One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack
Chapter 2: On the Road
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, kittens. Lots of kittens. Cute ones.
"I have come as you have commanded, Orochimaru-sama." Yakushi Kabuto, as ever a perfect picture of obedient loyalty, dropped to his knees before his master's throne. The heavy shadows that cloaked the chamber deep beneath the current incarnation of the Sound Village did not disturb him, for Kabuto considered himself long since used to the aesthetics Orochimaru preferred. Still, he could not stop himself from shifting slightly as the screams that echoed up from a grating set in the floor not far from where he knelt briefly doubled in intensity.
Orochimaru laughed a low, amused chuckle. "You need not concern yourself with that, Kabuto. The young Uchiha is merely learning the price of insolence." Orochimaru smiled cruelly, stretching the new face he wore in ways its former owner would never have imagined. Kabuto did not dare to ask why his master had not abandoned it in favor of his own face, as he had done in his last body. "Kakashi must have been a softer teacher than I had thought."
"He likely thought he had time for the boy to mature on his own," Kabuto commented, "and once he knew he did not, he likely feared to drive him into your hands with harshness."
Orochimaru waved a hand slightly to dismiss the topic, and Kabuto's keen eyes detected a small shiver of pleasure at the ease of the movement. For now, at least, it seemed as though Orochimaru had escaped his teacher's dying curse. "Well?" he asked after a moment of silence.
"Our allies in the Leaf Village performed well. Jiraiya-sama was given the message you asked, Orochimaru-sama, and moved as you predicted." Kabuto paused. "I took the liberty of detaching a jounin squad from the Hill Country border to follow him to the Earth Country."
"Good," Orochimaru said. "I want him in the north, well away from the Leaf. I have no intention of letting him get in the way."
"The coming war will make it difficult to return to the Fire Country, as well," Kabuto responded. He paused. "Do you wish word sent to Akatsuki, Orochimaru-sama? They could certainly keep him busy."
Orochimaru shook his head. "If they wish my aid, they can beg for it like the dogs they are," he said with a snarl. Then he laughed, the momentary flicker of anger vanishing from his face. "Besides, I want to be able to get my hands on Jiraiya and the Kyuubi brat if I need them."
"Dangerous tools, Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto ventured.
Orochimaru smiled coldly. "Only for those who do not know how to use them." He rose, and gestured for Kabuto to follow suit. "Come. I wish you to ensure my new apprentice does not die from his chastisement, and then I will have another message for you to deliver."
It was close to dawn, and Jiraiya was not happy. He'd thought that they would have had several hours before the Valley ninja found out about the patrol they'd defeated, but the region had begun to swarm with patrols less than an hour afterwards. Worse, the patrols had forced him and Naruto far too close to the Rice Field border - exactly opposite the direction Jiraiya had planned to travel. He'd hoped to be close to the old border with Waterfall by now, not on the other side of the Hill Country.
The only saving grace was that his student had not caused any more trouble. In fact, he'd made himself quite useful with several well timed shadow replications to throw off pursuit. Jiraiya was actually a little impressed, considering the abysmal performance he had expected.
Still, Naruto's presence was a burden. By himself Jiraiya would have had no problem slipping past the enemy lines, but Naruto was nowhere near the level needed to do that. There were at least fifty ninja out searching for them, Jiraiya estimated - most of those chuunin with a handful of genin and jounin. He knew nothing in Naruto's experience would have prepared him for this.
Jiraiya held up a hand for Naruto to stop at the bottom of the ridge that loomed over them, then began to crawl up the slope. With any luck, he'd be able to get some sort of bearing on their pursuers. By the time he was about to cautiously peer over the crest of the ridge, however, this was no longer necessary. Across what he judged to be the Rice Field border, a globe of flame burst in mid-air. Moments later, smaller balls of fire rose from the ground to the north and south before exploding into brilliance high above. "The Sound," Jiraiya breathed as his eyes adjusted first to the sudden light and then back to the darkness of the clear night. "They think the Valley are attacking!"
Jiraiya raced back down the ridge, barely stopping to shout "Let's go!" at Naruto before running back in the direction they'd come from.
"What about the enemy?" Naruto asked as he followed, noting Jiraiya lack of concern with stealth.
"The Valley ninja are going to have more important things to worry about in a moment, and so will we if we don't get out of here," Jiraiya answered. He suddenly stopped his run faster than seemed possible, then leapt backward mere moments before a kunai hit the ground where he'd been standing.
"I think not," a female voice said as its owner rose from concealment. Jiraiya quickly recognized the woman as the apparent leader of the squad they had fought earlier. She scratched the scar the ran beside her nose before drawing her sword from beneath her uniform jacket. "I won't go down so easily this time, Sound scum. Your friends won't get here in time."
Jiraiya gestured at Naruto to stay out of the way even as more Valley ninja began to step out of the shadows. "I don't suppose I could convince you that they weren't my friends?" he asked as he considered his options.
The Valley kunoichi only laughed, her hands forming a seal around the hilt of her katana. "Die," she said, plunging her sword into the ground before her.
Jiraiya cursed, roughly grabbing Naruto with one arm and jumping into the air. The ground ripped itself open, a wide chasm forming with one end where the sword had struck the ground. The hills surrounding them shuddered as the Valley woman lifted the sword again, waiting for her foe to land. The other Valley ninja began to throw kunai and shuriken at the two.
"Use your Whirlwind Shield!" Jiraiya commanded as the weapons neared, and Naruto complied. The sudden burst of wind carried dust kicked up the opening of the chasm, obscuring their vision for a moment. When they could see again, Jiraiya directed their fall toward the only place he knew the enemy commander wouldn't be able to use the same attack again - right on top of her.
The enemy kunoichi's eyes widened in shock as she realized his course, but she recovered quickly enough to position herself to deal a fatal blow. However, even burdened by Naruto, Jiraiya managed to kick the blade aside, planting his other foot in her face. As the woman stumbled back he landed neatly, depositing Naruto on the ground beside him.
Though Jiraiya drew no weapon, his hands were ready and he showed no fear as the woman rose and the other Valley ninja began to surround him. "I said you had more pressing problems," he commented. "Those Sound ninja will make it here from the border any moment now."
The woman snarled, gesturing wildly with her sword. The two Leaf ninja sprouted dozens of kunai, expertly thrown by the surrounding Valley ninja. The enemy commander's snarl turned into a howl of rage as the two shadow replications vanished in puffs of smoke seconds later.
This morning had Sakura, who usually considered herself at least a little bit of a morning person, rethinking her opinion on the whole concept of mornings. She had woken up with a headache on top of all the aches her training the past week had left her. Then, once she was dressed - undressed and redressed to be more accurate, since she had apparently fallen asleep fully clothed - she had gone downstairs only to discover that her mother had not only gotten up before her but had apparently hardly slept at all. She had barely opened her mouth to ask what was wrong when she saw the chuunin exam application form lying on the kitchen table.
The first word out of her mother's mouth was "No."
"What? Why not?" Sakura asked, even though she realized seconds later that it was the wrong thing to say.
"Because you tried to hide it from me!" her mother said, and Sakura groaned inwardly. Just as she had predicted, her mother had taken the opportunity to preemptively shift the grounds of the argument away from the chuunin exam itself.
"I wasn't hiding it from you!" Sakura protested, knowing it was to no avail. "I just hadn't had a chance to tell you yet!" It wasn't quite a lie, she thought to herself. She had been so busy and tired since she started training with Kakashi that she really hadn't had a chance to sit down and think about how to get her mother to let her take the exam.
"And why should I trust that when you lied last time?" her mother asked.
"I've told you a hundred times that they wouldn't tell me anything about the exam before I took it!" Sakura said. "How was I supposed to know that I'd have to be gone for five days?"
Her mother snorted in disbelief, and Sakura felt an ill-advised fury rising. Once she would have easily repressed it, shutting it off in a corner of her mind, but now, tired and thinking poorly, she gave into it. "Why should I tell you anything when you don't believe what I tell you?"
"I'm your mother!" The two stared at each other for a long moment before the older woman continued. "I've already decided. You are not taking this exam again."
"Hokage-sama herself asked me to take the exam! I can't tell her no!"
"I don't care what she says! She isn't your mother. You are not going to take this exam and that's final!" Sakura's mother half-rose from her seat, slamming her hands onto the kitchen table.
"I can't just say no to the Hokage!" Sakura yelled back.
"That's exactly what you're going to do. For that matter, you're grounded for at least a week." Sakura's mother stood up fully. "Do you understand, Sakura?"
It was at this point that they heard a sharp knock on the front door. For a long instant, the two women stared at each other wordlessly. It was Sakura's mother who looked away first, stalking over to the door and throwing it open with excessive force. The man in the doorway didn't flinch from the loud noise. Sakura recognized him as one of the Hokage's chuunin bodyguards - though they seemed to spend more time running messages or fetching records from the archives than actually guarding Tsunade.
"I have a message for Haruno Sakura from Hokage-sama," the chuunin said. Perhaps calming somewhat in a stranger's presence, Sakura's mother stood aside, allowing Sakura to approach. The man nodded as he saw her. "Hokage-sama wishes to see you before you begin your training for today. Do you understand, Haruno-san?"
"Yes," Sakura said with a nod, and without another word the chuunin was gone, no doubt to deliver another message. Sakura glanced back at her mother. "I have to go," she said quietly.
A tense gaze passed between the two, but eventually the older woman turned away. "All right," she said, her voice tight with reined-in emotion. Grateful for the reprieve, Sakura ventured a smile, but no matching expression appeared on her mother's face.
Holding in a sigh, Sakura slipped outside, closing the door quietly behind her. Now, what could this be about? She was nowhere near ready to meet Tsunade's standard for becoming her apprentice. She was certainly stronger and faster than she had been a week ago - she almost didn't notice the leg weights she wore already. Compared to where she wanted to be, though, she had a long way to go.
There was no use worrying about that, though. She'd find out why Tsunade wanted to see her soon enough. The only reason to think about it was to avoid thinking about the fight she'd just had with her mother. What did she expect, anyway? Sakura was a ninja - of course she was going to take the chuunin exam. She had no intention of staying a genin for the rest of her life. Of course, recently it seemed her mother wouldn't be happy with that either.
The voice shook Sakura from her gloomy thoughts, and she realized that her path had taken her past the Yamanaka Flower Store. She glanced over at where her rival had paused from sweeping the entrance. "Ino, if this is about the chuunin exam, I'm not in the -"
"You should be glad I'm not ready to make a decision about that, Forehead!" Ino snarled. "At the moment I'd rather not take the exam at all than take it with you."
Sakura blinked, then raised an arm to her head to ward off the headache that seemed to be coming back in full force. "Is there some reason for this, Ino-pig, or are you just letting your inner bitch shine through?" It was a little cruder of a retort than Sakura would normally have used, but she was in no mood to play today, even if she'd had the time.
Ino blinked, almost startled out of her anger. "It's that kid you dumped on me a couple days ago," she explained.
"Inari-kun?" Sakura asked after a moment to remember what Ino was talking about.
"He spent yesterday visiting the academy and started a fight with the Third's grandson. Since Iruka-sensei had seen me with him, he sent for me and I got stuck babysitting the little brat all day. You owe me big, Forehead."
Sakura blinked. "Inari-kun got into a fight? About what?"
Ino sighed in exasperation. "Some nonsense about who was better friends with Naruto. Why anyone would want to fight about that, I'll never know."
"Can we talk about this later?" Sakura asked with a sigh. "Hokage-sama asked to see me."
Ino snorted. "I hope she gives you the job of taking care of that brat."
"Maybe," Sakura said, then went on her way. Fortunately, to escape her mother she had left somewhat earlier than necessary, and had no need to hurry despite stopping for the conversation with Ino. Indeed, as it turned out she could have delayed even further than she had, as she found herself waiting outside the Hokage's office for Tsunade to finish with whoever she was seeing.
She wasn't the only one in this situation. An older woman slouched against the wall opposite the door to the office, toying idly with a kunai. It took Sakura several moments to recognize the woman as the examiner from the second part of the chuunin exam. "Ah, Mitarashi-sensei," Sakura ventured, hoping that she had remembered the name correctly. "Good morning."
The special jounin favored Sakura with a measuring glance, then snorted irritably and turned away, her attention returning to the blade in her hands. Sakura thought she heard the older woman mutter something under her breath, but she couldn't quite catch it. On further reflection, she probably didn't want to. She had enough problems already. She really didn't need to add Mitarashi Anko - that was the name, she was sure of it - to that list.
