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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 1: The First Week

Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me, strange though that may seem. Instead it is Kishimoto Masashi's creation. However, the text of this fanfic is mine, and may not be used without permission. Also, walruses. Walri. More than one walrus. You know.

Day One

"And that's what happened." The sun had already begun to rise, but here, in the depths of the forest that was home to the Hidden Village of the Leaf, it would not be visible for some hours yet. The man who had spoken rubbed the back of his head. It still ached where he had hit the tree trunk the night before. He had planned to use a replacement technique to avoid the final strike, but the throw had come so suddenly.

"Very well," the spymaster replied. "Orochimaru-sama will be pleased."

"I don't think the Toad Hermit believed me." The man swallowed nervously. "Anyone can wear a cloak, after all."

"Is that so?" The spymaster smiled thinly. "You're a brave man, to admit you failed Orochimaru-sama."

"Stop playing with me, Yakushi. I did exactly as you asked. It isn't my fault your orders did nothing to distract the Hermit's attention." The man rose from his kneeling position, a hand sneaking down to the hilt of a hidden blade.

"Do you think Orochimaru-sama cares for such matters?" Yakushi Kabuto asked, the slight smile never leaving his face. "He has far more important things on his mind."

The man leapt backward, drawing his weapon. "I won't go down easily."

"Is that so?" Kabuto let out an overdramatic sigh. "I gave exactly the orders I wanted carried out. Why would I kill you?"

"What do you mean?"

Kabuto smiled once more. "Why do you assume Orochimaru-sama wanted Jiraiya-sama's attention turned away from him? You need not worry that you have failed him."

The man's eyes widened in realization, and he lowered his blade. Though he did not kneel again, he fell out of his battle stance. "You have a strange sense of humor, Yakushi-sama."

Kabuto laughed. "I've been told that before." He walked over and placed a hand on the man's shoulder. "But as I said, Orochimaru-sama will be pleased." The man buckled over, his body twitching as he slowly fell to my knees.

"Wh-" he managed to gasp out.

"What? My chakra has severed a few vital arteries. You should die shortly." Kabuto knelt down beside the man. "Or was it 'why' you want to ask?

"The Fuuma Clan broke faith with Orochimaru. You were a loose end that had to be tied up. You should have payed closer attention, my friend. After all," Kabuto said as he rose, "I did not say you had no reason to worry."

Then the man died.

Jiraiya yawned, and turned to the side of the small dirt road. "That's far enough for now." The rising sun shone brightly in his eyes, and he raised an arm to ward off the glare. "I haven't heard any pursuers." Even as Naruto plopped down on the ground beside him, Jiraiya frowned. If there had been as many hunters out as the man they had encountered had said, surely there would have been some sign of them. Several times during the night he had surreptitiously created a replication and sent it out to scout. Not once had he seen any hint that anyone other than Naruto and he had traveled the woods, save for the easily avoided patrols of Leaf ninja.

It was also worrisome that the man had known roughly when they would be leaving the village. Tsunade had gone to great lengths to obscure whether and when Naruto would be leaving the village, for fear of an Akatsuki spy. This was a sign not only that there was a spy, but that he or she was a highly skilled one - for no one else other than Tsunade had known in advance the night he had chosen to leave.

There was no real evidence the spy worked for Akatsuki, though. The captured hunter's description of his master could not be trusted, and even if the hunter had not lied there was every reason for whoever sought Naruto's life to seek to obscure his or her identity. Information was power, and it would have been awfully clumsy of Akatsuki to let slip that they were moving again that easily. Then again, their first strike had been an open attack on the Leaf, so who could say? Despite that, Jiraiya expected that if Akatsuki really were moving, they would not waste time with low-level thugs. It would have been a team of master ninja camped outside Leaf's gates, not hired mercenaries. As well, he had good intelligence that Akatsuki wasn't ready to move yet.

So then, who? Orochimaru was the obvious candidate, but there was no direct evidence pointing to him either. He certainly had the means and motive, though. Jiraiya could not, however, rule out the possibility that a new player had entered the game. He sighed. Such musings were likely only to leave him thinking in circles. Unless new evidence presented itself, there was not much he could do. With another sigh, he pulled a scroll out of his pack and sat down beside Naruto.

The genin looked at Jiraiya, excited. "Is that the new technique you're going to teach me?" He reached for the scroll suddenly, wrenching it from Jiraiya's unresisting hands. Naruto rapidly began to unroll it, only to grimace. "It's blank!"

"That's right," Jiraiya said as he took the scroll back. He pulled a brush and ink from his pack, ripped off a piece of paper from the blank scroll, and set to writing.

Naruto peered curiously over the Sannin's shoulder. "Rabbit moon fire... it doesn't make any sense!"

"It's a code, Naruto," Jiraiya said. "That way I don't have to worry about someone I don't want to reading it."

"What's it say?"

Jiraiya shrugged. "Just a quick note to Tsunade." He added the last few characters to his message. He handed the shred of paper to Naruto, who began to read through the meaningless-seeming words. Jiraiya bit at his thumb, just hard enough to break the skin and cause blood to flow. He placed his hand on the ground. "Summoning Technique," he breathed.

A small toad appeared in a puff of smoke, and Jiraiya took the scrap of paper back from Naruto. "Take this to the Hokage's office and give it to Tsunade, please," he said to the waiting toad as he rolled the paper up and tied it with a piece of string. The toad nodded solemnly, and Jiraiya tossed the message to it. The toad caught the small roll of paper in its mouth. There was a blur of motion, and the summoned creature was no longer there.

Jiraiya sighed as his quick eyes followed the toad's path. That was that, he supposed. This training journey looked like it was going to get more complicated than he had feared. He actually had thought of taking Naruto to the Wind Country - the Sand were once again allies after all, however tentative that alliance might be of late. The confirmation that someone was actively seeking Naruto changed that, though. That would be the first destination that any reasonably informed hunters would anticipate.


Jiraiya ignored Naruto's interjection. The choice then, was between the Earth Country and the Hidden Village of Rock or the Lightning Country and the Hidden Village of Cloud. He supposed it was also possible to double back and head for the Water Country, or to visit one of the smaller countries, but he thought those inferior choices. The Mist still guarded their islands and techniques with the unwavering ferocity that had once given their village the name of Bloody Mist. The smaller countries were not home to the same breadth of opportunities as the five great powers. It would have to be Rock or Cloud. With some persuasion, he ought to be able to secure instruction in a lower-level technique or two for Naruto - some earth or lightning techniques would give him an unexpected edge.

"Hey, Ero-sennin!"

"What is it, boy?" Jiraiya asked, turning his eyes to his impatient student.

"So, are you going to teach me a new technique or not?"

"Hmm." Jiraiya rubbed his chin theatrically. "I don't know."

"Eh?!" Naruto jumped up. "What's the point of this if I'm not going to learn any new techniques?"

"There's more to being a ninja than just techniques, Naruto." Jiraiya sighed. This was going to be a long day.

"So? I need new techniques!" Naruto insisted.

"And why is that?" Jiraiya asked.

"B- because!"

Another sigh escaped Jiraiya's lips. "A ninja doesn't just collect techniques like prizes, boy. Every technique you learn should be for a purpose. Otherwise, you are wasting your time."

"But Kakashi-sensei knows more than a thousand techniques!" Naruto protested.

"Kakashi has the Sharingan," Jiraiya said. "You don't."

"But I need to learn new techniques so I can beat Sasuke!"

"At last, a reason," Jiraiya said. "So tell me, Naruto. Why couldn't you beat Sasuke before?"

Naruto blinked. "Because he was stronger than me. That's why I need -"

"Sit down, boy!" Jiraiya interjected sharply. When Naruto complied, Jiraiya continued. "Strength is not the only thing that matters in battle. If you had been fighting Orochimaru, I would accept that as an answer. Sasuke is not Orochimaru. If he is stronger than you, it is still close enough that you could have won. You lost because you made a mistake. What mistake did you make, Naruto?"

Naruto's face fell, and he turned away. "I don't want to talk about it."

As much as Jiraiya tried, he could not get the normally talkative boy to say another word for the rest of the morning, and even after that Naruto would not discuss his battle with Sasuke.

"Sakura-chan! Wake up! Sakura-chan!" Sakura's mother pounded on her daughter's door in exasperation.

"I'm already up!" The young kunoichi's voice came from downstairs, in the kitchen. Her mother turned around at the sound. "I've been up since before you woke up!"

The older woman shook her head, trying to clear the last vestiges of sleep as she headed down the stairs. "Sorry, Sakura-chan," she said, entering the kitchen. "I must not be thinking yet. I guess I didn't sleep well last night." With a groan, she slid into her usual chair at the kitchen table, letting her head fall into her hands.

Sakura favored her parent with a worried glance. "Bad dreams?" she asked after a moment. At least, she didn't seem to remember last night's incident as reality. Explaining that would have been... moderately challenging.

Her mother raised her head, and twin pairs of green eyes met. "Perhaps," she said, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. "Are you hiding something from me again, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura winced. Her mother still didn't believe that she hadn't known that the second part of the Chuunin Exam would require five days away from home. She'd considered writing a rather unkind letter to... somebody explaining that not everybody had parents who had taken the exam themselves, knew what it required, and would take the sudden five day absence in stride. Then again, if her mother had known what it required, she would have tried to veto Sakura's decision to take the exam. That was a fight she was glad to have avoided.


"Of course not, Mother," Sakura answered, struggling to show no sign of hesitation.

Her mother frowned, but seemed to accept this. "Why were you up so early?"

"I have to go check on Naruto's place, and then I have a meeting with Hokage-sama." She had tried to check Naruto's door last night after he had departed, and quickly lost herself in the maze of unfamiliar streets. After a silent apology to Naruto, she had decided it was best to leave it until the morning. "I should probably be leaving soon."

"The Uzumaki brat? Why?" It was so like her mother to be more concerned with her association with Naruto than her meeting with leader of the village.

"He's left on a mission," Sakura answered after considering her words carefully. "He asked me to look after his apartment while he was gone."

"I see," her mother said. That seemed to be all she had to say on the subject. "Did you make yourself breakfast?"

"Yes, Mother." Sakura turned toward the door out of the house.

"Don't stay out too late."

"I won't, Mother." Sakura sighed once she was outside. Ever since she had become a ninja, it had gotten harder and harder to talk to her mother. Considering how little her mother seemed to like everything that came with being a ninja, she wondered why she'd ever been enrolled in the ninja academy. She had a feeling that asking would only prompt a nasty fight of the type she'd been trying to avoid since the Exam.

In the light of day she was better able to navigate the village streets and find her way to Naruto's apartment. It was still early, and few people were about, so she was able to run without worrying about a collision with a passerby. When she arrived at Naruto's apartment, she tested the door and sighed as it opened. Perhaps she should have searched longer last night.

