Author's Note: STOP RIGHT HERE if you haven't seen up to Naruto Episode #80!

If you haven't, spoilers follow immediately!

This story takes place in the span of time after the great Chuunin Exam arc and right before Itachi Uchiha comes to Konoha after Naruto. (Think of this story as a bridge between the two.) Though Orochimaru has been driven away and temporarily defeated, the Third Hokage is dead, and Konoha Village is in shambles after the war. At this point Jiraiya hasn't seen Naruto since before the Chuunin Exam finals, and neither has he made his presence known to anyone in the village. Konoha is under drastic reconstruction, and, in order to pay for damage repairs, the Leaf Ninja are hiring themselves out with near-desperate zeal. . .

Before we begin, some terms defined:

Kunai: the knives that the ninja use

Tanuki: a "raccoon-dog"

Shuriken: ninja stars

Levels of Ninja-hood: Genin (lowest), Chuunin, Jounin

Mizukage: the Mist Village's equivalent of Konoha's Hokage

o o o RED BLOSSOM o o o

oo Chapter 1: The Water-Lord's Request? A Chance For Glory! oo

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

It was autumn then.

The crimson leaves fell soft upon the road;

The blood of ninja, trampled underfoot.

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Beneath the maple trees, the young man stood with his family, keeping vigil over the grave of his sensei. The afternoon sun, which was sinking slowly beyond the wood, turned the leaves to crimson as they fell. They drifted down gently in a soft rain of blood, falling at the feet of those gathered there for the funeral, and on the grave itself. The young man's face was taut with grief, but he allowed no tears to come. That was the shinobi way.

The Third Hokage laid a hand on his shoulder. He could scarcely feel it through the thick vest that he wore, which marked him as one of the Jounin. The gesture was meant to comfort, but he was too numb with shock to be comforted. Neither tears nor comfort could raise the dead.

"I know what a blow this is to you," the Third murmured. "And no one faults you for your loyalty. But sorrow should not be the force that shapes the course of your life. You're still very young. His memory will fade in your heart one day, for his spirit has moved on to where you can't follow."

A soft breeze stole through the forest, and the young man brushed absently at his hair to keep it from blowing over his forehead protector and across his brow. Numbly, he thought, 'You're wrong. There is one way I can follow him.' But he didn't dare speak this aloud in the presence of the Third, for even the Sarutobi didn't know of the secret that he carried. His sensei had shared that secret, but his sensei had never revealed it, and now took it with him to the grave. In more ways than one, the Fourth's death had left him utterly alone.

"My decision to quit ANBU wasn't rashly made," the young man murmured in reply. "I've put some thought into this."

More leaves drifted onto the stone obelisk that marked the gravesite, and finally one of the attending Sarutobi clan stepped forward to sweep them away. The Third's grip tightened on his shoulder.

"You mustn't let this sorrow shape the man you become," the Third insisted. "I don't expect you to see that now, but in time . . ."

The young man turned a faint smile upward over one shoulder---a smile that the older man could scarcely see through the cloth that covered it.

"I'm not condemning myself to solitude," he said calmly. There was a terrible, beautiful serenity in his voice---the peace that comes only after a man has cried until he can cry no more. "Not at all. That was not my intent. Because I've quit ANBU, I will lead young shinobi and make them strong. And I will protect them with my life."

Sarutobi returned the smile, but it was a sad, bemused expression beneath the shadow of a frown. He sensed the terrible loneliness that tormented the young man, but he did not fully understand its cause.

"Being a soldier won't replace being a man who loves and is loved by other people," he said. "Do you recall the rule that a ninja must not give in to emotions? It doesn't mean to make yourself a stone, or to hide behind a mask---it means that you can't let grief and anger shape who you are." He bent nearer, to whisper. "After all, even if he's left you, you are going to live . . ."

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Years Later

"Kakashi-sensei!"

"Oi! It's a disgrace for an adult to be this lazy!"

"You're late."

Kakashi emerged from the woods at half past noon beneath a clear autumn sky. The air was brisk and cold, and he drew in a deep breath, savoring it as he turned his attention toward an irritable Sakura, who was standing and glaring at him with her hands on her hips. The second came from Naruto, who had just leaped to his feet and begun shaking a fist at his teacher. The third came from Sasuke, who was leaning against one of the training posts a little ways apart from his fellow ninja. Sasuke wore his perpetually bored expression, which meant that he was glad to see his teacher no matter how late he was.

Kakashi, in return, beamed at them all from beneath the cloth covering his face.

"I'm sorry," he apologized cheerily. "I was just admiring the maple leaves, while my mind wandered down many a path of meditation."

"Your mind wanders---I'll give you that," Naruto grumbled, already bored with chewing his teacher out. "You promised you'd work with me on the Chidori technique today."

Sakura glanced over at him in surprise.

