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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 7: After the Battle

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, tigers.

Day Forty-one

Yakushi Kabuto found the practice of diplomacy to be extremely boring. In his admittedly limited experience with that art, it seemed to him that, almost always, the outcome of the long, repetitive discussions was never in doubt. By the time that formal representatives of two ninja villages actually sat at a table across from each other, both sides had already decided precisely what the maximum they would offer and the minimum they would accept were. So much time could be saved, Kabuto thought, if they could simply compare those lists and instantly derive the inevitable result, be it a peaceful compromise or continued war.

Instead, this elaborate charade had to be played out. The elderly Tsuchikage, in his role as host, had taken great relish in returning the three Sound ninja the Rock had captured near Iwakuro Hojo's estate, taking great pains to point out at length how gracious he was being. The lead Sound diplomat had been almost as lengthy in describing the great gratitude of Orochimaru and the daimyo of the Rice Field Country to the Rock and the Earth Country, while carefully not giving any sign that this would affect the negotiations with the Valley and the Hill Country.

This had taken most of a morning, after which the visibly tiring Tsuchikage had left. The remainder had been consumed by the two lead diplomats describing in great detail how their respective villages could not offer any sort of compromise and demanding almost everything short of unconditional surrender from their opposite number. Of course, everyone knew that this was absolutely not the case, or neither village would have sent representatives to discuss peace. The sole purpose of the completely unreasonable opening positions was to create demands that could be painlessly dropped in hopes of eliciting some real change in the other village's position. Kabuto guessed that by the end of the day, both sides would have reached their real opening offers, having accomplished precisely nothing with the initial, false openings.

Now, the diplomats had agreed to adjourn for lunch, and the Sound contingent was filing out of the chamber that had been set aside for the meeting. Kabuto, playing the role of a mere aide, would not be eating with the diplomats themselves, of course. Instead he would be left to his own devices until the meeting reconvened. That suited him well, of course. An opportunity to have a look at one of the five great ninja villages was not to be missed, particularly for a spy like himself. Much could be learned just by wandering about and seeing what could be seen without doing anything the Rock would take offense to.

As he began that wandering, Kabuto noticed that he was followed, and so let his course take him into an abandoned alley between two nondescript buildings. He noted without surprise the gray-uniformed Sound guard who approached him. Kabuto glanced about, finding that the Rock ninja perched on a rooftop who was supposed to be watching the pair of Sound had fallen asleep. Kabuto adjusted his glasses, smiling at the other Sound ninja. "I didn't expect you to attend this meeting yourself, Orochimaru-sama."

Orochimaru laughed softly, pulling down the gray mask that obscured his face. "You're an observant one, Kabuto."

"I had best be, or you would be in need of a new spymaster, Orochimaru-sama," Kabuto replied.

"So?" Orochimaru asked. "How did your mission go?"

"I ran across three ninja of the Kamizuru Clan, and was able to use them to test Naruto-kun," Kabuto said as he pulled out a large scroll. "I was also able to acquire a copy of that clan's once-lost techniques."

Orochimaru accepted the scroll. "Excellent," he said. "So, what of the Kyuubi brat?"

Kabuto adjusted his glasses again. "He was able to defeat the three Kamizuru, displaying a new manifestation of his demonic chakra." Kabuto paused as he searched for the best words. "The chakra formed a shroud over his body, much as Sasuke-kun described, only this time there were two tails, one smaller than the other. Naruto-kun did not seem to be able to control himself."

Orochimaru frowned. "Interesting," he said. "We may need to take steps, before Akatsuki moves again."

"If you order it, it will be done," Kabuto said.

Orochimaru waved hand slightly. "No need for now. Jiraiya will take the boy to Lightning Country after this. I'll know where to find them when the time comes. I have need for you elsewhere."

"As you will," was all Kabuto said in response.

Orochimaru nodded. "Our allies in the Mist will be making their move soon. I want you to lead our contribution to their attack. Return to the village and select your squads at once."

Kabuto nodded. "Understood." He smiled again. "I hope I get a chance to meet the Mist's spymaster in the Leaf."

"Oh?" Orochimaru asked.

"Whoever it is, he or she is very good. I still have my contacts in the Leaf Village," Kabuto said. "Most of them aren't even aware that Naruto-kun is Jiraiya-sama's apprentice, but the Mist were able to tell us about when they'd be leaving and warn us the night of the departure."

"Most of your active agents were uncovered, were they not?" Orochimaru replied. "It's not surprising the Mist's network is better than what's left."

Kabuto frowned. "Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama aren't sloppy. They wouldn't have written the date of Naruto-kun's departure down or discussed it where they could be overheard. That means there's not many people that information could have come from. Whoever it is must be very highly placed in the Hokage's office and very trusted."

"Any suspicions?" Orochimaru asked.

"I doubt that it's Tsunade-sama or Jiraiya-sama," Kabuto said. "Kakashi-san is highly unlikely, as well. The only other person I could think of who would have that information is Shizune-san."

"Shizune?" Orochimaru laughed. "You'd betray me long before she'd betray Tsunade-hime." He smiled.

Kabuto's face was impassive. "Yes, Orochimaru-sama." He bowed slightly. "By your leave?"

Orochimaru nodded. "Go."

The underground chamber was lit only by scattered candles, but Jiraiya could see well enough to do his work. A large brush in hand, the legendary Sannin was squatting in a corner of the room, adding the final characters to the intricate pattern in mixed ink and fox's blood that covered most of the floor of the dark chamber. It had taken far too long for Hojo's three genin students - chosen due to them already being involved, however slightly - to procure the fox, unfortunately. Jiraiya would have done it himself, except that he and his fallen student, so far as all save Hojo and those three knew, had left days ago to return to the Leaf Village to seek Tsunade's aid.

Sighing, Jiraiya set his brush aside after making the final stroke. He rose, stepping carefully through the pattern he had drawn as he walked to the bier that stood in the center of the room. Laying atop the cold stone, as naked as the day he was born, was the still-unconscious Naruto. Jiraiya rested a hand on his feverish forehead, sighing as he glanced at the boy's stomach. The Fourth's seal was clearly visible, despite the fact that Naruto hadn't molded the slightest bit of chakra in almost a week.

Jiraiya believed that he was perhaps the foremost sealing expert in the world. If he wasn't the best, there was only a short list of people above him. At a glance, he could identify all the components of that familiar spiral seal. He could list the properties of each without hesitating and, even had he not studied that seal many times before, venture a solid hypothesis as to how they would all work together to keep the Kyuubi enchained. All this knowledge told him that Naruto should never have been able to unleash the power he had unleashed, and that his student should not have been lying in a coma as he had been.

Unfortunately, the fact that it should have been impossible did not mean that it wasn't happening. Wishing he had a Hyuuga on hand, Jiraiya studied Naruto's still form once again. He had guesses as to what was going on, but he did not like operating on such flimsy information. There was no helping it, though. It was obvious that Naruto was not going to wake on his own, so these desperate measures would have to be taken. He could only hope that they wouldn't run into any serious trouble before they reached the Cloud Village.

The chamber's sole door opened and shut. Jiraiya didn't bother to look up to see who had entered. Only one person could have passed the seals that bound the door without forcing his way through. "Are you ready?" Iwakuro Hojo asked as he walked over to stand on the opposite side of the bier from the other legendary ninja. After glancing to make sure that Hojo's path had not disrupted the pattern, Jiraiya nodded. Hojo glanced about himself. "I must admit," he said after a moment, "this is beyond me. Tell me what I must do."

"I will need your chakra," Jiraiya answered, "and possibly some of your blood."

Hojo nodded. "Very well. You need only tell me when."

"We'll start simply," Jiraiya said as he stretched out a hand over Naruto's seal. Chakra began to stream from his fingertips as glowing characters appeared on each. "Five-Element Seal!" Jiraiya shouted as he plunged his hand onto Naruto's stomach. As he removed it, more black markings appeared, surrounding the spiral.

"Is that wise?" Hojo asked. "That seal will disrupt his chakra flow, and in the long run the imbalance will either break your seal or kill the boy."

Jiraiya nodded. "You are correct; this is not going to be a long term solution. However, before we can make any progress, we need to completely block the flow of chakra from the Kyuubi to Naruto." As though prompted by Jiraiya's words, Naruto began to scream loudly, and the new markings on his stomach began to glow an unhealthy red. Jiraiya's eyes narrowed as he studied the reaction.

Hojo also ignored Naruto's pained screams. "What's going on?" he asked. "The Five-Element Seal is being attacked from both sides!"

Jiraiya nodded grimly. "I expected as much." He didn't explain any more to Hojo. "There's no time to waste." Jiraiya's hands raced through hundreds of seals in a matter of seconds before stopping on a final seal. The intricate pattern that covered the floor began to glow, unearthly flames springing from the bloody ink. Hojo almost took as step back at the sheer sense of power that radiated from the Sannin.

"Chakra Sealing Method - Demon Fox Revision!" Jiraiya laid both of his hands on Naruto's chest. "Hojo," he stated, his voice tight with strain. "Channel as much chakra as you can into him. We need to force as much of Naruto's chakra into the seal as possible."

Wordlessly, Hojo complied, stiffening as he laid his hands on top of Jiraiya's. For several minutes that seemed like an eternity, the two ninja struggled. The Five-Element Seal faded from red to pink, then back to black, and Naruto's scream finally stopped. Breathing heavily, Hojo raised his hands, and a moment later Jiraiya did as well. The unnatural flames surrounding them vanished, and with them the pattern that had fed them. A tight spiral turning the opposite way from the Fourth's seal now rested on top of Naruto's heart.

The larger seal began to fade away, and Hojo sighed in relief. "Are we done?" As if to mock the Rock ninja, the fading stopped instantly, and the new seal began to glow. Crimson lines raced down Naruto's chest, heading from the new spiral to the larger seal.

A kunai appeared in Jiraiya's hands, and he sliced at his palm. He held the wound over Naruto's chest, letting his blood spill onto the new seal. Then he quickly began to trace characters in his own blood with one finger. Hojo's eyes widened as Jiraiya's finger raced along Naruto's skin. Each stroke of Jiraiya's finger was designed to take the place of dozens of characters in an ordinary sealing - something it took a true master of the art to do, and even for the best it was far from easy.

Jiraiya's hands raced through another set of seals as he finished. "Evil Sealing Method," he breathed as he laid one hand on top of the small spiral. The abbreviated characters crawled up Naruto's chest, and Naruto screamed again, though this time only briefly. When he stopped, another seal formed a circle around the spiral over his heart, and the larger spiral vanished instantly, the Five-Element Seal that surrounded it following a moment later.

"What now?" Hojo asked after a moment.

As if in answer, Naruto's eyes flicked open. "Ero-sennin?" he asked weakly.

Jiraiya let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Then he toppled over, unconscious from his exertions.

Sakura had not even stepped out of the door of Naruto's apartment, and she already knew that today was going to be a bad day. Despite the fact that she had gone to bed late, having spent most of the day heading back to the village from the site of the second exam, Sakura had not been able to sleep well. Tsunade had not been able to give her many details of her teacher's fate, besides the bare fact that he was probably dead. Apparently, the daimyo of the Swamp Country, who had been the client for his last mission, had reported that Kakashi had been slain protecting him from assassins.

Sakura forced herself to hold out hope that he still lived. The daimyo's message had reported that the body his men had discovered after the battle was almost unrecognizable. This was the reason that Kakashi's status, for the moment, was merely "missing in action and presumed dead," until Leaf ninja could examine the corpse themselves. It was a thin hope, but one Sakura found herself clinging to. She didn't think she could take it if she began to believe that her teacher would not return.

It was hard to say it, even to herself, but the matter of her teacher's potential death was not the greatest reason she knew today would be a bad day. While terrible, the thought of Kakashi being dead was distant and at least a little uncertain. She knew that today would be a bad day because she was going to try to speak with her mother, and that was neither far away nor possibly false. The Mist ninja Midori's revelations left her no choice in the matter. She simply had to confront her mother and find out why a Mist kunoichi claimed to be a member of a Haruno Clan. She could not just let the matter lie, as much as part of her wished to.

Sakura left Naruto's apartment, forcing herself to wave cheerfully as she passed the Ichiraku ramen stand. The owner waved back, but Sakura didn't pause. If she hesitated, she knew that she would find some excuse to put off this visit. She could not let herself do that, no matter how painful this conversation promised to be. She needed answers, and this was what she knew she had to do to get them.

Sakura quickly made her way through the familiar streets that led to her house. Despite her resolve, she froze wen a masked man briefly appeared on the rooftop opposite her house, waving for her to join him. Curiosity warring with fear, Sakura cautiously made her way up to the roof, taking care that no passerby saw her progress. When she arrived, the rooftop seemed empty, but a moment later the ANBU reappeared in front of her. A cloaking genjutsu, Sakura concluded easily.

"You are Haruno Sakura?" the masked man asked, though it was more a statement than a question.

Despite this, Sakura nodded. "Yes," she said quietly.

"By order of Hokage-sama," the ANBU continued, "I am to ask you to not contact Haruno Amaya-san at this time. Do you understand?"

Sakura's mind raced. Tsunade clearly did not want her mother to know about Midori's revelations and that she was aware of them. Sakura knew that she was only giving up so easily because part of her didn't really want to see her mother, but she nodded none the less. "Understood," she said weakly, as she thought through the exceedingly troubling potential reasons for the Hokage's order.

The ANBU's stance softened slightly. "This must be difficult for you," he said quietly. "You're doing the right thing."

"Thank you," Sakura managed to say, but she knew her worries were evident in her voice.

The ANBU coughed. "I'm also supposed to tell you," he said, "that Hokage-sama assures you that no matter what happens, she won't let any of it affect your status as a Leaf ninja."

Sakura hadn't even thought of that, and the mention made her even more worried despite the Hokage's promise. "Thank you," she repeated after a moment. "Is there anything else?" The ANBU shook his head, and faded from Sakura's sight.

For a long moment, Sakura stared across the street at her house. Even as part of her rejoiced in the excuse to avoid her mother, the rest of her began to once again return to the thorny knot of emotions and questions she had been doing her best to keep buried since her encounter with Midori. With supreme effort of will, she forced them down again. She had no time to waste. In less than thirty days, she would be standing in the arena against Uzuki Ami. She could not afford to let a single one of those days go to waste - if not for the match against Ami, then for the battles that would follow.

