Well, shit, maybe I'm not actually improving. At least I finally managed to get this finished, I can't recall how long ago I started on this chapter but I know I've neglected finishing it for at least two weeks.

Think there was a guest review in response to something I said last chapter that I had planned to address but I can't exactly recall and don't have the energy to try to find it. I've never really liked responding in the AN anyway, so it's probably better this way.

If someone wants to PM me a comment, however, I'll endeavor to respond as soon as possible.

Which of course reminds me of just how far behind I am on reviews. If anyone would be so kind as to let me know the earliest chapter you never got a response to your review on it would be much appreciated.

Thanks goes to ncpfan for looking over my work.

Enjoy the show.

She watched him hurry out of the house, a smirk stretching across her lips. Even when he didn't know who she was he was still unnerved by her presence. Good.

She had never cared much for people in general and while his never ending attempts to be both her rival and brother back in their Genin days had been his solution for bringing the team together Orochimaru had never really liked Jiraiya.

Respected him, certainly, just as she did Tsunade, but she had not been fond of the man's personality despite the odd wisdom that hid behind it occasionally shining through.

As a fellow legendary Shinobi she could tolerate the man, but little more.

Seeing him rush to leave at her mere presence, when he should expect her to be a civilian, was extremely satisfying.

Of course, that's probably due to the resemblance her new body shared with the one he had known and grown up with. She could only imagine the thoughts that must have been running through his head when he saw her.

With a giggle that would never be suspected of belonging to Orochimaru the Sannin, she continued down the hall to find her favorite- and only- godson.

Rather than be in his office, as she had expected, she found him lounging in a chair in the first sitting room, an area usually reserved for visits from Naruto's favored. Mostly because Naruto himself preferred to sit here- being the original sitting room of his apartment before it began expanding- and that meant those that spent a lot of time around him could be found here too.

The Wolves did their best not to intrude into it but were very careful to always have someone stationed nearby.

Actually, on that note, where were the Wolves?

There had been several when she left earlier and while it was expected that some had duties to attend to elsewhere there should have been some guards around for the safety of her Crimson Prince.

A frown tugging at what had been so recently a smirk, she continued on her way, taking extra effort to locate one of the ANBU-like figures who may be skulking around their master's abode.

By the time she was near his chair she was absolutely certain there was not a single guard within three walls in any direction.

That was completely unacceptable.

"It seems quiet in here, Naruto-Kun." She started with, following her leadup immediately with the question she wanted the answer for. "Was Jiraiya the only one here with you?"

"Hmm?" His head rose, the hand that was rubbing tiredly at the bridge of his nose falling to rest lazily over his armrest. He met her eyes, tilted his head in a moment in thought, and finished with a slight nod. "Yeah, I suppose he was."

Orochimaru felt her blood begin to boil. Someone had the gall to leave her precious godson all alone with an S-rank Shinobi? How dare they, how fucking dare they?!

Almost as if he knew of both her anger and the reason for it he continued.

"There had been two Wolves with us but I dismissed them not long before Jiraiya left. While I didn't mind them cracking jokes between themselves, it went a bit too far when my guest was able to hear them. I sent them to Mai, so the issue should be sorted shortly."

Orochimaru actually winced slightly at that. That girl could be absolutely ruthless but add in Naruto unprotected because they couldn't be bothered to keep their mouths shut and the fact that she was probably off somewhere taking a well-deserved break and there probably wouldn't be anything left of those Wolves when she was done with them.

"Your Genin spend a lot of their free time here," Naruto continued as if what he had already said wasn't of any real note. "But this morning they went off to practice with one of the Wolves. Or, two of them did. The other I think wandered off on his own, but I'm not really sure. They may have returned before Jiraiya arrived but I didn't check."

"I see." The possibility of her team being here elevated the concern slightly, as they could at least serve as a distraction for Naruto should he need to escape, but she still wasn't pleased. Maybe she needed to require one of the Gennin in the building at all times, just in case.

Just, not Zaku.

That was not the impression she wanted to leave on Naruto about her forces.

If he wanted to go fuck off in the village each day he was more than welcome .She cared far less how her village was seen by Konoha than by Naruto and his Wolves.

Not hinting towards her thoughts, she continued.

"So everything went alright, then?"

