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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 9: Finding Your Way

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, snakes. Snakes… on a plane.

Day ?????

Naruto awoke. For long moment, he didn't open his eyes, simply lying in the warm water he found himself floating in, waiting for the pounding in his head to subside. He might have luxuriated in the warmth, welcome after so many days in the chill of the quickly descending northern winter, but the water was a touch too warm for comfort and stank of some unnatural foulness. Groaning and channeling chakra reflexively to keep himself from sinking, Naruto opened his eyes and sat up.

Dark walls loomed on either side of him, some strange mold growing between the cracks between the stones. Dim, sickly sunlight filtered in from somewhere overhead, unable to penetrate the murky water Naruto sat on. The air was warm and humid, and periodically a hot, dank wind blew past him.

With another groan, Naruto forced himself to stand, then his eyes widened, and his hand went to the back of his neck. The familiar strangeness of the long, dyed hair that was part of his disguise was gone. He glanced down carefully, and saw that he was wearing his favorite orange clothing. The closest copy of those clothes, he knew, was hanging in his closet at home in the Leaf Village. Jiraiya had destroyed the ones he'd brought with him back at Hojo's estate in Earth Country.

Rubbing at his forehead, Naruto tried to gather his scattered thoughts. He'd been fighting that missing ninja who looked a little like Shikamaru, hadn't he? He'd gotten that bastard good with a Rasengan after he'd let all his chakra loose, though. Then… he'd fought that Yuki lady, Rui's grandmother. His memories were hazy and indistinct, but he remembered that much. What had happened?

Naruto glanced around. Where was he, for that matter? There was something oddly familiar about this place, like he'd been here before. Yet he couldn't quite place the half-memory. The hot wind blew on his face, and Naruto began to walk toward it. That was as good a direction as any and perhaps more likely to lead him to some answers. Pausing at a dark intersection, he waited for the next burst of wind before turning and proceeding.

As he neared, the wind grew warmer and wetter, and a dull roaring began to sound in his ears. The pounding in his head beat in sympathy with the roar, and Naruto's progress slowed. A sinking feeling in his gut, he realized that it wasn't wind he was following to its source. It was breath, and it carried a familiar, inhuman scent. Steeling himself, Naruto continued to advance, even when the heavy breath became strong enough to almost knock him off his feet.

The narrow passageway opened up into a large chamber. Massive steel bars blocked further progress in this direction. Beyond them, the chamber was cloaked in oppressive darkness, but two crimson, gargantuan eyes swam out of the gloom to stare down at Naruto's tiny form.

The genin's eyes widened as the memories of the times he'd stood before in this place came flooding back to him. "You're," he breathed, only to be interrupted by loud, rumbling laughter.

"Are you grateful?" an impossibly deep voice asked, filled with pure malice. The sheer force of the words pushed Naruto back, but he did not fall.

"Grateful?" he asked. "To you? Why would I be?"

The Kyuubi laughed again, the red orbs that were the only visible part of it alight with some inner fire. "Is it not the way of humans," it said, saying the word 'humans' in a way that left no doubt as to its hatred of the species, "to be grateful to one who saves their pathetic lives?"

"I guess," Naruto said dubiously, "but I'll never be grateful to you!"

"I have freely granted you gifts that some would willingly sacrifice entire nations for," the Kyuubi said. "This is how you would repay me?" It laughed again.

"Shut up, you damn fox," Naruto muttered, turning away from the cage. "I don't want anything to do with you. I just want out of here." The Kyuubi's mocking laughter followed him out of the chamber as he retraced his steps, its foul breath blowing at his back.

Yet as he stalked down the corridor, despite the fact that he never turned down any of the side passages, eventually the hot breath was coming from in front of him. For a moment, he entertained the horrifying idea that there were two demonic foxes sealed inside him, but he discarded that unserious thought as he walked back into the same hall, staring up at the same pair of massive eyes. Wordlessly, he turned around again, ignoring the Kyuubi's amused eyes following his every move.

Once more he raced out of the chamber, and this time he turned down the first side passage he found. His rapid steps kicking up foul water, he concentrated on his path, straining his senses for any sign of the genjutsu that had to be confounding him and twisting his path. He never found any, but still he emerged before the bars of the Kyuubi's cage.

This time, the demon spoke as he entered. "Pathetic human," it said, "you'll never get out that way." The fox pressed its face against the bars, and Naruto was able to see its reddish fur and its giant, white fangs. A drop of saliva fell from its mouth, hissing and steaming as it landed on Naruto's side of the barrier with a loud splash. The foul water bubbled briefly.

"What do you mean?" Naruto asked cautiously, backing away from the cage.

The Kyuubi laughed again, and answered, delight and menace in its voice. "The only way out," it said slowly, savoring each word, "is through."

There was the stench of something burning, and for the first time Naruto's eyes sought out the large tag with the character for "seal" on it, hanging high overhead on the gate. He wasn't able to stop himself from swallowing nervously as he saw the red and black flames that briefly caressed the edges of the paper. He recoiled and, hating his terror, ran, and once more the Kyuubi's mocking laughter followed him.

Day Fifty-five

The forests that surrounded the Hidden Village of the Leaf, reborn from the destruction of war to shelter the newly founded village almost a century ago by the First Hokage's unique wood element ninjutsu, were a great help to the ninja of the Hidden Leaf. The woods were a protective barrier, able to be turned into a death trap in a thousand ways by the techniques the ninja of what had once been the Wood Country had brought to the village. In the worst scenario, the deadly fire element techniques that were the village's specialty could turn the forest into a blazing inferno, a suicide move that would insure that no army survived destroying the Leaf.

Yet the woods also held dangers to the ninja of the Leaf. Besides the occasional problems with dangerous animals, the woods were almost impossible to patrol well. The sections closest to the village, the few well-traveled paths that lead to the gates - those could be patrolled with relative ease. Yet the remainder of the thick forest held countless hiding places, hidden clearings where perhaps no human foot had tread since the First Hokage himself had made his sacrificial pilgrimage to restore what his final battle had destroyed. No matter how hard they searched, how many of their already over-stretched ninja they dedicated to the task, the Leaf could not find and guard them all.

In one such dark clearing, chosen well by the Hidden Mist's spies and scouts, Yakushi Kabuto waited with his hand-picked ninja. Three four-man squads, the maximum the Mist had allowed, were present. Nine of them, low-ranking jounin, wore the standard gray uniform of the Hidden Sound. Two more, squad leaders, instead wore the black armored jacket that Orochimaru granted only to the Sound's informal, rough equivalent to the Leaf's ANBU or the Mist's hunter ninja squads. Kabuto himself, playing the role of third squad leader and overall commander, wore that same jacket for this mission, to best present a professional appearance for their new allies.

All of the ninja he had picked to accompany him were well-chosen, though it had taken some reshuffling of squads to avoid bringing any former Mist ninja along. Every ninja was a veteran of the Sound's prior attack on the Leaf Village. That failed venture had weeded out the weakest from the Sound's numbers and in the aftermath the disloyal and fearful had fled, leaving only a hardened, solid core behind. While Orochimaru had easily refilled his ranks with missing ninja and mercenaries longing to enjoy the support of a hidden village, none of those desperate recruits had yet enjoyed a chance to prove themselves worthy of this mission, even with the recent skirmishes with the Valley.

One of the squad leaders, the only kunoichi on the mission and a former Valley ninja, approached Kabuto, bowing slightly. "Yakushi-sama," she murmured softly.

Kabuto looked up from the map he had been studying. "Yes, Koyanagi-san?" he asked.

The woman straightened, idly brushing a tendril of her unkempt brown hair back behind an ear. "Company approaching."

Kabuto rose, setting the map aside and adjusting his glasses. "The Mist or the Leaf?" The other Sound ninja stirred, save for the scout that had just reported to the kunoichi.

"Mist," the former Valley ninja answered. "A hunter ninja." There was an undercurrent of hostility in her voice, and Kabuto was not surprised. Missing ninja, regardless of their original village, shared a certain odd kinship, and there would be no love lost between any of them and a hunter ninja from any village.

"Well," Kabuto responded, "it's nice that we didn't have to wait long, even though we're a little early." He smiled. "Perhaps I should put on some tea for our guest."

"That won't be necessary," a soft voice came from overhead. Kabuto glanced up at the branch that hung over the campsite just in time to see the black-clad kunoichi that stood there jump down to stand before him. "You are Yakushi Kabuto?" she asked.

Kabuto nodded as he studied the flat hunter ninja mask she wore. From his reading of the painted markings that described her rank, she was experienced but hardly elite. "How may I address you?" he asked.

"Hunter will suffice, Yakushi-san," the kunoichi replied. "Do your forces require supplies?"

"No," Kabuto stated with a quick shake of his head. "We brought some, and the woods will supply the rest, Hunter-san." For a moment, he idly wondered how the woman would react if he called her Hunter-chan, but he decided that it was not worth experimenting just now.

"Very well," the Mist ninja said. A scroll appeared in her hands, and Kabuto took it after a moment. "Memorize and destroy that scroll. You will find your squads' assigned mission within."

"Of course," Kabuto murmured, quickly unrolling the scroll and scanning it. He almost snorted. His squads were being wasted on a pointless task that would do no harm if it failed, as he expected. The Mist feared a betrayal and sought to minimize their exposure. No matter. It served his purposes well enough. Two squads could easily handle the job, leaving his own squad to accomplish what Orochimaru wished to have done.

"You will be contacted again next week," the hunter ninja said. "I am to remind you to remain in position and to avoid any conflict with the Leaf." It took Kabuto much effort to keep from rolling his eyes. How stupid did the Mist think they were? "Have you any questions?"

Kabuto lightly tossed the scroll into the small fire his ninja had made. "None," he stated simply.

The hunter ninja nodded once, then disappeared in a blur of motion.

Unlike the last time she had met Mitarashi Anko at the gates, Sakura arrived on time for the meeting. Actually, she was a little early, but the special jounin was already waiting for her, leaning against the smooth village wall. With a sigh, she pushed herself away from the wall. "At least Hatake didn't teach you all his bad habits," Anko said in greeting.

Sakura's heart sank as she realized that the last time she had seen her teacher - probably the last time she would see her teacher - was when she had left with Anko on the mission to the Mitarashi Clan weeks ago. She tried not to let the disconcerting realization show in her voice as she murmured, "Good morning, Mitarashi-sensei." It was best to be polite, after all.

Some of her distress must have shown, as Anko's expression softened. "Don't worry, Sakura-chan," she said, giving the genin a forced smile. "I bet when we get back Hatake will be waiting for us with another one of those lousy excuses of his."

Anko, Sakura decided, was not very good at being comforting. Adjusting the straps on her backpack momentarily, she stepped toward the open gates. "What are we waiting for?" she asked.

Sighing, Anko took the lead, barking "Hokage's orders," at one of the guards when the chuunin asked her why she was leaving when she should be preparing to administer the third exam. Once the thick forest had hidden the gates from sight, Anko's pace slowed as she let out a whoop of slightly maniacal laughter. "Tsunade-sama's not going to be able to catch us now," she gloated.

Sakura rolled her eyes behind the jounin's back. "I thought you said you had Hokage-sama's permission."

Anko glanced back at her student, grinning widely. "I lied," she said cheerfully. "I don't think she'll declare us missing ninja and send ANBU after us for at least a week or two, though." Her grin widened. "Don't worry if she does, though. Taking out an ANBU hunter ninja squad solo is good training for the exams."

