A/N

So apparently I've been out of the loop this whole time and there's another really good fanfiction website called AO3, and see now I'm intrigued because I have scoured this website for fanfics to read and I kid you not, I am all out. There is literally no more for me to find I've given up all hope I don't even really look anymore guys and that's just sad.

But like… I can't bring myself to check out AO3. I don't even know I feel like a cheating wife just thinking about it, it's my entire life how could I ever leave it for another?

So here I am, sad, alone, waiting for my own authors to update while I myself beat my imagination with a stick until the words begin to flow. And there in the far off distance is AO3, so much possibility, so much potential…

I'll stay strong though, is my true love.

Disclaimer: I'm sad, and I only own Nao… and Ren… and Kichi.


This world in which I resided was a treacherous one.

I had already accepted the prevalence of deception, violence, and hatred here; I understood that suffering and death were little more than everyday occurrences. This world was filled to the brim with peril, and in turn I had learned to use caution regularly, because you never knew when things were about to go to hell in a handbasket. That was why when Minato teleported us to a creepy, narrow hall, it wasn't difficult to imagine my reaction.

I was rightfully distrustful of it.

To be fair, one would have to see it for themself to truly understand my reasoning. The corridor we traveled along was windowless, and the walls themselves were bare; no signs for directions to be found at any intersection we passed through, and if that wasn't enough to raise anyone's alarms, there were the doors to consider. Every single one we came across was identical to the last, made of some industrial grade steel and closed shut with no number or lettering to indicate its use. To top it all off, that wasn't even the worst part and the further in we went the more my suspicions grew.

It appeared we were walking through a maze.

The layout was senseless to me, similar to the academy and the tunnels in the mountain with their odd designs. I had a pretty decent knowledge of the village, but right now I could honestly say I didn't have a clue as to where we were and the more I pondered on that thought, the more I began to suspect that was the point of it all. Before today, I couldn't recall a time where I had seen Minato use the hiraishin for everyday use. The thing about Minato was that he liked walking; he enjoyed going around the village and speaking with the villagers face to face.

This was a guy that wanted to hear about their families and how well business was going for them. Perhaps I was simply paranoid, but then that would be a nice, clean explanation and prior experience had taught me not to believe or trust in such things; I'd come to expect the worst out of most situations, it made planning and preparing for them much easier. As far as I could tell, Minato had used those seals of his on purpose, meaning if I ever wanted to find this place again it would be nearly impossible. However, if this was the case than did that mean he had ill intentions?

Strangely enough, I couldn't bring myself to think so.

It was likely some kind of poor decision making on my part, or a failure of my natural instincts, but for some reason I didn't feel as though I had anything to fear from him; not today, at the very least. I didn't like the feeling it gave me, because I knew that at the end of things no matter how kind or sincere he was, Minato had a duty to his village first and foremost. I shoved the lingering emotions away and focused on the matter at hand. Wherever we were, it was built like a maze, difficult to navigate and I imagined one would have to walk these halls a hundred times in order to have any sense of where they were going.

This was the kind of set up used to guarantee that any foreign shinobi, or really anyone that managed to get in here, who did not belong here, would have a hell of a time finding an exit or whatever it was they were looking for. Minato had obviously taken careful steps to ensure I wouldn't know how to get back here, or even where exactly here was, and I had to admit it was a smart move on his part; after all, I had a bad habit of sticking my nose in business that didn't necessarily concern me.

Of course, none of this would be enough to stop me.

Anything Minato felt the need to keep from me was undoubtedly something I wanted to get my hands on. Judging by the windowless state of this floor, it was safe to assume we were under ground; well, either that or this was all a really intricate genjutsu, but there were a few problems with that theory and since I didn't have any experience with genjutsu I wasn't going to linger on it. In all likelihood, we were underground somewhere, though that wasn't very helpful considering the obscene amount of uses a militaristic village could have for an underground hideout.

Safety bunkers, research facilities, prisons, intelligence centers- oh.

