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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 4: Enemies and Allies

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, puppies.

Day Twenty-two

Jiraiya nodded, satisfied, as Naruto pulled the abandoned packs out from where he'd hidden them. "Good," the Toad Hermit commented. "You must have learned something about hiding things."

Naruto grinned. "It's all just like I left it." He tossed a pack at Jiraiya who easily caught it. "Those are your scrolls." Naruto then turned to a more important matter. How to get the ramen out of its hiding place without his teacher noticing? He just couldn't trust Jiraiya not to take the ramen if he knew where it was. It was bad enough that he had slipped and let Jiraiya know that there was still some ramen left.

While Naruto plotted, the doctor shuffled his feet nervously. Yesterday Jiraiya had interrupted Naruto's attempts to wake the man, instead telling Naruto to take the unconscious doctor with them as they fled the village. Naruto hadn't needed to ask why. It wouldn't be safe for him there, since it was known that he had aided fugitives who were hiding from the Rock ninja. "Can I go back now?" the doctor asked suddenly.

Naruto grimaced. Apparently in this at least, he was smarter than the doctor. Jiraiya only sighed. "I can't stop you, if that's what you want to do. I wouldn't recommend that, though. You should know what the Rock would do to you."

The doctor winced, suddenly seeming much smaller. "What do you suggest I do then?" he asked weakly. "I can't go with you on your mission or whatever. I'm just a doctor, not a medical ninja."

"Do you still have the check I wrote you?" Jiraiya asked. The doctor nodded, and Jiraiya pulled a small scroll out of the pack Naruto had tossed him. He set the pack down and quickly began to write. After several minutes, he handed the scroll to the doctor. "There. Take that and go to the Fire Country and find a Leaf ninja. They'll get you to the Leaf Village, and the Hokage will help you set up a practice there or anywhere you want."

"On your word?" the doctor asked suspiciously.

Jiraiya sighed. "Does the name Jiraiya the Toad Hermit mean anything to you?"

The doctor's eyes widened. "I thought you were just named after him." He stared at the scroll again, a little awed. "But how am I supposed to get to Fire Country?"

"You have money," Jiraiya reminded him. "I've got some hair dye you can use. Frankly, you aren't important enough for the Rock to spend much effort on you. If you move quickly, you won't have any problem getting on a ship to Lightning Country, and from there you can head south easily enough. I wish I could do more, but my options are limited." After a long moment, the doctor nodded, and Jiraiya set about helping him prepare for the journey.

When the doctor had set off on his way, Jiraiya turned back to Naruto. The young genin grinned at his teacher, having succesfully extracted his remaining supply of ramen and put it back in his own pack. There was no way the evil old pervert was getting his hands on any more of his special emergency supply of ramen. He was going to need it if they stayed in this ramen-forsaken country for very much longer.

Jiraiya gave his student a long look, but eventually decided against interrogating him as to the origin of his sneaky grin. Whatever it was, it wasn't worth getting into. "Let's get going," Jiraiya said. "Those Rock ninja will almost certainly find this spot before too long, and I don't intend to be here when they do."

Naruto nodded, standing as he threw his pack over his shoulders. "Where do we go?"

"North," Jiraiya said. "North and west. We're going to cut across country and head straight for my friend's place. It's still warm enough that we shouldn't have any problem with snow, and there's less chance of innocents getting caught in our fights that way. Hopefully my friend will be able to clear up this mess."

"Right," Naruto said. He began to walk towards the cave door, then stopped. "What about my training? Give me something to work on!"

Jiraiya smiled. "Giving up on the Whirlwind Counter already?" he asked.

"I can't focus when we're moving," Naruto complained.

"All right," Jiraiya said. "There's a taijutsu technique you can practice on the way, that might be useful against our pursuers. Now let's go. There's no time to waste."

Kamizuru Suzumebachi was not pleased. She had hoped that by now her clan would have been avenged, the man who had orchestrated its downfall slain by her own hands. Instead the Toad Hermit had mocked them, in retrospect treating their battle almost as a game until Jibachi had brought out the hostage. Then he had casually displayed a power that they could not easily match. There were not many outside the Leaf Village who knew of the Rasengan, but Suzumebachi had learned all she could of Jiraiya and his famous apprentice. She had sought and found the two people who knew the most of the Toad Hermit, and while Tsunade had refused to aid her quest for vengeance, the third Sannin had proved much more forthcoming and had shared much knowledge with her.

How could anyone, even one of the legendary Sannin, have enough chakra to perform the Rasengan when his chakra was equally divided among a hundred shadow replications? Orochimaru had told her the basic theory behind the technique in their long ago meeting, and the sheer scale of the chakra required had astounded her. The thought that Jiraiya could muster at least a hundred times that amount made Suzumebachi tremble. There was no way the three of them could meet that sort of power head on, even with her grandfather's techniques restored to them. Kurobachi had been very lucky to have poisoned Jiraiya in their first meeting and had likely succeeded only because he had been underestimated. That would not happen again.

If only they had been able to strike before the Sannin had recovered. Despite that strange aura he had briefly summoned, the boy traveling with him did not seem terribly dangerous. With Jiraiya out of the picture, he could have been easily overwhelmed. Instead, though, Suzumebachi had been cautious when she had found their hiding place, waiting until Kurobachi and Jibachi had arrived to attack. That delay seemed to have been fatal to her hopes.

Suzumebachi was jarred from her musing by the buzzing sound of a swarm of bees approaching rapidly. The bees flew down to hover near her, arranging themselves into the rough shape of a man. There was a brief blurring, and the rough shape became the perfect image of Jibachi. "We found the doctor's scent," he said without wasting time on any pleasantries. "He's headed by himself for the coast. I have some bees keeping an eye on him, but I don't think he'll lead us to anything important. Kurobachi is following his trail back to see if he can find Jiraiya and the brat."

"Good work," Suzumebachi said. "Show me the trail." Jibachi's image dissolved back into a swarm of bees, which began to fly away. Leaping down of the boulder she had been sitting on, Suzumebachi cast one last look back at the town she had been watching for any signs the fugitives were still there. "Worthless place," she muttered, before running rapidly to follow the bees.

Some time later they reached the trail, and Jibachi's bees flew away to rejoin the blond ninja's search swarms. Suzumebachi quickly summoned a few bees of her own and set them to following the scent trail Kurobachi had left. It didn't take long before she found herself entering a small cave, where Kurobachi sat waiting. Suzumebachi's bees began to fly around aimlessly, confused by the sudden multitude of strange scents.

"This is where they split up with the doctor," Kurobachi said. "The two of them are headed northwest across country. I've already told Jibachi, and his swarms are converging there. If we're lucky, we'll find them soon."

"I wouldn't count on luck," Suzumebachi said, "and even if we do find them I'm not certain what to do. Jiraiya seems to be out of our league."

"Perhaps we should request backup?" Kurobachi asked.

"No!" Suzumebachi said. "I explained this back when that arrogant bastard Yamakita gave us this mission in the first place. As soon as the higher-ups know that this is Jiraiya the Toad Hermit and not some Sound spy, they'll probably order us to just watch him. They don't want any trouble with his sort. We'll never get our revenge that way."

"I know," Kurobachi said, "but how will we avenge our clan this way? We can't beat him easily."

Suzumebachi glanced downward. "I don't know," she admitted, as much as it galled her to say it out loud. "We'll just have to watch him for now. I'm going to study grandfather's scrolls some and see whether I can find any techniques that might help." She forced herself to smile. "We can't beat him in a fair fight, but being a ninja isn't about fighting fair. We'll find a way to make him fight on our terms, and then we'll win."

Day Twenty-three

Shimano Ren breathed a sigh of relief as she gently prodded the bandages wrapped around her torso and felt only small amounts of pain. Thanks to the Mist's medical ninja, the burns were healing rapidly, and Ren guessed that she would be completely healed within the next few days. The skillful treatment hadn't stopped the past week from being exceedingly painful, but at least that Sakura girl had weakened the final blow, rather than using a full-strength Claw of the Fire Dragon. Otherwise Ren knew that she would probably still be bedridden, if she hadn't died on the journey back to the Mist's island fortress off the Fire Country's eastern coast.

The thought made Ren rise from her bed. The Mist genin quickly dressed herself, letting out a contented sigh as she tied her forehead protector. She had known why she couldn't wear it on the last mission, but she had felt naked without it. Though the Mist's genin tests were nowhere near as challenging as they had been before the reformation, Ren had still been through a lot to earn her forehead protector. After gathering her ninja tools and weapons - even in a friendly base, it never hurt to be prepared - Ren left her small room and headed for the infirmary for her morning checkup.

Unlike her first few, this morning's inspection was thankfully brief. The overworked medical ninja inspected the wounds, changed her bandages, and gave her much the same list of restrictions and advice as the past few days. The one, and extremely welcome change, was that the medical ninja's opinion was that the bandages could come off for good the next morning. Ren's enthusiasm was apparently too obvious, as the medical ninja reiterated his prohibition on any overly strenuous exercise. "After all," he said, "you wouldn't want to make things worse just when you're almost healed." Ren just nodded, and soon she was sent on her way.

She headed for the mess hall, where she found her two teammates already eating, and after getting some food herself Ren joined them. The other kunoichi on the squad nodded at her as Ren sat down. "Good morning," she said.

"Good morning, Midori," Ren answered.

The third member of the team looked up from his food. "Morning," he grunted in between mouthfuls. Ren just smiled. Saburo had never been a morning person, and likely never would be. He was generally a bit more human once he had gotten a few cups of tea into himself, though. For several minutes there was no conversation as the three genin concentrated on their meals.

"Are you feeling better?" Midori asked Ren as the two girls finished eating.

"Yes," Ren said quietly at she took a sip of water.

Saburo looked up from his food - though he was a faster eater, he had taken a much larger portion than his teammates and still had some left. "Well enough to train?" he asked. "I'm getting tired of just fighting Midori."

The other girl sighed, rolling her eyes. "You have a one track mind, Saburo."

He grunted, then gulped down the last of his breakfast. "I want to be ready for the Chuunin Exam. We want to make a good impression, right?"

