A/N: So in case you've been out of the loop, I was sick for a while, which led to stress as my makeup schoolwork started piling up, which led to a mini-depression (temporary, but still, not fun). I'm better now so hopefully I'll be able to rebuild my update buffer and get back to a regular schedule.

In the meantime, here's a list of Youtubers that I think are worth passing the time with while you wait for the next chapter:

- Tom Scott

- TierZoo

- CGP Grey

- Kurzgesagt

Apart from having great content, they also helped remind me of all the interesting and important stuff that's still out there. They were instrumental in pulling me out of my little funk, and it's thanks to them that I've gotten myself back on track.


The Nara Clan Compound

The house was quiet today, as it normally was. I treaded through the rooms with caution, careful not to disturb the silence. The best shinobi were shadows, silent and undisturbing of anything in their paths. No squeaky tile or floorboard was a proper excuse for making sound, for I had long since learned how to get around that. Tip-toeing was not as effective as one might expect, for it put all the pressure of one's body weight onto a small area. Shinobi were taught to walk in a different style, hunter-style, stepping from heel to toe while rolling the foot like the arch of a rocking-horse. It was a game that every ninja parent ingrained on their offspring, along with all the patriotic songs of duty to the village.

As I made my way down the hallway to my father's room, I passed the rows of family portraits, each one featuring a different set of ancestors. I remembered this spot, this place where I as a child had hidden in the dark and listened to my parents violently discuss the rest of my future.

My father's office was locked with a hexagon seal design. Perhaps if I sat down and thought about it for a long time I might be able to break it. It was a well-done thing, most likely a customized commission. Only the best for a clan head, after all. No doubt other people who had things to hide, people with enough power and secrets and gold, would have something similar on their doors.

I raised my knuckles and knocked. From the inside, I felt the familiar pit-pat that came from human footsteps. That was my father. Silent, as a trained shinobi should be. But he had not learned how to control the earth. The vibrations and depressions in the soil were minor, barely there, and I would have not noticed it happening had I not been looking for and expecting them.

There was a shifting of locks, and he greeted me with a forced smile. These past few weeks he was looking as expected for a man who had just been to his best friend's funeral. I supected I looked about the same. We were both coping with the loss the only way we knew how – scheming and plotting to protect what was left.

"Mum says it's time for dinner."

"And will today be a talking day or a thinking day?" he responded.

"A thinking day, probably." Dinner, normally a time when I participated in conversation to get as much as I could from my father, was plagued with silence on my end. I could feel my orderly, logical perceptions of the world falling apart between my fingers. The demands of my brain gnawed at me like a rabbit at a snare, and I…I felt like I wasn't doing enough.

I didn't quite remember eating. I did remember my head hitting my pillow, and then me waking up in my own bed with no memory of what had happened between then and morning. There was a fuuinjutsu book I didn't remember reading halfway open on my nightstand; upon flipping through it I realized that I already knew and understood everything up to the bookmark, and yet I had no recollection of any of the learning process.


Training Ground 3

With the way Kakashi-sensei was pushing them, it was obvious that he was scared of something. The more paranoid he was, the more cruel he was during training; it was a mere fact of life. It was like he was desperately trying to offload all of his knowledge onto them for some mysterious eventuality – his skills were ultimately all the pieces of him that mattered, and they, his students, were his ticket to living after he was gone.

Every day, Ino would see Naruto flitting in and out of the summoning realm, firing off ninjutsu until even the Kyuubi was complaining of exhaustion. Shikamaru's sealing was getting better day by day as he figured out new ways to incorporate it into his shadow and earth (and occasionally, a few water and fire) jutsu, though the frown lines around his mouth seemed to be getting sharper as well. Sometimes she'd even see Gaara hanging around, always with Jiraiya or Yamato looking over his shoulder to make sure Danzo didn't try anything funny.

And as for Ino herself? It seemed like Kakashi-sensei was focusing on her more than usual. Normally he was pretty good about splitting his attention evenly between them – in the beginning he might have given Shikamaru some extra care just because of how smart he was, and Naruto some extra time just because of how much catching up he needed to do – but now she was the one with the laser eyes fixed on her.

Which was slowly becoming less and less fun by the day. She still had bruises from yesterday's kendo training. If Kakashi-sensei had been brutal in taijutsu then he was even more so with his sword work.

It did make sense. Ino was a new clan head, and she needed all the help she could get to prove that she was a fit leader, especially since she was so young and a girl besides. Mind techniques by themselves were already dangerous – even the smallest nudge in the wrong direction could completely destroy someone. Mind techniques combined with lightning chakra? Something was going to explode.

