... surprise? It's only been 7 months after all.

Beta'ed by NightsBlackRose13, as always. Beta, who is very talented, loves you all, as does the author.

Seriously, your reviews are everything and I read them religiously.


Chapter 29: Let The Games Begin

Hiruzen's blindness was going to be Konoha's doom.

In many ways, that was already the case. Danzou saw, clear as day, that the village had taken a heavy toll in the first stages of the war-it was undeniable. But instead of putting everything they had into raising the new generation to be strong and able to take on the world, all the potential was being smothered by either endless coddling or the failure to seize it from places where they were almost certain to become a danger from within.

How could he not see the need to add to the village's firepower? The real kind, not the soft bodies that served as canon fodder. Because that was the only thing the methods of the current system were capable of producing.

Once again Danzou realized the truth in the saying that only the things done by oneself were the things done properly.

It wasn't anything new to him. He just wished people could recognize truths like this before it was too late. Especially Hiruzen. In the meantime, there was nothing else for him to do but to move forward on his own and to try and prevent the worst from happening.

"Utsoru-kun."

His personal guard immediately appeared before him, silent as a shadow and on one knee, ready to serve at a moment's notice. A perfect picture of absolute obedience.

"Danzou-sama," the figure replied.

"Is my old friend still holding that soirée in his house?"

"Yes, Danzou-sama."

"Is the girl there?"

"Yes, together with Kagami-san's daughter and Naori-san."

Danzou nodded to himself. As much as the Uchiha preached unity, there was no denying that there were factions within the clan advocating different beliefs concerning the future. It made sense to make a move on a potential asset as long as they were young and malleable.

As for the Naori woman-he would have to see. True, she had played some kind of role during the Izanagi infighting, but hadn't appeared somewhere noteworthy ever since. He didn't expect too much trouble with her, provided he could talk some sense into Kagami.

"Fetch me my walking stick. We're going to join their little party."

)()()( )()()(

I should have known watching him storm out of the Hokage's office wasn't going to be the end of it.

Every single muscle in my body is tense and close to tearing as he makes himself comfortable directly opposite of me. He's in no hurry, thanking a visibly confused Sumiko for the tea and generally behaving like he was invited. The general air has taken on a guarded vibe, too, with Naori's face looking closed-off and her watchful gaze cautiously moving between Kagami and the new guest.

She clearly doesn't like this.

Me neither.

Ugh, I hate my life.

"Danzou," Kagami says, voice sounding guarded but not unkind. "This is a surprise. It has been quite some time since we last sat together, my friend."

"Indeed," Danzou answered. "We have both been too busy to notice the time pass, I imagine."

Kagami smiled and nodded. "So what brings you here? A sudden impulse? Nostalgia? Or is it some other reason altogether?"

"Is it hard to believe that I merely wished to visit an old friend?"

Oh you bet it is, you old warmongering hawk.

Naori apparently isn't about to take his shit either. She gives a short laugh. "Forgive me for being candid, Danzou-sama, but a courtesy call is quite possibly the last thing any of us would have guessed given the fact that you are the visiting party."

For the first time, he turns to look at her. His gaze is piercing, but Naori doesn't back down and stares back, face set in a neutral expression that belies the fury I can practically feel rolling off her right now. She must be thoroughly upset to lose her composure like that. I reckon she knows Danzou and his machinations too well not to be.

Then again, she's been in an explosive mood already before he entered.

Danzou answers with a fake smile that stinks to high heaven.

"My, Naori-san," he starts, ever so pleasant, "I'm quite surprised to hear you hold me in such low regard for I cannot rightly remember us ever having held a proper conversation before."

"That is true," Naori says, her voice and face tightly controlled. "But reputations have a habit of proceeding the person they belong to, especially if said person happens to be the head and founder of the one secret ANBU subdivision operating outside of Konoha's authority."

Don't get entangled in the roots of the tree. There's a reason why they grow in darkness.

My stomach sinks even further upon remembering Hanako's last piece of advice for me.

This is it. Him sitting here, smack in the middle of an Uchiha family dinner. This is what she was talking about.

Fuck.

"Please, dear friends," Kagami pipes up. "My daughter put a lot of effort into the meal, it would be such a shame for it to go to waste."