My gaze settled on Minato, scrutinizing his easygoing gait as he strolled down the hall and the debonair demeanor that followed him; there was no hesitation in him, meaning this place was familiar, a walk made dozens upon dozens of times. We hardly ever came across other people within the hall, and the ones we did would only pause briefly to give their Hokage a respectful bow before continuing on their way. No one flat out stopped to make conversation or anything of the sort, and neither did they seem surprised to find Minato here.

I liked to think I had a decent grasp on the human condition, and I knew that when someone like Minato, The Big Boss, made an appearance in your division, it was a big deal. Half of the people run around like a chicken missing its head and the other half are on high alert, attempting to appear in tip top form. Not a single person here seemed surprised to bump into him, so that meant his presence was more than expected.

It was a common occurrence.

Unease filled me as I considered the possibility of where we were. I couldn't flat out demand he tell me, I had to be delicate about this if I didn't want to give him any ideas about my own inclinations. I'd been staring at him for longer than what was socially acceptable now, and Minato, having sensed this, turned to meet my gaze with a raised brow. I cleared my throat, opting to begin with a different line of questioning.

"So, where exactly did my trusted guards run off to?" I crossed my arms. "Slacking on the job cannot be tolerated you know; I think they just might have to be demoted."

Amusement flickered in his eyes before Minato glanced away and his expression tightened a miniscule amount. It would have been easy to miss had I not been looking for it, and yet I faltered because it hadn't been the reaction I was expecting. He looked almost unhappy, his lips pressed together as he exhaled and glanced back my way. Then, like magic the easy going atmosphere was back as he gave me a sympathetic half-smile and said. "There was a last minute mission that came up, and they had to be sent out. No worries though, I have someone else watching over you in the meantime, just until they return."

"This new guy better be up to the task, I'll have you know I'm a delicate girl."

"I'm well aware." He hummed.

We fell into silence after that, each lost in our own thoughts.

From Minato's expression, I had to guess that he hadn't really wanted to send the two of them out and it wasn't difficult to understand why; ANBU business was not kind, especially for shinobi as young as Itachi and Shisui. Their absence meant I wouldn't be learning anything for a while, though it went without saying that Itachi expected me to continue the homework he'd given me until they returned. It was… mildly discomforting, the knowledge that they weren't going to be around for the foreseeable future; I had faith in their abilities, and frankly I preferred an ANBU I knew over one I didn't.

Strangers were never ideal.

Besides, the Uchiha boys made for decent company, and best of all they were far more predictable. They were loyal to their clan, yes, but their true loyalties lay with the Hokage, who just so happened to be my guardian. With Danzo (hopefully) out of the picture, I had far less to worry about with them, and while I couldn't be one hundred percent sure of their motives, I knew that those two were my best option for protection. I made a small, silent prayer that they didn't die on their mission; I really didn't want to go through the trouble of finding another teacher, let alone one as excellent as Uchiha Itachi.

"So, a last minute mission." I eyed Minato curiously. "What kind of mission would that be?"

"The kind you don't have clearance for."

Figures.

"Do I have clearance to know where we are?" I asked sarcastically. "Or am I too lowly even for that?"

"We're in one of the villages facilities." Minato said. "It's the division for intelligence gathering, though it deals in more than one specialization."

Intelligence gathering, which meant information. How funny, because I'd thought we were going to see some kiddies, only we were in the same place as Torture & Interrogation; perhaps he had to run an errand first. I kept my expression perfectly blank, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt. "Okay, but why are we here then?"

He looked at me funny. "We're here so you can meet the children from Root; didn't I already tell you that?"

"Minato…" I began through gritted teeth, having come to a conclusion I really hadn't wanted to. "Are you telling me, that all this time you've been keeping a bunch of little kids down here? In this creepy place?"

"Well, yes." He said it like it was the obvious choice.

I was going to murder him.

Images of frightened children huddled together in cold dark rooms began to appear in my mind without my consent; kids being poked and prodded and then thrown into one of those interrogation rooms with the single light like the one I'd been in at Root headquarters. Only instead of Danzo in the opposite chair its Ibiki, with his steel eyes and no nonsense expression.

