina; of that, I have no doubt. Her intentions were pure. However, she also told me that my father had encouraged her to make the adoption request… and it's his intentions that I find suspect here."

"Fugaku couldn't have been targeting Naruto that early, though," Yoruichi argued, "You told me that the Uchiha Clan's coup plot didn't start taking shape until much later on."

"That much is true," Itachi admitted, "and part of me wants to give my father the benefit of the doubt. At that point, I want to believe that he simply wished to support my mother. She maintained a strong front, but I know she grieved Kushina's death heavily in private. Encouraging her to adopt Naruto may very well have been nothing more than my father trying to help her overcome that grief in whatever way he could. That being said, it would be foolish to rule out an ulterior motive. Even at that early stage, the suspicion that the rest of the Leaf Village held the Uchiha Clan in following the attack by the Nine Tailed Fox was having its effect. That mistrust was met all too eagerly with resentment; the seeds of the Uchiha Clan's downfall were sown early."

Yoruichi watched patiently as Itachi's brow furrowed in thought, and he continued a moment later. "There's something that I left out earlier during the meeting. The Sharingan's ability to fully control Tailed Beasts… to my knowledge, only the Mangekyou Sharingan has the strength to allow for complete subjugation. At the time of the Nine Tailed Fox's attack, my father had the Mangekyou; he'd paid the appropriate price for it during the Third Shinobi World War. I lack the Mangekyou as of right now, which means my ability to completely control the Nine Tails today is in doubt. I could most likely influence it to a degree with genjutsu, but I don't know how far I can go with it. To be honest, though, I don't think that's a bad thing."

"Because you're afraid of what you might do if you could subjugate the Nine Tails," Yoruichi surmised.

"Exactly," Itachi confessed, "When the Uchiha Clan moved into serious planning for the coup, their attention was primarily on seizing power and neutralizing potential opposition from the Leaf Village leadership and Shinobi that were loyal to them. Naruto Uzumaki and the Nine Tailed Fox didn't come up much during those planning sessions, but I know that my father and the other Uchiha Clan leaders didn't simply forget about the Leaf Village's Jinchūriki. Had the coup commenced, I'm certain that either her or some of his close confederates would've moved to seize Naruto so that he and the Nine Tails could be placed under the Uchiha Clan's control. He would've been made into the Uchiha's living weapon, and my father would've had the power to direct him as he wished. Given that our coup undoubtedly would've sparked a wider confrontation… well, it's not hard to see the next step from there."

Yoruichi shuddered at the obvious implication. "Your father could've unleashed the boy and the beast within him upon the opposition."

Itachi slowly nodded. "Had he done so, it would've been an utter massacre… and likely not just of the Uchiha Clan's enemies. The Mangekyou Sharingan can control Tailed Beasts, yes, but there's always the chance that said control could be broken. If that were to happen while a Jinchūriki was enraged and the Tailed Beast's powers were flowing in earnest, it would be all too easy for that incredible power to be turned upon any target that creature and host alike wished. That would almost certainly include those who tried to use them as living weapons. In attempting to use Naruto and the Nine Tails as a literal attack dog in service to the Uchiha Clan, my father could very well have sealed the Uchiha's fate more thoroughly than my accomplice and I did on that bloody night."

"Do you think he really would've gone through with it?" Yoruichi asked softly.

Itachi took a deep breath. "I don't know. Remember, part of the reason why he ultimately went along with the coup plot was because he believed he could influence the conspiracy and steer it in a less violent manner. Perhaps he would've advocated only for taking Naruto into some form of protective custody. I want to believe that my father didn't genuinely wish to unleash the terrible power that boy held within himself… but there were those that certainly did wish for that to happen. Yashiro, Inabi, Tekka… they never said anything explicit regarding the Nine Tails, but they were the firebrands advocating for violent action. Had the Uchiha Clan managed to get their hands on Naruto, I have no doubt that those three would've pushed my father to put his power to use in service of their goals. Considering that my father had bent to their wishes before in going along with the coup plot, it's quite possible that he would've acceded to further demands as well."

Itachi then shook his head. "The temptation that comes with the power of Tailed Beasts… that's what this all comes back to. The Uchiha Clan had already proven itself vulnerable to that temptation; just look at Madara. The others weren't immune to it, either… and I have to include my father amongst their number."

"Your father… and yourself, right?" Yoruichi gently broached.

The silence before Itachi answered her was deafening, and his eventual reply was all the more fragile for it as he looked down at the table in shame. "Yes."

Yoruichi reached over to tenderly cup his chin in her hand. "Itachi, look at me. Please."

He allowed her to guide his gaze towards hers before continuing. "I understand your fears, but I think they're misplaced here. You are Fugaku's heir, not Fugaku himself. You're not bound to his fate."

"The same blood runs in my veins," Itachi bitterly pointed out, "The same weakness."

"You're wrong," Yoruichi countered firmly, "You've already faced the same temptation as both Fugaku and the Uchiha Clan as a whole, and you have already defeated it. Remember the difficult choices that you made to get to where you are now. When you gained the Mangekyou Sharingan after Shisui's death, you surely knew that you possessed the power needed to subjugate the Nine Tails just like your father did, but in honoring Shisui's memory by continuing to stand with the village in opposition to the Uchiha Clan's conspiracy, you did what Fugaku and the clan could not. You rejected the power of the Nine Tails at the same moment you rejected the Uchiha Clan's Curse of Hatred. It might not have felt that way at the time, but that's how I see it. I think your mother and Shisui would agree."

She then gave Itachi a compassionate smile. "Also, I think you're being a bit too hard on your father. It's true that he ultimately went along with the coup plot, and I can understand why you believe he'd be susceptible to the temptation represented by Naruto and the Nine Tails. However, when the moment of truth came… when began your purge of the Uchiha Clan… he made a very different choice than those who sought to launch the coup, remember?"

Itachi eventually smiled as well, though his was bittersweet. "Yes… he ultimately decided to die at my hand. It wasn't through contest, either. Both he and my mother… they accepted that I'd sided with the Leaf Village over the Uchiha Clan. The moment he realized what was happening… he rejected the resentment and lust for power that had overtaken our clan. Above all else, he refused to engage in a deathmatch with his eldest son. In the end, love for family won out over grievance and ambition. He allowed me to kill him… without a fight."

Yoruichi nodded. "It might have come too late to pull the Uchiha Clan back from the brink, but he made the right decision in the end. It took strength for him to make that choice, and it's strength that I know you inherited."

She leaned forward to give him a soft and gentle kiss. "I won't tell you to not fear the Nine Tailed Fox. From what you and Jiraiya have told me, it's clear that the creature's power is beyond formidable. To fear that is natural, and it means you're listening to your survival instincts. It means that you respect what the beast is capable of, and that you'll therefore approach it with due caution. What I will tell you, though, is to not fear the temptation that you believe the Nine Tailed Fox represents. You've already demonstrated the strength of will required to reject it once, and you'll do so again. I have no doubt of that whatsoever."

Itachi's smile grew slightly, and Yoruichi found a surge of heat come to her face. "I don't know if I can have the same level of confidence in that regard… but I have confidence in you, Yoruichi. If you have that kind of faith in me, then I'll place my faith in yours."

He then laughed sheepishly and ran a hand through his raven hair. "Sorry… I probably didn't make any sense right there, did I?"

Yoruichi pulled him into a loving embrace. "You made plenty of sense to me, Itachi."

She held him for a long moment, tenderly placing a hand on the back of his head and pulling him forward so that he'd rest his chin on her shoulder. Slowly, she felt him return the gesture, and the two of them stayed together in comforting and contented silence.

When they eventually released, Yoruichi reached over and took his hand in hers. "All your concerns aside, it's as you said; without the Mangekyou Sharingan, you can't fully subjugate the Nine Tails. Jiraiya seemed to be counting on you pulling that off with just the regular Sharingan, but it sounds like that's not possible. Your visual prowess might be able to confuse the Nine Tails for a time, perhaps make it easier to ultimately subdue, but it won't be the sole key to resolving this crisis. You need to make sure that Jiraiya understands that."

Itachi nodded. "I will. The Sharingan, Mangekyou or otherwise, would only serve as a temporary solution in any case. I'm honestly not sure how we're really going to solve this puzzle. Getting the Nine Tailed Fox out of the northern lands is all well and good, but even if we could find a way to convince the creature to leave, we're really just turning him into someone else's problem. Not exactly a viable long-term fix."

"Maybe the Order of the Valkyries will have some new ideas by the time you and Jiraiya reach their stronghold," said Yoruichi, "or perhaps you'll be able to work out a solution in cooperation with them after your arrival."

"I'd like to hope so," Itachi replied, "I just wish we had more resources at our disposal here.

Yoruichi sighed. "It can't be helped. The Starmont Clan's prickly enough as it is when it comes to outsiders poking around their Principality. Given Squad Two's close association with my clan, they wouldn't exactly welcome our involvement. The more people we involve in this mission, the greater our chances of discovery become. If we want to keep a lid on this, I'm afraid Squad Two's contribution will be you and you alone. Believe me, I wish it were otherwise."

Itachi gave her hand a soft squeeze. "I know."

She then gave him a sultry smirk and reached up with her free hand, slowly running it down the side of Itachi's face and neck. "You're going to be gone for so long up there… wintering with an order of warrior maidens… oh, I can only imagine what you'll get up to once the Nine Tails is dealt with!"

Itachi chuckled as Yoruichi's hand drifted towards his upper torso, slipping inside his robes and venturing friskily along his chest. "I'm sure Jiraiya will have his fun. As for myself… well, with all due respect to the Valkyries and the women who serve them, I'm afraid I'm not particularly interested in endeavors with them that lie outside the scope of our mission."

"Oh? Going to be all business up there, are you?" Yoruichi asked, her voice lowering to a silky whisper, "How professional of you, Itachi. Still, all work and no play… it gets to the best of us eventually."

"Indeed," Itachi countered as he placed a hand on her upper back before gradually sliding it downwards, "so I'd rather get my 'play' in before the work begins."

Yoruichi giggled before standing up and yanking him to his feet. "Well then… what are we waiting for?"

They rushed to her quarters as quickly and quietly as they could without Flash Stepping. Yoruichi slid open the door, then whirled around to grab Itachi by the collar of his robes and pull him into a fiery kiss, their tongues engaging in an intricate and lascivious dance. Then she gracefully spun around Itachi, placing herself behind him in a single fluid motion. With a ravenous grin, she shoved him into her room.

Following him inside, Yoruichi slammed the door shut…

…and pounced on Itachi like the hungry tigress she was.

….

Two weeks later…

Rubbing his hands together as he leaned over the crackling fire, Jiraiya looked up to see Itachi returning to camp. "Still quiet out there?"

Itachi nodded as he lowered the cowl of his dark grey, fur-lined cloak. "For the most part. Caught sight of a wolfpack off to the east, but they'd just finished running down a rather large elk. I don't think they'll be in the mood to trouble us this evening."

Jiraiya gestured to one of the logs that he'd moved next to the firepit earlier as a makeshift seat. "Well, take a load off and warm yourself up, then. You look like you could use it."

"One of us should remain on perimeter patrol," Itachi countered, though Jiraiya didn't fail to miss the Uchiha's eyes lingering on the fire.

Jiraiya shook his head. "You did the wide sweep, so let me take care of the rest. I've had my Barrier; Canopy Method Formation up for quite some time now, and it's got more than enough range to cover our encampment. Anything comes sniffing our way, I'll know well before it gets into biting range. Come on, rest up and enjoy the fire. You're practically a popsicle."

He was ribbing on Itachi, but only a little bit. Squad Two's Eight Seat looked paler than usual, and though he hadn't raised any complaints Jiraiya knew that the cold was the culprit. The Legendary Sannin's previous trips north had given him a taste for this climate, but while Itachi was well-travelled in his own right, the bulk of his missions with Squad Two had taken him to decidedly warmer regions. Jiraiya knew that Itachi would adjust with time, but it was still early days right now.

Itachi eventually relented. Taking the spot Jiraiya had indicated earlier, he reached for one of the small travel bowls that the apprentices had left out earlier. He then leaned towards the fire and the black cooking pot that was suspended over it, dishing himself up some warm stew and eagerly indulging.

Jiraiya nodded in approval. "That's more like it. Ingegerd went all out with this batch, and I made sure to save a good portion for you. Take as much as you want."

Itachi did so, and even nodded in approval after a few mouthfuls. "I'll have to give her my compliments in the morning. I presume she and Eidunn are already asleep?"

Jiraiya glanced back at the apprentices' shared tent. "Out like a light, I think. Can't really blame them. Today was no picnic, and the rest of the trip's not looking any easier."

That was a considerable understatement. Whatever forces that governed the weather of the Soul Society had apparently been in a foul mood, as Jiraiya and company had discovered the hard way. In order to ensure secrecy, they'd left the Seireitei separately. The apprentices had set out at first light, Jiraiya's departure had come early afternoon, while Itachi had slipped away after sundown. All four of them had met up at a pre-designated rendezvous point well outside the Rukon District, and from there the trek into The Wild had begun in earnest. Although it was still only late fall, snow had begun to fall only three days into the journey, and it hadn't let up. When they'd reached the Whitefell Mountains, Jiraiya and the others had been dismayed to see just how high it was already piling up, and their trek through the pass had become a tense four-day ordeal. The lands beyond the mountain range were already blanketed in white, and the winds had an arctic bite to them.

We're in for a brutal winter at this point, Jiraiya mused, I bet even the Seireitei's going to get hit hard this year. At this rate, it wouldn't surprise me if the spring thaw comes considerably later than usual.

He saw Itachi's eyes narrow as he gazed into the campfire. "And this is supposed to be the easy stretch before we truly enter the north and begin the climb to Steinskjöldur… I'm beginning to appreciate now why the northern lands produce such hardy folk."

"They've definitely got a rough lot in life," Jiraiya confirmed, "or a rough lot in the afterlife, I suppose. Still, from what I've seen up there, they make it work and seem happy with it."

"Life finds a way," Itachi mused aloud, "I guess that's as true in the afterlife as it is in the Shinobi World. Although I can't say that I'm a fan of the weather, I'm very much looking forward to seeing the north in all its rugged glory."

Jiraiya grinned. "You won't be disappointed, especially when we get to Steinskjöldur. That place is really something special, as are the women who call it home!"

Itachi gave him a knowing smirk. "Which do you find more appealing, I wonder?"

Jiraiya laughed. "Hey, you know me! I love women from all over the world… well, all over the Web of Worlds, I should say."

"At least you're consistent," Itachi remarked before indulging in more of his stew.

Jiraiya's smile became mischievous. "Speaking of women, I think you're going to be very popular with the ladies up there! Ingegerd and Eidunn have certainly taken a shine to you."

While that much was definitely true, it hadn't happened right away. Although the apprentices had been expecting Itachi to accompany them thanks to Jiraiya, both Ingegerd and Eidunn had initially been rather wary of him. Itachi had taken it in stride, as had Jiraiya; it was to be expected given that neither of the two women had ever met him before and he would now be journeying with them to their homeland. Time on the road combined with their innate curiosity had gotten the better of them, though, and his calm demeanor during the treacherous crossing through the central pass of the Whitefell Mountains under a constant falling sheet of snow had apparently impressed both warrior women. With greater confidence that Itachi was at least tough enough to withstand the harsh lands they were travelling towards, the two apprentices had begun cautiously approaching him whenever camp had been set up for the evening, plying him with questions or watching his training sessions, occasionally even joining him for the latter. Of course, his good looks combined with his unfailingly polite demeanor hadn't hurt, either.

Itachi's personal history aside, the Uchiha really do seem to have all the luck when it comes to the fairer sex, Jiraiya thought, I wonder how things would've played out for him had the tragedy with his clan not happened. He probably would've had every girl in the Leaf Village chasing after him as he grew up!

For his part, Itachi simply nodded. "I'm glad they're starting to trust me more. I was worried when we started our trip."

"They're getting a chance to know you now," Jiraiya replied, "Just keep being yourself as the journey goes along, and they'll be eagerly introducing you to all their friends once we reach Steinskjöldur… assuming they don't want to hog you all to themselves, of course!"

A small smile graced Itachi's face. "I'll be more than happy to socialize with the members of the Order… but if they desire contact of a more personal nature, I'm afraid they'll be in for only disappointment."

Jiraiya rubbed his hands together eagerly; he'd been hoping that the conversation would turn in this direction. "Oh? What makes you say that?"

Itachi gave Jiraiya an amused look. "Do I really have to spell it out for you?"

Jiraiya laughed heartily. "No, you don't! I'm curious, though… how are things with you and Yoruichi?"

"Professionally or personally?" asked Itachi.

"Don't play coy," Jiraiya shot back, "You know damn well which one I'm referring to. Come on, give me the juicy details! With the way I've seen her look at you, I bet the two of you could give me plenty of material for my next book!"

Itachi chuckled. "I'm sure we could, but I'm afraid you'll find my lips sealed on matters of intimacy. What happens between her and I behind closed doors will stay behind closed doors, if you take my meaning."

"Not going to kiss and tell, are you?" said Jiraiya, holding his hands up in surrender, "Alright, then. You really are a gentleman, Itachi. I can respect that. There is one thing I want to know, though, and I promise it's not related to the fun you two have under the sheets."

Itachi cautiously nodded. "Very well. What is it?"

"Just how serious are things between you two?" he asked.

He watched Itachi patiently as his fellow former Shinobi considered the question. "We've been taking things slow ever since the Blade Dancer Festival… but the years since then have been more than enough time for our feelings to deepen. I know that we both try to keep a low profile when it comes to our relationship, and it really started as a friends-with-benefits sort of deal. That being said... I feel confident in saying that we're committed to each other. Neither of us ever considered taking another lover after we started sleeping together, and Yoruichi's given no indication of changing her mind on that anytime soon. Suffice to say that the feeling's mutual. We really are… in deep, I guess. I'm not sure how else to put it. Where it all goes in the future… that's the tricky part."

Jiraiya smiled, this time sincerely. "You love her, don't you?"

Very slowly, Itachi smiled as well. "I do. What she's given me over the years… the acceptance despite knowing all that I've done… I never dared dream I'd find a woman like her, Jiraiya. She's brought me fully in to her world, her family treats me as if I'm one of their own, and the mutual trust we share is absolute. I wouldn't have grown the way I have since coming to the Soul Society if it weren't for her. How could I not love her after all of that?"

Jiraiya grinned. "My thoughts exactly. So, have you told her? How you really feel, I mean."

Itachi took a deep breath before answering. "No."

"Why not?" asked Jiraiya, "You're clearly crazy about her, and while I'm sure she already knows it, I bet it'd mean the world to her if she actually heard the words from you. And I don't want to hear that you're worried about scaring her off; I know romance isn't your strong suit, but I think even you can see that you're the only man in her heart now. I've seen the way she looks at you, and you're hardly blind."

"You're overlooking our situation, Jiraiya," Itachi argued, "We're not just another couple from your novels. There are certain… dynamics at play here that complicate things."

"Rank can't be one of them," said Jiraiya, "I know the Thirteen Court Guard Squads isn't exactly focused on romance, but I'm pretty sure it's not unheard of for a Captain and a subordinate to have a relationship. As long as it doesn't interfere with official duties, it shouldn't be an issue, and you two seem to be balancing things pretty well together."

Itachi nodded. "We are. It's not the dynamic within Squad Two or the broader organization that poses the issue. I know you like to play the oaf at times, Jiraiya, but you're no fool. You know what I'm really speaking of here."

"If you're referring to the social divide here rather than the rank one, I think you're making a bigger thing out of it than it is," Jiraiya replied, "Yoruichi doesn't strike me as the type to get hung up on that."

"She's not," Itachi concurred, "but the issue remains nonetheless. The heiress of one of the Five Great Noble Houses taking a commoner as her consort? That'll cause waves amongst the aristocracy, to put it mildly. The last thing I want to bring down on her is scandal."

"I doubt it would be much of one," Jiraiya pushed back, "I mean, you two are regular partners at the Blade Dancer Festival, and those bouts are witnessed by a good chunk of the Soul Society's elite. With the shows you two put on in the ring, the chemistry's obvious for anyone paying attention."

"Perhaps, but we still take precautions," said Itachi, "We typically refrain from blatant shows of romantic affection in public, which gives her deniability. As long as we maintain that, any whispers going around will remain that and nothing more."

"It's not exactly unheard of for nobles to take lovers outside the aristocracy," Jiraiya pointed out.

Itachi shook his head. "No, but there's a difference between being just another paramour and a serious romantic prospect. Me being the former would probably cause some polite smirking or jests amongst the nobles but little more than that. Me being the latter… well, that's a whole different can of worms. The Soul Society's aristocracy takes matchmaking amongst the nobility very seriously. Family prestige and future prospects ride upon it, after all. I've read up on the history, and only very rarely do relationships of the kind that Yoruichi and I have find acceptance. Even then, it's usually not without much struggle, and the repercussions are not to be taken lightly."

"You're no stranger to struggle," Jiraiya pressed, "and I'm pretty sure Yoruichi would be willing to endure a rough patch or two for your sake."

"It'd be more than just a 'rough patch or two' and you know it," Itachi shot back, "I know the Head Captain is usually effective at keeping the aristocrats from interfering with the affairs of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, so Yoruichi's position as Captain would likely remain secure, but the nobles can still cause all manner of trouble for her and her family. Campaigns of malicious slander, reneging on alliances or partnerships, disgrace to the Shihōin Clan name and a subsequent decline in status… I know this all sounds petty to the likes of us, Jiraiya, but it's no joke amongst the elite. After all that Yoruichi's done for me, the last thing I want is to cause her or her family difficulty. It's why we've both agreed to keep our relationship a discreet one, and I need you to respect that for both of our sakes. Please, Jiraiya."

A part of Jiraiya didn't want to drop it that easily, but at the same time he didn't want to pry against his friend's wishes. "Just tell me one thing, and I'll back off."

"What might that be?" asked Itachi.

Jiraiya met his gaze. "Are you happy, Itachi? With the way things are between you and Yoruichi right now, I mean."

Itachi simply nodded and smiled. "I am."

Jiraiya allowed himself to relax a bit and smile as well. "Alright, then. If you're good with it, then that's enough for me. Still, if something ever comes up between you two and you need someone to talk about it with, you know where to find me."

"Indeed, I do," Itachi replied as he inclined his head, "Thank you, Jiraiya."

"No problem," said Jiraiya as he leaned back and looked up at the sky, "Well, seeing as you've got your heart set firmly on your lovely Captain, that means I'll have free run of the field once we reach Steinskjöldur. Lucky me!"

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "Really? Here I thought you and I might be travelling similar paths. Perhaps I was mistaken."

Jiraiya tilted his head. "Similar paths? In what way?"

"Your late-night meetings with Captain Unohana," Itachi answered, "I know those have continued. They might be for healing practice, but you alone with a woman like her? Your 'lecherous oaf' act isn't entirely a performance."

Jiraiya smirked. "I suppose you've got me there… although, these days I'm not always alone with Unohana. Not since she took your mother under her wing as well."

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "Jiraiya…"

Jiraiya raised his hands, recognizing the line he was coming up against. "Whoa, easy there! I promise that I'm not making moves on Mikoto. She's a real beauty, and it pains me to hold back like that, but I've been restraining myself for your sake. Besides, I don't think I'm her type."

"Neither do I," Itachi concurred, relaxing considerably, "although… I suppose that's ultimately her decision."

Jiraiya grinned. "Are you saying that you would be agreeable to it if things went that direction between me and her?"

Itachi glared at him, and his onyx eyes became scarlet beacons. "Don't push your luck."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Alright, I'll consider myself warned!"

Itachi's demeanor eased up noticeably. "Now, where were we? Ah, you and Captain Unohana… I don't think it's too much of an assumption on my part to say that your interest in her goes beyond the professional level."

"I'd be lying if I claimed otherwise," Jiraiya confessed as thoughts of Squad Four's lovely commander drifted through his mind, "I wish I could say I've made the same progress with her as you have with Yoruichi, but she's a decidedly trickier nut to crack."

"I don't know about that," Itachi remarked, "I've seen your bouts with her at the Blade Dancer Festival, and she certainly seems to derive no small amount of pleasure from them. Maybe I don't have the same eye for this sort of thing as you do, but from what I can discern… I do believe there's an interest on her part."

Jiraiya perked up at that; he'd had his suspicions for quite some time now, but it was nice to have an outside party validate them. "You think so?"

Itachi shrugged. "It's simply the impression I get. You certainly seem to welcome the attention, though that's hardly a surprise. Captain Unohana keeps her composure well; the elegance and grace that the Soul Society expects from her does not crack or shift easily. That being said, in the bouts I've observed between you and her, she seems to let her inner passions get closer to the surface than she might allow under other circumstances. She enjoys the chance you offer her to cut loose, or at least that's how it appears from my point of view. You've done little to discourage her."

Jiraiya smirked. "Of course not! After all, I happen to have a thing for powerful and dangerous women, remember?"

Itachi chuckled at that. "Believe me, I haven't forgotten. Although… speaking of powerful and dangerous women who might have an interest in you… Captain Unohana may not be the only one in that category. Where we're on our way to… another one awaits you there, doesn't she?"

A certain winged warrior woman appeared in Jiraiya's head, her black hair streaked with silver flowing in the wind, her grey eyes gleaming in the light of the moon as snowflakes fell around her…

"When you told me of your previous travels to the north, one name came up in those tales more than any other," Itachi continued as he studied Jiraiya intently, "Gunnr, the Mistress of War, I believe. Whenever you spoke of her… perhaps I'm imagining it, but you almost always smiled when her name was uttered… just like you're doing now."

Indeed, Jiraiya was, and he wasn't about to stop now. "Well, can you blame me? She definitely leaves an impression!"

"I imagine every Valkyrie would," Itachi remarked, "though this one seems to have left a stronger one than the others. Why's that?"

Jiraiya leaned back, his smile becoming wistful. "As you said, I've got a thing for powerful and dangerous women. The Mistress of War definitely fits the bill."

"Is that all there is to it?" asked Itachi, "Strength and risk are enough to attract your fancy? Seems a bit shallow for you."

Jiraiya shook her head. "Of course, there's more to it. It's just… kind of hard to describe, really."

"Try me," Itachi challenged.

Jiraiya pondered it for a few moments. "You and I both travelled quite a bit during our days in the Shinobi World, but in all of our journeys… did either of us ever encounter a group quite like the Order of the Valkyries? I know I sure as hell didn't. There were powerful women out there, sure, but a group of them with such unique cultures, philosophies and traditions? None that could hold a candle to the women of the north. Not in my experience, at least."

Itachi nodded. "I can see your point. I saw my share of the Shinobi World, though perhaps less of it than I would've liked. Our world has plenty of unique individuals and groups beyond the traditional Shinobi serving Hidden Villages, each with histories and traditions of their own. That being said, these northerners and the women who watch over their lands… they really are something altogether different. Still, you never really struck me as the type to chase a woman just because you find her people and homeland interesting from an anthropological perspective."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Yeah, that'd be a bit too high-minded for me, wouldn't it? Fine, I'll come clean. The truth is that she's something of a mystery, one that I'm becoming more determined to unravel. I've sensed her power and seen her fight; her strength is undeniable. It's the woman beneath the armor that I really want to know, though. Each time I've met her, I've gotten a few new hints, but never enough to get the complete picture."

"Just enough to keep whetting your appetite," Itachi surmised.

"Couldn't have said it better myself," Jiraiya concurred.

"So, how much of the woman beneath the armor do you know as of now?" asked Itachi.

Once again, the striking face that had been revealed to him by the Mistress of War flashed through Jiraiya's mind, and his heartbeat picked up slightly. "Enough to know that she's one-of-a-kind."

"So is Captain Unohana," Itachi noted, "You're playing a dangerous game here, Jiraiya."

Jiraiya shrugged. "Maybe, but it's my game to play. Besides, it's not like things between me and the Captain have gone quite as far as the relationship between you and Yoruichi. As far as I'm concerned, I'm free to play the field."

"So you are," Itachi agreed, "Still, I'd advise at least a modicum of caution. We're friends, Jiraiya, but if this particular game blows up in your face, don't expect me to come bail you out."

Jiraiya laughed. "You'll take on the Nine Tails, but not an angry Valkyrie and Captain Unohana's wrath, eh? Honestly, if I were you, I'd probably say the same!"

Contrary to the Legendary Sannin's easy-going demeanor, Itachi became rather dour, "I wouldn't take on any of them lightly… especially the Nine Tails."

Recognizing the tone shift, Jiraiya reacted accordingly. "Fair enough. We've both seen what Kurama's capable of, and you had a front row seat to the worst of it when you were a kid. I can't blame you for being worried about going up against him. Even so, you've got a valuable ace up your sleeve."

"My Sharingan is just the normal one," Itachi countered, "It's not the Mangekyou. As I've told you before, my ability to challenge the Nine Tails with it is limited. I can probably influence it to a degree, perhaps confuse it with genjutsu for a time, but little more than that. Even if I did possess the Mangekyou, full control of the Nine Tails wouldn't solve all of our problems here."

Jiraiya let out a heavy sigh. "That's true. Genjutsu of any sort would be a short-term solution, and not even that would be guaranteed to work. It's not enough to just get the Nine Tailed Fox out of the northern lands. If it wanders into another Principality, we'll just have the same mess to deal with all over again."

"It's not the Nine Tailed Fox's wandering that's the real issue here," Itachi pointed out, "If the reports from Ingegerd and Eidunn are correct, then the beast's aggression isn't directly aimed at the inhabitants of the north. Everything the apprentices have told us points to the creature simply defending himself from the Hollows that are trying to feed on him. The destruction wrought upon the northern lands so far has really just been the unfortunate but inevitable collateral damage that comes about whenever a Tailed Beast cuts loose."

It was easy enough for Jiraiya to see what Itachi was getting at. "You think the real problem is the fact that Hollows are drawn to Kurama's immense energy."

Itachi nodded. "Exactly. The Tailed Beasts were all beings of pure chakra. If that's been converted over to spirit energy upon the death of the Nine Tails, then the amount of energy at his disposal would likely dwarf even that of the Head Captain by potentially orders of magnitude. He's a giant flame, and the Hollow are moths powerless to resist the allure."

"More like a huge banquet that they're drooling over," Jiraiya quipped.

"Perhaps that is a better metaphor," Itachi conceded, "though in this case the banquet's red carpet has some very sharp teeth."