Sakura twitched. "You're insane," she said flatly.

"Got the shrink's reports to prove it," Anko confirmed merrily.

"You're also lying," Sakura continued.

Anko applauded. "Smart girl," she said approvingly. "What gave me away?"

"I checked with Shizune-sama yesterday to make sure Hokage-sama had approved this insanity," Sakura replied. She certainly wasn't going to complain about getting a dedicated teacher for these last weeks before the exam - as much as she might wish for a less psychotic one - but having the examiner for the third exam training one of the fighters was completely ludicrous.

Anko pouted. "You don't trust me?"

"Does anyone?" Sakura replied dryly.

For an instant, Anko almost looked honestly hurt. Then she was smiling again. "There's a sucker born every minute," she replied. "Not even I work that fast." She leapt up to a convenient tree branch, gesturing at Sakura to follow before jumping across to another tree.

"Not for lack of trying," Sakura murmured to herself as she complied. Several minutes later, they had put a good amount of distance between themselves and the village, and Sakura realized that they were heading north. "Shouldn't we be going the other way?" she asked Anko when the older woman paused to take a swig from her water bottle.

The special jounin wiped at her mouth, offering the bottle to Sakura, who shook her head. "Why would we go south?" Anko asked.

"Aren't we supposed to be visiting your grandmother?" Sakura asked.

"Oh, that," Anko replied. "I told you that's just an excuse. I sent a letter to Grandmother and she'll confirm that we visited her in secret, just like the official mission told us to. We wouldn't be able to get the training done if we actually went there."

Sakura blinked. "You won't be teaching me more of your family techniques, then?" she asked.

Anko shook her head. "The next technique, Shadow Smoke Evasion, is really just a fancy combination of the Replacement Technique and the Body Flicker Technique unless you go all out and start learning Fire Dragon Fist Style."

Sakura blinked. "Fire Dragon Fist Style?"

Anko formed a quick sequence of seals. When her hands separated, they were briefly wreathed in flames. "Family taijutsu style utilizing fire element ninjutsu," Anko explained. "I don't like it much. The family techniques are designed to have good, what's it called, synergy with it, but it still burns through too much chakra too quickly."

"I see," Sakura replied.

"Besides," Anko said, "it's not very compatible with Strong Fist Style." She grinned. "Tell me, does Maito force you to wear that ridiculous jumpsuit?"

Sakura shook her head. "No, thank the gods." He had given her another copy of that monstrosity of fashion soon after she'd started training with him and his students, but he hadn't pressed her when she'd kept wearing her own clothing.

Anko grinned. "Maybe he still remembers what I did to him when he tried to make me wear it."

"You studied under Gai-sensei?" Sakura asked, blinking. That was a difficult combination to imagine.

"Maito was giving out lessons to anyone he could guilt into it when he was first trying to formalize the style," Anko replied. "I took a couple before I decided it wasn't for me. I'm just not a taijutsu-type."

"Ah," Sakura said. "What will you be teaching me, then?"

Anko grinned at her. "What do you know about summoning?"

Sakura took a breath, closing her eyes as she thought back to the academy lectures. "Summoning comes in two main forms, releasing items that are sealed into scrolls or actual summoning of spirits, usually animal spirits," she recited. "Spirit summoning usually requires a permanent blood contract with the spirit or spirits or a temporary scroll prepared by a ninja with such a contract."

"Good girl," Anko said. "Iruka-kun must be very proud of you."

"I don't really need item summoning," Sakura said after a moment. "I'm not a weapons expert like Tenten-san. Spirit summoning requires a lot of chakra, though." More than she would have for a long time, Sakura expected.

"Exactly," Anko said cheerfully. "I told you I was going to fix your low chakra reserves, girl. When… my teacher taught me spirit summoning between the second and third exams, I nearly doubled my chakra reserves. Pushing your limits is the only way to increase them."

Sakura nodded after a moment, forcing herself not inquire after Anko's odd hesitation. The matter of Anko's teacher still wasn't any of her business. "Can I see the summoning scrolls?" Sakura asked curiously. She'd always wanted a close look at some of those.

Anko shook her head. "We're not going to waste time with those," she said. "They're too limited, and they require way too much chakra. You'll never get that much this quickly."

Sakura blinked. "You have a blood contract with some snakes," she said slowly after a moment. She'd seen Anko summon a large snake back during their mission, and she must have summoned that Seseki creature in the genin library. Sakura wasn't thrilled with the idea of summoning snakes - it put her too much in mind of Orochimaru - but she couldn't deny that it might be useful.

"With all the snakes," Anko said, grinning. "From Manda-sama on down."

"You have a contract with the entire snake spirit court?" Sakura asked, aghast. "But that type of contract is only held by legendary ninja like Hokage-sama!"

"Hey," Anko protested. "I'm sort of legendary! A whole generation of Leaf ninja is growing up scared of me!" Her face fell slightly. "It's more accurate, though, to say that I know where the snake contract is. It's not exactly mobile."

Sakura blinked at that. "I see."

Anko sighed and jumped to the next tree branch. "Let's move," she said shortly.

Sakura followed. "Is something wrong?"

"I should probably warn you," Anko said, "that we should watch out for Sound ninja when we get close to the shrine where the contract is kept."

"Sound ninja?" Sakura asked. "Why?"

Anko gave her a brief glance. "Didn't you see Orochimaru in the Forest of Death?" she asked. "Who else do you think knows where the snake contract is?"

Day Fifty-six

The aftermath of Yuki's defeat had been predictably chaotic. Most of the remaining slavers, demoralized, hadn't even posed a threat to prisoners Jiraiya had freed, much less to any of the ninja, and had been easily dealt with. The sailors among the former prisoners were presently refitting and equipping Yuki's massive warship to sail to the Hail Country. Kitakami Ichizo was out on the rapidly melting ice barrier surrounding the island, using his ice element techniques to make sure a safe passage would be ready when they sailed later in the morning.

Kitakami Rui, on the other hand, had hardly left Yuki's former suite, which Jiraiya had secured to serve as Naruto's sickroom - for his protection and, if necessary, the protection of others as well. "You know," Jiraiya said as he entered the room that had recently been his, returning from a brief excursion to check on the progress with the ship, "I will tell you if there's any change, Rui-san. You don't have to wait here all day long."

Rui shifted uncomfortably as Jiraiya seated himself on a chair next to her own. "I owe him," she said after a moment, "and it's not like there's much else I could be doing."

Jiraiya pushed the bedcovers aside and studied Naruto for several seconds, not for the first time wishing he had a Hyuuga's eyes. The Fourth Hokage's spiral seal was clearly visible on Naruto's bare stomach, supposedly a clear sign that Naruto was channeling large amounts of chakra, but there were no external signs. "You could," Jiraiya commented to Rui, "help your brother with the ice."

An odd expression passed over Rui's face. "You wouldn't know, would you?"

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow as he placed one hand over Naruto's stomach, carefully channeling chakra along, but not into, the seal. "Know what?" he asked carefully, putting what he judged to be the precisely proper amount of curiosity in his voice.

"The contract I signed with the snow maidens," Rui said, sighing slightly. "They granted me more support than they'd ever given a single ninja before, but that power came with a price."

Jiraiya was, despite what both of his genin teammates, his teacher, and most of his students would have said, an extremely smart person. It did not take him much effort to figure out what that price was. "You can't use ice element techniques, can you?" he asked. Now he kept his voice sympathetic, but without the slightest trace of pity.

"Not anymore," Rui said quietly. Jiraiya risked placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, and the kunoichi stiffened under his touch. Though she tried to hide the motion, Jiraiya's trained senses easily saw her hand sneaking to the hilt of a hidden kunai.

Jiraiya carefully removed his hand. "Is something wrong?"

An ordinary person would not have been able to see Rui's slight tremor, nor the hint of fear that flashed across her face. "Please don't touch me," she stated softly.

It didn't take Jiraiya long to figure out what the problem was, and he sighed, rubbing at his forehead. For what seemed like the thousandth time, he cursed the people responsible for that absurd "Tale of the Sannin." "I don't… well, actually, I do know what you've read about me," he said after a moment. "I assure you, though, that while I do enjoy looking, I never touch - like that, at least - without permission." His mouth twitched into a slight smile. "I don't know what the writer of the 'Tale of the Sannin' was thinking, really. The only thing more absurd than believing that I could force myself on Tsunade, even if I wanted to, is believing that Orochimaru would care in the slightest about it."

After a moment, Rui nodded. "I'm sorry," she said. "You've shown me nothing but kindness." She laughed slightly, clearly forcing it at least a little. "It's odd to hear names like Tsunade or Orochimaru spoken like they're real people."

Jiraiya grimaced. "I wish Orochimaru wasn't real," he said. "It'd make my life a lot easier." Most of his attention returned to Naruto's still body. Just like the last time, there didn't seem to be any sign that he would wake soon. Jiraiya didn't like the idea of trying to re-establish the seals he'd made before without Hojo's aid, and he wasn't certain that Naruto's chakra circulatory system could handle the strain of another Five Element Seal just now. Biting at his lip in thought, he pulled out a blank scroll and opened it on his lap.

"What are you doing?" Rui asked after a moment.

"Planning," Jiraiya said as he began to write fluidly across the scroll. Rui gazed curiously at the strange characters for a moment, but clearly didn't understand what he was doing. "So, what are your plans?" Jiraiya asked as he worked.

Rui looked away, gazing thoughtfully at the stone wall across the room. "Ichizo and I will head back to the Snow Country," she said after a moment. "We'll tell the clan elders that Yuki is dead, and they'll summon the other clan heads. We'll probably wind up trying to negotiate a new contract with the snow maidens, and maybe in a decade or so there will be a Hidden Village of Snow again." She sighed. "It still doesn't seem real to me."

"I wish you luck, then," Jiraiya said, pausing as he considered the next characters to write.

"Jiraiya-sama," Rui said after a brief moment of silence. "What precisely is Naruto-san?"

Jiraiya sighed, placing his brush back in a small bottle of ink. "When Naruto was born," he said slowly, "the Leaf Village's Fourth Hokage sealed the demon fox Kyuubi inside of him to stop the demon's rampages." It wasn't like Rui wouldn't have been able to figure that out herself with a little research, given what she'd already seen.

Rui nodded, as if indeed she had already suspected the answer. "That's why you were afraid that man would take him," she stated. There wasn't any need to ask to whom she referred.

Jiraiya pondered how much to say. "That man is part of an organization called Akatsuki," he said after a moment. "They are extremely dangerous and capturing Naruto is one of their aims."

"The Itachi-san and Kisame-san he mentioned," Rui pressed after a moment. "Do you think they will attack soon?"

"Perhaps," Jiraiya said. "If they do, stay out of the way, and have your brother do the same. Even the way you were before, that fight would be out of your league." He laughed ruefully. "It'd be a little challenging for me to," he commented.

"That strong?" Rui asked, eyes widening.

"They're both probably a bit stronger than Yuki," Jiraiya confirmed after a moment. He paused. "Have you ever heard of Uchiha Itachi?"

Rui's brow furrowed in thought. "The Uchiha… are a clan of the Hidden Leaf. They're famous for some doujutsu, right?"

Jiraiya nodded. "It'd be more accurate to say that they were a clan of the Hidden Leaf." The storyteller's impulse in him made Jiraiya pause for dramatic effect. "A few years back, Uchiha Itachi murdered them all." There wasn't any need to complicate the story with the matter of Sasuke. He sighed. "His partner is Hoshigaki Kisame, one of the former Seven Swordsmen of the Mist."