There's steel in his voice, giving his friendly words a quality not unlike that of a warning and since everyone at this table has been raised well enough, we're all too adept at social etiquette to consider not heeding it.

We're also all perceptive enough to notice that absolutely nobody is feeling comfortable right now.

"As I was saying before you joined us, Danzou," Kagami says, "settling into the village's structures and transitioning away from the ways of life before it is still a work in progress. We should not forget that it hasn't been long for any of us and there are still people alive today that remember living in times when clans were the only structure shinobi had."

That … is not quite what we've been talking about before. At least, not explicitly.

This must be a message for both Naori and Danzou, I'm sure of it.

The latter one nods. "Very true. We should also remember that the ways from before are the reason we have made it to today. It would do us a bad service to just shrug them off. On the contrary, the responsible mind would heed them carefully, for the world around us has not changed that much from then."

Okay, he did not get the message.

"That, my friend," Kagami counters, "I have never denied. The wisdom of times past is not automatically obsolete, just as setting sight on the future is not irrelevant-as it often is, finding the balance between them is what we should aim for."

Danzou is swift to answer. "Men like you are destined to go chase that golden balance, Kagami. Ordinary men like me stay back and keep the business running steady."

Kagami laughs. "You give yourself too little credit, Danzou. You chase things at least as often as I do."

Danzou gives a thin-lipped smile that immediately invokes an urge inside me to punch it off his face. Since he hasn't stolen any of my relatives' eyes yet, I'm not in danger of damaging anything precious, so I'm seriously considering it. Also, I'm reasonably sure that there are people here willing to help me hide the evidence when the deed is done.

"Etsuko-chan seems to be having thoughts on this," Danzou suddenly says. "What do you make of this, child? Let us hear."

Oh, crap.

My throat goes dry immediately and all my mental raging comes to a screeching halt.

He was not supposed to notice. Because the moment he did, this whole thing turned into a test that I could only fail.

I show him I hate him, I'm dead.

I show him I support him, I betray myself and my clan.

I avoid a clear answer, he realizes that I think much more than I'm supposed to.

I need to find a way out of this trap. Now. Think, Etsuko, think. Something, anything!

Men are always willing to believe two things about a woman: one, that she is weak, and two, that she finds him attractive.

"Danzou-sama," I say, eyes demurely pointed at the floor, "I am very confused right now. I am afraid I cannot give you a satisfactory answer, as I do not understand. May I ask you to explain?"

I look up to gauge his reaction.

For a few seconds, he regards me with an intense stare and nothing else. I realize too late that he's probably getting much more from my face than I from his.

Again, crap.

He inhales. "Well, you are a child after all."

I imagine hearing the tiniest trace of disappointment in his otherwise level voice and have to be careful not to let the relief show.

Phew, thanks Dragon Age. Never thought I'd use advice from one of my favorite video games to deal with the ultimate asshole of one of my favorite manga-and with minimal changes, too. Funny how life plays out sometimes.

For the rest of the dinner, I thankfully manage to control my face and mouth so the whole affair thankfully never worsens from absolutely uncomfortable to flaming disaster. It is also notable that Danzou tries going for an amiable tone most of the time. Naori doesn't buy it and lets him know from time to time.

I think she simply has no fucks left to give.

I feel a little sorry for both Kagami and Sumiko when we reach a point where it's clear that none of us guests really want to stay anymore. Mostly Sumiko, since she went through so much trouble to prepare all the food.

When I tell her that shortly after deciding to leave first, she's graceful about it and laughs. "Don't you worry about that. I enjoyed cooking it and I could see that all of you enjoyed eating it, too. That's plenty for me."

We're standing in the genkan of her house, her being the only one that's seeing me off since Danzou wants to stay a little longer and Naori staunchly refuses to leave before he does. When I've put on my sandals, she hands me a small bag with a bento box with some of the food. "You should visit us again, Etsuko-chan. Maybe when it's a bit quieter."

I smile. "I'd like that." I even mean it.

"Well then," I say, about to turn around and leave, when she adds something.

"You did well tonight, Etsuko-chan. It's not going to become any easier from here on, but remember that you're not alone. And keep that strategy, you pull it off very convincingly."