Summoning a giant bolt of electricity from the sky to strike one's enemies was all too easy if you had enough chakra (which she didn't, but that wasn't the point), but the human nervous system was far more delicate. She required much more concentration and precision, for she was learning everything in tandem with her clan jutsu – jutsu which her father had been supposed to teach her, but never got the chance to.

In a way, it was similar to Shikamaru's sealing training. He could have and should have been on his fourth element by now, but he had put his elemental ninjutsu on hold to study something which, according to him, would be more useful for someone of his reserve levels. Ino didn't blame him. Not everyone had Naruto's insane stamina.

They were all pieces of him. Naruto got the dogs and the general elemental ninjutsu. Shikamaru got the fuuinjutsu and the strategy. She got the special lightning techniques and the swords. And all of them got the mind games.

Ino was dreading what was going to come today.

"Today's exercise will be very simple," Kakashi-sensei said, pulling out a summoning scroll.

What.

There was a pop, and a watermelon appeared in front of her.

Ino stared at it incredulously.

"Your task is to make me watermelon juice using lightning chakra only…without damaging the shell of the fruit at all," Kakashi-sensei said.

Ino picked up the watermelon and held it in front of her face. It was one of the smaller ones, conveniently the size of a human head. She turned it over. Someone had drawn a face on it, in permanent marker.

"I have no idea how that got there," Kakashi-sensei said.

Ino groaned and set to work. Generating a few sparks of lightning chakra in the air was easy enough. But when you couldn't see what you were doing, and there was an entire chunk of fruit in the way…

Initially she attempted to materialize the lighting chakra outside of the watermelon before dragging it through, like a knife, but when it became clear that it was impossible not to scorch the shell with that method, she gave up on it and went back to the long way. That is, put her hands around the short end of the watermelon, and try to generate energy in the core of the flesh without touching the outside first. It seemed impossible to do with just her hands alone…

"How many watermelons do I have to work with?" Ino asked, eyeing the storage scroll.

"I got you the first five for free; everything after that you'll have to get yourself. If you don't want to be wasteful, don't move on to the next one until it's clear that the one you're currently practicing on is decimated beyond any further use. Anyway, I doubt you'll have an issue with destroying a watermelon shell just yet. It's more likely you'll have trouble even summoning the chakra in the right location in the first place."

Unless it wasn't just her hands?

She looked over to the field where Kakashi-sensei was supervising Naruto and Shikamaru to make sure they didn't kill themselves testing out Shikamaru's new experiment. She'd lose nothing by asking for help; she knew there was more to this technique than just "summon chakra and watch it work". It was just Kakashi-sensei's way, when teaching them ninjutsu, to let them try out some things on their own for a bit before they asked for help.

But they were working on something very interesting right now, and she didn't want to interrupt.

Some of Naruto's smaller dogs were running around in the bushes; shortly after their training had ended Naruto had managed to successfully summon three more dogs. There were five total in his pack now, excluding the three-headed Guardian of Hell that none of them would get to see unless things had really gone to shit (which was understandable but at the same time so not fair because he sounded so cool!) – Nekomaru, Nadeshiko, the twin greyhounds, Scruffy and Fluffy, and after that, a giant black Doberman the size of a large draft horse which promptly introduced himself to his siblings as Sunshine.

Ino still didn't know how the summons' naming system worked, and frankly, by this point she wasn't sure she wanted to know.

In any event, Nekomaru and Nadeshiko were currently out training the three new nin-dogs in basic commands, so that Naruto wouldn't have to teach them again. That left them time to focus on Naruto's individual skills.

Which happened to be the replication of elemental kekkei genkai. "Because…while what happened in Wave was scary, I have to learn to control it. Without the Kyuubi, if that's possible," Naruto explained.

"Even with all your natural stamina, that's going to require a lot of seals and multitasking, if you want to overcome the natural inefficiency in the environment without the Kyuubi's help."

"I can deal."

"Right. Hold out your hands. This will only take a second."

Ino watched as Shikamaru painted the markings on Naruto's hands. "For now, you should start practicing with air and fire, since those two are the easiest to combine. I know you've done fire and earth before, but air's your natural element. Whenever you're ready, make two clones. One of them should channel an air jutsu through that one," Shikamaru said, pointing to the marking that said "air" on Naruto's palm, "and the other should channel a fire jutsu through the fire seal."

"And then what?" Naruto asked.