Anko, seeming to notice Sakura's scrutiny, turned back and grinned. Then she fumbled the kunai. Strangely, the seemingly inadvertent mistake resulted in the dagger flying to embed itself in the wall mere inches from Sakura's head, traveling as straight and true as if it had been deliberately thrown. Sakura gulped involuntarily, and Anko's grin widened. "Oops," she said, not sounding particularly penitent as she strode over, plucking her kunai from the wall.
"Be nice, Anko-chan."
The special jounin started as though struck and whirled about to face the woman who had just walked into this part of the corridor, several thick folders tucked under one arm. "Shizune-sempai!" The malicious grin on Anko's face was replaced by an innocent smile that was somehow far more disturbing. "I'm always nice!"
"I know you, Anko-chan," Shizune said. "Don't make that disgusting face at me."
Anko stuck out her tongue. "You're no fun anymore, Shizune-sempai." Shizune rolled her eyes in exasperation, while Sakura simply stared in bewilderment at the suddenly much younger-seeming Anko.
Shizune glanced down at the genin. "Good morning, Sakura-chan. I hope you haven't had too much trouble with Anko-chan here."
"Ah, good morning, Shizune-sama." Sakura glanced at Anko, who now had a slightly genuine-seeming worried expression on her face. "No trouble at all." Anko's face lightened instantly.
"Good," Shizune said. The medical ninja glanced at the shut door of the Hokage's office. "Is Tsunade-sama still in her first appointment?" When Anko nodded, Shizune sighed. "I'd better go make sure those two aren't getting drunk together again." Sakura blinked at that, and with a nod at the two other ninja Shizune walked over to the door and let herself in.
As soon as the office door closed behind Shizune, Anko turned back to Sakura with a wide grin on her face. "You might be more fun than I thought." She laughed and began to play with her kunai again. Sakura shrunk back. She could only hope that she wouldn't have to spend too much longer with this... this psycho. With any luck she would have forgotten about her by the next chuunin exam.
There was the sound of a brief scuffle from inside the Hokage's office, and both ninja waiting outside turned to the door as it was flung open. Shizune stalked out, holding a bottle of sake in one hand. She wordlessly wrenched open the closest window and dumped the contents out to the lawn below. This task done, Shizune strode out of sight, muttering surprisingly crude words to herself.
A few moments later Tazuna walked into the hallway, a shocked look on his face. "That is... a very persuasive woman," he said to himself, then he shook all over and seemed to regain his composure. "Good morning, Sakura-chan."
"Good morning," Sakura said, forcing a smile onto her face. It was beginning to get a little annoying, being wished a good morning so often when this morning had been anything but good.
Tazuna smiled back at her. "Good luck on your mission," he said.
Sakura blinked. "Excuse me?" she asked.
"Oh," Tazuna said. "I guess that's what you're here for," he said. Noting Sakura's puzzled look, he explained, "I just finished negotiating with the Hokage a contract for Leaf ninja to help protect the Wave Country. I asked her if she could assign you to the mission, but she said you had another mission." Anko coughed deliberately, and Tazuna started. "Oh yes. The Hokage asked me to tell you two to go in whenever you're ready."
Sakura glanced worriedly at the special jounin, silently reciting what she already guessed were futile prayers that she wouldn't have to go on a mission with the insane woman. Steeling herself, she said goodbye to Tazuna and followed Anko into the Hokage's office, shutting the door behind her.
The Hokage was staring mournfully at an empty cup that lay on its side on her desk next to the stack of folders Shizune had left behind. "I don't suppose you brought anything to drink, Anko-chan?"
"Ah, no, Tsunade-sama," Anko answered, seemingly as uncomfortable with seeing the Hokage half-drunk as Sakura was. "Shizune-sempai would kill me."
Tsunade groaned. "She probably would." The Hokage rubbed at her eyes with another groan. "I hate being sober in the mornings." Sakura stared in horror at the Sannin, but then Tsunade straightened, in an instant seemingly as collected as ever. "Haruno-kun," she said.
"Yes, Hokage-sama?" Sakura asked.
"I'm assigning you to a C-rank mission beginning tomorrow morning. You will be accompanying Mitarashi-san on a diplomatic mission to her -"
"Tsunade-sama?" Anko interrupted. "I'll tell her the details myself later, if you don't mind."
Tsunade glared at the special jounin, and Anko rubbed the back her neck nervously. Tsunade's eyes suddenly softened. "I understand," the Hokage said. "All right, then. Dismissed." Tsunade's attention turned to the stack of paperwork on her desk, and after a moment the other two ninja let themselves out.
Sakura glanced at the sun out the window. "I'm going to be late to my meeting with Kakashi-sensei," she commented.
"That's fine," Anko said after a second, her voice distracted. "Just meet me at the south gate tomorrow at dawn. There'll be plenty of time to talk on the way."
Sakura nodded. "How long should I pack for?" she asked.
Anko gazed at ceiling. "Shouldn't be longer than a week and a half," she said. "I hope."
Sakura turned to leave with another nod, beginning to run as soon as she left Anko's vision. A week and a half with that lunatic? Maybe she should write out a will before she left. Sakura glanced at the sun again when she left the building, and realized she had no time for such thoughts. She would have to hurry to make it to the bridge on time.
When she made it there after an exhausting run across half the village, Kakashi was waiting, tapping his foot impatiently. "You're late, Sakura-chan," he commented.
Sakura snapped. "I knew it!" she shouted. "I knew it! The one time out of all these hundreds of times that I'm late is the first time that you ever show up on time!"
Perhaps Kakashi smiled behind his mask. "It looks that way," he said, amused. "Why were you late?" After she had composed herself again, Sakura explained the mission she had been given to Kakashi. Her teacher nodded. "I thought that might be it. I'll see if I can find something for you to work on while you're away."
"Thank you," Sakura said.
Kakashi nodded. "Before that, though, we can still get in another day of training. Try the technique again and think in three dimensions this time. Flat replications wouldn't even fool Naruto."
Sakura resisted the urge to groan as she closed her eyes and slowly formed the first seal of the Perfect Replication Technique. "I understand, Kakashi-sensei."
Fortunately for Sakura, Kakashi had let her off early the previous afternoon, and unlike the last morning she awoke well-rested and in no pain. Well, in only a little pain was more accurate. She hadn't awoken pain-free since she'd started wearing the weights, but she was already used to those aches. Taking advantage of the free afternoon, Sakura had packed before going to bed. She quickly dressed herself in the clothes she had laid out after that. For a long moment she debated leaving the leg weights behind, but ultimately she put them on with a sigh. They wouldn't do nearly as much good if she didn't wear them all the time.
After slinging her pack onto her back, she slipped quietly downstairs. Much to her dismay, her mother had once again awoken early, and she was waiting for her daughter at the kitchen table, a half-drunk mug of lukewarm tea sitting in front of her. "And where do you think you're going, Sakura?" she asked.
"I told you last night," Sakura said. "I have a mission. I should be back within two weeks."
Her mother stood. "And I told you that you were grounded, didn't I? You aren't going anywhere."
Sakura resisted the urge to clench her fists. "It's a mission, not a vacation. I have to go, mother."
"You'll refuse the mission." Her mother's voice made it clear that she intended this statement to be final.
"I can't!" Sakura protested. "Do you have any idea of the type of black mark a mission refusal like that is on a genin's record?"
"I don't care. I'm not going to let you go off and get yourself killed!" her mother answered.
Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from rolling her eyes. "It's just a C-rank mission. I won't be in any real danger!"
Her mother just laughed. "On your first C-ranked mission you fought one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist! What are you going to do this time, assassinate the Mizukage?"
"Of course not!" Sakura said. "It's just a diplomatic mission this time, not a combat assignment."
Her mother's eyes narrowed suddenly. "A diplomatic mission to the Mist?"
Sakura blinked, surprised. "What? No, just to someone here in the Fire Country." The formal mission scroll that had arrived last afternoon had been very skimpy on details - the Hokage having apparently taken Anko's wish to explain the mission herself very seriously. However, it had made it clear that this was a domestic mission and would be paid on that scale, not as a more lucrative foreign mission.
The sudden interest her mother had shown did not apparently foretell any softening of her position. "That changes nothing. You aren't going."
Sakura swallowed nervously, taking a step closer to the door. She hadn't wanted to go down this road, but if it was her only chance of getting out of here without taking an even more offensive option, she had no choice. She glanced toward a barely visible cabinet in the sitting room, and prayed for forgiveness. "I'm a ninja like my father," she said slowly. "Don't you think he would want me to accept this mission?"
Her mother shrunk back as though Sakura had punched her. "You," she growled, and Sakura realized that she might have made a very bad miscalculation. "Don't you dare bring your father into this, Sakura. Your father never even got to see you, because he died! He was killed by that... by the Kyuubi!" Her mother paused, visibly reining in her emotions. "I don't want you to wind up like him."
"Then why did you even send me to the ninja academy?" Sakura asked, finally giving voice to the question that had hung in the back of her mind in many similar arguments. Her mother just glared at her in response, and after a moment Sakura slowly took another step to the door. "I'm a ninja," she repeated. "Technically, I don't need your approval for anything." There. It was said.
"Technically?" Sakura's mother's voice rose. "Don't you dare walk out that door, Sakura, not if you intend to walk back through it again!"
Sakura's face tightened. "Then I guess we've made our decisions," she forced herself to say. She turned away so her mother could not see her tears and walked out the door. Even as it shut, she heard sobbing behind her, but with supreme effort of will she kept walking.
By the time she reached the south gate, Sakura's face was dry of tears, even though her eyes were red and watery. Anko was waiting for her, slouching against the village wall, once again playing with a dagger. "You're a little late," the special jounin said.
"Sorry," Sakura answered flatly. "I was delayed," was all she said in excuse.
"That's fine," Anko said after a moment. "You still beat Hatake, and he asked me to wait for him anyway."
A figure jumped down from the wall overhead, landing directly in front of Anko. "Yo," Kakashi said in greeting.
The female jounin's kunai was at his throat before the word left his mouth. "What have I told you about sneaking up on me like that, Hatake?"
Kakashi pushed the blade aside, all his attention on Sakura. "Is something wrong, Sakura-chan?" he asked. Anko sighed, putting her weapon away.
"No," Sakura managed to answer, keeping her voice flat. "Nothing's wrong."
Kakashi stared at her for a long moment. "All right," he said finally, although the tone of his voice made it clear that it was anything but. He held out two small scrolls to Sakura. "These are for you," he said.
Sakura accepted the scrolls. "Thank you," she said.
"One is some notes on the Perfect Replication Technique that should help you master it," Kakashi said. "The other is another technique you might find useful. You should be able to learn it on your own."
"Thank you," Sakura said again as she slipped the scrolls into her pack. "Are we ready to go then?" she asked Anko, deliberately pushing the fight with her mother out of her mind. She'd apologize when she got back, and surely her mother would be willing to see reason then.
The special jounin ignored her, instead staring at Kakashi. Sakura noticed that Anko was scratching the back of her neck again. "Hatake," she said suddenly.
"Hmm?" Kakashi asked, his gaze flicking back to the other jounin.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here," Anko said after a moment, in a voice that Sakura, even from her brief acquaintance, knew was unusually serious. "I might have been able to do something if I'd guessed what he had planned."
"There's only one person to blame for what happened, and he isn't you, Mitarashi-san," Kakashi answered. He still didn't turn to face Anko.
"You shouldn't blame yourself either, Hatake," Anko said, her voice pained. "Orochimaru's the one responsible."
Sakura finally realized what the two jounin were discussing, and her gaze narrowed as she began to study Anko. Why was she so concerned about what had happened to Sasuke?
Kakashi only grunted. "Good luck, Sakura-chan," he said, and walked away.
Anko stared after the retreating jounin. "I hate that man," she muttered to herself in a tone Sakura didn't think she was meant to hear. Then she glanced at Sakura, as though reminding herself that the genin was there. "Well, let's go," she said.
A few minutes later, the two ninja were walking south through the forests that surrounded the Leaf Village. From her studies of the local geography, Sakura guessed that they would emerge that afternoon near the highway that connected the capital with the southern coast, if they didn't change direction. "Are you going to tell me about the mission, Mitarashi-sensei?" Sakura forced herself to ask when it became apparent that the jounin had no intention of talking.
"Oh yeah," Anko said with a laugh. "Um... you did sign all those liability forms, right? I don't know why Hokage-sama suggested you for an S-rank mission like this, and I don't want to be responsible for any of it."
Sakura glared at the jounin's back. "Isn't this supposed to be a C-rank diplomatic mission?" she asked.
Anko stopped suddenly, pounding a convenient tree trunk. "Damn it," she said. "Tsunade-sama did tell you that much, didn't she?" Anko cursed again. "I've been saving that one for years. Promise you won't tell anyone about it?" Anko turned back to Sakura, a very fake pleading look on her face.
