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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 8: Lost Words

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, bears. Oh my!

Day Forty-eight

"Water Replication Technique!" Aoki Saburo shouted as he formed the last of the far too familiar sequence of seals. Painstakingly slowly, the surface of the lake he stood on stirred, water rising up and forming a perfect copy of the Mist genin. For an instant, Saburo thought that he finally had successfully completed the technique. Then, his control slipped for a moment, and the water clone dissolved into a spray of water. Saburo cursed once.

The other person standing on the lake had to move aside to avoid being splashed. "You should give it up, Saburo," Haruno Midori advised her teammate. "You're almost as bad with that technique as you are with genjutsu. Just stick to the suicide version."

"I am not bad at genjutsu!" Saburo protested. "I was able to see through that Sand team's techniques just fine! I'm just not as good at it as you or Ren!"

Midori grinned. "Look me in the eyes and say that," she said challengingly.

Saburo grimaced. "Calling your family techniques genjutsu is like calling that stuff Mitarashi-sensei is teaching Ren-chan taijutsu."

"Saburo," Midori said dryly, "Mitarashi-sensei is teaching Ren taijutsu."

Saburo snorted. "Taijutsu can't set you on fire."

"You're just jealous," Midori said with a laugh. "I didn't have the control to learn Mitarashi-sensei's techniques either, but you don't see me whining about it."

"I am not whining." Deliberately turning away from his teammate, Saburo began to work his way through the seals for the Water Replication Technique again.

"You missed a seal," a quiet voice stated.

Saburo's hands froze and he began to look about wildly for the source of the voice. Midori jumped backward, a kunai in her hands. "Who's there?" she demanded.

A black-clad kunoichi emerged from the lake, and despite her apparent immersion in the water she seemed perfectly dry. Neither genin had eyes for that though, all their attention on the smooth mask of a Mist hunter ninja the woman wore. Unlike the masks of the Leaf's ANBU, all Mist hunter ninja masks were almost identical, featureless except for the the Mist's symbol and the painted markings that spelled out the ninja's rank. On a mission, Mist hunter ninja were supposed to consider themselves interchangeable hands of the village, and nothing more.

Midori didn't relax in the slightest. "What do you require?" she asked, her voice carefully respectful, before Saburo could say anything.

The hunter ninja answered her with another question. "Where is Mitarashi Kimi?"

"I'm here." Kimi stepped out of the forest surrounding the small lake, Shimano Ren trailing behind her. "I trust you took steps so that the Leaf guards would not notice your arrival."

The hunter ninja vanished, reappearing in a puff of smoke on the shore near the Mist jounin. "Of course, Mitarashi-san," she responded. "Though I would hardly call a single jounin and a team of genin a guard force. The Leaf are far too trusting."

"From my observations," Kimi said, "the Leaf's manpower situation is more desperate than we'd been lead to believe by their actions. It's a miracle they've been able to complete as many missions as they have been."

"I have been asked to request a report on the Haruno matter, since I was passing through the area," the hunter ninja stated. Behind her, on the lake's surface, Midori tensed even further.

Saburo laid a hand on his teammate's shoulder. "Easy," he said softly.

"I'm not an idiot," was all Midori said in reply.

"Haruno Amaya and Haruno Sakura were the only Haruno I found evidence of in the Leaf Village," Kimi said. "No missing ninja."

"Haruno Amaya." The hunter ninja paused momentarily, perhaps struggling to remember the name. "Is there any sign that she has revealed any secrets to this Haruno Sakura?"

Kimi looked over the other adult's shoulder. "Midori?" The hunter ninja turned slightly to look at the genin.

"No." Midori's face was hard. "Sakura knew nothing."

"She is Haruno Amaya's daughter?" the hunter ninja asked Kimi.

"Yes." Without waiting for the hunter ninja to ask another question, Kimi continued. "And no, I was not able to uncover the identity of the father. It isn't common knowledge."

"I see." The hunter ninja paused again, then suddenly pulled out a scroll. "Here are your formal orders."

Kimi accepted the scroll, unrolling it and quickly scanning it with her dark eyes. "S-rank mission, huh?" Behind her, Ren gulped nervously. Saburo glanced at Midori, and saw that even she had paled. They'd all known that something was in the works since their teacher had met with that ninja from the Sound, but an S-rank mission?

"I have been ordered to emphasize that we will proceed on a strict time-table." The hunter ninja formed a single seal. "If you can't get to the rendezvous point in time for the extraction, you will be on your own."

"Understood," Kimi stated. The hunter ninja nodded once, then dissolved into water.

The first thing Naruto noticed was the cold. He was lying on something slick and wet, and he was chilled even through the jacket he was wearing. He quickly sat up, opening his eyes and looking around. He was on a large chunk of ice, floating in the middle of the ocean. Kitakami Rui was kneeling in the center of ice, her back turned to Naruto. "So, you're up, Naru-san," she said softly, turning around to face him. "Though I suppose that isn't your real name."

"Eh?" Naruto asked.

Rui smiled slightly, though the expression quickly faded. "Not many parents would be cruel enough to name their son Naru."

Naruto could feel his cheeks heat. She knew, then. Then his cheeks flushed even more. "You didn't," he began, checking reflexively to make sure he was still fully dressed.

Now it was Rui's face that colored. "I was going to check your wounds," she muttered, averting her eyes.

Wounds? Naruto closed his eyes briefly, trying to reassemble his scattered memories. That woman Rui had called her grandmother, who'd looked far too young for that, had attacked them with all those ice shards, and he'd been forced to unseal some of the chakra Jiraiya had locked away to make a Whirlwind Shield strong enough to protect them. Naruto opened his eyes. "What happened?"

Rui, perhaps grateful for the change of subject, launched into an explanation. "You did… something, that gave yourself more chakra and used that wind technique to stop the worst of the attack, but you still got hit pretty badly."

"What about the ship?" Naruto glanced about, but he saw nothing but empty ocean surrounding the floating chunk of ice.

"The slavers sunk it," Rui said flatly. "After they took everyone prisoner of course."

Naruto blinked at that. Surely Jiraiya could have stopped them easily. "What about… my uncle? And your brother?"

"Is he really your uncle?" Rui asked. When Naruto didn't answer, she sighed. "I'm sorry. It's none of my business." She paused momentarily. "Would you tell me your name, though?"

"Naruto." There couldn't be any harm in that, since she already knew he was a boy.

Rui gave a slight nod. "From what I could tell, Ichizo and Jiro-san were taken alive." It took all of Naruto's willpower not to frown. What could have possibly made Jiraiya surrender? Rui continued, "I didn't want to get too close, though, to avoid attracting my grandmother's attention." She grimaced slightly.

"The lady who attacked us?" Naruto asked. When Rui nodded, he continued. "She seemed too young to be your grandmother."

"It's a side effect," Rui said. Taking in Naruto's puzzled look, she sighed. "I suppose I should give you the whole story, since you're already involved. Have you ever heard of the snow maidens?"

"Maybe," Naruto said. "I think I heard a story once."

Rui nodded. "They're winter spirits. When the Hidden Snow was first founded, the leaders of the clans signed a powerful contract with the snow maidens."

"A summoning contract?" Naruto asked.

"Not quite," Rui answered. "The snow maidens agreed to lend their strength to the Hidden Snow in return for various favors. They taught the Snow the secrets of ice element techniques and gave us the ability to easily create ice without using as much chakra as it would normally take."

"So where does this Yuki lady come in?" Naruto wondered idly why everyone seemed to think he needed history lessons.

"She was one of the most powerful Snow ninja, right before the fall." Rui grimaced. "She used a forbidden technique to kill a snow maiden and seal its power within herself, then fled the village. The snow maidens considered the contract dissolved and withdrew their support. Without access to our most powerful techniques, we were helpless to stop the Rock and Cloud from destroying the village." Rui sighed. "That's who Kitakami Yuki is, Naruto-san." For a long moment, her eyes lingered on Naruto's stomach.

His own eyes widened and Naruto paled. "Rui-san," he began, but he wasn't certain what to say next.

"I won't ask," Rui said, her voice harsh. "I've got no intention of prying into your business. I have enough problems of my own." For an instant, Naruto could swear he saw tears in her eyes, but then she looked away.

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

For a long moment Rui said nothing, but eventually she answered. "I tried to follow the slaver ship, but someone used a powerful genjutsu and I lost track of it." Her voice was carefully flat, devoid of any emotion. "Grandmother said that we could find her on Hakuhyou Island, but I don't know where that is. Do you?"

Naruto shook his head. "How would it matter, anyway? Do you know where we are?"

"More or less," Rui stated. "I overheard that our ship was sailing close to the Hail Country."

"Hail Country?"

Rui sighed. "It's the largest island in the Gulf of Storms, almost midway between the Earth and Lightning countries."

"Oh," Naruto said. "But how will we find it? There aren't exactly any landmarks."

Rui pointed into the overcast sky. "I've seen birds that don't normally fly far from land. I've been following them." For the first time, Naruto realized that the piece of ice they were sitting on was moving and doing so fairly rapidly. "Hopefully, we'll be within sight of land before nightfall."

Something occurred to Naruto, and he swallowed nervously. "Um, Rui-san?" he asked.


"I should… probably stay in my disguise. Could you play along?" Naruto couldn't believe he was asking that, but he could imagine Jiraiya lecturing him if he wasn't still pretending to be Naru when they met again.

Rui just nodded. "Of course," she said. For a moment, Naruto thought that she was going to ask a question, but she visibly forced her curiosity aside and concentrated on moving their ice raft through the water.

Sakura, for what seemed like the thousandth time, checked her weapons and other supplies carefully. She knew that it was possible to cross the border into Rice Field Country without problems; she'd done it before, after all. That didn't keep her from worrying that this time they would happen across a Sound border patrol. No matter how many times she inspected her equipment, she couldn't make herself feel ready for that. The battles she had fought before were one thing, but that would be the real thing in a way even the second part of the Chuunin Exam wasn't.

Kurenai held up a hand, stopping the group before they emerged from the trees that lined the river. Silently, she gestured for the genin to draw near. Sakura complied, her eyes scanning the opposite bank - the Rice Field Country - as she moved from tree to tree to stand beside the jounin. When everyone was gathered, Kurenai pointed at Hinata.

That was apparently enough to get the message across, as the silver-eyed girl nodded and rapidly formed a sequence of seals. "Byakugan," she breathed, so softly that Sakura almost couldn't hear the word, and the veins around Hinata's eyes bulged. Her gaze flicked quickly from side to side, then she relaxed, deactivating her Bloodline Limit. She pointed at a heavy patch of undergrowth almost directly across from the Leaf team, then held up four fingers.

Kurenai traced a musical note in the air with one finger, and Hinata nodded. Frowning, Kurenai pointed at her eye, then at where the enemy ninja were waiting. Hinata shook her head quickly. Sakura guessed that this meant that the enemy ninja did not appear to have spotted them. Kurenai nodded once, then pointed to the west. The meaning was easy enough to guess. Kurenai pointed at Kiba, and the Inuzuka began to move cautiously, his dog trailing after him.

Several moments after he was out of sight, Kurenai laid a hand on Sakura's shoulder. When she released her grip, Sakura moved to the next tree to the west. Sparing a quick glance at where the apparently still-oblivious Sound ninja were hidden, she made her way as carefully as she could through the trees. Several minutes later, she found Kiba waiting underneath a massive tree. He grunted as Sakura came into his line of sight, but thankfully didn't say anything.

Not long later the group was reunited. "We'll head just a little further north before crossing," Kurenai said quietly. "We'll move in the same order. Kiba, look out for infiltrators on this side of the river. Hinata, keep scanning the other bank."

"How much farther north?" Kiba asked.

"About a mile," Kurenai said. Without another word, Kiba left, and shortly thereafter Sakura followed him again. This time, they were close enough that she could see her temporary teammate moving ahead of her, but no words passed between them. She knew that Shino was not far behind her, but when she glanced backward she saw no sign of the bug user.

The mile passed quickly, and she almost passed Kiba when he suddenly stopped. "Is something wrong?" she forced herself to ask. Kiba just shook his head curtly, staring at something ahead. Sakura followed her gaze, then gasped as she saw the two massive statues flanking the waterfall just ahead of them. She swallowed, an unpleasant feeling settling into her gut. "The Valley of the End."

"I thought the terrain was getting familiar," Kiba muttered.

"So this is it," Shino said as he appeared behind the other two ninja.

A moment later, Hinata and Kurenai joined the trio. The jounin didn't seem to notice Sakura and Kiba's discomfort, instead simply asking, "Hinata?"

The Hyuuga heir shook her head. "No one on the other side."

"Good," Kurenai said. "Let's go ahead and cross, then."

Something snapped inside Sakura, and without waiting for Kurenai to give them a marching order she raced ahead. She could hear startled curses behind her, but she ignored them as she reached the massive statues and began to leap down the First Hokage. Moments later, she reached the bottom.

She paled as she saw the craters and rubble scattered on both sides of the river at the base of the statues. What was this? Had Naruto and Sasuke really caused this? What sort of battle had it been? What strengths had her teammates been hiding, that their conflict had scarred the monuments like this?

She fell to her knees, a bitter taste rising in her throat. What good was all her training? Before this mission, she had thought she had come so far. Yet Hinata had swept her aside like nothing, and she knew that there was nothing she could have done in the battle that must have occurred here. Even worse, Naruto and Sasuke were not going to be standing still, waiting for her to play catch-up. "Damn it," Sakura growled. Her eyes watered, and for once she didn't struggle to hold in the tears. "After all this, I'm still just watching their backs."

Someone landed behind her. "What do you think you're doing, you idiot?" Kiba snarled at her.

What did she think she was doing? Sakura began to laugh bitterly. "We'll do it together," she said, not caring that the rest of the team had arrived and were staring at her. "That's what I told him. Next time, we'll do it together." She couldn't stop either the laughter or the tears. "I am an idiot."

Kiba circled around in front of her and stared at her for a moment. "Get a hold of yourself, Sakura," he said harshly. Then he punched her.

Sakura's laughter stopped instantly, and she raised a hand to her cheek, where the blow had landed. Hinata had struck the other cheek, a dry part of her noted. "I thought you said you wouldn't hit a girl like that," she found herself saying.

"That's different," Kiba muttered. After a moment he offered her a hand, which Sakura hesitatingly accepted. As he helped her up, he said, "This doesn't mean I forgive you or anything, Haruno."

"Of course," Sakura said after a moment. She glanced about, looking at the other ninja. "I'm sorry," she forced herself to say. "It won't happen again."

Kurenai nodded. "Good," she stated, and she seemed to be inclined to let it pass. "We're going to head due north into Rice Field Country, same order as before. Stick together, and be careful. Remember that we'll be in enemy territory. Understand?"