"Can't argue with that," Jiraiya replied, "It's odd, though; Hollows are ravenous, but not suicidal. Yet from what the apprentices have told us, it sounds like these monsters are throwing themselves at the Nine Tails in droves. At some point you'd think they'd cut their losses."

"Normally, I'd be inclined to agree," said Itachi, "It gets back to my earlier point, though; the Nine Tails represents a feast unlike any they've ever seen before. If they're able to feed off of his energy, the power they might gain from it could be immense. We might be looking at the evolution of multiple Menos Grande into Vasto Lordes here as a worst-case scenario."

Jiraiya shuddered. "That would be ugly. It only makes our mission that much more vital."

"It does, but we're no closer to figuring out how to accomplish it," Itachi pointed out, "Our central dilemma remains the same; simply removing the Nine Tails from the northern lands will not solve the problem. We need a permanent solution."

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed as he looked at Itachi. "There's only one permanent solution that I can think of."

"You mean killing the Nine Tails," said Itachi.

Jiraiya knew it wasn't a question. "That's about as permanent as you can get."

Itachi shook his head. "I don't know if we have the strength necessary to accomplish such a feat. Even with all the Valkyries and their apprentices backing us up… that task may be beyond us."

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow. "You're not giving up before the fight's even begun, are you?"

"Of course not," Itachi answered, "I do think that we're coming at this with too narrow of a focus, though."

Jiraiya tilted his head, intrigued by where this might go. "What do you mean?"

"When I said we needed a permanent solution, your thoughts immediately went to a fatal one," said Itachi, "I don't want to speak for you, but… your sentiments on the matter may be colored by past experiences. Mine are, too. It's important to acknowledge our emotional blinders."

Jiraiya blinked in confusion. "Emotional blinders?"

Itachi sighed. "We both have animosity towards the Nine Tails in form or another, and we can't ignore it. For me, it comes from watching the creature ravage the village when I was a child. Even though I know that the Nine Tails was attacking due to the actions of a third party, there's a part of me that can't help but look upon the beast with suspicion. After all, had the Nine Tails not been set upon the village, perhaps the sequence of events that led to the eventual Uchiha Clan coup plot and the purge I carried out might never have happened. Although I know better in my head, in my heart I've always held the Nine Tails at least partially responsible for the downward spiral of mistrust and resentment between the Uchiha Clan and the Hidden Leaf Village."

"It's hard to blame you for that," Jiraiya replied, "Your entire life was put on a dark path because of the fallout from that attack. Holding a grudge against the Nine Tails is pretty understandable."

Itachi shook his head. "Maybe, but continuing to hold onto it will only make our mission that much more difficult. Seeing the Nine Tails only as a threat places limits on how I might go about resolving this crisis, and I need to work past that. The same goes for you… and I suspect it'll be harder for you than me. After all, your score with the Nine Tails is of a far more personal nature than mine."

Jiraiya took a deep breath. "I don't know if I'd call it a score per se…"

"Then what would you call it?" Itachi asked pointedly, "Jiraiya, there's no getting around the obvious here. The Nine Tailed Fox's attack is the reason why the Fourth Hokage and his wife lost their lives. One of your dear students and the woman he loved both perished because of that creature. There's also the impact it had on Naruto. I know you said that you could feel Naruto and Kurama's chakra in harmony when you met him last year, but you also know full well the threat that the Nine Tails posed to him from within before that. After all, you spent years training him. Before Naruto and Kurama found their understanding, the Nine Tails was looking for every possible opportunity to take over from within. Then there's the fact that playing host to the beast made Naruto a target of fear, mistrust and scorn from the Leaf Village's inhabitants ever since he was a child. So much of the misfortune in his life can be laid at that creature's feet."

Itachi's brow furrowed as he fixed Jiraiya with a hard look. "Can you really look me in the eye and honestly say that you don't have a score that you want to settle with the Nine Tails in light of all that?"

Jiraiya opened his mouth to protest but found himself at a loss for words. Instead, images of Minato, Kushina and Naruto began flashing through his mind…

…along with the uncomfortable realization that Itachi was right.

When word of Minato and Kushina's death had reached him, Jiraiya had been on the road, but the news had still hit him like a gut punch. He had been so proud of his former student's ascension to the position of Fourth Hokage, and even a blind man could've seen just how happy Minato and Kushina had been together. That they'd been expecting a child and had even decided to name him after a character in one of Jiraiya's novels, not to mention name the Legendary Sannin as the child's godfather, had tied Jiraiya to their family in a way that he hadn't experienced since his very earliest of days. Jiraiya's parents had unfortunately passed away when he'd been quite young, and the closest he'd come to a surrogate family had been his days with Tsunade, Orochimaru, and Hiruzen Sarutobi. That found family had been rent asunder through the combination of Orochimaru's descent into darkness and Tsunade's embitterment following the deaths of Dan and Nawaki. Minato and Kushina inviting him to be part of their family had been a salve for Jiraiya's wounded soul…

…and then the Nine Tailed Fox ripped it away from him.

It was a belief that Jiraiya had never really acknowledged before. Like Itachi, Jiraiya had suspected a hidden hand in the whole affair and concluded that the Nine Tails had been more of a weapon than an independent actor. Combining that with the fact that the Nine Tails had been sealed away in Naruto had made it easier for Jiraiya to repress the bitterness and distaste he felt for the beast; he'd had far more pressing matters to deal with than a grudge, after all. Training and looking after Naruto, especially following the death of the Third Hokage and Naruto's failed effort to snap Sasuke out of Orochimaru's foul influence, had been a way for Jiraiya to both bond with the boy and try to forget the uncomfortable fact that the creature who had murdered Minato and Kushina was still right there alongside him.

Try being the optimal word, of course.

I don't know who you're trying to fool here, Jinsei no Kenja grumbled, I think it's well past time you stopped trying to hide what is plain for all to see. You suppressed your feelings for Naruto's sake, which is an admirable sentiment, but you and your student are now parted by the veil between life and death. There is no longer a need to keep up appearances on this matter.

Blunt as ever, I see.

Do you expect anything less from me?

No, I do not.

You've long preached about the need for people to understand each other and let go of hatred. Doing so is the first step down the path towards a better tomorrow. Your words guided both Minato and Naruto…

…but will you let them guide yourself?

Jiraiya found himself smiling. The spirit of his Zanpakutō had hit the nail on the head, and Jiraiya would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

"You're right," he confessed, "I suppose I never really wanted to face up to it, but there's no getting around it. The Nine Tails… Kurama… I do bear a grudge against him."

Itachi nodded. "No one can blame you for that. Had the Fourth Hokage and his wife not died in that attack, so much might've been different for both Naruto and the broader Shinobi World. The blood of Minato and Kushina is on his claws, as is all the hatred and suspicion that Naruto was forced to bear. It's only natural for you to resent the Nine Tails for that."

"It is," Jiraiya agreed, "but… it's also not entirely fair, especially not in light of what we both learned last year. Kurama was ultimately a tool; a weapon being unleashed against the Leaf Village in service to another man's plan. Even if we left all that out… all of the Tailed Beasts have valid reasons to hate our kind."

"An objective study of Shinobi history provides proof enough of that," Itachi concurred, "I'm sure that the First Hokage meant well when he distributed the Tailed Beasts among the nations of our world; it certainly helped to establish the balance of power system and bring the Warring States Period to a close. However, the historical records have little to say regarding how the Tailed Beasts themselves felt about the arrangement. It's not hard to draw the appropriate conclusion from that."

Jiraiya sighed. "They were used as bargaining chips, and almost certainly without their consent. The First Hokage granted them no real agency in the matter, and that established an unfortunate precedent. From then on, the Shinobi World treated the Tailed Beasts as pieces on a Shogi board. Nothing more than weapons to be hoarded and controlled."

"Exactly," said Itachi, "and if you and I go into this mission with that same mentality, we will make the same mistakes as our forebears. We both have valid reasons to be fearful and mistrustful of Kurama and the rest of his kind, but we also have the benefit of being able to look back on our predecessors' actions and recognize where they went wrong. We have a chance to start correcting those mistakes, Jiraiya. There are old wrongs that need to be set right; old wounds that we can begin to mend. Are you and I really so petty as to allow our personal feelings to stand in the way of that?"

Jiraiya shook his head. "I'd like to think you and I are more mature than that."

"As would I," Itachi replied, "and we can use this mission to prove it."

There was a hint of confidence in Itachi's voice that hadn't been present before, and it gave Jiraiya hope. "You have a plan, don't you?"

"The beginnings of one, at least," Itachi confirmed, "It still has plenty of issues that need to be worked out, though."

Jiraiya smiled. "Well, we've got plenty of time left on the road before we'll reach Steinskjöldur. I'm sure we can smooth over whatever wrinkles there are in the plan before we arrive. So, hit me; what do you have in mind?"

"Kurama's position in the Soul Society isn't all that different from yours and mine when we first came here," Itachi explained, "Hollows are drawn to him in far greater numbers than they were to you and me, but that's because he has so much more power at his disposal than either of us. Thankfully, you and I were found by the Soul Reapers and eventually learned to properly control spirit energy. What worked for us might work for Kurama."

It took Jiraiya a moment to fully process what Itachi was saying, and his jaw dropped when the realization hit him. "Wait a second… do you mean…?"

Itachi nodded. "When we reach Kurama in the north, we need to convince him that we're not his enemies. Once a level of trust has been established, we can begin training him."

There was a long moment of silence before Jiraiya could no longer contain himself and burst out laughing. "Train him? Oh, Itachi… I know the Leaf Village called you a genius back in the day, but I'm pretty sure you're actually a complete lunatic!"

Itachi chuckled. "Well, you know what they say; genius and madness are two sides of the same coin."

"No kidding!" Jiraiya wheezed as he struggled to get a hold of himself, "Only an utter madman would come up with a plan like this!"

Itachi folded his arms. "If you have a better idea, now would be the time for it."

Jiraiya needed a few minutes to properly compose himself. "Unbelievable… and yet… I can't think of anything else. It's nuts, but… it really might be our only shot here."

"It's the only path I can find that offers a long-term solution," said Itachi, "Despite my personal feelings regarding Kurama, I don't believe he deserves to die again. Even if I did think that, the simple truth of the matter is that we lack the power to kill him. Even with every Valkyrie in the Order backing us up, I truly don't think that we'd be able to accomplish such a task. It might even be beyond us if we had every Captain, Head Captain included, in the Thirteen Court Guard Squads involved in the effort. Force of arms will be needed to contend with the Hollows hunting Kurama, but a true resolution of this crisis will not be found solely in martial might."

Jiraiya had to agree. "Our swords have their place… but so do our minds and words. Ultimately, I think solving this problem is going to involve the latter just as much as the former, quite possibly more."

Itachi nodded. "One of the hurdles for that will be convincing the Order of the Valkyries to go along with this. We'll be counting on the goodwill you've earned with them in the past to ensure their cooperation."

Jiraiya smiled. "I don't think it'll be all that hard to get them onboard, actually. They're a warrior organization first and foremost, sure, but it doesn't mean that their first solution to every problem is violence. Cool heads rule their Council, and I believe we'll be able to count on their support here."

"I hope so," said Itachi softly as he looked up at the night sky, "For our sake, and for Kurama's."

The two of them were quiet for a few moments before Itachi spoke again. "There's another advantage to pursuing a cooperative solution with Kurama. If anyone is in a position to tell you if Naruto is still alive or not, it would be him."

Jiraiya's shoulders sagged; although he didn't want to give up on Naruto just yet, he knew the odds weren't good. "Itachi… I appreciate the thought, but you were the one who said that we need to acknowledge our personal blinders, and that applies to Naruto just as much as it does to the Nine Tails. I want to believe that he's alive, but if Kurama is in the Soul Society, then it can only mean that Naruto's passed on as well."

Itachi shook his head. "We only have assumptions based off of past knowledge to work with right now. I know the situation doesn't look good, but we do not possess all the facts here. Until we have confirmation from Kurama himself, our speculation is only that; speculation. It's best not to jump to conclusions."

Jiraiya sighed. "Look, I appreciate you trying to make me feel better about the situation. I really do. I know there's still some room for hope… I just don't want to turn into false hope."

"Hope, in the end, is all we have here," Itachi countered somberly, "I must hold onto it until I know for certain, one way or the other… and not just for Naruto. If he truly did pass along with Kurama… he might not have been the only one."

It suddenly clicked for Jiraiya just where Itachi was really coming from here. "You're worried about Sasuke, aren't you?"

Itachi slowly nodded. "I am. Given how close my younger brother and your apprentice seem to have become… I find it hard to believe that one would go down while the other simply stood by. If Naruto really is dead, then there's a distinct possibility that Sasuke is as well. The hope that I hold out for your student, Jiraiya, is also held for Sasuke."

Jiraiya forced a note of resolve into his voice. "Then we have to save Kurama and convince him that we're not his enemies here… if only so you and I can find the answers we need. We owe Naruto and Sasuke that much, at least."

"That, we do," Itachi concurred, the firelight dancing in his onyx eyes, "We will discover their fates when we've earned Kurama's cooperation… for good or ill."

….

Four weeks later…

"You really made this trek solo a few years ago?" Itachi remarked as they climbed the ancient stone stairs leading up the mountainside of Hresvelgr's Aerie, "I'm impressed. It's definitely not an undertaking for the faint hearted."

Jiraiya chuckled as a gust of wind nearly blew the hood of his cloak back. "I'll take that as a compliment, coming from you! You don't look like you're fairing so bad yourself."

"I've delt with mountains before," Itachi replied, "although none were as harsh as this one."

"Only the truly strong or desperate manage to make the climb to Steinskjöldur," Eidunn chimed in, giving Itachi an approving smile, "You're clearly the former, Eighth Seat Uchiha."

"Our destination is close," Ingegerd added, "We'll have hot meals to look forward to soon enough."

"Not to mention actual beds," Jiraiya muttered as he cracked his neck, "It'll be nice to sleep on a feather mattress instead of the ground for a change."

Itachi had a hard time arguing with that. He was no stranger to roughing it, but six weeks on the road would take its toll on anyone. That went double when one was travelling into the north of the Soul Society, as Itachi was discovering for himself. Cold days had only become colder as their journey had progressed, and the nights had been downright frigid. The early onset of snow had induced a frantic aggression into many of the predators roaming the lands as they hastily sought out what last meals they could before settling in for hibernation. More than once, Itachi and Jiraiya had been forced to increase the output of their spiritual pressure in order to scare off particularly desperate creatures. Fortunately, those occasions had come while they were far removed from any major settlements, thereby limiting the risk of exposure.

The act of entering the Starmont Clan's Principality had been somewhat tricky. In order to reduce the chance of detection, the party had split up, with Ingegerd escorting Jiraiya down the main road while Eidunn had led Itachi along a trail that was well off the beaten path. Slipping past the border sentries hadn't proved to be too difficult; it was deciding on a suitable rendezvous point within the Principality that had been the real issue. Ultimately, the group had reunited at the base of Hresvelgr's Aerie, with both pairs thankfully having made it without arousing suspicion from the locals.

"I doubt we'll have long to rest," Itachi noted, "I can't imagine that the situation in the deep north has improved all that much over the course of our journey."

Ingegerd shook her head. "If circumstances had deteriorated severely, the Council would've dispatched a messenger to meet us on the road. That we encountered none can be taken as a good omen."

"Either that or the situation's so dire that they can't afford to spare anyone for that role," Jiraiya countered grimly.

Eidunn sighed. "We shall know soon enough, one way or another. Regardless, rest will still be needed. With how powerful this 'Kurama' is, we cannot afford to have either of you at anything less than your best."

"We'll still have quite a trip ahead of us even after Steinskjöldur, right?" Itachi asked, "The 'deep north' is a good distance beyond your home if I recall correctly."

Ingegerd nodded. "That much is true, but we have ways of making the journey quite quickly. Valkyries will usually fly whenever the weather permits it, of course, but us apprentices need our own means of swift travel when we're require to venture into those lands. Fortunately, we should have no problems there."

Itachi saw Jiraiya's eyes widen slightly. "When I was staying here last time… those dogs that you showed me, Ingegerd… they're sled dogs, aren't they?"

Ingegerd smiled. "Good memory. I'm sure they'll be happy to see you again."

"We usually try to avoid taking them too far into the deep north," Eidunn added, "and we seldom use them for combat operations. They're mostly used by messengers or supply couriers."

Itachi glanced back down the long flight of stairs. "Hard to see how sled dogs would manage this path."

"There are tunnels that run deep beneath Steinskjöldur," Ingegerd pointed out, "A few passages actually stretch all the way to the base of Hresvelgr's Aerie, and they've been smoothed over to allow the sled dog teams easy passage."

"When we pass through them, you two will need to be blindfolded," Eidunn noted with an apologetic look, "Please understand that we mean no offense through this action. We are quite protective of our secrets, and if those tunnels were ever compromised it would give any foes a potential avenue of attack against our home."

Jiraiya smiled. "It's okay. We understand."

"You do what you must to protect your home," Itachi added as he respectfully inclined his head.

Ingegerd smiled. "Indeed, we do."

A few minutes later, they rounded the last corner before Steinskjöldur came into view. Itachi had paid careful attention to Jiraiya's descriptions of the Valkyries' famed fortress, yet he still could not help but be suitably awed by what he saw. The outer wall was a curious mix of imposing yet elegant, with the intricate silver inlaid carvings catching what few rays of the setting sun were able to get through the snowfall and creating quite the spectacle. The high nine-sided tower stood in defiance of the gales that occasionally blew down upon Itachi and his companions, completely unmoved by the mountain winds. He caught glimpses of cloaked figures manning the ramparts, along with two guards carrying spears flanking the path as it entered the gatehouse, all at attention and doubtlessly ready to react instantly at the first hint of trouble.

Jiraiya grinned as he looked at Itachi. "What do you think? Quite the sight, eh?"

Itachi nodded. "Yes, it is. Your words really didn't do it justice."

"We appreciate the sentiment," Ingegerd chimed in, "and we hope that you'll enjoy your stay here."

"The others will no doubt be overjoyed at your return, Jiraiya," said Eidunn, smiling at both him and Itachi, "As for you, Eight Seat Uchiha, I imagine our sisters-in-arms will find you to be quite interesting."

The way her eyes darted quickly up and down Itachi's frame was all he needed to imagine just what kind of 'interest' the various acolytes, apprentices and caretakers would take in him. It was an amusing thought, although Itachi suspected he would be forced to disappoint them early on.

Oh, you're going to break some hearts while you're here, Jigoku no Joō whispered in his mind with all the glee of a schoolgirl looking forward to the latest gossip, and I'm going to enjoy every second of it!

Glad I can keep you entertained.

They closed the remaining distance with the fortress quickly enough, and the two guards at the gatehouse immediately took action. Both of them blocked the path and brandished their spears in unison.

"Halt!" ordered a red-haired woman with dark brown eyes.

"Identify yourself and state your business at once," added a brown-haired woman as her light blue eyes narrowed.

Ingegerd stepped forward. "No need to worry, you two. Eidunn and I have returned with assistance."

"You ought to recognize one of our guests," Eidunn noted.

The red-haired woman was the first to react. "Wait… Jiraiya?"

The brown-haired woman blinked a few times. "Truly?"

Itachi watched as Jiraiya lowered his hood and grinned. "One and the same! It's been too long, ladies."

Both women's demeanors noticeably relaxed, though they still appeared wary as their gazes turned towards Itachi. They lowered their spears slightly, but they were still clearly ready to bring them back up to bear at the slightest provocation.

"And you are?" the red-head asked.

Following Jiraiya's lead, Itachi lowered the hood of his cloak before inclining his head. "I'm Itachi Uchiha, Eighth Seat of Squad Two. Jiraiya requested that I come along to help."

"He's a friend, you two," Ingegerd pressed, "He can be trusted."

The two women glanced at each other before slinging their spears over their backs. With Ingegerd's reassurance, both studied Itachi with open curiosity.

Eidunn smirked. "My sisters, it's a bit rude to stare without at least introducing yourselves. Where are your manners?"

Both guards seemed suitably chastised, with the red-haired woman being the first to offer her name as she looked Itachi up and down before licking her lips. "I am Annveig, acolyte of the Order of the Valkyries. It's an honor to make your acquaintance, Eighth Seat Uchiha."

"And I am Erna, likewise an acolyte," said the brunette with a smile and a wink, "and likewise honored to meet you."

Well, that didn't take long. They're already drooling over you.

You exaggerate.

You say that now… just wait until later.

"The honor is mine," Itachi politely replied.

"Will you be staying with us long, Eighth Seat Uchiha?" asked Annveig.

"Through the winter," Itachi answered, "I hope that won't be an imposition."

The two women shared mischievous smiles before Erna spoke. "Oh, you needn't worry. I think you'll find us to be most accommodating hosts."

Ingegerd rolled her eyes before stepping forward. "Alright, ladies, that's enough with the pleasantries. Time is of the essence here."

Annveig and Erna respectfully stepped aside, allowing Ingegerd and Eidunn to lead their guests through the gatehouse. As they entered the fortress grounds, Itachi was struck by the undercurrent of power he could sense in the background. It wasn't entirely unexpected; given that the Order of Valkyries was an organization led by women with great spirit energy, to sense the power of its members permeating the premises of their headquarters was natural. In a way, it wasn't all that dissimilar from what one with sufficiently trained sense would pick up while strolling around the Seireitei, especially when they drew near to the barracks of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads. Even so, what Itachi felt was considerably stronger than what he'd been anticipating.

This spiritual pressure feels equivalent to that of multiple Captains, Itachi mused as he glanced around at the various support structures while his hosts led him and Jiraiya towards the central citadel, and one in particular… it's got to be the leader. Sigrún, I believe Jiraiya called her.

"I'll take you to guest quarters first so you can store your travel bags," said Eidunn as she and Ingegerd opened the thick wooden doors at the entrance and ushered Itachi and Jiraiya inside, "After that, a quick meal will be in order. Ingegerd, would you mind notifying Lady Gunnr that our guests have arrived?"

Ingegerd nodded before looking around the entrance hall, with her gaze eventually settling on the ceiling or, more likely, what lay beyond it. "I can sense her in the Council chamber, along with Lady Sigrún and some of the others. They don't usually take kindly to interruptions, but I suspect they'll make an exception here."

She bade them farewell before rushing up the nearest staircase. Eidunn set off in the same direction but at a slightly slower pace, with Itachi and Jiraiya dutifully following. Several apprentices, acolytes and caretakers passing through the entrance hall gave the trio curious looks. Many clearly recognized Jiraiya if their friendly smiles and waves were anything to go by, while Itachi was the recipient of curious looks not at all dissimilar to the ones he'd been given by Annveig and Erna.

"Will the same room as last time do for you, Jiraiya?" asked Eidunn as they began climbing the stairs.

Jiraiya nodded. "It will, thanks."

Eidunn then looked over her shoulder at Itachi. "Would you accept one next to Jiraiya? I'd normally offer a tour before asking which room you'd prefer, but once Ingegerd informs the Council of your arrival I doubt you'll have much time for sightseeing. You'll probably just barely be able to squeeze that meal in before we get down to business."

"I'm not picky with regards to accommodations," Itachi reassured her, "and I definitely understand the urgency. A proper tour can wait until after this crisis has been resolved."

It didn't take long for Eidunn to lead Itachi and Jiraiya to the quarters in question. After briefly inspecting the lodgings that they would occupy for the next several months and putting their bags away, the two Soul Reapers then followed Eidunn back down the citadel's stone steps. Upon reaching the entrance hall again, Eidunn then took them to the grand dining hall. Dinner for the Order's rank and file was well underway, which meant there were plenty of wandering eyes tracking the odd trio as they dished up before finding a table near one of the fireplaces that were carved into the ancient fortress's walls. The blaze was strong and healthy, and when combined with the other fireplaces and torches scattered throughout the hall was enough to make what should've been a very cold citadel quite comfortably warm.

"Apologies in advance," said Eidunn as she looked around the hall at the various apprentices, acolytes and caretakers that were openly gawking at Itachi and Jiraiya, "I'm afraid you're going to be the center of attention well after this matter with the Nine Tailed Fox is attended to."

"It's no problem," Itachi replied.

Jiraiya grinned. "It'll keep things entertaining!"

Eidunn laughed and shook her head. "I should've expected nothing less from you!"

They dug into their meals with measured urgency, constantly checking the main entrance for signs of Ingegerd or one of the Valkyries. There was an air of tension in the hall, and for a moment Itachi thought it was due to the presence of himself and Jiraiya. A quick study of the various occupants convinced him that his fears were misplaced, though. Instead, it was the familiar anticipation that Itachi had long ago learned to associate with the knowledge of a dangerous mission on the horizon.

"How many within the Order know about what's happening in the deep north?" Itachi asked in a hushed tone after putting a sizeable dent in his meal.

"All are aware of the increased presence of powerful Hollows in that region," Eidunn answered softly, "including sighting of multiple Menos Grande among the hordes. General knowledge is that the beasts are pursuing a strange creature that arrived in the Soul Society last year, and that the Valkyries are trying to contain and protect said creature, but beyond that their exposure to the truth is limited to little more than rumors. The Council is much better informed on the true nature of the crisis, of course; by this point, every Valkyrie has sortied to the deep north and seen the Nine Tails with their own eyes."

"It's probably best if the truth remains contained to the Council and what few apprentices they trust with it," Jiraiya muttered between bites, "Nothing against your colleagues, Eidunn, but with how sensitive this matter is, the spread of information needs to remain very limited."

Eidunn sighed. "I'm well aware of that, but… it still doesn't sit right with me. Keeping such a secret from my friends… withholding such important knowledge from them feels like I'm doubting their loyalty. It's almost like I'm insulting them, which is the last thing that I want to do."

"You're not," Itachi reassured her, "You're doing your duty, just as any of them would do were they in your situation. They'll understand."

Eidunn smiled. "I hope you're right."

The trio worked quickly to finish their meals. It was a good thing that they did so, for barely had they put their plates and silverware away when they all felt two presences approaching the dining hall entrance. Itachi easily identified the first one as Ingegerd, but she was the weaker of the two. The second was undoubtedly a Valkyrie, and it felt vaguely familiar. It took Itachi a moment to remember where he'd last sensed it; the recruitment exhibition back at the Academy. Sure enough, into the dining hall a moment later strode Ingegerd, and behind her was the same Valkyrie that Itachi had spotted at Squad Eleven's exhibit all those years ago; Gunnr, the Mistress of War.

At the periphery of his vision, Itachi glimpsed a small smirk on Jiraiya's face. "Finally…"

Someone's eager to make up for lost time!

I just hope he remembers that we're on a mission here.

Following Eidunn, Itachi and Jiraiya met Ingegerd and Gunnr close to the doorway. Eidunn stepped aside, bowing before gesturing at her companions.

"Lady Gunnr," she said, "May I introduce our guests?"

Itachi saw the silver eyes behind the Valkyrie's helmet glimmer as they focused on Jiraiya, and he suspected that the winged warrior woman was smiling. "Jiraiya needs no such introduction."

Jiraiya grinned. "You flatter me, Lady Gunnr!"

The Legendary Sannin then held out his hand. "It's been too long."

"Yes," Gunnr replied, her voice becoming ever so slightly softer as she accepted and shook it, "it has."

They held each other's gazes for a silent moment before the Valkyrie released his hand and then turned to Itachi. "As for you… I believe Jiraiya's made mention of you before. Itachi Uchiha, yes?"

Itachi nodded. "That's right. Eight Seat of Squad Two. It's an honor, Lady Gunnr."

The Mistress of War inclined her head as she appraised him. "The honor is mine. Jiraiya speaks highly of you. I had wondered if he would bring you along with him when he answered our call for aid. I'm pleased to see that he has."

She then turned back to Jiraiya. "Do you still hold the rank of Twelfth Seat in Squad Eight?"

"It's Tenth now, actually," Jiraiya replied, "and I'll probably be bumped up another notch or two after we get back to the Seireitei."

"Congratulations in advance, then," said Gunnr, "Twelfth or Tenth, though, the fact remains that you're still a lower rank than Eighth Seat Uchiha. Are you operating under his command for the purpose of this mission?"

Itachi shook his head. "Rank's never meant much to the two us. We're equals out here, though we'll endeavor to abide by your Order's decrees as much as possible in the interest of cooperation."

"Lady Gunnr," Ingegerd cautiously interjected, "Pardon the interruption, but you and our guests really should get moving. Lady Sigrún and the Council are waiting."

Gunnr nodded. "Of course. Please, follow me. You two come as well, Ingegerd and Eidunn."

Eidunn blinked in surprise. "Lady Gunnr? Are you sure?"

"Did I stutter, apprentice?" Gunnr asked in a tone that strongly suggested only one answer was acceptable.

Eidunn quickly shook her head. "No, of course not."

"Good," said Gunnr, already moving towards the doorway, "Come along, then."

While Jiraiya moved to the front in an attempt to chat up Gunnr, Itachi fell back so that he could whisper to Eidunn. "Everything alright?"

Eidunn nodded, though she seemed slightly perturbed. "Yes… I just thought that my own part in this affair was over now."

"Lady Gunnr had only told us to bring Jiraiya up here from the Seireitei," Ingegerd added in a hushed tone, "We figured she'd welcome you as well, but Eidunn and I both imagined that we'd be sidelined after returning here. The Valkyries themselves have been handling most of the actual fighting in this crisis so far... when the Nine Tailed Fox leaves any Hollows intact for them to fight, at least."

"We've handled regular Hollows before," Eidunn noted as they climbed the tower's winding staircase, "but all reports from the field indicate large concentrations of Menos Grande being drawn to the Nine Tails. Even if they're mostly Gillians, those are targets typically engaged by the Valkyries themselves; apprentices only get involved in those clashes if the situation is desperate."

"Given that the Nine Tails is involved, the situation is desperate by default," Itachi replied, "If it weren't, you two would not have been dispatched to the Seireitei seeking backup."

"True enough," Ingegerd conceded.

The rest of the climb took place in relative silence, and Itachi turned his focus to the top of the tower. The concentration of spirit energy at the apex was formidable, and it took some work for Itachi to distinguish individual variations of spiritual pressure. The most potent, of course, was undoubtedly Sigrún; the sheer power Itachi could feel was all he needed to know that. It was almost oppressive, and it fell over the other presences like a thick blanket, so much so that Itachi had to devote considerable concentration to picking out the spiritual pressure of the other Valkyries and making a guess at the number present.

I can make out five in total, he mused before glancing at their guide, Gunnr will bring that up to six. According to what Ingegerd said on the road, there are nine full-fledged Valkyries in the entire Order, so the remaining three are likely out in the field. I wonder which ones will be in attendance. This should be interesting.

