Subject: [FFML] [Naruto] One Hundred Days - Chapter Fifteen: The Will of Fire
From: Aaron Nowack
Date: 12/29/2006, 2:06 AM
To: FFML

This is... later than I expected.  I was hoping to be posting the final
chapter in this story by now.  Ah, well.

Previous chapters are available at:
http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2663204/1/
http://www.narusaku.com/library/viewstory.php?sid=6

As always, I welcome any and all C&C.  For various reasons, this chapter
(in particular the latter portions) has been proofread and
sanity-checked less than usual; the possibility of it sucking terribly,
or at least being disappointing, has risen proportionately.

A bit of advertisement: because I clearly have way too much free time
(and a free domain name burning a hole in my pocket) I've set up an
anime/fanfiction blog thing at http://www.smalleyesbigmouth.com/  I
can't promise that you'll find anything terribly interesting there, but
if reading my random, poorly written thoughts and nitpicks excites you,
they're there.

Now I think I'm going to get some sleep.  And maybe after that catch up
on some C&C.

...oh yeah.  The fic!


One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 15: The Will of Fire

***********************************************************************
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, plain old
ordinary squirrels!
***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-two]

        "Are we just going to stand here and watch, Itachi-san?"
Hoshigaki Kisame's sharp teeth almost seemed to glow in the moonlight as
he bared them.  "I say we go in and take the Kyuubi brat."
        "No," Itachi responded flatly, his crimson eyes not turning
aside from the small collection of tents spread out below the hill the
two missing ninja stood on.
        Kisame grunted, his hand shifting on the grip of his giant
sword.  "And why not?" he asked, his irritation plain.  "We've been
chasing that damn brat all around the world for the past three months,
and now he's finally in front of us.  Let's finish this."
        "No," Itachi repeated.
        Kisame hissed softly before carefully replying.  "If you won't
do it, I'll do it alone," he said.  "I've got no intention of just
trotting along behind that traitor like a faithful dog waiting for a
better chance that won't ever come."  Slowly, he lifted his massive
sword off the ground and took a step forward.
        In an instant, Itachi stood in front of him, one hand grasping
the shark-like ninja's sword arm.  "Don't be an idiot, Kisame," he said.
"Orochimaru is there, and he's one of the legendary Sannin just like
Jiraiya.  You're not going to accomplish anything like that."
        "I don't see what we're accomplishing like this either," Kisame
grumbled, wrenching his arm away from his partner.  Still, he took a
step back, away from the Sound ninjas' camp.  "Besides, you've beaten
Orochimaru before."
        "Is he dead?" Itachi asked, his voice completely flat.  Kisame
grimaced, and the Uchiha nodded.
        "So what do you propose?" Kisame asked, still unsatisfied.
        "We wait for a better time," Itachi said simply.  "We still have
almost three years."
        "Unless that snake just kills the brat," Kisame said.  "Then
where will we be?"
        "If Orochimaru wished Naruto-kun dead, he would not still live."
Itachi's Sharingan began to whirl slowly.  "Isn't that true?"
        Mocking laughter filled the air.  "You are of course correct,
Itachi-kun," Orochimaru's voice answered.
        In less than a second, Kisame was kneeling, one hand on the
ground.  "Doton: Sanctuary-Breaking Technique!" he snarled.  Beneath his
large hand, the earth rumbled.  Almost calmly, Orochimaru slipped up out
of the ground, before the two Akatsuki.
        Before the renegade Sannin's feet had emerged, Kisame was upon
him, the massive sword Samehada striking for Orochimaru's chest.  When
the scaled blade touched him, there was a silent explosion of flame that
knocked Kisame back several feet.  When the fire faded, the real
Orochimaru stood before his enemies.
        "It's a shame Sasuke-kun needs his sleep," Orochimaru said,
smiling.  "No doubt he would enjoy showing his elder brother what I've
taught him."
        Kisame tensed, but he relaxed slightly when Itachi didn't move.
"You know what we're here for," the Uchiha said simply.
        "I'm afraid you'll be leaving empty-handed," Orochimaru stated.
"I have my own uses for the brat."
        "We weren't planning on asking," Kisame said dangerously.
        "Kisame."  At Itachi's simple statement, the shark-like ninja
forced himself to relax again.  "And what uses are those?" the Uchiha
asked.
        "For one," Orochimaru said, "insurance.  Akatsuki stays out of
my business, and in three years a deal might be in order.  Interfere
with me, and the boy dies."
        "Your message will be heard," Itachi said, "but you play a
dangerous game, Orochimaru.  You know that our organization has no
patience for such tactics."  His eyes narrowed.  "What other reasons?"
        "It seems the boy has a talent for making people care about
him," Orochimaru said, smiling pleasantly.  "Your little brother,
Jiraiya, Tsunade-hime... the Kyuubi brat is a useful tool to manipulate
them."
        Itachi grunted.  "I see."
        Orochimaru's smile widened.  "I suppose you would," he said.
"So, shall I wake Sasuke-kun and the others, or will you two be
leaving?"
        "Kisame," Itachi said.  "Let's go."
        "Itachi-san," Kisame began to protest, but a simple glance from
the Uchiha stopped him.  Still, Kisame raised his sword, pointing it at
Orochimaru.  "One day," he said, "sooner rather than later, I suspect,
we'll finish our fight."
        Orochimaru smiled once more.  "We shall see, Kisa-chan," he
said, and then the two Akatsuki were gone.  Orochimaru spent a moment
ensuring that they had truly left, then he laughed and walked back down
the hill to the silent camp.

***********************************************************************

        Sakura took a deep breath as she locked the door to Naruto's
apartment behind her.  She idly wished that she knew some sort of
warding technique; now that she knew just why his neighbors hated Naruto
she didn't feel comfortable leaving his home empty and unguarded.  Then
again, as awful as they had been to her, there hadn't been any damage
any of the times she had been gone on a mission before.  Why should this
time be any different?
        Thankfully, it was much too early for any of the neighbors to be
out and about.  There was only the faintest light in the sky overhead,
and a few stars were even still visible.  Had Sakura been able to sleep
well the night before, she still wouldn't have gotten enough sleep to be
feeling well-rested.  With all the worries that had kept her awake, she
thought it a minor miracle she could function at all.
        Those worries threatened to consume her as she reminded herself
of them.  Orochimaru had taken Naruto.  Naruto held the demon fox Kyuubi
inside of him.  They were going to try to get Naruto back, but... Sakura
remembered seeing Orochimaru in the Forest of Death.  She had become
vastly stronger since then, but even so she could not imagine fighting
the infamous Sannin.  He was on a whole different type of level.  Even
with Shizune, what chance could there be of five chuunin even lasting
minutes against him?
        Sakura shook her head firmly.  Thinking about that wouldn't help
matters.  Shizune wouldn't be ordering the mission if there wasn't a
chance of success.  There was no guarantee that they would be forced to
fight Orochimaru himself after all.  Sakura grimaced.  It wasn't like
fighting their way through the Sound Village - which she suspected they
would have to do - would be much easier.
        An involuntary yawn distracted Sakura from her thoughts, and
before she could return to them she forced herself to set out.  The
damaged streets of the Leaf Village were unfamiliar in the pre-dawn
light, but Sakura still managed to make her way to the gates in
relatively short order.  Shizune was already there, along with Shikamaru
and Neji.
        "Sakura-chan," the older woman said in greeting.
        "Shizune-sama," Sakura returned quietly.  "Neji-kun, Shikamaru-
kun."  Neji nodded back at her, and Shikamaru grunted.  There was no
further conversation, and Sakura couldn't say that she was displeased.
What was there to say?
        Rock Lee was the next to arrive, but even he seemed
uncharacteristically subdued.  "You spoke to Gai-sensei?" Neji asked
softly.
        The green-clad ninja nodded.  "Yes."  He grimaced.  "I wish he
could come with us."
        "If he wasn't in the hospital," Shizune said mildly, "he would
be with Tsunade-sama."
        "I know," Lee said, and once more the group was quiet.
        Ino arrived a few moments later.  "Sorry for keeping you
waiting," she said.  "I needed to say goodbye to my mother."
        A sudden flash of jealousy hit Sakura, but she forced it aside.
"Hi, Ino," she said softly.
        "Sakura," Ino said.  Her eyes watered.  "We'll get him back,"
she said.  She grinned weakly.  "If Orochimaru gets in our way, we'll
just have to beat him up."
        Neji snorted.  "Optimistic, aren't we?"
        "Might as well be," Ino answered.  "I don't see how being gloomy
helps anything."
        "All right," Shizune said loudly.  In an instant, all eyes were
on her.  "Haruno Sakura, Hyuuga Neji, Nara Shikamaru, Rock Lee, Yamanaka
Ino.  As you've all been told, this is an S-class rescue mission.  Our
first objective is to rendezvous with Jiraiya-sama and Hatake Kakashi at
the Swamp Country border.  Following that, we will proceed into Rice
Field Country to locate and retrieve Uzumaki Naruto.  Do you all
understand?"
        There were nods and a chorus of "Yes, Shizune-sama."
        "Good."  Shizune sighed.  "Since you are all only chuunin, I'm
required to tell you that your participation on a mission of this rank
is strictly optional.  If you wish to reject the mission, say so now and
no mention will be made in your record."  There was only silence.  "I
didn't think so."
        "I already had to go through all the trouble of waking up this
early," Shikamaru said.  "It'd be a waste if I quit now."
        "Shikamaru-kun here," Shizune said, "will be my second-in-
command."
        "What about Jiraiya-sama and Kakashi-sensei?" Neji asked.  "Will
they be joining us on the second phase of the mission?"
        "I don't know," Shizune answered.  "That depends on what sort of
condition they're in."
        "Understood," Neji said.
        "All right then," Shizune stated.  "Unless there are any further
questions, let's get moving."
        "Actually, would you mind waiting just a moment?" a new voice
said, and everyone turned to see Mitokado Homura approaching slowly.
        "Of course, Homura-sama," Shizune said carefully.  "Is Koharu-
sensei coming also?"
        Homura shook his head.  "Just me," he said.  His eyes swept the
chuunin, pausing slightly on Sakura.  The pink-haired chuunin swallowed
nervously.  "I wish you all good luck," Homura said gravely.  "Come back
safely."
        "Thank you," Shizune said, and Sakura thought she noticed the
older woman glancing between her and Homura.  "Is there anything else?"
        Homura shook his head.  "That's all."
        "Then let's move," Shizune said, and she gestured to the tired-
looking gate guards to open the gates.

***********************************************************************

        Naruto yawned as he sat up, his eyes blinking wearily.  He
raised an arm to rub them, then froze as he saw that he was wearing that
familiar orange jumpsuit that he hadn't worn in a month.  His heart sank
as he glanced around, noting the too-familiar moldy walls and the
fouled, murky water he was sitting in.  A moment later, he felt the dank
breath of the Kyuubi on his face, and he forced himself to stand.
        Knowing that he really had no other choice, he made his way
through the dim corridors until he stood before the massive gate.  He
wasn't able to stop himself from swallowing nervously as he saw the rust
creeping up the metal bars and the charred edges of the paper with the
character for seal written on it.  Twin, massive eyes shown in the
darkness, and the Kyuubi laughed softly - at least, softly for it.
        "What do you want, you stupid fox?" Naruto asked.
        "You're an interesting one," the demon said.  "Even in the midst
of such pain, you fought to keep my power contained."
        Naruto winced.  He remembered the startling familiar green eyes
of the Sound kunoichi Midori.  He recalled the fiery pain that consumed
him, then the blessed darkness that had followed.  "What of it?" he
asked.
        "With my power, you could defeat any foe."  The Kyuubi laughed
again.  "Yet instead you let yourself be taken."  The giant demon's eyes
glowed brightly.  "Foolish."
        "Whatever," Naruto said.  "I don't have to explain myself to
you."  He snorted.  "Isn't about time for you to be telling me that the
only way out is through or something?"
        There was a sudden sensation of terrible power, an almost
physical force that pushed the young ninja away from the gate.
"Remember who you stand before," the demon snarled, and for an instant
its sharp claws were visible in the darkness.
        "Sh- shut up," Naruto managed to say as he straightened, but the
terror he felt creeping in his bones was evident in his voice, and the
demon only laughed once more.
        "This time, I'll let you go, brat."
        "Why?" Naruto asked weakly.
        "Because I know it is only a matter of time until you give me
what I want."  The Kyuubi's giant face pressed against the walls of the
gate, and the gate shuddered.  "Soon enough, you will see the futility
of your decision and throw this gate open yourself."
        "Never."  Naruto tried to put what firmness he could in his
voice, but the demon only gave him a malicious, fanged grin.  Naruto
took an involuntary step back, and then -
        Naruto groaned as he awoke, his eyes blinking wearily.  He ached
all over, so much that it took him almost a full minute to note that he
was securely bound and slung over the shoulder of Yakushi Kabuto.  "Ah,"
the medical ninja said, "I see you're awake, Naruto-kun."
        The genin ignored him, instead looking about as best he could
from his present position.  Kabuto was running, and Naruto could see two
of the Sound ninja who had captured him trailing behind - that six-armed
guy and the kunoichi with the flute.  He thought he could hear more
people from in front of Kabuto, but he couldn't see them.
        "Orochimaru-sama,"  Kabuto called out and Naruto's stomach sank.
If the renegade Sannin was here, whatever slim chance he'd had of escape
had vanished.  "Our guest has awakened."
        Suddenly, Orochimaru was behind Kabuto, right before Naruto's
eyes.  "So he has," the infamous missing ninja said.  "I suppose we can
stop for the moment."
        Kabuto halted, gently putting Naruto on the ground.  "I should
look at your injuries, Kidoumaru-kun."  The six-armed boy nodded, giving
Naruto a slight glare, and went off with the medical ninja.  Naruto
wasn't able to stop himself from gulping as he looked up at Orochimaru.
        The much older ninja smiled, and there was no pleasantness in
his expression.  "So nice to finally have a chance to talk, isn't it?"
he asked.
        "If you have enough time to talk to him," a familiar voice said,
"you have enough time to train me, Orochimaru."  The snake master's eyes
narrowed dangerously.
        Naruto looked around frantically, his eyes finally settling on
the source of the voice.  "Sasuke," he snarled, for a moment almost
forgetting his situation and trying to leap at the other boy.
        Sasuke just snorted, his dark eyes not meeting Naruto's gaze.
"Well, Orochimaru?"
        "There are times when your insolence is amusing," Orochimaru
said mildly.  Sasuke staggered suddenly, clutching at his shoulder.
"This is not one of those times," the Sannin finished, not a hint of his
earlier gentleness remaining in his voice.  "Remember your place,
Sasuke-kun."
        Sasuke straightened, his eyes flaring crimson for just a second.
Then they faded to black and he looked away.  "Yes... Orochimaru-sama."
        "Very good," Orochimaru said, sounding amused.
        Sasuke turned around.  "I'm going to go get some water," he
said.  Without waiting for permission, he vanished.
        The pink-haired Sound kunoichi glanced at Orochimaru, who gave
her a slight nod.  She bowed, then vanished herself.  There was an
expectant pause, and then Orochimaru turned to the other Sound kunoichi.
The green-eyed girl - the one with the eyes that reminded Naruto of
Sakura - grimaced.  "Now, now," Orochimaru chided.  "I'm not asking you
to actually sleep with him, Midori-chan.  Just provide a bit of
competition to properly motivate Tayuya-chan."  He smiled.  "Is that so
much to ask, in return for all that I have given you?"
        Midori made a disgusted face, but after several seconds she
said, "No, Orochimaru-sama," and vanished herself, leaving Naruto alone
with Orochimaru and the last of the young Sound ninja - Jabisen was his
name, Naruto recalled.  He looked quietly at his master and Naruto for
just a moment, then bowed and walked off.
        "My apologies for keeping you waiting, Naruto-kun," Orochimaru
said mockingly, crouching down in front of the bound boy.
        "What do you want, you bastard?" Naruto snarled.
        "Very many things," Orochimaru answered.  "But for one, this."
Moving too quickly to see, he reached down Naruto's shirt and yanked
away the necklace Tsunade had given him before becoming Hokage.
Orochimaru held it up, letting the gem catch the sunlight for a moment.
"I don't know what Tsunade-hime was thinking, giving something so
precious to someone like you," he said.
        "Give that back!" Naruto demanded.
        "I think not," Orochimaru said.  He smiled.  "No doubt Tsunade-
hime will thank me for returning it to her when we meet."
        "You," Naruto growled.  For just an instant, crimson chakra
flickered around him, but then it faded.
        "Wise," Orochimaru said.  "I am not so gentle as Jiraiya, even
if you could manage to summon that power with the drugs Kabuto-kun gave
you in your system."
        Naruto blinked.  He didn't feel any different.  "Bastard," he
said simply.
        "You should be glad I have you," Orochimaru said.  "Unlike
Akatsuki, I have an interest in seeing you live, for now at least."
        "What do you mean?"
        Orochimaru smiled, and he stood, slipping the necklace into a
pocket.  "I see no need to tell you," he said.  "Maybe if you're good, I
will later."