"Understood," Sakura said quietly, echoed by the other three genin. After a moment, Kiba began to run across the lake, and after pausing to concentrate her chakra in her feet Sakura followed him. She forced herself not to look at the evidence of her teammates' battle on the other side as they began to move up the statue there.

However, when she was paused to rest briefly about halfway up the statue, she couldn't stop herself from looking down at the Valley of the End. She rubbed the last tears from her eyes. "Naruto," she said quietly enough that she could barely hear her own voice over the roaring of the waterfall. "Sasuke-kun." She opened her mouth again, but she couldn't find the words to say. For an instant, the despair that had overwhelmed her on the valley floor came back to her, but she forced it aside. If anyone would be able to help her reach her goal, it was the Hokage. She was so close to meeting the Hokage's conditions to begin training. She wasn't going to give up now. With renewed strength, she resumed her climb.

Day Forty-nine

Despite the fact that his life over the past couple days could easily have become the plot for the next of his novels, Jiraiya was anything but happy. Sure Kitakami Yuki was just as fun as she'd been decades ago in the Hidden Village of Snow, but - strange though it may have seemed to some who knew him - he had far more important things on his mind than sex. Now, for once left alone in the luxurious cabin he'd been sharing with Yuki aboard her massive warship, Jiraiya was able to devote his full attention to those many things.

The first of those was the reason that Yuki hadn't even needed to lock the cabin door. He'd thought that he was about to have a heart attack when he'd seen the man in that far-too-familiar red and black cloak watching his brief fight with Yuki. Thankfully, he wasn't one of the Akatsuki members Jiraiya had encountered before, and he hadn't been recognized. He didn't trust his disguise to hold up under more direct scrutiny, though.

If the Akatsuki member learned of Jiraiya's presence, it wouldn't take much to conclude that Naruto had been on board the ship. A quick check of the prisoners would make it obvious the boy wasn't with them, and Jiraiya had no doubt that Yuki would find herself forced to turn the ship around and look for any signs that Rui and Naruto had survived the battle after that. That had to be avoided.

Jiraiya forced himself not to think of the possibility that Naruto was dead. Surely the boy would have completely released the chakra Jiraiya had sealed before that could happen, and Jiraiya was certain that he would have felt that. He certainly would have noticed if Naruto had started drawing on the Kyuubi's power. Rui hadn't seemed the type to die easily, either. No, he was as close to certain as he could be that they lived. That wasn't close enough to make him comfortable, though.

He had to get back together with Naruto as quickly as possible, without making a display of power that would attract Akatsuki's attention. The only advantage he had was that Yuki had told Rui to seek her out and given her the location of the slavers' fortress. How he could handle the situation when Naruto arrived, though, was difficult to determine. Getting out of this mess without alerting Akatsuki to his presence would be more than simply troublesome.

For the moment, though, it seemed as though all he could do was wait. With a sigh, Jiraiya pulled off of a shelf by the cabin's large bed the first of his books - Yuki, it had been revealed, had acquired a complete collection which she had made him autograph. He began to flip through it idly, occasionally wincing at some of the more poorly constructed prose. He hated re-reading his earliest writing - it was almost as bad as that completely inaccurate "Tale of the Sannin" that was so popular here in the north. With a sigh, Jiraiya put the book up. Maybe he could at least get some writing done while he was waiting.

Before he could get started with that, though, the door to the cabin flung open and admitted Kitakami Yuki herself. She was still just as beautiful as she'd been decades ago, though her once-black hair had turned silver - not from age, for the rest of her showed no sign that she was almost as old as Jiraiya himself. Yuki slammed the door behind her and stalked over to the bed, seating herself next to Jiraiya. "I swear," she said, "working with Akatsuki is even more frustrating than dealing with Orochimaru. At least Orochimaru doesn't try to hit on me all the time."

"Oh?" Jiraiya asked, carefully placing just the right amount of curiosity in the questioning sound.

Yuki smiled slightly. "I think my guest's jealous of you," she said, then let out a little laugh. "I think he finally got the hint when I told him I didn't take freaks with more than one mouth as lovers, though."

Jiraiya blinked at that. He hadn't gotten a good look at the man, but he'd seemed relatively normal from his glimpse. "You do work with Orochimaru?" he asked after a moment.

"Where do you think I sell most of my slaves?" Yuki replied. "That teammate of yours has an insatiable thirst for experimental subjects."

"I see," Jiraiya said. It wasn't surprising, but it was another item in the long list of crimes for which he would one day make Orochimaru pay. "It's odd for you to be hosting a member of Akatsuki, then."

Yuki shrugged. "I didn't really have a choice. He just showed up at my fortress a few weeks ago and demanded that I help him find and acquire a strong slave." She smiled. "If you weren't so much fun, I might give him you, particularly since he asked me to keep an eye out for you anyway." She gave Jiraiya a curious look.

Jiraiya ignored the implied question. "A strong slave?" he asked. "That's strange. A strong ninja wouldn't let himself stay a slave for very long."

"I don't understand it entirely either," Yuki said. "He apparently wants a gift for his new partner. Something about art, he says, and I get the impression I'd be happier not knowing the details, so I haven't asked for them."

"I see," Jiraiya said. "I suppose I should be glad you find me pleasant company, then."

"You should," Yuki agreed. She glanced at her bookshelf. "Reading your own work?" she asked. "I always did like the first one best."

Jiraiya sighed. It wasn't worth commenting that she had poor taste. That just wasn't the sort of thing you said to an S-class criminal who had the ability to create any number of difficulties for you. He had enough of those in his life already without adding Yuki to the list. "Just killing time," he said.

"I know much more pleasant ways to do that," Yuki said.

"I'm sure," Jiraiya said dryly, "but even I'm a little tired after last night."

"The mighty Jiraiya-sama, laid low by a little woman like me?" Yuki asked mockingly.

"So it seems." Jiraiya let himself fall back onto the bed.

"I suppose we'll have to pass the time in other ways, then," Yuki said. "Tell me, why is Akatsuki looking for you?"

Jiraiya couldn't stop himself from tensing, then he forced himself to relax. "I found out too much about them, back when I was looking for Orochimaru."

Yuki shook her head. "Don't lie to me, Jiraiya. I'm not an idiot." She laughed. "A legend like you should have been able to hide his reactions better."

"I said I'm tired, didn't I?" Jiraiya asked. He sat up again, rubbing at his eyes. This was risky, but perhaps the benefits outweighed the risk. "You might find out, when Rui arrives."

Yuki's eyes narrowed. "The cross-dresser, huh?" she asked. Without waiting for a reply, she continued, "He must be -"

"Interesting," Jiraiya finished for her. "If you let him live, I'll let you see why."

Yuki's eyes were now alight with curiosity. "I might just do that," she said, "if he's not dead already." She grinned. "Then again, maybe I'll just work the answer out of you now." She scooted over on the bed. "I think I convince you that you aren't as tired as you think you are, in any case."

Jiraiya forced himself to grin lecherously at her. It seemed as though Yuki wouldn't kill Naruto out of hand when he arrived at her fortress now. That was something, at least. The questions of how he would get the two of them away from there remained, but he was willing to let himself be distracted from them for a while. Whatever else she was, Kitakami Yuki was certainly an excellent distraction.

Naruto and Rui had spent the night on an abandoned beach, after making landfall shortly before sunset. From the little exploring they had done before going to sleep - Rui had been almost completely exhausted from the exertion of maintaining the ice raft - this part of the Hail Country was not heavily populated, though they had stumbled across a narrow path running parallel to the shore. Fortunately, the weather hadn't lived up to the country's name - there was nowhere nearby where they could have easily taken shelter during a hailstorm.

Now they were traveling down the road they had found, having picked the direction of their travel randomly. Eventually, the road had to enter a town, and unless it turned away from the shoreline that town would be a port. Once there, they would be able, with luck, to find a ship they could take to Hakuhyou Island. Naruto tried hard not to think of what would happen there. If this Kitakami Yuki had been able to force Jiraiya to surrender, what could they possibly do against her?

Naruto rubbed at his stomach, then gasped at the sudden fiery pain the action ignited. He could feel the spiral seal appearing around his navel, feel some terrible pressure building there. "Is something wrong, Naru-san?" Rui asked, hesitating slightly before saying Naruto's false name.

With effort, Naruto managed to somehow force the pain down. Slowly, the fiery sensation died, the pressure was relieved, and, he knew somehow, the dark spiral vanished again. What was going on? He'd never felt like that before. "Nothing," he told Rui anyway, forcing himself to smile brightly. "Let's keep moving."

For a while after that, Rui gave Naruto an occasional worried gaze, but as they continued to travel her worries seemed to turn inward. She walked silently beside her companion, barely glancing about as the wilderness began to give way to well-tended fields. When Naruto first suggested that they stop to find lunch somehow, she didn't respond, and he had to repeat himself before she seemed to notice his words.

"No," she said softly. "I think we're getting close to a town. Let's just push on." Naruto nodded, but now he returned the worried glances that Rui had given him earlier in the morning. When Rui tripped over a stone in the middle of the road, Naruto caught her. "Thank you," she said softly.

Naruto gave the kunoichi another worried glance. She should have noticed that stone if she'd been paying any attention to where she was going. "Are you all right?" he asked.

Rui met his gaze. "No," she admitted. "I've been training for years to be the one to bring Kitakami Yuki to justice. I've hated her all my life; I'm supposed to be the avenger for our village, and yet I couldn't even defeat her replication. And because of my weakness, she's captured my brother." Her voice was bitter, and when she finished she looked away. "I shouldn't trouble you with my problems," she said.

For a while, Naruto didn't respond, his mind on other words that he had heard what seemed like a long time ago, but had in truth only been a few months. "I hated you, I detested you, and just to kill you, I've survived!" That was what Sasuke had said when he had finally met his brother again.

"Sasuke," Naruto breathed. At least Rui seemed somewhat less likely to… well, he didn't want to think about that just now. He had enough things to worry about.

"What?" Rui asked, briefly startled out of her depression.

Naruto realized that his fists were clenched, and he forced himself to relax. "Nothing," he told his companion for the second time in one day. "Let's keep moving."

Rui gave him a long look, and it was clear that she knew that there was something Naruto didn't want to share with her. Still, she kept to her promise not to pry into Naruto's many secrets. Instead, she wordlessly started walking again, this time keeping a careful eye on the dirt path. After a moment, Naruto began to follow after her, racing briefly to catch up.

About an hour after that, they reached a town. It was encircled by a rough wooden wall, and the gate that the road passed through was guarded by two non-uniformed men with spears. The town didn't look to be terribly big - from the little Naruto could see it seemed maybe twice the size of the village in Earth Country where he'd found a doctor for Jiraiya after their first battle with those bee ninja.

Rui nodded to herself. "I think I know where we are now," she said. "Have you ever been to Hail Country, Naru-san?" she asked.

"No," Naruto answered.

"Then it's best I do the talking," Rui said. "There's no hidden village in this country, but there are still ninja. If we aren't careful, we could run into trouble with them."

That made sense. "All right," Naruto said, and he followed Rui up to the open gate. As they neared, the two guards stiffened, and one of them stepped forward to intercept the pair.

"Who goes there?" the guard asked, boredom evident in his voice.

Rui smiled politely at the guard. "I am Kitakami Rui, and my companion is called Naru." The second guard had leaned his spear against the wall and pulled out a pencil and a small pad. He quickly noted down the names.

"Any trade goods or weapons to declare?" the first guard continued, clearly reciting from a memorized list.

Rui and Naruto traded an amused glance. "No trade goods," Rui said, "but it would take quite a while to list all our weapons, if we were so inclined."

The guard blinked, then studied the two travelers for a moment. "You're kunoichi?" he asked. When Rui nodded, he sighed. "No weapon tax, then," he said, "but if you plan to stick around you should head for the town hall and get a license."

"We're looking for a ship," Rui said. "We won't be staying long."

"All right," the guard said. He took a step back, and the other guard put up his pad. "Enjoy your stay."

"Thank you," Rui said, and then she led Naruto through the open gates. Glancing aside, Naruto noticed that the gates showed no sign of having been closed in a very long time. Past the gates, the road they'd been following vanished into a confusing warren of buildings. "So, what now?" Rui asked.

Naruto's stomach answered for him, growling loudly. Laughing embarrassedly, he elaborated. "Lunch?" He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I wonder if there's anywhere here that sells ramen."

Rui blinked. "Ramen? Are you from the south, then?"

It took Naruto a moment to decide how to respond. "I like ramen," he said simply.

Rui laughed slightly. "You're a… woman of mystery, aren't you? I suppose it still isn't any of my business." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "I hope for your sake you aren't hiding anything I ought to know." Naruto carefully shook his head, and Rui relaxed. "In any case, you remind me of a problem we face." She grimaced. "Ichizo was the one who handled most of our money, and I wasn't carrying much."

Naruto had not considered this, but he pulled out his stuffed frog wallet. He hadn't had much chance to spend money since he'd left the Leaf Village with Jiraiya, had he? "I always carry mine with me. Otherwise Er… my uncle would steal it."

Rui laughed slightly again, though Naruto couldn't tell what at. "That's horrible," she said lightly, suppressing another laugh. "That should be more than enough for lunch, I suppose. A ship might be another matter, though."

"Can't we do what we did before and be guards?" Naruto wasn't able to restrain a grimace at the thought of how ineffective they had been.

Rui's face also darkened, but she quickly smoothed it. "Perhaps, if there's a ship heading for this Hakuhyou Island. I've never heard of it, though, so it can't be very big. I imagine we might have to hire a ship, and that's expensive." Her face darkened again. "With a good map, I might be able to keep an ice raft going long enough if it's close, but I wouldn't be in any condition to fight when we arrived."

"I see," Naruto said after a moment.

Rui gave him a smile that was clearly forced. "Let's get some lunch, and worry about that when we're fed."

Naruto was not going to disagree with that plan.

Day Fifty

Despite the delays on the journey and the near-encounter with the Sound border patrol, the team of Leaf ninja had arrived at the place where they were to meet with the Fuuma Clan's representatives a day early and without having to fight any battles. Kurenai had taken advantage of their early arrival, ordering the genin under her command to scout the area and search for any signs an ambush was being planned. They had not found any definitive signs of such, though the fact that the nearby village their maps showed seemed to have been abandoned several months prior was more than a little disturbing.

The village had been picked clean of anything valuable, but they hadn't been able to figure out whether this was a sign that the inhabitants had taken time to gather their belongings before leaving or simply evidence of the work of looters. There were only inconclusive hints as to whether or not there had been any fighting, and Sakura wasn't certain which answer was more frightening. Regardless, that village made things clear that something was wrong with Rice Field Country, even more than the poverty and despair she had seen on her first visit. That had to be expected, she supposed, given that a man like Orochimaru ruled here - somehow, Sakura doubted he shared power gracefully with the country's daimyo.