When they reached the summit, Gunnr allowed them a few minutes to catch their breath. Itachi stole a glance out one of the nearby windows and marveled at the view. The tower's peak was above the lower cloud layer, and the crimson rays of the setting sun turned the snow on the mountain side into a brilliant scarlet sheet. Falling snowflakes catching the beams of red light only added to the spectacle, and Itachi couldn't help but smile as he took it all in.

Jiraiya gave him a knowing smile. "Really something else, isn't it?"

"You can say that again," Itachi murmured, "The Shinobi World had its wonders, but… nothing that could remotely compare to this."

"Enjoy the view while you can," Gunnr chimed in before nodding at the Council chamber doors, "I must step inside for a moment and make sure my sisters-in-arms are prepared to receive you. Please, wait here."

Itachi attempted to steal a glance inside as Gunnr opened the doors, but she stepped through too quickly and blocked his view with her wings. The doors shut almost as swiftly as they'd opened, and no sound could get through them. Itachi simply shrugged before turning his gaze back to the outstanding view beyond the tower; he'd get to see inside the hall of power at its apex soon enough.

Itachi's gaze drifted to the south, as did his mind. Six weeks had gone by since his departure from the Seireitei, and he couldn't help but feel a bit homesick. It was a surprising sensation, and one that Itachi hadn't felt in years. Not since his exile from the Leaf Village following the Uchiha Clan purge, at least.

The Seireitei truly has become my new home, he thought with a wistful smile, or rather, Squad Two's barracks. I never imagined that I'd feel this way. Yoruichi… I miss you. I hope you're well. No matter what happens up here…

…I promise that I'll find my way back to you.

….

Though Jiraiya knew he should be focusing on the impending Council meeting, his thoughts kept going back to the earlier reunion with Gunnr. Far fewer words had been spoken than he would've liked, although given the gravity of the situation Jiraiya knew that they didn't have much time to catch up. He hoped that the two of them would have an opportunity to converse privately after the meeting, and if the way she'd greeted him earlier was any indication, Jiraiya suspected that Gunnr shared the sentiment.

His musings were interrupted by none other than the Mistress of War herself opening the Council chamber doors again. "Come. They're ready for you."

Jiraiya glanced at Itachi, who gave him a very small and almost imperceptible nod. They'd had plenty of time on the road to think through his hairbrained scheme for Kurama, and while Jiraiya still had his doubts about whether or not they could actually pull it off, he hadn't been able to come up with a better plan. This was what they had to go with, and now their challenge would be selling that plan to the Council.

Strolling into the chamber, Jiraiya found himself surrounded by mostly familiar faces. Well, familiar helmets, at least; Gunnr remained the only Valkyrie to have actually shown her true face to him, and that had only been once. In addition to Gunnr and Sigrún, Jiraiya recognized Kara, Eir and Geirdriful amongst the meeting's attendees. Only the sixth Valkyrie was a stranger to him, and Jiraiya turned to study her with keen interest.

She was tall and imposing, just like her sisters-in-arms, but her figure was something of an oddity; athletic to be sure, but surprisingly more on the slender side, lacking some of the formidable musculature of her comrades but more than making up for it with a sleek build that suggested speed was more important to her than strength. Her armor wasn't all that different from the sets worn by the other Valkyries, and in fact reminded him of Sigrún's brilliant golden and scarlet ensemble, though it wasn't quite as elaborate. It was her helmet and wings that really stood out to Jiraiya. Finely polished brass plate was inlaid over both, but the feathers at the very edges of her wings not only glowed crimson and orange but actually radiated heat and were sharpened; Jiraiya hated to imagine what kind of damage they could inflict in combat. Her helmet was crowned by two curved horns, while arcing back behind those were two rows of ten red spines carved in a likeness to the heated feathers in her wings. Behind her helmet, Jiraiya caught a glimpse of burning crimson eyes, while the mace slung over her shoulder looked mighty enough to cave in the skull of a Menos Grande like it was nothing more than an overripe melon.

Those crimson eyes gleamed as she met Jiraiya's gaze, and he could've sworn their owner was smiling beneath her helmet. "Your pet Soul Reaper, Gunnr… I'm having a hard time deciding if he's brave or foolish. For an outsider to hold my gaze, it's usually one or the other. Either way, I do not suffer it for long."

"Restrain yourself, Gondul," Gunnr replied sharply, "Save your pride and temper for the Hollows."

Gondul bristled as her wings began to stretch. "You dare give me a command, Gunnr? Is it time for another challenge, then?"

A chill went down Jiraiya's spine as the spiritual pressure of both Valkyries flared up. The already-glowing wings of Gondul began to whistle, and the temperature in the room noticeably picked up a notch. Meanwhile, golden sparks danced along Gunnr's wings, and the Mistress of War had one hand on the handle of her axe.

Then a third source of spiritual pressure spiked, this one dwarfing both Gunnr and Gondul, and it was followed by a menacing growl from the source; Sigrún. "Enough. Your petty rivalry has no place in this chamber, and I will not allow it to interfere in this crisis. Hold yourselves in check, or I will do it for you."

The words of their leader combined with the formidable surge in spiritual pressure was enough to subdue both women, though Jiraiya saw them both glare at each other. He was sorely tempted to ask Gunnr just what the deal was between her and Gondul, but Jiraiya suspected that right here and now would be a very poor time to do so.

Going to have to pry that out of her later, he mused as he suppressed a smirk while imagining one hell of a cat fight between the two Valkyries, I bet it's one hell of a tale…

Sigrún then turned to Ingegerd and Eidunn, and Jiraiya caught a glimpse of her emerald eyes briefly darting in Itachi's direction. "Apprentices, you have accomplished your mission, and for that, the Council is grateful. That being said, it appears you have gone a step beyond your original mandate. I trust that you have a suitable explanation, yes?"

Ingegerd was the first to respond. "We do, Lady Sigrún. This second Soul Reaper was brought along at the request of Jiraiya."

"Jiraiya insisted upon it," Eidunn added, "He said that his help would be necessary if we are to resolve this crisis."

Then Sigrún fixed her gaze on Jiraiya. "Truly?"

Jiraiya nodded. "Yes."

Sigrún turned her attention fully to Itachi. "Then would your companion be so kind as to give the Council his name?"

Itachi inclined his head. "Lady Sigrún, I am Itachi Uchiha, Eighth Seat of Squad Two. It's an honor to meet you."

"Likewise," Sigrún replied before gesturing at her fellow Valkyries, "My colleagues present here are Eir, Geirdriful, Gondul and Kara. I believe you've already met Gunnr. Welcome to Steinskjöldur. Whether or not you are permitted to stay will be dependent on how you answer this question; what do you have to offer us that may bring us closer to resolving our current crisis with the mighty creature roaming the north?"

"Experience and knowledge," Itachi answered without hesitation, "just like Jiraiya. We are both familiar with Tailed Beasts; they are from our Realm of the Living, after all. If you wish to resolve this crisis while preserving your own forces, you would do well to heed our counsel."

Briefly glancing around the chamber, Jiraiya saw the Valkyries flex their wings. Itachi's assertiveness would either earn respect or enmity, and there was only one that the Soul Reapers could afford right now.

I hope he knows what he's doing, Jinsei no Kenja remarked, or this may prove to be a very short meeting.

No kidding.

There was a moment of silence, and Jiraiya feared that Itachi may have gone a step too far. Then a faint sound, almost musical in nature, came from beneath Gunnr's helmet, and it took Jiraiya a second that she was trying to stifle laughter. The other Valkyries soon joined in, and Jiraiya could feel some of the tension bleed away.

"As rash in his own way as you!" Gunnr noted as her silver eyes fixed Jiraiya with an amused look, "I can see why you decided to bring him."

"A handsome daredevil, aren't you?" Gondul remarked in a silky purr, "Oh, it's been far too long since we last had your kind in our halls!"

"Your confidence speaks well of you, Eighth Seat Uchiha," said Sigrún, her emerald eyes gleaming as she studied Itachi intently, "I do hope that your abilities and knowledge give your words the teeth they need."

Itachi readily accepted the challenge. "Only one way to find out, isn't there?"

Sigrún nodded. "Indeed, there is. Do you and Jiraiya have a plan already formulated?"

"The beginnings of one," Jiraiya chimed in, "We've got a pretty good idea of what needs to be done, but we need more information in order to put it into motion."

"We've been on the road for six weeks," Itachi added, "and we understand that the situation could have changed during that time period. Please, tell us where things currently stand with regards to the Nine Tailed Fox and the Hollows. Once we're up to speed, we'll be able to help."

"Very well, then," said Sigrún before turning to the Lady of Wrath, "Kara, you were the one most recently dispatched to monitor the creature before Ölrún relieved you. Fill our guests in."

Jiraiya and Itachi both turned to Kara, who wasted no time in getting down to business. "The Nine Tailed Fox is presently still in the deep north. Though the creature is phenomenally powerful, it seems inclined to steer clear of human contact. It has not deliberately sought out settlements of any sort, which has made containing knowledge of the beast significantly easier. My observations are the same as those of my sisters-in-arms; the Nine Tailed Fox mostly seems to want to be left alone. Needless to say, the Hollows pursuing it have other ideas."

Jiraiya scratched his chin in thought. "Have you or any of the other Valkyries attempted to communicate with him?"

Kara nodded. "While we've mostly sought to keep our distance and eliminate what Hollows the beast doesn't slay itself, we have tried to establish contact. However, the creature is possessed of a most prickly disposition to put it mildly. Whenever we've tried to approach, its spiritual pressure flares up beyond anything I've ever seen before. That tends to draw in more Hollows, and a fresh round of combat ensues."

"He hasn't tried to attack any of you, has he?" Itachi pressed.

Kara shook her head. "Not directly. There have been some close calls, but those resulted purely from the raw power of the attacks that the creature has unleashed upon the Hollows. He's mighty, but his strength lacks control and precision."

"The Nine Tailed Fox, as you call it, is nothing less than a walking storm of spirit energy," Geirdriful remarked, "He demolishes all in his path."

"It's hard to think of him as a creature in the traditional sense," Eir chimed in, "He is more akin to Ragnarök itself being unleashed upon the land."

Jiraiya saw Itachi's gaze darken, and it wasn't hard to guess where his mind had gone; back to the attack on the Leaf Village when he'd been only a child. "An apt description if ever there was one."

Kara nodded. "Indeed. Unfortunately, the Hollows have been hounding the Nine Tails relentlessly, and their attacks have grown in both boldness and strength. For all the power at this creature's command, he is still vulnerable to attritional warfare. Even the mightiest of beings must rest at some point, and the Nine Tails has been hunted by Hollows for over a year now. To make matters worse, he is being driven in the last direction we want him to go; south."

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed at that bit of news. "How long until he's driven completely from the deep north and gets the attention of the Starmont Clan?"

Kara sighed. "Hard to say. Perhaps another month or two, though I feel that assessment is overly optimistic. The beast is strong and has held his ground before, but the tide is growing against him. These latest assaults aren't composed of typical Hollow packs; they're more akin to the legions of an army. I've seen enough Gillians alone to blanket the frozen plains in a sheet of black, and multiple Adjuchas are coordinating them. I've also sensed a stronger presence, though it has yet to make a public appearance."

Jiraiya shuddered at the implication. "You're saying a Vasto Lorde is involved here?"

"I'm almost certain of it," Kara answered.

Jiraiya turned to Itachi. "That's bad news. Kurama's powerful, but a Menos Army commanded by a Vasto Lorde… I don't know if even he can take that on. Not for much longer than he already has been, at least."

For his part, Itachi remained cool and detached as he considered the situation. "It's worse than we feared, but not an insurmountable obstacle. Our original plan is still viable. In fact, it may be the only way we come out of this alive if the Vasto Lorde takes the field."

"We've been dancing around this 'plan' of yours long enough," Sigrún interjected, "I would have you reveal it in full here and now."

Itachi inclined his head. "Of course. I didn't mean to delay. I simply wanted a better comprehension of the current circumstances. The fact that you've been keeping the Nine Tails at a respectful distance and not actively engaging him works in our favor here; it means he may be inclined to trust you once we move in and take the fight to the Hollows. We have to firmly establish ourselves as allies in the eyes of the Nine Tails, and that's the plan Jiraiya and I have come up with. We're going to make contact with him on the battlefield. We'll need your help in keeping the most powerful of the Hollows at bay while we do so. Our goal is to convince the Nine Tails that we're on his side, both now and after the battle is concluded. Once he's fully sold on a partnership, his power combined with that of us and your strongest warriors should be more than sufficient to deal with the Menos Grande, Vasto Lorde included."

"Reasonable enough," said Sigrún, "but that only addresses the battle itself. Once the fighting is over, how do you intend to deal with the Nine Tails? It's untenable for him to continue wandering our lands and attracting hordes of Menos Grande."

Itachi glanced at Jiraiya, who took that as his cue to interject. "We're well aware of that. The Nine Tails is an irresistible beacon to Hollows, at least as he is now. The last thing we want is for him to draw more of the beasts to your lands or to any other. In order to make sure that he's able to survive long-term in the Soul Society, Itachi and I are going to train him to properly control his spiritual pressure once the battle is done."

The chamber fell silent for a long moment as the Valkyries all traded looks. Jiraiya really wished that they didn't wear helmets all the time; it would've been nice to see their faces and get at least a hint as to what they might be thinking.

I called Itachi a lunatic when he first proposed this, the Legendary Sannin thought, and now I'm trying to help him sell it. Still can't believe I couldn't come up with a better idea… well, no choice but to go all in now.

Sigrún was the one to finally break the silence. "Your proposal… is to train the Nine Tails?"

Itachi nodded. "That's right."

"Train a creature that's capable of reducing the landscape to a series of craters with its raw power?" Geirdriful pressed.

Jiraiya took a deep breath. "I know it sounds… out there, to put it mildly… but it's really the only viable long-term solution to this mess."

Gondul shook her head derisively. "Preposterous. Gunnr, I know you like the bold ones, but I'm now convinced that your pet Soul Reaper and his companion are truly out of their minds."

Eir raised a hand to forestall further objection. "Hold on, Gondul. Let's not dismiss the ideas of our guests so quickly."

Gunnr then turned to the two Soul Reapers, with her gaze focusing particularly on Jiraiya. "How would you go about this?"

"Like Itachi said earlier, we need to establish trust with the Nine Tails," Jiraiya replied, "Aiding him in battle's a good first step, but we need to go beyond that. If we can convince him that we're capable of teaching him how to suppress his spiritual pressure and therefore allow him to hide from Hollows and others who might threaten him, I think he'd play along. He was used as a living weapon back when he was alive. If I had to guess, I think all he really wants now is just to be left alone. We can give him the tools to both accomplish that and remove the threat to the north and the rest of the Soul Society in one fell swoop."

"Assuming he doesn't vaporize you with one of his attacks as you try to approach him," Kara quipped.

"You two have history with this creature, yes?" Sigrún asked as she studied both Soul Reapers intently.

Itachi nodded. "We do. I used to hunt them."

"And my last student was the host to the one roaming your lands now," Jiraiya added.

That caused Gunnr to focus her gaze on him. "Your final apprentice… Naruto was his name, right?"

Jiraiya smiled. "That's the one."

He thought he saw the Mistress of War's eyes narrow behind her helmet. "If the creature he hosted is now in the afterlife… what would his fate be?"

Jiraiya took a deep breath. "I don't know. That's part of the reason why I agreed to come here. I fear the worst, but I haven't completely given up hope. Finding Kurama and saving him from the Hollows will hopefully allow me to get an answer regarding Naruto."

Gunnr inclined her head respectfully. "I pray that the answer is one that confirms his survival."

"Thank you," Jiraiya replied.

For her part, Sigrún's gaze was fixed on Itachi. "You hunted such mighty creatures and survived? From what we've seen of the Nine Tailed Fox's power, that's no small feat."

"Those hunts weren't easy," Itachi confirmed, "Within a host or free, Tailed Beasts are formidable foes. They are not invincible, though."

"They have the power to level mountains or reduce the seas to vapor," Jiraiya chimed in as he turned to address the Valkyries' leader, "but, as you've already noticed, they're not mindless beasts getting by purely on raw might. They're as intelligent as anyone in this room, and they need to be treated as such. For too long, the people of our old Realm of the Living treated them as nothing more than bargaining chips and weapons. The Tailed Beasts all became embittered because of that, and the Nine Tails is hardly an exception. Only through approaching and treating him as an equal will we have the chance to gain his respect."

"All well and good," said Eir, "but your solution brings with it a distinct risk. As of right now, the Nine Tails has pure power, but no subtlety or technique. It makes him easy to track not just for the Hollows, but for us as well. Should we succeed in defeating the packs pursuing him and giving the two of you a chance to train the Nine Tails to suppress his spiritual pressure, we will essentially be granting this massively powerful creature the ability to wander the Soul Society with a greatly reduced chance of detection. That will make him infinitely more dangerous should he decide to unleash his power against others in the future."

Geirdriful concurred. "Eir raises a valid concern. While we wish first and foremost to protect our own lands and people, we must also be mindful of the broader Soul Society. What guarantee do we have that the Nine Tails would not use the skills he learns through you to inflict harm upon innocents in the future, whether they reside in the north or elsewhere?"

"None… at least, none right away," Itachi confessed, "Training Kurama to properly harness his powers would not be an overnight thing; Jiraiya and I will need to spend quite some time instructing him during our stay in the north. That time provides a window not just for the two of us, but for your Order as well, to open meaningful dialogue with Kurama and come to a long-term understanding. Only through that understanding do we have a chance at not only saving the north from his power running amok, but the rest of the Soul Society as well."

"In other words, the Soul Society's safety will ultimately hinge upon the trust, and only the trust, that you can engender within the beast during the months you spend up here," Gondul surmised with more than a hint of skepticism, "A leap of faith if ever there was one."

"I know it's asking a lot to place faith in such a powerful creature," Jiraiya interjected as he glanced at Gunnr, an idea springing into his mind, "but what about faith in the bond between master and apprentice?"

For her part, the Mistress of War studied him in curiosity. "Naruto was your apprentice, not the beast that he played host to, yes? How would that bond come into play here?"

Jiraiya smiled. "Naruto was my last apprentice… and I believe he was also my greatest. Before I met my end, I was able to see the impact he could have on people. He was capable of bringing out the best in others, including those who had been justifiably embittered by life's many hardships… and I believe that includes the Nine Tailed Fox. The two of them were bonded together for many years, and I know that Naruto was able to reach an understanding with the beast… with Kurama. When I taught Naruto, Kurama was there the whole time, although of course it was in a rather unwilling capacity. Nevertheless, I think my teachings got through to him via Naruto. In fact, I'm willing to stake my life on it."

"How so?" asked Sigrún.

Jiraiya gestured at the Lady of Wrath. "Kara, you said earlier that Kurama could very well decide to destroy Itachi and I as we attempt to approach him. My bet is that he won't. I'll ask this of your Order; that you help Itachi and I clear a path to Kurama, but leave the approach to me alone."

Itachi immediately objected. "That wasn't our agreement. We decided on the road that you and I would make the approach together."

Jiraiya turned to his friend. "I know that was our initial plan, but I've been giving this a lot of thought, and I believe this way's better. Kurama, at least as we knew him back then, doesn't like either of us, and for good reason. That being said, of the two of us, I've got a better chance of making a connection with him than you. He knows me better than he does you… and his kind wasn't hunted by me as they were by you. More to the point, you know his history with your clan better than I do. You know what the Uchiha name means to him, and it isn't good. Through Naruto, he might understand that you're not like your forebears, but he'd still be wary of you."

What went unspoken, but what Jiraiya knew Itachi would immediately comprehend, was the Sharingan. While Jiraiya had set out on this mission believing that the Sharingan would be the key to subduing Kurama, his talk with Itachi that night on the road along with the subsequent discussions they'd had in an effort to refine their strategy had given him cause for reconsideration. He'd gone from considering Itachi's Sharingan to be a vital component for this mission to instead viewing it as a weapon of absolute last resort. If they were to establish long-term trust with Kurama, then they needed to go about it honestly, which meant no genjutsu.

From the way Itachi was looking at him, Jiraiya could tell that he understood all of this, though he still seemed quite uneasy. "That may be so, but I should still back you up. If he acts with hostility…"

"I'll be dead before I know what hits me," Jiraiya calmly finished for him, "and you standing right there next to me would only add another casualty. I don't believe it'll come to that, though. What I felt from Kurama when I met Naruto last year… I believe he's changed, Itachi. Naruto's had more influence on him than the grumpy old fox will ever likely admit. Naruto gave him a chance, and we need to do the same. Trust me."

There was a long moment of silence before Itachi finally acquiesced. "Alright. I still don't like this, but we'll play it your way."

Jiraiya smiled, appreciating the real sentiment behind Itachi's words; the former Akatsuki member feared for his friend's safety, something the Legendary Sannin never would've imagined him capable of when they'd first met. It showed just how badly Jiraiya had misread Itachi all those years ago, and it spoke to the true quality of his character.

How different it all could've been for him, Jiraiya mused sorrowfully, if it weren't for the distrust between the Uchiha Clan and the Leaf Village spiraling down into such dark depths. Before all of this, I never could've imagined someone like Itachi as a good man, let alone a hero. Now, though… had things gone another way, I have no doubt that he could've been Hokage one day… perhaps the finest that the Leaf Village had ever seen. Minato… had you lived long enough to see Itachi become a Shinobi, maybe he could've been your successor. Then again, you had Kakashi as a pupil, so perhaps Itachi would've followed him. Ah… if only.

Turning his mind away from the past, Jiraiya brough his focus back firmly to the present. "Thanks. Besides, the power of you Shikai is ideal for helping the Valkyries keep the Hollows at bay while I make contact with Kurama. If someone's going to watch my back, I'll feel a lot better about it knowing that it's you."

Itachi nodded. "None of the beasts will reach you. You have my word."

"Mine as well," Gunnr vowed as her silver eyes glimmered beneath her helmet, and Jiraiya was certain that she was smiling.

Jiraiya inclined his head in appreciate before turning to face Sigrún. "Well, there you have it. I'll bet my life that we can bring Kurama around to our side, not just against the Hollows, but for the sake of the wider Soul Society's peace. I'll trust my life to that grumpy old fox… and to the legacy of my last apprentice."

Sigrún held his gaze for several seconds, and silence once again fell upon the Council chamber. Jiraiya feared that she wasn't convinced, but then a soft chuckle came from behind her helmet that eased his apprehension.

"A gamble worthy of drink and song in our halls!" the leader of the Valkyries praised, and Jiraiya suspected she was smiling as well, "Who knows? We may yet devote toasts and melody to it should this endeavor pay off. Very well, Jiraiya; the Order of the Valkyries will fully back this plan of yours… on one condition."

Jiraiya took a deep breath; he had a feeling he knew where this was going. "Name it."

Sigrún's emerald eyes took on a dark edge. "Should your faith be misplaced and the Nine Tailed Fox does not agree to cooperate, the Order of the Valkyries will put him down, and you two Soul Reapers will fight with all of your might to aid us in that task."

Her firm tone was all Jiraiya needed to know that this term was not up for negotiation. "Very well, then. Should the worst come to pass, Itachi and I will assist you in killing Kurama. You have my word."

"And yours?" Sigrún asked as she turned to Squad Two's Eight Seat.

Itachi simply nodded, and his expression was completely unreadable. "Yes."

"Good," said Sigrún, "Then let us hammer out the particulars of our strategy. We will be setting out before first light tomorrow, and the road ahead is harsh, even by the north's standards. If we wish to survive the coming crucible, nothing less than the utmost preparation will suffice."

….

Jiraiya grinned as he stepped out onto the balcony, savoring the sight of the moonlight reflected upon Gunnr's armor. "You wouldn't mind a bit of company, would you?"

The Mistress of War turned and beckoned for him to join her at the railing. "Quite the contrary; I was hoping you'd follow me out here."

Jiraiya chuckled as he came forward. "I thought you'd say that."

The Council meeting had run for a good few more hours as they'd ironed out the details of their strategy for dealing with Kurama. Night had long since fallen, and Jiraiya knew that he really ought to be getting some sleep. Itachi had already bidden him goodnight and retired to his guest quarters, while the apprentices and other Valkyries had descended the tower to turn in for the evening. It was just Jiraiya and Gunnr at the citadel's apex now, and while the Legendary Sannin was weary from the journey he was also far from ready to call it a night just yet.

"Your fellow Soul Reaper is an interesting young man," Gunnr remarked as the two of them gazed out at the falling snow and the moonlit sky, "The last outsider that the Council received so warmly was… well, you, come to think of it."

Jiraiya smiled. "The Uchiha have always had a way with the ladies. Itachi's no exception."

"I'm sure," Gunnr replied as she held his gaze, and Jiraiya suspected she was smirking behind her helmet, "I trust his skills are as sharp as his looks?"

"I wouldn't have brought him along otherwise," Jiraiya pointed out.

Gunnr actually laughed at that. "Then I suspect he'll become quite popular during his stay here! There's nothing our flock of maidens loves more than a handsome man who knows his way around a blade."

"If the apprentices want to see his talents after the big operation, he and I can always hold an exhibition match," Jiraiya offered, "Between the two of us, I'm sure we can put on a good show."

"Oh, I have no doubt of that," said Gunnr, "We can consider it something to look forward to after the battle."

The two of them were quiet for a few moments before Jiraiya spoke again. "It's… been a long time. Has everything been okay for you up here? Apart from this mess with Kurama, I mean."

There was just a second's worth of hesitation before Gunnr answered. "The current crisis notwithstanding, I suppose everything's been well enough. Hollow hunts keep us busy enough, along with maintaining our sacred groves and outposts. I just wish that the rulers of this land could be as content with the status quo as we are."

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow. "Something up with the Starmont Clan?"

Gunnr sighed. "The typical noble games. Lord Torland usually knows better than to attempt to drag us into them. The politics of the Seireitei have no place up here."

"But he's trying to change that?" Jiraiya asked.

Gunnr was quiet for a moment. "It… may not be my place to say. This matter's rather… sensitive. Dreary as well… not something I'd prefer to burden a good friend with."

"Yet you brought it up with me anyway, which means it's really bothering you and you want to get it off your chest," Jiraiya pressed, his warm smile masking the hunger for knowledge that his Shinobi instincts were bringing to the fore, "You also clearly don't think you can talk about it with your fellow Valkyries, otherwise you wouldn't have broached it here."

"You're only partially correct," Gunnr conceded, "I have discussed this at length with my sisters-in-arms, and with Lady Sigrún in particular. It's just that the counsel I offer has gone unheeded… and it concerns me."

"Then lay it on me," Jiraiya offered, "I can't promise I'll be of any help, but I'm more than willing to listen if you need to vent a bit."

The Mistress of War regarded him thoughtfully for a few seconds. "Perhaps that would be enough. Very well, then. Do understand, though, that there are certain aspects of this topic that I cannot go into much detail on without betraying my oaths. If I come across as… evasive… please know that it is not out of disrespect or distrust towards you."

Jiraiya nodded. "I understand. If we reach a point that you can go no further, just tell me, and I'll back off. You have my word."

Gunnr took a deep breath, and Jiraiya was struck by how genuinely apprehensive she suddenly looked; body language could go quite a long way when one didn't have a face to read. "I fear that Lord Torland desires to become more… assertive within the ruling circles of the Soul Society. He wishes for the north to have a greater say in the affairs of the afterlife… and I'm afraid that he's not considering the safety of his subjects or the greater balance of power in the Soul Society. It's a rather disturbing development, especially given his previous reputation for circumspection."

"When did this change start to come about?" Jiraiya asked.

"I can't point to an exact date," Gunnr admitted, "I've only come to notice it within the past few years, but looking back… it may have begun much earlier. Perhaps even sending me down to the Seireitei for that recruitment exhibition where you and I first met was part of it."

"Is he trying to pressure you into doing that again?" Jiraiya ventured, "I know you weren't exactly thrilled with it last time."

"The subject has come up," Gunnr confessed, "for me and my sisters-in-arms. We've been able to demure so far; the previous incident left an ill-taste in the Order's mouth, as it were. We don't like being used as props… even if the silver lining of it was that I got to meet an interesting new friend. Lord Torland has brought the matter up with Lady Sigrún regularly, but he hasn't yet made an official demand. It seems he's still circumspect enough to recognize the line he's toeing on this particular topic. Even so, we have been forced to make some concessions in order to forestall more egregious action."

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed. "Such as?"

"He's started summoning members of our Order down to Wolf's Haven to be present when he receives important guests," Gunnr explained with more than a hint of bitterness, "Demonstrating that the Valkyries are at his beck and call makes a suitable impression upon high-profile visitors. Lady Sigrún puts up with it out of necessity; the Starmont Clan and their private forces remain valuable allies, and it's in our long-term interest to stay on their good side. Even so, we're still being used as props, with the only saving grace being that we're not required to journey all the way down to the Seireitei to debase ourselves in such a manner."

Jiraiya grimaced. "I'm sorry to hear that. At least you don't have to go very far. With your wings, Wolf's Haven is really just a short flight down the mountain from here."

Gunnr nodded. "A small favor, I suppose. It wouldn't be so bad if Lord Torland was as self-isolating as he had been before; in the past, such visitors that he might want to impress by having a Valkyrie on hand were very infrequently given invitations. However, over the past few years he's become more sociable, at least by his standards. Lady Sigrún's set up a rotation so that, if nothing else, we at least each suffer the indignity fairly."

Jiraiya's brow furrowed as he considered the information. "What sorts of guests would Lord Torland feel the need to impress with a Valkyrie?"

"Envoys from the Soul Society's nobility," Gunnr replied ruefully, "Only the pretentious aristocrats of the Seireitei would require such posturing."

A sudden chill that had nothing to do with the weather went down Jiraiya's spine. "Which noble families are sending envoys? Are any of them from the other Great Noble Houses?"

Gunnr looked away. "I… cannot confirm or deny that. I'm sorry."

Jiraiya inclined his head respectfully. "No need to apologize. I told you earlier that I'd understand, remember?"

Gunnr regarded him for a long moment. "So you did… and so you are. Thank you."

Jiraiya smiled. "Don't mention it."

He watched as Gunnr gazed up at the moon. "It's strange… I'll face the mightiest Hollows without a second thought, even relishing in the challenge, but… political intrigue is another beast altogether, Jiraiya. One that can't be challenged in open and honest combat. I have an intense dislike of it. With this sudden outreach to other noble clans, Lord Starmont is dragging the north into southern intrigues… and it makes me nervous. I fear that his newly-awakened ambitions will spell calamity for our homeland."

