And here we are with the newest Shinobi's Creed chapter. Lots of people seemed pleased with the last one, enjoying my look into the aftermath of Naruto learning about Jiraiya being his godfather. So I'm happy that worked out.

RagingStar19: I'm glad you're actually letting us do an author bit this time.

Leaf Ranger: Well…yes and no?

Diehard NaruHina LeafRanger: What do you mean by that?!

LR: I sort of…have a lot of things to reply to…again. *Sheepish grin*

Diehard LeafTayu LeafRanger: DAMNIT!

LR: Sorry! I'll try to get them done quickly! First off, got a request from storyreader21. They've got a Naruto fanfic challenge for anyone who's interested in taking it. Basic premise is that Naruto and Hinata fuse together into a powerful kunoichi, and spend most of their time in that form. If you're interested in writing that challenge or know someone who might be interested, please contact them.

Also, thebestoftherest is looking for a beta, so please contact them about being their beta if you're interested in helping them out.

Raphael: Is that it?

LR: No. I still need to respond to the anonymous reviews. *Ducks under a thrown chair* I SAW THAT SIS! *Glares at RS19* Anyways, to anonymous guest, thanks, glad you enjoyed the chapter!

And to…anonymous guest number two, thank you for your review. It was an emotional chapter, wasn't it? And thanks for your words regarding it being my choice what I do with Naruto and Jiraiya.

To WearyCurdmudgeon, thank you for your review. I would respond more in-depth but you leave such lengthy reviews I'm hard-pressed to do so. Still, thank you for your reviews.

To the next anonymous guest I agree, fuck the Haters. I'm glad you enjoyed my fanfic enough to binge read it, and I hope you enjoy the next chapters.

To Zanzibar1, thank you for your words. I'm glad you're enjoying my fanfic so far and that you like the changes I've made so far.

To anonymous guest number four, thanks for the review. We'll have to see whether or not I think Jiraiya being redeemed fits into the story. I could easily do it if I want to, but I want it to be something that realistically happens, not because the plot demands it. Same for Naruto not forgiving him if I go that route instead. As for what happens with the Hyuuga clan, well guess you'll get to see shortly here.

And to Vash, thank you for your reviews and suggestion! Glad you're enjoying things so far.

Elroth: Are you done now?

LR: I am. Now what exactly have you all been up to while I was busy, hmm?

Eletal: Oh, nothing much, beyond taking some lessons from Ripfang and Wrex.

LR: *eyebrow twitch* …what?

DNHLR: Eeyup! About…how to kool-aid man through walls! *rushes at the wall only to smack into it and fall to the ground unconscious*

LR:…keep up the good work.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or Assassin's Creed. If I did, Naruto would actually at least be competent and Assassin's Creed would be much different after Black Flag than it is now. But sadly they are owned by Masashi Kishimito and Ubisoft respectively. This is a non-profit work of fan-made fiction. Please support the official releases.

Chapter 49

Moving Forward

For perhaps the fifth or sixth time, Hinata brushed out a wrinkle or two in the kimono she was currently wearing. She glanced up again to look at the sight of the garden that had once been her sanctuary when she was little, a place she could retreat to with her mother to avoid the stares of contempt and disappointment of the various members of the Hyuuga main family. A place she had not seen since her banishment from the clan.

She ever so slowly slid her hands into the sleeves of the kimono, checking that both her hidden blade bracers were still set. She had no idea what it was Hiashi and the Hyuuga Elders wanted with her, but she knew she wasn't going to enter this place without some sort of protection. Her style of Jyuuken would take her only so far in a building full of those who had mastered the technique, and she couldn't bring any of her weapons with her, leaving her with only the two blades for protection. That and the fact she wasn't alone. She glanced over to see Anko in a similar position as her; a bit put out at having to wear her own kimono. Neither garment was that extravagant or embellished, but they'd serve the purpose needed today.

Anko shifted a bit, checking her own hidden blades were set as well. "Hope this doesn't take too long," she murmured, clearly not entirely comfortable in the kimono. Hinata smiled at her with a bit of a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

"I'll bet Raphael-san would think you look amazing," she teased, earning a glower from Anko who just barely stopped herself from hitting her student and ward because she didn't want Hinata to look ruffled before the Hyuuga. Anko's brown eyes flicked up to Hinata's forehead, which other than her bangs was uncovered, allowing hints of the seal to be seen. Ever since the Chuunin Exam finals, Hinata had slowly been wearing her usual bandanas less and less. Her forehead protector now often was either around her arm or neck instead. Anko could only smile at the sign that Hinata was moving past what had been done to her, no longer considering the seal a curse but rather a sign of her freedom.