Her mind set, Sakura quickly headed for the library, where she spent a number of frustrating hours in study. It was infuriating, she decided, how the scrolls in the genin library hinted broadly at a number of useful techniques without actually providing enough information to learn them. Some of the simpler ones, she thought she might, with a great deal of trial and error, reverse-engineer. That process, though, would likely be time-consuming, error-prone, and potentially dangerous. She needed a teacher, and in her present situation calling her options limited would probably be overly generous.

Checking the time, Sakura realized that it was already almost three in the afternoon. Even when there was little useful knowledge to be gained, it seemed that she could lose herself far too easily in study. Shaking her head, Sakura stood and returned the last set of scrolls she had been studying to their places before leaving the library and walking the short distance to the ninja academy.

By the time she reached that building, the young students were already being let out for the day. Ignoring them, Sakura entered the building, moving through the familiar halls to the back of the building, where the teacher's offices were located. As she passed the room that had once belonged to Mizuki, Sakura hesitated. What had happened to him, anyway? She hadn't seen him since she'd graduated, had she?

Shaking her head to clear it of the question, Sakura continued walking down the back hall to the office of another teacher. Once there, rapped once on the door. "Come in," came Iruka's voice a moment later, and Sakura entered. Her old academy instructor looked up from the paperwork on his desk in surprise. "Sakura-chan?" he asked. "What brings you here?"

Sakura seated herself on a stool in front of Iruka's desk. "I'm taking the Chuunin Exam again," she said.

Iruka nodded. "I've already seen the schedule for the third exam. Congratulations."

"Thank you," Sakura said automatically. She hesitated, searching for the right words to speak. "Yesterday, Hokage-sama told me that Kakashi-sensei is probably…" She trailed off. She couldn't bring herself to say that her teacher was probably dead. "He won't be able to train me for the third exam," she finished weakly.

Iruka's eyes widened, and Sakura could tell that he understood what she hadn't been able to tell him. "I see," he said after a moment. "I'm sorry."

Sakura nodded. "Iruka-sensei," she said after a moment, "I need someone to train me."

Iruka grimaced. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I wish I could, but I can't. The end-of-year examinations are coming up, and the academy is short-handed since half the teachers have been called back to active duty. I don't have anywhere near enough time." He sighed. "Even if I did, I don't know if I could give you the right sort of training. I'm still only a chuunin myself, after all."

Sakura's face fell. "I see," she said quietly. "Isn't there anything you can do?"

Iruka studied her for a long moment. "I can give you a piece of advice," he said. "Remember the motto of the chuunin."

"The motto?" Sakura asked, frowning in thought. "If you do not possess Heaven," she muttered, "gain knowledge and be prepared."

"And if you do not possess Earth," Iruka prompted.

"Run in the fields and seek strength," Sakura finished. She stood. "I think I understand. Thank you, Iruka-sensei."

Iruka nodded. "Do your best," he said, "and good luck."

Day Forty-two

"You don't remember?" Jiraiya asked his student disbelievingly. The two Leaf ninja had been relocated to another underground chamber, though one much more comfortable than the one where Jiraiya had performed the sealing yesterday.

Naruto shook his head. "I figured out that it was those weird bee people, then Kabuto-san hit me, and the next thing I know I'm waking up here."

Jiraiya sighed. "I see. I suppose there's nothing to be done for that."

"How many days did you say I was out for?" Naruto asked. Jiraiya told him, and he began to count on his fingers. "The second part of the chuunin exam is over, then!" he declared after a moment. "I hope Sakura-chan's all right."

"We have more pressing concerns," Jiraiya responded. "I'm afraid there's no way that we'll be heading back to the Leaf Village in time for the third exam now." Naruto looked ready to protest, but a glare from his teacher kept him quiet. "We're going to be heading to Lightning Country now."

"Eh?" Naruto asked. "Why?"

"Because," Jiraiya said, suddenly laying a hand on Naruto's stomach, "it seems your house guest is getting a little too frisky for comfort."

Naruto paled instantly. "What happened?" he asked quietly.

Jiraiya didn't say anything for a moment. "You fought the three Kamizuru and won," he said flatly. "Or rather, your body did, it seems."

"Is that why I feel so," Naruto began.

"Weak?" Jiraiya asked. "Part of it is that you were out for almost a week. Most of it is what I had to do to wake you up. Did Hojo tell you anything while I was asleep?"

Naruto shook his head. "He said to wait until you woke up."

"Good," Jiraiya said. "Do you remember when we talked about your two kinds of chakra?" Now Naruto nodded. "I had to block off your second type of chakra with a seal."

"That's his, right?" Naruto asked quietly, rubbing at his own stomach.

"Yes," Jiraiya said. "He didn't take kindly to that, I'm afraid. He was trying to tear down the new seal." Jiraiya gestured at Naruto's chest. "Have you seen the new seals there?" Naruto nodded again. "I had to seal away most of your chakra to stop him. That's why you feel so weak." Jiraiya paused, as though considering just what to say. "That wasn't enough, so I had to add a third seal to keep your chakra bottled up. That type of seal draws power from your own will, boy. Can you feel it?"

Naruto's hand rested over his heart for moment before he nodded. "I think so," he said quietly.

"When the time comes, you can release that seal yourself and your chakra will start to escape." Jiraiya gave Naruto a hard look. "Don't do that unless you're about to die."

Naruto gulped. "Right," he said quietly. A moment later ,he spoke more loudly. "So why are we going to Lightning Country anyway?"

"We're going to visit another friend of mine," Jiraiya said simply. "She should be able to help us with your problem." He sighed. "It'll be a little tricky, though, since she lives in the Cloud Village. Thankfully, Hojo will be providing us with some papers that should get us there without incident." Jiraiya paused. "That's not the only problem. Word of the little brawl we had is going to spread like wildfire, and we know Orochimaru already knows where we are. There's going to be some unfriendly people looking for us."

"What are we going to do?" Naruto asked.

"Disguises," Jiraiya said simply as he pulled out a small pouch. "Sit still, boy. The first thing I'm going to do is get rid of those whiskers of yours."

"Can't we just transform?" Naruto asked.

Jiraiya took out a small brush and a tiny tin. "What's the longest time you've kept the Transformation Technique active?" he asked casually.

"Most of a night," Naruto answered after a moment, remembering his battle against the team from Hidden Rain in the Forest of Death.

"And how exhausted were you after that?" Jiraiya began to unscrew the tin.

"I was pretty tired," Naruto answered after a moment.

"That technique is really hard to keep up for more than a few hours. The way you are right now, I don't think you could last more than one or two," Jiraiya said as he stuck the brush in the now-open tin, which contained a white powder. "We're talking about days and weeks, here, boy. Nobody can keep a technique active for that long." Without waiting for any further comment, he began to brush the powder along Naruto's cheeks.

"Ow!" Naruto said, flinching away. "That hurts!"

"I said to stay still, boy," Jiraiya said harshly as he continued to work. "This isn't just ordinary makeup," he continued. "It's what ANBU use to hide their tattoos when they go undercover. It won't come off in water, and it'll last for two weeks at least if I don't take it off. It's worth a little pain."

When Jiraiya was finished, Naruto rubbed at his cheeks, glancing at a mirror in the corner of the room. "It looks so weird," he said.

"You'll look even weirder when we're done," Jiraiya said. "We're going to change your hair color for sure. We want to make sure that anybody looking for an old man and a young boy matching our descriptions will pass right over us." Jiraiya rubbed at his chin suddenly. "I wonder," he said before trailing off.

"What?" Naruto asked after a moment.

Jiraiya ignored him, giving the boy a measuring gaze. "At your age," he muttered, half to himself, "there's not that much difference in body structure that can't be easily covered up with clothing. Your voice hasn't changed yet, so with a little practice we'll be fine on that."

"What are you talking about?" Naruto demanded.

"Be quiet a minute," Jiraiya demanded. He began to work through seals slowly, clearly working out the proper sequence as he went along. "That should do it," he said as he laid a hand on Naruto's head. Naruto's hair began to lengthen, growing at impossible speed. As it reached his shoulders, Jiraiya removed his hand, breathing heavily. "That took more chakra than I expected." He surveyed his handiwork. "I'll have to do some trimming to make it look right, but it'll do."

Naruto grabbed at his suddenly long hair. "What did you do that for?!"

Jiraiya grinned evilly. "Look at it as an opportunity to master one of your techniques," he said as he rose from the cot he'd been sitting on.

"Eh?" Naruto asked. "What are you talking about?"

"Wait here," Jiraiya said. "I need to ask Hojo for some supplies." He left the chamber, leaving the puzzled Naruto alone. When he returned almost an hour later, he carried a large bundle of clothing, which he set down on his cot. "We're lucky that Mako girl is about the same size as you," he commented.

"What?" Naruto asked, rising suddenly. "Ero-sennin, I am not going to -"

"Yes, you are," Jiraiya said flatly. He tossed several articles of clothing at Naruto. "Go ahead and put those on."

Naruto fingered a pair of panties. "Even," he began.

"Yes," Jiraiya said. "Just in case." Naruto opened his mouth, and the legendary Sannin glared at him. "Don't argue," he said simply. "I know what I'm doing."

Several minutes later, Naruto was staring uncomfortably at himself in the mirror. While the outfit he wore was not overly feminine, consisting of a dark purple shirt, brown pants, and a black jacket, combined with his longer hair, now dyed brown and tied back in a simple ponytail, there was no doubt that the person who stared back at him looked like a girl. "Are you sure I have to do this?" he whined plaintively.

"Yes," Jiraiya answered simply. "For now, girl," he said, pausing as Naruto winced at the last word, "your name will be Naru. You shouldn't have any trouble answering to that. Do you understand, girl?"

"Yes," Naruto answered weakly.

"Good," Jiraiya said. "Now, it might happen that you'll wind up in some situation where other people will see you undressed. In those cases, you'll need to transform. Show me what you think you would look like nude."

Naruto glared at his teacher. "Pervert," he declared.

"I assure you," Jiraiya said dryly, "thirteen-year-old girls do nothing for me. Now, do it!" When Naruto complied, he nodded. "Not bad," he said. "The breasts are way too large, though, and some of the other details are off." He then began to give a list of those mistakes, and Naruto was blushing furiously by the time he finished. "Try again," Jiraiya commanded.

After five or six tries, Jiraiya was mostly satisfied. "What now?" Naruto asked him.

"I want you to keep on practicing that transformation," Jiraiya answered. "You'll need to do it quickly when the time comes. If you can manage it without having to form the seal, even better. I'm going to work on my disguise, and then we'll work on how you'll need to act. Looks are only part of a good disguise."

"Who will you be?" Naruto asked.

"I'll be your uncle Jiro," Jiraiya replied, "who raised you since your parents died when you were young. That should help explain it when you act too much like a boy." He rose. "Now get to work, girl. We've got a lot to do before we'll be ready to leave, and I want to leave tomorrow."

Yamanaka Inoichi was very obviously trying to hide his nervousness with irritation as the pair of masked ANBU brought him before Tsunade. "I suppose now," he said without preamble, "I will learn why ANBU have been spying on me while I tried to train my daughter for the third exam," he said.

As always standing behind Tsunade, Shizune looked like she was about to scold Inoichi for his lack of respect, but Tsunade waved a hand to quiet her. "You can go," the Hokage told the two ANBU. "I won't be in any danger." As the ANBU wordlessly left, Tsunade folded her hands in front of her face and turned her gaze on Inoichi. "So you noticed, Yamanaka-kun."

"I am a jounin," Inoichi said. "Of course I noticed." For an instant, real anger flared in his eyes. "I've already wasted a full day of training because I didn't want to spill my family secrets in front of them."

"I assure you, that should be the least of your concerns," Tsunade said dryly. "We wanted to see if you would contact or be contacted by Haruno Amaya or our guests from the Mist. ANBU recommended that you immediately be brought in for interrogation, but I overruled them."

Inoichi's anger vanished instantly, and he seemed to wither where he stood. "You know, then," he said quietly. "About Midori."

"Yes." Tsunade's eyes were hard. "I suggest you start talking now."

After a moment, Inoichi nodded. "Yes, Hokage-sama." He paused, clearly sorting his thoughts. "My student, Mitokado Takeru, met Haruno Amaya in the Mist Village while our team was on an extended diplomatic mission there. This was during the war with the Cloud, and we were trying to convince the Mist alliance to join the war on our side."

"I might have left the village," Tsunade said, "but I do not need a history lecture."

"Yes, Hokage-sama. That time was a bad time to be a member of a clan of doujutsu users in the Water Country. Takeru saved Amaya from an over-zealous ninja who didn't care much about the precise definition of a Bloodline Limit. One thing led to another, and Sakura-chan was the result." Inoichi paused. "Takeru-kun never knew, but before he died he was still trying to arrange to have his engagement annulled and bring Amaya to the Leaf Village."

"I see," Tsunade said. "And why is there no mention of this in the records?"

Inoichi looked down. "The village council was looking for any reason to reject Amaya and Sakura-chan. I told the Third, of course, but he agreed that I should keep it out of my official testimony, and I advised Amaya to do the same."

"And why did you not tell me this?" Tsunade pressed, her voice sharp.

"Because," Inoichi said, looking up, "it was obvious that you had taken an interest in Sakura-chan, and it wasn't hard to figure out what for. I didn't want to say anything that would make her lose that chance. If that was a crime, I am guilty."

Tsunade sighed. "Do you think so little of me?"

"I hardly know you, Hokage-sama," Inoichi said. "You left the village when I was young and returned only a few months ago." He sighed. "I care for Sakura-chan almost as much as my own daughter. If Amaya had asked, I would have adopted her into the Yamanaka Clan in an instant. I even asked to be put back in rotation to be a jounin teacher for her class, but it was obvious that Hatake-san would get her when the Third decided to place her in the Uchiha's team over my objections."

"Your objections?" Tsunade asked.

Inoichi smiled wryly. "You didn't have to deal with a heartbroken daughter sobbing into her pillow every night for weeks after that." His face turned serious. "Besides, I didn't want Sakura-chan on a team with a dem-"

"You will not speak of Uzumaki Naruto so in my presence!" Tsunade interjected angrily. "Do you understand, Yamanaka-san?"