"Just have them put their hands together."

"That's it?"

"That's it. The seals should do the rest. But in case there's anything I missed, at least you're using clones, so you won't be stuck in the hospital with stumps for hands," Shikamaru joked.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Great. Thanks for the confidence check."

"Hey, it's just ink. It'll wash off. I'm not going to stamp any permanent seals on you until I'm sure they work, yeah?"

"You're lucky I have clones," Naruto groused good-naturedly, and summoned the clones. "Okay, you guys know what to do. Ready?"

"Ready," the clones chorused, fingers flashing through the hand seals, and even from far away Ino could sense the chakra building up in their lungs. At the last second, right before they were supposed to release their respective techniques, they slammed their palms together.

There was a great gust of air, and a flash of heat, and that was all the warning they got before the patch of ground in front of them was completely incinerated.

"So," Naruto said, grinning, "did it work?"

Shikamaru smiled. "Now try it with water and fire."

Together, the clones spat out a massive cloud of steam. Underneath it, the already scorched grass was cooked all over again. The nasty smell floated up to her noise, and Ino coughed.

"You all right there, Ino?" Kakashi-sensei asked.

"I'm fine. Just…exploring a bit."

There had to be something she was missing. Ino lifted the watermelon and shook it. Maybe some added vibrational energy might…? But no, even then, it was not enough. Ino thought about asking for another hint, but then she decided against it. If she figured it out herself it would teach her so much more in the end. After all, if Kakashi-sensei had been the one to develop this technique, then that would mean no one had taught him, and he'd come up with the whole thing alone, from start to finish.

If she ever wanted to become stronger, she'd have to get more creative, and that couldn't happen if she was spoon-fed ever single bit of information instead of learning how to figure out stuff on her own.

Step one, isolate the problem. It was a balancing act between power and control. Too much power, and the energy would burn the outside. Too little, and the inside wouldn't cook. The second option, however, was more easily rectified than the first. You don't have enough energy. This watermelon was her enemy, and it was stronger than she was in the context of this jutsu.

Her task seemed impossible. For this to even work she needed at least four more hands. Two contact points simply wasn't enough –

And then Ino nearly smacked herself in the head. She had ten fingers. Fingers which were skinnier than palms and would definitely result in a more needle-like puncture pattern.

Gods, that made so much more sense.

Over in the distance, Naruto had finally hit trouble with combining air and water. Though, historically, that kekkei genkai produced ice, all Naruto was doing at this point was making colder water that spat itself out more quickly. It turned out there was more to solidifying water than just smashing air into it.

Come on…come on…

At first it barely felt like anything – a tiny little spark – and then the whole thing cleaved away beautifully beneath the her chakra. She tried again – and yes, there it was! Gleefully, Ino experimented with different motions, from zigzagged slicing to spinning, first with each hand sending the electricity swirling in the same, and then opposite directions. Then she tried different hand positions, with her fingers folded down, her palms flat, and even the backs of her hands.

The soft flesh of the fruit melted beneath her palms like a stick of butter in the sun, all the while leaving the shell perfectly intact, apart from the mild scorches she'd left on it in her previously unsuccessful trials.

Satisfied with her work, she broke open the watermelon and watched the juice drain out. It was liquefied, just as asked – or, mostly. With dismay Ino noticed that there were still a few chunks that she'd missed, most of them clinging to the edges.

It was a good first effort, but considering the fact that she still had four more to practice on, it was clear that Kakashi-sensei expected no less than perfection.

It took her another try to figure out how to scrape the inside of the shell properly and two more after that to make her slices perfectly clean. By the time she'd gotten to her fifth one, she was feeling pretty confident about presenting her final result to her teacher.

"I think I got it!" she called.

"All right," Kakashi-sensei said, wandering over. "Show me."

She placed her hands on each side of the untouched fruit and began swirling her electric chakra, hoping that she hadn't exhausted herself without noticing. Luckily, that worry was unfounded. She felt the juice forming just as normal. When it felt sufficiently scrambled, she offered it up. "Well? Is that watermelon juice, or is that watermelon juice?"

Kakashi-sensei simply smiled and poked a hole in it, draining out the perfectly done contents. Now for the final test. He cleaved the empty shell in half, to reveal a perfectly cleaned and scraped interior.

"Well done, Ino," he said, and Ino beamed with pride.

But then he added, "You were a bit slow, though."

"What?" Ino spluttered indignantly. "Oh, come on!"

"You were slow. You took nearly a full minute. Sometimes, you won't have even three seconds to do your work."