Giving in to curiosity, she slipped inside. Her eyes widened at the sight she saw. Garbage was everywhere - the three open containers of instant ramen on the kitchen table were only the beginning. The small garbage can in the corner was stuffed to overflowing, and was that a pair of underwear she saw hanging off the doorknob into what looked like Naruto's bedroom? Sakura blinked several times. "I guess that's Naruto for you," she said to herself. How could anyone live like this?

Without even thinking about it, she found herself somehow managing to fit at least the ramen containers into garbage bag. Removing the bag from the trash can was more challenging, but she managed - just barely - to keep it closed and the trash inside as she laid the can on its side and pulled it out. After that, the rest was easy - though the bag was heavy by normal standards, for a ninja it was trivially light. It took her several minutes to find the proper location to deposit the bag. It was only after that that she realized how much time she was wasting.

She raced back to Naruto's apartment and locked the door, but made a mental note to return. Not even Naruto should have to come home to that sort of mess, and in any case after a few weeks the stench would be unimaginable, and his neighbors certainly didn't deserve that. Maybe she could get them to ask for the apartment to be cleaned as a D-rank mission so she could get paid.

There was no time for such thoughts now, though. She took to the rooftops - a far rarer occurrence for her than Naruto, but by now people were starting to head for work and the streets were clogged. The last thing she needed was to be slowed down pushing herself through the crowds. Because of her relative inexperience, her progress was not as fast as possible, but somewhat slowed by the necessity of looking to see what the best building to jump to next was. Still, she made up enough time before she was forced to return to the ground - moving rapidly across the rooftops towards the administrative centers of the city was frowned upon, to put it lightly. "I was going to be late to a meeting with the Hokage because I wasted too much time taking out garbage," would not be terribly useful as an excuse if an ANBU guard mistook her for an intruder of some sort.

When she finally reached the Hokage's office, she was breathing heavily from the run. Tsunade looked up from a stack of paperwork as Sakura closed the door behind her. "Kakashi was right when he said you had willpower," she said, but her tone of voice made it clear that she did not mean it as a compliment.

"Hokage-sama?" Sakura asked, confused.

"I have had a closer look at your records, Haruno-kun." Tsunade ruffled through the papers on her desk and pulled one out. She began to read aloud. "The usual number and ranks of missions. Failed to reach the third stage of the Chuunin Exam. Weak taijutsu. Average in ninjutsu; uses precise chakra control to compensate for low stamina. Some talent in genjutsu, but untrained. No techniques of note. Is this accurate, Haruno-kun?"

Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from gulping. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

"I do not know what impression you were under, but I do not have time to help a below-average genin play catch up. Do you understand, Haruno-kun?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Sakura said quietly as she turned away. "I'll just -"

"Did I say you could leave, Haruno-kun?"

Sakura halted instantly. "No, Hokage-sama." She slowly turned back.

Tsunade set the piece of paper down and folded her hands in front of her face. "You want me to train you because you feel useless. You didn't believe you could do anything on your last mission."

Sakura remembered her helplessness, and lowered her head. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

"Here is my first task for you, then. There are many opportunities in this village for you to better yourself. I am feeling generous, therefore I will not assign Kakashi any missions this week, so you will have somewhere to start." Tsunade smiled behind her hands as Sakura's eyes widened. "Improve until you would not have been worthless on that mission, and perhaps then you will be ready to be my apprentice. Have I made myself clear, Haruno-kun?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Sakura said, some hope returning to her voice. "May I leave?"

"One more thing." Tsunade again searched through the papers that cluttered her desk, and when she found the one she was looking for she held it out to Sakura. The younger kunoichi gasped as she recognized the form. "The Hidden of Village of the Leaf will be hosting another Chuunin Exam next month," Tsunade continued. "I expect you to participate, and I expect you to improve your performance over your showing last time."

"But, Hokage-sama," Sakura protested, "The Chuunin Exam requires registration in teams of three, and I..." Sakura trailed off, shuffling her feet uncomfortably.

"Then you will just have to find two more people, won't you?" Tsunade asked.

After a moment, Sakura took the form. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

"Then you may leave." Tsunade's faint smile turned into a grin as the door to her office closed behind Sakura. "Sorry, Sakura-chan," she said to the empty air, "that was cruel, but it was what you needed most. Do your best."

Day Two

The morning had not been terribly successful for Sakura. Kakashi was nowhere to be found, but she had spent most of the morning tracking down the other jounin teachers and asking them to pass her request for a meeting on to him. After that she had attempted to implement her plan to get paid for cleaning Naruto's apartment, but those of his neighbors who were home had slammed the door in her face as soon as she said the words "Uzumaki Naruto." Why? Sure, Naruto was really annoying, but he'd never done anything to deserve that sort of reaction. It was strange.

Still, it did not change the fact that she was in Naruto's apartment, with a terrible mess before her and no hope of payment at the end. "I hope Naruto appreciates this," Sakura muttered as she considered where to begin. Best to start where she was, in the kitchen. That way she had a clear line of retreat in case the mess suddenly animated itself and fought in self-defense.

Fortunately, no trash monsters appeared as she placed a fresh bag in the garbage can and began to clear the room of what seemed like the entirety of its contents. It was an interesting challenge to attempt to throw six or more pieces of trash accurately at once, she soon found. Unlike shuriken, they were bulky and of differing shapes and weights. Still, after a few botched throws she had a good rhythm down and was clearing the room with surprising speed.

She paused briefly when she tossed her eighth milk carton into the trash. "Does he ever throw things out?" she wondered aloud. "Or does he just take that 'milk makes you strong' stuff really seriously?" With Naruto, she knew both options were probably equally likely. The image of Naruto guzzling carton after carton of milk forced a giggle past her lips. "'I'll get stronger for sure,' that's what he'd say."

The next carton she stumbled across forced her to abandon this amusing image however. "This expiration date is from last year! That idiot really does never throw anything out!" Sakura sighed, and tossed the offending package at the garbage can. It bounced off the pile of trash that rose from the can, and Sakura's eyes widened. "It's full already?" She glanced around Naruto's kitchen, and groaned as she realized that she'd cleared away only about half of the mess.

Now that she knew where the dumpster was, it took her less than a minute to deposit the full garbage bag and return. She eventually proved her previous estimate wrong - it took a full one and a half bags to clear out the rest of the kitchen, including the spoiling food from the refrigerator. A quick dusting of the tabletop, and the room actually looked somewhat well-kept. "Naruto had better thank me for this," Sakura said as she wiped her forehead. "And those rude neighbors, too. They're the ones who would've had to live with the stench."

She quickly pondered where to move next, frowning at the only exit from the kitchen other than the door leading to the outside. It was a small hallway with one door on each side and another at the far end. One of the side doors was half open, and from what she could see lead to Naruto's bedroom. That, she decided, was where to head next. A determined look on her face, she strode into the hallway.

She stopped, eyebrow twitching, as she saw what hung off of the bedroom door's doorknob. She lifted the piece of filthy underwear gingerly, holding it at arm's length. "I am not doing his laundry," Sakura decided. She had to draw the line somewhere, after all. A quick search of the bedroom uncovered an almost unused hamper, and Sakura set to filling it with the dirty clothing that was haphazardly strewn all over the room.

Once that was done, the room looked surprisingly clean. Sakura had to guess that ordinarily there would be more clutter, but that Naruto had taken a good portion of it with him on his trip. After a moment's thought, Sakura simply made up the bed and mentally declared the room clean. It wasn't her problem if Naruto tripped over things in the dark, and though the scrolls lying on the floor looked messy, she didn't exactly see a better spot for them in the rather bare room.

Heading back in the hallway, she decided that she might as well move in a circle and opened the door opposite the kitchen. This revealed a small bathroom, which Sakura was relieved to see showed at least a few signs that it had been cleaned at some point since Naruto started living here. "Even he has some limits, I guess," she said, a slight smile forming on her face. After a few moments' further consideration, Sakura decided that, though the bathroom was far too filthy for her taste, it wasn't worth her time to give it a thorough cleaning. It wasn't like she was going to get paid for this, after all.

She headed on to the last room, where she had to wrestle with the stuck door. When it finally opened, it kicked up a cloud of dust that left her coughing and sneezing. When it settled down, she looked inside and saw another bedroom, even more bare than Naruto's room. In fact, there was nothing there to show that it had been used in years. The bed was neatly made, and the nightstand - the room's only other piece of furniture - was empty save for the layer of dust that covered it.

"Well, I guess Naruto can't have lived alone all his life," Sakura commented to herself. "Was this his parents' room?" With the excuse of giving the room a quick, and certainly necessary, dusting, Sakura searched the room for any clue to its previous inhabitants. Much to her disappointment, she found nothing. She made one more quick survey of the apartment and decided that her work here was done. It wasn't really clean by any real standards, but now it wasn't nearly as likely to start generating complaints from the neighbors in a few months.

As Sakura left and locked the door behind her, she glanced at the position of the sun and noted that she had been cleaning for longer than she had thought. On the bright side, it hadn't taken nearly as long as she had first feared it would - only an afternoon rather than a full day. Sakura sighed. Even with that, today had been a wasted day from a training perspective. If she was supposed to take the Chuunin Exam next month, she didn't have many days to waste.

Sakura began to slowly walk down the stairs to street level. She was out of shape, she knew. Though she hadn't been totally lax in her training, it felt like it had been ages since she'd seriously tried to push her limits, and longer since she'd been on an actual mission, rather than one of the near-pointless D-ranks she occasionally did for spending money. She had a lot of work to do to get herself ready for the exam, and that was the least of her problems.

First, she needed a team. Shikamaru had become a chuunin already, she knew, so his team would be short a member. But... teaming up with that pig Ino? Sure, they'd started getting along a little better since the first exam, but being on the same team would stick them together far too often for her taste. Besides, there was no way of knowing whether Chouji would be back in full health by then, anyway. If not, they'd still need a third member.

A sigh escaped Sakura's lips. That wasn't the main thing she was worried about, and she knew it. Those problems would only come into play if she could convince her mother to let her take the exam again in the first place. That was a fight that she was really not looking forward to. Looking back, her mother hadn't seemed completely thrilled when she'd chosen to become an active genin rather than heading into one of the training schools for administrators. Ever since the Chuunin Exams, though, they'd had more and more fights where it seemed the only rational explanation for her mother's behavior was that she didn't want Sakura to be a ninja.

Sakura's stomach growled, and her attention wandered to the side of the street. That was Naruto's favorite ramen stand, wasn't it? The owner was standing in the entryway, sweeping out the dirt the customers had tracked in over the day. He looked up, and smiled as he saw her. "You're Sakura-chan, aren't you? The Uzumaki kid's teammate?" She nodded, and the owner's smile widened. "Come in, come in. You look hungry, and I've got some leftover ramen that'll be ruined by the time the dinner rush starts." When Sakura hesitated, he waved to beckon her in. "I'll even give it to you half off!"