The pink-haired kunoichi shook her head to clear it of her musings. Now was not the time to be pondering such matters. Right now, she and Kurenai were waiting at the planned meeting place for the Fuuma to arrive. Kiba was scouting the surrounding area, ready to sound warning of any uninvited guests. Shino and Hinata were well-hidden, serving as closer sentries and, if necessary, back-up. To Sakura fell the task of warning Kurenai if the representatives gave any sign that they were not who they claimed to be and providing evidence for them that the Leaf ninja were in fact Leaf ninja.

Sakura wasn't certain how good she would be at that task. She had seen only a handful of members of the Fuuma Clan, and most of those had been enemies who had since died. The only surviving person from the clan who she could truly say she knew was Fuuma Sasame, the girl who had helped them find the Sound Village. There was no guarantee that Sasame would be one of the representatives, and no real reason why she would be. Still, Sakura had to admit, she was better than nothing, and she supposed that was why the Hokage had insisted on assigning her to this mission. It certainly wasn't because of her skills. While she wasn't incompetent at scouting, her meager talent was pointless in the face of Kurenai's highly-trained team and the advantages they had.

"I've been watching your training," Kurenai said suddenly, distracting Sakura from her musings. "It seems like all you're working on is taijutsu."

"I'm weakest at taijutsu," Sakura said after a moment.

Kurenai smiled slightly. "Run in the fields and seek strength," she quoted quietly from the Third Hokage's Motto of the Chuunin. "Is that it?"

"Yes," Sakura answered. She stretched her legs slightly, marveling at how quickly she was adjusting to the new set of weights. It still didn't feel anywhere near as light as the first pair had become before she'd taken them off, but from time to time she could still almost forget that she was wearing them.

Kurenai looked like she was about to say something, but then Akamaru howled in the distance. Both kunoichi froze, waiting as Akamaru barked several more times. "It's the Fuuma, then," Kurenai said, relaxing as the last sound faded and no more followed.

Sakura nodded. A few moments later, she was carefully studying the four ninja who approached her and the jounin. Sasame was, not surprisingly, not among them, but the ninja who seemed to be the leader of the group was vaguely familiar. He carried a large sword on his back, but his hands very carefully stayed low as he waved at the other three Fuuma ninja to stay back. He frowned as he studied Sakura briefly. "I remember you," he said. "You were… Sakuko?"

"Sakura," she replied smoothly. "Haruno Sakura."

The Fuuma ninja nodded. "That was it," he said, his attention turning to Kurenai. "I am Fuuma Hanzaki, and I serve as head of the Fuuma Clan."

"I am honored, Fuuma-sama," Kurenai said softly. "I am Yuuhi Kurenai, jounin of the Hidden Leaf."

Hanzaki smiled. "In all honesty, your position is more impressive at this point. I should probably be calling you Yuuhi-sama."

"That's hardly necessary," Kurenai demurred.

"Then at least call me Hanzaki-san," the Fuuma replied, "or Fuuma-san, if you must. Being called Fuuma-sama is embarrassing."

"As you wish, Hanzaki-san," Kurenai answered. "Shall we move on to business?"

"Very well," Hanzaki said. "I trust my proposal was agreeable to Hokage-sama?"

"Any aid against Orochimaru you can give is appreciated," Kurenai said, "though I, personally, must admit I was surprised when I was given this mission. The Fuuma Clan have always been enemies of the Hidden Leaf."

"And the ninja of the Wood Country before you," Hanzaki agreed. He paused and sighed. "I trust you scouted the area before this meeting?"

Kurenai nodded. "To do otherwise would have been foolish."

"Did you happen across an abandoned village?" the Fuuma head continued. The looks on the faces of the two Leaf ninja must have been enough, because he didn't wait for them to answer. "That was a prosperous, peaceful village, where the mayor foolishly decided to embezzle a little off the top of the local daimyo's taxes. When he was found out, the Hidden Sound descended on the village and took away every man, woman, and child that they could find." Hanzaki's eyes were hard and his voice carefully flat. "The best that can be hoped for is that they died quickly."

Sakura swallowed nervously, remembering the twisted monstrosities Orochimaru had created from the Fuuma Clan ninja who had served him. "That's horrible," she breathed.

"That's why we are willing to make common cause with the Hidden Leaf," Hanzaki replied. "We do not have the strength to stand against Orochimaru directly, but we must do what we can to help those who do. I picked this location for the meeting so that you would understand how serious the Fuuma are about this."

"The Hidden Leaf will remember your aid," Kurenai said quietly, and then the two ninja turned to the details of how information would flow securely between the Fuuma and the Leaf and what support Leaf ninja operating in Rice Field Country could call upon. It was all Sakura could do to keep from showing her boredom as the conversation came to a close.

"Very well," Hanzaki said. He slowly and carefully pulled out a scroll, handing it to Kurenai. "That is everything we know on the Sound's border patrols. It's been changing because of the war with Hill Country, but it should be close enough to get you back to the Fire Country without any trouble."

"Thank you," Kurenai answered. Hanzaki bowed slightly, then stepped back to his companions. He bowed a second time, and then the Fuuma ninja vanished.

That night, when the Leaf ninja were camping not far from the border with Fire Country, Sakura went to her pack as usual to retrieve the arm weights Gai had given her. When she opened it, however, she she quickly noticed that there was an unfamiliar scroll hidden inside. Frowning, she pulled it out and opened it, quickly scanning the text. Her eye's widened as she realized what she held, and she jumped back to the beginning.

"It's a shame for a genjutsu-type to spend all her time practicing taijutsu," it said in simple, neat handwriting. "This genjutsu should be of some use."

Sakura looked up, glancing across the camp at Kurenai. The jounin, discussing something with Hinata, very deliberately did not return the look. Smiling slightly, Sakura looked back at the scroll, and eagerly began to read.

In the end, Naruto and Rui had managed to find a restaurant that served ramen, though Naruto had expounded at some length on how inferior its offerings on that front were, much to Rui's amusement and the owner's annoyance. They had then set about finding affordable lodgings, which had been some difficulty given their limited funds. Still, that too had been accomplished, however the fact that the tiny room barely had enough room for two futon meant that the pair had needed to sleep uncomfortably close to each other. Naruto thought that Rui's graphic threats of bodily harm if he accidentally rolled over onto her futon had been more than a little over the top.

Rui had lead Naruto to the town's small docks, where they had first investigated the two large merchant vessels there. Both ships, unfortunately, were heading directly back to Rock Country, and even had they not been, both already carried several ninja guards. Now, Rui had approached the most promising-seeming of the handful of smaller ships. The ship's owner spat when Rui had finished her question. "Hakuhyou Island?" He spat again. "Why do you want to go there?"

"There's someone we need to meet," Rui said flatly. "How much would it cost?

The man rubbed his bald scalp and named a gargantuan sum. "That's crazy!" Naruto shouted. "Why so much?"

"Hakuhyou Island's slaver territory, girl," the man answered. "Wouldn't do you any good to go there, though. The island's surrounded by ice all year round since the slavers set up shop there. Nobody knows a way through, except the slavers, I guess."

"I see," Rui murmured. She wasn't able to hide the excitement in her voice, and it was easy enough for Naruto to guess the cause. This meant that Yuki had not been lying when she told them to come to Hakuhyou Island.

"Listen," the man said, "if your friend told you to meet up on Hakuhyou Island, he's not got your best interests in mind. Unless…" He trailed off, gazing at the two ninja suspiciously.

Naruto blinked, quickly realizing what he was thinking. "We aren't slavers!" he protested loudly.

Rui winced, but her face stayed smooth. "It isn't a friend we intend to meet," she said quietly.

"I see," the man said. "You're not going to find anyone to take you there cheap though. Getting involved in ninja business is dangerous for ordinary folks like us."

"Thank you for your time," Rui said flatly, and she turned away. After a moment, Naruto followed her away.

"Wait just a minute!" a new voice called. Both ninja looked up to see the source, a woman standing on the deck of a small deck next to the one they had just investigated. "I couldn't help but overhear you talking with Tate there. You two are kunoichi?"

Rui glanced at Naruto briefly, but she nodded. "We are."

"I can't say that it'll give you enough money to get you to Hakuhyou Island, but Amagawa-san at the bathhouse has a job you might be interested in."

Rui nodded again. "Where is the bathhouse?" The woman quickly gave directions, and not long after Rui and Naruto found themselves ushered into the manager's office of a small bathhouse.

The bathhouse's owner, a plain, middle-aged woman studied the two ninja carefully after shutting the door. "You might do," she said simply.

"What is the job you offer, Amagawa-san?" Rui asked. "And the payment?"

"We've been having trouble with a peeper," Amagawa replied. "Ordinarily we could take care of it ourselves, but he seems to be a ninja. It's tough to spot him and we can't do anything to him when we do."

"I see," Rui said flatly. Naruto stirred slightly, something telling him that this mission might be… embarrassing.

"If you two can capture him and bring him to me, I can take care of the rest," Amagawa said. "It's just catching him that's the problem."

Rui gave Naruto a long glance, and he shuffled uncomfortably under it. Eventually, though, she turned away. "How much?" she said, and thus began the negotiations. It took a while, but a price was agreed on.

"It might be best for you to pretend to be patrons," Amagawa said after sealing the deal. "He normally starts about now."

Rui shook her head. "We'll work best if we're free to move," she said. Naruto breathed a sigh of relief.

"Well, you're the ninja," Amagawa said dubiously, giving Naruto a curious glance. "Good luck."

After they left the office, Rui leaned over and whispered into Naruto's ear, "You'd best keep your eyes strictly where they belong… Naruto-san."

The disguised boy nodded frantically. "I understand." He wasn't about to go looking at bathing women, anyway. Well, maybe if Sakura had been… Naruto shook his head to clear it of the mental image. That was the type of thing perverts like Jiraiya did.

The two ninja quickly found concealed observation points on the roof of the bathhouse. Despite his promise, Naruto found himself placed by Rui in a position where he couldn't see the open-air baths without turning around. Grumbling slightly about not being trusted, he settled down for a long wait. However, he was barely settled when the peeper showed up.

The short, nearly bald man made almost no effort to hide himself or look for guards, apparently lulled into a false sense of security by the weeks or months of easy pickings. Rui gestured at Naruto, and as one the two ninja jumped down to stand behind the man. "Amagawa-san would like to have a word with you," she said simply. Naruto cracked his knuckles eagerly.

The pervert turned away from the peephole he had been about to look through, raising a thin eyebrow as he looked at them. "She sent a couple of girls like you against me?" he asked, sighing loudly. "When will she learn?"

Naruto grinned. "Does that mean you won't come quietly?" he asked. He was, all things considered, in the mood for a fight. It would be distracting, at least.

"You girls should just go away now," the man said. "You can't beat me."

"What makes you say that?" Rui asked dangerously.

The man laughed. "Have you ever heard of the legendary Sannin, girl? I'm Jiraiya the Toad Hermit, and a couple of young kunoichi like you don't stand a chance against my power."

Naruto froze, and Rui took a step back. "What?!" she asked.

Beside her the disguised boy recovered from his shock and doubled over laughing. "You," he managed to gasp out.

The man snarled. "I'll show you my power!" he shouted, his hands flicking through seals. "Katon: Ultimate Legendary Sannin Fireball Technique!" He spat out a small ball of flame, which hit Naruto dead on. There was a puff of smoke, and the man froze. "A replication?"

The real Naruto rose up out of the ground a few feet away from where the shadow clone had stood. His hands rapidly moved through a set of seals. "Doton: Grasping Hand Technique!" The earth rumbled, rising up into a large pair of hands. The man jumped away moments before they would have captured him, landing lightly on the rooftop.

Rui was there an instant later, lashing out with a spinning kick that caught the man directly in the chest. He stumbled backward, almost falling off the roof. "Damn it," he snarled, raising a arm to block Rui's next strike. Then he struck out wildly with his other arm at her.

The kunoichi danced back, forming seals. "Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards," she intoned, sharp blades of ice materializing out of thin air. As they flew at him, the man cursed again, dropping down to the ground.

Naruto was ready for him, already forming seals. "Doton: Mud Wall Technique!" he shouted, his hands plunging toward the earth. As they made contact, the ground where the peeper was about to land surged upward, becoming a muddy barrier. The man plunged into it, helplessly struggling to free himself as Rui landed lightly beside him.

"Do you surrender?" the kunoichi asked simply, placing a kunai at his neck. The man nodded nervously.

Breathing heavily, Naruto raised his hands from the ground. He had more chakra than before, since he'd released some of it from Jiraiya's seal, but using so many techniques in quick succession, particularly the Shadow Replication Technique, had pushed him to his current limits. He wouldn't have been able to maintain the Mud Wall Technique for much longer against the target's struggles.

As the wall of mud collapsed, Rui quickly bound the man securely, before he could recover. As Naruto walked over, she was giving him a quick search and divesting him of the weapons she found. Rui looked up, grinning slightly, as Naruto neared. "Mission accomplished," she said.

Naruto nodded, glaring at the man. "Lying pervert," he muttered.

The man studied him carefully. "When you're older, maybe you'll understand… boy," he said flatly.

Rui's kunai found its way to his neck again. "You'd best keep that observation to yourself," she said softly. The man nodded frantically.

"Thank you," Naruto whispered to Rui.

She didn't say anything to Naruto, instead keeping her attention on the prisoner. "Now," she began, "Amagawa-san would like to have… words with you."

The peeper gulped nervously, but he didn't resist when Naruto and Rui forced him to rise and began to walk him over the building containing Amagawa's office.

Day Fifty-one

Yuki's suite in her fortress on Hakuhyou Island made her luxurious cabin on board her flagship look like a peasant's hut. There were enough rooms that Jiraiya even had one of his own, where he could retreat when Yuki was… entertaining. While he had apparently quickly become her favorite, Yuki evidently was not one for exclusive relationships. Jiraiya shifted uncomfortably. Why did she have to be so loud?

Still, he supposed that this provided a vital opportunity. He'd managed to get a decent, if quick, look at the fortress when Yuki had transfered him from the ship to the boat, but there was much to be said for having a closer look. Standing, Jiraiya's hands moved confidently through a set of seals. He wasn't a genjutsu-type, by any stretch of the definition, but one didn't get to be famed throughout the known world as one of the legendary Sannin by being incompetent at anything. After forming the last seal, he slipped out of his room - completely unhindered by the fact that the door was barred - and headed into the suite's antechamber.