***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-three]

        Shimano Ren was bored.  "Boring" was not how she would ever have
expected to describe being the prisoner of an enemy village during
wartime.  Like she supposed most ninja had, she'd occasionally imagined
being tortured.  She'd imagined holding on to information that was more
valuable then her life, perhaps winning a war by refusing to break and
give the enemy what they wanted.
        She now knew just how silly those fantasies were.  For one, it
was one thing to imagine resisting torture.  It was quite another to
actually be in the hands of the enemy, knowing that they had absolute
power over you.  It was quite another to know, that, childish dreams
aside, if they wanted you to break, you would break.
        The other way reality differed from Ren's imaginings was that
she knew nothing that was worth more than her relative comfort as a
cooperating prisoner, much less her life.  It had been known that her
mission had a high risk of capture, and she and her team had been told
nothing of the greater war strategy.  As a genin of the Hidden Mist, she
knew plenty of minor secrets, but nothing that couldn't be found out
with minimal difficulty by an interested person.  Why should she refuse
to tell the Leaf's ANBU things they almost certainly already knew?
        Her easy cooperation had indeed insured her some level of
comfort, but it also meant that after the first few days of her
captivity the ANBU had pretty much left her alone in the converted
storage room that served as her cell.  She was fed regularly and
adequately, though the food wasn't particularly tasty.  A surprisingly
sympathetic guard had even given her a novel to read, though it had
proved to be a propagandistic piece of trash about the last war between
the Fire and Water Countries.
        She'd still read the slim book from cover to cover at least four
times.  It was amusingly bizarre in its own way.  It was actually kind
of amazing that the author was able to make even her root at least a
little for the Leaf protagonists in their battles against the "Bloody
Mist."  Then again, most of the Mist characters were such thin,
villainous caricatures that it was impossible to sympathize with them at
all.
        Ren spent much of her time wondering just how the current war
was going.  Her captors' tales of unmitigated disaster for the Mist
seemed about as believable as the trashy book, leaving her with nothing
but speculation.  She didn't even know whether the rest of her team was
alive, captured, or dead, and that was the worst part.
        She let out a quiet sigh as she rolled over on the cot the ANBU
had given her, picking up the book once more.  It wasn't like she had
anything better to do than read it again, was it?  As she flipped idly
through it, she frowned, glancing at the door.  Had she just heard
someone moving outside?
        The door suddenly slipped open, admitting a familiar figure in a
gray prison uniform.  "Mitarashi-sensei?" Ren asked, then her eyes
widened.  "No, you're -"
        The door shut silently behind Anko, and in less than a second
she was standing in front of the Mist kunoichi, one finger pressed
against her lips.  "Quiet, girl.  I'm good, but not good enough to keep
the guards from noticing if you start screaming."
        Ren blinked, confused.  "What do you want?" she asked softly
after several seconds spent futilely trying to make sense of what was
going on.
        Anko looked Ren in the eyes for a moment, then answered her
question with another.  "Do you care about your teacher and your
teammates?" she asked.
        "Of course!" Ren said, just a hair too loudly.  "What -"
        "Shush!" Anko hissed.  "Do you know who Yakushi Kabuto is?"  Ren
nodded.  "My sister and your teammates were last seen leaving the
village with him, and he said he was taking them to Orochimaru."
        "So?" Ren asked.  "The Sound are allies of the Mist."  Anko
roughly pushed down the neck of her shirt, turning to reveal three
black, comma-like markings on her shoulder.  "What are those?" Ren
asked, a sinking feeling in her gut.
        "It's called the Heaven Seal," Anko said.  "One of Orochimaru's
techniques.  It grants incredible power, but at a terrible price."  The
special jounin's face was grim.  "Nine-tenths of the subjects don't
survive the sealing.  They're the lucky ones.  The survivors belong to
Orochimaru."
        "And you?" Ren asked suspiciously.
        "He had no use for me," Anko said simply.
        "Why tell me this?"
        "I thought," Anko said, "that you might agree to help me save my
sister's soul, and most likely your teammates' lives."  The Leaf
kunoichi's eyes were hard.  "I know Orochimaru.  He'll give Kimi this
seal, given the chance.  If Midori and Saburo are lucky, he won't come
up with a reason not to kill them quickly."
        Ren shook her head.  "The Sound and the Mist are allies," she
repeated.  "I don't -"
        "Listen to me!" Anko hissed.  "Orochimaru doesn't care about
treaties and alliances.  My sister and your teammates are in terrible
danger, and I intend to save them.  You're welcome to come with me, or
you can stay here and rot."
        "Why should I trust you?"
        "Because I'm about to break you out of here?" Anko asked
irritably.  "Now, answer."
        Ren stood up.  She wasn't certain how much she could believe
what the older woman was saying, but if there was even a chance that
playing along would get her out of here, it seemed worth the risk.
"I'll come," she said.
        "Good," Anko said, walking over to the door and opening it.
        Morino Ibiki stood in the doorway, a grim expression on his
face.  "That was an interesting conversation, Anko," he said.
        The woman took a step back.  "Ibiki," she breathed.
        "I'll give you a chance to come back to your cell and we can
pretend this never happened," the interrogator said.  Ren shrank back
against the wall of the room.  Was this all some theater for her
benefit?
        "If you listened to what I told the girl," Anko said, "you know
I can't do that."
        "Why not?" Ibiki asked quietly.
        "She's still my sister," Anko said.  "No one deserves this."
Ibiki just looked at her, and her hand slowly went to her shoulder.  "I
know what you're thinking.  I don't... I don't think it's that.  If you
think it is..."  Anko trailed off, then swallowed.  "Kill me," she said.
"If he can control me this much without my knowledge, I'd rather not
live."
        There was silence for a long moment, and Ren swallowed nervously
herself.  If this was theater, both of the Leaf ninja had missed their
true calling as actors.  Finally, Ibiki stepped aside.  "You're lucky
that we're so short-handed that you're in the interrogation squad's
custody instead of still with Special Dangers."
        Anko grimaced.  "This is precisely why I said that the
interrogation squad shouldn't have custody of me in this situation," she
said, then sighed.  "Thank you."
        "I'll cover you as best I can," Ibiki said, "but it'll only buy
you a couple of days at best."
        "Thank you," Anko repeated, and then the interrogator was gone.
The woman glanced back at Ren, grinning weakly at her.  "Well, what are
we waiting for?"
        Ren stepped forward, her eyes glancing at the hand that still
covered the strange seal the older woman bore.  "What... what was Ibiki-
san thinking?  That you wanted him to kill you if..." Ren trailed off.
        Anko's grin widened and seemed even falser for it.  "Oh, that,"
she said, fake cheer in her voice.  "It's just that there's a decent
chance that the only reason I'm doing this is because Orochimaru wants
you for some reason."

***********************************************************************

        Yuuhi Kurenai's Team Eight had been given a day to rest after
they finally reached the Leaf encampments.  Hyuuga Hinata had spent most
of that day asleep, recovering from her near-constant use of the
Byakugan since their escape from the Mist-occupied Wave Country.
Inuzuka Kiba had found his elder sister and enlisted her help in giving
Akamaru a thorough check-up.  Aburame Shino had, so far as Kurenai could
tell, spent the day doing absolutely nothing.
        The jounin was glad to be reunited with her own team.  Fitting
into the ad hoc combat squad she'd been assigned to had been difficult,
since none of the four of them had worked together before.  With her own
team, everyone knew their role, and though they'd hardly spoken since
beginning this patrol through the forests around the Leaf encampment,
they worked together in perfect harmony.
        It was interesting to watch the three genin in action, though.
Kurenai had only been apart from them for a relatively brief time, but
there were still changes in the way they worked.  Some of them had been
beginning to become apparent when they'd briefly reunited before the
Chuunin Exam, but now they were glaringly obvious.
        Shino had always been the tactician of the three, but now he was
the commander as well, a subtle but important difference.  Before, each
had trusted their own scouting abilities more than the others', but now
there was a quiet deference to Hinata's Byakugan for looking for where
the Mist were now, while Kiba and Akamaru dedicated themselves instead
to finding out where the Mist had been.  Shino's bugs only emerged when
there was a need for a closer examination of some oddity.
        Kurenai almost wished that they would run into a Mist patrol so
that she could see her students in actual combat.  From what she had
seen thus far, had she the ability she would have had no reservations
against promoting all three to chuunin rank on the spot.  It was
bittersweet to be forced to recognize that they no longer needed her,
but it still filled her with pride.  She'd managed to do it right after
all.
        "That rain last night made a mess of any scent trails," Kiba
grumbled as the four ninja continued their patrol.  "Akamaru and I
aren't picking up anything."
        "Not unexpected," Shino commented.
        "I know," Kiba said.  "It's just annoying."
        Hinata activated her Byakugan briefly.  "I'm not seeing anyone
nearby, either," she said.
        "Don't complain," Kurenai interjected, smiling.  "A boring
patrol is a lot better than an exciting one."  Her students made various
noises of agreement.
        The brief interlude of conversation passed, Kurenai returned to
her musings, confident enough in her students' abilities that she didn't
need to dedicate her full attention to her surroundings.  Indeed, the
more she considered it the more she realized how unnecessary her
presence was here.  That was, of course, assuming that the patrol did
indeed remain boring.  While she had no lack of pride in her student's
combat abilities, if they encountered the Mist they would be facing
high-ranking chuunin and jounin.  Her support could easily be the
difference between victory and defeat.
        "Kurenai-sensei."  Hinata's quiet voice shook the young jounin
from her musings.
        "What is it?" Kurenai asked, just as softly.  The four Leaf
ninja stopped their motion, resting almost invisibly in a large tree.
        "There's a Mist ninja coming," Hinata said.  "He's heading
straight for the camp."
        "A Mist ninja?" Kurenai asked.
        Hinata nodded.  "Just one that I can see.  He's making no effort
to hide."
        Shino opened his mouth, then shut it, glancing at Kurenai.  The
jounin just smiled.  "Go ahead," she said gently.
        "We should move to intercept," Shino said after several seconds.
"I'll send my bugs ahead to investigate."
        Kurenai nodded.  "Right," she agreed, and without further
discussion they began to follow Hinata to the Mist intruder.  Shino sent
his bugs out when Hinata signaled that they were getting close, and when
they returned he nodded.  Kurenai held up a single finger, and the bug
user nodded again.  So it seemed that either the Mist ninja's companions
were well hidden or he really was alone.
        "He noticed us," Hinata said suddenly.  "He's stopped in a
clearing about fifty yards ahead and waiting."
        "Let's greet him then," Kurenai ordered, and moments later the
four of them were on the ground surrounding the enemy ninja.
        He raised his arms, very deliberately not tensing.  "I am
Kurosuki Junzo, jounin of the Hidden Mist," he said calmly, "and I
request an audience with the Hokage."
        Hinata's Byakugan activated.  "He's not armed," she said
shortly.  The man favored her with a hostile glance, but wisely said
nothing.
        "And what is the reason for this request, Kurosuki-san?" Kurenai
asked.
        "I bear a message from Mizukage-sama," the Mist ninja said.
Kurenai only raised an eyebrow, and after a moment he continued.  "I
suppose it won't hurt to tell you.  Mizukage-sama wishes me to request
an immediate cessation of hostilities and to arrange for a peace
conference."