Christ, as if those children hadn't experienced enough trauma already.

Minato, the sneaky bastard, knew exactly where my thoughts were headed, and he seemed to find it funny. He rolled his eyes in amusement, fighting back a grin as he said. "Whatever you're thinking, Nao-chan, you're probably wrong. Those children have been just fine here, even getting special treatment."

Images of manacles hanging from the ceiling overcame me.

"What kind of creepy dungeon chamber have you locked them in?" My tone was full of accusation. It was Torture and Interrogation though, what else was I supposed to expect? God help these people if I found those kids in anything less than perfect condition; Danzo was a piece of shit, but he took care of his own, and he'd want his weapons in the heathiest state he could manage.

I was also a shitty person, but even I knew that little kids were off limits.

Realistically speaking, there wouldn't be much I could do if they'd been harmed down here. Like I had said, I was a shitty person, and I wouldn't put myself at great risk for any of these children, but that didn't mean I'd let it go either. I was patient, and I could hold a grudge; if Konoha had hurt them, I'd burn those responsible alive.

But only when I was no longer under their grasp.

Minato chuckled at me, before turning down yet another hall and coming to a stop at one of the unmarked doors. The urge to kick him for laughing at me was strong, but I managed to resist as he set his hand on the door handle.

"Why don't you see for yourself?" He said, and opened the door.


Twelve curious faces swiveled to meet my gaze as I peered through the open door.

There were no chains on the walls, no dried blood or bars to be found. The room was large, maybe three times the size of an academy classroom and well lit; instead of cool stone, the floor is covered in a fluffy beige carpet similar my own. The walls were cream colored, decorated with paintings here and there as though to make up for the lack of windows. The entire room was made up of warm tones, a stark contrast from the outside hall. My chance to further examine the place was lost as Minato shuffled me un and closed the door behind us.

"Good afternoon!" He smiled, patting heads of the few children that paused what they were doing to huddle around him. I shifted under their watchful gazes, halfway hidden behind Minato until he set a hand to my back and herded me forward. Under the weight of their combined stares, Minato introduced me. "Everyone, this is Nao-chan. She's going to be coming with me for our visits from now on, so be sure to welcome her, okay?"

The kids nodded and eyed me for a minute or two, but eventually they returned to their activities as usual. It was as I took in the room a second time that I caught sight of two shinobi, a man and a woman, hanging about. The man sat at a desk in the corner, writing something down while his partner began to approach us. Her expression was neutral as she glanced at me, but there was something in her gaze that left me on edge. Clearly these two had been assigned the duty of babysitting the Root children, though neither appeared to be the type of person suited to spending so much time with kids.

I met the Kunoichi's gaze head on, unable to help myself; there was something… unfriendly, about the look she had given me and it only served to annoy me.

"Hey," Minato bent down so that we were almost level with one another, and rested the palm of his hand on my head. "why don't you go meet some of the kids, make a friend or two."

I must have given him a look, because he laughed and added, "You're the one that wanted to come right? Got to stick to what you say, Nao-chan."

"Yeah, fine." I swatted at his hand and wandered further into the room, away from the Kunoichi. I had demanded to meet them, but it had been more with the intention to just check up on them, not socialize. Children were normally tiresome enough on their own, and these kids had double the trauma so I honestly didn't know what to expect. I spent a while observing them in an attempt to get a feel for what exactly I was walking into; they were quiet ones, far more hushed than any child I had ever hadthe misfortune of meeting.

Against the back wall there was an open, yet untouched chest of toys that none of them seemed interested in. A couple of child-sized table were strewn about the room, and a few were even being used. At one of the occupied tables there was a plastic tea set, and the two girls sitting there ignored it rather than attempting to play with the set.

At another table four boys appeared to be working on their own projects, chatting among one another on occasion and on the floor the rest of the children seemed to have grouped together. I wasn't sure where exactly I wanted to be, none of my options seemed ideal and I had no idea how any of them would react to an outsider. I resigned myself to the game of trial and error when I spotted someone at the far end of the room.

