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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 10: Friends and Foes

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, cows. Moo.

Day Sixty-two

It wasn't a particularly good trait for a Leaf ninja, but unless she was paying close attention, forests all looked the same to Haruno Sakura. She'd been paying almost no attention the previous day, as Anko had made her constantly summon snakes as quickly as her chakra could recover from the last summoning. Even after a night's sleep, she felt like she could barely summon enough chakra for a single replication.

Due to her inattention, she had only Anko's word - never one hundred percent trustworthy - that they were only a day or so from the gates of the Leaf Village. Still, Anko had no real reason to lie that Sakura could see. The special jounin had said that she needed to be back soon, and that made sense since the third exam was now little more than a week away.

Sakura grimaced. While Anko had said this training would increase her chakra reserves, Sakura wasn't certain whether this had been the best use of her time. Summoning snakes might be useful in general, but she didn't have to chakra to summon one big enough to be of much use in a direct fight. Though the related technique Anko had shown her had some potential. The pink-haired genin rubbed at the snake tattoo on her arm through the jacket, grimacing. The mechanics of that technique were just creepy.

Anko glanced backward at her student. "Having a problem?" she asked, for once only concern in her voice. "If you're having difficulties, you should go ahead and release the technique. It'll just get messy if it comes out when you aren't expecting it."

Sakura shuddered, jumping forward to land on the branch of the next tree beside the special jounin. "I'm fine," she said shortly.

Anko pouted. "Are you still mad at me?"

Sakura glared at the older woman. "Stupid, pointless things like food and sleep," she quoted Anko's words from yesterday.

Anko laughed. "It worked, didn't it?"

"You're lucky I didn't go into a coma!" Sakura protested.

The other kunoichi rolled her eyes. "I do know what I'm doing, Sakura-chan." She leapt lightly, bypassing the next tree and landing on a lower branch two trees away. "Come on. If we hurry, we can be home tomorrow morning."

Sakura jumped, not bothering to duplicate her teacher's feat, then jumped again to catch up with Anko. "Home," the genin muttered. It wasn't like she really had a home to go back to, did she? The only thing that awaited her was Naruto's empty apartment Even Ino might still be on a mission.

Anko didn't take another jump, instead just looking down at the young girl. "Problems?" she asked softly.

"Yes," Sakura admitted after a moment. She was far too tired to come up with some excuse to deflect Anko's curiosity.

"Want to talk about it?" Anko pressed after a moment.

"Not really." Sakura moved ahead to the next tree.

In an instant Anko was beside her, and Sakura started. She hadn't felt the jounin move at all. "Really?"


Anko lightly hit the top of Sakura's head. "Liar," she said, grinning widely.

Sakura sighed. "You're not going to let this drop until I tell you, are you?"

"Nope," Anko agreed. "You are sort of my student. That makes me responsible for you, at least a little." She grinned again. "Plus, it'll make good gossip."

Sakura gave the older woman a hateful glare, but then another sigh escaped her lips. It wasn't like she could stop Anko from finding out. The Hokage and Shizune knew most of it, and Anko could probably get it out of them. "Fine," she muttered. Come to think of it, Anko could probably relate at least a little. "One of your sister's students," she stated. "She said she was a member of a Haruno Clan."

Anko nodded. "I'd heard. So?"

"I'd already been having problems with my mother before that," Sakura said. "I can't talk to her about it, and I don't know what's going on. After the second exam, there were ANBU watching her! My mother!"

"Why can't you talk to her about it?" Anko asked casually. Without waiting for an answer, she began to move again.

It took Sakura a moment to gather herself and jump after the older woman. "Because I'm scared," she admitted, then groaned. She couldn't believe that she'd just said that to Anko, of all people.

"Look at it this way," Anko said lightly. "She's already kicked you out and practically disowned you, from what I've heard. The only way she could make it worse would be to actually attack you, and then you'd at least get to work out your frustrations." Anko smiled evilly. "Beating up family is very therapeutic. Kimi and I should try it again sometime."

Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from laughing. "My mom isn't a ninja," she said. Then she gazed suspiciously at Anko. "How did you hear that Mother kicked me out? I didn't say that."

Anko grinned again. "I'll tell you a secret," Anko said. "Shizune-sempai's a very talkative drunk. The tough part is tricking her into drinking, but once you've done that she'll tell you anything you want to know. Learned that from the Fourth himself."

Another laugh escaped from Sakura, mostly at the strange absurdity of imagining a legend like the Fourth Hokage interacting casually with people she knew. "That's horrible." Then Sakura's face fell. "I don't think I can make myself talk to her." She didn't need to say that she wasn't referring to Shizune.

"Sounds like you need some motivation," Anko said lightly. "Tell you what. If I hear that you haven't spoken with your mother within two days of us getting home, I'll start sneaking snakes into your bed until you do." Anko smiled menacingly. "The third exam won't have me so busy that I won't have time to do that."

Sakura paled. "You wouldn't."

"It's a promise!" Anko declared happily, and then she leapt away. Shaking her head, Sakura followed after her.

"Well then," Mitarashi Kimi said slowly, a wicked smile gracing her face, "since Saburo has so kindly taken himself out of consideration, I suppose Ren and Midori can spar."

Her only male student struggled against the ropes that bound his arms behind him. "It wasn't fair," Aoki Saburo protested. "Midori caught my eyes and kept me paralyzed while Ren-chan snuck up behind me and got my arms."

Shimano Ren rolled her eyes, running one hand through her short, dark hair. "Since when was being fair part of being a ninja?"

The third member of the team snarled out the only possible answer. "Since never." Then, Haruno Midori's face lightened and she smiled. "Just be glad I didn't do worse to you.

"That's right," Kimi stated as she knelt behind Saburo, casually slicing his bonds with a suddenly appearing kunai. "But you won't be able to fight two on one in the exam, Midori."

"A water clone," the green-eyed kunoichi began, but her teacher interrupted her.

"Is only useful as a distraction against an opponent on your level. Remember that the clone only has a fraction of your strength."

"Right," Midori admitted, "but if I'm able to use Gaze of Binding I can use Gaze of Torment instead and end the fight." She frowned slightly. "Though that does take a lot more chakra."

Ren began to stretch. "So what are we waiting for?" she asked.

As one, Kimi and Saburo backed away from the two young kunoichi. "Begin," Kimi said dryly, and the pair blurred into motion.

A spinning kick from Ren struck Midori in the neck, but she only dissolved into water. Ren flipped away moments before a handful of shuriken flew through where she'd been standing. A kunai appeared in her hands and flew back at Midori, who rolled out of the way. Another kunai ready, Ren charged, and Midori jumped away, landing lightly on the surface of a nearby pond.

"Let's get serious, shall we?" Midori asked. Without waiting for a response, her hands flickered through seals. "Suiton: Water Shuriken Technique!" Small discs of water appeared in the air around her and hurled themselves at Ren.

Without missing a second, Ren formed seals of her own, then brought one hand up to her mouth. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" A quick spray of flame burst from between her lips, engulfing Midori's attack in a hiss a steam. When that faded, Ren's eyes widened. Hidden in each liquid projectile had been a real shuriken. She froze for an instant, but still reacted quickly, forming a seal with one hand. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Flames sprouted from between the fingers of her other hand, and with one swipe she knocked the oncoming shuriken away.

"Not bad," Midori said, grinning. Ren nodded, then vanished in an explosion of black smoke. "Shadow Smoke Evasion," Midori snarled, looking about wildly for any sign of her opponent. From the sidelines, Saburo snickered. "What's so funny?" Midori demanded.

She got her answer a moment later, as Ren's hands emerged directly beneath Midori, grabbing her ankles and pulling her into the pond with a loud splash. The surface of the water rippled, then Ren hurled herself out of the lake, almost stumbling as she landed on the soft earth of the shore. "She made water clones," she explained as she drew a kunai, falling into a defensive stance.

Mere seconds later, five copies of Midori jumped out of the lake, surrounding their opponent in a rough circle. "Thought this was going to be easy, didn't you?" one asked.

Ren's kunai sprouted from the speaker's chest, then fell to the earth as that Midori dissolved into water. "I didn't know you could make this many clones," Ren commented, not letting her guard down.

"I've been training too," one Midori replied, then the whole group charged Ren from all directions. Ren ducked under one kunai strike, reactivating the Claw of the Fire Dragon as she dodged. The tendrils of flame grew rapidly as Ren spun, striking and disrupting each clone in turn. The real Midori flipped away, landing lightly. "Not bad," she stated.

Ren grinned. "It gets better." The one-handed seal she held changed slightly as she stopped her spin, and her fiery claws quickly retracted. They didn't die out, however, instead settling into an aura of flame surrounding Ren's hand. Without breaking the seal in her other hand, Ren raced at Midori, getting inside the other kunoichi's guard before she could react. Ren's open, flame-wreathed hand darted toward her teammate's neck.

Midori barely managed to avoid the strike, dropping to the ground and raising one arm to knock aside Ren's blow. Her other hand hit the ground and she pushed away, her foot kicking out to catch Ren squarely in the chest. Ren stumbled back, losing her concentration and breaking the seal she still held. The aura of flame around her other hand died out moments later.

Mitarashi Kimi nodded to herself, then clapped once loudly. "That's enough."

Instantly, both kunoichi fell out of their fighting stances, grinning widely at each other. "Good fight," Ren said.

"I would have won," Midori stated, but her tone was light.

"I always miss the fun fights," Saburo griped quietly.

Kimi let out a short bark of laughter, then spoke again. "It's about time for us to meet our escort back to the Leaf Village. I want you all the use this week to continue scouting out the village, but remember: not a word about the mission. Understood?"

"Yes, Mitarashi-sensei," the three genin said in near-unison.

"Good." Kimi turned away. "Get your stuff packed, then."

A little less than an hour later, the Mist team was assembled by the gate of the Leaf training area they had been given to use to train in privacy. Outside the gate stood another team of four, and that team's jounin nodded once as she counted the Mist and unlocked the gate. "All present and accounted for," she stated.

Kimi laughed slightly. "Where else would we have gone… Suzume-san, wasn't it?"

The Leaf jounin nodded. "Form up," she snapped at her three genin. "Let's get these four back to the village."

"Yes, Namida-sensei," they replied as they moved into positions surrounding the Mist ninja.

Midori blinked as she studied the one of the two girls on the other team who was closest to her. "You're Mitokado Fuki, aren't you?" she asked quietly.

The girl in question nodded, no surprise showing in her dark eyes. "You're Mizuno Midori."

Midori grinned. "Haruno Midori, actually," she stated.

"Haruno?" Fuki asked, puzzlement clear in her voice. She didn't voice the obvious question, and Midori didn't bother to answer it.

Instead she just smiled again. "You should go ahead and skip the exam," she declared. "You won't be missing anything but pain."

From her position next to Saburo, Fuki's teammate Uzuki Ami snarled at Midori. "I don't know what you mean by saying you're a Haruno, but both you and the forehead girl are going down in the first round!" Ren rolled her eyes and Midori let out a bark of laughter. Ami glared at both of the Mist kunoichi.

"I'm going to fight you," Fuki declared before her teammate could say anything more.