After a moment, Inoichi looked away, clearly ashamed. "Forgive me, Hokage-sama," he said. "That was how I thought at the time."

Tsunade frowned. "You've had a change of heart?" she asked, anger replaced by curiosity.

"I was worried about Sakura-chan being on the same team as him," Inoichi said. "I spoke with Hatake-san, and he told me to watch one of his team's training sessions." He shook his head, smiling sadly. "It was blatantly obvious that Naruto-kun had the world's biggest crush on Sakura-chan and would die before hurting her. I fought the Kyuubi, and I don't think that demon could even understand such an emotion, much less experience it."

Tsunade relaxed slightly. "I see," she said quietly. "If only everyone could see what you have."

"More than you would think have, one way or another, at least among the ninja," Inoichi said after a moment. "Naruto-kun fought Hyuuga Neji in the exams six months ago. At the start of that match, I doubt ten people in the arena were rooting for him. By the end of it, I doubt ten people weren't." Inoichi grinned slightly. "Part of it was just that Neji-kun was such an unmitigated ass that the demon itself would probably have looked good in comparison."

Tsunade smiled herself. "I see," she said after a moment. "Is there anything else you think I should know about the Haruno?" Inoichi shook his head. "You can go, then," Tsunade continued, and Inoichi let himself out.

"That was interesting," Shizune said after the door shut behind him.

"Yes," Tsunade said. "Why don't you go tell those ANBU to fetch Mitarashi Kimi for me? Let's see what our guests from the Mist have to say for themselves."

Shortly thereafter, the two ANBU brought the Mist jounin into the Hokage's office. This time, Tsunade did not tell the ANBU to leave, and they took up positions by the door. "I wonder," Mitarashi Kimi said lightly, "what would happen if I said something along the lines of 'my real mission begins now.'"

"You would die," Tsunade said simply. "You are in no position to be making jests, Mitarashi Kimi."

Kimi shrugged. "If I only made jests when I was in a position to do so, I would not have made a single joke since the Leaf killed my parents." Tsunade frowned at this, and Kimi grinned. "My little sister never told you? There's actually a chance you were the one, I think. I seem to remember hearing that the legendary Sannin were at that battle." She shrugged. "It's not important now, though." Glancing back at the ANBU, she smiled again. "It's actually rather convenient those two showed up. I was actually wondering how I could get an audience with you to make a request."

"Your request can wait," Tsunade said, "until we have discussed one of your students." Her hands folded in front of her face. "A Haruno Midori, I believe."

Kimi sighed. "It seems I'll have to have another talk with her. She told Anko's student, didn't she?"

Tsunade nodded, glancing down at a piece of paper on her desk - Midori's exam entry form. "Care to explain why we were given the name Mizuno Midori?"

Kimi nodded. "Very well. For such a small clan, there are a surprising number of missing ninja from the Haruno. It has to do with some unfortunate nastiness during the Bloodline Purges. Because of my report that a girl calling herself Haruno Sakura was working for the Leaf, I was ordered to use this opportunity to investigate whether the Leaf were sheltering one or more of those ninja. It was decided that openly sending a Haruno risked tipping off the missing ninja. I chose to have Midori enter the exam under a false name rather than split up my team."

"There are treaties covering this kind of matter," Tsunade said. "There's no need for such subterfuge."

Kimi laughed. "Those treaties aren't worth the paper they're written on, and everyone knows it. Wasn't there an incident a few months back where you found out that one of your missing ninja was working as a jounin for the Rain? The Rain are your allies and the treaties on missing ninja were still meaningless."

Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "The Mist are well informed."

"We try," Kimi said, smiling slightly. "In any case, the matter is dealt with. You can even change Midori's registration officially if you want."

"Oh?" Tsunade asked.

Kimi slowly pulled out a small pamphlet. "I was given what we knew on all known Haruno outside the Mist to facilitate identification." She flipped through the pamphlet, then handed it to Tsunade. "Haruno Amaya," Kimi said simply.

Tsunade quickly glanced at the entry, passing over the old picture of a young girl close to Sakura's age and looking at the only writing on the page besides a handful of outdated vital statistics. "Refused to take the genin exam and discharged without restriction. Do not pursue," she read aloud before returning the pamphlet to Kimi.

"Are you satisfied?" Kimi asked.

"For now," Tsunade said. "So, what did you want?"

Kimi smiled. "I would like to train my students for the final exam in private. It isn't feasible to return to the Water Country and make it back here in time, though."

Tsunade nodded. "That's reasonable enough. I can set aside one of the large-scale training grounds for use by your team. I'll have to put guards on the outside, of course, but other than that you can have it to yourself."

Kimi nodded. "Thank you, Hokage-sama," she said politely. "That's all I wanted. May I depart?"

"Escort our guest out," Tsunade told the ANBU. Once Kimi was gone, she sighed. "It looks like we don't have that much of a problem after all, thankfully," she said after a moment.

"Yes," Shizune said. "What do you want done?"

"Go ahead and drop the surveillance on Yamanaka Inoichi. Keep watching Haruno Amaya for another week, but I can't justify any longer unless something turns up, given how short-handed we are."

Shizune nodded. "I'll take care of it."

Day Forty-three

Sakura didn't make any effort to hide her presence as she slowly approached the training ground. Getting accused of attempted spying would only start her off on the wrong foot here. Best to give the people she was going to ask a great favor of sufficient time to notice her and prepare themselves for a visit from one of their opponents. It was only polite, after all.

Sakura had known who she would have to approach as soon as she had left Iruka's office, but she had still spent most of her time since then coming up with an alternative. She knew that should her request be granted, she would be receiving possibly the best training possible in her weakest field, but the thought of the form that training might take scared her. If she could have thought of anyone else, she might have taken that option, but there were none that she could see. All the other jounin teachers she knew were out of the question for various reasons.

When she entered the training ground, Sakura noted with relief that there were only three people there - Maito Gai, Rock Lee, and Tenten. That made things easier. "Good morning," she said.

"Good morning, Sakura-san!" Rock Lee said with a wave.

"Haruno," Tenten said, nodding in greeting. Their teacher just looked at Sakura, a strangely serious expression on his face.

"I take it Neji-san is training with his family?" Sakura asked when it became apparent Gai would say nothing.

Lee nodded. "I look forward to seeing what he will learn in the finals," he said simply. "It will be an interesting match."

Tenten sighed. "There's no guarantee you'll both make it that far," she said, her voice making it clear that she had said this many times. Her attention then returned to Sakura. "Why did you come here?" she asked.

"Gai-sensei," Sakura said. "Have you… heard about Kakashi-sensei?"

Gai nodded. "I have," he said softly. "You wish for me to train you in his place?"

Tenten and Rock Lee traded a look, and after a moment Lee spoke. "What happened?"

"He probably won't be back in time for the third exam," Gai responded smoothly when Sakura didn't answer.

Sakura nodded, struggling to keep her face smooth. "I'm on the opposite side of the bracket from you two," she told Gai's students. "We could only meet in the final match, and in the unlikely event of that occurring we'll probably have shown all our moves already. This won't put you at any disadvantage."

"Even if we were facing each other in the first round," Lee said, "I would agree, Sakura-san."

Tenten rolled her eyes. "We know, Lee. We know." She sighed. "It's fine by me, I suppose."

"Thank you," Sakura said.

"I'm not a genjutsu-type," Gai said after a moment. "I can't give you that sort of training."

"That's fine," Sakura said. "It's taijutsu training I'm looking for."

"Taijutsu? You?" Tenten asked disbelievingly, then she glanced at the orange warmers Sakura still wore out of habit, even though she no longer had weights to wear under them. "Well, maybe," Tenten corrected herself.

Gai's gaze had followed Tenten's. "You shouldn't have left the weights I gave you before behind," he said.

"Sorry," Sakura said, glancing downward. "I didn't think of that."

Gai shrugged. "Mitarashi was able to get them back for me, so it's no big problem," he said. "I suspected that you might come for another set, so I prepared these." He tossed two weights at Sakura, who staggered as she caught them. "We'll start you off easy. That set is only twice the weight of the pair you were wearing before."

Sakura resisted the urge to groan as she slipped the weights onto her legs. "Thank you," she forced herself to say, even as she was inwardly shuddering at the aches and pains that awaited her as she adjusted to the new, heavier weights. She took several halting steps, trying to judge how much the weight was impairing her.

Gai nodded approvingly. "Very well." He turned to his students. "Lee!" he said sharply.

Lee stood straighter. "Yes, Gai-sensei!"

"It is said that the best way to truly master something is to try to teach it," Gai declared. Tenten glanced between the two male ninja and sighed, covering her eyes with one hand. "Indeed," Gai continued, seemingly oblivious, "many times in teaching my darling students have I noticed some aspect of the subject of that had previously escaped me! Truly, you are all a blessing to me!"

"Gai-sensei!" Lee cried happily.

"Today, you too shall have that great opportunity!" Gai stated. "I ask you to evaluate Sakura-chan's current level of taijutsu and to then start working on her strength and endurance, while I work with Tenten on ninjutsu!"

Lee nodded. "Yes, Gai-sensei!"

"Come, Tenten!" Gai stated and began to walk off. With another sigh, Tenten followed her teacher, leaving Lee and Sakura alone.

Sakura stared at Lee for a moment. "What should I do?" she asked finally.

Lee frowned, straightening into a fighting stance and beckoning at her. "Come at me, Sakura-san," he said simply. Sakura nodded, her mind racing through options quickly. Almost instinctively, her hands formed the first seal for the Perfect Replication Technique. "No, Sakura-san," Lee said softly, suddenly standing in front of her and pulling her hands gently apart. "No ninjutsu or genjutsu."

Sakura nodded. "Sorry," she said, grinning weakly. "Force of habit."

In an instant, Lee was back where he had stood before, beckoning again. "Now, come," he stated.

Particularly with a new pair of heavy weights slowing her down, Sakura knew that her ability with pure taijutsu was limited at best. Lee was so much faster than her that there was no chance of getting around behind him or at his sides, leaving her with no choice but a futile frontal assault. Still, she charged, hoping that Lee would at least be gentle.

The next several minutes were tiring and humiliating for the kunoichi. She pressed an all-out attack on Lee, but the green-clad ninja didn't seem to break a sweat avoiding her attacks. He never counter-attacked, simply letting Sakura strike at him again and again, dodging so rapidly that Sakura swore her fists never got within a foot of him, even though he stayed directly in front of her. Finally, Sakura collapsed to her knees, breathing heavily. "I'm done," she gasped out.

Lee nodded. "Textbook academy taijutsu," Lee stated. "Your family has no special style, then."

Sakura swallowed, doing her best to ignore the churning emotions that statement raised in her. "Not that I know of," she replied quietly. Lee raised one of his mighty eyebrows at that, and Sakura shook her head. "It's complicated," was all she said.

Lee seemed to accept that. "Strong Fist Style is an expansion that builds upon the standard style taught in the academy," he continued. "Your basic technique and form is good, Sakura-san, but your strength, speed, and endurance aren't at the level they need to be to start learning Strong Fist Style." He grinned slightly. "We can change that."

Sakura nodded. "What should I do?"

Lee gestured at a wooden training post. "One hundred punches with each arm," he said. "Then one hundred kicks with each leg. If you can't make it through that, you'll have to do two hundred push-ups." It took all of Sakura's willpower not to groan as she stood and walked over to the training post. Lee nodded. "Begin."

Naruto and Jiraiya had left Hojo's estate early in the morning, long before the sun had risen. For once, Naruto had not complained about the early hour, for he had far too many other things he would like to complain about. Somehow, though, he knew that voicing those complaints would be worse than futile. During his crash course in "acting like a girl, or at least like a tomboy" the previous day, Jiraiya had threatened to change his own disguise to be Naruto's boyfriend if the genin made any more protests. That was a horrid enough fate that Naruto was able to choke down his complaints without too much difficulty.

It didn't change the fact that Naruto felt weird, though. The simple physical sensation of his now-longer hair was odd enough. He always started whenever he caught his reflection in a puddle of water. Worst of all were the few times so far their path had crossed that of other travelers. None had given him a second glance, but he couldn't decide whether it would be more embarrassing to be found out as a boy than it was to successfully pass as a girl.

Yesterday, Jiraiya told him that he shouldn't mind so much, considering that he'd created the Sexy Technique, but that wasn't how Naruto saw it. The Sexy Technique was just a ninjutsu that was useful against perverts; this was something entirely different and way more perverted. Sakura would probably beat him within an inch of his life if she saw him like this. If she even realized it was him, that was, Naruto thought with a grimace. He couldn't even recognize himself right now.

Jiraiya had seemed to adjust to his own disguise with much more ease, but then it was not nearly so drastic a change. He'd hidden his facial tattoos with the same powder that had obscured the whisker-like marks on Naruto's face, then added an ugly, jagged fake scar down one side of his face. His hair had been dyed brown as well and tied up into a topknot. Naruto wasn't certain how, but Jiraiya had made himself look far younger, now seeming to be in his late twenties at the oldest. Finally, he now carried on his back a thin, curved sword that seemed almost too long to wield effectively. He looked every bit the mercenary the papers he had gotten from Hojo claimed he was.

They had stopped for lunch in a small stand of trees by the road that seemed to have been planted for just that purpose, and now Jiraiya was half-sprawled out on the ground, idling flipping through an illustrated copy of one of his own books that he'd picked up in a small town they'd briefly passed through that morning. Naruto sniffed. "Pervert."

Jiraiya smiled lazily. "Naru-chan," he said after a moment.

It was only due to the rather intense training of the previous day that Naruto resisted the urge to grimace at what Jiraiya had called him. "What, Uncle?" he asked, barely remembering not to say Ero-sennin.

Jiraiya's smile widened, at though he'd noticed what Naruto had almost said. Then his face turned serious. "There's nobody for a mile around," he said, "so I'll talk plainly for a moment. You don't have anywhere near as much chakra as you're used to right now. If we get into a fight, you're going to need to know what techniques you can still use, and what your limits are. Do you understand?"

Naruto nodded. "Yes."