The perfect target.

She was a little girl, about my age with long white blonde hair sitting alone at one of the miniature tables, staring down at a blank sheet of paper and the crayons sitting beside it. She didn't look angry, excitable, or anything really; in fact, she looked like the kind of kid that wasn't going to cause me much trouble and that was what sealed it for me. I walked over to her table and sat in the chair opposite of her, grabbing another sheet of paper as she looked up. I paused in surprise when our gazes collided and I was given my first look at the wine-red of her irises.

For a moment we stared at one another.

"I'm Nao." I said when the silence became too much. "What's your name?"

"…Kichi." When she finally answered, her voice was soft, yet neutral. It was without any real inflection and it vaguely troubled me though I was careful not to show it. I nodded, before turning my attention to the paper. I picked out a crayon, brown, and began drawing. After a minute or two Kichi decided on her own crayon and started as well. We were silent as we worked, and I found myself reveling in the cover of my young age; I wasn't a very good artist, and no one was going to judge the work of a six year old.

It was a comfortable silence between the two of us, a rare moment of peace that would no doubt leave a bitter taste in my mouth when it was gone. My life was filled with so much scheming and plotting and careful measures; peaceful moments were such a commodity these days. I reveled in it while I could, changing crayons and zoning out everything but the paper in front of me. Kichi didn't ask any questions, or watch me strangely and it was a refreshing change from students at the academy.

It was an appreciative moment for me.

When I was done, the once blank paper before me had turned into a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. It wasn't a work of art by any means, but it was pretty enough. Kichi set down her crayon and curiosity got the better of me as I looked over at her paper. A chill ran up my spine when I made sense of the dark colors. She'd drawn a dead bird, bloodied and on the floor surrounded by blank eyes. Kichi glanced at my drawing before meeting my eyes, expression and gaze completely passive; it hadn't occurred to her that there was something wrong with her drawing.

That tugged at my heartstrings.

"Here," I slid my drawing across the table. "for you."

I hadn't intended to give it to her or anyone really, but after seeing what she'd drawn, I couldn't help but think that maybe she would benefit from something more… happy. Kichi observed the cherry blossom closely, and then she turned her gaze and observed me even more. Then, to my surprise she slid her own drawing over. I cleared my throat and asked for clarification, "you're giving this to me?"

"Yes."

Well alright then.

I studied the picture before rolling it up and thanking her.

Maybe I'd show it to Inoichi next time I saw him; it'd probably elicit an amusing reaction from him.

Across the room, Minato was sitting cross legged on the floor, listening as a few of the children told him about their day. None of them ever seemed to grow as animated as Naruto, but they appeared pleased to have his attention nonetheless. I couldn't help but think how typical it was of Minato, able to earn even the love of those taught to think less of him. There was a part of me that grew cold each time I acknowledged the peculiarity of these children and what had made them this way. It was an iced resentment that was only partially soothed knowing that the people responsible were dead.

I told myself there was still hope for them, that there would be brighter days.

I got up from the table, wanting to move closer to the other children so I could hear what they had to say, when something odd happened. Kichi, picture in hand, got up and followed me as I walked away from the table. I paused momentarily, before continuing on; if she wanted to follow there wasn't anything I would do about it. Minato's gaze flashed over to us for less than a second as we approached, taking in me and my new shadow. Then he was back to focusing on the other kids, and for reasons unknown I found myself slightly irritated.

The urge to kick him was back as we sat down among the growing crowd, only to fade away to the prickling sensation at the nape of my neck; it was that feeling of being watched, one I knew quite well. I turned my head, looking for the source and it took only a second to find the culprit; there, sitting three kids away a boy scrutinized me. Apparently, he didn't have to good grace to look away after having been caught, and that was how I accidentally found myself trapped in a stare off.