Her mother would say she was ruining her dinner. "Why not?" Sakura said. Moments later, she was seated and the owner dished out a bowl of ramen. The owner's daughter placed the bowl in front of her with a heavy thud.

"Here you go," she said.

"Thank you," Sakura said before she began to eat.

After a few moments, the owner half-turned to look at her. "Ayame says she saw you going in and out of the kid's apartment."

"Naruto's?" Sakura asked, nodding.

The man gave a slight nod of his own. "He hasn't been by today," he commented, and paused expectantly.

Sakura blinked. "He comes... every day?" she asked incredulously.

The owner and his daughter laughed in unison. "He's our best customer," the owner said after a moment. "He's the reason I've got so much left today - usually he'd have eaten at least four or five bowls by now." Sakura's face fell slightly, and the owner frowned in turn. "Is something wrong with him?"

Sakura shook her head. "No. He's just left on a... mission. He won't be back for a long time."

"Is that so?" the owner asked with a sigh. "We'll miss him."

Sakura glanced down at her ramen. "Seems like you're the only ones in this neighborhood," she said. "I was going to get the neighbors to ask for his apartment to get cleaned as a D-rank mission, so they wouldn't have to deal with the stench."

The owner traded a look with his daughter. "Ah," he said after a moment. "I see."

"What did he do to make them hate him so much?"

After a long moment, the owner shrugged. "I don't know," he said flatly. He paused, as though considering what to say. "Maybe Hokage-sama would." He caught her eyes, and Sakura frowned. He was trying to get her to ask Tsunade-sama... but how would she know? She'd only recently arrived in the village, after all.

Sakura finished her ramen, and rose to leave, reaching into her pocket for money. The owner again looked at her, and she felt like she was being weighed and measured. After what seemed an eternity he nodded. "Don't worry about it," he said.

"Are you sure?" Sakura asked.

He smiled. "Come back again."

Sakura nodded. "I will."

"Attack in forest. Okay. Spy suspected - snake? Unlikely others. Be careful."

Tsunade cursed the limits of the simple code she and Jiraiya had used back in their chuunin days. "Snake" meant Orochimaru, of course, and "others" would be Akatsuki - not a name they'd needed to use back then. She was certain that both groups did have agents in the Leaf - the village was simply too large to be certain that every inhabitant was loyal. With this little information, though, she had no way of determining who the spy was. Supposedly, no one had known Naruto's departure date but Jiraiya and she. The spy, whoever he or she might be, was either an incredibly good eavesdropper or very able in piecing together shreds of information into a coherent whole.

With a groan, Tsunade channeled chakra into the scrap of paper, and it burst into flames. As soon as the note was nothing but ash, she spoke to the toad that sat waiting on her desk. "You can go," she said, and the summoned animal vanished in a small puff of smoke. She ought to have tried to get Jiraiya to let her sign the toad contract, she decided. Though she was fond of her slugs, they were not well suited to serve as messengers. Then again, she probably wouldn't have succeeded. Since he'd gotten it, only two people she knew of had signed it.

She pushed aside the paperwork she had been working on and glanced up the portraits that hung on the wall opposite her desk. "Why did I ever take this job?" she asked the empty air. There was a knock on the door, and Tsunade straightened. "Come in."

"Yo," Hatake Kakashi said as he entered.

"Ah, you're back," Tsunade said. "Any difficulties?"

Kakashi shook his head. "I couldn't find any Sound ninja left on our side of the border." He grimaced. "I guess Orochimaru has what he wants."

Tsunade frowned, considering Jiraiya's message. "Perhaps."

Kakashi raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment. "So what's my next mission?"

Tsunade crossed her hands before her face. "You actually get a break now. Ten S-rank missions in a row is a bit much, I thought."

"There aren't enough jounin," Kakashi said. "You've told me that enough times."

"You're still getting a break, Kakashi." Tsunade grinned, though the Copy Ninja couldn't see it. "I thought that's what you wanted?"

"I'd like to request permission to leave the village, then," Kakashi said.

"Why?" Tsunade asked, genuinely puzzled for a moment. Kakashi clenched his fists, and Tsunade dropped her hands, half-rising from her seat. "Absolutely not!" she snapped. "I'm not going to let you throw your life away, Hatake. You even think about going after Orochimaru and I'll assign a full-time ANBU guard to keep you here!"

"They were my first students, Hokage-sama," Kakashi said after a moment. "I failed. Naruto's found a better teacher, and Sasuke... I have to do something!" The jounin's fists were clenched so tightly Tsunade was certain his nails were about to draw blood.

Tsunade seated herself, refolding her arms. "You still have one student, Hatake, and she needs your attention."

Kakashi's visible eye widened in surprise. "Sakura-chan?"

Day Three

It was on the third day of their journey that Naruto answered Jiraiya's question. The morning passed much as the previous two days - mainly in silence, with no words of consequence passing between them. The pair had entered the borderlands between the Fire and Hill countries, moving along the several trails that ran parallel to the main road. Though it had been many years since any serious fighting had taken place in these lands, they were still marked on neutral maps as contested, and Jiraiya had made Naruto hide his forehead protector with its Leaf emblem. If ninja from the Hill Country, or worse their ally the Hidden Village of Rock, were taking advantage of the Leaf's recent weakness to enforce their claim to these lands, it would be best to not advertise their allegiance. It would be even more important once they entered into the Hill Country proper and started to head further north into the Earth Country. If Orochimaru or Akatsuki had hunters after them... well, such small measures were unlikely to throw them off the scent, but they certainly would not hurt.

Though all these things weighed on Jiraiya's mind, far more pressing was the matter of his companion. He had never seen the boy so depressed, and from all he had heard it was far from normal for him to be this way for even a few hours - much less so a few days. Though Jiraiya had sometimes wished his student were a bit more quiet, this silence was troublesome, for in this mood Naruto was in no shape to train - or to fight if the need arose. Something would have to be done to shake him out of it.

"Hey, boy," Jiraiya said. Naruto grunted distractedly in reply. Jiraiya continued, "Let's go into the next village and get something to eat."

"Not hungry," Naruto said after a moment.

"Oh?" Jiraiya asked. "You do know that they don't eat ramen where we're headed, don't you?"

Naruto blinked in surprise. "No ramen! What kind of monsters are they?!" he yelled, the loudest he had been since Jiraiya had asked his question.

The Toad Hermit grinned. "Still not hungry?"

Naruto glared at Jiraiya, but followed eagerly as he lead the way into the village. It was small and not terribly prosperous - too far away from the main trade routes to benefit from hosting caravans on the way to Earth Country and too close to hope to encourage a small trade route to run through it. Then again, in the borderlands a little more prosperity would have been a dangerous thing. A slightly richer village would be a vastly more attractive target for bandits but would not be rich enough to afford the defenses it would need.

Finding the village's only restaurant - which was also the only bar - took only a minute. It was still an hour or so before noon, and only a handful of patrons, mostly old drunks, were in evidence. Jiraiya claimed an empty table in an abandoned corner, and Naruto sat across from him. Predictably, when the time came the young genin ordered one of every ramen dish on the menu. Jiraiya merely ordered a drink and settled down to watch his student eat - always a fascinating experience, in his opinion.

When Naruto was working on the third bowl of his feast, he paused briefly to speak. "I've been thinking about your question," he said, then dug into his next bowl.

"Is that so?" Jiraiya asked, fearing to press any harder.

"I know why Sasuke won," Naruto continued once he had consumed another bowl, "and it wasn't because I made a mistake." Jiraiya only raised an eyebrow and waited for his student to explain. Naruto dropped his gaze. "That's all," he said quietly.

Jiraiya frowned slightly, quickly smoothing his expression. "What do you mean?" Naruto said nothing, and Jiraiya sighed. "Finish your food." Naruto said nothing more until they were through and were leaving the small village. Then he looked around suspiciously before speaking.

"We're being followed," he whispered to Jiraiya, who nodded curtly.

"That's right," he said quietly, but he did not slow or look back. When they reached the edge of the village, a tall man with a sword strapped across his back stood in the center of the path leading back to road, and he gestured for the pair to stop. Jiraiya again did not slow, and Naruto hastened to keep up with his teacher.

As more men, armed with various improvised weapons filed out of the streets behind them, the man ahead raised both hands in a warding gesture. Jiraiya's keen eyes noted bowmen in the windows overlooking the street. "Easy, easy. We just want to ask a question of two."

Now Jiraiya halted, and Naruto, unprepared, stumbled ahead several more steps before stopping himself. "Speak quickly, before I lose my patience."

"I'm the closest thing to a mayor this place has," the man said, "and one of my men has accused you two of being spies from the Leaf. I just want your word that if so, the Leaf aren't planning to invade." The man gazed carefully at Jiraiya. "If you are who you are said to be, then I will trust your word."

Naruto opened his mouth, but closed it as Jiraiya hissed "Keep quiet, boy." He then continued, much more loudly. "We are travelers, passing through on the way north. No more, no less."

The leader nodded. "Very well. Let them leave." As the men all about relaxed, another voice cried out in protest.

"He lies!" A man they had seen in the bar stumbled forward out of the crowd behind them half-drunkenly. "I know him," he said, pointing at Jiraiya. "He's from the Leaf." Jiraiya turned to face him, eyes narrowing.

The village headman shook his head. "And if he is who you say, you'd be wise to back down."

The angry man snorted, his hands beginning to form a clumsy seal. Jiraiya blinked. "You're a ninja?"

"A strong one!" the man boasted as his hands firmed, quickly moving through a series of imperfect seals, and he inhaled deeply. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" He released his breath, and a cone of weak fire escaped his lips.

Jiraiya moved rapidly, his hands forming a single seal. "Whirlwind Counter!" Instantly, the slight breeze that had been blowing all morning stiffened, and the spectators covered their eyes to escape the dust that was thrown up. The oncoming flames shuddered as the strengthening wind blew against them and reversed their course. The attacker stumbled back as they hit and fell to the ground, singed but not badly hurt.

Jiraiya turned back to the mayor. "If word were to reach the Leaf that this village sheltered its missing ninja, they would be less than pleased. It would be best if something were done about it before then."

The mayor nodded nervously. "I understand."

Jiraiya glanced down at Naruto. "Let's go, Naruto." The two left without further incident, though a large party followed after them until the village was no longer in eyeshot.

Once their escorts had left, Naruto turned to Jiraiya excitedly, his depression for the moment forgotten. "I want to learn that technique!" he said, his eyes bright with enthusiasm.

Jiraiya smiled to himself. No doubt the boy wanted it to counter the Uchiha kid's fire techniques - exactly the reason he had shown it to him. Jiraiya's smile was gone when he looked down at Naruto, though. "Not until you tell me why you lost," he said, though not unkindly.

Naruto's face fell, and for a moment Jiraiya feared he would once again sink into silence. Then the genin spoke. "It wasn't a mistake," he said stubbornly. For a long moment, he said no more, but then he continued. "I lost because I didn't want to kill him, and he wanted to kill me. That wasn't a mistake." Naruto paused again, and he swallowed nervously before looking up at Jiraiya, fear in his eyes. "It wasn't!" he said again, though now there was more than a little hint of a question in his voice.