"Good," Jiraiya responded. "You've already practiced the Transformation Technique, so you certainly have enough chakra to use the Replacement Technique. Be careful, though. You won't be able to use it nearly as quickly as you're used to."

"Right," Naruto said with another nod.

"Let's see just what sort of shape your chakra reserves are in," Jiraiya continued. "I want you to make as many replications as you can at once."

"All right," Naruto said, his hands racing through familiar seals. "Shadow Replication Technique!" Only a single clone appeared, then it fell to his knees, gasping for breath. The real Naruto followed suit a moment later.

"Idiot!" Jiraiya snarled. "Release the technique quickly!" The clone vanished in a puff of smoke, and the remaining Naruto looked a little stronger. "Idiot," Jiraiya repeated. "Normal replications, not shadow replications! The Shadow Replication Technique divides your chakra evenly, and you don't have enough chakra to do anything useful like that." He sighed. "Take a moment to catch your breath, then try normal replications."

Naruto laughed nervously. "I'm not very good with that technique." He reached up to scratch the back of his neck, only to yank his hand away as it brushed against his ponytail.

Jiraiya blinked. "What are you talking about?"

"The Replication Technique was always my worst technique back in the academy," Naruto said. "I could never make it work right."

"The Shadow Replication Technique is more difficult in every conceivable way than the Replication Technique," Jiraiya said. "There is no reason why you shouldn't be able to perform the Replication Technique. Try it."

"But," Naruto began, only to cut off as Jiraiya glared at him. "All right," he said, slowly forming seals. "Replication Technique!" Four clones appeared around him, and he looking about in wonder. "It worked!" he exclaimed as he let the replications vanish.

"Of course it did," Jiraiya said. He flipped a few more pages in his book. "There's no point in even trying Rasengan. If four replications is all you can manage, there's no way you can use that technique."

Naruto wasn't paying attention, however. "I wonder," he said as his hands raced through a quick set of seals. He slipped into the ground as though it was water, then popped back above ground an instant later. "The underground fish thing," he exclaimed once he'd finished. "I could never get it to work right except for my shadow replications before, but now it's working fine!"

"Interesting," Jiraiya said, his eyes narrowing. "I wish I'd had the time to take a look at your problem before." He didn't say anything for a moment, then nodded. "Practice the other earth element techniques Hojo taught you," he said, "but remember that you don't have the chakra to make them work just by pushing things around. You have to merge your chakra with the earth the way I was telling you before."

Naruto nodded, and set to work without complaint. Jiraiya watched him, his eyes never glancing to the book in his hands. Naruto was having more success with the earth element techniques than Jiraiya had hoped. While his weakened chakra reserves weren't large enough to make most of them terribly useful, particularly with the Five-Element Seal impairing his already poor chakra control, Naruto actually could successfully execute the techniques. So far as Jiraiya could tell, Naruto had somehow picked up the proper way to do things, rather than having to rely on the raw force he no longer had.

Jiraiya frowned as he considered this. They couldn't reach the Cloud Village too soon. If the worst scenario he could form from his observations was true, he wasn't certain whether it would ever be safe to undo the seals he'd placed on Naruto. Yet he knew that leaving them would ultimately kill the boy, assuming his resulting weakness didn't get him killed by Orochimaru or Akatsuki first. He could only hope that his friend would be able to help his student in that case. If she couldn't, he didn't know who else he could turn to.

Day Forty-four

The port city was the busiest place Naruto had ever been. The dock district alone was easily as large as the entire Leaf Village, and if it weren't for Jiraiya's rather more impressive form cutting a way through the throngs of people Naruto was certain he would have been swept away by the crowds. He felt deaf, unable to make out any but the loudest sounds from the indistinct roaring that surrounded him. He had long since given up on trying to figure out where they were headed, keeping his focus entirely on simply not losing sight of Jiraiya's broad back.

Suddenly, another figure cut across Naruto's path, causing the disguised boy to slam into him. Naruto stumbled backward, running into another man. "Hey!" the second man said, shoving Naruto forward. "Watch where you're going, you little bitch!"

The man Naruto had run into first laughed. "Maybe we should teach her a small lesson," he said menacingly, slamming his fist into the palm of his other hand as he turned to face Naruto. Despite the fact that the street was crowded, there was suddenly a circle of empty space around the trio.

The other man chuckled, laying a hand on Naruto's shoulder. As Naruto wrenched himself free, the man smiled. "I don't know, she's sort of cute for such a little thing. Maybe she could convince us to be merciful, Manabu." Naruto's eyes widened. They couldn't possibly be thinking what it seemed like they were thinking.

"Excuse me," Jiraiya said suddenly as he appeared behind Manabu, tapping him on the shoulder. The circle of people Naruto hadn't realized were watching hushed.

"What do you want?" Manabu asked.

Jiraiya slugged him. "That's my niece you're talking to," he said flatly. "Apologize."

The other man snarled, pulling out a dagger. "Your little girl is gonna pay for that," he threatened.

In an instant, a kunai was in Naruto's hands, the point resting on the man's gut. "I'm a ninja, pervert," he said. "Don't even think about it." Jiraiya's hand was now resting on the hilt of his over-sized sword.

Manabu's eyes widened. "A kunoichi? Damn it," he muttered. "Of all the luck."

The other man dropped his dagger. "Sorry," he gasped out. "I didn't know!"

"You think that makes it better?" Jiraiya asked. "Get out of here, scum, before I decide to make the daughters of this city a bit safer." The two men didn't waste time on words, vanishing almost as quickly as if they were ninja themselves. Jiraiya glanced about at the circle of people around him. "What are you looking at, cowards?" he demanded, and suddenly those people too had somewhere more important to be. Jiraiya nodded in satisfaction.

Naruto breathed a sigh of relief as he put up his kunai. In his current state, he wasn't entirely certain he'd have been able to beat his attackers without getting himself hurt. They might not have been ninja, but they'd been bigger than Naruto, and they'd gotten the drop on him since he hadn't been expecting trouble. If Jiraiya hadn't noticed them, he might have been in a serious situation.

Jiraiya smiled softly at his student. "Come on," was all he said as he turned to continue on his way. "You need to stick closer to me."

"Yes, Uncle," Naruto said as he followed.

"Still," Jiraiya said lightly, "your first day in the big city and you've already picked up two suitors. You certainly are precocious, Naru-chan."

Naruto blinked. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he screeched, and Jiraiya laughed.

However, when Jiraiya next spoke, Naruto could hear the seriousness in it, despite the forced lightness of his tone. "I also saw another boy who was interested in you," Jiraiya said. "From back home, actually. What was his name? That four-eyes?"

Naruto's eyes widened. Kabuto was here? "Did he -"

"I don't think he recognized you," Jiraiya said. "You've changed a lot since the last time he saw you." He glanced backward at Naruto, grinning. "But you'd best be careful not to remind him, unless you want another suitor."

Naruto nodded seriously, easily understanding the warning behind the mocking words. "Right," he said quietly.

Jiraiya nodded once, then turned away again, leading Naruto alongside the forest of masts that was the wharfs. "Here we go," he said, "we've reached where the ships from Lightning Country are docked."

There were much fewer people here, Naruto noted. "Why would they all have to dock in one place?" he asked as he continued to follow his disguised teacher.

"To make it easier to keep an eye on them," Jiraiya responded as he stopped near a small ship that was currently being loaded. "Excuse me," he shouted at one of the sailors. "Is this ship heading back to Lightning Country?"

The sailor set down the small crate he'd been about to lift. "What's it to you, stranger?" he asked.

"My niece and I need passage there," Jiraiya answered. "We can pay."

The sailor nodded as he picked up the crate. "I'll get the first mate," he said simply, then he walked off.

A few moments later, a stocky man approached Jiraiya. "Passengers to Lightning Country, huh?" he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he continued. "This isn't a luxury ship," he stated. "You get a place to spread your bedrolls below decks and the same food the crew eats. If we get caught in a bad storm, you'll have to lend a hand."

Jiraiya nodded. "That won't be a problem."

The first mate's eyes narrowed as he studied Jiraiya and Naruto. "Are you two ninja?" he asked suddenly. When Jiraiya nodded, the man's eyes brightened. "Excellent," he stated. "Actually, I can give you passage for free."

Jiraiya frowned. "Why?"

The first mate sighed again. "It's the slavers. We need protection."

"Slavers?" Jiraiya asked. "There hasn't been a slave trade in this part of the world for almost a century!"

The first mate shrugged. "Tell them that. They started up about five or six years ago, but the past year they've been getting more active. Even most of the pirate clans have either joined them or been wiped out."

Jiraiya frowned. "That doesn't make any sense. Where would they sell the slaves?"

"Well, this is what I've heard," the first mate said after a moment, smiling the smile of a man who loved to gossip. "You know that new Hokage down south?"

Jiraiya blinked. "Tsunade of the legendary Sannin?" he asked. "I've heard of her." Naruto had to resist the urge to snort.

"The way I hear it," the first mate continued, "the Leaf have been buying 'captured criminals' with no questions asked for her medical experiments." He shuddered theatrically.

"What?" Naruto snarled. "Why -"

"Easy, girl," Jiraiya said, laying a warning hand on Naruto's shoulder. "There're no Leaf ninja here, so there's no point in getting angry."

It took Naruto a moment to realize what Jiraiya was really saying and calm down. "Sorry," he said.

"Bunzo!" a loud voice roared from on board the ship. "Stop drawing out negotiations so you won't have to do any real work! Either let them on board or let them go!"

"Damn," the first mate muttered. "I've been found out." He looked up at the man who had yelled. "Sorry, Captain!" he shouted before turning back to Jiraiya. "So, do we have a deal?" he asked. "I'll be honest with you, if you shopped around you could probably get paid for being guards. However, there's a lot less chance of you having to do any fighting if you sign on with us. There's not a ship on the Gulf of Storms that can outsail us."

Jiraiya nodded seriously. "Thank you, Bunzo-san. I believe we have a deal."

He smiled. "Excellent. The captain will want to have a look at you, but there won't be any problems."

"Excuse me," a new voice said, barely audible over the sound of the crowds, "but I could not help but overhear. We are ninja as well, and would also be willing to hire on as guards for free passage to Lightning Country."

Jiraiya and Naruto turned around to see a pair of ninja wearing white kimonos - a man about Jiraiya's apparent age and a girl who seemed at most a couple years older than Naruto. The hilt of a sword could be seen over the man's shoulder, but the girl carried no visible weapons. Neither wore forehead protectors.

"The more the better," Bunzo said. "I'll need names from all four of you. Paperwork, you understand."

The man smiled. "I am Kitakami Ichizo, and this is my sister Rui." The girl nodded slightly

"Kitakami?" Jiraiya asked. "From the Hidden Snow?"

Both of the white-clad ninja stiffened. "There hasn't been a Hidden Village of Snow since before any of us were born," Rui stated harshly.

"Eh?" Naruto asked, glancing between the strangers and Jiraiya. "Hidden Snow?"

"I'll give you a history lesson later," Jiraiya said. Naruto groaned at this, but Jiraiya ignored him. "I see I remembered that clan name correctly."

Ichizo nodded after a moment. "You must be fond of history."

"I enjoy it," Jiraiya responded. He turned back to Bunzo, who had been watching the exchange nervously. "My name is Jiro; my niece is Naru."

"No clan?" Rui asked. She gave Jiraiya and Naruto a measuring glance, her eyes pausing on the disguised boy.

"None we care to claim," Jiraiya said smoothly.

Bunzo nodded. "Ichizo and Rui of the Kitakami, and Jiro and Naru of no clan. You understand that we will have to take a look at your papers and give your names and descriptions to the Hidden Rock before we sail and the Hidden Cloud once we arrive in Lightning Country. Just to make sure that we aren't carrying wanted criminals or the like."

"Of course," Jiraiya said. "Can we go on board?"

"You might want to wait until we're finished loading," Bunzo said. "You four just stay out of the way until then, and I'll bring the captain over to seal the deal."

Day Forty-five

Tsunade sighed as she looked at the actually relatively small collection of paperwork on her desk this morning. It wasn't the amount for once that made her want to just go out and get drunk, it was simply how troublesome the matters in question were likely to be that accomplished that task. She'd done what she could to avoid the possibility, but she somehow suspected that she'd have to deal with at least one angry genin this morning.

Traditionally, genin who were to participate in the third part of the Chuunin Exam, along with their teams, were suspended from missions for the thirty days downtime between the second exam and the finals. This was intended to facilitate the intensive training the fighters were expected to undergo to maximize their performance in the final exam. Unfortunately, the Hidden Leaf's current state did not allow the luxury of letting some of its best genin off of missions for a month. There were simply too many missions, and not enough ninja.

Tsunade had sent out messages to that effect shortly after the second exam had finished. Almost instantly, she'd had three upset jounin in her office to complain. She'd managed to calm them down by explaining that she would, if at all possible, assign them to the same missions as their students and that that the examination board would be asked to take the unusual situation into account when evaluating the Leaf genin's performance. She could only hope that they had already explained this to their students.

The door to her office cracked open. "Hokage-sama?" one of her chuunin guards asked as he poked his head inside. "Your first appointment is here."

Tsunade nodded. "Send them right in," she stated, and a moment later Maito Gai and his genin team stood in front of her. Tsunade glanced down at the scrolls on her desk and pulled out the appropriate one. "I'll say right off that this mission is highly unusual," she stated. "Were you ever given a ghost-hunting D-rank mission as fresh genin?"

Neji frowned. "No," he said. "Ghost-hunting?"

"You were lucky," Tsunade said. "Occasionally a superstitious peasant will hire us to get rid of a ghost he thinks is haunting him. Ordinarily, we give that kind of mission as a genin team's first mission without jounin supervision. We instruct them just to make a lot of noise and use a flashy technique or two, then tell the client that the ghost is gone. That usually works."

"That seems a little dishonest," Lee said disapprovingly.

Tsunade shrugged. "The clients pay a little money and in return get peace of mind. It's a fair trade, even if they don't realize how it works."

"What if it doesn't work, Hokage-sama?" Tenten asked curiously.

"That hardly ever happens," Tsunade replied dryly. "The policy is to then refund the money and advise the client to seek the services of a priest."

"So why are my students being given such a mission?" Gai asked, sounding slightly offended. "They're hardly fresh from the academy."