"I suppose," Midori admitted. She grinned suddenly. "So, Ren? Saburo's hopeless at seeing through genjutsu, and I need someone competent to practice on."

"Hey!" Saburo protested. "I'm competent! You're just better at that stuff than me."

Ren smiled. "The medical ninja said it would be okay for me to get some light exercise," she said. "Just go easy on me with the taijutsu if we spar, Saburo."

Saburo nodded, standing. "What are we waiting for, then?" The two girls followed him down to the training grounds - a rocky beach that spread out beneath the walls of the fortress. Another genin team was using one side, so they moved to the opposite side of the beach. "So what first?" Saburo asked.

"I need to work on my water control techniques," Midori said, "so you two can do some sparring or whatever. Is that okay, Ren?" Ren nodded, and the other girl walked out onto the relatively calm water. Once she was a few dozen feet off shore, she began to form seals. Soon the water near her was moving at her command.

Saburo was already stretching. "You want to keep this light, right?" he asked.

Ren nodded as she began to warm up. "I shouldn't stretch myself too much today."

"All right," Saburo said. "Let's keep weapons out of this and just move through the basic hand-to-hand forms, then."

Ren nodded again, and soon the two began to spar. Ren was relieved to find that her mostly healed wounds were not impacting her performance much. She slowly began to pick up the pace, eager to get back into shape after a week without practice. Saburo grinned at her as he easily matched her speed. "Can't you go any faster?" he asked.

Ren grinned back at her teammate and sped up some more, but Saburo again matched her. Then he began to move even faster, and Ren was slowly forced to retreat. For an instant, a twinge in her chest distracted her, and one of Saburo's fists darted past her defenses and at her face. There was an explosion of thick black smoke, and Ren hurled herself into the air.

Only briefly startled, Saburo jumped out of the way. Moments later Ren's foot swept through where his head had been. She landed easily, having expected the dodge, and fell back into a defensive stance. Saburo copied her stance, rather than attacking. "No fair pulling out ninjutsu," he complained. "I thought we were just doing taijutsu."

"Sorry," Ren said. "I guess I got carried away."

Saburo just grinned. "Not a problem. But I suppose it's only fair that I get to use ninjutsu too, now." His hands flickered as he summoned replications.

Ren's eyes narrowed and she backed away carefully. Saburo's clones began to circle around her, but where was the real one? Ren grinned as she jumped into the air again, meeting Saburo's aerial attack. Ren plunged her fist into his gut, then her eyes widened as he disappeared in a puff of smoke. As she landed the real Saburo charged out of the circle of vanishing replications. Ren barely managed to block his first attack, but then Saburo lashed out with one foot, sweeping her legs out from under her.

Ren rolled away, and slowly rose. She threw up a hand to ward off Saburo, panting heavily. "Tired already?" Saburo asked.

Ren nodded. "I'm a little out of shape, you realize," she said.

Saburo grinned. "I couldn't tell."

"Thank you," Ren said, "but I certainly could." She prodded her wounds again, relieved to feel no more pain than before the sparring match.

"You think that Leaf girl will be in the exams?" Saburo asked suddenly. "If she could beat you, she might be interesting to fight."

Ren shrugged her shoulders. "I hope so," she said. "I intend to have a rematch myself."

Saburo laughed, glancing out to sea at the third member of their team. "I think Midori wants to have a talk with this Haruno Sakura also," he commented.

Ren grinned at him. "I guess it will be a race, then."

"A little friendly competition won't hurt," Mitarashi Kimi said as she suddenly appeared between the two, "but don't let it get out of hand. Remember you three are a team."

The two genin straightened instantly. "Yes, Mitarashi-sensei," they said in unison.

Kimi nodded, then yelled out at the last member of the team, "Midori! Get over here!"

Midori released the seal she was holding, sending a column of water plunging back into the ocean. She ran back across the surface of the water, stumbling slightly when she reached land. Grimacing at the mistake, she walked over to her teammates.

"We've just received a mission," Kimi said without preamble. "The Leaf are setting up a presence in the Wave Country, and since we have an excuse to be in the area, we're going to check it out on our way to the exams."

"Yes, Mitarashi-sensei," the three genin responded.

"Ren," Kimi said, "will you be all right if we leave tomorrow afternoon?"

Ren nodded. "I'll be fine," she answered.

"Good," Kimi said. "Then that's what we'll do."

Nara Shikamaru, the Hidden Village of the Leaf's newest chuunin, was not gazing at the clouds. He would very much like to have been, but all his favorite cloud-gazing spots were apparently well known to the three special jounin in charge of the Chuunin Exam and resting in any of those places had become an invitation for one of them to drop by and give him yet another new task, since he clearly had some free time. So instead Shikamaru was resting in a conveniently shaped branch, lazily counting the leaves that hung overhead and blocked his view of the sky.

Why had he let himself get roped into assisting with the exam? He'd been told it was an honor - that normally only elite chuunin who were qualified to take the Jounin Exams were asked to help run the Chuunin Exam. Shikamaru suspected that rather than any respect for him, he'd been offered the job simply because most of those elites were too busy with real missions to handle the exams, so they were opening up the jobs to lower-ranked chuunin. Still, it said something flattering that the elites who were still participating had asked him, the rookie chuunin, to assist them. That wasn't why he'd accepted, though.

Shikamaru's hand lashed out, crushing a fly that had been buzzing irritatingly around his head. "No," he muttered to himself. "You accepted so you had an excuse to say no when Asuma-sensei asked you for help." After all, it was important to avoid the appearance of partiality, wasn't it? Someone who was involved in the exam couldn't help train one of the teams participating. "Sorry, Chouji," the lazy chuunin apologized to his absent friend, "but there's no way I'm getting in between those two."

"In between who?" a familiar voice called out from the foot of the tree. Shikamaru resisted the urge to groan. Maybe if he ignored her she'd go away.

"I know you're up there, Shikamaru," Ino said. When he didn't respond the kunoichi punched the tree trunk with surprising force. While Shikamaru probably could have stayed put, it was less troublesome to let himself be shaken out, flip around in midair, and land softly in front of Ino. Ino gave him a satisfied smirk. "Now who don't you want to get in between?"

Shikamaru sighed. He might as well get it over with. "You and Sakura," he answered, bracing himself for the outburst he knew was coming.

To his mild surprise, Ino only snorted. "We aren't fighting that badly. At least not during training."

Shikamaru wasn't able to stop himself from giving Ino a disbelieving glance. Fortunately, he had enough control not to say the first thing that came to his mind - that from the way Asuma had complained to him about the two of them, he'd hate to see what Ino would consider "fighting that badly." After a moment too long, Shikamaru spoke. "Is that so?" he said, keeping his voice carefully disinterested. The last thing he wanted was for Ino to realize he didn't believe her.

Ino knew her teammate too well, though, and knew precisely what that tone of voice meant. "All right," Ino admitted, "we aren't getting along that well."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. Now that he hadn't been expecting. It was rather unusual of Ino to not take his skeptical response as a challenge. She must be really worried about something, he decided. He let out a quiet sigh. Why did all these troublesome problems keep on getting dropped in his lap?

Ino seemed to take his sigh as a prompt to keep speaking. "It's not that we're fighting really. We have enough self-control to not do that."

Shikamaru gave Ino another skeptical glance, and she growled at him. "Sorry," Shikamaru muttered, and this thankfully averted her rage.

"It's just that, well, our teamwork is terrible. I don't know what she can do, she doesn't know what I can do, and -"

"And you won't tell each other because you both can't wait to beat each other senseless again in the third exam," Shikamaru finished for her, letting out another sigh. "Your teamwork sucks because you want to compete with each other, not work together."

"I... I guess so," Ino admitted, grimacing. Probably she didn't like the idea that she was just as responsible for the problem as her rival.

"Of course," Shikamaru said, "I don't really see why."

Ino looked like she was about to shout at him, but she restrained herself. "What do you mean?"

Shikamaru sighed yet again. He didn't want to bring this up, but Ino would pester him until he answered. Ultimately it was less troublesome to just tell the truth. "Seems to me that the whole reason you two are fighting isn't really relevant anymore." Still, there was no way he was going to say that name in front of her.

"He will come back!" Ino growled, but her face quickly smoothed. "It isn't about him, you realize," she said quietly.

"Oh?" Shikamaru asked.

"It might have been once, but now it's about her." Ino didn't talk for a long moment, then she stalked past Shikamaru and hit the tree again, hard enough that Shikamaru didn't think he would have had the option of staying put had he still been up there. "Damn it," she muttered. "It's about both of us. I want to prove to her once and for all that she can't beat me." Shikamaru couldn't stop himself from laughing. In an instant, all of Ino's rage was focused on him. "What's so funny?"

"Girls," Shikamaru said, easily dodging the wild punch Ino threw at him in response. "Sometimes I think you all are some different species, and sometimes you're just like boys."

Ino managed to calm herself. "What do you mean?"

"Sakura and you are just like Lee and Neji or Naruto and Sasuke." Shikamaru shook his head sadly as he walked off. "I'm glad I never was like that with anyone. It makes people go out of their way to make things troublesome." He sighed. "I guess I'm too lazy for a rivalry."

"Wait!" Ino called out, and Shikamaru stopped moving. "How am I going out my way to make things troublesome?" she asked, though she seemed to have to force herself to say the last words.

Shikamaru sighed. "You can't fight Sakura until the third exam, right?" he asked. "There's a whole month between the second and third exams, and you might not even fight Sakura in the third exam at all. You certainly won't if you don't make it through the second exam. A lazy person like me wouldn't worry about fighting Sakura at all for now. That's still a long ways off."

Ino seemed to consider his words. "I guess that makes sense. What should I do?"

"Chouji and you should just go ahead and sit down with Sakura and show her your moves," Shikamaru said. "Then ask her to show you hers, and start working on battle plans. That's the least troublesome way to go about it."

"What if she holds something back?" Ino demanded. "Then she'd have a -"

"I said not to worry about that, didn't I?" Shikamaru interrupted. "You'll have a whole month to practice on your own and learn new techniques. She won't be standing still either, I imagine. The third exam is the third exam, not the first. Worry about it later."