***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-four]

        The Hidden Village of Grass was perhaps the least hidden village
Temari had ever seen.  Situated in the center of the open grasslands
that gave it and its country its name, the village walls - broken in
several places - were visible from miles away.  The Sand and Leaf
Villages weren't precisely hard to see either, but at least the terrain
provided some protection to them.  The Grass Village seemed stupidly
indefensible.
        Then again, considering that she was currently part of a force
planning to attack that village, Temari figured that she should probably
be thankful for the stupidity of the Grass's founders.  There were only
eighty ninja in the attack force, and though they expected the defenders
to be of similar size - the bulk of the Rain and Sound forces being in
the Rain Country defending against the Sand's main attack force -
attacking a more defensible position would have been... troublesome.
        Temari's group was part of a force of twenty Sand ninja who had
traveled through the Fire Country borderlands to search for and rally
Grass survivors.  They had moved quickly, and with the help of Hatanaka
Iru - the Grass kunoichi who had carried word of the Grass Village's
fall - they had succeeded in their mission.  After a few small
skirmishes in the countryside, they were now moving to liberate the
fallen village.
        They would have been spotted miles away, save for the Grass
ninja's specialized techniques that made the strike force practically
invisible in the tall grass.  One of the genin under Temari's command
seemed to be thinking much the same things, as he commented quietly,
"With this sort of technique the Grass could turn these plains into a
killing field."
        "So why didn't they?" Tenma - another of Temari's subordinates -
grumbled.  "It would have saved us all this trouble."
        "The way I understand it," Temari said, "the Rain used some
story about moving the reinforce the Waterfall against the Valley to get
close to the village.  Once they were inside..." Temari trailed off with
a shrug.
        "Temari-sama," Tenma said after a moment.  "I understand that
we're circling around to cut off escape routes, but what's going to make
the enemy leave the village?  There are only a couple of squads assigned
to attack directly, aren't there?"
        "Yes."  Temari grinned.  "But my brother is in one of those
squads."  She didn't need to say which sibling she spoke of.
        "Your brother."  Tenma swallowed nervously, and the other two
genin seemed just as disturbed.  "Is he going to -"
        "I doubt it will go that far," Temari said.  She certainly hoped
not anyway.  It was kind of nice only fearing for her life half the time
she spent with Gaara.  Who knew what kind of relapse a full possession
might spark?  "Let's get moving," she said after a moment.  "We've still
got a ways to go until we're in position."  She smiled evilly.  "Gaara
might get a little annoyed if he had to wait on us."
        Perhaps she motivated her team a little too much, for they had
to wait almost a quarter of an hour after they reached their assigned
location a mere mile north of the Grass Village.  Then, with shocking
suddenness, a massive pillar of sand erupted out of the grassy plain to
the south.  It stood there for a moment before shaping into a gargantuan
hand that slammed down onto the ruined Grass Village.
        "Good gods," Tenma breathed as he stared in horrified awe.
        "I hope the Grass don't mind us wrecking what's left of their
village," another of Temari's genin said, his voice sickly.
        Temari was a little astounded herself - even with a squad of
jounin aiding his efforts, she hadn't known that Gaara could work on
such a massive scale.  Still, she knew better than to let her surprise
show.  "Don't get distracted," she snapped, unfolding her fan.  "We're
right in the path the enemy is going to take out of there."
        Indeed, less than a minute later a young Grass ninja appeared
before the Sand squad.  "You have two Sound heading your way," he
announced.  "Likely low-ranking chuunin.  I trust you will not require
assistance?"
        Temari shook her head, confirming out of the corner of her eye
that her squad was prepared.  "None.  We'll deal with them."  The Grass
ninja bowed slightly, then disappeared into the thick grass.  Temari
waited until she could sense the approaching enemy, then swung her fan
in one violent, smooth motion.  "Great Cutting Wind!" she hissed, and
the blades of wind sliced through the grass toward the Sound.
        One of the Sound managed to use the Replacement Technique in
time, but the other was slower and merely died messily.  "Move," Temari
ordered her team even as she spotted the other Sound reappearing.  The
Sand genin complied, racing to encircle the man.
        After a long moment, he raised his hands.  "I surrender!" he
shouted.
        Temari was before him in less than an instant.  "Not like the
Sound," she said simply.  "I hear Orochimaru has no sympathy for
failures."
        The man spat.  "Screw Orochimaru," he said, "and screw his
village too.  I didn't sign up for this."
        "A recent recruit?" Temari asked.
        He nodded.  "Figured the Sound'd be looking for people like me
after that mess you and them caused with the Leaf."  He laughed
bitterly.  "Never thought he'd try it again so soon.  Guess I should
have hooked up with you Sand instead."
        "Fortunate for us you didn't," Temari said distastefully, even
as she gestured for one of her team to bind the man.  Once that was
done, she casually knocked him unconscious.
        Almost a half-hour later, another Grass ninja appeared, looking
fairly disturbed.  "A prisoner?" he asked.  "I'll take him with me."
        Temari nodded.  "Fine."  She studied his expression.  "What's
wrong?"
        "We're not certain," the Grass ninja said.  "There's a large
force heading this way from the north."
        "Who?" Temari asked instantly.
        "That's your job," the man replied, picking up the Sound
captive.  "Good luck," he added, then disappeared.
        Five minutes later, thanks to cautious use of her fan to cover
the distance, Temari's team was close enough to the oncoming force to
see them - though hopefully not close enough to be seen themselves.
"You have the binoculars, right, Tenma-kun?" the Sand kunoichi asked.
        "Right."  The boy handed them to her, and Temari raised them to
her eyes.
        "Damn it," she hissed as she identified the ninja racing toward
them.  Things had just gotten much, much worse.  If they were here, then
either they'd finally found a direct route through the mountains to the
north - unlikely, since they'd been searching for decades - or the
Waterfall Country was already overrun.
        "What's wrong?" Tenma asked nervously.  "Who are they?"
        Temari lowered the binoculars. Her next words sounded as much a
curse as her last.  "The Hidden Rock."

***********************************************************************

        The Fire Country's border with the much smaller Swamp Country
was not a terribly hospitable place.  Though an Aburame might have been
comfortable with the swarms of insects that occasionally flew over from
the marshy lowlands on the other side of the border, Sakura was not.
Apparently, this particular breed of stinging insect seemed to think
that pink-haired kunoichi were remarkably tasty.
        Ino gave the other girl a sympathetic grimace as Sakura swatted
as a particularly persistent bug.  "Just be glad we don't have to
actually go into Swamp Country.  It just gets worse the deeper in you
go."
        "Until you hit the capital, anyway," Shikamaru commented.  "I
think it's on the only dry ground in that country."
        Eager to be distracted from the bugs, Sakura began to ask, "When
did you go to -" She cut off as she remembered the answer to her
question.  Shikamaru and Ino had been on the mission that had discovered
that the Cloud had captured Kakashi in the Swamp Country.  "Sorry," she
said.  "I forgot for a moment."
        Shikamaru just grunted.  Ino opened her mouth, perhaps to give
some taunt, but she seemed to think better of it, closing her mouth
without saying anything.  For a few moments, the only sound was Rock
Lee's grunts as he struggled to kill a thousand insects with his bare
hands without missing once.  Then Ino spoke, her voice surprisingly
quiet.  "I wonder what happened to the princess."
        "Ino," Shikamaru said, a hint of something Sakura couldn't
interpret in his voice.  Then he glanced sideways at the pink-haired
girl, and she remembered the exact circumstances of the death of the
Swamp Country's daimyo.
        "I'm not that fragile," Sakura said softly, mostly managing to
keep the memories of her mother's death at bay.  She couldn't afford to
break down now.  Naruto needed her.
        Not far away, Neji activated his Byakugan - precisely a quarter-
hour from the last time he'd used it.  "I see them," he said suddenly.
"Kakashi-sensei and a man I don't recognize; I assume that's Jiraiya-
sama."
        In less than an instant, Shizune was beside him.  "How do they
look?"
        "The other man is supporting Kakashi-sensei," Neji answered.
"They're moving pretty slowly."
        Sakura couldn't contain her impatience.  "Let's get moving," she
suggested.  "The sooner we reach them..."
        "Take us to where they'll cross the border," Shizune ordered
Neji, and in a matter of seconds they were there.  The next few minutes
passed agonizingly slowly for Sakura, but finally the two men came into
view.
        Sakura wasn't able to stop herself, and she raced forward to
meet them, taking the weak Kakashi from a grateful Jiraiya, who close-up
seemed rather tired himself.  "Kakashi-sensei," Sakura managed to say,
her voice breaking as she supported her teacher.
        Kakashi's visible eye glanced at her, and he smiled weakly
behind his mask.  "Hello, Sakura-chan," he said, clearly taking in her
uniform vest and her forehead protector - worn properly now.  "I see you
passed the exams."
        Jiraiya smiled himself.  "Hardly surprising, since she's
Tsunade's apprentice."
        Even in the current situation, Sakura's pride was offended
enough that she had to snort.  "Tsunade-sama didn't make me her
apprentice until after the exams," she said shortly.  Sure, becoming a
chuunin wasn't much to a legendary Sannin, but she didn't like having
her achievement belittled like that.
        "That so?" Jiraiya asked, giving her a clearly measuring look.
"I didn't mean it that way, in any case."
        Sakura didn't respond, as they'd reached the rest of the group.
At a gesture from Shizune, she helped Kakashi lie down, and then Shizune
was kneeling over him, green chakra glowing around her hands.  The older
woman cursed as she started to work.  "What the hell were you doing to
wreck your chakra system like this, Hatake?"
        Jiraiya let out a bark of bitter laughter.  "He tried to take on
that Kabuto kid and the Uchiha brat when he shouldn't have been
channeling any chakra at all."
        "What drugs did the Cloud use?" Shizune asked, but Sakura didn't
pay any attention as Kakashi weakly answered.  It wasn't hard to figure
out who Jiraiya meant by "the Uchiha brat."
        It was actually Ino who spoke first, glancing at Sakura.
"Sasuke-kun."
        Shikamaru grunted, mumbling something that was probably
"troublesome" under his breath.  Rock Lee straightened suddenly,
clenching his fists.  Neji's face was hard, and he glanced at the two
young kunoichi, then at the other boys.  Sakura didn't need the Byakugan
to know what they were thinking.  Could she and Ino be counted on if it
came down to fighting Sasuke?
        Jiraiya seemed to notice the effect his comment had caused, and
he looked carefully at the gathered chuunin.  "I'm afraid I only know
Sakura-chan here," he said, giving Sakura another look.  For a moment,
Sakura thought she saw his eyes widen in surprise, but then his
expression was normal again.
        "Hyuuga Neji," the silver-eyed boy said after a moment.
        Jiraiya nodded.  "Hizashi's son?"  Neji just nodded.
        "Rock Lee," his rival introduced himself, and then Shikamaru and
Ino followed suit.
        "You all probably haven't heard of me," Jiraiya said self-
deprecatingly, "but my name's Jiraiya.  I've been training Naruto-kun."
        Shikamaru nodded.  "Can you tell us how Naruto was taken?"
        The Sannin nodded himself.  "I wasn't there, but Kakashi-kun's
told me what he can."  He quickly laid out how he'd been separated from
Naruto, fighting off some other enemy while a genjutsu created by the
Sound lured Naruto away into an ambush.  "They fought well," Jiraiya
said finally, "but they were outmatched and Naruto-kun sacrificed
himself to let Kakashi-kun escape."
        "One of the Sound had six arms, huh?" Shikamaru said, glancing
at Neji.
        The Hyuuga nodded.  "I'll handle him," he said shortly.
        "We're not going to fight one-on-one if I can help it,"
Shikamaru said.  "I'll need to talk with Kakashi about exactly what
abilities the Sound showed so I can work on a plan."
        "Shouldn't that be Shizune-chan's concern?" Jiraiya asked idly.
        Shikamaru blinked.  Then he laughed.  "I guess I'm already too
used to command," he said.  His mirth faded.  "We should still know," he
added.
        Jiraiya nodded.  "I suppose so,"  He wandered over to Sakura,
giving her a careful look.  "So if it wasn't Tsunade-sama," he said
quietly, his voice too casual, "and Kakashi-kun was... indisposed, who
trained you for the exams?"
        Sakura followed his eyes to the bandage covering her snake
tattoo, and unthinkingly her other hand covered it.  "Mitarashi Anko,"
she said shortly.  "And others."
        Jiraiya nodded.  "I figured as much," he said.  He glanced at
the other chuunin.  "Do they know?" he asked, his lips barely moving.
        Sakura nodded.  "Neji-kun and Shikamaru-kun for sure," she said
a moment later.  "The others probably.  I... pretty much made it clear
in the semi-finals of the third exam."
        "I hope no one gave you too much trouble," Jiraiya said
seriously.
        "Not as much as Naruto's neighbors gave me over -" Sakura cut
off suddenly.
        Jiraiya raised an eyebrow.  "You figured it out, huh?  Or did
Tsunade tell you?"
        "I figured it out," Sakura answered.  "Shikamaru-kun knows too."
        "And you're both still here," Jiraiya said.  "Good."
        Before Sakura could respond, Shizune stood.  "I think I have him
stable, Jiraiya-sama," she announced loudly.  "He's going to need
medical care all the way back to the village, though.  I'll take care of
him, if you'll take command here, Jiraiya-sama."
        The Sannin grimaced.  "I'm afraid I can't do that."
        Shizune's eyes widened.  "What?  You don't seem that injured."
        "It's not that," Jiraiya said.  "I'm needed elsewhere."  He
sighed.  "Where is Tsunade right now?"
        "With the war force," Shizune answered.  "Why?"
        "Orochimaru told me he was going to kill her.  In... a bit less
than a week, I believe."  Jiraiya's face was grim.  "I'm not going to
let that happen."
        "And you believe him?" Shizune asked.
        "You know Orochimaru too, Shizune-chan.  Whatever his faults, he
does what he says he'll do."
        "We need to discuss this," Shizune said.  "In private."
        "Of course," Jiraiya said simply.
        Shizune glanced at Sakura.  "Kakashi-san wants to talk to you,"
she said before walking off with the legendary Sannin.
        In moment, Sakura was kneeling beside her teacher, who was still
lying down.  The other chuunin kept a respectful distance away from the
pair.  "Are you okay, Kakashi-sensei?" she asked.
        He grinned slightly behind his mask.  "I've been better," he
admitted.  His expression turned serious as he studied her.  "It seems
I've failed Naruto and you again."
        "Kakashi-sensei," Sakura began.
        "No," he interrupted.  He forced another smile.  "It's obvious
just from looking that you've learned more while I've been gone then the
whole time I had you."
        "I wasn't always as good a student as I should have been,"
Sakura said.
        Kakashi shook his head.  "I don't need you to make excuses for
me, Sakura-chan," he said.  He took a deep breath.  "Sakura-chan," he
said after several seconds.  "Sasuke-kun is with the Sound who took
Naruto."
        "I know," Sakura said quietly.  "I... I think I can fight him if
I have to."
        Kakashi studied her for a moment.  "If it comes to that," he
said, "remember that any technique you show him while he has the
Sharingan active he can copy and use against you.  He'll also be able to
see through most genjutsu."
        "I know," Sakura repeated.
        "Don't look into his eyes," Kakashi added.
        Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from laughing.  At her
teacher's puzzled look, she said, "I've fought doujutsu users before."
        "I see."  Kakashi was silent for several seconds before speaking
again.  "Sakura-chan... if he uses Chidori, run.  I can tell you've
grown, but Sasuke-kun's been training with Orochimaru.  If he's willing
to strike to kill you..."  Kakashi trailed off, and Sakura couldn't
think of anything to say to break the awkward silence.