I blink, a little surprised. "Thank you, Sumiko-san."

Her smile doesn't waver. "Don't be alarmed, I don't think Danzou noticed. It's a girls only secret."

I think ... I think I need to reevaluate my first impression of Sumiko.

And start counting my allies. I'll need them.

)()()(

The next day sees me bright and early on training field 18. At dawn, just as requested and seriously who does that, this is an unholy time.

Orochimaru isn't here yet which strikes me as strange, especially after his preaching about precision and exactness and I swear, if this is yet another one of those stupid tests-

Argh, fuck, this is a test, isn't it?

Sharingan activated, my vision goes uncomfortably sharp, my body immediately switching into panic mode as I scan the area for hidden chakra signatures. Left, right-straighten your fingers, fists are not going to help you-in front, behind-feet into position, be prepared to swivel around-up, down-knees unlocked, shift the center of gravity-relax-tense means stiff means slow, and slow means dead-

...

Nothing. No purple or any other color anywhere.

...

It doesn't calm my nerves at all.

For a couple more moments, I remain on high alert, every fiber of my being tensed to the maximum, breath shallow and slightly too fast. It's not a state I can stay in for a prolonged time, there are black spots at the edge of my vision already because of fucking course I didn't have any breakfast before coming here and I should know better by now but who in all honesty can digest anything taken in that early?!

Something hisses right by my feet and I scream.

)()()(

Snakes are fascinating creatures. Did you know, for example, that the neck of a snake is actually really short? The first few vertebrae behind the head generally do not have ribs on them, and would therefore count as a neck. Ah, you might say, so they're basically all tail? Well, friend, prepare yourself: Their tails are actually pretty small too. At the bottom of their ribs they have their cloaca and anything below that is the tail. Which means that they are mostly torso.

Mind blowing, right?

I have another one: did you know that snakes' hearts move around in their bodies? That's because they lack diaphragms, which means their heart's position in the body can adjust somewhat. This usually happens so it doesn't get damaged when the the snake is ingesting large prey. Yes, they make room for dessert quite literally.

As you can see, I have quite a penchant for compelling and delightful trivia about the most random things. I like to think that that's one of the main reasons for my open-mindedness and ability to be easily awed which in turn I like to think of as pretty positive traits.

But, positive traits or no, the fact remains that being abstractly fascinated with the sheer possibilities biology and other natural sciences present does not automatically mean that the factual manifestations of precisely those possibilities invoke a purely enthusiastic bodily reaction upon encountering.

In more precise words: a whole fucking snake launching itself at me from perceived nowhere at full speed is fucking horrifying.

So, yes I scream.

Loudly.

Piercingly.

For more seconds than either necessary or smart.

I never claimed my reactions to unexpected situations to be appropriate.

Upon my screeching, the snake backs away a little, looking much more startled than I admit I ever imagined a snake could. It prompts me to swallow my second screech and watch, frozen stiff and unsure what to think or do.

The snake catches itself first. "Thisss must be a missssstake." It slithers a little closer and uhhh can you not? "Orochimaru-sssama sent me to ssssee his apprentisssss, not sssome wailing child."

Oh wow, way to get insulting within the first twenty words of a conversation.

"You could have not snuck up on me," I shoot back, sorely offended. "Also, I expected Orochimaru himself, not his summons."

"Sssso you are his apprentisss?" It doesn't look very impressed. "He sssent me to tell you that he will meet you on training ground forty-four."

I blink.

Forty-four.

That's the Forest of Death.

I fucking hate everything.

)()()(

The snake's name is Agatami and weren't it for the fact that they're leading me to certain death, I'd say that they were of quite an agreeable nature. They're mostly quiet, the few glimpses of sass from before hidden behind a refined veneer of shining white-and-red-scales and fluid movements. Once I've gotten over the surprise and fear I freely admit, they're actually really beautiful.

I'm also really thankful that they don't comment any further on my embarrassing behavior, so there's that.

Orochimaru's figure stands tall in front of one of the gates. He's wearing a black yukata with a veridian haori casually thrown over and of course it looks fabulous. The greatest villains always have the best fashion sense.

Agatami heads directly for him and doesn't stop as they reach his feet. No, they wind their way straight up his leg and settle comfortably on his thigh. They're longer than they appeared to be, slithering along on the ground.