Before Ino could respond, a new voice interrupted. "Ah, so this is where you've been hiding, Nara-kun," Mitarashi Anko said, peering down at the two younger ninja from her perch on the tree above. "Genma wants you to help him with the questions for the first exam."

Shikamaru sighed. Another hiding place ruined. "Yeah, yeah," he muttered. Maybe this job was more troublesome than the alternative after all.

Anko gazed curiously for a moment at Ino, then snapped her fingers. "Now I remember you," she said cheerfully. "You're the one who almost lost to Sakura-chan last time!" Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at the familiar form of address, even as he carefully backed away from Ino.

The genin glared up at Anko, but with visible effort she stopped herself from exploding at the special jounin. "My name is Yamanaka Ino," she said.

"Whatever," Anko said. "Come on, Nara-kun. You have work to do." She grinned maliciously at him. "I hear Genma wants to go through the past ten years of tests and figure out the standard difficulty level."

Shikamaru wasn't able to restrain a shudder at the thought of the boring work that entailed. He was becoming convinced that he had made serious miscalculation. All things considered it probably would have been easier to be stuck between Ino and Sakura.

Day Twenty-four

Tsunade smiled as she placed the last bit of paperwork for the day into the out tray on her desk. Sure she'd only managed to finish it all this early by deciding to do half of it tomorrow, but tomorrow was tomorrow. Today was today, and she could go drinking now. At least if she could find a bar that would serve her now. Why people seemed to think the Hokage shouldn't get drunk during the day, she'd never figure out. She more than deserved a little rest and relaxation from time to time.

The Hidden Village of the Leaf's Fifth Hokage slowly rose from her desk, pondering how best to leave her office without being detected by Shizune. Somehow, she knew that Shizune would not be pleased with her decision to hold half the paperwork for tomorrow. If Shizune found out she was leaving already, she'd get marched back into her office faster than she could blink. Tsunade grinned. It was a good thing that she hadn't taught Shizune all her tricks.

Before Tsunade could put her plan into action, the door to her office swung open and Shizune walked in. Tsunade's attendant looked at her teacher, looked at the desk, and sighed. "Going somewhere, Tsunade-sama?" she asked dangerously.

Tsunade sighed herself, falling back into her chair. "Of all the luck," she muttered as she she pulled the stack of paperwork she'd been hoping to leave for tomorrow back in front of her.

"Honestly," Shizune said, "you should take this more seriously." Thankfully, she had shut the door behind herself, so the guards outside couldn't hear the scolding.

"Yeah, yeah," Tsunade said as she scrawled her signature beneath yet another budget request. "It's not like I didn't take care of the important stuff. This is just the junk that can wait."

"And if you let it wait you'll forget about it," Shizune said. "Since there will be even more things to see to tomorrow, particularly with the Chuunin Exam coming up."

Tsunade groaned. "Don't remind me," she said. "Is there always this much paperwork involved in one of these things?"

"Well, there's some extra since the Hidden Mist are participating," Shizune answered, "but other than that it seems like the amount of paperwork is pretty constant."

"Gods," Tsunade said, burying her face in her hands, "you mean I'm going to have to deal with this every six months?"

"Cheer up, Tsunade-sama," Shizune said. "There's a lot less work involved when we aren't hosting the exam. Next time it's the Grass's turn."

"Good," Tsunade said. She finished scanning the latest patrol schedules for the northern border and added a couple of changes. Who was the idiot who wanted to assign teams that were planning to participate in the exams to border patrols for the next two weeks? Tsunade sighed as she pushed that paper aside. It was boneheaded mistakes like that which forced her to admit that Shizune was right. She really did have to double-check all these things personally or the whole village would fall apart.

Tsunade pulled out the next piece of paperwork. "So what do you want?" she asked Shizune as her eyes began to travel down the page.

"I finally had a chance to finish the research you asked of me," Shizune answered.

"What - oh, the Haruno. Right." Tsunade set the paper she was reading aside. "Took you long enough," she said.

Shizune made a face. "The archives are a mess. One of the storerooms was hit during the invasion and nobody's sorted through the remains yet."

"You'd need someone with clearance for everything that was in that storeroom," Tsunade commented. "There's not many ninja with that sort of broad clearance, and they're all busy with missions."

"I know," Shizune said. "That's not the only reason why it took so long, though."

"Oh?" Tsunade raised an eyebrow.

"Well, the first thing I did is I went through the clan registries, but I couldn't find anything on the Haruno at first. So I searched through all the clan files in case the Haruno records had been misplaced or they were a branch family that had taken on a new name." Shizune sighed. "That took a while."

"And you found?" Tsunade prompted.

"Nothing," Shizune answered. "There is no Haruno Clan or family in our records. Once I'd figured that out I went over to the personnel records and started a search there. It took another day, but I confirmed that there is only one Haruno registered as a Leaf ninja."

"Sakura-chan," Tsunade said, her eyes narrowing. "She's a first-generation?" Shizune nodded, and Tsunade frowned. That was highly unusual. Most first-generation ninja were either experienced mercenaries who decided to join a village or children from civilian families in the village that were adopted into a clan. There were always a few who managed to get into the academy without a sponsoring clan, but even fewer of those made it through to become active genin without that support. "How'd she get into the academy?"

"Special permission from the village council," Shizune answered, and Tsunade's eyes widened. "A full scholarship was awarded at the Third's request."

"That's unusual," Tsunade said after a moment.

Shizune nodded. "I wasn't able to find the records on the meeting that decision was made at. They were in the wrecked storeroom. I did uncover a record of a rather large stipend paid monthly to a Haruno Amaya, though, and the reasons for it."

"Sakura-chan's mother?" Tsunade guessed.

Shizune nodded. "Haruno Amaya apparently came to the village several months after the Fourth's death, carrying a baby she claimed was her daughter with a Leaf chuunin, one Mitokado Takeru."

"Homura's grandson," Tsunade said quietly, remembering. "Wasn't he -"

"Killed in the Kyuubi's attack," Shizune finished for her. "Amaya's appearance caused a bit of a scandal, since Takeru had been engaged to an Uchiha."

"Even though he was dead?"

"The engagement was being transfered to his younger brother. It was supposed to ally the two clans against the Hyuuga," Shizune explained, "but there was a power struggle going on in the Uchiha and -"

Tsunade rolled her eyes. "Enough. The Uchiha - or part of them anyway - were looking for an excuse to break the engagement."

"Yes, Tsunade-sama," Shizune said.

"This Haruno Amaya must be a very convincing woman, if she got the village council to accept her claim," Tsunade said. "Homura must have wanted to reject her claim just to make the problem vanish. Sarutobi-sensei would have accepted her, of course, but Koharu would have just deferred to Homura unless there was evidence."

"Takeru's jounin commander, a Yamanaka Inoichi, vouched for Amaya and confirmed that the two had... you know," Shizune said. "And, well, Sakura-chan's hair -"

Tsunade laughed, interrupting her. "I should have remembered that. Poor Takeru-kun." Tsunade smiled sadly. "I wonder if he ever stopped dying his hair."

Shizune just shrugged. "Eventually there was a compromise agreed on. Amaya would not formally claim descent from the Mitokado for her daughter, but she would receive a stipend as Takeru's widow - one rather larger than she would have normally as a fresh chuunin's widow - and Sakura would be admitted into the ninja academy when she was old enough."

Tsunade grinned. "Maybe I should tell Homura that I'm thinking of taking one of his great-grandchildren as an apprentice. It would be fun to see the look on his face when I tell him her name."

Shizune looked at Tsunade disapprovingly. "Anko-chan is rubbing off on you," she said. Then she sighed. "By the terms of the deal, Sakura-chan isn't a Mitokado and the clan hasn't shown any interest in her since then. I doubt Sakura knows of the relation and I wouldn't be surprised if Homura's completely forgotten about the matter."

"I see," Tsunade said. "Well, at least now I know what Sakura-chan's problems are about."

"Tsunade-sama?" Shizune asked.

"Think about it," Tsunade said. "Her mother isn't a ninja; her father died before she could know him. She's the only ninja in her family." Tsunade shook her head. "There's a reason that most of the promising kids from civilian families get adopted. Most parents who aren't ninja themselves can't handle a ninja son or daughter."

"Oh," Shizune said. "That makes sense."

Tsunade sighed. "An intervention from the Hokage would probably not accomplish anything useful here. It really is something Sakura-chan will need to work out herself."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Shizune said.

"Still," Tsunade said, "perhaps Yamanaka Inoichi could do something, since he's involved. He's the father of Shikamaru-kun and Chouji-kun's teammate, right?" Shizune nodded. "I think he's on a mission right now, but he ought to be back soon. Could you maybe have a word with him about this?"

Shizune nodded again. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

Yuuhi Kurenai smiled softly to herself as she activated a concealment genjutsu. Technically, she was about to cheat a little, but it was only fair. Asuma had a bit of an advantage, since his team was in the village right now. Kurenai's team was still on a mission, and wouldn't be back until a mere handful of days before the exams begun. The thought made her frown briefly. She still wasn't used to those three going off on missions without her. At least this time there were jounin along, even if she would prefer to have been there herself.

Kurenai shook her head, reminding herself to keep focused. Even a genius at genjutsu like herself could make a mistake if she wasn't clear-headed. Asuma wouldn't be happy if he found out she was spying on his training sessions. However, she needed to make sure she could use the unfortunately limited training time she would have with her team as productively as possible. Anything she could find out about Asuma's team's abilities would be useful.

As she crept closer to the training ground Asuma had reserved she began to ear the sounds of fighting. Backing up against a tree, Kurenai cautiously peeked around the trunk at the melee in progress. Even with a concealment genjutsu active, it never hurt to take more mundane precautions against discovery. Frowning as she realized she couldn't get a good enough view, Kurenai advanced to another tree before stealing another look.

Asuma's students were standing in a circle around him while the bored looking jounin held a bell in one hand. Kurenai nodded to herself. A variation on the infamous bell test seemed a good way to make a new team work on its teamwork. It was good practice for the second exam, besides. Kurenai watched the three genin carefully. Why weren't they attacking while Asuma was holding the bell out like that?