Ino sighed. "Yeah, I know."

Kakashi-sensei gave her head a condescending pat. Ino scowled.


Rain Country

This was as far as Zabuza had managed to track Kisame Hoshigaki down before his trail had gone cold. For weeks he and Haku had camped out in this muddy, rainy patch of land, moving like nomads from one place to a next, never dallying in one spot for too long, hoping to get some glimpse of his fellow former swordsman. It was difficult, for the constant patter of precipitation made visibility and hearing near impossible and wiped out almost any scent that the man might have left behind.

It was a miserable time, to be sure, but he had had worse. At least, here, with plenty of moisture in the air, Haku would have no trouble performing and controlling his special jutsu. He, too, would have to expend less chakra for any water jutsu.

Today, they'd finally had a stroke of luck, when the rain momentarily dulled for a few hours. Perfect timing, too, for just then he had managed to pick up a fresh scent – it was slight, barely noticeable but there – of Kisame Hoshigaki. It wasn't much of a window to operate on, barely enough, but Zabuza wasn't a dark legend of the shinobi world for nothing. He hadn't survived for so long by giving up on every difficult task set to him, after all.

They'd nearly missed him, but once again, fortune was on their side, and they managed to catch the swordsman before he vanished again.

"Momochi!" Kisame exclaimed. "What a pleasant surprise, to find you here!"

"Could say the same for you," Zabuza said, acting like he hadn't been stalking the man for the past few months. "I had no idea you were even alive or dead. You seem to be doing well for yourself. Got a – ah, matching uniforms, have you? What for?"

To his credit, the young man next to him only gave him a bored look. Itachi Uchiha, the world's most notorious genocidal clan-killer. He didn't look like much here, standing nearly a head below Kisame and looking only slightly less tiny than Haku, but then again, that was probably why he had ever managed the feat in the first place.

"Don't play dumb, Momochi. Surely you've heard of the Akatsuki," Kisame grinned. Zabuza couldn't tell if it was truly a polite, happy smile or one that promised death. Both looked the same for men with shark teeth. To be fair, he had the same issue.

"That I have," Zabuza admitted. Rumors traveled surprisingly quickly in the missing-nin underground network, even if other, more important communications were nearly nonexistent. "Though I still have no idea what you guys are, or what you even do."

"If we revealed that to men without our cloaks we'd have to kill them," Uchiha suddenly said.

Zabuza searched the boy's expression for hostility. There was none, despite the fact that he had just uttered a death threat. Then Zabuza realized that the emphasis wasn't on killing, but on cloaks. They weren't threatening him, at least, not as much as they were extending an invitation.

"Out of curiosity…" Zabuza narrowed his eyes, "how's the pay, Kisame?"

"All about the money, are you?" Kisame laughed. "I'd say the pay is pretty good. We did nothing but S-ranks for the longest time, and not just any S-ranks – they're the ones so bad that the regular hidden villages can't be trusted with them. So you're talking about at least fifty million every mission."

Zabuza was unable to hide his jaw drop underneath his mask, to Kisame's glee. "You've got to be shitting me."

"I assure you, I am not."

"Seriously? Fifty million ryo?"

"Fifty million. At least," Kisame confirmed, and Zabuza didn't have to fake the greed shining through his eyes. He might be working for Mei Terumi now, but old habits died hard. "I know, right? You'd have gotten along with Kakuzu. Poor fellow, had five hearts and those Konoha ladies broke every single one of them."

"You're hilarious," Zabuza deadpanned.

Kisame snorted. "And you're funny, Momochi. We need a guy like you. Ever since Hidan and Kakuzu kicked the dust, it hasn't been as fun. I've been stuck with a bunch of emotionless rocks like this guy here," he said, nudging Itachi, who remained as impassive as ever. "Anyway. The point is, the money's pretty good. Kakuzu, the old miser, he was the group treasurer before he got himself smashed to pieces, and he saved up quite a bit. You won't be wanting, not with us."

Zabuza raised an eyebrow. "Am I being recruited?"

"Maybe."

"What's the catch?"

"Is there a catch?"

"Come on, Kisame; I'm not an idiot. There's always a catch in every contract."

Kisame rolled his eyes. "There's no catch here. Except for maybe that one little clause about life service, but hey, that's barely even anything. After all, we agreed to the same thing back in Mist all those years ago, too, didn't we?" "Kisame, do you really think you should – " Itachi began.

