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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 3: Distant Thunder

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, ligers. Insane cyborg ligers. With laser-claws.

Day Fifteen

Yakushi Kabuto was highly disappointed in the security of the Fire Country. He had expected to have at least once tested the cover story that he'd carefully designed for this trip, particularly given that he was crossing over from the Rice Field Country. The Fire Country, after all, was technically at war with the Rice Field still, even if there hadn't been much in the way of real battles since the failed attack on the Leaf Village almost six months ago. However, he'd not seen a single Leaf ninja since he'd crossed the border at the Valley of the End - a historic sight he'd always meant to see, but had never gotten around to visiting before.

He'd been dutifully impressed by the damage the monuments had suffered. It was blatantly obvious from the evidence that large amounts of raw power and comparatively little control had featured in the most recent duel to be fought there. Kabuto was of the opinion that the way one fought said a lot about one's personality. No longer did he wonder why Orochimaru had been forced to discipline his newest apprentice so harshly. Uchiha Sasuke's mental stability had clearly degenerated badly between the Chuunin Exam and his defection, and corrective measures would have to be taken. When he returned to the Sound Village, Kabuto planned to suggest a few appropriate drug cocktails, though he expected Orochimaru would refuse. His master preferred more traditional methods of reforging his weapons to best serve his ends.

Now, finally, Kabuto had reached where he was to deliver his master's message, and he was once again disappointed. He was certain that this was the right hill, with the right pattern of trees with the right markings on their trunks. He had double-checked and searched the surrounding hilltops, yet there was no sign of his contact to be found. Kabuto was beginning to get annoyed, a feeling he preferred to clear himself of by eliminating the source. This time, though, he knew that was not an option. Orochimaru's punishment for such a betrayal at this stage would make the young Uchiha's recent experiences seem more than pleasant, and that was not something that Kabuto wished for himself. Far from it.

Kabuto frowned as his finely-honed senses easily detected the two intruders rapidly approaching him. He caught a quick glimpse of them as they began to climb the hill. Both were far too young to be his contact. Was this a betrayal? Unlikely, he judged. These two couldn't be more than genin, both by their age and the way they moved. It would be unusual arrogance on the part of the Leaf to send two genin to collect his head. The latest bingo book the Sound had captured had listed Kabuto as an A-rank criminal, correcting the mistake of earlier versions which had relied on his deliberately poor records as a Leaf genin and ranked him much lower.

It was always better to be safe, though, and Kabuto carefully secreted himself in a tree as the pair neared the hilltop. They were a boy and a girl - both seemed to be at most fourteen years old and neither wore a forehead protector. However, Kabuto noticed the slightly lighter skin where one would have sat on the boy's forehead, and he smiled as he continued to study the pair.

The two walked to the center of the hilltop, and then the boy made an exaggerated recognition sign - the one that had been arranged with his contact. The boy spun around slowly so that Kabuto would have been able to see the sign no matter where he hid. "We have come," the boy said, "to deliver a message to you from our teacher." Kabuto decided not to show himself, at least for now.

The boy spun around once more, then grimaced, dropping the recognition sign. "I guess he's not here. What should we -" He stopped talking suddenly as his companion laid a hand on his shoulder.

"He's here," the girl said, her bright eyes darting about the hilltop. "I can feel him watching us."

Kabuto smiled. The girl was perceptive, at least.

The boy seemed to be almost as impatient as another young boy of Kabuto's acquaintance. "Then why doesn't he come out?" he asked his companion, looking about futilely. The girl paled.

"I'm right behind you," Kabuto said from where he had silently landed. The boy jumped, practically spinning around in midair to face him. His mouth opened, no doubt to say something rude, but the girl once again lay a hand on his shoulder and he stopped.

"The recognition sign?" she asked.

Kabuto smiled. "Good girl," he said as he carefully made the sign that corresponded to the one the boy had made.

The girl relaxed slightly. "You are Yakushi Kabuto of the Hidden Sound?" She paused. "Or his representative?" she added.

"I am," Kabuto replied, not indicating which question he answered.

It didn't seem to matter to the girl, who nodded. "This is the message we have been sent to give you," she said, then she took a deep breath. She continued, clearly reciting from memory, "Our other business in this country is regrettably taking longer to conclude than we had hoped. It should be over, one way or another, within the next day. The meeting shall, with your permission, proceed as planned tomorrow." She took another deep breath. "Your reply?"

"That is agreeable," Kabuto replied. He smiled at the boy, who was still glowering at him. "Tell your teacher you need more training in detecting ambushes," he commented before disappearing in a burst of smoke. It was an overly flashy exit, but Kabuto liked to impress.

Much to her surprise, Sakura must have slept, for she found herself awakening suddenly at the sound of footsteps outside her door. She slipped out of bed, a kunai appearing in her hand as she moved into position beside the door. Whoever was outside tested the door handle, discovering that it was locked.

"Who's there?" Sakura called.

"It's me," came Anko's voice. "Let me in."

Sakura reached for the lock, then paused. "Do you have a snake?" she asked.

There was a long pause. "No," Anko said carefully.

Sakura's hand drew nearer to the lock, but she still stopped short. "Do you have more than one snake?" she said, suspicion in her voice.

Anko let out a merry curse. "You're getting too smart for me, girl," she said. There was the sound of a window being opened and shut. "Not anymore. Now let me in."

Sakura's hand retreated from the lock. "Let me get dressed first."

Anko laughed. "Don't trust me with your fragile honor, Sakura-chan?"

"I don't know what I can trust with you with," Sakura answered as she turned away. She paused. "And my honor isn't fragile!" she protested. Anko laughed as she stomped over to her bags and quickly began to dress. "Besides," Sakura continued, "unless you're even weirder than I thought, we're both girls! How would that even work?"

There was a long pause, and Anko laughed again. "Have you got a lot to learn, girl. Maybe I should ask Shiomi-san to lend you some of her books."

Sakura flushed. As she finished dressing, she stomped over to the door and unlocked it. "That won't be necessary," she said stiffly as she opened the door. Anko had a black eye and several minor scrapes and bruises that she hadn't had when Sakura had last seen her, but Anko seemed in fine spirits as she smiled evilly at her student. "What happened to you?" Sakura asked.

Anko grinned. "Kimi and I had a very productive discussion." Anko's face straightened after a moment. "Are you ready?" she asked seriously.

Sakura's hands reflexively checked her equipment. "As ready as I'm going to get," she answered as a flutter settled into her empty stomach. Despite their brief conversation, she knew nothing of Shimano Ren's skills beyond the basic competence evident in the way she held herself. Sakura guessed the other girl was genin-level at most, but it was only a guess. At least Sakura knew Ren knew as little as of her as she knew of Ren. "Is it time?" she asked, forcing her voice to hide her nervousness.

Anko nodded. "My sister and her girl have already headed to the examination hall."

Sakura nodded. "What should I expect?"

"Just a fight," Anko said. "You'll recognize the examination hall when you see it - it's based off of the same model as the place where we held the preliminary fights in the exam. There're differences, but nothing you can't handle."

Sakura forced herself to nod again, pushing dancing images of defeat and humiliation out of her mind. "What are we waiting for, then?"

Anko grinned. "That's the spirit," she said as she lead Sakura down the stairs and out into the rest of the fortress. They threaded their way through a number of halls, entering the parts of the fortress that had not been repaired after the near-destruction of the Mitarashi Clan. "There hasn't been need of the hall since then," Anko answered Sakura's unspoken question. Anko stopped in front of a set of double doors.

Across the hall from the doors stood a stone, life-sized statue of a woman in armor heavier than was now common, much like that Sakura had seen in paintings of the first two Hokages. The woman's hands formed a seal. "Who's that?" she asked.

"Mitarashi herself," Anko answered shortly, "the legendary founder of the clan." Anko laid a hand on Sakura's shoulder. "We're here." She paused momentarily. "Don't worry too much, Sakura-chan. I wouldn't let you do this if I didn't think you could win." Sakura forced herself to nod, and Anko opened the doors.

The special jounin had been right - the examination hall was familiar, a large room encircled by an upper balcony, dominated by a giant statue of a a pair of hands forming a seal. The only differences that Sakura noted in her first look were that instead of a bank of monitors the wall behind the statue was taken up by a mural of a red dragon and, more importantly, that the third of the hall closest to the statue was taken up by a shallow-seeming pool of water. The water steamed slightly, and several rocks had been placed in it, creating a handful of "islands."

Ren stood in the center of the hall next to a tall woman in the simple black clothing that seemed to be the uniform of the Mitarashi Clan's few retainers. Sakura glanced upward, and saw Anko's grandmother flanked by another pair of black-clad women. Kimi stood slightly behind and to her grandmother's left, and Sakura thought she saw the older Mitarashi sister smirk at her. Anko patted her on the shoulder again. "Good luck," the jounin said, before walking over to the stairs and ascending to join the rest of her family.

Sakura forced herself not to shake as she walked to where Ren stood. The retainer on the floor quickly positioned her and Ren twelve paces apart, facing each other along a line drawn through the center of the hall. Sakura glanced at the pool to her left, and she began to plan. Could Ren walk on water?

Ren smiled at her. "No hard feelings, right?" she asked, her voice no less soft now than before, though as always it still was without any sign of weakness.

Sakura nodded. "No hard feelings."

The retainer who was apparently to serve as the judge walked to stand halfway between the two girls, raising one hand. "The terms of the match are to yield or unconsciousness," she said. "If I decide that one of you is no longer able to fight, I will end the match. Do you understand?" Both girls nodded. "Then may the Fire Dragon watch over the battle," she said, dropping her arm. "Begin!" The retainer vanished, no doubt jumping up to the balcony to observe the battle from a safe distance.

Ren was the first to move, forming a familiar seal in one hand. Sakura nodded slightly. If this match was to demonstrate mastery of the Mitarashi Clan's techniques, then that was an obvious place to start. She copied Ren smoothly, chakra gathering between the fingers of her other hand. As one the two girls charged each other, shouting in unison, "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" The streams of flame crossed in mid air, pushing against each other as though they were solid. Sakura barely had time to note that Ren's fires were longer than hers before she began to lose control.

Sakura jumped backward, releasing her seal and avoiding the inevitable downward path of Ren's fiery claws, no longer countered by Sakura's. Before Ren could recover, Sakura raced to one side, pulling a kunai from its sheath at her leg and hurling it in one smooth motion. Ren brought up her claws, swiping it out of the air, but Sakura was already circling behind her.

Shuriken filled Sakura's hands as she charged. Ren's eyes widened as Sakura threw the missiles. Releasing the seal for the Claw of the Fire Dragon, Ren drew her own kunai as she leapt out of the way. "You're fast, Haruno-san," she said, breathing heavily.

"Thank you," Sakura said, reaching for more shuriken. She took a moment to plan out her course. Ren moved before she did, charging Sakura in a straight line. Sakura released her shuriken, but Ren slipped through the missiles easily, parrying the few that got close with her kunai. Sakura barely had time to draw a kunai of her own, blocking Ren's first strike. Sakura countered, plunging her blade into Ren's guts.

Ren exploded into a cloud of black smoke. The lack of the expected resistance unbalanced Sakura. Sakura's eyes watered and she coughed as she stumbled into the smoke. When her eyes cleared, three Ren stood before her. "You must not have been studying the Mitarashi Clan's techniques for long," one said, "if you did not expect the Shadow Smoke Evasion, Haruno-san."

Sakura said nothing, her eyes narrowing as she studied her opponent, her kunai held defensively. Which was the real Ren? Sakura noticed the presence above her a moment too late. The three replications vanished as Ren dropped down behind Sakura, disarming her with one strong strike from her own kunai. Sakura recovered, grabbing Ren's arm and throwing her away before she could get her weapon in position for a killing strike.

Ren rolled as she hit the ground, springing to her feet almost instantly and charging Sakura again. Sakura retreated as she reached for her last kunai. She needed time to think and work out a counterattack. Her free hand grabbed a handful of shuriken and threw them. The oncoming missiles only distracted Ren briefly, but they bought Sakura a few more seconds.

Sakura almost stumbled as her foot hit water, but she reflexively channeled chakra to stabilize it on the surface. She was running out of room and time. Taking a deep breath, Sakura leapt backward, landing lightly on one of the "islands" scattered about the pool. She couldn't afford to waste chakra walking on water now. Ren drew up short as she reached the pools surface, and Sakura smiled. If her foe couldn't walk on water, she would be at an immense disadvantage attacking.

Ren smiled back at her. "I have you now," was all she said, her hands blurring into a set of seals. Before Sakura could react, Ren kicked at the water, splashing some vaguely in Sakura's direction. The water lengthened and thickened in midair, speeding toward Sakura with surprising swiftness. The coils of water wrapped themselves around Sakura's left arm and leg, feeling as solid as rope. Sakura looked up, and saw the other ends of the lines of water firmly in Ren's hand. "Suiton: Water Rope Technique," Ren said anticlimactically.

Sakura considered her options. She had a single kunai left and a handful of shuriken that she could use to keep Ren at bay for a while, but in the long run it was hopeless unless she could free herself. Sakura tested the chakra-charged water with her free hand, but no matter how hard she pressed it moved not at all.

"You can't escape, Haruno-san," Ren said. "Do you yield?"

"Sakura!" Anko yelled down from the balcony. "Hurry and beat her up! I'm getting bored."

"Easy for you to say," Sakura muttered to herself as her agile mind raced to come up with a solution. She remembered what the Hyuuga librarian had told her. "Anything that is made from chakra can be destroyed by chakra." Sakura felt at the rope again, struggling to feel the patterns of chakra that ran through it. No matter how hard she tried, though, she could not find a weak point where a chakra-charged strike could shatter the bonds.

Ren moved her kunai into a throwing position, yanking on the water ropes with her other hand. "Do you yield?" she repeated.

Sakura smiled as a solution came to her. "Not yet," she said quietly as she brought her bound hand up to her chest and raised the other high above her head. She'd only read Kakashi's description of this technique, but it had seemed simple enough, and the conditions were ideal. Each of her hands formed half a seal, and she closed her eyes briefly as she concentrated on channeling her chakra in unfamiliar ways. "Mist Concealment Technique," she breathed.

Ren's eyes widened as the wisps of steam floating above the pool thickened into coils of near-solid seeming mist. "I don't know how you learned that technique, Haruno-san," she said as the mist finished forming, turning half the hall into a near-zero visibility area, "but I don't see what good it does you."