"That was easy," Asuma said. "You won't be able to defend a scroll like that. You only lasted a minute." Kurenai's eyes narrowed. So it was a reverse bell test then, was it? She reexamined the scene from that perspective, then smirked suddenly. Asuma had a little surprise coming.

Asuma's eyes widened as the bell in his hand suddenly vanished. An instant later the image of Sakura faded away, and the jounin laughed. "I see you three are working together more now," he commented. "You two did well to hide that Sakura wasn't really there."

Ino and Chouji grinned at each other as they began to circle around their teacher. Kurenai nodded to herself. It was obvious what the three's strategy had been. They'd given the bell to Sakura, who had used the Perfect Replication Technique to distract Asuma while she'd ran away. Kurenai shook her head. Not many genin had the chakra reserves to use that technique, and from what she'd seen in the last exams Sakura was the last one she'd expect to manage it. Kurenai knew all too well from her own genin years that chakra control only went so far to compensate for low stamina.

Now, where was Sakura? If she'd improved enough to be able to pull off a trick like that, she would be worth taking a look at so Kurenai could prepare her team. There were few things more dangerous than underestimating an opponent, after all. Kurenai carefully searched the trees around her. Sakura had to be nearby if she'd given her fake replication enough of a false substance that Asuma could "steal" the bell from it without noticing anything wrong at first. She'd have to be somewhere where she was able to see Asuma's attacks clearly.

When her quick search turned up nothing, her attention returned to the two genin, and then she was barely able to stop herself from letting out a bark of laughter. It was obvious and simple. Asuma had quickly reached the same conclusion and blurred into motion, grabbing Ino before the kunoichi could react. There was a brief puff of smoke as Sakura's transformation technique was disrupted. Asuma quickly searched the pink-haired kunoichi, then sighed, dropping her. "I assume Ino has the bell," he said ruefully.

Sakura nodded. "She was gone before our head start was over."

Asuma frowned. "I can't imagine Ino would teach you her techniques, and you couldn't learn them so quickly."

"We know that you're fast enough that Ino could never hit you with her techniques. I just formed the last seal and called out the name of the technique." Sakura grinned at the jounin.

Asuma sighed, glancing over at Chouji. "I don't suppose you're Shikamaru? This is the type of plan he would come up with."

"Well, he helped, sort of," Chouji admitted. "It's based on a battle plan he taught Ino and me during the last exam."

"It works better with my genjutsu than a normal replication," Sakura added.

"Well, it's good to see that you three are finally sharing information," Asuma said. Then he groaned. "Now I know why Shikamaru bet two weeks' worth of gate duty that you three would pass the exercise today."

This time Kurenai wasn't able to stop herself from laughing, and as Asuma started she dropped her genjutsu and stepped out from behind the tree. "And to think that you were the one who was always warning me not to make any bets with Shikamaru, Asuma."

Asuma sighed, then looked at Sakura and Chouji. "All right, you two, that's enough for today. Go meet up with Ino and do more of whatever you did to get your teamwork to improve so quickly." The genin nodded and began to walk away as Asuma's attention turned back to Kurenai. "It seemed like a sure bet," he said. "You should have seen those three two days ago. Sakura actually managed to accidentally walk into Ino's Paralysis Technique."

"The Paralysis Technique's a little advanced for a genin," Kurenai commented.

"Ino's been studying her clan's techniques for years," Asuma said. "That technique is similar enough that it wasn't hard for her to pick up." Asuma grinned. "Now stop fishing for information, Kurenai, or I'll report you for illegal spying."

Kurenai shrugged. "I have to do something since my team's still away. You don't know how lucky you are that you and your team had time off together now."

Asuma grimaced. "I suspect it's not entirely luck."

Kurenai raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"You saw that grin Hokage-sama gave me when I nominated my team, right?" Asuma said. Kurenai nodded. "And I hear Shizune-sama's been asking around about Sakura. Something's up with her, I think."

Kurenai bit at her lip thoughtfully. "I remember Anko-chan saying something about her, actually, before she left on her last mission."

"Mitarashi?" Asuma asked.

Kurenai nodded. "I wish I'd paid more attention, but it was just her usual complaining."

"She seemed to know something about whatever's happening with the Mist, also," Asuma said. He stroked his beard for a moment. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Kurenai smiled. "The usual bar, the day after tomorrow. I'll get Anko-chan there if you're paying."

Asuma groaned, but after a moment he nodded.

Day Twenty-five

Kamizuru Suzumebachi was still not pleased. In fact, she was even less pleased than she had been immediately after her escape from Jiraiya's wrath. The past several days, the three Kamizuru survivors had been following the Toad Hermit's scent, but he had some method of laying false trails. Suzumebachi had lost count of the number of times a strong trail had suddenly ended, forcing the three bee ninja to backtrack for hours until they found a new trail to follow. Once or twice Jiraiya had even set a trap where the false trail ended or the new trail began. It wasn't for nothing he was called one of the legendary Sannin.

"I wish we had another one of those damned bikochuu," Jibachi muttered as he wearily formed seals to replace the bee clone that had been destroyed by the explosive notes Jiraiya had left behind this time. "I bet it wouldn't be fooled by whatever he's doing."

Suzumebachi sighed. "We searched for days, Jibachi, and we only found the one. If we hadn't used it to find grandfather's techniques, we'd still be wandering exiles."

"Well, what good are those techniques doing?" Jibachi snarled back. "Isn't there something in those scrolls that's actually useful?"

"I've been decoding them as quickly as possible, but it's slow work," Suzumebachi said. "However, unless you want to learn just how useful they are, I suggest you not take that tone of voice with me again."

Jibachi looked away. "Sorry," he muttered after a moment. His new replication dissolved into a swarm of bees. "They're going to find Kurobachi and let him know this trail was the fake one."

"Of course," Suzumebachi said, but her mind was on the list of techniques she had been studying every spare moment she could steal away from the search. Jibachi's words rang uncomfortably true. Of the few techniques she could understand, there were none that were immediately useful in this situation. Except one, though she wasn't certain she could pull it off. It required a staggering amount of chakra, more than she thought she had. Still, it was perhaps the only way to catch up with the Toad Hermit.

"Jibachi," she said quietly as she pulled out a small scroll. "I'm not sure how useful I'll be in a fight after this, but I'm sure we'll find Jiraiya." As the other Kamizuru nodded, Suzumebachi bit at her thumb and rapidly unrolled the scroll. As the paper whirled around her she drew her bloody finger across it. "Summoning: World-Devouring Swarm."

Suzumebachi's head spun and for a moment she thought she had fainted. Then she realized that the sudden darkness was due to the carpet of almost man-sized bees that covered the sky overhead. Suzumebachi almost fell over as what little remained of her strength left her, but Jibachi caught her.

"Forgive me, Suzumebachi-sama," the man breathed as he helped her back to her feet, offering his shoulder for her to lean on.

Suzumebachi struggled to clear her head, trying as hard as she could to project the mental "image" of Jiraiya's scent at the bees overhead. Slowly the swarm of oversized insects began to disperse, flying away with impossible speed to scour the wilderness for the fugitive Leaf ninja. From the description of the technique she had read, these bees were smarter than an ordinary bee, capable of distinguishing even minute differences in scent. If Jiraiya was anywhere in the region, they would find him.

A new wave of weakness passed through Suzumebachi, and she shuddered. Damn it. She'd used up far too much chakra. She coughed as Jibachi helped her seat herself on a convenient rock. Her body began to shake uncontrollably. If she didn't get some rest and possibly even medical treatment, she was probably going to die, Suzumebachi realized.

Someone began to clap, very slowly, and Jibachi jumped to his feet. The male Kamizuru's hands raced through seals, his eyes darting rapidly to find the source of the sound. "Very impressive," an unfamiliar voice said, "but it won't help you."

Jibachi snarled as he formed the last seal. Small bees began to pop into existence around him. "Thousand Bee Technique!" The stingers flew at someone Suzumebachi couldn't see from her position, but she heard at least some of them strike home.

A young man walked into her field of vision, casually picking the stingers that had hit from his body. "Poison, huh? You're making me waste chakra," he complained. "It's very vexing."

Jibachi snarled, his hands forming the first seal of another technique. Suzumebachi raised a weak hand to stop him. "If he's a medical ninja," she said weakly, "I might need his help."

"Yes, you do," the man said. "For several reasons. I am Yakushi Kabuto of the Hidden Sound, and we share an enemy in common." He smiled sincerely at Jibachi. "Please stand aside, Kamizuru-sama, and allow me to treat your companion."

Suzumebachi nodded, and Jibachi stepped away. "If you try anything," he growled, "I'll kill you."

Kabuto nodded thoughtfully as he knelt beside Suzumebachi. "I assure you, Kamizuru-sama, my intentions are entirely friendly at this point in time."

"And in the future?" Jibachi asked as the medical ninja laid his hands on Suzumebachi's arm.

"You've almost burnt out your entire chakra circulatory system," Kabuto told Suzumebachi. "You're lucky I was here. Even if you got to a hospital before you died, you would have done irreparable damage to yourself by then." His hands began to hum with energy, and Suzumebachi shuddered as chakra flooded her body, easing pains she hadn't realized were there.

Kabuto looked up from his work. "As for your question, Kamizuru-sama, I prefer not to lie. For the moment, my master has no plans against the Earth Country, but I cannot say that this will not change. It is entirely conceivable that at some point we will find ourselves on opposite sides of a battlefield." He withdrew his hands from Suzumebachi. "That should do it," he told her. "Your own chakra should be able to recover now."

"Thank you," Suzumebachi said. She shook her head to clear it. "You said we shared an enemy."

Kabuto smiled at her, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "You surely know of the rivalry between Orochimaru-sama of the Hidden Sound and Jiraiya-sama the Toad Hermit."

"Yes," Suzumebachi said. "I spoke with Orochimaru of this once, and he was most helpful. He said that he had no desire to aid us directly, though."