Though the door into Yuki's own bedroom was slightly ajar, both she and her companion were far too distracted to notice Jiraiya's presence, even if he'd not been using genjutsu. Jiraiya's mouth formed into a slight smile as he saw the red and black cloak draped haphazardly over one chair. That explained why Yuki had been so insistent he stay in his room. Evidently, Yuki had overcome her prejudice against men with more than one mouth. Jiraiya wasn't terribly surprised, and this was awfully convenient. The one person he was afraid might notice his explorations was in no position to do so.

Quietly, Jiraiya slipped out of the antechamber and into the hallway outside Yuki's suite. Two guards stood outside the door, but Jiraiya's genjutsu was powerful enough that they didn't even notice the door opening and closing behind him. "Man," one of them said suddenly, "Tsuneo-sama's got to be pissed. First Yuki-sama passes him up for that fellow we picked up on that last ship, then when she throws him aside she goes to the Akatsuki instead of back to Tsuneo-sama."

Jiraiya paused, curious to hear the rest of the conversation. Dissension inside the slavers' ranks could prove useful. "She hasn't thrown away the prisoner yet," the other guard said. "I saw him moving into the spare bedroom in there."

The first guard laughed. "Got to be uncomfortable for him, then. He'd better hope that the Akatsuki isn't good in bed, otherwise he'll be heading down to the cells soon enough." So, the prisoners were kept in cells somewhere below here, Jiraiya concluded.

"Tsuneo-sama would love to see him there," the other guard replied, "but I don't know that it'll happen any time soon. I bet the prisoner gets pretty imaginative next time Yuki-sama takes him." The conversation quickly descended into uninspired crudities that Jiraiya would have been ashamed to include in one of his books - not because they were too obscene, but because they were spectacularly boring.

Deciding he wasn't going to overhear anything more of interest, Jiraiya left the guards behind and began to explore the fortress. It was laid out in a fairly standard fashion, and without too much trouble he managed to find the cells the two guards outside Yuki's suite had spoken of. The guards here were slightly more alert, though not enough that it took Jiraiya any real effort to get past them. The prison complex was not terribly large, mostly consisting of a handful of giant cells where most of the prisoners were kept. The person Jiraiya was looking for was not there, and he was not surprised. Keeping ninja in that kind of environment was foolish.

After several minute's of searching, he found the smaller, far more secure cells where captured ninja were kept. There was only a single such prisoner at the moment, Jiraiya noticed, and he stopped outside his cell. After carefully checking the position of the closest guard, Jiraiya adjusted his genjutsu slightly.

Inside his sell, Ichizo stirred. "Jiro-san!" he shouted. "What are you -"

Jiraiya raised a finger to his lips. His genjutsu was powerful enough that the guards were oblivious for now, but keeping loud noises unheard took effort. "Easy," he said.

Ichizo took a deep breath. "I thought Yuki had killed you, Jiro-san," he said.

Jiraiya shook his head. "No," he said, smiling slightly, "though I suppose if our genders were reversed you could call it a fate worse than death."

It took Ichizo a moment to understand what Jiraiya meant, and a disgusted look passed over his face. "Why did she send you to see then?" he demanded.

"She didn't send me," Jiraiya said. "I'm using genjutsu to keep the guards from noticing."

"Why did you come, then?" Ichizo asked.

"I wanted to let you know that Rui-san and Naru are probably still alive, and they're heading here." Jiraiya gave him a measuring look. "I'm waiting for them to come before I try to break us out."

Ichizo didn't ask how Jiraiya knew this. "I see," he said flatly. "And how do you expect to do that?"

"There are ships here," Jiraiya answered. "We can take one, and you and Rui ought to be able to clear a path through the ice."

Ichizo laughed. "Easier said than done."

"You'll find I'm a man of many surprises," Jiraiya said. "Be ready for when I come to let you out."

"I will," Ichizo said, but his voice made it clear he wasn't certain that day would ever come.

"By the way," Jiraiya said after a moment, "Yuki might put you in some situation to test your strength, probably with a man in a red and black cloak watching. I highly advise that you appear as weak as possible."

Ichizo blinked. "What?"

"I'm not entirely certain," Jiraiya said, "but seeming too strong could be dangerous for you." He paused, glancing at the closest guard again. "I should get going, before Yuki notices that I'm missing." Ichizo nodded, and Jiraiya left. He managed to make it back to his room without incident, and discovered that Yuki and her guest were still busy, as he had expected.

Jiraiya sighed as he laid back on his bed. This was a really bad situation to be in. It was certainly comfortable, but it was also extremely fragile. So long as Yuki was interested in him and the mystery he had posed regarding Naruto, he was safe enough, but the instant Yuki bored of either she could reveal his presence to Akatsuki in an instant. He guessed that her choice of lovers for the afternoon was meant to be a reminder to him of that fact.

Jiraiya rolled over with another sigh. He still didn't have any bright ideas about how to get out here once Rui and Naruto arrived without alerting Akatsuki. He couldn't risk another investigative journey through the fortress, either. There was too much chance of Yuki discovering it, and that could be disastrous. He'd just have to play the besotted fool until Rui and Naruto came, then improvise as best he could.

Perhaps it might be best to plan on eliminating both Yuki and the Akatsuki member at that time, if at all possible. Jiraiya rolled over again, and began to ponder battle strategies. Even for him, that might prove difficult.

Amagawa had given Naruto and Rui a bonus for their speedy resolution of the issue. While generous, this bonus had not appreciably affected the pair's financial situation. Hiring a ship to Hakuhyou Island was going to be incredibly expensive, and even if they had performed as lucrative a mission every day, it would have likely taken far too long to amass the required funds. The fact that they were spending money on food and lodging every day only made matters worse.

Rui, seated on her futon, sighed as she began to recount their money, as though this act would somehow make it begin to reproduce. "We're going to have to try and take some dangerous missions if we want to get to Hakuhyou Island anytime soon," she said. "Or we can chance an ice raft." They'd managed to find a map showing the location of their destination, and Hakuhyou Island was much farther away than Rui had ever traveled by such a means.

Naruto looked up. He'd been trying to get Jiraiya's Whirlwind Counter to work for himself, hoping that his recent luck with earth and water element techniques would carry over. Unfortunately, he hadn't yet made any real progress. He was beginning to think that this technique was specifically designed so that he couldn't learn it. "We already decided that was too dangerous," he said after a moment.

"I know," Rui sighed, setting the money aside. "I'm just not seeing much hope if we don't."

"Something will come up," Naruto said. "We already found one mission." His stomach rumbled suddenly.

Rui let out a short laugh. "I suppose we might as well get some lunch."

Naruto was on his feet in an instant. "All right!" he shouted. "Let's go back to that place and get some more ramen!"

Rui blinked. "I thought you didn't like that restaurant."

"Well," Naruto said, "it wasn't very good, but it was still ramen."

"I see," Rui said dryly. "After what you said last time, the owner will probably over-charge us, though, and that place wasn't exactly cheap to begin with. We should probably go somewhere else instead." She rose, and headed for the door.

Naruto pouted. "If you say so," he said, following Rui out of the room.

It only took them a few minutes to find a cheap food stand not far from the inn, and they ate as they made their way back. "So where will get missions?" Naruto asked. It wasn't like there was a Hokage here that would assign them missions.

"I'm not sure," Rui said. "We might have to -" She cut off suddenly, dropping the remnants of her lunch. A hand went to the hilt of a hidden kunai. "Come out!" she shouted.

Naruto looked about franticly, but saw no one. He frowned. This village was small, but it was rare for a street like this to be empty at this hour, so far as he had seen. One of his own hands found a kunai's hilt as he waited. Someone laughed, and he looked up to the rooftops for the source.

Three men stood on top of one building. The laughing man leapt down to the ground, landing lightly on his feet a few paces from Naruto and Rui. "So, you're the two who have been asking about Hakuhyou Island and took out the old pervert, huh?"

"What of it?" Rui asked. Her hand didn't move.

"We here in the Hail Country don't like nosy foreign ninja," the man said simply. "Particularly ones who undercut our prices. We decided we ought to teach you a lesson." Two kunai appeared in the man's hands and he casually tossed them at the pair of ninja in front of him.

Rui's kunai was drawn in an instant, knocking one of the oncoming weapons out of the air. Naruto jumped backward, throwing his own kunai at the man. He didn't move, and one of his allies on the rooftop intercepted Naruto's kunai with a hurled shuriken. The last enemy ninja raced along the rooftop, jumping down to land behind Naruto and Rui.

Rui's hands were moving through seals. "You've taken on more than you can handle. Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards!"

The first enemy's eyes narrowed as he studied the glittering ice daggers that appeared in midair. "An ice element user, huh? Perhaps you will be going to Hakuhyou Island… in chains."

Rui formed another seal. "No," she stated simply. The ice shards flew in all directions, aimed with unerring accuracy at the surrounding ninja. The first used the Replacement Technique, leaving a piece of firewood behind. The ninja behind the pair managed to parry the shards that flew in his direction, while the ninja still on the rooftop simply jumped away, landing on top of another building. The first ninja reappeared beside him.

Naruto turned about, charging the ninja that was still on the ground. He hurled a kunai at Naruto, but the disguised boy managed to snag it out of the air and send it back at his foe. The enemy ninja dodged, but not quite quickly enough, the blade slicing through his shoulder. Cursing, he vanished in a sudden cloud of dust.

Rui, meanwhile, had jumped up to the roof on the other side of the street from the other two enemies. Even as she landed, her kunai left her hands, flying straight and true at one of her foes. The ninja split, jumping in opposite directions away from the weapon.

"You're not bad for a couple of girls," the ninja who had thus far done all the talking said. "You haven't seen the last of us yet, though." Before Rui or Naruto could respond, both he and his remaining ally vanished as well.

Rui jumped back down, landing lightly beside Naruto. "Are you all right, Naru-san?" she asked.

Naruto nodded. "I'm fine," he said, taking a few steps forward and picking up the bloody kunai that had wounded one of the Hail Country ninja.

"From the way they talked about Hakuhyou Island," Rui said after a moment, "they must be working with the slavers. We're going to have to be more careful."

"Right," Naruto agreed. He wasn't certain what they could do, though. After that, however, there was no more time for discussion, as a patrol of town guards poured into the street, demanding to know what had been going on.

Several hours later, Rui had finally managed to convince the guards to let them go, and the two ninja returned to their rented room. When Naruto opened the door, they both froze. Sitting on Naruto's futon was a strange man, who rose as the door opened. Rui quickly formed a seal.

The man raised a hand. "Wait. I'm not an enemy. I'm an agent of the daimyo."

Rui froze. "Explain," she snapped.

"Those ninja you ran into this afternoon," he said, "are associates of this town's mayor." He paused, as though he was wondering how much to say. "The daimyo has reason to believe that the mayor has been using those three as intermediaries to trade with the slavers of Hakuhyou Island, but not enough evidence to move against the mayor directly." He paused again.

"And?" Naruto asked.

"When I heard of the altercation you two were involved in, I thought you two might be amenable to helping me gather that evidence." He smiled. "In return, I can provide you with passage to Hakuhyou Island."

"You move quickly," Rui stated,

"I was already investigating you two," the man said, "from the moment I heard about two strangers asking about Hakuhyou Island."

Rui nodded. "It seems we have something to talk about. Your name?"

"I am called Kinji." He smiled. "May I have the honor of your names?"

Rui nodded. "I am Kitakami Rui. This is Naru."

The man's eyes widened slightly. "Kitakami?" he said. "Interesting." He smiled again. "Let's go somewhere more comfortable, and then we can get down to business."

Day Fifty-two

The trip back to the Leaf Village had been relatively uneventful. The Fuuma Clan's intelligence on the Sound border patrols had been accurate enough that they had been able to cross into the Fire Country without any difficulty - thankfully, not at the Valley of the End. While Sakura couldn't really say that she was on friendly terms with Kurenai's team, the journey back had not been nearly so awkward as the first half of the mission.

Kiba's occasional snarls and glares had become, so far as Sakura could tell, more habit than anything truly meaningful since her breakdown at the Valley of the End, and Hinata had seemed to have worked out most of her anger in their brief spar. Sakura flushed slightly as she thought of that. She didn't like to think of how easily she had been defeated. Lastly, Shino was… well, whatever Shino normally was.

Tsunade folded her hands in front of her face as Kurenai finished her report. "So, there weren't any difficulties, then?" she asked, her eyes settling on Sakura.

The pink-haired kunoichi stopped herself from swallowing nervously. "No, Hokage-sama," she said after a moment.

"Good," Tsunade said shortly. "Good work, all of you. Aburame Shino, Hyuuga Hinata, Inuzuka Kiba. You have leave for two days, and then will be leaving with Yamanaka Inoichi to return to the Wave Country."

"Back there?" Kiba groaned. "I was hoping we'd get to stay for the third exam, at least."

Tsunade didn't dignify that with a response. "Yuuhi-san, you'll be returning to your normal duties as well. Be here for the normal mission assignments this afternoon."

"Understood, Hokage-sama," the jounin replied softly.

"Haruno Sakura," Tsunade continued, and Sakura stiffened as the Hokage's eyes fell on her again. "You're off-duty for now, though you might have another mission before the third exam. I believe Shizune wanted to see you; you should report to her."

"Shizune-sama?" Sakura asked. While the Hokage's assistant had been helpful before, she couldn't think of any reason Shizune would want to meet with her. "All right," she said after a moment.

"That's all, then," Tsunade said. "You're dismissed."

The five ninja bowed, almost in unison, and let themselves out. Sakura turned away from the other four, about to head to Shizune's office, only to stop as Kiba spoke. "Hey," he said harshly. "Kick some ass in the third exam."

Sakura half-turned, staring blankly at Kiba. "Why -" she began.

"Because I don't want to have been defeated by a bunch of losers," Kiba said. "Tell that to Ino and Chouji too."

Sakura nodded. "Right." With that, she separated from Kurenai's team, and a few moments later she was knocking on Shizune's door.

"Come in," the older woman's voice came, and Sakura complied. Shizune looked up from a stack of paperwork. "Ah, Sakura-chan. How was your mission?"

Sakura seated himself on a chair in front of Shizune's desk. "Fine," she said. "You asked to see me, Shizune-sama?"

Shizune nodded. "Let's see," she said opening a drawer. "This came for you while you were away." She pulled out an envelope and handed it to Sakura.

The pink-haired kunoichi had to smile as she saw her name, crudely written in familiar handwriting. "Do you mind?" she asked. Shizune shook her head, and Sakura quickly opened the envelope and pulled out the letter inside. She quickly skimmed the contents. Several critical portions had been blacked out, she guessed by Jiraiya, but enough remained that the gist of the message survived.