"Yeah, we spoke a bit about my past, enough that he had the general idea of what's been going on, and he gave me some advice I probably could have used a few years ago. Other than that, he's going to find a way to arrange times to sit down with Naruko and myself to impart his wisdom."

She couldn't help but question. "Wisdom?"

Sure, he had his moments, but those never really seemed planned. He just spoke his heart and let things happen. What kind of wisdom could he be hoping to share with his goddaughter and her brother?

"He's going to share his experiences as a Shinobi and let us learn from his mistakes, I suppose."

Ah, that did make sense. Leave it to Jiraiya to teach by examples of what not to do. Knowing him as she did, the old bastard would be pleased with sharing all of his failures over the years. He really did have no shame, though she supposed that was a good thing for a Shinobi.

"Will you actually go?" She inquired. He didn't seem excited about the idea, but neither did he seem to dislike the idea.

"If I'm free, I suppose. It would be a shame to waste such an opportunity and gives me a reason to take a break." He gave a short, defeated sigh. "Speaking of taking breaks, this one has gone on for too long. I need to get back to work."

Pushing himself out of the chair, he made his way back to his office with godmother in tow. She found a comfortable spot against the wall that she could lean against as she watched him work- which never got old. She loved seeing her little prince manage the forces under his command- and he took his usual seat behind his large desk.

Before he could get to work, however, the sound of the front door slamming open followed by hurried footsteps reached their ears.

One Of Orochimaru's hands went to her back, where she had hidden a kunai, but Naruto made no move that would indicate he had even noticed. Even so, Orochimaru's' sharp eyes were able to bear witness to two thick chains falling to the ground like heavy, silent serpents.

Honestly, that was pretty impressive. It took quite a lot of skill to create chakra constructs like that while not moving any more than necessary to grab the first piece of paperwork from the stack.

Such preparation, however, turned out to be unnecessary when the visitor barged into the room, revealing an out of breath Mai who relaxed immediately upon seeing Naruto at his desk as normal and Orochimaru leaning against the wall.

"Thank-" She huffed, her face red with exertion. "The gods."

Naruto, in response, rose a brow.

"Are you alright, Mai?"

She gave a short laugh, as much as her breathless state would allow.

"Me? I should be asking that of you. I ran over immediately when I learned you were alone with Jiraiya."

He frowned slightly.

"You were taking a well-deserved rest, Mai. You didn't need to worry about me. Had I been in any danger I wouldn't have sent away the guards."

She recovered remarkably fast after hearing that, crossing her arms and cocking a hip to the side as she shot him a dirty look.

"You're sitting here with an S-ranked Shinobi you've never interacted with before and a sore lack of guards, backup, or support of any kind and you think I'm going to be able to just 'not worry about it'?"

His brow rose once more, the rest of his face still like stone.

"I'd expect you to be able to trust my judgement, Mai." The stone softened considerably. "Still, I thank you for your concern and apologize for worrying you. As you can see, I'm fine and alone no longer- go take that break. You could use some time to relax."

She gave a short laugh again.

"After that? Yeah, I could use some relaxation, just not sure I'll be able to."

"I'm sure some time with Tsume will fix that and I'm pretty certain you were already with her. She's probably wondering where you got off to."

"Ah!" her eyes widened slightly at remembering but before anything more could be said another voice was heard.

"Mai? Is everything okay Mai?"

The words grew louder as their speaker got closer to Naruto's study but the identity was already pretty obvious to the occupants. By the time Tsume hesitantly stuck her head through the door Naruto was smirking slightly at a blushing Mai and Orochimaru was watching in amusement.

"Forget something, did we Mai?"

"S-sorry, Naruto." She turned to the older woman and the only person she would feel right calling her friend. "Sorry, Tsume, I should have said something before I ran off."

"It's fine." Still not knowing exactly how welcome se was to the other occupants of the room, she was slow in her entrance, providing ample time to receive some indication that she was not welcome. When none was forthcoming she relaxed slightly but stayed near the doorway, just in case. "Is everything alright?"

A small, reassuring smile graced Mai's lips.

"Yeah, it turns out everything's fine. When I was informed by those Wolves that Naruto was here alone with a powerful Shinobi when they were supposed to be guarding him I panicked slightly."