"In this case," Tsunade said, "the ghost we are being hired to eliminate is the last daimyo of the Bird Country, and the client is the current daimyo's chief adviser."

"Bird Country?" Tenten asked.

Neji closed his eyes briefly. "It lies between the Earth and Wind Countries, bordering the Rain," he said. "Traditionally, it is considered to be in the Hidden Rock's sphere of influence."

"Precisely," Tsunade said, "the reason why I'm not sending a fresh team."

"So we're being hired by some faction in Bird Country opposed to the Rock?" Tenten frowned. "No, in that case it would make more sense for them to go to the Sand or the Rain."

"Yes," Tsunade agreed. "For some reason, the client wants a team of fresh genin, completely unfamiliar with the area and not attached to any factions, to come to his country. Your mission is to pretend to be that team, figure out the motivations behind his actions, and resolve the situation in the best interests of the Fire Country and the Hidden Leaf." She held out the scroll, which Neji took. "The details are in there. I'm provisionally marking this as a C-rank mission, with the option to upgrade it to B-rank upon completion if events warrant. Understood?"

All three genin stiffened. "Yes, Hokage-sama," they said in unison.

"And what is my mission?" Gai asked.

"You are to follow your team covertly, conduct your own investigation, and provide support to your team if necessary," Tsunade said. Gai nodded. "All right then," Tsunade continued. "Dismissed."

Tsunade's next meeting was far shorter. It took only a few moments to assign Suzume Namida's genin team their mission to help escort Mitarashi Kimi's team to their assigned training ground and guard it. Unlike the other teams, the rookies didn't have anything close to the sort of record it took to convince Tsunade to assign them to a mission outside the D-ranks and low-risk C-ranks genin were usually given.

The meeting after that, however, was more complicated. Tsunade folded her hands before her face as she observed Sarutobi Asuma's Team Ten, including the rookie chuunin Nara Shikamaru. "I am going to assign you to an A-rank mission," Tsunade stated without preamble.

Shikamaru's eyes widened. "A-rank?" he asked. "Those are for jounin only!"

"Under ordinary circumstances," Tsunade stated. "You should know that, Nara-kun. After all, you have two A-rank missions under your belt already."

"What sort of mission is this?" Asuma asked.

"One that I believe lends itself to your team's strengths. I'm told you have the best espionage team that isn't already on a mission." Tsunade sighed. "Last week, we received a report from Daimyo Chichiatsu of the Swamp Country that Hatake Kakashi had been killed defending him from assassins sent by the Hidden Cloud."

"Kakashi-sensei?!" Chouji asked, shocked.

Ino's eyes watered. "Sakura," she breathed quietly. "Does she know?"

Tsunade nodded. "The daimyo reported that the body his men recovered was unidentifiable, and per usual practice we've sent word that we will be sending a team to identify the corpse and dispose of it properly."    

"Isn't that a mission for medical ninja?" Shikamaru asked.

Tsunade waved a hand. "It certainly isn't Kakashi's body."

"Why?" Chouji asked.

"The Hidden Cloud wouldn't leave the famous copy ninja Sharingan Kakashi's body behind," Tsunade stated. "It holds too many secrets."

"So what's our mission, then?" Shikamaru asked.

"I haven't told Haruno-kun this because I don't want to raise her hopes unnecessarily," Tsunade said, "but the daimyo's story doesn't add up."

Shikamaru nodded. "He's still alive, for one."

"Yes," Tsunade stated. "Among other details. Your mission is to determine precisely what happened and the current status of Hatake Kakashi." Her eyes hardened. "If it turns out that he was betrayed by Daimyo Chichiatsu… remove the daimyo if possible." All the young ninja froze, as though they were unable to believe what they had just heard.

"Wait just a moment!" Asuma shouted. "Assassination missions like that are ANBU's job!"

"If you judge it can't be done safely," Tsunade said, "then by all means return and I'll send ANBU. But if you can do it, I can't afford to waste unnecessary time and ninja. The situation the Hidden Leaf is in does not allow it. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Asuma said. "But I will file a protest."

"That is your right," Tsunade said, handing him the mission scroll. "Dismissed." Tsunade sighed as Asuma and his team left. Hopefully, that would be the most difficult of the morning's mission assignments. Asuma would probably calm down once he'd thought his way through the situation and realized that she'd left the decision on whether to go forward with the assassination entirely to his discretion. It was possible it wouldn't be necessary at all, for that matter.

Tsunade looked up as Yuuhi Kurenai and her team filed into her office. She really didn't know any of the members of this team very well, even the jounin. "We'll have to wait for just a moment," the Hokage said. "We're still waiting on one person, and I don't want to have to say everything twice." Kurenai nodded and Inuzuka Kiba sighed, while the other two members of the team remained impassive.

About a minute later, the door to the Hokage's office opened again. "I'm sorry I'm late, Hokage-sama," Haruno Sakura said as she slipped into the room. "I ran into Gai-sensei and he needed to tell me that -" The pink-haired kunoichi cut off, freezing as she noticed who else was in the room.

"You," Kiba growled, and Akamaru, resting by his feet stirred, letting out a sharp bark. Hyuuga Hinata stiffened, and Kurenai sighed, raising a hand to her forehead. Only Aburame Shino showed no visible reaction.

Tsunade's eyes flicked between her prospective apprentice and Kurenai's team. Something was very clearly wrong here. The Hokage carefully folded her hands in front of her face. "Is there some difficulty, Inuzuka-kun?" she asked, singling out the boy who had spoken. She was going to get to the bottom of this, and quickly, before it could fester.

"You can't seriously expect us to go on a mission with a traitor like her!" Kiba exclaimed.

Tsunade blinked. "Traitor?" she asked, her confusion showing in her voice. Had word of Sakura's apparent familial ties to the Mist spread somehow and been twisted in the telling? Tsunade noted without surprise that Sakura's fists were clenched. "That's a very serious accusation, Inuzuka-kun."

"I am not a," Sakura began angrily, only to cut off as Kiba spoke over her objection.

"What the hell else do you call what you three pulled?" he demanded. "You took advantage of the fact that we were comrades!" Sakura looked away, unable to meet Kiba's accusing glare.

"Would someone please explain?" Tsunade asked irritably.

Aburame Shino reached up to adjust his dark glasses before speaking. "Our teams encountered each other late in the second exam. We agreed to cooperate in mutually beneficial fashion, but Haruno-san's took advantage of our lowered guard and gained possession of our Earth Scroll."

Kiba snorted. "If you hadn't gone ahead and surrendered, we'd never have lost it."

Shino glanced at his teammate. "I told you then that it would be easier to procure another Earth Scroll than to fight Haruno-san's team, and I was correct. If you had not turned it over in the outer courtyard without waiting for my word, we would have passed regardless of Haruno-san's actions."

"That doesn't make any difference," Kiba said, grimacing.

"In any case, Hokage-sama," Shino continued, "I do not recommend that we be assigned to a mission with Haruno-san or her teammates. It would lead to unnecessary conflict that could harm the mission."

Tsunade's eyes were hard. "All of you will be going on this mission. Your team's abilities make you the best team available for this mission and Haruno-kun has relevant personal experience. Any other team I could form right now would be sub-optimal. You are all ninja of the Hidden Leaf. You will have to work together, now and in the future. A petty feud like this could mean your deaths, so you'd best forget about it now. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," all four genin responded.

"Good," Tsunade stated. "I am assigning you to a B-rank diplomatic mission." Her eyes swept the ninja before her. "Due to the high risk assigned to this mission, it will pay as a combat mission."

"High risk?" Kurenai asked.

"You will be traveling to Rice Field Country," Tsunade replied. Sakura nodded, as though she'd figured out the answer to a question.

"R-rice Field?" Hinata asked, her silver eyes widening. "That's where -"

"Yes," Tsunade stated. "It is home to the Hidden Sound."

"Has Hyuuga Hiashi-sama approved this mission?" Kurenai asked softly. One of of the many rights the Hyuuga claimed was that of veto over foreign missions assigned to head family members. Given the risks of the Byakugan falling into enemy hands, it was reasonable enough that no Hokage had ever challenged it.

"Yes," Tsunade said, "though he asked me to remind you of your responsibilities as jounin leader." Specifically, that of ensuring that no enemy took Hinata alive or gained possession of her intact corpse. Tsunade was damned, though, if she'd repeat Hiashi's exact words. Hinata didn't deserve to hear how little her father cared if she lived or died.

"Understood," Kurenai said darkly, and Tsunade knew that she had guessed what Tsunade hadn't stated out loud.

"The Hidden Leaf have been approached by a coalition of independent ninja clans from Rice Field opposed to Orochimaru and the Hidden Sound," Tsunade said after a moment. "While they are not in a position to directly fight the Sound, they have offered to provide us with intelligence. A meeting has been arranged with a representative of the lead clan of the coalition, the Fuuma, to seal the deal and set up communication channels. The details are in the mission scroll."

Kurenai accepted the scroll from Tsunade with a nod. "Understood," she repeated.

Tsunade nodded. "Yuuhi-san, stay a moment," she said. "The rest of you are dismissed." Once the genin were gone, Tsunade spoke again. "Are you aware of Hatake Kakashi's status, Yuuhi-san?" she asked.

Kurenai nodded. "Yes," she stated.

"I've been assigning everyone else in the finals to missions with their teachers so that their training will be minimally impacted, but that's not an option for Haruno-kun." Tsunade sighed.

Kurenai frowned. "You wish me to provide training for Haruno during the mission?"

Tsunade nodded. "If there's time," she said. The Hokage smiled slightly. "I'm told she has some talent for genjutsu, but little training in that field. A small bit of guidance from another genjutsu user could go a long way."

Kurenai was silent for a long moment. "The situation between Haruno and my team will make things difficult," she said finally, "but I'll do what I can."

Naruto shivered from the bitter wind, even though he was wearing and had zipped up the jacket of Mako's Jiraiya had given him as part of his disguise. Winter was coming, and he was much farther north than he was used to. It didn't help that there wasn't much to get in the way of the wind on a small ship sailing across the Gulf of Storms. "How can you stand the cold in that?" he asked.

The target of his question was Kitakami Rui, who sat on a convenient barrel, idly sharpening a dagger. She wore a short white kimono in the same style she'd worn yesterday, one that left most of her arms and legs bare. She looked up at Naruto, amusement in her violet eyes. "In the Snow Country," she said, "we would call this a warm summer day. It's not cold."

Jiraiya, standing nearby, laughed. "Don't scare the girl, Kitakami-san. More like a slightly chilly autumn day."

Rui blinked. "You've been in the Snow Country, Jiro-san?" she asked.

"When I was young, before Naru started traveling with me." Jiraiya answered. "I was hired to escort some people there from the Fire Country."

"Ah," Rui said. "Did you meet any of our clan then?"

"No," Jiraiya said after a moment, "I don't think so."

"Ah," Rui repeated, and her attention returned to her dagger.

Naruto shifted from foot to foot. "You said you were going to teach me something today, Uncle," he reminded Jiraiya eagerly. What sort of technique was he going to learn?

"I did, didn't I?" Jiraiya said, squatting down beside his student. "Let's see. I promised you a history lesson yesterday, I believe."

Naruto's face fell. "I want to learn a new technique!" he protested.

Jiraiya grinned. "Maybe if you pay attention," he said. He glanced up at Rui briefly. "Do correct me if I make any errors, Kitakami-san." The kunoichi only grunted. "All right, girl," Jiraiya said as his attention returned to Naruto, "the Snow Country lies to the north of Earth Country. Decades ago, it was home to the Hidden Village of Snow, which was one of the most powerful of the lesser hidden villages, almost as strong as one of the five major powers."

Rui glanced up. "It was a major power," she corrected.

Jiraiya smiled at her, shrugging. "I won't argue the point," he said. "It was close enough to make no difference, really. The Hidden Snow's mastery of ice element techniques gave them strength beyond their numbers."

"Ice element?" Naruto asked. "I thought there were only five elements."

"Five major schools of elemental techniques, yes," Jiraiya said. "Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Lightning. However, there are dozens of less common schools in existence. Except for a few bizarre examples, most of them are combinations of or specialized variants on one of the major schools. Ice element techniques, of course, are derived from water element techniques. They can be very powerful, but are extremely difficult to use in warm weather and often vulnerable to fire element techniques."

"You're very knowledgeable," Rui stated, her eyes narrowing.

"I've studied a lot," Jiraiya said, rubbing at his fake scar. "It's helped me more than a few times."

"So what happened to the Hidden Snow?" Naruto asked. The sooner Jiraiya got done with the story, the sooner he could learn a new technique.

"We were betrayed," Rui said harshly.

"The Snow used to control the balance of power between the Cloud and the Rock," Jiraiya explained, "but eventually the Cloud and Rock set aside their differences and crushed them with the help of some missing ninja from the Snow. That was… oh, about forty years ago. Every so often, a militaristic daimyo in Snow Country will try to reform the village, but none of that has ever amounted to anything more than a collection of mercenaries wearing forehead protectors."

"The Hidden Snow cannot be refounded," Rui said softly. "Not yet." Jiraiya looked up at her curiously, but she only shook her head.

"All right then," Naruto said. "What about that technique?"

Jiraiya sighed. "Fine," he said as he stood. "If only so I won't have to listen to you whine all day." Rui chuckled at that. "A lot of the techniques you can use, Naru, are earth element techniques. As you may have noticed, those won't be terribly useful if we're attacked now."

Naruto nodded. "Right," he said.

"On the other hand, there's plenty of water around." Jiraiya walked over to the side of the ship, his hands flicking through a quick sequence of seals. Then he stretched out one hand, and a ball of water formed quickly in his open palm. "Suiton: Pressure Bullet," he stated, and the globe flew from his hand. Naruto's eyes followed it eagerly until it fell into the ocean. Jiraiya turned back to his student. "Don't try this technique when there's no water around," he warned. "You haven't got the chakra to be trying to create matter out of thin air or the control to take it from your body."

"Right," Naruto stated. "What were the seals?"

Jiraiya glanced at Rui. "As pleasant as your company is," he began.

The kunoichi laughed. "Understood," she stated, putting up her dagger and leaping off of the barrel she was sitting on. "I'll be going." She glanced at Naru. "Perhaps sometime later we could spar, Naru-san," she suggested.