"Orochimaru-sssama, I brought the chhhhild."

"I can see that," Orochimaru says. "You're dismissed."

There's a small pause in which I'm 99% sure that Agatami is going to get offended because that was just plain rude of Orochimaru, not even uttering a single word of thanks, but the moment passes and the snake disappears in a puff of smoke.

Maybe I should say something about that?

Orochimaru's whole attention suddenly shifts to me, his stare piercing straight through to every single insecurity I ever had and probably will have.

Err, no, some other time. Maybe.

Or I'll just make sure to thank the snakes in his stead from now on. Yeah. Rebellion from the shadows. Good stuff.

"I need to assess the full extent of your fighting abilities," he says. "Are you familiar with the specifics of Training Ground Forty-four?"

Um yeah, nice to meet you too I guess. I swallow. "Hanako-sensei took my team and I here once. Not for long, though, and we didn't meet anything too dangerous."

Now that I think about it, it really wasn't as scary as I'd imagined. I mean, I didn't even ramble about it. But maybe that was more due to the circumstance that we mostly stayed in one place and the fact that we were not hunting slash being hunted by other teams.

"That changes today," Orochimaru states, matter-of-factly.

Yay, such good news.

"Follow me."

)()()(

Orochimaru leads me to a clearing half the size of a football field. It's surrounded by dense forest, the grassy surface mostly flat and occasionally broken up by mounds of black soil, with those mounds appearing more frequently in the center. It would appear bizarrely quaint, if it wasn't for the lack of anything but grass. So no, I don't trust it.

We come to a halt at the edge of it, my teacher dearest not saying anything to me. I mean, who needs explanations about anything, right? Instead he crouches down and puts his hands on the ground. Before I can ask what he's doing, I feel a sudden pulse go through the ground, leaving the air vibrating and my legs shaking in the wake of it.

I have such. A bad. Feeling. About this.

Orochimaru stands up again.

"You will stay here until I allow you to leave," he says. "In the middle of the field is a pouch with tools and supplies that you are allowed to use to survive."

Oh great, we're talking about surviving here. Cool. I'm the ultimate survivor. I'm so surviv-ish that I come back from the dead. Which actually means that I am really fucking bad at it, now that I think about it.

A rumble goes through the ground.

And another.

I could swear that right there, on the other side, the ground is actually moving.

His lips curl into a cruel smile. "I recommend not failing to do so."

And then he shunshins away, leaving me to face the unknown. Alone.

This is not optimal.

My first idea is to run back to the edge of the clearing, into the beginnings of the thicker parts of the forest, climb a tree and observe wtf is going on with this particular patch of land before deciding on a strategy to stay alive. My legs are already moving in a sprint, my eyes fixated on the first tree I can see, and together with the thought that this seems a bit too easy a plan to really work, my head hits something hard-a flash of purple-whoawhattthefuck-

Butt meets ground.

Ow.

For a couple seconds I'm not sure if it's the ground that's rumbling or my head, but as soon as the fuzzy streaks disappear from my vision, a bloodcurdling realization creeps up my spine:

The Trees are still quite far off and I didn't get thrown back hard enough to cover that distance. In between, there's only black soil and air.

Which means that there is nothing in front of me I could have run against.

Meanwhile, the rumbling in the ground has reached an intensity that has the ground shaking. I can literally hear something crunching its way underneath my feet and crap I need to get outta here fast-

Hands stretched out in front of me and moving considerably slower, I try another go at the climbing-tree-plan. Again I don't get far though, because there most definitely is some kind of resistance mid-air.

My pulse shoots up into staggering heights as I mutter a stream of profanities under my breath, my fingers prodding all over that invisible surface in a desperate attempt to find a weakness to whatever it is and finding none, of course.

A last ditch attempt has me sending chakra into it which does elicit a reaction-the purple flash makes a comeback, accompanied by a straight line of quickly fading kanji on the ground.

Fuuinjutsu.

Shit.

The ground's shaking grows intensely violent at a rapid pace and with it a sound like something ancient rumbling from an abyss, reaching me from behind.

No time left to run.

I turn around.

And am just in time to see a giant fucking worm erupt from the earth, splitting it apart.