Jiraiya looked sadly at the boy. It was a hard lesson, but one he had to learn. "Naruto," he said quietly. "Sasuke has made his choice. He went to Orochimaru of his own free will, knowing what it meant. I wish I could say otherwise, but you really might have no other choice but to kill him."

Naruto shook his head. "I promised Sakura-chan that I'd bring him back. That's what I'm going to do."

Jiraiya said nothing out loud, but inside his head he recited a string of vulgar curses. There had to be some way to stop Naruto from repeating the same mistakes he had made so many years ago. He had three years to find that way, and he swore to himself that he would not fail.

At a few minutes after noon, or precisely four hours late, Kakashi arrived at the bridge that had always been his team's meeting place. Sakura tried to summon up her usual fervor, but it just wasn't the same without Naruto's matching anger to play off of or without Sasuke watching in amusement or annoyance - it was always hard to tell with him. Instead, Sakura was forced to simply cross her arms and sigh in exasperation. "You're late, Kakashi-sensei."

Kakashi let out a clearly forced chuckle. "Ah, sorry, Sakura-chan. I got lost," he said before jumping down from his perch to the surface of the bridge. There was none of his usual humor in the statement, just the rote words. For him, too, it just was not the same. Team Seven could hardly be called a team now - a jounin teacher who was always away on constant high-rank missions and a single genin who would likely die quickly on any of those. Kakashi had planned to ask Tsunade to assign Sakura to one of the other teams, probably Asuma's, but the Hokage had made clear in their discussion that she would consider that dereliction of his duty.

She was right, he supposed. Despite it all, Sakura was his student, and the only one he had left. It was his duty to guide her and teach her as best he could, and so he was here. "You asked for me to meet you?" he said. "Why?" Tsunade had told him the answer, but he wanted to hear it from the girl's own lips. Only then could he tell whether she meant it, though he suspected she did. She wasn't the type to be content being left behind. Otherwise she would never have agreed to take the Chuunin Exam the first time, much less this second time.

None of his thoughts showed plainly enough on his masked face for Sakura to read. "You are my teacher, Kakashi-sensei. I want to learn from you."

"Why?" Kakashi pressed.

"I've always been protected," Sakura admitted, glancing downward. "Without Sasuke-kun and Naruto I'd..." She trailed off, then continued in a stronger voice. "When Sasuke-kun left, I wasn't able to anything but depend on everybody else." She clenched her fists. "I want to be strong too. I won't be a hindrance any longer."

"Good," Kakashi said. It was as Tsunade had said, after all. "Then, let's begin." The jounin leapt off the bridge, landing lightly on the water, where he stood as easily as he would on solid ground. "Tell me, Sakura-chan. Can you do this?"

Sakura frowned, considering. "It would work like the tree-climbing exercise, wouldn't it?" She instantly discarded that thought. "No, the water moves and changes. You couldn't just keep a constant amount of chakra. It would have to be a flow, at just the right strength." She closed her eyes in thought for a second, then jumped. When she landed before Kakashi, her right leg sank into the water, almost halfway to her knee, but she quickly adjusted her chakra flow and stood, if unsteadily, on the water's surface. She looked up at Kakashi. "I can."

Her teacher smiled beneath his mask. "Very good. You've always had excellent chakra control." Sakura smiled faintly at the praise, but the expression faded as Kakashi readied a kunai. "Now we're going to work on your speed and taijutsu."

"Wait!" Sakura protested. "We're going to do that here?" She gestured down at the water beneath them.

"Scared already, Sakura-chan?" Kakashi asked mockingly.

Sakura's eyes narrowed as she pulled out one of her own blades. "No."

Kakashi's smile widened, though she could not see. "Then, let's begin." Without hesitation, he flung his weapon at Sakura's throat.

Wasting time on a nervous gulp, Sakura flung herself to one side, parrying the oncoming blade with her own kunai. Unthinking, she stretched out her free hand to block her fall without channeling chakra, and fell into the lake with a startled cry. Moments later, she pulled herself back on top of the water, grimacing at her mistake.

Kakashi absentmindedly twirled his kunai, which he'd caught before it fell into the water. "Not good, Sakura-chan. Again." Without further warning, he threw his dagger a second time.

Once more, Sakura dodged and parried, but this time chakra filled her hand as it hit the water. She flipped over and regained her feet, her kunai once again interposed between herself and her teacher. "Better," Kakashi observed, two more kunai appearing in his hands. He jumped, the twin weapons darting from his hands as he reached the apex of his path.

Sakura lowered herself into a crouch. She couldn't parry both kunai at once. Even as her free hand went searching for another weapon, she launched her own kunai on a collision course with one of Kakashi's. The two crashed into each other, and Sakura leapt backward, the second weapon hitting the water harmlessly. She almost lost her footing as her feet struck the water again, but a quick correction of the chakra flow kept her on the surface.

Her eyes widened. Shuriken, coming in from the rear. Her left hand slipped out of her pouch, hurling several shuriken of her own blindly behind her. She raced forward, then darted to one side, spinning around as a kunai came to her hands. As she'd expected, a shuriken still flew toward her, and she easily swatted it aside, sending it tumbling into the lake.

Sakura frowned. She knew she couldn't keep this up too long. Sooner or later her chakra would run out. She had to get Kakashi to concede that she'd passed the exercise before then. How? The purpose was to improve her speed and taijutsu, so she'd have to demonstrate that. Best to try a counterattack, then.

During Sakura's musings, Kakashi had made several more attacks, all of which his student had easily dodged. His eye widened as Sakura suddenly ceased her slow retreat, charging across the surface of the water at him. Despite his apparent surprise, he reacted quickly, throwing three shuriken at the oncoming genin. Sakura jumped up as they neared, hurling a matching trio of shuriken at her teacher. Now it was Kakashi who parried and dodged, even as Sakura's forward charge turned into a circle around him. Sakura kept throwing shuriken, keeping the jounin busy even as the circle in turn changed into a spiral. Soon, her dagger was planted at his back. "Do I pass?" she asked.

Kakashi vanished in a burst of white smoke even as her kunai was wrenched from her hands and placed at her own back. "Not yet," he said, even as Sakura stared disbelieving at where his shadow replication had stood.

She groaned to herself. She'd used up a lot of her chakra already, any moment now she would... Her eyes narrowed suddenly as she released the chakra flow to her feet. Kakashi's eye widened again as she plunged into the water. Sakura swam beneath him, her hand reaching for her last kunai. If she came up behind him -

As she surfaced, Kakashi reached down lightning-fast, grabbing her arm and pulling her out of the lake. "Interesting trick," he said after a moment, "but if you want to use it in a real fight we'll need to work on your swimming speed too." Kakashi released her, and Sakura was barely able to get her chakra flowing again in time to save herself from another dunk. "Now," Kakashi began, but whatever he was about to say was lost as a voice called from the bridge.

"Hey, Kakashi!" Maito Gai said, waving something in his hands.

Kakashi glanced up. "Ah, you're right on time," he said.

Gai froze, one of his powerful eyebrows twitching. Why, he'd given Kakashi a taste of his own medicine and showed up a full quarter of an hour late... but with this non-reaction, his rival had won another round! Still, eventually Gai smoothed the agitation off his face, oblivious to the half-puzzled, half-disgusted look on Sakura's face. "I brought what you asked for," he called out, tossing a pair of orange bundles to Kakashi. The other jounin caught them easily, but even he began to sink into the water before he strengthened his chakra flow to compensate.

"Those are," Sakura began, only to be interrupted by Gai.

"That's correct!" he said, far too loudly. "Those are the very first pair of weights I gave my Lee-kun to train with!" He grinned, and Sakura turned her eyes away from the painful brightness of his smile. "With them, you'll get stronger for certain!"

Kakashi scratched the back of his head. "Thank you, Gai."

Gai's grin widened, a feat Sakura would have considered physically impossible. "It is nothing, to help such a beautiful young flower! In fact, I have another gift for you, Haruno-kun!" He whipped out a piece of folded green cloth and tossed it at Sakura, who unthinkingly caught it.

"This is..." she said quietly, twitching.

"Correct! It is my special training jumpsuit!" Gai gave Sakura a thumbs up. "Wear it with pride!"

Sakura winced, and Kakashi laughed weakly. "Ah, what do you say when someone gives you such a nice gift, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura glared at her teacher out of the corner of her eye. "You're cruel, Kakashi-sensei," she whispered, before forcing a smile to her face and speaking louder. "Thank you very much," she managed to get out, almost choking on the words.

Gai did not seem to notice her discomfort, saying "Train hard!" and walking off with a wave of his hand.

Sakura turned back to Kakashi. "You are not making me wear this," she said, no compromise in her voice. Kakashi shook his head franticly. Sakura dropped the jumpsuit, watching with relief as it sank into the water.

Kakashi coughed, all serious again, holding out the weights Gai had brought him. "Go put these on and replace your weapons," he said. Sakura's eyes widened in dawning horror as he continued. "Then we do this again, from the top."

Day Four

The valley they had camped in last night was a good place, Jiraiya thought. A small grove of trees hid the entrance from the nearest trail, and there was no other sign of human presence in the area. A small stream provided fresh water, and even in the short time they'd been here Jiraiya had seen enough animals to conclude that hunting would be easy, if necessary. He didn't expect to be here that long, but he knew that his plans could change. He needed to scout the area ahead, for they were nearing the Hill Country proper, and there would likely be foreign ninja about once they crossed the border. He hadn't been up this way since shortly after the peace with the Rock had been signed. Until he knew what sort of security the Hill Country had - in particular whether they were using only their native ninja or had hired some from the Rock - he wouldn't feel comfortable taking Naruto across the border. Knowing the boy, he'd manage to cause a major international incident if he wasn't properly prepared.

Naruto himself had no inkling of his teacher's thoughts as he ran through his usual morning series of simple exercises. The dark mood of the past few days had left him, and now he seemed as cheery as ever. It was as though Jiraiya's question had never been asked and answered. As he finished the last of his exercises he glanced at Jiraiya. "So, when are you going to teach me a new technique, Ero-sennin?"

Jiraiya scratched his chin. "Maybe when you start calling me teacher instead of Ero-sennin," he said.

Naruto snorted. "Stop doing perverted things then, Ero-sennin."

Jiraiya sighed, even as he began to search through his packs. "Let's see," he said, pulling out two small pinwheels. He tossed one at Naruto, and it flew as swift and true as any kunai.

The younger ninja caught it, staring curiously. "What's this for?" he asked.

"You remember the technique I used yesterday?" Jiraiya asked. When Naruto nodded, he continued. "The first step of learning it is to rotate the pinwheel."

Naruto blinked, bringing the toy up before his face and blowing strongly. "There," he said.