Sakura said nothing as her hands raced through a more familiar set of seals. Within seconds, there was the sound of water splashing and then several pairs of footsteps circling behind Ren. She smiled to herself. Her fake replications were "a little misty," were they? It wouldn't make any difference like this.

"Replications won't do you any good either," Ren said. "They can't attack, and I know just where the real you is." She yanked on the water ropes again.

"Is that so?" came Sakura's voice from behind Ren. The other girl started as she felt a hand on her shoulder, dropping the water ropes in surprise. Ren recovered quickly, her elbow shooting backward. She felt it connect, and heard Sakura flying backward to land heavily.     Ren whirled around to face her, her kunai raised to strike. "You should have attacked from surprise," she commented.

Meanwhile, the real Sakura stretched her arm as the water rope dissolved. It was time. She charged Ren as the other girl placed her kunai at the fake Sakura's neck. Ren's eyes widened as she heard the attack from behind a moment too late. She whirled about again, but too slowly to get into a defensive position.

"Sorry about this," Sakura said as one hand formed a seal. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" The claws of fire raked across Ren's chest, the sudden force of the strike sending the girl flying back through the mist. Sakura released the three techniques she was struggling to keep active, breathing heavily from the exertion. She winced as she heard the other girl hit the ground. She'd tried to weaken the technique somewhat so it wouldn't hurt Ren too badly, but Sakura hadn't had much chakra left. She had needed to land a blow that counted before she ran out.

Sakura drew her last kunai as she walked out of the rapidly dissolving mist. Ren lay groaning on the ground, the figure of the judge standing beside her. The front of Ren's blue dress was torn open, and Sakura grimaced as she saw the burnt skin underneath it. It wouldn't be life-threatening, but it had to hurt badly. "Is it over?" she asked the judge as she drew nearer.

Ren was still struggling to rise, but after a long moment she allowed herself to fall back to the ground. She nodded slightly, and the judge raised one arm. "In the eyes of the Fire Dragon, the victor: Haruno -"

"Enough of this farce!" Sakura's eyes widened. She had felt movement, but she hadn't seen a thing as Mitarashi Kimi had jumped down from the balcony, knocking Sakura's kunai out of her hand with one of her long, curved blades and placing the other at Sakura's throat. Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from swallowing nervously.

In an instant, Anko was there too, her kunai pushing Kimi's blade away from Sakura's throat. "What is the meaning of this?" shouted the two sisters' grandmother from the balcony above as the retainers near her moved to protect her. "Mitarashi Kimi, explain yourself immediately!"

"I don't know where you found this girl, Anko," Kimi said, "or how you taught her the first technique so quickly, but I know she is no true student of yours."

Anko's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Oh?" she asked.

"The Leaf would never give you a real student, Anko, since you were taught by -" Kimi cut off as Anko attacked, her kunai sliding past Kimi's blade and at her face. Kimi danced back, raising both blades to a defensive position. Sakura wasn't able to stop her eyes from narrowing as she studied Anko, wondering just what Kimi had been about to say.

"You tread on dangerous ground," Anko said as she drew another kunai with her free hand. "Remember who won our discussion yesterday."

Kimi laughed as she sheathed her blades, retreating out of easy charge range. One hand reached into a pocket. "Do you think that I showed my true power then, Anko-chan?" she asked as she pulled out a forehead protector and quickly tied it around her head. "You aren't the only one who found a patron village." Kimi lowered her hands to the hilts of her weapons, revealing that the four diagonal lines of the Hidden Mist marked the metal part of the forehead protector.

Anko tensed. "I suspected as much." She snorted. "It must have been difficult for one as devout as you were to survive there."

Kimi snarled as she drew her blades. "Our faith did nothing to save our parents or the Clan. It wasn't difficult at all." Her stance shifted slightly. "Are you ready?" she asked.

"Any time," Anko answered.

"Stop this at once!" their grandmother yelled from above, but the two sisters ignored her. The judge began to move to intervene, but sensibly stopped when the two charged each other. The sisters' blades met in midair, moving too rapidly for Sakura's eyes to follow. Again and again they clashed, but no matter how she strained Sakura could see only blurred motion.

Then Anko stumbled back, her kunai falling from her hands and a line of blood drawn across her face. Kimi smiled, not pressing her attack. "Is that the best you can do, little sister?" she asked.

Anko smiled back at her. "I'll end this quickly, big sister, so your student can get the attention she needs." Kimi glanced back, perhaps a bit ashamed, at Ren, who had forced herself to her knees as she watched the fight. "Stay calm," Anko told Sakura. She rolled up one of the sleeves of her jacket, revealing a black tattoo that wound itself around her arm above her wrist. She wiped some blood from her face with her thumb, then drew a line with it down the tattoo, slamming that hand onto the ground. "Summoning Technique!"

There was a massive cloud of white smoke, and when it faded the two Lead ninja were surrounded by a wall of green scales. Sakura's eyes widened as she realized that a giant snake was coiled around them. "Don't panic," Anko reminded Sakura, who forced herself to nod even as she remembered when she had seen a snake just like this one. It had been in the Forest of Death, with Orochimaru. Even the thought of that man made her panic, the same terror that had crippled her when she had been faced with the false Orochimaru in the Rice Field Country.

Anko grabbed the frozen Sakura and jumped to land on the head of the snake. Another set of kunai appeared from within her jacket after she released her student. "Well, Kimi? Are you ready to give up?"

Kimi snarled, but sheathed her blades as she glanced about. Black-clad retainers were pouring into the hall from outside, no doubt summoned somehow by the elder. "It seems I no longer have time," Kimi answered, stepping backward to stand before Ren. She knelt, helping her student onto her shoulders. "Have no fear," Kimi said as she formed seals, "we will finish this one day soon, sister."

Both she and her student vanished in a sudden burst of smoke.

Day Sixteen

This time when Kabuto arrived at the hilltop, his contact was waiting for him. Kabuto moved silently up the side of the hill, observing the woman who waited for him. Unlike the kids she had sent to meet him yesterday, she wore the Mist forehead protector openly, and therefore Kabuto mentally marked down arrogance on the list of her character flaws he was already compiling. There was something slightly familiar about her that Kabuto couldn't quite place, and he frowned. What was he missing?

There were signs that there had been at least two other people - her students, no doubt - with her recently, but they were no longer in evidence. A quick search of the surrounding area turned up their trail and showed they had not doubled back to observe the meeting from a hidden vantage point. Kabuto returned to the hilltop as silently as he had left it, finding the woman still standing in the center of the circle of trees.

"Are you satisfied?" she asked suddenly. "I'd be a fool to plan a betrayal at this stage."

Kabuto left hiding and walked up to his contact. "As expected from a jounin of the Hidden Mist," he commented. "I trust your other business went well?"

"Not so well as I might have hoped. I had hoped to bring you my sister as present for your master."

Kabuto's eyes narrowed as he made the connection he should have made earlier. "You are Mitarashi Kimi, then."

Kimi smiled. "The Sound's spies are well informed," she said. "I thought returning Orochimaru's old apprentice to him would be a worthy beginning to this venture."

"While Orochimaru-sama would certainly take advantage of the opportunity, your sister is not high on his list of concerns, Mitarashi-san." Kabuto smiled slightly. "Orochimaru-sama cares little for what happens to his tools once their purpose is served."

"And you would serve such a man willingly?" Kimi asked. When Kabuto did not reply, she continued. "You are Yakushi Kabuto, of course."

"Of course," Kabuto responded. "Orochimaru-sama would not offend the Mist by sending any mere jounin to seal this deal." Kabuto waited curiously to see how Kimi would respond to the implied insult.

"You seem to have a clever tongue, Yakushi-san, but not even you could convince the leaders of the Mist to meet with Orochimaru or his men. We remember what happened to the Kazekage well." Kimi smiled dangerously. "I was specifically told to warn you that the Mist do not trust Orochimaru's promises. We know that you will betray us, given the chance and a reason."

"Am I to tell Orochimaru-sama that the deal is off, then?" Kabuto asked, his hand poised to reach for a weapon.

"No." Kimi's smile vanished. "The Mist simply want Orochimaru to know that we are not as trusting as the Sand. If you betray us, we will be ready, and the Sound will learn why we were once called the Bloody Mist."

Kabuto resisted the urge to smile. "I shall pass your message on." He paused. "I too was given a message. Orochimaru-sama extends his compliments to the Hidden Mist's spies in the Leaf Village and thanks the Mizukage for their loan."

Kimi frowned, and Kabuto guessed she knew nothing of this. "His message shall be heard. I trust then that Orochimaru is prepared to commit to ally with the Mist?"

"He is," Kabuto answered.

"Very well." A scroll appeared in Kimi's hands. "Carry this back to your master, then, and tell him to be prepared to move when the Leaf's Chuunin Exam ends."

Kabuto took the scroll. "Is there anything else?" He would read the scroll, of course, but not while the Mist jounin was watching.

Kimi shook her head. "Unless you have some other message."

"Only to once again offer our forces' aid in the initial raid," Kabuto said. "Security at the exam will be heightened because of what happened last time."

"We are aware of that," Kimi replied, "but we do not require your aid. The more focus the Leaf put on protecting the exam, the better."

As he had been instructed, Kabuto pressed on this point. There were deeds Orochimaru wished done, and it would be easier to do them with the Mist's cooperation. "You may not require it, but we wish to make a show of good faith. We will accept whatever conditions you feel are necessary, but we must insist."

Kimi's eyes narrowed. "I have been permitted to allow no more than three Sound squads to join the raid if necessary," she admitted, "though I dislike the idea. They are to be in position two weeks before the raid, and we will contact them with orders when we are ready to use them." Her hand flicked to the hilt of one of her weapons. "I am told to remind you that we will watch them carefully for any sign of treachery, and the Mist will act appropriately if such evidence is found."

Kabuto bowed slightly. "As you wish. I shall carry this word to Orochimaru-sama."

Kimi nodded, and in unison the two ninja vanished, though they traveled in opposite directions.

"What kind of crazy place doesn't have any ramen?" Naruto complained, not for the first time.

"You're in a different country now, Naruto," Jiraiya said. "They don't eat all the same foods we do in the Fire Country. In a big city you'd be able to find ramen, but not a little village like where we stayed last night." Not that Naruto would be visiting any big cities if Jiraiya had his way. They'd stick to the back-country roads - of which Earth Country had a plentiful supply - and keep a low profile until they could get in touch with his old friend.

"Well why don't they eat ramen?" Naruto asked. "Ramen is good!"

Jiraiya sighed. He could launch into an impromptu history lesson explaining the reasons for the occasionally surprisingly different culture of the Earth Country, but he doubted Naruto would appreciate it. Jiraiya wouldn't have at the boy's age, after all, and the Toad Hermit saw more than a little of his younger self in the boy. Though he'd never been quite so enthusiastic about the title of Hokage. That had always been Orochimaru's ambition, not his. That dream had perhaps been the only thing his first apprentice had held in common with Orochimaru.

"Well, why not?" Naruto demanded, and Jiraiya chuckled. His second apprentice, on the other hand, was far more like his first than he would prefer.

"I don't know," Jiraiya said. "That's just the way it is."

Naruto pouted. "That's not a very good answer, Ero-sennin."

"Well, remember this for the next time you're in a library, boy," Jiraiya said. "Then you can look it up and find out what generations of scholars had to say on the subject."

"But that's boring!" Naruto said.

"You want to know, don't you?" Jiraiya asked. Naruto nodded cautiously, sensing he was being led into a trap of some sort. "Then you'll have to decide whether you want to know badly enough to be bored."

Naruto shook his head frantically. "Nothing's worth that."

Jiraiya smiled. "Not even becoming Hokage?"

"What?" Naruto said. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"You've seen all the paperwork Tsunade has to do, haven't you? Do you think you'd enjoy that, or would it be boring?"

The idea had never occurred to Naruto. "I guess being Hokage would be worth being bored," he admitted. "But that doesn't change anything! Studying in the library is still boring, and I don't want to do it!"

"You'll have to do it if you want to become Hokage, boy," Jiraiya said. His eyes glanced ahead and noted an approaching fork in the road. If he remembered correctly they would have to take the left fork here, but he'd need to check his maps.

"What? Why?" Naruto demanded, clearly upset by the notion.

"There's lots of things a Hokage needs to know," Jiraiya answered as he slowed his walk and began to search his pack for the map. "You won't learn them all if you don't study."

"Why can't you just tell me what I need to know?"

Jiraiya found the map. "Because I don't know everything you'd need to know."

"Then I'll find the people who do!" Naruto said.

"Nobody does," Jiraiya said as he unrolled it. Yes, the right fork would take them to a main highway that passed far too close to the Rock Village. The left fork was the correct path. "Some people know some things, but you'd spend the rest of your life tracking everything down. The only way to learn it all is to study."    

"That doesn't sound fun," Naruto complained.

"Do you only want to become Hokage because you think it will be fun?" Jiraiya asked as he rolled the map back up. "Is it just a game to you?"

"No!" Naruto said.

Jiraiya smiled. "Good." It would have been hard to imagine Naruto becoming someone worthy of the title Hokage, if Jiraiya had not already seen a very similar boy make the same journey before. Every thirteen year old boy was immature. It was the man they would turn into that mattered, and if Jiraiya had anything to say about it Naruto would become a great man. The last legacy of the Fourth Hokage deserved no less.

As they reached the fork in the road, Naruto suddenly coughed. Jiraiya nodded almost imperceptibly, mere moments before a trio of Rock ninja appeared from their hiding places in the boulders that kept the road from continuing straight ahead. "Halt and identify yourselves!" one ninja declared.

Jiraiya glanced at Naruto. He had taken the time to coach the boy, and hopefully there wouldn't be any repeats of the incident in Hill Country. That was assuming these ninja weren't looking for them specifically, of course. In that case it was only a matter of time before matters escalated. Still, now that they were well past the border Jiraiya judged the danger of that to be minimal.

As planned, Naruto approached the ninja, bowing perhaps a bit too low. "You have the honor of addressing the high priest of Gamabunta-sama, the Lord of All Toads!" Jiraiya had decided to stick to this disguise, as he was well-used to it, and any ninja that had heard that the "Sound spies" in the Hill Country had used it surely would also have their descriptions. Naruto glanced back at Jiraiya, then whispered loudly to the lone woman in the Rock team, "He's a bit of a pervert, so you should watch out." That hadn't been planned, and Jiraiya glared at his apprentice's back.