The two were drawn from their musings by the door sliding open and a female Branch maid bowing to them. "Hiashi-sama is ready to see you now," she said, stepping back. The two of them slowly entered, finding themselves inside the main audience room.

Hinata tensed slightly as this had been the same room where her punishment had been announced and where her entire life changed. Unlike then, the room was quite empty. The only ones present were the elders of the Clan, along with Hiashi sitting at the opposite end of the room. In front of the Elders sat Hitomi and Hanabi, as well as the Hokage himself. Four main family guards stood at attention in the room, two to each wall.

Hinata slowly advanced, doing her best to maintain an air of self-confidence. She felt the barest sense of satisfaction as she saw the looks from the elders as they saw her forehead and the hints of the seal there. Something they found distasteful seeing displayed, which was all the more reason why she wasn't hiding it. She bowed when she stood ten feet away from them. "Hiashi-san. Honorable Elders," she addressed them.

"Hinata-san, thank you for coming. Be seated," Hiashi said, his voice emotionless and business-like. Hinata slowly knelt down, with Anko doing the same behind and to the left of her.

Hiashi quickly got to business. "Hinata Mitarashi, you have done this clan a great service by protecting Hitomi Hyuuga and Hanabi Hyuuga. Your efforts exposed Kumo's attempts to abduct them and prevented said abduction. And…your bout with Neji Hyuuga was most…enlightening," he said, a slight hesitation evident when he spoke of her match against Neji.

Hinata did her best to restrain herself from smiling, as that alone spoke volumes of how much he didn't want to be complimenting her for that. "As a kunoichi of Konoha, it was my duty to protect citizens of Konoha, and it was my honor to see to their safety," she said, bowing her head in acknowledgment. It was far more than that to her, but she'd play this game of niceties, for now, to see where all this was going.

"Indeed. And we wish to repay your actions with the greatest reward we can offer. Hinata Mitarashi, formerly of the Hyuuga clan, we extend an offer to let you rejoin the Hyuuga," Hiashi stated.

There was the slightest gasp from behind her as Hanabi quickly shut her mouth, trying to regain her composure. But both her and Hitomi's eyes were wide as they realized that Hinata was being offered a place back in the clan. A chance for them to freely associate with each other and spend time together without worrying about scrutiny from the clan.

Sarutobi sat there impassively, having sensed this was the likely direction of this meeting. He knew that the Hyuuga, their public image tarnished by Hinata defeating Neji, would seek some way to restore that image. The only way to do so would either be with Hinata being soundly defeated by a Hyuuga roughly around her level in skill and ability and thus restoring their public image or by bringing her back into the clan and showcasing her strength as being part of the Hyuuga. He glanced to Hinata, watching the young kunoichi kneeling before the leaders of the Hyuuga clan.

Anko also watched Hinata carefully, doing her best not to react to this news. It was shocking but not entirely unexpected. The Hyuuga clan leaders were politicians more than they were shinobi, looking to do what best improved their public image and best served them and their clan. She still was surprised that they'd be willing to take a course of action that essentially acknowledged that they had made a bad call. It was admitting a sign of weakness, something they hated to do. Anko also felt a pain in her heart as she thought about what it would mean for her and Hinata. Hinata was like a little sister to her, one she didn't want to let go of. Yet she also knew that behind her were the girl's actual sister and mother, both of whom cared for her as well, and vice versa. She had no desire to see Hinata's chance to be reunited with them be denied just for her own feelings.

Hinata sat there, her eyes wide as she looked over the elders. Each of their faces was an impassive mask, schooled not to reveal anything. It was an art that they had perfected through years of practice and experience. Hiashi's face was equally cool, giving her nothing.

She finally calmed herself down enough to answer. "I am surprised by this offer. I thought that my transgressions were too severe for such a thing to be considered," she said, doing her best to keep a sarcastic tone out of her voice when she mentioned her 'transgressions'.

"You would be brought back into the clan, but there would be certain conditions to your reinstatement," one of the elders said. "Your crippling of a promising member of the Main Family would require some punishment still be implemented. As such, you would be placed in the Branch Family."

"You would, of course, still have the benefits of being a member of the Hyuuga Clan. The resources, the protection, and access to trainers and knowledge to help you achieve true mastery of the Jyuuken," another elder stated.

Hinata narrowed her eyes ever so slightly at those words. "Would I be allowed to continue utilizing my technique?" She asked, only to see her former grandfather shake his head.

"You would not need that…aberration you utilize. With the proper teachers, you will learn the Jyuuken as it is meant to be used," he stated.

Anko wanted to let out a snort of disgust at that but managed to refrain from it. Sarutobi, however, decided to comment. "I would think that is unwise. While the Jyuuken is strong, Hinata has shown great strength with her version of it. Perhaps it would be better to add her style for those who might have trouble properly utilizing the traditional Jyuuken?" He asked.

