Subject: [FFML] [Naruto] One Hundred Days - Chapter Fourteen: The Darkest Hour
From: Aaron Nowack
Date: 11/1/2006, 3:31 AM
To: FFML

Just barely on schedule, but still on schedule.  Let's get the usual
preliminaries out of the way, shall we?

Previous chapters can be found at:
http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2663204/1/
http://www.narusaku.com/library/viewstory.php?sid=6
http://www.mimiru.net/fanfic/naruto.html

I really do welcome any and all C&C, long or short.  Silence is bad and
makes for a sad author.  You wouldn't want me to be sad, would you?

Finally, as always I can only hope that this chapter does not suck too
badly.

And... on with the show.


One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 14: The Darkest Hour

***********************************************************************
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, Japanese
dwarf flying squirrels!
***********************************************************************


[Day Eighty-five]

        The cave would have been a gold mine to a student of esoteric
ninjutsu.  Barely visible in the darkness, strange characters unlike
even those used in most sealing or summoning techniques had been carved
out of the stone.  An accomplished expert, trained in the standard
methods and practices, could have worked for years before uncovering the
purpose of the markings, something that the theories he or she would
have studied held was impossible.
        Impossible, he or she would have been forced to conclude, was
not a word in Akatsuki's vocabulary.  Hardly surprising when that many
of the world's most powerful ninja, possessing countless forbidden and
secret techniques and several powerful bloodlines among them, pooled
their formidable resources.  It was difficult, and dangerous for many
reasons, for Akatsuki to meet in person, and so they developed a way
around that inconvenient fact.
        The stillness of the empty cave was disturbed as incredible
amounts of chakra flowed along the carved characters.  Two fuzzy images
of men in Akatsuki's distinctive cloaks appeared near the center of the
cavern.  They waited for some time, but then the larger snorted loudly
before speaking, his voice oddly distorted by the technique that allowed
him to appear here, far away from where his real body waited.  "It
figures, Itachi-san.  She wants us to check in with her, but she can't
be bothered to show up."
        The speaker's companion didn't stir, nor did he speak in
response for almost a minute.  Then, when an image of a woman wearing
the same cloak as the two men appeared before them, he broke his
silence.  Unlike the two of them, the forehead protector she wore was
unmarred. "You're late, Kaida-san," Itachi stated flatly, no sign of
irritation in his voice.
        Perhaps the woman rolled her eyes, but it was impossible to tell
through the distortion caused by the technique.  "There are
disadvantages as well as advantages to remaining in a hidden village,
Itachi-kun," she said.  "I cannot merely drop whatever I am doing when
you request my presence."
        "You're the one who wanted us to check in with you," grumbled
Itachi's companion.  "We told you when we'd be arriving in Lightning
Country."
        "I'm afraid an emergency has arisen, Kisame-kun," Kaida said.
"The Kyuubi has escaped my control, and I am forced to deal with it."
        Even through the distortion, it was easy to see Kisame baring
his teeth.  "That's unfortunate for you," he said.  "I'm not happy about
coming all this way for -"
        Itachi raised a hand, silencing his partner.  "Such a failure is
unlike you, Kaida-san."
        "Let's just say that I put too much trust in one of our
comrades' work."  Kaida paused.  "If you see the art freak before me,
tell him that I would have words with him about the loyalty of his
agents."
        Kisame laughed nastily.  "Which art freak?" he asked.  "We've
got two of them now, remember?"
        "You know who I mean," Kaida snapped, "or you would if you had
any sense."
        Kisame shrugged.  "I doubt we'll see him anytime soon," he
replied.  "Last I heard, he was locked up playing with that slaver woman
the new kid gave him."  He laughed again.
        "What is the current situation?" Itachi asked quietly.
        "The boy is being held by a rogue faction of Storm somewhere
inside the Cloud Village," Kaida replied.  "I have enough control of the
situation that he can't leave, but they're keeping him well-hidden."
        "I suppose we'll just have to show up and start killing Storm,"
Kisame proposed.  "Should be fun."
        Kaida ignored him, focusing on Itachi.  "I suggest you make
haste.  I except Jiraiya-kun to return soon, and that will make things
difficult."
        "We'd best not attract attention, even so," Itachi responded
after a moment.  "Four days."
        "Very well," Kaida said.  "I'll try to keep things under control
until then."
        "What of your partner?" Itachi asked.  "Can we expect his
support as well if it comes to violence?"
        "That mercenary bastard?" Kaida replied, snorting.  "I've no
idea where in the world he is."
        "I see," Itachi said.  "In four days, then."
        A few moments later, the cave was empty and dark once more.

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

        Midori knew that she was dreaming.  How else could she have
found herself once more only five years old?  She stood outside the
familiar door of her family's home, near the center of the Haruno Clan's
small, walled compound on the outskirts of the Hidden Village of the
Mist.  She was too young to comprehend the reasons for this, too young
to realize that all clans did not segregate themselves so strictly from
the rest of the village.  She was too young to know the reasons for what
she was about to overhear, either.
        In one tiny hand she clutched a piece of paper, the force of her
grip needlessly crumpling the paper.  She had forgotten what it was in
the years since, but that detail had never left her.  Curiosity made her
want to look, but instead she merely walked forward, idly practicing
moving without sound like her teacher had been teaching her.    Her
more-skilled mind picked out the countless errors and missteps she made,
but she knew all too well that the two inside were much too distracted
to notice even a novice like she had been.  Her free hand went
carelessly toward the door, as though she was unaware that it would
freeze in mere moments at the sound of her name coming through a
cracked-open window.
        It was her grandmother's voice, and Midori had wondered whether
she was discussing a birthday present for her, and thus she crept closer
to listen, squatting under the windowsill.  Maybe they would get her a
baby brother like her best friend had gotten, she had thought, and now
Midori wanted to laugh at how oddly appropriate that inane wish had
been.
        "There's no doubt, then?" her mother asked, a strange tone in
her voice that Midori hadn't recognized.
        "None," her grandmother said firmly.  "She learned the Gaze of
Binding just from watching her teacher perform it once."  Midori grinned
proudly at that, but her expression faded as the old woman continued.
"She might have just been a genius, but she wasn't able to explain how
it worked, even at the level a girl of her age might be expected to.  We
believe her use of the seals was just mimicry of the physical motions."
        "I expected as much," Midori's mother said.  "Damn Amaya."
        "Shizuru-chan," the older woman said flatly.  "There's no
guarantee that her child would have been any different.  We knew we were
taking a risk with this pairing, and there's little practical difference
between your blood and hers."
        "So?"  Midori recognized the anger in her mother's voice and
shrank back.  "If she hadn't run off to avoid this marriage, it would be
her life being ruined by your stupid mistake!"  At the time, Midori had
been merely confused, but now she knew too-well the meaning of her
mother's words.
        "That's uncalled for," Midori's grandmother stated.  "Amaya-chan
is on a mission of vital interest to the Mist Village."
        "As you say."  There was a long pause, then the younger woman
spoke again.  "What is to be done?"
        "Hmm."  There was another pause, and Midori could easily imagine
the old woman calmly sipping tea before laying out her granddaughter's
future.  "Midori will be sent to the ninja academy once she's old
enough, of course."  Midori had been overjoyed to hear that, her
excitement cutting through the clouds of confused fear the rest of the
conversation had raised.  "Those hypocrites on the village council will
want her strength to be used."
        "Idiots," her mother snarled.  "A generation ago they would have
been wise enough to order the infection eliminated."  Now, Midori knew
just what her mother was advocating, and hot rage boiled inside her.  It
was her parents' fault that she was born with such cursed genes.  Why
should she pay with her life for their faults?
        Her grandmother made a noncommittal, wordless sound of almost-
agreement before speaking.  "There are precautions that we can take,"
she said, "to insure that no youthful indiscretions on your daughter's
part will spread the taint."  She sighed.  "As you know, that sealing
unfortunately requires that a close blood relative perform it.  I -"
        "No," Midori's mother interrupted firmly.  "I will do it."
        "Are you sure?  You will have no difficulty?"
        "Absolutely," Midori's mother said, then she laughed bitterly.
"You need not worry that a mother's love for her child will spare her,"
she promised, and even then Midori had heard the terrible honesty in her
voice, and at that she burst into tears.
        Then, Midori was older, less than a year before she began her
studies at the Hidden Mist's ninja academy.  Tears still streamed down
her cheeks, but for a different reason.  She knew without even looking
around that this was the day the increasingly bold taunts and jeers of
the other youth of the Haruno Clan had turned into open violence.  It
had started during taijutsu practice, when one of the boys had, perhaps
accidentally, hit her a little harder than he should have.  The second
blow, before the teacher moved to end the spar, had definitely not been
an accident.  Nor had it been accidental when he and his friends had
shoved her into a tree at lunch.
        Any other illusions she might have had would have been destroyed
after classes ended, when what seemed like all the children around her
age had ambushed halfway home.  Thanks to quick thinking and clever use
of the half-learned Replacement Technique - she had known better than to
use the doujutsu that came so easily to her - Midori had managed to get
away with just bruises and cuts, rather than more serious injury.
        Knowing that she'd get little sympathy when she arrived home,
she'd instead made for one of the places where a small child could slip
outside the walls of the Haruno Clan's compound and headed for a nearby
grove of tall trees.  Beat to get the tears out of her system, she knew,
her hands going to rub at her watery eyes.  "I won't let this happen
again," she promised herself as she stood on unsteady legs.  "I'll get
stronger, until I can beat all of them up."
        "Beat who up?" an unfamiliar voice said, and Midori looked up to
see a strange girl around her age standing in a tree overhead.
        Midori leapt to her feet, backing away cautiously.  "Who are
you?" she asked.
        The other girl jumped down to stand before Midori.  "Ren," she
answered.  "Shimano Ren."  She grinned.  "What's yours?"
        "...Midori."  She rubbed at her face, trying to wipe away the
tears.
        "Are you going to go to the ninja academy next year?" Ren asked.
Midori nodded cautiously, and Ren's grin widened.  "So am I.  Want to be
friends?  My family just moved here from the clan's island, so I don't
know anyone."
        At the time, Midori had eagerly accepted, old enough to suspect
that friends would be in short supply at the academy.  Now, Midori
wanted to snort.  The Shimano Clan hailed from the islands of the Water
Country's east, and it was likely that Ren had never heard of the Haruno
Clan or its shame.  If Ren had known as much then as she knew now, would
she still have become her friend?  Likely not.  Maybe even now she only
stuck to it because of habit and to keep the team functioning well.
        And Saburo... abruptly, Midori was in the academy, listening in
disbelief to his apology for a rather cruel prank she'd almost
forgotten.  Even then, she had thought it likely that he was doing it to
try and get in Ren's good graces - the other girl's almost-forbidden
association with "the Haruno girl" having bizarrely made her more
interesting to the boys, though that earned Midori herself precious
little goodwill with most of them, much less the other girls.  Or maybe
it had been the fact that the class had started studying genjutsu, a
subject Midori easily aced, and that Saburo direly needed help in.
        One way or another, at the time Midori had been willing to
overlook that, for just as she had expected when she met Ren friends or
even mere friendly acquaintances were hard for her to make.  Now, she
could see Saburo's discomfort and fear.  She could see the way he tried
to not look at her eyes, hear the unspoken question he so direly wanted
to ask.  "Do you really have a Bloodline Limit like they say?"
        Mitarashi Kimi was the first Mist ninja she had met who had
actually asked her that question.  It had been oddly satisfying to have
it out in the open for once, even though both of her teammates had been
horrified that their teacher would ask such a thing.  Midori had wanted
to laugh at their fear that she would be offended.  The unspoken
assumption that she was a freak that so many had was vastly worse than
actually being asked about it.
        The dream continued, though less coherently.  Oddly detached,
Midori floated through event after event, revisiting the countless times
when those sub-human bloodline freaks and the idiots in the Mist
Village's cowardly fear of them had ruined her life.  Yet, as those
events danced around her, it was to one fact that her scattered thoughts
return to, the puzzle she had pieced together over the months since her
teacher and Ren had returned from their mission into the Fire Country.
        Haruno Amaya was her aunt, the one who her mother had said was
supposed to have married her father.  It was Amaya's daughter who should
have paid the price for the idiocy of that decision.  It was Haruno
Sakura who should have suffered like she had suffered.
        "I can give you the power you desire," Orochimaru had told her,
his voice seductive despite - or perhaps even because of - its sinister
malevolence.  "The power to right all the wrongs you have suffered.  The
power to avenge yourself on those who made you suffer."  His words
sounded in her ears, even in the midst of her dreams, the painful images
fleeing before them and the dark, burning feeling that followed.  "I
will unlock your true potential, and under my guidance you will show
them all a strength far greater than that which they hoped to enslave."
        As the words faded, Midori found herself back in the infamous
ninja's throne room.  Her teacher, who had had an oddly thoughtful look
on her face after her private conversation with their host merely looked
at her, not offering any guidance one way or another.  After a long
moment, Midori had stepped forward, asking, "What must I do?"
        Both she and Orochimaru had ignored Saburo's quiet, nervous
warning, and the Sannin had stood.  "Merely take my hand," he said.
Once more, Midori reached forward to grasp the offered hand, and once
more painful, cleansing darkness consumed her.
        And then she awoke, staring at an unfamiliar ceiling.  She sat
up in the bed she found herself in, her head strangely clear and empty.
Unthinkingly, she raised her right hand, staring at the three
interlocking black rings on its back that she had somehow known were
there.  She could feel the power sleeping in the seal, but there was no
sense of urgency to test it.
        Her stomach rumbled, and and it was like a cloud had lifted.  A
dreamlike detachment she hadn't realized still existed faded with the
remaining wisps of her odd dreams, and she forced herself out of bed.  A
change of clothes was neatly folded on a nearby table, and she quickly
dressed.  She found her packs carefully lined up along the closest wall,
and brief search confirmed that nothing was missing, even the weapons.
        After arming herself, her hand hovered briefly over her forehead
protector, which had been positioned next to the clothing.  Then it
jerked away.  What had the Mist Village ever done for her, to deserve
her loyalty?  The thought was liberating, and Midori wanted to laugh.
The dark markings on her hand itched, and she scratched at them with her
other hand for a moment.
        Then, without giving herself time to think the matter through
further, she grabbed the forehead protector and flung it aside.  It
landed with a loud clatter, and now Midori did laugh.  What a pointless
action that had been, but it felt good.
        There was a quiet knock on the door to the room, and Midori
started before saying, "Come in."
        The door swung open, revealing the strange, young medical ninja
who had brought her to the Sound Village.  "Ah, so you are awake then,"
Yakushi Kabuto said.  "For a while there I was afraid you wouldn't make
it, even with my help."
        Midori's eyes went to her bed.  "How long?"
        "You've been in and out of consciousness for a week," Kabuto
said.
        "Mitarashi-sensei?" Midori asked.  "And Saburo?"
        "Your teacher woke up almost three days ago," Kabuto said.  He
smiled slightly.  "Saburo-kun has been very worried about both of you."
        "Where are they?"
        "Eating lunch, I imagine.  I will take you to them after a
medical checkup.  Purely routine."  The medical ninja's eyes glanced
aside, and Midori's followed them to rest on her discarded forehead
protector.  "I see," Kabuto said after a moment, one hand adjusting his
glasses.  "Should I fetch you a new one, then?" he asked almost
casually, his hand raising slightly to brush the musical note on his own
forehead protector.
        The idea was strangely attractive, and Midori's left hand moved
to massage the dark markings on her other hand.  "Perhaps," she said
after a moment.  "If everything proves as was promised."
        Kabuto's smile didn't fade.  "After you meet with your
teammates, I will take you to the training hall and let Tayuya-chan or
Kidoumaru-kun help you learn about your new seal.  You'll find that
Orochimaru-sama keeps his promises."  He adjusted his glasses again.
"And after that, I believe there is a mission that you will find...
interesting."
        "Perhaps," Midori said again, but then her stomach rumbled once
more, and she laughed awkwardly.  "You said something about lunch,
Kabuto-san?"
        "Of course," the medical ninja said smoothly, his smile
widening.  "Right this way."