"Ambitions that would only be fueled further should he learn the true nature of what's going on in the deep north," Jiraiya noted.

Gunnr sagely nodded. "I see Eidunn and Ingegerd did a good job of briefing you on the underlying threats here. The Nine Tails is a problem, but you and Itachi have given us a solution. The trick now is implementing it, followed by sweeping the whole affair under the rug once it's all over. It won't check Lord Starmont's ambitions, but it'll at least deny him a potential tool through which he might accelerate his plans."

Jiraiya scratched his chin. "How much time do you think we have left until he catches wind of what's happening out there?"

"Difficult to say," Gunnr conceded, "The Starmont Clan's typically left the deep north to us; it holds little strategic value for the noble house. That gives us some valuable breathing room, but with the amount of power being thrown around by both the Nine Tails and Hollows out there, it's possible the family might sense something even from their ancient seat in Wolf's Haven. Members of Great Noble Houses are renowned for their powerful spirit energy and keen senses for it, after all, and Lord Torland is no exception. Our only saving grace has been him focusing his attention more on matters to the south as opposed to his own back yard. That could change at any time."

"Are there any other parties with an interest in the deep north?" Jiraiya asked, "Just because the Starmont Clan doesn't see it as worth paying attention do doesn't mean everyone's bound to see it that way."

Gunnr was quiet for a few seconds as she considered the question. "Desperate outlaws will occasionally flee that way, though they seldom last long. Every once in a while, one might find a band of prospectors making their way up there, following fantastical claims of untapped mineral lodes. Usually those 'claims' are provided by hucksters looking to sell the faulty information to the gullible. In a land as inhospitable as ours, there are always those in dire enough straits that good sense leaves them entirely, making them easy prey for such fraudulent enterprises. The punishment for promoting such a scheme is death, but the con artists usually don't stick around long enough to be caught. Apart from the exceptionally foolish or resourcefully wicked, the only other people out in the deep north are the native tribes."

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow; this was the first he'd heard of such groups. "Native tribes? I wouldn't think the deep north could support an indigenous population."

"They're quite hardy folk," Gunnr replied with a more than a hint of admiration, "Most of their settlements can be found along the shores of what we call the Mikill Íshaf, or Great Ice Sea in your tongue. Agriculture is impossible in the deep north, but the Great Ice Sea possesses an abundance of life. Teeming schools of fish, great leviathans rich in blubber and meat, coastal shoals carpeted with crustaceans as far as the eye can see; it is a great bounty for those brave and skilled enough to hunt it. That bounty sustains the native tribes, though claiming it from the Great Ice Sea carries with it considerable dangers. It's not unheard of for entire generations of fisherfolk to be swallowed up by its frigid waves or dashed to a bloody pulp against the massive icebergs, and the storms up there are particularly ferocious. One can only survive the Mikill Íshaf with the deepest respect for nature and finely honed instincts… and even then, one's survival is not guaranteed."

"I know the north's got a certain sink-or-swim attitude towards life," Jiraiya remarked, "and that you live difficult lives as it is, but for people have to scratch out a living in such inhospitable lands… it strikes me as extreme, even for here. Has no effort ever been made to bring these people to a region where it'd be easier for them to survive?"

Gunnr shook her head. "Let me make this clear, Jiraiya; the natives of the deep north remain there by choice. They are perfectly aware of the civilizations to the south. Contact is kept with them, albeit in a limited form. Particularly daring traders will even seek out their villages for commerce. The oil derived from what few leviathans the fisherfolk can bring in fetches an exceptionally high price elsewhere in the Soul Society, all the more so since very few merchants are willing to brave the voyage. If the natives ever desire to abandon their homes and make new lives for them down here, the Starmont Clan has contingency plans to accommodate them. Those plans were laid down millennia ago as part of a comprehensive treaty signed between the Starmont Clan, the native tribes and the Order of the Valkyries. Said plans were ultimately little more than a formality, though, for the natives have never once sought to implement them. The deep north is their home, and they are firmly set in keeping it that way."

Jiraiya nodded in acceptance, though a troubling new thought soon crossed his mind. "Has Kurama strayed towards any of their settlements?"

"Not in the period that we've observed him," Gunnr answered, although the note of uncertainty in her voice did not bode well, "However… it is entirely possible that he did so before our Order found him. We don't know exactly when he first came to the Soul Society, after all."

"If he did so, there's a distinct chance that whatever settlement he found was completely obliterated," said Jiraiya, "I'm sure the natives are tough, but against a Tailed Beast… well, I know who I'd put my money on."

Gunnr reluctantly agreed. "A fair point. The natives are not without their warriors, but the foes they contend with tend to be wild animals or the occasional Hollows that escape our own patrols. Those warriors are resilient and skilled… but they would be swept away as if they were little more than insects before the power of the Nine Tails. We can only pray that fate has kept this creature's path far from their homes."

Jiraiya grimaced. "I don't like relying on the hands of fate alone. Not when innocent lives are at stake."

"That makes two of us," Gunnr grimly concurred.

Jiraiya forced a smile. "All the more reason for us to deal with this situation as quickly as possible, right? The sooner the Hollows are taken out and the Nine Tails learns to control his spirit energy, the sooner the threat to the native tribes will fade."

Gunnr nodded. "That is my sincerest hope. They seek only to be left alone and do not deserve to be dragged into this mess."

"I can't blame them for that," said Jiraiya before his voice trailed off, "although…"

"What is it?" asked Gunnr.

Jiraiya took a deep breath before facing the Valkyrie again. "If any of the natives have seen Kurama and survived… do you think they could be convinced to keep that knowledge to themselves?"

"I believe so," Gunnr answered, "They're very insular people; not exactly prone to gossip, if you will."

"The sighting of something like the Nine Tailed Fox would be considerably more than mere 'gossip," Jiraiya pointed out.

To his surprise, Gunnr simply shrugged. "Not really. People claim to see all manner of strange creatures in the deep north, with only a few having turned out to be anything more than hallucinations or tricks played by the swirling snows. It wouldn't be hard to dismiss such tales as nothing more than fever dreams or mistaken identity. Hollows take on many forms, after all, and would make a very convenient scapegoat here. All we would have to do is spread a few rumors of new specimens being sighted, and the matter simply be passed off as one for us Valkyries to investigate on our own."

Jiraiya couldn't help but grin as he regarded the Mistress of War with fresh admiration. "That's true. You know, you're much more devious than you let on, Gunnr!"

"War is my domain, Jiraiya," the Valkyrie reminded him with a gleam in her silver eyes, "and it is a realm where more than just brute force is required. Cunning and deception most certainly have their place in my arsenal. I would hope that a former Shinobi, of all people, would appreciate that."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Oh, believe me, this former Shinobi definitely appreciates it!"

Her helmeted gaze suddenly went down, and she almost seemed to fidget. Was she… blushing beneath that steel façade?

Oh, what I wouldn't give for that helmet to be gone…

Gunnr then cleared her throat and reasserted her composure. "I'm glad to hear that. Speaking of former Shinobi… about your other apprentice… the one you asked me to be on the lookout for…"

It took Jiraiya a moment to realize which one she was referring to. "You mean Nagato? Have you or your comrades sighted him?"

Gunnr shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not. We've had our eyes out for him; I made sure your sketch was widely distributed, and plenty of the others have proven more than willing to aid in the search. Nevertheless, it pains me to say that we've come up empty. I wanted to tell you sooner. I'm sorry, Jiraiya."

Jiraiya gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Hey, don't worry about it. I know that this land is vast, and that you have your own responsibilities to attend to. I'm just happy to hear that you haven't forgotten."

His stomach then fell as Jiraiya recognized his own error. "You didn't forget… but I forgot them… some teacher I turned out to be."

Gunnr regarded him in confusion. "Forgot who? From what I've seen, your memory regarding past apprentices has been quite astute."

Jiraiya sighed. "For Nagato, Naruto and his father Minato, sure, but… there were two others that I trained at the same time as Nagato. Since Nagato was the one I fought my last battle while I was alive with, he was the one I was focused on when I first asked you to look for him. Although… the other two were there as well, actually. Well, one of them was. The other… he was, and he wasn't."

"Perhaps you can provide some clarity for one who was not present for your past life?" Gunnr nudged.

Jiraiya rubbed his forehead as he tried to put his thoughts in order. "Right… sorry."

The Valkyrie reached over and put a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. "There is no need to apologize. Please, take your time."

Jiraiya took a deep breath. "When I first met Nagato, he was a war orphan… and there were two other orphans with him. A boy and a girl. The boy was Yahiko, and the girl was Konan. I had fought in their homeland with my comrades, and with the war winding down we were ready to head back to our own nation. Before we could leave, though… those three approached us. Just one look at them was all I needed to recognize that they'd been through hell. Their country had been our battlefield, and the toll that the war took on their homeland was steep. Those three… they were desperate… and my country had played no small role in that desperation. We were set to leave, but at that moment… I knew that I couldn't."

"You felt guilty," Gunnr surmised, "Even if you had not fought your war with the intention of causing innocents to suffer, that suffering happened anyway. You wanted to make amends, didn't you?"

"I did," Jiraiya confessed, "In what small way I could, at least. No amount of effort on my part could make up for what happened to those three, of course. They lost their families, their homes… everything. All because of the stupid wars waged by the most powerful amongst the nations and their respective Shinobi. Sounds egotistical, doesn't it? One man trying to make up for all that suffering? I was such an arrogant fool."

Gunnr slowly shook her head. "Not at all. To me, it sounds like a man of great compassion trying to help three young souls heal. You recognized a debt where others did not and sought to repay what you could. I cannot find fault with you for that, Jiraiya."

Jiraiya smiled, though the gesture was bittersweet. "You're much more generous than I am."

"Valkyries can be harsh," Gunnr remarked, "but we still have hearts beneath our armor."

Jiraiya's smile grew slightly as he regarded her. "You certainly do."

"How did you attempt to repay your perceived debt to these three orphans?" Gunnr asked.

"I wanted to make sure they could take care of themselves," Jiraiya replied, "I knew that I couldn't stay in their land forever. So, I taught them ninjutsu. I was a pretty skilled Shinobi at that point, and I'd already trained Minato as well, so I thought that I had what it took to teach these three kids. Them being a trio actually made it easier than I'd initially feared; Shinobi tend to work in teams consisting of a senior leader and three subordinates, so the setup was a familiar one. We did have some hurdles, though. The war might've been winding down, but there was still scattered fighting. I managed to help them set up a hideout, and we all lived there while I gave them lessons."

"How long did you stay with them?" Gunnr inquired.

"About three years," Jiraiya answered with a note of nostalgia as his mind drifted back in time, "It's strange… despite how bleak their land had become thanks to the war, not to mention my own guilt at the part I'd played in the conflict… I was actually happy during my time there. Nagato, Konan, Yahiko… they were all good kids, and I got to watch them grow into fine students. Had they been born in my homeland, I could've taken them to our Academy. They would've passed through in record time, I've got no doubt of that. After that, they could've been my full-time subordinates. A pleasant little daydream… but no more than that."

"Three years is no small thing," Gunnr noted with approval, "Plenty of time for a seasoned warrior like yourself to teach them thoroughly. If you ask me, you went well above and beyond what the situation called for. You should be proud of your decision, Jiraiya. I certainly am."

Jiraiya let out a heavy sigh. "There was a time when I felt that way, but looking back… it's clear that I didn't do enough. I thought I'd come to understand those three, especially Nagato, but given how things ultimately ended between us, it's clear that I knew nothing. If I'd stayed longer, tried to learn more about all three of them… what they'd gone through and what they wanted to achieve after I had left… if I had just come back to their homeland to check up on them… maybe things would've turned out differently."

"How old were they when you parted ways with them?" asked Gunnr.

Jiraiya's brow furrowed as he considered it. "I never learned their exact ages, but… they weren't even in their early teens when I departed. Leaving them to fend for themselves at that age, even after three years of training… that was far too young an age for them to have been left on their own. I know life in the Shinobi World forces children to grow up quickly, and those three had real talent, but even with all that they'd seen and learned I know that they weren't ready. If they had been, then I wouldn't have wound up fighting them to the death all those years later."

"You place too much blame upon yourself," Gunnr argued, "You give too much weight to what you think you should have done differently, and not enough to the agency of your wayward pupils. Young they might have been, but as you said, your world forced them to grow up quickly. They made choices of their own, just as you did. What fault there is in this tragedy does not lie solely with you."

Jiraiya slowly nodded. "I suppose you're right. In any case, they were all grown up when we met in battle. Well, Nagato and Konan were, at least. Yahiko… I don't know how old he was when he died. The body that Nagato used against me looked like a young man… maybe late teens to early twenties… hard to say for sure."

"The body Nagato used against you?" Gunnr repeated in confusion, "I'm afraid you've lost me."

Jiraiya winced as he realized that he'd left out crucial context. "Right… sorry. Remember that sketch I made of Nagato a while back? What stood out to you the most?"

"That would be the eyes," Gunnr answered, "They were quite unique to say the least."

"Those eyes were good for more than just catching one's attention," said Jiraiya, "They granted Nagato a whole host of formidable powers. To make a long story short, he split up those powers amongst a series of proxy bodies. Yahiko's was one of them."

Gunnr hissed in what sounded like disgust. "Your apprentice dared not fight you head on? No offense, Jiraiya, but perhaps you didn't train him as well as I'd previously believed. I would expect a student of yours to at least have the bravery to face you openly."

"I don't think it was that simple," Jiraiya gently countered, "It's true that Nagato's real body wasn't among those that I fought, but I believe there was a reason for it that wasn't what you perceive as cowardice. I just don't know it. If I find him, it's one of the many things I want to learn the truth of."

Gunnr took a deep breath to calm herself. "Well, then I hope that the truth paints a better picture than the one I currently have in my mind. If a student is to kill their former master, they should at least have the courage to look them in the eye and administer the final blow themselves."

"He did, in a way," Jiraiya replied, "Each body had his eyes; he saw through them all just as clearly as he did with his own eyes. The Rinnegan is… a very strange gift. So much legend and myth surround those eyes that discerning fact from fable regarding their capabilities is no small task. That being said, though it was proxy bodies that I fought, Nagato was the animating conscience in all of them."

"I'll take your word for it," said Gunnr, "So… you know for sure that Nagato and Yahiko have passed, yes? What about Konan?"

Jiraiya tapped the railing as he pondered the question. "I never got a confirmation on her death, but… those three were inseparable. With Nagato and Yahiko both gone, I don't think Konan would've been long in following them to the grave. I have no proof, but it's what my instincts are telling me."

Gunnr nodded. "Then I will trust your instincts. When you get a chance, please provide sketches of Konan and Yahiko just as you did of Nagato. I will make sure the others see them. We will keep our eyes out for those two along with Nagato."

Jiraiya's eyes widened. "Gunnr… you don't have to."

"I already promised you that we would be on the lookout for one of your lost apprentices," Gunnr reminded him, "I have no problem with increasing that number by two. Given the service you've already lent our people, along with the risks you will be taking in this coming clash, I think it's the very least that our Order can do to repay you."

Jiraiya had to smile at that. "In that case, I'll make sure those sketches are done before we set off tomorrow. Thank you, Gunnr."

The Valkyrie inclined her head. "You are most welcome, Jiraiya."

The two of them turned their gazes out towards the moonlit falling snow before Jiraiya spoke again. "So, you and me, running headlong into battle together again… brings back memories, doesn't it?"

A melodious laugh rang out from the Mistress of War. "Most pleasant ones at that! I look forward to seeing how your power and skills have grown since the last time I had the privilege of seeing you in action. You had best not disappoint me."

Jiraiya grinned. "Oh, don't worry. You'll see how powerful I've become soon enough!"

….

Sitting on the edge of his bed, Itachi leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees while clasping his hands beneath his chin as he considered what Jiraiya had just told him. "What do you make of all this?"

He watched as Jiraiya, who was leaning against the opposite wall, shook his head. "I'm honestly not sure. Great Noble Houses play politics as naturally as you and I breathe, so I normally wouldn't give it much consideration. Gunnr brought it up, though, and I doubt she would've broached that topic in my presence if she didn't believe something dangerous was afoot. She's got a bad feeling about it, and so do I."

Itachi closed his eyes for a moment, both in contemplation and weariness. He'd been ready to call it a night before Jiraiya had knocked on his door, and he really did want to get as much rest as possible before they set out tomorrow. Nevertheless, the information that Jiraiya had just given him deserved attention… and not just from him.

"When you asked about whether or not any of the families the Starmont Clan was summoning to their home included envoys from other Great Noble Houses, she refused to answer in the affirmative or negative," Itachi eventually said, "That alone was a glaring hint, and one that she wouldn't have dropped lightly."

Jiraiya's sigh held a somber note. "I was afraid you'd say that. It's what I was thinking, too. I've got my suspicions, and I'm sure you do as well. Think this is in any way related to what you and your friends in Squad Two are investigating?"

"Impossible to say with any degree of certainty," Itachi replied, "but it can't be ruled out. This knowledge needs to be passed on, and we can't afford to wait until after the mission."

Jiraiya's eyes widened. "You're not about to suggest we cut and run, are you?"

"Not in the slightest," Itachi reassured his friend.

He stood up and went over to his travel bag. Ruffling through the contents, he eventually pulled out a scroll. He then unfurled it on the floor, fully aware of Jiraiya's gaze suddenly focusing on some very familiar markings.

"Hold on a second…" Jiraiya muttered, as much to himself as to his fellow former Shinobi, "Is that what I think it is?"

Itachi confirmed it decisively as he bit his thumb to draw blood before swiftly weaving signs and pressing his hand to the scroll. "Summoning Jutsu!"

There was a puff of smoke over the scroll, and a raven appeared standing atop the parchment a moment later. It was slightly larger than the average specimen of its kind, with a faint scar running just above its left eye.

The black avian tilted its head and puffed up its chest before it opened its beak, and a deep and gravelly voice came forth. "Aye, it's been a while, Itachi."

Itachi inclined his head in greeting. "So it has, Maebure."

Looking over his shoulder, Itachi had the satisfaction of seeing Jiraiya's eyes practically bulging out of his head. "Whoa, back up here! I've been trying for years to get Summoning Jutsu back, and you know it. When did you pull this off?"

"About six months ago," Itachi replied, "I apologize for not sharing it with you sooner. We've both had other matters on our minds as of late."

Jiraiya shook his head. "Forget about that. How did you do it?"

"By accepting a simple truth and moving on," Itachi answered, "Our efforts have long been focused on renewing our prior contracts, but we have to face facts; we are dead, Jiraiya, and the dead cannot summon the living. The one who came closest to it was the Lady of Midnight, and she brought forth the wraiths as a result. With that in mind, I cast my net in a different direction. I'd contracted with many birds back when I was alive, and some of them were elderly. It simply became a matter of working out which ones would've died of old age in the time since I left our Realm of the Living. Maebure was one likely candidate, and my choice to focus on him soon bore fruit."

Maebure gave Jiraiya what Itachi supposed passed as a sympathetic look for the old raven. "I understand your sentimentality, Jiraiya, but it will not serve you well should you seek to regain Summoning Jutsu. The Soul Society has more than its share of ancient and powerful toads roaming The Wild, and you would do better to focus your efforts on them. I can point you in the right direction sometime, if you'd like."

Jiraiya sighed before smiling. "As much as I was hoping to see good old Gamabunta again, I guess I'd better stop trying to force things. Alright, then; I'll play it your way."

"Maebure can give you detailed directions another time," said Itachi, "Right now I have a task for him, and it must be carried out immediately."

"Back to the Seireitei, I take it?" Maebure presumed, "A message for your lovely Captain?"

Itachi nodded. "Correct."

Maebure looked around the room before his gaze focused on the nearby window. "I'll need to get my bearings first."

"We're in the north of the Soul Society," Itachi explained, "This is the fortress of the Valkyries. If you fly over the path that leads out the gate and down the mountain, you'll be on the right track. From there, it will be a straight shot south, though the weather will not make it easy."

"Forget the weather," Jiraiya interjected, "How's he even going to get into the Seireitei? If he's dead like us, that means he's a spiritual entity, and nothing spiritual can get through the barrier. I can't see any of the gate guards opening the door for a mere crow… no offense, Maebure."

"None taken," the old raven reassured him before focusing his gaze on Itachi, "Fortunately, we worked out a solution to that problem quite some time ago."

"Indeed, we did," Itachi confirmed as the Sharingan blazed to life in his eyes.

….

Six days later…

Just when I thought I'd gotten used to how cold it gets in these lands, Jiraiya thought as he tried and failed to suppress a shiver while leaning as close to the campfire as he could, I find myself camping out on a giant plain of ice... and it is freezing out here!

Technically, it wasn't ice that the Legendary Sannin and his party were camped out on. Itachi had politely corrected him when he'd complained about it the day before, calling it permafrost instead. That hadn't made Jiraiya feel much better about it, of course. Nor did it change the fact that they were currently on a flat stretch of land with pretty much zero cover from the snow and wind, and the resulting chill seemed to strike through Jiraiya's heavy cloak and the thick fur coat he'd been given by the Valkyries like an icy dagger slipping between his ribs.

As if noticing his comfort, one of the sled dogs came over to him and rubbed its face against his. Jiraiya had to smile as he regarded the canine, a white-furred beauty that he struggled to recall the name of.

"Aw, thanks…. Sasha?" he ventured.

The dog happily licked his cheek, which was all the answer Jiraiya needed. He chuckled before putting an arm around the dog and pulling her close; he'd take whatever warmth he could get right now. To Jiraiya's right, Itachi was similarly taking advantage of their friendly beasts of burden, with one charcoal-furred male sitting in his lap while a silver female leaned against his left side. Meanwhile, both Eidunn and Ingegerd were sitting happily at the center of practically their own packs, with each apprentice's head poking above the backs of their furry companions.

Jiraiya saw Itachi smile as he scratched behind the ears of the dog in his lap. "I've always been more of a cat person, but I have to admit that I'm going to miss our new canine friends when this mission is over. I didn't think they'd warm up to us so quickly. Not that I'm complaining."

"It's not often that they get to transport strangers," Eidunn remarked, "They're always eager to meet new people."

"They spend so much of their time cooped up in Steinskjöldur," Ingegerd added, "We try our best to keep them entertained, but we know that they need more than just some familiar faces. Them being out in the field with new companions is a boon, and one that they're not going to waste."

Jiraiya scratched Sasha beneath the chin. "They don't mind the hard work? We've had them haul ass over quite a long distance over a relatively short period of time."

"It's what they're bred for," Eidunn reminded him, "and they do it very well. They take pride in their work, and they handle expeditions such as this with aplomb."

Jiraiya couldn't argue with that. The trip from Steinskjöldur out to their current campsite had gone remarkably quickly. Jiraiya had never travelled in a sled pulled by dogs before, so he hadn't quite known what to expect. The speed and endurance of the hounds had proven to be no joke, though their quick pace combined with wind chill had made for a cold ride even with the extra layers provided by his hosts.

When they'd set out from Steinskjöldur six days ago, it had been in two groups. Sigrún had taken flight with Gunnr, Kara, Gondul, and Geirdriful before sunrise, while Jiraiya and Itachi had both been blindfolded before being led by Eidunn and Ingegerd to their respective sleds. The lack of sight had made the rapid trip through Steinskjöldur's hidden tunnels both exhilarating and mildly terrifying for Jiraiya, and he'd only been allowed to remove the blindfold when Hresvelgr's Aerie had become little more than a rapidly receding silhouette on the horizon. The lengths that the Order of the Valkyries would go to protect the secrets of the tunnels running down from the fortress to the base of the mountain might've struck others as extreme, but Jiraiya could appreciate the precautions. After all, if an enemy knew where the tunnel exits were, those could all too easily become access points for a hostile force.

While being allowed to make the bulk of the trip without the blindfold was nice, the ride hadn't been easy. The snowfall had only gotten heavier as they proceeded further into the north, and the temperature drop had been fierce. Each night, the two Soul Reapers and pair of apprentices huddled around the fire, with the twenty sled dogs forming practically a wall of fur between them and the biting winds. Were it not for the warmth provided by the hounds, Jiraiya was half-convinced that the group would freeze to death.

Night's by far the worst out here, he thought as he rubbed his hands together, I can see now why Sigrún was adamant about only engaging in combat during the day; there's just barely enough heat then to make it viable. At night, there's no way any of us could fight in this damn cold. Good thing the Hollows are hampered by the temperature just as much as we are.

All the reports from the various Valkyries who had ventured into the deep north to contend with Hollows and observe Kurama had mentioned as much, which Jiraiya considered to be their one saving grace. Tomorrow's fighting would be rough, but at least it'd be in the daylight, although how much of that light they'd have to work with depended on the weather. Snowfall had been heavy and consistent, but the winds had died down somewhat over the past day of travel which had in turn greatly improved visibility. Jiraiya could only hope that those conditions would continue to improve overnight and into tomorrow, otherwise the mission would be a lot harder to accomplish.

Looking behind him, he caught sight of Gunnr standing at the camp's perimeter. How she could bear such extreme cold wearing barely more than her usual armor was beyond Jiraiya's comprehension, but she seemed to be taking the chill in stride. The other Valkyries were scouting further afield, making sure that no particularly bold bands of Hollows were gathering to try their hand at a nighttime strike. Jiraiya recalled Gunnr mentioning that a Valkyrie named Ölrún was currently charged with monitoring Kurama, and that they'd be rendezvousing with her tomorrow before they took on the Hollows. Jiraiya had actually met her during his previous stay with the Order, though he was surprised that she was out in the field; he recalled her being the Order's chief historian and lore keeper, much more inclined to pursue knowledge than combat.

Then again, I imagine she's quite curious about Kurama and wants to see him for herself, Jiraiya mused, I just hope that curiosity doesn't kill the cat, as the old saying goes…

He'd find out for good or ill soon enough. The plan was simple; they would rest tonight and set out in the morning, with the Valkyries flying ahead while Itachi and Jiraiya rode the dog sleds to catch up. Ingegerd and Eidunn would be in charge of the sleds, but they would not go to the battlefield themselves. Instead, they would drop Itachi and Jiraiya off before pulling back to keep both the dogs and themselves safe per Sigrún's explicit orders. Neither apprentice was particularly happy about being left out of the action, but both of them knew better than to cross their leader.

Perhaps that was why the two apprentices had worked so hard on tonight's meal, or had gone about setting up the tents with extra care. They might not be charged with fighting, but they were still clearly giving the mission their all in their own fashion. At the same time, he wasn't blind to the nervous glances both Eidunn and Ingegerd kept casting towards him and Itachi. Neither woman had said as much, but it was clear that they were both concerned for the Soul Reapers.

Itachi seemed to have caught that as well, for he turned to the two women as he continued to pet the canine in his lap and gave them a reassuring smile. "The dogs do their job well because they have talented guides in the form of you two. They'll be counting on both of you to keep them out of danger tomorrow, just as we'll be counting on you to give us a ride back when this affair's wrapped up."

Eidunn's shoulders sagged. "I know, but… I still wish that we were allowed to go into battle with you. Leaving you, Lady Gunnr and the others to take on such danger while we sit back in safety doesn't feel right."

"We've been training for situations just like this one," Ingegerd added, "We're no strangers to taking on Hollows. Jiraiya, you've seen us in action. You know that we're perfectly capable warriors."

Jiraiya smiled apologetically. "Believe me, I don't doubt your abilities for a moment. Nevertheless, I think Gunnr's right to keep you two out of this fight. We're talking large numbers of Menos Grande here, and that's not even getting into the Nine Tailed Fox. This is not a battle that you two would fare well in. I don't mean that as an insult; it's simply a realistic assessment of the situation."

Itachi nodded. "Jiraiya's right. I know you're proud of your training and combat experience, but a warrior should also have the self-awareness to recognize when they're outmatched. Gunnr and the other Valkyries certainly do, which is why they sent you two south in the first place to find help. It's also why they're keeping you out of the fray; they understand your limits. You would be wise to do the same."

"Your strength will continue to grow if you keep training as hard as I know you've been," said Jiraiya, "You may not be ready for this fight, but I have no doubt that in the future you'll one day have the strength and skill needed for others much like it."

His words seemed to get through to them, for Eidunn smiled as she met his gaze. "Well, in that case… you and Itachi had better promise to survive tomorrow's ordeal. I want you both to be there the next time our Order calls upon you for aid so that you can see just how much we've grown."

"We will accept nothing less," said Ingegerd firmly.

Jiraiya turned to his fellow Soul Reaper. "Well, Itachi?"

"Survival is hardly guaranteed when both Menos Grande and a Tailed Beast are involved," Itachi remarked, "That being said, I have no intention of dying here."

Jiraiya grinned. "You got that right!"

"Promise," Eidunn repeated.

"Here and now," said Ingegerd.

Several of the dogs began barking, and those closest to the Soul Reapers began licking them. It was as if the canines were also demanding a vow, and who was the Legendary Sannin to refuse the adorable and friendly hounds?

Jiraiya inclined his head. "Very well, then. I promise you both that we'll make it through this fight."

"We vow to survive," said Itachi, "and to save your homeland from this crisis."

Intellectually, Jiraiya knew it was foolish to make such a vow. Itachi was right; with an army of Menos Grande and the Nine Tails in play, neither Soul Reaper could truly guarantee that they'd live through this fight. Still, his heart warmed at the vow, and he felt his resolve strengthen. Once again, he cast a look back at Gunnr. If he needed any further incentive, the image of her face from that one time he'd seen it years ago flashed through his mind to provide it.

I'll see that beautiful face again, he silently swore to himself, and I don't care how many Menos Grande I have to kill or Tailed Beast Bombs I have to endure to make that happen!

….

The next day…

It was still far colder than Itachi would've liked as Eidunn guided their shared sled across the frigid plains of the deep north, but it certainly beat the unholy chill that they had endured the night before. The snowfall had lightened up somewhat, with gaps appearing in the curtain of gray clouds that blanketed the sky above allowing shafts of sunlight to lend some precious heat to the deep north. Up ahead was a modest hill, and it was where both Itachi and Jiraiya's sleds were heading. Several winged silhouettes were on the hill's crest; the Valkyries were waiting for them.