"I'll be sure to warn everyone in the village," Sakura growled. "It's a poor excuse for a joke."
"Meanie," Anko said, sticking out her tongue.
Sakura's eyebrow twitched. "Please tell me that wasn't why you wanted to tell me the details yourself."
Anko grinned at her. "Pretty much," she said. The special jounin turned and began to walk again, and after a moment Sakura followed, reminding herself that trying to stab a jounin in the back would not accomplish very much.
After several more minutes of travel, Sakura asked again. "So, are you planning on telling me what this mission is really about?"
Anko glanced back, and paled at the look on Sakura's face. "Right," she said, a hint of overdramatic nervousness in her voice. "So, what do you know about the Hidden Village of the Volcano?"
Sakura forced herself to concentrate and search her memory. "They were the main ninja village of the old Fire Country," Sakura answered. "They were destroyed in the civil wars prior to the union with the Wood Country, about twenty years before the First Hokage founded the Leaf Village. The First was a chuunin there before -"
"That's enough," Anko interrupted. "I bet you aced all your history tests in the academy."
"Yes," Sakura answered, allowing a little pride into her voice.
Anko laughed. "Didn't do you much good in the Chuunin Exam, did it?"
Sakura found herself glaring at Anko's back again. "No," she was forced to answer.
"Anyway," Anko said, "we're going to be visiting an independent kunoichi clan that was part of the Volcano village, but never joined up with the Leaf." She paused, as though weighing her next words carefully. "Back during the last war, there was a lot of fighting down there, since the clan fortress controls one of the few good ports on the Bay of Flames. The Sand destroyed them before the alliance was signed."
"If they were destroyed, why are we going on a diplomatic mission to them?" Sakura asked,
Anko didn't answer directly, instead continuing her story. "A young girl survived the destruction and was found by... a Leaf jounin who happened to be in the area. The jounin took her in as a student, thinking the clan destroyed. It turned out that one of the elders survived, and she tracked down the jounin." Anko stopped suddenly, turning back and grinning at Sakura, though the smile seemed forced. "See? If you just listen you won't have any questions."
"Just get to the point," Sakura answered irritably.
Anko sighed. "The jounin made a deal with the surviving elder. The girl would stay with the Leaf and they would be allowed to take control of the port. In return, the girl would be taught the clan's secret techniques and would later teach them to her students, so that the techniques would not die when the elder did."
"So where do I come in?" Sakura asked, already having a disturbing suspicion.
"I recently received a letter from the clan," Anko answered, "requesting my presence and the presence of my student, to confirm that the Leaf had upheld their part of the deal."
"So why couldn't you bring the real girl?" Sakura asked. "Is she dead?" Sakura shivered slightly, her mother's fears no longer seeming quite so foolish.
Anko stopped moving. "What?" she asked startled. After a moment she turned back and stared at Sakura, a hurt expression on her face. "I'm the girl!" she said. "What, did you think I was the jounin? Honestly, how old do you think I am?"
Sakura flushed. "Sorry," she said.
Anko snorted. "I'll remember that," she said, muttering a few unkind things under her breath. "Anyway, since I actually didn't have a student, Tsunade decided to make Hatake loan you to me. I'll try and teach you the first of the clan techniques on the way, so we won't really be lying about anything if we don't have to."
"I understand," Sakura said.
"Good," Anko replied, reaching for a water bottle hidden under her coat, "because all that talking makes me thirsty and I don't intend to repeat myself." She took a long swig.
Sakura gave in to her curiosity. "If you were the girl, who was the jounin? Anyone I know?" If it had been an Uchiha, it might explain Anko's strange interest in Sasuke.
Anko slowly screwed the cap back on her water bottle and replaced it under her jacket. "Nobody important," she answered flatly. Her hand raised slightly, perhaps to scratch at her neck, but with clear effort Anko forced it back to her side. "Let's get moving," she said roughly, setting off without another word.
After a moment, Sakura followed, her curiosity not at all sated by the non-answer.
It was raining. Water streamed down across the mouth of the cave where Naruto and Jiraiya were camped in a near-continuous sheet. Despite the fact that it was still afternoon, there was almost no light from outside except for the occasional brief flashes of lightning. Not even the most dedicated pursuer would be hunting the two Leaf ninja through this storm, but conversely the fugitive pair could not travel themselves.
In the back of the cave Jiraiya was tending a small fire, having judged the risks of it being spotted minimal. He had commandeered two of Naruto's packets of instant ramen, and was almost ready to put a small pot of water on to boil. It would be the first warm meal the two had enjoyed since their lunch in the small village back in the Fire Country.
Naruto, already growing bored, wandered over to the cave entrance, peering curiously through the rain at the valley floor below. What had already become a treacherous bog when they had struggled through it earlier that morning was rapidly turning into a lake. The lower lying areas that Naruto could see were already underwater, small rises in the ground becoming islands in the muddy water. Naruto frowned as he noticed something odd. "Weird," he said, half to himself.
Jiraiya put the pot on the fire before responding. "What's weird, boy?"
"Those small hills over there," Naruto said, pointing without realizing that there was no way his teacher could see the landscape in question. "They're all lined up in straight rows."
Jiraiya grunted. "That's because humans built them," he said.
"Why?" Naruto asked.
"They're graves," Jiraiya said flatly. "This is where the pride of the Waterfall Village died."
Naruto jumped back from the entrance, paling. "Graves? There's got to be a hundred of them!" he protested.
"Less than half that," Jiraiya said as he turned to Naruto, keeping an eye on the pot of water, "but there's a lot more than one person in each."
Naruto's face whitened even further. "So many?" he asked. "Why?"
Jiraiya gestured for Naruto to come sit by him, and after a moment Naruto complied. Jiraiya removed the now-boiling pot from the fire, carefully pouring the water into the two ramen containers. "You should have learned this in your history classes," he said, "but I'm sure you didn't pay attention to them."
Naruto shook his head. "That stuff's boring. And it was right after lunch, too."
"Well, pay attention this time," Jiraiya said. "This story might be useful if you want to become Hokage."
Naruto sat up, suddenly excited. "Really?" he asked. When his teacher nodded he practically bounced up and down. "Tell me; tell me now!"
"I told you before that the Rock and Valley ninja took over half of Waterfall Country when the Waterfall switched sides during the war, right?" Jiraiya asked.
Naruto looked puzzled briefly, then nodded his head frantically. "I remember!" he said, almost sounding surprised at this himself.
"Good," Jiraiya said. "The story of this valley starts after the five great powers had signed the peace agreements that ended the war." Jiraiya paused, letting out a sigh. "The agreement between the Leaf's alliance and the Rock's didn't say anything about the part of Waterfall Country that had been conquered. The Leaf and Sand refused to acknowledge the conquest, and the Rock refused to give it up, but both sides were too tired to fight about it anymore.
"The Waterfall were very upset about this, and decided to try and retake their country by force despite the peace. They demanded help from their allies, but only the Grass sent ninja and even they sent only a few."
"Why didn't we help them?" Naruto asked. "They're the Leaf's allies, right?"
"If the Leaf or the Sand had helped the Waterfall, it would have meant starting the Great War again," Jiraiya added. "The Leaf's diplomats did everything they could to stop the Waterfall from attacking, but the leaders of the Waterfall were convinced that they could win even on their own. They thought that the Rock were too weak from the war to send much aid to the Valley. If they could defeat the Valley in one decisive battle and take part of the Hill Country, they could trade it back for the rest of their country."
"That makes sense, I guess," Naruto said after a moment, when it became apparent that Jiraiya was waiting for him to say something.
"It would have, if they'd been right," Jiraiya said. "When they crossed the border into the Hill Country they found the entire Rock alliance waiting for them." Jiraiya sighed again. "They should have retreated then, but the leaders of the Waterfall were young and proud. When they found out that the main Valley force was camped out here, away from the rest of the Rock army, the Waterfall attacked."
"And?" Naruto prompted when Jiraiya fell silent again.
"It was a trap," Jiraiya said. "The camp was a fake. The Waterfall found themselves surrounded by their enemies, who had been hiding in caves like this one all around the fake encampments. The Waterfall built fortifications and waited for an attack that didn't come. Instead the Tsuchikage himself went to the Waterfall camp and offered them peace."
"Was it another trick?" Naruto asked.
"Who knows?" Jiraiya said. "It wasn't a very good one, if it was. The terms were very harsh, and like I said the Waterfall's leaders were proud. They refused the offer, and the next day the Rock alliance attacked and killed them all."
Naruto paled again, glancing at the cave's entrance. "That's horrible."
"That's war," Jiraiya said. He glanced down at the cups of instant ramen. "These should be done now," he said, handing one to Naruto.
The genin began to scarf down the ramen, but paused suddenly when the cup was half empty. "How's that story supposed to help me become the Hokage, Ero-sennin?" Naruto asked.
Jiraiya looked up from his own ramen. "Think, boy. The Waterfall died because their leaders were too proud to see that they were fighting a hopeless battle. If you become the Hokage, you'll have to know when to fight and when to accept peace even on terrible terms, or the ninja of the Leaf Village will die just like the Waterfall did. There's more to being Hokage than just being the most powerful ninja in the village."
"Oh," Naruto said quietly, glancing back at the entrance to the cave. He shivered slightly, then returned to his ramen.
The storm had passed the next morning, and Jiraiya awoke Naruto early. After the inevitable griping over this had passed, the two set out. They skirted the edges of the gravefield, Naruto giving the suddenly sinister mounds of earth many nervous looks before they finally passed out of eyeshot. After that, they began to ascend into the hills to the west.
When they reached the top of the first hill, Jiraiya turned to Naruto. "When we pass through these hills, we'll be in what used to be part of the Waterfall Country. There'll be more patrols there, so we'll have to be very careful."
Naruto nodded, and the two continued on their way. The terrain began to get rougher and rougher as they moved further west, until their progress was slowed to a crawl. Fortunately there was no sign of pursuit, and Naruto began to think that perhaps they had lost the Valley ninja for good. When he ventured the idea, though, Jiraiya shook his head.
"We might have lost them for now, but they won't let a loose end like us go easily, not if war with the Sound is as close as it seems. They're almost certainly still searching for us. I wager if we started heading north toward the coastal highway we might run into trouble." Jiraiya sighed. "We'll have to head that way eventually, though, if we intend to make it to Earth Country."
Despite this comment, Jiraiya continued to lead Naruto west for most of the day. They passed by one small village, but they took pains not to encounter any of the villagers. There was no telling who might remember two strangers if a Valley ninja happened to start asking questions.
They stopped briefly for a small, cold lunch about an hour after noon. It was then when Jiraiya spoke to Naruto again. "I suppose I should tell you something about where we're headed," he said.
"The Earth Country, right?" Naruto asked, proud that he had remembered that much.
"Right," Jiraiya said. "The Earth Country is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges that are almost impassable even in the summer. There's only a few safe routes through them. Because of that, no foreign army has ever succesfully invaded the Earth Country by land."
"Why not?" Naruto asked.
"You'll have to learn to think one of these days, boy," Jiraiya said. "The ninja of the Rock Village can fortify the mountain passes and hold off many times their number easily. It would probably take an alliance of at least three great powers to force the passes if they were held, and there hasn't been an alliance like that since before the Leaf Village was founded."
Naruto frowned, but after a moment he nodded. "I understand."
"Once I think we're safe from pursuit, we'll turn north and head for the closest of those passes." Jiraiya paused before continuing. "That pass, by the way, was why the Rock were so insistent that the Hill Country keep control of this area." Naruto looked puzzled, and Jiraiya sighed. "Here, I'll just show you on a map, boy. Fetch my pack."
Naruto complied, and Jiraiya found the map with a minimum of searching and unrolled it. "See, boy? There's the Hill Country, and we're here in the old Waterfall Country."
"The map says it's still the Waterfall Country," Naruto said after a moment.
"The Fire Country doesn't recognize the Hill Country's claim to this part of the world," Jiraiya said, "so the maps made there don't really reflect reality."
"That doesn't seem very smart. What good is a map if it isn't right?" Naruto said and Jiraiya laughed.
"That's true, but politics can make people do funny things. If the Fire Country started using maps that said this area was part of the Hill Country, it would be a major diplomatic insult to the Waterfall Country. So far as they're concerned, this is still Waterfall Country, no matter who actually controls it right now."
"It still seems dumb," Naruto said.