It was painfully easy to read Rui's mingled fear and disbelief. "You have dangerous enemies," she said after a moment. "I see why you weren't afraid to fight my grandmother."

Jiraiya laughed slightly. "Well, a little challenge helps make my old age exciting," he commented, but then his face and voice turned serious. "Don't worry about them, Rui-san. They aren't your problem, and you don't owe Naruto or me that sort of debt. We'll part ways in the Hail Country, and you can go home and enjoy the peace you've earned."

After a long moment, Rui nodded slowly.

The Swamp Country, these past few weeks, had been engulfed in political turmoil. While not hated, Daimyo Chichiatsu - the highest noble in the small country, though in a great power like the Fire Country he would have been only a minor vassal - was not precisely well-liked either. His now-deceased brother had not been without supporters in his quest to eliminate the daimyo and his daughter, placing himself on the throne. A rather ruthless purge of those supporters had been ongoing since the daimyo's brother's mysterious death in the aftermath of the latest failed assassination attempt. Strangely, a number of native ninja clans had abandoned the daimyo and joined the seemingly-doomed rebels, a matter causing no end of speculation among the lesser nobility who were racing to assure the daimyo of their loyalty.

Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that Daimyo Chichiatsu kept the halls of his palace well-patrolled. In particular, the wing containing the private chambers of the daimyo and his daughter were under heavy guard, and every guard squad held at least one member with some ninja training. The daimyo had no illusions that just because his brother was dead the danger had passed. In fact, to some well-informed people, it seemed as though he considered himself to be in more danger than ever.

The visit of the four-man Leaf squad to confirm the death of Hatake Kakashi in defense of the daimyo had been tense, but it was over. The Leaf ninja had examined the body, agreed that it was indeed the famous copy ninja's, and accepted the daimyo's generous bonus payment for the family of the fallen hero. The question on many's lips, though, was why the daimyo had not arranged to hire additional Leaf ninja to replace his previous guard, despite his obvious fear for his life. The guard captains had speculated that the Leaf ninja had taken a contract with the rebels and quietly doubled the guard on the daimyo and his daughter's chambers prior to the visit.

Though that visit was some days past, that order had not yet been rescinded, and there were therefore plenty of guards able to hear when the princess suddenly screamed in the middle of the night. In a matter of mere seconds, her bed chambers were flooded with armed men, searching diligently for any threat. This only caused the girl to scream again, shrinking back in fear from her own guards.

Once the room had been confirmed to be clear of any threat, the squad leader approached the bed. "Is something wrong, Princess?" he asked, keeping his voice carefully respectful.

The young woman sniffled. "I had a nightmare," she said tearfully. "I want to see daddy."

It took an iron will for the squad captain not to sigh. The princess was already engaged to a foreign daimyo's second son, yet like always, she was acting like a girl of less than half her age - and not a particularly bright one at that. Before the squad leader could respond, the door to the hallway opened briefly, making all the guards tense until they saw a familiar face.

"Chichiatsu-sama heard screaming and wants to know what's going on," the newly arrived guard stated.

The squad leader turned away from the bed. "The Princess has had a bad dream and would like to see her honored father," he replied, rolling his eyes since the girl couldn't see them.

"I want my daddy!" the princess shouted.

The messenger nodded once and left, returning moments later with the daimyo himself. "There are no intruders?" he asked the squad leader quietly. When the guard shook his head, the daimyo nodded back at him. "You and your men can go back to your posts, then," he said as he walked over to his daughter's bed.

He seated himself next to his daughter, and the guards filed out of the room quietly. The princess flung her arms around her father, sobbing "Daddy!"

"There, there," Chichiatsu said comfortingly as he pat the girl gently on her back. "Daddy's here. What's wrong, sweetie?"

The princess managed to stop the flow of tears running down her face. "I had a horrible dream," she said quietly, "that those bad ninja had come and killed you."

"Don't worry, honey," the daimyo replied. "I told you before, we don't have to worry about the Cloud anymore. They work for me now."

"What if they change their mind?" his daughter pressed.

"They won't," the daimyo said. "I'm paying them a lot more than the rebels could, and I helped them capture a very bad man and take him away to prison," he continued. "We're friends now."

The girl tensed slightly. "What if the bad man has friends?" she asked nervously. "Won't they want revenge?"

"That's why I'm hiring the Cloud," Chichiatsu replied. "The ninja escorting the prisoner must have reached the Cloud Village weeks ago, and the ninja assigned to protect us should arrive any day now. We won't have anything to fear from the Leaf." He smiled down at his daughter. "See, honey? I have everything taken care of."

"I guess you do," the princess said quietly, disentangling herself from her father.

The daimyo frowned. "Sweetie?" he asked.

He didn't even have a chance to scream. In one smooth motion, his daughter pulled a kunai out from underneath her pillow and attacked, killing her father with one perfect strike. The daimyo's startled corpse fell across the princess, who sat still for several long moments before pushing the body aside with shaking hands. She stared down at the blood that covered her and the bed and let out a quiet, nervous laugh. "I'm glad I don't have to clean this up," she said in a tone completely unlike herself, bringing her hands together into a single seal. "Release!" Then she collapsed, unconscious.

About a mile away, hidden in a stand of trees, Yamanaka Ino's body coughed and sputtered as she awoke. In an instant, her teacher and teammates were crowded around her. "Ino, are you okay?" Shikamaru asked.

Ino nodded. "No problems," she said softly, but she wasn't able to keep her body from shuddering. "Between our observations and my technique, I was able to play the role perfectly."

Asuma studied his female student for a moment. He didn't have a cigarette lit, a pinprick of light being too dangerous when sneaking a comatose kunoichi out of a well-guarded palace. "Report," he said after a moment.

Ino forced herself to nod as she managed to stop her shaking. "I have good news and bad news," she said, keeping her voice light. "The good news is that Kakashi-sensei's alive."

Chouji's eyes lit up. "That's wonderful."

"And the bad news?" Shikamaru asked dryly.

"He's a prisoner," Ino stated. "The daimyo confirmed everything we suspected. He sold Kakashi-sensei out to the Cloud in return for the death of his brother and the Cloud's support. He also hired the Cloud to protect him from us, and those ninja should arrive in the near future."

Asuma nodded, standing. "You three stay here," he said darkly. "If that's the case, I should pay this Daimyo Chichiatsu a little visit tonight. Did you dispose of the kunai we left you properly?" he asked Ino, clearly wanting to be certain that no alarm would be raised.

"You… could say that," Ino said weakly.

Shikamaru's eyes widened. "Ino!" he gasped.

Asuma glanced at the chuunin, then back at Ino. The kunoichi nodded stiffly. "Your visit won't be necessary. I heard Hokage-sama's orders. I saw the opportunity; I took it."

A pained expression passed briefly on the jounin's face, but Chouji spoke first. "Are you okay, Ino?" he asked softly.

She nodded again. "I'll be fine." She stood. "We should get moving, so we won't be anywhere near here when those Cloud ninja arrive."

Day Fifty-seven

Unlike her first journey together with Sakura, Anko had set a rapid pace, barely stopping to eat and sleep. They'd kept away from most roads, heading into the still-vast wilderness that had once given the Wood Country its name. They'd spent the previous night in a small hunters' encampment by a narrow river, but that had been the only real human contact the two had experienced since setting out on their journey. That had been uncomfortable for Sakura - clearly the hunters had not seen any women for some time, though thankfully none of them had been stupid enough to try anything with the pair of kunoichi.

That had been preferable to the previous night alone with Anko, though. Sakura remembered well their previous journey together and the insane pleasure Anko had taken in depositing snakes of various kinds on Sakura's body, both to wake her and just to pass the time. Yet the special jounin had not tried any such thing yet, and Sakura had been certain that she was being lulled into a false sense of security. However, against all expectations, Anko still did nothing.

The older woman was acting unusually subdued in general, actually. Sakura only had to remind herself that it wasn't a good idea to try and kill her teacher a few times a day, instead of several times an hour. Sakura sighed as she stared at Anko's back as she followed the special jounin's lead through the thick forest. Was something wrong?

Anko glanced back at her student, and her words echoed Sakura's thoughts. "Something wrong, Sakura-chan?" she asked cheerfully.

The genin blinked. "Yes," she said dryly after a moment. "Shouldn't you have tried to sneak at least a dozen snakes on to me by now?"

"I didn't think you would miss that," Anko said, laughing. "I thought you hated it when I did that."

"That's not what I meant." Sakura grimaced. "You're not acting like last time."

Anko rubbed at the back of her neck. "You've got a nasty habit of killing snakes when I do that," she said after a moment. "We're going to be asking Manda-sama a pretty big favor, and there's no need to do anything that might upset him."

Sakura frowned. "Are there… any sort of restrictions I'm going to have to agree to?" she asked after a moment. "If I sign the contract, I mean."

"Nothing important, unless you're in the habit of eating snake eggs," Anko said. "Theoretically, if the snake spirit court was ever attacked, Manda-sama would be able to summon you to defend it, but that sort of thing hasn't happened in centuries."

"I see," Sakura said after a moment.

"The other reason we're not having as much fun," Anko continued suddenly, "is that I don't want to waste any time. We don't have a whole lot of days to play with here, and it's going to take a lot of practice before your chakra reserves start to improve."

"Ah," Sakura replied. "How much farther do we have to travel?"

"Not long," Anko answered. "We should reach the shrine this afternoon if we're fast." She took a step forward, then froze. She trembled, one hand clutching at her shoulder. "Oh, fuck!" she exclaimed, real fear in her voice.

Sakura blinked. "Mitarashi-sensei?" she asked. The special jounin sank to her knees, reciting a long list of angry vulgarities. Sakura approached nervously. "Mitarashi-sensei?" she repeated, reaching out to her teacher. "Are you hurt?"

Anko slapped her arm away. "Don't touch me!" she snarled, her other hand clutching even harder at her shoulder.

Sakura slowly backed away. What in the world was going on? After a few more moments, Anko took several deep breaths and rose. "Mitarashi-sensei?" she ventured.

Anko let out another breath, finally releasing her shoulder. "Sorry about that, Sakura-chan," was all she said. Then she turned around, smiling cheerfully. "I've had a great new idea," she said. "We're going to turn around, head back the way we came, and then I'll see just how good you are at that Strong Fist junk Maito's been teaching you."

Sakura had never been a stupid girl, and she decided that questioning the seemingly bizarre decision would be both futile and ill-advised. "All right," she said carefully, glancing around for any sign that they were being watched. Something was clearly very, very wrong. Were there Sound ninja about?

Anko's grin widened until it seemed almost painfully forced. "Good girl," she said. "I'll race you back to that last clearing." There was a sudden wind, kicking up a small storm of leaves, and Anko was gone.

Sakura frowned and began to run. Her eyes widened as she felt a monstrous burst of chakra. She glanced backward. Either someone strong was almost on top of her, or there was something inhumanly powerful at work a few miles in the direction they'd been traveling. Either way, she didn't want to be anywhere near it, and she increased her speed.

Much to her surprise, she reached the clearing before Anko. Had she misunderstood where Anko wanted her to go? Moments before Sakura would have left to search the surrounding area, Anko walked into the clearing, her face grim. "Mitarashi-sensei!" Sakura exclaimed. "Where were you? What was that chakra?"