"It's your funeral," Midori told her simply. "I intend to fight that silver-eyed freak and rip out his eyes, and a weakling like you is only going to suffer if you try to get in my way."

Ami growled at her, one hand inching toward the hilt of the short sword sheathed on her back. "I ought to," she began.

"Calm down, Ami!" snapped her male teammate, Inuzuka Shinta. "We'll show them what we can do when the time comes."

Ami took a deep breath. "Right," she said.

Kimi smiled slightly. "What a pity. This could have been interesting."

Suzume Namida glanced at her counterpart. "That's hardly an appropriate sentiment, Mitarashi-san." Kimi just shrugged, and Namida sighed. "I can see that you're Anko-san's sister," she muttered under her breath.

Kimi raised an eyebrow. "What was that, Suzume-san?" she asked, her voice dangerously light. "I couldn't hear you."

"Nothing important," Namida replied calmly. "Now, let's form up and move out. No bickering!"

Day Sixty-three

The morning sun beat down heavily on the desolate, rocky wasteland that was the border between the Bird Country and the mighty Wind Country. This natural defense was a large part of the reason that the tiny Bird Country had been able to avoid conquest or domination by its larger neighbor without supporting a hidden village of its own or relying on more aid than it could afford from the Earth Country's Hidden Rock. Even that aid might not have been necessary had it not been for the much less imposing nature of the border the Bird Country shared with the Rain Country, which had been allied with the Wind Country since long before the grand alliance between the Leaf and the Sand had been signed at the close of the last major war. Then again, had all its borders been so imposing, the Bird country would have been an impoverished, barely inhabited land.

Such matters, however, were far from the mind of Rock Lee at the moment. Far too much of his thoughts were on the prisoner his team had brought to this place, and not in the way they should have been. He could not forget that this Nagare had all but defeated him, though it was not that simple fact that preyed on his mind. It was the way the wandering ninja had beaten him, by using a poor imitation of the techniques of the Sand ninja Gaara of the Desert. Faced with that, Lee had frozen, and if Gai had not been there to save him - again - he would have died.

"They're coming," Neji hissed quietly and suddenly, and Lee grabbed at the convenient distraction from his dark musings. While his eyes were of course no match for Neji's Byakugan, soon enough he was able to make out the distant figures of a four-man Sand ninja squad. They hesitated briefly, then separated, three disappearing to no doubt scout for an ambush, while the remaining ninja made a direct approach on the unhidden Leaf ninja and their prisoner.

Gai checked the silent Nagare's bonds once more, then glanced at his team. "Be ready," was all he said.

The first thing Lee was able to make out on the approaching Sand representative was that he wore the uniform of a Sand chuunin or jounin. The second thing he noticed was that Neji was getting nervous, and when his attention returned to foreign ninja he saw that "he" was actually a young woman. Then Tenten snarled softly, and Lee realized that they knew this woman.

"I am Temari of the Desert, chuunin of the Hidden Sand," she stated loudly before she approached, then she blinked. "You," she said simply as she glanced at the four Leaf ninja, her voice neither friendly or unfriendly.

"Yes," Tenten said frostily.

Temari ignored her, slowly pulling out a small black book as she gazed at Nagare's unmoving visage. "So this is the one you caught, huh?" she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she flipped the book open to a marked page and compared the picture and data there to the prisoner. "Nagare of the Stony Waste," she said, grinning evilly as she shut her bingo book. "The interrogation squads back home will be… pleased to see you."

The captured Sand missing ninja said nothing. "We found him as part of a group of wandering ninja causing problems in the Bird Country," Gai explained.

"I read the message you sent ahead, Maito-san," Temari said. "May I summon my men to take possession of the prisoner?" Gai nodded, and Temari made a slight gesture. In an instant, the three genin under her command reappeared, and Gai carefully handed Nagare over to them.

"Neji-kun has been closing his tenketsu so that he can't escape," Gai stated. "You may wish to drug him before the effects wear off. He's mastered a variation on your brother's techniques, which makes him a little troublesome to keep under control in this environment.

"My brother's techniques?" Temari said, glancing at Nagare. "Maybe I'll give you to him instead of the interrogation squads. Gaara hardly kills anyone anymore, and he could probably use the entertainment." For the first time, fear showed on the missing ninja's face.

Lee swallowed slightly. "Is he here?" he asked, keeping his voice as flat as he could.

Temari shook her head. "The council decided that the new gentler and kinder Gaara of the Desert only needed one keeper," she said, a hint of bitterness in her voice. "He and Kankuro are off chasing sightings of strange ships on the southern coast.

"I see," Lee replied, half-disappointed and half-relieved.

"Now it's your turn to indulge my curiosity," the Sand kunoichi said. "Tenma-kun here," she continued, pointing back at one of her subordinates, "says that you were spreading stories back in the exam that that pink-haired girl on Uzumaki's team was stronger than Gaara."

Lee blinked. "I just said that Sakura-san's team had beaten him." He knew that Sakura was stronger than most would give her credit for, but Gaara was something else entirely.

Temari laughed. "I figured as much," she said. "Even you couldn't have taken that much leave of your senses. Pinkie was even more worthless than shuriken girl here."

Lee's eyes narrowed at the numerous insults in Temari's breath words, but Tenten spoke first. "I have a name," she said, her voice carefully controlled.

"Is that so?" Temari responded dryly. "I'm afraid our fight was over so quickly it didn't have time to register."

"Why you," the Leaf kunoichi growled, her hand moving the tiny distance necessary to hover over the hilt of one of the numerous kunai hidden on her person.

"Tenten," Gai said calmly. His female student took a deep breath and a step back. "As for you," Gai continued, looking at Temari, "you are a representative of your village and should act appropriately."

Temari snorted. "Whatever. Are we done?" When Gai nodded, she gestured again to her squad, and soon they and the prisoner were gone.

Yamanaka Ino was not feeling well. She knew it was entirely in her mind rather than some physical malady, yet that couldn't make her stomach settle. Less than a week ago, she had killed a man, Daimyo Chichiatsu of the Swamp Country. Or, rather, she had assassinated that man, which made all the difference. Killing was something that all ninja knew to expect, but in the Leaf Village assassinations were most often performed by the elite ANBU squads dedicated to the task.

Chichiatsu wasn't the first man she had killed. On one of her team's earlier missions, shortly before they'd taken the Chuunin Exam almost seven months ago, Ino had killed for the first time. Bandits had attacked the caravan they'd been guarding, and Ino's first wild swing of a kunai had caught one in the stomach. When she'd gone back to his fallen form after the battle was over, he had died from the wound.

That death had affected her, of course. Yet, she didn't think it had to this extent. That had been killing in the heat of battle, where it was kill or be killed. The man had died out of her sight, while she was busy fighting off his comrades. She had never learned that man's name or even whatever his gang called itself. She'd never seen that man's family.

Daimyo Chichiatsu she had killed in cold blood. He had been in his own daughter's bedroom, believing he was comforting the princess after a nightmare when he had only been writing his death warrant by confessing how he had betrayed the Leaf. She could have left him to be slain by her teacher, but instead she had taken matters into her own hands. More accurately, she had taken matters into his daughter's hands, killing him while still controlling the princess's body.

It wasn't even these bare facts that were making her feel poorly. What caused her discomfort was that, while a part of her recognized how terrible the deeds she had performed were and shivered in sympathy for at least the poor princess, another part of her felt differently. This cold, clinical portion of her mind merely observed that she had only been following orders and that the orders were even nothing to bat an eye at. The daimyo had only gotten what he had deserved for selling Kakashi out to the Cloud. The experience would serve as an object lesson for the princess, reminding her of the price to be paid for betraying a ninja village. Doing it herself rather than letting Asuma handle it was merely efficiency.

Nara Shikamaru sighed loudly, thankfully distracting Ino from her troubled musings. "Something wrong?" Asuma asked from his position at the head of the group, glancing back at his three students.

"We're almost back," Shikamaru stated, "and once I'm back they're going to have me doing troublesome things again for the third exam."

Now Asuma sighed, taking a long puff of his ever-present cigarette, but he didn't say anything. Instead it was Chouji who spoke. "It's almost time, isn't it?" he said.

Welcoming the distraction, Ino quickly began to count days on her fingers. "A week from today, I think," she said when she was done.

"That's not long," Chouji grumbled. "I lost a lot of time I was going to be training with my dad because of this mission."

"Hey, I trained you," Asuma protested lightly. "You'll do well, I promise. That goes for both of you."

"Damn straight I will," Ino forced herself to growl, though her words felt hollow in her own ears. "If Forehead can beat this Ren girl, I'll have no problems with her. Then I'll crush Forehead herself."

Shikamaru sighed again, mouthing "Troublesome," and earning himself a punch from his female teammate. Then, the forest path they were following curved and the open gates of the Leaf Village came into view. "Well, we're back," he said as he rubbed the sore spot on his face where Ino's fist had landed.

Something moved in the tree above, and all four ninja tensed as two more people jumped down to join them. "Well, fancy meeting you all here," Mitarashi Anko said happily as she walked over to Shikamaru, grabbing his ear in one sudden motion. "Now my laziest chuunin assistant won't be able to hide from me."

Ino had eyes only for the special jounin's companion, ignoring Shikamaru's efforts to free himself from Anko's grasp. "Sakura," she breathed.

"Ino," her pink-haired rival returned tiredly, blinking her eyes wearily.

"I have something I need to tell you," Ino found herself saying.

"Ino," Asuma said warningly.

"She deserves to know," Chouji said.

Sakura blinked again, a bit of life returning to her face. "What's this about?" Anko released Shikamaru, glancing curiously between the two rivals.

Asuma sighed, but after a moment he nodded. "Let's at least get inside the village first," he stated, and in a matter of seconds this was done.

"It's Kakashi-sensei," Ino said as soon as they were inside. "He's alive."

Sakura froze, as though she had to replay the simple sentence in her mind several times before it became comprehensible. "He's… alive?" she asked slowly. "How -"

"We were on a mission to investigate his death," Chouji explained, "and we found out that -"

Asuma cut his student off with a quick gesture. "That's enough."

"But," Sakura protested.

"Tsunade-sama will keep you informed," Anko interrupted her. "They really shouldn't tell you anything about the mission without waiting for her approval." Sakura nodded, but it was clear she was dissatisfied with the answer.

Asuma glanced between her and Anko. "What are you two doing together, anyway?" he asked suspiciously.

Anko made a slight wave of her hand. "Mission," she stated simply.

"Is that so?" Asuma asked, his eyes narrowing. He slowly took his cigarette out of his mouth.

Anko grinned cheekily at him. "I'm sure you understand that I can't really talk about it."

Asuma laughed, dropping his cigarette and casually stamping it out. "You have me there," he said. "Come on, you three. Let's go see Hokage-sama and make our report so you can get back to what you need to be doing." He began to walk off, and his team slowly followed him.

"Ino!" Sakura said loudly after a moment, making her rival pause in her tracks. "Come see me sometime. I know something about the techniques Ren-san will probably use."

Ino's eyes narrowed. "Why help me, Forehead?"

"Because I want to fight you, Ino-pig," Sakura stated slowly, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"I can beat her without your help," Ino replied.

"Maybe," Sakura said, "but my help would make it easier."

Ino forced herself to grin. "All right, Forehead," she said, "but you better not lose to Ami."