"It does, doesn't it?" Jiraiya asked. "Anyway what I meant to show you is this pass here." Jiraiya pointed to a marking near the coast on what the map said was the border between the Earth and Waterfall countries. "That's where we're headed. You see why control of it was important to the Rock? The only other good pass on their southern border is way out here in the west."
After they had finished their lunch and repacked, the pair of Leaf ninja continued on their way. A few moments later, Jiraiya frowned, stopping suddenly as he examined the side of a rock. "Is something wrong, Ero-sennin?" Naruto asked.
"See these scratches?" Jiraiya said. Naruto couldn't see anything special, but her nodded anyway. "I think that these are Waterfall trail signs. We might have stumbled on one of the routes their raiders use to reach the coast. We should be able to follow it north and evade pursuit." Jiraiya frowned, weighing his options. "Follow me," he said firmly after a moment, changing direction suddenly to head northeast.
They moved more slowly after that, Jiraiya stopping frequently to look for and and interpret trail signs, Despite this and their constant changes of direction, they made good progress, and all through well-covered, uninhabited terrain. "The Waterfall certainly know this area well," Jiraiya commented after several hours. "I didn't even know that there was a safe way through the thickest part of these hills like this." He paused a moment, studying the latest marking further. "It looks like there's a safe place to rest a few miles further on."
Soon enough they found what seemed to be small cave at first but turned out to be a disguised, surprisingly long tunnel. It finally ended on a ledge overlooking a hidden lake, surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs. Rough-cut stairs led down to a bridge that crossed the lake to a small fortress perched on a rocky island in the lake's center. Jiraiya whistled softly. "This is a little more elaborate than I was expecting," he said.
"I'm glad you're impressed." The voice came from above the pair, and before they could look for him its owner jumped down from his chakra-fueled perch above the entrance to the tunnel. The man landed softly between Naruto and Jiraiya, roughly grabbing the genin and bringing a kunai to his throat. "Don't try anything funny," the man said as two more ninja emerged from their hiding places in the lake, racing up the stairs to confront Jiraiya.
Jiraiya took in the mens' gray armor and forehead protectors and sighed softly. "Waterfall ninja," he said, gesturing at Naruto to stay calm.
"That's right," the first man said. "Care to explain why I shouldn't kill you and your boy, stranger?"
"I have come as you have commanded, Hokage-sama," Kakashi said as he slipped into the office.
Tsunade glanced up from her ever-present mounds of paperwork. She swore that Shizune had learned some sort of paperwork summoning technique behind her back. It was the only possible way it could pile up so quickly. "Don't be so formal," she said. "You make it sound like I summoned you here for a trial."
It seemed to Tsunade that Kakashi smiled slightly behind his mask. "The last time we spoke you mentioned putting me under guard," he commented.
"You seem to have recovered from that particular bit of idiocy," Tsunade said, reaching into the middle of a stack of paper and taking out a single sheet, "seeing as this is a mission request and not a leave request."
Kakashi said nothing at first, then he said, "That's a budget report from ANBU's interrogation squad."
Tsunade flipped the paper around and stared at it. "I could have sworn," she muttered as she searched through the papers. "Shizune must have rearranged everything again." Eventually she gave up. "Oh well," she said. "I do have a mission ready for you. It's a bodyguard mission for the daimyo of Swamp Country; I'll send the mission scroll your way when I find it."
"Will I be back in time for the exams?" Kakashi asked after a moment.
"You'll probably miss the preliminaries," Tsunade said, "but you'll be here for the main event, I'm sure." She paused. "Do you think Sakura-chan will make it that far?"
"She can," Kakashi said. Probably, he left unspoken.
"Good," Tsunade said. She frowned as she studied Kakashi. "Is something wrong?"
"I spoke with Sakura-chan before she left," Kakashi answered after a long moment. "I think she may be having some sort of family problem."
"If she comes to me, I'll look into it if I can." Tsunade sighed. "I'm the Hokage, not a substitute mother," she said. "Getting involved in stuff like that is one of the things I'm not supposed to do, or I'd have given Hyuuga Hiashi a lecture he wouldn't forget by now."
"I understand," Kakashi said. "I thought you would want to know."
"I do," Tsunade said, "but my hands are tied unless she complains to me herself, and even then my options are limited." Tsunade shook her head. "I'll get you that mission scroll tonight."
Kakashi bowed slightly and left the Hokage to her paperwork.
Sakura was slowly going crazy. Her sanity just couldn't handle the onslaught of madness that was traveling with Anko. The first day, once the special jounin had finally told her what the mission was about, hadn't been too bad, in retrospect. Compared to how she'd been yesterday and today, Anko had been an excellent traveling companion. Perhaps she had been distracted by something that day, because since then she had been a nightmare.
It had started when Anko had decided to get an early start yesterday. It wasn't that bad an idea, though two hours before dawn would not have been Sakura's choice for a departure time. However, Anko had not chosen any normal means of waking up her temporary student. Instead Sakura had the unpleasant experience of being awoken suddenly by a large snake slithering into her bedroll. Sakura had killed it, of course, but Anko had seemed to take her venom-filled screams of rage as encouragement. Since then the special jounin had taken every opportunity to give Sakura first-hand experience with the surprisingly diverse serpentine population of the Fire Country.
Sakura dreaded every time Anko left her on the highway and went scouting, because she knew that the jounin's return would be heralded by the sudden appearance of a snake somewhere on Sakura's body. How Anko snuck up close enough to deposit the reptiles without being noticed, Sakura had yet to figure out. The only good thing was that Sakura was quickly becoming adept with rapidly removing her unwanted passenger.
Well, not quite the only good thing. At least Sakura's violent reaction to Anko's idea that they eat the snakes for dinner last night had worked. Though it might well have been the dango sale in the village they were staying in that had made the telling blow against the plan. Even in the course of their brief acquaintance, Sakura had discovered that Anko's love for dango was rivaled only by Naruto's love of ramen. Thankfully Anko had not yet suggested the same diet today. They were making camp in the countryside early in the afternoon rather than pressing on to the next village, and there was therefore no dango to distract her.
"So, why are we stopping now?" Sakura asked after she had finished scouring Anko's suggested campsite for any sign of snakes and begun to set up her tent.
Mercifully, Anko just answered the question, rather than using it as a springboard for more of her questionable humor. "We set out early so that we could stop early," she said as she seated herself on a rock and pulled out a kunai. "We'll need the time to get started on your training."
Sakura had almost forgotten Anko's comment about teaching her one of her clan techniques. "I'm not going to have to pretend to be adopted into to your clan or anything, am I?" she asked. "I mean, it is a secret technique and usually -"
Anko casually tossed her kunai, which flew past Sakura's head and embedded itself in a nearby tree trunk. Sakura barely flinched, but she did stop talking. She had already learned that this was Anko's way of asking her to be quiet and listen. "There won't be any problems with that," Anko said. "The whole point of the deal with the Leaf was that I'd spread the techniques."
Anko stood back up, walking past Sakura to grab her kunai again. She tossed it again, this time into a large piece of deadwood. "Go pick that up and throw it at me."
Sakura finished securing her tent. "The kunai?"
"No, the log," Anko said, her voice serious. "I'm going to show you what you're going to learn."
Sakura glanced dubiously at the jounin, but after a moment walked over and picked up the log. She stumbled under its weight briefly, then in one smooth motion lifted it over her head and hurled it at Anko. If she'd actually meant the kunai and had only said to throw the log as a joke, she deserved it, anyway.
Anko watched the log fly through the air until it had almost reached her. Then one hand formed a curious seal, even as she lashed out at the air with her other. Tendrils of flame sprouted from between her outstretched fingers and sliced through the air. As they hit the flying log they split it neatly in midair. Anko twisted her hand, sending the fiery streams horizontally across the pieces, leaving the log in almost a dozen sections which fell haphazardly onto the ground. Anko released the strange seal in her other hand, and the flames vanished.
She smirked. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon."
Sakura's eyes widened. "That's the first technique?"
"It doesn't take as much chakra as it looks like it would," Anko said. "Which is good, since your chakra reserve sucks."
Sakura bristled at the comment, but then she remembered the feats of endurance her teammates had accomplished and deflated. "I see," she said after a moment.
"You'd better hope that your chakra control is all it's cracked up to be, though," Anko said. "If you don't have superb control, this technique will take more practice than we have time for."
"Why?" Sakura asked.
"First, using a one-handed seal takes finer control than using a normal two-handed one. Second," Anko said, grinning widely, "if you don't have precise control over the flames, you'll get some interesting burns." Sakura glanced nervously at her hands, and Anko laughed. "Don't worry. There's a weird snake found around here that uses a venom that's actually good for burns. I'm sure I'll be able to -"
"No!" Sakura said vehemently. What was it with this woman and snakes, anyway?
Anko laughed again. "Looks like I've found some good motivation. Come on, give it a try."
"What was the seal, again?" Sakura forced herself to ask. Anko demonstrated, and Sakura slowly copied her. She closed her eyes briefly, gathering her chakra. Then she concentrated on her hand.
Sakura yelped, breaking the seal as she danced back, blowing frantically on her hand. It hadn't been more than a spark of flame, but it had hurt when it had gotten out of control. Anko chuckled cruelly. "No wonder you failed so badly in the exams. Isn't chakra control supposed to be your best skill?"
Sakura barely stopped herself from screaming at her teacher. "I don't suppose there are any tips you might have forgotten to tell me?"
Anko gazed thoughtfully upward, tapping her lips with a finger. "No," she said after a moment. "I don't think so."
Sakura sighed, forming the seal again. This time she got actual fire, though it didn't get past her fingers before the heat made her lose control. Fortunately, she managed to release the seal before burning herself too badly.
Anko kicked at a rock as she walked over to where Sakura had set up her tent, plopping down onto the ground. "I can see we're going to be here for a while. I should have pushed for the Hyuuga girl after all."
Sakura ignored her, staring at her hand. If she kept up this way, she was going to burn her fingers off before she got the fire under control. This was going to take practice, but she couldn't afford dangerous mistakes. After a moment, she walked purposefully to her pack and began to dig through it.
Anko just looked at her curiously. "Giving up already? I thought Hatake said you had willpower."
Sakura found what she was looking for, pulling out a pair of thick leather gloves. She slipped them on and walked back over to where she had been practicing. Sakura flexed her fingers, testing their mobility in the gloves, then formed the seal again. She began to channel chakra, only to find it dissipating before she could mold it properly to form the flames. Frowning, she released and reformed the seal, trying again to no greater success.
"You're trying to mold it outside your body since those gloves are in the way," Anko commented. "Even with good chakra control, that's hard."
Sakura considered this for a moment, then slipped off one of the gloves. Her other hand went to one of the kunai strapped to her leg and drew it. She quickly made a small slice in between each of the fingers of the glove, then replaced it and repeated the process with the other glove. She resheathed the dagger and flexed her fingers again.
Anko whistled appreciatively. "Smart girl," she said.
Sakura smiled slightly, then carefully formed the seal again. This time the flames made it to the tips of her fingers, and she managed to stop the technique without being burnt at all. More importantly, she had some idea now of why she was losing control, and knew that she would be able to improve on it. By the time she went to bed, Sakura could extend weak flames out a foot or strong ones half that, and hold them for several seconds before losing control.
Best of all, she hadn't burnt herself again.
Jiraiya did his best to ignore Naruto's loud ramblings while still keeping an ear out to make sure he didn't start talking about anything important. The Waterfall ninja had been polite enough once it had become apparent that the two of them did not intend to offer any resistance, and had escorted them to a small room in the fortress. They'd spent the night locked in there, but this morning they'd been allowed out to eat breakfast and had been left in the dining hall afterward. There was still a guard watching over them, but it was a little more trusting than Jiraiya would have been in a similar situation.
Then again, he had demonstrated knowledge of the Waterfall's tracking signs without being a Waterfall missing ninja, so his claim of being an ally had some backing. Whether they'd believed him when he'd told them his name - that was a different story. They hadn't called him a liar to his face, so the foreign ninja were probably at least considering the possibility.
Naruto had immediately hit it off with the guard watching them, a genin who appeared to be only a couple of years older than him. Naruto was currently relating with considerable enthusiasm the story of his mission to the Wave Country, with occasional questions from his listener, who seemed to be uncertain how much to believe. Some of it might have unbelievable to Jiraiya, also, but he knew that Naruto was a terrible liar. Besides, he'd heard a much less verbose version of the story from Kakashi, and it matched in most details. Glancing at Naruto, Jiraiya wondered whether the Waterfall ninja noticed the slight wince every time Naruto mentioned Sasuke. Probably not.
The story finally ground to a halt, and Naruto floundered briefly. The guard didn't salvage the conversation, and for a moment Jiraiya enjoyed the blessed silence. Then Naruto found a new topic. "Hey, your village sent people to the Chuunin Exam, right? Did you go?"