Itachi could feel their combined spiritual pressure, but he only focused on it for a moment. Beyond the hill, the horizon flashed with unnatural bursts of light. Much of it was red, the telltale sign of Menos Grande unleashing their Ceros. However, Itachi also caught glimpses of emerald lightning bolts, which he presumed came from whatever Valkyrie was currently engaging the creatures. Of course, Ceros and Valkyrie lightning alike paled before the true star of today's show, as brilliant spheres of destruction accompanied by thunderous roars and agonized shrieks regularly punctuated the display. Not for the first time since learning of the Nine Tailed Fox's arrival in the Soul Society, Itachi's mind flashed back to that devastating attack on the village his four-year-old self had witnessed so long ago.

You're no longer a child, he told himself, and you now have experiencing in dealing with creatures like this. Keep calm and remember the plan. Focus, mind your surroundings, and be ready to react at a moment's notice.

It was advice that would apply to any battle, of course, but for Itachi it had become something more akin to a mantra. It helped keep those feelings of helplessness he'd experienced as a child from creeping forward. Even so, Itachi found himself wishing that his mother had come along for this mission. Although he was loathe to involve her in an assignment as dangerous as this one, he could not deny the comfort he always found in her warm and steady gaze. Even when she was no doubt scared, Mikoto had always found a way to put on a brave front and reassure her children, and Itachi would not have said no to such reassurance now.

Thoughts of his mother were quickly banished from Itachi's mind when he heard Eidunn swear under her breath before expressing alarm. "This isn't right. They're too close!"

Itachi looked over his shoulder at the apprentice. "What do you mean?"

"It was supposed to take us at least half a day's worth of travel to rendezvous with them," Eidunn elaborated, "but look up there! We can already see them, and it's still only late morning. That means the fighting's been moving south faster than we anticipated."

A chill that had nothing to do with the weather went down Itachi's spine as he immediately comprehended the ramifications. "We're running out of time. The further south Kurama goes, the greater his risk of detection by the Starmont Clan becomes. We have to halt his progress here and now."

He glanced over at Ingegerd and Jiraiya's sled. Itachi saw that the Legendary Sannin was leaning forward, his eyes narrowing as he focused on the hill up ahead. Ingegerd's distressed expression suggested she'd already realized the same thing as Eidunn, and Jiraiya likewise seemed possessed by a new sense of urgency. Eidunn and Ingegerd shouted new commands in unison, and the dogs pulling both sleds immediately picked up the pace. Itachi's right hand gripped the handle of his Zanpakutō; it seemed he'd be seeing action earlier than he had anticipated today.

As they drew closer to the hill, Itachi could make out five winged silhouettes in total. They roughly matched with the five Valkyries who had left camp this morning, which meant that the one currently engaging the Hollows was still Ölrún. Itachi hoped that her endurance had not yet reached its limits; if the spiritual pressure he could sense beyond the hill was any indication, the Hollows were only just warming up.

The sleds came to a stop about halfway up the hill, with Eidunn nodding at Itachi. "This is as far as Ingegerd and I will go. We'll be keeping the sleds and dogs behind the hill. When you're ready to retire, we'll come get you."

"Stay safe," said Itachi as he climbed off the sled.

Eidunn smiled. "Be careful, Itachi. I will pray for your and Jiraiya's success."

The two Soul Reapers bade farewell to the apprentices before climbing the rest of the hill on foot. It didn't take long for them to reach the crest and join the Valkyries, though only Gunnr acknowledged their arrival. The rest were all focused on the sight beyond the hill, and Itachi couldn't blame them.

It's really him…

You're ready for this, Jigoku no Joō reassured him, I know it, and you know it.

I hope you're right.

Beyond the hill, the frigid plains of the deep north sprawled out much as Itachi had seen over the past six days of travel. Faint silhouettes of additional hills were visible in the distance, and in another time, Itachi might've considered this spot as picturesque, a place where artists struck by wanderlust might stop and try to capture the natural beauty before them. That beauty was marred, though, by a teeming mass of black bodies with white death masks for faces. They swarmed and seethed, surged and receded like ocean waves as they attempted to drown their target under sheer weight of numbers.

But that target would not be drowned so easily.

A score of Hollows pounced as one, only to be torn to shreds by claws thicker than tree trunks. An Adjuchas went for the throat, only to be ripped in half by titanic jaws possessing teeth longer than spears. Nine swirling tails, each one a column of reddish-orange fur larger than the new skyscrapers Itachi had seen in the modern Hidden Leaf Village, whipped wildly about and sent swarms of the lesser Hollows flying. Four legs, each a veritable column of pure muscle concealed by fur, kicked and stomped with such fury that the very ground trembled with each impact. Its massive body was flecked with countless snowflakes which reflected the light of both scarlet Ceros and emerald Valkyrie lightning, only for that light to be lost in clouds of black ash as it pulverized clusters of monsters with nothing but wild swipes and slams.

All this, Itachi's mind processed in less than a second as his gaze worked its way across the behemoth that was the Nine Tailed Fox. In the past, he'd believed that his childhood memories had inflated the size of the creature; fear had a way of warping perception like that. However, now that he could see Kurama in his true form all these years later, Itachi was alarmed to realize that the Tailed Beast was even larger today than he had been during the attack on the Hidden Leaf Village.

And his power…

…was enough to make the heavens themselves quake in terror.

Itachi didn't even have to try to focus his sense for spiritual pressure to comprehend the amount of energy at Kurama's disposal. Even the likes of Head Captain Yamamoto himself would be hard-pressedto match what Itachi could feel now. As if reading Itachi's mind and deciding to provide a demonstration of the disparity between him and any Soul Reaper, the Nine Tailed Fox raised its head and opened its mouth wide. The creature's scarlet eyes blazed like twin demonic suns, and Itachi spotted globes of blue and red energy begin to form before Kurama's snout. Those orbs energy rapidly coalesced into a single giant sphere of pulsating and writhing violet power, its surface rippling and warping as the raw might it represented yearned to be unleashed upon the world. It got its wish a moment later as Kurama let the Tailed Beast Bomb fly, and everyone atop the hill, whether they be Valkyrie or Soul Reaper, immediately flattened themselves against the cold ground.

Before shielding his eyes, Itachi caught a glimpse of the orb rushing towards a formation of Gillians, at least two-score in strength. No less than forty Ceros were fired at the sphere in a desperate attempt to halt or divert it, but they couldn't even slow it by the tiniest of margins. The scarlet beams were steamrolled by the massive globe of power, and the Tailed Beast Bomb slammed home right smack into the center of their formation a moment later. Then there was the briefest flash of light before Itachi closed his eyes entirely, but even that wasn't enough to completely shield him from the intense glare. Then it was his ears' turn to be assaulted as an explosion of apocalyptic proportions drowned out all other sounds on the battlefield, and the hill Itachi and his comrades lay upon shook with unbelievable violence. For a moment, he feared that they'd all be thrown clear off the mound, and Itachi gripped what short and frigid grass he could find with vicelike strength.

When he was able to open his eyes again and the ringing in his ears subsided to a tolerable level, Itachi surveyed the devastation. The Gillians targeted by Kurama's Tailed Beast Bomb had been completely obliterated, along with several other Hollows who were unfortunate enough to have been close to their formation at the moment of impact. A huge crater had been blown into the frigid plains, and Itachi realized it was hardly the first of its kind. In between gaps created by the Hollows moving in adjustment to Kurama's devastating attack, Itachi could see several similar craters pockmarking the landscape. The amount of firepower the Nine Tailed Fox had unleashed upon his attackers was mind-boggling in scope, and yet the Hollows just kept on coming.

They're after the meal of a lifetime, Itachi mused, and for many of them, it's apparently a meal to die for.

Those that didn't die directly to Kurama's wrath weren't out of the woods just yet. Several bolts of emerald lightning descended from above, disintegrating Gillians and lesser Hollows alike with ease. Itachi's keen eyes quickly found the source, a Valkyrie clad in brown and bronze armor, with her wings sheathed in long and curved plates that ended in sinister blades. It was hard for Itachi to make out too many details from his current perch, but he thought he saw a pair of crests composed of green and yellow feathers rising from her helmet. He could see no weapon in her hands, though as she swooped in low to maul a cluster of lesser Hollows Itachi realized that the gauntlets she wore, combined with her bladed wings, were the only weapons she needed. He saw her rip one particularly unlucky Hollow in half with just the strength of her arms alone, and Itachi spotted wickedly sharp points at the end of each gauntlet's fingers. Several more beasts were sliced up by her wings, and she darted in and out amongst the stragglers like a shark through a school of fish. Her speed was impressive; she might not have been able to match Yoruichi, but in Itachi's eyes it certainly wasn't for lack of trying.

Following his gaze, Gunnr nodded at her fellow Valkyrie as everyone climbed back to her feet. "Ölrún has had her hands full. She will welcome our aid."

"Aid that we must grant quickly," Sigrún chimed in as she addressed the assembled Valkyries and Soul Reapers, "The enemy's assault is intensifying; they're completely heedless of the losses that the Nine Tails is inflicting upon them."

"Our plan remains the same?" asked Jiraiya.

Sigrún nodded. "It does. We will clear your path and form a perimeter, and you will make contact with the Nine Tails. Succeed in convincing him that we're on his side, and our victory is all but assured. Fail, and we will have no choice but to take him down along with the Hollows."

Itachi glanced at Jiraiya, and the two of them shared a somber nod. They'd discussed that eventuality before, and they'd come up with a desperate plan during the journey from Steinskjöldur. Should the worst come to pass, Itachi would use Sharingan genjutsu on Kurama. Itachi doubted he'd be able to do more than briefly disorient the Nine Tails with an illusion, and he would be counting on Jiraiya to coordinate the Valkyries for one massive all-or-nothing strike during that window. Whether it would actually work or not, Itachi honestly didn't know. It was the only plan they had if things went south, and he prayed they wouldn't have to use it.

Itachi watched as Jiraiya turned his gaze to Sigrún and nodded, resolve firm in his eyes. "I won't fail."

"Then ready your weapons," Sigrún commanded as she brandished her massive battle axe, "and may warrior's fortune smile upon us."

She took to the sky, with the other Valkyries following suite. Gunnr lingered for just a moment, and Itachi saw her and Jiraiya share a brief yet meaningful glance. Then the Mistress of War was airborne as well, leaving the two Soul Reapers upon the crest of the hill.

Former Akatsuki member and Legendary Sannin drew their swords in unison. Shikais were activated, with scarlet flaming crows already billowing forth from Itachi's black blade while Jiraiya's spiked sucked in more than enough nature energy to hasten his Sage Mode transformation.

"Got my back?" asked Jiraiya.

"Always," Itachi replied without hesitation.

Jiraiya chuckled. "Never thought I'd be trying to save a Tailed Beasts from Hollows, let alone with an Akatsuki member helping me out."

"What about with a friend helping you out?" Itachi countered with a small smile.

Jiraiya grinned. "You know what? I like that better. Let's do this!"

….

And here I thought I'd finally be able to enjoy some peace and quiet when I reached the afterlife, Kurama mused in exasperation as his claws reduced three towering Menos Grande to ribbons of black flesh and ash, Naruto's babbling is replaced by endless hordes of creatures trying to eat me… how tiresome.

Whipping his nine tails behind him, he sent a cluster of lesser Hollows flying through the air, but that hardly bought him much by way of breathing room. Whirling around, the great fox made a broad sweep with his front claws, tearing apart both Gillians and smaller beasts with ease, yet that too didn't grant him any real respite. The horde of Hollows confronting him today seemed to stretch to the horizon in all directions, with still more of the irksome pests trickling in from a trio of rifts that had formed in the sky. This was by far the biggest army yet that the monsters had assembled to come after him, and that was saying something giving how the year since Kurama's initial arrival in the Soul Society had gone.

Kurama had honestly been surprised by what he'd found upon awakening in the afterlife. Given the considerable body count he'd amassed during his time in the Shinobi World, he'd privately had doubts about where he would end up when his time finally came. Sure, he'd helped Naruto do quite a bit of good, but the old fox hadn't allowed himself to be deluded. His attack on the Hidden Leaf Village alone had racked up no small amount of carnage, and that had hardly been the first time he'd unleashed his power against humans. Sure, that time he'd been operating under the influence of Obito's Mangekyou Sharingan, but in Kurama's eyes genjutsu only did so much to excuse one's actions. He had borne no love for the Leaf Village at the time, and he would've been lying if he said he'd taken no joy in the destruction wrought by his attack. After all, he could easily frame his rampage as rightful vengeance against the Shinobi who had deigned to use him as a bargaining ship and weapon in the past.

With all that in mind, a trip down into the depths of Hell certainly hadn't been out of the question as far as Kurama was concerned. That had made his awakening amidst a land of snow, rolling hills, frigid plains and imposing mountains looming large in the background all the more puzzling. The Nine Tailed Fox definitely wouldn't call it Heaven, but it hadn't exactly struck him as Hell either. Then again, since barely after he'd arrived Kurama had found himself almost constantly hounded by ravenous creatures that he had eventually learned were called Hollows, one could make the argument that he was now in a different kind of Hell. One that was perhaps more annoying than outright tortuous, but still Hell in a certain form.

A series of crimson beams pounded the ground around him, with a few scorching his fur. His ire freshly aroused, Kurama responded in kind. Gathering his enormous power, he soon had another Tailed Beast Bomb primed, and he let fly with the projectile a moment later. The fearsome orb of energy made quick work of the Gillians that had bombarded him, along with plenty of their comrades, but his reprieve lasted only a few seconds. More Hollows rushed forward, forcing the wily old fox to swipe about with his claws and gnash his fangs as he showed the runts the fatal mistake that they had made.

"Why won't you rats take a damn hint already?" he snarled as he pounded a pack of lesser Hollows into the ground, turning them into an obsidian smear on the arctic plains, "I'll kill you all a hundred times over if that's what it takes to finally get some blessed silence!"

Of course, if all the Tailed Beast Bombs he'd fired at them over the course of the past year had failed to act as sufficient deterrence, Kurama knew that squishing a bunch of weaklings likely wouldn't make a real difference. It didn't seem to matter how many assaults he'd beaten back. He'd long ago lost count of how many Hollows he'd slain since arriving in the Soul Society; entire armies of the beasts had fallen before him, and it hadn't curbed their gluttonous desire for his flesh and the spirit energy within it in the slightest.

Kurama had gone out of his way to lose himself in the north in the hopes of deterring pursuit of any sort, but such efforts had only seemed to work on the humans inhabiting the afterlife. He was simply giving off too much power at any one time for Hollows to ignore, and their constant attacks hadn't given him any real chance to formulate a plan to counter them. Hell, he'd barely had time to even sleep over the past year, let alone come up with a strategy that would get him out of his current predicament. Kurama was more or less running from one fight to the next, his path dictated as much by the Hollows pursuing him as it was by his desire to avoid human contact.

Even then, he hadn't been completely successful in avoiding humans. While Kurama had managed to steer clear of any settlements, he had attracted the attention of a rather strange, if thankfully small, group of winged warrior women. He'd been genuinely puzzled the first time he'd spotted one, though he'd quickly realized that he needed to be wary of them. Individually, their power couldn't come close to matching his, but he'd be a fool to deny the strength he'd sensed whenever they drew near. It was part of why Kurama was willing to unleash so much of his power in combat; it was just as much to deter his winged observers from trying to make a move against him as it was to keep the Hollows from devouring him.

Thankfully, none of the various winged women he'd seen so far had tried to come any closer than necessary. They seemed to prefer keeping their distance, observing him from affair while using their own interesting powers to do battle with whatever Hollows Kurama didn't annihilate himself. He certainly hadn't asked for their help, and he still regarded them with suspicions, but he would privately and very begrudgingly admit to being thankful for what indirect aid they'd lent him thus far. By no means would he call them friends, but at this point Kurama was at least willing to consider the possibility that they were not foes.

The winged woman currently shadowing him almost seemed to be trying to convince him of the former. She was more daring than her colleagues had been, darting in and out of the fray, either mauling Hollows with her gauntlets and bladed wings or frying them with bolts of emerald lightning. The woman hadn't gotten close enough yet that Kurama felt the need to take any direct action against her, but her boldness had definitely caught his attention… as had the spiritual pressure of her five recently arrived colleagues.

Six of them at once is new, he thought as he bit a Gillian in half while stomping a dozen lesser Hollows into the dirt, his crimson eyes darting towards the sky as he tried to track the new arrivals, I wonder what they're after. If it's me, they'll find that they've bitten off far more than they can chew.

It was what he told himself, anyway, but the weariness seeping into Kurama's bones was enough to give him pause. The amount of energy a Tailed Beast could call upon to sustain themselves over prolonged combat was considerable, but even a creature as proud as Kurama knew he had limits. If these winged warrior women decided to attack him while he was contending with the Menos Grande, they might actually be able to do some damage. A year's worth of near-constant combat had given the Nine Tailed Fox several new scars, and his limbs felt as though they were slowly but surely becoming heavier. His breathing was more labored now than it had been before, and the Hollows were only continuing to intensify their attacks. How much longer could he really continue to fight like this?

That question was one that Kurama began to suspect he'd be finding the answer to sooner rather than later. Another Tailed Beast Bomb obliterated a column of Gillians as they attempted to bombard him with Ceros, but still more took their place. To make matters worse, more of the Menos Grande Kurama had come to know as Adjuchas were beginning to make their presence known on this battlefield. They were widely dispersed, each commanding formations of Gillians and lesser Hollows. From the way the black packs moved around him, it was clear that the Adjuchas were coordinating their actions and tightening the proverbial noose.

And that wasn't all. As he clawed and bit his way through the endless horde, Kurama could sense a presence in the background, one stronger than even the Adjuchas on the field. It had yet to make itself known in the battle, but Kurama had already reasoned that this vast army of Hollows hadn't come together purely out of overwhelming gluttony. There was a guiding hand at work here; one Hollow stronger than all the others Kurama had faced so far, bringing them together against him. That this mighty Hollow had yet to show his or her face suggested to the Nine Tailed Fox that they were waiting for him to weaken to the point that they could confidently swoop in and claim the killing blow, and by extension claim the greatest share of his spirit energy.

As if they deserve it, Kurama silently fumed as he bit into a Gillian and tore the creature apart while shredding several lesser Hollows with a wide swing of his claws and sending many more flying by whipping his tails about, as if any of these pests deserve my power!

Suddenly, a veritable kaleidoscope of lightning rained down from all directions. Kurama had momentarily lost track of the five winged warrior women joining the one already on the field, and he belatedly realized that all six of them had spread out to cover as much of the combat zone as they could. The strange yet undeniably powerful females were now making their combined presence felt in earnest, bombarding the army of Hollows with a storm of electrified spirit energy. Bolts of gold, crimson, emerald, orange and white lightning rained down across the plains, as if the wrath of the heavens themselves had been summoned for this clash. At the same time, one of the mysterious flying women also unleashed a hailstorm of fireballs, many of which punched clean through towering Gillians and left smoking holes behind.

For a moment, Kurama wondered if the women had finally decided to move against him in earnest and were simply trying to clear out the competition. Gradually, though, the suspicions for humans that he'd nurtured over many long years were forced to give way to a simple recognition of reality. They were spread too thin to properly coordinate an attack against him. Instead, their objective seemed to be to protect him. It was an outlandish thought, one Kurama wouldn't have deigned to entertain in the past, but his experience with Naruto had forced him to, however reluctantly, soften his opinions of humans. A little bit, at least.

That was when Kurama spotted something odd amidst the barrage of lightning bolts and fireballs hammering the Hollows. Interspersed between them were flecks of scarlet floating in the air, steadily increasing in number. At first, Kurama thought that they were perhaps embers from the fireballs or sparks following the lightning, but closer examination revealed that they were something else altogether.

They were birds.

Birds of fire, with spirit energy fueling their flames.

Spirit energy that, Kurama was shocked to realize, he recognized. The last time he'd felt power with this signature, though, it hadn't been as spirit energy at all. It had been as chakra. Charka wielded by an Uchiha…

…and a rather notorious Uchiha to boot.

Kurama was outright dumbfounded by the realization that none other than Itachi Uchiha was out here, and he could only watch as what he belatedly comprehended were hundreds of thousands of those scarlet flaming birds suddenly coalesced into a giant ring before falling onto the battlefield. The moment the blazing ring hit the ground it spread outward, engulfing countless Hollows in a fiery tsunami. A fresh salvo of lightning and fireballs rained down from the Valkyries as the wave rippled across the plains, only adding to the chaos and devastation. Amidst the confusion, Kurama almost failed to realize that there were still plenty of crimson firebirds still airborne; Itachi's big and flashy moved had disguised the fact that he'd kept a good chunk of the scarlet flaming crows in reserve. Those quickly gathered into a second ring, one noticeably smaller than the first, and fell as well. This time, though, the ring did not expand outward. Instead, it formed a perimeter around Kurama, simultaneously penning him in with the Hollows closest to him while blocking the majority of the surviving monsters from moving against him.

Then a gap in the ring appeared, and Kurama was shocked to sense a second familiar presence on this battlefield. The power he felt now was not just spirit energy that he'd previously sensed in chakra form, but nature energy as well…

…and it was all embodied in the form of a man brandishing a spiked club as he walked through the gap in Itachi's infernal circle.

A man whose mane of white hair was almost as prickly as his weapon.

A man that Kurama knew very well.

The Nine Tailed Fox both grinned and snarled as he beheld the toad-like eyes and crimson-marked face of a Legendary Sannin fully immersed in Sage Mode. "Well, now… it's been a long time, old man."

Jiraiya smirked as he met Kurama's fierce gaze without flinching. "Indeed, it has, you grouchy old hound!"

….

First impressions, as they say, are everything. That was especially true for Jiraiya's situation. Although, in his case, technically his first impression had already been made with the Nine Tailed Fox. After all, Jiraiya had trained the beast's host, and Kurama had repaid him by trying kill him during one particularly hairy training session. Legendary Sannin and Tailed Beast already knew each other, but if Jiraiya had learned one thing above all else since his passing, it was that the afterlife offered new beginnings in abundance. One only needed to be bold enough to seize them.

Others, Jiraiya knew, would counsel against what he had in mind. He could picture Hiruzen, Orochimaru and Tsunade in particular already chastising him for the stunt he intended to pull. It was reckless in the extreme, but it was also the only way he could think of convincing Kurama to give him a chance.

It wasn't just Jiraiya and Kurama within the circle of flames Itachi's Shikai had created. There were still plenty of Hollows trapped with the Soul Reaper and Nine Tailed Fox, and all of them were possessed by a manic desperation that came with being cornered. They lunged at Kurama, claws swinging and jaws snapping as they fell upon the Nine Tailed Fox in a maddened frenzy.

And so, Jiraiya fell upon them in turn with ruthless brutality. Knowing full well that Kurama could use this opportunity to end him in an instant while his back was turned, Jiraiya rolled the dice and threw himself at the Hollows. His spiked club smashed into one creature's back with a sickening crunch as the monster's spine shattered under the blow, with his victim dissolving a moment later. Jiraiya had already pulled the club out of that Hollow's hide, though, and caught a second beast with an upward swing that connected with the monster's chin. The force behind the blow tore the Hollow's head right off, with shards of white from the creature's mask landing on Jiraiya's shoulders and getting caught in his hair before the beast disintegrated just like the Soul Reaper's previous victim.

Several other Hollows pounced at one, but Jiraiya was too quick for them. He leapt high into the air and shifted his club over to just his right hand. Simultaneously, he raised his hand over his head, and giant mass of swirling blue-white energy rapidly materialized.

Ultra-Big Ball Rasengan!

As Jiraiya came down from his jump, he slammed the great orb of power into the frozen plains. The ensuing wave of energy that was unleashed consumed every Hollow that had pounced at him, with the creatures shrieking in agony and rage before they became black ash on the wind. The remaining Hollows recoiled from Jiraiya, but now Kurama was swinging back into action, and he was far more vicious than the Legendary Sannin could've ever hoped to be. Giant teeth snapped up one beast and reduced it to chunks, while massive lance-like claws impaled multiple Hollows upon them. Huge tails of orange fur pummeled the ground around him, launching Hollows into the wall of flames surrounding them. In mere seconds, the pack of Hollows that had been accosting Kurama within the ring of fire was obliterated, leaving only the Nine Tailed Fox and Jiraiya standing.

Taking a deep breath, Jiraiya lowered his club and looked the huge fox squarely in the eyes. Kurama had already had a chance to kill him; he could've taken his shot immediately after Jiraiya had attacked the Hollows. Jiraiya's back would've been exposed, and it would've been the perfect time to strike. The Nine Tailed Fox had refrained, though, which meant that Jiraiya still had a chance to pull this off.

Kurama glowered at Jiraiya, towering over the Legendary Sannin like the colossus he was. Saliva dripped from his fangs, and his crimson eyes glowed with incandescent wrath. A low grumble escaped his throat as he lowered his head until his snout was just barely hovering before Jiraiya's face. The Nine Tailed Fox's breath was truly foul, though Jiraiya chalked that up to the Hollows Kurama had been mauling in this instance.

"Of all the people I might've found out here," Kurama began, "you were amongst the last I expected to find. Have you come for my power as well? Is that why you have the likes of Itachi Uchiha working with you?"

Jiraiya scowled; he didn't have time for the beast's paranoia. "Listen up, you overgrown fleabag! You don't like me, and I sure as hell don't like you. I lost my first student and his wife to your claws, and their son suffered discrimination and mockery at the hands of those they gave their lives to protect because he was forced to bear you inside him! You lost your freedom to my kind, while Itachi had to kill his own family because of the resentment and suspicion that festered in your attack's wake! None of us are here because we want to be, but if we don't put aside our old grudges and cooperate, then we're all going to die here."

Kurama sneered. "You, Itachi and your friends certainly will. I could consume you all on a whim, and these Hollows are no different. When the dust settles from this battle, I will be the only one standing!"

Jiraiya smirked. "Maybe this time, sure, but what about the next? I know what's been happening with you this past year, Kurama. The Hollows have been hounding you across these frozen lands relentlessly, and they won't stop no matter how many of them you kill! Not even the likes of you can withstand such a tide forever. Sooner or later, they'll wear you down, and you'll suffer a fate far worse than death. You know that just as well as I do."

Kurama growled and snarled, but he did not speak. The beast's fur stood up tensely, and his nine tails waved slowly back and forth in the air behind him. For all of Kurama's primal fury and well-earned distrust of Shinobi, Jiraiya suspected that even he could see the truth of the matter here. This was all about playing to the Nine Tailed Fox's survival instincts now, and if Jiraiya could appeal to them, then a whole new path would open for all involved.

"You might not fall today," Jiraiya continued, recognizing the Nine Tailed Fox's hesitation as perhaps the one opening he'd get, "You might not fall tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. I know better than most what kind of power is at your command; I know that you can make mincemeat of every Hollow on this battlefield. Having to use that power for days on end, weeks on end, months on end, though? Not even your reserves can last forever. This is unsustainable, and you know it. Fortunately for you, Itachi and I have a solution."

Kurama's eyes narrowed into hellish slits. "Oh, I'm sure you do. Let me guess; he ensnares me with his Sharingan, and then I get sealed away inside one of you? I'll take my chances with the Hollows."

Jiraiya shook his head and held up his free hand. "No Sharingan involved here; I give you my word on that. We had something different in mind. Actually, it was Itachi's idea. I'm just the messenger."

Kurama growled again, but he still didn't move to attack. "An Uchiha coming up with a plan for me that doesn't involve the Sharingan? Should I be impressed or insulted?"

Jiraiya shrugged. "That's your call to make, not mine. He does believe it'll save your hide in the long run, though, and I happen to agree. If you want to snuff me out before I can deliver the offer, though, I won't be able to stop you. Think you can keep challenging the hordes of Hueco Mundo alone until the world's ending? Don't you have better things to do with your afterlife, with your freedom? Itachi and I can guarantee your continued liberty and give you the chance to experience the life you were denied in the past. It'd be a shame to throw that chance away because of something as pitiful as pride."

Kurama snapped his jaws in rising fury. "Quite dancing around the bush, you meddlesome oaf! Make your offer plainly before I lose what little's left of my patience and bite your prickly head off!"

Jiraiya grinned; it was time to throw the dice. "You want the offer? Find, here it is. You know why the Hollows are constantly hounding you? It's because you can't control your spiritual pressure. You don't know how, and since you're always fighting, you'll never have a chance to learn. That's what Itachi and I are offering here. Fight alongside us, help us annihilate this army of Hollows, and together we'll teach you how to suppress your spiritual pressure. You'll be able to roam the Soul Society as you please, without attracting the attention of humans or Hollows alike. All you'll need to do in return is let Itachi and I instruct you until you've mastered that suppression."

Jiraiya had the immense satisfaction of seeing the Nine Tailed Fox blink repeatedly in stunned confusion. "You… you cannot be serious."

"Oh, but I am," Jiraiya affirmed, "Think about it, Kurama. The freedom to finally experience life on your own terms. The ability to travel at will in your own firm, no longer bound by any kind of host. You'd have to be careful, of course. Steer clear of human settlements and major roads, try not to leave too much of a mess wherever you go; circumspection would be a necessity. Even with those constraints, the world would lie before you, and the Soul Society is vast beyond comprehension. You could completely lose yourself in The Wild, and find who you were really meant to be. In exchange for that, would suffering through a few months' worth of lessons from two dead Shinobi be a high price to pay? I'd call that a bargain!"

Kurama did not speak. The only sounds were the shrieks of Hollows beyond the ring of fire as the Valkyries and Itachi did what they did best. Jiraiya was quite amused at the development. Here he was, trapped with the Nine Tailed Fox, a creature that had nearly laid waste to the Hidden Leaf Village and was more than capable of killing him at any time, yet the beast appeared frozen out of pure bewilderment.

Was it because Jiraiya's sheer audacity had thrown him for a loop? Was Kurama trying to puzzle out if this whole thing was just an elaborate trap? Was the Nine Tailed Fox simply playing Jiraiya and the Legendary Sannin had yet to catch on? All those thoughts and more went through Jiraiya's mind, and he weighed them equally, but ultimately discarded them in favor of a much simpler explanation.

For all of Kurama's life, Shinobi had approached him seeking to imprison or use him, often both. He was seen as either a threat to be contained or a weapon to be wielded. No Shinobi had ever deigned to treat with him as an equal…

…at least, none before Naruto.

So, the teacher learns from the student, Jinsei no Kenja mused, I wonder… does this mean the apprentice has truly surpassed the master?

He surpassed me long ago. Minato, Kushina… your kid really is something special.