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

        Sakura sighed as she locked the door to Naruto's apartment.  The
rather brutal sparring session with Tsunade had served it's intended
purpose, and she had managed to find the time after the Hokage had
dismissed her and Shikamaru yesterday afternoon to train some and get
herself back into practice.  She still felt sore, both from that
training and the spars, but it was a good kind of sore, and the physical
discomfort was usefully distracting.
        She was getting better at dealing with what had happened, and
she knew that it was a mark of significant progress that she could even
think about it in terms of "getting better."  Still, her mother was not
a subject she wished to dwell on, and when her mind wandered it
rebelliously sought out those dark and treacherous paths.  Even physical
pain was welcome when it brought with it an escape from that destructive
journey.
        Sakura shook her head firmly.  Musing about how awful it was
when she let herself linger too long on that was almost as bad as
thinking of her mother's death itself.  After checking the door to make
sure her thoughts hadn't distracted her from locking it, Sakura turned
about and headed for the stairs.
        As was usual lately, she passed several of her neighbors on her
way down.  As was also sadly usual, their inexplicable hostility was
obvious, and as always Sakura had to conclude that it had something to
do with Naruto.  Anko had told her that there might be some problems
because she could summon snakes, but when she thought back to her rare
interactions with her neighbors before the exams she recalled much the
same sort of reaction.
        Her mind welcomed the mystery, unconnected with any of her own
problems, and she considered it as she walked down the street, giving
the owner of the Ichiraku a distracted wave as she passed.  It was a
fact that Naruto was incredibly annoying, but his usual antics seemed
unlikely to have generated such deep animosity that it would carry over
so strongly to his teammate who was merely borrowing his apartment  It
had to have been something much more serious, to cause such a hatred.
        She had hated Naruto once, but that was a different sort of hate
that hardly deserved to have the same word applied to it.  The hatred of
her neighbors for Naruto was a darker thing, the sort of thing that
belonged to those who had truly been wronged, not merely driven insane
by Naruto's usual idiocy.  Yet it was hard to imagine Naruto doing such
a thing.  Even at his most annoying, Naruto had never, so far as Sakura
could recall, actually hurt anyone with his pranks or other bad
behavior.
        Sakura bit at her lip in thought as she turned down the road
toward the ninja academy.  Assuming for the moment that Naruto had done
something so hateful, as unlikely as it seemed, it had to have been
before they were teammates.  Sakura couldn't imagine that she wouldn't
have heard of such a thing.  It probably couldn't have been while they
were at the academy either.  The punishment for a deed so terrible would
have been memorable, and noticeable even if it wasn't made public for
some reason.  Even had she been doing her best to ignore everything
concerning Naruto - a not uncommon thing in those days - Sakura could
not have missed something so big.
        But what could a child too young to have even entered the
academy done?  Nodding to herself in satisfaction, Sakura discarded the
idea that Naruto had actually done something to deserve the animosity of
his neighbors.  It just didn't fit.  But then, why?
        The answer leapt at her, blindingly obvious thanks to her own
problems.  If Naruto himself was not the cause, it could very well be
his family.  She knew Naruto was an orphan, and had been as long as she
had known him.  She had never heard of an Uzumaki Clan or family beyond
Naruto himself, but that meant little.  There were numerous small clans
and smaller families of ninja that were affiliated with the Leaf
Village, enough that there were likely dozens she had never heard of.
For most of her life she had thought the Haruno such a family,
consisting of only two living members.
        If Naruto were the son of some infamous traitor like Orochimaru,
it would explain everything.  Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from
giggling at the ludicrous idea of Orochimaru himself being Naruto's
father - it wasn't like she knew what clan the renegade Sannin hailed
from, after all.  Then her mirth faded, as it was all too easy to
imagine how terrible it would be to be Orochimaru's son.  Even as
unlikely as that was, it seemed perversely plausible.
        As she entered the academy grounds, Sakura put the puzzle of
Naruto's family firmly out of her mind.  There would be time to think
more on that later, but now was not the time.  She nodded at Shikamaru,
who apparently had been loitering in the surprisingly calm academy
ground for her to arrive.  They entered the building together, the ANBU
guards barely giving them even a cursory glance.
        When they entered the Hokage's borrowed office, Tsunade wasn't
there.  Instead, it was Shizune who sat behind what had been the
headmaster's desk, and for the first time since Tsunade had taken
possession of it, its surface was not covered by piles of paperwork that
needed attention.  "The war force left the village late last night,"
Shizune told the two chuunin without preamble.
        "Hokage-sama is with them?" Shikamaru asked.
        Shizune nodded.  "Of course."
        "So what do you want us to do?" Sakura asked.
        "I'm going to put you two to work on some more independent
projects," Shizune answered.  "I don't see a need for chuunin to waste
their time running my errands in this situation."  She opened a desk
drawer, pulling out a few pieces of paper.  "Shikamaru-kun, I want you
to start piecing together exactly what the Mist did while they were
inside the village.  You'll have access to the relevant raw reports."
        She pushed the papers forward, and Shikamaru cautiously took
them.  "Isn't it a little unusual for a single chuunin to be given this
sort of job?" he said as he skimmed the pages.
        "Yes," Shizune said flatly, and Shikamaru grimaced.
        "What about me?" Sakura asked after a moment.
        "Back during the Sand attack," Shizune said, "one of the
storerooms for the archives got hit, and there was more damage just now.
Nobody's gone through everything yet to sort it out and figure out what
was damaged or destroyed."  Shizune paused.  "Part of the reason is that
someone with really broad security clearance should do it, and all those
ninja have been busy with more important matters."
        "I don't have that sort of clearance," Sakura said.
        "No," Shizune agreed, "but if there'd been time for Tsunade-sama
to formally name you as her apprentice you would."  Shikamaru raised an
eyebrow at that, but didn't bother to comment.  "It's expected that
you'll be exposed to a lot of material above your usual clearance."  She
sighed.  "Even so, there's a lot of stuff in there that you shouldn't
read, but compromises have to be made.  I'm trusting you not to get
curious and read too much and to be discreet about what you do read."
        "I understand," Sakura said.
        "I'll go over with both of you what you'll need to know
privately," Shizune said.  Before she could continue, there was a quiet
knock at the door.  Shizune blinked.  "Come in."
        Sakura glanced backward to see the vaguely familiar sight of
Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu, the two advisers Tsunade had
inherited from the Third.  For a moment Sakura thought she saw something
odd in the way they looked at her, but she quickly dismissed the thought
as paranoid.
        After a brief exchange of greetings, Homura spoke.  "We've come
to discuss how we can be of help to you in Tsunade's absence, Shizune-
kun."
        The young woman nodded.  "Thank you."  She glanced at Sakura and
Shikamaru.  "You two wait outside, I'll be with you as soon as I can."

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

[Day Eighty-six]

        "I still just see why you couldn't just have told me what was
going on instead of putting me to sleep," Naruto grumbled.
        Hatake Kakashi, once more masked and using a Leaf forehead
protector to cover his Sharingan, almost sighed.  "There wasn't any
time, Naruto.  Kaida was already on her way to the hospital, and there
was no way we could have fought her there and then."  The two Leaf ninja
were in a Storm safehouse deep in one of the poorer civilian districts
of the Cloud Village, one that Kiyomura Zeshin had assured them would be
a safe haven.
        The former Storm ninja himself was also there, though he kept
mostly to himself and gave little sign that he paid more than cursory
attention to his guests' conversation.  He too had not left the building
since Naruto had awakened, claiming that it wouldn't be safe for him to
be seen either.  He judged it too likely that Kaida had guessed his
involvement in the plan to remove Naruto from her control.
        Naruto gave the Cloud ninja a suspicious look.  "I also don't
see how Kaida-sensei could be one of those Akatsuki people.  Ero-sennin
isn't stupid, and he trusted her."
        At this, Zeshin abandoned his pretense of not listening, letting
out a bark of laughter.  "See, Hatake?  He agrees with Junhime-sama and
I.  The Toad Hermit had to know that he was giving the Kyuubi to
Akatsuki by leaving the boy with Kaida."
        Kakashi's visible eye glanced sideways at the other jounin.  "I
still can't believe it," he said, his voice sounding sick.
        "You sound like Junhime when she was trying to convince herself
that Kaida couldn't possibly have betrayed the Cloud Village by joining
Akatsuki," Zeshin said amusedly.
        Naruto blinked.  "You think Ero-sennin is in Akatsuki?  That's
insane!"
        "Junhime-sama and I have uncovered strong evidence," Zeshin
said, "even setting aside that he delivered you to Kaida.  Testimony of
his captured agents, intercepted communication between him and the High
Priestess, and more.  What makes you so certain?"
        Naruto glanced at his teacher, wondering what he should say.
Kakashi's expression showed no answer, and then Naruto realized that the
older ninja might not know about his proof.  After all, Kakashi had been
in a coma at the time.  After a brief internal debate, the genin spoke.
"Akatsuki has tried to capture me before.  Ero-sennin stopped them."
        "Internal conflict," Zeshin proposed, but he sounded uncertain.
"Our evidence -"
        "Evidence," Kakashi interjected, "that could very well have been
manipulated by Kaida for exactly this purpose."
        Zeshin frowned.  "That would imply that she has been aware of
our efforts almost from the start."
        "It would only have taken one mistake," Kakashi said gently.
"You know that.  Moving openly against you would have been too
dangerous, so instead she took steps to neuter you and turn you against
Akatsuki's enemies."
        Zeshin shifted in his seat.  "Well, we'll know one way or
another when Junhime-sama gets back."
        Naruto's eyes narrowed.  "What," he began, only to stop as there
was a quick series of knocks on the front door of the safehouse.
        After a tense moment, Zeshin nodded, standing and walking over
to the door which he unlocked.  A man wearing civilian clothes who
Naruto didn't recognize came in, carefully shutting the door behind him.
"This is Murai," Zeshin said in introduction, "a member of Storm who has
been working with Junhime-sama and I for some time."
        The man looked slightly uncomfortable, but he said, "Pleased to
meet you," before turning to Zeshin.  "The situation is pretty bad out
there," he said.
        "Oh?" Kakashi asked.
        "Thanks to the festival, the streets are crawling with Temple
guards," Murai said.
        Naruto blinked in confusion.  "Festival?"
        "The anniversary of the First Raikage's ascension is this week,"
Zeshin explained.  His attention returned to Murai.  "Did you manage to
reach the Raikage?"
        Murai nodded, but his face was grim.  "He can't do anything
openly.  Without firm evidence of Kaida's betrayal, moving against her
will only spark a civil war, particularly with all the pilgrims flooding
the city."  His frown deepened.  "She's openly accused you and Junhime-
sama of being Leaf agents, and my bosses are starting to suspect the
existence of our little group.  They're likely to start an
investigation, and this place won't be safe for you much longer."
        "Damn it," Zeshin snarled.
        Murai glanced at Naruto and Kakashi for a moment before speaking
again.  "There's also news," he said slowly, "from the south."
        Kakashi's visible eye narrowed.  "What?"
        "War," Murai said flatly.  "The reports are confused, but it
seems that the Mist, Sound, Valley, and Rain are going up against the
Leaf, Sand, Grass, and Waterfall."
        "The Rain?" Kakashi asked.  "Are you certain?"
        "That's what the reports say."  He shrugged.  "I said they were
confused, didn't I?  Last I heard the Valley and Sound were fighting,
too."  He sighed.  "There's rumors that the Leaf Village itself was
attacked again, too."
        Naruto paled.  Kakashi frowned behind his mask, but after a long
moment he spoke.  "There's nothing to be done about that now," he said.
"What are we going to do if this place is no longer safe?"
        Zeshin took a deep breath.  "Well, we knew that we couldn't
count on Storm staying out of things, and we do have a back-up plan.
Murai, I'm counting on you to clean up the evidence here."
        Murai nodded.  "I'll take care of it."
        "And us?" Kakashi asked.
        Zeshin grimaced.  "We're going to have to hide in plain sight,
at least until Junhime-sama returns."

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

        Sakura wanted to groan as she stared at the piles and piles of
boxes piled all over half of the classroom that had been given to her
for the project Shizune had assigned to her.  She briefly winced as she
thought of the poor genin who had carted them all to the academy, but
more of her thoughts were on her own plight.  For all of Shizune's
warnings about classified material, most of the records she had seen
thus far were at best only slightly more interesting than watching grass
grow.
        The worst part was that she'd been sorting all morning, and it
looked like she had barely made a dent in the piles.  Thankfully, most
of the records she'd looked at so far were intact; in that case all that
was needed was to scan through the pages quickly to make sure none were
damaged or missing, then stack the folder with others of a similar
nature.  The last task was made easier by the fact that the archives
used a simple numerical categorizing system which meant she didn't even
need even to skim most of the files.
        The handful of damaged files she'd laid out against one wall,
making notes of the number of missing or damaged pages.  These she had
to at least skim, so that she could identify which files loose pages
went with.  Sakura's eyes swept the row of open folders, wondering
whether anybody would notice if the record of gate guard duty for two
weeks in the middle of the summer three years ago stayed missing.  There
couldn't possibly be any reason to look that up, could there?
        The pink-haired chuunin's stomach rumbled, reminding her that
she'd barely had any breakfast.  It was time for her to take a lunch
break.  Taking another despairing look at the forest of boxes, she
slipped out of the room, carefully locking it behind her.  The last
thing she needed was another lecture on how important those documents
were, all evidence to the contrary.
        Her route to the exit took her past the open door of
headmaster's office, and Shizune looked up from her desk as the younger
kunoichi passed.  "Going to lunch, Sakura-chan?"
        Sakura paused, nodding.  "Is that all right, Shizune-sama?"
        "Of course."  Shizune reached into a desk drawer.  "I brought
this for you, by the way," she said, pulling out a small book.
"Tsunade-sama wanted me to give it to you."
        Sakura stepped into the small office, frowning as she accepted
the book.  "An anatomy textbook?"
        "You can't fix what you don't understand," Shizune said.  "Read
that in your free time and try to have it finished by the end of the
week, but it's fine if it takes a little longer."
        Sakura nodded firmly.  "It won't be a problem."  The book wasn't
actually that thick, and she'd read much longer things in less time.
        "It's not easy reading, Sakura-chan," Shizune said amusedly.
        "I know," she replied.  "Is that all?"
        Shizune frowned.  "I suppose so."  She paused.  "Are you doing
okay, Sakura-chan?"
        It took Sakura a moment to answer.  "I'm doing better," she said
honestly, "if I don't think about it too much."  She shrugged weakly
again.  "I guess that's all I can hope for."
        Shizune nodded after a moment.  "Don't take too long at lunch,"
see said, and Sakura left, heading for the same restaurant she'd been
eating lunch in most days lately, since it was the only one open close
enough to the academy.  Like usual, there were quite a few ninja eating
there for just that reason.  Also not uncommonly, she saw Neji and his
two unfamiliar new teammates there.
        Before she could convince herself not too, she walked over to
their table.  "Can I speak with you privately for a moment, Neji?" she
asked quietly.
        His silver eyes looked her up and down, then he nodded.  "All
right."  He stood, murmuring, "Excuse me," to his companions, then
followed Sakura outside.  "What is it?"
        "The report you gave me," Sakura stated.  "Thank you."
        "It wasn't a problem," Neji said.
        "You... won't get in any trouble for showing me that, will you?"
        "No," Neji replied after a moment.  He hesitated, then added.
"Morino Ibiki gave me permission."
        Sakura nodded, easily understanding that the interrogator has
used an unofficial channel to short-circuit the bureaucratic mess that
declassifying the information would be with everyone so busy.  "Thank
you," she said again.  Neji nodded curtly and turned around.  After a
moment, Sakura followed him inside.
        A bit less than an hour later, feeling much better, Sakura
returned to the academy.  It seemed Shizune was now on her own lunch
break, as the door to the headmaster's office was closed.  The door to
the classroom, she'd been using, on the other hand, was slightly ajar,
and she could hear something inside.  Instinct taking over, one of her
hands went for a kunai as she pressed herself up against the wall next
to the door.
        There was one person inside, or at least only one making noise,
and he or she seemed to not be making an particular efforts to hide
their presence.  Perhaps Shizune decided to come to check up on her
work, Sakura thought, deciding that there was probably no reason to be
alarmed.  Still, her hand stayed near the hilt of a weapon as she pushed
the door open and stepped inside.
        Instead of Shizune, it was an old man it took her a moment to
recognize who was inside, seated behind the desk at the front of the
room.  "Mitokado-sama?  Is there something you need?" the pink-haired
girl asked the adviser.
        "I suppose so," the old ninja said.  "I wanted to talk with
you."
        "With me?" Sakura said nervously.  Almost automatically, her
mind conjured up the darkest possible reasons why such a high-ranking
ninja would wish to speak with her.
        "Yes," Homura said.  He sighed briefly, folding his hands in
front of his face in a manner that reminded Sakura of Tsunade.  "Tell
me, Sakura-kun.  How much do you know about your father?"
        Sakura blinked, one of her hands absently toying with a scroll
pouch on the uniform armored jacket she wore, the jacket that had
belonged to her father.  "He was a Leaf ninja," she answered after a
moment.  "He... he died shortly after I was born, when the Kyuubi
attacked the village."
        "Do you know his name?"
        "Takeru," Sakura answered, blinking again.  She knew that much,
even if her mother had never really spoken about her father.
        Homura nodded.  "His name," he said, "was Mitokado Takeru, and
he was my grandson."
        Sakura almost stumbled backward, her mind racing at the old
ninja's simple words.  "He... my father... what?" she asked, unable to
believe what she thought her ears were telling her.  "But then -"
        "Yes," the Hokage's adviser confirmed, glancing away from
Sakura.  "That would make you my great-granddaughter."
        Sakura took several deep breaths, trying to calm herself and
make some sense out of this sudden insanity.  Her mother had never
mentioned this, but there were a lot of things her mother had never told
her.  When she was younger, she had always assumed that her father had
been Haruno Takeru and that her mother had taken his name.  The
revelation of her mother's history made nonsense of that idea, of
course, but this...
        "Why?" Sakura asked suddenly.  "Why tell me this now?"  Her eyes
flared briefly.  "Obviously you and your clan never cared to claim me
before."
        Homura nodded.  "As much for your benefit as ours," he said
calmly.  "I thought then, and I still think now, that Mitokado Sakura
would not have had a happy life."  His face darkened.  "Your father was
already engaged when he met your mother," he said.  "A political
marriage, and a very important one.  There would not have been a warm
welcome in the clan for the illegitimate daughter that threatened to
wreck that alliance, much less her foreign mother."
        Sakura could almost see the sense in that, too numb from the
shock of the old man's sudden revelation to muster any real anger.  "But
why tell me now?" she asked again.
        Homura glanced away again.  "I thought," he said after a long
moment, "that you deserved to know."  Then he sighed.  "And also, given
the situation, I believe that... should you desire it, the option to
become Mitokado Sakura should be open to you."  He stood, leaning
heavily on his cane.  "I will let you think on that, because it is not
an easy decision, I know," he said.  "When you decide, or if you have
any questions," he continued, then trailed off.
        "Wait," Sakura said, surprising herself with her calmness.  "I
can answer now."  Homura nodded, but said nothing.  "I'll stay Haruno
Sakura," she continued firmly.  "That's who I am."
        Homura nodded.  "I expected as much," he said, "but I had to
make the offer."  He slowly began to head for the door, but he hesitated
as he reached it.  "Even so," he added, "please let me know if I can do
anything to help you."
        "I will," Sakura answered after a moment.  Homura nodded again,
and then he left her alone with the countless boxes of records.  Sakura
stared after him for some time, then returned to her work.