The guard shook his head. "No." He smiled proudly though. "Matsuyo-sama said that he'd recommend my team for the next ones, though, since our tour of duty here will be over in time. Will you be back in the Leaf in time for them?"
Jiraiya's ears perked up, and he waited to see if he would need to interrupt to stop Naruto for saying too much. "I don't think so," was all Naruto said, though, and Jiraiya relaxed. "Hey, if you go, could you give a message to Sakura-chan for me?"
"Sakura-chan?" the guard asked.
"Haruno Sakura. She's my... my teammate." Jiraiya grinned at Naruto's stumble, guessing that he'd imagined Sakura's reaction if he'd called her anything more familiar than his teammate.
The guard smiled as well, perhaps for the same reason. "How would I find her?"
"She's a really cute girl with pink hair," Naruto said. Perhaps realizing how unhelpful that description was, he continued. "Ask the teachers. If you tell them you have a message from me, they'll tell you how to find her."
"And what should I tell her?"
"Tell her I lo... I li.. I say hi," Naruto finished lamely, drawing a laugh from the guard. Naruto glowered at him.
"All right," the guard said, still laughing. "I'll pass it on if I get the chance," he said.
Moments later another Waterfall ninja entered the dining hall and walked up to Jiraiya. "The commander would like to speak to you," he said. Jiraiya nodded and rose. Naruto followed suit a moment later, but the ninja shook his head. "Not you, kid," he said. Jiraiya gestured at Naruto to stay put, and followed the other ninja through the fortress. When they reached what Jiraiya assumed was the commander's office, the ninja opened the door for Jiraiya but didn't follow him in, instead shutting the door behind him.
The commander of the Waterfall's hidden stronghold drummed his fingers slowly on his crude wooden desk as Jiraiya seated himself on the stool in front of it. The two were apparently alone in his office - a sign that the commander trusted Jiraiya's promise of good behavior. Of course, there was certainly a way that guards could be summoned to the office instantly, but the lack of visible precautions made an important gesture about the kind of discussion the commander wanted to have with Jiraiya.
"For the moment," the commander said once Jiraiya was seated, "let us assume that you are indeed the legendary Sannin Jiraiya, as you claim." He picked up one of the two cups of steaming tea on his desk, offering it to Jiraiya.
"Thank you," murmured Jiraiya as he took the cup, though he did sniff the tea carefully before taking a small sip. Unless they had a poisoner as skilled as Tsunade in this encampment, the tea was clean - though a little weak for Jiraiya's taste.
The commander didn't take offense to Jiraiya's careful testing, waiting for him to finish before continuing. "There's no matches for either you or the boy in any of our bingo books or the ones we've captured from the Valley in any case, but that doesn't mean much. We haven't had ours updated for a season."
Jiraiya nodded, taking another long sip of his tea. "You wish proof?"
"I would appreciate it," the commander said.
Jiraiya put the cup of tea down, raising his thumb to his mouth. "With your permission?" The commander nodded, and Jiraiya bit down. When he felt blood flowing, he placed his hand palm down on the desk. "Summoning Technique." There was a puff of smoke, and when it cleared a small toad appeared.
The toad looked around curiously before looking at Jiraiya. "What do you need, boss?"
"Could you tell my friend here what my name is?"
The toad looked puzzled - at least so far as a toad could - but it nodded, turning toward the Waterfall commander. "This here is Jiraiya-sama, the legendary pervert."
Jiraiya buried his face in his hands. "You've been hanging around Naruto-kun too much, Gamakichi." The toad grinned at Jiraiya, who sighed. "You can go now." The toad vanished in another puff of smoke.
The commander bowed slightly in his seat. "Forgive my suspicion, Jiraiya-sama."
"No forgiveness is needed. A little caution is to be expected in these circumstances. You've been more than polite." Jiraiya frowned slightly. "If I may have the pleasure of your name?"
"Of course, Jiraiya-sama. I am Matsuyo Nissho, chuunin of the Hidden Waterfall." Jiraiya raised an eyebrow, and Nissho flushed slightly. "The Leaf are not the only ones who suffered from the treachery of the Sand. They knew that we could be counted on to support the Leaf and sold all they knew of our defenses to the Valley." He grimaced slightly. "They told us of this when they repented of course, but many of our jounin died before that."
"I had not heard," Jiraiya admitted.
"We have not advertised the fact, Jiraiya-sama," Nissho responded. "We do not seek charity, and our troubles are small enough compared to the damage inflicted on the Leaf."
"I take it this location was not among those the Sand knew of," Jiraiya commented.
Nissho shook his head. "What brings you here, Jiraiya-sama?" Jiraiya launched into a heavily edited story, saying only that he and Naruto were heading north to the Earth Country and omitting the reasons behind it. Nissho did not press, instead rubbing his chin thoughtfully when Jiraiya had finished. "You mention a woman leading the Valley ninja pursuing you," he said. "Did she have any distinguishing marks of any sort?"
"A scar," Jiraiya answered, "running alongside her nose."
The commander smiled, reaching into his desk and pulling out a small black book. He flipped through it, then turned it around and showed Jiraiya a photograph. "That's her?" Jiraiya just nodded, and Nissho's smile turned into a grin. "She's Koyanagi Miyoko, one of the Hidden Valley's newest jounin, a daughter of one of their noble clans. She's also one of the Hidden Waterfall's most wanted."
Jiraiya didn't bother to ask why the Waterfall wanted her. It wasn't any of his business. "I think I see where your thoughts lead, Matsuyo-san," he said.
The commander put the book up. "I think you do as well. Why don't we be of use to each other, Jiraiya-sama? We can help you get the Valley off of your tail, and you can help us bag Koyanagi. Everybody wins."
"You plan to use us as bait," Jiraiya said.
"Precisely." Nissho began to drum his fingers on the desk again. "If the Rice Field border is heating up, they wouldn't dare pull more than a dozen ninja off of it to pursue you. We have that many here. With the help of one of the legendary Sannin, we could easily defeat them."
"On one condition," Jiraiya said after a moment. "We aren't here to get dragged into your war. We'll help you set the trap, but we'll take off as soon as we can get clear." He'd never hear the end of it from Tsunade if she heard that he was getting Naruto involved in a war. Naruto wasn't ready for that, either.
"Fair enough," Nissho answered. He reached into his desk again, this time pulling out a map. "Shall we get to working out the details, then?"
Jiraiya began to curse fluently at Naruto. "I told you to set up the campfire so it wouldn't smoke, not so it would send up a smoke signal!" he shouted. Naruto began to fiddle with the fire desperately, but this only had the effect of thickening the dark plume of smoke.
The two Leaf ninja were in a fairly good campsite, though one perhaps too close to a road. It was more of a trail than a road, really, but too close for comfort regardless. Still, the nearby lake which provided fresh water and the heavy foliage hid the shore from casual inspection, so it was easy to see why Jiraiya might have chosen this location to stop for lunch. Of course, Naruto's antics with the fire were making the already questionably secure site less so with each passing moment.
Still, eventually the two ninja managed to get the fire under control and the thick smoke drifted away, and Jiraiya set to cooking the fish he had caught earlier. "Why don't you work some on the Whirlwind Counter, boy?" he said after a moment.
"Why?" Naruto asked. "My Whirlwind Shield is just as good!"
Jiraiya knew enough about Naruto to be certain that explaining why the technique he'd been trying to teach Naruto was superior to Naruto's improvised imitation of it would be worse than futile. "Because I said so," Jiraiya answered. That worked from time to time, when Naruto was feeling especially cooperative.
Today was not one of those days. "Why?" Naruto insisted. "Didn't you say that I should only learn techniques for a reason?"
Jiraiya blinked at that, surprised that Naruto had remembered his words to throw back in his face. "You need to work on your chakra control, boy," he said after a moment. "You've probably already got more chakra at your fingertips than the rest of your genin class combined, but you waste so much of it that your effective reserves are smaller than they ought to be." Jiraiya snorted. "You'll probably never have the fine control of a medical ninja - you've got entirely the wrong temperament for that - but that's no reason not to practice it." The fact that most of 'his' chakra was alien to Naruto didn't help either, but this was neither the time nor the place to get into that. "With as much chakra as you have, a little better control will go a long way," finished Jiraiya, looking down to see if Naruto had understood him.
Naruto frowned in thought. "I don't get it," he said finally.
Jiraiya groaned. "Learning better control will make you stronger, and learning the Whirlwind Counter will help you get better control." More accurately, Naruto wouldn't be able to learn the Whirlwind Counter until he had better control. The failure to master the technique would be the motivation Jiraiya could use to goad Naruto into practicing control and focus.
"Ah!" Naruto exclaimed. "Why didn't you just say so?"
"Because I seem to have forgotten that you don't have two brain cells to rub together, boy. I'll try to remember in the future." Jiraiya turned back to the fish as Naruto began to protest, ignoring his griping until the genin gave up and dug Jiraiya's pinwheel out of his pack. Naruto propped the pinwheel up in a mound of dirt and laid on his belly in front of it, his occasional curses of frustration providing an amusing background sound as Jiraiya continued to make lunch.
Time passed, and Jiraiya almost didn't hear the approaching footsteps. A moment too late, he sprang to his feet, screaming a warning at Naruto. Naruto started, but wasn't able to stop Koyanagi Miyoko from picked him up by the back of his orange jumpsuit and placing her drawn katana at his throat. The Valley kunoichi laughed. "I thought you Sound scum were going to be a lot harder to catch," she said.
"We aren't," Naruto began, but he stopped suddenly as the katana at his throat drew closer.
"Are you going to try anything funny, old snake?" Miyoko asked Jiraiya.
A kunai appeared in Jiraiya's hands. "I'm faster than I look, and you're all by yourself, little girl. I wager I could kill you before you could kill the boy."
"You're confident," Miyoko said. "I like that." She nodded, and four more Valley ninja emerged from the undergrowth. "Still going to try something?"
Jiraiya sighed, dropping his kunai and forcing himself to relax. "Do I look like I'm trying something?" he asked.
Miyoko laughed. "Funny, too. I could almost like you, old snake."
"I can't say the feeling's mutual," Jiraiya said. Miyoko only nodded again, and two of her subordinates approached Jiraiya, one circling between him and the lake to cut off a potential escape route. Jiraiya sighed again. "You know, Koyanagi-san, for a jounin you're awfully unobservant."
Miyoko's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Go ahead and drop the act, boy," Jiraiya said, and the shadow replication in Miyoko's arms vanished. The Valley jounin stumbled from the sudden change in weight as a shower of orange-clad clones descended from the trees behind her, attacking the two ninja with her. The two ninja near Jiraiya drew weapons and charged, but the old hermit was ready for them. His hand came up with amazing speed, slamming a quickly forming Rasengan into the first ninja's chest. He kicked at the kunai by his feet, sending it spinning up to his other hand. He caught it easily, moving it into position just in time to block a katana strike from behind.
Meanwhile, one Naruto darted away from the melee engulfing Miyoko and the other two Valley ninja, racing toward Jiraiya. Miyoko swung her sword wildly, disrupting three shadow clones with one strike. "You aren't getting away that easily!" she shouted as she followed.
By the time Naruto reached Jiraiya, the ninja he had been fighting lay unconscious at his feet. "Come on, boy," Jiraiya said as he turned around, and the two ran onto the surface of the lake.
Miyoko growled behind them. "I can play that game too," she said as she followed them onto the lake. Her hands formed a seal around the hilt of her katana and she swung at the air in front of her. Magnified many times by her chakra, the force of the blow shattered the surface of the formerly placid lake. A wall of water sprung into existence, bearing down on the two Leaf ninja rapidly.
Jiraiya acted quickly, grabbing Naruto and leaping into the air, forming seals of his own. "Suiton: Calming the Storm!" As though they had been pressed down by a massive hand, the wild waters settled as rapidly as they had erupted into violence, and Jiraiya landed in the center of the lake.
Miyoko only laughed as she drew nearer. "We have you now, old snake," she said while Jiraiya dropped Naruto, who almost fell into the water before regaining his footing. Jiraiya glanced around. The other two Valley ninja had finished dealing with Naruto's replications and moved rapidly, circling around the fight. They now stood behind the two Leaf ninja, putting the fugitive pair in a tricky situation.
"No," a new voice said suddenly. "We have you now, Koyanagi Miyoko."
Miyoko started as gray clad ninja burst from the lake all around the three Valley ninja. "Waterfall!" she shouted, whirling around at a sudden presence behind her, but too slowly to do any good.