Naruto was training hard and had learned some new techniques, but "Ero-sennin" wasn't being a very good teacher. He thought he might be able to come see her fight in the third exam - it apparently had not occurred to Naruto that she might not have gotten that far or even taken the exam at all. Another person, with much neater handwriting - Jiraiya again, Sakura thought - had added "Not going to happen; sorry," to the margin.

Sakura looked up as she stuffed Naruto's letter into a pocket of her jacket, and saw that Shizune held another envelope in her hand. "Your mother brought this by, while you were away."

"My mother?" Sakura asked, hesitatingly taking the letter. She wasn't able to stop herself from gasping when she recognized the handwriting on the envelope. "Kakashi-sensei," she breathed, her eyes watering.

"He apparently wrote it for you before he left on his mission," Shizune said gently.

Sakura slowly began to open to envelope, struggling to hold in the tears that threatened to pour down her cheeks, but at the last moment she hesitated. Somehow, it seemed to her that opening this letter would admitting to herself that Kakashi was never coming back, and she didn't know if she could do that. Not now. The envelope fell from her nerveless fingers, landing softly on her lap. "Thank you," she said quietly. "Is Gai-sensei still on his mission?"

Shizune glanced questioningly at the unopened letter, but after a moment she nodded. "He is." For an instant, Sakura entertained the morbid thought that he, too, would not return from his mission. She shook her head violently. She couldn't start thinking like that. "Are you okay?" Shizune asked, concern evident in her voice.

"I'm fine," Sakura said as she rose, grabbing Kakashi's letter to keep it from falling. "Thank you." She half-turned toward the door before remembering to ask, "Is there anything else?" The older woman shook her head, but Sakura could feel Shizune's worried gaze on her back as she left the room. As the door shut behind her, her fingers tightened around the envelope she carried. After a moment, she forced herself to relax and slip Kakashi's letter into her pocket next to Naruto's, then head on her way.

It was a sign of how distracted she was that it was almost too late when she realized that she was about to run into someone. If it wasn't for her weeks of speed training, she might not have been able to dodge out of the way in time. "I'm sorry," she said, without looking up at the other person. "Excuse me." Not pausing, she continued on her way.

Mitarashi Anko turned around slowly, watching Sakura's back recede down the hallway. "Nice to see you too, Sakura-chan," she muttered, but the special jounin's face took on an unusually thoughtful expression before she turned around again and headed for Shizune's office.

The sun was just beginning to appear over the mass of hills in the center of Hail Country when Naruto and Rui reached the site of the mission the man who had called himself Kinji had given them. It was a small, secluded cove, well-shielded from the closest road by a thick, if small, forest. A sandbar blocked most of the entrance, preventing large ships from sailing into the otherwise deep-seeming cove.

"I don't see," Naruto complained as the two settled onto a convenient large tree branch overlooking the cove, "why we have to be here so early." The mission Kinji had laid out for them was surprisingly simple. He had reason to believe that the three ninja working for the mayor would be having a meeting here with the slavers later today. Naruto and Rui needed only to capture the slavers and the enemy ninja, secure any evidence, and wait for Kinji himself to arrive and take charge of the situation.

"I don't trust this Kinji," Rui said simply. "His papers looked legitimate, but something still smells fishy about him. I want to be certain we aren't walking into an ambush." She hesitated slightly, then said, "I'll be back in a moment." Silently, she leapt to another branch, and soon vanished into the thick carpet of trees.

Naruto yawned slightly as he waited for his companion to return from her scouting. He decided to keep an eye on the entrance to the cove. If what Kinji had told them was correct, the slaver contacts would be arriving on a ship. Naruto tensed slightly as he felt movement, then relaxed as he recognized who was landing beside him on the branch. "Find anything?" he asked Rui after a moment.

The kunoichi shook her head. "Nobody around," she said simply as she settled herself besides Naruto.

It was almost two hours later when they caught sight of the slaver ship. It sailed straight into the cove, passing easily over a small gap in the sandbar. The pair of ninja watched carefully as the ship dropped anchor. "What should we do?" Naruto asked.

"It looks like there's only two," Rui pondered. "They're certainly slavers - recognize that one?" She pointed at one of the two men visible on the small ship's deck.

Naruto studied the man for a moment. "That's the one I fought before," he said. Yes, he was the one who they had briefly fought before Rui had used her technique to stop the ice replication ships. Naruto smiled grimly. He hadn't been that tough.

"There's only two," Rui stated. "We could take them out now and use the Transformation Technique to impersonate them."

Naruto's grin widened. "Sounds like a plan."

"Be careful not to damage the ship," Rui warned him, then she slowly began to form seals.

Naruto nodded, and leapt away. He began to creep through the tree around the edge of the cove. He'd let Rui make the first move, then run across the water at the boat. He moved carefully, remembering every bit of stealth training he'd ever had. He wanted to get as close as possible without tipping off the slavers.

"Hyouton: Ten Diamond Shards," Rui's soft voice intoned, somehow carrying farther than its quiet tone should. Without waiting for the ice blades to strike, Naruto charged out of the trees, not slowing as he hit the water. As he ran, Rui's attack, carefully aimed to avoid damaging the ship's rigging or sails, reached its targets. One of the two slavers was hit several times and fell, but the one Naruto had fought before used a replacement and reappeared on the surface of the water, near the side of the boat.

Naruto smiled, his hands flicking through seals. After forming the last, one of his hands dipped down, lightly touching the surface of the water and pulling away a large, pulsating globe. "Suiton: Pressure Bullet!" Naruto shouted as he released the globe.

The slaver barely had time to throw up his hands before to attack hit him. He slammed into the ship's hull, knocking his head roughly on the wood. Unconscious, he began to slip into the water, but Naruto just barely managed to reach him before he sank. With the man in his arms, the disguised boy leapt up to the ship's deck.

Waiting there was Rui, busying herself with tying up the other slaver. She looked up. "Good work," she said simply, gesturing at Naruto to put down the other man. He complied, and the kunoichi quickly bound him as well.

"That was easy," Naruto said.

"They weren't expecting trouble," Rui said simply. Then she frowned. "And they arrived much earlier than Kinji said they would."

"Maybe he was wrong?" Naruto asked.

"I don't think so," Rui said with a grimace. "I think we should expect him to arrive very soon, with those other three ninja, to arrange for the slavers to help them ambush us."

Naruto's eyes widened slightly. "What?"

"I suspect Kinji was with them all along," Rui said simply. "The whole fight yesterday was just to give them a way to lure us from the town. They likely intend to sell us to the slavers."

There was a sudden burst of applause, and both ninja looked up to see Kinji emerging from the woods on the shore. As Rui had predicted, the three ninja they had fought the day before followed after him. "Very astute, Kitakami-san," Kinji said.

Rui cursed softly, then spoke in a louder tone of voice. "The one thing I don't understand, though, is why you wasted time on this charade. Why not just try to capture us when we fought with your men before?"

"Most of what I told you is the truth," Kinji stated. "However, the bit about the mayor was a lie. If he knew his ninja were involved with the slavers, he'd try to stop us. If we captured you in town, it would be more difficult for you to disappear." He laughed. "It seems I should have arrived earlier, though."

Rui's hands formed a seal. "And because of your mistake, you will die." Her hands blurred into motion. "Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards!" The storm of ice swept through the four enemy ninja, who vanished in puffs of white smoke. Rui cursed again. "Replications," she snarled.

Naruto's eyes narrowed as they swept the shoreline. Where were they? Unthinkingly, his hands formed a familiar set of seals. He could feel more chakra beginning to leak out of Jiraiya's seal, and he had to struggle for a moment to force it to stop. He ignored the sudden burning sensation on his stomach as he formed the last technique. "Shadow Replication Technique!" he shouted, forming four clones.

As one, the clones leapt into the air, landing lightly on the water and racing for the shore. A kunai took one in the chest, but even as it vanished in a puff of smoke Naruto had traced the weapon back along its flight path. The real Naruto joined his clones on the water as they quickly converged there.

The ninja who had throw the weapon broke from cover, only to be knocked into the air by a kick from a sliding clone. Another clone came in from above, delivering a powerful kick that sent the older man crashing back into the ground. He didn't rise, and Naruto looked about for another target. Rui had found and engaged another two ninja, and Naruto began to move to aid her.

Then another kunai struck one of his clones. As the replication vanished, Naruto and his remaining clones turned to see Kinji himself emerging into the open, a new dagger already in his hands. "Shadow Replication Technique," he commented. "Awfully impressive for a girl your age."

A Naruto snarled at him. "I'll show you impressive," he growled, and all three of him charged.

Kinji danced around the first replication's strike, kunai sweeping out in a wide arc that forced the clone to jump away. The second clone came at him from the other side, only to take a kick to the face. Before that replication's smoke had faded, the real Naruto was inside Kinji's guard, and his fist plunged into the man's gut. There was another puff of smoke, and Naruto cursed as the log he'd hit flew away. Where was the real Kinji?

A kunai appearing in the eye of his last clone answered that question. "No more replications left," Kinji said as he stepped out from behind the rapidly dissolving smoke the shadow replication had left behind. "Do you have any other tricks?"

Naruto was breathing heavily as he turned to face his foe. The way he was right now, making that many shadow clones had used up too much of his chakra. He wasn't certain he could do anything useful with any of his earth element techniques with what he had left. Trying not to let his tiredness show, he drew a hidden kunai and leapt at Kinji.

The two ninja met in midair, and Naruto was barely able to block Kinji's rapid strike. They recoiled from each other, and Naruto skidded as he landed, almost falling. Without conscious thought, chakra began to leak from Jiraiya's seal again, and the burning sensation on his stomach returned.

Kinji's eyes widened. "What," he began, then his eyes rolled upward as Rui struck the back of his head with the hilt of a kunai. Kinji collapsed, and Rui breathed a sigh of relief.

Then her eyes widened as she looked at Naruto. "Naruto-san?" she asked cautiously.

Naruto clutched at his stomach, and slowly the burning receded again. What was going on? He looked up again at Rui. "What?" he asked.

"Your eyes," she began, "for a moment they…" She trailed off, shaking her head. "We've got work to do," she said after a moment.

Naruto blinked. "What?" he asked.

"The slavers have been nice enough to provide us with a ship," Rui said simply. "I know enough to sail that small a ship with your help. With good winds, we can probably be on Hakuhyou Island tomorrow night."

Tsunade was procrastinating on actually starting dealing with the piles of paperwork Shizune had given her earlier in the evening when a chuunin guard knocked on her door. Eager for another excuse, she quickly pushed the stack of papers aside. "Yes?" she asked as the chuunin opened the door slightly and stuck his head into the room. "What is it?"

"Special Jounin Mitarashi Anko to see you, Hokage-sama," the chuunin stated. "Shall I send her in?"

"Of course," Tsunade stated, and moments later the kunoichi in question stood before her. "What do you need, Anko-chan?" Tsunade asked, fishing through the papers on her desk. "You shouldn't have been on the list for missions today; you're off-duty to handle the third exam."

Anko snorted. "Not that I really have to be. I've got all those cute little chuunin to do the actual work. Being the examiner for the third exam is really boring."

"I'm sure you'll get some excitement on the exam day," Tsunade said dryly. "There's usually at least one genin who decides that it'd be really impressive to try and kill his opponent."

Anko laughed. "You should have seen the Hyuuga kid last time," she said. "He pretty much dared Genma to stop him from killing the Uzumaki brat." From most other people, Tsunade might have been upset at how she referred to Naruto, but in Anko's case that was just the way she was with everyone.

Tsunade blinked. She'd heard a little of that fight from Yamanaka Inoichi, but Neji hadn't struck her as the type to try that kind of thing. "I see," she said. "So, what did you want to talk about, Anko-chan?"

Anko straightened, suddenly serious. "Is what I've heard about Hatake true?"

"Yes," Tsunade said, her eyes narrowing. "Hatake Kakashi is missing in action and presumed dead."

"Who's Sakura-chan training with?" Anko asked.

Tsunade frowned. She could guess where this conversation was leading, and it was likely to become… troublesome. "I pulled some strings to get her a little training from Yuuhi-san, but beyond that I don't really know."

"Kurenai-chan?" Anko bit at her lip slightly. "She said she's getting normal missions now, though."

"That's true," Tsunade said slowly. "Is there a point to this, Anko-chan?"

Anko nodded firmly. "Hokage-sama," she said seriously, "please assign me to a mission with Haruno Sakura. We could check up on my grandmother or something like that."

Tsunade sighed. She'd figured as much. "Anko-chan," she said, "I can't just send the examiner for the third exam on a mission with one of the participants so she can train her. That'd just create a conflict of interest."

"It's not like there's any room for me to do anything to illegally help anyone in the third exam, and it's important that all the Leaf genin put up a good show, right?" Anko pressed. "What with the Mist being there and all."

Tsunade folded her hands in front of her face. "You just want to make sure that Sakura-chan shows up your sister's students, don't you?"

Anko grinned suddenly. "A little," she admitted. "She is sort of my first student, though, and I want her to do well regardless." Her smile turned devious. "I think you do also."

"It's not appropriate for the Hokage to show favoritism," Tsunade said firmly. "You have no idea the number of complaints I'd get if it got out that the third examiner was training one of the genin in the exam."

"Can't you do something?" Anko's face took on a pleading expression.

Tsunade turned away. "How many times do I have to tell you that you should never use that face with me?" she asked.

Anko grinned again. "Sorry, Hokage-sama," she said, her voice betraying just how little weight she gave that apology.

Tsunade sighed, rubbing at her forehead. "Let me think," she said. "ANBU wants to directly recruit any promising new chuunin," she continued after a moment.

Anko nodded. "The commander mentioned that."

"I think I might be able to get it past the examination board that any likely prospects should be assigned a quick solo mission with an ANBU member before the third exam so that they can be evaluated," Tsunade said, a plan quickly coming together in her mind.

Anko quickly picked up on it. "The genin couldn't know that it was part of the examination, of course," she continued, "and I'm the ANBU it would make the most sense for Sakura-chan to go with on a mission."

Tsunade nodded. "However," she said, "for this to fly there's a catch. You'll have to get someone else in ANBU to categorize Sakura-chan as a likely prospect for ANBU recruiting. It'd be too suspicious if you did it yourself." Not that there was any chance of Sakura joining ANBU now, Tsunade knew. She didn't seem the type, and Tsunade would simply veto the posting if it came to that. Sakura wasn't going to have any time for ANBU work if she passed the exam. Tsunade did not intend to go easy in the slightest on her likely apprentice. She had less than three years to turn an unexceptional genin into someone who could take on Orochimaru and Akatsuki and stand a chance.

"Not a problem," Anko said with a grin. "That bastard Ibiki was pretty impressed by how her team took down Kurenai-chan's team. He was even talking about adopting that tactical situation for a question the next time he's on the first exam. I can probably get him to put in a word with a little work."