As I looked at him I couldn't help but think that he was… vaguely, faintly familiar, in a way that didn't immediately click. Even more alarming was the way he looked back at me, with no hesitation as though I, too, was someone he recognized. I broke eye contact with him, and then before I could decide whether retreating was an option he was on his feet and sitting down beside me. If he was actively trying to alarm me, he was doing a splendid job. The boy leaned in a bit, eyes locked on mine, and said something truly unsettling,

"I know you."

He hadn't been loud, but somehow those three words were enough to catch a couple of the other children's attention as they turned and focused in on the two of us. The boy watched me carefully, taking in every detail he possibly could as I fumbled for words.

"I… what?"

"I know you." He said it with such conviction, I nearly believed him. "I remember you from before, a long time ago when you were smaller."

I was stuck on the word Before for a second, but then the sentence registered and I found myself even more confused. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you're talking about."

"At the orphanage." The boy paused, considering something before adding, "Years ago, when you were still a baby and lived at the orphanage outside of Konoha. I was there too."

I scrutinized the boy, unable to comprehend how, if he was telling the truth, something like that would stay with him after all this time. He might have been lying, but I had lived in an orphanage in fire country before being sent to Konoha. That had been over three years back though, and even I barely recalled what my time there had been like. Minato, apparently listening in like the nosy man he was, appeared to have a similar line of thought because he inquired. "Shin-kun, you aren't that much older than Nao. Are you sure it's her?"

"I'm sure," Shin replied. "I remember because the adults talked about her a lot. They thought she was strange."

Ouch.

He turned to me and added, "I remember you never cried, and you didn't like the other babies, and you were a late talker. Plus, your hair was really bright, I thought it had to be you."

I struggled to come up with a coherent response as a few things hit me at once. Shin was a familiar name, he'd been Sai's brother of sorts if I recalled correctly. The fact that we had lived in the same orphanage meant that in a way he had been my first exposure to this world, but not only that, it meant that a man like Danzo had been for more closer and more relevant to me than I was comfortable with. Still, it was strange for me to think that there was someone out there that remembered me from before my time in Konoha; odd to think my existence had meant something to anyone so early in this life.

"You're right," I confirmed, not seeing the point in denying anything. "I did use to live outside of Konoha, I don't really remember it much though."

I didn't remember him, either.

He nodded seriously, as though this revelation was of the utmost importance to him. I sent Minato a pleading look, wanting to drop the subject, and he kindly retook the children's attention. I tuned in and out as they continued to chat, wanting to listen but getting caught in my own thoughts when something they said or did stood out to me. As the day wore on, I noticed another little boy with dark hair scooting closer to us little by little; he received a cheerful smile from Shin once finally making it over to us, and I realized he was Sai.

As I scanned all the children in the room, it came to my attention that despite grouping together, there was a clear pattern of duos to be seen. Like Shin and Sai, a lot of the kids had one person they sat just the tiniest bit closer to. There was a twisted irony to it now, because had Danzo lived to keep things going the way they could've, half of the children in this room would have died and it would have been at the hands of their partners. Now they had a chance to grow up together, with an even stronger bond that would probably do more to help them in the field than anything Danzo'd had planned.

It was only as we were wrapping things up and about to leave that my mind wandered to Kichi, who'd been sitting all one her own earlier in the day. That was a bit odd now that I thought about it, but maybe she hadn't been too close with her partner or they hadn't been together long. She had tagged along as I'd gotten up and made my way over to the door, and with Minato across the room saying his goodbyes I had an opportunity too good to pass up.

"Kichi, can I ask you a question?" She nodded, her full attention on me and I paused, shifting on my feet. Kichi seemed like a nice girl, but I knew nothing about her and there was no telling which subjects were taboo to her yet. Hopefully, I wouldn't be crossing the line, but I had to ask. "Who was your… friend, here? Who did you stay with and do things with before coming here?"

"No one." She said.

My brows furrowed at her answer. "You.. were by yourself?"

"Yes," Kichi hummed. "all alone."

"Oh." I wasn't sure what to say to that, because it had implications I wasn't ready to think about. I didn't want to leave it there either though, but before I had the chance to say more Minato appeared.

"Ready to go?" He asked me.