"What---you're still trying to learn that one?" she asked. "Why won't you give it up already? Sasuke's the only one besides Kakashi-sensei who can use it, and both of them can only use it because they have the Sharingan."

Sasuke shifted his weight to the other foot as he leaned against the training post. He didn't seem pleased. In fact, lately he seemed to grow inexplicably irritable whenever his personal techniques and Naruto were mentioned together.

"I could do it if I trained my hardest!" Naruto insisted, whirling around to face her with his hands balled into fists at his sides.

Sakura merely folded her arms, looking skeptical.

"I've watched you try to 'train' for Chidori," she remarked flatly. "You stand there all hunched over, clutching your wrist and screwing up your face like you're constipated."

"Ahem." Kakashi cleared his throat loudly, coming into the clearing to stand in their midst. "I know it's bad enough that I'm late, but I regret to inform you that I won't have time to teach you today."

A look of profound horror cross Naruto's face, as if Kakashi had just cancelled Christmas. He hastened over to stand directly in front of the Jounin, gazing up at him pleadingly.

"But, but, but I'm going to get weak if you don't train me!" he protested.

"And fat," Sakura added helpfully. "With all that ramen you eat . . ." But she seemed disappointed as well.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

"How am I supposed to get any stronger if you keep making excuses for leaving us to train on our own?" he asked, a bit too intensely.

"Hey, I'll train with you," Naruto suggested, turning toward the brooding, dark-haired Genin. Kakashi gave him a sharp look that clearly meant No, but as usual Naruto's enthusiasm rendered him completely oblivious.

Sasuke, in the meantime, had stopped leaning against the training post and moved out onto the grass, looking interested. An unusually fierce look came into Naruto's eye, and he straightened, one hand lingering near his kunai.

"We never did get to fight," he remarked.

Sasuke nodded slowly. "Because the Chuunin Exam was interrupted."

The two boys stood there a moment, sizing each other up. Naruto was grinning eagerly; Sasuke wasn't smiling at all.

The sudden tension in the air made Sakura nervous.

"Wait---" she began, starting toward them, but fortunately Kakashi---no doubt sensing that blood was about to be spilt---interfered first.

"Ahem." The white-haired Jounin stepped forward, raising one fist to his mouth and clearing his throat loudly. "I can't make today's practice, but I can make it up to you," he said, addressing all three of them. "Our team has just been assigned to a new mission; I'm afraid you'll have to postpone killing each other."

Naruto turned toward him, raising an eyebrow.

"It's not raking leaves, is it?" he asked suspiciously, glancing at the fiery-red maple leaves scattered across the practice field.

Sasuke scowled, obviously equally displeased with the notion.

Kakashi held up both hands for silence.

"Let me explain," he told them. "This isn't an ordinary mission. It's Class-A. Do you recall what that means?"

Naruto's mouth fell open.

"Class A?!" Sakura exclaimed in astonishment. "That's for Jounin! Kakashi-sensei, we shouldn't be doing something of that caliber . . ."

Sasuke cast her a sidelong glance, looking as if he wanted to strangle her for protesting. A slow grin spread over Naruto's face.

"Hey, hey, Kakashi-sensei---what is it we're doing?" he asked excitedly.

Kakashi folded his arms, arching his back to gaze up at the sky. He wasn't smiling.

"An unusual request has been made of us," he said coolly. "We've been asked to make the journey to the Water Country. There's a city there called Mizutou, built right into the cliffs along the eastern coast. Its ruler, Lord Garyu, has requested our service as bodyguards."

Naruto was practically hopping up and down with impatience.

"So? Where are we taking him?" he asked. "So our route will take us across the ocean? Wow! Class-A! A real chance for glory! Can we go to the beach on our way back?"

Kakashi looked down at him, wearing an oddly closed expression.

"We're not taking him anywhere. We'll be guarding him there in Mizutou."

"Eh?" Naruto pulled a face. "Why us, then? Konoha ninjas, I mean. Doesn't Mizutou have its own ninja?"

Kakashi merely eyed him gravely, saying nothing. Sasuke sat down in the grass, smiling grimly.

"Heh. I see," he said, lowering his head so that his dark bangs fell across his forehead. "Sothat's why the mission has an A-ranking."

"Am I missing something?" Sakura asked, glancing from Sasuke to Kakashi and back again.

With a sigh, Kakashi unfolded his arms.

"Lord Garyu has reason to believe that ninja from the Hidden Village of Mist are after his life. He's spoken with the Mizukage already, but the Mizukage denies it. And there have been several attacks of late---Garyu can't afford to wait for evidence of the Mist ninja's involvement to present itself. So he seeks help from the ninja from another country." The Jounin paused, looking askance at Sasuke. "And yes, you're right---the mission has an A-ranking because what we're being hired to do here is to fight off ninja specifically trained for assassination."