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

[Day Eighty-seven]

        It had been well over a decade ago when Jiraiya had first met
Kaida, at that time only the apprentice of the High Priest of the
Thunder Dragon, rather than the High Priestess herself.  He had been
chasing Orochimaru, only recently become a missing ninja, but not out of
some desperate hope that his former friend could be redeemed.
Orochimaru had made it far too clear that was impossible when they'd
fought in the forests outside the Leaf Village.  The snake master's
mocking laughter as he'd kicked Jiraiya's fallen form aside before
leaving his teammate behind for dead still sounded in Jiraiya's ears
today, reminding him of how little friendship meant to some in this
world.
        No, Jiraiya had been searching for Orochimaru for a much darker
purpose.  More than any living person, he knew just how dangerous
Orochimaru was, and he had been certain that the renegade ninja needed
to be killed as soon as possible.  There was only one other person he
would have trusted to do the job, but he had not seen her in many years,
and so it had come to him to perform the task.
        At that time, he had been chasing rumors that the terrible demon
fox Kyuubi had been spotted in the wilderness of the northern Lightning
Country, but only because he had also learned that Orochimaru sought the
monster for some purpose of his own.  It was there that he had met
Kaida, leading a squad of elite Cloud ninja hunting the same beast, and
formed an alliance of convenience.
        All save one of her men had died at the hands of Orochimaru when
they stumbled across the missing ninja - and disastrously, three other
extraordinarily powerful ninja.  One of the men in the strange black-
and-red cloaks that Jiraiya hadn't then recognized had perished as well,
but Orochimaru and the other two had escaped with the body.  By the time
Jiraiya and his two companions, all badly wounded, had arrived in the
Cloud Village, the Kyuubi had begun the rampage that would end months
later at the gates of the Leaf Village.
        Not too long after that, the war between the Cloud and the Leaf
had begun, and the Lightning Country had become an unsafe place for even
a former Leaf ninja like Jiraiya had been.  Still, he and Kaida had
forged a friendship in their journey, and they had kept in touch.  Years
later, when the suspicions he had of Akatsuki's existence became
certainty, she had been the first he had contacted, and they had worked
together with other ninja like Iwakuro Hojo of the Rock to counter the
mysterious organization's plans, whatever they might be.
        It seemed beyond imagining to Jiraiya that Kaida could have
joined Akatsuki, but no other explanation for her apprentice's actions
and words presented itself to him.  Besides, he need only remember
Orochimaru's laughter to recall just how easily some could forsake all
the bonds that men like Jiraiya found unbreakable.  Why should he be so
surprised that Kaida had turned out to be among them?
        "You seem distracted," Sinobi Junhime said as she sipped a cup
of tea.
        Blinking, Jiraiya glanced around the common room of the tiny
room they had been staying at, glad to be shaken from his dark musings.
Once again, he was disguised as a much younger man, seeming closer in
age to the woman sitting across from him than to his true age.  Yawning,
he glanced at the tea sitting in front of him, then downed it in one
rude gulp.  "You seem surprisingly calm," he told Kaida's apprentice.
        Junhime smiled slightly, but there was no mirth in it.  "I've
had a long time to adjust to the truth of what my teacher is," she said
quietly, "and to work through what might happen when she found out I
knew.  Being declared an outlaw is actually one of the better scenarios,
since it implies that she is afraid of me."
        "I hate to burst your bubble," Jiraiya said grumpily, "but it's
probably more that she's afraid of me."
        Junhime shrugged.  "I'm perfectly willing to accept that."  Her
eyes were hard.
        "Fair enough," Jiraiya replied.  Junhime was actually scarily
similar to the Kaida he had first met, and he made a mental note not to
let himself start to trust the younger woman like he'd trusted Kaida.
For the moment, their goals aligned, and that was all.
        Junhime took another sip of her tea.  "So, what do you think of
the news from the south?" she asked, almost mockingly.
        "I can't do anything about it at the moment," Jiraiya said.  He
sighed.  "Tell me again what we're about to go walking into.  That's
more important right now."
        Junhime nodded.  She'd sent her men, so far as they could tell
still unknown to Kaida, into the Cloud Village to scout and make contact
with Junhime's organization inside.  "Thankfully, we finally managed to
goad your brat into trying to rescue Hatake and got him out of Kaida's
hands."  She laughed bitterly.  "If he was half as stupid as he seemed,
we wouldn't be in this mess."
        "It might have been wiser to just tell Naruto-kun the truth,"
Jiraiya observed.
        "I was certain Kaida had men watching us when we were together,"
Junhime responded.  "I didn't want to let her know that I knew about
her."  She grimaced.  "Though it seems she has from the start, anyway."
        Jiraiya nodded.  "It certainly seems that way.  I'm worried how
many steps in advance she's planned this out, considering that she
thought to poison your organization against me years ago."
        "I assume that was just contingency planning," Junhime said.
"She can't have known that you'd be stupid enough to bring the Kyuubi
straight to her."  The young woman shook her head.  "I don't see how you
could ever have thought that was a good idea.  That demon killed her
teacher, you know."
        "I know," Jiraiya said flatly.  "I was there when she learned of
it."
        "And you didn't think she would seek vengeance?" Junhime asked
incredulously.
        "What worse fate for a creature like the Kyuubi," Jiraiya said,
"than to be bound and chained?"
        "I suppose," Junhime said.  "Anyway, the Cloud Village is
crawling with temple guards, and, according to Zeshin, Storm is getting
in on the act.  He's hiding with Hatake and the brat at an inn in the
city, pretending to be pilgrims in town for the Raikage's Festival."
        "Like us," Jiraiya murmured.
        "Precisely," Junhime said, glancing around the common room at
all the travelers eating breakfast themselves.  "If all goes well, we
can just walk straight through the gates of the city with a big crowd
and meet up with them."
        Jiraiya stood.  "Let's get to it, then."
        Fortunately, though one of the gate guards took the pair of
disguised ninja aside for brief, perfunctory questioning, they made it
into the village without any real incident, and less than two hours
later, the man Junhime had introduced as Zeshin, her most trusted ally,
was leading them up a narrow set of stairs in a dirty inn to the room
where Naruto and Kakashi were waiting.
        "Ero-sennin!" the young genin almost shouted as the older man
entered the room.  "You're..." he trailed off, glaring behind Jiraiya at
Junhime as she followed him inside.  "You," Naruto stated harshly.
        The woman grinned nastily.  "Brat," she said, amusement in her
voice.  "So nice to see you again.  Are you really surprised?"
        "No," Naruto said, "but I don't trust you."
        "Good," Junhime replied.  "You shouldn't.  Make no mistakes, I'm
no more pleased to be working with you three than you lot are to be
working with me."
        "I trust Jiraiya-sama managed to convince you that he was not a
member of Akatsuki," Kakashi said smoothly after an awkward silence.
        "If he hadn't," Junhime said, "one of us would be dead."
        "You," Jiraiya said confidently.  "I could have killed you at
least twice before I managed to convince you to stop fighting and listen
to me."
        Junhime grunted sourly, but it was Zeshin who spoke next.  "What
are we to do now?"
        "We wait," Junhime said simply.  "The Raikage's Festival is
tomorrow, and tomorrow night we can leave the city with thousands of
other pilgrims."
        "And what will you do after we're gone?" Kakashi asked.  "Zeshin
has told us that the Raikage cannot do anything to clear your names."
        Junhime grimaced.  "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it,"
she said, "but one way or another I will make sure Kaida falls."

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

        Sakura yawned as she stared at the page in front of her.  Of
course, it had to be the part of the page where the date was written
that had been ripped off, leaving her to determine whether this was the
missing weekly budget from three years ago or two years ago from context
alone.  That involved rather more thinking than she cared to give the
matter, but there was no way around it.  After checking her careful
notes and finding that only one of the missing weeks was in the winter,
the rather large outlay of money spent on replacing worn out cold
weather equipment was enough for Sakura to put this page in that year's
file.
        Stifling another yawn, Sakura reached for the next loose page,
eyes briefly glancing up and down it.  From the format of the page, it
was part of an ANBU report, which meant that she wasn't supposed to read
it at all, just stick it with the others that would wait for someone who
actually had the right clearance to have time to sort through them.  She
would have done that too, except for one minor detail.
        During her brief glance, she had noted the familiar characters
of her own name.  Unable to stop herself, after glancing at the door to
the classroom to confirm it was still shut, Sakura's attention returned
to the report, and she began to read.
        "Haruno Sakura (Leaf Genin, Registration ID: 012601): Minimal
unique information uncovered in debriefing.  Subject claimed to have
been unconscious for most of the battle against Gaara of the Desert.
Analysis of subject's records finds this plausible.  Upon indirect
prompting, said nothing indicating any knowledge relevant to the
unconfirmed Kyuubi sighting; direct questioning on the matter was ruled
out per the Third Hokage's special order on the subject."
        Sakura blinked several times.  What the hell was that about?
She could vaguely remember the debriefing after the Sand's invasion
during the last Chuunin Exam, and it had seemed fairly standard to her
limited experience.  But what was that about the Kyuubi?  She hadn't
heard anything about that demon fox being seen,and hadn't the Fourth
Hokage killed it anyway?
        Seeking some further information, Sakura quickly read the rest
of the page of debriefing reports, but found nothing that explained
things further.  Then, after debating the matter with herself for a few
moments, she checked the file number on the page, found the rest of the
folder, and skimmed the rest.  Still, she had questions.  It seemed that
there had been some reports that the Kyuubi had been seen in the forests
outside the Leaf Village during the battle, and ANBU had been,
understandably, concerned.  Yet there was something odd about the...
tone of the concern, Sakura supposed.
        There was none of the outright disbelief that Sakura would have
expected upon receiving reports that a dead demon had been seen.
Indeed, from hints in the text Sakura had to conclude that there was
some standard plan in place for dealing with such sightings,
particularly given the numerous references to the Third's "special
order" on the subject.  The order was used several times as
justification for not actually asking questions about the Kyuubi, but
not all the time.  After a quick second scanning of the document, Sakura
noticed the deciding factor.  In every case when the order cut off
questioning, the subject had been a younger ninja close to Sakura's own
age.
        This strange fact paled before the oddest part of the report,
though.  It seemed that almost everyone who might have been in the
forest during the battle had been interviewed by ANBU under the guise of
an ordinary debriefing like Sakura, except for one glaring exception.
No matter how she looked, Sakura couldn't find any record that Naruto
had been questioned.  It was vexing, as Sakura was more than a little
curious as to just how he had defeated Gaara, and Sasuke's debriefing
report simply stated that he had claimed to have not seen most of the
battle either.
        Sakura forced herself to set that minor irritation aside.  When
Naruto returned, she would just have to ask him what had happened.  What
was more important was why ANBU hadn't interrogated him.  Sakura poured
over the report a third time, searching for some explanation.  When she
finally found a casual, easily overlooked reference to another report on
"the surveillance of Uzumaki Naruto" the folder slipped through
nerveless fingers.
        ANBU had received reports of a sighting of the supposedly dead
demon fox Kyuubi, in the same area that Naruto had been fighting.  They
had questioned everyone who might have seen the demon, except for Naruto
himself.  Instead, Naruto had been placed under surveillance.  Almost
absentmindedly gathering up the fallen papers, Sakura swallowed
nervously.
        "It must be terrible for you, having to be with that monster,"
one of Naruto's neighbors had told her once.  Sakura roughly shoved the
papers back into the folder and shut it.
        "I was worried that some of your neighbors might cause trouble,
particularly since -"  That had been Anko, talking about the dangers of
openly displaying knowledge of snake summoning in the Leaf Village.
        "The Third Hokage's special order, huh?" Sakura said, her eyes
narrowing as she remembered how Anko had said she couldn't talk about
whatever she had almost said.
        The implications of what she had just uncovered were staggering,
but it explained so much.  Sakura wanted to laugh at how wrong her
conclusion, mere days old, that her neighbors' hatred for Naruto was
based on something about his family had turned out to be.  It had been
the obvious answer, based on her own experience, but it wasn't even
close.
        Sakura stood.  She needed to talk to someone about this, but
who?  Shizune?  She shook her head.  The last thing she wanted was to go
tell the Hokage's assistant that she'd been reading the ANBU reports
despite all those lectures.  Anko still couldn't have visitors, or
Sakura would have been sorely tempted to go to her.  The special jounin
obviously knew what was up with Naruto, and would probably not just clam
up and say nothing like Shizune or one of the jounin teachers might.
        Sakura quietly slipped out of the room, then had to force
herself not to creep out of the academy building.  It was almost
lunchtime, after all, and so it was hardly unusual for her to be heading
out.  Acting furtive would only attract attention.  Fortunately, the
ANBU guards at the exit didn't seem to notice anything unusual as she
left and headed toward the usual restaurant.
        Instead of going inside, though, she simply looked in through
the window and confirmed that the person she was looking for wasn't
there, then continued on her search.  She finally found him lying on his
back on the rooftop of a damaged building not far from the academy.  He
didn't move as Sakura landed on the rooftop beside him.
        "Shikamaru-kun," she said after a moment.
        The lazy chuunin rolled over on his side to face her.  "What?"
he asked simply.  "Tell Shizune-sama that I've still got half an hour on
my lunch break."
        "It's not that," Sakura said.  "I need to talk to you."
        Shikamaru groaned as he sat up.  "This sounds troublesome," he
said, but he didn't leave.
        Sakura squatted down beside him, automatically glancing around
to check for eavesdroppers.  "I need you to promise not to talk about
this to anyone else.  Not your family, not Asuma-sensei, not Ino or
Chouji.  Nobody."
        "This sounds very troublesome," Shikamaru corrected himself, but
he still made no move to escape the conversation.
        "You're Naruto's friend, right?" Sakura asked.
        Shikamaru blinked, clearly not expecting the question.  "I
suppose," he said.  "It's always been less troublesome to let him be
friendly than to chase him away."
        Sakura nodded.  That was close enough, from Shikamaru at least.
Speaking quickly, not pausing to let the other chuunin interrupt, she
explained how she had stumbled upon the ANBU debriefing reports and laid
out what they had contained.  She carefully avoided mentioning what she
thought of the matter, simply repeating the facts.  "You're probably
smarter than me," Sakura finished finally.  "What's your conclusion?"
        Shikamaru's eyes were wide.  "That's impossible," he said.
"Naruto isn't -"  He cut off suddenly, his eyes widening.  "No way," he
said softly.
        "Shikamaru-kun?"
        "I can't believe I didn't," he began, and then he laughed
slightly.  "I always seem to miss the obvious when it comes to Naruto."
        "What are you talking about?" Sakura asked.
        "Back before the finals of the last exams," Shikamaru said,
"Naruto and I were in the hospital and we saw that psycho kid from Sand
try to kill Lee."  Shikamaru shook his head.  "I can't believe we got
out of that alive."
        "What does that have to do with anything?"
        "I said something about Gaara being as strong as a monster,"
Shikamaru said, "and Naruto said something like, 'Oh yeah?  Well, I've
got a real monster inside of me.'  At the time I thought he was just
being Naruto."
        Sakura nodded slowly.  "I can see that," she said.  "Naruto says
a lot of stupid things that don't make sense."
        "I still don't see how he could be," Shikamaru began, then
trailed off.  "I mean, he doesn't act like a demon."
        Sakura blinked.  "He isn't," she said, and Shikamaru raised a
questioning eyebrow.  "Like he said, there's a monster inside of him,"
she continued.  The pink-haired girl smiled weakly.  "You might be
smarter than me, but I study harder.  I've never heard of any sort of
technique that could change a demon into a human being.  Sealing a being
of power into a newborn baby, on the other hand..."  As she trailed off
herself, Sakura's eyes went to the suddenly ominous-seeming stone face
of the Fourth Hokage looming overhead, and she wondered just what he had
thought would happen to the baby Naruto.
        "What do we do now?" Shikamaru asked after a long moment.
        "What can we do?" Sakura said.  "We go on with our lives, and we
don't breathe a word of this to anyone."