Tsunade blinked. "How do you and Morino-san know about that?" she asked.

Anko laughed, scratching the back of her head nervously. "I sort of bent the rules and had a snake watching them," she admitted.

Tsunade sighed. "One day, Anko-chan, you'll learn that rules exist for a reason."

Anko grinned suddenly. "You're one to talk, Tsunade-sama," she said.

Tsunade sighed. "Don't push me, Anko-chan, or I'll change my mind."

Day Fifty-three

Sakura was not happy to find herself back in the nearly useless genin library. When she'd been an academy student, she had dreamed of the priceless knowledge that had to be stored behind those strange, sealed doors on the level beneath the main library. She'd lost count of the number of hours since her graduation she'd spent down here, devouring as many of the scrolls and books as she could. Yet now, in the face of the goals she had set herself, the time she was spending down here felt wasted.

It seemed that the materials provided here were specifically selected to only allow the reader to learn about techniques, not learn the techniques themselves. That made sense, Sakura supposed. A genin was supposed to be learning from their family or under their jounin teacher, not trying to master techniques on their own. Still, it was highly frustrating in her situation. Despite this shortcoming, she had made her way back down here, because she could only spend so long attacking an unresisting training post before she became too tired. Besides, that sort of training was at best marginally more useful than what she was doing now.

Sakura sighed as she pushed aside the thin book she had been reading, promisingly entitled "A Novice's Introduction to Water Element Techniques." Unfortunately, the book's definition of the word novice seemed to be someone who had never even heard of ninjutsu before. Over half the book was spent on simple basics that she'd learned back in the academy, like what hand seals were most frequently used for water element techniques. There'd been barely any new information, and most of that had been of only intellectual interest to her.

Her eyes unwillingly went to the unopened envelope that had laid under the book. She couldn't say why she'd brought Kakashi's letter here, but it hadn't felt right to leave it in Naruto's apartment. It might very well have been her teacher's last words to her, and she couldn't leave it behind, even if she couldn't quite bring herself to read it either.

Somehow, she had picked up the envelope without noticing, Sakura realized as her hands began to toy with it. Her fingers made as if to open the envelope, then shrank away. Why couldn't she make herself read the letter? Why had her mother suddenly decided that she should have it?

The thought of her mother made Sakura grimace again. She still couldn't muster the courage to return to her home and confront her mother. The questions Midori's revelations had raised still preyed on her, but her desire to find answers could not triumph against her fears. Sakura sighed. She could even admit to herself that she was being a coward, but that didn't change anything. She'd been right when the ANBU had stopped her from meeting her mother before. The longer she waited, the easier it was to keep on justifying putting off her next attempt to get answers from her mother.

"Damn it," Sakura snarled, then without giving herself time to think about it she ripped open the envelope. Even if she couldn't face her mother, she could at least do this, couldn't she? Her hands shaking slightly, she unfolded the letter and began to read.

"Sakura," it began, "I have never been as good a teacher to you as I should have been. If Hokage-sama and you had not forced the issue, I would never have sought you out to train, as was my duty. I have my excuses, but they are still only excuses. My mission should conclude in time to train you for the third exam, and you have my promise that upon my return, I shall strive to be the teacher you have always deserved.

"Should I not return in time, I have one lesson for you to ponder. It is not a technique of any sort, but something much more important. To be truly strong, it is not enough to simply train and learn techniques. Power must have a purpose to become strength. You have told me you wish to become strong, so that you will not be useless, but to what use will you put your strength? What, Sakura, is your way of the ninja?

"I never said this when I should have, but you have within you the potential to be a great ninja, perhaps even one of the greatest. Always remember that, and never give up."

Sakura rubbed at her watering eyes as she looking at the familiar characters of Kakashi's signature. Then she froze, a strangely familiar sensation crawling up her spine. Kakashi's letter fell from her hands, and she quickly formed a seal. Then she vanished in a puff of smoke.

A large, gray snake hissed as it coiled around the precarious stack of books Sakura had left behind her. A far-too familiar laugh sounded. "Not bad, Sakura-chan," Mitarashi Anko said as she stepped into open view. She glanced up at the ceiling. "You can come down anytime, you know."

Sakura resisted the urge to curse at the special jounin, remembering that in less than thirty days she would be judging Sakura's matches in the third exam. As satisfying as it would be to call her an insane psychopath, that would only be counterproductive. "What do you want?" Sakura asked as she released her chakra-powered hold on the ceiling and dropped lightly to the ground.

Anko tossed her a bound mission scroll. "Orders," she said cheerfully.

Sakura carefully opened the scroll. "D-rank diplomatic mission to the Mitarashi Clan," she muttered. "Do we have to do this now?" she asked.

Anko nodded cheerfully. "Yep."

Sakura twitched. This meant that she'd probably be gone when Gai returned from his mission, and might not be back at all until just before the exam. "I see," she said flatly.

"This is the one you told me about?" a new, feminine voice said, and Sakura started.

She turned around, staring as she located the source. She pointed a shaking hand at the gray snake. "It talks?" she asked.

The snake's tongue flicked out in what Sakura somehow knew was a gesture of irritation. "Yes, I do, and I'm a 'she,' not an 'it.'"

Sakura blinked. "Sorry," she said automatically.

The snake's head turned to look at the special jounin. "Well, Anko?" she demanded.

"Yes," Anko said, "she's the one, Seseki." Sakura was quickly becoming very curious - and very concerned - about just what this conversation meant.

The snake's tongue emerged once more. "She might do," she allowed after a moment, "but it's going to take a lot of fast talking to get Manda-sama to agree." Sakura instantly placed the name of the god that ruled all snakes. What in the world was going on?

"You just lay the groundwork, and I'll take care of the rest," Anko said.

"It would go easier if you let me take some of her blood," Seseki proposed. "I bet she tastes good."

"I am not going to," Sakura began, only to be interrupted as Anko answered.

"That's a little premature," Anko said, "but I'll get you a special sacrifice or two instead, okay?"

The snake nodded. "Deal," she said. "Can I go?"

Anko gave the snake a wave, and the gray serpent vanished in a puff of smoke. "Well, that went better than I thought it would," she commented happily.

Sakura twitched, forcing herself to breathe deeply and count to three before speaking. "Would you care to explain what the hell that was about?!" she demanded. Maybe she should have counted to ten instead, she realized a moment too late.

Anko laughed, scratching at the back of her head. "I suppose I should mention that what you're holding is less of a mission scroll and more of an excuse scroll," she began.

"An excuse scroll?" Sakura asked, glancing down at the scroll in question.

"You didn't think I was going to let my first student embarrass me in the exam, did you?" Anko asked. "We're going to be training."

Sakura blinked. "Is that even legal?"

Anko scratched at her head again. "Not really," she admitted, "but I've got Tsunade-sama's permission."

"I see," Sakura said after a moment. Was it really okay for the examiner to be training her? "I still don't see what that snake has to do with anything."

"Your biggest weakness is that your chakra reserves stink." Anko grinned. "I'm going to fix that."

Sakura's eyes narrowed. "Explain," she said flatly.

Anko put on an obviously false offended expression. "You should be more polite to your teacher. Just for that I'll make you wait until we leave." She turned around, giving Sakura a wave goodbye. "Meet me at the gates at dawn the day after tomorrow."

"Why not tomorrow?" Sakura asked. If she was really going to be training, she didn't want to waste a day.

"I didn't know you liked my company so much," Anko said with a laugh. "We can't leave until I've let Ibiki know that he recommended you for ANBU, though." The special jounin gave another wave, then vanished.

Sakura twitched. "What?!" she shouted at the empty air.

Dealing with the prisoners had proved to be the most difficult part of leaving Hakuhyou Island for Naruto and Rui. It would have been convenient to simply kill the six enemy ninja, but neither ninja had wanted to slaughter them in cold blood. At least, Naruto had loudly rejected the idea, and Rui hadn't protested. On the other hand, taking them back to the closest town would have taken a long time - particularly answering the questions that they would be asked - and likely been dangerous, given that they were strangers and four of the prisoners were apparently the mayor's men.

Ultimately, Rui had expertly bound the six prisoners and tied them to a tree near the closest road. She'd left a note explaining the situation, though it was unlikely it would accomplish much, especially since the ninja might wake before some traveler found them. Then the pair had returned to the ship and quickly readied it to sail. Within an hour, they were underway, and Rui had proved that her claims of being able to sail the ship were founded in truth.

Unsurprisingly, the ship had already held more than sufficient supplies to last the journey. The weather had been pleasant, if somewhat chillier than Naruto was used to, and the winds had been good for the course Rui had set. Now, near sunset on the day after they had left the Hail Country, they had lowered their small, stolen ship's anchor and brought the vessel to a stop.

"Well, we're here," Rui said unnecessarily as she finished gathering her things.

Naruto nodded solemnly as he stared out over the massive sheet of ice that surrounded Hakuhyou Island, faintly visible in gathering twilight. Not for the first time, he'd wished that Jiraiya had gotten him a warmer jacket from Mako for his disguise as he shivered. If he squinted, he could just barely make out a small fortress on the island, with a familiar large warship docked in front of it. Somewhere in there was Jiraiya… and Rui's grandmother.

"What are we going to do?" Naruto asked, gesturing at the ice. Not even the slaver's own maps they'd found on board their ship had shown a way through the ice field Kitakami Yuki had created to protect her fortress. Rui had guessed that her grandmother used her ice control to create new passageways when they were needed and to seal them up afterward.

"We walk," Rui said simply. "We ought to be able to reach the island before we run out of light."

"And then?" Naruto asked.

"We'll scout out the fortress," Rui said, "and try and see what we're walking into." Her eyes hardened. "My grandmother knows we're coming, after all." She paused. "Are you ready?"

Naruto forced himself not to remember that they were walking into the lair of a woman so powerful that she'd been able to force Jiraiya to surrender. He grinned at Rui, then leapt down to the surface of the water in answer to her question. "What are you waiting for?" he called back at her.

In an instant, Rui stood beside him. Her eyes swept the ice in front of them. "Don't step in any of those patches of snow," she said after a moment. "They might hide traps."

Naruto nodded seriously. "Right." The two set out at a quick walk, briefly pausing the climb on top of the ice when they reached it. It took Naruto a few minutes to adjust to walking on the slick surface, but once he got the hang of it they made good time. As they walked, Rui occasionally formed a quick sequence of seals, muttering quiet words under her breath.

"What are you doing?" Naruto asked after the third time this occurred The question was something to keep his mind off of the danger they were walking into, at least.

"I'm using a technique to test the ice," Rui said. "Grandmother might have left some spots too thin to support any weight or left more clever traps."

"Ah," Naruto said. His stomach rumbled, and he wished that he'd eaten more on the ship before they'd left. He glanced up at the island. "We're almost there."

Rui nodded. "We'll have to be careful so sentries won't spot us."

Naruto gestured off to the left. "Should we swing over that way to keep our distance from the fortress?" he asked.

"Sounds good," Rui agreed, and they set off again. In the end, they weren't able to reach the shore before the sun finished setting, but the freshly risen, half-full moon cast enough light that they were able to finish their journey. They quickly found a well-hidden spot to rest for the night. "You set up camp here," Rui told Naruto. "I'll go and take a quick look at the fortress."

Naruto nodded, and by the time he'd finished setting up the small tent they'd found on board the boat Rui had returned. "What's it look like?" he asked quietly. He knew that they were far enough away tat they couldn't be heard, but it didn't feel right to talk loudly in this situation.

"Just the one building," Rui reported. "There are guards on the roof and all the entrances I spotted."

"Ninja?" Naruto inquired.

Rui shook her head. "Not any good ones, at least," she said. "We won't have a problem getting past those."

"What about the inside?" Naruto asked after a moment. "How are we even going to find Er- my uncle and your brother?"

"My grandmother will know where they are," Rui answered. She smiled grimly. "She said to come here if we lived. I don't think we'll have any trouble finding her."

Day Fifty-four

The sun had just began to rise when Naruto and Rui began their attack. Rui's scouting the previous evening had revealed that the easiest access point to Yuki's fortress was the roof. While the guards on the entrances were likely to be easily defeated, it was another matter entirely to get past them without alerting the entire fortress. While still not trivial by any stretch of the imagination, it seemed much simpler to sneak past the rooftop sentries, each of whom had to guard a stretch of wall, rather than a single entryway.

The pair of ninja circled around to come at the fortress from the landward side, the most weakly defended. They reached the foot of the stone wall without any trouble. Rui had timed the movement of the guards above perfectly, and when they ran up the wall they emerged directly on top of the only guard looking in their direction. A single violent blow from Naruto knocked the slaver unconscious before he could react.

Rui's hands flickered through seals and she muttered under her breath, activating a prepared genjutsu. "Let's hurry," she whispered to Naruto.

The disguised boy nodded. Rui had explained the technique to him in advance. It was very weak, designed to make the targets uninterested in whatever it was hiding, but not actually changing what they saw. Depending on how observant or strong-willed the other rooftop guards were, it might only buy them a handful of seconds.

However, they had chosen their attack point well. A half-open door not far away promised entrance into the fortress, and no alarm followed the pair as they slipped through it. Inside, they found a set of poorly lit stairs spiraling down. "How far down should we go?" Naruto asked.

Rui shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "Let's see what we find." With that, she set off down the stairs, and Naruto followed. The door at the first landing they came to was tightly shut, and a quick test showed that it was locked. Wordlessly, they continued their descent.

The next door seemed to take forever to arrive, but Naruto knew it was only his nerves getting to him. When they finally reached the door, they never had a chance to test it. Even as Naruto was reaching for the handle, the door flung open, revealing a burly man with a poorly-trimmed beard. Nobody moved. "You're -" the man began.

He was interrupted by Rui's foot plunging into his stomach. He flew back through the door, hitting the opposite wall with a solid thunk. He slumped to the ground, and did not rise. Rui and Naruto stood still, waiting to hear if some alarm would be raised. After several, nerve-wracking instants, the worst occurred

"Hey!" a male voice shouted. "Genma, what happened?" There was the sound of footsteps.

Rui cursed, and Naruto slammed the door shut. "Let's move," his companion snapped, racing down the stairs. Naruto followed after her. Even as they reached the next landing, they could hear the sound of pursuit behind them. The door here was not locked, and Naruto opened it quickly. He and Rui ducked inside, barring the door behind them.

Knowing that wouldn't hold their pursuers for long, they raced down the hallway the found themselves in. "Where should we go?" Naruto said, glancing at the shut doors they were passing.

"I don't know," Rui said, taking a quick turn down another hallway, then freezing. Naruto followed, almost slamming into her back.