Considering that Tsume knew her as Tsukiyomi's voice, someone trusted above just about everyone else, her panicking over Genin Naruto spoke volumes about how important he Wolves felt he was.

But why?

Beyond that question, she had to wonder why Mai was so panicked then and was relaxed now despite the presence of Naruto's guest in the corner. When her inquiring gaze focused upon the form of Orochimaru in her new body Mai was quick to correct her.

"Ah, not her. Jiraiya-Sama had stopped by for a visit earlier."

Jiraiya? Of the Sannin?

Once again she had to wonder just how important this young man was in their world without anyone the wiser. Mai had mentioned a few times that he was associated with the Wolves but there was obviously far more to it than that.

"Well," Tsume managed. "I'm glad everything's okay."

Mai shot her a grateful smile.

Naruto, on the other hand, gave her a thoughtful frown before asking; "I don't think we've had the pleasure of meeting before. My name's Naruto, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"Ah!" She was momentarily caught by surprise at his decision to turn this into an official meeting. It was certainly an interesting start to one. "Tsume, Inuzuka Tsume. Likewise."

He gave a thin grin. "I'm sure. Now, I do believe you were spending some time with the lovely Mai here; I'd hate to keep you two from enjoying each other's company any more than necessary. Please, feel free to steal her away- I'm sure she'd appreciate the break."

While Tsume was all for that- something about him was slightly unnerving, though that might just be because this meeting seemed so odd- but Mai looked hesitant to leave despite having been assured that he was perfectly safe.

She really had to wonder, if not what the relationship between he and the Wolves were, what the relationship between the young man behind the desk and Mai was.

She had her doubts that what she was about to do was a good idea, but if it helped Mai she'd do it. She was becoming rather fond of the girl, after all.

"Mai and I were just having a friendly discussion. You wouldn't mind if we continued in your siting room, would you?" The smile on Mai's face was already making it worth it, regardless of the outcome.

"Oh, no, not at all. Make yourselves comfortable." His next few words were spoken with a casualness that belied their true weight. "My den is your den, Tsume."

A shiver ran down her spine for reasons she couldn't quite identify. Was it the reference to the home of Wolves? The way he spoke so easily of her allies, as if it was too normal to bother giving any special care? Maybe it was the way he addressed her without honorific, implying they were far closer than she would have ever believed them to be.

And while she was unnerved by this combination, the woman in the corner seemed to watch on in dark amusement.

When a questioning glance went from her observer to her potential host for the afternoon he responded by raising a brow and shaking his head slightly.

He wasn't going to introduce her; she wasn't any of her business.

And that's when it clicked. He was the one who was going to allow her to make use of his home, he was someone whom Mai was concerned over the safety of, he was the one who determined what she would and wouldn't know from behind his desk as she stood there like some Chuunin about to be sent on an errand. Here, he was in control. He was in charge.

And she had no idea what to make of it.

She had known that Naruto was associated with the Wolves and Mai always emphasized just how important to them he was, as if trying to remind her that any thoughts to move against him were a poor choice, but she had, perhaps, not emphasized enough.

Had she not known she was speaking with a Genin she may have been tempted to believe this was Tsukiyomi. As it was, he couldn't be, but he certainly had the backing of the man.

Mai was the Moon God's favored messenger, bringing his words to those who followed him and reporting everything back to him, and that had made her believe that she was second in command. The hierarchy, as Mai had explained it, had certainly pointed to that being the case. Now, however, Tsume was having her doubts.

What she couldn't bring herself to doubt would be the fact that Naruto outranked Mai. There was absolutely no question there.

And that, honestly, was a bit frightening.

Who was Naruto, really?

While these thought did indeed rush through her head, she was still swift to reply to this disturbingly connected young man before her.

"That's very generous of you, Naruto-San." Just because she had worked out that he outranked Mai didn't mean she was going to be obvious about it. If she was told to address him differently later by Mai then so be it, but until then she'd pretend he was just a Genin with strange friends. "Come on, Mai, we're probably distracting him from his work."

Mai seemed reluctant but followed regardless as Tsume excused herself from his office and moved to the sitting room.

As soon as the door clicked behind them, Orochimaru smirked at her beloved godson.

"She's a loyal one, isn't she?" She gave a faint chuckle. "I approve, you certainly chose good subordinates."

Naruto smiled lightly in response.