"There is not necessary. The Jyuuken is perfect, and with enough practice, every Hyuuga is capable of fully utilizing it," Hiashi stated, as the elders nodded with him.

Hinata slowly shook her head, looking down slightly. "But not necessarily use it well…like me," she said. As they all looked at her, surprise and anger flickering in their eyes, she continued. "With enough practice, I'd be able to use the Jyuuken…but I would never reach my full potential because the style does not fit me. That is what Anko-sensei discovered. That is why she helped me learn the style I use now."

She looked up, boldly returning their gazes at her. "Not every person will fit the same style. I was weak because I was trying and failing to use something I was not compatible with. And instead of understanding that and working to help me find another way, you labeled me as weak and ridiculed me. When I finally did start to grow strong, you punished me because I was growing strong in a way you disapprove of. And now that I have proven my strength to the village and beyond…you want to lock me away and try to force me to follow your ways. To act the way you want me to."

"How dare you, impudent girl," Hiashi growled out, the first real sign of emotion this whole time appearing on his face. Yet his father stopped him, staring at Hinata.

"This will be your only chance to return to the clan. The only chance you have of reconnecting to your family," he threatened, causing Hinata's eyes to soften.

"…and that is the only regret I have about rejecting your offer," she stated. "That I will not be able to return to my kaa-san and imouto. But I can only hope they'll be willing to forgive me," she said quietly, unable to look back at where Hitomi and Hanabi sat. She looked up again, her eyes hardening. "I thank you for your offer, but I decline. I will not trade the freedom and strength I have to save your public image."

Hiashi snarled and waved a hand. "Then this meeting is done. Begone," he said, rising and storming out before anyone else. The elders followed, sending glares in Hinata's direction while two of the guards followed them.

Hinata slowly shook her head before slowly standing and finally turning in the direction of her mother and sister. She saw the sad looks on both their faces, and it broke her heart seeing Hanabi trying not to cry. "Imouto-chan…I-I'm sorry," Hinata said softly.

Hanabi sniffled before surging up and hugging her. Hinata gasped in surprise before gratefully hugging Hanabi as Hitomi moved to join her. "There is nothing to forgive," Hitomi said to her softly. "They would have trapped you here and broken you. I-I would rather see you free and happy than locked away and broken."

Hinata gave the slightest nod before looking down to Hanabi. "You keep growing strong, okay Hanabi? You're going to be clan head one day," she said as she gently stroked Hanabi's head, causing the young Hyuuga to look up at her.

"I-I will nee-chan," she hiccupped out. "A-and when I do, I'll make the clan better. I'll make it a place where we can all be happy. A-and I'll bring you back to the clan!"

Hinata smiled slightly at that. "I'm sure you'll make the clan strong and happy. And I'll be proud to call you Hanabi-sama one day," she said, causing Hanabi to sniffle and giggle, burying her face against her again.

The two remaining guards watched for a few moments before one finally spoke. "Sincerest apologies, but it is time for the guests to leave," he said, causing Hanabi to hiccup and sob slightly. Hinata pulled away and moved to join Anko and Sarutobi as the two guards escorted them to the exit.

Outside, Sarutobi let out a quiet sigh. "Well, that was a waste of time," he said, pulling out his pipe and lighting it. He began to puff on it for a few moments before turning to Hinata. "I am sorry you had to go through that, Hinata. But I believe you made the right call."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Hinata said as she bowed. "I feel…relieved. I think I needed to confront them," she added.

"That is good to hear," Sarutobi replied with a small smile. "I am glad to see you've grown into a strong kunoichi. It warms my heart to see how far you and Naruto have come."

Hinata just smiled and bowed again as the old Hokage headed off, leaving Hinata with Anko. The young girl finally slumped a bit at that point, a breath of air escaping her lips as Anko gently pulled her ward against her side.

"So…how about after we get out of these getups, we go get a treat, huh?" Anko asked, a grin on her face. "Something to celebrate sticking it to those stuck-up assholes?"

Hinata looked up at her with a smile. "I'd like that," she said. "And…I'd also like your…help with something," she added.

Anko blinked in surprise but nodded. "Alright, then let's get going. Dango and cinnamon rolls are waiting for us," she said with a wide grin as they headed off.

Elsewhere, Tsunade took a deep breath as she approached the office of Inoichi Yamanaka. While he served as one of the village's head interrogators and information gatherers, he and some of the other members of his clan served as therapists, a critical role in a village filled with those who killed and faced death on a seemingly daily basis. With the amounts of injuries, near-death experiences, and losses of loved ones or friends, it was considered very important that all shinobi undergo regular mental and emotional evaluations to ensure they weren't becoming mentally or emotionally unstable.