Anko opened her mouth, but didn't say anything for a moment. Then she forced a grin onto her face. "Sorry, Sakura-chan. I got lost."

Sakura glared at her. "You aren't Kakashi-sensei," she said harshly. She didn't want to think about that right now.

"Nope," Anko said cheerfully, clapping her hands. "Now, let's get to work. No time to waste." She glanced at the orange leg warmers Sakura was wearing. "Those don't really match the red jacket," Anko commented.

Sakura grimaced. She agreed, but it had gotten too cold for the lighter green jacket she'd been wearing, and the only other jacket she'd had available was the red one she taken from her home. "If we don't have any time to waste," she said, "surely you have better things to do than comment on my fashion sense."

Anko nodded shortly. "Did Maito give you back those weights he made me find for him?" she asked.

Sakura shook her head. "A new pair," she answered. "Twice as heavy," he said.

"You're a little bit faster than you were with the old weights the last time we trained together," Anko said after a moment. "That's good." She straightened into a fighting stance, and gestured at Sakura, grinning again. "Come."

Sakura tensed. Channeling chakra to move faster than she otherwise could, she disappeared in a blur of motion, reappearing an instant later inside Anko's guard. She kicked up rapidly, sandaled foot connecting with the special jounin's jaw. There was a puff of smoke, and a large log flew up into the air. The real Anko came at Sakura from above, and the pink-haired kunoichi fell over backwards to avoid the jounin's attack.

Anko backed away. "You shouldn't have left yourself open like that," she stated as Sakura rose.

"Sorry," Sakura responded. "I'm too used to sparring with Lee-san." The log Anko had used for the Replacement Technique fell to the ground with a loud thud.

"Maito isn't trying to teach you Lotus, is he?" Anko asked dubiously.

Sakura shook her head. "Just the Leaf Shadow Dance."

"That's only half of a move," Anko said. "It's what you do with it that's important."

Sakura smiled slightly. "I have some ideas," she said.

"Let's see them, then." Anko assumed a fighting stance once more. "You'll have to get me in position first, though."

Sakura's hands flicked through seals. She didn't have to abide by Lee's restrictions now, and she was going to need every advantage she could get. "Perfect Replication Technique," she declared, and soon five Sakura stared at the jounin.

"Making things more interesting, are you?" Anko asked, licking her lips. "I suppose I can reciprocate." She raced through a very familiar set of seals. "Shadow Replication Technique." Five Anko faced the line of Sakura. "Shall we begin?" one Anko asked. In unison, Sakura and her fake replications charged.

Hours later, an exhausted Sakura used the last of her energy to climb into her bedroll. She knew that she was going to have a number of fresh bruises in the morning, but it had been worth it. Still, just before sleep took her, the pink-haired kunoichi realized that Anko never had explained why she'd been delayed or what that terrible chakra had been.

The inn that Jiraiya and the two Kitakami had chosen upon their arrival in the Hail Country was much nicer than the cheap establishment Naruto and Rui had stayed in before. For one, they were in a somewhat larger city than the town where the two younger ninja had searched for a way to Hakuhyou Island. More importantly, though, money was no longer an issue. Even setting aside his not-inconsiderable personal resources, Jiraiya had thoughtfully taken a moment to loot the rather well-stocked hidden safe in Yuki's suite before their departure the previous morning.

The older Kitakami had left early this morning to seek out a ship back to the Snow Country, leaving his sister behind with the two Leaf ninja. Jiraiya wasn't terribly surprised by this. Ichizo had been terribly uncomfortable in his presence ever since he'd learned that "Jiro-san" was actually one of the legendary Sannin, and only slightly less discomfited by his sister's presence. Rui, on the other hand, had barely left Naruto's side.

Jiraiya idly wondered whether the young kunoichi had a crush on his unconscious student. They were of like age, after all, and had spent a lot of time alone together. Jiraiya studied Rui for a moment. Probably not, he decided, but he also determined that the character inspired by her in his next book would develop an infatuation with the handsome young ninja who helped her avenge her village.

Rui glanced at the older ninja, noticing his scrutiny. "Is something wrong, Jiraiya-sama?" she asked.

Jiraiya shook his head. "Just thinking," he said, before he returned his attention to Naruto. There still hadn't been any change in his condition. Jiraiya worried that he might have no choice but to conduct another sealing, which at this point was far too likely to kill either himself or Naruto. The slim but not impossible chance that it would simply shatter the Fourth's seal and unleash the Kyuubi made even those outcomes seem acceptable. It was best to wait until they'd reached the Cloud Village if it came to that, so that he would at least have expert help available.

Until then, he didn't have much choice but to wait and observe. If he was lucky, perhaps this time Naruto would come out of the coma on his own. Jiraiya frowned as he laid his hands on Naruto's stomach. When they got back home, he was going to sit Tsunade down and force her to teach him some medical ninjutsu. He knew a few basics, of course, but nothing that might help in this situation. Letting out a quiet sigh, Jiraiya carefully ran his chakra along the seal, probing for any weakness.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Rui asked suddenly.

Jiraiya glanced up, pulling his hands away. "Are you an expert medical ninja?" he asked.

Rui shook her head. "Back home, there's a healer who is… who claims to be a medical ninja on par with the legendary Tsunade," she said after a moment. "He would almost certainly be willing to help, when we report how you and Naruto-san aided us."

Jiraiya shook his head. "The Snow Country is too far out of our way." With Akatsuki on his trail, he didn't want to be making any unnecessary trips. Rui opened her mouth, only to freeze as there was a sudden knock on the door to the room. Jiraiya rose before Rui could do anything. "I'll get it," he said, walking swiftly over to the door. A quick look in the peephole showed him only a young woman who he didn't recognize, and he didn't feel any sort of killing intent. Slowly, he unlocked and opened the door a crack, still cautiously probing for any sign of an ambush.

"Jiraiya-sama?" the young woman asked carefully.

Jiraiya tensed. "Who are you?" he asked.

"I'm not an enemy," she stated. Slowly and carefully, she pulled a forehead protector out of her pocket, turning it around to show Jiraiya the unmarred Leaf emblem on it. "My name is Nara Saeko." She slipped the forehead protector back into her pocket.

Jiraiya instinctively checked his shadow. "You don't look like a Nara," he said softly, glancing at the woman's light brown hair and bright blue eyes. She was a lot better looking than most Nara women, in any case.

Saeko flushed slightly. "I'm a Nara by marriage," she stated after a moment.

"Why did you contact me?" Jiraiya asked after a moment. A Leaf agent shouldn't be stupid enough to just walk up in the open like this, even if Tsunade was trying to get in touch with him for some reason.

Saeko glanced over Jiraiya's shoulder at Rui. The young kunoichi was watching Naruto worriedly, but clearly keeping an ear on the conversation. "Can we talk about that in private?" Saeko asked.

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed. "Rui-san is trustworthy," he said. He wasn't certain that he trusted this Saeko enough to let her separate him from Naruto just yet.

The woman just nodded. "As you say, Jiraiya-sama." She closed her eyes briefly, taking a deep breath, then leaning over to whisper in Jiraiya's ear. "There's a man in a red and black cloak asking after you in this city. I contacted you directly because I thought you would want to know as soon as possible."

Jiraiya cursed softly. "Akatsuki," he said as though the word were another curse. Rui started, glancing up at this. Jiraiya didn't pay any attention to her. "Where is he?" he asked Saeko.

"In the marketplace," the woman answered. "Unless he's moved, of course."

That wasn't far, Jiraiya knew. He couldn't afford to not take a look at him. He had to know what he was dealing with. "Rui," he said harshly.

"Yes, Jiraiya-sama?"

"Look after Naruto," he said. He didn't like this, but he couldn't in good conscience send Rui to confront Akatsuki while he stayed behind. "I'm going to place some seals around the room that'll slow any intruder down enough that I can get here."

"Yes, Jiraiya-sama," Rui repeated, one hand going to the hilt of a hidden weapon. Jiraiya nodded once, then quickly arranged the wards he had promised to create.

Several minutes later, Jiraiya and Saeko, both using the Transformation Technique, were in the marketplace. "Where was he?" Jiraiya asked carefully as he scanned the busy square.

"Over on the other side," Saeko answered.

Jiraiya took a step forward, then froze as he felt the wards he'd just created activate. "He's behind us!" he shouted, dropping his transformation and turning around rapidly. Then he froze again, and he eyes dropped to his feet, seeing the thick shadow that bound him. He managed to look back at his companion. "You," he growled.

The woman only smiled, hands flicking through seals. "Shadow Neck Bind Technique," she hissed, and her shadow began to creep up Jiraiya's body, reaching hungrily for his neck.

Jiraiya vanished in a sudden burst of smoke. The real Jiraiya appeared as the column of smoke dispersed, chakra rotating rapidly in the palm of one hand. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. Saeko's eyes were filled with fear, but she reacted rapidly, disappearing in a sudden cloud of dust. Jiraiya tensed to give chase, only to curse as he remembered he had more important matters to deal with. "Naruto!" he growled, blurring into rapid motion.

When he arrived at the hotel room mere moments later, he found the door to the room gone and a badly wounded Rui slumped against one wall. Naruto was nowhere to be found. The kunoichi stirred. "Sorry, Jiraiya-sama," she said weakly as she raised her head. "I wasn't able to stop him."

Jiraiya knelt beside her, his hands glowing with healing energy as he activated a minor medical ninjutsu. As he tended to Rui's wounds, he asked, "Who did this?"

"A man named… who called himself Kinji," Rui answered after a moment. "He was working with the slavers; Naruto-san and I encountered him before." She cursed suddenly.

Jiraiya removed his hands from her now less serious wounds, letting the chakra that hummed around them dissipate. "What?" he asked.

"That woman… her name was Saeko?" she asked. Jiraiya nodded. "Tsuneo, the Leaf missing ninja Naruto-san killed - one of the people working under him was a woman named Saeko, but she was wearing a mask so I didn't get a good look at her face." Rui cursed again. "If only I'd been paying more attention."

"It's not your fault," Jiraiya said as he rose. "I'm going to deal with the innkeeper, who no doubt wants words with me. Then we'll find your brother."

"And then?" Rui asked.

"And then," Jiraiya said grimly, "This Nara Saeko and this Kinji are going to learn just why two-bit thugs like them shouldn't mess with one of the legendary Sannin."

Day ?????

Naruto couldn't say how long it had been since he had awakened in this place. The faded sunlight that filtered into these dark halls never changed in intensity or direction, leaving the impression that he was trapped in some timeless, eternal late afternoon. He had tried climbing up the walls to seek out the windows that had to exist somewhere overhead, but the molding bricks strangely resisted his chakra, impeding his progress, and no matter how high he ascended he never seemed to reach the ceiling.

Naruto had carefully explored every passageway, but each one, despite traveling in a different direction without turning, opened up into the same hall facing the same massive, sealed gate. Naruto hadn't dared return to that hall, but the Kyuubi's loud breathing was a constant reminder of the waiting demon. The fox had not spoken since Naruto had last fled its presence, but its last words weighed on the young genin's mind.

"The only way out is through," Naruto muttered.     In the distance, as though it could hear him, the Kyuubi began to laugh softly - or at least as softly as a monstrous demon fox larger than most buildings could. Even this far from the gate, the fouled water under Naruto's feet rippled slightly, disturbed by the force of the demon's amusement. Naruto's fists clenched, and for a moment he irrationally wished to charge through the gate and punch the Kyuubi.