"I would never have gotten as far as I have without her and couldn't be more grateful for that loyalty. I don't know what I, or the rest of the Wolves, would do should she leave us."

Understanding it as she believed it should be- 'Should she leave me' – Orochimaru gave a nod in agreement. She was curious still about the odd relationship between the girl and the Inuzuka clan head and how that fit into the relationship between her and her godson, but that could wait.

With Naruto needing to focus on his work and two people she knew would aid him present in the house, Orochimaru decided now would be a good time to check in on her Genin team. It would be good to remind them that she was still around and expected them to be on their best behavior and would give her a chance to make sure they understood that one of them, meaning either Kin or Dosu, was to be close to Naruto at all times to ensure his protection.

"Then you'll just have to make sure she never leaves." Orochimaru was rather partial to her cursed seals for ensuring such, but her godson seemed better at inspiring actual loyalty rather than fear and the occasional fanatic. He could use whatever methods he found to suit his needs best. "And speaking of subordinates," She continued. "I should probably find my Genin."

"One of the Wolves may know where they went off to; I would suggest asking one before you start searching." Naruto's attention was already back to the paperwork before him, marking off reports and jotting down notes on a separate piece of paper for anything he felt important enough to revisit later. He paused in this only briefly to catch her eyes with his own amethyst orbs. "Will you be returning with them later tonight?"

"Most certainly, earlier depending on how fast I can find them." She answered. "I don't even have a month left until the end of these exams and I'm going to need to return to Sound afterwards so I'm going to be spending as much time with you as I possibly can."

He smiled lightly at that.

"I'll let the Wolves know to prepare enough for you and your team then. Have fun finding your Genin and, please," He met her eyes again. "Do try to stay out of trouble, yeah?"

She pouted at that, very much like Anko and Mikoto. "Aw, you know you can trust me, Naruto-Kun. I'm a good girl."

He gave a snort of amusement as he finished signing another paper.

"I highly doubt that." Stated Naruto before waving one of his hands in a lazy dismissive gesture. "But you need to go find your little Genin and I need to focus on my work. I'll see you later, godmother."

She smiled at being referred to as his godmother and made no mention of the fact that he, too, was a Genin.

"I'll be back soon, Naruto-Kun.

The response this time was a grunt as he focused more fully on the papers before him and she had to try rather hard not to giggle at how serious he seemed as he worked on managing his forces and newly acquired country. She really wouldn't ever tire of seeing him be so focused on work that most would never have the responsibility of performing or the power that came along with it.

As she left, though, she could have sworn he had mumbled something about trains and Yuki no Kuni.

Something was wrong, very wrong. Unease mixed with restlessness he couldn't explain and some voice in the back of his head was always angrily judging everything he did and saw. Patience he once believed to be more vast than the ocean had been failing him lately as he snapped at his teammates for the most inconsequential of things.

And this need to move, to do something, to get as far away as possible would not leave him, despite the fact that there was nowhere else in the world he would feel more comfortable being than the compound of his clan in this village hidden in the leaves.

It held many bad memories, certainly, but far more good memories for him to be able to separate from the place he had spent his entire life.

What had gotten into him?

As he pondered the feelings that haunted him, he idly rubbed the side of his neck.

The Ten no Juin seemed more agitated as of late.

"He's doing fine."

Kushina barely held back a startled scream at the sudden voice. Ino did not.

One hand over her rapidly beating heart, Kushina turned to glare at the old pervert on the windowsill.

"Goddamnit Ero-Jiji, I told you to stop doing that during the Third Shinobi War!" Not that he hadn't been doing it since she –and more importantly Minato- had been a Genin. He always seemed to get a kick out of it but she had hoped he would have moved on to something else by now.

The man in the window shrugged. "So? Doesn't mean I was actually going to stop. I quite enjoy the reactions." At that he shot a wink at the room's other occupant, earning a glare from Ino as well.

Kushina sighed and shook her head before asking; "What do you want, Jiraiya?" Ino's surprise at learning the identity of the person she had been glaring at was rather obvious.

"Like I said," He swung his legs inside, moving from a crouched position to sitting on the windowsill. "He's doing fine."

"He's- Naruto!"