"Is that so?" Kabuto asked. "Matters have changed, Kamizuru Suzumebachi-sama." He smiled again, this time dangerously. "You now have something Orochimaru-sama desires. I would prefer to acquire it peacefully, but if I must I shall do so by force."

"You dare," Jibachi growled, but Suzumebachi waved him off.

"Tell us what you offer and what you require," she ordered.

Kabuto nodded. "Your technique is very impressive, but you will find nothing. Jiraiya-sama used summoned toads to lay many scent trails for you to follow, but none of the scents you have found is his. He is nowhere near here. I will tell you where he can be found."

"How do you know?" Jibachi demanded.

"My master knows Jiraiya well," Kabuto said. "I know why he has come to this country, and I have had a team of jounin following him since he left the Fire Country to confirm my master's deduction." Kabuto paused briefly. "You cannot find him on your own. If I cannot help you find him, you need not pay Orochimaru-sama's price."

"And that is?" Suzumebachi asked.

"Orochimaru-sama is a collector of techniques," Kabuto said. "He desires a copy of the rediscovered lost techniques of the Kamizuru Clan."

"Those are the secret techniques of our family!" Jibachi protested. "We cannot -"

"We can," Suzumebachi interrupted as she stood. On the edges of her awareness she could feel the bees she had summoned vanishing as the chakra that fueled their presence in the world ran out. What a useless sacrifice she would have made if this Kabuto had not saved her. Even if Jiraiya had been near, she couldn't maintain the summoning long enough to find him.

"Suzumebachi-sama," Jibachi said quietly. "You mustn't -"

"If selling my grandfather's techniques will avenge our clan, it is a price I am willing to pay," Suzumebachi said. "It is my decision, Jibachi."

"Excellent," Kabuto said. "You are a wise woman indeed." He smiled again. "Now then, please summon your other companion, and I shall tell you all you need to know."

Yamakita Akira always had to remind himself that this posting was an honor. Iwakuro Hojo was perhaps the single most honored, still-living ninja from the Hidden Rock. He had completed - solo - well over a hundred S-rank missions before he had refused the position of Tsuchikage and gone into retirement. Only one genin team from each graduating class was selected to help guard his estate and train under the legendary master ninja. Each of those genin teams went on to great things, or so it was said.

Akira wasn't sure why that would be the case. In the months since his team had been assigned the duty, there'd been precious little training. There'd been precious little of anything but mind-numbing shifts at the gates to the estate, for that matter. The closest he had come to be trained by Hojo himself was the glimpses he had caught of Hojo training some of his proteges for the upcoming Jounin Exams. They had been surprisingly educational glimpses, but Akira still didn't see how they made up for missing a year of real missions. Maybe after the Jounin Exams Hojo would have more time for mere genin.

He yawned loudly, drawing a glare from the chuunin in charge of gate duty today. Akira rolled his eyes, glancing at his teammate who stood on the other side of the gate. She rolled her eyes back at him, and Akira was barely able to keep himself from chuckling. The chuunin seemed to notice this, walking over to Akira, certainly about to deliver a blistering speech on proper decorum. It would not be the first time Akira had received such a lecture.

However, the speech was cut off as all three ninja sensed two presences approaching up the trail from the main road. With a glare at Akira promising to expound at length later, the chuunin returned to his own position. Akira straightened as he waited for the the two visitors to round the bend in the trail and come into view. Whoever they were, they weren't hiding their presence, so it wasn't likely that there would be any action. Still, it was the most exciting thing to happen today.

Akira was a little disappointed when the travelers appeared. It was just an old man and a young boy. The boy, likely a foreigner by the color of his hair, was dancing around the older man. "Is this it, Ero-sennin?" he asked loudly.

The man sighed. "I told you not to call me that, Naruto," he said in the tone of one who had said such a thing many times before. "And yes, we're here."

"Finally," Naruto said.

The old man looked up from his companion, seemingly taking in the estate for the first time. "My, my," he said as he stopped in front of the open gate. "That fool Hojo's done well for himself."

The chuunin's face turned purple with rage, and Akira was too shocked to laugh. Who would refer to Iwakuro Hojo in such a manner? When the chuunin had calmed himself, he stepped forward. "State your name and business," he demanded.

The old man smiled. "Go fetch Hojo, boy, and tell him Jiraiya is here to call in some favors."

Akira and his teammate traded a glance. What in the world was going on? "Why you," the chuunin began, reaching for a kunai. In an instant, the old man was standing behind him, planting the chuunin's own weapon on his back. Akira's eyes widened. He hadn't been able to see a thing.

"Girl," the old man said to Akira's teammate. "Will you carry my message to Hojo?"

She nodded nervously. "Yes... Jiraiya-sama," she said slowly and carefully, backing away from the old man. As soon as she was out of Jiraiya's reach, she vanished.

His hand shaking, Akira pulled out a kunai of his own. "I'm not scared of you, old man," he said. "If you try anything funny -"

Jiraiya sighed, releasing the chuunin, who stumbled forward. Jiraiya casually tossed his stolen kunai into the wooden gates. "If I was planning on trying anything, you would never have seen a thing." He sighed. "Honestly, I must have been retired too long. It seems like everyone in Earth Country thinks they can beat Jiraiya the Toad Hermit."

Akira's eyes widened again. Now he remembered that name. The teacher of the Fourth Hokage, who was said to be the only man to have defeated Hojo in combat, had come to Hojo's estate? The chuunin was backing away nervously, and after a moment Akira followed suit. Even if he wasn't telling the truth, this man was dangerous.

Naruto glowered up at Jiraiya. "And you say I always cause trouble, Ero-sennin," he complained.

"Naruto," Jiraiya growled dangerously, but before he could say anything Iwakuro Hojo walked out of the gates, Akira's teammate trailing nervously behind.

"Ero-sennin?" Hojo asked. "The title suits you, Jiraiya."

The Toad Hermit looked the other legendary ninja up and down. "You shaved off your hair," he commented.

Hojo touched his bare scalp. "It looks better than white hair," he said. "I don't use it in any techniques, after all." He returned Jiraiya's measuring glance. "What sort of trouble are you in this time, old fool?" Jiraiya leaned forward, and whispered a single word into Hojo's ear. Whatever the word was Hojo started, staring suddenly at Naruto. "He is?" he asked.

"Uzumaki Naruto, my apprentice," Jiraiya said smoothly, resting his hand atop the boy's head. Naruto squirmed under his hand, but didn't protest.

"You know what I mean," Hojo asked dangerously.

"You're a smart man. You can figure it out," was all Jiraiya said in response.

"I suppose so," Hojo said. "What do you want?"

"I've decided it would do Naruto good to learn some earth element techniques," Jiraiya answered. "We don't have enough time for me to teach them to him, though. You're the best teacher in that field I know."

"How long do you have?" Hojo asked, and Akira started again. Hojo hadn't even frowned at being asked to teach the Rock Village's techniques to what was probably a Leaf ninja. What sort of favors did he owe Jiraiya?

"Probably a month," Jiraiya answered. "Any longer and we'll likely get some troublesome visitors."

"They would strike with both you and I to protect the boy?" Hojo asked incredulously. Akira gave Naruto a long look. The Leaf ninja glanced away, not meeting his gaze. Something weird was going on.

"Probably," Jiraiya answered. "Maybe not directly, but they would attack."

"All right," Hojo said. He glanced back at Akira and his teammate. "It will give me a chance to do some other training I've been meaning to do, also."

Akira grinned, all his worries vanishing instantly. He was finally going to get the training he'd come here for!

Day Twenty-six

"All right," Tsunade said. "Good work capturing that scum, you two. I'll have a talk with the client about the costs of misreporting the abilities of the target to get a cheaper mission rating." Tsunade snorted. "It's one thing if you can't afford it, but a daimyo, even a minor one, can easily pay for a B-rank mission."

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Tenten said, glancing at floor.

Neji was barely able to stop himself from smirking at his teammate's uncharacteristic shyness. "In our written report I included some of the bounty notices put out for the target in Stone Country. It may provide some ideas for an appropriate penalty fee."

Tsunade smirked at the Hyuuga prodigy, flipping through the report folder eagerly. "I like the way you think." Her eyes widened suddenly as she found the appropriate page. "Maybe we should just sell this guy to the highest bidder instead. What the hell did a two-bit thug with a couple ninjutsu like him do to warrant that kind of money?"

"As I understand it, the murder of the daughter of Stone Country's highest daimyo," Neji answered.

Tsunade's eyes hardened. "I see," she said quietly. "Perhaps this Gosunkugi might be heading back to Stone Country after all."

"That is your decision, Hokage-sama," Neji said. "Is there anything else?"

Tsunade shook her head. "Gai renominated your team for the Chuunin Exam, so all three of you are suspended from missions until then." She smiled. "Given who your teacher is, I shouldn't need to tell you to train hard. You're dismissed."

After Neji and Tenten left the Hokage's office, Tenten's usual assertive personality returned. "All right then," she said as the left the administrative buildings. "Let's find Lee and get to this."

Neji nodded and without another word turned toward the training grounds. If the third member of their team was anywhere in the village at this time of day, it was most likely there. And indeed, they soon found Lee demolishing a wooden post with repeated kicks.

The taijutsu specialist stopped in mid-kick as his teammates approached. "Neji, Tenten! You're back! How did the mission go?"

Tenten grinned. "Successfully, of course. The thief had some weird ninjutsu, but nothing that could penetrate Neji's defense."

"I wish I'd been there," Rock Lee said. Indeed, he'd been near tears when he had seen his teammates off, unable to join them due to a scheduled medical checkup. Tsunade didn't trust anyone else, even Shizune, to keep an eye out for complications resulting from the experimental surgery Lee had undergone. Because of the Hokage's busy schedule, the checkups were arranged weeks in advance and couldn't be easily rescheduled.

"Since you're training," Neji said, "I assume there weren't any problems?"

Lee shook his head. "Hokage-sama said that everything looked like it had never been injured."

"Well, of course," Tenten said. "It was Tsunade-sama herself that performed the surgery!"

"Is Gai-sensei on a mission?" Neji asked. When Lee nodded, he sighed. "I suppose we'll have to get started ourselves then." He frowned. "I know Hinata-sama's team will be participating in the exams."