Naruto glanced at Jiraiya, who nodded. "I don't see why not," the older ninja said. "So long as it's just a spar."

"Good," Rui stated. "Having been trained by someone as knowledgeable as you, Jiro-san, it will be interesting to see what strength she hides." She nodded once more, then walked away.

Day Forty-six

The Hokage's pronouncement that the "petty feud" resulting from the events of the second exam should be set aside had, predictably, had very little effect. Kiba was clearly doing the best he could to ignore Sakura's presence, but the pink-haired kunoichi could not avoid noticing the series of snarls and glares he sent her way. It was easy to tell that he would like little more than crushing her in a painful way during a rematch, and in other circumstances Sakura thought that he might have started such a battle already. That thought was more than a little discomforting, considering that in theory at least they were supposed to be teammates right now.

Still, Sakura preferred his barely restrained aggression to Hinata's quiet stare. Sakura had never quite felt comfortable around the Hyuuga heir. She was always looking at Naruto in a weird way with those eyes of hers, and while Hinata was never anything but polite to Sakura, the pink-haired kunoichi had always somehow gotten the impression that Hinata didn't like her very much for some reason. If that hadn't been the case before, it certainly was now. Calling the few brief words the two kunoichi had exchanged this morning frosty was making them sound far friendlier than they were.

Strangely enough, Shino, the only member of the team Sakura had actually wounded herself, seemed the least unfriendly. Then again, reading Shino was hard in the best of times. For all Sakura knew, he could be boiling over with rage inside. At least, unlike his teammates, he wasn't making an effort to stay as far away from Sakura as possible while remaining in formation. Still, Sakura made a mental note to keep a very careful eye out for any suspicious bugs.

That, Sakura knew, was a serious problem. They were headed for the Rice Field Country, domain of the Leaf Village's most dangerous enemy. There was entirely too much possibility that they would have to fight ninja from the Hidden Sound. Spending any time at all worrying about attack from her teammates was spending far too much time. Tsunade had been very right when she had said that sort of thing could mean their deaths. Her very presence was a burden, endangering the mission.

The worst part was that Sakura knew that this was her fault. She had been the one to propose that her team take Team Eight's Earth Scroll. It had seemed so clearcut then, during the exam. The rules of the exam were the rules - every team for itself. They had needed the scroll, and the other members of the so-called "Rookie Nine" had possessed one. Time had been running out, and the proper course of action had seemed obvious. Take what they needed. Use deceit and surprise to nullify the advantages of a stronger foe, just like they were taught in the academy.

Sakura had never imagined that she would be going on a mission with the victims of her plan so soon afterward. She had never thought that she would feel this guilty. She tried to console herself by remembering what Shino had said the day before. Team Eight had gotten another Earth Scroll and failed because they had not made it past Ibiki's final test in the outer courtyard. She had to agree with Kiba, though. That didn't change anything. It wasn't like she had known that would happen when she had made her decision.

Yuuhi Kurenai sighed suddenly, attracting the attention of all four genin under her command. "Let's stop for today," the jounin said, glancing at the sun, which had just begun to set. "If we go much farther, we'll get close enough to the border that we might run into Sound." She glanced at the four genin. "Right now, I don't think that would be a good idea."

All four of them clearly understood what she referred to. Or at least, that was what Sakura guessed, given the three stares she was suddenly on the receiving end of. Her shoulders slumped. She just couldn't take much more of this, not with everything else that was going on. That was the only good thing about this mess, that it was distracting her from worrying about Kakashi's fate, the fact that she still hadn't talked to her mother about Midori, or the upcoming third exam.

"Look," Sakura said as she set down her pack. "I'm not going to say that you three shouldn't be angry at me. I would be in your position, but Hokage-sama was right. This could get us killed." Kurenai nodded slightly at that. "For what it's worth, I'm not terribly happy about what I did, but I didn't see any other way at the time. If you want to hate me, that's fine, so long as we work as a team for this mission."

Shino silently turned away from her, setting down his own pack and beginning to set up the tent he and Kiba would share for the night. The other male ninja and Hinata didn't follow suit, still staring at Sakura. "You call that an apology?" Kiba growled after a moment. Akamaru barked as though to punctuate his master's question.

"No," Sakura stated. "I call it the truth."

Kiba stalked up to her, forming a fist and aiming it at her face. "Kiba!" Kurenai snapped. Sakura just closed her eyes, tensing as she anticipated the blow.

It didn't come. "Damn it," Kiba snarled. "If you weren't a girl, I'd hit you, but it's not right for a boy to act like that." Sakura began to relax as she heard him turn and walk away.

Then someone slapped her. Sakura opened her eyes, staring at Hinata in disbelief. "I'm not a boy," the Hyuuga heir stated calmly, then she too walked away and began to set up the tent the kunoichi would be sleeping in. Sakura rubbed at her cheek, then followed. The two of them worked in silence, for which Sakura was grateful. Kurenai sighed as she watched them, but she didn't say anything either.

A few hours later, the campsite was completely set up and the five ninja had eaten an uncomfortable, mostly silent dinner. Afterwards, Sakura walked over to her pack and pulled out a pair of gloves and a set of metal arm weights Gai had given her. She couldn't afford to waste any time, not if she hoped to make any real progress in her taijutsu in less than thirty days. Sasuke had done it, but he was Sasuke. She wasn't.

"Training for the third exam?" Kiba asked, more than a hint of bitterness in his voice. Sakura only nodded as she slipped on her gloves.

"Training with a partner," Shino commented suddenly, "can be much more effective than training alone." He paused. "It would also allow us to become more familiar with your fighting style. That is part of teamwork." Sakura glanced at him. Was this the bug user's way of saying he wanted a rematch?

Kiba grinned maliciously, cracking his knuckles. "I'd be happy to be her partner," he said slowly.

"No," Kurenai said dryly. "I want her to be able to fight in the morning." Kiba sighed, then his teacher continued. "Still, Sakura, Shino has a point. I would like to see you in action before I have to command you in a life-or-death situation."

Sakura nodded. "Yes, Kurenai-sensei."

Shino stirred, but it was Hinata who stood first. "I'll spar with her," she stated. Sakura nodded again, and a moment later the pair of kunoichi were standing ten paces apart just outside the campsite.

Sakura quickly ran through her options. She knew Hinata was a bad match for her, just as she had been in the exam. Genjutsu would be useless and taijutsu would be extremely dangerous against the Gentle Fist. She would have to keep her distance and hope Hinata hadn't mastered the Heavenly Spin. For an instant, Sakura considered taking off her weights, but this was training, not real combat.

"Begin," Kurenai stated, and Sakura's released the shuriken she had been readying all the while. In an instant, a kunai appeared in Hinata's hands, and the Hyuuga expertly parried the projectiles, then threw her own weapon. Even with the weights slowing her down, Sakura was able to dodge, but by then Hinata had begun to charge, her Byakugan activated.

Sakura formed a seal with one hand. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" She didn't aim to hit her opponent, instead simply forming a barrier with the fiery talons to keep her at bay. As Hinata jumped away from the fire, Sakura released the technique, hurling more shuriken at the Hyuuga.

As Hinata landed, her eyes narrowed. "Heavenly Spin!" she shouted, and the oncoming missiles were harmlessly deflected by a twisting wall of chakra.

Sakura's heart fell. What was she supposed to do, then? There was no way she could penetrate Hinata's absolute defense. All she could do was drag this out as long as possible. As Hinata charged again, Sakura leapt away, drawing and throwing a kunai in one smooth motion. Hinata leaned aside, letting the blade pass harmlessly by. Sakura's hand rested on the hilt of another kunai as she waited for her foe's next move.

Sakura's eyes widened as Hinata began to form a very familiar set of seals. Since when had she had the chakra to use that technique? "Shadow Replication Technique," Hinata stated, forming a shadow clone on either side of her. As one, the three Hyuuga charged.

In an instant, Sakura had re-activated the Claw of the Fire Dragon, swiping at one Hinata with the flames. There was a puff of smoke as the clone vanished, but now one Hinata had gotten behind Sakura. Before Sakura could react, both of her opponents dropped to all fours. Her eyes widened again as faintly visible chakra began to pour from every part of Hinata's two bodies.

"Dual Piercing Heavenly Spin!" the two shouted in unison. Sakura futilely threw up her arms as the two whirling blurs of motion sped toward her. She felt one hand strike her, knocking her into the air. The next blow never came. One Hinata went flying into a tree, vanishing in a puff of smoke. The other Hinata stood still, restrained by one of Kurenai's arms. Sakura landed heavily on her side.

"That's enough," Kurenai stated. "This was a spar. There was no reason to use a soldier pill."

Hinata nodded curtly. "Yes, Kurenai-sensei."

Sakura half-rose, clutching at her side where the one blow had struck. "That was," she began.

Kiba grinned. "An imitation of the Inuzuka Clan's Beast Mimicry Style taijutsu, using the Hyuuga's Heavenly Spin," he stated proudly.

"Sakura," Kurenai stated as she released Hinata. "Are you all right?"

Sakura forced herself to nod and rise. "I'm fine," she said.

"Good," Kurenai responded. "That's enough for tonight."

As the other four ninja began to walk back into the campsite, Sakura stayed behind, clenching her fists. Damn it. She had come so far since six months ago, but it still hadn't made any difference. Hinata had come so much farther. If that had been her first match in the third exam, it would all be over. So much for her promise to herself to never be left behind again.

"Damn it," she said out loud, her fists tightening. She could feel her eyes watering, but she forced herself to hold in the pointless tears. She wasn't going to cry. Instead she walked over to where she had left her arm weights and slipped them on. Without saying anything to her companions she approached a convenient tree, then slammed her fist into the trunk. Her other arm followed suit a moment later.

"One," she counted to herself as she brought her first arm back for another punch.

Naruto cursed as the ball of water he could almost feel about to form in his palm failed to actually appear. A few days ago, he had finally thought that he was getting the hang of performing those earth element techniques the way Jiraiya had wanted him to. He had felt the few dregs of chakra he had left to himself permeating the earth under his fingertips, making it move almost like a part of his body. It had been an entirely different feeling than how he had normally felt using those techniques.

That sudden breakthrough wasn't helping him very much now, though. He thought that he could feel the water vapor in the air before his hand, but there wasn't anywhere near enough of it to form a ball on its own. When he tried to spread his chakra out further to gather in more water, it dissipated like always. If only there was some way to bring the water to him instead.

Naruto's eyes narrowed as an idea occurred to him. After a few minutes of pleading with the nearest sailor - highly embarrassing, but Naruto tried to think of it as simply a variation on his Sexy Technique - Naruto was squatted over a bucket of seawater. Nodding to himself, he rapidly worked his way through the sequence of seals Jiraiya had taught him before. As soon as he'd formed the last seal, he laid one hand flat on the water's surface.

Concentrating furiously to call on every bit of stamina that remained to him, Naruto channeled chakra into the water. As he raised his hand, most of the bucket's contents rose with it. Naruto stood, staring happily at the globe of water hanging from his palm. Then his eyes widened as it began to distort, seeking to escape the bonds his chakra had forced it into. He raced over to the side of the ship, thrusting out his arm. "Suiton: Pressure Bullet!" The pulsating sphere of water flew away from his hand. Unlike Jiraiya's, it only made it a few yards before losing its coherence. Naruto didn't despair as the now-ordinary water rained down onto a patch of ocean, though. He was finally making some sort of progress.

"Not bad," Jiraiya said from where he had been watching his student with one eye as he flipped through the perverted novel he had bought earlier in the week. "I was wondering how long it would take you to think of that."

Naruto glared at his teacher. "Maybe if you actually tried to teach me something instead of making me figure everything out myself, I'd have already mastered this technique."

Jiraiya sighed. "Didn't we have this discussion once already, girl?"

Naruto sighed as he remembered that conversation. "Can't you at least give me a hint?"

Jiraiya put up his novel with another sigh. "Watch me closely," he said. "I'll go through this slowly." He formed the seals carefully, then held out a hand. At first, nothing seemed to happen. Then Naruto began to see tiny droplets of water hanging in midair before Jiraiya's palm. They began to flow together into a tiny sphere, which grew rapidly as more and more droplets appeared and merged with it. Jiraiya again strode over to the side of the ship, releasing the ball wordlessly. "There's your hint," he said as he pulled out his book again.

Naruto frowned. All the droplets he'd seen had been forming near Jiraiya's hand, but there was no way there was that much water in that small a space. His own efforts had shown that. Naruto shivered from a sudden gust of wind. His eyes widened. That was it! Quickly, before the insight left him, he raced through the seals for the technique once more.

This time, he channeled his chakra into the air before his hand like he had into the bucket of water, rather than trying to seek out individual water particles. Controlled by his chakra, those particles moved anyway, forming into tiny droplets. Instead of casting his chakra out wider in search of more water, Naruto began to move his hand. More and more droplets appeared as he caught more water vapor in his ball of chakra. Slowly, a smaller globe of water formed in the center of the field of chakra. With a happy yell, Naruto released the projectile. Again, it dissolved into a harmless spray of water after a few feet, but Naruto didn't let himself get discouraged.

"You certainly are good at coming up with backwards ways to perform techniques," Jiraiya commented with a shake of his head. "You're supposed to mold your chakra so that it attracts water vapor, not bring your chakra to the water."

Naruto glanced at his teacher. "How am I supposed to do that?" he asked. Jiraiya only sighed.

"Your training session not going well?" Kitakami Ichizo asked as he approached. His sister followed behind him. As always, the two were wearing white kimonos.

Jiraiya turned to Ichizo. "My niece can be a difficult student sometimes," he stated.

Rui smiled. "Perhaps you would like to take a break? I am still interested in a spar."

Jiraiya glanced at Naruto. "Naru-chan?" he asked.

Naruto took a deep breath. His unbelievably small-seeming chakra reserves were drained from the morning's practice session, but he thought he was up for a spar. "Any time," he said, grinning.

A few moments later, a space had been cleared on the deck for the match. A few off-duty sailors milled about curiously. "All right," Jiraiya said, "this is just a spar, you two. Don't do anything serious."