Sakura snorted. "Not planning on it."

"Good," Ino replied, and then she raced to catch up with her team.

Day Sixty-four

The Hidden Village of Rock lived up to its name. Not a single ordinary building could be seen where the map said the Earth Country's hidden village lay. Instead, the village consisted of halls and chambers carved out of the numerous small mountains' living stone by the first Rock ninja using their then-secret earth element techniques. Underground tunnels connected each mountain in case of a siege. At the time of the village's founding, when the entrances were sealed there was no sign aboveground of any human habitation - a fact that had served the Rock ninja well when the Lightning Country had sent Cloud ninja to regain control of the breakaway provinces across the Gulf of Storms that would become the Earth Country.

In the modern era, no purpose was served by such deception. All the Rock's foes knew well the location of the village, and it was almost inconceivable that any foe could penetrate the impregnable mountain passes or bypass the Earth Country's powerful navy to lay siege to the Rock Village itself. Not even the victorious alliance of the Leaf and Sand at the close of the Great War had managed to invade the Earth Country proper.

Because of this, despite the plans of the builders it was now more than obvious where the Rock Village lay. The three mighty gates of the village were almost always open, and well-paved roads lead to each of them. Merchants' tents frequently crowded the sides of the roads, seeking the patronage of both the Rock ninja and those who came to acquire their services. Windows dotted the sides of each mountain, letting in much-welcomed natural sunlight to the interior of the village.

No such window graced the walls of this chamber, lit instead by flickering electric lights. Iwakuro Hojo, widely regarded as the most legendary living Rock ninja, was seated on a stone bench, his eyes closed and his hands clasped before his face. The three genin he had taken on this journey - after the events that had lead to Jiraiya's departure from this country they knew too much for Hojo to feel comfortable letting them out of his sight - were much less serene.

Yamakita Akira paced nervously in front of one of the room's two doors, occasionally muttering something under his breath. His male teammate, Gonkuro, simply stared at the intricate mural of the legendary Earth Dragon that decorated one of the other walls, but even with his eyes closed Hojo could feel his nervousness. The third member of the team, Mako, was seated beside Hojo, but her eyes darted between her teammates and her hands played nervously with the zipper of her open jacket.

She was the one who finally broke the silence. "Is Tsuchikage-sama going to be all right?" she asked quietly, as though merely posing the question might create some catastrophe. It was this that had forced Hojo to make the journey to the Rock Village, a sickbed summons from his elderly teacher, who had taken the title of Tsuchikage only when Hojo himself had refused it. Now they were in a waiting room outside his chambers, waiting for him to be prepared to receive them.

"How are we supposed to know?" Akira asked irritably.

"Tsuchikage-sama is very old," Gonkuro said without turning from the mural. "Even a simple illness could be fatal."

"Don't say things like that," Mako muttered.

"Then why ask?" Gonkuro returned, and the kunoichi said no more. Gonkuro snorted, and returned to his study of the mural.

Akira's pacing brought him near his male teammate, and he paused briefly, glancing curiously over Gonkuro's shoulder. "What's so fascinating?" he asked.

Gonkuro's eyes flicked back at Akira. "It's very well done," he said.

"Eh, it's still boring," Akira replied after staring blankly at the dragon mural for several more moments. Gonkuro didn't respond, and after a while Akira gave up and returned to his pointless pacing. Hojo made a mental note to schedule more teamwork exercises after their return to his estate.

A few minutes later, Gonkuro wordlessly turned around and walked over to Hojo, seating himself on the other side of his teacher from Mako Akira paused briefly, as though he was considering joining the other three ninja, but eventually he sighed and continued to pace. "How long are we going to have to wait?" he asked irritably.

Hojo's eyes opened a moment before the door did, admitting one of the Tsuchikage's attendants. "Tsuchikage-sama will see you now, Hojo-sama," the man said nervously. As the genin stirred, he added an "Alone."

Hojo nodded, standing and grabbing his iron staff, which rested on the wall beside him. He made his way over to the door, and less than a minute later he was alone with his teacher. Hojo set his staff aside again and squatted on a wooden stool next to the older man's bed. "You've looked better, Kazu-sensei."

The Tsuchikage, laughed weakly as he sat up in bed, but then the laughter turned into a brief, violent coughing fit. "It's time," he said simply. "I've been telling those idiots on the council I needed a heir for years now, but it's only these past weeks they've finally started to believe me."

"I could lie and tell you that you'll not need a heir for years more," Hojo said slowly. "I respect you too much for that, though."

"Hojo-kun," the Tsuchikage stated. "You know why I called you here. The village council has already approved it, and no daimyo will protest."

"I'm not young myself," the legendary ninja replied. "If I became the Thirteenth, there'd need to be a Fourteenth before too long." Hojo smiled weakly. "Besides, I told you before, I don't want the job."

"You think I don't know that?" Kazu asked irritably. "Hojo-kun, war is coming, and even an idiot can see it. In a day, the Leaf went from being the strongest of the five great powers to being the weakest, and it was always their strength that enforced the peace that ended the Great War." The older man snarled slightly. "If you don't take the post, the council will be deadlocked for years trying to decide between the youngsters, none of whom is ready for the job. The Rock can't afford that right now."

"Not when a new Great War could be beginning," Hojo replied softly.

"That's right," Kazu said. He coughed. "The Valley made some sort of deal with the Sound under our noses at that peace conference. They could drag the whole alliance into a war with the Leaf before the season turns again. Hojo-kun, the village needs you."

Hojo closed his eyes. "I'll never forgive you for this," he breathed. "All right."

"Good." The Tsuchikage coughed again, then rang the bell on his nightstand. In a matter of seconds, a medic had entered the room. "You're jounin-ranked, right?" Kazu asked.

"Yes, Tsuchikage-sama," the medic replied nervously.

"Then you can serve as witness so I can handle this before Hojo-kun runs away again." The old man sat up a little straighter. "I hereby abdicate the position of Tsuchikage and grant it to my appointed heir, Iwakuro Hojo."

The medic swallowed nervously, glancing at Hojo. "Iwakuro-sama?" he asked.

Hojo closed his eyes once more. "I accept the responsibility and title of Thirteenth Tsuchikage."

Kazu laughed. "I finally got you, Hojo-kun," he said. "Now go meet with the village council and leave me to my rest."

The hunter ninja, Orochimaru noted with mild amusement, was trying very hard to not show her nervousness. It made sense, he supposed, even setting aside the purely obvious reasons. He was, after all, from a certain point of view one of the most infamous missing ninja in the world, and such people tended to have rather low opinions of hunter ninja from any village.

Orochimaru did not share such views, however. He quite liked hunter ninja and still had fond memories of his time in ANBU's hunter ninja division. As allies, hunter ninja were exceedingly competent and reliable. As enemies, they were predictable and made excellent test subjects. The idle thought of experimenting on this particular specimen crossed his mind, but betraying the Mist made no sense at this point in time.

The two Sound ninja who had escorted the emissary to Orochimaru's throne room, deep beneath the current incarnation of the Hidden Village of Sound, bowed in unison. Orochimaru waved a hand through the air. "Leave us," he said softly, and his ninja obeyed with alacrity. "So, what message do you bear from your masters?" he asked the Mist ninja.

Orochimaru could tell the hunter ninja glanced at the boy kneeling beside his throne even though her smooth mask obscured her face. "Should we not be alone, first?"

The renegade Sannin let one hand rest on the boy's head and let a smile grace his stolen face when the younger ninja stiffened but did not protest. "He is my… apprentice," Orochimaru stated. "His ears are my ears."

"As you wish," the Mist ninja replied, though Orochimaru could feel her restrained curiosity. "We are moving on schedule. The Mizukage requests a report on your own efforts."

Orochimaru laughed. "I assure you, the Leaf's allies will not trouble you. The pieces are all in place, as was discussed."

"You are certain?"

"Of course," Orochimaru said. "If you want you can travel to Hill Country and see the Valley forces ready to tie up the Waterfall. The rest might take a bit too long for you to check, though."

"See to it that you live up to your commitment." Orochimaru resisted the urge to smirk at the fear in the hunter ninja's voice, and he knew that from anyone else she might have demanded much more in answer. "If you do not, the Mist will not rest until this country has been destroyed."

"I'm well aware of that," Orochimaru said dryly. "If I do plan to betray you, I will be certain the Mist either never learn of it or are in no position to carry out their vengeance." The Mist ninja tensed, and Orochimaru laughed. "Was there anything else, Hunter?"

She took a step forward, reaching into her dark clothing for something. In an instant, she was leaping away, a line of kunai piercing the stone floor where she had been standing. A blur of motion followed her, a rapid kick plunging at her chest. The hunter ninja exploded in a burst of water.

Her attacker paused, crimson eyes whirling as he searched for the real ninja. He found her perched on a wall, and she froze as she met his eyes. "Sharingan," she hissed. "So there was a survivor."

"Easy, Sasuke-kun," Orochimaru stated, gesturing for the boy to return to his side. Stiffly, the Uchiha complied, returning to his kneeling posture. Orochimaru's hand briefly rested again on his student's head, and Sasuke shuddered under his touch. "I'm sure our guest is not so foolish as to dare attack me like that."

The Mist ninja slowly pulled out a scroll, then jumped back to the floor. "My apologies," she said. "I should have warned your… guard." She held out the scroll, and at another gesture from Orochimaru, Sasuke retrieved it and brought it to him. "These are the orders that were given to Yakushi Kabuto-san and his squads. You are not to contact them until the close of the initial operation."

A pointless protection - if Orochimaru had planned a betrayal, Kabuto would have known well in advance. "As you say," he agreed. He swiftly unrolled and skimmed the scroll, finding nothing that would hinder Kabuto's true mission. "I have no objections."

The Mist ninja's eyes, behind her mask, glanced between the two missing ninja. "He isn't your apprentice," she said, seemingly unaware she spoke aloud. "He's your next -"

"Be silent!" Sasuke snapped, his Sharingan once again activated and whirling. The hunter ninja took a step back, averting her gaze a second too late to be effective had the young man used a doujutsu on her.

Orochimaru only laughed. "The Mist are well-informed. Tell me, how did you find out about that technique? Is there a spy I should be looking for or did you find out through the Leaf?"

The Mist ninja swallowed, but then she seemed to regain some of her composure. "If you consider that technique's existence a secret, you should not wear another man's face to meetings like this," she ventured.

She hadn't answered the question, but Orochimaru hadn't expected it of her. "Kabuto-kun mentioned to me once that he'd like to compare notes with your spymaster in the Leaf Village, if possible," he said after a moment.

The hunter ninja frowned behind her mask. "That is not up for me to decide. Is there any message you would have me carry back to the Mizukage?"

Orochimaru only shook his head in reply, then summoned back the two Sound escorts. "Show our guest the way out," he said, and few moments later he was alone with Uchiha Sasuke.

The instant the other three ninja had left, the boy jumped up taking several steps away from Orochimaru. "What was the point of that charade?" he demanded.

Orochimaru raised an eyebrow. "Which do you mean?"

"Why did you want me to attack her?" Sasuke demanded. "It was obvious she wasn't pulling out a weapon."

