One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack
Chapter 12: Treachery and Deceit
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, donkeys!
Kabuto glanced up at his group's sole kunoichi's soft murmur. "What is it, Koyanagi-san?" he asked. The other ten Sound ninja went about their business throughout the dark forest clearing unconcerned, knowing that the woman would have acted differently if her recently finished patrol had turned up any threat.
"Our hunter ninja friend from the Mist is returning." The hint of distaste in the brown-haired woman's voice made her past as a missing ninja evident. While she had been from the Valley, not the Mist, there was little love lost between her kind and hunter ninja from any village.
Kabuto adjusted his glasses slightly. "The same one, huh?" He stood slowly, turning around. "Greetings, Hunter-san."
The masked woman didn't seem surprised at being spotted. "Yakushi-san," she said flatly, then leapt from the tree branch she was perched on, landing smoothly before Orochimaru's right hand man. "You have not had any difficulties, I take it."
"None." Kabuto smiled politely. "Your own other missions were successful, as well?"
"One could say that," the Mist ninja responded, and Kabuto's smile turned almost genuine.
"You met with Orochimaru-sama," he concluded aloud.
The foreign kunoichi tensed, and in response Koyanagi, standing behind her commander, let a hand rest over the hilt of a kunai. The rest of the Sound ninja stirred, but made no obvious preparations for battle. "How do you know that?" the hunter ninja finally asked.
Kabuto chuckled softly. "The tone of your voice. Everyone is like that after their first meeting with Orochimaru-sama. Besides, the time since your last visit is just enough time to travel to the Sound Village, visit the Hill Country to check on the Valley, then get new orders from the commander of the Mist forces here."
"You conclude much from very little." The masked kunoichi almost seemed to have no fear of the Sound ninja surrounding her, but Kabuto could read her nervousness easily enough.
"I accept the compliment." Kabuto's face and voice turned flat. "Unless you mean to imply that I have been communicating with Orochimaru-sama in contravention of your orders, Hunter-san?" That was the case, of course. It really had been a little stupid of him to needle the hunter ninja like that, but it was fun.
The was a long silence, and then the hunter spoke as though he hadn't asked the question. "The final orders have been given for the operation. I will brief you on your mission to ensure that there are no questions."
"We are professionals," Kabuto replied. "I familiarized myself with the mission plan you gave me before."
"I will brief you on your mission to ensure that there are no questions," the Mist kunoichi repeated herself flatly.
"Very well," Kabuto said after a moment. Repressing a sigh, he raised his voice. "Squad leaders, with me and our guest. The rest of you, at ease."
"Yes, sir," the response came from his men. Koyanagi took a step forward to join Kabuto, admirably not even giving the hunter ninja a hostile glare. A few moments later, the other squad leader, a stocky man who moved with a grace that belied his bulk, joined them.
The hunter ninja took in the bulges on the man's lower arms, for the moment covered by gray sleeves. "The Dosu Clan?" she asked, naming one of the clans from Rice Field that remained a staunch supporter of Orochimaru's Hidden Sound. When the man nodded, the hunter ninja continued. "The Valley's Koyanagi and the Leaf's Yakushi. An amusing collection."
"I'm only adopted, I fear," Kabuto offered lightly. "You were going to brief us?"
"Indeed." The hunter ninja paused briefly. "You are all familiar with the materials I gave Yakushi-san?" The three Sound ninja nodded, and she continued. "Then you know the aims and objectives of the operation. It cannot be stressed enough that priority must be given to causing maximum damage to the Leaf before they finish the evacuation of civilians and begin their counter-attack. Extended engagements with the initial Leaf defense forces are counter-productive and are to be avoided."
It was Dosu who spoke first. "How do we know that the Leaf will follow the same defense strategy as before?"
"We have received confirmation from our agents that no changes to the defense plan have been completed since the joint Sand and Sound attack of six months ago, perhaps due to the successful repulsion of invaders in that instance and the administrative confusion resulting from the appointment of a new Hokage."
Kabuto adjusted his glasses. The Mist's spymaster again, it seemed. This was less difficult information to get one's hands on, though. The broad outlines of the strategy had to be known to numerous civilians, due to the Leaf's focus on protecting the populace. "Good to hear," he offered.
"From the options presented in the materials you studied," the Mist kunoichi continued, "we will be moving to the alternate rendezvous point due to a change in Leaf patrol schedules. Units failing to complete their missions and return to the rendezvous point in time are to consider themselves on their own. I will be remaining with you to serve as liaison." She paused. "Understood?"
"Perfectly," Kabuto said. "You seem to be leaving out the most important point though."
Smiling a smile that was obvious even behind her mask, the hunter ninja told Kabuto the date that the war would begin.
"Special Jounin Mitarashi Anko here to see you, Hokage-sama." Tsunade glared at her chuunin assistant, and the man visibly had to force himself not to retreat and slam the door. "Hokage-sama?" he ventured.
One of Tsunade's eyebrows twitched. "She's actually here? Not a replication? Or some sucker she'd blackmailed into transforming into her?"
"Er… yes, Hokage-sama." The chuunin was sweating profusely, clearly wondering just what he had said to earn the Hokage's ire.
Beside the older woman, Shizune grinned in triumph. "That's a week where you do all your own paperwork with no escape attempts or drinking that you owe me, Hokage-sama," she stated merrily.
"Damn it," Tsunade hissed under her breath. "It seemed like such a sure bet, too."
"And don't forget the rest," Shizune added. "You can't do anything permanent to Anko-chan."
"Define permanent." Tsunade's fingers danced on her desktop, picking up speed as she began to envision creative ways around that restriction.
"You break it, you fix it." Shizune gave her mentor a disapproving look.
"I can fix an awful lot." Tsunade folded her hands in front of her face in thought.
"Before she leaves here," Shizune added.
"You're no fun," Tsunade griped.
"Umm… Hokage-sama?" the chuunin, nearly forgotten, asked carefully.
"Send her in," Tsunade commanded grimly. "Let's see what she has to say for herself."
A few moments later, Anko stood before the other two women, scratching at the back of her neck and laughing nervously. "You wanted to see me, Tsunade-sama?"
"Mitarashi Anko." Tsunade sounded out every syllable of the special jounin's name frostily. "Care to explain yourself?"
"Well, it all started when my father and mother loved each other very much, and -"
"Anko," Tsunade snapped. Behind her, Shizune giggled slightly, earning a glare from the Sannin.
"Oh, you wanted me to explain something specific about me?" Anko asked, her voice and face a perfect picture of innocence. "My good looks? My winning personality?"
"Anko," Tsunade repeated. "I'm not blind. I saw the technique that Sakura-chan used in her fight with Hyuuga Neji."
"Displacement Technique?" Anko offered desperately. "Yeah, Kurenai-chan told me she taught her that."
This time it was Shizune who said, "Anko."
"Ah, right," Anko said after a long moment. "Hidden Snake Hands."
"Yes." Tsunade let her hand tap briefly on her desk. "Now, refresh my memory on how that technique works, please."
The purple-haired woman nodded. "You summon a specialized breed of snake spirit and offer yourself as a host. The spirits reside immaterially in the arm and feed slightly on your chakra. Channel more chakra into them, and they regain physical form."
"That's what I thought," Tsunade said. Her hands folded in front of her face. "Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but that particular type of snake spirit can't be summoned using a prepared scroll, right? Something to do with requiring chakra that's aligned with the snake spirit court, right?"
Anko winced. "Right."
"It seems to me, then, that Sakura couldn't have possibly used that technique, Anko-chan," the Hokage said calmly. "After all, Sakura hasn't signed any summoning contracts of any sort." One of her hands dropped to rest on Sakura's file, laying closed on her desk.
"You… might need to update the file," Anko admitted.
"Is that so?" Tsunade asked.
"I wanted to increase Sakura-chan's chakra reserves, and forcing her to learn summoning was the easiest and most useful way to do that. So I took her out into the wilderness, had her sign a little contract, and went to work." Anko grinned weakly. "That's all."
"Just how little of a contract are we talking about?" Tsunade asked.
Anko stuttered for a moment before finally answering. "Just the full contract," she whispered pitifully.
"Just the full contract," Tsunade repeated. "Is there some other, higher level of contract that nobody ever told me about? What were you thinking? Did you never consider that maybe I had a contract I wanted her to sign?"
Anko took a deep breath. "Not really," she said. "I acted without thinking. I guess I just got too used to thinking of her as my student instead of Hatake's and yours." She swallowed once. "I'm sorry."
There was a long silence. "Well, damn it," Tsunade muttered. "How the hell am I supposed to make you pay for this when you go and do that? You're not supposed to apologize."
"Err… I'm sorry?" Anko offered, and Shizune laughed.
Tsunade sighed. "Oh, forget it," she said. "It's not like I don't already owe Katsuyu enough favors. I can probably talk her into letting Sakura-chan sign one of the lesser contracts still if I beg enough." She rubbed at her forehead. "Now, get out of here and don't screw up at the examination board meeting, or you'll wish I'd just killed you now."
"Right," Anko said. She glanced at Tsunade's assistant. "Come on, Shizune-sempai. I need a drink after that, and everyone's meeting at the usual place to catch up before we all scatter on missions again."
"All right," Shizune said agreeably, stepping around Tsunade's desk. "Remember to sign all the bonus pay forms for overtime duty during the exams, Tsunade-sama."
"Wait!" Tsunade gave a mournful look at the stacks of paperwork littering her desk. "You're just going to leave me with all this?"
"Yes," Shizune replied. "That was the bet, wasn't it?" She grinned. "Let's go, Anko-chan."
Tsunade groaned as the door to her office shut behind the two younger women. How the hell did it work out that Anko screwed up and she got punished instead?
The bars of the Leaf Village had been doing a brisk business recently, but tonight this bar in particular was, unusually, among the busiest. Usually, it was a quiet place, frequented mainly by the academy teachers and jounin instructors for new genin teams. The day after the close of the Chuunin Selection Exam, it was filled with everyone who had been involved in making that exam a success.
In a corner, one of the Hokage's chuunin assistants was not-so-surreptitiously slipping half of his drinks to the technically underage Nara Shikamaru. Ordinarily, this might have resulted in some difficulty, but all the employees were among the ones wagering on just what type of drunk the person who would soon no longer be the Hidden Leaf's newest chuunin would turn out to be. The bulk of the money was riding on him being quiet but surly, yet a few people had risked substantial amounts on him becoming loud, cheerful, and giggly. Much to his discomfort, one Umino Iruka had been dragged in off the street and pressed into service as the judge.
A handful of ninja from foreign villages were present as well, most clustering in another corner. The Waterfall's Matsuyo Nissho was trading war stories with an examination board member from the Sand. A kunoichi from the cautiously friendly but not formally allied Bear Country's Hidden Star had joined them, but seemed content to just listen and drink without adding her own stories. If one looked closely enough, one could see nearby the pair of overly cheerful Leaf ninja who weren't drinking nearly as much as it looked like they were, keeping an eye on that corner.
Another corner had been secured early in the evening by one Sarutobi Asuma. That jounin was currently having the time of his life needling Uzuki Yuugao and Funeno Daikoku for the failure of their teams to even make it into the second exam. Seated beside him, Yuuhi Kurenai sighed in disapproval. "That's enough," she said. "It's not like it's unusual for rookies to fail in the exam."
Asuma shrugged. "We did it," he said.
The third jounin teacher for the latest batch of rookies smiled softly around her drink. "So did I," Suzume Namida said.
"Don't gloat, Namida-chan," Daikoku grumbled as he gazed mournfully at his empty glass. "Who's paying for the next round?"
"I am." Maito Gai plopped two heavy pitchers of beer onto the center of the table, then seated himself.
"You're late, Gai," Asuma commented.
"Some idiot at the hospital thought it would be a good idea to give Lee a celebratory drink," the green-clad jounin explained as he sat down.
Yuugao paled, having been among the ANBU called to the scene in response to Lee's first encounter with alcohol. "How many casualties?" she asked.
"None," Gai answered, pouring himself a drink. He took a gulp. "We managed to stop the damned fool in time."
"What's this about, then?" Namida asked, refilling her own glass.
"You weren't here, were you?" Kurenai asked.
"Drunken Fist," Yuugao stated harshly. "Uncontrollable Drunken Fist." Namida whistled in appreciation.
"That Rock Lee kid?" Everyone looked up as Anko approached the table, Shizune trailing behind. The purple-haired special jounin plopped down in an empty seat and helped herself to one of the half-empty beer pitchers, draining it in a matter of seconds.
"Be polite, Anko-chan," Shizune chided her friend as she seated herself much more elegantly.
Anko belched. "I am polite," she said, fishing a small flask out of her jacket and handing it to Gai. "I brought some booze too."
Gai stared at the container suspiciously, unscrewing it and taking a cautious sniff. "How long will I be out for if I drink this? I have a mission in the morning."
Anko stole the flask back. "Don't drink it then." She took a surprisingly small sip, then offered it to Shizune, who waved it away.
"Mission for me too," Daikoku grumbled.
"At least you get to go with your team," Kurenai complained. "My students are all out in Wave Country, and I'm heading for Bear Country the day after tomorrow."
"Bear Country?" Yuugao asked. She glanced to the corner of the bar where the foreign ninja had gathered. "I know they're friendlier now, but I thought those Hidden Star paranoids still forbid any foreign ninja from entering the country under any circumstances."
Kurenai shrugged. "They're the ones paying for the mission. They want to test some anti-genjutsu defenses they've developed, or something like that."
"Wait," Anko said. "You're going on a mission tomorrow, Maito? The examination board doesn't even meet until the day after tomorrow. What about your team?"
"Solo mission," Gai explained. "Picking up a missing ninja the Rain caught for us."
"You want to travel with my group?" Daikoku asked. "We're heading for Rain too."
"Sounds good," Gai agreed. "Any taijutsu-types in your team?" Daikoku shook his head.
"I'm lucky, I guess," Yuugao said. "Hokage-sama's got my team on forest patrol."
Namida nodded. "Likewise. Though we don't start until after the results of the exam are announced."
Asuma coughed. "Speaking of which," he said, giving Anko a significant look.
"What do you want me to say?" she replied. "The examination board hasn't even met yet."
"I've had your job before," Gai said dryly. "You got the best look out of anyone at the fights. Your recommendations are going to carry a lot of weight."
"Well, I can tell you who I'm not recommending." Anko took another cautious sip from her flask. "The Hyuuga and your little clone. Nobody who wimps out and denies me a nice, climatic bloodbath deserves to be a chuunin."
"Anko-chan," Shizune said disapprovingly.
"Weren't you going to share that drink, Mitarashi-san?" Namida asked. "Maybe if you get me drunk enough I won't ask about a certain technique that Haruno Sakura pulled out against the Hyuuga." She paused expectantly.
Anko grinned. "Blackmail, huh? I like blackmail." She screwed the top back on the flask and tossed it at the mousy jounin.
Namida easily caught the metal flask and unscrewed it. She mimicked Gai, taking a sniff. Her eyes widened. "What the hell is this stuff?"
"You ever gotten drunk with the Wind Country nomads?" Anko asked.
"I have," Gai interjected. "That stuff smells way worse then the stuff they make."
Anko nodded. "Some genius up in Earth Country decided that the nomads didn't make strong enough booze and experimented with it until he came up with that."
Namida shuddered, but she still took a very small sip. Then she doubled over, coughing. "Damn," she muttered, reclosing the container and handing it to Yuugao.
The former ANBU just shook her head and threw it back at Anko. As the other purple-haired woman caught it, Yuugao asked, "How did you wind up teaching Haruno - our Haruno, that is - anyway?"
It was Asuma who answered. "Mitarashi had already given some training as part of a mission, and after what happened to Kakashi…"
Yuugao grimaced. "I heard those Cloud bastards have him."
Shizune nodded. "Tsunade-sama's trying to figure out a rescue mission, but we don't have the manpower and we can't risk war with Lightning Country."
There was a dark silence for a long moment, until Kurenai took it upon herself to end it. "So, tell me, Namida-san, did Hokage-sama manage to rope you into training Sakura too?" Asuma laughed.
Namida blinked. "What?"
"I guess not," Kurenai said.
"You were training her with Mitarashi?" Yuugao asked.
"Not together," Kurenai said. "But Hokage-sama used Kakashi to guilt me into mentoring her a little during a mission."
Asuma began to count on his fingers. "Kakashi started out with her, Mitarashi's trained her, I got her before the exam, Kurenai gave her some help, and it was obvious that she got some training from Gai at some point." Gai nodded in confirmation and Asuma laughed. "That girl has probably had more jounin instructors than any genin in history."
"That's… a little odd," Yuugao commented. "I guess under the circumstances, though…"
Anko stood suddenly. "I'm going to get more beer," she said. From that point on, the conversation became much louder and much less serious.
Jiraiya was hopefully the only person in the world who knew that he was back in the Cloud Village. He had very publicly left a handful of days ago - or, more accurately, just publicly enough to be noticed leaving without drawing attention to the fact that he wanted to be noticed. He'd made a point of being noticed getting royally drunk at a roadside tavern, then locked himself in a room to "sleep it off." His return to the Cloud Village earlier today had been much more subtle than his departure, and the guards had given no sign that they thought him anything other than the wandering priest on a pilgrimage to the Temple of the Thunder Dragon he had claimed to be.
He hadn't even told Kaida of his plans. While he trusted the High Priestess, he thought it was best that she not know that he maintained his own, independent network of agents in her country. She probably suspected, but if she had proof it would be troublesome for her if it ever got out. Kaida had told him that there was no word of Akatsuki being on the move, but after the confrontation at Yuki's stronghold there was no doubt in Jiraiya's mind that Itachi and Kisame, at least, would be on their way soon. He wanted his contacts on the lookout.
The legendary Sannin, having discarded his priestly robes and adopted the guise of a well-to-do foreign businessman, was presently in a residential district of the city inhabited mainly by ninja. He wandered through the streets, occasionally checked a worn sheet of paper with an address and directions on it, even though he knew his destination well. After perhaps a half-hour of wandering, he reached it, and he frowned at the small house's surprisingly shabby condition.