Rui glanced at him. "I'm not some hot-blooded brawler," she said, sounding slightly annoyed.

"That was more for Naru-chan," Jiraiya said dryly. Naruto shifted uncomfortably. It wasn't like he could pull out any serious techniques in this state, not without releasing the seal Jiraiya had warned him about. "All right, then," Jiraiya said. "Begin."

Before the sound of the word faded, three shuriken were in the air, flying toward Naruto. He tried to dodge, but too slowly, two shuriken striking him in the arm and chest. Rui didn't make any sign of surprise as a puff of smoke revealed the water barrel that had actually been hit. The real Naruto plunged a hand into the barrel and pulled out a small globe of water before charging.

Rui's eyes narrowed as she leaped backward, tossing more shuriken into the air. With a cry of "Suiton: Pressure Bullet," Naruto released his attack, then rolled aside, letting Rui's attack pass overhead.

Rui, meanwhile, raced through seals as Naruto's projectile neared her. "Hyouton: Crystal Ice Wall," she intoned. A mirror-like sheet of ice appeared out of thin air, Naruto's Pressure Bullet impacting it harmlessly.

Jiraiya's eyes widened slightly. "Impressive," he stated.

Ichizo grinned. "Rui's just getting started."

As though prompted by her brother's statement, the kunoichi formed another set of seals. "Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards." The wall of ice shattered, but rather than collapsing the razor-sharp pieces hung in the air briefly, then began to fly toward Naruto.

Naruto formed a single seal as he breathed in deeply. "Whirlwind Shield!" he shouted. Though the blast of wind that resulted was not nearly as impressive as he was used to, it was enough to push most of the oncoming ice shards aside. A handful still made it through, scoring minor wounds his arms and legs.

Panting, Naruto studied his opponent. He couldn't believe that he was already reaching his limits. Ordinarily, he'd be barely getting started now. Jiraiya hadn't been kidding when he'd told Naruto that he wouldn't have as much chakra as he was used to. Taijutsu was his best bet, Naruto decided. He didn't have the chakra to waste on any more techniques. Without wasting time on further thought, he charged, tossing a handful of shuriken to keep Rui occupied.

A dagger appeared in Rui's hands as she parried the shuriken. Then Naruto was upon her, sweeping her legs out from under her with a sudden kick. Rui arrested her fall with one hand, bringing her own leg up for a fast strike at Naruto's face. The disguised boy danced back, giving Rui time to regain her feet.

"You're not bad," Rui admitted, relaxing slightly. "I'm glad."

Naruto backed away slightly. "Glad?" he asked.

"We might have to fight together," Rui said, "if pirates or those slavers attack. With all the sailors, there would be enough burdens around without having to take care of a kunoichi who can't handle herself in a fight. I'm glad that's not the case."

It took Naruto a moment to realize that the "kunoichi" Rui was speaking of was himself. Then he was momentarily annoyed that Rui had thought he would be a burden, but he pushed that aside. She's admitted she'd been wrong, after all. "Thank you," he said after a moment.

Still, Naruto had to wonder. Sure he hadn't been at full strength, even for his present situation, but he'd been pushed to his current limits by such a short match. What good was he going to be in a real fight?

Day Forty-seven

Yuuhi Kurenai was not the type to get angry. Otherwise she would never have been able to be friends with Mitarashi Anko. Anyone with a bad temper tended to not last long in close association with the woman known throughout the village as the Leaf's most psychotic kunoichi. The fact that Anko thought that title was a complement was enough to make most of the rest avoid her when at all possible. It took a rare equanimity to actually enjoy her company.

Had Kurenai not possessed that composure, though, she would have been more than a little upset at the Hokage. Having to take her genin team into Rice Field Country - the very domain of Orochimaru - was bad enough, even if with care it could probably be done safely. Having to do it with an addition that was disrupting the teamwork of the group terribly was even worse. Combine that with the unusual but understandable request from the Hokage that Sakura be given some training while traveling, and even Kurenai was feeling at least a little irritated.

At least the mess yesterday had cleared the air a little bit. Hinata's uncharacteristic aggression was a puzzle though. Kurenai had actually thought at first that the Hyuuga heir had offered to spar with Sakura precisely to prevent the practice devolving into something more dangerous. It was embarrassing, but Kurenai had been so shocked when Hinata had taken a soldier pill that she hadn't even thought to intervene until it was almost too late. She should have realized that Hinata was unusually angry as soon as she had slapped Sakura.

But why? It wasn't like her to bear a grudge, but Hinata had been the one who Sakura's team had initially ambushed and almost trivially knocked out of the fight. It seemed almost impossible, but had she developed enough pride that it needed to be avenged? The fact that Hinata had seemed much less hostile since the fight pointed in that direction, but it was so unlike her that Kurenai found it hard to believe. It seemed more likely that Hinata had realized that she had gone a bit too far. Had that technique landed fully, Sakura could have been seriously wounded, endangering the mission.

Kurenai gave Sakura, walking beside the impassive Shino, a measuring glance. The pink-haired kunoichi had obviously been handicapped by the weights she was wearing, but even accounting for that her performance had been disappointing. Hinata had dominated the pace of the fight from beginning to end, and Sakura had never really even attempted to take control of the match. "Haruno-kun," Kurenai stated softly.

Sakura glanced back at the jounin. "Yes, Kurenai-sensei?" she asked.

Kurenai gestured at her to come nearer. "I want to talk with you a moment." Sakura nodded and briefly slowed her pace, falling to back to walk beside Kurenai. The older woman's eyes turned to her team. "Kiba, we're getting close to the border. Take Akamaru and scout ahead. Hinata, Shino, keep an eye out for ambushers."

"Yes, Kurenai-sensei," her team said almost in unison, and a moment later Kiba had vanished into the forest surrounding the trail they were following.

"You wanted to speak with me?" Sakura prompted.

"Your fight with Hinata was a little disappointing," Kurenai responded. "You stayed almost purely on the defensive."

Sakura grimaced. "My taijutsu isn't good enough to go toe-to-toe with the Gentle Fist, and I don't have anything that can penetrate the Heavenly Spin. There wasn't anything I could do offensively."

Kurenai sighed. "You shouldn't ever go into a fight expecting to lose, Haruno-kun. That's the first step toward defeat." She paused. "No matter how strong a defense is, there's always a way to get past it."

"So what should I have done, then?" Sakura asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.

The jounin resisted the urge to smile. Being second-guessed about your decisions in a fight was never pleasant, was it? "I've heard that you're supposed to be a genjutsu-type," she stated after a moment. "You never even tried to use a genjutsu during the match."

Sakura blinked. "What good would it have done? She could have seen through any genjutsu with her Byakugan."

Kurenai sighed. The girl clearly hadn't had any real genjutsu training, just like the Hokage had said. "Not necessarily. The Byakugan just gives the Hyuuga extra senses. If you're good enough, they can be fooled like any other sense. The same goes for any doujutsu's 'eye of insight.'" A grimace passed on the jounin's face as she remembered her brief, humiliating encounter with Uchiha Itachi. "Of course, some doujutsu are more difficult to defeat than others," she admitted, "and at your level it would be very tough.

"Even a genjutsu that's seen through can have a tactical use, though," Kurenai continued. "Take the Hell-Viewing Technique. Only someone fresh out of the academy wouldn't realize it's a genjutsu, but seeing a terrible fear come to life can shake an opponent even so."

Sakura grimaced, as though Kurenai had brought up an unpleasant memory, but then she shook her head. "I don't have any genjutsu like that, though," she stated.

"Which genjutsu do you know?" Kurenai asked. The Hell-Viewing Technique was one of the simplest offensive genjutsu, and usually one of the first taught to a prospective genjutsu user.

"The Perfect Replication Technique and the Sly Mind-Affecting Technique," Sakura stated. "Maybe I could have done something with the Perfect Replication Technique, but I don't see how confusing Hinata-san's sense of direction would have helped me at all."

"Two chuunin-level genjutsu," Kurenai muttered to herself. The Sakura she had seen in the last Chuunin Exam had learned those techniques, without the benefit of substantial grounding in basic genjutsu?

"Is something wrong, Kurenai-sensei?" Sakura asked, sounding worried.

"Not with you," Kurenai answered. What had the Third Hokage been thinking when he had assigned the teams? He'd given her, widely considered among to Leaf to be the most talented genjutsu expert of her generation, a bug user and two taijutsu specialists who needed instruction in family styles that she couldn't even learn, much less teach. Meanwhile, a genjutsu-type like Sakura had been assigned to Hatake Kakashi, who's perception of genjutsu's use, in Kurenai's opinion, was completely distorted by that Sharingan of his. What possible logic had supported that decision?

Both kunoichi looked up as Kiba returned to the group. "No one's around," he said. "I even ran ahead to the river and didn't see anybody."

Kurenai nodded, looking around. "All right," she said. "We'll camp here and cross the river into Rice Field Country tomorrow."

"It's barely past noon," Shino stated blandly.

"We'll need the time," Kurenai responded. "I'm going to go over the mission details and the best practices for handling yourself in an enemy country, and then we're going to do some teamwork exercises." None of the genin looked terribly happy with that, but at least nobody complained either.

The day had dawned cold and overcast, and the weather had shown no signs of improvement as the hours had crawled on towards noon. For once, though, Naruto didn't have time to be complaining about the winter weather. He was kneeling over a bucket of seawater working on improving the length of time he could hold his new water element technique together. Unlike the training he was used to, he found himself having to take frequent breaks to rest and allow his chakra to recover, and this served only to annoy him further.

"You shouldn't get upset," Jiraiya said, leaning against the railing along the side of the ship. "The way you are now, you did as well as could be expected. I think she probably would have been a tough challenge even if you had better chakra reserves."

Naruto looked up. "Why?" he asked. Rui hadn't seemed all that strong.

Jiraiya sighed. "She wasn't just manipulating water vapor for her techniques," he said. "She formed that sheet of ice out of nothing. That takes a lot of skill and chakra."

Kitakami Ichizo, who was walking up to the pair, smiled. "You are observant, Jiro-san." He paused, and when he spoke again there was perhaps a hint of bitterness in his voice. "Rui-chan has the greatest talent for ice element techniques seen since the destruction of the Snow Village."

Jiraiya blinked slowly. "Is that so?" he asked.

Naruto had to resist the urge to stare up at his teacher. From the bland tone of Jiraiya's voice, he guessed that Jiraiya had realized something interesting, but didn't want Ichizo to realize it. The ninja from Snow Country, not as used to Jiraiya's tones of voice, only nodded. "Yes," Ichizo said. "She is the best hope for -" He cut off suddenly. "I shouldn't bother you with our problems," he stated, obviously forcing another smile to his face.

Whatever Jiraiya might have said in response was lost as the lookout perched high atop one of the masts suddenly began to shout. Answering, panicked cries responded from other sailors. "What's going on?" Naruto asked, standing.

Jiraiya had turned around, looking out to sea. "There," he said grimly as he pointed. Naruto's eyes widened as he saw three small ships, surprisingly close to their own vessel and drawing nearer with every second. He could make out armed men crowding the decks of the oncoming ships.

"Pirates," Ichizo growled, pulling his sword out of its sheath on his back. The over-sized, straight blade briefly reminded Naruto of Zabuza's weapon, but the disguised boy shook his head to clear it it of the sudden thought. There was no time for that. "How did they get so close?" Ichizo asked.

"Genjutsu," Jiraiya responded, fingering the hilt of his own large sword. "A strong one."

"What do we do?" Naruto asked.

"Can you two walk on water?" Ichizo asked. When the two disguised Leaf ninja nodded, he continued. "We intercept them."

Bunzo, the first mate of their ship, ran up to the three ninja. "The captain says you all get a bonus if you can stop them before they can board us," he said breathlessly.

"Rui!" Ichizo shouted. His sister appeared suddenly behind him. "Jiro-san," Ichizo continued, "Rui and I can use an ice element technique to stop those ships, but it'll take some time to prepare. We'll need to come at them from two sides and someone to defend us while we work on the technique."

"All right," Jiraiya responded. "Should I go with you or Rui-san?"

"With me," Ichizo responded. "Rui is the stronger of us, and unless I miss my guess you're stronger than your niece. The teams will be more balanced that way."

"Fine," Jiraiya said after a moment. "Be careful, Naru-chan."

"Right," Naruto responded nervously. Would he really be any use the way he was right now?

Rui laid a hand on his shoulder. "You'll be fine," she stated. "Follow me." She leapt off the boat, landing lightly on the ocean surface. A moment later Naruto stood beside her. "This way," Rui said as she began to race across the water.

Naruto followed, glancing to the side to see the two older ninja also making their way toward the oncoming ships. Jiraiya waved briefly at his student before he and Ichizo shifted direction so that they'd come at the pirates from the other side. "What do I need to do?" Naruto asked.

"Ichizo needs preparation time more than me," Rui said, "but I'll still be vulnerable for a little while before I unleash my technique. If there are any ninja with the pirates, they'll come after us. Keep anyone who does busy."

"Right," Naruto said.

As they neared the pirate vessels, a lone figure jumped down from closest. In a single smooth motion, he threw a half-dozen kunai at the oncoming defenders. Naruto leapt in front of Rui, forming a single seal. "Whirlwind Shield!" he shouted. Not quite as weak as the day before, the burst of wind stopped the missiles in their tracks. Naruto reached out, grabbing one by the hilt and throwing it back at the pirate. It hit him in the chest, but he dissolved into water. "Water Replication?" Naruto guessed.

"Just the replacement technique," Rui corrected. "He'll probably come up from beneath. Keep an eye out while I work." She stopped running, beginning to race through a long sequence of seals.

Naruto pulled out one of his own kunai as he carefully watched for the enemy ninja. Where was he hiding? Naruto jumped up, moments before a pair of hands would have grasped his ankles. Unthinkingly, he threw his kunai, but even as it left his hands he realized it couldn't hurt the submerged ninja. Naruto's hands flicked through seals. As he landed lightly, almost directly above the barely visible form of the enemy ninja, he laid one hand on the water. "Suiton: Pressure Bullet!" he shouted.

Rather than lifting the ball of water out of the ocean, Naruto released it as soon as it was formed. The attack hit his submerged foe full-strength, the surface rippling from the disturbance when the chakra-charged water exploded with sudden force. A moment later, the enemy ninja shot out of the water perhaps a dozen feet away from the pair of defenders. He stood unsteadily, almost losing his footing from a passing wave.