For Tsunade, she was here to schedule appointments to help treat her for her grief over her lost loved ones, as well as her fear of blood. The latter was especially important if she was going to live up to her reputation as one of the best medical ninja the world had seen.

As she approached, the door to Inoichi's office opened as Naruto stepped out. The two paused when they saw each other. "Gaki? Everything okay?" She asked.

Naruto nodded with a bit of a weak smile. "Yeah. I was just getting some things off my chest. Hokage-sama suggested I speak to Inoichi-san after what happened."

Inoichi appeared behind him. "Remember Naruto-san, next week at two. We'll see how things go from there," he said before looking up. "Tsunade-san, welcome."

"Thank you, Inoichi-san," she said as Naruto quickly headed off. "I was hoping to talk to you about seeking treatments centered around…a certain problem I've developed."

"I see then. Please come in, and we'll see what we can do," he said, stepping back into his office so she could enter.

Naruto, meanwhile, made his way towards the Assassin warehouse. Raphael had been quick to call a meeting, now that all of them were back in Konoha and out of the hospital. Information had been trickling in from Raphael's sources, and it was time for the Assassins to start getting back into action.

Naruto soon arrived at the warehouse, slipping in quietly when he was sure no one was watching. He looked around, feeling a sense of relief washing over him. After the revelation about Jiraiya being his godfather, returning to this place and his 'family' made some of the pain and anger he felt go away. He closed his eyes for a moment before opening them as Raphael entered.

"Naruto, guess you're the first one here," he said with a smile, moving over to the blonde genin. "How are you feeling?"

Naruto gave him a slight nod. "Better. I don't know if I'd say I'm feeling good, but…I'm better," he said, only to whine a bit when Raphael ruffled his hair. Yet his whine was very half-hearted as a part of him found he liked the familiar gesture.

"Well, it's good to have you back. For now, why don't you get some training in while we wait for the others," Raphael suggested, moving to the desk and immediately beginning to sort through the files on it.

Naruto nodded before moving to one of the training dummies, where he began practicing his taijutsu, pummeling the dummy with a series of jabs and hooks. Raphael paused as he watched Naruto for a few moments before looking back to the files.

The warehouse door opened a few minutes later, and Yugito entered, smiling a bit when she saw Naruto. "There you are," she said as she strolled over. "Too busy to come let me know you were back in the village?"

Naruto glanced up at Yugito and gave her a quick smile. "Sorry, I was…distracted by some things," he said, allowing her to hug him as he did the same back. "How have you been?"

"Busy. Between my missions as a kunoichi, meeting up with a few of Raphael-san's spies, and advising Hokage-sama regarding Kumo, I've been swamped," Yugito said, sitting down in a chair to watch Naruto train. "Thankfully, things are starting to calm down a bit."

"And how's Iruka-sensei?" Naruto asked, getting back to punching the dummy. This meant he missed the blush on Yugito's face.

"He's doing fine. We're doing fine," she said, trying not to think about how that very morning she had been lying in Iruka's bed, snuggling against him after a night of passionate sex. She and Iruka had spent a rather romantic evening together. With how amazing the date had gone, Yugito had finally decided to make the first move in advancing their relationship. One thing led to another, and some hours later, the two were intimately embraced, wreathed in the afterglow of their first lovemaking.

She shook her head, still not successfully trying to suppress the memories of last night as she watched Naruto attack the dummy, seemingly focusing a lot more on offense. She narrowed her eyes as she saw him hitting it a bit more forceful than usual. "Everything okay? Did that dummy do something bad?" She asked teasingly.

Naruto shook his head, focusing. "No, just…got some stuff to work through," he said, gritting his teeth as he tried to stop thinking of Jiraiya's face replacing the dummy's head.

Before Yugito could ask him what was going on, she saw Raphael, out of the corner of her eye, make a motion with his hand. When she looked at him, she saw he was shaking his head. Frowning, she decided to wait till later to find out.

Kiseki came in next, nodding to them all as she sat down as well. She blinked as she saw Naruto training before glancing at Yugito, who shrugged and silently pointed at Raphael. Their mentor sighed and shook his head again, letting them know he'd tell them later.

Thankfully Anko and Hinata arrived not that long afterward, each enjoying their preferred sweet snacks. "I still don't get why you won't try dango. It's so obviously better," Anko said between bites of the skewered dumplings.

"Because cinnamon rolls have the added taste of cinnamon to complement the sweetness," Hinata shot back, licking her fingers. Both of them now were more comfortably clad in their assassin robes as well.