After a moment's hesitation, he knocked on the door. Nothing happened, and he waited several seconds before knocking again. This time, a tired-looking woman in faded, worn clothing, her dark hair streaked with gray before its time, answered. "Yes?" she asked.
"Is Abe Gihei available?" he asked.
The woman's eyes narrowed. "Who are you?" she asked harshly.
Jiraiya blinked. Something was clearly wrong. "I am Jiro, a merchant of his acquaintance. He invited me to stop by if I was ever in the Cloud Village."
"You should come in," the woman said after a pregnant silence. She opened the door wider, and Jiraiya stepped inside. "This way," she murmured, leading him to a somewhat disheveled kitchen. Jiraiya carefully moved a stack of unread mail onto the kitchen table from its precarious place on a chair and seated himself. The woman nodded. "I am Abe Misaki, Gihei's widow."
Jiraiya's eyes widened. "Gihei-san is dead?" he asked unnecessarily. "May I ask," he began, then trailed off.
"Would you like some tea?" Misaki asked instead of answering. "I have a pot on."
"Yes, please." A few silent minutes later, the woman joined Jiraiya at the kitchen table after pouring them both tea.
"I understand that it might be painful, Abe-san," Jiraiya said after taking a sip of the weak tea, "but could you tell me how your husband died?"
Misaki shrugged resignedly. "Not much to tell. His team ran afoul of a Rock special forces unit two years ago." For a moment, anger showed in her voice. "It was within a day's travel of the village, and the Cloud were never able to find the Rock bastards."
Jiraiya was barely able to stop himself from cursing out loud. He had received his last, unremarkable report from Gihei shortly before leaving the Leaf Village with Naruto. The implications of that were disturbing to say the least. Somehow, he doubted it had been an actual Rock squad that had killed his agent. "I am sorry for your loss," he offered after a moment.
Misaki nodded. "He mentioned you," she said slowly. "That's why I let you in. He left a letter."
Jiraiya resisted the urge to thank Gihei's departed shade. Maybe he would have some answers. "May I see it?"
The widow stood, nodding. "Just a moment," she said, standing and leaving the kitchen. When she returned, she handed Jiraiya a sealed envelope.
The disguised ninja quickly searched it for the telltale signs of having been opened and resealed, finding none. "Please excuse me," he said as he broke the seal and removed the letter. He swiftly scanned it. The bulk of the letter was nonsense, referring to non-existent business transactions. Two sentences stood out, though.
One was a bit of poetic balderdash about seeing a dawn through the clouds. One way of reading the characters for "Akatsuki" meant dawn. With that in mind, the hidden meaning of the sentence was clear. Gihei had believed that Akatsuki had infiltrated the Cloud and feared he had been discovered. It seemed obvious that Akatsuki's agent in the Cloud had arranged Gihei's death and faked the subsequent reports Jiraiya had received.
The second intriguing sentence was a simple mention of how Gihei wanted to visit the House of the Falling Plum again. Jiraiya knew that name well, as it belonged to a brothel in a town near the Cloud Village run by another of his agents. He also knew that Gihei was hardly the sort to frequent that kind of establishment. He'd been meaning to stop by there in any case; this merely meant that it was urgent.
"Thank you," he told Misaki when he was through reading.
"It wasn't a problem," the woman told him.
Jiraiya reached for his wallet. "Part of the reason I was coming was that I owed Gihei-san some gambling debts," he lied. "Let me -"
"I don't need your charity!" Misaki snapped. She took a deep breath, calming herself.
Jiraiya said, "I'm sorry. Let me take you out to dinner tonight at least. In Gihei-san's memory." It was a bit risky to stick around, but he felt he had to do it. Misaki deserved something from him, after all. This was all he could do for now, but he was definitely going to have to find a way to help her more significantly.
Slowly, Misaki nodded. "All right."
Uzumaki Naruto was not happy. He wanted to be doing something. Well, he was doing something, but it wasn't the something he wanted to be doing. He wanted to be doing something that would help Kakashi. Every time he had asked her, Kaida had only said that she was working on it and that he would have to be patient. Then she would just press on with another boring session of meditation and inspection of his seal. Even that, though, would be better than this.
He had never thought that he would hate training. Intellectually, he knew that being trained in lightning element techniques by one of the strongest Cloud ninja, even if only half-heartedly as a cover, was a good thing. Emotionally, he couldn't help but feel that it was useless, and the identity of his current tutor was doing nothing to make the whole process easier.
Today, Kaida had claimed to not have time for another session with Naruto. Instead, the High Priestess had sent her apprentice to train him, to keep up the cover story that he was here to learn about lightning element techniques. The fact that he did not particularly want to be alone with Sinobi Junhime, the woman responsible for Kakashi's capture by the Cloud, did not seem to have occurred to Jiraiya's friend.
Junhime's face was dark as she seated herself on the ground across from Naruto. "I'm not happy about this," she stated, "but I suppose I have no choice."
Naruto bared his teeth at her. "You're not happy? Good."
The kunoichi snorted. "At least try to act like a human being, you little monster." She smiled a smile that was no less threatening than Naruto's own expression. "If I'm too unhappy, I might just send Sharingan Kakashi for another round with the interrogation squad."
It would have surprised many who knew him that Naruto was able to restrain himself. Not even a flicker of red chakra was visible in the air around him as he glared at the young woman. "I told you before. If you hurt Kakashi-sensei, I'll find some way to make you pay. You'd better believe it!"
Surprisingly Junhime laughed. "Oh, I believe it. You'll try at least." She smiled as she stood, spreading her arms wide and seemingly leaving herself open to attack. "I believe the first medical report showed that Hatake Kakashi had no fewer than fifteen broken bones, severe electrical burns over a quarter of his body, and numerous miscellaneous wounds inflicted by bladed weapons when he arrived in the village. I was probably responsible for half of that, little boy." She grinned widely, making no move to defend herself. "What are you going to do about it?"
For the barest of instants, Naruto's eyes turned crimson before fading back to an angry blue. "I'm not stupid."
"Apparently not," Junhime replied. "I was so looking forward to filing the report for being forced to kill you in self-defense."
"You might not find that so easy," Naruto growled out.
"You're threatening me with the Kyuubi, little boy?" Junhime asked. "With that sort of mentality, I highly doubt Kaida-sama will be able to help you much. Without an iron will opposing it, you'll never get the demon back in its cage."
"Why should you care?" Naruto demanded.
"I don't care about you," Junhime allowed, "but I have to live in this world too. I've got no interest in seeing a headstrong little brat let the most terrible monster in history walk free again because he can't keep his emotions in check." She shook her head, seating herself once more. "Don't they teach self-control anymore in the Leaf Village?"
"If I had no self-control, one of us would be dead by now," Naruto said seriously.
The Cloud ninja laughed, almost good-naturedly. "That's true." She adjusted her forehead protector with one hand. "Shall we begin, then?"
"How do I know you won't kill me?" Naruto asked suspiciously. "It's obvious you want to. You could just say it was a training accident."
"Did it occur to you that you might not want to give me any ideas?" Junhime asked lightly. She laughed. "Kaida-sama would know if I lied, and she would tell the Toad Hermit. They could make me wish I was your Kakashi-sensei."
Naruto stood. "Let's start this, then," he said.
Junhime followed suit. "Come closer, boy, and I'll show you the technique I'm supposed to teach you." She grimaced at the thought. Naruto took a cautious step toward her, and the kunoichi's hands blurred. Then one stretched out, lightly tapping Naruto's cheek before he could react. "Raiton: Shocking Grasp Technique."
There was a spark of electricity, and the boy stumbled back, shouting more from surprise than pain. "That hurt!" he hollered angrily.
"Good." Junhime smirked. "That's the most basic lightning element technique. It's not good for much, as you can see. It's best for stunning an unsuspecting target."
Naruto forced himself to take a deep breath. "What are the seals?"
It had rained yesterday, but Sakura hadn't noticed. After the end of the chuunin exams, she had barely been able to make it home. The exertions of the past weeks finally caught up with her as the last bits of adrenaline fled her system. It had been all she could do to undress before throwing herself into her borrowed bed, and since then she had barely stirred except to walk the short distance to the kitchen, eat, and return.
This morning, finally, Sakura felt like a human being again, instead of some hollow shell. The past few days were practically blank to her. She hadn't even had the energy to think at all, much less consider her performance in the exams or the information about Midori she had managed to get out of Neji after them. As she finished her breakfast, glad that the milk, one day past its expiration date, hadn't spoiled noticeably and looking out the window at the still-damp village, Sakura considered just what she was going to do next.
For the first time in months, she didn't have some overarching goal. She had no missions; there were no more exams to prepare for. Her fate was out of her hands now, and all she could do was wait for the examination board - and more importantly, the Hokage - to announce their decisions. At times, she had thought that she couldn't wait for the exams to be over, but now she felt directionless.
She sighed. What the hell was she doing, moping over this sort of thing? There was at least one thing she could be doing after all, a discussion she'd been trying to have for over a month now. She'd tried to reach her mother several times during the week before the third exam, in large part to ward off Anko's threatened snakes, but she'd had no luck. It couldn't hurt to try again.
Nodding firmly to herself, Sakura stood, taking her dishes over to the sink. That complete, she left Naruto's apartment, trying to ignore the tremor in her heart as she made her way to the stairs. Two civilians, a man and a woman, were conversing quietly on the floor below near the stairs. They hushed as they noticed Sakura, and neither responded to her "Good morning." The pink-haired kunoichi could feel their stares on her back as she passed them.
She tried to force the encounter from her mind, but the few other residents of Naruto's apartment complex she passed seemed just as frosty. While none of them talked loudly enough that she could make out the words, she could hear the harsh tone of their whispers. Sakura frowned. She couldn't say that she knew any of her new neighbors very well. The hours she had been keeping for training meant that she'd frequently been leaving before most of them were up and returning late at night. She had gathered that most of them didn't care for Naruto much, above and beyond anything even he could have earned. Maybe they just had something against ninja.
As she passed the Ichiraku ramen stand, the owner, already preparing for the forthcoming lunch rush, waved at her. "Congratulations, Sakura-chan!"
She paused, then walked into the stand. "Thank you," she said.
"We watched you fight," the owner's daughter said. "You were great!"
Sakura could feel her cheeks flush. "Thank you," she repeated herself weakly. She hadn't been that great. Sure, she'd beaten Ami and Ino, but Naruto or Sasuke would have beaten Neji also.
"Why the change?" the owner asked after a moment, gesturing at Sakura's forehead.
Her hand went to her forehead and struck metal, reminding herself of her forehead protector's new location. "I beat Ino," she said simply.
"I see." The owner paused. "Come back for lunch," he said gently. "Our treat."
Sakura thanked him again, promising to return. Then she left, threading her way through the streets on the now-familiar path from Naruto's apartment to her house. when she stood in front of the door and knocked firmly, however, there was no answer.
"Damn it, Mother," Sakura muttered to herself. "I'm not going to take this anymore." Glancing about to make sure nobody was watching, she took to the rooftop, then dropped down onto the windowsill of her room. She tested the window and found that her mother had relocked it since the first time she had broken into her own room. Sighing, Sakura flexed her fingers as she tried to recall just how she'd managed to open the lock.
A few minutes later, she had successfully opened the latch with threads of chakra, and this time she did not feel nearly as drained from the effort. Maybe Anko had been right when she'd said that ludicrous continuous summoning practice would at least double her chakra reserves. Not wasting any more time on reflection, Sakura silently opened the window and slipped inside.
Then she frowned. Maybe it had just been a while, but something seemed off about her room. Her frown deepened as she quickly looked about and performed a quick search. Nothing really out of the ordinary turned up, though it was weird to see almost no ninja supplies left. Keeping herself well-stocked was something she always remembered to do, but for obvious reasons her stores here hadn't been replaced lately.
Sakura shook her head. Inventory checks weren't what she was here for. Not making any effort to hide her presence, she opened the door and stepped into the upstairs hallway. After a brief moment to check that her mother wasn't upstairs, she headed down to the kitchen. Her mother wasn't there either. Nor did Sakura's ensuing more thorough search turn her up.
"She must really have not been here this time," Sakura told herself with a sigh. Shaking her head again, Sakura turned to head back to her room, then smirked slightly. What was she doing that for? A few seconds later, having appropriated a spare key, she left through the front door. Her mother could just try to lock her out now, damn it!
Her amusement left her once she'd shut and relocked the door behind her. What was she going to do now? It wasn't lunchtime yet, but she wasn't going to hang around waiting for her mother to show up. She yawned. Maybe she could do with another nap after all. For lack of anything better to do, she absentmindedly headed back to Naruto's apartment. She made it almost halfway before being interrupted.
The pink-haired girl started, glancing about wildly. "Lee-san," she said in greeting when she found the green-clad ninja. He was with his teammates, so she politely added, "Tenten-san, Neji-san. Good morning."
Tenten glanced at Sakura's legs. "You aren't wearing weights."
Sakura had to look down at herself to check, since she really hadn't thought about it. She was still wearing pants, but there was no sign of the atrocious orange warmers. "I guess not. Maybe I'll get a new set." She hadn't really thought of that.
"You should," Lee said seriously. Sakura just nodded, but she still wasn't that certain. If she was going to get a new set, it could definitely wait until she had found a replacement for those orange warmers. What had she been thinking, wearing those in front of the whole village during the exam? Was she insane?
Realizing that the silence was quickly becoming awkward, Sakura searched for something to say. "Have you had any further problems from the poison, Neji-san?" she asked, then restrained the urge to grimace. That probably hadn't been the best thing to ask.
"No," the Hyuuga prodigy said dryly, his mouth quirking up into a slight smirk. "The medics said that your antidote had finished washing it out of my bloodstream within an hour."
"Good," Sakura replied, a bit of honest relief in her voice. She didn't think Anko would lie about something like that, but she couldn't be one hundred percent certain either. That woman's sense of humor was well beyond Sakura's understanding.
Tenten shook her head slowly. "I have to admit, Haruno, you really are something. I never would have thought you had it in you to give Neji that kind of fight, even though we trained together."
Sakura knew she was blushing slightly. "It wasn't that impressive. You or Lee could have done much better, I'm sure."
"Maybe," Tenten said. Neji just smirked again.
"What are you three up to?" Sakura asked again after a moment.
"Training!" Lee responded happily.
Sakura blinked. "Already?"
Tenten sighed, gesturing at her teacher's protege. "It's all Lee's fault. I don't know how I let myself get roped into this."
"We shouldn't stop just because the exams are over," Lee replied, "and it's been a while since we've trained as a team." He paused. "What about you, Sakura-san?"
"I'm… not doing anything, really," she said. "I don't know what I'll be doing after the exams, either." That was up to Tsunade. Sure, she'd met what the Hokage had said her expectations were, but she'd never said that guaranteed a place as her apprentice. Her stomach got nervous even at the thought of rejection. She wasn't sure she could take that.
"I see," Lee replied calmly. Either he didn't notice her discomfort or had thankfully decided not to draw attention to it.
"I suppose we'll see you when they announce the promotions," Neji said after a moment.
"Right," Sakura replied. "I'll see you all then."
A few minutes later, she had made her way home, thankfully without any uncomfortable encounters with her neighbors. Unfortunately, the door to Naruto's apartment was ever-so-slightly ajar. Sakura's face smoothed, and one hand went to the hilt of a kunai. Better safe than sorry, she thought as she cautiously placed her other hand on the door handle. She took a deep breath to center herself, then she burst into the room.
Mitarashi Anko was sitting at Naruto's kitchen table, happily chewing on the heel end of a loaf of bread - all that Sakura had left. "You need to buy more milk, Sakura-chan," she commented as her sometimes student stumbled to a halt. "What you have expired yesterday."
Sakura twitched. "What the hell are you doing in my… in Naruto's apartment?"
Anko looked about. "This place is Uzumaki's? I didn't know you two were like that."
"We aren't!" Sakura took a deep breath, forcing herself to stay calm. "You know perfectly well why I'm here and that Naruto was gone before I moved in."
"Well, yes," Anko replied, "but I think it's a crime to let little details like that get in the way of a good tease."
"You know what else is a crime?" Sakura replied. "Breaking and entering."
Anko grinned evilly. "You know, the examination board doesn't meet until this evening. You really should be nicer to me."
Sakura just sighed, seating herself in another chair opposite Anko. "You're here for a reason, I take it."
"I wanted to talk," Anko said seriously. "About a few things." She paused, clearly sorting her thoughts. "How are you doing?" she asked after a moment.
Sakura blinked. "What do you mean?"
Anko grinned half-heartedly. "You should be awake enough by now to have thought about the results of the exams."
"I'm nervous, I guess," Sakura replied after a moment. "I don't see how I couldn't be."
"That's true," Anko said. She paused again. "I… I just wanted to make sure you weren't beating yourself up over losing to the Hyuuga."
"Why should I?" Sakura asked. "It's not like Haruno Sakura losing to the Hyuuga Neji is such a big surprise. The amazing part is that I didn't humiliate myself too badly." She grimaced. "I guess I do wish I'd won."
"Perfectly natural," Anko said with a laugh. She hesitated once more, and when she spoke next her voice was dead serious. "I do want you to know that I wasn't lying when I talked to you after the fight. You did very well, Sakura-chan."
The pink-haired genin stared at the older woman in amazement for several seconds. "This isn't like you, Mitarashi-sensei," she said finally.
"I guess not." Anko laughed weakly, then grimaced. "When I took the Chuunin Exam," she said after a moment, "I lost my second fight in the third exam." Her eyes closed for a moment and one hand snaked up to her shoulder, roughly caressing the dark seal Sakura knew was hidden by the special jounin's coat. "My teacher was… not happy with me. I've been telling myself for years now that I wouldn't be like that if I ever had a student. I just… wanted to make sure I hadn't screwed that up."