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

[Day Eighty-eight]

        Hiraki Arata grimaced as he carefully poked his head over the
top of a ridge a few miles north of the cease-fire line that had cut the
Waterfall Country in half for all of his life.  He'd operated on this
side of the line before, of course.  His last posting had even been in a
now-destroyed hidden fortress not far from here.  However, it was one
thing to be on the wrong side of the cease-fire line during the long
period of minor skirmishes and raids that had passed for peace with the
Hill Country.  It was quite another to be here when the full military
might of the Hidden Waterfall and the Hidden Valley were arrayed on
their respective sides, staring each other down.  This was the closest
Arata had ever seen the villages come to open war.
        The new chuunin's expression only darkened as he stared at the
pinpricks of light spread out underneath him, brighter than the fading
stars in the pre-dawn sky.  Part of his mind automatically started to
count the campfires, but he forced himself to stop, knowing that it
would be almost as futile as counting those stars.
        "So what do you think?" came the voice of his teammate Maya from
behind him.
        "There's a lot more than the last time we were here," Arata
replied as he dropped back behind the ridge.
        "Brilliant," Maya said, fake awe in her voice.  "I would never
have figured that out, Arata-taichou!"  Arata's other teammate, Ikkei,
snorted.
        "Oh, shut up," Arata grumbled.  Whose bright idea had it been to
make his first job as a chuunin commanding the other two members of his
genin team, anyway?  That was just asking for all kinds of trouble.
Arata snorted himself.  Not that he felt particularly competent to be
commanding anyone, for that matter.
        "So what's the plan?" Ikkei asked after a moment.  "Head back
and report?"
        Arata shook his head.  "It could be a trick.  Easy enough to
light a bunch of extra campfires."
        "Even if it isn't a trick," Maya said, "it makes a big
difference who those campfires are for.  It's one thing if it's for the
Hill daimyo's guard forces or even those scum from Sound.  It's another
if -"
        "If it's the Rock," Arata finished, and the kunoichi nodded.
        Ikkei shifted.  "I see a way to get close enough to find out."
        "What do you mean?" Maya asked.
        "They have to camp close to a source of water," Ikkei replied.
"If we can get to a stream that runs near the camps, I can use my
Bloodline Limit and just... flow right through."
        "That's dangerous," Maya said.
        Arata nodded.  "Too dangerous," he agreed.  "There's got to be
jounin in those encampments, and they probably have set up some sort of
protection."
        "As you say," Ikkei said after a moment.  "But how are we going
to find out whether there are Rock ninja down there?"
        "Like this?" an unfamiliar voice asked.  Arata started, but not
quickly enough as a figure began to emerge from the ground, almost at
his feet.  Snarling, he struck at it with a kunai, forcing the enemy
ninja to drop back into the ground.  Taking advantage of the moment's
respite, he leapt into the air, glancing about to find that his
teammates had moved similarly.
        On the ridge, three figures emerged from the earth, and there
was just enough light for Arata make out the Rock sigils on their
forehead protectors.  Thankfully, they appeared to be genin, which meant
that there was a chance Arata's team might make it out of this alive.
As the Waterfall ninja landed at the bottom of the ridge, one of the
Rock spoke.  "We're going to have to ask you three to come with us."
        Arata ignored him, speaking quietly to his teammates.  "On
three, we split up and break for the cease-fire line."  At his
companion's quite nods, he began to count.  "One.  Two.  Three!"
        In an instant, they were all moving, Ikkei breaking off toward
the left as Maya headed the other way.  Arata kept heading straight,
wishing he knew some technique to help throw off the pursuit.  Ikkei had
the best chance of them, he judged, since if he made it to a river or
stream he could dissolve into water and effectively vanish, at least
from genin like the ones who were chasing them now.
        Still, Arata was halfway to the cease-fire line when he first
heard the sounds of pursuit behind him.  As he jumped over a narrow
crevice, a voice behind him called out, "Stop right there!"
        Arata spun about in midair, rapidly wrapping an explosive tag
around the hilt of kunai and hurling it at the voice.  The explosion
must have hurt the Rock ninja, as no counterattack followed, but Arata
still cursed.  Every ninja in the area had to have heard and seen that,
and they were all going to be converging on him.  His only hope was
speed now, and he hit the ground running.
        Despite this last effort, he wasn't surprised when the man in a
Rock chuunin's uniform rose from the ground in front of him.  "That's
enough, boy," he told Arata, and with a sigh the Waterfall ninja stopped
as two more Rock ninja appeared.  "Just calm down and no one has to get
hurt," the speaker continued.
        Arata judged his options carefully, then raised his hands in
surrender.

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

        Kiyomura Zeshin's eyes narrowed as he watched the small inn from
across the street.  It was early evening, and the streets were crowded
with pilgrims either about to retire tonight or, if their homes were
close enough, leave the Cloud Village.  The constantly shifting horde of
people made tracking any individual almost impossible, but it wasn't
individuals Zeshin was looking for.  It was a certain order in the
chaotic motion, a number of people moving with unified purpose.
        "Are you seeing what I'm seeing, Murai?" he asked.
        The Storm ninja, dressed in civilian clothing, nodded.  "That's
the inn?"
        Zeshin returned the nod.  "It looks like Kaida's found them."
He grimaced.  "I hope those four make it out alive."
        "They knew the risks," Murai said, "and Kaida already knew about
them.  Now that Storm's investigating, the fact that you arranged those
orders for them to go with Junhime has to have come out."
        "I know," Zeshin replied.  "I hate doing this, but if they can
distract Kaida's men for long enough, we can get out of here."
        "You should get going," Murai said, "and I need to report in to
Storm."
        "Right," Zeshin said, and the two men casually separated,
slipping past the enemy ninja encircling the inn without any incident.
Less than five minutes later, Zeshin was in another inn.  "It's time,"
he said without prelude as he slipped into the tiny room where Junhime
and the three Leaf ninja were waiting.
        "The distraction?" Junhime asked, standing.
        "Kaida found them," Zeshin answered.  "All hell should break
loose any minute now."
        "Well, what are we waiting for then?" Naruto asked impatiently,
pushing past Zeshin and opening the door.  After a moment, the other
four followed him down to the inn's common room.
        Waiting for them were a dozen men in the robes of temple
acolytes.  "You're going nowhere," one of them said, holding a metal
staff in a ready position.  The inn's other patrons were already
scrambling toward the exit.
        "It looks like you were followed, Zeshin," Junhime said
irritably.
        "I'm sorry," the other Cloud ninja said.
        "Are you going to surrender?" one of the acolytes asked.
        "We don't have time for this," Jiraiya snarled suddenly.  His
hands blurred.  "Katon: Fire Dragon Blast!"  A jet of flame spurted from
his mouth, catching the speaker in the chest and sending him flying into
another acolyte.  Almost simultaneously, another two acolytes sprouted
kunai, slumping to the ground.
        "Damn it," Junhime said, "I didn't say you could -"
        "We don't take orders from you," Kakashi observed.  "Naruto!"
        "Right," the genin said, his hands rapidly forming seals.  "Mass
Shadow Replication Technique!"  In an instant, the almost empty common
room was filled to the brim with Naruto, and the clones buried the
remaining acolytes under them, pouring out of the front door and into
the street.
        "Out the back way," Jiraiya said, turning around, "while they're
busy dealing with that."
        As Naruto and Jiraiya followed him, Zeshin glanced at Kaida's
apprentice.  "Junhime?"
        The Cloud kunoichi took a deep breath.  "We go with them.  We
don't really have a choice."  She spun about and raced after the Leaf
ninja, and Zeshin trailed after a moment later.
        "What the hell were you thinking?" Junhime snapped at Jiraiya as
they caught up in the alley behind the inn.  "Every single ninja
anywhere close to here is going to be -"
        "Dealing with Naruto's shadow replications," Jiraiya finished
for her.  "At least for long enough for us to get out of here."  He
sighed.  "There wasn't any way that was going to end peacefully, was
there?"
        "Probably not," Junhime said.  She took another deep breath.
"If we're going to do this overtly, let's take to the roofs.  We'll move
faster that way."
        Moments later, they were several blocks away, but their speed
didn't help them.  Cursing, Junhime came to a stop, glancing around at
the three four-man Storm squads that surrounded them.
        "Sinobi Junhime," one of the Storm intoned.  "Kiyomura Zeshin.
In the name of the Raikage and the Hidden Village of Cloud, stand down.
If you do, you will be allowed a chance to state your case before the
Raikage."
        Kakashi laughed.  "And what about us, then?"
        "What do you think, Sharingan Kakashi?"
        "That's quite enough," Jiraiya stated.  "If you lot want to
live, you'd best get out of our way."
        "Even one of the legendary Sannin can't hope to win here," the
Storm speaker replied.
        "We shall see," Jiraiya said darkly, chakra beginning to spin in
one hand.
        For several moments, all the ninja stood still.  Then, thunder
rumbled in the distance, and as though that were a signal the rooftops
erupted into motion.  Half a minute later, the rooftop the fugitives
stood on was starting to burn, set aflame by one of Jiraiya's attacks,
and half of the Storm were out of them fight, one way or another.  The
battle paused briefly, the surviving Storm backing away from the rapidly
growing fire.
        "I can't believe," Junhime muttered, staring at a bloody kunai
in her hand.
        "What now?" Naruto asked.
        "There'll be more coming," Kakashi observed softly, his breath
coming in short gasps.  "We can't hold out for long."
        Zeshin, clutching at the bloody mess a Storm's weapon had left
of his shoulder, grimaced.  "Have you got enough chakra to make shadow
clones and use the Transformation Technique with them, Naruto-kun?"  The
boy nodded.  "Make copies of everyone else," he said.  "I'll stay here
and slow them down while you escape."
        "But," Junhime said.
        "I'm wounded," the now-renegade Storm said unnecessarily.
"Better that I slow them down than slow you down."  He winced in pain.
"Get the brat out of here, so this will be worth something."
        "Right," Junhime agreed after a moment.  "I... I'm sorry I got
you into this."  Naruto began to make the clones that would stay behind
with Zeshin.
        "Just go," he snapped, and several moments later he was alone
with the replications, the flames rising higher around him.  Then a
torrent of water poured over the building, almost knocking him off of
it.  As the flames sputtered, out, Zeshin saw that another squad of
Storm had joined the attackers.  As one, the ten Storm converged on
Zeshin and the quickly-destroyed clones.
        A minute later, all ten were dead.  Gasping, Zeshin fell to his
knees, staring up at his rescuer.  "As you commanded," he managed to
say, "I did."
        The man in the red and black cloak smiled underneath his bamboo
hat.  "So you did.  You served well."
        "What now?"
        "Now, there is one more task for you to perform," the Akatsuki
member said.
        "What is it?" Zeshin asked.
        "You have to die."

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

        Kaida frowned as she glanced at the corpse that lay in the
center of the half-burnt rooftop.  Cautiously, she approached the
corpse, checking for any sign of a trap before pushing it over.
        "Damn it," Kaida hissed.  This had to be Kiyomura Zeshin, and
the way he had died was telling.  "It all makes sense now."
        "What makes sense, High Priestess?" another voice asked.
        Kaida looked up at the four men who just joined her on the
rooftop.  "Raikage-sama," she said smoothly as she stepped away from the
body, "what a pleasant surprise."
        The Raikage glanced down at the corpse.  "Zeshin," he hissed.
"Damn it."  He looked back at Kaida.  "I was considering grooming him to
be my heir," he commented.
        "A good thing, then," Kaida replied, "that his treachery was
revealed in time."
        "That's enough!" the Raikage snapped.  "I think all of us here
know who the real traitor is."  At his word, the three members of his
personal guard at his back stiffened, hands going to their weapons.
        Kaida straightened.  "Interesting," she said.  "I thought that
you wanted to avoid this."
        "I admit," the Raikage replied, "that the fear of civil war has
stayed my hand.  No longer.  This has gone far enough."  He gestured
back at one of his guards.  "Send word that all loyal Cloud ninja are to
stand down," he snapped.
        The guard nodded, jumping away.  Kaida sighed, raising a hand,
and a blot of lightning descended from the dark sky toward the airborne
figure.  There was a crack of thunder when it hit, but a puff of smoke
revealed that it was a replication that had been destroyed.  "Futile,"
Kaida said.  "I've created enough mistrust and suspicion that he'll
never be believed, not soon enough to make any difference."  She sighed
again.   "You've made a terrible mistake."  Almost casually, she pulled
a Cloud forehead protector out of her robes.  She glanced at it a
moment, then tied it around her forehead.
        The Raikage smiled grimly.  "It ends now, Kaida.  You're
outnumbered, and even if we die your time here is done."  His eyes were
hard.  "The confusion you've created will shelter you for a day or so,
perhaps, but the truth will be known."
        "Outnumbered, am I?" The High Priestess's hands formed a seal.
"Now," she said.
        In a blur of motion, one of the Raikage's two remaining guards
pulled out a kunai and plunged it into his master's back.  As the
Raikage stumbled forward, the other guard recovered from his shock and
attacked his treacherous comrade.  Screaming, the traitor tackled the
other guard off the roof, leaving the High Priestess and the Raikage
alone.
        "Now who has the advantage?" Kaida asked.
        "A little wound like that won't slow me down," the Raikage
snarled, pulling the kunai out of his back.  In a blur of motion, he
attacked.  Kaida darted back out of the way, but the blade still caught
her forehead protector, gouging a line across it.  He smirked.  "See?"
        "Amusing," the High Priestess said.  She stood straighter,
suddenly seeming taller as electricity began to crackle around her.
"But now, Raikage-sama, it is time for you to die."