Jiraiya slapped his face. "Not like that, idiot." He held his pinwheel out at arms length. "Like this." With no visible reason, the pinwheel began to rotate, slowly at first but then rapidly. "You have to learn how to manipulate the air with your chakra without using your hands."

Naruto extended his own pinwheel, frowning intently at it. Perhaps it twitched somewhat, but if so only the slightest amount. "Give me a hint!" he demanded.

Jiraiya sighed. "You'll have to figure it out on your own. You already know what you need to."

Naruto frowned at these words, then his eyes widened in realization. His stance shifted subtly, and his other hand came up to meet the pinwheel. There was a barely visible spark of blue chakra, and the toy began to spin.

Jiraiya only sighed. "Without your hands, Naruto. You really are a genius at missing the point."

"Well, what is the point, then?" Naruto asked irritably.

"The Whirlwind Counter works by using chakra to manipulate the wind and deflect your opponent's attack. To do it with the speed and strength to be useful, you have to use a seal to focus your chakra. That means that you can't just channel it through your hands like you do with the Rasengan." Jiraiya paused, glanced down at Naruto. "Pay attention!" he snapped, and the younger ninja started.

"I'm listening; I'm listening!" he said.

"Essentially," Jiraiya continued after a moment, "you have to learn to manipulate your chakra at a distance, rather than inside your body."

"How do I do that?"

Jiraiya smiled. "Concentration. Focus. Control." He laughed at the expression of dismay on his student's face, then turned away. "Bye," he said.

"Aren't you going to supervise me?" Naruto asked.

"I'm going to go scouting."

Naruto snorted. "Looking for women to spy on."

"Of course not!" Jiraiya protested as he vanished. Well, not at first, anyway. If he remembered his maps correctly, there was a small hot springs resort a few hours away near the main road. It would be dangerously negligent not to check it out, after all. And he'd heard that the Rock liked to use kunoichi for spying missions, so he'd have to focus on the womens' baths. Nothing wrong with that - even Tsunade would have to agree. Jiraiya nodded to himself. It would be a hard duty, but one he would perform willingly.

Sakura groaned as she rolled herself out of bed. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt this drained, nor could she locate a part of her that didn't ache at least a little. A rebellious part of her wondered whether it was really so bad, just being a burden, and she relentlessly quashed it. She rose and nearly fell on her face when her foot met the leg weights, still bundled in the orange warmers, that she had left on the floor last night. As she stepped over them, she rubbed her legs where they had rested yesterday.

Her legs were nowhere near as thick as Lee's, and though the weights could be adjusted to compensate, they still had fit somewhat loosely on her bare legs and shifted uncomfortably every time she moved. She would have to wear pants with them, Sakura decided while she began to dress. After slipping on the mesh undershirt she wore under her dress in colder weather, she reached for a pair of black pants. The weights went over that, and she smiled as she confirmed that they fit better now. Her smile faded as she took a step forward and remembered precisely why she ached so much. Kakashi hadn't told her how much they weighed - he'd said it would only make it harder if she knew. He was probably right.

Her meeting with Kakashi was not for some hours yet, and though she had some things she wanted to do before then there was no need to rush. She took her time as she gathered her equipment. Her pants had pockets, so she was able to move some explosive tags from her pouch to them. She strapped three sheathed kunai to one leg. As she tested the arrangement to make sure she could reach everything swiftly, her reflection in the mirror caught her eye. Though the shirt she wore was opaque enough in the right places to not be precisely indecent, it was more than a little immodest. Sakura flushed slightly, and turned back to her closet.

After a few moments' search she uncovered a forest green light jacket, which she slipped on. It was a little warm for it, and the color combined with the orange weights reminded her uncomfortably of the atrocity of a jumpsuit Gai had gifted her with, but it would do for now. She turned back to the mirror, reaching for her forehead protector.

She stopped as she raised it to its normal position, then lowered it and placed it on her forehead. She frowned and shook her head. It might look better that way with this, but wearing it like that had a special meaning for her. It would wait until she had surpassed Ino for good, not merely equaled her in one fight. She raised the forehead protector again and tied it into its normal position. After one last look in the mirror, she slipped out of her room and out of the house, thankfully without seeing her mother.

It was indeed still a bit too warm to be wearing a jacket, but though Sakura sweated now, she knew that in the coming weeks that would no longer be a concern. She easily threaded her way down familiar streets toward her destination. It lay only a block or two from the ninja academy building that not too long ago she had headed most mornings around this time. Even had she not known the route by heart, the village library was easy enough to spot - it was built of heavy gray stone, unlike most of the rest of the village, to reduce the risk of a fire that would destroy the often irreplaceable scrolls.

Once she stepped inside, she was thankful for her jacket, for she shivered even under it. Across from the entryway, a thin woman in a chuunin's uniform looked up from her desk and gazed at her with eerie silver-white eyes. "Haruno Sakura-kun," she said after a moment. "Genin, Team Seven. It's been a little while. You still remember the seals?"

"Ah - yes, Hyuuga-san," Sakura told the librarian as she stepped forward. "If they haven't changed, that is." The Hyuuga shook her head, and Sakura walked past the desk and into the main library. This was the largest section, the one that was open to the entire village. She had spent many afternoons here after classes, but the information she sought was not likely to be found here. Instead she headed for a stairway in the back.

Down the stairs was a hallway with three doors - the jounin, chuunin, and genin libraries. Characters were painted in red on each of the doors, barring them to any who did not know how to open them. She stopped in front of the door to the genin library, quickly running through a set of seals and placing her hand in a circle in the center of the door. She channeled a quick chakra flow into the door, and it opened silently. She stepped inside, and the door shut itself behind her. The room was empty, as she had expected this early in the morning.

Sakura gazed around the room, reminding herself as to the locations of the various sections among the poorly labeled stacks. After checking those labels to make sure they hadn't been reorganized, Sakura headed for the scrolls on foreign ninja. Digging in those scrolls uncovered a couple of dusty works labeled as "Rice Field Country" - clearly they hadn't been of much interest to genin in recent years. Sakura suspected that there were rather more, and more recently used, scrolls on the subject in the chuunin and jounin libraries, though those would mostly be recent reports on the Sound Village. That probably wouldn't help her right now.

Sakura made her way over to one of the wooden tables scattered about the room and seated herself, unrolling the first scroll. It turned out to be a history of the Rice Field Country's revolt against the Wood Country over two hundred years ago - not likely to be of much use. A quick skim of the first section uncovered several mentions of the Fuuma Clan, and Sakura raised an eyebrow. That would mean that the Fuuma were older than the Leaf Village. Interesting, but hardly relevant.

Setting the history aside, Sakura turned to the other scroll. The title proved promising - "Clans of the Rice Field" - though it seemed to be two decades out of date. Sakura quickly unrolled it until she reached the section on the Fuuma Clan and began to read. She skipped the fairly lengthy history at the beginning of the section, and only skimmed the two columns listing known Fuuma Clan strongholds and their estimated strength at the time of the writing. Then she came upon what she was looking for - signature techniques of the Fuuma Clan.

The author noted the tendency of the Fuuma Clan's unique techniques to use pure chakra offensively, suggesting that they were difficult to learn and very draining on the user. This was followed by a brief listing of techniques, of which for most little more was known than a name and a sentence of description. It was almost at the end of the section that Sakura found something useful.

"...Rice Field Occupation Commander Hyuuga Nizomi reported an attack by a Fuuma jounin utilizing an unusual suicide assassination technique which synchronized the user and target's chakra circulatory systems, promising death of the target upon suicide of the user. Backlash from the severing of the link lead to death of the assassin from burnt out chakra circulatory system, preventing useful dissection of the corpse."

It wasn't much, but it proved that what Sakura sought existed. She doubted that this Hyuuga Nizomi had access to the Fuuma Clan's charms, so he had clearly found a way to sever the chakra threads Kagerou had used on Naruto without them. Sakura didn't know if she'd ever face that technique again, but the principle behind any counter would likely be useful to deal with similar techniques. Besides, Tsunade had told her to return once she would not have been useless on that mission, right? Knowing the secret to the Fuuma Clan's chakra threads would certainly qualify for that standard.

Sakura sighed, standing. She had no more time for further research now. Knowing her luck, if she lost track of time in here, it would be the one time Kakashi arrived on time for a meeting. She gathered up the two scrolls and carefully replaced them. She headed for the door, which from this side could be opened normally. She did so, and raced up the stairs to the main library room. There she slowed herself back to a walking speed, frowning in thought as she considered what path her research might take next.

As Sakura passed her, the librarian spoke. "Did you find what you were looking for, Haruno-kun?" she asked.

Sakura started, and turned back to the Hyuuga. "Not quite," she said as an idea came to her, "but perhaps you can help me, Hyuuga-san. Do you know of a Hyuuga Nizomi?"

The librarian blinked. "He was my grandfather, but he died when I was young. Why?" Sakura apologized, briefly explaining her situation, and the librarian frowned. "I can't help you with that specifically, but the Hyuuga have a saying. Whatever is made from chakra, can be destroyed by chakra." The librarian paused. "We usually have to use the Byakugan to figure out how, though, so I doubt it helps you much."

"Still, I thank you for your help," Sakura said, bowing.

"You're welcome," the Hyuuga answered with a nod, and Sakura turned and left the library.

Day Five

Panting heavily, Sakura forced her arm to move and block yet another kunai her teacher had thrown. How did Kakashi-sensei carry so many weapons? He had to have thrown several dozen and showed no signs of worrying about running out. In fact, another pair had already appeared in his hands as he circled his student. The first Sakura dodged, even hindered as she was by the weights on her legs. The second came in on too good a trajectory for her to get out of the way in time. Sakura interposed her own kunai - her last - knocking the oncoming weapon out of the way.

Even before it reached the water's surface she flung herself to one side. As a bandaged cut on her arm attested, she had discovered yesterday that Kakashi knew how to use a variation on the Shadow Shuriken Technique with kunai, hiding a second blade in the first's shadow. As she hit the water's surface, instinctively channeling chakra through her side to keep from slipping beneath it, the hidden projectile sped by.

Sakura forced herself to leap to her feet, ignoring the numerous aches and pains trying to convince her it was better to lay still. She had thought that the first day's training had been tough and the second even tougher; this third day was proving worse than the previous two combined. Even worse then the pain of such continuous exertion at her limits was the feeling that she wasn't making progress. Ever since she had started wearing the training weights, it had been all she could do to defend herself. Trying to replicate her failed offensive from the first training session seemed so far beyond her as leaping to the moon. Yet, she was convinced that she would have to do that - successfully - to pass this exercise.

She had not let her musings distract her from Kakashi, who had been narrowing his circle around her. He was inching closer, so he could be in range for a quick charge before she realized it. It took an effort not to grin. That was what she had been waiting for all morning. She had come up with an idea while her pains had kept her awake in bed. It might not work, but anything was better than simply staying on the defensive. Kakashi hurled a few shuriken, which Sakura easily dealt with, taking care to make sure her dodges moved her closer to her teacher while keeping the movements natural-seeming.