***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-five]

        Naruto groaned as he woke up.  "Wha -"
        "Right on time, Naruto-kun."  Kabuto's cheery voice was enough
to instantly bring Naruto to full wakefulness.  Unfortunately, with that
came the knowledge that he was once again securely bound and being
carried by the rogue medical ninja.  A quick look around showed most of
the same Sound ninja surrounding them, though Naruto couldn't see Sasuke
or Orochimaru.  "Where," he began.
        "Orochimaru-sama had to leave us, I'm afraid," Kabuto replied,
"which is why I haven't let you awaken until now.  I'm quite certain you
would have been most troublesome otherwise."
        "Sasuke," Naruto demanded.
        "He's around," Kabuto said calmly.  "Trying to avoid Tayuya-chan
and Midori-chan most likely."  Though he couldn't see the medical
ninja's face, Naruto could feel him smile coldly.  "If he doesn't get
over it soon, I may have to take steps."
        Naruto blinked.  "What do you mean?"
        "That's none of your business, Naruto-kun," Kabuto said.  "And
in any case, I believe we're here."
        Naruto looked up, over his captor's shoulder, to see a vaguely
familiar, small structure.  Just barely visible in the dark entrance was
a flight of stairs leading down into the ground.  Naruto blinked again
as he remembered where he had seen it before.  "I know Ero-sennin blew
this place up!"
        His sudden shout drew attention from the Sound ninja, and Tayuya
snorted.  "It's summoned, idiot," she said, then without further words
stalked inside.  Kidoumaru sighed and followed her.
        Kabuto shook his head sadly as he put Naruto down, cutting the
ropes that bound the young boy's legs.  "Given what Orochimaru-sama said
of your performance in the Cloud Village, I believe I can trust you to
not try anything stupid."
        Naruto glared at the man, but he was quickly distracted as
Sasuke reappeared.  Their eyes met for just an instant, then Sasuke
snorted and looked away.  Midori took a hesitating step toward him, but
a glare from the Uchiha stopped her in her tracks.  "I'll be in my
quarters, Kabuto," he said, and then he vanished.
        Kabuto shook his head.  "You should be more assertive, Midori-
chan."
        "Shut up," the kunoichi snarled.
        Kabuto smiled, but there was menace in his smile.  "I will let
that pass this once, Midori-chan."
        The green-eyed girl stiffened.  "My apologies," she said after a
moment's hesitation.  "I... will try."  Her face twisted, and more than
a bit of disgust was plain in her voice.
        "Very good," Kabuto said.  His voice was almost gentle, but
somehow he managed to turn that gentleness into an implied threat, at
least to Naruto's ears.
        Midori looked like she was about to say something, but before
she could a boy who looked about Naruto's age charged up the stairs that
led to the underground Sound Village, breathing heavily.  It took Naruto
a moment to realize that the forehead protector he wore bore the Mist's
sigil, rather than the Sound's.  "Midori," he said, then paused to catch
his breath.
        "Saburo."  The green-eyed girl's voice was frosty.
        "Are you... okay?"
        "Fine."  Midori stared at the Mist ninja, but he didn't meet her
eyes.  After a long silence, Midori looked away.
        Then a woman who seemed vaguely familiar to Naruto also emerged
from the shadowed stairs.  Naruto stared at her for several moments,
noting that she wore no forehead protector, before he placed her.  Then
he took a step back.  "Wh... what are you doing here?"
        The woman raised an eyebrow.  "I don't believe we've met...
Naruto-kun, isn't it?"
        "Yes we did!  You're that crazy examiner woman!"  The woman
twitched, and Naruto backed away again.  Kabuto began to laugh.  "What's
so funny?" Naruto demanded.
        "My name is Mitarashi Kimi," the woman said firmly.  "You're
thinking of my sister Anko."  The way she said the Leaf ninja's name
made her hatred clear.
        Kabuto laughed again.  "Now, now, Mitarashi-san.  You have to
admit that the two of you look very much alike."
        "I suppose."  Kimi studied Naruto for several moments, then her
attention returned to Kabuto.  "What news of my sister?"
        Kabuto shrugged.  "She knows you are here by now, I'm sure," he
said simply, and then he suddenly pushed Naruto forward roughly.  "Let's
get you to your... quarters, Naruto-kun."

***********************************************************************

        Sakura swallowed nervously nervously as she stared down the
cliff side into the Valley of the End.  Knowing what to look for, she
could see the destruction Naruto and Sasuke's battle had caused even
from this height.  In the months since that battle - and in the weeks
since she had last stood here - Sakura had grown stronger.  But had she
grown strong enough to have any chance in a battle that scarred solid
rock like that?
        It wasn't like Sasuke would have been standing still either.  It
was just like Kakashi had said.  She had grown much, but Sasuke had been
training with Orochimaru all this time.  It wasn't hard to guess that
Sasuke would be strong, much stronger than Sakura was.  Probably
stronger than any of the five chuunin on this mission, maybe even strong
enough to give Shizune trouble.  Sasuke wouldn't be the only foe they
would be facing, either.
        "Something wrong?" came Neji's quiet voice, soft enough that it
was almost drowned out by the thunder of the waterfall that lay between
the two massive statues.  It was unlikely that any of the others had
heard him; besides Sakura herself and the Hyuuga, only Ino was standing
at the cliff side, and the blonde was some distance away.  The rest were
farther back, resting while Shizune tended to Kakashi and made plans
with Jiraiya and Shikamaru.
        It had been hard to see Kakashi so weak, and he had only
weakened as the journey continued, even with Shizune's near-constant
attention.  If Sakura had harbored any doubt as to the medical ninja's
assessment that Kakashi needed the treatment only a stay in real
hospital could give him, it would have been gone by now.  Until today,
the way back to the Leaf Village and the way they needed to head had
been close enough that they had traveled as one group.  Now they were
going to need to split.
        "Sakura-san?" Neji said, and Sakura realized that she had been
so lost in thought that she hadn't responded to his question.
        She shook her head.  "Nothing's wrong."  It was obvious that the
Hyuuga knew she was lying, but he didn't press her, instead simply
nodding and walking away, his eyes scanning the opposite shore for any
sign of enemy ninja.
        As though his leaving was a signal, Ino approached, within
seconds standing almost exactly where the male ninja had.  "Tell me
what's wrong," she ordered.
        Sakura forced herself to smile, half-turning to face the other
kunoichi.  "Nothing's wrong," she said.  "I just told Neji-san that
too."
        Ino snorted.  "Don't be even more of an idiot than usual,
Forehead.  If you really didn't think there was anything wrong, that
would be something wrong with you."
        Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from stopping slightly, but
her mirth faded as her eyes went back to the valley floor below.  "I was
here once before," she said slowly.  Hesitatingly, she told Ino how she
had come here before the third exam with Kurenai's team, and after a
moment's further delay she even mentioned how she had broken down.
        "I see," Ino said.  She stared at the valley floor for a moment
herself, her hands idly toying with her forehead protector.  Sakura
stared at it, tied around the other girl's waist, and her own forehead
protector - worn properly - felt very heavy.  "Sasuke-kun and Naruto are
that strong, huh?" Ino finally asked.
        Sakura nodded weakly.  "Yes."  She clenched her fists.
        Ino sighed, shaking her head as she turned away from the valley.
"Don't worry, Forehead.  We'll get them back."
        "How?"
        Ino laughed shortly.  "I don't know, that's Shikamaru's job, not
mine.  He's the genius."  Her expression turned serious.  "This isn't
exactly a weak group either, you know," she said.  "We've got Neji-san
and Lee-san... and you."
        Sakura blinked.  "Me?" she asked disbelievingly.
        There was a pause, and then Ino laughed again.  Though she tried
to hide it, Sakura couldn't help but notice the hint of bitterness in
that laugh.  "You really are an idiot, Forehead.  Yes, you."
        "I'm not that -"
        Ino cut Sakura off.  "You fought Hyuuga Neji toe-to-toe and
almost won," she said irritably.
        "That's not," Sakura began to protest, but Ino kept talking
right over her.
        "Not being able to do that," the blonde said, gesturing at the
destruction below, "doesn't make you weak.  You're probably faster now
than anyone in our class except for Sasuke-kun.  You're good at ninjutsu
and genjutsu.  You can summon."  Ino's eyes flared, but then they
darkened and Ino glanced away.  "If you're weak," she said quietly,
"what the hell does that make me?"
        "Ino," Sakura breathed.  "You aren't -"
        Once again, Ino didn't let the pink-haired girl finish.  "What?
I'm not blind.  I'm here because Shikamaru works well with me and
because my abilities are useful, not because I'm expected to do much
good in a fight compared to you four."
        Sakura was silent a moment, and then she spoke.  "So?" she
asked.  "None of us are that good, compared to that," she said, and now
she gestured at the valley floor.  "I decided a while back that I wasn't
just going to sit back and watch their backs.  I thought you weren't
just going to watch mine."
        "I'm not," Ino said after several seconds.  "I'm not," she
repeated, more loudly.  "And you'd better believe it, Forehead."
        Sakura smiled weakly.  "Good."
        Before Ino could say anything else, Shizune spoke loudly from
behind them.  "Everybody over here," she said.  "We need to talk."
        In a moment, the whole group was together.  Kakashi was seated
on a log, coughing weakly but looking relatively hale.  Jiraiya squatted
beside him, his face grim.  Shikamaru stood next to Shizune, looking
even more uncomfortable.
        "Shizune-sama?" Neji asked after the silence had stretched out
for almost half a minute.
        "Right," the woman said.  "Here's the deal.  I need to take
Kakashi-san back to the village.  Jiraiya-sama also has his own business
and will also be leaving."  Sakura swallowed, remembering the Sannin's
statement that Orochimaru was planning to kill the Hokage.
        "So we're going to be on our own?" Ino asked.
        "Temporarily," Shizune said.  "I will be rejoining you as soon
as possible.  Shikamaru-kun will be in command until then."
        Shikamaru nodded shortly.  "Here's the plan," he said.  "There's
a clan in Rice Field Country that's been working with the Leaf against
Orochimaru, the Fuuma."  He glanced at Sakura.  "I'm told you know them,
Sakura."
        The pink-haired chuunin nodded.  "Right."
        "We're going to travel to one of their fortresses," Shikamaru
continued, "and find out what sort of information and aid they'll be
able to give us.  Once that's done, we will attempt to locate where
Naruto is being held."
        "One of my shadow replications was able to trail Orochimaru to
the Rice Field border," Jiraiya said.  "I've told Shikamaru-kun where
they crossed.  If worse comes to worse, you can track them from there."
        "And I can help you with that," Kakashi said weakly.  He pulled
out a scroll and then coughed again, his visible eye sweeping the
gathered chuunin.  "Sakura-chan," he said after a moment.
        "Yes, Kakashi-sensei," she answered, taking the scroll.
        "You remember Pakkun?" the jounin asked, and Sakura nodded.
"You can summon him using that scroll.  He knows Naruto and Sasuke's
scents, and can probably figure out Orochimaru's easily enough."
        Now Shikamaru spoke again.  "Unless a good opportunity or a
pressing need to rescue Naruto presents itself," he said, "once we've
found him we'll stay in hiding and monitor the situation until Shizune-
sama returns."
        "You all understand?" Shizune asked, and there were nods all
around.  "All right then.  Let's get moving," she said, helping Kakashi
stand.  "I'll be back as quickly as I can."  She hesitated briefly, then
added, "Good luck."

***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-six]

        Kiba was arguing with his dog, Hyuuga Hinata noted as she
activated her Byakugan to scout the surrounding area.  She always
focused on Kiba for that first instant, when she had to focus on
something or be swept away by the sudden torrent of information produced
by her newly expanded sense of vision.  At first, she'd focused on
Kurenai, but that had been before she'd learned of the reason for the
patterns of scars covered by the jounin's clothing.  Now, whenever
Hinata looked at Kurenai with her Byakugan, she thought of torture.
        Focusing on Shino was out of the question.  Hinata was much more
used to him than she'd ever thought she would have become when the quiet
boy had first revealed the nature of his clan's techniques.  The sight
of bugs crawling out from under Shino's concealing jacket disturbed her
no more than seeing Akamaru resting on Kiba's head.  It was quite
another matter, though, to see with perfect clarity each and every
insect crawling around beneath his skin, to count the holes and
passageways they had made, to watch most of her teammate's chakra be
continuously consumed, to be able to see the damage that did to his
chakra circulatory system.
        It was far safer to focus on Kiba.  It was interesting, learning
to read what passed between him and Akamaru.  With the Byakugan, she
could at least partially read the dog's emotions, even if she couldn't
understand him like Kiba did.  With the much more readable human as the
other end of the conversation, she could generally catch the gist,
though.  If she concentrated on the pair hard enough, sometimes she
thought she saw wisps of chakra passing between them, making her wonder
if there might be more to the Inuzuka Clan's abilities than was publicly
known.
        "Hey, Hinata," the boy said suddenly, coming to a stop in the
branches of a large tree.
        The Hyuuga heiress flushed briefly, deactivating her Byakugan
and wondering whether he had noticed her study as she landed smoothly
beside him.  A moment later, Shino and Kurenai joined them.  "Something
wrong, Kiba-kun?" the jounin asked softly.
        "N... I'm not sure," Kiba said glancing at Akamaru, who let out
a quiet whine.  "I need Hinata to focus over there."  He pointed at a
patch of ground not far away from the tree they in which they stood.
"Akamaru says there's something there, but I can't see or smell
anything."
        Kurenai's crimson eyes turned to the younger kunoichi.
"Hinata?"
        "Right," she answered, and the blood vessels around her eyes
bulged as she reactivated her Bloodline Limit.  She forced her way
through the sudden chaos of perception, narrowing her focus on the patch
of ground Kiba had pointed to.  "Nothing," she said instantly, relaxing
her focus and checking the surrounding area for anything suspicious.
        Akamaru whined again, and Hinata frowned.  She could tell that
the dog was very upset about something.  Slowly, she returned her focus
to the patch of ground, and once more saw nothing.  She shook her head,
and Akamaru let out an upset bark.  A flash of irritation passed through
Hinata.  How many time did the damn dog want her to -
        The kunoichi took a deep breath.  It wasn't like her to be so
annoyed at Akamaru.  A third time she focused on the patch of ground.  A
third time, her all-seeing gaze saw nothing.  Reflexively, she began to
relax her eyes, and she frowned again, her hands forming another seal.
"Release!" she hissed, but again she saw nothing, and this time she did
deactivate her Byakugan.  "I don't see anything," she said.
        Kurenai was frowning, and then in a blur of motion she was on
the ground.  Her eyes closed, and even without her enhanced senses
Hinata thought she could see her teacher channeling chakra.  "Release!"
the jounin almost shouted, and then she opened her eyes.  The older
woman started, then almost ran over to the patch of ground in question.
As she stepped into it, Hinata could suddenly see the four nude bodies
that had been lying there all along.
        In an instant, all three genin stood next to their teacher.
"Damn," Kiba breathed.
        Hinata glanced at Akamaru, then said, "Sorry.  I don't know how
-"
        "It's not your fault," Kurenai said shortly, wiping sweat from
her forehead.  "That was a master-level genjutsu.  Maybe even stronger
than I could manage to create."  She took a deep breath.  "It's like a
weak 'don't notice me' suggestion, but many times stronger and nastier.
It doesn't matter what your eyes saw, Hinata, you were just going to
ignore it."  She bit at her lip.  "Who the hell is strong enough to do
this?"
        "That's not really the question," Shino said.  At his teammates'
questioning gaze, he pointed at the smooth, featureless faces of the
bodies.
        "Why -" Kiba began, but he cut off as he, along with the other
two genin, noticed their teacher's sudden fear.  "Kurenai-sensei?"
        The jounin took another deep breath, visibly calming herself.
Her mouth opened, but it took her several tries to speak.  When she did,
all she said was a name.  "Orochimaru."