"It's over," Rui stated as she formed a final seal. "Hyouton: Field of Still Waves!" Instantly, hundreds of square yards of ocean before the kunoichi froze over. On the other side of the trio of pirate ships, the same thing occurred almost simultaneously. Together, Ichizo and Rui's techniques had completely surrounded the enemy. The three ships were halted instantly, unable to push through the ice, which looked to be at least ten feet thick.

Naruto glanced down at the slick surface beneath his feet. "Wow," he stated.

The enemy ninja seemed just as shocked. "That's," he began in surprise, but before he finished his sentence he tossed a smoke bomb at his feet. When the dark smoke had cleared, he was gone.

Rui smiled. "Now to finish this." Her hands formed another seal, then her eyes widened and her smile vanished.

Naruto followed her gaze. The three entrapped ships shimmered briefly, then turned into impossibly detailed still sculptures of ice, down to the men crowding their decks. "What in the world?" Naruto asked.

"Ice replications," Rui breathed. "So the rumors were correct."

Naruto's eyes widened. "The whole ships?" Was that sort of thing even possible?

"There's no time," Rui snarled. "We have to get back to the ship!" Without waiting for Naruto to comment, she whirled around.

Standing calmly atop the waves between them and their ship stood a young woman with long, silver hair wearing a fine white kimono decorated with a pale blue, flame-like pattern near the edges. Around her neck she wore a strange forehead protector that Naruto had never seen before, but he guessed it belonged to the Hidden Snow. Far away, on the other side of their ship, a massive, three-masted warship bearing black sails appeared out of thin air.

"You," Rui growled at the woman. "Stay back, Naru-san," she said quietly. "This is my fight." He hated to do it, but Naruto cautiously backed away.

The strange woman smiled. "You're a Kitakami," she said, sounding highly amused.

"My name," Rui snarled as her hands flickered through seals, "is Kitakami Rui, Grandmother. Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards!" Razor-sharp blades of ice materialized out of thin air, hovering around the young kunoichi. She formed another seal, and the shards flew at the older woman.

The silver-haired woman waved a hand negligently, and the shards stopped in midair. "Interesting," she said mildly. "I wasn't aware there was anyone else left who could create ice so easily."

Rui's hands moved through more seals, and her attack began to slowly move again. "I was given this power," she grunted, "to kill you!"

The woman's eyes widened, but she glanced back at where her massive ship had closed with the smaller merchant vessel. She seemed shaken when she turned back to Rui. "I don't have time to play with you now, girl." Her hands began to move through seals of their own, and the ice summoned by Rui shuddered and reversed. Rui collapsed to her knees, but the woman wasn't finished. Her hands kept moving, and the massive field of ice and the ice ships behind the three ninja began to crumble. The countless shards rose into the air and surrounded Naruto and Rui.

Rui's eyes widened as she took in the maelstrom of ice that surrounded the pair. "Such power," she breathed.

The older woman smiled. "If you survive this, come visit me at Hakuhyou Island, Rui-chan," she said. Then her form shimmered, becoming a statue of ice which broke apart, the shards joining the whirling ice storm. "Hyouton: One Hundred Thousand Diamond Shards," a quiet, ethereal voice stated.

Naruto reacted without thinking, shielding Rui with his body. "Naru-san!" Rui shouted at him, but he ignored her. Concentrating, he instinctively released the seal that Jiraiya had warned him of. Warmth flooded him, and he could feel chakra escaping the tight spiral over his heart. He grit his teeth, ignoring the sudden pain from the other spiral that he could feel appearing over his stomach. With an effort of will, as soon as he had enough chakra, he forced the first seal to snap back into existence, again blocking off most of his chakra. This was still enough of a growth in power that Rui could feel it. "Naru-san?" she breathed.

Naruto's hands formed a single seal and he took in a deep breath. The storm of ice shards surrounding them had stopped circling, and as one they all flew straight at the pair. Naruto waited until almost the last second before he released his technique.

"Whirlwind Shield!"

"Ice replications!" Kitakami Ichizo snarled as he stared at what had until moments before appeared to be a trio of pirate ships. "It is her after all!"

"Her?" Jiraiya asked, though he was certain he knew the answer. He was already starting to run back toward their ship, easily seeing through the genjutsu that still cloaked the true pirate ship.

Ichizo, breathing heavily from the effort of using the powerful technique that had trapped the false ships, followed as quickly as he could. "There's no time. She could attack our ship at any moment."

Jiraiya resisted the urge to sigh. Even if he hadn't already known the truth, he would now know that something was up. "Hunting for a missing ninja?" he asked.

"How did you -" Ichizo began, only to cut off as a woman appeared before him. "Kitakami Yuki," he growled as he formed a seal around the hilt of his over-sized sword. "Suiton: Wave-Smashing Blow!" he shouted, striking the water with his weapon. The ocean parted slightly as he struck, and a wall of water rose, moving rapidly toward the woman.

She formed a handful of seals. "Hyouton: Crystal Ice Wall," she stated. The wall of ice that appeared in front of her easily deflected Ichizo's attack, then vanished. "Interesting," she stated. "You must be from Hidden Snow."

Jiraiya didn't wait for Ichizo to respond or the woman to counter-attack, unsheathing his own large, curved blade and charging. The woman sighed, waving an arm and calling her barrier back into existence. Jiraiya didn't slow, charging straight up the slick surface. As he reached the top, he saw the woman's eyes widen as he leapt down, beheading her with a single strike as he landed. The ice replication shattered, and with it the ice wall vanished once more.

"You're good, Jiro-san," Ichizo said.

Jiraiya resheathed his blade. "If that's really Kitakami Yuki, we don't have time to trade compliments," he said. "Let's move." She had looked a little different, but it had been a few decades since Jiraiya had last seen the Hidden Snow's most notorious missing ninja. She'd actually looked more like what he remembered than he'd expected.

"You know of her?" Ichizo asked as he began to move.

Jiraiya nodded. "I told you I've studied history," he said.

"Right," Ichizo answered, but Jiraiya could tell he didn't quite believe him. The Kitakami glanced about. "Damn it," he said. "I don't see Rui."

"They'll be heading back for the ship too," Jiraiya answered. "We'll meet up there." The two exchanged no more words until they had caught up with their ship, leaping from the surface of the ocean to the deck in a single leap.

The battle there was already over. Every sailor visible was encased in ice, and pirates were boarding freely from their larger vessel. Standing in the center of the deck was the same silver-haired woman the pair had fought before. "I was expecting you two," she said. She raised a hand, and the pirates that had already been approaching the pair of defending ninja had begun to back away.

"Circle around her," Ichizo whispered to Jiraiya. "We have to keep her busy until Rui-chan gets here. She's the only one who can defeat her."

Jiraiya gave his partner a glance. "If you say so."

Ichizo raised his sword. "Kitakami Yuki!" he bellowed. "You have committed crimes for which the only possible sentence is death! In the name of the Kitakami Clan and the Hidden Village of Snow, die!" He charged.

The woman laughed. "Such nostalgic words," she said. "You're making me feel young again." Her hands flicked through seals. "Hyouton: Ice Coffin Technique!" She spat out a tiny bullet of ice at the oncoming ninja, who deflected it with the flat of his blade.

"I won't be defeated so easily, traitor!" he shouted.

"Prove it," the woman said.

By now Jiraiya had circled around behind the woman, and his hands moved through seals of their own. He couldn't afford to hold back as much as he'd like to here, not against her. "Katon: Phoenix Flame Technique!" he shouted, a rapid torrent of small fireballs spewing out of his mouth.

Kitakami Yuki spun about, her hands already in the final seal for her next technique. "Hyouton: Snow Storm Swallows!" A flock of delicate-seeming, bird-like ice creatures sprung into being around her. Each flew directly at an oncoming fireball, colliding with and canceling out Jiraiya's technique.

As he came up behind her, Ichizo swung wildly at Yuki, a blow that would have cut her in two if it landed. Instead, she somehow caught the blade with one hand. She easily yanked the weapon from Ichizo's hands. "I'm not interested in you anymore," she said, half-turning and delivering a powerful kick that sent Ichizo flying back into a mast. In an instant, a half-dozen of the watching pirates had tackled the fallen ninja.

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed as he drew his weapon. "So you're interested in me?" he asked cautiously. This could get a little dangerous. The woman dropped her stolen weapon, and for a moment his eyes followed its fall.

Before it hit the ground, Kitakami Yuki stood beside him, one hand twirling her long, silver hair. "I've always been interested in you, Jiraiya-san," she whispered into his ear.

Jiraiya stiffened. "So you saw through my disguise," he said, just as softly.

Yuki smiled. "Of course," she said. "Your disguise isn't that much unlike how you looked back then." She reached out with one hand, prying the curved sword from Jiraiya's unresisting hands and tossing it aside.

"I didn't expect to run into an old friend like this." Jiraiya surreptitiously reached for a kunai. Where were Naruto and Rui? "I'd make a poor slave," he said casually. "Why don't you just let us all go? For old time's sake." He glanced about cautiously for any sign that his student and Rui were drawing near.

"Was the cross-dresser important to you?" Yuki asked. "He's probably dead, unless that Rui is stronger than I thought."

Jiraiya stiffened. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to fight you seriously now, Yuki-chan," he said, still in a whisper. "I haven't got time to play with you right now."

"You should make time," Yuki said. "I think if you showed your true strength here, things might get troublesome for you." She glanced up at the deck of her ship. Jiraiya followed her gaze, only to pale as he saw the figure that stood there, gazing in apparent boredom at the battle scene below him.

"You have dangerous allies," he said quietly.

Yuki laughed slightly. "You really should let me take you prisoner," she said. "If the other two live, they'll be heading for my fortress. I made sure of that." She smiled, breathing heavily in Jiraiya's ear. "Besides, I can make the wait fun."

It probably would have surprised many who knew him just how little this final argument made in Jiraiya's ultimate decision, but in the end it didn't seem like he had any other good choice. "All right," he said, raising his hands slightly. "You win for now, Yuki-chan."

Tsunade had no idea just how much more paperwork she would have to deal with if her assistant was not as competent and dedicated as she was. Whenever Shizune wasn't attending Tsunade, working in the hospital, or serving as a medical ninja in a patrol squad, she could be found in the administration building, working her way through piles of reports and forms. Anything that needed the Hokage's personal attention - as quite a bit did, to Tsunade's despair - Shizune set aside. The remainder she either dealt with herself or delegated to an appropriate person.

Shizune had just finished writing a sternly worded note to the jounin in charge of gate duty, reminding him that it was his job to arrange a schedule for the low-ranking chuunin in rotation for the job, when a ninja appeared in a puff of smoke in front of her desk. Shizune looked up. "Good morning, ANBU-san," she said politely. "Is there a problem?"

The masked ninja nodded slightly. "Hokage-sama asked us to inform you of any suspicious activity on the part of Haruno Amaya."

"Yes," Shizune confirmed. "What has she done?" For Sakura's sake, she hoped it wasn't anything serious.

"Yamanaka Inoichi informed her of the apparent death of Kakashi-sempai," the ANBU responded. "Immediately after he left, Haruno-san began to head here. She's apparently attempting to avoid being observed, but not with any great skill."

"Interesting," Shizune said. "Bring her to me." Tsunade's attendant quickly began to clear her desk of anything sensitive as the ANBU vanished in another puff of smoke.

A few minutes later, a visibly frightened Haruno Amaya was dragged into Shizune's office. She carried a large bundle that Shizune easily recognized in her arms. "Are you the Hokage?" she asked nervously.

Shizune smiled comfortingly at the dark-haired woman. It was obvious from her looks that Sakura was her daughter, despite the differing hair colors. "No, Haruno-san," she said simply. "I am Hokage-sama's assistant. My name is Shizune." She glanced at the pair of ANBU who had brought in Amaya. "Leave us." The two elite ninja complied.

The woman held out her burden. "Can you… make sure that Sakura-chan gets this, when the time comes? It was her father's."

Shizune took it. "Of course." This was rather unexpected, given all she knew of Sakura's difficulties with her mother.

"Also," Amaya began, then sighed. "This is why I decided to come," she said, holding out an envelope. "When Inoichi told me what had happened, I couldn't just let it sit unread."

Shizune's eyes widened when she saw who the letter was from. "I'll make sure she gets it as soon as possible," Shizune said.

"Thank you, Shizune-sama," Amaya said nervously.

"I have a question, though," Shizune said. "Why did you try to hide yourself when you came here?"

Amaya shrank back. "The Mist," she muttered quietly. "I don't want to risk them seeing me."

"Their jounin leader has assured Hokage-sama personally that they aren't after you," Shizune said gently. "They aren't in the village right now, anyway."

It seemed as though a burden had been lifted from Amaya's shoulders. "Thank you," she repeated.

Shizune pondered whether to press the woman on repairing her relationship with her daughter, but decided against it. It looked like that situation was on the way to resolving itself without further intervention. "Unless you have anything else, you can leave," she said after a moment.

Amaya hesitated for a moment. "Thank you," she said for a third time, then she let herself out.

Author's Random Ramblings

1) The first Naruto movie is not canon for this story, which is a good thing since I haven't seen it. However, some elements from it fit nicely, so in they come. I tried to give myself enough room to play around in without necessarily contradicting the movie, based on what I've read about it, but I'm not overly worried about that.

2) We saw more of Naruto this chapter, as I promised several people. It would have been hard to see less, after all. I know some would have liked to see a heavier focus on him and less or no Sakura this chapter to balance out last chapter, but things just didn't work out that way. If all goes to plan, we will be seeing a bit more Naruto than Sakura over the next several chapters, though.

3) As always, I welcome any and all comments from readers. Thanks go to the Eternal Lost Lurker for his comments on the draft.

4) Next time, in One Hundred Days Chapter Eight, Lost Words: The mission to Rice Field Country ends. Naruto and Jiraiya land themselves in some rather embarrassing situations. Also, Akatsuki strikes!

Draft Started: February 9, 2006
Draft Finished: February 28, 2006
Draft Released: February 28, 2006
Final Released: March 01, 2006