"Because I wanted the Mist to know I had a pet Uchiha," Orochimaru said. Sasuke grimaced at that, but didn't protest. "A man who has something he wants is less dangerous than one with nothing to lose."

"So you plan to betray them?" Sasuke asked, a hint of something in his voice.

"Still have some feeling for your home village?" Orochimaru replied amusedly.

"No," Sasuke stated flatly, and his teacher chuckled softly.

"I plan to betray them, just as they plan to betray me. For the moment, though, our goals align and we both know it." Orochimaru smiled. "The Leaf will suffer."

"Whatever," Sasuke stated. "It's time for training."

"I am tempted to not train you today," Orochimaru said, "since you seem to already be forgetting who is the master and who is the student." Sasuke staggered slightly, clutching at his shoulder. "However, I shall be leaving on a journey soon, I believe, and will have to leave you to your own devices for a time." He stood. "It's best I ensure that you have something to work on, I believe."

"You're going to join the attack on the Leaf?" Sasuke asked.

"Oh no," Orochimaru replied. "If what I've heard is correct, I'll be going in the opposite direction."


"To pick up some tools," was all Orochimaru said in reply before leading his student out of the throne room.

Day Sixty-five

The Hidden Village of the Cloud was the largest and oldest of the hidden villages. Even more so than most of its counterparts, it had long since abandoned any pretensions of being hidden or a village. The Cloud Village was very much a city; in fact, it was the capital city of the Lightning Country. The Raikage was unique among his peers in that he did not owe even symbolic fealty to any daimyo; instead the various daimyo of the Lightning Country all gave their fealty to him. While this was not nearly so impressive as in the ancient days when those daimyo hailed from lands as far away as what was now the Fire Country, it still marked the Raikage as possibly the single most politically powerful man in the known world. Even the highest daimyo of many other countries could not match this unchallenged dominance of their often-fragmented nations.

The largest and most glorious building in this large and glorious city was the Raikage's massive palace. Larger than many villages by itself, the aging structure had been decorated with all the spoils of the empire that had once been governed from it. Situated high on the slopes of the tall mountain that had once given the Cloud Village its name, its marble towers seemed on first glance to be the highest point in the city.

This was because the only higher structure was actually almost on the peak of the mountain and was frequently shrouded by clouds. It was the Temple of the Thunder Dragon, considered one of the holiest places in the world by the followers of what was called in most of the world the "old religion" but in the Lightning Country was called the "true faith." It was there that a new Raikage could be appointed, there that Cloud ninja swore their oaths upon receiving their forehead protectors, and there that the fallen heroes of the Cloud Village had their memorials built.

Only there, in all of Lightning Country, did the Raikage not rule unchallenged. On those grounds, one woman - the High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon - was considered his equal and by some his superior. The First Raikage had held that title as well, but on his death he had named his daughter the Second Raikage and his son the High Priest, and since that day the two positions had always been separate. On occasion, a retired Raikage took up the mantle of High Priest or a High Priest replaced a Raikage who had fallen in war, but always they gave up their previous title.

The woman who was currently the High Priestess had, as was the tradition, abandoned her clan name upon reaching that position and was now simply known as Kaida to the few who called her by name. At the moment, she was alone - a woman as powerful as her did not need bodyguards, not here. There were guards all over the mountain, of course, but none traveled alongside her down from the temple to the ornamental gate far below that marked the transition between the temple grounds and the rest of the village.

The road she followed was long and winding, designed for the occasional ceremonial procession, and granted her much-needed time to gather her thoughts. Waiting for her at her destination, after all, was one of the most dangerous men in the world and a boy who carried a power that dwarfed even his and hers. While she doubted Jiraiya would attack her, the dread demon fox Kyuubi was not a force to be trifled with.

She none the less forced a smile on her face when the road turned and the open gate came into view. An instant later, she was engulfed in a crushing bear hug. "It's been so long, Kaida-chan!" Jiraiya exclaimed, releasing her slightly. "You're still as pretty as ever." Behind him, his escorts shifted uncomfortably at how they'd been unable to stop his reckless action, while the boy who had to be Uzumaki Naruto grimaced at his teacher.

"You're just complimenting me so that I won't electrocute you for copping a feel, you filthy pervert," Kaida said dryly as she disentangled herself from the legendary Sannin's grasp. "You never change, Jiraiya-kun."

Jiraiya laughed lightly. "You always see through me."

"Shouldn't you at least concentrate your attentions on women who were born within a decade of you?" Kaida's voice was acid, but she smiled at him. The guards were looking even more uncomfortable, while Naruto face was darkening even further.

Jiraiya pouted. "Most of them are all wrinkly, and the only person who could heal me from the aftermath if I tried anything with Tsunade-hime would be Tsunade-hime herself, so it'd take months for me to recover." Her pout changed to a grin. "Besides, you're only barely not within a decade of my age."

"Don't remind me," Kaida murmured.

It seemed as though Naruto had had enough, as he stormed past the guards. "Ero-sennin! Stop being perverted and get to what we came here for."

"Patience, boy," Jiraiya said automatically.

"Ero-sennin?" Kaida asked, a smirk on her face.

Jiraiya smiled back at her. "I'll beat it out of him eventually."

"Maybe when you stop being so perverted!" Naruto shouted.

Kaida turned to look at the boy, studying briefly his dark hair - dyed, of course - and his bright blue eyes. "You are Uzumaki Naruto, then," she stated.

The boy nodded. "Are you the sealing expert we're supposed to see?" he demanded.

One of the two escorts, who had cautiously been approaching the trio, barked at Naruto, "Be respectful! That's the High Priestess you're talking to!"

Naruto blinked in confusion. "High Priestess?"

Kaida ignored the question for the moment, turning toward the guards. "You have done well. Please return to your posts with my thanks."

The two Cloud ninja bowed in unison. "Thank you, Kaida-sama," one said, and they turned to walk away.

"Come with me," Kaida told her two guests. "It's quite a walk up to the temple, and we can talk as we move." Jiraiya nodded and followed her up the road, Naruto trailing after them a moment later. "How much have you told him?" she asked the Sannin after a moment.

"Only your name," Jiraiya replied. "He isn't much of one for lectures."

"I see," Kaida replied. "Naruto-kun," she said, glancing back at the genin. "My name is Kaida, and I am the High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon, which makes me uniquely suited to help with your… situation."

"How?" Naruto asked suspiciously.

"Like all my predecessors," Kaida replied, "when I became High Priestess I summoned and sealed within myself an avatar of the Thunder Dragon itself. From what Jiraiya has told me of it, I suspect your Fourth Hokage was working from some bastardized variation on that seal when he developed the one you carry."

"I can't quite diagnose the problem," Jiraiya added, "and Kaida-chan is one of the only people who might be able to help with it because of her experience."

"Oh," Naruto replied, frowning slightly.

"You have a question?" Kaida asked. The road turned, becoming a large staircase but not narrowing in the slightest.

"What's a thunder dragon?" Naruto replied, puzzlement in his voice.

Kaida blinked. "Don't they teach any history at the Leaf's ninja academy?"

"You have to remember," Jiraiya replied lightly, "that in that part of the world it's considered myth, not history."

Kaida sniffed. "Pagan."

"That reminds me, though," Jiraiya said. He glanced back a Naruto. "Boy! Don't try to summon anything while we're here."

"Why not?"

"Because all the spirit courts have agreements to not violate the others' sacred places, and this is an extremely sacred place," Jiraiya answered. It seemed obvious to Kaida that the boy didn't quite understand, but he nodded anyway. Jiraiya turned back to the priestess. "I'm sure it was taught to him, but like I said Naruto isn't one for lectures."

"I see," Kaida replied, taking another look at the boy Jiraiya had brought to him. It seemed odd, that such a boy could contain such power. "Listen to me, Naruto-kun. I'm going to tell you a story."

"You mean you're going to give me a history lesson," Naruto griped. "Everyone always does."

"I'll give you the short version then," Kaida said generously. "The Thunder Dragon is the one who taught the First Raikage the secrets of lightning element ninjutsu long ago, before any of the hidden villages were founded."

Naruto was silent for a moment. "That's it?" he asked finally.

"That's the short version," Kaida said as she reached the top of the staircase and the road once again became merely gently sloping. "There are a number of scrolls on the story if you're really curious. I can arrange for one to be loaned to you." Naruto made a face, but he didn't say anything, and Kaida's attention returned to Jiraiya. "You're late, by the way. I expected you almost a week ago from Hojo-kun's message."

"We ran into pirate trouble," Jiraiya answered.

"Those slavers?"

"Yeah," Jiraiya replied quietly. "They won't be a problem anymore, though."

"Good," Kaida said firmly.

"Because of that, though, Akatsuki's hot on our trail. We can probably expect visitors."

Kaida smiled. "Akatsuki will not be a problem," she replied. "Not here."

"I know," Jiraiya answered, then he gestured for Kaida to increase her pace slightly. She complied, and a few moments later there was a little more distance between the two older ninja and Naruto. Jiraiya continued quietly. "The problem has worsened since we left Hojo, though. The seals I placed with him have been broken and the manifestation is up to two full tails. Recently he became completely berserk. I had to physically subdue him and use an improvised seal to bring him back to his senses."

"He doesn't know?" Kaida guessed. Jiraiya shook his head. "I'll want a look at that seal," she stated.

"Of course," Jiraiya replied. "I made a copy. I'm trying to do some work to get it onto a tag that works from simple physical application, but it's being difficult."

"You're better at that sort of thing then me," Kaida answered. "I can probably sneak you into the library here if you need reference material."

"Thanks," Jiraiya said.

"I have no desire to see the Kyuubi unleashed again." Kaida grimaced. "Once was more than enough."

Hiraki Arata was feeling good. While his team hadn't been able to go back to the Waterfall Country to train, the Leaf had generously provided exclusive access to a training ground located not far from the embassy building where they were staying. The training had been going well, and Arata was confident he could win his first match at least. After all, his opponent hadn't even been a genin for a full year, from what he'd heard.

There were two reasons that Arata was particularly happy today. The first was that, finally, they had gotten confirmation that their old commander, Matsuyo Nissho, who was the closest thing they had to a dedicated teacher at the moment due to the Waterfall's recent shortages of jounin, was going to be able to attend the third exam. Because of this, the second thing that was making him happy had occurred. He had managed to get the other two members of his team to agree to take some time out from their constant training to go out for lunch to a restaurant he'd been meaning to try for some time.

Unfortunately, this had lead to the one thing that was causing Arata some anguish right now. "You have no idea where we're going, do you?" his male teammate, Chiba Ikkei, stated.

Arata grimaced as he pured over the directions he'd scrawled on a slip of paper. "I don't understand," he said, "I'm following the directions perfectly.

"Let me see that," Yuhara Maya, the third member of team, snapped, expertly snatching the paper out of Arata's barely resisting hands. She quickly skimmed the page. "No wonder it seemed like we were going in circles," she muttered. "Arata, you idiot. I can't believe you actually wrote down 'turn right four times' without noticing something was wrong."

Ikkei blinked. "These streets might not be on a square grid, but they aren't so twisted that doing that would make any sense."

Arata grinned sheepishly. "Do they really say that?" he asked.