Jiraiya smiled as he held out his left hand to the beast that had killed Minato and Kushina, burying his animosity in exchange for what he hoped was the promise of a better future. "What say you, Kurama? We could both keep to our old grudges and suspicions… or we could let the past be past, and try to forge a new path. One where we can both find out who we were truly meant to be."

"What say you?"

….

My, my, you're proving to be quite popular up here, Jigoku no Joō remarked as Itachi ducked beneath the swipe of a Hollow's claws before plunging his black blade into the creature's throat, Valkyries and their subordinates can't take their eyes off of you, and now the Hollows are lining up for a piece of the action. You'll become quite the celebrity in the north before too long!

I think I'll pass on that, thank you very much.

While Itachi would've preferred to direct his flocks of scarlet flaming crows from the vantage point of the hill, that wasn't an option here. He needed to be close at hand in case things went south between Jiraiya and Kurama, ready to use the Sharingan and ensnare the Nine Tailed Fox in an illusion while his fellow Soul Reaper signaled the Valkyries to strike. That meant he was down in the thick of things, slaying Hollows both with his crimson firebirds and directly with his sword. Itachi wished that Shisui and Visaelya could have come along for this mission; it would've been nice to know that they were watching his back in the midst of such a chaotic battle. They had their own responsibilities, though, so Itachi would have to make do with his own skills.

Fortunately, said skills had only continued to improve since the clash with Deidara and his Hollow pack back in the Shinobi World. Itachi was constantly on the move, following a broad circle around the ring of fire and forcing the Hollows to pursue. He would pause to dispatch a few creatures with his blade before immediately Flash Stepping away, setting himself up for another brief clash while simultaneously directing newborn firebirds into flocks overhead before sending those flocks to attack targets of opportunity. It was a rather tricky balancing act between defending himself and striking beasts across the battlefield, especially since he was refraining from using the Sharingan here, but it was one that Itachi had a great deal of practice in by now.

Matters were made considerably easier by the fact that Itachi was mostly just dealing with the small fries; the six Valkyries were dealing with the larger threats. The sky overhead was consumed by a dazzling storm as bolts of lightning spanning the color spectrum rained down upon the battlefield. Entire formations of Gillians were zapped repeatedly by devastating strikes, with what Ceros they managed to fire off in retaliation going wide of their marks as the Valkyries danced through the air with surprising grace. The spectacle brought to Itachi's mind birds of prey jockeying for position with other predators, with the manner in which the Valkyries would often swoop down to contend with the Hollows directly only reinforcing the comparison. His ears ringed almost constantly as roaring thunder accompanied the Valkyries' lightning strikes, and the agonized screams of dying Hollows certainly didn't help matters. The true might of the Order of the Valkyries was on display in this fight, and Itachi was suitably impressed.

If they ever went toe-to-toe with the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, they'd make more than a good showing for themselves, Itachi mused as he thrust his sword into a Hollow's gut while simultaneously consuming a cluster of the beasts all the way out on the opposite side of the battlefield with a wave of descending firebirds, I suppose it's a good thing that we're all on the same side.

The prospect of having to take on any of the Valkyries, let alone a group of them, was certainly a daunting one, but it wasn't Itachi's real concern at the moment. In between cutting down Hollows or burning them alive, his gaze was constantly darting towards the wall of flame that separated the rest of the battlefield from Jiraiya and Kurama. Itachi could still sense his friend's spiritual pressure, and it was just as strong now as it had been at the start of the engagement. That meant Kurama hadn't attacked Jiraiya yet, which in turn meant that they still had a chance to actually pull off this crazy plan of theirs.

Of course, success was hardly guaranteed. Even if Kurama ultimately played ball, the flow of Hollows still had to be stemmed. Itachi and the Valkyries had already reaped a fearsome toll, but numerous Kūmon were still open and new Hollows were continuing to pass through them. So far, they were still mostly made up of lesser Hollows and Gillians, though Itachi did spot a few more Adjuchas taking the field as well. Those were concerning enough, but they weren't what truly had Itachi worried. He could sense another source of spiritual pressure waiting in the wings, one much stronger than any of the Hollows that were currently on the field. Itachi could only think of one possibility.

The suspicions of the Valkyries were correct; a Vasto Lorde was commanding this assault.

They haven't yet revealed themselves, Itachi thought as he decapitated one Hollow before whirling around and thrusting his sword through the mask of another, but it's the only theory that makes sense. A single Adjuchas wouldn't be able to command an army this large, especially with other Adjuchas jockeying for power and trying to beat their fellows to taking the first bite out of Kurama. All the Adjuchas currently on the field are leading their own formations and coordinating effectively here, without any signs of competition. There has to be a Vasto Lorde calling the shots here and forcing their cooperation.

Itachi was all but certain that the Vasto Lorde in question was deliberately avoiding revealing themselves until they deemed Kurama weak enough to finally finish off directly. That definitely made sense tactically and strategically, and it also explained why the lesser Hollows were continuing to throw themselves against foes that were slaughtering them in droves. As much as they might fear the Valkyries, Soul Reapers or Kurama, they were clearly much more frightened of whatever being was committing them to these suicidal attacks. As far as Itachi knew, only a Vasto Lorde could instill that kind of dread in other Hollows.

In his career as a Soul Reaper, Itachi had yet to encounter a Vasto Lorde. Very few Soul Reapers ever did to his knowledge; one had to be quite unlucky to end up running into one in the field. Itachi had never really considered himself to be lucky given all that he'd gone through in life, but he supposed that he'd led a rather charmed afterlife so far.

Which was why he suspected that his luck would soon be running out.

….

The inky black void of the Garganta would've been all consuming were it not for the various Kūmon that had been opened to grant access to the battlefield. While fresh reinforcements continued to stream through the portals, one Hollow had refrained from joining them up until now. Having sensed that the tide of the battle had turned against his minions, the orchestrator of this whole affair realized that dramatic action was needed. While it was sooner than he had initially planned to make his big move, part of him was still glad for the acceleration of his scheme. It had taken every ounce of his self-restraint to hold himself back, and he was eager to jump into the fray now.

That eagerness was betrayed by the twitching of his six arms, by the way that the clawed fingers on each hand repeatedly clenched and loosened, and by the creaking of the white carapace encasing his limbs as he stretched them in anticipation of combat. His mask was a permanent toothy sneer, incapable of conveying any emotion other than contempt, though his bloodlust shone clearly in the blazing yellow light within the mask's right eye while his mane of long black hair gave him a truly bestial countenance. His left eye socket was completely empty; in fact, it was actually his Hollow hole, so one could see clean through it and out the back of his head. Despite his constant thirst for battle, his black and white humanoid body bore few scars, testament to the incredible toughness of his hide. The exception came in the form of the chipped and cracked horns that formed a lopsided crescent running through his head, with the longer 'arc' jutting out from the left side while the much shorter one sprouted from the right.

Oh, how he had longed to rip into the giant fox's hide with those horns, or to plunge his claws into the beast's eyes and rip them out. Those were but a few of the gruesome fantasies that had gone through Nnoitra Gilga's dark mind upon first spotting the magnificent creature roughly a year ago, but even a Vasto Lorde as bloodthirsty as him knew when he was outmatched. Trying to take on the beast right then and there would've been suicidal, and while Nnoitra expected and even hoped to die in battle one day, he wanted that death to come at the hands of a foe that he could fight with everything he had and at least possessed a chance of defeating. The massive fox was certainly more than mighty enough, but that was the problem; the beast was far too powerful for Nnoitra to challenge with even the slimmest hope of success. Not directly, at least.

So, he had vowed to wear the creature down before feasting upon it. Its power would allow him to challenge the far mightier Vasto Lordes that he'd always resented, but that power would do Nnoitra no good if he died while attempting to seize it. Fortunately, despite being nowhere near the top of Hueco Mundo's food chain, he was still more than powerful enough to inspire utter terror in the vast majority of his fellow Hollows, and Nnoitra put his dreadful reputation to good use. Through painstaking and often bloody work, he had assembled what he firmly believed to be the largest army in Hueco Mundo's history, and Nnoitra had immediately began throwing it at the giant fox. Those who complained of the impossible nature of their task soon found themselves devoured by Nnoitra, and since he liked to play with his food, none of his meals had died quickly and painlessly. The grisly torture of their fellows had been more than sufficient motivation for the rest of his minions, and they threw themselves against the great beast without hesitation. Better a quick death at the fox's hands than a drawn-out one at Nnoitra's.

While Nnoitra had anticipated a protracted struggle and had prepared accordingly, he was by now thoroughly vexed by the giant fox's resilience. He'd already burned through his original army and had been forced to recruit new legions before throwing them into the fray, but nearly a year's worth of assaults had only born the bitter fruit of attritional warfare. Peering through the Kūmon, Nnoitra could see that the beast was finally showing signs of weariness, but it was still monstrously powerful. Nnoitra would've preferred to retreat and gather one last army, but he had doubts now as to whether or not he could put it together. He'd depleted Hueco Mundo's ranks of cannon fodder to the point that several of the other Vasto Lordes had begun to complain, particularly Baraggan Loisenbairn. The pompous God-King of Hueco Mundo was starting to sniff around, and the last thing Nnoitra wanted to do was share his hard-earned meal with the likes of that old bastard.

At this point, trying to assemble another force would start to draw attention that Nnoitra wasn't ready for, at least not yet. Once he'd consumed the fox's spirit energy, he could contend with the higher powers of Hueco Mundo and put more than a few longtime pests in their place, but the last step he needed to take was the hardest one. A harsh hiss escaped his throat as Nnoitra realized he now needed to gamble. Looking around the Garganta, he saw his reserves behind him. The most powerful Adjuchas he had left, each with a legion of Gillians and throngs of lesser Hollows at their command, and all salivating at the prospect of finally seeing combat. These weren't the terrified mobs from before; they were much more in line with Nnoitra's sadistic mentality.

Self-preservation had its place, but the feast of a lifetime awaited them, and this would likely be their one chance to claim it. Any who survived this assault and partook with Nnoitra in the grisly sacrament of the fox's flesh would make for a powerful permanent recruit, and he was eager to fill his pack with such potent specimens. They would become his new lieutenants and the core of the army Nnoitra would build to challenge Hueco Mundo's God-King and claim the Kingdom of the Night for his own.

"Listen up, you wretches!" he snarled over his shoulder, "The time has come for the final blow. Get in there, tear those Valkyries apart, and drive that damned fox to its knees. Be warned, though; the killing blow on the fox is mine! If any of you try to take that away from me, I'll make you beg for the fires of Hell!"

Nnoitra then raised his upper right arm and pointed at the battlefield. "Attack!"

As his legions surged forward in a tsunami of black flesh and white masks, Nnoitra's gaze moved towards his own target. It wasn't the fox, at least not yet, nor was it any of the Valkyries. None of them were actually the most important people on the battlefield right now. The figure that needed to go down first, the warrior that Nnoitra had in his sights now, was the one who created and maintained the ring of fire that separated the fox from the rest of the Hollows. That damn barrier was being fueled by the firebirds streaming forth from the Soul Reaper wielding the black blade, and there were still more than enough of the scarlet flaming crows left over for that man to attack Hollows at any point on the battlefield. The path to the fox lay over that Soul Reaper's corpse.

And Nnoitra would take him down personally.

….

Come on, Jiraiya, Itachi thought in mounting concern as he decapitated one Hollow while divebombing a pack across the ring of fire with a flock of crows, I don't know what you're doing in there, but you need to hurry it up. We're running out of time!

He could still sense Jiraiya's spiritual pressure, which was definitely a good sign, but beyond that Itachi had no idea what was going on with the Legendary Sannin and the Nine Tailed Fox. Winning over Kurama was never going to be easy, yet Itachi had still hoped that whatever negotiations were needed could be accomplished by Jiraiya relatively quickly. Every minute that dragged by was one more for the enemy to gather strength for a renewed assault, and the fresh chorus of howls coming from the Kūmons overhead was all Itachi needed to know that the next wave was inbound.

And what a wave it was. A massive tide of Hollows poured through, with swarms of the garden variety bunch leading the way. The Gillians came in behind them, a rain of crimson energy beams falling upon the battlefield as they unleashed their Ceros. After them were several Adjuchas, each one racing to a different part of the combat zone to take command of fresh legions. The six Valkyries met this tide head-on, with a barrage of lightning hammering the first wave and turning eager howls into agonized shrieks. Sigrún alone unleashed what Itachi could only describe as a web of white energy from her spread wings, with the bolts seeming to arc in all directions before they converged on a particularly thick formation of Gillians and reduced it to a cloud of black ash. The Valkyrie leaders' subordinates were no less fearsome in their attacks, and after the initial volley several brandished their weapons and swooped in for melee combat.

There was Ölrún, ripping a Gillian's mask off with nothing but her clawed gauntlets. Not too far away, Gunnr swung her mighty axe back and forth as she carved a swath of carnage through swarms of lesser Hollow. Gondul rained down fireballs upon a pack of Gillians that had tried to shoot her down with their Ceros before swooping in to start crushing skulls with her menacing mace. Geirdriful, Kara and Sigrún herself remained focused on artillery duty, keeping up a withering bombardment that, to a casual onlooker, looked as though the heavens themselves were smiting the Hollows in dreadful wrath.

Yet it wasn't enough. Hollows large and small continued to flood the battlefield, with the snowy plains once again becoming a teeming mass of black. Itachi was quickly finding himself inundated in foes, and as a result had to focus most of the firebirds that weren't taking part in maintaining the barrier on personal defense rather than supporting the Valkyries. His black sword swept back and forth as he cut down one foe after another, yet the flow would not cease. Switching the Zanpakutō over to just his right hand, Itachi unleashed a wave of scarlet crows that engulfed one cluster of Hollows while his left hand pulled out a handful of Anken from one of the pouches at his belt. Letting fly with the throwing knives, he had the satisfaction of seeing two of them go right into a Hollow's mask eye sockets while the other three embedded themselves in the throats of a particularly unlucky monstrous trio.

Another wave of flaming birds from his Shikai combined with a fresh volley of Anken bought Itachi some additional space… too much space, in fact. There were still plenty of Hollow surrounding him, but they were suddenly quite keen on keeping their distance, and Itachi suspected it wasn't because they were suddenly afraid of him. The powerful presence he'd sensed earlier roared to the forefront of his awareness, and Itachi realized that the earlier attacks against him had been nothing more than diversions. Whirling around, he brought his obsidian blade up just in time to block the swiping claws of what Itachi belatedly comprehended to be no less than six limbs trying to tear him apart.

The sneering mask of the Hollow responsible for that attack glowed in the blazing yellow light coming from its right eye, and the snarling voice that came forth oozed with malice. "Lucky… or good? Let's find out!"

The humanoid Hollow tried once again to get behind Itachi, moving so fast that most would perceive it as nothing more than a blur, if at all. Unfortunately for the Vasto Lorde in question here, he was trying this against someone who trained regularly with the fastest warrior that the Soul Society had ever seen. The Hollow was quick, but in Itachi's eyes he wasn't Yoruichi-levels of quick. Not even close. For Itachi, the difficult task wasn't in tracking the Vasto Lorde, but in being able to block strikes from all six of the Hollow's arms. His sword flashed through the air in a series of streaks as he deflected one clawed swing after another in rapid succession while also ducking and weaving to avoid the occasional kick that the enemy threw in for good measure.

He's aggressive, but he lacks technique, Itachi mused as sparks flew from the claws hitting his sword, I can use that.

He allowed himself to fall back, playing defensively as he got a better read on his foe. Weaving a tight circle around him with his sword and deflecting everything the Hollow threw at him, Itachi then ducked beneath the pincer-like motion of the Vasto Lorde's two lowest arms before thrusting his blade at the creature's gut. Unfortunately for Itachi, his sword simply glanced off the Hollow's hide, generating sparks of its own but doing no damage.

The Vasto Lorde laughed in Itachi's face as he pressed his assault with all six of his gnarly hands. "Don't even bother! No one can penetrate my armor."

A few more counterattacks in between fending off claw strikes yielded no better results, causing Itachi's brow to furrow while backpedaling under the creature's assault. He'd faced Hollows with tough skin before, but this beast's hide was proving to be a whole different level of resilient. Itachi favored technique and speed, not raw power; he didn't have the brute strength required to simply smash through this Hollow's armor like other fighters might.

The Vasto Lorde didn't suffer from that flaw, though. Its strikes were brutally powerful, with each miss sending clods of earth flying while each deflection and block took great strength from Itachi to handle. He was forced to switch back to a two-handed grip on his sword, and that still wasn't enough to completely counter the beast's astounding strength. In a bid to distract his foe, Itachi sent a wave of crimson firebirds right at the Hollow's face. It worked, allowing Itachi to get behind his foe and strike at the back of the monster's head. His thrust was right on target, but his blade only barely dug into the creature's skin before the Vasto Lorde whirled around with all six arms swinging, and Itachi was swiftly forced back onto the defensive.

"Not bad," the monster complimented as it tried repeatedly to sink its claws into Itachi's throat and found only his sword instead, "but that little scratch is all I'll have to remember you by when this fight's over!"

Itachi's response did not come in the form of words, but instead as another wave of scarlet flaming crows. The birds engulfed his opponent, and Itachi took advantage of their momentary distraction by slashing at the Vasto Lorde's legs in an attempt to cripple the enemy. Alas, his blade accomplished little more than taking a couple tiny white chips out of the Hollow's hide, and the beast's wild counterattack of flailing arms and kicks forced Itachi to yet again fall back. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as golden energy gathered in front of the Hollow's mouth, and he knew what was coming.

Flash Stepping to the right, Itachi managed to evade the subsequent Cero, but the shockwave from the energy blast hitting the ground where he'd stood a moment later nearly knocked him right off his feet. Several lesser Hollows were obliterated by the beam; the Vasto Lorde clearly had no qualms about risking friendly fire. The power behind that shot was well beyond any Cero that Itachi had ever seen before. If it had so much as grazed him, he wasn't sure what might've happened to him. A direct hit would've killed him without a doubt.

Got to watch out for that, he silently told himself as the Vasto Lorde fell upon him with a series of animalistic swings, I knew he'd be strong, but that blast was something else. His speed might not be a threat, but his pure power definitely is.

Now firmly on the defensive, it was all Itachi could do just to fend off his enemy's strikes. The claws were nasty enough, but the Hollow would also mix things up by occasionally thrusting his own head forward in an attempt to cut Itachi's throat with his horns. Other times, he'd swing his head wildly from side to side, with the longer horn coming dangerously close to slicing Itachi's eyes out a few times. The Hollow's legs were yet another threat, particularly the taloned feet they ended in. More than once, Itachi was only narrowly able to avoid a kick that would've disemboweled him had it connected, and the close calls resulted in a handful of tears in his cloak and robes. The risk Itachi faced from each strike was all the more emphasized by the comparative impunity with which his enemy could act; their strikes were wild and left plenty of openings, but each time Itachi tried to take advantage of them his blade would either make only the shallowest possible scratch in the Hollow's hide or glance off entirely. The Vasto Lorde's formidable armor allowed them to be highly aggressive and reckless, traits that Itachi would normally use against him but was struggling to do so now due to a lack of weak points for him to strike.

Would he have to use his Sharingan here? Genjutsu was increasingly appearing to be Itachi's only way out, yet he was reluctant to employ his Kekkei Genkai out of fear of potential exposure. He was currently fighting beneath none other than Sigrún herself, and if any Valkyrie was going to spot the change in his eyes in the middle of such a chaotic fight, it would almost certainly be the Order's leader. Could she be trusted to keep knowledge of the Sharingan a secret? More importantly, what if Kurama somehow managed to spot Itachi using it? The fox's face was currently hidden behind the wall of flames, but that was no doubt only because his focus was currently on Jiraiya. Should the Nine Tailed Fox rear back up to full height, he would easily be able to see over the fiery barrier, and Itachi fully expected a hostile reaction from Kurama the instant he saw the Sharingan. Everything he and Jiraiya were working towards here could be undone in but a single careless moment.

So caught up in both defending himself and internally debating the risks he might take was Itachi that he almost failed to notice the spike in spiritual pressure coming from overhead. The very Valkyrie that Itachi had been concerned about had taken notice of his fight with the Vasto Lorde, and she seemed to have made up her own mind about how the situation should be handled. The Hollow was almost wholly focused on Itachi, which meant he didn't realize what was about to hit him. For his part, Itachi simple Flash Stepped to the left, and not a moment too soon. A massive bolt of white lighting slammed into the Hollow, sending spasms throughout the creature's body while ivory arcs of energy radiated outwards in all directions. If Itachi had been just a little bit closer, he'd probably be convulsing right alongside the Hollow.

Then Sigrún descended in a rapid dive, her imposing battle axe raised over her head. The Hollow belatedly realized his peril and dodged to the right, but his evasion wasn't clean. Sigrún's mighty axe cut clean through all three of his left arms, severing each limb just above the elbow. The leader of the Valkyries interposed herself between Itachi and the Vasto Lorde, and the Soul Reaper's breath caught in his throat as he felt the air around him crackle with electricity. Her armored wings were aglow with radiant power, and all of it was about to be focused on a single target.

"I hope you don't mind me cutting in, Itachi," Sigrún casually remarked.

Itachi resisted the urge to smile. "Not at all. Your timing's perfect, actually."

"I should certainly hope so," Sigrún replied as she eyed the Vasto Lorde, white sparks dancing along her gauntlets and axe, "I couldn't help but notice that there were far less of your useful firebirds present, and that needs to change. Your power is required for the larger battle; this beast does not deserve it."

"Mind your tongue, wench!" the Hollow spat as golden energy gathered before his mouth, "You'll pay for interrupting my fun!"

The Cero flew forth, and Sigrún was far too close to dodge the blast. She didn't need to, though. She'd already folded her wings in, and the energy beam actually split into several smaller ones upon impact that flew wildly in all directions. Several shrieks rang out as many very unlucky Hollows got caught by the scattered beams; even a Cero with its energy divided over multiple smaller beams possessed enough power to easily slay the lesser creatures. Itachi was perfectly safe behind Sigrún, and when the glare from the blast faded, he saw her unfurl her wings again. They didn't have so much as a scorch mark on them, much to the Vasto Lorde's consternation.

"Impossible…" the Hollow whispered hoarsely, "That should've blown you apart!"

"Really?" Sigrún asked nonchalantly as she flexed her wings and brandished her axe, "Funny, I didn't even feel it."

"You bitch!" the Vasto Lorde snarled.

Itachi saw the stumps that were the Hollow's three left arms begin to bubble and pulsate at their ends. There was a series of sickening crunching and stretching noises, and the limbs sprouted forth back to full length a moment later. Itachi had seen Hollows regenerate arms or legs before, but it usually took longer than this.

Sigrún likewise seemed intrigued by this development. "Well, that was fast… curious. Perhaps you might prove entertaining after all."

"Entertaining?" the Hollow repeated indignantly, seething with incandescent rage, "Oh, I'll show you how 'entertaining' I can be."

Sigrún pointedly ignored him. "Itachi, leave this one to me. Your Shikai is needed to support Jiraiya and my fellow Valkyries."

Itachi respectfully inclined his head, with fresh waves of scarlet firebirds already taking flight from his black blade. "Understood, Lady Sigrún."

As the Soul Reaper put some distance between himself, the Valkyrie and the Hollow, he looked over his shoulder to watch the former raise her axe. With it rose her spiritual pressure, and the Vasto Lorde flexed his own in response. Itachi was sorely tempted to study Sigrún with the Sharingan; the power that he sensed her bringing to the surface was enormous, enough to make even a Vasto Lorde feel like a bug by comparison.

While Itachi sank his sword into a fresh victim while dispatching flocks of his crimson flaming crows to reinforce the barrier and support the other Valkyries, he heard Sigrún practically purr to the monster before her. "If it's not too much to ask, do try to make this interesting. I've been looking for a new Hollow mask that's worthy of being mounted over my fireplace. Put up a good fight, and I just might consider yours to be deserving of the honor."

"Very funny," the Vasto Lorde spat, "When this is over, I'll take your skull back to Hueco Mundo and use it as a damn cup!"

Sigrún chuckled, but there was no mirth in it. "You are more than welcome to try."

Then she vanished before Itachi's eyes, only to reappear a moment later…

…and this time the Hollow's right three arms became bloody stumps.

….

You've got to be kidding me…

Nnoitra was still trying to process the fact that he'd just temporarily lost another three limbs when the Valkyrie's axe swung back around. He scrambled forward, but the armored warrior's weapon still dug into his right shoulder blade. The sheer force of the impact was nearly enough to send him tumbling to the ground, and Nnoitra felt pain wrack his entire body as he pulled himself off of the blade. Blood seeped down his back and from the stumps of his three right arms, and he shook with equal parts agony and shock at what had just occurred.

He ducked and weaved wildly as the Valkyrie rained down blow after powerful blow upon him. Even when the blade of her axe didn't strike him directly, the sparks of white energy emanating from it would often arc over his body if the swing came close enough. While not truly threatening, the shocks going through Nnoitra's body did have the rather nasty side effect of disrupting his regenerative abilities. In a desperate effort to give himself some breathing room, he fired off another Cero, but Sigrún simply batted it aside with one of her wings. The blast was sent into a cluster of lesser Hollows, and the hapless beasts were completely blown apart by Nnoitra's errant attack.

Disgust, dread and excitement warred within the Vasto Lorde in equal measure. His love for combat was fully aflame, as he was now caught up in a clash with an opponent who possessed more than sufficient power to pose a genuine challenge and threat. That being said, the fact that his adversary here was a woman rankled him to no end. Females of any sort, human or Hollow, had no place on the battlefield in his eyes, let alone attempting to take him on as an equal. It was completely against the way things should be; hell, the very existence of an organization of warrior women like the Order of Valkyries was an affront to Nnoitra for that very reason. Yet here was the very leader of that organization engaging him in single combat…

…and she was well on track to win.

The pure power behind her strikes reminded Nnoitra of two other Vasto Lorde that he'd clashed with in the past. Both of them had also been women, but even the might of that contemptible Nelliel and damnable Tier paled before the terrible strength possessed by his current foe. Nnoitra couldn't block her attacks like he had with the Soul Reaper earlier; she'd already demonstrated the capability to cut clean through his armor with seemingly no effort whatsoever, so all he'd be getting for his troubles was more severed limbs. Regrowing the three arms she'd just cut off and sealing the wound in his back didn't do much to improve Nnoitra's assessment of his current situation. His foe had him firmly on the backfoot, and she was only just getting started.

He frantically dodged to the right to avoid a powerful downward swing before desperately counterattacking with all six of his clawed hands. Nnoitra had aimed for the Valkyrie's neck, but she'd simply folded in one of her wings and his strikes did little more than scrape her armor. Then the wing rapidly unfurled, damn near smacking Nnoitra upside the head in the process. While he was able to avoid that rather embarrassing spectacle, behind the wing came the axe, and that was a far greater threat. Nnoitra threw himself backwards in panic, but the electrified blade still swept across his chest and cut deep into his hide. An arc of blood sprayed outward, spattering against the Valkyrie's armor and only enhancing her already terrifying appearance. More of the fluid dripped down Nnoitra's torso, and his attempts to rapidly seal the wound were hamstrung by the electricity coursing through his body. He spasmed uncontrollably, and the Valkyrie was not above taking advantage of his vulnerability. She swung her axe again, driving the blade into Nnoitra's left shoulder and forcing him to his knees.

"And here I had such high hopes for you," Sigrún coldly remarked as she extracted her weapon from the Hollow, dripping blood over his back, "but you're not like the other Vasto Lorde I've fought before. You're just a thug who can't hack it when he's faced with a foe actually capable of challenging him one-on-one. Pathetic."

Nnoitra wanted to retort, but his counter caught in his throat as a sudden pulse of the Valkyrie's spiritual pressure nearly caused him to collapse outright. Looking up at her, full-on terror quickly set in. In that moment, all of Nnoitra's bloodlust and chauvinism fled him, and were replaced by overwhelming fear. His pride was utterly shattered as he was confronted with the unassailable truth; he was horrifically, no, ludicrously outmatched. Sigrún radiated power the likes of which Nnoitra had only felt from the mightiest of Vasto Lorde, and quite possibly in excess of even that imposing threshold. It was a struggle for him to simply breathe under her crushing spiritual pressure, let alone regain his footing. The very earth beneath him trembled as it was forced to bear her might, with arcs of white lightning dancing across the frozen plains and Nnoitra's body alike as her energy poured forth in all directions.

So cowed was Nnoitra by the Valkyrie's might that he almost didn't see her axe swinging towards his head. Only reflex fueled by sheer panic enabled the Hollow to throw himself backwards, and even then, it wasn't completely sufficient to save him from further harm. The axe swept horizontally across his forehead, taking a chunk out of his mask and sending yet more lightning coursing through his body while a fresh geyser of blood fountained from the wound. His single eye met the gaze of the emerald ones peering back at him from behind her helmet, and he recognized the sadistic gleam in them; it was one than Nnoitra had often spited his victims with, and now he found himself on the other end of it. She was toying with him now, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about.

"So much for adorning my fireplace with your mask," she said in clear disappointment, "You weren't even good for a warmup."

She raised her axe again, and Nnoitra knew there'd be no dodging this time. She had him dead to rights; he couldn't even heal his wounds with her damnable lightning still playing havoc with his body. Yet just before the blade could descend upon his head again, there was a crimson gleam coming from one of the Kūmon overhead. Sigrún clearly sensed it as well, for she suddenly leapt backwards and took flight. A barrage of Ceros hammered the ground where she'd just stood, and though Nnoitra was buffeted by the blasts he knew he could at least survive them. Then a yellow beam of light came forth and engulfed the Vasto Lorde, and Nnoitra inwardly grimaced in shame as he realized what it was; Negación.

Sure enough, Nnoitra and the chunk of ground he was kneeling upon began to be pulled up towards the Kūmon. As the Vasto Lorde ascended, bolts of white lightning attempted to blast him from the sky, but none of them could get through the barrier that now surrounded him. He spited the Valkyrie who had brought him to his knees with a glare, but any taunts he might've thrown her way died in his throat. His escape was assured, but it was only thanks to outside intervention, not his own prowess. Nnoitra had been saved by sheer luck… and, if his suspicions were correct, by a most unwanted ally.

Sure enough, as he passed into the Garganta while a fresh legion of Gillians went past him to join the battle, a haughty male voice echoed in the darkness. "And so, the hero swoops in to save the damsel in distress… though I'm afraid you won't be winning any prizes for beauty, Nnoitra."