The Rock ninja who had already spoken snorted. "A toad-priest? Maybe you can help Rena get rid of her warts." The Rock kunoichi hit the speaker on the shoulder. "That hurt!" he complained.

"I figure that if I keep on hitting you when you say something stupid, you'll get smarter," the kunoichi said. "They call it pain therapy or something like that."

The third ninja rolled his eyes. "Just ask the old fool the question."

"Right," the other man replied embarrassedly. "Um... have you two encountered any bandits along this road? We've been sent by the Hidden Rock to eliminate the raiders that have been troubling this area."

Jiraiya shook his. "No, we have not, but perhaps they feared to offend the gods and dared not approach," he answered slowly. If the Rock were going to be searching this area for bandits, that would complicate matters.

"I doubt it," the woman said. "We've seen some of their work, and these aren't nice people. The only gods they fear are ones nobody sane would worship."

"We shall have to be careful, then," Jiraiya answered. "I thank you for the warning."

The first speaker nodded. "We won't detain you any further, then." Jiraiya thanked the Rock ninja again, and soon he and Naruto were on their way again.

"They were nice," Naruto commented once they were out of earshot.

"Of course they were," Jiraiya said. "The Earth Country is at peace, and we gave them no reason to be suspicious of us. If you were on a patrol mission back home, wouldn't you be nice to anyone you met?"

"I guess so," Naruto answered.

"We're lucky they didn't wonder if we were connected to the bandits," Jiraiya said. "I'm not sure I trust your packs to hold up under scrutiny."

Naruto glowered. "I hid everything just like you showed me." Along with most of his ninja tools, both Leaf forehead protectors Naruto carried were well hidden. A careful search would uncover them, of course, but a simple quick look would find nothing out of the ordinary.

"Good," Jiraiya said. Then he glared at Naruto. "Now what have I told you about calling me a pervert?"

Naruto sniffed. "If you don't want to be called a pervert, you should stop doing perverted things!"

Jiraiya sighed. This was going to be a long trip, wasn't it?

Day Seventeen

Naruto was less than happy. It had been days since he'd had any ramen, and from what Jiraiya had told him there wasn't any ramen in his future unless he used some of his rapidly dwindling supply of instant ramen. Yet even this terrible hardship paled before his current complaint. "When are you going to teach me another technique, Ero-sennin?" Naruto demanded, and not for the first time today. "This is supposed to be a training trip, isn't it?"

"We don't have time to stop and train right now," Jiraiya answered. "Once we reach my friend's place, you'll have all the training you can handle." Jiraiya smiled slightly. "Besides, you still haven't learned the first technique I showed you."

"It doesn't work," Naruto grumbled. "I stayed up almost all night trying to move that stupid pinwheel and it didn't even twitch. Why can't you give me another hint? What's the trick?"

"There is no trick." Jiraiya pulled a pinwheel from somewhere, and an instant later it started to spin. "It's all about chakra control."

"I don't get it," Naruto declared. "What is it with chakra control? Everybody says mine's real bad and that I waste too much chakra, but nobody tells me how to have good chakra control. I don't see the point, anyway. It's not like I ever run out of chakra."

Jiraiya put his pinwheel away. "Not everybody has your chakra reserves, boy."

"So?" Naruto pressed. "I do! Why should I care about chakra control?"

"Because control is important," Jiraiya answered. "Without control you can't manipulate your chakra as well, and that limits the techniques you can learn." Jiraiya smiled. "You won't ever become Hokage if you only learn easy techniques."

"You said Rasengan was one of the most difficult techniques!" Naruto protested. "If I can learn that, I can learn almost anything, right?"

"There are different types of difficult techniques," Jiraiya said. "There's techniques that require you to channel a lot of chakra and there's techniques that require very fine control. Rasengan is difficult because it needs a lot of chakra to be manipulated at once, but the actual chakra molding is very simple if you use more than one hand."

"Oh," Naruto said. He'd never thought about it that way before, but it seemed right. "So how do I get better control?"

"Practice," Jiraiya answered. "There aren't any shortcuts."

"That's what you always say," Naruto mumbled. "But how should I practice?"

Jiraiya rubbed his chin, stopping in his tracks and glancing about, perhaps to check for hidden watchers. "Let's see. How about you try to use the Whirlwind Counter? I'll watch and see if I can tell what you're doing wrong."

Naruto nodded eagerly, his hands already forming the technique's single seal. He closed his eyes, concentrating furiously and building up his chakra. The very air around him began to feel charged, until finally he shouted "Whirlwind Counter!" There was a large pulse of chakra that briefly disturbed the still air, but nothing like the controlled powerful winds Jiraiya had summoned when he used the technique.

Jiraiya sighed. "First, you're using way too much chakra, boy. You're trying to move the air with brute force rather than control."

"What difference does it make?" Naruto grumbled.

"We don't normally realize it, but air weighs a lot. Not even you can channel enough chakra to make it do anything useful that way, boy." Jiraiya paused. "Well, maybe you could channel that much, but you still wouldn't accomplish anything. It'd take a chakra control genius to make that much chakra do anything but push out wildly. Tsunade might be able to do it but no one else I can think of could."

Naruto pondered this for a moment. He didn't get the bit about air weighing a lot - air didn't weigh anything, right? The rest made sense, though, and that seemed to be the important part. "I think I understand," he said.

"Do you?" Jiraiya asked, doubt clear in his voice.

"I'm not stupid!" Naruto snapped. "So what should I do?"

"Hmm." Jiraiya rubbed his chin in thought again. "Try and mold the smallest amount of chakra you can. Don't do anything with it, but just try to hold it as long as possible. When you have to let it go, do it again but try to mold less chakra and hold it longer. You can do that while we're walking." And with that, Jiraiya set off again.

Naruto followed his teacher's instructions as he followed. It was harder than he expected. It was a lot like the tree-climbing exercise, but he found it more difficult to just hold the chakra than to use it. At first he could only manage it for a second or two, but by the time the sun had begun to set, Naruto was holding onto the molded chakra for a couple of minutes. However, he was using only a little less chakra than he had on his first try. When he tried to mold a smaller amount, it just slipped away almost instantly.

So intent was he on his practice that he didn't notice the bandits until Jiraiya stopped moving and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Stay calm," Jiraiya said. "Remember that we don't want any trouble. If possible, I want to get out of this without a fight."

Naruto glanced about surreptitiously. The road had entered an area where the terrain was rough and rocky even for the Earth Country. The road itself was straight and level, having been carved out of the rock long ago. This left steep if not terribly high rises on either side of it, and the terrain provided plenty of hiding places. It was a though someone had purposefully set out to design a good site for an ambush.

The bandits themselves were easy enough to locate, a dozen or so people roughly circling where the two ninja stood. They weren't very good at hiding, at least not by ninja standards. Naruto was fairly certain that he wouldn't have any problem defeating them, even by himself. With Jiraiya fighting beside him, he wouldn't even break a sweat. Naruto tensed himself, preparing to attack, before he remembered Jiraiya's words. He forced himself to relax, though one hand still hovered over the hilt of a hidden kunai.

After a long moment, a bandit emerged from hiding. He was a big man, and he waved a giant crowbar of a sword at the pair. "Let's make this simple!" he declared. "You drop everything you're carrying, and I might let you live. You don't, and my friends shoot you." The man grinned toothily - or he would have if he wasn't missing most of his teeth. "Just so you don't get any bright ideas, I've got two crossbows pointed at each of you, so even if one misses the other will hit."

"I'm afraid what's in our packs would do you little good, my friend," Jiraiya said. "I am a priest of the toad god Gamabunta and as all the world knows my order takes a strict vow of poverty. Let my apprentice and I go on our way, good sir, and I shall bless you and all your company with the favor of my god."

The man's eyes narrowed. "I've never heard of any toad god Gamababa," he said, "and I don't care about his blessings. Give us all your stuff before I run out of patience."

Jiraiya raised a hand theatrically. "If you do not desire my god's blessings, perhaps you fear his curse? The Lord of All Toads prepares a terrible vengeance for all who slay his servants."

The bandit laughed. "Last chance, old fool."

"So be it," Jiraiya intoned, his other hand creeping up to his mouth. He stuck his thumb out and bit down until blood began to flow. Beside him, Naruto tensed again, already drawing up his chakra. The bandit snarled and raised his sword. Mere moments before the scene would have erupted into violence, all three froze.

There was a loud buzzing sound. Naruto looked around for the source, but couldn't find it. Then there were piercing screams from all around, the hidden bandits crying out in pain and panic. The bandit who stood on the road before the two Leaf ninja began to shake, his sword falling from his nerveless hands. "What -" he began, only to stop as a large cloud of bees rose from behind a boulder, swarming about him. The bandit screamed once as the bees attacked, stinging him again and again. Then the man slumped over, and the insects vanished.

Naruto looked about again, and saw a man standing on top of a nearby boulder. He was large, with dark hair and a beard, and most importantly he wore a Hidden Rock forehead protector. The man jumped down to stand on the road behind the pair, who quickly turned to face him. "It seems I will be able to finish two missions today," he commented. "Suzumebachi will be pleased with me."

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed. "A bug user," he muttered half to himself.

"You are correct," the man said. His smile turned dangerous as he studied Jiraiya. "I am Kamizuru Kurobachi, chuunin of the Hidden Rock.

A drop of blood fell from Jiraiya's thumb, still held in front of his mouth, and fell to the ground. "I thought that clan was disbanded," he said. Kurobachi snarled and extended an arm, and countless bees began to to fly out of his cloak. "Naruto!" Jiraiya snapped as the insects approached.

Naruto quickly guessed what his teacher wanted, and formed a single seal as he took a deep breath. "Whirlwind Shield!" As the genin exhaled, a windstorm sprung into being in front of the pair, flinging the small bugs about. When the winds died down, the bees were gone.

Kurobachi's face had smoothed. "I should have guessed that it wouldn't be that easy to defeat one of the legendary Sannin," he commented. Naruto's eyes widened and he glanced at Jiraiya, who frowned. Kurobachi laughed. "Yes, I know who you are, Jiraiya the Toad Hermit. The Kamizuru Clan remembers you well. Imagine our surprise when we were given your description as a Sound spy." The Rock ninja smiled. "I was not aware that you had reconciled with Orochimaru." Seeing the expressions on his two foes' faces, Kurobachi laughed again. "Or have you not? Leaf or Sound, it doesn't matter. I'll kill you both, and bring back the heads of the spies who regrettably died resisting arrest."

"We'll see about that," Naruto snarled. "Shadow Replication Technique!" The horde of orange-clad ninja charged the Rock chuunin.

"Naruto, you idiot!" snapped Jiraiya. "It's a -"

"Clone," finished Kurobachi's voice as one Naruto landed a furious punch on the first Kurobachi, who melted into a pile of sticky honey. The Naruto stumbled forward and fell onto the honey, and struggled briefly to free itself before vanishing in a puff of smoke.

Kurobachi stepped out from behind a boulder, stretching out an arm again. Before he could release any bees, Naruto and his clones charged him in unison. Even as they reached the Rock ninja, he vanished, turning into another collapsing pillar of honey.

"You aren't very smart, are you?" Kurobachi said as he appeared on top of another boulder, both arms spread wide. Bees poured out of his cloak, rapidly flying toward the orange-clad ninjas. One Naruto looked up, his hands quickly forming a seal.

"Too late," Kurobachi said with a grin as he finished forming seals of his own. "Thousand Bee Technique!" As one the bees stopped in midair and released their stingers, which flew through the air like countless thrown needles. There was a sea of explosions of white smoke. When the last smoke vanished, there was nothing standing on the road where the Narutos had been.

Kurobachi's eyes widened. "They were all replications?"

"I have you now!" shouted a Naruto as several clones jumped up at Kurobachi from all around the boulder he stood on. The Rock ninja tried to fall into a defensive stance, but too quickly the clones struck at his legs, kicking him up into the air as they shouted in unison "Uzumaki Naruto..."

Kurobachi struggled to gain control of his flight path as the clones below him vanished in puffs of smoke. Then his eyes widened again as he felt a presence above him. "Combo!" finished the last Naruto as he delivered a fierce kick that sent Kurobachi plunging back to the ground. The Rock ninja landed heavily and did not rise. Naruto grinned as he landed on top of the boulder his opponent had recently occupied. "Take that," he said.

"Naruto!" shouted Jiraiya as he charged his student.

The Leaf genin's eyes widened. "What's wrong?" he asked as Jiraiya leapt at him. The Sannin tackled his student, and mere moments later a storm of bee stingers passed through where Naruto had stood. Several struck Jiraiya, who breathed heavily as he and Naruto landed on the ground not far from Kurobachi.

More accurately, they landed near where Kurobachi had been, for the Rock ninja was nowhere to be found. "What happened?" Naruto asked as Jiraiya rolled off from on top of him.

"He was... forming seals," Jiraiya answered slowly. "Before he hit the ground." He struggled to sit up, shaking his head as though to clear it. "Damn it," he grunted. "Some of those stingers were poisoned."

Naruto's eyes widened. "What?"

Jiraiya groaned painfully as he stood, his knees shaking. "Damn it," he repeated. "I can't believe I walked into that. Listen, boy. We have to get out of here and find a hiding place. He'll be back with friends."

Naruto nodded.

Jiraiya tried to take a step forward and staggered. "It looks like... you're going to have to help me," he said weakly. Naruto jumped forward to support his teacher. Jiraiya groaned and let out another curse as he half-collapsed against Naruto. "There's a cave out that way," he said with a vague gesture. "I don't think the Rock know about it."

Naruto nodded, and the two Leaf ninja left the road as the twilight rapidly darkened into true night.

Anko had not wasted any time after the end of Sakura's duel. The Leaf special jounin had spent most of the morning closeted with her grandmother after telling her student to start packing. They had eaten a quick lunch at Anko's favorite dango shop, and then set out. Since then, Sakura had hardly had time to think, as Anko set a pace far harsher than she had on the almost leisurely journey south. Sakura wondered in the few brief moments she had a chance to catch her breath how best to once again raise the subject of who Anko's teacher had been. Anko had only said "nobody important" when Sakura had asked when she had first learned the jounin's story. Kimi's accusation - and more tellingly, Anko's reaction - seemed to make it clear that was a lie. Still, Sakura was forced to admit to herself, was it really any of her business?