Naruto looked up as he heard them enter, smiling a bit as he came over to them. "Hinata-chan, how did it go with the Hyuuga? Is everything okay?" He asked, glad for a distraction.

Hinata gave him a nod and smiled. "Yes, everything is fine. The Hyuuga Elders...they offered me a chance to return to the Hyuuga clan. But only if I was willing to put myself completely under their thumb. So I turned them down," she said, looking at the others. "This...this is my clan now."

They all smiled at her, touched at her words before Raphael cleared his throat. "Well, now that we're all here, it's about time we got down to business," he said.

As everyone proceeded to get comfortable, he indicated the reports on his desk. "A number of my contacts have sent information about recent weapon shipments that have fallen into the hands of bandits along the northern frontier of Hi no Kuni, as well as a number of other nations off to the north-east. Whether the weapon shipments were stolen or sold to them is what needs to be found out. However, what is most concerning is that supposedly a couple of these shipments contained experimental weapons from Yuki no Kuni."

Hinata frowned a bit at that. "Why is that concerning?" She asked, only for Yugito to answer.

"Yuki no Kuni is rumored to be on the leading edge when it comes to new inventions. Due to the land being frozen most of the year, they're forced to import many essentially things such as food, fabrics, and other necessities they cannot grow or manufacture. To offset the crippling costs of importing so much of these things, they export a large number of ores and minerals they've been able to mine out of the mountains. However, that alone is not enough since they must compete with Tsuchi no Kuni in that market. The previous Daimyo, Sosetsu Kazahana, began funding the creation of a number of new technologies that could help his country before he was overthrown and killed by his brother, Doto Kazahana. Since then, Doto has continued funding the development of new technologies but has focused more on developing weapons and other military-based equipment. I know that Kumo tried several times to steal some of their technology, but the shinobi of Yuki have proven capable enough to fend off the infiltrators. I'm sure other villages have tried the same."

"Which is why this will be our next major investigation," Raphael said. "If the bandits stole the weapons, they need to be taken down. If they were sold to the bandits, it could be Doto's attempt to destabilize the other shinobi villages in a prelude to war. Or…our mysterious organization that Gato was a part of might be taking part in this as well. We know already that Gato was attempting to infiltrate and perhaps weaken some of the other shinobi villages. What we've gathered from his files indicates he was working for some organization that has designs on the Elemental Nations. Therefore it's important that we uncover the truth behind these weapons and if they're part of a larger scheme."

He sat down, sighing as he did so. "Sadly, it's not going to be that easy. For the moment, we cannot really spare anyone to investigate. Both Anko and I are currently still recovering from our injuries. Even if we weren't, that would leave only me to investigate as the rest of you are required here in the village while Konoha is rebuilding. I doubt very much Hokage-sama would be able to allow any of you time to investigate this. This brings me to the second order of business: expansion."

All of them shifted in their seats at that, looking to each other. "You mean bringing in other assassins here?" Kiseki finally asked.

"No…I mean establishing new Brotherhood chapters elsewhere," Raphael said. "Outside of us, the only other Assassin is Mukei, who patrols the waters between the mainland and the island nations. He has been keeping an eye on Kirigakure no Sato and Mizu no Kuni, and so we cannot pull him away from that. I believe…that we may soon need to recruit more members in other lands to expand our influence and our capability to handle situations across the Elemental Nations."

"But how would we do that? I mean…outside of yourself, we can't really just stroll into other villages and start recruiting new people," Naruto said quietly. "They wouldn't take kindly to foreign shinobi doing that."

"You're right. I'd have to be the one who does the initial recruiting. But all of you could still help," Raphael explained. "I would most likely bring back a few promising recruits here for training, at which point all of you would take part in training them to be Assassins if I believe you're ready for that. In time I would return them to their home nations, where they would start their own Assassin chapters. I would assign one of them to be the leader of their chapter, and they would report back to me."

"Hokage-sama might not go for it. We'd essentially be bringing in potential spies to Konoha," Anko countered.

"A detail that would need to be worked out. I have no intention of compromising Konoha. But as I said, I believe we're going to need the extra numbers to handle things," Raphael said simply. "It is not something we need to start immediately, but it is something that needs to be done. However, I do want to hear your thoughts on this."

There was a few moments of silence before Yugito spoke up. "Where would you establish the new chapters? I doubt very much you'd be able to do so in the middle of the shinobi villages. The only reason we've been able to do it here is because of your deal with Hokage-sama and with a future Hokage that could end really quickly."

Raphael nodded at that. "The thought had occurred to me as well, which is why I'm planning to establish a safe house for us in the Hi no Kuni capital. We will be able to operate from there if our position here in Konoha is compromised. And I will do the same in other nations as well."