Perversely, Sakura began to look for any telltale signs that whoever sat in front of her was using the Transformation Technique. After too long a pause, she shook her head. "You didn't."
"Good." Once again, Anko was silent for a moment. "I also wanted to make sure nobody was giving you any trouble."
"Trouble?" Sakura asked. "What do you mean?"
Anko sighed. "Sakura-chan, you just very publicly used a snake technique. There's more than a few people in this village that have fairly negative views on that." She grimaced. "You can trust me on that. I was worried that some of your neighbors might cause trouble, particularly since -" She cut off suddenly, wincing.
"Since?" Sakura asked curiously.
Anko winced again. "I shouldn't talk about that."
"I see," Sakura said slowly. Could it have something to do with whatever made the neighbors hate Naruto so much?
Anko stood. "That's really what I came here for. I'll see you at the promotion ceremony."
"Right," Sakura said after a moment.
Anko hesitated when she reached the door. "Sakura-chan," she said softly.
"What is it?" Sakura asked.
"I guess this is it for us," the special jounin said. "After this, you'll be with Tsunade-sama." The certainty in Anko's voice was enough to quiet Sakura's instinctive protest that the matter wasn't certain. "I just wanted to say that you were a good student. If you ever need my help…" The woman trailed off slowly.
Sakura could only stare at the special jounin's back. Was Anko - Anko, of all people - actually choking up a little? The pink-haired girl swallowed nervously. "Thank you," she replied after a moment, "for teaching me."
Anko laughed slightly. "I guess I can't have screwed up too badly if you're willing to say that." Anko reached to open the door.
Sakura frowned at the jounin's back for a moment, then before she could change her mind, she spoke. "I'm about to grab some lunch at Ichiraku. Do you want to join me?"
"I'm sorry, Rui-sama." The man's voice was indeed apologetic, though Kitakami Rui couldn't stand the hint of pity in it. "There's nothing I can do."
"Why not?" Rui forced herself to keep her voice calm. "You're supposed to be in charge of mission assignments, aren't you?" The kunoichi stood, wishing it was sensible for her to take out her anger on someone.
"I don't have absolute authority, Rui-sama. You know that." The man's hands rested on his desk. "The elders feel that you are too valuable to both the Kitakami Clan and the entire Snow Country to risk on a dangerous mission."
"Valuable?" Rui asked. "What sort of valuable ninja isn't trusted to handle even a C-rank mission?"
"Rui-sama," the older ninja said, exasperation plain in his voice even though he kept the respectful suffix even the highest-ranking ninja in the Kitakami Clan had addressed Rui with since her return. "I don't mean to be cruel, but it isn't a matter of trust. It's that even most of our experienced genin could defeat you right now."
Rui grimaced. "I've been training," she began. It was almost inconceivably hard, like starting to learn to be a ninja all over again. Her whole combat style had always been focused on ice element techniques, and it had only grown more so once she had forged her deal with the snow maidens. With those denied to her, she was little stronger than a fresh genin, despite her much higher ranking.
"And when that training shows results," the man replied after a moment, "I will be happy to assign you missions commensurate with those results. Until such time, though, Rui-sama, I cannot."
Rui sighed, letting herself settle back into the chair facing the other ninja's desk. "I just want to be useful," she muttered half-heartedly. "I can't stand only being able to sit here and wait for the latest bad news from the medics about my brother."
"I understand, Rui-sama." The man grimaced. "I really wish things were different."
"So do I." Rui stood again. "With your permission," she said, and when the man nodded she turned and left without another word. A glance at a clock showed that she still had time to kill, and she set to wandering through the halls of the Kitakami Clan's stronghold. She took pains to avoid the handful of ninja between missions who also traveled the halls. Their deep bows and awed "Rui-sama"s would be more than she could take at the moment. It had only been a few days, and she was already sick of it.
She eventually found herself outside a large training hall. After activating a minor genjutsu to make herself less noticeable, she stole inside settled down near the wall to watch the class in session. The chuunin instructor almost certainly noticed her presence, but she respected Rui's obvious desire for privacy.
It was a first-year class, though Rui knew that most groups of ninja would find it incredibly advanced for that. The Kitakami had no resources to waste training the children who would never develop the talent for ice element techniques. In the days of the Hidden Village of Snow, of course, the curriculum had been more standard, as with the snow maidens' support ice element techniques came naturally the the ninja of the Snow. Just as they once had come easily to her.
This class was near the end of its first year. The students had already mastered the necessary trivial techniques used for the testing by rote learning, even if they had no understanding of how they worked. Now they struggled to combine those techniques into a true ice element technique; a skill more than half of them would never learn. More than half of those remaining would never have the massive chakra capacity needed to do more than what had been the basic genin techniques before Yuki's betrayal had destroyed the Hidden Snow.
The numbers told a tale of slow extinction, and it was from that fate Rui had hopefully saved her clan and the other surviving Snow clans. With time, a new pact with the snow maidens might be forged, and the Hidden Snow reborn. If that was the case, future generations would praise her name so long as the new village endured.
Half-heartedly, Rui followed along with the exercise the students were performing. First, her hands formed a pair of seals, then a tiny ball of water formed in front of an outstretched finger. Unlike the students, she needed no cup of water to provide the raw material. She was still skilled enough to draw forth water from the air. She let the droplet hang for a moment before releasing the technique.
Along with the students, she formed another pair of seals. This time, it was a simple wind technique to rapidly chill a small volume of air. Then she performed the two training techniques in rapid succession, creating a tiny ball of ice. She held it in her hand for almost a minute, watching it melt and letting the students catch up with her.
This time, it was four seals that they formed, mixing the seals used for the prior two techniques. Rui easily called forth the two different mixtures of chakra simultaneously, the first challenge. She pooled them both in her outstretched finger, forcing them to mix and merge into a new form in the air before it. Yet instead of coalescing into a ice droplet like it had so easily even before her deal with the snow maidens, it just hung there, dead, until she released the technique and let it fade away.
"I've got it!" The young boy's voice was almost incredulous as he proudly displayed a chunk of ice to his classmates. Rui's eyes burned, and she couldn't bear to watch anymore. Feeling the chuunin instructor's pitying gaze on her back, Rui fled, returning to wandering the halls aimlessly.
Eventually, the time came and she met her brother in front of the infirmary. "How did it go?" she asked softly.
Ichizo grimaced, leaning heavily on his cane as her slowly walked to stand beside her. Rui began to head back toward their chambers, matching her pace to Ichizo's torturous slow crawl. "The same as his first diagnosis. I'm lucky to be able to walk at all."
Rui grimaced. "He's supposed to be one of the best healers in the world, isn't he?" she raged quietly. "Why can't he do anything to help you?"
"You didn't see it," Ichizo said after a moment, "but that Kisame's sword was… it wasn't ordinary. I swear it was practically alive." He grimaced. "It felt like it was eating me." He sighed after a long moment. "How about you? Any luck with the old man?"
"None." Rui grimaced. "It seems I'm both too valuable to be risked and too pathetic to be useful." She sighed. "Even if it wasn't a mission, it would be nice to be doing something."
"Likewise," Ichizo replied.
"I wonder," Rui muttered to herself as a thought occurred to her. "They might just let me do that much."
"Are you feeling up to a trip to the Fire Country?" Rui asked her brother.
"Why?" Ichizo frowned.
"She doesn't know it yet, but the Hokage owes us a pretty big favor, doesn't she? If anyone in the world can help you, it would be her."
"Maybe she could." For an instant Ichizo's eyes lit up with hope. "If she believes those notes Jiraiya-sama gave you. If you can get permission for us to leave the village."
"For the first, there's nothing we can do," Rui said, "but for the second, why don't you and I have another talk with the old man after lunch?"
Naruto frowned as he stared at the small mirror on the wall of his room. Today was the chance he had been waiting for. He had no lessons this afternoon, and both Kaida and Junhime were not in the temple. Thankfully, Kaida had not given him a full-time guard like she had considered, so he did not need to worry about that. It was as safe as it could possibly get for him to finally start working on finding a way to help Kakashi.
He needed a plan. Just running about wildly was only going to get him in trouble. Before he could plan, he needed know where Kakashi was and what his situation was. Naruto grumbled wordlessly to himself. He wasn't very good at this sort of thing. Thinking on his feet during a battle was one thing, but all this planning in advance didn't come naturally to him. He wished that someone else was here to tell him what to do.
Then again, he thought that person would probably just tell him it was stupid to even try and help Kakashi, and he was in no mood for that sort of advice. Never mind that he was up alone against an entire village. He was Uzumaki Naruto, and he didn't go back on his word. He was going to get Kakashi out of this. Somehow, he was going to do it. He just needed to figure out how.
That meant reconnaissance, and that meant a disguise. He couldn't just wander out of the temple and around the Cloud Village looking like himself. He was going to need to use the Transformation Technique, but what should he transform into? Whatever transformation it was, it would have to stand up to casual scrutiny from other ninja, so he needed a good one.
Jiraiya had lectured him about this back at the beginning of their journey, he remembered. He'd mentioned two tricks. "The first is to not give the ninja any reason to pay attention to you, but that doesn't always work," he'd said. "We can't count on that. The second trick is to keep the transformation as close to what you really look like as possible. The less you actually transform, the harder it is to see through."
Naruto frowned. He couldn't look too much like himself either, though. His frown deepened into a pained grimace as another solution from Jiraiya came to mind. He dug through his wardrobe, pulling out the one change of clothing he'd gotten from the Rock kunoichi Mako that had survived the trip. Well, except for the underwear. He wasn't planning on stripping for anyone, and they got awfully uncomfortable.
He quickly stripped, then created a shadow replication and had it hop into bed, snoring loudly. Then he changed into Mako's clothing and returned to the mirror. Grimacing at how perverted he looked in her clothing, he was none the less glad that it consisted of pants, a shirt, and a jacket rather than a dress of some kind. Bringing Mako's form to mind as he shut his eyes, his hands formed a seal and he transformed.
When his eyes opened, a girl with violet eyes stared back at him in the mirror. His dyed black hair now seemed longer, drawn back in a short ponytail. He almost turned away from the mirror before he noticed a critical mistake. He'd been thinking too hard of Mako, and he was wearing a Rock forehead protector. Flushing slightly, he transformed again, and the symbol changed to the three ovals of the Cloud.
Leaving his snoring clone behind, Naruto quietly slipped out of his room. Fortunately, he didn't encounter any priests until he reached the public areas of the temple. Once there, he resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief and just walked out of the temple complex like he had every right to do so. The long walk down the mountain gave him time to consider his next steps, and when he passed the Raikage's palace and headed into the city proper, he knew exactly what to do.
After a few minutes walking, he was in an area frequented by ninja, and he made a turn down a side street. Nobody seemed to be taking any notice of him, so he relaxed and took in the sights as he wandered the streets looking for the right person to talk to. It took him several more minutes, but he eventually found two older genin, leaning against a wall and eating dango.
Knowing he was taking a big risk, Naruto walked up to the two boys. "Umm… excuse me, sempai," he said.
"What do you want?" one of the two Cloud ninja asked him.
"Can you point me to the hospital?" Junhime had told him the medics were investigating Kakashi's Sharingan, after all, so that was a good place to start. He forced himself to giggle and scratch the back of his head. "My teacher sent me to pick up some supplies so we can go over basic first aid, but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere."
The two boys gave her a long look. "It's right next to the academy," one of them said slowly.
Cursing silently, Naruto giggled again and flushed. "I have a bad sense of direction." He shuffled his feet. "And I thought I saw Sasuke-kun going the other way and followed him, but I lost him and now I'm lost and I'm really very sorry for bothering -"
"Enough already," the other genin said, laughing loudly but not cruelly. He gestured to his left. "Follow this street down here until you reach a big street with a dango stand on the corner, then take a right and it'll take you straight to the hospital."
"Thank you very much, sempai," Naruto said, bowing and turning to leave.
"Hey," the genin who'd helped her said. "What's your name, pretty girl?"
"Naru," Naruto answered without hesitation. "Thanks again." He raced off before the boy could press him for more information. He didn't know enough to come up with convincing lies. He followed the boy's directions, and thankfully they proved accurate. Still, as he stood across the street from the hospital, he pondered just how he would find out whether Kakashi was there. There weren't any obviously guarded sections for dealing with prisoners.
His stomach rumbled as he realized that he hadn't had lunch. Then his eyes widened as he watched two civilian doctors walking out of the hospital's front door. Wasn't that the doctor who had helped Jiraiya and him in Earth Country? What was he doing here? He had been supposed to head to the Leaf Village? He followed the familiar doctor and smiled as he separated from the other doctor. Naruto waited until the doctor from Earth Country was in a fairly isolated stretch of road, then walked up to him.
"Excuse me," he began, then paused. Had he ever gotten the doctor's name?
"What is it, girl?" he asked.
"I'm Naruto," he whispered. "We met in Earth Country, remember. I brought my teacher to you when he was hit by a Rock ninja's bees. "
The doctor nodded slightly. "Transformed?" he asked quietly, and Naruto nodded back at him. "I'm not going to help you with whatever trouble you're in this time," he said. "I'm happy here, and I don't want to screw it up."
"How did you wind up here?" Naruto asked.
"I took a ship to this country," the doctor answered. "I was planning to travel to Fire Country like Jiraiya-sama suggested, but I met a woman and… well, you wouldn't understand."
"I see." Naruto paused. "Could you answer one question?"
"Do you know anything about medical ninja doing research on captured prisoners?" Naruto asked. "Would they do it at the hospital?"
The doctor grimaced and shook his head. "No. That sort of thing would go on at Storm's interrogation centers."
"Special forces," the doctor answered.
"Like ANBU?" The doctor nodded, and Naruto grimaced. This was going to be tough. "Thank you. Please don't tell anyone I talked to you."
"I won't," the doctor answered, "but don't come to me again."
Naruto separated from the doctor and, thankful his direction sense wasn't as bad as he had pretended, he headed back toward the temple. He was about halfway toward the beginning of the road up the mountain when he heard a familiar voice speaking softly in a nearby alley.
"Sinobi Junhime," he whispered to himself, then edged closer to the alley. Not able to make out her words, he took to a nearby rooftop. From here, he was able to hear, though not see, the conversation clearly, and thankfully his presence seemed to go unnoticed.
"- confront Kaida-sama directly." The speaker was male, and Naruto didn't recognize his voice.
"I know that, Zeshin," Junhime replied irritably. "If I thought going directly against her would do any good, I would have done it already. We can't move openly yet." Naruto's eyes narrowed. What was going on?
"So we're agreed. Good." Zeshin paused. "You're certain the Toad Hermit is gone?" That, Naruto decided, was a very disturbing question.
"Yes," Junhime said.
"That gives us a window of opportunity to secure the Kyuubi." Naruto nodded to himself. This was not good. "I don't like the idea of facing the High Priestess, but I like facing her and Jiraiya together even less."
"We have some luck." Junhime was silent for a moment. "Sharingan Kakashi is the boy's teacher."
There was a long silence. "If we play our cards right, Kaida-sama won't be able to make a move against us without resorting to open treachery."
Naruto could almost feel Zeshin's grin. "Then we'd be able to move openly ourselves and deal with her once and for all."
"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves," Junhime stated. "I'm going to go talk with Hatake now and see what he can tell me."
"Right." Deciding that any further listening would only open him to discovery, Naruto quietly returned to the street. It took all his willpower not to start following Junhime as she too emerged, but he forced himself to walk at a normal pace as he continued back to the temple.
All things considered, Hatake Kakashi was relatively comfortable. He was far too valuable a prisoner to be left to random, unguided mistreatment. What pain and discomfort he did suffer was carefully chosen and administered by Storm's interrogation squad. All in all, they didn't waste much time with outright torture. They knew that the measures it would take to break him had a high chance of leaving him permanently damaged, and they would not risk such things until the medical ninja had extracted his Sharingan and they were certain there would be no prisoner exchange with the Leaf.
Therefore, he wasn't too concerned when the four-man squad of Storm stopped outside the door to his cell. Even drugged, he was considered too dangerous to be escorted by any fewer. "Up against the wall, Copy Ninja," the squad's sole kunoichi, and evidently the commander, growled at him.
Kakashi didn't bother with pointless defiance, obeying the command and not resisting as they bound his arms. He probably could have killed one of the Cloud ninja - the youngest - but the other three would easily overpower him. Better to let them think him accepting of his fate until he saw an opportunity for a real escape attempt. "So what will it be today?" he asked lightly as he was pushed out of his cell. "Another session with the medical ninja?" Those were at least mildly interesting, as the medics were forced to take off the seal tag wrapped around his Sharingan, and he was able to use it to copy a handful of interesting medical techniques. He was going to have to show those to Tsunade if he ever got out of this.
"Be quiet," one of the guards said roughly. The squad marched him down the hall, and Kakashi quickly determined that they were headed for the interrogation chamber, not the improvised research center the medics had set up. The interrogation chamber was little different from its counterparts in the Leaf Village, which Kakashi found strangely comforting.
What was not comforting was the woman who walked in and dismissed the guards once he was securely hanging from the chains in the center of the room. "Junhime-san," he said flatly in greeting.
"Hatake." The young woman's voice was cold. "This can either be quick and painless, or it can be long and fun. Your choice."
Kakashi grinned weakly. "Fun for you and not for me, I take it?"
"Of course." Junhime tapped her foot. "Well?"
"What's the question?"
Junhime answered him with a name. "Uzumaki Naruto."
Kakashi wasn't quite able to hide his shock, but he still only said, "Who?"
"Don't play dumb, Hatake," Junhime snapped. "If you piss me off, I'll dig up some war veterans and let them play with you." She grinned. "Besides, he told me you were his teacher himself."
"Naruto's here?" Kakashi cursed himself for the slip even as the words left his lips.
"Yes." Junhime's eyes were hard. "I need you to tell me everything you know about him."
"Why?" Kakashi asked. "He's just a genin."
"Idiot." Junhime idly formed seals, and a bolt of electricity passed from her hands and into Kakashi. The Leaf jounin couldn't stop himself from screaming as he spasmed. "I know he's the Kyuubi, and I know the Toad Hermit is teaching him."