I nodded in reply, thoughts swirling over what I'd just learned. Minato said farewell to Kichi, opened the door and stepped into the hall, but before I could follow him she grabbed ahold of my shirt and I turned back to her.

"Come again soon." She requested.

I promised her I would as she let go, allowing me to enter the hallway. I glanced back as the door closed shut between us, getting one last look at those wine color eyes. For a moment, I wondered if I saw a hint of sadness in them, but it had been too quick so I wasn't sure.

We left the same way we had come, by way of the Hiraishin.

I made note of it in the back of my mind, but the acknowledgement was more or less lost as I kept going back to the newly acquired information from my visit with the Root twelve. I was quiet as we returned to the manor and sat down for dinner, zoning out on the conversation in order to work out what was bothering me.

Kichi had been alone in Root.

She had been alone and yet for some reason there were twelve children, a perfectly even number for matched sets. I knew Danzo's game, the purpose of the duos; he had the right number of kids to pair Kichi up, so why hadn't he? Was there something more insidious to one of the other children? Did he only recently acquire the proper number and simply had yet to pair them? Were one of the Root twelve not who they say they were?

Something was not right here.

I had to go back, spend more time with them and find out what I could. It was entirely possible that there was nothing sinister to this, but whether or not that was the case didn't matter. My biggest asset, my greatest advantage here was the information I had; knowledge was more or less the foundation of my continued survival in this world, it was what I built my hopes, dreams, and plans upon so I couldn't stand the idea of not knowing. Kurama had been right that they had the potential to be extremely dangerous, so I needed to settle in for the long game and start earning their trust.

Know thy enemy and all that.

My resolve was the only thing that kept me going through dinner and then my nightly routine. When I finally went to sleep, I dreamed about dead birds and withering cherry blossom trees.


I'd said it before, and now I was going to say it again.

I was an early riser.

On any given morning I was up with the sun and going about my spiritual training before half of the village was even awake. Sleeping in was not something I did often or on purpose, and when it did happen I had come to expect some sort of disaster to follow. Today was not one of those days though; I woke up at the right time, did my morning exercises, and got dressed for the day. The only reason I had for bringing this up was because there happened to be one thing missing from the equation this morning, and by thing I meant my slave driving mentor, Kushina.

She'd been in the house, going about her own day and that was perfectly fine; I wasn't going to complain if it meant I could take it easy, but it had been unexpected and I had to say that I wasn't particularly fond of the unexpected. That said, I still went about my morning as usual, meditating and getting ready for another cruel day of testing at the academy. It wasn't until I entered the kitchen that I fully realized something was off. At the table Kushina sat calmly, gaze meeting my own and as we stared at one another I mentally retraced my morning, tallying up everything off about it.

Not once had I heard the racket of Naruto, and in fact the house appeared to be absent of the usual noise and bustle that accompanied mornings here. The kitchen was empty save for Kushina and myself; Minato was gone, no one had come for breakfast, and Kushina hadn't cooked. She hadn't bother to wake Naruto up, and I had been awake for two hours now, so in the last two hours nothing had changed. That meant whatever was wrong, it had happened sometime in the night.

"School's canceled today." She informed me.

Blankly, I replied, "But we have physical exams."

"Well, I suppose you're getting another vacation then." Kushina leaned back in her chair, voice thoughtful. "Students really should be given longer breaks in between physical exams, if you think about it. More time to prepare themselves for the next test while recovering from the last."

I didn't know how to reply to that, so instead I went to my next train of thought.

"You let me get up, do all those exercises and get ready for school, know that I wouldn't have to go today?"

"Yes."

"You're cruel, you know that?"

"Oh, please." She snorted. "you wouldn't have gone back to bed either way, and besides, the point of morning exercise is to do it every morning; no skipping out."

Well, she wasn't wrong.

That didn't mean I had to like it though. I shifted my feet to lean against the doorway and crossed my arms. "Why is school canceled?"

"A very good question." Kushina hummed. "Why, indeed…"

Silence descended upon the two of us.