***********************************************************************

        "I think we're done," Shizune said slowly, raising an arm to
wipe the sweat from her forehead.  The medical ninja seated across from
her nodded, and then the other two made their own agreement plain.  One
stifled a yawn - not surprising, since he had been woken up in the
middle of the night when Shizune and her two companions had reached the
village.  "Let's wake him up then," Shizune said, and she reached out to
disrupt the pattern painted in blood on the floor between the four
medics.
        Almost instantly, Hatake Kakashi, lying in the center of the
pattern, began to groan.  His normal eye opened slowly, and he winced.
"Hurts."
        "We almost had to rebuild your entire chakra circulatory system
from scratch, Kakashi-san," Shizune said.  "It's going to hurt for a few
weeks at least."
        The weak jounin forced himself to nod, glancing in turn at each
of the ninja who had operated on him.  "Thank you," he said.
        One of the medics rose.  "I'll let them know we're done so
Hatake-sama can be moved to a room to rest."
        Shizune nodded, standing herself.  "Right," she said.  "I should
go check in with Homura-sama and Koharu-sensei.  I'm sure they'll want
to see me."  She glanced at the remaining two medical ninja.  "Stay a
moment later to keep an eye on Kakashi-san, and then you can go to get
some rest."
        "Yes, sir," the two responded, even as the third made his way to
the door.
        Shizune followed that medic outside, and she wasn't surprised to
see Jiraiya sleeping on a bench in the hallway.  He awoke instantly,
seeming fully alert.  "Did everything go well?"
        "As well as can be expected," Shizune said.  The other medic
hesitated, then continued on his way.  "He'll need weeks of bed rest,
but he'll recover fully."
        "Good."  Jiraiya rubbed at his eyes.  "I should get going then.
There's no time to waste."  He yawned and stood.
        "You're not going anywhere," Shizune said firmly.
        Jiraiya raised an eyebrow.  "And why is that, Shizune-chan?"
        "For one, you can wait a few hours so we can make sure that all
of Orochimaru's poison is flushed out of your system," Shizune said.
        "True," Jiraiya agreed cautiously.
        "Secondly," Shizune continued, "there is no way you're leaving
me to explain this mess to Homura-sama and Koharu-sensei alone."
Shizune's eyes flared.  "Is that understood?"
        Jiraiya smiled crookedly.  "Yes, Tsunade-hime."
        Shizune flushed for just an instant.  "I'm serious, Jiraiya-
sama," she said after a moment, more respectful but no less firm.  "It
was all I could do to get them to approve the mission in the first
place, and I told them you'd be able to help.  Who knows what they'll do
now?"
        "I said yes," Jiraiya replied mildly.  "Let's go take care of
that now.  I'll stand in the corner and glower at them if they give you
any trouble."  He grinned.  "If worse comes to worse, remind them that
you're acting as Hokage and they're just a couple of old has-beens that
Tsunade just hasn't gotten around to replacing yet."
        "What an... interesting sentiment," Mitokado Homura said from
behind Jiraiya.
        Jiraiya glanced at Shizune, who shrugged.  "You could have
warned me," he muttered, then he turned to face the older man.
        "From the tone of your discussion," Homura said, "I assume you
have bad news, but that can wait until I've had my turn."  He sighed,
turning to Shizune.  "There's no easy way to say this."
        The Hokage's assistant stiffened.  "What is it?"
        "I regret to inform you that we've been forced to designate
Mitarashi Anko as missing ninja and issued appropriate orders to our
hunter ninja squads."
        There was a moment of shocked silence, and it was Jiraiya who
spoke first.  "Explain," he said shortly.
        "We're still trying to find out the details, but it appears that
Mitarashi-san broke out of confinement, freed one of the Mist prisoners
we've taken, and left the village heading for the Rice Field Country."
Homura grimaced.
        "Why was Anko-chan in confinement in the first place?" Jiraiya
asked.
        Shizune answered him.  "During the Mist attack, she activated
her cursed seal."
        The legendary Sannin's shoulder's slumped, and he suddenly
seemed much older than even Homura.  "Damn Orochimaru," he muttered,
half under his breath.
        "I can't believe," Shizune muttered, then trailed off.  She
frowned deeply, then asked, "Which prisoner did Anko-chan free?"
        "Her sister's student, Shimano Ren," Homura responded.
"Probably for something personal, since the hunter ninja would be more
valuable."
        Jiraiya blinked.  "Anko-chan has a sister?"
        "Working for the Mist," Shizune said distractedly, rubbing at
her forehead.
        "You know something?" Homura prompted.
        "I suspect," Shizune said, "that someone told Anko-chan that her
sister and her other two students left the village with Yakushi Kabuto."
        "Why would that," Homura began, then he stopped.  "Oh."
        "That would amuse Orochimaru," Jiraiya said grimly.
        Homura frowned.  "It would."  He hesitated, then said, "It
doesn't change anything though.  It might make it worse, since Anko
would be doing this of her own free will."
        Shizune took a deep breath.  "I want the hunter ninja given
orders to take Anko-chan alive if at all possible," she said firmly.
        "They already have," Homura said irritably.  "We haven't got
enough ninja left to waste one like her if there's even a possibility
she can be saved."  His frown deepened.  "Besides, if I gave the hunter
ninja squad orders to kill on sight, they might just ignore them."
        Jiraiya raised an eyebrow.  "The hunter ninja  squads protecting
a missing ninja?" he asked disbelievingly.
        "They've always been close to the interrogation squad," Homura
said.  "There's no evidence, but I'm almost certain Morino Ibiki and the
interrogation squad were complicit in Mitarashi-san's escape with the
Mist girl."  His gaze turned to Shizune.  "I suspect as soon as he
learns you've returned he'll come to you to try and get you to say
Mitarashi-san is on a secret mission from you."
        "I see," Shizune said flatly.
        Homura sighed.  "Now that that's dealt with, perhaps you'd care
to explain how you managed to misplace my great-granddaughter and the
other chuunin?"

***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-seven]

        Shimano Ren swallowed nervously as she stared at the dark
entrance what her teacher's sister claimed was the Hidden Village of
Sound.  Unless the underground chambers were truly massive, it seemed a
little small for that to Ren.  Hadn't she heard that the Sound Village
was in the northern Rice Field Country near the coast, too?  The Mist
genin glanced sideways at the disturbingly familiar purple-haired woman
who stood beside her.
        "What is it?" Mitarashi Anko asked distractedly as she she
picked up a small snake.  The animal hissed, and the special jounin
nodded once.  "You'll get the sacrifice," she said to the snake, and it
vanished in a tiny puff of smoke.
        "Mitara- my teacher is in there?" Ren asked.
        Anko nodded firmly.  "And your teammates," she said.  "We're
lucky that there's not many Sound about.  No more than a half-dozen or
so people other than your team."
        Ren nodded, but not for the first time she wondered just what
she was going to do here.  The Sound and the Mist were allies, and
Anko's stories aside there was no reason to suspect that her team was in
any danger.  But if they weren't, why would Anko have rescued her from
the Leaf?
        The Leaf kunoichi rubbed at her shoulder, where Ren knew the
strange black markings rested.  "I feel something," the older woman
mumbled, half to herself, "but thank all the gods, I don't believe
Orochimaru himself is here.  We might just stand a chance."
        Ren pushed her doubts aside for the moment.  Regardless of what
the situation was in truth, there was no reason not to act as though she
believed Anko for now.  "What are we to do, then?" she asked quietly,
automatically checking the slim stocks of weapons Anko had given her to
make sure they were all in place.
        "Well, we aren't going to walk in the front door."  Anko smiled
grimly.  "We'll use an earth element technique to sneak inside.  Tell
me," she said, "who do you trust more?  My sister or the boy on your
team?"
        Ren raised an eyebrow.  "Why?"
        "That bitchy girl is with a couple of Sound.  Sparring, it
seems.  My sister and your other teammate are by themselves, though Kimi
is closer to the Sound.  More important is which one you think won't
immediately sound an alarm before we have chance to talk."
        "Your snake got all that?  Wouldn't they have noticed if it got
so close?" Ren asked, ignoring Anko's own question.
        "Orochimaru likes snakes," the older woman said.  "There are
plenty of them in there, and no one will notice another one underfoot."
        "Oh."  Ren was silent for a moment.  "I trust them both," she
finally said.
        "Then we'll go for the boy," Anko stated firmly.  "He's farther
away and much less likely to attack me on sight."
        "All right," Ren said.  "What do I do?"
        "Take my hand," the older kunoichi answered, "and follow me
through.  There's going to be alarms, so move exactly as I move.  I'll
only be able to create small holes in the wards."  She held out her
hand.
        "Right," Ren said softly, grasping Anko's hand.  Instantly, they
began to fall into the earth, and Ren almost screamed at the strange
sensation.  She could feel her body becoming one with the rock and soil,
while at the same time she could feel the earth melting away from her.
The only piece of stability in this sudden chaos was the feel of the
other ninja's hand, and she swam after Anko as best she could.
        "Careful here," she somehow heard the Leaf ninja say, and a
moment later the texture of the earth changed slightly.  Somewhat more
used to the sensations, Ren could feel where Anko had passed ahead of
her and stuck to that path.  "Good girl," Anko said, and moments later
they burst out of a stone wall and into a small room.
        Aoki Saburo jumped away from them, a kunai in his hands.  "Who
are... Ren?!"
        Gasping almost joyfully for breath, it took the young kunoichi a
moment to answer.  "Yes," she said, releasing her escort's hand.  She
glanced about the room, noting the sole, shut door.
        Her teammate relaxed slightly, but didn't put away his weapon.
He stared at Anko for several seconds.  "You're Mitarashi-sensei's
sister," he said disbelievingly.  "What the hell are you doing here with
Ren?"
        Anko smiled.  "I broke her out of prison and we're here to get
you out of here."
        Saburo blinked, and Ren tensed.  His reaction was going to say a
lot about the Leaf jounin's truthfulness.  She did her best to
surreptitiously study the woman.  It didn't seem like she expected a
tapestry of lies to start coming apart, and Ren couldn't imagine to what
ends she would still be trying to hold her story together if it was
false.
        Saburo put away his kunai.  "Thank the gods," he breathed.
        "Saburo?" Ren asked.  Anko had been telling the truth, or
something close enough to it, it seemed.  "What happened?"
        "After the battle," Saburo said.  He suddenly froze, staring at
Anko in horror as though he'd suddenly remembered something.
        "I'm not going to hurt you," Anko snapped.  "If I was, you'd
both already be dead."  She grimaced, looking away.  "I wasn't exactly
myself the last time you saw me."
        Saburo nodded after a moment.  "I know that," he said, his voice
cold, and Ren could tell that his hand was hovering over the hilt of his
recently re-sheathed kunai.  "I know what that was.  How can I trust
you?"
        Ren blinked, glancing between the two.  What was he talking
about?  She swallowed as she remembered how Anko had explained the dark
markings on her shoulder.  "Nine-tenths of the subjects don't survive
the sealing.  They're the lucky ones.  The survivors belong to
Orochimaru," the jounin had said.
        "Damn it," the Leaf kunoichi breathed, and it wasn't hard for
Ren to figure out why.
        "Orochimaru already," she began to ask her teammate, a sinking
feeling in her gut.
        Saburo nodded.  "To Mitarashi-sensei and Midori," he said
grimly.  "Since they woke up, they've been..." he trailed off, and after
a long moment he spoke again, but he didn't continue the sentence.
"Midori's started wearing a Sound forehead protector."  Ren paled.
        "And my sister?" Anko asked.
        "She's not wearing any," Saburo answered, "but... she doesn't
seem to disapprove."
        "Damn it," Anko repeated.  "All right," she said.  "Let's get
the hell out of here before anyone notices we're here."
        "What about Mitarashi-sensei and Midori?" Ren demanded.  "Are we
just going to leave them?"
        "If they willingly accepted Orochimaru's cursed seals, they
won't leave without a fight," Anko said.  "We're in no position to win
that fight."
        "We have to do something!"  Ren glanced pleadingly at Saburo.
        He looked away.  "I don't know.  They're... different, Ren.
Ever since..."
        "They're our comrades," Ren said, and Saburo nodded after a
moment.
        "It'll be risky," Anko said after a moment, "but I suppose we
have to try."  The last sounded more than a little unhappy to Ren, but
the jounin made no further objections.
        Saburo nodded.  "Right," he said.  "Thank you."  He hesitated,
and then he said, "A couple of days ago, Midori came back from a mission
for the Sound."  He stopped again.
        "What is it?" Ren asked, and Anko looked just as curious.
        "Even in this situation it feels like being a traitor," the boy
mumbled, but then he spoke in a firmer voice.  "They brought back a Leaf
prisoner and acted like he was pretty important."
        Anko stiffened.  "Who?"
        "A blond boy, about my age.  Midori acted like taking him
somehow hurt that Sakura girl," Saburo said. "His name is Naruto, I
think."
        The Leaf jounin looked at him in horror.  "Uzumaki Naruto?" she
asked weakly.
        Saburo frowned, but after a moment he nodded.  "I think so," he
said, and Anko let loose a torrent of curses more vile than anything Ren
had heard before.
        "Mitarashi-san?" she said.
        "Who is he?" Saburo asked.
        "You don't need to know," Anko said, interrupting her
invectives.  "What you do need to know is that his rescue just became my
top priority."
        "That important?" Ren asked dubiously.  "A kid about our age?"
        "Yes," Anko said simply.
        "So what are we going to do?" Saburo asked nervously.
        "I can't let you risk things by contacting my sister now," Anko
said after a moment.  "She hates me too much.  But the other girl... if
you think you can get her to leave quietly, you can try.  Just be
careful, and don't push things."
        "Right," Saburo answered.
        "Here's the plan," Anko said, leaving no room for argument.
"Ren, you stay here.  Saburo, you come with me.  Point me in the
direction of where Naruto is being held, then get Midori and bring her
here.  Whatever you do, don't tell her what's going on, and don't let
her leave or sound an alarm once she's here.  Got it?"
        "What if things go wrong?" Ren asked.  "We're kind of trapped in
here unless you can lead us through the earth again."
        Anko frowned, then pulled out an explosive tag, placing it on
the stone wall near where she and Ren had emerged.  She muttered under
her breath, forming a rapid sequence of seals.  "There," she said
finally.  "Activate that seal normally, and it'll blow a tunnel straight
up the path we took."
        "A single explosive tag?" Saburo asked, and Ren had to nod in
agreement at his disbelief.
        "The technique we used to get here already weakened the earth
along the path," Anko said, "and you have no idea how much chakra I just
burned on that."  She grinned weakly.  "Trust me; it'll work."  She
straightened, and Ren realized that she'd be wavering slightly since
finishing her technique.  "Saburo, let's go."
        Ren watched them leave, then after several moments staring at
the closed door positioned herself so that she wouldn't be visible from
the hallway outside.  After that, she could only settle down and wait.
Minutes crawled by painfully slowly, and automatically Ren's mind
conjured up visions of disaster that grew more and more dire with every
passing moment.
        Footsteps sounded from the hallway outside, and Ren tensed.  She
relaxed slightly as she heard a familiar voice.  "- lucky Tayuya-san
didn't kill you," Haruno Midori said said sourly.
        Ren could hear Saburo laugh weakly.  "You would have protected
me, right, Midori-chan?"  The kunoichi didn't respond, and a sick
feeling settled in Ren's gut.  The door swung open and Ren pressed
herself up against the wall.
        Midori came in, supporting a stumbling Saburo.  "Honestly," she
muttered, sounding more like herself than Ren had hoped, "you're such an
idiot, Saburo."  The boy grinned weakly, then shoved himself away from
her, pushing the door shut.  "What -" Midori stopped in mid-sentence,
her green eyes widening.
        Ren forced a smile, but wasn't able to stop herself from staring
at the musical note on the other girl's forehead protector.  "Hi,
Midori."
        "What the hell are you doing here?" Midori asked excitedly.
"How -"
        "Mitarashi-sensei's sister broke me out," Ren answered.  "To
come and rescue you."
        Midori blinked.  "That examiner bitch?"  Her eyes narrowed.
"She's here?"  Ren could sense a hint of fear in her voice.  What had
Anko done to Midori and Saburo after she'd been captured?
        Ren and Saburo traded a look.  "That's not important now,
Midori," the male ninja said seriously after a moment.  "What's more
important is -"
        "Rescuing me?"  Midori laughed.  "What makes you think I need or
want rescuing?"  She raised her hand, and Ren paled at the sight of the
three black, interlocking rings on its back.  "Here, I'm finally
appreciated for my strength, with teachers who want me to be stronger
still, not to cripple me because of their own cowardice."  The rings
glowed a dark purple for just an instant, and Midori spat.  "I don't
care if you take Saburo, but leave now.  Without me."
        "Midori," Ren began.
        "This is your last chance, Ren.  I'm going to have to warn
Kabuto-sama that Mitarashi-sensei's sister is here.  If you're not gone,
I imagine both of you will die, and don't expect me to help you."
        Fury rose up in Ren.  "Is that all our friendship is worth to
you?" she demanded.  "Do you have an idea how Saburo and I have -"
        "Ren," Saburo said coldly, and she cut off.  "Midori-chan isn't
herself.  She won't listen."
        Midori laughed again.  "No."  She smiled.  "I finally am
myself."  She shook her head.  "Friendship?" she asked.  "Is that what
you call it?  I'm supposed to be grateful that you deign to tolerate me?
I know how you both really feel; there's no point in hiding it any
more."
        "Midori," Ren said sickly.  Almost unwillingly, her hand sneaked
toward a kunai.  "Please."
        "No."  Midori didn't bother with subtlety, drawing a kunai of
her own.  "I'm going.  If you try to stop me, I'll kill you."
        Saburo swallowed.  "You'll try," he said, and then he charged.
        Midori snapped into a kick, forcing the boy to dart backward.
Ren came in from the side, kunai in hand.  Midori casually blocked it
with her own weapon, her eyes seeking out Ren's.
        Ren averted her gaze, but the distraction allowed the other girl
to land a solid punch to her gut.  Midori hurled her kunai at Saburo.
The boy flung himself out of the way, but Midori was at the door before
he recovered, yanking it open.
        "Damn it!" Saburo shouted, charging after the green-eyed girl.
Ren followed, readying another kunai, but all three ninja stopped as
they nearly ran into a boy in a dark kimono.
        "What have we here?" the strange boy asked, and his black eyes
flared into a sudden crimson.
        Midori took a step back.  "Sasuke-sama," she breathed.
        Too fast for Ren to follow, Saburo hurled a canister of water
between the pair, forming seals and shouting "Suiton: Water Explosion
Technique!"  Even as the sudden burst of water flung the two aside, he
charged the boy, snapping at Ren, "Grab Midori and run!"
        Ren reacted instantly, finding her female teammate's fallen form
and and grabbing he, placing a kunai at her neck and holding her face
turned away from her own.  "I'm sorry, Midori," she said.
        Then her eyes widened as the girl she held dissolved into water.
Directly in front of her, the real Midori faded into view, her hastily
created cloaking technique discarded.  Her green eyes locked with Ren's
blue ones, and she smiled.  "I'm not," she said.  "Haruno Ninpou: Gaze
of Binding."
        Nearby, Saburo neared the other boy, hands blurring.  Another
Saburo formed out of the puddle of water, charging ahead.  Sasuke
casually sidestepped the clone's blow, delivering a powerful elbow to
the water replication's stomach in response.  Still, the Sound ninja
seemed unprepared for the violent burst of water that resulted, flinging
him back against the wall.  In an instant, the real Saburo was upon him,
a kunai going for his throat.
        The crimson-eyed boy somehow caught the blade harmlessly with
his bare hand.  Saburo wrenched the weapon free, then feinted a second
attack with it before sweeping his opponent's legs out from under him
with a sudden kick.  "Ha!" he shouted, preparing to follow up with a
killing strike.
        The other boy vanished in a puff of smoke.  "You realize," the
real Sasuke said from behind him, lifting the Mist ninja up by the back
of his collar, "that the only reason you aren't dead already is so I can
copy as many of your techniques as possible."
        Midori smiled, her eyes never leaving Ren's - and therefore
keeping the other kunoichi bound by her technique.  "As expected from
Sasuke-sama," she said, but Ren could see and hear more than a little
falseness in her smile and voice.  "Don't kill him, please," Midori
added after moment.  "I think Kabuto-sama would like the pleasure of
teaching him not to betray our hospitality."
        The male Sound ninja just snorted, but he moved to knock Saburo
out with a punch to the back of the head.  His eyes widened in surprise
as a small wall of water blocked his strike.  Saburo slipped out of his
grip, whirling around to face him.  "I'm not out of tricks," the Mist
ninja snarled.
        "Interesting."  Sasuke took a step back, clearly studying his
opponent with new eyes.
        In an instant, Saburo was past him, tackling Midori.  As soon as
Midori's eyes left Ren, she was freed, and she drew a kunai, hurling it
at the charging Sasuke to slow him.  Beside her, Midori shoved Saburo
off of her jumping to her feet.
        Saburo landed smoothly in the center of the puddle of water his
attacks had made, and his hands blurred, multiple watery images of
himself rising around him.  "Run, Ren!" he shouted.  "I'll hold them off
as long as I can!"
        "But -"
        "I let you do it last time," he snapped.  "Go!"  Not wasting
time on further argument, Ren turned and ran back to Saburo's room and
the escape route Anko had prepared, hating herself as she fled.