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

[Day Eighty-nine]

        "We can't afford to wait any longer," Jiraiya said.  "We
shouldn't even have stayed this long."
        "We agreed that if we got separated this was where we would
meet," Junhime said firmly, gesturing at the grove of trees where the
four fugitive ninja stood.  "My men or even Zeshin could still make it
out of the village."
        "And you call me stupid?" Naruto asked angrily.  "Come on, Ero-
sennin.  Let's just leave her and get Kakashi-sensei out of here."
        "I'm beginning to like that plan," Jiraiya said.
        "It's a miracle that we haven't had any problems with patrols
yet," Kakashi agreed.  "Junhime-san, the meeting time was midnight,
wasn't it?  We're well past that."
        The kunoichi nodded slowly.  "Just... give me five more minutes,
please.  They were my comrades and my friends... I don't want to..."
        "I understand," Kakashi said, his voice softening.
        Jiraiya sighed, but he sat down, his back to a tree.  "If we
wind up buried in Cloud ninja out for our blood, don't say I didn't warn
you."
        Naruto grunted irritably.  "I don't see why we should wait any
longer."
        Kakashi's visible eye wandered over to his student.  "What was
the first lesson I taught you, Naruto?"
        The genin thought for a moment.  "The tree-climbing exercise?"
        Kakashi laughed.  "No, before that.  Do you remember the bell
test?"
        After a moment, Naruto nodded, remembering his teacher's words
explaining the reason for the test.  "Ninja who don't follow the rules
are called scum, but those that don't take care of their friends are
worse than scum."
        "I understand," the young boy said.  He glanced, almost
sympathetically, at Junhime before walking over to Jiraiya and plopping
down beside him.  "So, when are you going to teach me a new technique,
Ero-sennin?" he asked.
        Jiraiya snorted.  "Does he have this much of a one-track mind
with you, Kakashi?"
        The younger man smiled behind his mask.  "Maybe," he said.
        "Actually, Naruto," Jiraiya said, serious again, "there's
something I want to do.  I didn't want to risk it in the village for
fear Kaida would detect it."
        Naruto nodded nervously.  "What is it?"
        "Lift up your shirt and channel a bit of chakra," the Sannin
ordered, and hesitatingly Naruto complied.  An instant later, the boy
shivered at the cold sensation of Jiraiya's fingers poking and prodding
at the seal that began to appear there.  After several moments, Jiraiya
stopped, gesturing at Naruto to lower his shirt again.  "As I feared,"
the old man said.
        "What is it?"
        "That work Kaida was doing," Jiraiya said, "had nothing to do
with strengthening the seal.  Quite the opposite, in fact."
        This statement apparently snapped Junhime out of her worries, as
she whirled around to face Jiraiya.  "What do you mean?" she demanded.
"Why would even Akatsuki want that?"
        Jiraiya only shrugged.  "I expect Naruto-kun had difficulty
keeping the demon in check while training with you," he said.
        Junhime shook her head.  "None," she replied.
        Jiraiya glanced at Naruto, who nodded.  "Huh," he said after a
moment.  "That's very good, boy, but don't get cocky."  His eyes were
hard.  "You can't afford to let your guard down for an instant."
        "Always good advice," a weak, familiar voice said from just
outside the grove.
        Junhime's eyes widened and she spun around again.  "Zeshin!"
        The former Storm member stumbled into the grove, weakly
clutching at his bloody shoulder.  "Hello, Junhime."
        Jiraiya stood.  "How did you survive?" he asked cautiously.
        "Not through any skill of mine," Zeshin said ruefully.  "I got
lucky.  Raikage-sama finally decided that Kaida had gone far enough."
        "That's wonderful!" Junhime said.  "Then we can -"
        Zeshin interrupted her with a bitter laugh.  "Well, as for that
I've got good news and bad news.  The good news is that enough of some
semblance of the truth has come out that Kaida has vanished and the
village council has asked that she be brought before them if found."
        "The village council?" Junhime asked softly.
        "What's the bad news?" Kakashi said.
        "The bad news is that Raikage-sama is dead," Zeshin said, "and
the current consensus opinion is that we're responsible for his death."
He laughed again.  "Things are confused right now, but there'll be
patrols out looking for us any minute."
        "We need to get moving, then," Jiraiya said.  "I doubt we can
beat a messenger bird to the border, but I mean to try."  He glanced at
Zeshin.  "If you or Junhime don't know any medical ninjutsu, I'll use a
few techniques Tsunade taught me to get that shoulder fixed up at least
a little."
        Zeshin nodded.  "Thank you."
        "Zeshin," Junhime said, her voice and eyes distant.
        "Junhime?"
        "You said that Kaida-sama has vanished?"  The ex-Storm nodded at
Junhime's question.  The kunoichi cursed softly in response.  "She is
hunting us, for sure."
        "Then we should stop standing here!" Naruto almost shouted.
        "For once you're right," Junhime agreed.  "Jiraiya-sama, can you
help Zeshin on the way?"  The Sannin nodded.  "Then, let's move."
        Kakashi took a deep breath.  "I don't know if my chakra has
recovered enough for this," he stated, "but it's worth a try."  Pulling
down his cloth mask, he bit at his thumb, drawing blood, then pressed
that hand to the ground.  "Summoning Technique!" he hissed.  There was a
burst of smoke, and two large, brown dogs appeared.
        "Good thinking," Jiraiya said with a nod.
        Kakashi whispered orders to the dogs, who ran off, then the Leaf
jounin stood.  "They'll trail us and give warning if any pursuers draw
near."
        "Follow me," Junhime said, and a moment later the grove was
empty.
        The next hour passed in near silence, almost no words passing
between the five fleeing ninja.  They made rapid progress, despite
Zeshin's wound slowing them, and for a while Naruto actually began to
think that they might get away from the Cloud Village without incident.
Then, a dog's howl sounded from behind them.
        "One person," Kakashi said shortly.  There was another quick
series of howls, and the Leaf jounin's grimace was visible behind his
mask.  "A woman.  Moving very quickly, perfectly following our trail."
        "I suppose we should look for a good place for an ambush,"
Jiraiya said after a moment.
        "No," Junhime said quietly.  She hesitated, as all the other
ninja looked at her, then took a deep breath and continued.  "You can't
beat a messenger bird," she said, "but you can beat the forces needed to
seal off the border with the Sky Country."
        "But not if we all stop to fight Kaida?" Jiraiya asked.  "Even
against her, the fight won't take that long."
        "But it's likely to be loud and flashy, isn't it?" Junhime
replied.  "Fighting Kaida might not take long, but avoiding all the
patrols that are going to converge on wherever we fight will."
        "She's right, Jiraiya-sama," Kakashi said after a moment.
        Naruto swallowed.  "What do we do, then?"
        "I stay behind," Junhime said harshly.  "I'll at least slow her
down and give you time to get away."  Her voice softened.  "Zeshin -"
        "Don't worry," the other Cloud ninja said.  "I'll make sure they
make it to the border safely."
        "Thank you," Junhime said.
        "Thank you," Jiraiya echoed softly, looking at Junhime.  "Your
sacrifice will be remembered in the Leaf Village, at least."
        Junhime spat.  "Like I want that," she said.  Then she laughed.
"Then again, I would be dying to help Sharingan Kakashi escape the
Lightning Country.  Not how I planned on going out."  She shook her
head.  "In any case, I might even win."
        I wish you luck, then," Jiraiya said.  He glanced at the other
Cloud ninja.  "Zeshin-san?"
        "This way," he said after a moment, and then Junhime was alone,
waiting for her teacher to arrive.

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

        A shower of kunai was the first sign High Priestess Kaida saw
that she had walked into an ambush.  Casually, she stepped aside,
somehow using the red and black cloak she now wore to capture the
missiles and send them speeding back toward their source.  Her eyes
narrowed as no response came, but her suspicion didn't come quickly
enough for her to avoid the hands that crept out of the ground under her
to grasp at her ankles.
        As Kaida's unseen attacker began to pull her into the earth, the
High Priestess snarled wordlessly.  There was a bright flash of light,
and when it faded Kaida stood alone in the center of a wide, shallow
crater.  Her eyes tracked her foe's path through the air, and she smiled
as the other ninja landed lightly before her.  "Your dodges are a quick
as ever, Junhime-chan," Kaida said lightly.
        "Kaida-sama," the other woman murmured.  She too smiled, her
eyes going to the marred forehead protector Kaida wore.  "I see you now
openly declare your allegiance."
        "I should have expected you to stay behind to confront me,"
Kaida said.  "You've always had a thing for futile gestures."
        "We'll see how futile it is," Junhime replied, a kunai appearing
in her hands.
        "So we shall."  Kaida raised one hand, and the dark sky
darkening further, the few patches of stars vanishing as clouds raced in
to cover them.  "Raiton: Lightning Storm Technique," she intoned
slightly, not bothering to form any seals.
        In less than an instant, Junhime's kunai left her hands, flying
at the older woman.  Even as Kaida leaned aside to avoid the attack,
Junhime crouched down, her hands making rapid sets of seals.  "Doton:
Lightning Rod Technique!"  Thin bars of metal thrust out of the earth
surrounding the Cloud kunoichi.
        There was a tremendous crack of thunder as countless jagged bars
of lightning poured out of the heavens at Junhime, who stayed still in
the center of the protective metal bars as the electricity danced around
her.  "It won't help," Kaida said, raising her hand again.  A single
bolt of lightning struck at each metal bar, carrying enough power that
the thin rods shattered.
        "It lasted long enough," Junhime snarled, her hands freezing on
a seal.  "Raiton: Twin Thunderbolt Technique!"
        Kaida didn't even make a gesture, but the two lightning bolts
twisted in midair to avoid her still form, blowing open tiny, deep
craters when they struck on either side of her.  Junhime's teacher
smiled.  "That level of power won't work on me."
        Junhime took a deep breath.  "I didn't expect it to," she said,
and she suddenly vanished.
        "Genjutsu," Kaida hissed, darting aside mere moments before
Junhime, her cloaking technique dissolving, thrust a kunai crackling
with electricity through where the older woman's back had been.  "How
pointless," the High Priestess said as she grabbed Junhime's arm.
        The young woman's eyes widened as her kunai began to glow
brightly, then Junhime screamed as the electricity flowed back into her.
Kaida released her student, and Junhime fell backwards, spasming
helplessly as she landed on her back.  The High Priestess turned away.
        "I'm not through yet," Junhime said as she slowly stood, a
shaking hand rolling back one sleeve.
        Kaida half-turned to face her opponent, then raised an eyebrow
as she saw the circle of purple characters encircling Junhime's forearm.
"Impressive," she said.  "I didn't know you had advanced so much."
        Junhime gave her teacher a painful smile as she bit at her
thumb, then smeared the blood over the writing on her arm.  "One Element
Unseal," she hissed.  "Lightning!"  There was a crack like thunder, and
electricity began to crackle around Junhime as she suddenly stood
straighter.
        Kaida shook her head.  "You still do not understand, Junhime-
chan.  You cannot defeat me."  One arm slowly emerged from her cloak,
covered almost entirely with purple writing similar to the band that had
encircled Junhime's arm.  "I have had far longer to seal away excess
power and far more power to seal away."  Without visible cause, blood
began to ooze out of Kaida's arm in a dozen places, filling gaps in the
elegant tracery of characters.  She gave her student an almost sad
smile.  "One Element Unseal: Lightning!"
        The sheer power that filled the Akatsuki member flung Junhime
back, and the younger woman barely managed to keep her feet as she
landed.  "Damn it!" she shouted, thrusting one arm forward, electricity
sparking around it.  "Raiton: Thunder Dragon Talons!" Three arcs of
electricity sprung from her hand, slicing through the air at Kaida.
        Casually, the High Priestess batted the attack aside.  "Futile."
        Growling, Junhime vanished in a sudden blur of motion,
reappearing above and behind Kaida.  "Raiton: Lightning Slice!"  A blade
of electricity sprouted from her hand, aimed at Kaida's neck.
        Somehow, the older woman caught the lightning sword with her
bare hand.  "Futile," she repeated, then she formed a seal with her
other hand.  Junhime's sword pulsed briefly, then the electricity flowed
back into her, and once more she was flung away.
        This time, she seemed barely able to rise, but rise she did.  "I
won't... let you... win," she gasped out.
        "My victory does not depend on your permission," Kaida said
coldly as she advanced on her student, forming seals with one hand.  The
night began to turn to day as lightning flashed between the clouds
overhead.  "Raiton: Breath of the Thunder Dragon," she intoned, a
massive ball of lightning forming in the air of Junhime.  It impossibly
hung there for an instant before descending.
        In the mere moments she had to act, Junhime pulled out and
unrolled a scroll in one smooth motion, holding it between her and the
oncoming attack.  "Thunder Sealing Method!" she shouted.  There was a
blinding flash of light, and when it was passed Junhime stood breathing
heavily but unharmed, a massive new character in the center of her
unrolled scroll.
        "Most impressive," Kaida said after a moment.  "That sort of
technique isn't meant to be used in battle, though.  You won't be able
to do it again."
        Junhime let out a short laugh, placing the scroll on the ground
and crouching down behind it.  "That's true," she said, smiling grimly,
"but I won't have to."  She laughed again.  "I thank you for the loan of
your power, Kaida-sama," she stated, placing one hand over the center of
the scroll.  "Unseal," she breathed, and electricity exploded out of the
scroll, surrounding Junhime but leaving her unharmed.  After taking a
deep breath, the young woman began to slowly, deliberately, form a long
and complicated sequence of seals.
        Kaida's eyes widened.  "Impossible," she said.  "You aren't at
the level to -"
        "We'll see about that," Junhime hissed as she formed a final
seal.  "Raiton: Summoning - Avatar of the Thunder Dragon!"  The clouds
overhead raced apart, but they revealed no starry sky.  Instead it was a
bright, electrical glow that filled the gaps, the barest hint of a long,
serpentine form visible swimming in it.  Grimacing, barely able to
control the power she was channeling, Junhime formed another sequence of
seals as a massive bar of lightning descended toward her.  "Eightfold
Heavenly Divination Seal!"
        The burst of thunder shook the countryside for miles around, and
even Kaida had to stumble backward, raising an arm to shield her eyes
from the glow.  When she lowered her arm, Junhime stood again, a
familiar, glowing pattern visible even through her armored vest for a
moment before it faded.  "Now," Junhime said, her voice strong once
more, "the real battle begins."
        After a long moment, Kaida nodded.  "So it does."