"…You aren't going to tell me, are you?"

A bright smile graced her expression, and I gave a long suffering sigh, dropping the subject. At least she had the decency to not give me whatever bullshit excuse other children were no doubt hearing as an explanation. There was probably a hush order going around, so she couldn't spill; that was okay though, Kushina wasn't exactly my only source of information. My mind was racing, thinking through past knowledge that might leave me with any sort of clue and picking through people I had the best chance of getting an answer out of. Kushina jumped up as I began to turn away and said. "Wait! I'll make you something before you go. What are you in the mood for?"

"I'm not really hungry." My brain was focused on other things, I didn't have time to sit and eat when there was clearly something going on. "But thanks anyway."

She mumbled something, but it was lost to me as I strolled away from the kitchen and to the front door. I needed some answers here, but before I went hunting around the village for victims I wanted to get some perspective. Unfortunately for one family, I wasn't feeling patient enough to wait for said perspective to come to me. Twenty minutes later I was pounding on the front door of my favorite Nara, and I was doing it with a vengeance. After five minutes my hand was beginning to cramp, but I prevailed and eventually the door swung open, revealing an irritated Shikamaru.

"What. Is. Your. Problem." He said through gritted teeth, glowering at me.

"What the heck are you doing asleep at such a critical moment?" I glared right back. "Get dressed, we have things to do."

"It's seven thirty." Shika groaned. "Come back later, way later."

"Can't do, there's something fiendish and possibly diabolical afoot. Now go get ready."

"No."

The two of us held gazes, sizing up one another. He obviously didn't feel up to any shenanigans at the moment, and normally I would respect that but today was no ordinary day. A sharp smile graced my expression, and Shikamaru narrowed his eyes, appropriately wary. With a sugary tone, I began. "Have it your way, Shika. I mean, if you aren't going to come with me then there nothing I can do about it." pause for dramatic affect. "But then, what your mother will say when she hears how you turned your dear friend away?"

"…Why are we friends again?"

"Everyone else is an idiot."

"And you're nosy, which is almost worse."

"Don't make me come in there."

He grumbled and moaned, but eventually Shika was dressed and we were out the door once more. On the way to our usual meet up spot Shikamaru told me what he knew; his father had been called in to work in the middle of the night, and after his mother had told him school was canceled for the day she had left as well which meant all hand were on deck. Basically, neither of us actually knew what was going on but together we had a good chance of figuring it out.

"What warrant's a canceled school day?" I wondered.

"Nothing good." Shika muttered. "I mean, if no one is saying anything then it has to be something major, otherwise why keep it a secret?"

"Because…" I rubbed at a temple, thinking it over. "because they don't want to cause a panic?"

"It's possible." He shrugged carelessly.

I was agitated, and his unconcerned attitude only served to further annoy me. The whole situation was driving me up the wall; between the attacks, bombings, and kidnapping it seemed as though someone had a serious vendetta against Konoha, but it just didn't line up right with anyone I knew. The first attack had targeted civilians instead of shinobi, and during that attack only Sasuke and I had been kidnapped; that act alone hadn't been preplanned, either, it'd been spur of the moment.

Then there was the second one, which had been more bombing and fighting, but resulted in zero kidnapping attempts; I still didn't understand what had been gained during that assault. People had died, yes, but it hadn't been any worse a loss than the last one. Only the third invasion appeared to have anything remotely resembling a plan or endgame; create chaos in the village and steal Kurama. The idea could have been better executed, but to a degree I suppose it had worked. Finally, there was the Danzo affair to consider; I wasn't entirely sure it could even be counted as a direct attack on Konoha, but Ren's involvement connected it to the others.

There were so many loose ends though, so many things that didn't make any sense and I was having a difficult time seeing what angle the enemy was trying to work; the attacks seemed random and for the life of me I couldn't figure out how they were helping the enemy. They had lost more shinobi than us every time, and the casualties were more often than not civilians so if the aim was to hurt the fighting population they were failing spectacularly. Why the sudden kidnapping? Why the murderous maid?