***********************************************************************

        As soon as she separated from Saburo, Anko paused to activate a
simple cloaking genjutsu.  From the Mist boy's information, there were
very few Sound ninja in the underground complex and the security around
Naruto was amazingly lax.  That was no reason to get cocky, though, and
just wander the corridors openly.  It might have surprised many who only
knew her from her antics in the village, but Anko was anything but
incautious when it came to a serious mission.  That was one lesson
Orochimaru had taught her that she still appreciated.
        Her caution proved worthwhile mere moments later, as her path
crossed that of the six-armed Sound ninja Kidoumaru - one of the two
prisoners she had spent much of the past few months experimenting on
with Shizune.  It took all of Anko's will not to curse in surprise, and
she shook her head as she pressed herself to the ceiling and waited for
the young boy to pass underneath.  He must have broken out during the
mess at the ANBU detention center during the Mist's attack.  Had the
girl escaped too?
        With luck, the answer to that question would prove irrelevant,
Anko thought as she silently landed, Kidoumaru safely out of sight.
With luck, this would be a simple in-and-out mission.  Grab the Kyuubi
brat, rendezvous with her sister's genin, then get the hell out of here
with none of the Sound the wiser.  A cold part of her noted that, with
somewhat less luck, she'd at least be able to use whatever mess Saburo
and Ren got into as a distraction to make good her own escape with
Naruto.
        Another part of her hated that part, but she was far too
practical to ignore it.  She'd come here hoping to stop her sister from
being tainted the way she was, but from Saburo's story she was already
too late.  There was a chance that Kimi might still be saved - at least
as saved as Anko herself was - but that chance was so slim that she
couldn't let herself put it above rescuing Naruto.  There was no telling
what terrible plan Orochimaru had for using the Kyuubi's power, but Anko
didn't need to know what that plan was to know that stopping it was
important.
        Soon, she had arrived at where Saburo had said he had seen
Naruto taken.  Just as the Mist genin had told Anko, a single uniformed
Sound guard stood outside a heavy wooden door, not seeming terribly
alert.  Anko pondered more than a dozen ways of killing the man before
deciding that simple was best.  Suddenly appearing behind him, Anko slit
the guard's throat with a kunai.
        The enemy ninja was a little more alert than Anko gave him
credit for, and he managed to dodge just enough that the attack wasn't
instantly fatal.  Using another simple genjutsu to keep the man from
screaming, Anko finished the job with a more violent blow that severed
the guard's head entirely.  "That was sloppy," Anko muttered to herself
as the head landed quietly.  She kicked at the headless corpse, then
tested the door.  Unsurprisingly, it was locked, but a quick search of
her victim uncovered a key.
        After less than a second's study, Anko tossed the obvious trap
aside and performed a more thorough search of the body.  After a quick,
messy dissection, the Leaf kunoichi was forced to conclude that the
guard hadn't been given any real key.  Either a custom technique was
used to open the door or he hadn't been trusted enough to have access to
the prisoner.
        Wiping the blood from her hands onto her long coat, Anko studied
the door.  It was safe to assume that common unlocking techniques
wouldn't work, and most likely any attempted use of those techniques or
more forceful methods of entry would trigger alarms and traps.
"Troublesome," she muttered, then decided that she'd clearly spent too
much time with that Nara kid preparing for the exams.
        There were way around traps, but alarms were a more difficult
problem.  Anko weighed her options, then pulled out a handful of paper
tags, placing them carefully around the door.  Muttering a few memorized
syllables under her breath, she formed seals, then activated each tag in
turn.  With luck, they would detect and counter any sort of chakra
signal coming from the door.
        A minute's further study determined that there were no obvious
mundane alarms and the nature of the trap that awaited anyone foolish
enough to use the key the guard had carried.  "Nasty," Anko muttered,
but much to her delight it seemed that using the key would actually
unlock the door.  She bent over to pick up the key and smiled at the
guard's severed head.  "You won't mind if I borrow your body for a few
moments, would you?" she asked cheerfully.
        A moment later, she knelt over the corpse, pushing the key into
its hand.  Then Anko took a deep breath and formed a long sequence of
seals.  "Dead Soul Technique," she murmured, and haltingly the headless
body stood.  It stumbled over to the door, clumsily inserted the key,
and turned it.  The spray of acid dissolved both the key and the
corpse's arm, and the array of seal tags flared momentarily, but no
audible alarms sounded.
        Breathing a sigh of relief, Anko let the corpse collapse and
stood.  Careful to avoid the acid, she gently pushed the door open with
her foot and stepped into a narrow corridor lined with cells.  An
instant's inspection showed that only one was inhabited, and the
prisoner - securely chained to the wall - looked up at her.  "What do
you want?" Uzumaki Naruto asked sourly.
        Anko pouted at him.  "What?  No 'Mitarashi-sensei!  Thank the
gods!'  Talk about ungrateful."
        Naruto's eyes narrowed, then widened as they fell on Anko's Leaf
forehead protector.  "You're the second examiner!" he said excitedly.
        "What, did you think I was my sister?" Anko asked.  "I'm
offended!"  Her face turned briefly serious as she study the wards and
seals inside Naruto's cell.  "Nothing too bad," she muttered, then
continued in a clearer voice.  "Give me just a moment and I'll get you
out of there."
        "It'll be a bit longer than that, little sister."  Stepping
gingerly over the fallen guard, Mitarashi Kimi entered the short
corridor.
        Anko spun to face her.  "Sister," she said flatly.  Just as
Saburo had said, Kimi no longer wore the Mist's forehead protector, but
neither did she wear the Sound's.  Anko's shoulder throbbed, and
reflexively Anko's hand went to the cursed seal.
        Kimi grinned, and black, flame-like markings began to crawl over
her skin.  "Are you ready?" the older woman asked simply, her hands
going to the hilts of her two short, curved swords.
        Anko looked away.  "Do you have any idea what you've let
Orochimaru do to you?"
        "Yes," Kimi said.  "He granted me the same power he granted you,
so that we could fight on equal ground."  The markings on her skin
twisted and squirmed, inching to cover more of her body.
        "And you think he just... gave away that sort of power for
free?" Anko asked.
        "Of course not," Kimi said.  "The Sound are short on jounin-
level ninja."  She shrugged.  "In return for this power, I agreed to
serve Orochimaru."
        "No," Anko said.  "You sold your soul to him."
        Kimi smiled.  "If I did, so did you."  Finally, the cursed
seal's markings stopped moving, settling into a dark pattern that
covered slightly more than half of Kimi's body.
        Anko averted her gaze once more.  "No," she said.  "I didn't
sell Orochimaru my soul."
        "Oh?"  Kimi raised an eyebrow curiously.
        "I gave it to him freely," Anko said, "and I've been fighting
ever since to get it back."  She shuddered.  "You have no idea what
you've done.  To yourself and to your student."
        "Midori?"  Kimi frowned, and just for a moment Anko thought she
saw the seal's pattern retreating slightly.  "She made her own choice."
        "You let her make the worst mistake of her life," Anko said.
"You failed her."
        "Enough talk," Kimi snarled, drawing both of her swords in one
smooth motion.
        Anko glanced back at Naruto, forcing a smile.  The boy was
staring at her, and she had to guess that he was more than a little
shocked at what her conversation with Kimi had to have told him.  "Don't
worry," she said.  "This'll be over in just a minute."
        "True," Kimi agreed, slamming into her sister and plunging one
of her swords into Anko's gut.
        Anko erupted into a pillar of smoke, and kunai in hand the real
Anko flew at Kimi.  The former Mist jounin easily parried the blow,
spinning into a kick that sent her sister crashing into one of the bars
of one of the empty cells.  "You're too -"
        Anko's hand flicked, and a handful of shuriken flew at Kimi.
The older woman casually swatted them aside with a sword, but by then
Anko had recovered.  The Leaf jounin's hands blurred.  "Katon: Fireball
Technique!"
        Kimi vanished as the flames rushed at her, reappearing on the
ceiling above her sister.  Anko rolled away, but not fast enough to
avoid Kimi's hurled sword entirely.  The younger sister clutched at her
slightly wounded shoulder, and Kimi smiled.  "- slow," she finished,
dropping to the ground and tossing her second sword at Anko.
        Anko sidestepped the projectile and reached for a kunai.  "Look
out!" Naruto shouted, and Anko rolled aside again just in time to avoid
being decapitated by the sword's return path.
        Kimi caught the spinning blade by the hilt.  "Almost had you,"
she said playfully.
        Anko formed a seal with one hand, rising into sudden pounce.
"Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" she shouted, flames extending from
between the fingers of her other hand.
        Kimi grinned, tossing her blade aside and growing fiery talons
of her own to match, parrying Anko's.  "You won't win that way," she
said, and the seal her other hand formed shifted slightly.  Kimi's
flames grew brighter, pushing through Anko's technique.
        Anko grinned, then vanished, her flames disappearing instantly.
Kimi stumbled forward, and when Anko reappeared behind her, she wasn't
able to react fast enough.  Anko's hands blurred, and then she laid one
on Kimi's shoulder.  "Sorry," she said.
        Kimi stumbled forward again, but she only laughed.  "Kabuto
thought you would try that," she said, thick, ominous chakra swirling
around her.  She spun to face Anko, and now her eyes had been replaced
by inhuman yellow orbs.  "And he said to tell you that they aren't that
stupid."
        Anko cursed, jumping away from Kimi, but a quick Claw of the
Fire Dragon caught her in mid-air.  Kimi was upon the Leaf ninja before
she could recover, and the rest of the fight was nothing but a blur of
pain for Anko.  The next time she could think coherently, she was on the
ground, barely able to move.
        Kimi stood ominously over her, but her eyes had returned to
normal and the cursed seal's marks slowly retreated.  "I would kill
you," she said, "but you haven't suffered enough yet, Anko-chan."  She
smiled.  "Kabuto's promised to help me break you.  Maybe once we're done
we'll have you kill that Sakura girl.  Wouldn't that be fun?"
        "Sakura-chan?!" At the boy's panicked exclamation, Kimi started
and turned at Naruto, as though she had forgotten he was there.
        "You know her?" Kimi asked.  "Oh, yes.  You were teammates,
weren't you?"  Anko struggled to rise, but her body failed her.
        "Out of my way," a new voice said roughly.  "Kabuto wants this
one in a cell."
        Anko managed to raise her head, and through her blurring vision
managed to make out a familiar boy, another boy slung unmoving over his
shoulder.  "Uchiha... Sasuke," Anko managed to get out.
        The boy glanced at her for just a moment, but showed no
reaction.  "Well?" he said to Kimi.
        "Sasuke!"  Anko could hear Naruto struggling against his chains,
but the other boy didn't respond.
        "Saburo," Kimi said softly.  "What happened?"
        Sasuke shrugged.  "He and some other girl from the Mist were
fighting Midori," he said simply.  "Now, get out of my way."
        Kimi stepped aside, and Sasuke pushed past her, but her eyes
went to Anko.  "Ren?" she asked.  Sasuke grunted, and Kimi shook her
head.  She roughly picked Anko up.  "It seems there are some questions I
have for you," she commented, and then Anko finally lost consciousness.