Late this afternoon they had finally reached the Hidden Village of the Leaf, and Anko had lead Sakura straight to the Hokage's office. Fortunately, Tsunade was still there, and Anko had quickly told her the entire story of the mission. The Hokage folded her hands in front of her face. "The Mist, huh?" she asked rhetorically. "That's worrisome."

Anko nodded. "That's why I came back as soon as possible."

"I'll have to write a complaint for the Mizukage." Tsunade sighed. "More paperwork."

Sakura, standing against the wall next to the door seemingly forgotten by the two older ninja, frowned. Surely the paperwork should be the least of the Hokage's concerns, if Mist ninja were operating in the Fire Country. It could start a war. It almost had, Sakura realized, thinking of what might have happened if she had lost the match and Kimi - and through her the Mist - had taken control of the Mitarashi Clan's port.

"My grandmother has agreed to having a squad of Leaf ninja garrisoned in the fortress to protect against further incursions," Anko said after a moment, fishing a scroll out of her pack and laying it on Tsunade's desk.

Tsunade nodded. "I don't know where I'll find the ninja, but it has to be done." She rubbed her forehead. "I'm probably going to need to send word to the rest of the alliance or at least the Sand. At least I might be able to shut the Waterfall up with this news."

"The Waterfall?" Anko asked, sounding slightly confused.

"Now that fighting has started between the Sound and the Valley, the Waterfall are convinced that this would be a perfect time to invade the Hill Country." Tsunade stopped suddenly with another sigh. "Excuse me, retake the occupied Waterfall Country. At least now I can tell them I don't want to risk war with the Mist and the Rock at once."

Anko smiled. "You're the one who was always telling me that every cloud has a silver lining, Tsunade-sama," she said.

Tsunade suddenly grinned, a malicious glint in her eyes. "Keep that in mind, Anko-chan. The village council is wrapping up the assignments for the Chuunin Exam, and they're bumping you up to the third exam."

Anko's hands slammed down on Tsunade's desk. "What?" she asked, nearly shouting. "But I always do the second exam! The other two are too boring."

Tsunade's grin widened. "It was something about too many people passing the last time. They've decided to give it to Morino-san."

"Ibiki!" Anko's voice was strangled. "He's the one who passed almost eighty ninja in the first exam!" Anko swore viciously. "I'll kill him."

Sakura's eyes were wide. How could the two of them discuss something so trivial like this when they'd just been talking about events that could spark a new Great War?

"How many times have I told you that there'll be no murders inside the Leaf, Anko-chan?" Tsunade asked.

"One hundred and thirty-six, counting today," Anko answered promptly. "Couldn't you kick him out, Tsunade-sama? Pretty please?"

Tsunade sighed. "No, Anko-chan," she said. "Besides, Morino's already coming up with some good ideas. He wants to open up the old -"

Sakura coughed. "Umm... should I be listening to this? I will be taking the exam." She would make her mother see reason on that.

Tsunade started. "I'd forgotten you were there. If you're going to be my apprentice, you'll have to learn to speak up more, Haruno-kun." Tsunade frowned, glancing down at the notes she had taken. "Officially I'll be waiting on Anko-chan's formal report, but from what she's told me so far you did very well on the mission. I'll be upgrading the mission rating - it'll still be a C-rank but it'll pay as a combat mission instead of a diplomatic one. I assume Anko-chan will turn in a commendation for your record."

"Thank you," Sakura said.

Tsunade scribbled something on her notes. "Have you found a team for the exams yet?" she asked.

"I'm... working on that, Hokage-sama," Sakura answered.

"You'd better hurry. There's only a few more days until the deadline for jounin to sponsor a team." Tsunade looked up, studying Sakura carefully. "Is there anything you need to talk to me about?"

"No, Hokage-sama," Sakura said.

Tsunade almost frowned. "You're dismissed, then. Anko-chan, you stay a bit longer. I need to talk to you."

Sakura bowed slightly, then slipped out the door and through the almost empty halls of the administration building. She nodded to the vaguely familiar chuunin guard she passed on the way out of the building, but didn't see anyone else she recognized on her way home. It was getting late, so she wasn't surprised when she tested the door and found it locked. Sakura fished through her pockets for her house key, at first accidentally pulling out Naruto's apartment key. She'd been planning to quickly check on the apartment before leaving on the mission but the fight with her mother that morning had driven it from her mind.

When she finally found her key, Sakura unlocked the door and slipped inside, dropping her heavy packs with a sigh. "I'm home," she called and heard the sound of movement from upstairs in response. As she waited for her mother, Sakura headed for the kitchen cabinets. While she hadn't been starved, for the past few days most of her meals had been small, cold, and eaten on the move.

Her mother slowly came downstairs, her green eyes blinking wearily - she must have gone to sleep early. "What do you think you're doing, Sakura?" she asked as she entered the kitchen.

"I'm just making myself something to -"

Her mother cut Sakura off angrily. "I told you not to walk out that door if you wanted to walk back through it, didn't I?"

Sakura's eyes widened. Her mother surely hadn't been serious about that. "Mother," she began, only to stop as her mother spoke again.

"Don't call me that," she growled at her daughter. "If I were your mother you would listen to me, not to the Hokage."

"Of course you're my mother," Sakura protested. "But I'm a ninja now, and I have to-"

Once again, her mother gave her no opportunity to finish her sentence. "Get out of my house then, ninja," she said.

Sakura couldn't believe her ears. "You must be joking! We're a family! You can't -"

Her mother smiled grimly. "I can. You're a ninja now, so you don't need my approval for anything, right? Being considered an adult works both ways." Her eyes narrowed. "It means taking responsibility for your choices."

Sakura couldn't come up with anything to say. How could this be happening? How could her mother do this to her? Why? It just didn't make any sense. "Mother," she said again, but no matter how hard she tried she couldn't form any more words.

"You have one more choice, Sakura." Her mother's eyes were hard and uncompromising. "Either you give up being a ninja or you leave here forever."

"Give," Sakura said, her voice stumbling. She tried again. "Give up being a ninja?" How could her mother ask that of her? She'd trained for years at the academy to be a ninja. She'd gone through all the tests, been through so much. There was so much she still had to do. She couldn't even begin to imagine herself not being a ninja. It was central to everything she was, everything all her friends were.

"You heard me," her mother said. For a moment, her eyes softened. "Sakura, I'm trying to save you. I don't want you to -"

Something inside Sakura gave way, and a torrent of rage began to flow through her. She could feel herself trembling with anger, her fists clenching tightly by her sides. "Save me?" she asked far too loudly. "You want to save me? I don't need or want to be saved!" Her mother shrank back slightly, but Sakura was unable to stop the words that were pouring out of her. "I've seen my friends almost get killed and nothing would stop them from returning to duty. I can't do any less! Sasuke-kun is... Sasuke-kun is out there somewhere, and I've promised that I'm going to bring him home!

"You want me to betray all that? Fine!" Sakura stomped back over to the door, picking up her packs. "Then I don't want to live here anymore, anyway." The door was still slightly ajar, and Sakura kicked it open. "Goodbye, Amaya-san." She slammed the door behind herself with another kick, and this time she didn't pause to hear if her mother cried.

Sakura was most of the way down her street before she calmed enough to consider what to do next. She could find an inn, of course, but that was expensive. For a moment, she considered going to Ino's house, but as her rage left her she didn't feel anywhere close to ready to talk her rival. Particularly since Ino had been less than pleased with her the last time they'd met. For all Sakura knew, she might be on a mission now, too.

Realizing that she was attracting attention by standing still in the middle of the street, Sakura began to walk slowly as she considered her options. After several steps, she felt for Naruto's key in her jacket pocket and was relieved to find it. The more she considered it, the more Naruto's apartment seemed ideal, at least for now. She would have it to herself, and she knew Naruto wouldn't mind. It would do, for tonight at least.

Her decision made, Sakura set off into the rapidly darkening night.

"So, what do you think, Anko-chan?" Tsunade asked as she refolded her hands in front of her face. "About my prospective apprentice, that is."

Anko scratched the back of her head. "Does Shizune-sempai know she's getting replaced?"

Tsunade rolled her eyes. "Anko-chan, be serious."

"Right," Anko said. For a long moment, she didn't say anything. "You say she hadn't been doing any serious training until about a week before the mission?"

"Not to my knowledge," Tsunade answered.

Anko shook her head. "She's definitely a fast learner," she said. The special jounin paused again, pondering her next words. "Her taijutsu is about average for a late first-year genin, which is a lot better than it was six months ago. I'd say it was too weak for the exams, but she was wearing those old-fashioned weights the whole time. Take them off, and she might be fine. Her raw ninjutsu and genjutsu skills are reasonable, with a bit more native talent in genjutsu."

"That's a pretty glowing recommendation from you," Tsunade said.

"Well, I'm not done yet," Anko said. "She doesn't have a chuunin's breadth of techniques yet, but that can fixed easily enough. Her chakra reserves stink, though. They're barely acceptable for a first-year genin, but only barely. For an exam veteran..." Anko trailed off, shaking her head.

Tsunade looked Anko up and down. "I sense a but coming up."

"Her chakra control is downright scary," Anko said. "She can use one-handed seals easily, and she managed to pull off a ninjutsu she'd only read about perfectly on the first try. I almost laughed when Hatake mentioned he was teaching her the Perfect Replication Technique, but with that much control she's able to pull it off with a little chakra to spare." Anko paused. "In control, she's easily at least mid-chuunin-level already."

Tsunade smiled. "That's why I recommended her for this mission. Still disappointed you didn't get your first choice?"

"I would have been a lot less nervous during the fight with the Hyuuga girl," Anko answered, "but Sakura-chan won, so I can't really complain. Anything else?"

"What about her personality?" Tsunade asked. "You're the least biased person who's spent time with her on a mission."

Anko rolled her eyes. "She reminds me of Kurenai-chan," she said.


"Right. Like her, Sakura's very restrained. I couldn't get her to take a swing at me outside of practice." Anko grinned. "As you know, I'm pretty good at that."

Tsunade shook her head. "You're lucky Shizune forgave you, Anko-chan."

Anko's grin just widened. "They aren't exactly the same, though. I don't think Kurenai-chan gets angry at all, but Sakura certainly does. She just holds it in." Anko grin widened even further, something Tsunade might not have thought possible. "I'd like a front row seat for the fireworks if she ever lets all that anger out at once."

"Is she stable?" Tsunade asked, worry suddenly in her voice.

Anko blinked. "Oh, yes, of course. Nothing that bad." Anko suddenly smiled again. "Though I don't know if you want to trust my definition of stability."

Tsunade sighed. "I'm afraid I have to for now. So, final verdict?"

"She's a good candidate for the exams, which she wasn't last time," Anko said. "I'd give her about even odds of making it to the third examination, if the exams were held today."

Tsunade nodded. "Good," she said. She paused a moment, then asked, "Did she mention anything about any personal problems?"

"What?" Anko asked. "No. Why?"

"Hatake-san mentioned to me that he thought she was having family problems," Tsunade answered.

Anko shrugged. "I don't think she said anything about her family or anything personal for that matter. I don't even think she mentioned the Uchiha kid to me."

"All right," Tsunade said. "You can go now, Anko-chan. I need to finish up this paperwork so I can go get something to drink."

Day Eighteen

Naruto was starting to get worried. Jiraiya had seemed to get stronger as they'd gotten nearer to the cave last night, and by the time they reached it he had been walking on his own. Once they'd settled themselves into the cave, the Toad Hermit had promptly fallen asleep. Naruto had stayed awake and kept watch as best he could, but much to his relief there had been no sign of pursuit or searchers. His teacher's breathing had remained strong and steady throughout the night, and had Naruto not known better he would never have guessed that he had been poisoned.

Yet it was now well past dawn, and Jiraiya had not awakened. He still breathed normally and his heart still beat strongly, but no matter how Naruto tried he could not wake the old ninja. Naruto checked the places where Jiraiya had been stung last night, but the wounds looked normal to him. However, though he had eventually passed the mandatory first aid classes in the academy, he knew it would be charitable to describe his medical knowledge as minimal. It was obvious to him that something was wrong, but he could not figure out what it was or how to fix it.

Considering his options, Naruto dug through Jiraiya's packs for the maps he knew were there. Once he found them, he began to unroll them until he found the map of the Earth Country, wishing he had paid more attention when Jiraiya had been describing their route. After several minutes of futile searching, he gave up trying to find where they were on the map.

Still, Naruto knew that they couldn't stay here. His many years of pranks in the Leaf Village had taught him that a stationary hiding place was a bad idea when your pursuers knew the area well. Surely the Rock ninja knew their own country. Even if they weren't aware of this cave in particular, they would likely know that this area was worth searching. And even if the cave was secure, he needed to take Jiraiya somewhere where he could be looked at by a doctor.

Naruto walked to the mouth of the cave, searching for any inspiration he could find. There was the road they had left, just barely visible in the distance. The sun was over there, and it was morning so that way was east. That meant that they'd been heading northwest. Hadn't the road forked a ways back, too? There hadn't been any villages on the road since then that he could remember. Naruto took another look around, and frowned. Was that smoke further up the road? Possibly that meant there was a town there.

Naruto turned back to the maps. After several more minutes of furious searching he still hadn't located where they were. He really wasn't very good at this, he admitted to himself. He'd just have to head cross-country toward the smoke and hope that it was a town. If he was lucky, there wouldn't be any Rock ninja there and it would have a doctor.

As he slowly repacked the maps, Naruto realized how risky this was, but he knew he had no other choice. Observing the packs, Naruto sighed and began to unpack them. There was no way he could carry all the packs and Jiraiya as well. He quickly repacked one pack with what he thought were the necessities. Then he hid the remaining packs deep in the cave. With luck, he and Jiraiya could return for the rest. Carefully picking up his teacher, Naruto set off.

When the journey was over, Naruto would remember only a tiny fraction of it. The rough, rocky terrain blended together in his mind, and luckily he didn't see another soul on the route. Far more slowly than he had hoped, the smoke on the horizon grew nearer and more defined. The sun rose higher and higher in the sky, but it did nothing to dispel the early autumn chill. At one point Naruto remembered drawing far too close to the road and having to turn away from the smoke to maintain a safe distance.

It was well past noon when Naruto was able to tell that the source of the smoke was, as he had hoped, the chimneys of a small town. The town sat near the foot of a small mountain, and as he drew nearer Naruto saw that it was unwalled. Two trails left the town, one heading toward the main road and another climbing up the side of the mountain. As he cautiously approached, Naruto circled around toward the trail leading to the road. That would be the least suspicious way to enter, he knew.