"Szayelaporro," Nnoitra hissed as he looked around, not seeing the meddlesome Hollow but sensing his spiritual pressure, "How did you find me?"

"How could I not find you?" Szayelaporro Granz replied in all the pompous theatricality that Nnoitra had come to loath in his admittedly brief association with him, "Your persistent campaign has been draining my pool of research subjects. It'll be years before I'll have proper sampling groups to draw upon for future projects. I'm spending the last of my current resources just to save your pathetic hide. Really, you should be groveling before me in gratitude!"

"Fat chance of that," Nnoitra growled before a fresh wave of agony wracked his body.

"Oh, those wounds look rather nasty!" Szayelaporro chortled in cruel glee, "The one to your head is so bad that your power is leaking out of it. You really should get that addressed quickly."

Nnoitra panicked as he realized his irritating savior was corrected; he could feel himself weakening as spirit energy poured forth from the gash in his mask. "Szayelaporro, hurry up and heal me! My regeneration… it's not working! That damn Valkyrie's energy…"

"Is disrupting your inner workings in all sorts of new and fascinating ways!" Szayelaporro's voice practically sang from wherever he lurked in the void, "My dear friend, I'd be happy to help staunch the wound, though I fear some of your power may already have been lost for good. I don't know if you'll even be able to retain enough energy to stay a Vasto Lorde after this. Oh, how intriguing!"

"Szayelaporro!" Nnoitra shrieked in both fear and rage.

"Oh, hush now! I swear, you're such a drama queen," Szayelaporro chided him without so much as a hint of self-awareness, "I'll take you somewhere safe and patch you up… on the condition that you let me study you in detail during the process. Oh, and you'll also owe me a favor after this, one that I can collect on at any time. Those are my terms, take them or leave them."

"Fine!" Nnoitra spat.

He wasn't looking forward to this by a long shot, but Nnoitra's situation was already desperate and he couldn't afford to turn his fellow Hollow down. Instead, he settled in and cast one last bitter look towards the battle still raging beyond the Garganta. There was still a chance that the Adjuchas and Gillians remaining on the field could slay the fox and claim its energy, but the canine's power was now well outside of Nnoitra's reach.

….

Having put a considerable distance between himself and the clash between Sigrún and the Vasto Lorde, Itachi was now engaging in combat beneath the watchful gaze of Gunnr. As his black blade struck down one Hollow after another while flocks of scarlet firebirds both reinforced the barrier and bombarded foes across the battlefield, the Mistress of War rained down golden bolts of lightning around the Soul Reaper to discourage Gillians or Adjuchas from taking too much of an interest in him. It was supporting fire that Itachi was more than happy to have, and he had to give the Valkyrie credit for her remarkable precision. Several of the bolts had come uncomfortably close to him, but even those had struck Hollows with pinpoint accuracy and had not posed a direct threat to Itachi. Occasionally, Gunnr would swoop in to ravage clusters of lesser Hollows with her mighty axe, sending heads and limbs alike flying with each swing.

She strikes a fine balance between wading into the thick of things and being mindful of the bigger picture, Itachi thought with approval as he leapt into the air to avoid being dogpiled by a gang of Hollows before striking down his would-be attackers with a handful of skillfully thrown Anken, I don't understand why northerners get such a brutish reputation. When it comes to large-scale combat, they're just as capable tactically and strategically as any other group in the Soul Society.

Such praise applied just as much to the other five Valkyries as it did to Gunnr. A torrent of emerald bolts from Ölrún hemmed in a legion of Gillians commanded by two Adjuchas, pinning them and making them easy pickings for Gondul as she unleashed a barrage of fireballs. On the other side of the battlefield, combined lightning strikes from Geirdriful and Kara were decimating Hollows by the dozens and driving the survivors into clusters that were in turn divebombed by strategically placed flocks of Itachi's crimson flaming crows. If this had been a simple exercise in battlefield control, the Valkyries would pass with flying colors.

For all the compliments Itachi could pay his allies, though, he was still concerned with how things were going. He'd caught sight of the yellow beam that had taken the wounded Vasto Lorde from the field, and while that was certainly a good sign, it was balanced out by a flood of Gillians that had poured through the Kūmons overhead. Whoever had just saved the Vasto Lorde had apparently decided that the battle itself could still go their way, and that confidence was not without merit. Several more Adjuchas had taken the field, spreading out to rally the ragged survivors of earlier waves while coordinating the more recent arrivals. Sigrún returning her focus to supporting the other Valkyries with salvos of white lightning helped to momentarily stem the tide, but this new assault would not be beaten back so easily.

That lecherous oaf is sure taking his sweet time, Jigoku no Joō remarked as Itachi separated a Hollow's head from its neck with a wide slash, I would've thought he'd have the Nine Tailed Fox fighting alongside us by now.

Persuading Kurama to trust us was never going to be a walk in the park. We knew that going into this.

Perhaps, but even so, more than enough time's passed for Jiraiya to make a convincing argument.

Itachi had to concede the point. Though he knew that partnership of any sort with humans would be a tough sell with the Nine Tailed Fox, it had been some time now since the Soul Reapers and Valkyries had all plunged into the chaos surrounding Kurama. Itachi was working hard to both keep the barrier up and continue to lend aid to the Valkyries against the Hollows, but there hadn't been so much as a peep from Jiraiya. He could still sense the Legendary Sannin's spiritual pressure alongside Kurama's, much as he had since the operation had begun, yet Itachi had no idea what it meant apart from the fact that Jiraiya was still in one piece.

Whether or not Itachi would remain in one piece was an open question. A fresh formation of Gillians led by an ape-like Adjuchas was advancing on him now, with a horde of lesser Hollows charging recklessly as their vanguard. It seemed that the beasts didn't need the guidance of a Vasto Lorde to recognize that the power of Itachi's Shikai was a unique threat on this battlefield, one that needed to be eliminated as quickly as possible.

Using a flock of crimson firebirds to create a ring of flame around himself to temporarily fend off weaker Hollows that might try to flank him, Itachi held out his left hand so the palm was facing the oncoming assault. "Sprinkled on the bones of the beast! Sharp tower, red crystal, steel ring. Move and become the wind, stop and become the calm. The sound of warring spears fills the empty castle!"

Yellow lightning coalesced over his palm, and Itachi released it a moment later. "Hadō 63: Raikōhō!"

The blast of energy zipped across the frozen plains in a flash, punching into the horde of charging Hollows before the beasts knew what had hit them. Tormented cries rang out as several of the beasts dissolved into clouds of black ash, while many of their brethren were sent flying. The spell had only broken the vanguard's charge, though. The main body of Menos Grande were still advancing, with orbs of red energy growing in front of several white faces. Itachi knew what that meant, and he was already moving.

His Flash Step came not a moment too soon, for multiple Ceros hammered the ground where he'd been standing just a second earlier. Chunks of snow-covered dirt were thrown into the air, while chips of permafrost battered Itachi. Were it not for his thick cloak, they very well might have torn through his robes and embedded themselves in his skin. Earthen shrapnel was the least of Itachi's worries at the moment, though. Only a portion of the Gillians had let fly with their Ceros, while others had begun charging their attacks just before the first volley was unleashed. They were staggering their salvos; the Adjuchas directing them was definitely a smarter commander than many of its brethren had proven to be.

A second barrage was sent forth, and Itachi once again Flash Stepped to avoid it. Just like before, he was able to keep ahead of the energy beams, but already a third salvo was just about ready to be sent his way by the Gillians who had unleashed the first one, which meant that Itachi had no opening to counterattack. The ground around him erupted in geysers of dirt and rock as multiple crimson energy blasts bombarded the area, obscuring Itachi's vision. He quickly moved to the left in order to get clear, but that only lasted a second or two before yet another salvo was fired at him.

At this point, Itachi wasn't above requesting assistance, but the ally he'd most readily call upon had problems of her own. A separate formation of Gillians was targeting Gunnr, and Itachi realized to his dismay that this group was likewise led by an Adjuchas who clearly knew what they were doing. Like the pack that was bombarding him, this formation was also staggering their fire so as to keep a near-constant stream of Ceros flying at the Valkyrie. Unlike Itachi, though, the Mistress of War could do more than just dodge incoming fire. Her wings were proving to be remarkably tough, capable of deflecting energy blasts and sending them flying off to crash harmlessly into a distant hill. The fact that she was airborne also gave her greater options for evasion, and she was taking full advantage of her expansive maneuvering room. All that being said, though, her openings for counterattack were few and far between. A few scattered bolts of golden lighting flew forth, but not enough to fully disrupt the enemy's bombardment.

You might be in trouble.

I'd noticed, but thank you for the reminder.

Thinking on his feet, Itachi diverted several flocks of his scarlet flaming crows away from targets he'd earlier designated and sent them against the formations attacking him and Gunnr. The firebirds fell upon the Menos Grande swiftly, and shrieks rang out as their hides ignited, yet it wasn't enough. Only a few Gillians in both packs actually fell to the burning crows, with most of their brethren weathering the attack and continuing their assault. Itachi was already sending replacements airborne, but it would take time to gather a concentration of them sufficient to launch a serious counterattack. In the meanwhile, he was stuck with Flash Stepping left and right to keep ahead of the Ceros.

I can't dance around like this forever, he thought as one crimson beam missed him by an uncomfortably narrow margin, and neither can Gunnr. Who knows how many other Hollows are waiting in the wings? Even if the Vasto Lorde is gone, opportunistic beasts can no doubt sense this veritable buffet far and wide. They don't require leadership to attack us; their gluttony's all the motivation they'd ever need.

Itachi was about to gamble and Flash Step towards the Gillians in an effort to throw them off balance when he suddenly felt a massive spike in spiritual pressure. It dwarfed not only the power of the Vasto Lorde he'd faced earlier, but also the strength of every Valkyrie and Hollow on the field combined. Itachi knew the source instantly, and his gaze immediately whipped towards the ring of fire at the center of the battlefield…

…just in time to see a giant orb of raw destruction rip right through the flaming wall.

The Tailed Beast Bomb slammed into the legion of Gillians that had been bombarding Itachi, and the towering Hollows all vanished in a rapidly expanding sphere of brilliant light. Even after bracing himself, Itachi was nearly thrown off his feet by the sheer force of the blast wave. The power of that attack was so great that Itachi almost didn't detect a concurrent rise in spiritual pressure from another source; Jiraiya.

Just over the ringing in his ears brought on by the Tailed Beast Bomb's detonation, Itachi could barely hear the Legendary Sannin's voice. "Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! On the wall of blue flame, inscribe a twin lotus. In the abyss of conflagration, wait at the far heavens. Hadō 73: Sōren Sōkatsui!"

A Kidō spell, even a relatively high level one with the full incantation, couldn't hope to match the overwhelming power of a Tailed Beast Bomb, but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying on Jiraiya's part. Itachi could sense an impressive amount of energy within the wave of blue fire that tore through the flaming wall created by his Shikai; his fellow Soul Reaper had clearly been training hard to improve the potency of his spells. The azure blast hammered the front ranks of the Hollow formation that had been attacking Gunnr, and while the spell wasn't strong enough to utterly decimate them like Kurama's attack had done to the other pack, it was of sufficient strength to get the Gillians' attention.

That, in turn, gave the Mistress of War just the opening she required. Her spiritual pressures surged as golden sparks danced along her wings, with her entire form radiating energy. That energy consolidated into a single massive ball of crackling power in front of her, and the Valkyrie then gave the orb a solid whack with the flat of her axe. The great sphere flew across the battlefield and crashed into the lumbering Gillians, sending bolts of lightning flying everywhere and blowing a giant hole in their formation. The scattered survivors tried to counterattack with a fresh volley of Ceros, but now Gunnr was swooping in and was easily able to evade their fire. All too soon, she was amongst them, her axe swinging back and forth as one towering Hollow after another was cut down.

Then two forms leapt over the ring of fire Itachi had created at the start of the fight, one small and one very large. The smaller one was, of course, Jiraiya, with the Soul Reaper Flash Stepping to Itachi's side. Naruto's late master had the biggest shit-eating grin Itachi had ever seen on his face, and it was all he needed to know that their mission's success was now guaranteed.

"Miss me?" said Jiraiya.

Itachi chuckled. "What kept you? Did you need to take nap in there?"

Jiraiya rolled his eyes. "Very funny. Someone required extra assurances before he would play ball."

That 'someone' was the massive orange canine looming behind Jiraiya. Kurama's head was currently whipping back and forth as he took in the current tactical and strategic situation, but Itachi knew that the Nine Tailed Fox's gaze would fall upon him soon enough.

"What assurances?" Itachi asked as he watched both the fox and remaining Hollows warily.

"The big one's this; no Sharingan, now or at any other time in his presence," Jiraiya replied firmly, "He sees your eyes go red, and he'll attack everyone on the field."

Itachi had expected something along those lines. Had Jiraiya delivered that ultimatum earlier in the battle, Itachi would've found it troublesome. Now, though, with the Vasto Lorde cleared from the field… well, it was a small price to pay for Kurama's cooperation.

"Fair enough," he said with a nod, his gaze still focused primarily on the fox, "The others?"

Jiraiya shook his head. "Those can wait until after we clean up here."

Itachi nodded as he raised his sword, pouring forth a new stream of crimson firebirds into the air. "Very well, then. Shall we?"

Jiraiya gave a hearty laugh as he brandished his club. "I thought you'd never ask!"

….

Flash Stepping forward, Jiraiya raced to join Gunnr. Though he doubted the Mistress of War truly needed his help, he was still loath to leave her fighting against a legion of Menos Grande by herself.

Ever the gentleman, Jinsei no Kenja remarked as a stray Cero blasted the ground to Jiraiya's right, or rather, the skirt chaser.

Why not both?

Suit yourself.

Feeling a great surge of heat at his back, Jiraiya turned around and found a veritable wall of crimson flaming crows following in his wake. Though Itachi himself was heading off to another part of the battlefield to lend support to the Valkyries, he apparently wanted to make sure that his friend had a bit of help in his absence. That, in turn, gave Jiraiya an idea as to how he'd make his entrance. Another woman might perhaps take issue with what he had in mind, or at the very least be grossed out by it, but he suspected that Gunnr would wholeheartedly approve.

And so, as he ran across the frozen plains, Jiraiya put his spirit energy to work in his mouth, mixing it with his saliva and transforming it into oil. By the time he drew near enough for the Gillians to take notice of him, it was already far too late.

Ninja Art: Toad Oil Bullet!

So much oil had been gathered in his mouth that Jiraiya felt more like he was vomiting it up rather than just hocking a big loogie like usual. It splattered all over several of the closest Gillians, and even those further back in the formation caught bits of it. Like clockwork, the wave of firebirds that had been following Jiraiya sudden arced up and over him before descending upon the Hollows like a tsunami. The Gillians that had caught the bulk of Jiraiya's oil became gigantic screaming torches, towering bonfires shrieking their agony for all the world to hear. Then a series of white lightning bolts rained down from above; the Mistress of War had recognized the opportunity and taken full advantage of it.

Gunnr's joyful laughter rang out like church bells. "Splendid, Jiraiya! I had hoped you'd join me soon, and you certainly haven't disappointed!"

"A gentleman always aims to please the ladies!" Jiraiya replied with a hearty grin.

"You've definitely achieved that aim," Gunnr remarked as she swooped in low, her axe catching a Menos right in the face.

Jiraiya leapt into the fray, swinging his club into a Gillian's legs and driving the lumbering beast to its knees. His follow-up strike landed on the Hollow's skullcap, and the behemoth crumbled into fine black powder. Another salvo of white lightning from Gunnr hammered the remaining beasts closest to Jiraiya, utterly obliterating some and stunning others. Plenty more were still on their feet and able to fight, but the Legendary Sannin had a plan to fix that.

Shifting his club over to only his right hand, Jiraiya then swiftly weaved signs with his left before slamming his palm into the ground. "Earth Style: Swamp of the Underworld!"

The permafrost beneath many of the surviving Gillians suddenly became a damp and sticky morass courtesy of the sheer amount of spirit energy Jiraiya had put into the attack. Try as they might, the clumsy Gillians could only sink further into the muck as they stumbled and flailed about. While Gunnr struck several of the trapped Gillians down with axe blows to the head, Jiraiya prepared to finish off the pack as a whole. Confident that the combination of Gunnr and the sprawling mud Jiraiya had summoned would be enough to keep the survivors off his back, he thrust his spiked club into the ground. Then he raised his left arm and aimed his palm towards the Hollows while grabbing that same arm with his right to provide extra support; he'd never tried this spell in the field before. Hell, he had trouble using it even in practice, and he was honestly afraid of how much recoil he'd take even if he fired a weakened version of it.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Got that right.

"Hadō 88: Hiryū Gekizoku Shinten Raihō!" Jiraiya bellowed.

Even without the incantation, the spell was monstrously powerful. Fueled by a highly potent mix of spirit and nature energy courtesy of Jiraiya's Sage Mode, the enormous crackling beam of sapphire light crashed into the group of Menos and detonated in a thunderous blast that was second only to the apocalyptic Tailed Beast Bombs unleashed by Kurama for sheer destructive might. Having sensed his buildup of energy, Gunnr had already returned to the sky overhead, and it was a good thing she'd done so. The entire pack of Gillians was consumed by a titanic explosion, and Jiraiya was almost knocked off his feet by the shockwave. When the glare faded, along with the massive cloud of black ash, the only thing remaining was a gigantic smoldering crater.

Jiraiya found himself winded, though that was no surprise; earlier attempts at performing this spell during practice had brought him to his knees as a wheezing mess. Thanks to the fortification provided to him by Sage Mode, Jiraiya was able to remain standing this time, but only just. Thankfully, the spell had completely annihilated the last of the Hollows in this part of the battlefield. Feeling a sudden gust of wind from overhead, Jiraiya looked up to see Gunnr descending towards him. In the slits of her helmet, Jiraiya could see her silver eyes practically ablaze, smoldering with a passion that he'd never seen a woman direct his way before.

"I could sense that you'd grown stronger from the moment you stepped foot inside Steinskjöldur," the Valkyrie murmured, seemingly almost talking to herself more than Jiraiya, "yet only in my wildest dreams did I imagine you possessing this kind of power."

Despite his sudden exhaustion, Jiraiya smiled and held his head high as he extricated his club from the ground. "High praise, coming from the Mistress of War."

Her gaze locked with his, and Jiraiya suspected he'd done far more than simply impress Gunnr. Her breathing was heavy, but not from her exertions on the battlefield. She looked upon with awe blended with something much more personal.

Desire.

The moment, unfortunately, was ruined by an explosion of gargantuan proportions. Even from this distance, the force of a Tailed Beast Bomb's blast was enough to force a stumble from Jiraiya, though Gunnr had thankfully touched down now and was thus prepared to catch and steady him. The Mistress of War and Soul Reaper alike turned to gaze upon the aftermath of Kurama's attack, and it put Jiraiya's prior spell completely to shame. A great bowl of charred earth had been carved into the plains, and a billowing cloud of black ash floated skywards to such heights that Jiraiya was halfway convinced it would reach the heavens themselves. Kurama himself seemed to be paying his handiwork no mind, with the Nine Tailed Fox instead focusing on shredding a horde of screaming lesser Hollows with his claws and fangs.

"You did what my sisters and I feared could not be done," said Gunnr, "The Nine Tails now fights at our side… magnificent."

Jiraiya found it hard to argue with her. There was a terrible sort of beauty in the carnage that Kurama was capable of wreaking upon his foes. If the Nine Tailed Fox wasn't the incarnation of wrathful destruction, then Jiraiya didn't know who was. From the mightiest to the lowliest alike, the remaining Hollows confronted with Kurama were hopelessly outmatched. Another Tailed Beast Bomb was hardly even needed now, with the great canine appearing to prefer the visceral pleasure of ripping his enemies apart in close combat. Great swings from each of his nine tails sent monsters flying in every direction, while more were simply crushed under his feet. From the blazing light in Kurama's eyes, it was quite clear that the wily old canine was immensely enjoying himself.

The Nine Tailed Fox was hardly alone in that regard. Singing in a tongue Jiraiya had heard before but only learned a few words in since first coming across it rang out across the battlefield as the other five Valkyries tore into those Hollows that Kurama had not claimed for himself. Axe, mace, clawed gauntlet or bladed wings; all sunk into their targets with fatal results. Looking on as Gunnr's sisters-in-arms indulged themselves in a feast of death, Jiraiya was reminded of some of the engraved murals he'd seen back at Steinskjöldur, only now those murals were brought to life in dreadful and vivid detail. Fresh columns of ash were constantly rising as one Hollow after another met its gruesome end, all while the warrior women slaying them continued to sing.

Glimmering in between those columns of ash were clouds of another sort; the flocks of Itachi's scarlet flaming crows. With the battle now winding down, Itachi was dispersing his firebirds far and wide in an effort to slay as many Hollows as possible before they could flee. Soon a great blazing rain began as those birds fell upon their targets, incinerating scores on the spot. Those that survived the initial deluge were still not safe, for Itachi hadn't sent all his firebirds down in a single wave. His barrage was methodically staggered and ruthlessly efficient, with even those few Hollows that managed to flee through the Kūmon overhead shrieking as their hides burned.

Soon, though, the last of the shrieks faded before falling silent altogether. Jiraiya, Gunnr and all the others turned their gazes skyward as glowing eyes peered out from the Kūmons above. Whatever Menos Grande those eyes belonged to lingered for just a moment before their massive hands grabbed hold of the edges of the rifts that they'd torn in reality itself, drawing them back together until the sky was returned to the natural curtain of grey clouds and falling snow that so characterized the deep north.

"Over at last," Gunnr murmured.

"Just about," Jiraiya said as he deactivated his Shikai, his gaze sweeping the battlefield as he sought out Itachi.

Sheathing his sword, he found his fellow Soul Reaper a moment later, and Jiraiya made his way over to him while Gunnr followed silently in his wake. Once they were together, the three of them then turned to Kurama, who was eyeing them from a respectful distance.

Jiraiya glanced at Gunnr. "Would you and your sisters mind forming the perimeter now? I don't think the Hollows will come back right away, but I've been wrong before."

Gunnr nodded, though she still cast what seemed to be worried looks at both Soul Reapers. "I shall, but… will you two be alright?"

"If Kurama was going to kill us, he would've done it already," Itachi replied, "I won't exactly say we're safe, but I think the worst of it has passed."

Jiraiya smiled before reaching out to gently lay a hand over one of Gunnr's gauntlets. "It'll be fine. We know what we're doing."

Gunnr looked at him for a long moment before nodding. "I hope you're right."

She then flew off, leaving Jiraiya and Itachi to approach Kurama themselves. Like Jiraiya, Itachi had deactivated his Shikai, but his sealed Zanpakutō remained in his right hand. There was a subtle tension in him, and Jiraiya had a pretty good guess as to where it stemmed from.

"You want me to do the talking?" he asked, "No shame in admitting you're not up for it… not after what you saw him do the last time he was in this form."

Itachi was quiet for a few seconds before responding. "I'll follow your lead on this one."

Jiraiya reached out and patted his shoulder. "This will work. It was your plan, after all. Trust in it."

Itachi sighed heavily before finally sheathing his sword. "My plans have gone astray before, and I'm wary of this one especially. I can't fully trust it, even now… but I do trust you, Jiraiya."

And so, the two of them stepped forward, with the Nine Tailed Fox glowering at them the whole way. Despite the progress he'd made with Kurama earlier, Jiraiya knew that he and Itachi still had a long way to go before the two of them would fully earn the Nine Tailed Fox's trust. They had to start somewhere, though.

This entire plan was one giant leap of faith, Jiraiya told himself, and we're about to find out if that leap will end in pleasant touchdown…

…or a violent death.

….

I've seen you take on wraiths with less dread than you're feeling now, Jigoku no Joō noted as Itachi and Jiraiya drew closer to Kurama, Jiraiya can sense it, and I imagine the Nine Tailed Fox has picked up on it as well.

Believe me, I'm well aware of that.

Jiraiya's right, you know. There's nothing wrong with bowing out here. Not after what you saw all those years ago. No one can blame you for fearing and distrusting the Nine Tails. You've done more than enough already today. None present can question your bravery, least of all me.

Are you trying to comfort me? I thank you, but my mind is already made up.

C-comfort you? I'm not… fool! Fine, then. Walk straight up to the beast that decimated your village and could rip you in half without a second thought and see if I care! It's only both of our lives you're risking here. My concern is purely out of enlightened self-interest!

Itachi resisted the urge to smile. The spirit of his Zanpakutō liked to keep a cool and aloof air, but he knew that there was more to her than that; after all, she was an aspect of himself. She cared, deep down, but she was loathe to admit it. Itachi understood. For so long, he'd been forced to keep his true feelings close to the chest. It was only with the freedom that came through death that he'd finally become more comfortable with openly expressing himself, but even then, that was just within a close circle of friends and family. In front of enemies, he would betray nothing…

…and a part of him still very much considered the Nine Tailed Fox to be an enemy.

Itachi knew that the feeling was mutual; the daggers Kurama was glaring at him spoke to it. He also knew, though, that the Nine Tailed Fox's animosity was less towards him directly than it was towards the Uchiha Clan as a whole. The beast's dark past with the clan was yet one more option that needed to be overcome today, and if Itachi had to confront his childhood fears in order to accomplish that, then so be it.

The two Soul Reapers came to a stop just a handful of meters today. Kurama simply had to lower his head to close the rest of that gap, and his gaze was fully on Itachi. The massive canine opened his mouth, revealing titanic fangs dripping with saliva. His breath was truly foul, though the remnants of Hollow ash in his mouth was no doubt playing a significant role in that. For his part, Itachi kept his expression utterly impassive. If the Nine Tailed Fox wanted to get a rise out of him, he'd have to work much harder to do so.

"Of all the people I could run into out here," Kurama growled, "the two of you were just about the last ones I expected. A failure of a sage on the left, and the bane of the Uchiha Clan on the right… oh, this is rich! Today is a very interesting day!"

"How happy I am to be able to entertain you in death," Itachi deadpanned, "Unfortunately for you, neither of us are here to serve as your jesters."

Kurama laughed, though if there was any real mirth behind it, Itachi could not tell. "Oh, are you sure about that, Itachi Uchiha? Jiraiya's proposal would indicate otherwise. The lecherous oaf of the Legendary Sannin and the Uchiha Clan's most notorious traitor would deign themselves worthy of instructing me? If that isn't a jest, then I don't know what is!"

"Discount us both at your peril," Jiraiya interjected, "but I think you know better than to do that. You were there the whole time when I trained Naruto, after all; you know what I have to offer. As for Itachi, from what he's told me, it sounds like both you and Naruto already know the truth behind his supposed 'treason' to the clan. There are plenty of Uchiha out there that deserve your suspicion. Itachi isn't one of them."

The scowl Kurama shot Itachi said otherwise. "Even though he joined an organization founded to hunt my kind? I do not forgive and forget as easily as you do, Jiraiya."

"Good thing I'm not asking you to do that, then," Jiraiya countered, "Just as it's a good thing that no one's asking either of us to forgive you. You and I went over this already; Itachi and I have good reasons to not like you, and I know the feeling's mutual on your end. None of that really matters, though. You need us, Kurama, if you want a chance to actually enjoy your afterlife."

The ground was crunched and cracked as Kurama's claws dug into it. "You already have my terms, Jiraiya. Does your friend?"

"He knows the main one," Jiraiya replied as he glanced at Itachi, "I could lay out the others to him now, or you can do it yourself."

Kurama was quiet for a few seconds as he studied Itachi intently. "If you really do mean to help me control and suppress my power, I supposed I could do worse for teachers. Still, only a fool would accept an Uchiha's help without accounting for their Kekkei Genkai. If Itachi is to have a role in this alongside you, Jiraiya, then he is to be blindfolded whenever he is in my presence. As a prodigy of the clan, surely such a minor inconvenience as no eyesight will not be a hindrance to him."

"Is that all?" Itachi asked casually.

Kurama appeared somewhat taken aback by Itachi's apparent indifference. "Both of you are to leave your swords behind as well."

Jiraiya looked at Itachi. "We can have Gunnr hold onto them for safekeeping. I'd trust her with mine, and I promise you can trust her with yours."

Itachi nodded before turning back to Kurama. "Fair enough."

Now Kurama seemed perplexed to the point of agitation. "That's it? Your clan's most prized asset, your personal weapon… you'll allow yourself to be deprived of both?"

"If it accomplishes our mission, then yes," Itachi calmly answered.

Kurama's eyes narrowed as he focused on Itachi. "No spells or jutsus of any sort, from either of you."

Jiraiya shrugged. "Fine. Not that any we have would work on you."

"It does seem rather pointless," Itachi concurred, his gaze still locked with that of the fox, "but if you insist on that term as well, then we'll abide by it."

"Abide by it?" Kurama repeated, sounding more dumbfounded by the second, "My terms render you essentially helpless, completely at my mercy… and you accept them so easily? Why?"

"Because it's necessary to preserve the peace and instruct you so that your raw power doesn't cause you to draw armies of Hollows wherever you go in the Soul Society," Jiraiya replied with a smile, doubtlessly enjoying the fox's bafflement, "If it gets us what we want, then the disarmament's a small price to pay. Of course, if you're still scared of two disarmed Soul Reapers, one of which will also be blind, I could always ask the Valkyries to hogtie us as well."

Even Itachi, despite his unease, couldn't resist getting in on the action. "Would the mighty Kurama be set at ease then, or would he require further restraints upon us in order to feel safe?"

Itachi didn't need the Sharingan to notice the sudden tension in Kurama's muscles, and he therefore wasn't surprised in the least when the giant canine suddenly thrust his head forward and roared. Flecks of spittle and a truly disgusting wave of dog breath assaulted both Soul Reapers, but Itachi and Jiraiya held their ground without so much as flinching.

"You mock me?" Kurama thundered, "I have the power to reduce these lands to naught but fire and death! I could turn you both into stains upon the plains with but a twitch!"

"You could," Jiraiya conceded while still smiling, "and then you'd be left right back at square one."

"We need each other, Kurama," Itachi added, "and you know it. None of us have to like the arrangement in order to live with it."

The ground trembled beneath them, and the air became oppressively heavy as the Nine Tailed Fox let out a pulse of his spiritual pressure. It was just a taste of the creature's power, yet it alone dwarfed anything Itachi had sensed from any of the Hollows today. He could sense the Valkyries ready themselves in the background, though none of them had moved from their positions at the perimeter.

Then, just as quickly as they'd began, the tremors faded. Kurama raised his head as if to howl at the falling snow, and a booming laughter echoed across the deep north.