"Eh, stop being such a stick in the mud, Itachi. You heard Nagato. We have two empty spots that desperately need filling, and a week after that meeting, we run into two guys that might be able to fill those spots. Now, normally, two guys are nothing, compared to all the people who die daily, but when the population of the organization can be counted on your fingers…"

"I take it your boss has fairly high standards," Zabuza commented.

"Eh, more like exclusive. But yeah, you're right. There are few enough people whose skill level are high enough for the Akatsuki as it is, let alone those who were actually in a position to join." Translation, were able and willing S-ranked missing-nin. "You should be flattered that you're in consideration, Momochi, really."

"That's your decision, then?" Uchiha asked. "You pick him?"

Kisame grinned. "We need recruiting, and here's a perfectly healthy S-rank missing-nin in front of us. He's a swordsman, too. I'd say he's as good as any other candidate, if not better."

Itachi shrugged. "Whatever. Your call."

Kisame turned back to Zabuza. "Well? Are you coming, or not?"

Am I coming? Of course I'm freaking coming! This is it! But Zabuza feigned reluctance. "Am I coming? To your little cult party that I'll never be able to leave? After what little you've told me? You can do better than that. What else have you got?"

Kisame shrugged. "Well, if you don't come with us willingly, we'll just beat you up and make you join. That's what we did to Deidara."

"That doesn't sound like good marketing tactics."

"Eh, it was part of a bet. Stupid Rock nin; that's how they work. They've got their own brand of honor, you know? They'll lie, cheat, and steal anything they can, but they're very strick on power hierarchies. Anyway. Just grab your shit and get the hell over here, all right?"

"Fine," Zabuza said. "But only if I get to bring the kid, too."

"What kid?" Kisame asked, as if just noticing Haku for the first time. "Oh, that kid. Yeah, hm. She any good?"

"I'm a boy," Haku said.

"Oh, sorry," Kisame shrugged. "Looks like you were right, Itachi."

"I told you," Itachi sighed. "You didn't believe me about Deidara, either."

"So, kid, you any good?"

Haku responded by transforming every tree within a ten-meter radius into an ice sculpture.

"The Yuki clan," Kisame said, impressed. "I thought they were all gone. Yagura – "

" – didn't get all of them," said Zabuza.

"Can you do anything else?" Kisame asked. "Kekkei genkai is great and all, but if that's all you've got going for you then sorry."

"He was capable of defeating Chuunin and Jonin twice his age, and that was two years ago," Zabuza said. "By now he is definitely good enough. Anyway, you said you were missing two people for your exclusive, S-rank missing-nin club. Beggars can't be choosers."

Itachi pursed his lips. "I doubt he is S-rank yet," he said. "But you're right. We need manpower, and for our current purposes he's good enough."

If Zabuza was a lesser man he would not have been able to hide his sigh of relief, but being a trained shinobi, the only expression he gave off was one of impatient annoyance. "So, is that it? Are we done here?"

"Yes, yes, of course," Kisame said. "Come on. I'll show you back to our place. You probably don't need to do any testing, since your reputation is already well-cemented, but the kid might have to prove that he's, you know, worthy and all. Not that I don't doubt him, but some of the others might take a look at him and think he's as little as he looks."

"What happens if they don't pick him?" Zabuza asked.

"Kill me, probably," Haku said blandly.

"Smart. I like him already." Kisame grinned. "Nah, he's pretty strong, so executing him might be a waste. We only save the gore for traitors, or people who know too much and might go snitching. So long as he's not going to rat us out to anyone, we'll probably let him work among the local Amegakure population if he doesn't make the cut for the official team. Most of them, the lower-level ninja, support us. Or, they support Pein, their 'god', and Konan, their 'angel'. Sounds cultish, because it is."

"Pein? Your boss?"

"Yeah. Pein would love to meet you. He's an okay guy, so long as you don't piss him off, because he'll absolutely destroy you if you do. Otherwise, he's a bit of a total grump most of the time, but then again, we all are. It's not his fault. Who can blame him for being perpetually pissy under all this rain? But he's an okay guy, trust me."

"He sounds really powerful," Zabuza commented.

"Well, you have to be if you want to lead a bunch of S-rank criminals and not have them all stab you in the back in your sleep," Kisame shrugged.

With that, they headed out, and Zabuza wondered just exactly what the hell Mei had gotten him into when she sent him out on this mission.


A/N: Haku is probably a really good Jonin at this point, since he survived to keep training with Zabuza for the two-ish years since this story started. He'll never be the total monster most of the Akatsuki are, but he might be Kage level if he makes it past thirty.