Maya held the directions accusingly in front of his face. "Yes," she snarled. Her other hand went to the scroll she carried sheathed on her hip. Arata knew well that meant that she could have her naginata summoned and ready in less than a second. "Our next sparring session is going to be interesting, Arata-kun."

Arata gulped. Maya never used called him Arata-kun unless she was really mad. "Look," he pleaded, "there were lots of restaurants on that big street we crossed a little ways back. We can go there and find somewhere else to eat."

"Might as well salvage something out of this little excursion," Ikkei muttered. "I'd hate to have wasted all this time for nothing."

"We haven't even been out for an hour!" Arata protested.

"Not all of us are fighting fresh rookies in the first round," Maya responded archly. "Ikkei-kun and I have real fights we have to win."

"Fine, fine," Arata said, sighing. "Let's go then." Grumbling slightly, he turned around and began to retrace his steps.

A few minutes later, Ikkei spoke suddenly, pointing at one of the many nearby houses. "Hey, isn't that -"

"Oh, her," Maya muttered.

Arata's eyes lightened as he saw the pink-haired girl standing in front of a door. "She'll know where that place is for sure," he said. "I'll go ask her." He broke away from his teammates, running at the girl.

Before he could reach her, Haruno Sakura began to hammer loudly on the door. "Open up, damn it!" she shouted angrily. "I know you're in there, Mother, and I am not going to have snakes in my bed because you won't open the door!"

Arata swallowed nervously, taking a step back. He really did not want to know what this was about. "Maybe I'll ask some other time," he muttered.

Sakura spun around instantly. "You're… Hiraki-san," she said after a moment.

"Ah, yes, Haruno-san," he said nervously.

"What did you want to ask me?" the Leaf ninja asked.

"I… umm… do you know where Ichiraku Ramen is?" Arata asked.

Sakura blinked. Then she blinked again. "Yes," she said slowly. "You're really lost if you're looking for it." She looked over the Waterfall genin's shoulder. "Those are your teammates, I take it."

"Could you maybe show us the way?" Arata asked her. "I thought I took down Naruto-san's directions correctly, but…"

"You got… directions to Ichiraku from Naruto when he was in your country," Sakura said flatly.

Arata grinned sheepishly. "He made it sound like I'd be regretting it for the rest of my life if I didn't try it once while I was here."

"He would," Sakura muttered. She half-turned toward the door behind her, slamming her fist into it once. "I'll be back, Mother!" she shouted, then her attention returned to Arata. "Fine, I'll lead you there. This way."

Arata smiled widely as he rejoined his team. "Haruno-san will show us the way."

"Great," Maya muttered darkly, earning a puzzled look from Sakura.

Ikkei grinned. "Jealousy doesn't become you, Maya-chan."

The dark-haired kunoichi's stamped on his foot. "Shut up, Ikkei-kun," she growled menacingly.

Sakura's eyes traveled between the two, and Arata shrugged apologetically at her. "They're always like this."

"I see," the Leaf ninja murmured.

Flushing slightly, Maya released Ikkei's captured foot. "Let's get moving. We're in a hurry."

A few minutes later, the four were standing outside Ichiraku Ramen. "Here it is," Sakura said.

"I wonder why the directions were so bad," Arata mused aloud.

"It doesn't matter; we're finally here," Maya said, stalking inside and seating herself.

"Would you join us?" Arata asked Sakura cautiously.

The Leaf kunoichi's stomach rumbled. "It is lunchtime," she allowed. "Sure."

The owner of the Ichiraku's face lightened as Sakura entered. "Your usual, Sakura-chan?" he asked, and she nodded.

"You eat here often?" Arata asked while the owner took his teammates' orders.

"It's close to where I'm staying," Sakura stated, then it was Arata's turn to order.

Once this was done, the four were silent a moment, waiting for their food to be prepared. "So," Ikkei said, breaking the silence, "what can you tell me about this Rock Lee?"

Sakura smiled slightly. Then, almost simultaneously, the owner and his daughter set four bowls of ramen down on the counter. Sakura ate several mouthfuls before responding. "He's strong."

Ikkei snorted as he began to eat his own meal. "Care to be more specific?"

Sakura stared at her ramen bowl for a moment. "I suppose I owe you three for helping out in the second exam," she said.

"It was nothing," Arata said around a mouthful of ramen. He swallowed noisily. "This stuff is pretty good."

There were several more moments of silence, then Sakura spoke. "Lee-san is a taijutsu specialist." She paused. "He's extremely strong and very fast." She studied Ikkei for a moment. "I'd be surprised if he lost to you."

Maya laughed. "If taijutsu's his main weapon, he's going to have a tough time against Ikkei-kun."

"Maya-chan," Ikkei said warningly. "We're trying to get information, not spread it."

She rolled her eyes. "Right." She glanced at Sakura. "Did that blonde girl tell you anything interesting about the Mist boy? I know she fought him."

Sakura shook her head. "Just that he uses water element techniques and has good taijutsu."

"Drat," Maya muttered. Silence fell over the four once more.

"Aren't you going to ask about your opponent, Arata?" Ikkei asked finally.

Arata shook his head. "He's just a rookie, isn't he? He won't be a problem."

Sakura sniffed. "Just because he's a rookie doesn't mean he's not good."

"True." Arata played with the remnants of his food a bit. "Is he?"

"I don't know," Sakura replied. "I really don't know anything about him. He's from the Inuzuka, who usually use their dogs to fight, but he said that his branch of the clan had different techniques."

"Doesn't matter," Arata said, grinning again. "Whatever they are, I'll beat him."

"Modest, aren't we," Maya said, pushing aside her empty bowl. "Hurry up and finish eating. I don't want to waste any more time that I could spend training."

Sakura copied Maya's motion, then stood. "I should get back to training also. I'll see you all at the third exam."

Arata's grin widened. "It's a date."

"Idiot," Maya said reflexively, and Ikkei laughed.

Day Sixty-six

Mitokado Fuki was not normally an early riser, at least when she was at home and not on a mission. She had led her class in the academy in tardy arrivals - not precisely how her family and her clan had hoped she would lead her class. Since she had become a genin, Suzume Namida had successfully trained her so that she would arrive on time to even the earliest team meetings. However, it was a rare thing besides a mission or one of those meetings that could get Fuki out of bed before the sun had finished rising.

This was one of those things. Sure, her training had been going well. Namida was an excellent teacher, having spent several years as an instructor both for regular academy classes and for the special kunoichi training, and she had been working her team hard while they were guarding the Mist team's training ground. Between missions, her father had even joined them for a few days and helped her as well. However, a training session with Mitokado Homura, the head of the clan and a member of the village council, was another thing entirely.

Fuki frowned as she neared the training ground where her great-grandfather had told her to meet him. She could hear someone already moving about in there, and it didn't sound like an elderly man. Resting her back against a convenient tree, Fuki pulled out a slip of paper and double-checked the number on it. She was in the right place. Her frown deepened, her ears straining for some indication of who was using the training ground.

A familiar, female voice met her straining; a muttered, "Damn it," providing all Fuki needed to determine who was in the training ground. For a moment, she considered departing, but a little productive spying could prove quite useful to Ami. Quite possibly to her, come to think of it, however much she doubted she could defeat the Hyuuga prodigy in the second round.

Her hands worked through seals as she used a crude genjutsu Namida had taught her team to test their aptitude for such techniques. It wasn't much, just creating a simple inclination to not notice the user. Fuki knew all too well how easily this particular technique could be beaten, sometimes even by accident. A cloaking technique it was not. None the less, she jumped up to a tree branch and moved through the trees to a point overlooking the training ground.

Below, Haruno Sakura was sitting in front of a battered wooden training post, panting heavily. She'd been practicing some sort of taijutsu, then. After a moment, Sakura stood, walking over to a pack near the edge of the training ground a pulling out a bottle of water, which she drained in a matter of seconds. Fuki raised an eyebrow. Hard training, then.

Both kunoichi started, nearly in unison, at the sound of footsteps. Fuki stilled herself, while below Sakura slowly screwed the cap back on her water bottle and replaced it in her pack. Moments later, the man making the sounds walked into view, leaning heavily on a cane. Fuki had to resist the urge to snort. She'd seen her great-grandfather warm up in the morning on occasion, and he needed a walking stick to precisely the same extent that Sakura and Ami were best friends. In other words, not at all.

A strange expression flickered on Homura's face as he studied the girl before him. "You are not who I expected to see," he said after a moment.

"Mitokado-sama?" Sakura prompted when it became apparent the old man wasn't going to say anything more.

One of his hands reached up to adjust her glasses slightly. "No need to be quite so formal, girl," he said. "Haruno Sakura, huh?"

"Yes, Mito… Homura-sama."

"Good enough," the council member muttered. "Did you schedule your usage of this training ground?"

The pink-haired genin nodded. "Yes, Homura-sama."

The elder let out an annoyed "Hmph," idly tapping his cane against the dirt. "I was told that this ground would be available for Fuki-chan and myself this morning." Fuki considered making her presence known, but decided to stay hidden at least a while longer.

"I can leave in," Sakura began.

"No, no; there's no need to rush," Homura stated. "You're fighting… let's see, Uzuki Ami in the first round, correct?"

Sakura nodded. "Yes, Homura-sama."

Homura slowly made his way over to a bench on the side of the training ground and seated himself, lying his cane across his lap. "She's Fuki-chan's teammate, you know."

Sakura nodded. "I know. They were… close in the academy." A brief grimace passed over the pink-haired girl's face. A moment later, Fuki mirrored her expression.

Homura nodded, then looked directly at Fuki. "You might as well come out now," he said loudly, and Sakura started.

Fuki jumped out of the tree, landing beside Sakura. "Great-grandfather," she said in greeting. "Sakura-san."

"Fuki-san," Sakura's face and voice were flat. Fuki shifted uncomfortably. The other girl had more than enough reason to dislike her.

Homura's eyes flicked between the two kunoichi. "This is actually convenient." He gently pat his cane. "I'm not as young as I used to be, and my legs are bothering me at the moment. Haruno-kun, would you mind briefly sparring with Fuki-chan so she can warm up while I rest?"

Fuki frowned. "Great-grandfather, we're both -"

"If you fight each other, it won't be until the semi-finals, won't it?" Homura interrupted. "By that point you'd have shown each other much more than you will in a quick spar." He smiled slightly. "Haruno-kun?"

"If Fuki-san wants me to," the other girl said carefully.

After a moment, Fuki nodded. "All right. Just light taijutsu, though."

"Agreed," Sakura replied quickly, and soon the two were facing each other, positioned several yards apart.

Homura clapped his hands once. "Begin," he stated simply.

For several long seconds, nothing happened as the two kunoichi studied each other. Fuki's eyes narrowed. Sakura's stance was relaxed, but there was no opening in it. Fuki kept her own stance defensive. No point in making the first move.

Sakura laughed, gesturing for Fuki to come. "What?" she asked mockingly, a hint of bitterness in her voice. "Scared? Of little forehead girl?"

Fuki didn't respond at first. The other girl was trying to bait her, she knew. Slowly, she straightened, mimicking Sakura's gesture. "I know I've changed since those days," she said carefully. "Why don't you show me how you've changed?"