"Why'd you stop?" Naruto asked, but he figured out the answer soon enough. They stood in front of a set of double doors. On each door was engraved the same emblem that Kitakami Yuki's forehead protector had borne. Naruto swallowed nervously. "Do you think," he began, only to be cut off as somewhere alarm bells began to ring loudly.

Rui nodded. "It seems like we're in luck," she said quietly, softly pushing one of the doors open.

It revealed a large, luxurious room. A throne stood on a raised dais on the opposite side of the room. Standing in front of the throne on the dais was a tall, skinny man with dark hair, snapping orders at a quartet of slavers below. Naruto swallowed. He didn't recognize the man, but he did recognize the armored jacket of a Leaf ninja he wore open over his black clothing. Naruto could see his forehead protector but not make out what symbol it carried. It wasn't hard to guess, though.

The man looked up, smiling as he saw the two ninja in the doorway. "On second thought," he said dryly, "there's no need to organize search parties." The four slavers below slowly turned around to face Naruto and Rui. "Kitakami Rui and the cross-dresser Naru, I presume," the man on the dais continued. Naruto grimaced at the description. How did he know?

Rui stepped forward. "Where is Kitakami Yuki?" she demanded. "I am here to deal with her, not her minions." Naruto carefully moved away from her. Sticking close together only made it easier for both of them to be caught in one attack, after all. He began to draw up his chakra, preparing for the battle he was certain was about to begin.

"Saeko," the slaver's leader said after a moment. "Go ahead and inform Yuki-sama her guests have arrived."

One of the other four nodded her head. "Yes, Tsuneo-sama." She formed a seal and vanished in a puff of smoke.

"If you want to face Yuki-sama," Tsuneo continued, "you will have to prove yourself worthy."

Rui smiled dangerously, her hands flickering through seals. "Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards," she said as though in answer. Glittering ice blades materialized out of the air around her, and with another seal she sent them flying at the four slavers.

Under cover of her attack, Naruto charged, his hands forming a familiar sequence of seals. "Shadow Replication Technique!" he shouted, creating two clones on either side of him.

One slaver fell, a shard of Rui's ice embedded in his gut. The other two weathered the ice storm, preparing themselves to meet Naruto's charge. One Naruto slid at the closest slaver, kicking up at him. The slaver danced back, only to take a kunai Rui threw in the side. He stumbled over the dais and fell. All five Naruto converged on the last slaver beside Tsuneo, who had drawn a kunai.

The slaver slashed one clone with his kunai. It vanished in a puff of smoke, and the unexpected lack of resistance made the man stumble. Another Naruto took advantage of this, grabbing the man and hurling him at a wall. He hit the stone wall head on, and didn't rise. Naruto glanced about, confirming that the other two slavers hadn't recovered.

On the dais, Tsuneo chuckled. "That was pointless," he said as he descended. "I was about to send them away." A hand flicked out, and shuriken filled the air, disrupting Naruto's clones. The real Naruto only suffered a minor scratch in the arm.

"Why?" Rui asked as she neared.

Naruto backed away from Tsuneo, moving slightly closer to Rui. He could now tell that it was indeed a Leaf forehead protector the man wore, though a two jagged scratches formed an "x" over the Leaf's emblem. Something nagged at Naruto's mind, something familiar about the man's face.

Tsuneo smiled at Rui. "Saeko was the only one of them who was even genin-level, really. Beating these three doesn't prove that you're worthy of Yuki-sama's time." He yawned. "It's me you'll have to beat."

"Very well," Rui stated, her hands inching up to form a seal. Then she froze. Her hands twitched, but she wasn't able to force them together. "What?!"

Naruto tensed, glancing down and seeing the thick, dark shadow that bound Rui to Tsuneo. "Shadow Imitation Technique," he breathed. That was what was familiar about the man. He looked a little like Shikamaru.

Tsuneo raised an eyebrow. "Surprising that you recognize the technique. Are you from the Leaf originally, perhaps?" His shadow branched, a tendril racing toward Naruto.

The disguised boy leapt away, his mind racing through his options. He landed lightly, jumping away again before Tsuneo's racing shadow could reach him. His hands flicked through seals. "Shadow Replication Technique!" he shouted, and another four clones appeared in midair around him. Each Naruto drew a kunai and hurled it in one smooth motion at the slaver.

Tsuneo's hands raced through seals, which Rui helplessly aped. "Shadow Interception Technique," he breathed. The shadow that had been chasing Naruto somehow raised itself up off the ground, becoming something physical. It split into five branches, each flailing tentacle snaring one of Naruto's weapons and knocking it to the ground. Then the shadow collapsed, retracting back toward Tsuneo.

As he landed, Naruto briefly noted that the shadow that bound Rui seemed thinner and lighter, but though she was obviously struggling the kunoichi still could not move. Naruto had no time to think on her situation though. He sent his replications to charge at Tsuneo as his hands formed another set of seals.

Tsuneo snarled as the clones neared. "You think mere replications are going to beat me?" he asked as his hands filled with shuriken. With a shout, he loosed them all. Once again, Naruto's clones were all destroyed by the storm of steel.

This had bought Naruto enough time to finish his technique though, and both of his hands were pressed to the cold stone floor. "Doton: Grasping Hand Technique!" he growled. A rock hand grew out of the floor, reaching hungrily for Tsuneo.

The Leaf missing ninja's hands blurred as he took in a deep breath. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" The massive burst of fire hit the palm of the stone hand. The hand shattered, leaving only a stump behind, which soon melted back into the floor. "You're not going to beat me like that," he commented as he looked at the disguised boy.

"He won't have to," Rui said, and Tsuneo's eyes widened as he turned to look at the kunoichi. She stood much farther away than before, well out of reach of Tsuneo's shadow.

"How?" Tsuneo snarled.

Naruto, breathing heavily as he rose from his kneeling posture, laughed. "That technique makes two hands," he said. "I used the other one to pick her up while you were distracted." He took a step forward, but nearly collapsed. He'd used up all the chakra he had available now, he realized.

Tsuneo's eyes narrowed. "Clever boy," he snarled, "but I still only have one foe, it seems." His shadow raced out toward Rui again.

The kunoichi danced out of the way easily. "The same technique won't work on me twice," she stated as her hands made seals. "Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards!" Countless ice blades pierced Tsuneo, who screamed before disappearing in a puff of smoke. When the smoke cleared, it revealed the now-ruined throne.

Tsuneo was kneeling where the throne had stood. A bloody scratch on his arm showed that he had not gotten away unscathed. "I suppose not," he said, "but I'm not so easily defeated either." He reached into a pocket of his jacket, pulling out an explosive tag. He slowly, deliberately, began to wrap it around the hilt of a kunai.

Rui's hands raced through seals, but not quickly enough. Tsuneo threw his weapon at her, and she aborted her technique, forming another set of seals in mere instants. "Hyouton: Crystal Ice Mirror!" she shouted. A sheet of ice stopped the kunai in mid-flight, but this wasn't enough to defeat Tsuneo's attack. The tag exploded, and the force of the explosion sent Rui flying away. She landed roughly, and though she stirred she was not able to regain her feet.

Tsuneo laughed. "It seems you two weren't worthy of Yuki-sama's time after all," he announced. "I suppose I can kill you before she arrives." Groaning, Naruto forced himself to form a seal. Tsuneo laughed again. "You're out of chakra, cross-dresser. What are you going to do?"

Naruto closed his eyes. It didn't seem like he had a choice. Relaxing a tension he'd barely realized existed, he loosed all restraint on the seal Jiraiya had made to contain his chakra. Power flooded through him, and the spiral seal on his stomach burned fiercely. The pain increased until Naruto was about to scream, then vanished instantly. His eyes snapped open.

Tsuneo took a step back. "What are you?" he asked, a hint of fear in his voice.

Red chakra flickered around Naruto, and he could feel the makeup that obscured the whisker-like markings on his face burning off as the lines thickened and darkened. He didn't answer Tsuneo's question, instead forming a familiar set of seals. "Shadow Replication Technique," he breathed, forming a single clone.

Tsuneo's eyes widened. "You're," he began as chakra began to gather in the real Naruto's hand, guided by the clone.

Away from the confrontation, Rui had managed to half-rise. "Naruto-san," she breathed.

"Uzumaki Naruto," Tsuneo snarled. "What are you doing here, demon?"

The shadow clone vanished in a puff of smoke. There was a blur of motion, and the real Naruto was suddenly inside Tsuneo's guard. The slaver stumbled backward, but not quickly enough to dodge Naruto's attack. "Rasengan!"

Jiraiya offered a silent prayer of thanks that Yuki was not in her chambers when he first heard the alarm bells. There was no doubt in his mind that this was what he had been waiting for. Even if it wasn't actually Naruto and Rui, it was a distraction he could use to break Ichizo out and escape, hopefully without attracting that Akatsuki member's attention. He wished he knew where the Akatsuki and Yuki were right now, but he was not planning to let this opportunity pass just because he didn't have all the information he would like.

His hands blurred as he used a genjutsu cloaking technique, then headed out of Yuki's opulent suite. Once again, the guards outside the doors failed to note his passing. It would have taken a miracle for them to penetrate his genjutsu, so Jiraiya was not surprised. He rolled his eyes at the poorly told dirty story one of the guards was reciting - did the two talk of nothing else? Shaking his head, he headed for the closest stairwell, which he knew from his earlier explorations would take him where he needed to go.

By the time he reached the dungeon level, his keen senses could tell that there was a fight going on elsewhere in the fortress. Just barely, he could feel the familiar pulse of Naruto's chakra, weakened and distorted by the seals he had made, and Jiraiya smiled. That was one weight off his shoulders. Thankfully he couldn't feel either the Akatsuki member or Yuki's chakra just yet. With luck, he'd be able to meet up with Naruto before that occurred

The Toad Hermit dropped his genjutsu as he walked into the prison complex. For what he wanted to do, stealth was beside the point now. The guards started as he boldly walked into sight. The closest waved a spear in his general direction. "Hey, you shouldn't be here," he said. "Go back to Yuki-sama's chambers like a good little boy and I won't tell her you went where you shouldn't have."

Jiraiya snorted, his hands forming a quick sequence of seals. "And who are you to tell me where I should or shouldn't go?" he asked. The guard froze, then toppled over, unconscious. Jiraiya wasn't able to resist another snort. For a slaver, that man had been awfully weak-willed to faint from a simple application of the Hell-Viewing Technique.

The other guards reacted predictably, grabbing whatever weapons they had and charging at Jiraiya. Rolling his eyes, Jiraiya formed another sequence of seals. He'd start off with a quick fire element technique to weed out the weaklings, then take care of the rest using taijutsu, he decided. Best to save as much chakra as he could for fighting Yuki, if it came to that.

It took the legendary ninja only a minute to dispatch his foes, and he made his way over to the large communal cells that held the non-ninja prisoners. He casually broke the lock on each door, then turned to address the excited crowds. "Things might be getting a little messy around here," he said. "If you can't fight, I suggest you wait here until I come back for you."

Without waiting to see what they did, he headed down to the smaller individual cells, where Ichizo was waiting impatiently for him. The younger man shook his head as Jiraiya approached. "I can't believe you're actually doing this, Jiro-san," he said lightly as Jiraiya opened the door to his cell.

"Your sister and my niece have arrived," Jiraiya said simply. "Now it's time to deal with Yuki." As much as he might like otherwise, he didn't think that they'd be able to escape without defeating her.     Ichizo stepped out of his cell, walking over to a fallen guard and taking the dead man's katana. He gave a few experimental swings. "I wish I could find my sword," he commented.

"I'm afraid it sunk with your ship, Grandson," Kitakami Yuki said as she stepped out of a cloud of chill mist that suddenly appeared between the two ninja and the exit.

Ichizo's eyes narrowed as he fell into a fighting stance. "You," he snarled.

Yuki ignored him, he cold eyes focusing on Jiraiya. "I'm disappointed in you, Jiraiya-san," she commented. "I came to find you so we could watch the cross-dresser together and you could explain to me why he's interesting, but you weren't in your room. Instead I find you abusing my hospitality like this."

Ichizo didn't seem to notice the name that Yuki called his rescuer. "Die!" he shouted as he charged her.

Yuki sidestepped his first blow, casually delivering an open-handed strike to his chest. Ichizo doubled over, gasping for breath. As he tried to recover, Yuki swept him off his feet with a swift kick. Her hand darted out, grabbing him by the neck before he could fall. "You," she said flatly, "are a pathetic disgrace to the name we share. If you trouble me again, I will kill you." She tossed the young man aside, stepping forward to face Jiraiya. "Now, where were we?"

Chakra gathered in Jiraiya's open hand. "I believe I was about to kill you," he stated. "There's no troublesome observer this time." He smiled, but his eyes were hard.

Yuki smiled to match him. "True," she said. "We never did finish our fight, did we?" Mist gathered around her, the temperature in the narrow hallway where they stood dropping rapidly. Her hands formed a single seal. "Shall we resume where we left off?"

Then the building shook. "Naruto," Jiraiya breathed softly as he felt the sudden surge of malicious power. The chakra spinning in his hand died away.

Yuki's eyes widened. "This chakra," she began, but she didn't seem to be able to find the words to follow for a long moment. Then she grinned. "It isn't human, is it?" Her eyes were alight. "You've brought me a very interesting gift, Jiraiya. I forgive you now." Her hands broke the seal the were holding and formed another. "Come and watch me play with him," she said. The mist surrounding her thickened briefly, and when it faded away she was gone.

Jiraiya stepped forward, quickly checking on Ichizo. The young man was unconscious but still alive, thankfully. Then Jiraiya began to curse fluently. There was no way that the Akatsuki member hadn't felt that. Still mouthing an unending string of vulgarities, he raced for the stairs.

Nara Tsuneo's body had barely hit the wall when Naruto began to scream again, clutching at his stomach. The crimson chakra that flickered around him vanished as quickly as it had arrived. He stumbled forward several steps, then collapsed. For a few long moments, it seemed like he would stand, but he ultimately lay unmoving on the chill stone.

Across the throne room, Kitakami Rui managed to rise, shaking off the aftereffects of the explosion that had flung her there. She too stumbled as she took her first steps, but soon she was running smoothly to where Naruto lay. "Naruto-san!" she exclaimed as she knelt over him, relief in her voice as she discovered that the boy was still breathing.

Then a sudden chill descended. Rui looked up to see her grandmother, cloaked in mist, standing in the center of the room, near the ruined throne Tsuneo had used for the Replacement Technique. Her cold gaze swept the room as the mist vanished. "Disappointing," she said. "He manages to kill Tsuneo, but he can't even stand afterward. This cross-dresser bores me already."