Naruto forced the insane impulse away. He wasn't an idiot, and he knew that the gate was the only thing keeping the monster from devouring him without a second thought. Going beyond it would be nothing but suicide. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his thoughts. He'd gotten out of here before, somehow, and he knew he could do it again. He just had to find the way.

The halls in all directions led only to the gate. The ceiling was unreachable. Frowning, Naruto knelt carefully, then, hesitating slightly, gingerly stuck his arm into the murky water he stood on. He quickly found the bottom - the water proved to be only a bit more than a foot deep - but he still grimaced. If there was some hidden exit, it would take him forever to find it like this.

Then, his frown lifted as he stood. His hands rapidly formed seals, and he breathed, "Shadow Replication Technique." Four clones appeared in a cloud of smoke. Naruto frowned briefly, then formed the same set set of seals, repeating the words. Smoke filled the dark hallways, crowding them with Naruto's shadow replications. In unison, their hands plunged into the murky water, searching for any hidden exits.

In the distance, the Kyuubi chuckled loudly, each barking laugh hitting the numerous Naruto like a physical blow. "You can't get out that way," the demon's deep voice came, and then there was the sound of the monster taking a deep breath. When it exhaled, a windstorm swept through the corridors, sending the horde of Naruto flying and flooding the halls with the white smoke of disappearing clones. The real Naruto futilely struggled against the winds as he was rapidly swept down the corridor.

He landed with a loud splash before the giant gate. As he pulled himself out of the shallow water, grimacing at the muck that covered his clothes, the Kyuubi's crimson eyes stared down at him. "What do you want?" Naruto snarled up at the demon.

"I told you," the Kyuubi stated. "The only way out is through." Lightning-fast, its claws pushed through the bars of the gate, hungrily reaching for Naruto. The genin jumped away, landing lightly on the surface of the water near the exit back into the maze of dark passages. "Stop wasting my time," the Kyuubi said as it retracted its giant claws.

"I'm not going in there!" Naruto shouted as he backed away.

The Kyuubi's giant face pressed against the gate. Its eyes glowed, and it snarled at Naruto. "We shall see." As Naruto watched nervously, it bit at its lip, drawing dark crimson blood. A drop fell, landing on Naruto's side of the gate with a loud splash, and Naruto almost lost his footing as the the resulting ripple passed him. The blood remained where it had fallen, a stagnant red patch in the murky water.

"What's that supposed to do?" Naruto demanded.

The Kyuubi only laughed. Crimson chakra seeped out of the gate, glowing brightly as it engulfed the demon's blood, the water around it boiling furiously. Naruto watched in dawning horror as the blood began to lift itself from the foul water, merging with the chakra and forming a monstrous beast.

The creation of blood and chakra soon stood on all fours, two tails moving slowly through the air behind it. The blood darkened and thickened, forming a shell around the chakra that somehow almost seemed like red fur as the fox-like head began to take shape. As ears sprouted from its head, the monster's empty eye sockets turned to Naruto, and it roared.

Naruto didn't have time to swallow nervously, quickly summoning a clone and going to work. The clone's hands guided Naruto's chakra, forming a rapidly spinning blue ball. Behind the gate, the Kyuubi chuckled softly, clearly amused.

The two-tailed fox raised one arm as Naruto's clone vanished in a puff of smoke. Screaming, "Rasengan!" Naruto charged. A massive claw of chakra sprung from the fox's arm, swiping at the oncoming ninja. The two attacks met head on, and for a moment Naruto thought that his Rasengan would be able to push through the fox's claw.

Even as the chakra construct rippled and exploded under the force of Naruto's attack, the genin was flung backward. One of the demon's two tails grew rapidly, wrapping around him in midair. He screamed, the tail burning like it was made of fire instead of blood. From far above, the Kyuubi laughed again. "Pathetic little brat," it said as its creation slowly lowered Naruto toward its open mouth. Even through the pain, Naruto's eyes widened as the miniature demon fox's jaws seemed to unhinge, opening far wider than should have been possible.

Then the blood and chakra monster swallowed him whole.

Day Fifty-eight

The hidden encampment was deep in the lightly settled near-wilderness that was the inland Hail Country. The vast majority of the island's populace lived in the port cities along its shores, and save for a scattering of peasant villages there was little enough in the country that wasn't more concerned with the surrounding Gulf of Storms than the land. This made the inland an excellent place to hide, and that was what Nara Saeko and her allies had needed.

Saeko grimly gave her companions yet another assessing study, wishing not for the first time that she had a better choice of friends. The two she trusted most were the two slavers whose ship had been stolen by the pair who had killed Tsuneo. Though under other circumstances they might have fled upon learning that both Yuki and Tsuneo were dead, they were scared enough of Saeko that she could control them easily.

The four ninja from this country were another story. Their leader, Kinji, seemed to believe that he was the one in charge of this grouping. While Saeko was certain that she could correct him easily enough, she did not want to waste her strength on that battle, however inconvenient Kinji's delusions were. His willing aid was worth that much.

It had been easy enough to disguise herself as a former slave and take passage on board the captured warship to the Hail Country with the rest of the slavers' prisoners. Figuring out how she would avenge her husband would have been much more difficult if she hadn't discovered and recognized the other six who were asking after Kitakami Rui and "Naru." With their aid, she had been able to implement a simple plan to distract Jiraiya long enough for the dirty work to be done.

Saeko sighed as she looked at the tent that contained the unexpected fruit of that work. "Something wrong, Nara-san?" Kinji asked her.

"We should kill the boy," Saeko said. "It's too dangerous. You were supposed to kill him and the Kitakami girl, not capture him. Jiraiya-sama will searching for us."

One of the two slavers nodded. "Saeko-sama is right. I don't like this at all."

Kinji raised an eyebrow. "You're so scared of a single ninja?" he asked mockingly.

"Idiot," Saeko snarled. "This isn't just any ninja we're dealing with. It's the legendary Sannin, Jiraiya the Toad Hermit!"

"Bah." Kinji waved his hand dismissively. "He's only the subject of a bunch of exaggerated stories." He smiled. "You yourself said that these Akatsuki were after the boy and hot on his trail. We just have to wait for them to show up and sell them the boy."

Saeko took a deep breath. Perhaps it was time to disillusion the Hail Country ninja after all. "You pathetic excuse for a ninja," she stated, "I am from the Leaf Village. I know Jiraiya-sama's strength. He will find us, and we cannot beat him. Even if the Akatsuki find us first, the type of person Jiraiya-sama is scared of won't pay us for the boy. They'll just take him, and if we're lucky they won't waste the time to kill us!" The other ninja began to murmur fearfully.

"Cowards," Kinji sneered as he rose. "Don't listen to a weakling like her."

"Weakling?" Saeko asked dangerously, standing slowly. She blurred into motion, reappearing behind Kinji, a kunai in hand, before he could react. "I was ranked as an elite chuunin in the Leaf Village before my husband and I were exiled. Have you ever been ranked as even a genin by any village?"

"No need to get excited," Kinji said, a hint of fear in his voice. He slowly walked over to the prisoner's tent, throwing it open and pulling out Uzumaki Naruto's still, bound form. He tossed the unconscious boy at Saeko's feet. "Kill him then."

Saeko nodded, kneeling and placing her kunai at Naruto's neck. She froze as Naruto's eyes flicked open, staring into the crimson, inhuman orbs for a moment, then leaping away. "Watch out!" she shouted. Kinji blinked, but before he could question Saeko the ropes that bound Naruto disintegrated. A kunai appeared in Kinji's hands, and he charged the boy, who whirled about on all fours to face him. Saeko cursed, hands flickering through seals. "Shadow Bind Technique!" she shouted, her shadow racing to snare the possessed boy.

For an instant, Naruto froze. Then the crimson chakra that was already faintly visible around him thickened, becoming an almost physical thing that surrounded him. Two tails began to grow rapidly behind him, and he raised one arm even against the force of Saeko's technique. Chakra, not at all impeded by the power restraining his physical body, formed a massive claw and raced toward the shocked Kinji, casually ripping him in half. Saeko instantly dropped her technique, turning to run as fast as she could.

One tail lengthened rapidly and coiled around one of her legs, tripping her. Saeko reached to free herself before she realized that the touch of the demonic chakra was burning her. She succeeded only in injuring her hands while the other ninja tried futile assaults that served only to annoy the demon.

Less than a minute later, they were all dead.

Jiraiya let out a quiet curse as he felt the sudden appearance of a massive, inhuman pulse of chakra. It seemed as though his captors had somehow managed to wake Naruto. That chakra could be felt all over the Hail Country by those sensitive enough, Jiraiya knew. He could only hope that Akatsuki wasn't on the island yet, or there would be a few troublesome people heading for the same place Jiraiya had started racing toward without thought.

Jiraiya felt gingerly at a small scroll he carried. If his theories were correct - and that was by no means certain - he might be able to put a stop to the rampage that was undoubtedly occurring. He hypothesized that, whatever means the Kyuubi was using to get this fraction of its power and rage out of the seal, when its power was finally spent Naruto's consciousness was being drawn into the seal along with the Kyuubi's chakra. That would then be the cause of the comas.

Jiraiya had designed an improvised seal that would, in theory, drain the chakra shroud into it. A second part would simultaneously guard Naruto's mind from being drawn into the Fourth's seal along with the dregs of the Kyuubi's chakra. He couldn't have used it on Naruto while already comatose, as his mind was already trapped. Now that he had awakened, though, Jiraiya hoped to test his theories.

The main problem was going to be applying the seal. While with time he thought he might be able to develop a seal that would work simply by touching it to the chakra shroud - still by no means an easy task - right now the the scroll itself was only the centerpiece of the seal. He would have to bind Naruto somehow while he completed the seal around him. That was going to be… tricky.

Evidently, Ichizo and Rui had been closer to Naruto than Jiraiya, for when he neared the possessed boy he saw the two Snow Country ninja facing him. Naruto stood in the ruins of a small encampment, bodies strewn about him and covered in blood that was almost invisible under the dark, thick red chakra that surrounded him. Jiraiya noted with relief that he still only possessed two tails - by all appearances, more tails would have meant that more of the Kyuubi's power was loose.

Rui was in the safest position, far behind her brother who was slowly walking toward Naruto, hands outstretched and empty. "Calm down, Naru-san… err, Naruto-san," he said soothingly. "We aren't enemies." Naruto stood stilly on all four, his chakra tails waving lazily through the air. Ichizo cautiously took another step forward. "Easy."

As he landed on top of a small, rocky hill overlooking the confrontation, Jiraiya cursed. "Kitakami Ichizo, you idiot," he said softly as he knelt, rapidly working through seals.

Ichizo took another step, and Naruto exploded into action, a claw of pure chakra swiping toward the unexpecting ninja. Rui screamed a too-late warning. Jiraiya finished his seals, plunging both hands onto the ground. "Doton: Tower of Earth!" he shouted. Groaning, the ground under Ichizo's feet hurled itself into the air, forming a massive, thick pillar. Ichizo almost lost his footing on top of the tower as Naruto's chakra claw slammed into the side.

For a long moment, everything was still. Then the crimson arm of chakra began to lengthen, spiraling around the pillar of earth as it reached hungrily toward Ichizo. He jumped away just in time, landing safely beside his sister. The tower rapidly began to crumble as Naruto's chakra withdrew back into the shroud. Naruto himself snarled, turning slowly to face Jiraiya.