That was not good. "Why should I tell you anything?"
"If you do," Junhime said cruelly, "you might just get a nice little reunion. I've been trying to get him to stage a rescue attempt, but he just won't take the bait."
Kakashi frowned. Why would she want Naruto to try to rescue him? To start a war? "I'd love to see him again," he answered dryly after a moment, "but not as a fellow prisoner."
"Don't trust your student to succeed?" Junhime mocked him.
"He is still a genin," Kakashi answered. If anybody could pull that kind of crazy stunt off, it was Naruto, but Kakashi thought that taking on a whole village was a little much even for him.
"He's promised me that he'd make me pay if you were hurt," Junhime said after a moment. "I was planning to have some fun and give him some pictures, but the medical staff vetoed that plan."
"What a shame," Kakashi said.
"I could probably overrule them," Junhime said, "but I want your eye and I'll need their cooperation to get it." She paused. "How did you get it, anyway?"
"It's a long, old, boring story," Kakashi answered. "A pretty young thing like you has better things to do with her time."
"Is that so?" Junhime wandered over to a table in the corner of the room, where a number of sharp and pointy objects had been neatly arranged. "I could probably force that story out of you without the medical staff complaining too much. They want to know pretty badly." She held up a scalpel, letting the dim light reflect off the metal. "If you just happened to spill some information on the Kyuubi while I was at it, so much the better."
"So," Kakashi said after a long moment. "Why haven't you simply sent your questions to Storm's interrogation squad? An amateur like you isn't going to break me."
"I see. You're a smart one aren't you? Maybe too smart." Junhime carefully set the scalpel down.
Kakashi carefully watched as the woman approached. What was she planning now?
Junhime's hands formed seals, but nothing seemed to happen. She paced around the room before nodding firmly. "That should do."
"Genjutsu," Kakashi said after a moment. It wasn't an interrogation technique; it was directed outside the room. He quickly put the pieces together. "You don't want to be overheard."
"Now why would that be?" Junhime asked, smirking.
Kakashi thought back over their conversation. "You don't trust Storm."
"You are smart. I can't use Storm for this." Junhime's face was hard. "Now all any listeners are going to hear is you bravely resisting my hamfisted attempts at torture and refusing to give up anything."
"How humble of you," Kakashi observed dryly.
"There are things more important than pride, as I'm sure you're aware." Junhime moved until she was standing directly before Kakashi. Her hand played across his face briefly. "It's a wonder that you hid this under that mask. It's rather handsome."
"Are you trying to seduce me?" Kakashi asked incredulously.
"Would it work?" Junhime responded, her voice all serious.
Kakashi bit back a laugh. "Of course not."
"Of course not," Junhime repeated. "That would make things too easy, wouldn't it?" Her hand dropped and she backed away slightly.
"Make what too easy?" Kakashi pressed. "Why are you afraid of Storm listening in?"
"To get what I want, of course," Junhime said, answering the first question. She smiled a smile Kakashi didn't trust one bit as she replied to the second question. "I intend to convince you to tell me what I need to know, and it could get messy if there were any eavesdroppers."
Hiraki Arata barely had time to scream as the chakra-charged winds pushed him up against the wall. Even as he struggled to draw a kunai, his foe was upon him, her weapon going for his throat and murder in her eyes. He swallowed nervously. She could kill him in an instant and there was nothing he could do to stop her. He hadn't stood a chance.
On the other side of the small courtyard of the Waterfall's unofficial embassy in the Leaf Village, Chiba Ikkei laughed nastily. "I think Maya-chan's pissed at you, Arata."
Their team's kunoichi slowly retracted her naginata from Arata's throat. "You're pathetic, Arata," she declared with a snort. "No wonder you just gave up without trying when you were faced with a real opponent. Actually fighting would have been even more embarrassing."
"You saw how fast that Lee was, Maya," Arata protested as he rubbed at where the metal point of Maya's polearm had scraped his skin. "I couldn't even see him move, and he had weights on. There wasn't any way I could have won."
"You still could have tried," Maya grumbled, "instead of disgracing our whole village."
"Just a moment ago you said it would have been more embarrassing if he did fight," Ikkei pointed out as he walked over to join them.
Arata gave the other boy a thankful look, but Maya just grunted. "Consistency is overrated," she grumbled as she let her weapon vanish in a puff of smoke. "The point is that Arata is pathetic. He didn't even last five seconds against me."
"I wasn't expecting you to start off so strong in a spar," Arata complained. "You're supposed to warm up first." He rubbed at his neck again. "Besides, it's hardly a surprise that you win when I don't have any water." He grimaced. "You two are lucky you don't have to worry about that."
"You should carry some like those Mist," Ikkei proposed.
"That only works for one or two techniques," Arata said. "Water is pretty heavy, after all."
"Stop changing the subject," Maya interjected. "We're supposed to be talking about how disgustingly weak Arata is, not making excuses for him."
Ikkei laughed. "I forgot." He rubbed at his chin in thought. "So would you say half or three-quarters of a first-year academy class could give Arata a tough fight, Maya-chan?"
The kunoichi cocked her head, clearly pondering the question. Arata groaned, standing. "If you two are going to be that way, fine," he said. "You can train here. I'm going to go out."
"Looking for your girlfriend so you can say goodbye?" Ikkei asked. "You know, inter-village romances are doomed from the start."
Arata rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he said. "She's not my girlfriend, and you know it. Bye."
"Tell Nissho-sensei before you leave," Ikkei said before turning to Maya. "Shall we?" he asked. Maya summoned her weapon once more in response, and shaking his head Arata left the courtyard. His teammates could be real jerks sometimes. It took him several moments to find Matsuyo Nissho sitting behind the desk in what might have been the ambassador's office had there currently been a ninja holding that particular post.
"You need something, Arata-kun?" the recently promoted jounin asked.
"I'm going to go out and have a look around," he said. Then he paused. "I don't think I remembered to say this when you showed up, but congratulations on making jounin."
Nissho laughed. "Why do you remember so suddenly?"
"Well, I was thinking and I realized that after the promotion ceremony tomorrow we'll head on back, and then we'll all get new missions. We won't be with you anymore, I imagine."
Nissho grinned. "That's not all, though. You were going to segue into asking me about your own potential for promotion."
"I'm that transparent?" Arata asked. He seated himself in one of the chairs across from the jounin. "Ikkei and Maya don't think much of my chances."
"I was the Waterfall's representative on the examination board," Nissho said after a moment. "I'm not allowed to tell anyone about what we discussed, even after the promotions are announced." He laughed. "If people knew how much politicking went on during the examination board meetings they'd probably lose faith in the entire Chuunin Exam system."
"It's really like that?" Arata asked.
"Of course," Nissho answered. "Anything involving that many people from that many different villages comes down to politics. It's just a fact of life."
"You can tell me what you think, though, right?" Arata pressed after a moment. "Just your personal opinion."
Nissho laughed again. "I suppose so." He paused for a moment. "You did win a fight, which counts for a lot," he said. "In that fight you performed well, though not exceptionally."
Arata frowned. "Not in the second fight, though."
"There's no dishonor in acknowledging a foe you can't defeat," Nissho said, "but the speed with which you conceded raises many questions."
"I didn't need any more time!" Arata protested. "I can't do anything against an opponent I can't even see, and there wasn't any point in getting myself beaten bloody to prove it!"
"Easy, Arata-kun," Nissho said. "I'm on your side. I'm just saying what any observer would say."
Arata sighed, then stood. "Thank you," he said. "I'll be back in an hour or two."
"All right," Nissho said easily. "Tell Sakura-san that she was very impressive for me."
"Damn it!" Arata snarled. "She's not my girlfriend!"
"Did I say she was?" Nissho smiled. "It's hard to imagine who else you could be going to go see."
"I just want to get out of here and get some fresh air," Arata grumbled. He had to admit to himself that he wouldn't be displeased if he saw Haruno Sakura, but he wasn't about to go looking for her. He wouldn't even know where to start anyway. "Like I said, I'll be back in an hour or two." Nissho chuckled, and Arata left.
He spent the next fifteen minutes aimlessly wandering the streets of the Leaf Village, pondering where to go. Maybe he would head to that ramen stand again. While it hadn't been the life-altering experience Naruto had described, it had been pretty good. Trying to remember the directions, he hesitated at an intersection.
Maya appeared before him, her face grim. "Arata," she said seriously. "Nissho-sensei wants us."
Arata blinked. "What?" Why was the jounin calling him back so soon? He followed Maya back, and soon was with her and Ikkei in the office Nissho was using.
The older ninja was studying a small scroll, a worried look on his face. "What's wrong?" Ikkei asked.
"I just received a scroll from a messenger bird," Nissho said. After a moment, he turned the scroll around so that the three genin could read it.
Arata skimmed it, and his face paled as he read the terse reports. "…coordinated strikes by the Valley on multiple outposts in the occupied Waterfall Country…numerous skirmishes with Valley infiltrators along the cease-fire line…Valley forces relocating from the Rice Field border…intelligence reports of increased communication between Valley and Rock…"
"This is," Maya began, and then her voice faltered.
"War," Arata finished weakly for her.
Nissho nodded. "That's what it looks like," he said.
"What should we do?" Ikkei asked.
"For right now," Nissho responded, "you should do nothing. Just try to enjoy yourselves at the promotion ceremony tomorrow and not worry too much yet."
"And you, Nissho-sensei?" Maya asked.
The jounin stood. "I am instructed to seek an immediate audience with Hokage-sama and deliver to her the Waterfall's request that the Leaf prepare to honor the alliance treaty between our villages and send forces to our defense if necessary."
Jiraiya was beginning to believe that this might be a very bad day. It took a great deal of self-control to not curse freely as he stared at the burnt, overgrown ruins where the House of the Falling Plum had stood the last time he was in Lightning Country. Of course, he had continued to receive regular reports from the brothel's owner. It was obvious that the damage was not limited to a single agent; it seemed likely that his entire network in this country was compromised. Every single one of the routine, comforting reports he had received in the past years was likely a forgery.
He had to consider the worst case scenario. In that case, the entire leadership of the Hidden Cloud had been co-opted and was little more than a pawn of Akatsuki. He didn't think that terribly likely, though. Kaida would have to have known if that was the case. It was far more plausible that some rogue faction was operating in alliance with Akatsuki. He had to uncover them, and quickly. Akatsuki could not be allowed to maintain even partial control over one of the five great powers.
Jiraiya's instincts told him to race back to the Cloud Village to consult with Kaida, but he knew that was foolish. If the situation was anywhere near as bad as he feared, that would only tip off Akatsuki. He had to keep them unaware that he was on their trail. He would have to continue as he had been, putting in enough appearances to create the impression that he was making his slow, drunken, lecherous way toward the library Kaida had sent him to while he worked to find the evidence needed to dispose of the Akatsuki scum.
The first thing he was going to have to do was to check and see whether the owner of this brothel had been as thoughtful as Abe Gihei had been. Gihei had indicated that he should visit here for more information, and hopefully some message had survived the destruction. Jiraiya carefully checked to make sure no one was watching; fortunately, as was the custom for this sort of establishment in Lightning Country, the House of the Falling Plum had been built some distance outside the town it served, and few people walked out here just to look at ruins.
Once he was certain the coast was clear, the legendary Sannin began to pick his way through the ruins. The arsonist had been pretty thorough; the upper levels of the building were completely gone, and all that remained of the first floor were a handful of charred, half-collapsed walls. Jiraiya's keen memory allowed him to easily find his way to the owner's office.
The owner's heavy stone desk - imported from Earth Country and made by a ninja-trained craftsman - had survived the fire intact, as Jiraiya had expected. It was obvious that the now-empty drawers had been searched through, though whether it was by honest investigators, looters, or some more sinister person he couldn't say. Anything that had been in those, however, wasn't what he was looking for.
It took him several moments to locate the hidden compartment, but when he did his hand hesitated over the hidden latch. It was better to be safe than sorry, Jiraiya decided, and he dug a brush out of his pack. He used it to trace a quick sequence of arcane characters in the ash that covered the top of the desk. Once he was satisfied with those, he bit his thumb and let the blood drip into the center of the pattern, connecting the two halves of the final character.
That character glowed briefly, and then the harsh red light raced along the rest of the pattern. The characters shifted and twisted, and Jiraiya frowned as he studied their motions. His hunch had been correct. Someone had placed seals inside the hidden compartment, likely set to release as soon as it was opened. Well, that settled the question of whether there had been foul play. Most likely, it was a trap for him.
Jiraiya brushed his hand over the desk's surface, destroying the pattern he had drawn. For a few instants afterward, the ashes still glowed a faint red. As the light faded, Jiraiya let his fingers tap on the desk's surface. Was it worth it to try to open the drawer? Whatever message his agent might have left was no doubt long gone, but the form the trap took could provide a valuable clue.
Still, while Jiraiya was confident he could avoid serious harm from the trap, if he had been setting it he would have built in some form of alarm. He couldn't risk alerting Akatsuki. He was going to have to try something else. Slowly, he picked his way back through the rubble, erasing the signs of his passage as he went.
A bit more than an hour later, he was in the bar attached to the nearby village's only inn, sighing morosely as he stared into his freshly poured drink. The bartender glanced around the nearly empty bar, then returned his attention to Jiraiya. "Something bothering you?" he asked.
"I suppose." Jiraiya took a careful sip. "I went a bit out of my way to visit the House of the Rising Plum again, and I find out its been burned to the ground."
"Ah." The bartender shook his head. "When was the last time you were out this way? It burnt down almost two years ago." Around the same time Gihei had been killed, then. The bartender shook his head. "That was a nasty thing. Some sort of ninja fight, I think. We tried to fight the fires, but some of them just wouldn't go out." He shuddered. "Burnt for a week before it went out on its own."
Jiraiya didn't have to ask to know that those flames had been black. That meant Uchiha Itachi. "A ninja fight?" Jiraiya asked. "Some drunken Cloud get into a fight over a whore?"
The bartender slowly shrugged. "Don't know," he lied.
Jiraiya didn't press. "The owner," he said after drinking some more. "Did he make it out okay? We're old friends."
"Can't say I've ever seen you around here before," the bartender responded after a moment.
"I usually stayed at the House," Jiraiya replied. "Sotaru-san might have mentioned me. Jiro, the merchant."
The bartender glanced about once more. "What do you sell?" he asked suspiciously.
Jiraiya leaned closer. "Adult fiction," he answered.
"He left a message for you," the bartender said quietly. "He said to tell you that it wasn't an agent, it was a member." He paused. "I don't know what that means, and I don't care to know. If Sotaru wasn't a good friend I'd report you myself. I don't want to get into any trouble with the Cloud. I suggest you finish your drink, go to bed, and leave this town in the morning. Understood?"
"Perfectly," Jiraiya said. Not an agent, but a member, huh? Sotaru had believed that Akatsuki didn't just have a friend in the Cloud, but that some high-ranking Cloud was one of the actual members of Akatsuki. The disguised ninja drained his cup in a single cup. "Thank you."
"For what, stranger?" the bartender replied. "We've never spoken."
Sakura arrived early for the promotion ceremony. She just couldn't stand to sit around Naruto's apartment worrying, so instead she killed a little time walking as slowly as she could toward the ninja academy, where the ceremony would be held. Apparently, her willpower was greater than some, because when she entered the large lecture hall where it would be held, Ino and Chouji were already waiting there, along with a handful of gray-uniformed chuunin and other observers.
A particularly grim-faced chuunin sat in a chair behind a table set up at the front of the room. Sakura's eyes instantly went to the items laid carefully in rows on the table: five Leaf uniform jackets and a single gray jacket that had to belong to either the Waterfall or the Mist. Sakura swallowed nervously. Six people had passed, but who were they?
"Over here!" Chouji called out, waving Sakura over to where he and Ino were sitting. Sakura glanced at Ino. The other girl's face was impassive, but after a long moment she nodded.
Sakura walked over to the pair and seated herself next to them. Ino's eyes lingered on the pink-haired girl's forehead protector, resting properly on her forehead, and Sakura swallowed slightly. Ino's own forehead protector was in its familiar location around her waist. The two girl's eyes met, and Sakura felt as frozen as if Ino had used her Paralysis Technique. They hadn't really spoken since the third exam. "How is your leg?" she managed to ask after a moment.
"Fine," Ino said shortly. "Like you said, it was a weak explosive tag." Chouji was silent, and it was obvious that both of them were waiting to say what Sakura was going to say.
"I'm not going to say I'm sorry for fighting you with all I had," Sakura stated after a few seconds. "That's what we wanted, isn't it?"
Ino's eyes flared briefly. "You were wearing weights. Is that fighting with everything you have?"
"No," Sakura answered. Then she smiled wryly. "I was afraid if I stopped to take them off your shadows would catch me."
Ino was silent for what seemed an eternity, and then she laughed. "I guess that makes me feel a little better." Her eyes hardened again for just an instant. "I wasn't kidding when I said I wasn't planning on just watching your back."
"And I wasn't kidding when I said good," Sakura returned.
Ino nodded. "Friends?" she offered cautiously after a moment.
Sakura nodded slowly. "That sounds good," she said, her voice quiet. Chouji smiled slightly, but he didn't say anything.
Over the next several minutes, the room filled with people, many more than Sakura was expecting. The rest of the genin who had made it to the third exam were there of course, along with all the examiners and their assistants, but so were numerous ninja and civilians that Sakura didn't recognize, including one man in full ANBU uniform, including the mask.
Finally, the ceremony was almost ready to begin. Tsunade, clad in the full formal red and white robes of the Hokage, stood at the front of the room. Shizune, in uniform, stood behind the table, while the three examiners were off to one side. Tsunade nodded, and Anko stepped forward, whispering into the ear of a gray-uniformed chuunin. The chuunin nodded and slipped into the crowd.
A few instants later, another chuunin appeared behind Ino, Chouji, and Sakura. "All the examinees should head up to the front," he ordered softly, and then he vanished again.