There. Even as Kakashi began to move forward, Sakura flung her kunai. As the weapon left her hands, they raced into a sequence of seals, dredging up chakra that Sakura had carefully kept in reserve. The oncoming weapon slowed Kakashi only slightly, as he grabbed it in midair, flipping it around and sending it back at the kunoichi. Sakura didn't move, instead concentrating on the seals. The dagger struck her between the eyes, and she screamed.

Kakashi didn't slow in his charge, as Sakura had expected. He ran straight through the image of Sakura, even as it dissolved into water. It had taken Sakura a lot of her chakra to mold water into the right form for the replacement technique, but she knew that she had enough left for her purposes. Kakashi quickly located her, and he didn't even have to dodge the handful of shuriken she threw. "I assume those weren't supposed to hit," he commented.

Sakura - or rather, Sakura's replication - vanished in a puff of smoke. The real Sakura burst from the water behind Kakashi, a dud explosive tag flinging from her hands. Kakashi whirled around, easily shredding the explosive seal with a thrown shuriken, but when Sakura landed shakily on her feet, using the last of her chakra to keep herself above the water, he made no move to attack.

"Clever," he said after a moment. "You might as well have shouted out what you were planning by doing the seals like that, though. You should try to make sure your opponent can't see them or at least form them faster when you're performing common techniques like that."

Sakura nodded wearily. "Right," she said.

"Still, most genin wouldn't have been able to figure it out and devise a counter in time," the jounin continued. "I think we can move on, now." He glanced at Sakura feet, which were beginning to sink. "Let's get out of the water first, though."

When they were back on the bridge, Kakashi gave his student several moments to catch her breath. Sakura shivered, the chill from her immersion in the lake overcoming the late-summer heat. She picked her jacket up off the bridge where she had left it and put it back on, for once thankful for its warmth, and sat down. She felt like she could sleep for a week. However, all too soon for Sakura's taste, she had replaced her weapons from the spares she had brought and was standing before her teacher on a nearby training ground. "What next?" she forced herself to ask, struggling to keep her weariness from her voice.

"This technique is chuunin-level," Kakashi began. "You'll have to commit most of your chakra to it for it to work, but it should lend itself to your strengths. Watch carefully." Sakura nodded, and he slowly worked through a set a seals, which seemed to be a variation on the seals for replications. "Perfect Replication Technique," he breathed, and in an instant four Kakashi's stood before Sakura. Three of them began to circle around behind her, while the fourth spoke. "Try to break out of the circle."

Sakura forced herself to nod, her mind already racing with possibilities. Ordinary replications like she'd used earlier on Kakashi had no real substance to them, which was why she'd thrown the replicated shuriken wide of Kakashi. In that case, as soon as she figured out which of the four was the real Kakashi, it would be trivial to escape. On the other hand, she knew Naruto's shadow replications could attack and do real damage. If these "perfect replications" worked like them, the tactics she would use on ordinary replications would be foolhardy. It would be best to try to disrupt the clones first.

Four shuriken appeared in Sakura's hand and she spun about, releasing them in one smooth motion. The weapons flew straight and true, but each Kakashi easily parried them with a kunai. Sakura frowned. So the perfect replications did have substance. That was to be expected from the name of the technique, she supposed. The replications ought to be weaker than the real Kakashi, though. If she could concentrate on one she might be able to get a blow in to disrupt it.

But how to tell which was the real Kakashi, and which were the clones? Her teacher didn't seem inclined to take the offensive, so Sakura took her time, slowly spinning around and searching for any type of discrepancy in the Kakashis. To her despair, they all seemed to be identical. Would she just have to guess? There was a three-in-four chance of getting a clone, after all.

"That's enough of a grace period," one Kakashi said suddenly. In unison, each Kakashi drew a kunai, and prepared to throw it.

Sakura tensed, plucking one of her own blades out of its sheath and grabbing four shuriken with her other hand. This was going to be unpleasant, particularly since she was already tired and had the weights slowing her down. Dodging wasn't going to be very effective; she'd have to try and knock all the weapons out of the air.

As one, the four Kakashis attacked, hurling their blades with expert accuracy. Sakura reacted instantly. Her kunai she sent at one Kakashi. She shifted half the shuriken over to her now free hand even as she threw the other half at the two weapons coming at her from the front. She spun about, hearing the clatter of colliding weapons. The last two shuriken left her hands, hitting the remaining two kunai mere seconds before they would have hit her.

Panting heavily, Sakura forced herself to draw her second kunai. The four copies of her teacher slowly readied their own kunai, and Sakura forced herself to think. There had to be some trick. What had -

The kunoichi forced herself not to blink as she realized something. What had happened to the kunai she had thrown? She glanced about, not finding it at first. Then, as the Kakashi she had thrown it out prepared his own throw, she saw it, lying on the ground far behind him. It was as though it had... passed directly through him. Sakura dropped her kunai, bringing her hands up before her face in a seal. "Release!" she shouted, channeling chakra she hadn't known she still had.

For an instant, the two Kakashi she could see wavered, but then snapped back into reality. Still, it was enough. Ignoring the kunai those two threw, she ran forward as quickly as she could. She could hear the other two coming up behind her, but she made it out of the circle before they could catch up, running through one Kakashi. She noticed, not to her surprise, the shuriken she had thrown during the exercise scattered about the training ground. She couldn't say for sure, but she guessed that only a handful had actually hit anything solid.

"Good," came Kakashi's voice, and Sakura turned around. Only one Kakashi remained. "You noticed my mistake."

Sakura nodded. "The kunai."

"Despite the name, this technique isn't a replication technique or even a ninjutsu. It's a genjutsu." Kakashi waited, as though for a comment.

"So the... fake replications don't have any substance, like a normal replication, but you can make it look like they do," Sakura said. Hadn't those ninja from Hidden Rain in the chuunin exams had a technique that worked a little like that?

"If you're good enough," Kakashi continued, "you can fool your opponent's sense of touch as well. You have to be very careful how you let the clones interact with real things, though. Once someone realizes that it's only a genjutsu, it's almost worthless."

After a moment, Sakura nodded.

Kakashi smiled behind his mask. "Then, let's begin."

Day Six

Naruto stared at the pinwheel with no small amount of frustration. Yesterday, he'd thought that he'd gotten it when he managed to move the pinwheel by channeling chakra through the stem. When he'd showed it to Jiraiya, though, the old ninja had once again berated him for missing the point. Now, the pinwheel was propped up between two conveniently placed stones, and Naruto lay on the ground before it, his face mere inches away from the vanes of the toy.

"Stupid old pervert," Naruto muttered, blowing on the pinwheel distractedly. He'd hardly seen Jiraiya the past two days, as the old hermit was out scouting for enemies - or at least, so he claimed. Naruto was certain he was doing perverted things instead. He was slightly vague on what, precisely, those perverted things might entail, but that didn't shake his conviction the slightest amount. Of course, just about anyone who knew Jiraiya would agree with the boy.

Why couldn't the pervert actually teach him something for once, instead of just setting up a task and waiting for him to figure it out on his own? It was such a waste of time doing things this way. If he actually had a real teacher, Naruto was certain he could have learned two - no, three - techniques already. Maybe even four. It was all Jiraiya's fault that he was still stuck on this one.

After a few more moments of silent griping, Naruto forced himself to begin. What had the old pervert said was needed? "Concentration. Focus. Control," he muttered to himself as he remembered Naruto closed his eyes, trying to ignore the occasional chirping of birds from the trees that surrounded him. He imagined the infuriatingly still pinwheel in perfect detail, until it almost seemed he could feel it like a part of his body. In his mind, the toy began to spin, and he felt the air moving through its vanes.

Slowly, Naruto opened his eyes. For a moment, he thought he saw the pinwheel twitch, but it remained unmoving. Naruto growled. "Stupid Ero-sennin. I am concentrating." He blew on the pinwheel again, and it moved under his breath. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't make even the tiniest bit of his chakra manifest itself away from his body. If only there was some way to just mold the chakra inside of him like he did normally and then push it outside.

Naruto frowned at the thought. Why couldn't he do that? Acting on impulse, he took in a deep breath, already concentrating his chakra. He only blew softly at first, but the pinwheel rotated as though it was in a windstorm. When Naruto let the rest of his breath out in one blast, it blew the toy out from between the rocks that propped it up. Laughing, Naruto jumped to his feet. Now for the full technique. Which seal had it been?

As the answer came to him, Naruto was already pulling in an even deeper breath. He formed the seal and released his breath, shouting "Whirlwind Counter!" His own breath sounded in his ears like the wind roaring, and the leaves of a tree almost ten feet away rustled in it. Naruto laughed again. "Take that, you old pervert!" he said, dancing in celebration and flashing a victory sign to no one in particular.

His impromptu victory celebration ended suddenly as he heard the sound of footsteps approaching from the road. It was at least two people, so it wasn't likely Jiraiya returning. Naruto dove into a nearby bush - not a moment too soon, as shortly afterwards four men passed the trees that hid where Naruto had been practicing from the road.

All four wore brown, thick jackets that looked terribly hot to Naruto. Evidently, they agreed with him, as all but one man had left the jacket open, revealing the dark clothing and light armor they wore underneath. That wasn't what caught Naruto's eyes, however. All four wore forehead protectors. Naruto didn't recognize the symbol on them - a simple line that dipped steeply downward in the center. It certainly wasn't one he'd seen at the Chuunin Exam - while Naruto might have been hard pressed to recall the names of the villages that had participated, he could remember their symbols well enough.

The Leaf genin held himself perfectly still as the foreign ninja glanced about the clearing. Fortunately, the campground Jiraiya had set up was out of sight, further back in the valley, and the ninja didn't seem inclined to search thoroughly. "I told you there was nothing here," the ninja with the closed jacket said irritably, already turning back toward the road.

"I thought I heard something," one of the other three said, glancing around casually. Naruto resisted the urge to shrink back into the bush, knowing that would make his position obvious.

"What's that?" another ninja said, pointing at the ground. The last man bent down, picking up the pinwheel that only minutes ago had been the focus of Naruto's ire.

"It's just a toy," he said, casually tossing it into underbrush.

The ninja who had claimed to hear something frowned. "Where'd it come from? That village is still a pretty good distance away."

"Who cares?" the ninja with the closed jacket said. "It's not like those snakes would be carrying around children's toys."

"I guess you're right," the other ninja admitted, and as quickly as they had come the four men left. Naruto waited several moments to make sure they had truly left, then let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and slipped out of the bushes. That had been -

"Well, wasn't that interesting?" Naruto started in surprise as Jiraiya stepped out from behind a tree that seemed far too thin to hide him.

"You were watching?" Naruto asked as soon as he recovered his composure.

Jiraiya nodded. "Go pack up the campsite. It's time for us to get moving."