Matsuyo Nissho grinned as his hands rapidly formed seals. "Water Prison Technique!" A globe of water formed from his outstretched hand, completely enclosing the Valley jounin, who swung furiously and futilely at the chakra-charged liquid that imprisoned her. The other two Valley ninja were fighting well, but outnumbered three to one it seemed certain that they would fall.
"We can handle it from here, Jiraiya-sama!" Nissho shouted as he concentrated on keeping the Water Prison intact.
Jiraiya only nodded. "Come on, boy," he said to Naruto, and in an instant the two Leaf ninja were gone from the battlefield.
To her surprise, Sakura had awoken before Anko. Deciding against braving an attempt to wake her teacher, Sakura did her best to ignore the loud snoring that came from the other tent as she dressed and ate a quick breakfast. When that was done and there had been no sign that Anko planned to awake anytime soon, Sakura decided that it was up to her to make good use of the time on her own.
After slipping her gloves on again, Sakura attempted the Claw of Fire Dragon again, trying to stretch the limit of how far she could project the flames without losing control or weakening them to uselessness. There had to be some sort of trick that she was missing. Perhaps she had to force a tighter mold on the chakra before releasing it? Sakura tried it, but only succeeded in producing a very loud explosion just beyond her fingertips. An interesting result, but the explosion was too weak and too close to her hands to be useful.
Suddenly remembering that Anko was still sleeping, Sakura glanced worriedly at her teacher's tent, but the snoring continued as loud as before. With a sigh, Sakura admitted to herself that as much as she hated the idea, she would have to ask Anko for aid before coming up with any more clever ideas. If she had forced the molding a bit more, she might have blown her hand off. That wasn't something to look forward to.
It was no reason to let the morning go to waste, though. Sighing again, Sakura removed her gloves and rifled through her pack for the scrolls Kakashi had given her before she'd left the village. The first, which she had already stolen away a few hours to study, was less useful than she had hoped. A collection of tips on chakra molding she had already figured out did her little good, though using some of the visualization techniques had made her false replications a little more lifelike, and she'd managed to give one the illusion of substance once. She knew she still had a long way to go before the technique was perfected, though.
After a moment's thought, Sakura opened the second scroll instead. Like the first, it was written in Kakashi's handwriting - either he had prepared the scrolls in advance or he had been up all night before meeting Sakura the morning of her departure. Sakura's eyes widened as she began to read, though. She recognized this technique, and it was surprisingly simple the way Kakashi described it in the scroll. With the right conditions, she ought to be able to pull it off fairly easily. In the wrong conditions -
Sakura started as she heard a footstep behind her. She leapt up from her seat, whirling around and drawing a kunai in one smooth motion. She was somehow only slightly surprised to see Anko standing there, a large snake held in one arm. "Damn it," Anko said cheerily. "I'm sloppy this morning. Promise you won't tell Ibiki you heard me? He'll never let me forget it if he finds out I couldn't sneak up on a genin."
"Ibiki?" Sakura asked, not recognizing the name.
"He was the examiner for the first test during the last Chuunin Exams," Anko said. "You know him. The soft one."
Sakura did remember Morino Ibiki now. "Soft?!"
"Well, he let your team pass, didn't he?" Anko asked, her voice still cheery.
"So did you," Sakura muttered without thinking.
Anko frowned. "You're right. I'll have to make it up. I promise you won't pass next time, okay?" The snake in her hand began to free itself from her grip, coiling up her arm. Anko didn't seem to notice at first, until the snake's opened its mouth to bite. She grabbed the snake with her other hand, casually flinging it into the underbrush.
Sakura finally realized that the snoring was still coming from Anko's tent, and she glanced curiously at it. Anko smiled, gesturing vaguely, and the sound cut off suddenly. "Simple genjutsu," she explained. "You were so caught up in being a good little bookworm that you didn't notice me get up."
Sakura sighed. "Are we leaving now?" she asked.
Anko shook her head. "No reason to stop the little study session you started. We've still got some time to play with before we'll be unreasonably late, and I'd like to have you be a little less pathetic when we show up."
"I tried to strengthen the chakra mold to project the flames farther out, but it didn't work," Sakura forced herself to admit.
Anko laughed. "Bad idea. You want to do the opposite. Loosen up a little and let the chakra spin."
"You could have told me this earlier," Sakura said.
"This way's more fun," Anko replied with a grin. "Just be careful not to loosen up too much or even you won't have any control at all."
Sakura muttered a few choice unkind words as she retrieved her gloves and began to prepare herself. After a few false starts, she began to get the hang of it, nearly doubling her range, though she was still unable to maintain the fiery claws for more than few seconds. Still that was enough the get in a good hit, she judged. She might not be able to pull off anything fancy like Anko had when she'd demonstrated the technique, but that was still pretty good for so little time spent learning.
Anko watched her practice, yawning widely. Then she snapped her fingers. "I know how to make this a little more interesting," she said and Sakura's eyes widened in fear. "That genjutsu Hatake is teaching you, do it, and try and make the replications look like they're doing the technique also."
"But that technique uses up so much of my chakra -" Sakura's protests were cut off as Anko kept talking.
"The only way to increase your chakra reserves is to stretch them." Anko grinned. "I don't know if you've noticed, but you've already burned more chakra this morning than in that entire match back in the preliminaries." Her grin widened maliciously. "Though that says more about how abysmal you were then than about how good you are now."
"I wasn't exactly at full strength then," Sakura grumbled. "I'd kind of just spent five days in that forest."
"Excuses, excuses," Anko said with a wave of a hand. "You going to follow your teacher's orders or not?"
Sakura closed her eyes, forcing herself to calm down and run through the visualization techniques Kakashi had given her. Her hands moved through the seals slowly as she concentrated on control, trying to use as little chakra as possible. "Perfect Replication Technique." Four Sakura appeared in a line with the original, two on each side.
Anko gazed up and down the line with a critical gaze. "They're a little misty," she commented. She suddenly pushed her hand straight through one replication's chest. "And always be ready to fake the feeling of contact," she commented. "You never know what your opponent will do next." She stepped aside. "All right," she said. "Give it a try."
Sakura formed the seal for the Claw of the Fire Dragon and the replications followed suit as she began to dredge up as much chakra as she could. When the flames emerged from her hand, they were weak, pale things, but they also emerged from each clone. Anko waved a hand near one. "Heat, Sakura-chan," she said. "Remember the heat!"
Sakura's brow furrowed, and Anko yanked her hand away. "Better." Feeling her control about to slip, Sakura released the seal and the flames vanished. Anko grinned again. "Now to make this really fun," she said, falling into a ready stance. "Do it again, and try and land a hit on me. I'll even pretend I can't tell which ones are the fakes to make it easier."
"But if I hit," Sakura began, only to stop as Anko laughed.
"I might not be a full jounin like Hatake, but I'm more than good enough to handle anything you can throw at me," Anko said. "Go ahead."
Sakura had her fake replications circle around Anko, who merely stood still, glancing about to keep track of her opponents. Sakura considered a ranged attack, but she realized that would most likely be futile. Before she could come up with a plan, Anko moved, hurling a shuriken at each Sakura.
Sakura's hand went to her kunai before she remembered Kakashi's intentional mistake when he had first shown her the Perfect Replication Technique. Her replications couldn't actually parry the shuriken, so Anko would be able to use that to "guess" which Sakura was real. Sakura threw herself to one side, and her replications dodged the attacks as well - some having to move faster than Sakura actually could to get out of the way in time.
She couldn't let Anko take and stay on the offensive, Sakura knew, but how to attack? After a moments thought, Sakura concentrated, and one fake replication formed a seal with one hand and sprouted fiery claws from the other. It darted in to attack Anko, who laughed, dancing between the strands of false fire as the replication struck. The jounin countered with a kick to the replication's face, but Sakura had it cartwheel back rapidly to avoid the attack.
Anko paused to wipe her forehead. "You're getting better with the heat, Sak -"
Sakura's fist planted itself in Anko's back, taking advantage of the special jounin's apparent distraction. There was a burst of white smoke, and Sakura cursed as she felt the rough texture of wood through her glove. Where had Anko gone?
"Above you!" Anko called out happily as she hurled three kunai with pinpoint accuracy at Sakura.
Using the little chakra she hadn't committed to the genjutsu she was maintaining, Sakura used the replacement technique herself, leaving the same log Anko had used behind to be "killed" by the kunai. As her clones congregated near Anko's likely landing point, Sakura considered her next move. The strain of keeping the Perfect Replication Technique active was already telling on her. With so little free chakra, how was she supposed to hit a jounin?
Before she landed, Anko spun around in midair, her foot sweeping through the replications. Sakura struggled to provide a feeling of contact and an appropriate reaction from the clones, but she wasn't fast enough. The last fake Sakura just stood there as Anko's boot passed through her chest, and the others' movements were only slightly more convincing. Anko laughed again as she landed. "I have you now," she said, pointing at the real Sakura. "Hidden Snake Hands!" Four snakes sprung out of the sleeve of Anko's coat, mouths wide open as they sped through the air towards Sakura, growing impossibly long in the process.
Sakura darted to one side, but to no avail as the snakes followed her. She imagined that she could see venom glistening on their fangs as they drew nearer. Her quick mind raced through options and only one came to her. She could only hope she still had enough chakra to pull it off. She whirled about to face the onrushing snakes suddenly, a seal formed in one hand. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Driven by her near-panic, the fire came out stronger than she had imagined. She only held it for barely more than a second, but that was long enough to slice off the heads of the snakes. Then, drained of chakra, she fell to her knees, the forgotten replications near Anko vanishing without even a puff of smoke.
The headless snakes slowly retracted themselves, vanishing into Anko's sleeve. "I didn't think you had enough chakra to pull that off," she commented. "I guess we can call that a success." She smiled. "Well, let's get packed and moving, then, shall we?"
Sakura, panting, just glared at the jounin.
It was late afternoon the next day when Anko and Sakura arrived at their destination. The clan fortress was larger than Sakura had expected, looming over the port town that had sprung up around it like a giant. On closer inspection, though, it was in poor repair. It seemed to have been gutted by fire many years ago, and only a small section had been fixed and maintained since then. Given Anko's story, that made sense, Sakura decided. A once-prosperous clan had been reduced to a handful of people - perhaps only two.
The town was not walled; instead the buildings just spread farther and farther apart as one got farther from the shore until some poorly defined line was crossed and they became households on the town's outskirts. Anko seemed to know precisely where they were going, and Sakura had to struggle to keep up with her rapid pace as the buildings and crowds thickened.
As they drew nearer to the castle, it became apparent that it was actually built on an island at the entrance to the port, rather than on the shore as it had first seemed to Sakura. When they reached the port itself, Anko walked without hesitation to a small wharf off to one side, where a lean woman in dark clothing was sitting on a stool, idly flipping through a familiar-seeming book. The woman looked up as Anko stepped onto the wharf, then paled and jumped to her feet, dropping the book. She bowed, saying, "Mitarashi-sama! My apologies, but I just sent the boat over to the fortress with supplies. If we'd known that you were arriving today -"
Anko interrupted her with a sigh. "It isn't your fault, Shiomi-san. Don't worry about it."
As the two older women began to discuss how long it would take for the boat to return, Sakura crept over to the stool Shiomi had abandoned, picking up the book. Her face flushed as she read the title, realizing why the book had seemed familiar. "Icha Icha Paradise For Girls?" she muttered quietly to herself.
"Sakura-chan, you pervert!" Anko exclaimed sweetly, peering over her student's shoulder.
Sakura jumped, dropping the book like a hot potato and turning to face her. Behind Anko, the other women was staring at the wooden boards beneath her feet, her face scarlet. "I wasn't - I was just looking because it looked familiar."
"You spend a lot of time reading these?" Anko asked. "I thought you couldn't even buy them at your age."
Sakura thought that her face couldn't get any redder. "No, but Kakashi-sensei does!"
Anko pursed her lips thoughtfully. "He does seem the type. Probably learned it from his teacher." Anko grinned. "Now there was a pervert. He tried to hit on me once, but O - my teacher put the fear of the gods into him. Shame. He was kind of hot."
"Mitarashi-sama!" Shiomi exclaimed. "Please!" Sakura agreed with the sentiment, but she already knew that protesting was the best way to make sure that Anko wouldn't get bored of this topic.
Anko turned to face the other woman, then suddenly deflated. "All right," she said, and Sakura's eyes widened. Sure, she hadn't known Anko for very long, but she'd never seen the special jounin back down like that. "We'll be back in a bit, then," was all she said before turning and heading back toward the town.