"And who will you recruit? I doubt you'll be able to get shinobi in the other nations," Kiseki asked.

The Assassin Mentor smiled a bit at that. "They are not the only ones who can be Assassins. There are civilians, former soldiers, any number of non-shinobi individuals who can be skilled assassins. You just need to know where to look," he told her. "It's not chakra that makes an Assassin…it is stealth, discretion, skill, and commitment. Things that you don't need chakra to have. Though I'm sure it helps."

The others nodded a bit at that as they contemplated his words. "As it stands, all of this will still be in the planning stage. Actually beginning recruitment and expansion will take some time. But I do believe it is important that we contemplate the idea now and prepare for it, rather than waiting until it is too late."

He looked around at them. "As I said though, for the moment our main concern is getting back into action. I'll deliver the information I've gathered to Hokage-sama and we'll take it from there. For now, continue your training and await further instructions."

They all nodded and got up, the meeting over. Yet none of them moved to leave, instead dispersing a bit throughout the warehouse. Hinata was with Naruto, the two of them talking as they began to train together, leaving the adults gathered together. Yugito turned to Raphael, hands on her hips. "Okay, so now can I ask what's going on with Naruto?" She asked quietly.

Both Raphael and Anko looked at each other before the latter responded. "Naruto had a run-in with Orochimaru. It led to some problems between him and Jiraiya. Naruto's trying to work it out. Suffice to say, don't bring it up unless he does, because he's very…emotional about it at the moment," she said, glancing over at Naruto.

Kiseki and Yugito looked over to Naruto in concern, seeing him smiling as he listened to Hinata talk about something, before the two kunoichi nodded. "I should still try to talk to him about his progress with Kyuubi. His emotional state could be a detriment to that," Yugito said, crossing her arms.

"Give him a day or two first," Raphael cautioned her. "We don't want to rush him into anything until he's had some time."

"And how is Hinata doing? I imagine facing the Hyuuga Elders and Hiashi wasn't easy," Kiseki asked Anko, who just smiled.

"Actually I think it helped her out quite a bit. She looked quite…relieved after it was done. I think the only thing she regrets is how it'll affect how much time she can spend with Hitomi-san and Hanabi-san," she said. "Other than that, she seemed quite happy with getting to tell them off."

"That's good. She's come a long way from that nearly broken girl who joined us," Raphael said, looking at the two young Assassins. "It's good to see them supporting each other."

He turned back to his desk, moving to sit down. "I think I should get to work on that briefing for Hokage-sama. I'm sure you all have things to do as well."

The women nodded and quickly moved to either leave the warehouse or start training, joining Hinata and Naruto as Raphael began organizing the information he was going to share with Sarutobi.

That Evening

Tsunade sighed quietly as she sat in a bar, slowly sipping on some sake. Instead of heartily enjoying the drink, it was more an excuse to sit alone and try not to be disturbed while she thought about her meeting with Inoichi.

They had set up appointments for her to see him about getting treatment for her fear of blood, and in fact had talked about it initially already. Inoichi had told her he wanted to start to get a feel for her problem so he could start to formulate a plan of treatment for her. It had been quite tough, attempting to talk about what caused her to freeze, to emotionally and mentally shut-down every time she saw blood. She had barely been able to give him even the barest details, as even thinking about it had nearly triggered another episode for her.

And yet, it was the thought of what Jiraiya and Naruto had said to her that had allowed her to get that far. The thought that perhaps they were right and that it was time to not just confront her problems with Konoha but also the tragedies of her past that she had continually run away from.

She closed her eyes for a moment, only to open them as the chair opposite her was pulled out. She found herself looking at her old sensei as he sat down. "Greetings Tsunade-chan. I hope I'm not disturbing you too much," he said with a smile.

"Hokage-sama," she greeted, setting her saucer down. "I think I can guess why you're here."

"Oh? How do you know I didn't simply come here to enjoy a drink and was surprised to find one of my old students?" He asked with a kind tone.

Tsunade just rolled her eyes. "Because you don't enjoy sake nearly enough to visit a bar to get some. You have your own personal bottles at home that you dip into," she said, finishing her current saucer and pouring another one.

The aged Hokage chuckled softly. "Too true my dear, too true," he said, before growing more serious. "And yes, you're correct. I'm here to talk to you about being my successor."

Tsunade sighed, lowering the refilled saucer that had been halfway to her lips. "Look, it was one thing for that gaki to get me back to the village, but do you honestly think that means I'd even consider the position of Hokage? I'm a drunken gambler, not exactly someone to inspire leadership in others," she stated. "Leading was never my thing, that was always Orochimaru and Jiraiya and...their dream," she said, her voice hitching at the last part.