To her surprise, Sakura laughed. "All right," she said lightly. Then she vanished. Fuki reacted quickly, flipping away moments before Sakura reappeared right before where she'd been standing, already moving into sweeping kick. Fuki landed in a crouch, but didn't stay still for even an instant, pouncing at her opponent.

Sakura blocked Fuki's first blow with one arm, her other hand forming a fist and plunging at Fuki's gut. Fuki pushed herself away from the pink-haired girl, narrowly dodging the strike and bringing her foot up into a lightning-fast kick. Her opponent was faster, jumping away before the blow could land.

Fuki took a deep breath. It was obvious the other girl had indeed been working on taijutsu, and she could guess with who from the ugly orange warmers on her legs. If there were weights under there, Sakura would definitely be too fast to fight toe-to-toe in taijutsu if they happened to meet in the exam.

Sakura smiled. "Your turn," she said simply.

Fuki nodded. This was supposed to be a warm-up, after all, not a match. Taking another breath, she charged. Sakura sidestepped, but Fuki was ready for the move, stopping herself almost instantly and spinning into a kick. Sakura caught the strike on crossed arms, sweeping Fuki's other leg out from under her with a kick of her own. She landed lightly, pushing herself back up in a matter of seconds, but neither kunoichi made other further moves.

"You're pretty good," Fuki said after a moment. It was hard to believe that this was the same Sakura she had known in the academy.

Sakura nodded. "You're not bad yourself," she said after a moment, turning and heading back to her pack. "Would you like some water?"

Fuki nodded and easily caught the bottle Sakura tossed at her. "Thank you." After taking a long drink, she began to ask the question she had been wondering about for several days now. "A little while ago, I spoke with Midori-san, from the Mist, and she said -"

"She was a Haruno," Sakura interrupted, grimacing. "You know about as much as I do, Fuki-san." She paused. "You're fighting her in the first round, right?"


"She's nasty," Sakura said. "Don't look into her eyes. She uses some sort of doujutsu that'll take you out of the fight if you do." She shuddered slightly.

"Bad?" Fuki asked after a moment.

"Bad," Sakura confirmed. "She used it on me during the second exam."

Fuki frowned. It would be polite to tell the other girl something about her own opponent in return, but Sakura was fighting her teammate. She weighed her words carefully before she spoke. "Ami is better than I think you probably think she is," she said slowly, "but she's not as good as she thinks she is."

Sakura nodded. "I see," she said. "Odd that you're saying something uncomplimentary about her, though."

"We're friends," Fuki said defensively, "but I'm not blind. We'd have gotten into a lot of bad situations on missions if Shinta-kun hadn't controlled her."

"I see," Sakura repeated. "I should be going," she said as she picked up her pack.

"Good luck to you in the exams," Homura said suddenly, "and thank you for indulging me." He smiled slightly. "Incidentally, I understand that Maito Gai and his team returned from a mission late last night."

Sakura's eyes widened, and she bowed slightly. "Thank you," she said, and then she was gone.

Fuki studied her great-grandfather carefully. Somehow, she had a hunch that he had planned all this, but for what reason? Before she could ponder the matter further, Homura stood, leaving his cane behind on the bench. "Well, now," he said, "let's see what this old man has to teach you today, shall we?"

"There," Jiraiya said as he carefully laid Naruto's still form onto the simple stone altar. "He shouldn't wake up even for the end of the world." The room was surprisingly similar to the chamber under Hojo's estate where Jiraiya had only weeks ago performed a very similar examination. Only, in this case, if the wrong people spotted him it could be extraordinarily troublesome. Technically, it was the highest heresy for Naruto or him to be here.

"Excellent," Kaida said, stretching her fingers before laying several blank scrolls on the table and unrolling them to surround the still boy. "The sacrifice should go off without a problem, then."

Jiraiya gave the woman a flat stare, taking a moment to appreciate the fact that she looked almost a decade younger in the simple purple kimono she was wearing than in the stuffy formal robes of the High Priestess of the Thunder Dragon. "I'm in no mood for jokes, Kaida-chan," he said simply. He paused. "Are you certain we should be doing this here?"

"This room is specially warded in case the new High Priest's summoning goes wrong," Kaida said. "I'm not going to take any chances here. I've got no intention of setting the Kyuubi loose in the middle of the Cloud Village. In any case, the only person we'd have to worry about spotting us is Junhime-chan, and she's not in the village."

"Junhime-chan?" Jiraiya asked.

"My apprentice," Kaida answered. "You'd like her. She's cute."

Jiraiya grinned. "You know me too well."

"Indeed," Kaida said dryly. Then she grimaced. "I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention it."


"The Leaf Village isn't exactly popular here, given what happened in the last war," Kaida began. "With things the way they are, there's a significant faction that's agitating for war with the Fire Country. If Junhime returns, it'll be a problem, since she's of course a major leader of that faction."

"Of course?" Jiraiya prompted curiously.

"Her name is Sinobi Junhime," was all Kaida said.

"Oh." Now that was a clan that was well known in the Leaf Village, if only for the unfortunate incident involving one Sinobi Gashir and the heir to the Hyuuga Clan shortly after the end of the last war. "Gashir's daughter?" he guessed.

"Yes." Kaida casually bit at her thumb, letting her blood fall into an indentation on the altar designed for that purpose. "Your turn," she said.

Jiraiya followed suit. "What will we do if this Junhime returns?"

Kaida grimaced. "We can't let her suspect anything. She's well-connected with the Raikage and would be able to force an investigation if she did. It's relatively well-known that I'm hosting you and your apprentice, but not just who your apprentice is. If it became known that the Kyuubi's container was here, I doubt many would want him to be allowed to leave. He's too valuable."

"Yeah," Jiraiya said flatly. "I'm afraid staying here is not in Naruto's future."

"I agree completely," Kaida said. "Now, tell me again what you know of Naruto's condition."

Jiraiya nodded, taking a deep breath as he gathered his thoughts. "Right. The seal is designed to simply allow the Kyuubi's chakra to be accessed by Naruto in times of danger. Instead, it appears to be allowing far more of the Kyuubi's power than it should to be released, and not in easily controlled form. In the dangerous state, the red chakra forms a physical shroud over him, taking the form of a fox. At first, it was only a one-tailed fox, but there is now a second tail and, well -"

"You don't want to see what might happen if there were ever nine of them," Kaida said dryly.

"Yes." Jiraiya let the word hang in the air a moment, before continuing. "At the one-tail stage, Naruto is still mostly in control of himself, though he seems to be affected by the Kyuubi's rage and suffers clouded memories in the aftermath. In the two-tail stage, he goes completely berserk, though there's no sign as of yet that the Kyuubi itself actually takes control." He grimaced. "You heard Naruto talk about his 'dream.' That took place shortly before he entered the two-tail stage, I believe."

"Stick to the facts for now," Kaida said simply, idly dipping a finger into the pool of cooling blood and stirring it.

"After each case of going berserk, Naruto's consciousness is drawn back into the seal along with the Kyuubi's power," Jiraiya continued, "leading to a coma. As of yet, I have found no convenient way of ensuring he will wake if he's allowed to reach this state, though in the last incident I was able to use that improvised seal to drain the chakra shroud without letting Naruto fall into the coma."

"I know Hojo and you managed to wake him before," Kaida interjected.

Jiraiya nodded. "I used a simple Five Element Seal to cut off the flow of chakra from the Kyuubi to Naruto," he stated. "Naruto began to regain consciousness, but then his own chakra began to attack the new seal. I than used another seal to contain his chakra, but it still tried to escape. I was forced to use the Evil Sealing Method to completely control it."

"Troubling," Kaida said.

"What's worse," Jiraiya said, "though I wasn't able to do any real tests, to all appearances, Naruto's chakra control was improved during the period these seals were in effect, despite the disruption caused by the seals."

"Very troubling," Kaida corrected herself, frowning.

"I wouldn't mind hearing your conclusion," Jiraiya said. "I'd like to see if it's the same as mine."

"The Kyuubi is a demon formed of chakra," Kaida said. "By letting any of its chakra out, you let part of it out." She frowned. "That's not the real problem, though. The real problem is that its figured out a way to let the seal work both ways. It isn't just letting Naruto-kun have access to the Kyuubi's chakra. It's letting the Kyuubi have access to Naruto-kun's chakra." She looked up at her companion. "Do you agree?"

"Yes," Jiraiya said darkly. "I was hoping you'd have an alternate suggestion."

"I wish I did." Kaida shook her head sadly. "This could be very bad."

"What now?" Jiraiya asked.

"Let me take a look at the seal," Kaida replied, pulling off Naruto's shirt. She frowned at the unmarked skin, then formed a rapid sequence of seals, muttering under her breath as she laid her hands on Naruto's stomach. A moment later, the black markings of the Fourth Hokage's seal rose to the surface. "So I was right," she muttered, "the centermost seal -"

"My student called the technique the Eight Divination Signs Seal Style," Jiraiya answered. "He used the Spirit Corpse Sealing Method to force the Kyuubi into it."

"It's a variation on the Eightfold Heavenly Divination Seal, just as I suspected," Kaida said. "I have to wonder how any version of that found its way into your Fourth Hokage's hands."

Jiraiya only shrugged. "I wouldn't know."

Kaida's attention moved outwards, and she frowned. "These are just a pair of relatively standard Four Image Seals," she said, tracing the two intricate semi-circles surrounding the spiral seal with one finger. "They should do the job nicely, leaving all the control in Naruto-kun's hands."

"Right," Jiraiya said. "That isn't the case, though."

"The easiest way I can see for the Kyuubi to get around them," Kaida said slowly, "is if Naruto-kun himself allowed it at first. Maybe not consciously, but the Kyuubi would need some help from outside the seal to gain a foothold."

Jiraiya nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I thought as much." Damn Orochimaru, and damn Uchiha Sasuke also.

Day Sixty-seven

Kiyomura Zeshin was on an A-rank mission, one that bordered on being a S-rank. A veteran of the Cloud's elite Storm unit, he was well-used to such missions. His time in Storm was too recent for him to have had the chance to go up against the Leaf's ANBU, during the war, but he was still responsible for the deaths of no fewer than five members of Storm's opposite number in the Fire Country. While he had no illusions of being a ninja on a level with the Kages of the five great powers, he knew that he was among the strongest of the Cloud's jounin. Even a high-risk A-rank mission like this was well within his ordinary duties.

What made this mission highly unusual was that he didn't need to leave the Cloud Village's boundaries. It was rare beyond belief for such a mission to be given so high a ranking. Then again, most missions weren't the type that no paperwork existed for and that could quite possibly mean his death if he was seen by other Cloud ninja. Zeshin, all things considered, much preferred official missions that came from the formal leadership of Cloud Village to this sort. He'd rather be sneaking into the Leaf or Rock Villages. Here, the very familiarity was lulling him into a dangerous sense of security.

He studied the swollen moon that hung in the unusually cloudless sky, noting that it was finally two hours past midnight. It was bad weather for sneaking about, but one didn't become an elite jounin by letting little things like that bother you. Taking one last careful look at the guards standing on the border of the temple grounds, Zeshin finished smoking his Fire Country cigarette - he wasn't the sort to let patriotism get in the way of enjoying the best tobacco in the world - and stopped leaning against the white stone wall surrounding the Raikage's palace. Waving casually to the guards, who returned the gesture, he headed back toward his quarters, only slightly down the slope of the mountain.