"Yep." The Sannin nodded. "Just spoke with 'em, seems to be getting along alright. Had a cute little thing in his office when I arrived, nearly brought a tear to my eyes. We had a brief chat that went well enough, in my opinion at least, and I brought up that you and Naruko were missing him."

Hope briefly blossomed in Kushina's eyes. "How did he respond to that?"

Jiraiya, in answer, shrugged. "I just asked him to think about it, didn't wait for a response. Next time I meet with him I'll try to breech the subject with him."

"Next time?"

"Well," Jiraiya shrugged again. "He didn't seem too opposed to the idea." He turned his attention away from Kushina and over to Ino who, while no longer glaring at him, certainly didn't look all too pleased as she stood staring at him, her arms crossed before her chest. "And who might this be?" He inquired.

"Yamanaka Ino." Answered the Genin, still obviously not pleased about his sudden intrusion. Knowing now who he was, however, stopped her from letting him know just how little she appreciated it. She also couldn't help the slight curiosity in her eyes. They were speaking of Naruto, after all, and that was a subject that always caught her attention.

"Oh-ho? Really?" He gazed at her with far more interest than he had previous. "I heard from Naruto that the two of you had a disagreement of sorts." When she tensed up he continued, lazily waving his hand as if trying to physically dismiss any fears he could have brought up. "Said he had managed to come to an understanding with you and your father but was certain that the rest of the clan wasn't too fond of him."

Ino winced at that. Talk about an understatement.

"Well, I had just stopped by to mention I had spoken with him to you, Kushina. There's probably a reason I found you here but I don't think I'm up for the story at the moment. I'll visit you and Naruko for the full rundown sometime after I've managed to remove the thoughts of a female Orochimaru birthing my child out of my head." With that he was gone, two very confused Kunoichi left behind.

After a moment of silence Ino turned to look at the head of the Uzumaki clan.

"D-did he just say-"

Kushina cut her off.

"It's probably best not to think about it."

Ino had to agree.

With a deep sigh he abandoned his pen in favor of a glass, pouring himself a drink as one hand came up to massage his temples. Wearily, he looked at the stack of papers on his desk. To think, most of that wasn't even paperwork but rather notes he had made to ensure he didn't forget anything important about his plans.

Because paperwork wasn't the problem.

The amount of projects he had going on wasn't a problem.

The fact that all his projects were coming to a head around the same time, however, was a very big problem.

With the upcoming finals of the Chuunin exam he had to make sure both he and Hana were present with the Daimyo of Hi no Kuni to represent Ni no Kuni and the alliance between the two countries.

He needed to protect both and all other visiting dignitaries during Sunagakure's planned invasion- which was brilliant, because he was fairly certain one of those visiting dignitaries was to be the Daimyo of Kaze no Kuni, which meant he had to protect him from both the invasion and his fellow lords- while ensuring Sabaku no Gaara didn't manage to fully access his Biju's power while within Konoha.

That wasn't going to be easy, both because he needed to protect the nobles and because he was trying to keep his identity a secret. Jumping down into the arena to subdue the raging Jinchuriki would draw unwanted attention to himself that he would very much like to avoid.

If worse came to worse, both his sister and Jiraiya were present within the village. Between the two of them they should be able to defeat a single Jinchuriki. Kushina, too, was here, and with proper application of her chains could either halt them in their tracks or herd them out of the village where there would be minimal damage.

And to think, that was just the Chuunin exam, he still had Hinata's little cult to manage and he could imagine no better time for their rebellion against the main family, particularly the elders. How there could be more than four elders of the main family he really would never understand considering only a single child of the main line was supposed to avoid the seal.

Then again, he supposed it didn't have to make sense any more than Hinata's cult did. The Hyuuga were simply strange.

With the Hyuuga issue, they also needed to be able to extract safely one Hyuuga Hanabi to ensure she was not harmed during the rebellion so she could be of use to him later. Even if just to solidify the new headship of the Hyuuga clan, it would be worth the extra headache. Not that he had figured that out yet, either. Was Hinata to be head? It would make sense, but she probably wasn't ready for that quite yet. Maybe a figurehead who could take care of the general things but would defer to the command of their 'Goddess' who, of course, was heeding the word of both Mai and Himself.