Much to his relief, he saw no sign of Rock ninja, but he also knew that he wasn't certain what to look for. There was nobody at the entrance to the town, so Naruto simply headed down the biggest road he could find. The first person he saw was a young boy who was entertaining himself by bouncing a ball against the wall of a building - probably his house.

"Hey, kid," Naruto said as he shifted Jiraiya's weight onto a slightly more comfortable location. "Do you know where I can find a doctor?"

The boy caught the ball, frowning as he turned to look at Naruto. "My name's Kaneda, not kid," he said.

"Sorry," Naruto replied, "but my grandfather's hurt. Is there a doctor in this town?"

The boy seemed to think a moment, then shouted "Mom!"

In instants, a young woman appeared in the doorway to the house. "What is it, Kaneda?" She quickly saw Naruto, her eyes widening as she saw him carrying a man much larger than himself. "What do you want?" she asked. Naruto repeated his question, and the woman nodded. "Head straight down this street and take the second right," she answered quickly. "You can't miss it."

"Thank you," Naruto said.

"I hope your grandfather is all right," the woman said as Naruto turned to leave. Naruto thanked her again, then followed her directions. He quickly found the small doctor's office, but had to struggle slightly to open the door without dropping Jiraiya. This done, he slipped inside.

Inside, a middle-aged man - almost certainly the doctor - was removing a cast from the arm of a younger man. Naruto carefully set Jiraiya down on one of the several empty cots scattered about the dark, cluttered room. Naruto eyed the room, so different from the large, clean hospital in the Leaf Village suspiciously. Was this really a doctor's office?

The doctor finished removing the cast, and his patient flexed his arm. "Thanks," the young man said, smiling. "Kaneda will be glad I can play catch with him again."

The doctor just nodded, turning to Naruto. "Now, what are you here for, then?" he asked as the younger man slipped out.

Naruto had considered his answer to this question carefully on the way. "My grandfather was stung by a bee last night," he said after a moment to make sure he could keep his story straight. "He was weak for a little while but got better before we went to bed. Now he won't wake up, so I brought him here."

The doctor raised an eyebrow. "You carried him here? You must be pretty strong," he answered, heading over to examine Jiraiya. "Show me where you grandfather was stung." Naruto complied, and the doctor frowned. "You should have said he was stung more than once," he told Naruto.

"Can you help him?" Naruto asked.

"Probably," the doctor answered. "Can you pay, boy?"

Naruto nodded. Money had been one of the things he'd been sure to take with him rather than leaving it in the cave. "Yes," he said.

The doctor nodded back, stroking his chin as he studied Jiraiya. "It sounds like your grandfather had some sort of allergic reaction," he said. He gestured over to one of the other cots. "Stay out of the way, boy, and I'll see what I can do."

When Sakura awoke, it took her several moments to realize where she was. The bare walls of Naruto's spare room stared back at her slowly blinking, weary eyes, and the reality of what had happened last night began to sink in. Her mother had kicked her out! How could that have possibly happened to her? Back in the academy, she'd listened bemusedly when other students had complained about their parents. She'd always gotten along fine with her mother, and she liked to imagine she would have gotten along well with her father also. Ever since the Chuunin Exam, that had changed, though. Still, Sakura had never imagined that it could come to this.

Sakura threw aside the bed covers and slowly sat up. She stood and began to undress - she had not felt comfortable undressing for bed in a strange place last night. As she tossed her dirty clothes into a pile she stumbled over toward where she had dropped her packs. If she was counting right, she ought to still have one set of clean clothes. She breathed a sigh of relief as she confirmed that this was indeed the case.

A few minutes later, she was dressed - weights and all - and had time to consider what to do next. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her of one pressing concern. She fished through her packs again, finding the last of the rations she had packed for the trail. As she quickly ate and began to feel slightly more human, she began to consider what needed to be done.

She wasn't going to let this stop her from taking the exam, she knew. That was the whole point. She couldn't just sit on her borrowed bed and cry. She needed to train; she needed to make sure she had a team. First, she'd need to find Ino and talk to her. She'd need to see if she could find Kakashi to help her train. For both of those, she'd need to visit the Hokage's office to make sure they weren't on a mission or something.

That would let her take care of something else, also. Ninja were required to keep their current residences on file, so that they could be reached easily. Her file, of course, listed her mother's house. That had changed, and she would need to make that known. Sakura grimaced. She'd prefer not to have to say anything, but that wasn't an option.

With a sigh, Sakura left Naruto's apartment and headed on her way. The streets were mostly empty and she made good time, but she had to go out of her away to avoid her house. This altered route took her near the Yamanaka flower shop and Sakura hesitated a moment before stopping there. If Ino wasn't on a mission, it ought to be her shift, Sakura thought, and she could get this out of the way quickly.

Ino was indeed in the shop, and she glanced up as Sakura entered. "Hello, Forehead," she said cheerfully. "Back from your mission?"

Sakura nodded. "I'm sure you know why I'm here, Ino-pig. I don't have much longer to wait on your decision."

Ino grimaced. "It's not like we have much of a choice. There are other teams missing members, but most of them are a lot older than us. They probably wouldn't give you or us the time of day. Even if we were part of the so-called Rookie Nine, we're the part that didn't make it to the finals."

"So your answer is yes?" Sakura asked, relieved. Much the same thing had occurred to her.

"Provisionally," Ino said. "It'll be our lives on the line in the second exam. Chouji and I want to be sure we can count on you."

"What do you mean?"

"The three of us will meet tomorrow before lunch at the training grounds, and we'll see if this will work out." Ino smiled. "Call it a test."

"All right," Sakura said. "I'll be there." She turned to leave.

"Sakura!" Ino called, and the other girl stopped. "Are you okay?"

Sakura glanced back. "What?"

"You aren't very... cheerful this morning," Ino said. "Did something happen on the mission?"

"Nothing happened," Sakura said. "I'm fine." She paused. "Sorry, Ino, but I don't want to talk about it." Before Ino could say anything more, she had left and headed on her way to the administration building.

When she reached the appropriate office, it was being manned by Shizune. Sakura resisted the urge to grimace. This guaranteed that Tsunade would hear personally about this. Shizune glanced up from the piles of paperwork she was sorting, apparently determining what required the Hokage's attention. "Good morning, Sakura-chan," she said. "If you need to see Tsunade-sama, I can send you right in. Her first appointment was over quickly."

Sakura shook her head. "I just need a change of address form, Shizune-san."

Shizune blinked. "A change of address form?" she asked, surprised.

"Yes," was all Sakura said, ignoring the none-too-subtle prompting to explain.

After a long moment, Shizune pulled out the appropriate form and a pen. "Here you go," she said.

"Thank you." Sakura quickly began to fill out the form. She'd double-checked the address of Naruto's apartment before leaving. It took her only a few minutes to write down the appropriate details and sign her name at the bottom of the form. She handed it back to Shizune.

Tsunade's attendant's eyes widened as she took the form. "Isn't that Naruto-kun's place?"

Sakura reluctantly nodded. "Yes. There won't be a problem with that, will there? I'm sure Naruto won't mind me borrowing the place for now."

"No," Shizune said slowly. "But... why?"

"It's," Sakura began, only to trail off. After a long moment, she started again. "It's a personal issue," she admitted. Seeing Shizune's mouth beginning to open and easily guessing what her next question was, Sakura continued, "I can handle it myself, Shizune-san. You needn't trouble yourself."

Now it was Shizune's turn to reluctantly nod. "If you say so," she said dubiously.

Sakura nodded back, much more firmly. "Do you know if Kakashi-sensei is in the village?"

"He's on a mission," Shizune answered. "He won't be back for a few weeks, at least."

"I see," Sakura said as she turned to leave. "Thank you." Shizune didn't stop her.

After she had left, Tsunade slipped into the room from the other doorway, which lead to the hallway her own office was located on. "Was that who I thought it was?" she asked.

Shizune rose, handing Tsunade the form. "Yes, Tsunade-sama," she answered.

Tsunade raised an eyebrow as she read the form. "Sakura-chan is moving into Naruto-kun's place?"

Shizune nodded. "She said it was because of a personal issue."

"I heard," Tsunade said. She dropped the form back on Shizune's desk. "It seems Hatake was right. I'm already sick of beating around the bush on this, Shizune." Tsunade smiled. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to cheat a little."

"Tsunade-sama?" Shizune asked.

"The rules say that I'm not supposed to interfere with internal family matters unless requested." Tsunade snorted. The worst problems were usually the ones where no one wanted to ask for the Hokage's intervention.

"That's correct," Shizune said after a moment.

Tsunade gazed at the ceiling. "However, it occurs to me that I don't know anything about the Haruno. That's really not good for the Hokage, I think, particularly since I plan to make Sakura-chan my new apprentice once she's ready. Don't you agree, Shizune?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Shizune answered, smiling.

"Do me a favor, Shizune," Tsunade said. "Go through the archives and dig up anything interesting you can find on the Haruno." She grinned. "And if you happen to find anything that might shed some light on the problem, let me know."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Shizune replied. "Shall I start now?"

"Just a moment," Tsunade said. "I believe I need you to summon the village council first. That's what I was coming here for to begin with."

"What about?" Shizune asked, surprised.

"I just received an interesting message from the Mizukage," Tsunade answered. Her eyes were grim. "He seems to have preempted my request for an apology for the incident down south."

Shizune's eyes widened. "War?"

"No, thank the gods," Tsunade said. "He's already sent an apology for the over-enthusiasm of his jounin in pressing her 'legitimate claim to the Mitarashi Clan.'"

"And?" Shizune asked, sensing that there was more to come.

"As a sign of good faith," Tsunade said slowly, "the Mizukage would like to send Mitarashi Kimi's genin team to participate in our upcoming Chuunin Exam."

Day Nineteen

Naruto groaned as he slowly awoke. It took him several moments to recognize the cluttered doctor's office. The doctor had thankfully allowed Naruto to stay here overnight, rather than forcing him to leave his "grandfather." As soon as he was fully awake, Naruto jumped off the cot he had slept on and raced over to check on Jiraiya. The old ninja was still breathing easily, but there was no sign that he was near awakening.

"You don't need to do my job for me," the doctor said as he descended a set of stairs in the back of the office. Evidently the doctor lived above his office, but he had told Naruto in no uncertain terms not to venture either upstairs or downstairs to the basement without permission. He pushed Naruto out of the way unceremoniously, bending over to examine Jiraiya.

After several moments, the doctor spoke. "I don't believe I've ever seen a reaction to bee stings quite like this, boy."

Naruto gulped. "Does that mean you can't help him?"

The doctor turned to him. "I might be able to, if you tell me the truth."

"The truth?" Naruto asked.

"Are you two having some sort of ninja problem, boy?" The doctor frowned. "There are a number of poisons that might have caused this, but unless you tell me more I won't be able to help."

Naruto began to weigh his options carefully. The doctor had seemed nice enough, but he was from Earth Country. There was no telling what he might do if he found out that they were Leaf ninja. He might turn them in. After far too long, Naruto answered. "There were ninja fighting," he answered slowly. "Grandfather and I hid, but he got stung by some bees that were after one of the ninja."

The doctor sighed. "Summoned bees, huh? You should have told me that at the start, boy. That changes everything." He turned back to Jiraiya, stroking his chin in thought. "I still should be able to help, though it might be a couple days still before he's ready to move." He glared at Naruto. "I'll be charging extra since you wouldn't tell me all the details."

Naruto just nodded nervously. "All right."

The doctor's attention returned to Jiraiya. "Go down to the basement, boy. In the left corner there'll be a big green box that says antidotes. Bring that up for me."

Naruto nodded and slipped down the rickety stairs that led to the basement. Large crates littered the dark room, but after his eyes adjusted Naruto was able to see well enough to maneuver his way through it. He quickly found the antidotes, and easily lifted the metal box and carried it back upstairs. He carefully placed it on the table next to Jiraiya's cot.

Without a word the doctor opened the box and fished out a small bottle half-full with clear liquid. He carefully checked the label, then poured a tiny amount into a syringe. After double-checking both the label and the amount, he rolled up Jiraiya's sleeve and injected him. "You're lucky I used to practice in the Rock Village, boy," he commented.

Naruto resisted the urge to back away nervously. "Are you a ninja?" he asked.

The doctor laughed suddenly. "No, of course not. There aren't enough medical ninja to run an entire hospital. They save themselves for the toughest cases and let us normal people handle the rest." He smiled. "Not everyone who lives in a Hidden Village is a ninja."

Naruto was smart enough not to say that he knew that. "Why did you leave?" he asked after a moment.

The doctor seemed to study Naruto carefully. "I got sick of the blood." He paused, and anything else he was about to say was lost as Jiraiya suddenly coughed.

The old ninja's eyes flickered open. "What..." he began to say weakly, only to trail off into another fit of coughing. He glanced about. "Naruto?"

Naruto raced over to his teacher's side. "I'm here," he said. "We're safe."

Jiraiya began to struggle to rise. "Doubt... that."

The doctor pushed him down with one hand. "Easy there, old fellow. Those bees that stung you were a special type. It'll be a few days before you can work the poison out of your system."

Jiraiya seemed to notice the other man for the first time. "Who... you?" he asked.

"I'm a doctor." The doctor smiled. "You're lucky your grandson brought you to the one doctor in this part of the country who knows ninja poisons."

"That so," Jiraiya got out, glancing at Naruto. He began to cough again. "Still tired."

The doctor nodded. "Go ahead and sleep." Jiraiya closed his eyes, and within moments began to snore.

"How can he still be tired?" Naruto asked. "He just slept for days!"

"He wasn't really asleep," the doctor answered, stroking his chin. "Those bees used a special type of paralyzing poison on him." The doctor smiled. "The easiest way to explain it is that it kept him from waking up, but it also kept him from falling completely asleep."

"Oh," Naruto answered. How could somebody be asleep but not asleep?

"Now," the doctor said, his smile vanishing, "let us discuss the matter of payment."

Sakura groaned as she observed the pile of clothes she had made. She had worn her last clean outfit yesterday, but had been so distracted by other matters that she hadn't remembered to do laundry. With a sigh, she slipped on the least filthy set of clothing and began to load the rest into one of her empty packs. If she remembered correctly, there was a laundry room on the first floor of Naruto's apartment building. She ought to have time to do a quick load before she was supposed to meet Ino and Chouji.