"Sakura-san said that she was going to take them again," Lee volunteered.

Tenten frowned. While Neji and surprisingly Lee had been very uncommunicative about the mission to retrieve Uchiha Sasuke, she knew well enough what the outcome had been. "I wonder who the third member of that team will be."

"And the second," Neji said. "I understand that Naruto has left the village on a long mission."

"I'm surprised she found a team without that kid," Tenten said. "He's strong, for sure, and I'd put up with Haruno-san for that, but I wouldn't want her on my team by herself." Lee glowered at her, and Tenten threw up a hand to ward off his protests. "I'm sure she has many admirable qualities, Lee, but she didn't really put up an impressive performance in the last exams."

Neji closed his eyes briefly. "Akimichi Chouji and Yamanaka Ino," he announced when they reopened. Seeing his teammate's questioning looks, he explained. "They're missing a member since Shikamaru was promoted. Neither of them did very well in the last exams, so they won't have an easy time finding a third. Sakura-san's the only one from their class who needs a team."

"Yeah, but Haruno and Yamanaka detest each other, don't they?" Tenten asked. When Neji shrugged, she sighed. "Ah well. If that's the team, it won't be much to worry about."

Neji shook his head firmly, and Tenten raised a surprised eyebrow. "Chouji is very strong," he said, and Lee nodded in agreement.

Tenten sighed. "This is more about that mission you two won't talk about, isn't it?" She shook her head. "Even if he's now the strongest genin in his class, he won't make it far with those two weighing him down."

Neji smiled wryly. "People can change themselves, Tenten. While I suspect you may be right, I won't count either of them out until I've seen them myself."

For a place of its size, the Hidden Village of the Leaf had surprisingly few bars, much to its Hokage's despair. Most ninja, while they did drink when they could, never drank to excess and only drank at all when they knew they did not have missions coming up. Outside of a rare few, ninja fought poorly when drunk or hungover, and that sort of handicap could cost lives on a mission. Given the manpower shortages the village had been suffering, it had been a very lean time for many of the bars - particularly the few that had not stopped giving the Hokage free drinks.

Despite the small number of bars, there were many categories of these establishments. In the appropriate sections of the village could be found bars that catered to the civilian population. There were bars that did much of their business with travelers and were eagerly anticipating the upcoming Chuunin Exam. Among Leaf ninja, it was well known which bars were frequented by genin old enough to drink, which by chuunin, and which by jounin. Everyone knew about the small, quiet bar across the street from ANBU headquarters, but few not in that exclusive organization had ever gone there outside of a drunken bet.

This bar, while not nearly as feared as that one, was still avoided by many genin and chuunin. Located not far from the ninja academy, it was the bar of choice for everyone with a teaching assignment, from the chuunin academy instructors to the jounin commanders of new genin teams. Even when they had escaped the need for tutelage, few ninja were comfortable with the idea of running into their old academy instructor on a night out. Despite this, the bar did a brisk business - academy instructors were among the few ninja who did not take missions regularly, and many staff meetings at the academy adjourned to the bar as soon as it opened.

It was to this bar that Kurenai had dragged her friend tonight. Anko groaned as Asuma waved the two kunoichi over to his table. "You didn't tell me Sarutobi would be here," Anko complained.

"He's paying," Kurenai said, and her friend's eyes lit up.

"Why didn't you say so?" Anko said as she plopped down into a seat. "I'll have one of everything," she said cheerily.

Asuma's eyebrow twitched as Kurenai seated herself much more gracefully. "You aren't serious, Mitarashi," he said.

Anko laughed. "I have to work with that bastard Ibiki all day," she said, "and I haven't had a good interrogation to work off steam since those two from Sound finally cracked. I feel a burning desire to be the drunkest person in the village." She rolled her eyes. "Besides, with all the times I've had to track down that lazy student of yours for Genma, Sarutobi, you owe me more than a few drinks anyway."

Asuma rolled his eyes. "I'll just get a couple pitchers of beer," he said, standing.

As he lumbered off, Kurenai glanced at Anko. "You're in a good mood tonight," she said dryly. "Usually you would have threatened to make liquor out of his blood by now."

"Free drinks make Mitarashi Anko a happy woman," Anko answered. "Why's he buying, anyway?"

"The idiot made a bet with Shikamaru-kun and has to do two weeks' worth of gate duty for him," Kurenai answered, and Anko winced. "I offered to do a day for him if he took us out."

"And what did I do to deserve this favor?" Anko asked.

"For some strange reason, I like you, Mitarashi Anko," Kurenai said. "I knew you could use a night out since the exams were coming up, anyway."

"You've got that right," Anko said.

Asuma returned, setting down two pitchers of beer. "I'll get glasses," he said, heading off again.

Anko didn't wait, grabbing one of the pitchers and cradling her arms protectively around it. "Mine," she growled at Kurenai. The other kunoichi rolled her eyes, and Anko laughed. She let the pitcher go, but she didn't move it back to the center of the table.

Asuma glanced at it when he returned, but said nothing as he placed three glasses on the table and filled them from the other pitcher. He sighed as he seated himself. "I have a feeling this is going to be an expensive night," he said as he lit a cigarette.

Anko laughed. "You are correct!" she exclaimed. Then she drained the tall glass in a single chug. She belched loudly as she quickly refilled her glass.

Asuma's eyebrow twitched. "You're disgusting."

"Thank you," Anko replied, then she downed half of her new glass.

It was some time later, after Asuma had been forced to purchase another pitcher of beer, that Kurenai asked the first question. "So what have you been up to with the second exam?" she said carefully, judging that enough alcohol was in her friend's system to have completely wiped out her rather weak inhibitions against boasting of just how difficult her exam would be and why.

Anko grimaced, gulping down the little that was left in her glass. "Couldn't tell you even if I was allowed to," she said. "They gave that one to Ibiki. Bastards."

Kurenai's eyes widened. "Which exam are you doing?"

"Third," Anko muttered.

The two full jounin traded glances. There wasn't any point in interrogating Anko about that exam. Of the three, it was the one where the examiner had the least freedom - the conditions and rules were set by treaty. "Ah well," Asuma said. "I was hoping I'd get something useful out of tonight."

Anko laughed. "Sorry, Sarutobi," she said.

Asuma gulped down the rest of his beer. "I've got a good feeling about the exams, though. If Genma's doing the first exam, it shouldn't be too tough. Ibiki couldn't be nearly as bad for the second exam as this psycho here." He gestured at Anko with his empty glass.

"That's what I told 'em," Anko agreed. "I'll probably have to run a whole 'nother tournament to knock the numbers down for the finals."

"So how's that Haruno girl working out with your team?" Kurenai asked Asuma suddenly. She didn't want him to forget the other information they wanted from Anko.

"Just fine," Asuma said, peering suspiciously at Kurenai. "You won't make me spill any secrets." He sighed. "Wish I knew why Hokage-sama was interested in her, though."

Anko laughed. "That's easy. Tsunade-sama wants to take Sakura-chan as an apprentice." She grimaced. "Don't tell anyone I said that."

Kurenai's eyes widened again. "That's surprising," she said.

Asuma frowned thoughtfully. "Well, she has gotten a lot better since the last exams."

"Course she has," Anko agreed, "since she's my student."

There was shocked silence for a moment. Then Asuma and Kurenai shouted "What?" in unison.

"Um, Anko-chan," Kurenai said carefully. "Haruno is Kakashi's student." How drunk was her friend?

Anko waved a hand vaguely. "His too, but Tsunade-sama made him loan her to me for a while. For my last mission."

Now Kurenai could remember what exactly Anko had been complaining about when she'd mentioned Sakura. It had been being stuck having to go on a mission with a "worthless exam washout." Kurenai's eyes narrowed. Clearly Anko's opinion of the girl had changed greatly on that mission, and Kurenai knew her friend was hard to impress. Just how much had the Haruno girl improved? "I see," she said slowly.

"That's not why Tsunade-sama wants her, though. She wanted her even when she still sucked," Anko continued. "See, Tsunade-sama likes, whazzit called, symmetry."

"Symmetry?" Asuma asked.

"The Ky -" Anko caught herself, even in her drunken state. "The Uzumaki brat goes off with that pervert Jiraiya. The Uchiha gets taken by Orochimaru. So, of course, Sakura-chan will get training from Tsunade-sama." Anko glanced at her empty glass, then at the equally drained pitchers. "Only fair," she finished.

Asuma followed Anko's gaze. "I'm not buying any more," he said. Anko pouted, and he grimaced. "Please, Mitarashi, don't make that type of face. It doesn't suit you."

Kurenai sipped at her half-full glass. "So what about that team from the Mist? Have either of you heard anything about it?"

Asuma shook his head. "You sounded like you knew something at that meeting," he prompted Anko.

"Yeah," Anko said. She shook her empty glass, sighing. "Those 'hostile encounters' Tsunade-sama was talking about were my last mission."

"What happened?" Asuma asked curiously.

"Nothing much," Anko said bitterly. "Just found out my fucking sister was working for the Mist and we tried to kill each other. Now she's coming with her team for the exams and I've already been warned to be on my 'best behavior.'"

Asuma looked at Kurenai, who shook her head. "I didn't even know you had a sister, Anko-chan," she commented.

"Yeah?" Anko said. "Well, neither did I." She stood shakily. "I'm going to bed," she announced before staggering off.

Kurenai's gaze followed her friend worriedly. "I should help her get home," she said. "Could you ask Haruno-san about that mission?" She rose.

Asuma nodded. "I'll do that."

Day Twenty-seven

"It figures," Inuzuka Kiba said, "that something like this would happen right before we were about to go home." He wanted to gripe about having to treat every mist that suddenly sprang up - as happened with some regularity in the Wave Country - like an emergency. However, last week there had been that warning to be on the look out for infiltrators from the Hidden Mist.

"Quiet," Aburame Shino stated softly. "In this mist there's no telling where someone might be listening."

Kiba rolled his eyes. "Akamaru would smell them miles away, and even if he didn't Hinata would see them."