The academy closing was connected to this somehow, another puzzle piece to add to the growing pile. A headache began to form as I agonized over everything; I was slipping, too close to a breaking point for my own liking but there wasn't anything I could do to stop it.

It made no fucking sense.

"You're stressed." Shikamaru stated.

"How are you so calm about this?" I snapped. "Doesn't it bother you? None of it makes any kind of sense! Attacking civilians, bombing the village, losing more shinobi lives than you take, and then just retreating? It's pointless, there's nothing to gain so why do they keep coming back? With no obvious goal?"

Ren wasn't on Konoha's side, but by killing Danzo he had helped us even if he didn't know it. You had to have serious brains and skill to take down a man like Danzo, so what did someone like Ren have to do with these halfhearted, ass backwards attacks? He couldn't have been around for the first two attacks, we would have taken far more damage if he had so it was really only the last invasion that he had been a part of. Ren had a chance to take me or kill me in Root, but he hadn't done so; late to the party, and disloyal to the team.

"Maybe you're too close to see the goal." Shika said after a moment.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean when you add everything up, it doesn't make sense. Logically, their plan of attack has been feeble, using tactics that would never work to beat us; so maybe they aren't looking to. Look at the facts individually. No real blows to our fighting ranks, no major places actually targeted; not the hokage tower, police stations, clan compounds, or schools. Not a single one of them were ever directly targeted."

He was right.

Yes, the Orphanage had been hit, but none of those children had had families so it hadn't been anything more than a tragic yet distant loss to the villagers. Before I'd thought it was strange, to hit an orphanage rather than a school full of loved children, and now it was beginning to come together. When the incidents were isolated, they began to make more sense. Ren had been part of the last invasion, but he wasn't actually with the other shinobi attacking and that was why certain things never clicked.

My first kidnapping had been spur of the moment, but the second was preplanned.

Ren had been able to take down Danzo and hold his own against a man like Minato, but during the attacks Konoha had minimal shinobi casualties and someone like him would have made waves in our numbers. If Ren didn't actively fight with them then perhaps he didn't care much about his so called comrades, perhaps it was convenience that had them working together. Someone else out there was calling the shots, sending out soldiers to kill and die but not do any serious harm yet.

Attempting to take Kurama had been Ren's doing, so it was possible that any destruction or death from that day solely rested on him . Root had been ended without the help of said army, and I had a feeling that had been a decision of his own as well. No more kidnapping important children meant that when Sasuke and I had been taken, the two responsible had done it more for their own benefit; they had wanted the sharingan, I had just been a bonus at the time. Of course it never happened again, because clan children were important and not to be targeted.

Whoever was in charge, they were being awfully careful to make sure The Village Hidden in the Leaves didn't fall quite yet. Konoha's true enemy hid in the shadows, and I couldn't seem to put an identity to their actions. Orochimaru was too pragmatic for a ploy like this, and beyond him I honestly didn't know who had the resentment and sheer manpower to pull this off. Now the academy had been dragged in, for reasons still unknown, and it didn't appear as though the game would be over any time soon. No, I had a feeling that all this chaos and its resulting fear was something the enemy thrived off of.

We were being played with.


A/N

I had a nice outline for this fic, I told myself I would tell this story in fifty chapters but it just keeps running away and doing its own thing. I honestly don't know if I can finish this in thirty two more chapters but by god I will try because it simply can't go on forever.

With that said let me put one final thing to rest.

The Namikazes love Nao, they do. They care about her, and they want her to have a good life but Nao isn't the kind of person they could ever physically show their love for. She's skittish, not entirely together and sometimes, a lot of times, it's difficult to accept the love of others, especially when you don't think you deserve it, or when you only ever expect disappointment or eventual betrayal.

Can you imagine what she'd do if either of them came out and said I Love You?

Nao wouldn't be able to accept it, that's not how she works.

It's sad, yes, but to me it's part of what makes her real; everyone has a little bit of it in them, everyone's got some chips and cracks.

Anyway, rant over.

Thoughts? Questions?

Please Review!