"Jiraiya-sama!" Rui shouted at him, relief evident in her voice.

"Get out of here, you two!" Jiraiya yelled back. "You can't fight him!"

A claw of red chakra burst from the earth, catching Jiraiya in the chest. "Jiraiya-sama!" Rui shouted again, this time in fear.

There was a puff of smoke, and the impaled Jiraiya vanished. An instant later, five more Jiraiya appeared, surrounding Naruto. "Run, you idiots!" one yelled. As the pair of younger ninja finally complied, all five Jiraiya shouted "Hurry!" in unison as they charged their student.

Rui glanced back over her shoulder, seeing Naruto's limbs, both physical and formed of chakra, moving rapidly and the Jiraiya vanishing in clouds of smoke before they could reach the possessed ninja. Yet more Jiraiya continued to appear to join the charge, though Naruto destroyed them almost as quickly as they formed. The last she saw of the battle was the ground suddenly liquefying, catching both Naruto and what looked like two dozen Jiraiya in a muddy bog.

As soon as the two younger ninja were out of sight, the real Jiraiya, carefully hidden, cracked his knuckles slowly as he stepped into the open. "All right, then," he said softly as he stared at his student, still struggling to escape the swamp Jiraiya had created. Jiraiya's clones, trapped as well, vanished in a series of rapid explosions of white smoke. "Let's get serious, shall we?" the legendary Sannin asked as he pulled out and began to unroll the scroll he had prepared.

As if in answer, Naruto let out a mighty roar that might have blown a lesser man off his feet. Crimson chakra thickening around him, the demon-possessed boy pulled himself out of the muddy bog and hurled himself into the air.

Day Fifty-nine

Despite her best intentions, Sakura had not yet asked Anko what had been going on two days ago. They had spent yesterday continuing to work on Sakura's taijutsu and going over some of the Mitarashi Clan techniques. While Anko did not think the techniques were suitable for Sakura to learn at this point, she suspected that her sister would be teaching them to Shimano Ren, who could very well be Sakura's second opponent.

Sakura hoped that would not be the case. Ren's first opponent was Ino, and though Anko's hopes seemed to be the opposite, the pink-haired kunoichi wanted a rematch with her rival much more than a rematch with the Mist kunoichi. It had surprised Sakura how well she and Ino had worked as a team for the first parts of the exam and they were getting along much better, but there were still unresolved issues between them that could only be settled in one way. If they didn't meet in the formal exam, Sakura suspected they would find a way to have a match regardless.

Sakura shook her head, realizing that she was distracting herself again. She still wondered what the reason for Anko's sudden change of plans had been and what had caused that monstrous chakra. Yet, every time she had tried to lead a conversation in that direction, Anko had made it clear enough that she didn't want to talk about it. Pressing the notoriously unstable special jounin had struck Sakura as unwise, and so she was forced to let the matter lie.

This morning, Anko had seemed to recover some of her previous haste, and the pair were moving rapidly through the woods toward a large hill. Oddly, it seemed to Sakura that no trees grew even on the lowest slopes of the hill. In fact, now that she thought of it she couldn't see any green at all, only bare earth and rock. There could be a natural explanation, but Sakura suspected that the reason was the shrine that Anko had said was concealed there. From everything Sakura had learned, Manda the Lord of Snakes was not a nice god.

"Almost there," Anko said suddenly, increasing her speed. Sakura raced to follow, and they soon reached the foot of the bare hill. "The shrine is about half-way up," Anko stated as she led Sakura up a winding, barely discernible path. A few minutes later, they stood before a suspiciously smooth patch of rock. Anko grinned as she looked at her student. "Ready?" she asked.

Sakura shivered. "I guess," she said.

"Don't worry," Anko said. "There's really nothing to it, and the snakes aren't that different than any of the other spirit courts. At least, so long as you don't try to summon Manda-sama himself or one of the other really powerful ones. They can get pretty nasty."

"I see," Sakura said slowly.

Anko turned to the rock wall and made a rapid sequence of seals, then placed both hands on the stone. "Open," she breathed, and then her hands were touching nothing but air as a tunnel entrance appeared.

"Genjutsu?" Sakura asked.

Anko shook her head. "No, it was real. Whoever built this place just liked to show off, I think." Anko walked without hesitation into the dark tunnel, and Sakura reluctantly followed. It lead deep into the hill, and Sakura had begun to think that they should have come out the other side already by the time it opened up into a large chamber. Lit torches,scattered about the chamber, provided sufficient light, but Sakura didn't have time to wonder who or what maintained them, her eyes drawn instantly to the massive statue of a snake in the center of the room.

Something drew Sakura to the statue, and without prompting from Anko she approached it. Its open fanged maw hovering menacingly over head, Sakura knelt before it, staring at the base. There was a long, vertical rectangle of flat stone, with a smaller smooth circle beneath it, but her eyes were drawn instantly to the similar rectangle and circle to the blank one's left. Familiar characters had been carved into the rectangle, and a familiar handprint somehow imprinted into the stone circle.

"Uchiha Sasuke," Sakura read hesitatingly. He had been here. He was alive - though she'd done her best to discount him, the false Kabuto she had met in Rice Field Country's tale of Sasuke's death had haunted her nightmares for some time.

Anko cursed softly. "So that's why he was," she began, then trailed off. "Orochimaru's moving quicker with him than with…" She trailed off again.

Sakura wasn't able to do anything but stare at the name. Slowly, hesitatingly, she reached out to touch the handprint, her eyes watering. He had been here. The dull, ever-present heartache of his betrayal redoubled in strength, brought back to the forefront of Sakura's mind. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks. "Sasuke-kun," she mouthed silently.

"Sakura-chan?" Anko asked, a hint of worry in her voice.

"Damn it," Sakura muttered. "Damn it." She'd promised herself so many times she wasn't going to cry anymore, but she couldn't do anything to stop herself. She couldn't do anything at all, but kneel here, her hand gingerly resting on the indentation Sasuke's hand had somehow made in the stone.

"Sakura-chan?" Anko repeated, and Sakura heard the jounin take a step forward.

Breaking from her paralysis, Sakura rubbed at her eyes, wiping the bitter tears away. "I'm fine," she said quietly, hearing the lie in her own voice. Forcing herself not to look at Sasuke's name again, she sought out the next space over. "Mitarashi Anko," she read aloud, noting from the size of her handprint that Anko had to have been younger than Sakura was now when she had signed the contract.

Anko swallowed loudly. "Sakura-chan," she said again, this time nervously.

Sakura's eyes moved again. "Orochimaru," she stated as she glanced at the name carved into the stone, not at all surprised. All the pieces fell into place in an instant of sudden clarity. "He was your teacher."

Anko was silent for a long moment. "Yeah," she confirmed quietly. "I was his apprentice. Before."

Sakura stood and turned around, walking over to Anko and noting without surprise that her hand was clasped over her shoulder. The jounin didn't resist as Sakura pulled her hand away and pushed down Anko's jacket, revealing the tight circle of three black, comma-like markings. "The same as Sasuke-kun," she said quietly.

"Orochimaru's Heaven Seal," Anko said. She sighed, pulling her coat back up to cover the cursed seal. Her eyes and voice were flat when she continued. "We can head back to the village if you want."

For a long moment, Sakura didn't say anything. Then, not trusting herself to say anything, she turned around and walked back over to stand before the snake statue. For a moment, she thought that the giant statue shifted slightly to look down at her. "What do I do?" she asked simply.

It took Anko a while to answer, and when she spoke her voice was soft and weak. "Just write your name in blood on the blank space, then do a handprint beneath it."

"That's all?" Sakura asked, frowning.

"Yes," Anko said, her voice getting more firm. "I've already handled the tricky bits."

Sakura slowly pulled out a kunai. "There's only one space," she commented as she placed the sharp edge on her palm. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she pressed down firmly, breaking the skin and letting the blood flow.

She could somehow feel Anko shrug behind her. "There's always just one. The older ones move to the back of the cave to make room. Don't ask me how it works."

Sakura didn't reply as she dropped her bloodied weapon and set to work, dipping one finger of her other hand into to pool of blood forming on her palm. She quickly scrawled her name, her handwriting unusually sloppy, then she rubbed her hand in the blood and pressed it against the smooth circle beneath her name. Then she screamed.

The bloody characters that spelled her name began to glow, then twisted themselves into serpentine forms that crawled down her arm. Sakura could feel something burning as they wrapped themselves around her forearm, and her hand slowly sank into the stone. Her vision wavered as pain filled her, but it passed when she finally managed to yank her hand away.

The first thing that she noticed was the impression her hand had left in the smooth stone circle. Then she noted that her blood had etched her name into the rock above the handprint like it had been an exceedingly powerful acid. Finally, Sakura noticed the black serpent tattoo that had appeared on her left arm, and then she screamed again. She whirled around suddenly, shaking her arm at Anko. "What the hell is this, damn it?"

The special jounin smiled, rolling up a sleeve to show off her matching tattoo. "That's the sign that Mada-sama has accepted you." Anko laughed. "What do you know, it actually worked."

Sakura's rage over her unexpected new adornment was instantly replaced by a much deeper rage. "You didn't know whether it would work?!"

A malicious grin appeared on Anko's lips. "Maybe, maybe not." She laughed again. "Let's make a deal. I'll tell you when you win the tournament."

The sheer ludicrous nature of that statement was enough to instantly disperse Sakura's anger. "Um… Mitarashi-sensei," she began, "I don't think that's going to happen."

"That's your first problem," Anko declared, her eyes twinkling. "Didn't teaming up with that Uzumaki brat teach you anything?"

"All right," Sakura said dubiously. She knew it was important to have confidence, but being over-confident was just as bad, wasn't it?

"I might not have a whole lot more time with you," Anko said. "I really should be back in the village by the end of the week, and once we're there it won't be appropriate for me to train you directly. Let's make the time we have count." She slowly moved through a surprisingly short sequence of seals. "Those're the seals for the Summoning Technique." She grinned widely once more. "Shall we begin?"

Naruto awoke with a start. His eyes flicked open, and he had leapt out of the narrow bunk he'd bee lying on, reaching for a kunai that wasn't there before he'd even consciously noticed the unfamiliar, low ceiling of dark wood.

A familiar sigh came from the seemingly middle-aged man seated on a stool next to the door. "Calm down, Naruto," he said, running a hand through his black hair.

Naruto blinked. "Ero-sennin?" he asked. One hand went to his own hair, as he realized that just like in his… dream, it was short again.

The man nodded. "Akatsuki knows about Jiro and Naru now, so I had to change our disguises."

Naruto's eyes widened. "How?" He stumbled as the floor moved under his feet. "We're on a ship?"

Jiraiya gave his student another nod. "To the Lightning Country," he said simply.

"What happened?" Naruto demanded.

His answer was a question. "What's the last thing you remember?"

"I was fighting Yuki." Naruto frowned. "Where's Rui-san?"

"On her way back to the Snow Country." Jiraiya quickly gave his student an edited version of the events of the past several days, leaving out entirely the misadventures that had started after Nara Saeko's allies had successfully kidnapped Naruto. "Once we realized it would be a while before you woke up," Jiraiya finished, "I told Ichizo and Rui to go ahead and go home, then got us passage on this ship."

"Oh," Naruto said, his voice quiet. Jiraiya wondered briefly whether the boy had somehow noticed that he was leaving out something important. "So who am I now?" he asked after a moment.