Sakura followed after a moment, glancing backward to see Shiomi nervously picking up her book. Anko stopped suddenly, and Sakura almost ran into her back before noticing. "Here we go," Anko said, and Sakura finally noticed that they had reached a small dango shop.
"Couldn't we go somewhere where we can get something a little better to eat?" Sakura asked, her stomach rumbling.
Anko looked mortally offended. "This is the best dango shop in the entire Fire Country! There is nowhere better to eat!"
Sakura sighed as she followed her teacher into the shop. It was empty except for the two people behind the counter: an old woman and a young man who seemed close to Anko's age. They both looked up as Anko seated herself at a seat in front of the counter and Sakura followed suit.
"Anko-chan!" the woman exclaimed happily. "I'd heard you were coming back, but I thought you'd be heading to the fortress first."
Anko laughed a laugh that Sakura hadn't heard her make before, a good-natured laugh without even a hint of malicious glee. "You know me, Auntie. Dango always come first."
The young man shook his head sadly. "You're lucky you're a ninja, Anko-chan. Otherwise you'd get fat and all the boys would avoid you."
Anko pouted. "Even you, Arata-kun?"
The man grinned. "Probably," he answered as he plopped a tray of dango in front of the two ninja.
Sakura couldn't stop staring at Anko, who was acting so unlike herself. The woman behind the counter finally noticed her, peering curiously at her forehead protector. "And who are you?" she asked.
"Ah, Haruno Sakura," she answered after a moment. "I'm Mitarashi-sensei's student."
The woman grinned widely. "Did they finally give you a genin team, Anko-chan?"
Anko shook her head. "Just her," she answered. "I'm still only a special jounin, but I'm going to try for full jounin in the next exam."
The woman sighed sadly. "Anko-chan, that's what you said last time you were here. If you'd just stop being so nervous and actually take the exam, I'm sure you'd pass."
"I hope you're right," Anko said.
Sakura tried to imagine Anko as being too nervous to take an exam, even the Jounin Exam, and failed miserably. It just didn't match with anything else she'd seen of Anko. Why was she acting like an entirely different person here? Sakura opened her mouth, only to catch a hint of a warning glare in Anko's eyes. Sakura closed her mouth rapidly.
"That was fast," the man said. For a moment, Sakura thought he had noticed, but then she saw that at some point during this conversation the entire tray of dango had vanished. Her eyes widened. It really was like visiting a ramen shop with Naruto.
Anko grinned. "We don't have much time," she said. "Just until the boat gets back from the island." Anko rose. "Which should be soon."
The woman shook her head. "Don't spend your whole visit cooped up in there again, Anko-chan. Come and visit us." She grinned. "Bring your student, but let her get something to eat next time, okay? If you let her starve, they'll never give you a full team."
Anko grin turned embarrassed. "Right," she said as she headed for the exit. Sakura followed, only to once again nearly run into Anko's back when the older ninja stopped suddenly and turned back. "Auntie? Arata-kun?"
"Thanks for being the only people in this town who don't call me Mitarashi-sama," Anko said.
"I don't think your grandmother calls you Mitarashi-sama," Arata said.
"No, she calls me 'Mitarashi Anko, explain yourself immediately!'" Anko replied. "That's just as bad." Arata laughed, and Anko turned away again. "Come on, Sakura-chan."
Sakura followed her back to the wharf, peering quizzically at the special jounin's back. That sudden change of personality was like nothing she had seen before, except... the way that Naruto could get sometimes when he visited that ramen stand near his apartment. It wasn't as vast as Anko's change, but there was a definite difference at those times. Even in the numerous tales of great pranks of the past Naruto had told her, much to her secret amusement, she had never heard him describing one involving that place. Sakura's eyes widened as she considered that her long-ago initial assessment of Anko as "kind of Naruto-ish" might have been more accurate than she had thought.
Anko didn't say anything until they reached the wharf, where a small boat was now tied up. Shiomi stood nervously, her book nowhere to be seen. "Mitarashi-sama! You're right on time."
"Good," Anko said sharply. "Let's get going."
In a surprisingly short time, they were aboard and on their way to the fortress. The boat moved swiftly through the water, but it was obvious that the sun would finish setting before they reached the island fortress. Sakura considered asking Anko for more information, but one look at her teacher made her decide that the jounin was in no mood to talk.
They were almost at the fortress when Anko suddenly spoke. "I almost forgot," she said quietly. "The Mitarashi Clan - what's left of it, anyway - still follows the old religion. That won't be a problem, will it?"
Like most of the Leaf Village, Sakura's mother hadn't been a devout follower of either the old ways or the new gods, and she had passed that on to her daughter. Even if she had, though, this was still a mission. "Of course not," Sakura said.
"Good," Anko said. "That's one less problem."
Nothing more passed between them until they reached the island, where two more black-clad women waited for them. "The elder wishes to see you immediately, Mitarashi-sama," one of them said.
"Of course," Anko said, though Sakura noticed her tensing slightly.
As the woman who had spoken lead them through the halls of the fortress, Sakura asked quietly "What's wrong?"
"Something," Anko answered softly, her lips hardly moving. "Normally Grandmother would wait until morning."
Sakura's mind began to race through possibilities. A coup? "Do you know all the retainers we've seen?" she asked, after checking that the third woman was far enough ahead that she couldn't hear.
Anko nodded. "They're loyal," she said. Anko grimaced. "I'd worry that the old woman was about to die, but we're heading for the audience chambers, not the sickroom."
"That's no way to talk about your grandmother," Sakura hissed.
"Wait until you meet her," was all Anko said.
The woman they were following stopped in front of a pair of double doors and opened one, gesturing for the two ninja to enter. she shut the door behind them, not entering herself. The audience chamber was cloaked in shadow, the only light a circle of candles set around a small throne. A wizened old woman sat on it, and she cackled as Anko and Sakura approached. "You're late, Anko."
Anko knelt as she entered the circle of light, and Sakura followed suit a second later. "My apologies, Grandmother. I was on a mission when your letter arrived, but I came as quickly as I could when I received it."
"Rise," Anko's grandmother said after a moment.
Anko stood, but placed a hand on Sakura's shoulder to keep her from standing as well. "Grandmother, please allow me to present my student, Haruno Sakura of the Hidden Village of the Leaf."
Sakura heard a door open off to one side, and the old woman cackled again. "You'll never guess who showed up after all these years, Anko," she said, ignoring Anko's statement.
Another woman stepped into the light. She had the same purple hair and dark eyes that Anko did, though her hair was cut short in an almost boyish fashion. A little older-seeming than Anko, she wore a dark red shirt and pants. A curved blade slightly longer than a standard kunai was sheathed on each of her legs, and Sakura could see a pouch for carrying shuriken and other tools on her back.
Anko's eyes widened, and Sakura could hear her sharp breath. "Big sister?" she asked, disbelief in her voice.
The woman in question smiled widely. "It's been a long time, Anko."
Anko's hand, still on Sakura's shoulder, was clenched so tightly that it was almost painful. "Where have you been all this time, Kimi?" Anko asked, her voice tight. "I thought you were dead."
"I could say the same to you, Anko," Mitarashi Kimi said. "I've been traveling since I escaped from the Sand. I never had the courage to come back here until recently." She looked her sister up and down, her eyes resting briefly on Anko's forehead protector. "You've grown up well."
Their grandmother laughed again. "I wanted to tell you why I sent for you in the letter, but Kimi-chan wanted to surprise you."
"I see," Anko said, slowly releasing her grip on Sakura, who resisted the urge to rub her aching shoulder.
"This is your student?" Kimi asked, curiosity in her voice.
Anko took a deep breath, and nodded. "As I was saying when you arrived, sister, this is my student, Haruno Sakura of the Hidden Village of the Leaf." She paused. "As you commanded, Grandmother, I brought her."
Kimi's eyes narrowed as she studied Sakura, who forced herself not to flinch. "Haruno Sakura, huh?" the older Mitarashi sister said slowly. Then she smiled widely, gesturing behind her. A girl Sakura hadn't noticed before stepped forward into the light. "Allow me to introduce my student, Shimano Ren."
Sakura studied the new girl carefully. She had dark hair and blue eyes, and was dressed in a style not dissimilar to what Sakura had worn before she had adjusted her usual outfit to compensate for the weights she now wore. Sakura noted the hilt of a kunai poking out through a slit in the side of Ren's short, blue dress, and noticed that the girl's hand never strayed far from it. She certainly held herself like a ninja, even if like her teacher she wore no forehead protector.
"Your student may rise, Anko," the Mitarashi elder said after a moment, and Sakura complied with the implied command, her gaze still not leaving the other girl, who was returning her scrutiny with equal fervor.
"I believe you see the problem this presents, Anko," the elder continued after a moment. "By the ancient traditions of our family, as the eldest daughter of my eldest daughter, Kimi-chan and, through her, her students are the heirs to the clan and this island."
Anko stiffened. "By the agreement you signed with the Hidden Leaf, I and, through me, my students and are the heirs to the clan and the island." Sakura's eyes widened. Anko hadn't mentioned anything about that.
Anko's grandmother waved a wrinkled hand. "It was signed under the impression that Kimi-chan was dead."
"Do you think that the Leaf will accept it if you violate the agreement?" Anko asked quietly.
"Are you a Mitarashi or a Leaf?" Kimi said sharply.
"I am both," Anko answered. "And I do not wish to see the Leaf and the Mitarashi go to war." Sakura's eyes widened further, as she considered this. Anko had mentioned that the agreement covered the Leaf's control of the strategic port this island commanded. If that control was threatened, the Leaf would have to react. But why would Anko assume that her sister would simply break the agreement rather than just renegotiate the terms of the deal slightly?
"The Mist were allies of the Mitarashi before," Kimi said, and Sakura noticed what she should have before. The older Mitarashi sister spoke with a slight Water Country accent. Was that why Anko had assumed that she would deny the Leaf access? It seemed an awfully large leap of logic. Kimi continued, "They will come to our aid if the need occurs, and the Leaf will not dare risk a real war in their weakened state."
Anko ignored this, turning instead to her grandmother. "Did you simply call me here to tell me of your intention to break the agreement, Grandmother?"
"No, Anko, that would not be fair to you or the Leaf." The old woman laughed again, a sound that Sakura was rapidly becoming annoyed with. "It seems only proper that a contest be held, to demonstrate mastery of our clan's techniques to determine which heir will best serve the Mitarashi." Kimi seemed as surprised at this declaration as Anko.
"You wish Kimi and I to fight?" Anko asked, disbelief in her voice.
"No." Her grandmother smiled. "I wish to see your students perform." Sakura swallowed. This did not sound good.
"Ren?" Kimi asked, glancing at her student.
"As you wish, Mitarashi-sensei," the girl answered quietly, her voice soft but firm. There was no hint of nervousness in her eyes as she gazed at Sakura.
"Well, Anko?" Kimi asked. "Are you willing to have your student demonstrate her mastery of our clan's techniques?" Her voice was lightly mocking, as though she expected Anko to back down.
"Under what conditions?" Anko asked.
"In the examination hall," the elder answered, "to yield or unconsciousness. There's no need for a death match."
Anko leaned over and whispered in Sakura's ear. "Can you do this?"
"There's only one way to find out," Sakura whispered back. She raised her voice. "I accept," she said, returning Ren's gaze as confidently as she could. A thrill of pride ran through her as the other girl frowned, her eyes suddenly narrowing.
The Mitarashi Clan elder laughed again. "Very well, then. The battle shall commence in the morning, the day after tomorrow."
The gates of the border fortress swallowed the road like a great beast snatching up a hapless prey animal. Filling the gap between two steep hills, it was perhaps the ugliest building Naruto had ever seen - a giant block of gray stone with no decoration of any sort. It was as though the only direction those building the fort had received was to block the road, and they had set about doing it as efficiently as possible. Naruto could see the crowds clustered around the gates, waiting often impatiently for the guards to inspect them and admit them into the Earth Country.
"Are we going to go around?" Naruto asked, waving a hand at the hills surrounding them.
Jiraiya rolled his eyes. "There are traps all over the pass," he said. "I'm not sure even the Rock ninja can get through it without using the road, and we certainly couldn't. If we're going to go into the Earth Country, we're going to have to pass through the fort. That's why it's there."
"So then, why'd you take us off the road?" Naruto asked.
"There aren't any traps this close to the road," Jiraiya said. "Otherwise there'd be too many accidents. I took us out of sight because someone might notice if we'd transformed in the middle of the road."
"Transform?" Naruto asked.
Jiraiya stared levelly at his apprentice. "I know you know the transformation technique, boy."
"Well, yeah," Naruto said. "But why are we going to transform?"
Jiraiya sighed. "Who's been looking for us?"