Sarutobi nodded quietly at her words. "All of that is true, Tsunade. But in truth I thought very much the same thing when I was told I'd be the Sandaime Hokage. I didn't think I was possibly ready or even suited for the task. Do you think my younger self was right?"

Tsunade just blinked at him. "…part of me wants to say you're shitting me. You're a natural at it," she said.

Sarutobi chuckled at her words. "Hardly my dear. It took me several years of learning and mistakes, and even once I was comfortable and confident in the role I still had days where I was an inch from starting another shinobi war. No one can ever be truly ready to lead an entire shinobi village. It is only when you are in the moment that you learn whether you are truly ready for the role."

"And what makes you think I'm even capable of leading a shinobi village?" She asked, slowly sipping from her saucer. "I was never one for politics and diplomacy. I've always solved my problems with my fists or by running away."

"Because, my dear," he said, staring directly into her eyes so she could see the truth of his words, "you want to help people. You want to protect them, save them. It is why you became a medical ninja, is it not? It is why you fought so hard for the program to train medical shinobi for each squad, to reduce casualties in the field."

Tsunade hesitated at his words. "…that's just what I was good at," she said, looking away slightly.

Sarutobi chuckled at her excuse. "With your chakra control you could have easily focused on being a pure taijutsu specialist using your strength enhancement. You could have focused on genjutsu like Kurenai Yuuhi, one of our jounin. You could have focused on ninjutsu and become a ninjutsu powerhouse with your control. You could have even followed in your grandmother's footsteps and become a seal master. But you CHOSE to focus on medical jutsu. Why?" He asked her.

Tsunade kept looking away, before finally speaking. "…because of my grandfather," she finally said quietly. "When I wasn't asking him for money to gamble with, I'd listen to him talk about why he loved the village. How he wanted a place where children could grow up instead of dying young on the battlefield. Where everyone was family and where the Hokage protected them all, I listened to why he did what he did, forming an alliance with the Uchiha and building this place. It stuck with me, even though I was really little. When he died…I wanted to make him proud. Live up to the Senju name. So I thought I'd help his dream by learning how to heal people."

"And that, my dear, is why I think you'd make an excellent Hokage," Sarutobi said. "Each Hokage, in their own way, strove to protect and serve the people of this village. Some of us through strength of arms, others through our skills in diplomacy. That is what the Shodai and Nidaime saw in me. It is what I saw in young Minato. And it is what I see in you now."

Tsunade shuddered, still looking away. "…I don't know if I could do it…it'd be such a painful reminder of them…thinking of what they'd be doing in my spot…I don't know if I could…if I…"

As she trailed off, Sarutobi nodded quietly. "I understand, Tsunade. I will not press you on this. You are dealing with a lot of pain and grief. But I would like you to think about it. I believe you to be the best choice."

Tsunade looked at him, eyes slightly watery from the memories and emotions stirring in her. "Is there no one else?" She asked quietly.

"There is Jiraiya, but given recent events and his own usefulness outside of Konoha…I feel he'd be even more resistant to the idea of being Hokage then you are," Sarutobi said. "The only other choice…would be Danzo. "

Tsunade's eyes narrowed ever so slightly at that. "Why him?" She asked, knowing the man's reputation. While a skilled leader and tactician, she knew he also was the farthest thing from what Sarutobi had described as being an ideal Hokage.

"Because sadly, there is no one else with enough experience and skill to lead while still being able to fight. My former teammates are both incapable of fighting, while Danzo has done his best to keep his skills sharp. Anyone younger simply doesn't have the experience yet to take this position. The best choices after Danzo are Shikaku Nara and Kakashi Hatake, and I don't believe either is ready yet," he said.

"Is this you trying to push my decision? Out of fear of letting that emotionally crippled bastard take over?" She asked, a bit of fire in her voice now. Sarutobi, however, shook his head.

"Not at all. I am merely stating the facts here. I did not say any of that to try and influence you, as you were the one who asked. But it is the truth of the matter," he said, before standing up. "It seems like it would be a good idea for me to leave, before I sour this discussion further. I hope you will consider taking this chance, Tsunade. When you're ready to give me an answer, my door is open."

Tsunade watched him leave before turning back to look at the table and the half-empty saucer of sake. She stared at it for a few moments more before downing it and quickly placing some money on the table. She soon headed out the door as well, her mind consumed with thoughts about what Sarutobi said as she disappeared into the night.

Takigakure no Sato

Shibuki, shinobi leader of Takigakure no Sato, could only stare at his advisors in shock. "You want to what?" He asked, looking between the three shinobi in shock.

"Shibuki-sama, you have to understand that this is what is best for the village. We cannot stand up against what is coming," one of them, an elderly retired shinobi, stated.