"What? Why?"

"Those were ninja from the Hidden Village of the Valley, in Hill Country," Jiraiya said, "and from the way they were talking it seems like they've been fighting Sound ninja. I'd like to get over the border before this area becomes a war zone."

"War?" Naruto asked quietly.

"If the Valley and the Sound are fighting, Tsunade's going to have to send ninja to at least secure the border. There will be more than a few skirmishes with Valley and Sound. It wouldn't take a lot to escalate things to a war - Waterfall is almost certain to raid the Hill Country no matter what - but most likely everybody will back down before that. No one wants another Great War." Jiraiya paused. "Now, get packing."

Naruto began to head to the campsite, then turned back suddenly. "Did you see me doing the technique?" he asked.

Jiraiya blinked. "You already learned it?" Naruto demonstrated, and Jiraiya laughed. "You really are a genius at missing the point, boy." Naruto glowered at him, and Jiraiya laughed again. "Still, that's a useful little trick you've developed. It isn't really the Whirlwind Counter, though. It'll deflect an attack, but you haven't got anywhere near enough control to throw it back in your opponent's face." Jiraiya pondered for an instant. "Call it the Whirlwind Shield, I guess."

Naruto began to celebrate the naming of his new technique, then paused. "What technique are you going to teach me next?" he demanded, and Jiraiya laughed yet again.

"Don't you have packing to do, boy?"

"My, my," Yamanaka Ino said, looking up from the counter, "If it weren't for your unique forehead I'm afraid I wouldn't recognize you in that... outfit. Have you forgotten everything I ever taught you, Sakura?"

Sakura's eyebrow twitched. "It's a good thing you spoke. Otherwise I might have called for someone to get the pig out before it ate all your mother's flowers, Ino."

Ino grinned evilly. "So I'm not a pig, Forehead? So nice of you to admit it."

Sakura could feel a growl and an angry retort growing in her throat, but with with great effort she forced them down. She didn't have time for this. It wasn't too much longer until Kakashi would have to leave on another mission. Why waste time getting into a fight with Ino when she could be training? "I'm not in the mood for this," she said after a moment, turning back to the door. "I probably shouldn't have come." She stalked out of the Yamanaka Flower Store, already fuming. It certainly was a bad idea, just as she'd thought. She couldn't even spend five minutes with Ino without losing her temper. Five days would be unbearable.

Sakura had barely made it halfway down the street when she heard Ino's footsteps behind her. "Sakura! Wait up!" Almost against her will, Sakura slowed, and moments later Ino walked beside her, catching her breath.

"What about the store?" Sakura asked after a moment.

"My mom is taking care of it," Ino said. "What did you want to talk about?" The two of them turned down another street, unthinkingly heading to one of the Leaf Village's numerous small parks.

"How is Chouji doing?" Sakura asked. That would be the easiest way to lead into what she wanted to - or thought she wanted to, maybe - talk about.

Ino hesitated. "Fine, I guess." She paused again. "I don't think that's what you wanted to talk about, though."

Sakura was forced to shake her head. Still, she couldn't bring herself to actually ask the question. Ino and she walked in silence for several more moments until stopping in front of the park they hadn't realized was their destination. From not far away, they heard the sound of students being released from the academy for the day. "Well?" Ino finally pressed.

"Are Chouji and you planning to take the Chuunin Exam again?" Sakura managed to ask.

Ino's eyes widened. "It has been almost six months, hasn't it?" Ino frowned. "Who's holding them? I remember hearing last time that the Sound were supposed to host the next one since they'd just joined the alliance. I don't think that'll happen now," she said with a weak laugh.

"Hokage-sama told me that we were holding them again," Sakura answered.

"I guess that makes sense, since it got interrupted last time," Ino said. "Well, I guess we might. I don't see why Asuma-sensei wouldn't sponsor us again. We'd need a -" Ino cut off suddenly, her eyes widening again. "You aren't serious, Sakura."

Sakura smiled grimly. "There are only two of you, and I don't have a team at all. I don't like the idea either, but it's the obvious solution."

"What about Naruto?" Ino asked. There was no need to ask about the third member of Team Seven, of course. Both of them knew what had happened to him, and neither had any desire to speak to the other about it. That conversation would be far too likely to shatter the fragile almost-truce that had existed between them since the last chuunin exams.

"He's away on a long mission," Sakura said, the half-lie already feeling comfortable from so much repetition since Naruto had left. "He won't be back for the Exam."

Ino raised an eyebrow at this, but didn't comment. After several silent seconds, she spoke. "I don't know. I'll have to ask Chouji, of course."

"Of course," Sakura repeated. "But what about you?"

"I'll think about it," Ino said curtly. "You should be glad I'm even considering it, Forehead."

"You should be grateful to have the opportunity of having me on your team, Ino-pig," Sakura retorted. Ino snorted, but whatever she might have said in reply was lost as another voice cut in.


For just an instant, Sakura almost thought that it was Naruto calling her name, but when she turned around she instead saw a smaller, dark-haired boy waving at her. It took her a moment to identify him, as he had grown more than a little since she'd last seen him. "Inari-kun?" Her eyes raised, and she noticed the older man standing behind the boy. "Tazuna-san?"

"Who're they?" Ino asked, her growing irritation instantly replaced by curiosity.

"Tazuna-san is a bridge-builder from the Wave Country," Sakura answered. "He was the client for our first real mission."

Tazuna coughed, almost embarrassed. "Actually, I haven't had time for bridge-building lately. I was sort of elected mayor of our village after you left."

"Sort of elected?" Ino said.

"Nobody suggested any other candidates," Tazuna admitted, "so they didn't actually hold a vote."

"Congratulations, Tazuna-san," Sakura said. "What brings you here?"

"My prior connections convinced the daimyo of the Wave Country that I was perfect to carry a message to the Hokage," Tazuna answered. "And Inari wanted to come along to see you three."

Inari grinned widely. "Where are Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun?"

Ino and Sakura shared a look, and Tazuna's eyes grew worried. "They aren't in the village right now," Sakura finally said, glancing down at Inari.

Ino saw the questions on Tazuna's face and sighed. Mouthing "You owe me one," to Sakura, she knelt down before the young boy. "Hello, Inari-kun. I'm Yamanaka Ino, one of Sakura's friends. Would you like to go see the ninja academy?" Inari nodded eagerly, his question forgotten for the moment, and Ino lead him off.

As soon as as the two were out of earshot, Tazuna asked, "Are they all right?"

"I'm not sure how much I can say." Sakura paused, carefully considering her words. "Naruto's left on a mission."

"And Sasuke-kun?" Tazuna pressed gently.

Though there hadn't been any explicit orders, Hokage-sama had made it clear enough to the genin who knew of Sasuke's defection that she expected them to keep quiet. "He's not dead, but beyond that I really shouldn't say," Sakura managed to say after a moment, but she couldn't keep her voice steady.

"I understand," Tazuna said quietly. He continued, louder, "Let's go find Inari and your friend. I'm afraid I'm already late for my appointment with the Hokage. I must have misheard the gate guards' directions."

Sakura nodded, relieved at the change of subject. "I have enough time to show you the way before I have to meet with Kakashi-sensei."

Day Seven

The first day inside the Hill Country had been more than enough to convince Jiraiya that the ninja of the Hidden Village of the Valley were preparing for war. Five times today he had been forced to hide from patrols. Normally, this would have been no problem, but now he had Naruto with him. While the boy had proved better at evading the enemy ninja than he had feared, he was nowhere near good enough to escape the notice of the sort of search that seemed to be going on all along the Hill Country's borderlands on his own.

The one bit of good news came from what Jiraiya had overheard when he'd risked getting close enough to eavesdrop on one of the patrols. It was indeed the Sound that they expected war with, not the Leaf. Of course, if the patrols found Jiraiya and Naruto, it wouldn't make any difference. While they might not be planning to invade the Fire Country now, the ninja of the Hill Country bore the Leaf no love. His thoughts reminded him that he had not explained the situation to his charge.

Naruto was seat not far away, chewing on the remnants of his cold dinner and quietly grumbling about not being allowed to start a fire and make ramen. Jiraiya sighed, and gestured for him to come nearer. "Do you understand why we can't start a fire?" Jiraiya asked.

Naruto frowned in thought. "Because you're evil?" he ventured after a moment.

Jiraiya, proving - to himself, at least - that he was truly a saint at heart, resisted the urge to hit the boy. "Idiot. How far away do you think a fire could be seen on a clear night like tonight? We're trying to hide."

Naruto laughed loudly. "Oh, I knew that," he said.

The older ninja wasn't terribly certain of that, but decided it wasn't worth the effort to press the issue. "It's very important that those Valley ninja don't find out that we are Leaf ninja if they discover us."

"Why would they care?" Naruto asked.

"Because the Valley and the Waterfall are always near war," Jiraiya said.


Jiraiya sighed. "You do know that the Waterfall are one of the Leaf's allies, right?"

Naruto frowned, then suddenly nodded. "There were some ninja from there at the Exam."

"Back before the last war," Jiraiya began, "the Waterfall were part of the Hidden Village of Rock's alliance, along with the Valley and some other small villages from farther north. Once the Sand and Rain signed the alliance with the Leaf and Grass villages, though, the Waterfall switched sides. In order to secure the routes between the Earth and Fire Countries, the Valley and Rock ninja seized almost half of Waterfall Country. The Waterfall have been trying to get it back ever since."

"What does that have to do with us?" Naruto asked as soon as he realized Jiraiya considered the history lesson finished.

"Think for once, boy," Jiraiya said. "The Leaf are allies of the Waterfall. If the Valley ninja find out that we're Leaf ninja, they'll think we're here to support a Waterfall attack."

"Oh," Naruto said, realization dawning on his face. "So, if we aren't Leaf ninja, what are we then?"

Jiraiya grinned. "I am an itinerant hermit, of course, and you are my dutiful apprentice, willing to put up with any hardship to learn the wisdom of the gods at my feet." His grin widened at the expression on Naruto's face, and even Naruto's resumed grumblings as he returned to his supper did not make it fade.

Some time later, as Naruto saw to setting up the tent amidst a new round of mumbled protests, the grin did vanish, replaced by dead seriousness. "Quiet, boy," he snapped. "These fine ninja don't need to hear your whining."

Four figures emerged from the darkness, wearing Valley ninja uniforms. "You have good ears, to hear us," one of them, a woman with a long scar running alongside her nose, said. One of the men behind her pushed back his jacket with exaggerated casualness, resting his hand on the hilt of a sheathed katana. The other two slowly began to circle around the camp.

"One must, to hear the voices of the gods," Jiraiya said, bowing deeply.

One of the two circling ninja, who had already reached the tent, laughed. "A traveling priest, huh?" Naruto slowly backed away from the Valley ninja, resisting the urge to reach for a weapon. "Which gods do you serve?"