Jiraiya sighed. "At this point, I think speed is our ally more than stealth. Akatsuki aren't going to be fooled by simple disguises. I went ahead and re-dyed your hair and hid your whiskers again before we left Hail Country, but once we land I think it'll be best to openly declare ourselves to the Cloud. Ideally, we'll get an escort to the Cloud Village."

"Why do we want to go there, anyway?" Naruto asked. Jiraiya gave the boy a long look, his eyes settling on his stomach. Naruto's hand followed his gaze, resting lightly on the navy shirt he wore. "I know that," he said quietly. "You told me before we left Hojo-sensei's. But why the Cloud Village?"

"I have a friend there," Jiraiya answered. "Her name's Kaida. If anyone in the world can help us, it's her. She's a sealing expert."

"I see," Naruto said. "What'll we do if Akatsuki catches up with us while we're there?"

"I doubt they'll stage an open assault on the Temple of the Thunder Dragon," Jiraiya said dryly. "We'll be in the heart of the Cloud Village, a stone's throw from the Raikage's palace." Jiraiya smiled coldly. "I almost wish they would. Between Kaida-chan and myself, we'd be able to start thinning their numbers, even if the rest of the Cloud stayed out of it."

"She's that strong?" Naruto asked disbelievingly.

Jiraiya grinned at him. "She might very well be the most powerful kunoichi in the world."

"Stronger than Tsunade-baachan?"

"Not in physical strength, no." Jiraiya sighed. "Kaida-chan is definitely on the same sort of level as Tsunade, Hojo, or me, but at our level it's almost meaningless to talk about who's stronger. Any fight would probably just come down to who made a mistake first."

"Oh," Naruto said.

"If anyone can help you, she can," Jiraiya continued after a moment. "Like I said, she's a sealing expert, and she's also the only person who might help us with hands-on experience with a seal like yours. The only alternative is all the way in Wind Country, and getting that old bitch to help us wouldn't be easy."

"Hands-on experience?" Naruto asked, his hand once again resting briefly on his stomach. "Did she seal -"

"Not quite," Jiraiya said.

"A demon is sealed inside her?"

"Not quite," Jiraiya repeated. "I'll let her decide how much to tell you. It's not precisely top secret, but it isn't something I should be telling you without permission either."

For a long moment, Naruto didn't say anything. Then, he swallowed nervously before speaking. "When I was asleep… I sort of had a dream."

Jiraiya raised a eyebrow, and Naruto quickly described his encounter with the Kyuubi. A worried expression passed over Jiraiya's face, but all he said was, "Be sure to tell Kaida-chan that when we get there."

Day Sixty

For once, Tsunade was happy to be working. This probably had quite a bit to do with the fact that the work she was performing was about as far from paperwork as one could get without being on a battlefield. In fact, from one point of view she was on a battlefield, waging the latest delaying engagement in the never-ending war against death. "Keep your chakra flow steady," Tsunade said simply as she carefully flexed her hands, mentally working her way through the sequence of seals she would be performing shortly. "I'll need you three to keep the patient stable while I perform the surgery."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," chorused the three chuunin medics who surrounded her. In unison, they formed their own seals, then laid their hands on specially prepared positions on the stone operating table. Green healing chakra shone around their hands, then spread, lighting numerous characters painted on the table. The patient moaned, even though he was under an anesthetic technique.

"Let's do this, then," Tsunade declared. It took years of training for her not to grimace as she looked at the patient, a sixteen-year-old genin. He hadn't even suffered these horrible injuries in real battle - he'd been training with his team in the forests outside the village and fallen from the top of one of the massive trees. The injuries from that were compounded by the fact that the fall had been caused by the genin botching a fire element technique, adding numerous serious burns to his problems.

While the operating room was well-stocked with sterilized scalpels and other tools, Tsunade had long since surpassed the need for such crude physical implements. After precisely forming a complicated set of seal combinations, many of which were unique to her, Tsunade's hands hovered over the young boy's battered body and she set to work.

Hours later, the Hidden Village of the Leaf's Fifth Hokage stepped out of the operating room and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She was completely exhausted, but despite - or even because of - that, she felt better than she had in weeks. It was such a relief to actually be doing something, instead of simply ordering that something be done. Pausing only to thank the chuunin who had assisted her for their hard work and make sure she would be informed at once if the genin's condition became unstable, Tsunade cheerfully made her way out of the village hospital.

She paused once she was outside, glancing longingly in the direction of the nearest bar. Then, with a shake of her head and a mournful sigh, she turned around and walked the short distance to her office. Nodding politely to the chuunin guarding the administration building's entrance, she slipped inside, making her way through the nearly empty halls - it was lunchtime, after all.

When she entered her office, Shizune was sitting at her desk, working her way through Tsunade's paperwork. Her old apprentice looked up, smiling slightly. "Have fun, Tsunade-sama?" she asked, lightly placing a sheet of paper onto a fairly large stack. "These are the ones that there's just no way I could handle on my own."

Tsunade groaned, pushing the stack aside and seating herself on the vacated spot on her desk. "Thanks for this, Shizune," she said. "I really needed to spend some time doing something real, and there was a boy who might have died if I hadn't been there."

Shizune smirked slightly. "Even you earn a break sometimes, Tsunade-sama." Her smile widened. "I think you should be ready for your next one in a decade or so."

Tsunade groaned, then began to tap her fingers idly on the edge of her desk. "We're going to have to do something after the exams finish," she stated. "I'm going to need a lot more free time than I have to train Sakura-chan."

"I know," Shizune said. "I think I can handle doing this for you three days out of the week without letting my own work get too far behind. That'll free up the morning on those days."

"Thanks, Shizune," Tsunade said. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

Shizune rolled her eyes. "You'd be the first Kage to die of alcohol poisoning."

"Eighth Raikage," Tsunade stated flatly. "Before the Leaf Village was even founded. The Cloud still say that a Rock agent poisoned him, but all the historical information that survives indicates that he was just an old drunkard who didn't appreciate his own limits."

Shizune blinked. "Really?"

"Really," Tsunade answered. "Orochimaru and I did all the research back when we were genin, since we were curious what sort of poison could kill a Kage." She grinned. "I was pretty pissed at the Second for reasons that aren't worth getting into." Shizune gasped, and Tsunade laughed. "Just kidding about that last bit. We really were just curious."

Shizune rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I thought you were holding off until the exams were over to decide whether Sakura-chan would be your apprentice."

Tsunade waved a hand in the air vaguely. "Unless she performs truly disappointingly, which I've got no reason to expect given what I've heard from Anko-chan and others, I'll take her. I'm not so cruel as to deny Sakura-chan if she has a bad match in the first round."

Shizune nodded, then she grimaced. "Is it really such a good idea to have Anko-chan training her?"

Tsunade's hand made another arc through the air. "I've got enough of a cover story for plausible deniability. None of the Leaf's jounin will raise a fuss, and I did go ahead and quietly make sure the Waterfall didn't have any serious objections. That sister of hers might not like it, but since the Mist aren't part of the exam system they don't actually have any rights."

Shizune shook her head, clearly displeased by the rule-bending, then she sighed. "I suppose that's a silver lining, though. Sakura-chan is technically supposed to be Anko-chan's student and heir so far as the Mitarashi Clan is concerned. The two of them training together gives that more credibility."

Tsunade nodded. "I'm not anticipating any problems from that front - Anko-chan's grandmother seems to be pretty pissed at this Mitarashi Kimi, so I doubt we're in much danger of her switching sides anytime soon. Still, it wouldn't hurt for Anko-chan to be teaching her some more of her family techniques as soon as possible."

Shizune shuddered suddenly. "Did she ever say that was going to be what she'd teach Sakura-chan?"

Tsunade blinked. "I assumed," she began, then trailed off slowly. "Anko-chan wouldn't teach her any forbidden techniques," she said after a moment, though a hint of uncertainty plagued her voice.

"I would hope not," Shizune muttered. "Even without going that far, though, Anko-chan's taste in techniques leaves something to be desired."

"Anko-chan's not stupid," Tsunade said. "She ought to know what's appropriate to teach Sakura-chan." She paused. "I hope."

Rock Lee was confused. The seemingly simple situation in the Bird Country when they arrived, an over-ambitious strategist attempting to depose the previous daimyo's weak heir and opposed by the daimyo's trusted adviser, he had understood. A simple glance with the Byakugan, however, had quickly revealed that the daimyo was apparently actually a girl, who might or might not be the person who was supposed to be the daimyo's supposedly deceased sister. Poison had been found in the previous daimyo's body. Strange ninja - not the ninja-trained guards working for the strategist - had appeared and the adviser who had hired them was acting suspiciously, to say the least.

Lee couldn't keep it all straight, but thankfully that wasn't his job. He could trust Neji to do that and point Tenten and himself in the right direction. Right now, that direction was toward a secret tunnel into the the daimyo's palace they had uncovered earlier. The plan was to interrogate the strategist - captured by the Leaf team themselves when he was caught with incriminating evidence indicating he was behind the false ghost sightings - before his scheduled execution in the morning. Neji believed that he held the key to understanding the situation and fulfilling their true mission: resolving the unrest in the Bird Country to the benefit of the Fire Country and the Hidden Village of the Leaf.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the strange ninja also knew of the passage, as one had appeared as they neared the abandoned building that hid the entrance. "Foolish little Leaf ninja," the man said in a low voice. Lee noted that the enemy was already surreptitiously filling his hands with shuriken. Beside him, Tenten followed suit just as carefully. "You're supposed to go back to your village like good boys and girls once the mission is done, aren't you?"

For several seconds, everyone was still. Then, there was a brief flicker of movement from Tenten and the enemy ninja. Shuriken filled the air, thrown so rapidly that Lee couldn't even see the weapons before they collided in midair with a loud clatter. Metal rained down from the sky, and Tenten smirked. There was a crimson patch on the strange man's shoulder, while the three genin were untouched.

The man cursed. "I won't let brats like you humiliate me!" he shouted, stepping backward and forming a sequence of seals. One hand lightly touched a boulder behind him, and the man's skin hardened and shifted color until it seemed like he was carved out of the same gray stone. His stony mouth smirked. "You're all going to die."

"We don't have time for this," Neji snarled as he began to fall into a Gentle Fist fighting stance.

Lee interposed himself between his teammate and the man. "Go ahead with Tenten," he stated. "I'll deal with him and catch up."

Neji straightened instantly. "Right." He vanished in a blur of motion.

Tenten favored Lee with a worrying glance. "Don't overdo it," she warned before disappearing herself.

"You think it's going to be that easy?" the man shouted. He curled up into a ball, which began to spin rapidly. "Assimilated Rock Tank!"

Lee's eyes widened in surprise as he recognizing the model for the technique, but he wasn't so surprised as to be caught unprepared when the rocky ball rolled straight at him. Waiting until almost the last instant, he vaulted over the man. His enemy slammed into the wall behind Lee, and there was a sudden explosion. When the dust settled, the enemy ninja was on the ground, but he quickly pulled himself to his feet. "Explosive tags," he snarled. "You're faster than you look, to do that without being noticed. You're too good to be a fresh brat like you're supposed to be."

Lee grinned widely, not leaving the fighting stance he had landed in. "I am the Leaf's beautiful green beast, Rock Lee!"

The man snickered. "I'm no village's nothing, Nagare," he stated simply. "Now that you three have gotten this far into this country's secrets, I'm afraid we're going to have to kill you all."