The Hyuuga heir was trailing behind the two boys, her eerie white eyes sweeping across the mist-covered coastline. "I am not so certain, Kiba-kun," she whispered. "Something in the mist is making it harder for me to see through it."

"We can assume that this is not just ordinary mist, then," Shino said. "What do you smell, Kiba?"

"Nothing yet," he answered. Akamaru whined softly, and he frowned. "He says that someone who smells like a ninja passed this way, heading for the bridge." Kiba resisted to urge to snort. What kind of crazy people lived in the Wave Country, that they'd name a bridge after Naruto, of all people? He was going to get the story behind that out of the blond kid when they got back.

"The bridge is not our concern," Shino said. "Follow the trail back and let's see if we can find where this person came ashore." Kiba let Akamaru down, and after sniffing around for a few moments the dog set off. The three Leaf genin followed after, carefully using the terrain to hide themselves as much as possible.

Some time later, they stopped behind a boulder on a ridge overlooking a hidden cove. "Akamaru says he smells more people now," Kiba said quietly.

Shino glanced at Hinata and she nodded. The veins around her eyes bulged as she activated her bloodline limit fully. "Three people," she stated softly. "Two girls and a boy, guarding a small boat." She paused. "They're wearing forehead protectors, but I can't make out the symbol." She relaxed, and her eyes returned to their normal state.

"All right," Kiba said, petting Akamaru. "Let's do this thing."

Shino waved for him to be still. "Were they looking this way?" Hinata shook her head, and Shino cautiously peered out from around the boulder. After a moment, his teammates followed suit.

The closest of the three ninja below was a boy with short blue hair, dressed in simple black clothing. He seemed to be working his way through a set of taijutsu forms. He turned, as though to dodge an invisible opponent, and briefly the four diagonal lines of the Hidden Mist were visible on his forehead protector. Shino nodded to himself, gesturing slightly. "Mine."

The two girls were farther away. One, who had short dark hair and wore a blue dress, was standing idly by the boat. She seemed to be the most watchful of the trio, but fortunately her attention was in the other direction right now. Shino tapped Kiba on the shoulder, then pointed at her. "Yours." Kiba nodded.

The other girl, who wore her black hair long and was dressed in a gray sweat suit, was actually standing out in the water. Perhaps she was keeping an eye out for passing ships. Hinata didn't wait for Shino, pointing. "Me?" she asked.

Shino nodded in response. "Remember our orders. They aren't obviously looking for a battle, so give them a chance to surrender. After that, fight to neutralize or delay, not to kill. Kiba, send Akamaru for backup."

"I know all that," Kiba grumbled, but he knelt down beside Akamaru, who nodded once and ran back the way the Leaf ninja had come from. "Fifteen seconds?" he asked, and Shino nodded. Team 8 then split way, finding their own hidden paths down the ridge and too their assigned targets. Precisely fifteen seconds later, the three genin appeared in a blur of motion directly in front of the targets.

Before the Mist ninja can react, Shino spoke. "You are in violation of the sovereign territory of the Wave Country. You have one chance to surrender and explain your presence, or we shall be forced to take action against you."

Shino's target reacted first, falling out of his frozen taijutsu stance and charging the bug user. As he neared a cloud of bugs exploded out from Shino. Almost instantly the Mist ninja changed course, jumping away from the bugs. Shino coolly directed the insects to follow him, forcing the target to dodge again.

"Saburo, you idiot," growled the girl who was facing Kiba, but she drew a kunai sheathed near the slit in her dress anyway. When she made no offensive moves, Kiba cautiously approached. Without Akamaru, many of his strongest techniques were out of the question, but he didn't want to use those in this situation anyway. Instead he quickly formed seals, summoning a handful of replications to distract the girl as he tried to circle behind her.

Out at sea, the other Mist kunoichi stood still staring at Hinata, who had assumed a Gentle Fist fighting stance. The Mist ninja's green eyes flared as her hands inched toward a making a seal. "Your eyes," she said harshly. "You have a bloodline limit?"

Hinata did not answer. Even if her foe could not recognize a Hyuuga when she saw one, she might know the name. There was no point in giving away free information about her abilities. "Please surrender," she said after a moment. A wave briefly lifted the patch of ocean Hinata was standing on, and for a moment she nearly lost her footing.

Her foe's hands blurred into motion. "Suiton: Water Shuriken Technique!" Tiny bullets of water formed out of the sea spray, flying through the air at Hinata.

The Hyuuga heir's stance shifted as they neared. Clearly her opponent had not studied the Hyuuga Clan. "Heavenly Spin," she breathed as she began to whirl about, expelling chakra from every tenketsu in her body. A whirlpool began to form beneath her from the rapid movement and chakra force, but she - barely - kept her footing. When they impacted the twisting wall of chakra, the water shuriken shattered instantly. As soon as the last shuriken vanished, Hinata stopped spinning and charged her opponent.

Back on land, Shino's opponent continued to dodge the cloud of insects following him. Shino himself simply stood still, watching the Mist ninja's efforts carefully. Then his opponent stopped suddenly, his back to the ocean, and rapidly formed seals. The water behind him rose up into a pillar and assumed his shape. The water clone charged the rapidly oncoming bugs. As soon as it entered the center of the storm, the Mist ninja formed another seal and the clone exploded in a blast of water.

The force of the sudden blast sent dead and dying insects flying, and the Mist ninja grinned. "Suicide Water Replication Technique," he said unnecessarily. Two kunai appeared in his hands, and he hurled them at Shino as he charged the bug user. Shino sidestepped the oncoming weapons, and another cloud of insects began to pour out of his body.

Meanwhile, Kiba's opponent looked about, falling back as the replications advanced. For a moment, the real Kiba thought he had evaded her notice, then she suddenly hurled the kunai she was holding behind her, directly at him. Kiba jumped backward, letting his useless replications vanish.

His foe whirled about, one hand forming a curious seal as she charged him. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" she shouted, and tendrils of flame sprouted from her other hand.

Kiba dodged furiously as the flames swept toward him. Well, if she wanted to bring out the serious techniques, he could play that game too. He raced through seals, taking in a deep breath. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" A quick burst of flame spewed from his mouth at the girl, who dropped her own technique and flipped backwards to avoid the blast. She drew another kunai, and Kiba pondered his next move quickly.

At sea, Hinata's charge stopped suddenly as a new presence interposed itself between her and her target. She darted backward, taking a moment to take in the red-clad older woman, who held a curved blade in one hand as she smirked at Hinata. She also wore a Mist forehead protector. "A Hyuuga, huh," she said, almost mockingly.

Hinata backed away several more steps. She hadn't noticed this woman approaching at all. From the ages, she guessed she was the trio of younger ninja's jounin commander, assuming the Mist used the same system as the Leaf's alliance. That meant she was likely seriously outmatched. The woman's smirk widened, and she took another step forward.

Then all the combatants suddenly froze in mid-step. On land, Shino's bugs engulfed his foe, but rather than attacking they simply hovered around the Mist ninja for several seconds, then flew back to disappear inside Shino's coat. Moments later, Nara Shikaku, jounin commander of the Leaf's presence in the Wave Country, stepped out from behind a boulder. All the other ninja, bound by his shadow, awkwardly imitated his actions. The Leaf jounin's eyes went to his opposite number. "Mitarashi Kimi, I presume," he said. Akamaru jumped down from a perch atop his shoulder, racing over to Kiba.

The Mist jounin dissolved into water, and the real her revealed herself, jumping down from a vantage point atop the ridge surrounding the cove. "I seem to be getting famous," she said, smirking slightly.

"I was told that your team might be in the area," Shikamaru's father said. He glanced at the genin. "Getting a head start on the Chuunin Exam?" he asked.

Kimi shrugged. "They were supposed to avoid battle. I'll have a talk with them. Is your team participating, then?"

"I'm just borrowing them," Shikaku said dryly, "but they'll be there."

Kimi smiled. "Since you know about us, you know we have permission to pass through this region."

"I will have to inspect your papers," the Leaf jounin answered.

"Of course," Kimi said, stepping forward and handing him a packet of papers.

All the genin helplessly pantomimed flipping through a sheath of papers. "Everything seems to be in order," Shikaku said, handing the papers back to Kimi. "I suppose in the interests of diplomacy I can consider this all an honest misunderstanding. Less paperwork that way, in any case." His massively extended shadow began to retract itself.

All the genin stumbled briefly as they were suddenly freed from Shikaku's technique. After several moments of carefully backing away from their respective foes, both teams of genin broke away and took up positions behind their commanders. "In order to ensure that there are no further misunderstandings, I will provide your team with an escort to the Leaf Village," Shikaku stated, his tone leaving no room for compromise.

Kimi nodded. "Very well. That is acceptable."

Day Twenty-eight

Kakashi resisted the urge to yawn as Daimyo Chichiatsu of the Swamp Country held court. It wasn't because anyone could see him - he was well-hidden in a secret alcove behind the throne. However, if by coincidence the attack he was waiting for came while he was yawning, he could be a fatal handful of seconds too late intervening. Even if there were other protections in place, Kakashi didn't trust them. If the Hidden Cloud really had been hired to assassinate the daimyo, there would be at least one jounin on the mission. Some of the Swamp Country's native ninja protecting the daimyo called themselves jounin, but there was a difference between a jounin of one of the five great powers and a so-called jounin who got the title because he or she was among the strongest in the Swamp Country.

Kakashi's gaze, as always when he thought of this, went to the kunoichi who was using the transformation technique along with a more mundane disguise to impersonate the daimyo's daughter - the other presumed target, if the goal was indeed to place the daimyo's uncle on the throne. She was supposed to be a jounin, but he wasn't terribly impressed with her abilities. Except for stamina and breadth of techniques, she had little to recommend herself over Sakura. Most importantly, he had no doubts as to Sakura's loyalties. He'd been told over and over by the daimyo's men that her loyalty was beyond reproach, but her position had her far too close to the daimyo. If it hadn't been for the Chuunin Exam, Kakashi might have sent for Sakura to join him already, even though the mission was A-rank.