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

        The morning sun was just beginning to rise as Hoshigaki Kisame
kicked aside the severed head of a Cloud guard that had foolishly tried
to get in his way.  "One of them got away, Itachi-san," he said.
        "No matter," Itachi said flatly.  "We won't be here for long."
His crimson eyes swept the devastated battlefield.
        Kisame took a long look himself, finally resting on the
shattered body of a woman in a cloak like the one he wore.  "Oh," he
said.  "It seems Kaida-san finally met her match."  Her bared his teeth.
"Jiraiya?"
        "No."  Itachi gestured, and Kisame found another corpse, in even
worse shape than his comrade's.
        "A Cloud ninja?"  Kisame stepped over to the body.  "I wonder
who she was?"
        "It hardly matters," Itachi said, kneeling down beside Kaida.
He pried a ring off of her cold fingers, then stood.  "We're done here,
Kisame."
        The shark-like man nodded.  "They'll be heading for the southern
border," he observed, "with most of a night's head start, it seems."
Itachi gazed flatly at his partner.  Kisame grinned toothily.  "Should
be fun, Itachi-san."
        "Let's go," was all the Uchiha said, and when Cloud
reinforcements arrived only a few minutes later, the two Akatsuki
members were long gone.

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

[Day Ninety]

        "We've been lucky," Kiyomura Zeshin said as he rubbed at his
forehead, blinking wearily.  "Even as quickly as we're moving, I'd have
thought we'd have run into some trouble before now."
        "We might have," Jiraiya said, "if Kakashi-kun wasn't scouting
ahead."
        Naruto yawned loudly.  "How much further do we have to go, Ero-
sennin?"
        "Zeshin-san no doubt knows the area better than I do."  Jiraiya
glanced at the Cloud ninja - most likely formally a missing ninja by
now.
        The other man stifled a yawn, perhaps prompted by Naruto's.
"All the evasive maneuvering we've been doing has me a little confused,"
he said after a moment.  "And I've been... a little distracted."
        Jiraiya's eyes softened.  "Were you and Junhime-chan," he began,
then trailed off.
        "That's not important now," Zeshin said, his voice perfectly
flat.  Not even a hint of emotion showed on his face.  "Nor is it any of
your business, Jiraiya-sama."
        "I suppose not," the legendary ninja said after a long moment.
"There are some matters that are my business, though.  You might have
been distracted, but you have to have some idea of where we are."
        Zeshin nodded.  "Unless we got more turned around than I
thought, Kakashi-kun should be coming up on the border patrols soon."
He paused.  "I'm sure he won't have any trouble avoiding their notice
and returning to us."
        "Most likely," Jiraiya said.  "And what are your plans when we
reach the border?"  He hesitated.  "If you wish it, my word could give
you a home in the Leaf Village, though it would be some time before you
would be fully trusted, of course."
        "I'm no friend of the Leaf," Zeshin said.  "We merely share an
enemy in common."  He snorted.  "And even with Kaida dead, she had years
to recruit willing agents.  I doubt the Cloud's ability to keep
Akatsuki's hands off of the Kyuubi."
        Naruto grimaced.  "I'm not -"
        "Yes, you are, boy."  Zeshin's voice was hard.  "So far as I,
and most of the world, are concerned.  You'd best get used to it.  I'm
amazed you aren't already, since I can't imagine that many in the Leaf
Village feel any differently."
        Naruto's expression darkened further, but it was Jiraiya who
spoke.  "That's enough."
        Zeshin smiled mirthlessly.  "Of course."
        A sudden wind kicked up a cloud of dust and fallen leaves.  When
it faded, Kakashi stood before the three other ninja.  "Jiraiya-sama.
We have a problem."
        "When don't we?" Jiraiya grumbled.  "What is it?"
        "I found a Cloud border patrol."  Kakashi frowned behind his
mask.  "They were already dead."
        Naruto's eyes widened.  "What?"  He swallowed nervously.  "Was
it... them?"
        Kakashi hesitated before saying, "No."
        "What makes you say that with such certainty?" Zeshin asked.
        "It's best I show you," Kakashi said.  "Follow me."
        A few moments later, they were standing over the bodies of four
Cloud ninja.  "You see, Jiraiya-sama?" Kakashi asked.
        The legendary ninja knelt beside one body, turning it over.
"They were all killed the same way.  It's a fresh kill; whoever did this
can't have gone far."  He stood.  "This technique," he began, before
trailing off with a glance at Naruto.
        The genin frowned.  "What is it?" he asked, looking slightly
pale as he stared at the bodies.
        Kakashi ignored his student, kicking the corpse Jiraiya had
disturbed back over.  "I only know one other person who knows that
technique," he said.  "You know who I speak of."
        Jiraiya nodded, and Naruto's knowledge of his teacher's
expressions told him just how worried he was despite the old man's
efforts to hide it.  Who could make him so scared?  "What technique?"
the genin demanded to know.
        Zeshin glanced at the corpses.  "It's Raikiri," he said.
        Naruto blinked.  That sounded sort of familiar, but where had he
heard it before?  "Raikiri?" he asked, glancing between the older ninja.
        Kakashi looked away.  "It's also called Chidori," he said after
a long moment.
        "Chidori!" Naruto shouted.  "That means... Sasuke."  Jiraiya was
suddenly behind him, holding his shoulder firmly.  Naruto looked up at
his teacher's firm visage, then forced himself to relax.
        Kakashi frowned, looking at Zeshin.  "I don't recall ever
showing you that technique," he said slowly.
        It took a moment for the Cloud ninja to answer.  "We learn of
that technique in Storm training," he said, "in case we are ever called
upon to fight the famous copy ninja Sharingan Kakashi."  He hesitated,
then added, "From your words and the type of wounds, it wasn't hard to
figure out."
        "Who cares about that?!" Naruto yelled, looking around wildly.
"They weren't killed long ago, right?  That means that... Sasuke..." He
trailed off, freezing.
        Three other sets of eyes followed Naruto's still gaze to the top
of a nearby hill, just on the other side of the border.  Atop it, a
young boy in a dark kimono smirked.  "Yo, dead last."
        Naruto tensed.  "Sasuke..." he snarled, baring his teeth.
        "Naruto," Jiraiya said warningly, "don't -"
        There was a flicker of crimson around the boy, and the legendary
Sannin jerked his hand away.  In an instant, Naruto was halfway up the
hill, charging at the other boy, who merely turned and started to walk
away.
        "- it's genjutsu!" Jiraiya finished, shouting as his student
vanished over the crest of the hill.  "Damn it, we have to go after
him!"
        "Right," Kakashi said, but instead of moving all three ninja
froze, turning to face another hilltop.  Jiraiya paled as he saw the two
figures standing there.
        "Found you," Hoshigaki Kisame declared cheerfully as he raised
his sword off his shoulder, then pointed it directly at Jiraiya.  "Your
stupid toads won't save you this time."
        "Kakashi," Jiraiya said softly.  "Go after Naruto.  I'll hold
these two off."
        "And me?" Zeshin asked.
        "Help if you see an opening; stay out of my way if you don't."
Jiraiya's eyes didn't leave the two Akatsuki.
        "Right," Zeshin said, and then Kakashi was gone.
        "Want me to chase after him, Itachi-san?" the shark-like ninja
asked his partner.  The other man just shook his head, his crimson eyes
fixed on Jiraiya.
        "I suppose this answers the question," Jiraiya said, "of who
used Raikiri on these four.  I'd forgotten your brother showed you that
technique, Itachi-kun."
        "I'm afraid we've been following behind you this whole time,
Jiraiya-sama," Uchiha Itachi said after a glance at the dead Cloud
ninja.  "We only just arrived.  That was none of my work."
        "What?" Jiraiya asked.  "Then whose genjutsu was it that drew
off Naruto?"
        "Well," Zeshin said from behind the legendary Sannin, "I imagine
it was probably Kabuto-kun or Tayuya-chan.  Unless Sasuke-kun has been
studying genjutsu in his spare time, of course."
        Jiraiya's eyes widened, his face paling even further as he
looked over his shoulder at the Cloud ninja.  The other man smiled,
licking his lips with an abnormally long tongue before gently pulling
his face away, revealing a very different set of features.
"Orochimaru," Jiraiya hissed, almost in unison with Itachi.
        The other Sannin laughed, amused, inhuman eyes meeting
Jiraiya's.  "You're so observant, Jiraiya."
        "When?"
        "After you left poor Zeshin-kun behind," Orochimaru said.  "He'd
been working for me for a while now.  You should thank me, Jiraiya.
Without me, the Kyuubi brat would still be in Kaida's grasp."
        "That explains much," Itachi said softly.
        Kisame grinned.  "It looks like we're going to get to kill two
birds with one stone today, Itachi-san."  Without visible cause, the
bandages concealing his sword's true nature began to loosen, falling off
the massive blade.
        "Well, Jiraiya," Orochimaru said, smiling.  "It looks like you
have an important choice to make."
        "Damn you," Jiraiya snarled, but he turned away from the other
Sannin, his attention focusing once more on the two Akatsuki.
        Orochimaru laughed.  "Very good.  I'll let you handle Itachi-
kun, while I deal with Kisa-chan here."
        Kisame's sword shifted slightly to point at the snake master.
"Don't underestimate me, Orochimaru."
        Orochimaru laughed again, sinking into the earth.  The shark-
like ninja jumped into the air instantly, heading directly at Jiraiya.
Orochimaru rocketed out of the ground to intercept, snakes flying out
from one arm at his foe.  In one wild swing, Kisame's sword decapitated
all of them, but then Orochimaru was upon him.
        Itachi tensed to join his partner, but then Jiraiya vanished
reappearing behind the infamous Uchiha.  "Not so fast, kid," he said,
chakra already spinning in his hand.  "Rasengan!"  Itachi didn't have a
chance to dodge, but he only exploded into gray smoke as Jiraiya's blow
struck home.  "Shadow Replication," the Sannin hissed.
        "Indeed," Itachi said, appearing behind his opponent, kunai
slitting Jiraiya's throat with a single perfect strike.  There was
another explosion of smoke.  "How amusing," the Uchiha said as he stared
at where Jiraiya's shadow replication had stood.
        A thin line of fire pierced his heart, and there was yet another
pillar of smoke.  "This could go on forever," Jiraiya said.  "What do
you say?  Shall we stop playing games and get this fight started?"
        "Very well," Itachi said, suddenly appearing not far from where
his latest clone had been destroyed.
        Jiraiya stepped out from his own place of concealment.  "It's
well past time someone dealt with you, Uchiha Itachi," Jiraiya said.  "I
hope your brother is prepared to truly be the last of the Uchiha."
        The missing ninja's crimson eyes showed no emotion at the
mention of Sasuke.  "I thank you," Itachi said, "for allowing me to
finally learn this technique."  Chakra began to spin in his hand, as he
blurred into to motion, reaching Jiraiya in less than a second.
"Rasengan."
        Jiraiya laughed as he blocked Itachi's attack and captured his
arm, the rotating chakra spinning out of control and harmlessly shoving
the older man back less than a foot.  "If that technique could be copied
so easily," he said, "don't you think someone else would have done it
already?"  Itachi tried to break away, but the Sannin had a firm grip on
his hand.  "Let me show it to you again," Jiraiya said, a storm of
chakra gathering in his free hand.  "Rasengan!"