Once her clothes were ready, Sakura ventured into Naruto's room, searching for detergent. It took her several moments to find it, and she was not surprised to see that Naruto was almost out. Sakura made a mental note to buy some more - even if she found somewhere else to stay before she needed it, it was only polite to replace what she had used.

The thought reminded her that she needed to decide whether or not too find somewhere else to stay. She could probably afford an apartment of her own, even with the relatively low pay Leaf ninja had been receiving since the Sand's attack. It probably would be even smaller than Naruto's place, but it would be hers. On the other hand, she hoped that she would be able to make her mother see reason before too long. For the short time she planned to be on her own, it really didn't make sense to seek out somewhere else to live. Naruto's apartment suited her needs well enough.

Sakura carefully locked the door to the apartment behind her and found her way to the laundry downstairs. There were only three washers and an equal number of dryers, far too few for a building this size, but fortunately none of the machines were in use right now. Sakura quickly loaded one of the washers, then sat down on top of a dryer, as there were no chairs in the room. Determined not to waste any time, she pulled Kakashi's scroll on the Perfect Replication Technique out of her pack and set to studying it. She still couldn't get images that looked or felt very solid consistently, and she was certain that she was still wasting some chakra when she used the technique. Perhaps reading Kakashi's hints one more time would give her some ideas.

Her laundry was about done when Sakura heard someone approaching. She looked up to see a rather plump lady struggling with an overfull laundry basket in the doorway. Sakura set down her scroll and jumped to her feet. "Let me help you with that," she said, easily stabilizing the basket before it could slip out of the older woman's hands.

"Thank you," the woman gasped out as the two set the basket down near the washers. She glanced up looking at Sakura. "I don't think I've seen you here before. Did you just move in?"

"Yes," Sakura answered after a moment. There was no need to elaborate on her situation.

"Not many ninja in this part of town," the woman commented as she began to load the remaining two washers with her clothing. "You people can usually afford better."

Sakura hadn't considered that, but she realized it was true. After a moment, she shrugged. "I'm only a genin. C-rank and D-rank missions don't pay that much."

"I suppose," the woman said. "Which apartment is yours? I didn't know one had opened up."

"I'm borrowing one up on the third floor from my teammate," Sakura admitted. "He's away on a -" Sakura stopped suddenly when a wary look entered the other woman's eyes.

"You aren't teammates with that Uzumaki brat, are you?" she asked.

Sakura resisted the urge to clench a fist, remembering how rude Naruto's neighbors had been when she had mentioned his name to them. "Yes, I am," she said slowly.

The woman's eyes widened, and seemingly unknowingly she backed away from Sakura. "Oh my."

This time Sakura's fists did clench. Whatever Naruto had done, it couldn't deserve this sort of reaction. Ordinarily she might have let it pass, but right now her mental state was not conducive to such restraint. "He isn't a contagious disease," she said, letting a bit too much anger into her voice.

The woman shuddered. "Oh no," she said, obviously forcing herself to take a step closer to Sakura. "It must be terrible for you, having to be with that monster."

Sakura couldn't believe her ears. She had met people who deserved to be called monsters, but Naruto was most definitely not one of them, no matter what he had done to these people. She unthinkingly glared at woman, who backed away again. "If you had ever met a real monster," Sakura said after a moment, "you would never say such a thing."

"A real monster!" the woman exclaimed. "If that thing isn't a -" She cut off suddenly, glancing fearfully over her her shoulder.

Sakura had to remind herself that violence wasn't called for here. "Naruto is a person, not a thing." That was it. No matter what Naruto had done, these people had clearly had it coming. Sakura knew that she had said more than her share of unkind things to Naruto in the past, most of which he had deserved, but this was just insane.

The woman looked as though she was going to say something, then she grimaced and turned around rapidly, stalking out of the laundry room. Sakura thought that she heard her muttering under her breath about a law as she walked away. A moment later, Sakura's laundry finished washing, but Sakura just stared at the retreating figure until the woman vanished from sight. What could a law possibly have to do with this?

Sakura pushed the matter out of her mind. She had far more pressing concerns right now. The downright inexcusable attitude Naruto's neighbors displayed, vexing though it was, could wait. Sakura returned to studying her scroll. Once her laundry had been washed and dried, she returned to Naruto's apartment and gratefully changed into a now-clean outfit. As always, she relished the few brief moments of freedom while she took off her weights to change pants. By now, though, she could put them back on without hesitating. It was almost scary how quickly she had become accustomed to the additional weight, but a part of her was glad Kakashi wasn't here to insist that she move on to a heavier set of weights.

Sakura left the apartment and headed toward the training grounds. Along the way, she passed the ninja academy, and she smiled slightly as she watched the younger students, already outside for lunch and recess. Had it really been less than a year since she'd been an academy student herself? Sakura's hand went to her short hair as she thought of how much she had changed in so short a time.

Sitting on a bench watching his students, Iruka looked up and saw Sakura. The chuunin waved at her, and after a moment Sakura waved back, forcing a smile to her lips. The young students, just noticing her watching them, began to mutter amongst themselves. Sakura couldn't hear what they were saying, but she could guess well enough, having participated in many such conversations herself. Few things were more exciting to an academy student than a glimpse of a young genin, someone they might hope to be in a few short years.

With another wave at Iruka, Sakura continued on her way to the training grounds. When she arrived, her two prospective teammates were sitting underneath one of of the many trees that lined the training ground. Chouji was, predictably, chomping his way through a bag of potato chips. Sakura smiled at this, then straightened her face, feeling a little guilty. She had never thought much of "the fat kid" back in the academy and had indulged in no small amount of gloating that Ino was stuck with him as a teammate. Yet now she had seen him fight in the Chuunin Exam and had heard of the lengths he had gone to on the mission to retrieve Sasuke. How could she have been so shallow back in the academy?

Sakura glanced at the half-hidden sun, confirming that it was still before noon. "Good morning, Ino, Akimichi-kun."

Chouji smiled around a mouthful of chips. "Call me Chouji, if we're going to be teammates."

Sakura nodded. "All right," she said.

Ino stood. "You're late, Forehead," she said.

A thought occurred to Sakura, and she smiled evilly. "Sorry, Ino-pig. I got lost."

Ino's eyebrow twitched. "How could you possibly -"

Sakura, her senses honed by days of avoiding Anko's attempts to deposit various reptiles on her body, suddenly whirled about, a hand going to one of the kunai strapped to her leg. Ino's eyes widened as an instant later Sarutobi Asuma appeared, standing what would have been directly behind Sakura.

The mountain of a jounin smiled widely. "You really are Kakashi's student, Sakura-kun," he said. He left it unsaid whether he referred to Sakura's danger sense or her excuse for tardiness.

Sakura slowly relaxed. "Thank you," she said, preferring to assume the more complimentary explanation for Asuma's statement.

"I understand you want to take the Chuunin Exam with my students," Asuma said.

"Yes," Sakura answered. "I do."

Asuma nodded. "Ino and Chouji have asked me to make sure that you won't be a burden." Ino nodded. "Hey, Chouji!" Asuma called. "Put down those chips and come over here!"

Chouji quickly overturned the mostly empty bag over his open mouth. Throwing the bag aside he rose and walked over to where the other three ninja stood. "So what's the test?" Chouji asked.

Asuma smiled. "While I certainly could test Sakura-kun here, I think it's more important that you two test her skills yourselves. It will be your lives on the line, after all, not mine." After a moment, all three ninja nodded. "Sakura-kun?" Asuma asked as he pulled out a small bell on a string. "Kakashi gave your team the bell test, right?"

Sakura nodded. If he intended to give the three the bell test, that would be easily passed, since she could explain the real point of the test to the other two. Most likely he had something else planned. What was it going to be?

"The bell test?" Chouji asked.

"It's a test for new genin the Third Hokage developed," Asuma explained. "The genin team tries to steal two bells from the jounin teacher." Asuma smiled. "That's not what we're doing today, though."

Sakura nodded again, this time to herself. Then her eyes widened as Asuma handed her the single bell. "What?" she asked, startled.

"Sakura-kun," Asuma said, "I'll give you a five minute head-start. After that, Ino and Chouji will have a half-hour to steal the bell from you."

"What?" Ino protested.

"I thought she was the one getting tested," Chouji grumbled.

"She is," Asuma answered. "You remember the second part of the Chuunin Exam, right? This is a chance for Sakura to prove that she could be trusted to defend a scroll and a chance for you to practice taking one."

After a long moment, Ino nodded. "I'm not going to go easy on you, Sakura."

Sakura smiled. "Good," she said, slipping the bell into her pocket. "I won't be able to prove I'm not burden otherwise."

Chouji sighed. "This would be easier with Shikamaru." Sakura had to agree. The new chuunin's shadow techniques would make this test very... troublesome.

Asuma laughed. "Shikamaru-kun won't be there during the exams, Chouji," he said. After Chouji nodded, his face turned serious. "To make things a little bit simpler, I'll make it a rule that Sakura can't leave the training grounds. I shouldn't have to tell you three not to make any killing or maiming attacks." He paused, and when no one disagreed, he nodded. "Are you ready?"

"Yes," the three genin said in unison.

Asuma pulled out a stopwatch. "Sakura's five minutes begin... now!"

Without pausing to respond, Sakura turned around and raced for the trees. She was no jounin. She wasn't going to keep the bell out of Ino's hands without a plan. She already had an idea that might work, but she was going to need all five minutes to pull it off. As soon as she was out of site of the clearing, Sakura jumped onto a convenient branch and abruptly changed direction, heading for where Kakashi had given the new Team Seven the bell test. Thankfully, that training ground was not in use, and Sakura began to prepare, her hands quickly moving through sets of seals.

A bit less than five minutes later, when Ino and Chouji burst out of the tree line and onto to lake shore, Sakura stood in the center of the water. She smiled mockingly at the pair. "Can you walk on water, Ino-pig?" she asked.

Ino glared at Sakura. "We aren't academy students," she said. "A little trick like that won't stop us." She glanced at her partner. "Chouji," she said sharply.

The boy nodded, veering off to circle around behind Sakura ass Ino approached from the front. Sakura merely stood still as the other two ninja neared, the mocking smile never leaving her face. Cautiously, Ino and Chouji began to approach, ready for a sudden attack that never came, not even when they worked out the confidence to attack themselves. Sakura merely laughed, dancing through their blows with inhuman speed.

"Is that all you two can do?" she asked.

Ino grinned back at her. "We're just getting started." She broke away from Sakura, beginning to form seals. Chouji pressed his attacks, but now he seemed more concerned with keeping Sakura from running away than going for the bell. Sakura smiled as she guessed the technique Ino was performing. "Are you sure you want to use that on the water?" she asked as she darted aside, narrowly avoiding one of Chouji's punches.

Ino smiled. "This technique's a little different," she said as she finished the seals. "Paraly -" Sakura suddenly plunged into the water, and Ino cut off. "Spread out," she barked at Chouji. "She'll be vulnerable when she surfaces."

Chouji nodded and complied. For several moments it seemed that Sakura had no intention of returning to the surface. Then coils of mist began to form over the lake, rapidly thickening and spreading. Ino cursed. "We won't be able to see a thing," she snarled.

"Mist Concealment Technique," Chouji commented. "Like that time in River Country." The two ninja traded a look moments before they lost sight of each other in the mist.

Once the mist had finished thickening, Sakura pulled herself above the water behind Ino, but despite her best efforts made a small splash. Ino whirled about, racing in the direction of the sound. She suddenly froze as Chouji called out, "She's over this way!" as he ran in the opposite direction.

"She's made replications!" Ino yelled back. Now there was the sound of at least a dozen Sakura moving about the lake.

On the lake shore, sitting on top of one of the three wooden poles, the real Sakura smiled. They were already halfway through with the test, and her two opponents had spent their whole time trying to fight her fake replications. It had been difficult to keep the first clone real-seeming in broad daylight and moving fast enough to avoid the pairs' attacks. Once they'd given her an excuse to use the Mist Concealment Technique, though, things had gotten easier. Now she was creating little more than wisps of color and the sounds of splashing, moving rapidly over the lake shore. If her chakra held out, she could keep this going for the rest of the test.

Sakura suddenly started. Was that the sound of movement behind her? Sakura jumped from her perch mere moments before several kunai hit where she'd been standing. Most likely, the were positioned to pin her clothing to to the wood, but Sakura didn't have time to check as her gaze followed the kunai's path back to where Ino stood on an overhanging tree branch.

"You're a little over-confident, Forehead," the other girl commented. "I guessed that you'd make a break for it once you raised the mist, but I'd never have thought you'd just sit back and watch."

Sakura resisted the urge to curse. "Replications?" she asked, gesturing back at the mist-covered lake.

"Of course," Ino answered.

Sakura released both the mist and the Perfect Replication Technique. When the mist began to clear, the lake's surface was empty. Where was Chouji? Sakura's hand went to her kunai as she glanced about, careful to keep an eye on the smirking Ino. Too late, she guessed where the attack would come from.

Chouji burst from the earth behind Sakura, roaring out "Partial Multi-size Technique!" Swollen to gargantuan size, one arm struck out, grabbing Sakura before she could dodge or position a replacement. Sakura began to struggle, slowly managing to pull out her kunai. If she could cut Chouji's over-sized hand, she might be able to get loose.

"It's too late," Ino said as she jumped down from the tree. Her hands racing through a far-too-familiar set of seals. "Mind-Body Switch Technique!"

An instant later, Ino's body slumped to the ground as Sakura's stopped its struggles. "Ino?" Chouji asked carefully.

Sakura cursed fiercely in her mind as an alien smile formed on her lips. "Mockingbird," her voice said from her lips. "It's me." Sakura tried to remember how she had managed to eject her unwanted passenger in the last exam, but now matter how she struggled she could not replicate the feat.

Chouji released Sakura's body, his hand and arm shrinking back to a human size. Sakura's hand went into her pocket, fishing out the bell and tossing it to Chouji. The boy caught it easily. "That's it," Ino said through Sakura's lips.

Asuma appeared out of nowhere, nodding as he glanced at his stopwatch. "Just short of twenty-five minutes. Not bad," he said.

Ino smiled one last smile on Sakura's face, then formed her rival's hands into a single seal. "Release!" Sakura stumbled as control returned to her body.

Ino slowly rose. "Too bad for you, Forehead," she said.