Kakashi didn't sigh, but he wanted to. He could only hope that this Chuunin Exam didn't go as disastrously as the last one had for his team. He had been surprised and pleased that Team Seven had made it to the third exam preliminaries, but that hadn't been the main point. His objectives had - he had hoped - been achieved. Naruto had learned that he was stronger than he thought was. Sakura had learned that she had become the weakest of the group and that she couldn't just sit back and expect strength as a ninja to come to her on its own. Sasuke... well, since they had made it past the second exam he had thought it likely that he had learned that he was stronger with his team than without it. Even if he hadn't, there would have been time to teach him that lesson, if it hadn't been for Orochimaru.

That had changed everything. He had needed to concentrate on Sasuke. The cursed seal exaggerated his emotional instability, and he needed to be shown that he could be strong without it as quickly as possible. He had done what he could for Naruto, and that had worked out for the best, though not as he had thought. Sakura, he had to admit, he had abandoned. It had made sense at the time. She was not in danger, nor was she preparing for the third exam. Any damage the inattention did could be fixed afterwards. It had seemed to have worked, at first. Sasuke had seemed to be out of danger, and Kakashi had begun to plan how to reforge them as a team again, though his time with them was limited due to the village's problems. Then Itachi had returned to the Leaf Village, and everything had gone to hell.

Kakashi's eyes narrowed. Something was off about the next group of petitioners. There were too many and his instincts told him they were prepared for trouble. He pulled up his forehead protector and opened his Sharingan. They were using the transformation technique! Even as the Cloud ninja dropped their disguise and charged the throne, he was interposing himself, slamming a kunai through one enemy's armored jacket and into his heart. "Take the daimyo to safety," Kakashi snarled at the kunoichi behind him. "I'll hold them off." She nodded as she shed her disguise, gesturing to the daimyo's honor guard to follow her out the back way.

Kakashi counted his enemies carefully as he let the Cloud ninja's body fall, drawing another kunai. The real courtiers had already fled, leaving him alone with five enemy ninja. He estimated that they were all new chuunin or high-ranking genin. With the one he had killed, that meant two three-man teams. Normally there would be a jounin in overall command of that sort of force. Where was he hiding?

Then Kakashi had no more time to think, as the Cloud ninja charged. A couple hung back and started to form the seals for lightning element techniques - nothing he hadn't seen before, though. Kakashi snorted. What did the Cloud think, sending kids like this on this sort of mission? He casually threw his kunai through one ninja's neck. The ninja managed to use the replacement technique in time, but it didn't matter. Kakashi had predicted where he would move, and the second kunai struck home.

Another Kakashi appeared right beside the two ninja preparing techniques. The couple started in surprise, before the shadow replication knocked them both out with a single punch each. The remaining two fell back. "He's so fast!" one shouted, panicked. "I couldn't even see him form seals!"

Kakashi snorted. Idiot. He'd prepared the shadow replication in advance. It hadn't even taken fifteen seconds to put an end to this pathetic excuse for an assassination attempt. But where was the jounin? That was when Kakashi heard the sounds of fighting from behind him, where the native kunoichi had taken the daimyo. "Circled around, huh?" he said to himself. Leaving his shadow clone to finish off the last two Cloud ninja here, he whirled about and charged through the half-secret exit behind the throne.

He made his way through the dark passage, and was not surprised to find dead members of the honor guard scattered about. He was pleasantly surprised to find the native kunoichi fighting on apparently equal terms with a Cloud ninja - presumably the jounin in charge of this attack. Daimyo Chichiatsu was hanging back, and Kakashi quietly gestured at him to run back to the throne room. His shadow replication had finished its work by now, and that was probably the safest place. The daimyo gulped nervously but followed orders, and Kakashi stepped forward. "Looks like I'm in time," he commented.

The Cloud jounin jumped away from the Swamp kunoichi. Kakashi gestured for her to stay back. "I'll take care of him," he said. The kunoichi nodded, breathing heavily as she took a step back. "So," he said, "shall we begin?"

The Cloud jounin smiled. "I'm not foolish enough to use a ninjutsu while a Sharingan eye is looking right at me." Kakashi noticed that he also wasn't looking him straight in the eye. A veteran of the war, perhaps?

"So how do you expect to defeat me?" Kakashi asked. His hand formed a seal. "I suffer no such limitations."

"Like this," the kunoichi said as she placed a kunai at Kakashi's neck.

Kakashi's normal eye glanced backward. "A traitor, huh?"

She smiled. "No. I am Sinobi Junhime, jounin of the Hidden Cloud, and in command of this mission."

"You could have killed the daimyo long before I got here," Kakashi commented.

"Well, once we found out that the Leaf were foolish enough to send the famous copy ninja Sharingan Kakashi on this mission alone, we had to up the ranking to an S-rank and change the mission a little bit," Junhime explained, and Kakashi could feel her smile.

Kakashi sighed. "Following in Sinobi Gashir's footsteps, I see," he said, remembering the Cloud ninja who had died attempting to kidnap Hyuuga Hinata.

"I plan to succeed in my mission," Junhime said, "to capture the Sharingan eye."

"You sacrificed a lot of men to get me in this position," Kakashi said. "Are you sure it was worth it?"

The other Cloud jounin laughed. "Those were just some of the pathetic Swamp Country ninja. The daimyo was more than willing to sell you out to have the assassination mission called off." He smiled. "The rest of our team is right here." Six more Cloud ninja emerged from the shadows, weapons at ready. Strong chuunin, Kakashi guessed. That made two three-man squads, each with a jounin commander. At least the Cloud remembered his power enough to send an appropriate force. It made him feel a little better.

"So, will you come along quietly?" Junhime asked. "If you cooperate, the Cloud might be willing to make a prisoner exchange with the Leaf once we have what we want from you." Kakashi snorted, vanishing in a puff of smoke. "Shadow replication," Junhime snarled. "Where is he?"

"Over here," Kakashi said from behind her. He shook his head sadly as he watched the chuunin begin to form seals. "I'll give you the honor of seeing my only original technique," he said, hands blurring. "Ordinarily," he continued as he concentrated chakra in one hand, "I call it Chidori, but in this situation it seems appropriate to use the name it was given the last time the Leaf fought the Cloud." The enemy ninja began to back away as his hand began to glow, a sound like birds chirping ringing in their ears. "Raikiri!"

"Are you satisfied?" Yakushi Kabuto asked. "Jiraiya-sama would never let Naruto-kun out of his reach."

Kamizuru Suzumebachi nodded reluctantly. She would never have thought to look at Iwakuro Hojo's estate, but there was the blond kid, clearly visible down in one of the training grounds, practicing some sort of earth element technique.

"That's it," Jibachi said nervously. "If the Toad Hermit has made common cause with Hojo-sama, we'll be getting orders to call off the search any time now."

Kurobachi nodded. "What do we do, Suzumebachi?" he asked.

"I don't know," the kunoichi said softly. "It seems like I would have to put our clan's restoration aside if I wish to avenge it."

Kabuto smiled as though at some private jest. "Irregardless of your decision, Suzumebachi-sama, I have fulfilled my end of the deal."

Suzumebachi nodded. "I will prepare a copy," she said. "Orochimaru will have our techniques."

"Excellent," Kabuto said. "Please do so before you take any action. I would prefer not to have to steal the original scroll from Jiraiya-sama once he takes it off your corpse."

"You," Jibachi growled, stalking toward the Sound ninja. There was a blur of motion, and three figures in the gray uniform of the Hidden Sound appeared between him and Kabuto.

Kabuto shook his head sadly. "You are truly foolish, Jibachi-san."

"Enough, Jibachi," she said. "Fighting them will accomplish nothing."

"You remain a wise woman, Suzumebachi-sama," Kabuto said with a smile. "I am curious. Do you plan to take on Jiraiya-sama, even though it will result in your clan being exiled again?"

Jibachi and Kurobachi traded a look. "Suzumebachi?" they said almost in unison. They could not make this decision.

Suzumebachi clenched and unclenched her fists. "I will," she said softly, "if I can find a plan that will work."

Kabuto sighed quietly, then pushed his glasses up on his nose. "I have a plan," he said. "I can help you in this task."

"And what is your price this time?" Jibachi demanded angrily.

"Simple," Kabuto answered. "When the deed is done, you return with me to the Rice Field Country." He smiled at Suzumebachi. "The Kamizuru Clan can be as easily resurrected in the Hidden Sound as in the Hidden Rock." He smiled. "Orochimaru-sama would appreciate your

help against the Aburame."

Suzumebachi nodded. "Very well." She smiled grimly. "If I must betray my country, I might as well go all the way."

Kabuto nodded, then turned to the Sound jounin who had been silently watching the conversation. "I will need you to acquire the ingredients we spoke of earlier," he told them, and they vanished. "Now then," he told the Kamizuru, "I shall speak of the roles you are to play in my plan."

Author's Random Ramblings

1) Well, that was a little shorter than and a little different from the other chapters. It was a nice change of pace for me though, and it was better than the alternative for covering the week - another chapter of Naruto and Jiraiya traveling while dodging enemy ninja and spoiling all the stuff Team InoSakuChou is working on for the Chuunin Exam.

2) Mea culpa: I didn't double-check the names of the bee trio ninja and got Jibachi's wrong last chapter. It's now been fixed.

3) As always, any and all comments are vastly appreciated. More comments means more inspiration to write which means faster, better chapters, so it's in your interest too. :)

4) So, you may have noticed I've been incorporating filler arcs to some degree into this story. Right now, we've got the Rice Field arc included as canon (for reasons that shall eventually become clear), characters from the bikochuu arc playing a major role, and minor references to the Curry of Life arc (that one's a little subtle) and the Stone Country arc. Nothing yet from the Mizuki arc or the current Bird Country arc, but we'll see, I suppose.

5) I decided I might as well add a "next episode preview." So, here we go. Next time: Akatsuki strikes! Naruto takes on the bee three! And, of course, the first part of the Hidden Village of the Leaf's Chuunin Selection Exam!

Draft Started: December 20, 2005

Draft Finished: December 31, 2005

Draft Released: December 31, 2005

Final Released: January 02, 2006