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

        Naruto knew that it wasn't Sasuke he was following.  Sasuke
wouldn't run away from him like this, nor could he have moved so
quickly.  A part of him even realized that the image he was following
probably wasn't real.  What real thing moved so quickly, but only when
it was out of sight?  Still, Naruto didn't care.  The image of Sasuke
was too accurate; it's words were a dead perfect imitation of the other
boy.  Whoever had created it knew Sasuke.  Whoever had created it knew
where Sasuke was.
        It was a trap, Naruto also knew.  He didn't care about that
either.  He would find a way to turn the trap on its maker, defeat
whatever challenge presented itself.  He would find out where Sasuke
was, and then... he wasn't certain what he would do, but he knew he
would do something.  Somehow, he would make things right again.  He
would find whatever words he couldn't find at the Valley of the End,
invent whatever strategy he'd been unable to invent.  Everything would
go back to the way it had been, to the way it was supposed to be.  It
would be like he had never failed.
        Another thing that Naruto knew was that he was treading
dangerously close to the edge of unleashing the rage he could feel
boiling under the seal on his stomach, and that he did care about.  Even
now, he managed to make himself stop for just an instant, taking a deep
breath.  He forced the crimson flickers of energy around him to die
down.  His hands twitched as sharp claws shrank, once more becoming
human fingernails.  His teeth lost the points they had just begun to
grow, and Naruto took another deep breath.
        Hatake Kakashi roughly grabbed him by the shoulder.  "Stop,
Naruto," he said firmly, though there was no unkindness or blame in his
voice.
        "I know it's a trap," Naruto said, turning back to glance at his
teacher.  "I'm going anyway."  He paused.  "Where's Ero-sennin?  And the
Cloud guy?"
        "Akatsuki," Kakashi said.  Naruto's blue eyes widened fearfully.
"This is their trap.  You won't learn anything about Sasuke-kun today."
        "Is that so?" a very familiar voice asked from behind the pair
of Leaf ninja.  In an instant, both of them were facing the speaker,
weapons in hand.  "I'm disappointed in you, Kakashi-sensei," Uchiha
Sasuke said, the last shreds of the powerful cloaking genjutsu that had
hid him fading away.
        Naruto tensed, but before doing anything he glanced at his
teacher.  "Is he -"  He faltered as he realized that at some point
Kakashi had lifted his forehead protector, revealing his Sharingan.
        "He's real," Kakashi said flatly.  "The rest of you might as
well come out now too."  It took effort for Naruto not to show his
surprise as they were suddenly surrounded by ninja.
        Among them was another familiar figure, who stood next to
Sasuke, adjusting his glasses.  "So nice to see you again, Kakashi-san,
Naruto-kun," Yakushi Kabuto said pleasantly, smiling a smirk that wasn't
at all pleasant.
        Naruto forced himself to take a deep breath, glancing around to
count the number of enemies.  In front of them were Sasuke and Kabuto.
Behind, he saw a grim-faced boy with dark hair and eyes that Naruto
didn't recognize and that six-armed guy Neji had fought - or perhaps
another six-armed person; Naruto didn't have time to strain his memory
for particular facial features.
        The same with the girl to the left; Naruto thought that he
recognized her as the kunoichi on the Sound team that had taken Sasuke
away, the one Shikamaru had stayed behind to fight.  He couldn't be one
hundred percent certain, though.  The black-haired girl on the right
Naruto thought he hadn't met before, despite something about her face
that seemed a little familiar.
        All of them wore Sound forehead protectors, and none of them
seemed weak.  Naruto swallowed, his hand tightening around the hilt of
his drawn kunai.  This was not going to be easy.  "Kakashi-sensei?" he
mouthed.  The jounin didn't respond, both of his eyes fixed on Kabuto.
        The girl Naruto thought he didn't know was smirking.  "I told
you my genjutsu was good, Tayuya-san," she stated, and Naruto realized
that her green eyes were watching the other girl, not him.  He inched
closer to her.  Perhaps he could take advantage of her distraction.
        The other girl snorted.  "If I hadn't been shoring up your
sloppy mistakes, your cloaking genjutsu wouldn't even have fooled the
genin."
        "Save it for after the battle, Midori-chan, Tayuya-chan," Kabuto
chided.
        At that moment, Kakashi struck, chakra crackling into being
around his outstretched hand as he charged forward, closing the distance
between himself and the medical ninja in less than an instant.  The
younger man stumbled backward, then dodged aside with a speed and grace
that belied his apparent surprise.  It didn't avail him, as Kakashi was
already intercepting his foe's altered course before Kabuto had even
started moving.
        Sasuke caught his former teacher's hand, eyes flaring into twin
crimson orbs.  The sparking energy of Kakashi's technique flared
brightly, mere inches from Kabuto's chest, before fading away.
"Pathetic," the Uchiha declared, even as Kakashi forced his hand free
and jumped back beside Naruto.
        "Thank you, Sasuke-kun," Kabuto said, not sounding at all
shaken.  The younger traitor just snorted.
        Naruto noted with worry that Kakashi was already breathing
heavily.  "Kakashi-sensei," he whispered worriedly.
        "I'm fine," the jounin forced out.  Then he fell to his knees.
"Convert chakra to electrical impulses," Kakashi said after a moment.
"Use those to disrupt the enemy's nervous system temporarily.  Clever."
        Kabuto smiled.  "I'm afraid I can't claim credit for it," he
said.  "It's only an inferior imitation of a technique Tsunade-sama used
on me."  He sighed.  "Under ordinary circumstances, I doubt it would
work on you, but you're still weak from your captivity, aren't you?"
        "We'll see how weak I am," Kakashi said.  He stood, but his legs
were unsteady.
        "Are you sure you're okay?" Naruto asked quietly, his lips
barely moving.
        "Well enough to fight," Kakashi returned, no more loudly than
his student, but Naruto could see the occasional trembling of his limbs.
Whether from his captivity or Kabuto's technique, the jounin was not at
full fighting strength.
        "What should we do?" Naruto asked.
        "Kabuto and Sasuke are the most dangerous," Kakashi said.  "Keep
the others bust while I deal with them."
        "But," Naruto began to protest, eyes glancing involuntarily at
his teammate.  A one-eyed glare from Kakashi silenced him.
        Sasuke seemed to notice the glimpse, snorting loudly.  "Let's
finish this, Kabuto," he said.
        The medical ninja smiled.  "Now, now, Sasuke-kun.  It's not
polite to attack until they've finished deciding on a battle plan."
        "Idiocy," Sasuke stated simply, and Naruto had to agree.
        "In this case, not so," Kabuto replied, his smile only widening.
"We have all the advantages here, and its better to give Kakashi-san a
chance to convince himself that he can't win."
        "Why so?" Kakashi asked mildly.
        "I would hope," Kabuto said, "that a reasoned appraisal of the
situation would convince you to agree to a peaceful resolution."  His
hand fell from his glasses, drawing a kunai.  "Give us Naruto-kun,"
Kabuto said, "and I'll let you leave."
        "No."  Kakashi drew his own kunai.
        "A shame," Kabuto replied.
        Kakashi tensed, then shouted, "Now!"  He charged the two Leaf
missing ninja in front.
        Almost simultaneously, Naruto's hands blurred through seals.
"Mass Shadow Replication Technique!" he roared, dozens of clones popping
into existence all around him.
        "I remember that technique," the six-armed ninja behind Naruto
said.  "It won't do you any good."  A massive web spurted from his open
mouth, ensnaring the front rank of Naruto.  The captured clones fell
over backward, knocking over more clones and trapping them under the
web.  Hurled weapons from the other Sound ninja disrupted most of the
rest, and the six-armed young man spat out another web, catching the few
remaining.  Then he added a final layer on top of the whole pile of
Naruto, eliminating any chance of escape from the sticky web.
        "That was easy."  The six-armed ninja stepped forward, visibly
chewing on something.  He slowly extracted a blade of some hard, golden
substance.  "Let's play this game again, shall we?"
        The girl Naruto didn't recognize - Midori, Kabuto had called her
- snorted.  "They're probably all clones, Kidoumaru-san," she declared,
her green eyes sweeping the mass of replications.  "None of them even
tried to escape.  Stop wasting time and finish them off so we can look
for where the real one ran off to."
        "He didn't have time to," Kidoumaru began, but then every
visible Naruto vanished in a giant cloud of white smoke.  "Damn it," the
six-armed ninja snarled.  "When did he have a chance to -"
        Before he could finish his sentence, a Naruto burst from the
earth almost directly underneath him, his foot catching the Sound ninja
in the chest.  "Uz -" the Naruto shouted, as more clones emerged from
the ground.
        "- zu -"  Another clone struck Kidoumaru, knocking him higher
into the air.
        "- maki -" A third blow from a third clone slipped passed
Kidoumaru's attempts to guard himself.
        "- Naruto Combo!"  The final attack came from above, sending the
six-armed ninja slamming back toward the ground.  He landed with a loud
thud and did not move.
        The other male Sound ninja suddenly charged the Naruto
wordlessly, a half-dozen kunai flying from his hands at them.  One
Naruto raced forward, taking a deep breath.  "Whirlwind Shield!"  The
sudden burst of wind knocking the thrown weapons aside, and in an
instant the attacking clone was upon the other boy.
        Meanwhile, the remaining two Naruto turned to the two kunoichi.
Midori's green eyes flicked between them.  "Impressive," she said.  "I
can't tell which of you is the real one."  She raised one hand, and
Naruto caught a glimpse of black rings on the back of it.
        Tayuya snorted.  "Don't waste your strength," she said.  "It's
over."
        The two Naruto exchange a glance, even as behind them the boy he
didn't know disrupted the third Naruto and stepped forward to help
Kidoumaru to his feet.  "What do you mean?" he asked.
        "She means this, Naruto-kun."  Naruto's gaze went instantly to
Kabuto.  The medical ninja held a struggling Kakashi in front of him, a
kunai at the jounin's throat.  Impassively, Sasuke stood behind them.
"Surrender, and I'll let him go."
        One Naruto vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving only one.  "Let
him go," he said flatly.  "Once he's gone, I'll give up."
        "Naruto," Kakashi said, "don't."
        Kabuto laughed.  "I'm not stupid, Naruto-kun.  I know how tricky
you are.  I'm not about to trade Kakashi-san for a shadow clone."
Almost casually, Sasuke disappeared in a blur of motion.  He reappeared
behind Naruto, a kunai taking the other boy in the throat.  There was a
puff of smoke, and the Uchiha snorted loudly.  "Come out, Naruto-kun,"
Kabuto continued.  "The real you.  Lay down your weapons and let us bind
you, and then I'll release Kakashi."
        A Naruto emerged from the ground.  "You're lying," he said
simply.  "You won't let him go."
        "Perhaps," Kabuto said smoothly.  "You don't really have any
other choice, though."
        "All right," Naruto said, stepping forward.
        "Excellent."  Kabuto smiled.  "You should thank your student,
Kakashi-san."
        "Doton: Grasping Hand Technique!"  Even Kabuto started at the
sudden voice from behind, even as the visible Naruto exploded into pale
smoke.  A massive hand of stone and earth rose up out of the ground,
grabbing at the medical ninja.
        "Futile," Kabuto declared, hurling a kunai at the earthen hand.
An explosive tag dangled from the hilt, and when it detonated the
explosion shattered Naruto's technique.
        Then the second hand that had been rising up behind the first
raced forward to capture Kabuto.  Having only moments to react, the
Sound ninja had no choice but to abandon his prisoner.  The hand wrapped
itself protectively around the jounin, who slumped to the ground.
        Another Naruto melted out of the earth, inside the hand's
protective cocoon.  "Kakashi-sensei," he said urgently.  "Can you get
away if I distract them?"
        "Yes," Kakashi said, "but -"
        "Ninja who don't take care of their friends are worse than scum,
right?" Naruto asked.  "That's what I'm doing."
        "Naruto," Kakashi said weakly.
        "It's better that they take me and you escape to tell Ero-sennin
what happened then for them to take both of us," Naruto said rapidly.
He grimaced.  "And I only see one way to win against them," he added,
"and I'd prefer if you weren't around it."
        Kakashi caught his meaning.  "I'm sorry," he said after a
moment.
        "I'll try not to," Naruto said, "but I might not have a choice."
        "If I was at full strength," Kakashi muttered, but after a long
moment he nodded.  "Good luck.  I'll try to bring Jiraiya-sama as
quickly as I can."  Then he slipped into the earth.
        A moment later, Naruto let the hand of stone crumble into dust,
and he stood, glancing about at the ninja surrounding him.  "Let's do
this," he said.
        "Let's," Kabuto agreed.  "Kidoumaru-kun, Sasuke-kun, see if you
can intercept Kakashi-san before he reaches Jiraiya-sama."
        The two ninja nodded, but Naruto moved before they could.  "I
won't let you!" he roared, hands forming seals.  "Mass Shadow
Replication Technique!"
        Even as he jumped out of the way of a torrent of angry clones,
Kabuto seemed calm.  "Tayuya-chan, Jabisen-kun," he said firmly.
        "Yes, sir," Tayuya said, as she elbowed a clone out of the way.
A flute appeared in her hands, and the boy Naruto didn't know moved to
stand behind her.  The kunoichi began to play a quite tune.  Not waiting
to see what would result, Naruto directed the bulk of his clones at the
pair, using only the bare minimum to keep the others busy.
        The boy - Jabisen - opened his mouth, and all sound ceased.
Then it returned as an almost physical thing, a cone of force projecting
from his open mouth that battered the clones, sending dozens flying away
to disappear every second.  When Jabisen closed his mouth, the real
Naruto was plainly visible kneeling in what had been the center of the
crowd of clones, hands clasped over his ears.
        Jabisen collapsed, seeming almost as badly affected as Naruto,
but his teammates were not, and within instants the few remaining clones
had been destroyed.  "It's an inconvenient Bloodline Limit in normal
circumstances," Kabuto said calmly, removing a set a earplugs from his
ears, "but very powerful.  Wouldn't you agree, Naruto-kun?"
        "Damn it," the genin replied, not able to stop the flickers of
red chakra that were beginning to appear around him as he struggled to
stand.  He could feel his teeth and fingernails sharpen, and finally
managed to leap to his feet.
        He found himself staring directly into Midori's face, and he had
just a moment to realize ho the girl reminded him off before she formed
a seal and spoke.  "Haruno Ninpou: Gaze of Torment."

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

        Samehada, Hoshigaki Kisame's massive sword, moved in the shark-
like ninja's hands with a speed many would have thought impossible.
Even many ninja would have found themselves unable to follow the
weapon's motion, their eyes catching only a blur.  If they were lucky,
they might have had enough time to realize they were about to die before
the sword ended their lives.
         Orochimaru, on the other hand, had no difficulty seeing
Kisame's attacks, almost casually darting in and out of the great
sword's reach, though Kisame's defense proved skillful enough that even
the legendary Sannin was unable to get close enough to strike a blow.
It was fortunate for him, then, that his abilities were not limited to
taijutsu.  He waited for a brief lull in Kisame's probing attacks, then
leapt away from his opponent.
        Samehada caught him before he was more than a foot in the air,
cleaving through his chest.  Yet as the two halves fell to the ground,
countless writhing snakes poured out of what was revealed to be a hollow
shell, descending hungrily toward Kisame.  The Akatsuki member only
grunted, and with alarming speed his blade's course reversed to fend off
the animals.
        "Where are you?" Kisame asked irritably as the neatly bisected
snake corpses fell to the ground.  "Neither of us have time for games, I
think."
        Orochimaru laughed mockingly as he emerged from the earth behind
Kisame.  "I have all the time in the world, Kisa-chan.  After all, it's
my men the Kyuubi brat is running toward."
        Kisame snorted, not turning to face his foe.  "All you're doing
is giving us a reason to take the time to lay waste to your pathetic
little village like we should have done long ago."
        "And how many Akatsuki would you be willing to sacrifice, hmm?"
Orochimaru asked.  "I admit, there are many strong ninja in Akatsuki,
enough that if you all gathered to fight me I would die."  He smiled.
"But I would not be fighting alone."
        "True," Kisame said agreeably.  "But you are alone today."  His
sword plunged into the earth.  "Samehada: Scatter!"  The large shark
scales that covered his sword detached themselves, fluttering about him
like strange insects.
        "I remember that trick," Orochimaru said mildly, then the flying
scales flew straight at him faster than any thrown weapon.  His hands
formed a single seal.  "Whirlwind Counter."  The air all around the Leaf
missing ninja stirred, snaring the oncoming projectiles and sending them
back at Kisame.
        The Akatsuki member only laughed.  "Samehada: Attack," he said
calmly, and the scales promptly reversed course once more.
        Orochimaru frowned, raising one hand to his face.  "Fuuton:
Great Breakthrough," he intoned, and a massive blast of wind emerged
from his mouth, knocking the shark scales aside.  Orochimaru's still
raised hand gestured again, and now a torrent of flame escapes his lips,
pouring out at his foe.
        Now Kisame turned, shouting, "Samehada: Defend!"  Almost
instantly, the scales were in the air again, this time forming a
floating wall that shielded the shark-like ninja from Orochimaru's
attack.  Orochimaru took in a deep breath and loosed another blast of
flame.
        Behind his wall, Kisame tensed, then suddenly vanished.  He
reappeared directly behind his opponent, his sword positioned for a
perfect killing blow.  Grinning widely he declared, "Samehada: Return!"
Moving too rapidly to see, the scales flew back to the strange sword,
slotting back into place before Kisame was halfway through with his
strike.
        Orochimaru avoided the first attack, but the second caught him
in the arm.  Though it only grazed him, the sharp scales left the arm a
bloody mess, and Kisame grinned again.  "You should remember," he said,
"that my sword does not cut.  It shaves."
        "Indeed," Orochimaru said, his other hand brushing the blood
down his wounded arm, over a dark tattoo  "Summoning Technique."  He
vanished in the center of a massive puff of smoke.
        Kisame cocked his head as he stared up at the gargantuan three-
headed snake Orochimaru had summoned, not moving as one of its massive
fanged mouths descended toward him.  "Don't waste my time," he said
calmly, then he stabbed upward with his blade.
        Less than thirty seconds later, as the defeated snake dissolved
into pale smoke, Orochimaru reappeared, thrusting a long, thin sword at
Kisame.  The shark-like ninja blocked with the flat of his own massive
sword, but Orochimaru only smiled.  "You should remember, Kisa-chan,' he
said, "that my sword neither cuts nor shaves.  It pierces."  The snake
master's sword lengthened, passing through Samehada like it wasn't even
there and reaching for Kisame's heart.
        Dropping his blade, the Akatsuki member leapt away, in time that
the tip of Orochimaru's sword only scratched him.  "Samehada!" he
shouted, and the massive blade flew through the air at him.  Kisame
easily caught its hilt with one hand, his other gently probing at the
scratch.  "Only you," he said after a moment, "would think to poison the
legendary Kusanagi."
        "Thank you," Orochimaru replied.
        Green chakra briefly encased Kisame's hand, then he pulled it
away from the wound.  "That'll do for the moment."
        "Medical ninjutsu?" Orochimaru asked.  "That's not like you."
        Kisame shrugged.  "It's useful to know a little."  He stuck his
sword in the ground, his hands beginning to form seals.  "I think it's
time to get serious," he stated.  Then he froze as someone appeared
behind him.
        "We're going, Kisame," Uchiha Itachi said flatly.
        Kisame glanced backward.  "Itachi-san?"
        "We're not accomplishing anything like this," the other Akatsuki
member said.  "Let's go."
        Kisame glanced at Orochimaru.  "This isn't over," he said, and
then the two Akatsuki vanished.
        A moment later, Jiraiya appeared in their place.  "Already
gone?" he asked.
        Orochimaru laughed.  "I don't think I've ever seen Itachi-kun
that scared," he said, walking toward Jiraiya.  "What did you do to
him?"
        Jiraiya snorted.  "I showed him a few tricks he couldn't copy,"
he said.  Then he looked away.  "That boy's strong," he said after a
moment.  "I don't know if I'd be able to kill him without dying myself."
        "Troublesome, isn't he?" Orochimaru asked mildly.  He stepped
closer.  "Not strong enough to defeat all three of us, though."
        "He's not likely to ever face that challenge," Jiraiya said
sadly, looking Orochimaru in the eyes.
        Orochimaru smiled, and then he attacked, his sword thrusting
into Jiraiya's chest.  The other Sannin managed to shield his vital
organs and avoid a killing strike, but he still fell to his knees as
Orochimaru retracted his lengthened blade.  As it shrank back to its
normal size, the leader of the Hidden Sound turned around and began to
walk away.  "To remember me by," he said.
        "Damn you," Jiraiya hissed, clutching at the wound.  "Poison?"
        "Of course," Orochimaru replied.  "I don't want you chasing
after the Kyuubi brat."
        "This... isn't going to stop me."  Jiraiya began to rise.
        "Perhaps," Orochimaru said, glancing back at his former
teammate.  "I'd have thought that poison was strong enough to force you
to run back to the Leaf Village for treatment, though."  He smiled.
"Even if it isn't, you probably should anyway."
        "Why?" Jiraiya asked, his eyes narrowing.
        "For one, poor Kakashi-kun is doing a good job of hiding it, but
he really does need treatment in a decent hospital to recover from all
the drugs the Cloud pumped into him."  Orochimaru turned away again.
"The other reason is because in ten days I'm going to kill Tsunade-
hime."
        Then Orochimaru was gone.