Sakura's eyebrow twitched. She'd come so far since the last exam, but not far enough. She wasn't going to let it end like this. She'd find another team somehow, train harder, and beat Ino once and for all in the exam.

"Does she pass?" Chouji asked suddenly. Sakura froze. Of course she didn't; they'd gotten the bell, after all.

"That's really up to you two," Asuma answered. "She'll be your teammate, not mine. Do you think she'll be a burden to you?"

Chouji and Ino traded a look as Sakura considered this. Asuma never had said what the conditions for passing the test were, had he? Sakura looked at Ino and saw the unusually thoughtful look on her rival's face.

"It's your decision, Ino," Chouji said after a moment.

Ino sighed, walking forward to stand in front of Sakura. The two studied each other for a moment, then Ino suddenly stuck out her hand. "I'm still going to crush you in the third exam, Forehead," she said.

Sakura accepted Ino's hand. "Trust me, Ino-pig, the feeling is mutual," she answered.

Ino smiled. "Until then, Sakura, I guess we're teammates."

Sakura slowly smiled back. "I guess so, Ino." After a long moment, the two firmly shook hands.

Day Twenty

No matter how hard she tried, Sakura wasn't able to make herself take the final steps to the door of what had been her house all of her life. She had walked this same path effortlessly countless times before, but now she might as well have been trying to walk up a sheer cliff without using chakra. Anger warred with fear deep within her, though she was able to keep even the slightest hint of these churning emotions from her impassive face.

Despite this, she still found herself thinking that it would be easier for her to enter the house thinking Orochimaru was inside, rather than her mother. Orochimaru she feared more than she cared to admit even to herself, but it was a simple fear. Were she strong enough, she would face him without hesitation. Her mother was a different story. Even had Sakura been granted all the power of the Hokages, she would still fear to take these last few steps. This fear had nothing to do with strength or weakness. Her mother was no ninja, but she could hurt Sakura in ways no one else could even dream of.

Sakura tried not to dwell on it, but could not stop her mind from thinking of how alone she was right now. Sasuke had... left. Naruto was away and would not be back for a long time. Even Kakashi was on a mission. It was scary to think that Ino was the closest thing to a friend she had right now. Ino - the only person in her academy class she had hated more than Naruto!

Sakura needed her mother. She was the only family Sakura had ever known. Her mother had always been there for her, a comforting presence that she had come to take for granted. Even before she had met Sasuke, she had wanted to excel as a ninja, to make her mother proud of her. Yet now that drive had somehow driven a wedge between them.

The thought strengthened Sakura's anger. How could her mother not see how important being a ninja was to her? How could she demand that Sakura abandon what she had spent her whole life striving toward? Some small part of Sakura could imagine her mother fearing that her daughter would die like her husband, but she could not understand why this had only become a problem now. Her mother had to have known what sending her to the ninja academy had meant. She had still chosen to send Sakura to follow in her father's footsteps.

"Sakura-san! Good morning!"

Sakura almost jumped at the voice that suddenly interrupted her thoughts. She slowly turned around, forcing a smile to her face. "Good morning, Lee-san," she said. The other genin was jogging in place, large metal bands weighing down his arms. His leg weights were hidden by orange fabric just like Sakura now wore, and Sakura repressed a sudden shudder at the thought of how much Lee's weights had to weigh. "What brings you here?"

"Gai-sensei is on a mission, so I have to train on my own today," Lee explained, still jogging in place. "I decided to run down every road in the village without stopping!"

"I see," Sakura said slowly, very glad she had no intention of becoming a taijutsu specialist. Even without weights, she doubted she could make it even a quarter of the way through that task.

"Are you going to be taking the Chuunin Exam again, Sakura-san?" Lee asked. He grinned widely. "This time I'm going to make it to the final round!"

It was amazing that Lee could talk so happily of the Chuunin Exam. Sakura occasionally had nightmares about the end of his match with Gaara, and those were pleasant compared to the ones where she had been paired with the insane Sand ninja in the preliminaries. Sakura couldn't keep a smile off her face at the other ninja's seemingly inexhaustible supplies of cheer and enthusiasm. "I will be," she answered. Even if it meant she never spoke civilly to her mother again.

Lee's grin, impossibly, widened even further. "Good luck!" he said. He waved once, then broke into a run. Sakura shook her head as he vanished. If he was that fast with those weights, it was almost unimaginable how quickly he would move without them.

Sakura turned back to the door to her house, and without stopping to let herself become lost in thought again, stepped forward and knocked loudly. Even as the sound of the knock faded, Sakura's stomach began to twist itself into knots in fear, but it was too late to take the knock back. After what seemed an eternity but couldn't have been more than a minute, the door opened.

Haruno Amaya's face hardened as she saw her daughter. "I told you to leave and not come back, ninja," she said harshly.

Sakura's face was smooth, but she barely kept her fists from clenching. It seemed as though any hopes she had held that her mother had experienced a change of heart were in vain. "Let me in, Mother," she said, her voice tight and controlled. Showing anger at this stage would be worse than useless.

"Goodbye, Sakura-san," her mother said, shutting the door.

Sakura easily grabbed the door and held it open. Her mother glared at her, but Sakura didn't release the door. "Let me in, Mother," she repeated. "We need to talk."

"Why should I?" her mother asked.

"Because I'm your daughter, and it isn't right for -"

Her mother interrupted her with a snarl. "I have no daughter!" she said, almost yelling. "Leave here and don't ever come back!" Her mother suddenly strained against Sakura's hold on the door. Caught by surprise, Sakura wasn't able to push back in time, and had to let go before her fingers were caught. The door slammed shut with a loud thud, and an instant later there was the sound of it being locked.

Staring at the closed door to what had always been her home, Sakura trembled, almost collapsing. Though she had known that this might happen, somehow it seemed even worse than how she had ever imagined this meeting going. Her eyes watered as she whirled about and slowly walked away, but Sakura held the tears in.

She would not cry.

Jiraiya, now awake but still bed-ridden, had quickly devoured the food that had been left at him as he listened to Naruto tell the story of how he had been brought here. "Good work, Naruto," Jiraiya said after a moment. "You took an awful risk, but you didn't have much choice."

Naruto nodded, remembering his fears as he had set out to take Jiraiya to this town. If it had had been a Rock ninja base instead of a civilian town, it would have been a disastrous choice. Fortunately, luck had been with him.

Jiraiya grimaced. "That must have been a much more powerful poison than I had thought. An ordinary poison wouldn't put me out like that." The two were able to talk freely, as the doctor was out making a house call elsewhere in the town. Jiraiya sighed. "The Kamizuru Clan, huh?"

"Who're they?" Naruto asked.

For a moment, Jiraiya didn't answer. Then he said, "You know the Aburame Clan, right?"

Naruto nodded. "Of course." It wasn't like he could forget Shino. Naruto repressed a shudder. He didn't mind bugs, really, but they weren't exactly his favorite things in the world either.

"The Kamizuru are a clan of bug users like them," Jiraiya said. "The two clans have been rivals since before the Leaf Village was founded." Jiraiya sighed. "Back during the last war with the Rock, the Kamizuru were going to launch an attack on the Aburame right before the truce was going to be signed. If it had worked they might have wiped out their rivals once and for all." Jiraiya rubbed his chin. "The Fourth and I - though he wasn't the Fourth yet, of course - managed to uncover the plot and warn the Aburame in time." Jiraiya's eyes were distant, and he paused, apparently lost in the past.

"And then?" Naruto prompted.

"The Aburame laid a trap, and it was the Kamizuru who were nearly wiped out," Jiraiya said. "The old Tsuchikage eventually disbanded the clan for attacking without his approval and exiled the survivors from the Rock." Jiraiya sighed, laying back on the bed. "Something must have changed for the Kamizuru to be allowed to rejoin."

"What?" Naruto asked.

"How should I know?" Jiraiya said, but after a moment he answered anyway. "Part of it would be that the Leaf are in no position to object right now. There's probably still something else, though." Jiraiya sighed again. "I just hope it isn't a sign that the Rock are thinking of war." Jiraiya rolled over in bed, facing away from Naruto. "Now let me go back to sleep, boy."

Before Jiraiya could accomplish this, the door opened and the doctor returned. Before anyone else could speak, he glared at Naruto. "It seems you've still be lying to me, boy," he said as he shut the door behind him.

"What?" Naruto asked. Jiraiya sat up in bed, suddenly seeming far stronger than a moment ago.

"There's a Rock ninja that just came to town asking after you two." The doctor grimaced. "Says you two are Leaf spies."

"We're," Naruto began, but he cut off as Jiraiya laid a warning hand on his arm.

"I'm sure that you can understand why my student said what he did," Jiraiya said, his voice flat.

"Oh, yes," the doctor said. "I really half-expected something like this, but..." He trailed off, then started again. "You must understand that this places me in a very difficult position."

"Of course," Jiraiya said. After a moment's struggle, he rose. "We can be gone in just a moment."

"No!" the doctor protested. "You aren't ready to travel." The doctor began to pace back and forth in front of the door, swearing under his breath. "Go down to the basement," he said. "There are some empty crates down there that are large enough to hide you two."

"Thank you," Jiraiya said after a moment, turning toward the stairs. "Come on, boy." Jiraiya suddenly stumbled, and Naruto caught him. "Damn it," Jiraiya said, but he let Naruto help him down the stairway. Once down in the basement, the two ninja quickly found the crates the doctor had spoken of and hidden themselves. "I wish I had the focus to pull off a genjutsu," Jiraiya muttered as he carefully closed the lid of the crate.

What seemed like an eternity later, there was the sound of footsteps on the stairway. Naruto tensed, then forced himself to relax. "You see, Kamizuru-sama?" came the doctor's nervous voice. "No one down here."

"Is that so?" a woman said. For a moment, Naruto thought he heard a buzzing sound, but it quickly stopped before he could be certain whether or not it was only his imagination. "So it seems," the woman said after a moment. "Tell me again what you know."

"Yes, of course," the doctor said. "The boy came by with the old man, who was in some sort of coma. He said something about a bee sting, but he didn't have any money to pay so I made him leave."

The woman chuckled. "You're a cruel man."

"This business isn't cheap," the doctor answered. "I gave him some free advice on keeping the old man fed, but I couldn't afford to treat him for free." The doctor paused, then continued. "He was probably going to die anyway, no matter what I did."

"Did the boy say anything about where he was headed next?" the woman asked. Naruto didn't hear the doctor say anything, but he guessed he shook his head. "I see," the woman said. "Thank you for your cooperation." The two headed back up the stairs.

After what seemed like another eternity, the doctor came back down. "It's safe," he said, and Naruto and Jiraiya emerged from the crates.

"Thank you," Jiraiya said. "Not many people would have helped us."

The doctor smiled thinly. "I'm not many people."

"Why did you hide us?" Naruto asked.

The doctor sighed. "Back when I worked in the Rock Village, sometimes they brought me prisoners." Jiraiya nodded, but the doctor saw Naruto's look of incomprehension and continued. "They would torture them within an inch of their lives, then bring them to the hospital. We had to heal them as quickly as possible, so that the interrogation could continue. Sometimes we saw the same prisoner four or five times before he broke."

"That's awful," Naruto said after a moment.

The doctor smiled grimly. "So it is," he said. He paused for a long moment before continuing. "Once I let a captured Sand ninja die. They couldn't prove anything, or I wouldn't be here today, but I'm sure they suspected. I decided to leave soon afterwards."

"A wise decision," Jiraiya said after a moment.

"So you see," the doctor said, "there's no great love between the Rock and me." He smiled again. "You are lucky beyond belief that you found me, boy."

Naruto just nodded. Jiraiya gave the doctor a long look. "We shouldn't trouble you anymore. We'll leave tonight."

"No!" the doctor protested. "It's too soon. Stay one more day, to make sure you don't suffer a relapse. Please!"

"All right," Jiraiya said slowly. "One more day."

Day Twenty-one

The next day, Jiraiya was indeed feeling much better. By the time Naruto awoke, he was already out of bed and sorting through the pack Naruto had brought. "I can't believe you left my scrolls behind," Jiraiya said as soon as he saw his student had awoken. "Those are important."

Naruto snorted. "You're too heavy, Ero-sennin," he answered. "I couldn't carry both you and them." The genin put on a martyred expression. "I even left the last of my ramen behind!"

Jiraiya blinked. "Is that so?" he asked slowly as he began to repack the bag. "I thought we were out."

Naruto's expression became nervous. "I hid some so you wouldn't take them," he admitted.

Jiraiya laughed. "In your case, I'm afraid we'll have to add a new ninja vice. Drink, money, women, and ramen." He shook his head sadly.

Naruto pouted, turning away from Jiraiya. "Stupid Ero-sennin. Ramen is a virtue, not a vice." For a long moment, the two ninja were silent, then they simultaneously burst out laughing.

Jiraiya shook his head again, this time in amusement. "Somehow I don't think the academy textbook writers would go for either of those. And the ramen sellers in the Leaf Village would probably put out a bounty on my head."

Naruto's laughing stopped instantly as he thoughtfully gazed upward. "I wonder how much ramen I could buy with that," he said quietly.

Jiraiya smiled wryly. "You've got a long ways to go before you could collect a bounty on me, boy," he said.

"What's all this noise?" came the doctor's grumpy voice as he descended the stairs. He rubbed at his eyes. "I see you two are lively this morning." He gestured vaguely at Jiraiya. "Get over there and I'll take a look at you." He muttered something under his breath about ninja and their ridiculous recovery times as Jiraiya complied.

Several minutes later, the doctor pronounced Jiraiya fit. "You'll still tire easily for a couple days," he said, "but if you don't press yourself you'll do fine." The doctor vanished downstairs and emerged with a small bottle of pills. "Take one of these if you start feeling light-headed. I doubt you'll need them, but just in case."

"Thank you," Jiraiya said as he took the bottle.

"Don't thank me," the doctor replied. "It's all in my bill, after all."

Jiraiya nodded. "What's the damage?" The doctor rattled off an incredibly high number, and Naruto paled. Jiraiya just pulled out his checkbook and began to write. As he finished signing, there was a thunderous knock on the doorway.

"Jiraiya of the Hidden Leaf!" a familiar women's voice shouted. "Come out with your student and we might let the doctor live!"

Jiraiya froze, then added another zero to the end of the sum on the check. He handed it to the doctor, who stood frozen. "Go down to the basement," he said, "and don't come out until the noise stops."

"But," the doctor protested, but he didn't seem able to come up with any valid objection.