***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-eight]

        "This is as far as I'm allowed to go," Fuuma Sasame told the
five Leaf chuunin.
        Sakura glanced around the small crossroads.  Along the main road
they'd been following, in the distance a tiny village was visible.
Sakura swallowed as she noticed that it was in fact the ruins of a tiny
village she was looking at, and she quickly turned her attention to the
narrow path that lead into the dark, wooded hills to the east.  That was
where they would be going.
        Shikamaru nodded at the young Fuuma kunoichi who had escorted
them here, saying, "This is where your scouts saw the Sound party?" he
asked.
        Sasame returned the nod.  "Yes."  She paused, then added.  "I
wish we... I wish I could do something to help you."  The Fuuma Clan's
aid had been less extensive than the Leaf had hoped - the bulk of the
clan's strength apparently being in the north of the country helping an
allied clan defend itself from clans loyal to the Hidden Sound.  The
Fuuma had given the five Leaf chuunin fresh supplies and weapons, but
had not offered any ninja to join their mission.
          "You've helped by showing us where to start our search,"
Shikamaru said.
        Sasame glanced at Sakura before responding.  "Naruto helped me
much more," she said sadly.  "I wish you all luck."
        "Thank you," Rock Lee responded, and with a deep bow the Fuuma
kunoichi vanished.
        "Not that that's done," Shikamaru said, "let's get started.
Neji?"
        "Yes."  The Hyuuga formed a seal, activating his Byakugan.
"Nobody in the woods," he reported an instant later.  "I don't see any
sign that anyone's been through recently, but I'm no woodsman."
        "I don't think the Fuuma have any reason to mislead us," Ino
said cautiously.
        "They are Rice Field ninja," Shikamaru said.
        Sakura shook her head violently.  "They have almost as much
reason to hate Orochimaru as we do," she said.  "I've seen what he's
done to them and to this country."
        Neji nodded, and when Lee gave him a questioning look the Hyuuga
simply pointed at the nearby ruined village.  Lee paled slightly,
letting out a quiet, "Oh."
        Shikamaru's gaze also followed Neji's finger.  "How recent?" he
asked.
        Neji hesitated.  "A few months, maybe," he answered.
        "That would make sense if the Sound relocated their hidden
compound here after Jiraiya-sama destroyed the old one," Shikamaru said
with a glance at Sakura.  "And if the Fuuma were trying to betray us, it
would make more sense to lead us into an ambush instead of just dropping
us off in the middle of nowhere."
        "So what now?" Neji asked, relaxing his eyes.  "Do we wait for
Shizune-sama?"
        Shikamaru shook his head.  "Let's try and find the Sound
compound."  He paused, then said, "Sakura."
         "Yes?"
        "The scroll Kakashi-sensei gave you," Shikamaru said.  "I think
it's time to use it."
        Sakura nodded.  "Right."  She pulled out and unrolled the
scroll, glancing briefly at the unfamiliar characters.  "I don't know
how much of my chakra this will take," she said, "so I might be out of
it for a little while."
        "That's fine," Shikamaru said.
        Sakura bit at her thumb, pressing down until she drew blood,
then smeared her blood over the unrolled scroll.  Ignoring the minor,
familiar pain, she quickly formed seals.  "Summoning Technique!"  She
wavered as a brief weariness passed through her, but it was gone by the
time the small cloud of white smoke had vanished, revealing Pakkun.
        "Sakura," the small dog said, nodding his head in greeting.  He
sniffed, gave the girl a puzzled glance, then said, "You changed your
shampoo."
        Sakura forced a smile.  "I guess so."
        Pakkun glanced about, then returned his gaze to Sakura.  "What
do you need?"
        "Naruto... and maybe Sasuke-kun should have been here not long
ago," she answered.  "We need to follow their trail."
        "I understand," the dog said, and he began to sniff around the
area.
        Ino walked up to Sakura's side.  "'You changed your shampoo?'"
she asked, amusement in her voice.
        "I don't want to talk about it," Sakura said shortly.
        Ino smiled.  "Oh, this must be good," she said.  "Maybe I'll ask
the dog about it."
        Fortunately for Sakura, Pakkun spoke suddenly.  "They were here
all right," he said.  "Naruto, Sasuke, and five other scents I don't
recognize."  He sniffed at the air again.  "Some of them smell a little
familiar, but I can't place them."
        "Can you follow them?" Shikamaru asked.
        "Of course," the dog answered, sounding a little offended.
        "Then let's go," Shikamaru said, and without further discussion
the team followed Pakkun into the trees, but not along the small dirt
path.  Instead the dog lead them straight into the thickest-seeming part
of the woods.  It wasn't surprising, Sakura decided.  If she'd been
responsible for deciding where to put a hidden base, it wouldn't be
along such an obvious path.
        It was almost an hour later when Pakkun stopped suddenly,
landing atop a thick tree branch and waiting for the ninja to catch up
with him.  Sakura was grateful for the rest, as she was much more tired
than she ordinarily would have been; most likely, she thought, keeping
Pakkun summoned was draining her chakra.
        "Did you lose the trail?" Shikamaru asked the dog worriedly.
        "Of course not," Pakkun replied with a snort.  "I just thought
you might want to know that there's a girl ahead."
        "A girl?" Shikamaru asked.
        "Not one of the scents we've been following," Pakkun said.  "I
don't recognize her at all."
        "Neji?" Shikamaru asked.
        "Right."  The Hyuuga prodigy formed a seal.  "Byakugan!"  Then
he frowned.
        "What is it?" Lee asked.
        "It's Shimano."
        "Shimano?" Lee asked, sounding confused.
        Sakura blinked.  "Shimano Ren?  Didn't we capture her?"
        Shikamaru nodded.  "You're sure it's her?"
        "Certain," Neji said, breaking the seal and deactivating his
Bloodline Limit.  "We're also close enough that I saw the Sound
compound.  Or what's probably it."
        Pakkun nodded.  "I should be going then," he said, and he
disappeared in a puff of smoke.
        "This is the Mist girl I fought in the exam, right?" Ino asked.
When Sakura nodded, the blonde frowned.  "What's she doing here?"
        "I don't know," Shikamaru said irritably.  "She's supposed to be
being interrogated by ANBU."
        "So what are we going to do?" Ino asked.
        "There's nobody else around?" Shikamaru asked Neji.
        The Hyuuga shook his head.  "Not above ground, at least," he
answered.  He hesitated, then said, "Shimano is hiding.  I'd say from
the Sound."
        "The Sound are working with the Mist, aren't they?" Lee asked.
        "This is troublesome," Shikamaru muttered, but then he spoke in
a clearer voice.  "There's an easy way to find out what she's doing
here," he said.  "She's not going to be any danger to the five of us if
we aren't stupid."
        Less than a minute later, the five Leaf ninja had quietly
encircled the apparently oblivious Ren, who sat with her back to a large
tree stump.  After observing her for several moments to ensure that
there was no trap, at Shikamaru's signal Sakura leapt down from the
trees to land in front of the Mist kunoichi.
        Ren's eyes widened slightly, but she made no move to stand.
"Sakura-san," Ren said softly.
        "Ren-san," Sakura said.
        "If I think about it," Ren said, "I'm not surprised that you're
here."
        "I can't say the same," Sakura replied.
        "Then I suppose you weren't chasing Anko-san and me," Ren
replied tiredly.  "You must be after the boy Saburo told us about."
        "Mitarashi-sensei is here?" Sakura asked.
        Ren nodded.  "She broke me out of ANBU's jail," she said.  "Told
me some story about my team and... my Mitarashi-sensei being in danger
because of Orochimaru.  Wanted me to help her rescue them."
        "And?" Sakura prompted.
        "Anko-san was right," Ren said.  "We went in there and found
Saburo, and he told us Orochimaru gave Midori and Mitarashi-sensei some
sort of cursed seal.  Anko-san went to rescue some Leaf prisoner Saburo
knew about, and we went to try and get Midori out of there.  She fought
us and Saburo stayed behind so I could escape.  I don't know what
happened to Anko-san."
        It didn't seem to Sakura that the other girl was lying.  It
seemed that Neji's Byakugan-aided observation agreed with her, because
an instant later the other four Leaf ninja joined Sakura on the ground.
Ren didn't seem terribly surprised.  "So am I your prisoner?" Ren asked.
        "Perhaps," Shikamaru said, "but it sounds like we have a common
enemy here."
        Ren nodded slowly and stood.  "I believe we do."

***********************************************************************

        Yakushi Kabuto did not require much of the young Sound ninja
currently under his command, in his opinion.  He demanded absolute
obedience, of course, but he didn't think that terribly unusual.  He
insisted that both the absent Orochimaru and himself be treated with
respect, which was more difficult for certain ninja than for others.  He
absolutely prohibited serious infighting, though he was more than
willing to look the other way when a sparring session turned a tad more
violent than would have been acceptable in the Leaf Village.
        The one thing, however, that he knew caused the most griping
behind his back was his standing order that the five ninja eat the
evening meal together with him.  He told them that it was to encourage
them to develop a group identity as a team and to take the place of any
more formal group meeting.  Those explanations were true, to a certain
extent, but the main reason Kabuto required the group dinner was because
it was amusing.
        Uchiha Sasuke, as always, said nothing and ate silently - almost
as perfectly silent as Jabisen, who couldn't talk at all because of the
uncontrollable nature of his Bloodline Limit. By Orochimaru's command he
was nominally the leader of the five.  It wasn't a choice Kabuto would
have made, but it was not his place to dispute his master's will.  The
Uchiha gave - quite accurately, in Kabuto's opinion - every impression
of wanting nothing to do with his companions.
        As they had been ordered, the two kunoichi among the team were
having none of that.  "Do you want some more rice?" Tayuya asked Sasuke,
but he just grunted in response.  Kabuto had to resist the urge to laugh
at the visible effort Tayuya put into not exploding at the boy.
        The scene got only more amusing as Midori reluctantly inserted
herself into it, interpreting the Uchiha's grunt as a "yes" and moving
to serve the theoretical target of her affections.  Sasuke stopped her
with a glare, and after a moment Midori muttered a quiet, "Sorry."
Tayuya snorted, and Midori gave her a glare to match the one she had
just received.  "What's so funny?" she snarled.
        "You," Tayuya said simply, and now it was Midori who was forced
to visibly restrain herself.  Kabuto didn't show it, but it took him
quiet a lot of effort not to burst into laughter.  For all that neither
girl - to the best of his knowledge - liked Sasuke at all, they
certainly had developed what seemed a very real rivalry over him.
        Kidoumaru coughed once, diverting the girls' attention from the
brewing argument.  "Um," he said, clearly not having planned ahead
enough to know what change of topic he was going to introduce.  After an
instant too long, he turned to Kabuto.  "What about that Leaf bitch that
was caught yesterday?" he asked.  "I - and I imagine Tayuya - would like
words with her."
        "Damn straight," Tayuya growled.  "I'll show her my
interrogation techniques."
        Mitarashi Kimi - who for some reason of her own chose to dine
with Kabuto and the younger ninja - frowned.  "My sister?  Why?"
        "She decided that we were good for 'medical research,'" Tayuya
responded.  "She owes us."
        "Medical research?" Kimi frowned.  "She never struck me as the
medical ninja type."
        Tayuya's hand went to the back of her neck and Kidoumaru covered
his own cursed seal.  Kabuto smiled.  "Your sister most likely has a
very specific, narrow interest in the field," he said.
        Kimi's eyes widened.  "Oh," she said, her frown deepening
briefly before vanishing from her face.
        "That reminds me, though," Kabuto said.  "It seems this other
student of yours isn't dumb enough to try coming in here alone, Kimi-
san.  I had Jabisen do a quick search for her this morning, but he
didn't find anything."  The silent boy made a quick apology in the
Sound's sign language, or at least as much of one as the limited
vocabulary available allowed.
        "I'll look for her," Midori offered quietly.  "I know her."
Kabuto glanced at her, wondering whether she wanted to find Ren because
of some grudge or to ensure her former teammate escaped capture.
        "No."  It was Kimi who spoke.  "I'll take care of it."
        Kabuto turned to the woman, wondering much the same thing he had
about Midori.  The jounin was - as expected - hard to read, and dealing
with her was difficult.  She had agreed to serve Orochimaru, but she
hadn't formally sworn to the Hidden Sound, nor had the renegade Sannin
bothered to explicitly place her under Kabuto's command.  Regardless of
the truth of her situation, she still saw Orochimaru as her ally, not
her master.  After a moment, he let out a non-committal grunt.
        "I'd be a fool to plan a betrayal at this stage," Kimi said.
        Kabuto smiled, remembering that the at-the-time Mist jounin had
said the same thing at their first meeting.  "Very well," he said.  Kimi
was right; it was hard to see what damage she could do with this.
Besides, it would be a worthwhile test.
        Kimi nodded.  "Thank you," she said, and her gratitude seemed
genuine.