A few minutes later, all fifteen genin had gathered in a rough line at the front of the room, facing Tsunade. "I'm not much of one for long speeches," Tsunade said, "so I'll be brief. Every one of these genin has proved themselves an excellent ninja by making it this far. There is no shame or dishonor in failure here. I hope that those of you who will be receiving bad news tonight have better luck in six months at the Grass Village."
The legendary Sannin paused before continuing. "My teacher once stated that the motto of the Chuunin should be, 'If you do not possess Heaven, gain knowledge and be prepared. If you do not possess Earth, run in the fields and seek strength. If you have both Heaven and Earth, you will have success in even the most dangerous times.'" Tsunade's gaze swept the line of genin. "Tonight, we will honor those who have found both Heaven and Earth."
There was a roar of applause from behind the genin, and Sakura resisted the urge to turn and look. Even though there were far fewer people, confined by the walls of the room the applause seemed several times louder than the thunderous sound of the crowd at the arena. Tsunade waited for it to die down before speaking again. "Before we begin, there is one more thing that must be said. In this Chuunin Selection Exam, we had the honor of hosting guests from the Hidden Mist. The examination board has no authority to promote them, however one of them performed exceptionally enough that we felt required to prepare a recommendation for promotion." A bound scroll appeared in Tsunade's hands. "Aoki Saburo, please step forward."
The crowd applauded politely, but not terribly enthusiastically, as the named ninja stepped out of line. At a subtle gesture from Shizune, the boy moved over to the three examiners and exchanged shallow bows with them before approaching Tsunade. A hint of nervousness was clear in Saburo as he bowed before her and accepted the scroll. Then, he returned to his place beside his two teammates.
"From the Hidden Village of Waterfall," Tsunade said, and Sakura thought that she could detect a bit of sourness in the Hokage's voice, "the examination board has promoted one ninja. Hiraki Arata, please step forward." Like Saburo before him, Arata exchanged bows with the examiners, then Tsunade. Instead of taking a scroll from the Hokage, he received the gray armored vest from Shizune. He hesitated a moment, then slipped it on.
The crowd applauded again, and Sakura and the rest of genin joined them. Arata grinned, then returned to the line. "From the Hidden Village of the Leaf," Tsunade began, then had to pause again for another round of applause. "From the Hidden Leaf," she repeated, "five ninja have been awarded promotion to the rank of chuunin. Please step forward as your name is called." She hesitated, and then, a bit of acid in her voice, said, "Please hold your applause until the end." There was slightly nervous laughter, and then Tsunade began to announce the names.
"Hyuuga Neji." Unsurprised, the Hyuuga prodigy walked over to the examiners. As he began to bow to Shiranui Genma, Tsunade announced the next name. "Rock Lee." The green-clad ninja followed his rival. "Haruno Sakura."
It took Sakura a moment to realize that her name had been called. She took a stumbling step forward, shaking her strangely befuddled head to clear it. Slowly, she walked up to and bowed before Genma. The first examiner returned her bow, his toothpick twitching. "Congratulations," he murmured softly.
"Thank you," Sakura replied, then moved on the Morino Ibiki. She hesitated slightly as she heard Tsunade call Ino's name, then she bowed. The interrogator bowed back wordlessly, and Sakura moved on as Tsunade called for Tenten to step forward. Sakura stared at Anko for a long moment before bowing a third time. "Thank you," she whispered before Anko could say anything.
"Good luck," her sometimes teacher replied as she bowed back at Sakura.
Then, finally, Sakura moved to stand before Tsunade. The pink-haired girl bowed deeply, and Tsunade nodded before giving a shallow bow in return. She didn't say anything, and after a moment Sakura stepped over to the table. Shizune carefully picked up one of the uniform jackets, then handed it over.
The garment almost slipped through Sakura's suddenly nerveless fingers. Unlike the others on the table, this jacket was slightly worn. "This is," she began.
"Your father's," Shizune finished for her. "Your mother wanted you to have it."
"My mother?" Sakura asked disbelievingly, her eyes watering. "Why…" She couldn't finish. Why had her mother given her this? Why was she then still avoiding her? "Damn it," Sakura whispered softly. "Thank you," she told Shizune more loudly, before slowly putting the armored jacket on over her red one. Then, she turned away and rejoined the rest of the examinees. A few moments later, Ino was standing beside her in line once more.
"Congratulations," Chouji whispered to the two of them.
"Thank you," both girls replied, almost in unison. There was no more time for discussion, as Tenten rejoined the line and Tsunade spoke. "Now," she said dryly, "you may applaud." After half an instant, the crowd complied.
A few minutes later, everyone was outside the academy, where refreshments had been placed. Several minutes passed in a blur to Sakura. At some point, she found herself facing Tenten, for the moment unmolested by well-wishing strangers. The other girl smiled. "Congratulations," she said.
"To you too," Sakura replied.
"I have to admit," Tenten said, "I didn't think you'd make it this far back at the beginning."
"Me neither," Sakura admitted. "I had a lot of help."
"Not just that," Tenten said. "All the help in the world doesn't do any good if you don't have what it takes."
"Congratulations, girls." Both fresh chuunin started, then turned to face Tsunade, who had appeared beside them, a probably alcoholic drink in hand.
"H-hokage-sama," Tenten stammered out nervously, bowing.
Tsunade nodded. "I was very impressed with your performance, Tenten-kun," she stated. "I expect great things of you."
"Th-thank you," Tenten managed to say.
Tsunade turned to Sakura. "As for you," she said gravely.
"Yes?" Sakura squeaked, unable to respond in more dignified fashion.
"I expect you to be at my office by eight tomorrow morning. Understood?"
"Y-yes, Hokage-sama," Sakura replied. She felt almost like she could faint.
"By the way, Sakura-chan," Tsunade continued, grinning, "my apprentice can afford to be a little less formal." Tenten stiffened, glancing in surprise at Sakura.
The pink-haired chuunin swallowed. "Yes… Tsunade-sama."
Tsunade shook her head. "That'll do for now, I suppose," she said. "Congratulations to you both again." The Hokage slipped back into the crowd, leaving Tenten and Sakura alone again.
"Apprentice," Tenten said softly.
"Is something wrong, Tenten-san?" Sakura asked.
The other girl shook her head. "No," she said, offering a slightly fake smile. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," Sakura replied, and with a nod Tenten moved off. Sakura shook her own head. That had been a little weird. Then she didn't have any more time to think, as a Grass ninja approached to offer his congratulations.
After several more minutes, Sakura's path crossed with the Waterfall team. "Congratulations, Arata-san," she said to newly promoted Waterfall chuunin.
"Thank you, Sakura-san" Arata responded, but he seemed strangely distracted.
"Are you all right?" Sakura asked.
Arata hesitated, and beside him Maya snorted. "Nissho-sensei's already told the Hokage," she said. "It isn't a secret."
"Right," Arata said weakly. "Yesterday we got a messenger bird from the village."
"It looks like there might be war with the Valley again soon," Ikkei finished for his teammate.
"Oh." Sakura wasn't certain what else to say, and after a few awkward moments she said her goodbyes and moved on.
The next new chuunin she spotted was Neji. The Hyuuga prodigy was in deep conversation with the uniformed ANBU, and Sakura waited just out of earshot for them to finish. When the ANBU departed, she stepped forward and offered Neji her congratulations.
"The same to you," Neji replied.
"What was that about?" Sakura asked curiously, glancing at the ANBU's back.
"I don't believe I can say," Neji responded after a moment.
That said quite a lot, given that he had been speaking to an an ANBU. "I see," Sakura said. The two stood wordlessly for several moments.
Then Mitarashi Anko emerged from the milling crowd. "Ah, Neji-kun. Just the person I was looking for."
"Yes?" the Hyuuga prodigy asked.
"It seems to me," Anko replied, "that there are a few people missing from this little party. I'd like to borrow your eyes for a moment to make sure."
Neji frowned, but he nodded and formed a seal. "Byakugan," he hissed, and the veins around his eyes bulged. A moment later, they relaxed. "Mitarashi Kimi and the Mist team are gone," he declared.
Sakura frowned, but Anko just nodded. "As I thought," she said grimly. "It looks like you two will be getting your first mission as chuunin early."
"Mitarashi-sensei?" Sakura said in surprise. Anko didn't answer, but her hand darted out, grabbing someone by the ear and pulling him over to join them.
"Hey," Shikamaru said in annoyance, rubbing at his ear after Anko had released him. "The exam's over. I'm not your subordinate anymore."
"This isn't about the exam," Anko said. "This is more important."
Shikamaru straightened. "What is it?"
"As Neji-kun here just confirmed," she replied, "my sister and her team seem to have disappeared. It might be nothing, but better safe than sorry." Her face was flat and her voice serious. "I'm going to go let Tsunade-sama know. I want you three to go find them and make sure they aren't up to anything. Don't cause a fuss; we don't want to start a panic over nothing. Shikamaru-kun, you're in command. Understood?"
Sakura swallowed nervously. "Yes, Mitarashi-sensei," she replied in near-unison with the other two young chuunin.
The Mist kunoichi paused on a rooftop, waiting for a pair of Leaf ninja to pass below. Fortunately, they were genin, and unlikely to spot her black-clothed form on this cloudy night. She frowned behind her cloth mask. She was going to be more careful. If that had been one of the handful of ANBU patrols about tonight, something as simple as the brightness of her eyes could have given her away. As the genin stopped moving below her, the kunoichi had to resist the sudden urge to curse.
She was on a strict schedule, and she didn't have time to wait. Running her fingers through her recently-cut hair, she bit at her lip in thought. Could she eliminate these two swiftly and silently? Long ago, when she was younger, she would have been certain, but it had been many years since she had done this sort of thing. It would probably be best to try to put them to sleep with genjutsu.
Fortunately, before she had a chance to put her plan into action, the genin below moved on. As soon as she was certain that they had indeed passed, the kunoichi leapt silently to the next rooftop. If she moved quickly, she could still make it on time. Hopefully, the ANBU hadn't changed their patrol paths, and she could make it to the gates without any interruptions.
A few moments later, she landed lightly on the surface of a lake not far from the gates. Here, she could wait until the proper moment. Her hand reached up to adjust her forehead protector. It had been dangerous to bring it with her to the Leaf Village, but to a Mist ninja of her generation that tiny piece of metal meant a lot. The best friend she had ever known had died so she could earn it, and she would rather die herself than ever leave it behind.
Slowly, her hands worked through seals. "Water Replication Technique," she hissed, and she sent the two clones that she created to scout ahead. She didn't want to be surprised, after all. While she waited for the clones to return, she checked her limited supply of weapons. Hopefully, it would be enough to do what had to be done. She slipped a kunai into one hand and took a swing at the empty air, testing the weight.
Precisely two minutes later, after the clones had finished their work of ensuring that the four gate guards were in the same positions as always, the kunoichi moved. First, the two guards on the ground would be dealt with. They would be chuunin, but not terribly strong ones. The area around the gate was brightly lit, but that was what cloaking techniques were for.
Thankfully, her genjutsu worked, and she was able to slip up behind one of the guards without either ninja noticing her approach. A single kunai strike to the throat, and that guard died with a quiet gurgle. The other guard stared at the Mist ninja with wide eyes for a half-second, then opened his mouth to sound the alarm. Before he could, the kunoichi formed a single seal, and he froze. Her already bloody kunai flew from her hands and punched through the man's armored jacket, embedding itself in his heart. Silently, he toppled.
Next would be the two guards on top of the wall. Risking a moment's hesitation to double-check their positions, the kunoichi crawled up the sheer wall. She emerged, as planned, directly behind one guard. One gloved hand clasped over his mouth, while the other thrust her second kunai into his back. Even as she struck, the Leaf ninja managed to break out of her grasp. Cursing slightly, she spun into a kick, knocking the direly wounded ninja off the wall. The fall would hopefully prove fatal, but she had no time to make sure.
The other guard had noticed his companion's fate and was already racing for the alarm bell. The Mist kunoichi's hands blurred, her chakra snatching water out of the slightly humid air. The stone under the Leaf guard's feet slickened, and he stumbled slightly. This gave the kunoichi enough time to close the distance, and a moment after that he was dead.
As she stood over the corpse, the kunoichi almost fell to her knees, breathing heavily. It had been years since she had needed to exert herself like that. She offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the teachers who she hated so much years ago, but whose strict lessons ensured that even now she could call herself a mistress of the silent kill. She shook her head. She had no time for reflection. Her mission wasn't over yet.
She moved back down to the ground and studied the gates for a moment. She hadn't been able to get a good look at them beforehand, but fortunately the Leaf hadn't seemed to bother adding any special precautions. She unbarred them, then slowly pulled one of the massive doors open. Then, she waited, but not for long.
The two ninja seemed to appear out of nowhere. The kunoichi frowned as she saw the forehead protector the man wore. "Sound," she hissed softly. She hadn't been told Orochimaru's scum were involved.
The Sound ninja, wearing a black armored jacket rather than the standard uniform, adjusted his glasses. "Is there a problem?" he asked lightly.
"As you should be aware, Yakushi-san," the kunoichi replied, "it is not possible to be a deep cover agent without making some friends, and I lost friends in your attack."
Kabuto smiled. "You would be the Mist's spymaster, then. I'm very impressed by your work."
The female Mist hunter ninja that stood by his side coughed. "There's no time for chitchat. Did everything go according to plan?"
The Mist spy wasn't able to stop herself from gasping at the voice. "Shizuru-neesan?" she asked unthinkingly. Kabuto glanced between the two ninja.
The hunter ninja stood still for a moment, before nodding stiffly and repeating her question. "Did everything go according to plan?"
"Yes," the spy responded. "No alarms."
The hunter ninja nodded once more, then raised her hand. Squad after squad of Mist and Sound emerged from the dark forest and began to silently slip through the Leaf's open gates. The hunter ninja's attention returned to the spy. "Stick with me, Amaya-chan," she ordered, and despite the familiar form of address there was not even a hint of softness in her voice.
Kabuto frowned, looked the spy in the eyes, and then chuckled. "So that's it," he said, earning a puzzled glance from the hunter ninja. "Shall we proceed, then, ladies?" he asked as three Sound ninja hesitated nearby, waiting for his signal to follow the rest of the strike force into the Leaf Village.
"Anything?" Shikamaru asked as he landed in a crouch beside Neji on the rooftop of the building where the Mist team had been given quarters.
The Hyuuga prodigy shook his head. "They aren't inside their rooms or anywhere nearby, and it looks like most of their belongings are gone," he stated. He didn't deactivate his Byakugan. "If we get close enough, I'll find them, but they could be anywhere in the village by now."
Sakura, standing not far away from the two boys, grimaced. "So, now what?"
"I don't suppose either of you know any tracking techniques?" Shikamaru asked. "We could get their scent from their rooms if we have to. Neji?"
"No," he replied.
Shikamaru nodded, as though he had been expecting this. "Sakura?"
The pink-haired girl frowned. It was possible that there were some snakes that could track over this distance by scent, but she didn't know them and wasn't confident that she could summon them even if they existed. "No."
"I was hoping Kakashi-sensei had given you a scroll for his dogs," Shikamaru said with a sigh. "I suppose we'll just have to figure out where they might head." He sighed again as he settled into a thinking pose. "Where would I go if I was a Mist ninja bent on something troublesome?"
"The gates?" Sakura suggested.
Shikamaru shook his head. "You wouldn't waste an opportunity like this on the gates. You'd want to strike a target you couldn't get to otherwise, then head for the gates." He stood. "Let's swing by the administrative buildings."
"Right," Neji said, and the three chuunin moved. Several minutes later, the Hyuuga spoke again. "I've got them; all four of them are about 100 yards ahead. H- Midori is using a genjutsu to try and cloak them."
"Where are they going?" Shikamaru asked.
"For the Hokage's - they're splitting up." Neji grimaced. "Mitarashi Kimi and Midori are still moving toward the Hokage's office. Shimano and Aoki are heading toward the hospital."
"All right," Sakura said grimly. "Who follows who, Shikamaru?"
"We're not splitting up," the no-longer-rookie chuunin responded. He stopped moving, and the other two young ninja moved to his side. "No matter how I divide things up, one of us would be following two of them, and I don't trust any of us to take on those odds against either group." He smiled. "Besides, we're not on our own here."
"So, what do we do?" Sakura asked.
"We go after Shimano and Aoki. We can take them, then head after the other two." He nodded to himself. "Sakura, send word back to Mitarashi-sensei and tell her to send ANBU or somebody to the Hokage's office."
Sakura blinked. What did he want her to - oh. How had he known? Slowly, she rolled up the sleeve of her red jacket, but neither boy showed surprise at the snake tattoo this motion revealed. Grimacing, Sakura bit at her thumb, then drew a bloody line down the black coils and formed seals. "Summoning Technique." Her hand pressed against the rooftop.
There was a burst of smoke, and when it faded a large gray snake was coiled around her feet. "What do you want?" it asked. Shikamaru actually seemed a little surprised when the feminine voice emerged from the serpent, but Neji didn't stir at all.
"Could you find Mitarashi-sensei and give her a message, Seseki-san?" Sakura asked the summoned creature politely. She quickly ran through the situation and the trio's current plans. "You got that?"
"Yes," the snake replied. "I understand."
"Thank you," Sakura replied automatically.
Seseki laughed. "You're unusual for a snake mistress," she said, then vanished in a blur of motion.
The two boys were silent for a moment, then Shikamaru spoke. "All right, then. Are they still heading for the hospital?"
Neji nodded. "They're about four blocks away."
"All right, then." Shikamaru thought for an instant. "Let's do this simply. Sakura, you're fastest. You circle around them and cut them off. Neji and I will be able to take them from behind once you slow them down."
"Right," Sakura replied.
"Whatever you do," Shikamaru said warningly, "don't strike the first blow. They're certainly acting suspicious, but they haven't done anything explicitly hostile yet."