"This is our fight, not yours," Jiraiya said. "Naruto, get the pack!" The genin hastened to comply as the doctor slowly made his way downstairs.

"This is your last warning!" the woman outside shouted.

"Come on," Jiraiya said to Naruto as he walked over to the door. "Are you ready?" Naruto nodded, and the two stepped outside.

The first thing that they noticed was the dome of bees that completely enclosed the doctor's office. There were so many that they almost blocked out the sun, casting the area into a strange twilight. The second thing they noticed were the other three people who were inside the dome. The woman who had been speaking now stood several paces back from the door, flanked by two men. One was Kamizuru Kurobachi. The other was a blond man who wore small glasses. All three wore Rock forehead protectors.

"So the fugitives emerge," the new man said, smirking.

Jiraiya's face was hard. "I suppose negotiation is not an option," he said.

The woman laughed cruelly. "Of course not," she said, a thin smile drawing across her face. "After what you did to our clan, we will settle for nothing but your death."

"You are all Kamizuru, then?" Jiraiya asked quietly.

The woman nodded. "I am Kamizuru Suzumebachi. You've already met Kurobachi." She gestured at the blond. "This is Jibachi." Her eyes fell on Naruto. "Pray return the favor, O Great Toad Hermit, and introduce to us your new student."

Naruto snarled, reaching for a kunai. "I'm Uzumaki Nar -"

"Naruto!" Jiraiya snapped, cutting the genin off. "Get back and stay back; this fight is out of your league."

"But," Naruto began to protest.

"Guard the door," Jiraiya said. Naruto's eyes widened and he almost stumbled backward in his haste. He hadn't considered that the Rock ninja might go after the doctor.

"Uzumaki, huh?" Suzumebachi said as her eyes followed Naruto. "I guess Kurobachi's guess was wrong. No matter." Her hands formed a single seal. "I do not suppose you will surrender quietly?" she asked. Jiraiya only snorted, and the Rock kunoichi smiled. "Very well. Thousand Bee Technique!" A line of bees detached themselves from the dome, flying directly at Jiraiya. As they neared they spread out into a wall, firing their stingers at their target.

Jiraiya's hands blurred into a seal. "Whirlwind Counter!" The winds he summoned grabbed hold of the the stingers, hurling them at his opponents. The Rock ninja darted out of the way, their hands already racing through another set of seals. Jiraiya followed suit, finishing first as he brought one hand up to his mouth. "Katon: Dragon Fire Technique!" A line of fire sprayed from his open mouth at the three Kamizuru ninja.

Suzumebachi and Kurobachi dodged in time, but Jibachi was caught in the flames. His body seemed to melt away from the heat , but as the fire died out instead of ashes there was a pile of charred bee corpses. Jiraiya surmised that it was some sort of replication technique, but he had no time to consider the real Jibachi's whereabouts.

Suzumebachi bit at her thumb, her hands blurring into another set of seals. Jiraiya quickly began to form seals of his own, but before he could finish his technique Kurobachi struck. "Thousand Bee Technique!" Another line of bees flew out of the dome overhead and flew at Jiraiya.

The Sannin danced back, forced to abandon the technique he had started. "Whirlwind Counter!" he shouted, sending the captured stingers at Kurobachi to no effect.

Suzumebachi's hands plunged to the ground. "Doton: Summoning - Bee Hive Technique!" Lines of black characters rapidly crawled across the ground toward Jiraiya from where her hands rested. As the Leaf ninja jumped back again, an impossibly large hive - bigger than Jiraiya himself - burst from the earth where he had been standing. Almost instantly, a huge cloud of bees flew out of the hive, swarming around Jiraiya.

"Ero-sennin!" Naruto shouted, panicked. Only a few stings had knocked Jiraiya out before, and now he was getting stung hundreds or thousands of times.

"Katon: Firewall Technique," came Jiraiya's calm voice from the center of the swarm. The bees surrounding him suddenly vanished in a storm of flame. The bee hive caught fire from the sheer heat of the inferno, quickly vanishing in a puff of white smoke. When the flames vanished, Jiraiya's hair, which had grown impossibly long and hard to wrap him in a protective cocoon, quickly shrunk back to its proper length.

"I'm a little disappointed," Jiraiya said. "I thought you three would have something better prepared for your grand attempt to avenge your clan."

The door to the doctor's office flung open, almost hitting Naruto. "How about this?" Jibachi said as he emerged, dragging the doctor after him. He placed a kunai at the hostage's throat. "Surrender now or I'll kill him," he said unnecessarily.

Naruto drew a kunai of his own. "You bastard," he growled.

Jibachi laughed, flicking his kunai up to draw a line of blood across the doctor's cheek. The doctor fainted, and Jibachi laughed again. "Careful, boy," the Rock ninja said. "Now drop the kunai before I kill him."

Naruto snarled, his whole body shaking in rage. His eyes suddenly narrowed, then widened again as they changed color. His hands twitched, his fingernails beginning to lengthen slightly. The marks on his face darkened as he stared up at Jibachi. "I'll kill you first," he growled out.

Jibachi's kunai almost dropped from his nerveless fingers as he started back, almost frozen by the sudden wave of power and murderous intent sweeping out from Naruto. "Wha -" he managed to get out before Naruto pounced.

In an instant, Jiraiya was there, forcing Naruto away at the same time as he freed the doctor and casually tossed Jibachi back at the other two Rock ninja. "He's not worth it," he told Naruto as he carefully set the doctor down. With visible effort, Naruto restrained himself, and the sudden evil presence vanished.

"What was that?" Suzumebachi asked as she helped Jibachi to his feet.

"I'm through playing with you," Jiraiya said harshly, his hands forming seals.

Suzumebachi snarled. "It won't do you any good," she said as she formed seals of her own. The other two Rock ninja followed suit, Jibachi slightly more slowly.

Jiraiya finished well before his opponents. "Mass Shadow Replication Technique!" There was a sea of white smoke, and when it faded away all three Rock ninja froze at the sight that awaited him. A horde of Jiraiya surrounded them, covering the entire roadway in front of the doctor's office. More Jiraiyas crowded the roof of the office, staring down at the suddenly insignificant seeming Kamizuru.

The replications smirked in unison, each holding out a hand. "Rasengan!" a hundred voices shouted, and chakra began to gather in a hundred hands.

Suzumebachi's eyes widened, and her hands quickly moved into another set of seals. Even as the replications began to leap at the three ninja, they sank into the earth, vanishing without a trace. A moment later, the dome of bees was briefly replaced by a dome of pale smoke. Then it disappeared entirely, revealing the spectators that had been watching from something approximating a safe distance.

All but one Jiraiya vanished in their own puffs of smoke. The remaining Jiraiya sighed, letting the Rasengan in his hand die away as he walked over to where Naruto was trying to wake up the doctor. He glanced back at the spectators, who were quickly making themselves scarce. "This is going to cause a real big mess, isn't it?" he muttered to himself.

"All right," Tsunade said as she gazed at the people who were currently crowding her office. "I'm sure you all know why we're all here this morning." In the back of the room stood a small horde of elite chuunin wearing their gray uniforms. Their muttering cut off instantly as Tsunade spoke.

The door to the office opened suddenly, admitting a single special jounin. "Sorry I'm late," Mitarashi Anko said as she pushed her way through the chuunin to stand between Morino Ibiki and Shiranui Genma, the other two examiners.

Asuma sighed, glancing sideways at Kurenai. The other jounin just smirked back at him, making a slight shrug. Apparently she had no idea why her friend was late. Asuma decided he probably didn't want to know, and turned his attention back to the Hokage.

"Shizune," Tsunade said, turning to the woman who stood unobtrusively behind her, "am I allowed to dismiss examiners for tardiness?"

"I don't think so, Hokage-sama," Shizune said, barely stifling a chuckle. Anko let out a theatrical sigh of relief.

"Drat," Tsunade muttered. "All right then, let's get down to business. Jounin with new genin teams, step forward." The Hokage glanced at the papers on her desk. "That's Suzume-san, Uzuki-san, and Funeno-san, in case any of you three have somehow forgotten." The three jounin walked up to stand in a line in front of Tsunade's desk. "I'm supposed to tell you a bunch of boring junk you already know," Tsunade said, "but I won't waste anyone's time. You know your teams meet the minimum requirements to take the exam. Are you three nominating anyone for this exam? Suzume-san, you first."

The named jounin, a mousy woman who wore glasses, stepped forward. Asuma studied her carefully. He didn't know her very well - she was an ex-academy instructor who'd been promoted to full jounin in the last round of exams, and that was about the limit of his knowledge of her. "From Team One that I lead," she began, "Mitokado Fuki, Uzuki Ami, Inuzuka Shinta. I recommend those three for the Chuunin Selection Exam under my name, Suzume Namida." The chuunin in the back began to mutter excitedly.

Namida stepped back and the next jounin stepped forward. Asuma's eyes narrowed. This one, he knew more of. She had left ANBU to lead a team shortly after the last Chuunin Exam. Hadn't she served under Kakashi for a while? "From Team Three that I lead: Namiashi Honzo, Toriichi Kasumi, Hijiri Eiji," the purple-haired woman stated. "I recommend those three for the Chuunin Selection Exam under my name, Uzuki Yuugao."

Now it was the third jounin's turn, and Asuma smiled. Now Daikoku he knew well. He was fun to go out with and the only one of the three who had lead a team before. He was another ex-academy instructor, and had been the last jounin to recommend a rookie team for the Chuunin Exam before the last exams. He could be surprisingly cautious though, and Asuma wasn't certain whether he'd recommend his team this time. "From Team Four that I lead: Utatane Izumo, Yamashiro Naizen, Tatami Mai. I recommend those three for the Chuunin Selection Exam under my name, Funeno Daikoku." The muttering among the chuunin was now even louder. Daikoku rubbed his short beard as he stepped back, half-turning and flashing a grin at Asuma. "You didn't think we'd let you two and Hatake show us up, did you?"

Asuma and Kurenai just traded an amused look. It was inevitable, Asuma supposed. After the incredible success of the "Rookie Nine" every jounin with a fresh team was going to try and match that accomplishment for a while. At least this time the new genin's academy teacher wasn't going to protest - he was probably equally eager to match Iruka.

Tsunade muttered something under her breath, then spoke up. "All right, next step, the last class of genin. Yuuhi-san, Sarutobi-san, I assume you wouldn't waste your time by being here if you didn't have have teams to nominate. Go ahead."

Kurenai stepped forward first. "From Team Eight that I lead: Hyuuga Hinata, Inuzuka Kiba, Aburame Shino. I renominate those three for the Chuunin Selection Exam under my name, Yuuhi Kurenai." She stepped back, allowing Asuma to take her place.

"From Team Ten that I lead: Yamanaka Ino, Akimichi Chouji." Asuma paused. He had needed to look up the formal words for nominating genin that weren't under his command. "From Team Seven that Hatake Kakashi leads, with his permission: Haruno Sakura." Tsunade smiled at him as though she was very pleased, a fact that Asuma filed away for future consideration. "I renominate those three for the Chuunin Selection Exam under my name, Sarutobi Asuma," he finished, stepping back.

Before Tsunade could speak, another jounin stepped forward, grinning widely. Asuma was barely able to keep from burying his face in his hands. "What a glorious day this is in the springtime of all our students' youths!" Gai proclaimed.

"You're supposed to wait for me to call on you, Maito-san," Tsunade said sourly.

"I'm sorry, Hokage-sama," Gai apologized, "but I am overcome by pride for all this village's genin."

"Very nice," Tsunade said after a moment. "Hurry up and nominate your team; I have other things to discuss."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Gai said, taking a deep breath. "From Team Sixteen that I lead: Rock Lee, Hyuuga Neji, Tenten. I renominate those three for the Chuunin Selection Exam under my name, Maito Gai."

"All right," Tsunade said, making several notes on a piece of paper as Gai stepped back. "With the teams that no longer need jounin recommendation that have indicated they will participate in the exam, the Hidden Village of the Leaf will have twenty-one teams participating in the Chuunin Exam." She set the paper aside, pulling out another sheet. "From the Hidden Village of Sand, five teams. From the Hidden Village of Rain, two teams. From the Hidden Village of Waterfall, three teams. From the Hidden Village of Grass, seven teams."

Asuma nodded to himself. Except for the Grass, the numbers were down from six months ago, but that was to be expected. The Sand would not want to send too many teams for fear of the action being misinterpreted as preparation for another betrayal. The other villages were still well within their normal range except for the Rain, but perhaps the Rain had simply had a bad six months.

Tsunade sighed, setting the piece of paper aside. "From the Hidden Village of the Mist, one team." Almost instantly, the room descended into pandemonium.

Kurenai laid a hand on Asuma's shoulder. "That's not normal," she said quietly.

Asuma nodded. "Definitely not."

"Wait just a minute," came Anko's voice, cutting above the crowd. "After what just -"

"That's precisely why, Mitarashi-san," Tsunade interrupted. "I will speak with you later about this." Asuma filed that little exchange away for future consideration as well, while Tsunade continued. "In light of recent hostile encounters between the Leaf and the Mist, the Mizukage has asked to be allowed to send a team to our Chuunin Exam as a sign of good faith. There is precedent for such a request, and I have consulted with the village council and we have decided to agree.

"I do not need to tell you that this team will be searching for any weaknesses it can uncover. I do not believe it will find any," Tsunade continued. "I believe that they will report back to the Mizukage that the Leaf, contrary to all rumors, are still strong." Tsunade stood. "The Hidden Village of the Leaf's Chuunin Selection Exam will commence two weeks from today. You know what to do. That is all."

Author's Random Ramblings

1) And that's another chapter! As always, any and all comments are most welcome. This chapter follows the trend of being longer than the previous and breaking my personal record for longest chapter yet again.

2) Random factoid time: Of the three new jounin and their genin teams introduced in the last scene, all the jounin and four of the genin have actually appeared in the anime. All of the genin are at least related to someone who has appeared in the anime. If you're bored and have nothing better to do, you can sit down with a good character listing (I recommend Leafninja's) and figure it out.

3) Given that it was a common complaint on the last chapter, I tried to give Naruto a bit more of a chance to shine and show that he's not quite as dumb as he sometimes looks. I hope I succeeded.

4) Thanks to Jed Hagen for his comments on the draft.

Draft Started: November 29, 2005

Draft Finished: December 18, 2005

Draft Released: December 19, 2005

Final Released: December 23, 2005