"The Lord of All Toads, Gamabunta," Jiraiya answered smoothly, his eyes never leaving the woman before him. Naruto barely managed to choke back the startled laugh that comment threatened to draw from him. The other circling ninja noticed his sudden discomfort and drew nearer.

"A strange god," the woman said.

"Even the strangest god requires servants, my lady," Jiraiya replied.

"You won't mind if we search this camp," she said, and it was clear that it was a statement of fact, not a question.

"Of course not, my lady," Jiraiya said.

She gestured, and the man behind her relaxed slightly, though his hand didn't leave his sword. One of the other two ninja ducked inside the tent. Only moments later he emerged, something dangling from his hand. The moonlight glinted off metal - a forehead protector. He raised it to catch the moonlight, revealing the Leaf insignia and the diagonal scratch that marred it.

Naruto exploded into action without thinking, shouting, "Give that back!" The ninja in front of him stepped sideways blocking his lunge.

"Leaf missing ninja, huh?" the woman asked, her eyes narrowing. "Working with the snakes, no doubt."

Jiraiya carefully considered his options, then sighed. "I suppose," he said. His hand darted forward with surprising speed. "Rasengan!" The woman was flung backward against a large boulder, and did not rise.

The man behind her's sword flew from his sheath as he charged Jiraiya, cutting the old ninja in two with a single perfect slice. As the two halves fell to the ground they vanished in puffs of smoke, replaced by a neatly divided piece of wood. The Valley ninja didn't seem surprised at this, whirling about and knocking aside a thrown kunai with his katana. He advanced on Jiraiya again, more cautiously this time.

"Shadow Replication Technique!" Naruto's cry echoed across the battlefield. Two clones tackled the ninja in front of him, while the remaining three charged the last ninja. One managed to grab the dangling forehead protector as it sped past, slipping it into a pocket. Moments later, the four clones attacking the Valley ninja vanished, disrupted by the inevitable counterattacks.

The closer ninja drew a kunai and advanced on Naruto, who summoned another set of four replications. Even as three distracted the ninja, the last began to help Naruto form a Rasengan. The oncoming ninja bowled through the clones, leaving puffs of smoke in his wake. The last replication followed suit as the Rasengan took form, and Naruto charged.

The Leaf genin grinned as he felt himself make contact, but when the Rasengan faded away his eyes widened. The enemy ninja had leapt back in time to avoid the strike. All Naruto had accomplished was blowing a fairly impressive, if pointless, hole in the rock wall that had risen from the earth to block his path. Farther back, Naruto saw the other Valley ninja kneeling, both hands pressed firmly against the ground.

That ninja's hands raised briefly, racing through a set of seals before plunging back to the ground. Even as the wall before him crumbled into a pile of dirt, Naruto was forced to jump backwards as the ground under his feet exploded into a shower of shards. Naruto could feel the ground shudder when he landed. He leapt again, mere seconds before another explosion.

Naruto reached for a kunai, hurling it at the kneeling ninja. The other Valley ninja knocked it out of the air with his own kunai, drawing a katana as he charged Naruto. The genin leapt out of the path of his strike, but before he landed the ground beneath him burst. The force of the blast knocked him into the side of a rocky rise in the ground. He shook his head, stunned by the blow.

His standing opponent drew closer quickly, raising his blade for a finishing blow. Before it could land, Jiraiya seemed to appear out of nowhere between the two, a Rasengan already spinning in one hand. Before the enemy ninja's eyes had finished widening in surprise, Jiraiya had slammed it into his chest. The Valley ninja spiraled rapidly through the air, landing next to his comrade.

The last enemy raised his hands again, shakily forming seals. Jiraiya's eyes narrowed, and he too began to run through a set of seals, his hands blurring with the speed of movement. "Doton: Hell Swamp!"

The Valley ninja leapt backwards out of his crouch, but not far enough. The ground rippled where he landed. He began to sink as the dirt turned into mud. The man tried futilely to escape, but the quagmire had already ensnared his legs. He sank up to his neck in the muck, and no matter how much he struggled he could not wrench himself free.

"Go pack up the tent," Jiraiya said sharply to Naruto, as he made another set of seals. The earth around them began to harden as he finished, slowly returning to normal.

Naruto stuttered for a moment, but one look at the older ninja's eyes was enough to prove that he was in no mood for discussion, even to Naruto. After a moment, he rose, leaping over the still soft ground to the tent. Wordlessly, he began to disassemble it.

Jiraiya walked across the mud as though it were solid rock, pausing only to deliver a sharp blow to the trapped ninja, knocking him unconscious. "We've got a long way to go tonight," Jiraiya said. "If we're lucky, the Valley ninja will take the hint, but I wouldn't count on it."

Naruto looked up. "What do you mean?"

"We didn't kill anyone. That's a sign that we're not really interested in fighting them," Jiraiya answered. "It's generally better to be safe, though, so once this patrol reports back this area will be crawling with ninja looking for us. I want to be well away by the time that happens." Jiraiya sent a glare Naruto's way. "And while we're traveling, we're going to have a long talk about what it means to be operating undercover."

Tsunade stared at the paperwork as though she could make it vanish through sheer force of will. Actually, of course, with the application of enough chakra in the right way, she probably could. However, then Shizune would just give her more paperwork. It would probably be paperwork about the mysteriously vanishing paperwork crisis.

Shizune herself wasn't here right now, having left earlier this evening to supervise a surgery at the hospital. Tsunade wished she'd been able to convince Shizune to switch places, but her assistant had developed some odd hangups since they'd returned to the Leaf Village. For one, Shizune absolutely refused to forge Tsunade's signature anymore, no matter how many times she gave permission, and some of the documents required the Hokage to sign off on them.

It actually probably would have surprised Shizune, but Tsunade actually had been making some progress on the paperwork, even without a watchful pair of eyes over her shoulder. While she would have taken any excuse to do something more interesting, she did take her duties somewhat seriously. As pointless as it sometimes seemed, she knew she'd have to do the paperwork eventually.

As she scrawled her name at the bottom of the invitation to the Hidden Village of Grass to send genin to the next Chuunin Exam, thankfully the last of the set, Tsunade's ears perked up at the sound of someone moving down the hallway outside her office. As she heard the muffled sound of conversation from outside, she shoved the academy's budget request for next season - the next piece of paperwork on her list - aside.

After a moment, one of her guards opened the door and stuck his head in the office. "Special Jounin Mitarashi Anko to see you, Hokage-sama."

"Send her in," Tsunade said, and a moment later the younger woman stood before, a stuffed folder tucked under one arm.

"You were supposed to come by for your next mission assignment this afternoon, Anko-chan," Tsunade said.

"Ah, sorry, Tsunade-sama," Anko apologized, scratching the back of her head. "One of the prisoners started to talk, and Ibiki wanted me there." Her hand dropped slightly, than rapidly fell to her side as she realized where she'd begun to rub.

Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "One of those two? Anything interesting?"

"It's all in here," Anko said, letting the folder fall onto Tsunade's desk. "We found out why it's been so hard to find the Sound Village, at least."

"Oh?" Tsunade asked.

"It's mobile," Anko continued. "He's worked out some kind of crazy summoning technique that lets him summon a fortress anywhere he wants. He might even have more than one of them."

"That explains a few things," Tsunade said, picking up the folder and casually flipping through it before setting it aside and rifling through the papers on her desk. "Here we go," she said after a moment. "Daimyo Chichiatsu of the Swamp Country believes his uncle has hired ninja from the Hidden Cloud to assassinate him and his daughter before her upcoming wedding to -"

"Ah, sorry," Anko interrupted, a hint of unusual nervousness creeping into her voice. "I won't be able to take that mission."

"What?" Tsunade wasn't able to keep the shock from her voice. Anko wordlessly dropped a scroll onto the desk. Tsunade slowly unrolled it and scanned it. "Ah. I see. I'd forgotten about that arrangement."

"So had I," Anko admitted.

"There seems to be a bit of a problem, though," Tsunade said.

Anko nodded. "I need a genin kunoichi, preferably with good chakra control. I can pay for a C-rank mission."

"That won't be necessary," Tsunade said. "This is in the village's interest too."

Anko seemed relieved - not surprisingly. Even a C-rank mission cost quite a bit compared to the reduced salaries the Leaf ninja had been receiving since Orochimaru's attack. "I'd ask for the Hyuuga girl if I thought there was a chance I'd get her."

Tsunade tried to restrain a wince at the idea of Hyuuga Hiashi's reaction if she sent Hinata on a mission with Anko. The special jounin's face darkened slightly, and Tsunade realized she hadn't done very well at that. "Sorry, Anko-chan, but it just isn't possible.

"But," she continued, folding her hands in front of her face, "I believe I know someone who will work."

Haruno Amaya did not like to worry. This might have come as some surprise to Sakura, who of late thought that all her mother seemed to do was worry. Had she dared to say such a thing to Amaya's face, she might have responded that she had been given plenty of reason to worry since Sakura had become a genin.

Amaya wished with all her heart that she had stopped that. It had been one thing to allow her daughter to become a ninja when the Leaf were one of the most powerful of all ninja villages, at peace with all their neighbors. It was quite another when the Leaf were crippled by treachery, and the other major powers were circling like vultures around a dying beast.

Now, Sakura was a stranger to her, rarely speaking - and when she did it was with a relative insolence so unlike the almost over-polite daughter she had raised. The past few days, she'd stumbled home late at night, half-dead from exhaustion and with several new bruises. She woke early each morning and left with hardly a word.

Amaya quietly opened the door to Sakura's room, frowning as she saw Sakura lying on top of her bed, fully clothed. It looked like it had been all she could do to throw her jacket on the floor before throwing herself on the bed and falling asleep. With a soft sigh, Amaya slipped across the room, picking up the offending garment. She began to hang it in Sakura's open wardrobe, only to stop as she noticed a folded piece of paper sticking out of one pocket.

Curious, she took it out and unfolded it, holding the jacket in one hand. That dropped from her nerveless hand when she began to read the paper. Amaya shook slightly, then bent over to pick up the jacket. She hung it up, but did not return the piece of paper. She slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Haruno Amaya stared at the Chuunin Exam application form she held, and began to shake again. She slumped back against the door, holding the form so tightly it began to crumple in her hand.


Author's Random Rambling

1) And there's Chapter 1, which is as of its writing the longest single chapter of any story I've written. Curiously, it took about the same time to write as a more normal-sized chapter.

2) As you may have noticed, I'm using a hybrid of Japanese and English for technique names in this story. My only excuse is that this is the only solution that left the names "sounding right" to me while allowing me to make up new techniques easily. Any Japanese speaker willing to translate technique names is welcome to contact me and obsolete this imperfect compromise.

3) Thanks to Jed Hagen and The Eternal Lost Lurker for their comments on the draft of this chapter.

Draft Started: July 19, 2005

Draft Finished: October 23, 2005

Draft Released: October 30, 2005

Final Released: November 16, 2005