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

[Day Ninety-one]

        Inuzuka Kiba glanced backward as he felt a hand on his shoulder,
nodding as he saw it was only Hinata.  The Hyuuga heiress returned the
nod, then held up four fingers before pointing in the direction they'd
been heading.  Kiba raised a finger, quickly sketching the four lines of
the Mist in the air.  Hinata nodded, and he grimaced.  "Shino?" he
risked asking quietly.
        Hinata pointed in another direction, and Kiba nodded again,
frowning as he glanced around the thick forest.  He'd thought that their
troubles would be over once they escaped from the Wave Country, but it
had quickly become apparent that the Mist's aggression didn't stop
there.  They were still behind enemy lines, outnumbered and unable to
risk any confrontations.  It was depressing how far inland they'd
traveled without escaping the Mist.
        Fortunately, unlike in some other countries, the peasants of the
Fire Country respected and honored the ninja of their country.  At
considerable risk to themselves, a number of villagers had helped the
fugitive trio in various ways, providing supplies and shelter as well as
pointing them in the direction of where they'd heard the fighting was
going on.
        Where there was fighting, after all, was where they would find
other Leaf ninja and be able to get a clearer picture of what was going
on.  They were finally getting close, Kiba knew.  They'd seen signs of
battle, only a day or so old, not far behind them.  It possible -
likely, even - that the Mist patrol ahead of them was the last one they
would have to dodge, that they only a few hundred yards from the front
lines and the Leaf forces.  If that was the case, though, this would be
the most dangerous part of their journey since their escape from the
Wave Country.
        Hinata touched Kiba's shoulder again, then pointed backward.
Shino must have signaled for a meeting, Kiba knew, so he followed his
female teammate as she turned back.  Less than a minute later, they met
up with the bug user in a small clearing.
        "Keep an eye out, Hinata," Shino said.  The Hyuuga nodded,
activating her Bloodline Limit.  Kiba didn't need the Byakugan himself
to see how tired she was getting, but without her almost constant use of
it they would have been captured or worse a dozen times now.  His and
Akamaru's smell along with Shino's bugs were good at finding and
avoiding the enemy, but the Byakugan was on a whole different level.
Considering that there were enemy jounin out there, they needed that
edge badly.
        "What's the plan?" Kiba asked, setting Akamaru down on the
ground beside him.
        "We're probably getting close," Shino said.  "From the look of
that last battle site, both sides retreated in good order from it.  I
imagine that's a Mist forward patrol scouting out our positions."
        "They're definitely on guard," Hinata said distantly after a
moment, her attention obviously more on the Mist than the conversation.
        "Can we go around?" Kiba asked.
        "There will be more patrols," Shino said.  "It won't be any
easier."
        Hinata suddenly stiffened.  "I see Leaf ninja," she said.
        "What?" Kiba stood.  "Where?"
        "They're moving to ambush the Mist."  Hinata paused.  "I think
Tenten-san is with them."
        "Let's go," Shino said.  "We can help."
        Despite his words, by the time they reached the other ninja the
Mist were already gone, having noticed the Leaf ambushers and head off
rapidly to avoid them.  Carefully making enough noise to be heard coming
and make clear that they weren't hiding themselves, the three genin
approached and were swiftly surrounded by the four-man Leaf patrol.
        Tenten was indeed one of the members of the patrol, and she
relaxed slightly as she recognized the trio.  "I know them," she said,
and her teammates too began to relax.  One of the men on her squad gave
her a questioning glance, and she spoke again.  "Aburame Shino, Hyuuga
Hinata, Inuzuka Shinta."
        Shino nodded.  "We were stationed in the Wave Country," he said.
He took out his forehead protector from the pockets of his jacket.
After a moment, Kiba and Hinata followed suit.
        "All right," one of the Leaf ninja said after a moment.  "I
recognize the Byakugan, and it doesn't look like you all are using a
disguise technique.  Tenten-kun, take them back to camp.  We'll finish
up the rest of the patrol ourselves."
        "Right," the weapons expert said.  "This way," she told the
three genin as she walked off.
        They followed in silence for some time, then Shino spoke.
"What's been going on?" he asked quietly.  "We haven't been able to get
any real news."
        "The Mist and the Sound hit the village together after the
Chuunin Exams ended," Tenten answered shortly.  "The Rain and maybe the
Valley are working with them too."  She grimaced.  "It's been pretty
bad.  They've got most of the coast under their control, but we've made
them pay every time they try to push into the forest."
        "That's good, at least," Kiba said.
        "Not good enough," Shino said.  "What about the northern
border?"
        Tenten shrugged.  "Haven't heard anything."  She sped up
slightly.  "Almost there."
        Shortly thereafter, they suddenly were on the edge of the large
clearing that contained the Leaf encampment.  The two sentries that met
them nodded as Tenten explained the situation.  "Take them to Hokage-
sama for debriefing," one said, and Tenten nodded, leading the way to
the largest tent, near the center of the encampment.
        They were almost there when a voice called out, "Shino, Hinata,
Kiba!  You all made it out all right!"  The three genin turned in unison
to face Yamanaka Inoichi, who smiled broadly as they neared.  "Was that
mess at the bridge your doing?"
        Shino nodded.  "I believe so."
        "Good work," Inoichi said.  "That gave Shikaku, Chouza, and I
the distraction we needed to get out ourselves.  We got here a couple of
days ago and Hokage-sama quizzed us already, so your debriefing
shouldn't be bad."  He laughed awkwardly.  "It can't be worse than mine
at least."
        Kiba raised an eyebrow.  "Something happen?" he asked.
        Inoichi sighed.  "It's... complicated," he said, "and I'm not
sure what I should tell you."
        "Understood," Shino said.
        "When we get back home and I have chance to talk to..." Inoichi
trailed off.  "Sorry," he said after a moment.
        Kiba couldn't help being curious what the jounin was concealing,
but it wasn't a question he could ask.  "You talk like we might be home
soon," he said after a moment.
        "Could be."  Inoichi frowned.  "Now that they know that we're
going to put up a tough fight, the Mist haven't been pushing us too
hard.  Some of the prisoners we've taken have told us that there's
rumors on their side that the Mizukage is about to offer a truce."
        "Or the Mist are waiting for reinforcements and that's just
misinformation," Shino said.
        "Very true," Inoichi said.  He smiled grimly.  "I'd wager we'll
know one way or another within the week."

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

        "Ah, Sakura-chan," Shizune said as the pink-haired girl slipped
into what had been the academy headmaster's office not too long ago.
"You're a little early."
        Sakura shrugged.  "There wasn't enough time from when I got back
from lunch to do any real work before you wanted to see me."
        "That's fine."  Shizune smiled slightly.  "I wanted to talk to
you alone for a little while too."  She yawned suddenly.  "Sorry.  I've
was up late last night."  Sakura nodded, and the older woman continued.
"Have you read the book I gave you?"
        Sakura nodded a second time.  "Yes, Shizune-sama."
        "Good.  If I can find the time, I'll have to take a few hours to
show you some basic first aid ninjutsu."  Shizune glanced at the
disorderly piles of paper covering the desk, and repeated "If I can find
the time."
        "Thank you," Sakura murmured politely.  A tiny part of her
wondered just what good first aid techniques would do to help her catch
up to Naruto and Sasuke, but she ruthlessly quashed it.  Even the most
impractical knowledge was useful, and basic medical ninjutsu was hardly
impractical.
        The door to the office opened, and Shikamaru slipped inside.  "I
brought the draft report you asked for, Shizune-sama," he said, laying a
folder precariously on top of a pile of paper.
        Shizune reached to steady it.  "Thank you," she said simply.
"How's your work going, Sakura-chan?"
        "Slowly," she answered.  "There are a lot of records.  Most of
them are intact, but the ones that aren't take a long time to deal with.
It would be easier if there were people."
        "A lot of things would be," Shizune said.  She opened her mouth,
but whatever she might have been going to say was lost as a toad
suddenly appeared on her desk.
        "Stupid humans," it muttered.  "Always moving things around.
Wandered around the village for half the day trying to find where you
put the Hokage's office."  It frowned at Shizune.  "You aren't the
Hokage."
        Shikamaru just raised an eyebrow.  Sakura blinked several times
before Shizune answered.  "No.  Tsunade-sama isn't in the village right
now."
        "Well, damn it."  The toad grumbled to himself for a moment.
        "What do you need Hokage-sama for?" Sakura asked.  This had to
be a summoned creature which meant... Jiraiya must have sent him.
        The toad spun about to face her.  "To deliver a..." he trailed
off suddenly.  "You stink of snakes, girl," he said harshly.
        Sakura rubbed self-consciously at her snake tattoo, still hidden
by the bandage one of Tsunade's previous chuunin bodyguards had given
her.  "Really?" she asked weakly.
        The toad backed away.  "What's a snake summoner doing in the
Hokage's office?" he demanded.
        "That's quite enough," Shizune said.  "She is a loyal Leaf
ninja."
        "If you say so," the toad said, turning back to her.  "Do you
happen to be Shizune or Haruno Sakura?"  Sakura blinked.
        "I'm Shizune," Tsunade's assistant said.  "That's Sakura-chan
behind you."
        The toad glanced back.  "A snake mistress is one of the three
people Jiraiya-sama trusted to take this message?"  He shook his small
head sadly.  "Bizarre."
        "The message," Shizune prompted.
        "Right."  A small scroll appeared on the desk in front of the
toad.  "That's all," it said, then vanished in a puff of smoke.
        Shizune quickly unrolled the scroll and read it, her face
getting paler with every second.  "Damn it!" she shouted, slamming the
scroll back down on the desk.  "And I thought things couldn't possibly
get worse."
        "What's wrong?" Sakura asked worriedly.  Jiraiya had sent a
message about something bad, and she was one of the people who it could
have been delivered to.  Had something gone wrong with Naruto?
        "It's... Orochimaru."  Shizune took a deep breath.  "Jiraiya-
sama is coming back to the Fire Country, and Hatake Kakashi is with
him," she said after a moment.
        "Kakashi-sensei," Sakura breathed.  "Thank the gods."
        "They're both in serious condition, and he wants a skilled
medic, preferably Tsunade-sama or me, to meet him at the border."
        "How... Orochimaru?" Shikamaru asked.  Shizune nodded.
        "What about Naruto?" Sakura demanded.
        "He..." Shizune trailed.
        Sakura swallowed.  "Is he dead?"
        "No," Shizune said.  She grimaced.  "Probably not.
Orochimaru... took him."
        "Naruto?" Shikamaru asked.  "Why would -"  He cut off suddenly,
trading a horrified glance with Sakura.
        "Probably leverage over the Uchiha," Shizune answered quickly.
"Or because he knows Tsunade-sama cares for him."
        Shikamaru blinked.  "Yeah.  Right," he said.
        "That makes sense," Sakura managed to say a moment later.
        Shizune gave both chuunin a long look.  "You know," she said
slowly.  Her eyes widened at the involuntary, guilty glance that passed
between the two.  "You do.  Who else knows?"
        "No one," Sakura said.  "I figured it out, and I talked to
Shikamaru-kun to make sure I wasn't insane."
        "How did you figure it out?" Shizune asked.
        Sakura swallowed.  "The archives.  I... saw some ANBU reports
that gave me the missing pieces of the puzzle."
        Shizune let out a bark of laughter.  "Figures," she said.  "I'll
figure out your punishment when we get back."
        Sakura blinked.  "Shizune-sama?"
        "The other thing Jiraiya-sama wants is a team to follow the
trail Orochimaru's men left and rescue Naruto."  Shizune smiled.  "If I
didn't let you come, I imagine you'd follow anyway."
        "I'm coming too," Shikamaru said seriously.
        "It's not too troublesome?" Shizune asked.  Shikamaru just
grunted.  "Good.  You'll be second-in-command after me."
        Shikamaru nodded.  "Who else is coming?"
        "I don't know the chuunin well enough to pick, and we can't
afford to send any of the jounin we have left in the village." Shizune
frowned.  "Three more chuunin," she said.  "That I can probably convince
Homura-sama and Koharu-sensei to let me have."  She grimaced.  "It'll be
hard enough to convince them to let me go."
        "Yamanaka Ino and Akimichi Chouji," Shikamaru said.  "They're my
teammates, and I work best with them."
        "Yes on Yamanaka," Shizune said.  "No on Akimichi."  She sighed.
"I'm sure he's strong enough to go if you'll recommend him, but I'm
going to have enough problems without trying to get approval for a genin
to go on an S-class mission."
        Shikamaru grimaced.  "Hyuuga Neji," he said after a moment.
"And Rock Lee."
        "Done and done," Shizune agreed.  "Prying Neji-kun loose from
ANBU training will be tough, but worth it."
        Sakura blinked, but Shikamaru didn't seem surprised.  That did
explain a few things, Sakura concluded after a moment.  "What now?" she
asked.
        "We leave at first light tomorrow," Shizune said.  "Get ready."
She stood, then blinked.  "I almost forgot," she said.  "They're letting
Anko-chan have visitors now."
        Sakura nodded.  "I'll see her."

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

        Mitarashi Anko smiled weakly at her sometimes student as the
ANBU guard shut and locked the heavy door behind himself.  "If I were
dangerous," she said, "you'd be in trouble."
        "You're in chains," Sakura said.
        Anko shrugged.  "Minor details," she replied.  "What's wrong
with you?"
        Sakura blinked.  "What?"
        "It's obvious you're worried about something," Anko said.
"Something that's not me," she added, pouting slightly.  Sakura quickly
explained the message Jiraiya had sent, and Anko grimaced.  "Damn it,"
she hissed.  "If I could do anything..."
        "I know," Sakura said after a moment.
        "Sakura-chan," Anko said, studying the pink-haired girl
carefully.  "I'm sorry you had to see... that."
        "You saved me," Sakura said, knowing what Anko referred to.  "I
should apologize to you."
        Anko shook her head.  "It was my choice," the special jounin
said.  She smiled.  "But since you think you owe me..." she trailed off,
and when she spoke again her voice was serious.  "Can I ask you a
question?"
        "Yes," Sakura replied.
        "My sister," Anko said.  "What happened to her... after I... you
know."
        "I... let me think."  Sakura paused.  "I had a lot of things on
my mind, and afterward..." She trailed off.
        "I know," Anko said sympathetically.
        "I think your sister and her students left with Kabuto-san,"
Sakura said after a moment.  "He said something about taking them to
Orochimaru."  Anko paled.  "What's wrong?" Sakura asked.
        "Nothing," Anko said shortly.  "Thank you... and good luck."
She obviously forced a laugh.  "I hate to be so cliche," she said, "but
you're going to need it."

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

Author's Random Ramblings

1) And another chapter done.  There's an outside chance of this being
the penultimate chapter, but as mentioned last time I'm there will
probably be two more chapters.

2) I more or less got this chapter finished on schedule, which is nice.
I'm still aiming to have this story done by the end of the year.  Nine
days left, and the two halves of the story are finally starting to
converge.  Should be fun, I hope.

3) There are quite a few scenes I've been wanting to write for a while
now in this chapter.  Hopefully they're as entertaining in words as they
were in my head.

4) As always, I welcome all comments on the story.  In particular, if
anyone is still confused about what was going on with Akatsuki, Junhime,
and Kaida, now is a good time to point it out.

5) Next time, in One Hundred Days Chapter 15, The Will of Fire:  The
mission to rescue Naruto begins, but is it doomed from the start?  Is
there any chance that the direly weakened Leaf can triumph against the
superior forces arrayed against them?  In less than ten days, the
answers will be known...

Draft Started: October 04, 2006
Draft Finished: October 31, 2006
Draft Released: November 01, 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 -----'