"What brilliant madness!" he guffawed, "What sheer lunacy! You two… two of the most feared Shinobi of your respective generations… willingly disarming themselves to meet terms I've dictated! All in an effort to teach me… after so many years of your kind pissing themselves at the sight of me! Your kind, who saw me only as a disaster to be fought or a weapon to be used… perhaps the afterlife does strange things to those who were once Shinobi."

Jiraiya smiled. "Well, as I like to say; death has a way of changing one's perspective. Besides, even an old dog can learn new tricks, and I'd be a poor master if I didn't try to follow in the example of one of my greatest pupils."

Itachi nodded. "If Naruto was able to reconcile with you and treat with you as an equal, then other Shinobi, ourselves included, must do the same. Throughout our history, we treated Tailed Beasts as bargaining chips, calamities, and forces of great power to be unleashed upon our foes. In doing so, our kind treated you as if you had no agency whatsoever; as though you truly were only beasts and not thinking individuals in your own right. Jiraiya and I cannot undo the sins of the past… but we can try to forge a new beginning."

"Itachi's right," said Jiraiya, "The path that's been trodden already did none of us any good, but there's still time to change the road we're on. In death, all three of us have been offered a second chance. We each have an opportunity to learn from our past mistakes and apply those lessons in the hopes of building a new understanding between each other. We'd be fools to waste it."

"A new understanding…" Kurama murmured as he appraised the two Soul Reapers, "If anyone were to attempt it… I suppose it would be you two. The sage who taught Naruto seek understanding with others and try to find peace… and the Uchiha who slaughtered his own kin to thwart their bloody ambitions…"

The Nine Tailed Fox met Itachi's gaze, and the Soul Reaper was surprised to detect a hint of approval in those searing red eyes. "Any other member of your clan, your younger brother included, would've called upon the power of the Uchiha bloodline by now. You, though… in my presence, sensing my power and knowing it could be directed at you at any moment… or what you could do with it if you managed to subdue me… and yet… you continue to restrain yourself. Not even Madara himself could boast of that feat."

"That's because Madara saw you through the same flawed lenses as the rest of the Uchiha Clan," Itachi replied, "He made the same mistake as all those Shinobi who praised him and Hashirama Senju as the pinnacle of our kind; he saw you first and foremost as a tool to achieve his own ends, nothing more. He was a man peering at the world with one eye closed and believing he could see the truth in its entirety, never realizing that he was willfully blinding himself to half the tapestry."

Kurama actually chuckled at that. "Even in death, you kept your silver tongue… it serves you well. Allow me to revise my terms; the only one you must abide by is the blindfold. Your weapons, spells, ninjutsu; all those may remain at your disposal."

Jiraiya blinked in surprise. "Seriously?"

Kurama nodded. "I think we all know that my raw power is more than enough to counterbalance any of your armaments and skills. My only real concern is the one that naturally comes when any Uchiha is involved. Besides, you two are clearly willing to gamble, and I can't let myself appear to be a coward in comparison."

He's rather prideful, Itachi mused, I wonder if he was always like this, or if it was brought on after Shinobi sought him out for his power?

So long as it allows you and Jiraiya to keep your weapons, what does it matter?

A fair point.

"We have an accord, then?" asked Jiraiya.

"We do," Kurama confirmed, "Now, then, you two came all this way to teach me some lessons. They'd better be good ones."

"You prefer to start right away?" Itachi inquired.

"Yes," said Kurama with a dismissive wave of one of his massive paws, "The sooner I've learned what I need, the sooner I can be rid of you pests."

We risked our lives to save this walking carpet, and this is the thanks we get? He calls us PESTS? The nerve of this flea-ridden mut!

That 'mut' can vaporize us all with a single blast. Like it or not, we have to play nice.

"Very well, then," said Jiraiya as he reached into one of the pouches lining his robes, "We'd better take care of the blindfold first, then."

Itachi held up a hand, his gaze still focused on Kurama. "Not so fast. Before we begin, I would have a question answered."

Kurama smiled. "I suspect it's the one that Jiraiya asked me earlier. You worry for Naruto and Sasuke, yes?"

Itachi nodded. "You know that the group I once ran with extracted Tailed Beasts from their hosts… and that the process killed said hosts. If you are here, that means you were removed from Naruto in some manner, and I cannot imagine it was a peaceful one. I also find it hard to imagine that process not killing Naruto… and that Sasuke would've tried to stop it, even if that intervention cost him his life."

Kurama nodded. "You know your younger brother well. Fortunately, I have good news for you; as far as I know, both Naruto and Sasuke are still alive. I wasn't forcibly extracted from Naruto. I sacrificed myself to give Naruto the means to defeat a powerful enemy."

Itachi's eyes widened slightly at that revelation. "Self-sacrifice… I didn't think you were capable of that."

"Neither did I," Jiraiya chimed in, "Believe me, I was as surprised as you when the big guy told me earlier what had happened."

Itachi couldn't help but give the Nine Tailed Fox a small smile. "Perhaps Naruto rubbed off on you more than I had initially thought. That boy… he really did turn out to be something special."

"He did," Kurama concurred with more than a hint of pride in his voice.

Itachi closed his eyes for a moment before nodding. "Very well, then. It'd be impossible for you to know what happened to Naruto and Sasuke after you sacrificed your own life, so I'll place my faith in the two of them being able to make your sacrifice count."

Jiraiya smiled. "Without that worry in the back of your mind, I imagine it'll be easier for you to focus on the task ahead of us. My mind's definitely at ease, at least."

"It's enough," said Itachi, "Now, about that blindfold…"

The Legendary Sannin held up a roll of bandages that he'd pulled out of the pouch. "Best I can do on short notice."

Itachi simply shrugged. "It'll suffice."

Itachi allowed Jiraiya to tie the blindfold, mostly to give Kurama peace of mind. Deprived of his sight, Itachi stretched out with his sense for spiritual energy. Naturally, it was all too easy for him to pick up on Kurama and Jiraiya, and he could also detect the Valkyries off in the distance.

"Will the genius of the Uchiha Clan prove himself an able teacher when he can't even see?" Kurama asked with more than a hint of challenge in his voice, "This should prove to be interesting."

Itachi smirked. "Quite so. Jiraiya, shall we?"

Although he couldn't see his companion, Itachi felt certain that Jiraiya was grinning. "Let's get down to business!"

….

A few weeks later…

This isn't going as well as I'd hoped it would, Jiraiya thought with no small measure of frustration, I guess that's to be expected, though. So much raw power's difficult to suppress, and Kurama's not exactly the type who favors finesse and subtlety.

He glanced over at Itachi, who was sitting upon a blanket. Squad Two's Eighth Seat still had the blindfold on, and he appeared completely impassive as Kurama gnashed his teeth in growing frustration mere meters away. If Jiraiya didn't know better, he could've sworn that Itachi was simply meditating rather than focusing on the Nine Tailed Fox's spiritual pressure.

"You're trying to force it again," Itachi said, "Our spiritual pressure isn't something to be beaten into submission. You're applying a sledgehammer to it, which is exactly the wrong way to go about this."

"So you keep saying," Kurama growled, "Let's see you do better!"

Jiraiya saw Itachi smirk. "I've already done so countless times since we started these lessons, but if you insist. Close your eyes and focus on sensing me. Go ahead, I'll wait."

Kurama did so before audibly sniffing at the air. "There you are!"

Itachi shook his head. "You're using your sense of smell, which is not the point of this exercise and you know it."

There was a low grumble in the canine's throat, and for a moment Jiraiya feared the Tailed Beast might take a swipe at Itachi, but Kurama seemed to think better of it. "I… hmmm… is that… no. Wait… there you are! Such a tiny spark of energy, though… if I didn't know better, I might mistake you for a mouse."

"That's precisely the point," Itachi replied, "The Soul Society is teeming with creatures who lack the ability to suppress their spirit energy, at least to this degree. There's so much background life, even in lands as inhospitable as this, that any Hollows would eagerly pass me by in pursuit of a more appetizing morsel. They will do the same with regards to you once you gain mastery over your spiritual pressure, and that day will not come if you continue to attempt to simply squash it like you might do so with an annoying Shinobi."

"Think of it as giving yourself a massage," Jiraiya chimed in, "You gotta gently work your spirit energy so it'll be more pliable and relaxed. Only then can you begin reducing your signature and suppressing your spiritual pressure."

Kurama scowled at the Legendary Sannin. "I don't do 'gentle', Jiraiya."

Jiraiya shrugged. "If you want to learn how to hide yourself and keep the Hollows off your back, then you'll have to adapt. Otherwise… well, the Valkyries aren't going to babysit you forever."

As Kurama fumed, Jiraiya glanced over his shoulder. Off in the distance, he caught sight of golden flashes, and he could feel a familiar surge in spiritual pressure; Gunnr had just shown a pack of Hollows what would happen should they try to cross a perimeter guarded by her. Flashes of different colors could be periodically seen across the plains as the other Valkyries worked to keep hungry beasts at bay. The Hollow attacks following the big battle had been much more sporadic than they'd initially expected, which led Jiraiya to believe that the years' worth of assaults previously launched against Kurama had depleted Hueco Mundo's population quite drastically.

That should make the work of us Soul Reapers a bit easier, at least for a time, he mused, I wonder how long the reprieve will last…

Apart from trying to teach a rather moody Nine Tailed Fox, the past few weeks had been largely uneventful for Jiraiya and Itachi. They'd settled into a routine of rising early and grabbing a quick meal before joining Kurama out on the plains for practice, breaking for a quick lunch, and then jumping right back into training until sundown. The initial supplies hauled out on Eidunn and Ingegerd's sleds had already run dry, but the two women had planned ahead, and subsequent sled dog teams led by other apprentices and acolytes had kept up a steady stream of rations and other needed items over the subsequent weeks. Gunnr had told Jiraiya that the Order could sustain such shipments for as long as was necessary, and from what glimpses he'd caught of their stockpiles, he was inclined to believe her.

An impatient growl from Kurama brought Jiraiya's thoughts back to the matter at hand. "Well, let's try again, then… before I decide to take my chances with the Hollows."

Jiraiya chuckled; the Nine Tailed Fox had made that threat several times now over the past few weeks, but he'd never followed through. Much as Kurama doubtlessly hated to admit, the cranky old dog needed to master the suppression of his spiritual pressure, and they all knew it. Despite Kurama's frustration and Jiraiya's concerns, progress was being made. The giant canine's massive reserves of spirit energy were still flowing out mostly unregulated, but the waves of power weren't quite as intense as Jiraiya had detected previously. Perhaps more importantly, Kurama was becoming more willing to listen to the two Soul Reapers, though he still insisted on grumbling and snarking before ultimately playing along.

Good thing the apprentices will keep the supplies coming, Jiraiya thought as he and Itachi both knuckled down for another round with their grouchy pupil, because we're going to be out here for quite some time to come.

….

A couple of months later…

Even if he hadn't been blindfolded, Itachi wouldn't have been able to see much in the blizzard that raged around him. The wind howled like a pack of wolves, its biting gales piercing through even the many layers of fur that Itachi had bundled himself up in. Valkyries and apprentices alike had advised him and Jiraiya to call off today's training session due to the weather, but the two Soul Reapers had both been waiting for something like this. As the two former Shinobi strolled across the arctic plains, they stretched out with their senses, searching for Kurama's spiritual pressure.

"He's definitely getting better," Jiraiya remarked, his voice barely audible over the screaming gales.

Itachi was inclined to agree. Kurama had come along quite a way since the rocky earlier sessions. The Nine Tailed Fox was now much more proficient at keeping his spiritual pressure at bay, though he still required some work. He could suppress his energy, but it took him great effort to do so; Itachi and Jiraiya wanted to get it to the point where Kurama could pull it off as easily as he might breathe. Also, Kurama's suppression wasn't complete. The Nine Tailed Fox could still leak out energy inadvertently, and those leaks were all that a pair of skilled hunters like Itachi and Jiraiya needed to track down their prey.

Rather ironic, Jigoku no Joō remarked in his head, that your current task has you reprising a role that you once played as a member of the Akatsuki. Here you thought that death would free you from the job of hunting down Tailed Beasts. It seems fate had other plans.

There's a marked difference between the hunts I undertook when I was alive and the one that I'm in the middle of now.

I know. That doesn't mean I can't still find your present situation amusing.

Itachi had to suppress a smirk at that. The spirit of his Zanpakutō wasn't alone in appreciating the irony at play here. Jiraiya had gently ribbed him a bit at the start of today's tracking session, and Itachi had simply rolled with it. The Legendary Sannin didn't seem in the mood for humor at the moment, though. Even though Itachi couldn't see his companion, he could sense Jiraiya's tension. He could hardly blame him for that. Even if this was just a training session, they were still dealing with the Nine Tailed Fox. Kurama had played ball these past few months, but both Soul Reapers were keenly aware that the powerful canine could decide he'd had enough and turn on them at any time.

"I can't pick him up," said Jiraiya, "You feel anything?"

Itachi stopped in his tracks and took a deep breath to center himself. Jiraiya's senses were sharp, but Itachi had an edge thanks to a surprising source; the encroaching blindness he'd suffered from using the Mangekyou Sharingan back when he was alive. For all the adventures and battles that the Legendary Sannin had survived, Jiraiya had fought those clashes while in possession of all his primary senses. In Itachi's later years, he'd been forced to compensate for severely compromised eyesight by honing his other senses. Given that he'd fought Sasuke while all but blind and had managed to achieve everything he'd set out for in that final duel despite the handicap, Itachi had a confidence in his other senses that his colleagues might lack. Even though his eyesight had been restored thanks to the clean slate he'd gotten through death, Itachi had been determined to keep his other senses as sharp as they'd been while he was still alive; one never knew when they'd be deprived of their sight, after all.

That was why Itachi could pick up Kurama's presence where Jiraiya had failed. "Behind us… a hundred-fifteen degrees to the right, two hundred meters away and closing quite quickly… and quietly."

Jiraiya chuckled. "He thinks he can ambush us. That's cute."

The two Soul Reapers stood perfectly still, with Jiraiya counting on Itachi for warning. Itachi had to give Kurama credit; the leak he could sense from the Nine Tailed Fox was a small one, and the great canine was taking care to tread as softly as possible. It was almost frightening how stealthy the walking calamity could be when he really put effort into it.

This time, though, it wasn't quite enough. When Kurama pounced from behind a curtain of white, he found Itachi and Jiraiya already turned around and facing him. Despite the blindfold, Itachi could picture the Nine Tailed Fox's disappointed scowl perfectly in his mind's eye.

The dejected growl he heard merely confirmed it. "You knew I was coming."

Jiraiya laughed. "Your breath's so bad that we could smell you coming from miles away!"

"Liar," Kurama snarled, "No way you could've picked up my scent with the direction that the wind's been blowing."

Itachi couldn't help but smirk. "Jiraiya, it's rude to tease our friend here."

"He can deal with it," Jiraiya replied, "He's got thick skin, doesn't he?"

"It's my patience that should concern you rather than my skin," Kurama fumed.

Itachi held up a hand to gesture for calm. "No need to get worked up. You're right, Kurama; Jiraiya was lying. Neither of us could smell you. It was your spiritual pressure that gave you away, though you did a much better job of suppressing it than previously. You were almost right on top of us by the time we detected you."

Kurama laughed smugly. "I thought so!"

Itachi folded his arms. "Still, we did detect you and were ready when you pounced. You still have work to do."

"Fine," Kurama pouted, the ground trembling as he plodded off, "We'll run it again. Same rules as before?"

"Yup," Jiraiya confirmed, "You have ten minutes to make yourself hard to find, then the hunt's on again."

"Be thorough in your preparations," Itachi cautioned the retreating fox while cracking a very small smile, "Mistakes will leave you vulnerable, if only to further taunts from Jiraiya."

….

Several months later…

Early spring, 132 years before Rukia Kuchiki's arrival in Karakura Town

Hard to believe it's nearly time, thought Jiraiya as he climbed the winding stairs of Steinskjöldur's citadel, I knew it was coming, but even so… to think that Itachi and I will be on the road tomorrow… it almost doesn't feel real.

Part of the Legendary Sannin didn't want to leave. While the winter had been harsh, the company Jiraiya and Itachi had spent it in had more than made up for the cold. Even Kurama seemed to have mellowed out a bit by the time the lessons had come to a close about a month and a half ago, though that was only relatively speaking. The Nine Tailed Fox had still been gruff in his farewell, and he hadn't given Jiraiya or Itachi so much as a hint as to where his wanderings would take him now. They only had Kurama's word that he'd steer clear of any settlements, though given the massive canine's strong dislike of humans in general Jiraiya felt that the fox would most likely strive to honor this particular agreement.

With the big crisis finally behind them now that Kurama could properly suppress his spiritual pressure, Jiraiya and Itachi had returned to Steinskjöldur along with the Valkyries and apprentices. Upon their arrival, they had been treated to a grand feast, with the revelry going long into the night. Jiraiya smiled as he fondly recalled many of the assorted apprentices, acolytes and caretakers gathering around him and Itachi to hear tales of their past Soul Reaper exploits. More than a few of those lovely ladies had cast lustful gazes towards Squad Two's representative in particular, though those desires were forced to go unfulfilled; Jiraiya had heard plenty of women within the fortress lament the fact that Itachi had politely turned down all such advances, and the sage had expected nothing less.

Yoruichi, I hope you appreciate what a catch you've found with Itachi, he mused, I knew he was committed to you, and he's proven that beyond any doubt up here.

Jiraiya would freely admit to not being nearly as restrained as Itachi had demonstrated himself to be, but unfortunately, he'd gotten no such propositions. As ever, the Uchiha had all the luck when it came to the ladies. Then again, as lovely as the apprentices, acolytes and caretakers all were, Jiraiya didn't really have eyes for any of them. No, there was only one woman in this fortress that truly held his interest, and he was on his way to see her right now. Jiraiya had been hoping that she would ask to see him in private before his inevitable departure, and he'd gotten an invitation for just that a little while ago. With the sky lit up by crimson rays as the sun dipped down in the west, Jiraiya couldn't think of a better backdrop for the encounter that awaited him at the citadel's apex.

When he reached the top, Jiraiya made his way towards one of the balconies outside the Council chamber. Stepping outside, he was pleased to find that the chill wasn't as harsh as he'd first feared. There was only a light breeze flowing along the fortress's peak; he'd endured far worse during the months spent training Kurama in the deep north. Even if the weather hadn't been mild by the north's standards, Jiraiya wouldn't have taken issue with the cold. After all, when he was in the company of the winged woman who awaited him, he felt nothing but warmth.

Gunnr turned to greet him, her silver eyes glimmering with delight as he approached her. "You're early."

"Look who's talking," Jiraiya countered as he joined her at the railing, "Seems we both wanted to make the most of this."

"Can you blame me?" Gunnr asked as she gestured out at the stunning vista, "I've wanted to share this view with you for quite some time now."

Jiraiya smiled as he gazed out over a sea of clouds that were bathed in the scarlet light of the setting sun while scattered snowflakes sparkled like slowly falling gemstones. "Magnificent…"

"My thoughts exactly," Gunnr concurred.

The wind picked up for a few moments, but before Jiraiya could bundle up in his cloak, Gunnr stretched out her left wing and curled it around him. It made for an effective shield against the brief but frigid gale, and the energy radiating from the armored feathers made for a surprisingly soothing balm. When the gusts died down, Jiraiya was almost reluctant to leave that sheltering embrace. Perhaps Gunnr was equally reluctant to relinquish it, for even as she folded her wing back in, she slid closer to Jiraiya's side and laid a gauntleted hand over his own on the railing.

"Tomorrow, the sun will rise in the east as it ever does," Gunnr remarked softly, "and yet… for me, its rays will not be as bright or beautiful as they are now. Steinskjöldur feels so much warmer when you're here, Jiraiya… it pains me deeply to know that you will depart with the dawn."

Jiraiya's eyes widened slightly as he turned to her; he wasn't used to the Mistress of War being quite so open with her feelings. "Gunnr…"

"We're both creatures of duty," the Valkyrie continued, her voice barely more than a murmur "Mine keeps me here, just as yours must take you back to the Seireitei. For the longest time, I believed that I had accepted that. Most of me still does… but now a part of me does not. I blame you for that, Jiraiya."

Jiraiya's heart panged at her words; the last thing he ever wanted to do was cause a woman pain, and that went especially for Gunnr. "I'm sorry."

Gunnr shook her head before reaching down to remove the gauntlet from her left hand, and then allowing her fingers to intertwine with Jiraiya's. "Don't be. Getting to know you over the years has been a gift that I never knew I needed. The melancholy that comes with your inevitable departure is part of that gift, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. You… you've awakened a side of me that I thought I'd cut away from myself long ago. I hadn't realized until very recently just how much I'd missed it."

Jiraiya looked up at her and smiled. "What side is that?"

She looked away for a moment before meeting his gaze. Her eyelids fluttered rapidly behind the eye-slits of the helmet, and Jiraiya became utterly certain that she was blushing beneath her armored façade.

"The side of me… that was once a romantic," the Mistress of War confessed, "The side of me that I had once allowed to get caught up in the whims of my heart. It led me to bitterness and pain, once… and to escape that pain, I came here. I thought I'd buried that aspect of me for good, but meeting you, coming to understand you… fighting alongside you… a fire that I once swore had been doused forever was lit again. Pain comes with it, yes… but not bitterness. Not the harshness of the wretched bastard who drove me to seek a new life here all those long years ago. Any pain that might come from the feelings I experience when I'm around you, I happily accept."

She leaned towards him, and Jiraiya was suddenly made acutely aware of just how imposing Gunnr could be when her focus was on him and him alone. He also found it to be one hell of a turn-on…

…and the hungry look in her silver eyes made him realize that the effect was wholly intentional on Gunnr's part.

"This is your last night here for what may be a long time to come," said Gunnr, her voice dropping to a low and sultry purr, "Feasting and merriment continues down below, but you and I have already had our full of food and drink, otherwise we would not be up here. You do not depart until the dawn, though, and the sun will soon disappear over the horizon. The precious hours of the night will soon be all that's left to us before our inevitable parting… and I would not waste them. Would you?"

Jiraiya knew what she was really asking him, and he didn't have to think twice. "I would not. Where would you have us spend them, though?"

A soft and melodious laugh escaped the Valkyrie's helmet. "My chambers, of course."

She then stepped away from the balcony, gently pulling the Legendary Sannin along with her. Jiraiya moved on autopilot, practically in a daze as he followed her back inside the citadel and down its spiraling stairs. His heartbeat seemed to speed up with every step, and by the time they reached a thick wood door engraved with ancient characters that Jiraiya could not even begin to decipher, it was practically hammering against his ribcage with what felt like force to rival the power of Might Guy's punches.

The door creaked open, and Gunnr led Jiraiya inside. Compared with the guest quarters occupied by the Soul Reaper, the chambers of a full-fledged Valkyrie possessed a sort of rugged luxury. A wide fireplace was set in the thick stone wall not too far from the window, and sprawled out before it was a broad rug of what Jiraiya guessed was dire wolf fur. Assorted weapons were mounted upon the wall, ranging from mighty battle axes and tall hunting bows to elegantly curved knives and slender daggers, their edges glittering in the firelight. A door left half-ajar revealed a closet full of spare armor plates, cloaks, tunics and more, while another one on the opposite side of the room led to what looked like a washroom. Dominating the space stretching from the far wall was a long and wide bed draped with thick dark grey blankets, whiling hanging over it was a vivid painting detailing what Jiraiya realized was the view of the north from the apex of Steinskjöldur's citadel.

Jiraiya cared little for the room's furnishings at the moment, though, save perhaps for the bed. His focus was still fixed on the Valkyrie that had just closed the door before stepping over to the foot of her bed. She flexed her wings, and a series of golden sparks went through them. A second later, all the plates of armor protecting those wings fell to the ground, revealing her lustrous black, gold, silver and bronze plumage in all its glory. Then she removed her helmet and set it aside, finally showing Jiraiya the lovely face that he'd longed to see again. Her black hair streaked with silver spilled out all around her face and down her shoulders, and Jiraiya realized that she'd grown it out since the last time he'd seen it. Her normally pale face was flushed red, though that didn't stop her from flashing him a ravenous smile.

Then she pulled on a few straps, flexed, and her armor fell to the floor along with her axe. The tunic she wore beneath it likewise soon slipped down to rest upon the cold stone…

…and Jiraiya's cloak, robes and Zanpakutō joined it a moment later.

….

Several hours later…

Sweat-drenched, exhausted, and happier than he'd ever been in this life or the last, Jiraiya could only lay back and marvel at his situation. He lay atop not a mere sheet, but the soft and warm feathers that made up his lovely companion's right wing. His head rested against Gunnr's shoulder, while a thick blanket shielded the spent lovers from a sudden gust of chill wind that blew in through the open window. The occasional golden spark danced along the wing beneath him and over his body, a residual tingle of the sheer ecstasy and euphoria that had so completely overtaken Soul Reaper and Valkyrie alike before. Jiraiya's ponytail had come undone during the intense exercise in passion, and so his long white hair freely intertangled with the black and silver locks belonging to the Mistress of War.

They lay together for a long time, basking in the glorious afterglow, with only their weary breathing and the crackling of a dying fire breaking the silence. In this small corner of the normally harsh north that the two of them now shared, Jiraiya firmly believed that they had found true heaven together. What else could come close to describing the ascendant state that Soul Reaper and Valkyrie alike had reached during the peak of their lovemaking?

So caught up was Jiraiya in his stunned elation that he was completely caught off guard when Gunnr reached over to give him a playful poke on the nose. "I daresay I've rendered my favorite author speechless again! I do seem to have a talent for that, don't I?"

Jiraiya laughed softly before leaning up to kiss her tenderly upon the lips. "You certainly do."

That slight movement alone felt like an enormous effort, and he soon collapsed against Gunnr's shoulder again. His body felt heavier now than it had after the most strenuous of training sessions, yet this was the kind of weariness that Jiraiya wouldn't trade for anything. The rhythmic rising and falling of Gunnr's chest was all Jiraiya needed to know that she was just as wiped out as him, and the radiant flush of red in her face told the Legendary Sannin that the Mistress of War completely shared his sentiments on the matter.

"My sisters-in-arms will be jealous come the dawn," Gunnr remarked with no small measure of smug satisfaction, "I will consider that your parting gift, and one that I intend to savor."

Jiraiya smirked. "You know me. I always aim to please the ladies."

"Indeed, you do," Gunnr murmured as she gently ran her fingers through his thoroughly disheveled mane.

An awkward thought crossed Jiraiya's mind as his hand beneath the blanket wandered over the Valkyrie's firm abdomen. "We… weren't exactly careful earlier, if you catch my drift."

Gunnr sighed heavily, with the smile on her face taking on a slight air of melancholy. "You needn't fear repercussions, Jiraiya. When a woman becomes a full-fledged Valkyrie, the process of merging with her wings transforms her in more ways than one, if you will."

An intense pang of guilt pierced Jiraiya's heart as he realized what ground he'd just tread upon. "Gunnr… I'm sorry."

Gunnr shook her head before leaning over to gently kiss his cheek. "You didn't know, and I would hold you blameless in any case. Lady Sigrún made it quite clear to me what the consequences would be before I took that final step. The surge of energy that courses through us when the wings are first fused to our bodies… what it does to us is the price we pay for the phenomenal power we're subsequently granted. The choice was mine alone, Jiraiya, and I accepted the consequences of it long ago."

Jiraiya took her hand in his. "I can respect that. Even so… do you ever wonder what might've happened had you chosen a different path?"

Gunnr looked up at the ceiling in thought for a few seconds before a wistful look came to her eyes. "Before I met you, no. Afterwards, though… my mind did wander a bit, I must confess. What if I had abandoned the north altogether? What if I had journeyed south to the Seireitei, perhaps even joined the Thirteen Court Guard Squads? Assuming I survived the subsequent centuries of being an active-duty Soul Reaper… survived long enough to meet you when you became one… I can picture a very different life from the one I have now. It is… a most pleasant dream… but only a dream."

Jiraiya nodded in understanding. "The ability to imagine 'what if' is one of the great double-edged swords that comes with the human mind. We can picture roads not travelled and imagine the joys that might be found along them… but in the end, we are forced to come back to the lives that we've chosen for ourselves."

"That, we are," Gunnr concurred with a soft and weary smile, "It is a bittersweet sensation. An exercise in futility… but one that I have nevertheless become fond of. There's nothing wrong with dreaming, is there?"

Jiraiya smiled in return as he felt his eyelids begin to flutter heavily. "No, there's not."

And so, the two of them slowly drifted off into slumber…

…and into dreams where they could forestall their inevitable parting just a little while longer.

Author's Notes: You know, I'd originally just planed on throwing a nameless Vasto Lorde into the chapter, but then I took some time think about it and realized that I could do better. I took some creative liberties with Nnoitra to make him serve my purposes here. Yes, I know that only certain Espada were confirmed as being Vasto Lorde in supplemental Bleach materials, and that Nnoitra wasn't one of them, but his character was simply too perfect of a fit for what I wanted to do with this chapter and so I made some adjustments Besides, as Szayelaporro indicated, with Nnoitra's head-wound leaking energy in a manner not all that different from the one he'll give Nelliel in the future, there's no guarantee that he'll stay a Vasto Lorde. Given the way he treated Nelliel in Bleach, I quite enjoyed having him get his ass kicked by a powerful woman here! And for those of you who will say that his defeat came too easily, well, that was the point. He was fighting the Order of the Valkyries' counterpart to Head Captain Yamamoto; of course, he was going to get his ass handed to him on a silver platter!

Next chapter's going to be firmly Itachi and Yoruichi-centric. Also, we'll be trading the frozen plains of the deep north for the rolling dunes of the Soul Society's southwest. We're finally heading to the Shihōin Clan's Principality, a place that I've been very much looking forward to bringing to life!

On a separate note, you know the picture of the Mangekyou Sharingan that I'm currently using as a cover for this story? I've been giving it some thought, and I'd like to replace it with a cover that was actually made explicitly for this story. The only problem is that I'm completely useless when it comes to the visual arts. Given how much of a following this story seems to have attracted, I figured I might as well try my luck with you ladies and gentlemen. If any of you are of the artistic inclination and fancy taking a crack at this, please reach out to me. I know that I could go to other sites and check out the works of various artists before reaching out to one of them, but I'd honestly rather have it done by someone who's read and appreciates the story.

Hope you all liked the chapter! Feel free to review, stay safe, and I'll see you all next time!