"I understand." Sakura took a deep breath. Fortunately, summoning Seseki hadn't been as draining as she'd feared, and she actually felt at fighting strength. "Good luck," she said, and then she moved.
She actually surprised herself at how quickly she covered the distance, and the two Mist ninja were still a block away from the hospital when Sakura landed lightly in the middle of the street in front of them. "I never got to congratulate you, Aoki-san," she stated.
The male ninja cursed softly, but Ren held up a hand, and her teammate said no more. "Sakura-san," she said.
Sakura nodded. "Ren-san." Carefully, she slipped shuriken into her hands.
"What brings you here?" Sakura noted the slight movements that told her Ren was following suit as she posed the question.
"I think I should be asking you that," Sakura said. How much longer was it going to take Neji and Shikamaru to catch up?
"We don't have time for this, Ren-chan," Saburo snarled, and then he moved.
In an instant, Sakura released her shuriken. A kunai appeared in the male Mist ninja's hands, parrying the projectiles that got too close as he charged through them. Ren threw her own shuriken to cover his advance, and Sakura was forced to roll out of the way, leaving her vulnerable to Saburo.
He struck quickly, kunai arcing down at Sakura's neck, but then he suddenly leapt away. An instant later another kunai flew through the air where he had stood. "It seems we aren't too late," Shikamaru said lightly. Neji jumped down from the rooftop the two occupied, landing in between the two Mist ninja in a fighting stance.
Ren's hands formed seals. "Run, Saburo!"
"But, Ren-chan," he began to protest.
"Just do it!" she snapped as an aura of flame surrounded her hands. "The mission comes first." Grimacing, her teammate vanished in a sudden blur of motion.
Sakura, coming to her feet, tensed to follow, but Shikamaru called out, "We stick together. Take Shimano down first!"
"It won't be that easy," Ren returned. She flipped away from Neji and at Sakura, the flames around her hands extending into the Claw of the Fire Dragon.
Sakura summoned her own fiery claws to parry the strike, but as the two sets of talons locked against each other Ren landed, her other hand lashing out with a second set of claws. Cursing, Sakura pushed herself away quickly enough that only the weak edges of the flames touched her. It still hurt like hell, though, and she stumbled, almost falling.
Ren wasn't able to press her attack as Neji came at her from behind. In an instant, Ren's claws retracted and she whirled about to face the new attacker. She danced around a Gentle Fist strike, one fire-wreathed hand plunging at Neji's stomach. The Hyuuga prodigy easily dodged the blow, counter-attacking and forcing the Mist kunoichi to dart backward.
Ren's foot traced a line between them, and fiery dragons erupted from the street, twisting around each other to form a wall blocking Neji's advance. This didn't buy her much time, as Sakura had recovered and charged. Ren turned about and struck at Sakura's face. The Leaf kunoichi didn't dodge or hesitate as the blow landed home, then her kunai traced a bloody line down Ren's side from an impossible angle. There was a brief blurring, and Sakura was standing unharmed almost a foot to the side of where she had appeared to be.
Ren's barrier had died down, and now Neji was coming at the wounded ninja as well. "Damn it!" she snarled, and then a Gentle Fist strike took her in the side. She froze for half an instant, then exploded into a thick plume of black smoke.
As she reappeared, there was a sudden explosion of bright light overhead. Ren stared at the floating light bomb for almost long enough to be caught by Shikamaru's shadow, but she jumped away before he could make contact. "The same technique as Yamanaka used against Sakura-san?" she asked as she landed on the rooftop opposite him.
Shikamaru just snorted. As though that had been a signal, Neji and Sakura came at the Mist kunoichi from opposite sides. Snarling, she began to spin, tendrils of flame extending from her hands. Neji managed to stop his advance in time, but Sakura was struck by the whirling flames, sending her flying back off the rooftop. Ren didn't wait for Neji to resume his attack, jumping to another building. Shikamaru was waiting for her there, and another light bomb exploded. His shadow came at Ren from three directions.
The Mist kunoichi had just a moment to survey the battlefield, and then she leapt away again, avoiding the fourth tendril of shadow sneaking toward the obvious route of escape. When she landed, Sakura pressed a kunai against her back. "That's enough, Ren-san," she said.
The flames around the Mist kunoichi's hands died down. "How?" she asked, glancing at where Sakura had fallen on the ground below after her last, failed attack. The girl on the ground disappeared. "Genjutsu," Ren hissed. "You didn't really attack with the Hyuuga freak."
Shikamaru and Neji jumped over to stand beside the two kunoichi. "Let's make this quick," Shikamaru said. "Neji?"
"Of course." Neji's hands danced over Ren's still form, closing her tenketsu.
Shikamaru pulled out some rope and quickly bound the prisoner. "I don't suppose you'll tell us what's going on?"
"I don't think so," Ren replied. "You'll find out soon enough, anyway. It's just about midnight, isn't it?"
Shikamaru's eyes widened. Then, there was a series of loud explosions from the Hokage's office and the surrounding buildings. Mere seconds after that, another set of explosions sounded from the direction Saburo had fled in.
"Damn it," Sakura breathed.
Then there was a chorus of sounds that dwarfed those. "Those're from the gates," Shikamaru snarled. "What's going on?"
"It's more then just these four," Neji stated. He took one long look at Ren, then delivered a solid blow to the back of her head, knocking her unconscious. Shikamaru stumbled as he adjusted to the suddenly dead weight.
"What do we do?" Sakura asked Shikamaru.
"I'll take this one back to the academy," Shikamaru said. "Since that's where Hokage-sama is, it'll be the center of the defense. Neji, can you see Aoki?"
The Hyuuga shook his head. "Too far away now. He's made a break for the administrative centers."
"All right then. You two try and catch him before he meets up with his teammates, then." Shikamaru grimaced.
Neji stared at him with activated Byakugan for a moment. "This isn't your fault," he said.
"I know that," Shikamaru replied. He threw Ren's still body over one shoulder. "Now, move, you two!"
Tayuya of the Hidden Sound, not being deaf, quickly realized that something was wrong. While the acoustics of the Leaf ANBU's prisons had been artfully arranged so that the the sounds of the interrogation chambers could be heard in the cells, the builders had also ensured that the sound was nothing more than a low, disturbing, unintelligible murmur. It wouldn't do for the prisoners to be able to glean any information, after all.
Therefore, it was more than a little unusual when Tayuya heard a loud, clear scream. The ANBU guard who had been lounging outside her cell - probably undressing her with his eyes - stiffened, also aware of the oddity of the occurrence. When the scream was followed by the sound of metal striking metal, then an explosion, it stopped being merely odd. Cursing loudly, the guard drew a weapon of his own and charged off.
An instant after he passed out of eyesight, Tayuya heard a wet gurgle. The guard stumbled back into view, a kunai puncturing his armored breastplate and piercing his heart. Slowly, the ANBU collapsed. Tayuya rose from her cot, staring in disbelief at the slain guard. "What the fuck?" she muttered.
Two women emerged from the shadows, a Mist hunter ninja and a green-eyed Mist kunoichi dressed in black. "Damn Yakushi to hell," the hunter ninja muttered. "Where the fuck is he?"
The other woman glanced at Tayuya. "I don't suppose you'd tell us if a gray-haired Sound has passed by here?" Tayuya wasn't able to stop herself from reacting, and the woman's eyes narrowed. "You're Sound?"
"Yes, she is," Kabuto said, appearing suddenly before Tayuya could respond. "It's nice to see you again, Tayuya-chan."
"Kabuto-sama," Tayuya breathed, backing away rapidly. If there was one thing she knew, it was that Orochimaru didn't order rescue missions. "I swear I didn't tell them anything!"
"This wasn't in the plan, Yakushi," the hunter ninja snapped. "Why the hell did you split from us and head here?"
"Target of opportunity," Kabuto replied. "Orochimaru-sama has misplaced some prized possessions, and they ended up here." Almost casually, he slipped past the two Mist ninja and opened the cell door. "I'm not here to kill you, Tayuya-chan."
Tayuya still took a step backward. "I failed Orochimaru-sama," she said. "Why else would he send you here?"
Kabuto laughed lightly. "You didn't fail," he said. "Sasuke-kun made it to the Sound Village."
Tayuya's eyes widened. Of course, it made sense that the ANBU would lie about that, to help break her. "Even so," she said aloud.
"Orochimaru-sama still believes you have a use," Kabuto said, his voice suddenly harsh. "If you're so certain that you're a broken blade, then I will be happy to treat you as such and tell Orochimaru-sama he was wrong."
Tayuya paled. "No." She forced herself to take a step forward.
Kabuto smiled kindly, his hand reached forward and brushing Tayuya's hair back from her neck. Complying with the unspoken order, Tayuya turned aside so he could look at her seal. His tongue clicked. "Such crude debasement of Orochimaru-sama's genius. How troublesome."
"What's troublesome," the Mist hunter ninja snarled, "is your situation. Why shouldn't I kill you now?"
"Come now," Kabuto said. "This building is a valuable target, and it is filled with potential allies, no? Some of your own ninja, too, I imagine. Be creative."
The hunter ninja hissed wordlessly, but then she turned away. "Come on, Amaya-chan. Yakushi, do what you want; we're leaving. If you get bogged down fighting ANBU reinforcements and miss the rendezvous, it's your problem. Understood?"
"Of course," Kabuto said smoothly, and the Mist ninja vanished.
"Kabuto-sama," Tayuya said, "the ANBU said the Leaf had -"
"Ah, yes. I picked him up too, of course. You can come out now, Kidoumaru-kun."
The six-armed ninja carefully stepped out of the shadows, looking far worse than Tayuya felt. "Yo," he said weakly.
Tayuya stepped forward, and before she realized what she was doing she had embraced him, tears watering her eyes. "You fucker," she muttered as she released him.
"Nice to see you too," Kidoumaru replied.
"What about the others?" Tayuya said.
"Dead," Kabuto stated calmly. "You two are the last of the Sound Five."
"What now?" Kidoumaru asked him after a moment.
"Now?" Kabuto said. "Now we can start paying the Leaf back."
"I've got them." Neji's voice was grim, and he didn't pause as he switched directions, jumping to the building across the street. Sakura followed him, one hand checking her store of weapons. It was never fun reaching for a kunai or shuriken that wasn't there in the heat of battle. "You need any?" Neji asked, not turning his head to look at her.
"No," Sakura replied. "I'm good. Where are they?"
"Aoki's joined up with the other two," Neji replied. "It looks like they're heading for the ANBU headquarters." He paused. "Aoki's wounded."
"Wound to the leg," the Hyuuga stated. "Midori is supporting him."
Sakura bit at her lip. "Two against three isn't good odds, even if one of the three is wounded," she replied, "but I don't like the idea of letting them do whatever they want there."
"ANBU can defend itself," Neji said, "and it would be one against three."
"One?" Sakura asked, then she grimaced. "Oh yeah." So long as Midori was in the fight, Neji's Bloodline Limit became a dangerous vulnerability. "Can't you fight without your Byakugan?"
"Not well enough," Neji replied after a moment, "particularly with a jounin on the other side. Under the circumstances, I'd just get your way."
"Damn it," Sakura snarled to herself. "I feel like we have to do something." She tried to think as she continued to follow Neji from rooftop to rooftop. She was supposed to be smart, wasn't she? All she needed was a plan.
Neji stiffened suddenly, almost missing the next jump. "Something's wrong at the ANBU building."
"What do you mean?" Sakura asked.
"We just got close enough for me to get a good look," Neji replied. "The guards outside are dead and someone broke down the doors."
"Can you see inside?" Sakura asked. Neji shook his head. "Any Leaf ninja in the area?"
"Not that I can see," the Hyuuga replied. "I think most are regrouping and supervising the evacuation." He paused. "They're splitting up."
"The Mist?" Sakura asked. "You're not serious." That was idiotic.
"Whatever's happening at the ANBU headquarters wasn't part of the plan," Neji explained calmly. "Mitarashi Kimi is investigating, but she wants her students out of the way."
"That's our chance then," Sakura declared.
"It'd still be one on two," Neji warned.
"Only until I can knock out Midori," Sakura replied, "and you said Saburo was wounded."
Neji nodded curtly. "Right," he said. "Let's go, then." He changed direction again.
After what seemed like seconds but had to be at least a minute or two, he separated from Sakura, leaving her alone to intercept the two Mist genin. Sakura grimaced to herself. Despite her words, she wasn't quite certain how she'd manage to defeat Midori. At least she should have the advantage of surprise. She paused two rooftops away from the alley Neji had pointed out as the Mist pair's hiding place. She was going to have to strike fast and hard if she wanted to pull this off. As much as she'd like to ask Midori a few questions, this wasn't the time.
Carefully, Sakura moved to a rooftop overlooking the alley, and, lying on her belly, peeked over the side. Saburo was seated against a wall, his eyes closed. Midori was watching the road, and her back was to Sakura. The pink-haired chuunin slowly inched a kunai out of its sheath. If she was lucky, she might be able to take her out with one strike. Sakura rose into a crouch, preparing her throw.
Saburo's eyes flickered open. "Midori!" he shouted in warning. As the Mist kunoichi whirled about, Sakura released her weapon, cursing freely. Midori parried the oncoming kunai with a hastily-drawn blade of her own. "You," she snarled as her eyes sought out Sakura's.
Sakura knew better than to meet her gaze. Instead, she formed a seal with one hand as she jumped from the rooftop. When the flames sprouted from her other hand, instead of attacking Midori she swept them toward the still-seated Saburo. His eyes widened in fear as he struggled to rise.
Midori dove into Sakura's path, pushing her teammate aside. Sakura's flames briefly caught her in the side, and the other Haruno fell heavily beside Saburo. Still, she rose before her wounded ally. "You bitch," Midori growled. "I'm going to kill you."
"You'll try," Sakura forced herself to return. Things were not looking good. She hadn't gotten Midori on the first strike, and now it was two against one, with Neji unable to help her. She was going to have to think quickly if she wanted to pull this off. She needed to counteract Midori's doujutsu. Fortunately, there was just enough moisture in the air for the obvious solution to work. Keeping her own eyes on Midori's feet, Sakura rapidly formed seals.
"Die!" Midori shouted, plunging at her with kunai in hand. The blade struck Sakura in the chest, and there was a moment of perfect stillness before the pink-haired girl was replaced by the wooden sign from a store at the mouth of the alley. Then coils of rapidly thickening gray mist filled the alley, and Midori cursed sharply.
Sakura grinned as she slipped into the mist. Now they were both fighting blind. She formed another set of seals, creating a perfect replication on the other side of where Midori had stood. "I'm willing to accept your surrender," she had the genjutsu offer. Then she listened for the sound of Midori's inevitable reaction.
Unfortunately, Midori didn't say anything, but she did something almost as revealing. She started to work on a water element technique, drawing water from the concealing mist. Sakura grinned. Since the mist was already charged with her chakra, she could feel Midori's efforts and use them to deduce the other girl's position. Her opponent had just made a terrible mistake.
Sakura reached for a kunai, then hesitated. Midori knew Mist Concealment Technique too, didn't she? She had to know that drawing on the water in the mist would alert Sakura. It had to be a trap, and Midori probably had the control to pull this kind of stunt off. Releasing the hilt of her kunai, Sakura quickly worked through various angles of attack. Where was Midori going be?
Less than a second later, the answer clear in her mind, Sakura created another genjutsu, and sent it just a hair too loudly at the position Midori's deliberate mistake pointed to. Sakura listened very carefully to gauge the right moment, then struck. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Midori screamed as the flames struck her back, much more strongly then Sakura's first successful blow.
"Midori!" Saburo shouted, worry plain in his voice.
Sakura could hear the other girl's pained moan as she rose, and the pink-haired chuunin carefully drew a kunai. "Are you going to surrender now?" she asked, and then she advanced slowly while she waited for Midori's response
Instead, another voice answered, "I think that unlikely to occur." Sakura's mist vanished suddenly, as though it had never been, and two black-clad women jumped down into the alley between the suddenly revealed Sakura and her two foes. One wore a Mist hunter ninja mask, and the most of the other's face was covered with a cloth mask. Sakura noted the familiar shade of that woman's green eyes and quickly averted her gaze.
"So this is Haruno Sakura, is she?" the hunter ninja asked. Sakura swallowed. She didn't think it was good that a hunter ninja from a foreign village knew her name.
"Yes," Midori said. "She's the one."
The hunter ninja laughed cruelly. "What a nice little family reunion." She turned to Sakura. "You'll be coming with us." Sakura didn't bother to respond. There wasn't anything she could do to stop them, was there?
"Katon: Flame Sniper." All the ninja in the alley started at the new voice, but the hunter ninja managed to roll aside before a thin bolt of flame would have pierced her heart. Looming over them on a nearby rooftop was a purple-haired woman Sakura didn't recognize in a Leaf jounin uniform. Behind her were three genin, one of whom Sakura easily placed as Toriichi Kasumi, one of Ami's friends from the academy.
"It looks like I should join the party," Mitarashi Kimi commented as she appeared on the opposite rooftop. In an instant, the other Mist ninja were at her side - the two wounded genin helped by the older women. Sakura took a deep breath, then joined Kasumi's team herself.
"Thank you," she said as she landed beside them.
"Thank the Hyuuga for finding us. He's hanging back until we can take out those two," the jounin told her, pointing at Midori and the other Haruno.
It was five on five, Sakura noted, but the Mist had more jounin. Then again, two of the Mist were wounded. "What's the plan?" she asked.
Across the alleyway, Kimi laughed. "You all have bigger problems than us coming your way," she said. "I suggest we just go our separate ways." Her hands blurred, and all five Mist ninja erupted into pillars of thick, dark smoke.
"Damn it," the jounin said. "If they'd just waited a moment longer…" Four masked ANBU landed on the rooftop where the Mist had stood. One of them shook his head.
Sakura breathed a sigh of relief. A moment later, Neji arrived beside her. "Thank you," she told him. Neji frowned, and looked like he was about to say something, but then the jounin spoke.
"Do you know what she was talking about, Hyuuga?" she asked.