Naruto frowned. "The Valley ninja."
"And the allies of the Valley are?"
Naruto seemed to think for a moment. "The Rock ninja."
"And the Rock ninja are from?"
"And where are trying to go to?"
"Earth Country!" Naruto repeated.
"Do you understand why we need to transform?" Jiraiya asked.
Naruto frowned again. "No," he said simply.
Jiraiya let out another sigh. "You are hopeless sometimes. The Valley ninja could have given the Rock ninja our descriptions, so the border guards might be looking for us too. We have to transform so they won't recognize us."
Naruto nodded. "Why didn't you say so?" his hands forming a seal. "Transform!" Where Naruto had stood was now a man almost a foot taller than Jiraiya and probably a hundred pounds heavier. "How's this?" he asked in a deep, booming voice.
"Terrible," Jiraiya said.
Naruto inspected himself carefully. "I don't see anything wrong," he said. "I'm good at this technique!"
"Yes, but did you pay any attention to how to use it well?" Jiraiya asked.
Jiraiya winced at the loud voice. "Release that and I'll explain." Once Naruto was back to his normal self, Jiraiya seated himself on a convenient rock, and a moment later the genin plopped himself onto the ground. "There are ways a good ninja who's paying attention can notice a transformation and see through it," Jiraiya said. "The border guards will almost certainly be trained in them."
"What?" Naruto protested. "Then what good is transforming?"
"There's a trick - well, two tricks actually. The first is to not give the ninja any reason to pay attention to you, but that doesn't always work." Jiraiya shook his head. "We can't count on that. The second trick is to keep the transformation as close to what you really look like as possible. The less you actually transform, the harder it is to see through."
"Why?" Naruto asked.
Jiraiya pondered the best way to explain it. "Seeing through a transformation doesn't happen all at once," he said after a long moment. "You start to notice little things that don't add up right or see part of what's really there for a hundredth of a second. If the transformation is close to reality, though, there's less stuff that's wrong to see."
Naruto was lost in thought for what seemed an eternity, but was probably only a very short while in fact. "I think I get it," he said slowly. "It's like how a big prank like painting Hokage Mountain gets noticed instantly, so you get caught; but a small one like changing a couple labels on the files in the teachers' office won't be, so most of the time they never find out who did it!"
Jiraiya probably shouldn't have been surprised by Naruto's choice of metaphor, but he was. He was more surprised by the fact that the metaphor worked and showed he understood the concept, though. "Precisely, boy. Maybe you've grown an extra brain cell or two."
Naruto seemed uncertain whether to feel complimented or insulted, and wound up just looking confused. "So, what do we turn into, then?" he asked.
"Hmm," Jiraiya said, pondering just that. "First, we lose the orange." Jiraiya smiled. "That's precisely the wrong color for this kind of thing."
Yamakita Toju hated dealing with Valley ninja. He knew that they were allies of the Rock, but sometimes he daydreamed about leading a raid on their pathetic little village and wiping it off of the map. Maybe they could trade them to the Leaf and get the Waterfall back instead. From the way the Valley ninja constantly showed up here at their border with the Earth Country begging for aid in their own arrogant way, the Waterfall must have been excellent ninja.
Toju had thought being appointed to second-in-command of the border crossing on only his third posting as a chuunin had meant he'd been on the fast track for further promotions. Instead he'd been stuck here for almost two years now, dealing with all the awful jobs the jounin commander couldn't be bothered to handle. At least when he was dealing with insubordinate genin or independent ninja looking to join the Rock he could take it out on them. When he had to meet with messengers from the Valley, he had to be polite - and that was by far the worst part.
In this case, the Valley had sent a full three-man squad, so the message had to be of some importance. Toju lead the Valley ninja to a secluded alcove where he could still keep an eye on the guards manning the gates - there were two new genin on that duty now and he needed to make sure they didn't mess things up. "What brings you here now?" he asked his visitors after making sure that no one suspicious was in earshot. "The usual meeting isn't until next week."
One of the three - likely the leader of the squad, though Toju had seen none of them before, so he couldn't stay for sure - spoke. "We have reason to believe that two Sound agents have or are about to infiltrate the Earth Country."
"Oh?" Toju asked. This should at least be interesting.
"Our border forces intercepted two Sound ninja near the Rice Field border," the man continued. "They fled and dodged pursuit, and before we lost them they were headed in this direction."
"I see," Toju murmured. It figured that the Valley couldn't stop two ninja from crossing their entire country. Incompetents, the lot of them. "I don't suppose you have any information that might help us catch these dangerous spies, do you?" he asked. He glanced up, his eyes briefly following a nice-looking young blonde in a black dress the guards had just let through. Too bad she already had a man. Toju wondered whether he was her brother or boyfriend, but decided it didn't matter as his attention returned to his visitors.
One of the other Valley ninja had pulled two scrolls from his jacket. Toju accepted and opened them, discovering two simple, quickly colored sketches. Whoever had drawn them wouldn't be winning any art contests any time soon, Toju decided. The first seemed to be an old man, while the second was a young kid. "Truly the faces of great ninja," he said, and the Valley ninja stiffened. "Very well," Toju said. "We shall find these two if they enter Earth Country; have no fears." He paused. "The Hidden Rock thank you for the warning."
The Valley ninja took the hint and left promptly, a Toju smiled as he overheard a snippet of their conversation. It was so much fun to insult the Valley while not saying anything that they could actually call him on. Gazing at the pictures once more, he sighed. Another problem had been added to his plate. Oh well. He knew just just the people to give it to.
Yes, he thought to himself. Let those three use those once-lost techniques they constantly boasted of and prove their clan deserved the new chance the Tsuchikage had given them. They'd probably even thank him for the opportunity. Toju glanced back at the pictures in his hand. For a moment, he thought they looked a little familiar, but the feeling passed quickly.
Sakura resisted the urge to yawn as she followed Anko out of the small chapel. She was all for respecting religion, but even the most boring classes were easy to sit through compared to hours of mumbling in an archaic language. Anko had suggested that she attend this morning's services with her, in order to show respect for the clan's traditions. It was a sound point, but Sakura had to notice that neither Mitarashi Kimi nor her student had spent their morning at prayer. At least, they hadn't prayed there. The only saving grace was that watching Anko's struggle to remain awake had been highly amusing in its own fashion. By all appearances, Anko had adopted the Leaf Village's rather casual attitude towards religion instead of maintaining the rituals of her youth.
Sakura noticed that the two of them were alone in the corridor that linked the chapel with the tower in which both sets of guests had been given rooms. The closeness of the two competing factions had made for a rather restless night, as Sakura had spent much of it wondering whether an attempt would be made to eliminate her before the scheduled match. There had been no such attempt, but Sakura still wasn't certain she'd get much sleep tonight either.
After checking once again to ensure that none of the universally black-clad Mitarashi Clan retainers were present, Sakura turned to Anko. "Umm... Mitarashi-sensei?" Sakura asked. This had been bugging her since last night, and this seemed a good time to ask.
"What?" Anko inquired after a moment.
"Last night, you seemed to realize that there would be trouble as soon as your sister showed up, even before she started talking about the Mist. Why?"
Anko's face was tight. "First, if there wasn't going to be trouble they would have told me she was alive in the letter and there would have been no need to bring you." She paused, as though pondering her next words with much greater thought than she usually did. "Second, Kimi hates the Leaf. She'll never accept the deal Grandmother made."
"Why?" Sakura asked after a moment.
"During the war," Anko answered slowly, "the clan and the Leaf weren't on very good terms. Mist ships were allowed to use our port for resupply, and the Leaf tried a couple of times to close it. Kimi and I... our parents were killed in one of those battles."
"That... your parents?" Sakura asked. "But you - how could you be a Leaf ninja then?"
"Twice in my life," Anko said, "when I thought I had lost everything, the Leaf have given me a reason to live. I will be repaying that debt until the day I die." The special jounin's eyes were distant, and she seemed to have forgotten that she was talking to Sakura.
"Twice?" Sakura asked without thinking. The first would be when the Leaf jounin had found her after the destruction of her clan, but the second?
Anko shook herself from her apparent reverie. "That's none of your business, Sakura-chan," she said after a moment.
"What about me, Anko-chan?" Sakura started, looking up to see Mitarashi Kimi leaning on the wall a few feet from the stairs up to the tower, idly playing with one of her long blades in a manner eerily reminiscent of Anko's own habit with her kunai. How much had she heard?
Anko stiffened. "It's no concern of yours, either."
Kimi smiled lazily, and Sakura shivered. There was menace in that smile - not the playful malice she had seen on Anko's face, but something much worse. "Is that any way to talk, little sister?"
"What do you want?" Anko asked bluntly.
Kimi tossed her weapon into the air, letting it spin a few times before easily catching it by the hilt. "I was thinking we could go off somewhere by ourselves - say, the examination hall - and... talk. Catch up."
"Sakura," Anko said flatly. "Go back to the rooms."
"But -" Sakura began, eying Kimi nervously.
"Go." Anko smiled a smile to match her sister's. "Kimi and I have some talking to do in private."
Sakura looked nervously at her temporary teacher, but after a moment decided she had no choice but to comply. Anko was a special jounin, after all. She could take care of herself. Sakura tensed as she passed Kimi, but the other Mitarashi sister barely glanced as she passed. As she began to ascend the stairs, Sakura half-expected to hear the sounds of fighting from below but heard nothing. Somehow that was almost more disturbing.
When she reached the floor both sets of guest chambers were on, Sakura stepped into the hallway, then froze as she saw the dark-haired girl who was heading for the stairs. The other girl stopped also, her hand flicking to the hilt of her kunai. After a long moment, she relaxed, looking curiously at Sakura. "Your name is Haruno Sakura, is it?" she asked. As last night, her voice was soft, but there was no weakness in it.
"Yes," Sakura answered, forcing herself to relax and walk closer to the person she was to fight tomorrow. "You are Shimano Ren?" The question was more for politeness than for an answer, for Sakura remembered last night's meeting clearly.
"That is correct," Ren said, openly studying Sakura. Her eyes fell on Sakura's forehead protector, though being slightly shorter than Sakura herself she could not see it clearly. "You are from the Hidden Leaf?"
Sakura nodded. Hadn't the other girl paid attention last night?
Ren seemed to be at a loss for words for a moment, glancing out a window. "I had not heard of a Haruno Clan in the Leaf," she ventured finally, her gaze returning to Sakura.
"We're... not a very big clan," Sakura said. Not a clan at all was a more accurate description. "There's no reason you would have." Sakura forced herself to smile. "I grew up in the Leaf Village, and I doubt I would have heard of the Haruno if I wasn't one."
"Is that so?" Ren asked. She said nothing more, clearly lost in thought.
It seemed to be up to Sakura to continue the conversation or let it end. "Umm... how did you come to be with your teacher?"
Ren blinked, as though she had not expected Sakura to ask a question herself. She seemed to consider her answer a moment. "I wanted to become a ninja," she said, "and Mitarashi-sensei was willing to teach me."
Sakura looked Ren up and down. "I see," she said awkwardly after a moment. It was hard to talk to someone she knew she would be fighting the next day.
Ren seemed to feel the same way, and she was silent for a long moment. Her mouth quirked up into a smile. "I feel like I should wish you good luck," she said, "but that seems somewhat inappropriate."
Sakura laughed despite herself. "It probably would be." She paused. While Ren's teacher made her nervous, Ren herself seemed to be a nice girl. After a long moment, she spoke again. "No hard feelings tomorrow?" she asked.
Ren seemed to weigh the question for a long time. "No hard feelings," she said finally. Then she nodded firmly. "Good day, Haruno-san."
Sakura's eyes followed her as the other girl walked over to the stairs, then Sakura turned away and headed to her room, her mind already considering tomorrow's fight. Somehow she doubted that there was much sleep in her future.
Author's Random Rambling
1) This chapter did not take nearly so long to write as I thought it would. It's amazing what making a cup of tea and unplugging the Internet can do for writing speed. For most of the writing I thought this chapter would be a little shorter than the first, but instead it's about 20% longer. I'm not quite sure how that happened.
2) Careful readers may have already noted that I'm bringing characters from another filler (the bikouchu arc) into this. Despite my rather horrid record at avoiding them in my works, I prefer to keep the number of original characters as low as possible. These three characters nicely filled a hole in my plans, so in they come. It's worth noting, though, that this story does still diverge from the anime before that filler arc, and the events of that arc did not occur.
3) As always, I welcome any and all forms of C&C.
Draft Started: November 17, 2005
Draft Finished: November 28, 2005
Draft Released: November 29, 2005
Final Released: December 2, 2005