Once he was out of sight of the guards, after carefully checking for any other watchers, he bit cautiously at his thumb, drawing just a drop of blood. His other hand pulled out and unrolled a prepared scroll, and with one swift motion he drew a bloody streak across it. There was a puff of smoke, and when it faded a very different-seeming man stood where Kiyomura Zeshin had. Gone were the uniform and forehead protector of a Cloud jounin; instead the man wore simple, black clothing and a cloth mask, no signs of his allegiance visible. The little of his features that could be made out was nondescript, missing the scars and short beard of Zeshin's true face.

After rolling up the scroll and putting it away, Zeshin, made a rapid sequence of seals, then melted into the earth. The Cloud Village and the Temple of the Thunder Dragon, of course, had numerous wards designed to prevent infiltration by just this method. The Hidden Rock were the oldest enemies of the Cloud, after all. However, not all that long ago while he'd been recuperating from wounds suffered on a mission to Bear Country, Zeshin had been assigned the duty of maintaining those wards. It had been trivial to arrange a few useful loopholes for his personal use.

A short time later, Zeshin re-emerged from the ground just outside the temple itself. A few hand seals and a muttered word or two later, and he walked past the unobservant guard sitting near the main entrance without being noticed. Once inside, he kept to the shadows, though this late at night no acolytes walked the halls. His first step was the guest chambers, where he ascertained that while the guests from the Leaf were indeed quartered there, neither the famous Toad Hermit nor his apprentice were present at the moment. His sources were most likely correct then.

He cautiously returned to main hall of the temple, all his attention on a warded, closed set of double doors. His trained eyes caught the minute traces of recent passage, and he nodded to himself. The High Priestess and her guests were in the inner sanctum. That should have been the end of it, but Zeshin knew much that he was not supposed to know. He ran through the seals Junhime had taught him, then laid one gloved hand on the left door, which opened under his touch, revealing a steep staircase. He slipped inside, letting the door shut behind him.

His back to one wall, Zeshin slowly moved down the stairs until he could hear voices. Praying briefly that his genjutsu would remain intact, he moved to the ceiling and inched closer, until he could make out the inner sanctum itself. The high Priestess was indeed there, talking with a man who matched the descriptions of the legendary Sannin Jiraiya. Unconscious on the altar was a young boy who had to be Uzumaki Naruto. But why?

"Well, what now?" Jiraiya asked Kaida.

The High Priestess raised an arm to her forehead, wiping away the sweat. "I've used up most of my chakra doing this investigation. I haven't got the strength to try any new sealings, even if I knew which to do." Kaida smiled wearily. "Hojo and you proved that the simple method could only buy time."

"I'm not certain it would work again, either," Jiraiya said softly. "The strain on Naruto's chakra system might prove too much."

"And the consequences could be troublesome in that case," Kaida agreed.

Zeshin frowned to himself. Hojo had to be Iwakuro Hojo of the Rock. What was this boy, and what were the three legendary ninja doing with him? Clearly he wasn't simply Jiraiya's apprentice. He could only hope he got some answers before it became too dangerous to stick around.

"I think I'm going to take you up on your offer of the Cloud's library," Jiraiya said after a moment. "I want to work on improving that improvised seal of mine while you do some more studies on this end."

"Agreed," Kaida said shortly. "If we can't come up with a long-term solution, that seal of yours might be the only thing we have to keep the Kyuubi in check."

Only years of training kept Zeshin from gasping. Jiraiya had brought the demon fox Kyuubi here! That could change everything. Knowing he had the information he wanted, he began to back down the corridor, erasing all signs of his passage as he went.

The Hidden Leaf ANBU's dungeons were not a very nice place. A thoughtful architect had arranged matters so that the screams that often came from the interrogation chambers were audible over most of the underground complex. While the captive ninja were fed in more than adequate amounts, the food was usually deliberately foul-tasting mush, contaminated with drug cocktails developed by the Leaf's skilled medics to inhibit chakra molding while leaving the prisoners' minds unclouded. A prisoner drugged senseless, after all, could not properly appreciate the skills of Morino Ibiki's famed interrogation squad.

Tayuya of the Hidden Sound had worked in Orochimaru's dungeons before being chosen to become one of the elite Sound Five, and had seen far worse than the Leaf offered their captives. While the Leaf's ANBU knew few restraints, Orochimaru knew none at all. That hadn't changed the fact that the Leaf's ANBU were good at their jobs, and Tayuya had broken in relatively short order, able to only conceal tiny scraps of information from the interrogation squads. That should have been the end of it, Tayuya thought. She should have been executed or left in a cell to rot, visited only by the Hyuuga who kept her tenketsu closed, as she'd been rightfully judged sufficiently dangerous that drugs alone were not trusted to keep her harmless.

Instead, the end of her interrogation had been only the beginning of Tayuya's torture. The Leaf didn't call it that; instead she was participating in "medical research" aimed at removing or neutralizing her cursed seal. This had proved sufficiently painful that had she a shred less dignity left she would have begged to have a week of intensive interrogation under Morino Ibiki himself rather than one more session with the pair of women who seemed to have made her their pet project. The fact that these sessions were irregular only made it worse, as she never was able to mentally prepare for them.

When she heard the footsteps of two people stop outside of her cell, Tayuya knew that today was not going to be a good day. Her eyes still closed, she rolled over on her tiny, hard cot so that her face was turned to the stone wall. "Go away," she muttered half-heartedly, knowing it would do no good.

Outside her cell, one of the two ANBU guards clapped twice. "Good morning, Tayuya-chan!" he said, his voice sickly sweet. "It's a beautiful day today!" He laughed. "Not that you'd know that, of course."

The other guard spoke harshly. "Out of bed and up against the far wall," he stated, as though Tayuya had not gone through this procedure countless times before. She hated herself as she complied without hesitation. The second guard nodded in satisfaction, gesturing at his companion.

The first guard stepped forward, and even through his wolf-like mask Tayuya could sense him grinning as he studied the little of Tayuya's curves that could be made out through the filthy gray prison uniform she wore, as usual. "Why don't you just rape me and get it over with, you fucker?"

"Turn around," he said simply, ignoring the question and Tayuya again complied. He expertly bound her wrists behind her, then pulled her away from the wall, shoving her at his companion.

"Let's go," the other guard stated, and began to lead her down a familiar set of corridors to one of the interrogation chambers. As she'd expected, the two women she hated more than anyone were there. The first, who wore neither a mask nor an ANBU uniform, was called Shizune. She'd slipped up once or twice and given Tayuya the other woman's name - Anko. Something told Tayuya that she should recognize that name, but no matter how she strained she couldn't determine who the ANBU in the serpent mask might be.

"All yours," one the guards who had escorted her said, and then they left her alone with the two older women.

The serpent-masked ANBU quickly unbound Tayuya. "You know what to do," she said. Tayuya did indeed, and without protest she quickly stripped, laying her uniform on top of a wooden table in the corner of the room. Cursing herself silently for her acquiescence, she none the less walked over to the chains that hung in the center of the room and waited for Shizune to secure her in them.

This done, the unmasked woman gently pushed Tayuya's long hair aside, giving her a good view of the cursed seal on the back of her neck. Tayuya shifted uncomfortably as Shizune's fingers lightly traced the seal, then the several other seals that had been placed around it. "Go for it," Shizune said simply, taking a step back, and Tayuya stiffened.

The serpent woman replaced Shizune at Tayuya's back, working quickly through a set of complicated hand seals, then placing one hand on top of Tayuya's cursed seal. The seal began to burn under Anko's touch, even as Tayuya struggled to force it down. For several moments, she thought that the latest collection of seals might have worked, but then the burning erupted into an inferno of pain. Tayuya didn't even bother to try and stop herself from screaming.

The next time Tayuya was able to think, the two women were at the table, pouring over a handful of scrolls. "I really thought we might have had something there," Shizune said. "I'm not quite sure why it didn't work."

"Damn it," the serpent woman snarled. "All this time and we're no closer to figuring out a way to completely restrain the seal, much less remove it."

"At this point I'm not certain there is a way to remove it," Shizune grumbled. "Even Tsunade-sama almost killed herself when she tried it."

"I know," the other woman said harshly.

Shizune sighed. "Ideas?" she asked.

Tayuya managed to force a smile onto her face. "Maybe you should just give up on undoing Orochimaru-sama's work and just let me be," she said, trying to keep her voice mocking instead of pleading. She didn't really think she succeeded.

"Maybe we need to do some more basic research," the serpent woman said, suddenly striding over to Tayuya. "I wonder what would happen if you had two cursed seals." Tayuya's eyes widened.

Shizune asked the question Tayuya was wondering herself, a hint of horror in her voice. "Can you do that, Anko-chan?"

The ANBU kunoichi shrugged. "In theory," she said. "I've never tried it, but I know the technique." Tayuya shrank back from serpent-masked woman as far as her chains would allow.

"The conflict would probably just kill her," Shizune said simply.

"Well, yes," Anko said, "but the way she died might tell us something. It's not like we don't have a spare."

In an instant, Tayuya realized the implication of the woman's words. "You have one of the others," she said softly. "Who? That fat ass Jiroubou? Kidoumaru? Who?" she demanded, unthinkingly struggling against her bonds.

Shizune sighed. "Think before you speak, Anko-chan," she said.

"Sorry, Shizune-sempai," the ANBU replied simply. Her hands formed a seal. "You want to watch the cursed seal activate again?"

"Might as well," Shizune said. "Maybe I'll see a weakness we can correct in our seals."

Anko's hands blurred, then once more one rested on the back of Tayuya's neck. The Sound kunoichi had only a moment to tense in anticipation before the pain consumed her.

Day Sixty-eight

"I figured that you would be late, Anko-chan," Tsunade said as the famously psychotic kunoichi failed at unobtrusively slipping into the room and taking her seat at the large table, "but how did you manage to make Shizune late also?"

The Hokage's assistant, following the younger woman into the room, flushed slightly. "I'm sorry, Hokage-sama," she stated. "We were involved in a sealing that turned out a bit messy, and the clean-up took longer than we expected."

Anko seated herself between the other two examiners. "I told her that you'd appreciate the bloodstains, Ibiki, but Shizune-sempai didn't believe me."

Ibiki's nodded at the other late arrival, now standing in her customary position behind Tsunade. "Thank you," he said flatly.

Shiranui Genma glanced at Anko. "Do I want to know what you were up to?" he asked.

Anko grinned at him. "Nope," she answered cheerily.

The masked commander of ANBU, seated across the table from the examiners, favored Anko and Ibiki with a measuring stare. "Are you two maniacs up to something behind my back again?" he asked.

"Nope," Anko repeated. "Not this time. Totally above-the-board, cleared through the medical division's special projects committee. You even signed the paperwork."

The entire room could feel the ANBU commander blink. "I did?"

"As amusing as this is," Mitokado Homura said, tapping his fingers lightly against the rough wooden table, "could we get down to business? We all have jobs to do."

"Agreed," Tsunade said. Without thinking, she folded her hands in front of her face. "In two days, the third part of the Chuunin Selection Exam will commence. Mitarashi Anko, you are the appointed examiner for this exam. Is everything in place?"