"Yes, Uzuki-san," Neji replied after a moment. "Somebody's set free the prisoners from ANBU's interrogation center. They're headed this way." He paused. "Mitarashi Anko is leading a squad up behind them."
"All right." The jounin paused and gestured at the ANBU across the street. The four masked ninja joined the rest of them on their rooftop. "Do you mind if I take command?" she asked.
"No, Yuugao-sempai," one of the ANBU responded.
"Good." Yuugao glanced at Neji. "How many prisoners?"
"Forty-three," the Hyuuga answered after a moment. "They're moving as a group."
"Right." The purple-haired jounin bit at her lip in thought. "Can you and Haruno get around them before Mitarashi comes up on them?"
"Sakura-san?" Neji asked.
"I'm fine," Sakura replied.
"Then do it," Yuugao said. "Tell Mitarashi to wait for my signal. Understood?"
"Got it," Sakura said, and then she and Neji left.
Sakura tried to relax while she waited, but her half-hearted efforts were futile. How could she even hope to rest when she knew that in a matter of moments she would be heading back to battle? Neji, Sakura noted with some annoyance, seemed to have no such problem, leaning against one wall with his Byakugan relaxed for the first time in hours. Anko had cheerfully accepted Yuugao's warning not to attack until she signaled, and now they were waiting with the three-man chuunin squad Anko had commandeered.
"You okay, Sakura-chan?" Anko asked suddenly as she walked over to the two rookie chuunin, her voice terrifyingly cheerful.
Sakura gave her a disbelieving stare. "How can you be so happy?" she asked.
"Because you were nice enough to send Seseki to get me," Anko replied. "That means I wasn't around to get stuck with evacuation duty again." She grimaced. "I hate evacuation duty. It's all responsibility and no fun. Last time I didn't even get to kill anyone at all!" The three older chuunin began to mutter nervously among themselves.
"You can't possibly be serious," Sakura said.
Neji's eyes flickered open. "She isn't. She's teasing you to let off nervous energy."
Anko was suddenly standing in front of him. "You, Neji-kun, are reminding me of why I hate Hyuuga."
"Make it short," Neji said dryly, "or at least entertaining. I already had to sit through one of these this week."
Anko blinked, and then she laughed. "Are you sure you weren't adopted? I didn't know Hyuuga were genetically capable of making jokes."
"Who's joking?" Neji responded, and Anko laughed again.
"Have fun, kids," she said, and then she wandered off to speak with the other three ninja.
Neji glanced sideways at Sakura. "My belated condolences."
Sakura blinked. "What?"
"You've been alone with her, haven't you?" Neji smirked. "I'd rather be stuck alone with Gai-sensei."
Sakura laughed despite herself. "Thank you," she said.
After a moment, Neji frowned. "There's something I should probably -" He cut off, his Byakugan activating in an instant. "It's time." A bolt of white fire soared into the air from several blocks away, exploding high overhead into a ball of flame that briefly made the night day.
"All right!" Anko hollered. "Let's go! Don't let any of these bastards get away!"
The next several minutes were a blur to Sakura. The two teams under Uzuki Yuugao had pinned the escaped prisoners from the front, and they seemed completely unprepared for the rear attack. The prisoners tried to scatter, but with little success. Weak from months or more of imprisonment, their only strength was bulk of numbers, and they used it as best they could. Things got so confused that Sakura could have sworn that out of the corner of her eye she saw two prisoners fighting each other, but she had no time to look more closely.
Spotting a prisoner trying to make a break for it, Sakura sent a kunai flying at his leg. She hit, but the man managed to stumble out of sight behind a corner. Cursing, Sakura broke away from the battle to finish him off before he could hide. One hand was already forming the seal for the Claw of the Fire Dragon when she turned around the corner.
The man had been faster than she thought, vanishing into a warren of small streets. Unfortunately for him, the trail of blood he was leaving was going to lead her right to him, and Sakura set to following it cautiously. Despite her wariness, though, she was still surprised when she found the man dead, a kunai through his heart. Drawing a weapon of her own, Sakura began to back away.
Mitarashi Kimi appeared out of thin air, standing over the corpse. A few instants later, Sakura noticed Midori and Saburo on a rooftop above. "I forgot to ask you before," the jounin asked dryly, "where is Ren? We're running out of time here, so answer quickly."
Sakura forced herself to not say anything, knowing that nothing she could say could help. Instead, her hands blurred. "Katon: Fireball Technique," she breathed, turning her head upward and sending the burst of flame soaring into the air.
Kimi laughed. "Help won't get here in time for you, little girl." Blurring, she charged Sakura. Sakura flung out one arm, and snakes burst out from under her sleeve, flying at the Mist jounin. Flames danced in the older woman's hands, shaping themselves into short claws that neatly severed the snakes' heads. Kimi's charge barely slowed as the snakes dissolved into smoke. Even though Sakura raised her arms to guard herself, Kimi's spinning kick caught her in the chest, sending her flying into a wall.
Kimi drew one of her curved, short swords, and took a step toward Sakura. "You won't need all your parts to talk," she said, and the blade began to drop.
It was stopped by a kunai. "That's quite enough, sister," Anko said.
Kimi leapt away, landing against the opposite wall. "This will be fun." She sheathed her blade. "Shall we do it traditionally?"
"Hardly." Anko's hands formed seals around her kunai. "Shadow Replication Technique." In unison Anko and and the four clones she formed charged.
Kimi became a whirlwind of motion and flames, sending her attackers flying. All five vanished in puffs of smoke as Sakura struggled to stand. Kimi jumped into the air mere instants before Anko burst from the ground under her feet, fiery claws sprouting from both hands. The Mist jounin somehow turned about in midair, rebounding off a wall and plummeting to meet Anko with her own flaming talons. The lines of fire met in midair, pushing against each other like something physical.
Rebounding, Anko glued herself to a wall, casually flinging several dozen shuriken at her still-aerial foe. Kimi again twisted in midair, drawing both of her swords and expertly parrying every projectile. After forming a rapid sequence of seals, Anko brought one hand up to her mouth. "Katon: Fire Dragon Blast." A jet of flame poured out of her mouth at Kimi.
Anko's sister had finally landed, perching herself on the wall over Sakura. Without waiting to see how the Mist ninja defended herself, Sakura ran. She had no intention of getting caught in the middle of this fight. Before she could make it out of the alley, though, someone jumped down in front of her. Their eyes met.
"Haruno Ninpou: Gaze of Binding," Midori intoned, and Sakura was frozen. "You're not going anywhere, bitch." A kunai appeared in her hands.
Saburo appeared beside his teammate, wincing slightly as he put weight on his wounded leg. "Midori," he said warningly. "We're supposed to take her alive."
"Only if we have the chance," Midori said, her kunai inching closer to Sakura's throat. "Who's to say that we did?" Even so, her blade began to waver, even if it didn't retreat.
"Sakura-chan!" The pink-haired girl couldn't turn at Anko's terrified cry, so she couldn't see when Kimi took advantage of her sister's moment of inattention, but she certainly heard Anko's pained scream and the thud of her body hitting the ground.
"Mitarashi-sensei," Saburo breathed in relief. "Midori's about to -"
"I saw," Kimi interrupted. "What are you waiting for, Midori-chan? Do it." Her voice was serious. "I want Anko-chan to see her precious student die and know that she's helpless to stop it."
"Mitarashi-sensei!" Saburo protested, but he made no move to stop Midori as her weapon stopped shaking.
Behind Sakura, Anko began to cough wetly. "You have… no idea… what you're about to cost me, Kimi," she said, and Sakura could imagine her sometimes teacher struggling to rise. The Mist jounin laughed, but her laughter cut off as a vaguely familiar sensation began to creep down Sakura's spine.
"No," the pink-haired chuunin breathed as she placed it. Midori began to back away nervously, breaking eye contact and freeing Sakura. In an instant, Sakura found herself on the rooftop, cradled in Anko's arms. She swallowed nervously as she saw the black, flame-like markings crawling down the special jounin's limbs.
"Stay," Anko snarled as she roughly dropped Sakura. In a blur of motion, she returned to ground.
"What in the world," Kimi began, then she was slammed into a convenient wall. The wood shattered under the force, and Anko's hands grabbed her sister's neck.
Another Anko appeared beside the first. "Watch," she growled, and turned to face Kimi's students - and Sakura. The pink-haired couldn't do anything but stare at the inhuman, golden orbs that had replaced Anko's usual dark eyes. A terrible, bloody wound marred the special jounin's chest, but she showed no signs of being slowed in the slightest by it.
Neither Mist genin seemed able to move as Anko opened her mouth. Her tongue grew rapidly, snaring Midori by one arm and pulling her through the air at Anko. The special jounin caught the green-eyed genin, then retracted her tongue. Anko smiled, and Sakura caught a hint of pointed teeth. "I think I'll do better than killing your students, Kimi-neesama," Anko stated. "I think I'll mark them as my own."
"What?" Midori asked weakly as she struggled to free herself.
"There's a ten percent chance you'll survive the process," Anko said matter-of-factly. "If you do, a part of your soul will belong to me. Forever."
"Midori!" Saburo shouted, and his hands began to form seals.
A third Anko appeared in front of him, casually sweeping his legs out from under him and pinning him to the ground. "Wait your turn," the new Anko said chidingly as she knelt on his chest. The dark markings on each Anko's face seemed to move, slowly expanding to cover more of her skin.
Sakura realized she was shaking. Why couldn't she move? Whenever she tried, Anko's command to "Stay," sounded in her mind, and she lost focus. "Mitarashi-sensei," she managed to say. "Don't."
"Let them go," Kimi said. "I'm the one you want, aren't I?"
All three Anko laughed. "Not a chance," the one holding Kimi said. "You never struck me as the self-sacrificing type anyway, Kimi-neesama."
"Well, now," a new voice intruded. "What have we here?"
Sakura paled. "Kabuto-san."
The Sound ninja casually walked into the alley, and with a negligent flick of his hand hurled needles at each Anko. Two vanished in puff of smoke, leaving only the one holding Midori. As Kimi slumped to the ground, Anko tossed the green-eyed girl on top of her teacher. "Yakushi," she snarled dangerously.
"Don't waste your time threatening me," Kabuto said lightly. In a blur of motion, he vanished and reappeared behind Anko. His hands formed seals, then one reached out a tapped the special jounin on the shoulder. Anko was still for a moment, then reached up and laid her own hand on top of the traitor's. She began to laugh, and Kabuto's eyes widened.
"You fool," Anko said. "You've doomed yourself." The special jounin stumbled away from Kabuto, her face twisting in obvious pain. "You think… Orochimaru worried about safety in the prototype stage?" she managed to ask before falling to her knees. "You're… too naive." Dark energy began to gather around the kneeling woman, corrupt chakra boiling off of her and thickening until it became visible.
Kabuto backed away, reaching up to adjust his glasses, but he showed no other sign of nervousness. "Interesting," he allowed.
Anko stretched out one arm, and Sakura saw that her sometimes teacher's hand was almost completely covered by the dark markings. It bulged, as though something was crawling under the woman's skin, then burst open. A writhing mass of countless snakes poured out of the ruins of Anko's arm, twisting around to fly at Kabuto as they lengthened.
He didn't move, as though he expected the snakes to pass directly through him. "Genjutsu like this won't work on -" He stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly dancing out of the way and warding the snakes off with a kunai. "A genjutsu designed to make reality look like genjutsu. Clever."
Anko didn't respond, only standing as the snakes retracted to a more normal length. Sakura shuddered as she stared at the twisting swarm of snakes that had replaced the special jounin's arm. It had to just be some sort of transformation, right? Slowly, Anko turned to face Kabuto, the snakes winding closer and closer about each other until they seemed to merge into one multi-headed creature. The heads shrunk, turning into a hand and fingers, while the scaled body became an arm.
Anko grinned widely, flexing her once-more whole arm. "I wonder what you taste like," she said, before vomiting up another torrent of snakes. Kabuto seemed to be frozen, perhaps stunned by some doujutsu worked through Anko's inhuman eyes, and Sakura doubted that he would be able to dodge the attack.
She never got a chance to see if her guess was correct, as a wave of fire turned the snakes to ash. "That's enough, Anko-chan," another new voice said.
Anko slowly turned to face the newcomer. "Shizune-sempai," she said, a hint of horror in her voice, even as thick, ominous chakra continued to swirl around her.
Uzuki Yuugao suddenly appeared on the rooftop beside Sakura. Her hands formed a simple seal, then pressed on Sakura's side. "Release," she said, and Sakura found she could move again.
"Thank you," she gasped out.
Below, Shizune was slowly approaching Anko. "Don't make me hurt you, Anko-chan."
Anko's face twisted with rage. "Hurt me?" she snarled. Her tongue flicked out, and for a moment it looked forked. "I'll kill you first."
"That's what I was afraid of," Shizune said. She held out one hand. "Forgive me." Without visible cause, blood began to ooze from her palm. The crimson fluid poured out into the air, dancing around Shizune and Anko and forming strange characters. "Third-Level Emergency Field Sealing Method!" Shizune shouted. "Evil-Suppressing Procedure!"
The bloody characters glowed brightly, then Anko threw back her head and howled. Slowly, tortuously, the black markings of the cursed seal retreated and her disturbing aura dissipated. When the black markings had vanished, Anko stood still for just a moment, then collapsed, unconscious. Shizune staggered, almost collapsing herself.
Kabuto reached up to adjust his glasses. "Most impressive," he said, almost sounding shaken, "but that's to be expected from a student of one of the legendary Sannin." He paused, moving to where the three Mist ninja stood. "I suppose we will be taking our leave now."
"You're not going anywhere," Yuugao said loudly as ANBU filled the rooftops around the alley.
Shaking her head, Kimi stood. "What the hell was that?" she asked absently.
"If you want to know," Kabuto said, "come with me to Orochimaru-sama." Without waiting for an answer, he helped Saburo stand. "We've already missed the rendezvous."
"All right," Kimi said after a moment. Kabuto smiled, formed a rapid set of seals, and then all four enemy ninja melted into the earth.
In an instant, an ANBU was kneeling where they had stood, one hand on the ground. He shook his head. "They're gone. This Kabuto kid is as good as Kakashi-sempai said."
Shizune slowly walked over to Anko and picked up the younger woman's still form. "I'm taking her to Tsunade-sama," she said, and then she vanished with her burden.
"Let's move," an ANBU in a cat mask shouted. "This isn't over yet!"
"What's going on?" Sakura asked Yuugao.
"The evacuation has finished," the purple-haired woman stated. "That means it's time to counter-attack and teach these Mist the lesson the Sand learned last time." She studied Sakura for a moment. "You stick with me."
"But Mitarashi-sensei," Sakura began.
"You're a chuunin now, aren't you?" Yuugao asked. "Act like one. You can still fight, and the mission isn't finished."
After a moment, Sakura nodded. "I understand," she said. "I'm ready."
The counter-attack proved to be rather more uneventful than Sakura had expected. By the time the Leaf had finished evacuating the civilians and organizing to push the attackers back, the Mist and Sound were already withdrawing in good order. While the bulk of the Leaf forces proceeded to chase the retreating enemies into the forest, Sakura was among those selected to split into two-man squads and sweep the village for stragglers and wounded civilians.
Sakura found herself paired with the cat-masked ANBU who seemed to be in command of this half of the operation. She had debated for several moments whether this was a sign of respect or mistrust before deciding that there was no way to know and it was probably just coincidence, anyway. Like Yuugao had said, she was a chuunin now, and she should know better than to bother with such pointless thoughts in this situation.
Instead, she decided to wonder whether she was supposed to have noticed that the cat-masked ANBU was a Hyuuga. Perhaps it was just because she had been in a similar situation earlier in the night with Neji, but it was very obvious to her that the ANBU had been using the Byakugan to aid their search. Plus, she could feel him watching her even when he was looking the wrong way.
"I watched your match against Neji-kun," the ANBU said as they finished clearing a block.
Sakura glanced at the man. She couldn't tell anything of what he was thinking from his tone of voice. "I see," she said after a moment, figuring that was the safest thing to say.
"Do you think you could have won?" the ANBU asked. Without waiting for a response, he led the way to the next block, where Sakura proceeded to feel mostly useless as he swept the area with his Byakugan.
She spent the time trying to figure out what answer the ANBU wanted, before finally deciding that it was futile and that she should just answer truthfully. "Yes," she answered, "I think I could have won." Hopefully that wouldn't somehow offend the Hyuuga Clan's honor or something bizarre like that. After all, they hadn't gone after Naruto in any fashion, and he'd actually beaten Neji, right?
"How?" the man pressed gently, gesturing at Sakura to help him move a pile of rubble from on top of a body so that it could be retrieved later.
Sakura complied, and she did her best to hide her distaste as she next helped the ANBU move the Sound ninja's corpse out into the street where it was easily visible. "If I'd been a little faster, Neji-san wouldn't have been able to use the Replacement Technique," she said. "Or if I'd noticed him using it, he might not have been able to get the drop on me at the end."
"I see," the ANBU stated as began to walk further down the street. Sakura followed after him, and he spoke again. "Your opening moves were highly risky. A Gentle Fist user like Neji-kun could have probably have incapacitated or killed you if he'd really tried."
"I know that," Sakura responded without thinking, letting a little too much irritation into her voice. "Neji-san is stronger than me. I wasn't going to have any chance to win at all if I didn't take risks." She paused. "He didn't have any reason to want to hurt me, and even against Hinata in the last exams he gave her chances to back down. I didn't think he'd go for that sort of strike right at the beginning against me, particularly if he didn't think I was a threat. I did do my best to shield myself and guide his attacks away from the most dangerous spots, too."
The ANBU shook his head. "And I thought Morino and Mitarashi were completely crazy when they recommended you for ANBU recruitment."
Sakura paled. "Mitarashi-sensei said something about that," she said, "but I thought she was joking. Genin… or rookie chuunin don't go into ANBU."
"Not usually, no," the ANBU replied. "Under the current circumstances, we're recruiting earlier."