The last problem he could think of at the moment would have to be the fact that his own forces were to be joining the fight in hopes of crushing Sunagakure's invasion attempt as soon as possible. The only worry there was that Konoha might mistake them for additional aggressors and the fact that the Daimyo of Hi no Kuni might be a bit cross at him for not being informed.

With a bit of luck, he might be able to direct that ire at Hiruzen instead. After all, had Genin Uzumaki not brought it to his attention? Surely, it was the duty of the Hokage to report such critical information to his Daimyo. At least, that was how he was going to be spinning it if the Daimyo was actually upset. Otherwise he wouldn't be bringing it up.

What Naruto really needed, aside from this drink and a nice little vacation, was to split everything up a little. Luckily he hadn't gotten involved with Kirigakure's issues quite yet.

That would have been an absolute nightmare to balance.

Maybe if he relocated Hanabi early, but how? Her absence would probably be noticed very quickly by everyone in the Hyuuga compound, being the heiress, so moving her even a day before the invasion would lead to Hyuuga clan members being sent out to find her.

His thoughts paused momentarily.

But who was it that would be sent out? Branch members, no doubt. Could Hinata or one of the branch elders arrange that she was instead not found? He frowned at that. No, that wasn't going to work. Part of the reason she was being hidden was because she could be in danger of those same branch members and with the Heiress missing it would have the Hyuuga main elders and Hiashi up in arms. That wasn't good for either the rebellion or for Konoha's reputation with all the visiting guests.

They also couldn't risk Suna believing that the uproar was because their invasion had been found out, which would make all their work be for not and remove an opportunity he had been considering as of late.

No, his best option, then, would probably be to have her disappear that morning before the invasion started but too soon for the Hyuuga to be up in arms. Having her play sick or arranging that all academy students would be going together as a group could work. The second one had a better chance of succeeding because no one would know she wasn't with her classmates until afterwards.

And by then? Well, the Hyuuga elders would have much bigger problems than a missing heiress.

Mainly their own missing lives.

He scribbled down a note to get in touch with Iruka, Hiruzen, and quite possibly Danzou about the idea. Having Danzou be the one to present it as his own desire for the newest generation to see real combat live would take suspicion off of himself. Not that Danzou would be fooled at all and it would probably give Hiruzen only a moment's pause to connect it all.

Still, it was better than handing over the fact that he was up to something to the aged Hokage on a silver platter.

Well, if nothing else, that was one thing quite possibly figured out and to be honest most of the others were as taken care of as they could be at the time.

The biggest remaining issue was, of course, Gaara.

He had no doubt that he could do it himself, just revealing the seal that adorned his arm had both Biju and Jinchuriki trembling in fear, but the problem was doing it when he needed to stay with the other nobles and keep his abilities as secret as possible.

But, he didn't actually have to render Gaara helpless after the invasion started, did he? Just like the situation with Hanabi, what if he were to take care of it beforehand?

The only real issue there was tipping off the rest of the Suna Shinobi.

Well, that and he had no idea how the poor boy might act separated from his 'mother'. Gaara was obviously a Jinchuriki who had not been fortunate.

Was there a way to remove the threat without stripping the boy of Shukaku?

His seal, the one that had them both prostrate before him, was an obvious answer if he could figure out the exact function he needed the seal to perform in order not to hurt the boy any more than his village already had.

There was a seal, or rather, a pair of seal, that had done something similar though, wasn't there? Idly one hand came to scratch lightly over his heart where his half of the seal, the gate, stained his pale skin.

Mito had been unable, to the best of his knowledge, to pull chakra form Naruko's half of the seal, but was able to be present on his half and manipulate chakra on his end.

With that in mind, could he seal away the Ichibi within a different seal and simply allow it to continue connecting to Gaara's existing one? No, that was a bad idea, it was already evident that his fellow redhead had a seal nowhere near up to snuff.

A new seal, however, should be more than possible.

Of course, he still had to find someone to hold the Ichibi- or did he?

Gaara suffered because his seal was not proper causing both his and the Ichibi's chakra to be out of balance both individually and together. Or, at the very least, that was often the reason behind those like Gaara ending up, well, like Gaara.

But he, Naruto, could make a proper seal. He didn't have to worry about that.

He'd have to see Gaara as soon as possible to get this taken care of, before he thought better of this idea of his.

After all, a Biju was a terrible thing to waste.

See you all for the next act.