"You are talking about betraying one of our own!" The young leader retorted, clenching his fists. "Not only that but one of our most powerful assets. If we lose her-"

"We'll lose the whole village if we don't!" Shot back the jounin kunoichi who served as his second in command. "Kakuzu was already a dangerous shinobi when he tried to assassinate Hashirama Senju and he's had several decades to grow stronger since then. Do you honestly think any of us can stop him? Do you think YOU can stop him?"

Shibuki flinched at that, trembling a bit as he looked away. "T-There has to be another way," he said, standing up and turning away. "We can't just…we can't…"

The last advisor, the representative of the village civilians, now spoke. "Shibuki-sama…Kakuzu made his demands quite clear. This must be done for the good of the village," the middle aged man said.

Shibuki closed his eyes, wondering how everything had gone so horribly wrong. The previous day, a chuunin from one of their teams had stumbled into the village, bloodied and exhausted. When he had been treated, the clearly terrified man had told them that his team had been ambushed by Kakuzu, a missing nin from Taki who was a well-known bounty hunter and was rather infamous for his failed attempt to assassinate Hashirama Senju. When he had failed, he was imprisoned in Taki, only to escape while stealing the hearts of the village elders and some of Takigakure's most powerful forbidden jutsu. One of those jutsu had allowed him to utilize the elders' hearts, and later hearts of other shinobi, to extend his life and grow more powerful.

Now it seemed he had returned, as the frightened wounded chuunin told Shibuki and the others that Kakuzu and some unknown man wielding a tri-bladed scythe had attacked them, slaughtering the rest of his squad. He had been spared to deliver a message to Taki, a demand for them that, if not met, would result in the destruction of the village.

Shibuki kept shaking his head. "If our most powerful shinobi use The Hero Water, they could stop Kakuzu," Shibuki said, referring to the relic of their village. This special chakra infused liquid that was produced by the tree the village was built around. If one were to drink it, their chakra potency could be increased by ten times in power, but at the cost of a significantly reduced lifespan, if not death itself. It was Taki's ace in the hole, one they jealously guarded.

The kunoichi shook her head. "We'd have to give it to at least five of our best jounin, and they'd be dead either way. All we'd be doing is weakening the village to protect one single person. We cannot endanger the village for just her. You know this."

Shibuki closed his eyes. "…she has been loyal to this village, even though this village has done little to earn that loyalty," he said.

"Then she should have no problem doing what is necessary to protect it," the elder said. "You have to do what is best for the village, Shibuki-sama. If not…we will…"

Shibuki's eyes snapped open, looking at the elder and then the rest of them. "You'd betray me?" He asked, his voice accusing, hurt, and a definite note of fear present in it.

"If it means protecting this village…yes," the kunoichi said as the two men nodded. Shibuki looked at them all before slowly sitting down in his chair, his head lowered.

"If you all are committed to this path…you send the message to Kakuzu then. I will speak to Fu," he said quietly.

The trio all bowed with the civilian speaking up. "You are doing what is best, Shibuki-sama. You'll see," he said as they all left.

Shibuki remained still for a few moments before grabbing a piece of paper and trying to write a message on it, even as his hand was shaking. As soon as he finally did so he rolled it up, sealing it with his official seal before standing. It took him a few moments to steady his trembling legs before he moved to the door of his office and signaled the two guards outside. "Have this message sent to Konoha by the messenger hawk service," he told one of them, handing them the message. "And you…please find Fu and tell her I request her presence," he said, turning back into the office as the two shinobi headed off.

As soon as the door was closed he began to tremble again, fear overtaking him again. He knew what he was doing was stupid, perhaps even suicidal. A part of him even now was screaming to go stop the shinobi with the message, to do what would ensure his village's safety. Yet another part of him refused to budge. He could only sit down and silently pray he hadn't doomed himself and his entire village.

oh my fucking gosh, I can't believe how long it took me to get this chapter out. It wasn't even that long! Damnit…

DNHLR: What the hell happened man?

LR: Life happened. Had an issue going on here with my family, some crap that went down that had to be dealt with, but also just…just…I could not focus on this chapter. Like no matter how hard I tried, I could only get little bits done at a time. A few sentences, a paragraph or two if I was really lucky.

DLTLR: Yeesh. Sounds bad.

LR: It was. I hate myself for taking so long on this. Just hope what I did get out was okay. *shakes head* Sorry everyone, for taking so long.

RS19: At least it's done, right?

LR: Only if it's good. And we'll see what the readers think.

Thanks for reading, and again, I'm really sorry about the very late chapter. Hoe you all enjoy. And thanks go out to Bill Alain for betaing.