"Yes," Anko said simply, her voice serious for once. "At least on my end." She pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of a pocket of her jacket, laying it on the table and straightening it. "All the examinees and examination board members from the allied nations are confirmed to be in the village. The arena has been cleaned and prepared; volunteers have been found for all the necessary support positions."

Utatane Koharu, seated next to Tsunade's place at the head of the table as befitted her position as one of the Hokage's advisers, coughed sharply. "Security," was all she said, but her meaning was clear.

It was the commander of ANBU who answered her. "Under control, Utatane-dono. ANBU will be on full alert."

Genma's ever-present toothpick twitched. "Forgive the question, but how is that any different from last time?"

"I have recalled and reactivated every ANBU I can," the commander answered. "Hokage-sama has also ordered all village defense units reinforced and on duty for the duration of the exam."

"It isn't perfect," Tsunade said, "but there's only so much that can be done." She glanced behind her. "Shizune?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama." Shizune handed Tsunade several papers.

"I have here the duty schedules and contingency plans for the day of the exam," Tsunade explained. "I'd like us to go over them and make sure everyone knows what's supposed to happen." The next fifteen minutes were dry and boring, but necessary. When it was finished, Tsunade pushed the papers aside and again folded her hands before her face. "Now, for the important part."

"Hokage-sama?" Homura questioned softly.

Tsunade grinned. "Bets."

Anko laughed, straightening from her bored slouch. "One round of drinks on the Mist team getting knocked out in the first round."

"This is hardly appropriate," Koharu stated. "In particular for you, Mitarashi-san."

Anko pouted. "But it's fun."

Tsunade sighed. "You're probably right," she told Koharu. "We can at least make predictions, can't we? Who's going to win?"

"Hyuuga Neji," the commander of ANBU stated as though it was obvious.

Genma shook his head. "No way. I saw him close up last time. He's strong, but he didn't have what it takes. He's overconfident, and someone will take advantage of that again."

"You underestimate his growth," the ANBU commander replied.

Homura adjusted his glasses, smiling slightly. "Neji-kun isn't the only person who's grown," he said. "I have every reason to expect that my great-granddaughter will not embarrass herself," he said, his eyes briefly flicking at Tsunade. The Hokage frowned slightly to herself.

Koharu, the only person close enough to catch the hidden exchange, frowned herself, eyes narrowing as she studied the two. A moment later, she spoke. "There's not really any obvious favorite. Neji-kun is the closest."

"Speculation is useless," Morino Ibiki said flatly. "If it wasn't, we could just name chuunin now."

"Agreed," Genma said. "Battles are unpredictable." He smiled around his toothpick. "Some are more likely to win than others, but not by that much. There aren't any obvious mismatches in the line-up this time."

"You're taking all the fun out of it," Anko griped.

The commander of ANBU coughed, standing. "On that note," he said, "as Mitokado-dono observed when we began, we do have jobs to do. With your permission, Hokage-sama?"

Tsunade nodded, and the rest of the council stood as well. "Not so fast, Anko-chan," the Hokage said. "I'd like to speak with you."

Anko nodded, and stayed behind as the others filed out of the room, leaving her alone with Tsunade and Shizune. "What do you need, Tsunade-sama?" she asked.

Tsunade grinned. "I'm curious. How far do you think Sakura-chan will go?"

"Didn't you listen to Genma and that bastard Ibiki?" Anko asked, smirking at her. "I couldn't say."

Tsunade pouted. "Let me draw my own conclusions, then. How far did you get into your family techniques?"

Anko's smirk widened. "When did I ever say I as going to teach her those?"

"I suppose doing that would be too sensible for you," Shizune muttered.

"They aren't her style," Anko said. "She didn't have the chakra reserves for them."

"So what did you train her in, then?" Tsunade asked. "I would like to know so I can better plan her first lessons as my apprentice."

For the barest instant, a frown flickered across Anko's face, as though some new, troubling thought had just occurred to her. Then, she smiled again. "That is a secret," she declared.

Shizune's eyes narrowed. "Why?"

Anko laughed nervously, scratching at the back of her head. "I want to surprise you."

"Anko-chan," Tsunade said warningly.

"I… um… need to go check on some things for the exam," Anko said. "You know, stuff. Details. All right?" Without waiting to be dismissed, she vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Shizune," Tsunade said, "why do we put up with her again?"

The younger woman shook her head. "I was going to ask the same thing."

"Get away from my sister, you bastard!" Kitakami Ichizo reached over his shoulder, hand closing around the hint of the large crowbar of a sword he'd bought once they'd landed in Earth Country. He hadn't expected he'd need to use it here, in the borderlands between that country and the shrunken remnants of Snow Country, but he thanked all the gods that he'd thought to buy it. Much of his fighting style depended on having a good blade, and with Rui unable to use ice element techniques it was up to him to defend her.

His eyes flickered around the narrow inn room. It was too small for a fight, particularly against two opponents, but that disadvantaged his foes more than him. They'd be getting in each other's way. When neither of the intruders responded to his words, Ichizo tensed. The smaller of the two had Rui pinned against the wall near the room's sole window, her struggles seemingly futile. The other man was hanging back near the shattered door, too far away to react in time. Good.

Springing into motion, Ichizo had his sword drawn and slashing at the arm of Rui's captor in less than a second. His target reacted just as quickly, dropping the kunoichi and vanishing without even a blur of motion or cloud of smoke. He reappeared next to his companion, and Ichizo thought that he caught a hint of crimson in his eyes, mostly hidden by the bamboo hat he wore.

Rui scrambled to her feet breathing heavily. "Thanks," she muttered, one hand sneaking toward a kunai.

The larger of the two strange men laughed. "A swordsman, huh?" he asked. One hand flung his own hat aside, revealing an inhuman, shark-like face. The other casually readied a massive, bandaged blade that dwarfed Ichizo's own hardly small weapon. "I'll handle this one, Itachi-san, and let you take the girl."

"Don't get carried away, Kisame," the other man replied. "This little side trip won't do us any good if they die before telling us what they know."

"Of course," Kisame stated as he took a slow, menacing step forward. Rui's hands flickered, and two kunai flew at him. With a snort, he brought his giant sword up, deflecting the projectiles with ease.

"Come on, then," Ichizo snarled, tensing and tightening his hands around his sword's hilt as he searched for an opening.

"All right," Kisame said agreeably. Then he casually defenestrated Ichizo with the flat of his blade.

"Ichizo!" Rui screamed as the shark-like ninja walked past her, then leaped out the window. She turned to follow, only to be stopped by a hand on her shoulder. Knowing better than to turn around, she pulled out another kunai and blindly stabbed backward. Itachi easily stopped the attack, disarming her and capturing her hand. Her kunai flew to embed itself in the wooden wall, vibrating slightly.

"Where did Jiraiya-sama take Naruto-kun after leaving Hail Country?" the man asked softly.

Rui struggled to free herself. "I won't tell you," she declared.

Itachi broke one of her fingers. "Don't be foolish."

"A little thing like that isn't going to make me talk," Rui said, but she stopped struggling.

"I suppose not." The hand on her shoulder moved, reaching up to turn her face.

Rui flung herself forward, out the shattered window. Perhaps her captor was simply caught off guard, but Rui was half-certain that he let her go. When she saw what waited or her below, she knew that was indeed the case. The street was empty, except for her brother's still form and his victorious foe. Even on this cloudy night, there was enough light to see the crimson stain of Ichizo's blood spread over the light covering of freshly fallen snow.

"Sorry, Itachi-san," Kisame said apologetically as his partner landed silently behind Rui. "I got a little carried away after all."

"Did he say anything?" Itachi asked flatly.

The shark-like ninja seemed to ponder the question. "Do screams count?" Then he grinned toothily, letting the point of his sword plunge into the ground mere inches from Ichizo's neck. "Why don't you tell us what we want to know, little girl, and we might let you both live."

Rui swallowed once before speaking. "Jiraiya-sama… he said he was going back to Fire Country, to get the Hokage's help getting Naruto-kun to wake up from his coma."

"Is that so?" Kisame asked. "He's not very inventive, is he, Itachi-san? That's the same story he spread about when he left Iwakuro Hojo."

There was the slightest sensation of motion, and Uchiha Itachi was in front of Rui. The Snow kunoichi took a nervous step back as the infamous missing ninja finally removed the hat the shrouded his face. His eyes flickered open, and Rui gasped as her gaze was helplessly captured by the strange, crimson eyes. The three extra, oddly shaped pupils on each eye began to slowly whirl. "The truth," Itachi stated.

Rui shuddered, unable to tear her gaze away. "L… Lightning Country," she found herself saying. "They went to Lightning Country. I don't know anything more." Itachi nodded, and Rui collapsed to her knees like a doll tossed aside by its owner.

"Lightning Country," Kisame snarled. "That's awfully vague, and this little chase has put us on the wrong side of the Gulf of Storms."

"That's fine," Itachi said, turning away from Rui. "It'll give more time for our allies to find him for us."

Kisame laughed. "Can I kill these two, Itachi-san?"

"Quickly," Itachi said, and he vanished.

No matter how hard she tried, Rui wasn't able to force herself to her feet. "Please," she muttered.

"I like it when people beg," Kisame commented, stepping forward and raising his sword high above his head, "but Itachi-san wants this done quickly." Aimed at Rui's neck, his sword fell like an avalanche.

Halfway through, it was stopped by the armored arm of a toad as large as a man. Rui stumbled away, discarding the now-bloody scroll Jiraiya had given her. She managed to crawl over to Ichizo, grabbing onto his still form. The pair of Snow ninja melted into the earth, and then the toad vanished in a burst of smoke.

"Again," Kisame snarled, staring at where the toad had stood. "I hate toads." Grumbling to himself, he slung his still-bandaged sword over his shoulder and left to rejoin his partner.

Author's Random Ramblings

1) And that's another chapter. Yet again, relatively short, but still fairly long in the grand scheme of things. It also took me longer than I was hoping, but I'm still writing these much faster than anything I've written before.

2) Not much Naruto this chapter. There won't be terribly much of him next chapter, either, but that one only covers two days. Then Naruto's side of the story should start heating up again as we move into the penultimate plot arcs.

3) This is the last chance to enter my little pseudo-contest and make predictions about the results of the third exam. As a reminder, the match-ups for the first round are:

Hyuuga Neji byes
Haruno Midori fights Mitokado Fuki
Shimano Ren fights Yamanaka Ino
Uzuki Ami fights Haruno Sakura
Aoki Saburo fights Yuhara Maya
Tenten fights Akimichi Chouji
Hiraki Arata fights Inuzuka Shinta
Chiba Ikkei fights Rock Lee

The brackets are in that order, so Neji will fight the winner of Midori vs. Fuki in the second round, and the winner of that fight will fight the winner out of Ren, Ino, Ami, and Sakura in the semi-finals, and so forth.

4) As always, I welcome any comments! Thanks go to the Eternal Lost Lurker and William Little for their helpful comments on the draft.

5) Next time, in One Hundred Days Chapter Eleven, Way of the Ninja: The third exam!

Draft Started: May 5, 2006
Draft Finished: May 30, 2006
Draft Released: May 30, 3006
Final Released: June 03, 2006