Sakura swallowed nervously. "I'm not…"
"No." Sakura thought she could feel the man smile behind his mask. "You're not ready. Not yet, at least." He shook his head again. "But Morino and Mitarashi weren't being moronic, either. Now I'm wondering what they were up to behind my back."
"Do… do they team up?" Sakura asked, horror sneaking into her voice. Anko could be bad enough, but imagining what she could do with the aid of the grim interrogator was truly terrifying.
"All the time," the ANBU griped. "If it wasn't classified, I would tell you how they got the old head of the interrogation squad to retire."
"Umm… ANBU-san," Sakura said after a moment. "Do you know about what Mitarashi-sensei… I mean, what happened to… whether she's…" Sakura trailed off.
"I heard what happened," the masked man said grimly. "She's with Hokage-sama and Shizune-sama now." Anger flared in his voice. "If we find this Mitarashi Kimi, I'm going to give her to Ibiki and tell him to have fun with that bitch for the rest of her natural life."
"She did it to protect me," Sakura said weakly. "I feel like -"
"It's not your fault," the ANBU said harshly. "A ninja cannot allow himself - or herself - to think that way."
"Right," Sakura said dubiously after a moment.
"Save your second-guessing for the debriefing," the ANBU advised. "Now is not the time."
"Right," Sakura repeated, a little more firmly.
Though he didn't turn to face the kunoichi, Sakura could feel the ANBU's scrutiny. "Good," he said after a long moment. "Let's get moving."
As they continued their search, Sakura was surprised by the extent of the devastation. The incursion had only lasted a handful of hours, unlike the day-long battle that had consumed the village six months ago. Despite this, all the progress that had been made in returning the village to a pristine state seemed to have been reversed in those handful of hours. When Sakura commented on this, the ANBU let out a bark of bitter laughter.
"The difference is that the Sand wanted to capture the village and prove their strength superior to ours," the man replied while directing Sakura to location of two more corpses - civilians this time, a man and a woman - buried in the ruins of what had most likely been their home. "They weren't interested in slaughtering people like these two or wrecking buildings. The destruction they caused was a side effect of the battle."
"The Mist though," Sakura began, a sinking feeling in her gut. She tugged weakly on a large piece of wood lying across the woman's body.
"They just wanted to cause as much destruction and death as possible before we could respond," the ANBU confirmed. With one hand, he pushed the wooden beam out of the way, letting Sakura pull the body out to the street. Numbly, she returned to help him with the man's corpse. "There was more than one reason why they were called the Bloody Mist, and some of them still hold true."
"What's going to happen now?" Sakura asked.
"War," the ANBU said flatly. "With the Mist and Sound certainly, and probably with the Rock alliance too, from what I've heard. The next Great War began today." He started to walk toward the next ruin, and Sakura trailed after him. "Hopefully the Cloud either won't join or will join in on our side."
The mere mention of the Cloud made Sakura feel worse, as it reminded her of Kakashi's predicament. The ANBU seemed to recognize this, and said no more, merely shaking his head as they passed the ruin, indicating that nothing of interest was contained within. When they reached the next damaged building, though, he stopped suddenly. "What is it?" Sakura asked.
"There are two survivors trapped in there." The ANBU's voice was worried, and Sakura almost missed the subtle gesture that meant in the Leaf's sign language that he was lying. "I want you to stay here and see if you can get in contact with them. I'm going to go find some others to help us clear the rubble without injuring them further. Understand?"
Aided by the almost unnoticeable signs he had been making with one hand, Sakura figured out what was really going on. The ANBU had spotted two Mist ninja following them, and he believed that she was the target. The oddity of that made her pause, but it was clear enough from the rest of the night's events that the Mist really were targeting her. The ANBU was going to split from Sakura to lure the enemy into striking, then ambush them from concealment.
"I understand," Sakura said after what she hoped was not too long a pause. She carefully made the corresponding gesture in sign language as well, so that the ANBU could be certain she'd caught the true meaning.
The man nodded once. "See you shortly," he said, and then he was gone. Sakura did her best to not actively look for the Mist as she walked toward the half-destroyed building where the survivors were supposed to be. "Can you hear me?" she yelled.
"Yes," the Mist hunter ninja who had interrupted Sakura's fight with Midori earlier in the night said as she appeared perched on top of a pile of rubble. A moment later, Sakura spotted the black-clad Haruno who had accompanied her, standing on top of the mostly undamaged building next door. An instant after that, the second Mist kunoichi was on the ground, standing next to her partner.
"What do you want from me?" Sakura asked, drawing a kunai and backing away carefully.
The hunter ninja laughed. "We want you, Haruno Sakura. Our medical ninja will see what damage Amaya-chan's little unauthorized breeding experiment did, and we'll use that data to make certain that there are fewer mistakes like Midori in the future." The hunter ninja paused, perhaps smiling behind her mask. "And then, maybe, once you've proved your loyalty we'll let you serve as a Mist ninja."
Sakura couldn't stop herself from laughing. "You're crazy if you think I'd ever do that."
"Then I suppose we will just have to kill you when we're done," the hunter ninja replied. "All the same to me, really."
Sakura took another step back. Where was the ANBU? "I'm not about to let you do that, damn it!" she shouted, hurling a kunai - not the one she had conspicuously drawn - at the hunter ninja.
The woman caught the blade between two of her fingers and stared at for a half-instant, looking at the high-powered explosive tag wrapped around the hilt. "Oh, by the way," she said, gesturing at the still silent Haruno. "She can read Leaf sign language." Almost simultaneously with the explosive tag's detonation, the hunter ninja dissolved into water. From not far away, there was a sudden scream - the ANBU.
Sakura barely managed to dodge out of the way of the Haruno woman's swift attack, the kunai she still held warding off the Mist kunoichi's own dagger. As she backpedaled, parrying her foe's rapid strikes while avoiding meeting her eyes, Sakura tried to gauge the woman's strength. She was quick, but nothing Sakura couldn't handle if she got a moment to take the offensive.
Obviously, the woman wasn't going to just provide that sort of opportunity out of generosity. Sakura let the woman's next strike catch her in the chest - or rather, she let it catch a conveniently-sized piece of half-burnt wood she'd used for the Replacement Technique. Her foe didn't seem terribly surprised, discarding her stuck weapon and drawing another kunai before Sakura could attack.
Sakura hurled shuriken to keep the Mist ninja busy as she landed on a nearby rooftop. She wasn't going to give the enemy a chance to recover. Even as the Mist kunoichi parried the shuriken, Sakura was diving at her, claws of flame extending from one hand. The Haruno woman danced backward, expertly sending her kunai flying at Sakura's heart. The weapon passed directly through the Leaf chuunin, and the older woman's eyes widened slightly as Sakura's genjutsu vanished.
Behind the Mist kunoichi, the real Sakura dropped into a spinning kick, sweeping the woman's legs out from underneath her. The woman managed to catch her fall, flipping back to a standing position facing Sakura, but this left her open for a handful of heartbeats. Knowing that she might have even less time before the hunter ninja returned, Sakura didn't hesitate to strike, her kunai slipping between her opponent's ribs.
The woman stiffened as the blade struck home, and then, inexplicably, she smiled behind her cloth mask. "You've become very strong, Sakura-chan," she said.
Sakura's eyes widened. "No way," she breathed.
"I don't know that you'll ever believe me," the woman continued, her voice weakening with every word, "but everything I did was for you, in my own way." She coughed wetly. "I'm sorry. Tell Inoichi -" She cut off in mid-sentence, stumbling backward and falling over on her back, and then she was still.
The ANBU suddenly appeared again, standing over the fallen woman. "I'm sorry I didn't get here earlier." His mask - or one broken half of it, rather - was in his hands rather than on his face now, revealing the silver eyes of the Byakugan. "That damn hunter ninja was a Haruno also." He smiled slightly. "It looks like you did better than me, though, Sakura-kun. Good work."
Sakura didn't respond, stumbling forward and kneeling down to peel the cloth mask back from the dead woman's suddenly familiar face. Tears fell from her eyes, and Sakura made no effort stop them. "Damn it," she hissed.
"Sakura-kun?" the ANBU asked, worry suddenly in his voice.
The pink-haired kunoichi didn't answer. "Mother!" she sobbed, and that was the last coherent thought she would have for some time.
Today had been a particularly boring day, Temari decided as she watched the sun set. In times of peace, border duty was rarely interesting, and being stuck guarding a border as desolate as the point where the Wind, Bird, and Rain Countries met was particularly non-eventful. Even if the terrain had been more easy to traverse, the Rain had been allies for generations, and the Bird Country had no ninja village. There was little to do here other than occasionally ruining some smugglers' days.
The only interesting event in her time here had been when that Leaf team had brought a Sand missing ninja who had been captured in the Bird Country. Temari smirked as she remembered how she had needled the girl she'd fought in the preliminaries. Now, that had been fun. It hadn't been fun enough to make up for the months of boredom, though. Maybe accepting the promotion to chuunin had been a mistake. If she'd taken the exam again, she'd be in the Leaf Village now. If she was lucky, she might have ruined that Tenten's chances a second time. That would have really been fun.
In any case, she was going to have to arrange for Gaara to have some psychotic episodes so that the village council would once again consider it unsafe to not have both of the dangerously unstable boy's siblings on hand to control him. Being with Gaara was unpleasant in many ways and even now carried far too high a chance of winding up dead, but at least it was never boring. Temari hated being bored. Silently, she prayed that something interesting would happen before she wound up committing suicide or something stupid like that.
"Temari-sama!" The Sand kunoichi started at the sudden shout. That was Tenma, one of the three genin under her command, and the one on watch now. Gesturing at the other two genin to stay put for the moment, in matter of seconds she had joined Tenma on top of the rocky hill where he stood. Tenma might have made a bad first impression on her thanks to his fearful descriptions of a Leaf kunoichi stronger than Gaara who had turned out to be that little pink-haired wimp on Uzumaki and Uchiha's team, but he wasn't the sort to call her for every bit of dust on the horizon.
"What is it?" she said harshly, squinting to try and make out what was hidden in this particular dust cloud. The genin wordlessly handed her his binoculars, and Temari peered through them. A single figure, most likely a ninja, was moving rapidly in an evasive pattern, clearly trying to evade pursuit. The blonde quickly began to search for his pursuers, finding a squad of three uniformed ninja following close behind. At this distance, she couldn't make out anything other than that the uniforms were gray, which in this part of the world meant Waterfall, Rain, or Sound.
It was unusual for any of those to be in the Bird Country, Temari knew. That tiny nation usually went to the Rock when its few native ninja weren't up to a mission, as the barrier of almost impassible mountains on their northern border provided insurance against becoming a vassal of the Earth Country. Even though they obviously gave missions to other villages - as evidenced by the Leaf two weeks ago - it was worth investigating. Giving the positions of the ninja another look, Temari judged that the pursuers would catch their prey only a few hundred yards from the Wind Country.
Handing the binoculars back to Tenma, Temari gestured for the other two genin to join them. "We're about to go on a little trip into the Bird Country," she announced.
"Temari-sama?" Tenma asked.
"There's about to be a little fight here, and I figure the Wind Country and the Hidden Sand will probably have an interest in who wins," Temari said. "I intend to make sure the right side wins."
"But how will we know which is the right side?" one of the other genin asked.
Temari grinned widely. "We'll figure it out as we go along," she said. "Now, let's get moving!"
A few minutes later, the Sand team was lying in wait along the fleeing ninja's path, and a few minutes after that he - or she, as it turned out - arrived not far from where Temari had predicted. She was wearing nondescript brown clothing, and though obviously a ninja from the large shuriken she carried on her back she had no forehead protector or other sign of allegiance visible. At Temari's signal, her team rose from concealment. Temari slowly began to open her fan, waiting to see the strange ninja's reaction to the appearance of Sand ninja.
The woman took a cautious step backward, wearily studying Temari's team. The Sand kunoichi judged that she was weighing their combat strength, an unfriendly if not outright hostile move. Temari opened her fan further, and in response the woman drew her massive shuriken. She quietly snarled, "Damn it."
Before anything else could happen, her pursuers arrived, now revealed to be ninja of the Hidden Rain. One, the leader most likely, stepped forward. "A little far north for Sand ninja, huh?"
Temari's eyes narrowed. "Have you got a problem with that?"
The Rain squad leader laughed. "Not at the moment."
"Care to explain?" Temari asked, gesturing slightly with her hand at the strange kunoichi, who seemed almost resigned to her fate.
The Rain ninja hesitated before answering. "She's a criminal, a missing ninja. The matter is classified and no concern of yours, but we thank you for your aid."
Sudden hope flared in the woman's eyes. "Lies!" Her free hand pulled out a Grass forehead protector. "I am Hatanaka Iru, special jounin of the Hidden Grass! By the terms of our alliance, I request emergency aid and entry into the Wind Country!"
"Is that so?" Temari asked skeptically, her eyes turning to the Rain squad. It was not unheard of for ninja of allied villages to come into conflict as a result of missions, but in that case the Grass ninja had no standing to request aid from the Sand, nor would the Rain have any reason to lie. Most likely, the kunoichi was lying to try and save her life. But, then, why did she not make her claim until the Rain had explained their purpose? Temari couldn't stop herself from frowning.
"Do not listen to her," the Rain's leader interjected. "She stole that forehead protector from Hatanaka Iru's corpse."
"Hear me out!" the woman demanded. "I'm -"
"Silence!" the Rain leader shouted, hurling a kunai at the woman's back.
Temari reacted half-instinctively, unfurling and swinging her fan in one smooth motion. "Cutting Whirlwind!" she shouted, directing the deadly gusts around the woman to snare the flying weapon and send it harmlessly to one side.
"Thank you," the other kunoichi gasped out.
"Why do you interfere?" the Rain's leader asked dangerously, drawing another blade. "Do the Sand shelter criminals now?"
"I've got too many questions to decide one way or another," Temari stated. "My squad will take this woman into custody until her identity can be determined. You are welcome to stay with us, and once your story checks out we will give her to you. Is that acceptable?"
The woman dropped her weapon. "I consent." Temari's eyes widened.
"That tears it," another Rain, not the apparent leader, growled. "Kill them all!"
In less than an instant, Temari's fan had swung again. "Great Cutting Whirlwind!" she screamed, sending razor-sharp blades of wind at the three Rain. With a second, subtle shake of her fan, she kicked up massive clouds of dust. "Now!" she shouted.
In a matter of moments, all the Sand ninja had surrounded the Grass woman. "Thank you," Iru said again.
"There's no time for that," Temari said, spreading her fan out on the rocky ground and kneeling on top of it. "Everyone aboard." The Grass kunoichi complied without hesitation, and Temari's squad scrambled on top of the fan a moment later. "Channel chakra to keep yourself on," Temari advised Iru before rapidly forming seals. "Fuuton: Swift Traveling Wind Technique."
A mighty wind lifted the fan, even with the weight piled on top of it. Only a few minutes later, Temari brought the group to a safe landing almost a quarter-mile into the Wind Country. Without waiting for orders, all her passengers stepped off the fan. Breathing heavily from the exertion, Temari got off herself, folding the fan back up and returning it to its place on her back. "Let's get moving," she said. "Those ninja, whoever they really are, could be following us."
"They really are Rain," Iru said grimly.
Temari straightened. "Explain," she snapped. "If you've dragged us into a legitimate fight over conflicting missions, I'll have your head."
"I wish that were the case." The Grass ninja took a deep breath, tying her forehead protector into place around her head. "Yesterday morning," she said flatly, "forces of the Hidden Rain and the Hidden Sound, acting in alliance, attacked and destroyed the Hidden Village of Grass."
"Gods," Temari wasn't able to stop herself from breathing. One of her team said something much more vulgar, and it took some effort for Temari to not follow suit. She forced herself to take a deep breath. "What do you want us to do, Iru-san?"
"I never did get your name," the older woman said.
"Temari of the Desert," the blonde answered.
"Well then, Temari-san," the Grass ninja said, "I would like to request escort to the Sand Village, where I will complete my mission."
"Your mission?" Temari asked, already knowing the answer.
"Now that I know you have no part in this treachery," Iru said, "I will request that the Hidden Sand honor our alliance and go to war with the Rain at once."
Author's Random Ramblings
1) You know how it used to be that every chapter was longer than the last? Well, it's nostalgia time, because this chapter is longer than Chapter 11, which in turn used to be the longest chapter in this story. I really have no idea how this happened.
2) My apologies for the delay in releasing this chapter. On the bright side, a substantial portion of the next chapter is already done!
2) I'm really kind of curious as to how many people suspected the identity of the Mist spymaster. Since I suspect the question of how Amaya could be the spymaster will come up, I'll answer it in advance. The piece of information that convinced Kabuto that the spy had to be in Tsunade's inner councils was that the Mist knew that Naruto was leaving the village in advance and sent warning to the Sound's agents lying in wait the night he actually departed. Amaya knew that Naruto was leaving soon through Sakura, and rereading the first scene of the prologue should make it clear how she learned of Naruto's departure on that night.
3) I also suspect that there will be some annoyance at the relative lack of Naruto in this chapter, particularly after last chapter. Mea culpa: I wanted to have more of his side of the story and him in particular this chapter, but as things turned out I couldn't advance his plot too much without making it come to a climax too soon. Even as is, it didn't look too lopsided in the outline, as I didn't anticipate the last two days being quite so long.
4) As ever, I do welcome any and all comments on this story. Thanks go to everyone who helped with the draft of this story.
5) Next time, in One Hundred Days Chapter 13, The Fire Burns: Jiraiya hunts for the Akatsuki member hidden in the Cloud Village, knowing that with every step he takes he comes closer to becoming the hunted instead. Naruto faces what might be his most difficult challenge yet: alone, against the strength of an entire village, he must find a way to save Kakashi. Back at home, Sakura must struggle to come to terms with what she has done as the Hidden Leaf readies itself for war…
Draft Started: July 13, 2006
Draft Finished: August 10, 2006
Draft Released: August 11, 2006
Final Released: September 02, 2006