"We shall see, Nagare-san," Lee responded politely. Then he vanished.

Nagare looked around cautiously, relaxing slightly. "Running away too?" he asked with a brief snort.

Lee reappeared inside the man's guard. "No," he answered simply as his foot connected solidly with Nagare's stone jaw, knocking the transformed man into the air. He blurred into motion again, this time reappearing behind Nagare in midair.

"Leaf Shadow Dance," the older ninja snarled.

"Correct," Lee stated. The bandages wrapped around his arms began to unravel. Propelled by some invisible force, they enveloped Nagare, binding the two ninja together Lee used his weight to flip them around so that their heads faced the oncoming ground. The two began to spin rapidly in midair. "Primary Lotus!"

"Are you insane?!" Nagare shouted. "Is this some type of suicide technique?"

Lee didn't respond, but mere instants before they hit the ground, the bandages released their captive and Lee kicked off of Nagare, flying away to land safely several feet away. The older ninja, with no time to react, hit the ground headfirst at full speed. For a long moment, all was still, then the stone man crumbled into a pile of rocks.

Lee breathed a sigh of relief, relaxing slightly and allowing his over-stretched body to shake. Even now, this technique pushed his body to its limits, particularly when he left his weights on. At least it had had worked. He wasn't certain he could have continued to fight after that. Slowly, he turned around. He needed to catch up with his team.

"Assimilated Rock Blizzard!"

Lee's eyes widened at Nagare's voice, and barely managed to force himself to flip out of the way of the hail of rock shards flying at him. Slowly, the shards reassembled themselves in midair, once again forming Nagare's body. Lee cursed softly, one hand inching toward the hilt of a kunai, though he wasn't sure what good it would do. "What are you?"

Nagare laughed. "We are wandering ninja who travel from village to village stealing techniques and giving birth to new techniques." He slowly stretched out one hand, which began to crumble into gray dust. "Like, for example, these techniques." He paused, smiling menacingly. "Assimilated Desert Coffin!"

Lee's eyes widened again in dawning horror. There was no way he was going to escape that technique in his condition. His hands futilely went to his weights, but he knew there was no way he could get them off in time. To him, it all seemed to happen in slow motion, the fine powder forming in a massive cloud shaped like a human hand, racing to engulf him in a sight from his nightmares. His hands freezing, Lee closed his eyes. It was over.

When he didn't die, Lee slowly opened his eyes. A familiar figure stood between him and Nagare. "Who are you?" demanded the wandering ninja.

"Gai-sensei!" Lee breathed.

"Just rest, Lee," Gai responded, his eyes never leaving his foe. "I'll take care of this trash."

Day Sixty-one

Compared to the massive city in the Earth Country the pair of Leaf ninja had set sail from weeks ago, the port they disembarked at in Lightning Country was small. Compared to most other places Naruto had been in his limited travels, it was quite large. From first glimpse it was larger than the Leaf Village, though Naruto couldn't say with any certainty how much bigger. In any case, he was more interested in taking in the exotic sight - the port was as different from its counterpart in Earth country as that crowded, massive city had been from the Leaf Village.

Every road, however small, that Naruto could see was paved with large white stones that shone brightly with reflected sunlight. Even here at the port itself, which Naruto's experience told him was in most cities filthy and disordered, everything was clean. The crowds of people were almost as chaotic as the much larger horde that had crowded the docks in Earth Country, however. Unlike in that country, though, Naruto could make out the figures of armored guards patrolling through the throngs of people.

As the two Leaf ninja neared the head of the line waiting to be inspected before disembarking from the Hail Country ship, Naruto reached up nervously to adjust his forehead protector. It seemed like it had been forever since he'd openly worn it, and the weight on his head felt odd to him now. He could only hope that Jiraiya knew what he was doing. Was it really such a good idea to openly declare themselves? Surely even without taking Akatsuki into account, the Cloud would not appreciate unannounced Leaf tourists.

"Easy, boy," Jiraiya said, laying one hand on his student's shoulder. "I'll take care of everything. Just let me do the talking."

Naruto nodded, and finally the last person ahead of them was admitted into the Lightning Country. The bureaucrat handling customs looks up from his desk and gasped slightly when he saw Naruto's forehead protector. This instantly attracted the attention of the two uniformed Cloud ninja who had been disinterestedly watching the proceedings. Before the customs officer could say anything, the ninja stood in front of his desk, facing the Naruto and Jiraiya.

"State your names and business," one of the two Cloud said slowly, tension evident in his voice.

"I am Jiraiya and this is my student Uzumaki Naruto. My business is none of your concern, but I request an escort to the Cloud Village and the Temple of the Thunder Dragon." Jiraiya's voice made it plain that his request was more of a demand.

Against all of Naruto's expectations, the pair of Cloud guards actually relaxed slightly, trading a look. "We received word from Kaida-sama to expect you and your student, Jiraiya-sama."

"Is that so?" Jiraiya said slowly. Naruto could feel his teacher tensing. "I don't recall sending word ahead to her of my coming."

The other Cloud ninja coughed. "We were told you might say that. Kaida-sama asked that you be told that…" The ninja trailed off, coughing again.

"That you were being a paranoid old fool and that Iwakuro Hojo warned her of your plans," the first ninja finished.

Jiraiya grimaced, and the two ninja stepped back. "I'm not mad at you," he said. "That fool Hojo should have known better than that. If that message had been intercepted -" Jiraiya cut off, sighing. "We'd be in much the same situation we are now, I suppose."

"Izano will take you to our garrison post here, Jiraiya-sama," the first ninja continued when it was apparent that the Sannin was done speaking. "It will take a day or so to arrange for a proper escort, but we will have you on your way as soon as possible. Is that acceptable, Jiraiya-sama?"

"Yes," Jiraiya said. "Thank you."

The second ninja - Izano, it seemed - coughed again. "If you could please come with me?" he asked.

Jiraiya nodded, and the Cloud ninja turned to leave. "Come along, boy," he told Naruto as he unhesitatingly followed Izano.

As they made their way through the streets, Naruto whispered to Jiraiya, "Can we really trust these guys?"

"Not even as far as we can throw them," Jiraiya said, his lips barely moving. "I trust Kaida-chan, but this is an enemy nation just like Earth Country. Be on your guard."

Naruto nodded. "Right."

"Also," Jiraiya continued, "we need to keep an eye out for Akatsuki. They're already on our trail, and we aren't exactly being stealthy anymore."

Naruto just nodded again, but he already knew that he wasn't going to be sleeping well tonight.

Several times before in her life, such as when she'd been standing guard all night over her fallen teammates in the Forest of Death, Sakura had thought that she was as exhausted as it was physically possible for a human being to be. Now she knew that, on each and every one of those times, she had been mistaken. Now she was even more tired than all of those times combined. She was not happy about this, and she knew exactly how to blame.

If, through some odd set of circumstances she wound up having any say in the matter, Sakura would make sure that Mitarashi Anko was never given a genin team. If the past days were any example of what she considered to be training, any fresh genin under her supervision would be dead within a week. Come to think of it, Sakura wasn't certain that she wouldn't be dead within a week if she didn't get away from this madwoman.

The famously psychotic special jounin in question glanced back at her student. "Come on, Sakura-chan!" she called as she leapt to the next tree branch. "It's been five minutes. Your chakra should have recovered by now!"

By this point, Sakura was in no condition to summon the necessary willpower to argue, even if she hadn't known from bitter experience that it was worse than futile. For what seemed like the millionth time, she formed a set of seals. Then, almost by instinct, she rolled up her sleeve and bit at the thumb of her opposite hand. If Anko hadn't known a minor healing technique that she'd used too infrequently on Sakura, she thought that she'd have done serious damage to herself doing this by now.

Without giving herself time to remember how disgusting what she was doing was, she wiped her bloody thumb down the ugly dark snake tattoo that had appeared on her arm after signing that stupid contract. She was going to be in the shower for at least a day trying to get all the dried blood off of her arm. Slowly, she knelt, touching her hand to the rough bark of the branch she stood on. "Summoning Technique," she stated quietly, the exhaustion plain in her voice.

Smoke poured out from under her own, and soon she felt the now-familiar texture of snake scales underneath her palm. Taking a deep breath, she looked down at the creature she had summoned. This one was bright red, she noticed. Did snakes come in bright red?

Ahead of her, Anko whistled. "That one's almost a two-footer. See, you're getting the hang of it. Now, let the poor confused thing go and let's get moving again."

Tiredly, Sakura briefly studied the snake coiling itself around her legs, memorizing its appearance in case she ever wanted to summon this particular snake again. "You can go," she said. "I'm just practicing." There was a burst of smoke, and then the snake was gone. Sakura took a deep breath and fell out of the tree.

In an instant, Anko was beneath her, catching her and landing lightly on the forest floor. "Easy, Sakura-chan," Anko stated. "You okay?"

Sakura looked up at the special jounin. "No," she managed to get out as the world swam around her.

Anko set her student down, rubbing at her chin thoughtfully. "Aha! I've got just the thing." She pulled out of small pill and carefully placed it in Sakura's mouth.

Instinctively, Sakura chewed and swallowed before she realized she recognized the foul taste. Coughing and sitting up as energy flooded through her, she gave her teacher a hateful gaze. "A soldier pill?" she asked.

"It got you up and moving again, didn't it?" Anko asked cheerfully.

"It's not safe to use them like that!" Sakura protested.

"Bah, that's just what the medical ninja say so they'll have less work," Anko replied. "Trust me, I'm in ANBU. We know these things. You might need a few days bed rest once we're through, but you're not in any danger."

"You are aware that I'm supposed to be fighting in the third exam in a bit more than a week?" Sakura asked dryly as she stood.

"Right," Anko muttered. "Okay," she stated. "We'll do it one more time, then we'll be through."

With a sigh, Sakura repeated the familiar set of actions, channeling every dredge of chakra she could muster. "Summoning Technique."

When the cloud of smoke faded, a new voice smoke. "Well, that was fast," the gray snake Seseki stated. "Congratulations… mistress."

Sakura stared at the snake for a moment, then fell to her knees. "Thank you," she muttered reflexively.

Anko frowned. "You never call me mistress, Seseki," she said.

"Yeah, well it took you half a month to get to where you could summon me," Seseki replied. "Took her… what, two days?"

"Well, yeah," Anko agreed grudgingly, "but I was wasting all that time on stupid, pointless things like food and sleep. Plus, Sakura-chan was using a soldier pill."

The gray snake's tongue flicked out in amusement. "Well, it seems my time here is up. Call on me again sometime." There was yet another puff of smoke, and the two kunoichi were alone.

Sakura breathed heavily, glaring daggers at Anko. Useless things like food and sleep? If she wasn't so tired, she would try to kill the special jounin. "Satisfied?" she muttered.

"Very," Anko replied with a grin. "I've got one last thing to show you, and then we'll head for home."

Author's Random Ramblings

1) And that's a wrap on the shortest chapter in a good long while. Took me longer than I was expecting to get it out, but that's par for the course.

2) As always, I welcome any and all comments on my story. Thanks also go to everyone on the FFML who commented on the draft.

3) Next time in One Hundred Days Chapter 10, Friends and Foes: Naruto and Jiraiya finally reach the Cloud Village, while Sakura and the other competitors makes the best of the last days before the third exam.

Draft Started: March 30, 2006
Draft Finished: April 28, 2006
Draft Released: April 30, 2006
Final Released: May 04, 2006