***********************************************************************

[Day Ninety-nine]

        Ren was much easier to find than Mitarashi Kimi had expected.
The Mist genin stood in the center of an empty clearing, and Kimi spent
several minutes circling the clearing looking for the trap every
instinct told her to expect.  Part of her wanted to laugh at the
caution.  Ren was not only a genin, but a genin who had learned
everything she knew from Kimi herself.  What possible danger could she
be?
        Still, Kimi wasn't the type to ignore such a hunch entirely, and
so she searched in vain for a hidden trap.  Finding none, she finally
entered the clearing, not bothering to hide her approach.  "Sloppy,
Ren," she said.  "One would almost think you wanted to be found."
        "I did, Mitarashi-sensei," Ren said in the soft yet strong voice
that meant she was facing a potential enemy.
        "Foolish."  Kimi smirked.  "If I had been one of my... allies,
you would probably be dead."
        "That's why you made sure it was you who came, wasn't it
Mitarashi-sensei?" Ren said.
        "I don't want to kill you, Ren," Kimi said.  "You've always been
my true student, the heir to my techniques."
        Ren's face was smooth.  "I know."  She smiled for just a second.
"I don't want you to kill me either, Mitarashi-sensei."
        "Good."  Kimi took a step closer, careful not to make it appear
threatening.  "Come with me.  The others won't harm you if I vouch for
you."
        "And Saburo?" Ren asked.
        "We'll help him as best we can," Kimi said.  "With your help,
I'm sure Midori and I can convince him to see reason."
        "To join the Sound?"
        "I suppose," Kimi replied with a shrug.  "I doubt they care
whether they have his formal allegiance, just that he not fight against
them again."
        Ren was silent for a long moment.  "Why, Mitarashi-sensei?"
        Kimi blinked.  "It isn't obvious?  They can't afford to shelter
an enemy in -"
        "Not that!" Ren snapped, abandoning her quiet tone.  "Why did
you betray the Mist?"  Kimi didn't answer.  "Why, Mitarashi-sensei?"
        "You wouldn't understand," Kimi said, her voice distant.
"You've never lost anything, Ren.  Not like I've lost.  My family, my
entire clan were slaughtered by the Sand and the Leaf.  My sister
betrayed us all by joining them."  She paused.  "The Mist were always
just a tool to further my vengeance.  Orochimaru's Sound provides a
better tool."
        "Am I just a tool?" Ren asked, quiet again.
        "Of course not."  Kimi frowned.  "Listen to me, Ren, I -"
        "And what about whoever you killed to earn this?" The genin
gestured at her forehead protector.  "Were they just a tool?"
        There was silence for almost half a minute.  Then, from
somewhere, Kimi pulled out her forehead protector.  She stared at it, as
though it was unfamiliar to her.  "You know," she said, "I've quite
forgotten his name," she said sadly.  "It's not something you'd think I
would forget, but the human mind does odd things to protect itself."
        "Who was he?" Ren asked.
        "A retainer of the Mitarashi Clan," Kimi said distantly.  "The
only survivor I was able to find, the one who suggested we flee to the
Water Country and join the Mist together."  She shook her head.  "I
haven't thought of him in ages."  Kimi gave the forehead protector a
last look, then slowly tossed it aside.  "He let me kill him," she
added.
        "For your vengeance?" Ren asked.
        Kimi nodded.  "Yes."  She smiled sadly.  "He would want this, I
think."
        "You said," Ren stated, "that I had never lost anything."  She
shook her head.  "You're wrong."
        "Oh?" Kimi asked.
        "From the little I've seen of Midori," Ren said, "I've lost a
friend."  She paused, her hand hovering over where Kimi knew she kept
kunai.  "Now it seems I've lost a teacher as well."
        Kimi sighed.  "I really didn't want to do this," she said, and
then she was behind Ren.  There was a flash of steel as one of the
jounin's swords caught her student in the throat.  Ren erupted into a
thick pillar of black smoke.  "Shadow Smoke Evasion?" Kimi asked.  "You
don't expect that to work on me, do you?"
        She tossed her weapon, and Ren grunted as it hit her in the
stomach, then vanished in another eruption of black smoke.  "Tiresome,"
Kimi said as Ren charged out from behind a tree.
        "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Ren shouted, fiery tendrils
springing from her hand as she neared her teacher.  "Futile," Kimi said,
catching her returning weapon and hurling it into Ren's chest in one
smooth motion.
        The blade passed through the genin, and Kimi started.
"Genjutsu?" she asked, turning to another Ren charging at her with a
Claw of the Fire Dragon.  Once more her sword returned to her and once
more she threw it at her student.  Again, it passed through Ren, but
this time there was a brief wavering and Ren was slightly to the left of
where he had been before.
        Kimi's eyes widened. "You're -"
        Dropping the Transformation Technique, Haruno Sakura slammed
into the jounin, fiery talons clawing at her foe.  In an instant, Kimi
was replaced by a large log, and the jounin reappeared in the air above
Sakura.  "When -"
        The real Ren flew at her teacher, summoning her own claws of
fire.  Kimi twisted in mid-air, blocking her student's attack with the
same technique, then pushing herself away.  She landed atop a nearby
tree.  "What is this?" she asked, staring at the two younger kunoichi.
        "The end," Yamanaka Ino declared, standing atop an adjacent tree
and holding a seal.  "Paralysis -"
        Kimi hurled herself away, rolling as she hit the ground.  A blur
and disturbed dust was all that could be seen of Rock Lee as he charged
her.  Still, Kimi was not a jounin for nothing.  She was standing before
the taijutsu expert had closed half the distance, her foot sketching a
line in the dirt before her.  "Katon: Fire Dragon Barrier!"
        Impossibly, Lee stopped instantly as fiery dragons erupted from
the earth, forming a blazing wall to block his path.  Not slowing in the
slightest, he dashed to one side, going around the wall and appearing
behind the jounin.  Kimi barely had time to half-spin and raise her arms
to block before the boy was upon her.  "Leaf Whirlwind!"
        The blow sent Kimi skidding back, and as she recovered she
realized that Hyuuga Neji was standing directly behind her.  She froze
for just a moment.  "Eight Divination Signs," Neji intoned softly.
"Sixty-four Palms of the Hand.  Two strikes!"  Both blows hit Kimi
squarely.  "Four strikes!"
        There was an eruption of dark smoke and Neji's blows struck
nothing but air.  When Kimi reappeared, she was behind the boy.  "Die!"
she screamed, flames springing from her hands.
        "Heavenly Spin!"  Neji's chakra shattered the claws of flame,
sending Kimi flying away.
        Sakura was waiting for her, hands already forming seals.
"Katon: Fireball Technique!"
        Kimi twisted in midair to dodge the flames, then rolled away as
she hit the ground to avoid the hail of shuriken thrown by Ren.  A
second fireball from Ino almost caught her, but the jounin backflipped
out of the way.  "You won't win that way," she paused to say, then she
darted out of the way of a tendril of thick shadow on the ground.  "Nor
that way," she added as she landed in the center of the clearing, for
away from the shadows cast by the trees.  "I recognize that technique."
        "Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered as he emerged from forest.
His shadow suddenly split into three, darting at Kimi from multiple
directions.
        The jounin danced between the lines of shadow.  "I remember this
game from one of the fights in the exams," she had time to comment.  "I
suppose this is the real thing, though."
        "Yeah," Shikamaru said slowly, a fourth tendril of shadow
springing into existence and racing at the woman.
        "I'm not going to get caught," she said, and then Kimi was
behind Shikamaru, her foot catching the boy in the head.  He flew
forward, landing with a heavy thump near the center of the clearing.
"Who's next?" she said.  Then she froze, her eyes widening.  "What?"
        Shikamaru emerged from the trees, Kimi helplessly aping his
movements.  "It's over," he said.  The Shikamaru on the ground turned
into Ino with a puff of smoke.
        The blonde sat up painfully.  "That hurt," she muttered.
        Kimi glanced at the other Ino, who with another puff of smoke
was revealed to be Sakura.  The other Sakura simply vanished.  "Well,
damn it," the jounin said.
        "Good work, everyone," Shikamaru told the others.  He glanced at
Ren.  "Sorry about this, but she can't be trusted."  Ren nodded slowly,
and Shikamaru raced through a sequence of seals.  "Shadow Neck Bind
Technique!"
        Even as the shadow that ensnared her hungrily grasped for her
neck, Kimi snorted.  "Idiocy," she said.  Black markings crawled over
her skin, and in a sudden explosion of power she was free.
        She was behind Ren in an instant.  "For betraying me," she
snarled, the cursed seal's marks writhing over her skin, "you will die
first."
        In a blur of motion, Lee grabbed the Mist genin and leapt away
with her.  Kimi made to follow, but Neji interposed himself, striking
the woman in the chest with a single Gentle Fist strike.
        "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Kimi snapped, and the flames
flung Neji away.  Hardly pausing, she advanced on Lee and Ren.  Twin
fireballs from Sakura and Ino flew at her, but Kimi somehow swatted them
aside with her bare hands.  She glared at the pair.  "Your turn will
come," she said.
        In her moment of distraction, Lee charged her, knocking her into
the air with one mighty kick.  He vanished, reappearing behind the
woman, the bandages around his arms already unwrapped and reaching to
entangle her.  They caught only dark smoke.
        Kimi appeared in front of Ren, who didn't move.  The jounin
grabbed her student by the throat, lifting her up.  For a moment, it
looked like Kimi was about to crush the girl's throat, but then the dark
aura of power around her faded lightly.  Still, when she spoke it was in
a snarl, and she said simply, "Last words?"
        Ren's hands grasped feebly at Kimi's.  "Yes," she choked out.
Her hand shifted suddenly, and one formed a seal.  "Katon: Claw of the
Fire Dragon!"
        The flames were weak, but they caught the jounin directly in the
face.  Screaming incoherently, the jounin dropped Ren and stumbled
backward.  She clawed at the burnt mess of her face, for the moment
oblivious to anything else.
        Neji was ready behind her.  "Eight Divination Signs," he stated
once again.  "Sixty-four Palms of the Hand."  Again and again he struck
her, closing tenketsu with each strike.  When he was done, the jounin
collapsed.
        Then Mitarashi Kimi screamed, and it made her howls of pain from
Ren's final attack seem like nothing.  The cursed seal's markings
twisted rapidly, growing to cover more and more of her skin.  Her
screams continued as every bit of her skin became covered by darkness.
Somehow, she managed to rise to her knees.  "I can't stop it!" she
managed to get out, and then she fell for a final time.
        The darkness of her skin faded to a pale gray, and the power
that had hung around her vanished.  Ren fell to her knees.  "Mitarashi-
sensei," she breathed, staring at the jounin's still form.
        Sakura swallowed.  "Ren-san."
        "That..."  Neji trailed off, staring at the corpse in what
seemed like horror. "That should not have happened.  It didn't with the
other one."
        "The ones we fought before," Shikamaru said slowly, "had those
seals for years, probably."  He glanced at the corpse.  "She had it for
weeks at most.  I don't imagine she was very good at controlling it,
jounin or not."
        "Did you know this would happen?" Ino asked softly.
        Shikamaru shook his head.  Before he could say anything, a
sudden gut of wind kicked up a storm of dust and fallen leaves.  When it
died down, Shizune stood over Kimi's body.  She gave it a long look,
then glanced at Ren before turning to Shikamaru.  "It seems," she said
simply, "that we have a lot to discuss."

***********************************************************************

Author's Random Ramblings

1) And that's another chapter.  My apologies for taking so long.  With
any luck, the next (and final!) chapter shall not be quite so delayed.

2) This chapter was a little shorter than I was expecting, given that it
covers more days than any other.  I doubt there will be many complaints
about that, though, given that it is still fairly large by any
reasonable standard.

3) As always, the only way I have to find out whether this chapter was
any good is your comments.  So, please, send them my way.

4) Next time in One Hundred Days Chapter 16, The Hundredth Day:  The
events of the past hundred days come to a head.  The fight to save
Naruto begins, but that is not the only battle being waged.  Far away,
the fate of the Leaf Village - and the Fifth Hokage - is about to be
decided.  By the end of the day, it will all be over... one way or the
other.


Draft Started: November 09, 2006
Draft Finished: December 28, 2006
Draft Released: December 29, 2006
Final Released:


-- Aaron Nowack "Never let reality get in the way of a good hypothesis." http://www.mimiru.net/ .---Anime/Manga Fanfiction Mailing List----. | Administrators - ffml-admins@anifics.com | | Unsubscribing - ffml-request@anifics.com | | Put 'unsubscribe' in the subject | `---- http://ffml.anifics.com/faq.txt -----'