Rui rose, forcing herself to show no sign of her fear. "Grandmother," she said flatly. "I came as you asked."

Yuki smiled. "Ah, yes. You should prove more entertaining than your brother, at least. Since you survived my test, I should offer you the chance to serve and learn from me, as I had planned. You show much promise and potential."

Rui's hands began to form seals. "I have sworn to kill you. It is the reason I was granted this power." Her hands settled on a final seal. "Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards."

Yuki waved a hand, and the blades of ice shattered into harmless slivers even as they formed. "That didn't work on me before," she said. "Why should it work on me now?"

Rui didn't respond, forming more seals. Two clones appeared, one on either side of her. As one, the trio charged, though one hung slightly back, forming seals as it moved.

Yuki's eyes narrowed as she made her own seals. "Replications, huh?" she asked. "Hyouton: Snow Storm Swallows." Elegant birds of ice appeared around her, delicate wings flapping as they flew at the oncoming trio. One hit the Rui in back in the neck, and that Rui dissolved into smoke. The other two managed to dodge their way through the birds, but the ice creatures began to swing around to attack the pair again.

One Rui jumped into the air, rapidly making seals. "Hyouton: One Hundred Diamond Shards!" she shouted, sending her ice blades to pierce Yuki's birds.

Yuki stepped forward, casually disrupting the other Rui - the second replication - with a single strike. "You can't defeat me like this," she commented as Rui landed. Her hands casually formed seals. "Hyouton: Ice Cage Technique."

Thin pillars of ice appeared around Rui. She quickly tried to slip in between them, but horizontal bars grew swiftly, connecting the pillars. Cursing Rui jumped, but a roof of solid ice appeared before she could clear the walls. As she landed again, he hands began to form a seal.

Yuki sighed. "Do you think my technique is so easily defeated?" she asked, forming a seal of her own. Pale blue energy ran down the bars of the ice cage, and Rui froze as she felt the chakra she was gathering fade away. "I will decide what to do with you when I am done inspecting the boy," Yuki said. "Be a good girl, and wait for me." She slowly began to walk toward the still-unmoving Naruto.

The doors to the throne room flung open. "I'm afraid you'll have to wait for that," Jiraiya said as he stepped into the room. "I'm your opponent, Yuki."

"Jiro-san!" Rui shouted. "You can't -"

"Yes, I can, girl," Jiraiya said. "Trust me." He smiled slightly, and chakra began to gather in his outstretched hand. "Well, Yuki?"

Yuki slowly turned to face the Toad Hermit. "You try my patience, Jiraiya," she said. Rui's eyes widened slightly as she heard that name. "That's very dangerous for you," Yuki finished.

Jiraiya smirked. "I'm not afraid of Tsunade, Yuki. Your threats are nothing."

"Is that so?" Yuki asked, annoyance in her voice. "I'm afraid you should be frightened."

"Oh?" Jiraiya asked.

Yuki smiled dangerously, raising one hand to her mouth. "We didn't spend our time the way we did just for fun, Jiraiya. I knew that I would need a hold on you, and it gave me the chance to provide one." Her hand brushed her lips, and she blew a kiss at Jiraiya. "Hyouton: Kiss of the Snow Maiden."

Jiraiya stiffened, then fell to his knees, gasping for breath. "What," he began weakly.

Yuki laughed. "I'm freezing your chakra circulatory system. I'm afraid you won't be moving again until I'm good and ready for you." She turned her back on the Toad Hermit, who slowly fell over onto his side. Yuki rapidly walked up to Naruto picking the boy up with one hand. His eyes opened, and Yuki stared into the flat, lifeless blue orbs. Frowning, she studied him for a moment, then with her other hand unzipped his jacket and lifted his shirt. Then she nodded. "I thought as much," she commented as she let his shirt drop.

"Naruto-san!" Rui shouted, grabbing the bars of her cage and futilely trying to push them apart.

Jiraiya struggled just as hopelessly to rise. "Don't, Yuki," he said weakly.

Yuki only laughed, putting Naruto down. The boy stood unsteadily, not reacting as Yuki lifted his shirt again. Chakra gathered in her other hand. "Five Element Unseal," she declared as she thrust her hand on top of the black spiral seal on Naruto's stomach. The boy stumbled backward, and for an instant the seal glowed a fiery red. Yuki smiled. "Now you should be more interesting," she said as she waited for some change.

She wasn't disappointed. Naruto's eyes widened, life returning to them for the barest of instants before they turned crimson and inhuman. The markings on his face darkened again, his hands twitching as his fingernails lengthened and thickened into claws. Naruto snarled, baring suddenly sharp and pointed teeth. A murderous pulse of crimson chakra burst out from him.

Yuki stumbled backward, momentarily startled by the force of Naruto's chakra. "Such power," she breathed. "This should be fun."

Then as suddenly as it had expanded, the red chakra fell back, gathering tightly around Naruto's body. Panic managed to give Jiraiya the strength to half-rise. "Naruto!" he shouted. The boy was beyond hearing, snarling as the red chakra formed a shroud over his entire body. Another inhuman growl escaped his throat as he fell to all fours. The demonic chakra formed ears over his head as a long crimson tail sprouted from his rear.

Yuki jumped away, her hands forming seals as she frowned. "This could be troublesome," she said. "Maybe I should have listened to you, Jiraiya." As though in answer, Naruto moved, swiping at the air with one arm. A claw of chakra extended from his hand, growing rapidly as it raced through the air toward Yuki, who frowned again. "Hyouton: Crystal Ice Mirror!" she shouted, forming a large sheet of ice in front of the chakra claw.

The ice shattered, the shards melting from the heat of the chakra. Naruto vanished in a blur of motion, reappearing almost on top of Yuki. One hand clawed at her face. Yuki blocked the strike, but an arm of pure chakra came from another direction, moving independently of Naruto's attack and catching her in the side. Yuki flew away, slamming into a stone wall.

When the dust settled, Yuki was still standing, but her white kimono was smeared with crimson where Naruto had hit her. She clutched at the bloody wound in her side, and she staggered as she stepped forward. "It seems I did make a mistake," she said. Hey eyes glanced at Jiraiya. "My belated thanks for the warning."

Naruto's tail lengthened, stretching out to wrap itself around one of the bars of Rui's cell. The kunoichi from Snow Country stumbled back, fear in her eyes as she watched the chakra tail wrench the ice pillar out of the cage. With a sudden flick, the tail tossed the unlikely projectile at Yuki.

Breathing heavily, Yuki threw up one hand, and the ice vanished in midair. "It seems I shouldn't play with you," she told Naruto as her other hand released her side.

Naruto stood on two legs now, his tail moving rapidly behind him. There was perhaps a little bit more intelligence in his eyes, but the low growl that came from his throat in answer to Yuki's statement belonged to an animal. His lips curled upward, once again revealing a mouth of fangs.

Yuki's hands blurred, forming a lengthy sequence of seals. "I'll finish this in one strike," she commented. "Hyouton: Dragon of Winter." A long, serpentine form appeared coiled around her, made of shining, almost fragile seeming ice. Its eyes flicked open, pools of blue energy that glowed with power. The ice dragon's very presence chilled the room dramatically, dropping the temperature in the massive hall below freezing in an instant. It roared at Naruto, cold mist escaping its mouth.

As one, the dragon and Naruto moved. The dragon uncoiled itself from around Yuki, somehow flying through the air at Naruto. The boy jumped at the oncoming dragon, holding out one hand. The shroud of crimson chakra twisted and distorted over his palm, and as the dragon opened its mouth for another roar, Naruto made his first human sound of the battle. "Rasengan!"

There was a massive explosion as the two collided in mid-air. Red chakra and freezing mist swirled about them, blocking their struggle from sight. The battle seemed to last forever, but in reality could have lasted no more than a handful of seconds. The sound of shattering ice filled the air, and slowly the storm of power died away, revealing the victor.

Naruto stood on all fours once more, but now two tails of chakra flailed through the air behind him. The malevolent aura that surrounded him was thicker, making it hard to see the human face behind it. Power poured off of his body, a murderous intent so powerful that even Yuki shuddered under it. The fortress seemed to shake, unable to contain the force that was growing at its heart.

"Jiraiya," Yuki breathed. "If I release you, will you help me fight him?"

Before Jiraiya could answer, Naruto shook. His eyes widened, turning their natural blue once more. After a final pulse of power that seemed like it would make the room around them collapse, the crimson aura faded away, leaving only an ordinary-seeming boy behind. Naruto fell to the ground, and did not rise.

Yuki let out a laugh as she felt at the wound on her side once more. "That was fun," she said cheerfully, all her fear forgotten. "I thank you for the gift, Jiraiya. He's a bit too dangerous, though, so I think I'll kill him now."

"I won't let you do that," Kitakami Rui said as she stepped forward, standing protectively over Naruto's still form.

Yuki glanced at the still-standing ice cage, sighing as she saw the gap Naruto's tail had opened. "Foolish little girl. Even after that, I'm not someone you can defeat. Don't make me kill you too. It would be a waste of your potential."

"We shall see," Rui stated. Her hands formed a short sequence of seals, then separated. "Hyouton: Crystal Ice Blade," she intoned. A katana of ice formed in one of her hands. It seemed to shine with some inner light as Rui's other hand passed along its side and she fell into a fighting stance.

Yuki laughed. "An interesting technique. Is it an original?"

Moving faster than ever before, Rui charged, suddenly appearing next to her grandmother. "No," she said shortly as she struck at Yuki's wounded side. The ice sword scored a minor slice down Yuki's arm as the older kunoichi danced away.

Yuki struck out with her other arm, catching Rui with an palm strike that sent her stumbling back. Winded, the young girl fell to her knees, forced to use the sword to keep herself from falling entirely. "How futile," Yuki said, laughing again.

Rui smiled grimly. "It served its purpose," she said. "Your blood on this blade is all I needed."

"What?" Yuki asked, her eyes widening.

"I told you before," Rui said, "that I was given this power to kill you." Now she laughed, as one hand found a crimson patch on the side of her ice sword and began to smear the blood down the blade. "Who do you think gave it to me?"

"Impossible," Yuki breathed. "They wouldn't -"

"They would," Rui said. She plunged the bloody blade into the stone floor, then formed a rapid sequence of seals. "Summoning Technique!"

Once again, the temperature plummeted and a chill mist filled the room. A young-seeming, strangely ethereal woman stepped out of the mist, and Yuki stumbled away form her. "No!" Yuki shouted. "Not now!"

The other woman stepped forward. Like Yuki, her long hair was silver, but there was something ancient and inhuman in her face. Mist draped around her, obscuring her form. Her eyes opened, revealing pools of bright blue much like the eyes of the dragon Yuki had created. "The contract is fulfilled," she stated. "You are delivered into our hands, Betrayer, and are too weak to resist us." One elegant hand flicked out, and large spears of ice sprung into existence, slamming into Yuki and pinning her to a wall.

Jiraiya found that he could move again, and he slowly rose. So this was how Rui was able to create ice so easily. She must have somehow convinced the snow maidens to reforge the contract that Yuki had broken and grant her the support they had once given the Hidden Snow… and in return, Yuki was going to die. Jiraiya was almost sad, remembering the girl he had met in the Snow Country so long ago, but when he thought of what Yuki had become, he felt only relief.

Clutching at the ice that pierced her stomach, Yuki groaned. "No, you can't," she began, but she wasn't able to finish the sentence.

"You will die," the snow maiden said, no emotion in her frozen voice.

There was a puff of smoke, and a man appeared between the snow maiden and Yuki. He wore a black and red cloak, and a bamboo hat obscured his face. "That won't happen, hmm," he said lightly. Jiraiya stiffened, and in an instant moved to stand next to Rui between the man and Naruto.

The snow maiden somehow seemed confused, though no expression formed on her too-delicate face. "Punishment will be exacted," she said.

"So it will," the Akatsuki member replied calmly. "If you let me take her, she will ripped apart piece by piece, every part of her replaced by my partner's art. She will never be allowed to die, existing forever in eternal pain and darkness."

Yuki's eyes widened. "No, please," she breathed.

The snow maiden seemed to consider the man's words, then nodded. "That is acceptable." The man bowed in reply, taking a step back toward Yuki. "We will know if the punishment is not carried out," she stated.

"Of course," the Akatsuki member said as he waved a hand in front of Yuki's face. Her eyes widened briefly, then closed as unconsciousness took her. "She won't be causing any problems now, hmm," the man commented, then he gently began to pull out the shards of ice pinning Yuki to the wall.

The snow maiden's unnatural gaze sought out Rui. "The contract is fulfilled, Avenger," she said, and then she vanished as suddenly she had came.

The Akatsuki member slung Yuki's still form over one shoulder and turned to face Jiraiya. "Yuki was foolish to hide you from me, hmm," he said. "Had she been truthful, I might have spared her and made you my present to my partner instead."

"You'll find I'm no easy prey," Jiraiya said, chakra spinning once more in his hand.

"I've no need to fight you now," the Akatsuki member said. "The Kyuubi's not my target, hmm. Itachi-san and Kisame-san will be… pleased to hear of you, though." He waved slightly. "I suspect we won't meet again." He and Yuki vanished in a massive cloud of smoke.

As the smoke faded, Rui began to laugh, tears streaming down her face. "It's over," she said slowly, as though she wasn't able to believe her own words. "It's finally over."

Jiraiya rested a hand briefly on her shoulder. "So it is," he said simply, and then he turned to inspect Naruto.

Author's Random Ramblings

1) See? This time I didn't lie when I said that Akatsuki would strike! Well, not entirely. Less so than last time, anyway.

2) This chapter wound up a lot bigger than I was expecting. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised though - quite a bit happens in it when I really think about it.

3) I suppose this chapter makes it clear that I have started reading the current manga. I'm still not planning to match up the events of this story with it, though, and canon for this story remains the anime through Episode 141 and nothing else. I tried to make the elements I included from Part 2 of the manga as spoiler-free as possible, and I hope I succeeded.

4) As is ever the case, I welcome and appreciate all comments on my story, so please review! It's worth noting that if you haven't made your predictions for the third exam for the pseudo-contest I started back in the author's notes for Chapter 6, nobody's gotten the exact results yet, so you can still win the possibly non-existent prize!

5) Thanks go to the Eternal Lost Lurker for his comments on the draft, and thanks go to Eimii for clearing up my confusion regarding the appropriate prefix for lightning element techniques, which will help me very much over the next few chapters.

6) Next time in One Hundred Days Chapter 9, Finding Your Way: Jiraiya and Naruto's journey to the Lightning Country resumes, and Anko teaches Sakura some things she probably shouldn't.

Draft Started: March 02, 2006
Draft Finished: March 26, 2006
Draft Released: March 28, 2006
Final Released: March 29, 2006