"Fine," Sasuke responded, resting one hand on his knee and twiddling a blade of grass between the fingers of the other.

Sakura rounded on him, upset by his attitude.

"What do you mean, 'fine'? This is very dangerous! We have to take this seriously!"

Sasuke dropped the grass.

"Just what I said: fine," he repeated calmly. Then he glanced up at Kakashi. "When do we leave?"

Kakashi frowned a little, but didn't comment on his student's attitude.

"Tomorrow," he told them. "Pack light, and pack plainclothes. No ninja attire," he repeated firmly, directing this at Naruto, who was regarding him with a look of abject horror. "When we get to Mizutou, Lord Garyu will provide local clothes for us to wear, because we'll be staying in the city for quite some time and we need to blend in. I want you all to eat well tonight and go to sleep early---we've got a long journey ahead of us, and it's important that we make good time. The longer we take, the longer Garyu's life will be in danger."

Then he ceased speaking, and his three students stared at him.

"That's all," Kakashi told them, realizing that they expected him to say more. "I'll fill you in once we've left Konoha. Just go home."

Then he turned and walked off into the trees.

The three Genin watched him leave, wearing expressions with varying degrees of frustration and bemusement.

After a moment had passed in silence, Naruto could no longer contain himself.

"What the hell's he doing? Going for a stroll? He could have stayed to train with us . . ."

Sasuke---also watching the Jounin meander off into the woods---wore a rather sour expression as well. Sakura turned to face them. She sensed that this was a good time to lighten the mood, before her two friends decided to have a go at each other again.

"Why don't we all pack now, and then you can come over to my house for dinner?" she offered, a bit nervously.

Naruto's scowl vanished immediately, and he turned a sunny grin and a pair of very large, liquid blue eyes her way.

"Really, Sakura-chan? Really?"

Somewhat disturbed by the liquid blue eyes trained on her so adoringly, Sakura turned to Sasuke and held her breath. She managed to appear nonchalant about it, though the Inner Sakura was urging him, "SAY 'YES', DAMMIT!" She had never invited either Sasuke or Naruto home before, but she figured that a pre-mission sendoff dinner was as good an opportunity as any.

Sasuke's reaction was far from satisfactory. He merely persisted in glaring off in the direction Kakashi had taken, restlessly tearing at the grass. In Naruto's case, however, she seemed to have won his undying affection.

"All right!" he exulted, balling his fists in front of him eagerly. "Sakura-chan's cooking!"

"Er---it's my mother's---" Sakura began, somewhat taken aback by his exuberance, but then she decided against setting him straight.

'Oh, well,' she thought. 'At least I've made someone happy . . .'

"I'll come."

Sakura was so shocked to hear this that she nearly keeled over. Sasuke was looking straight at her. He wasn't smiling, but by this time she knew better than to expect that of him.

"Ah---okay," she managed, blushing furiously while the Inner Sakura exulted at the top of her lungs. "I guess I'll be going then. See you at sundown."

Having laid these plans for the evening, the three young ninja went their separate ways.

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Naruto strolled down Konoha's thoroughfare with a bit of a spring in his step.

"Dinner with Sakura-chan, dinner with Sakura-chan," he sang to himself as he went.

He was in such high spirits that he grinned widely at everyone he passed---which earned him a plethora of bemused stares from the shopkeepers and errand-runners, and more than a few worried looks from people who knew the kind of mischief he could get into. The restaurants were just beginning to open for the evening, and the savory scent of ramen wafted past his nose. Inhaling deeply, Naruto turned his head eagerly this way and that, trying to locate the source of the smell. Then he realized what he was doing and stopped himself, pounding a fist against his stomach and shaking his head vehemently.

"Sakura-chan is feeding me tonight," he told his stomach firmly. "I will be strong and hold out for Sakura-chan."

His stomach responded with a hearty gurgle. Then, because he wasn't paying attention, Naruto managed to walk right into the tall white-haired hermit heading in the opposite direction.

"Why hold out for one girl?" the man asked cheerily as Naruto bounced off him. "She'll never know if you get a little something on the side, too."

Naruto realized immediately who it was and jumped back a good three feet.

"Ero-sennin!" he shouted, pointing an accusatory finger at the Sannin's chest.

Jiraiya's grin melted into a scowl, and he waved hastily at Naruto, trying to get him to shut up.

"Brat! Do you have to yell that out here?" People walking around them were beginning to stare, and not merely because they had stopped right in the middle of the street.

Naruto, of course, who was notorious for not shutting up until he was good and ready, merely squinted at the Sannin and went on with his tirade.

"Where were you when all hell was breaking loose in Konoha?" he demanded. "Out playing with your frogs? Or peeping at girls, maybe . . ."

This was the final straw for Jiraiya---passing women were giving him rather hostile looks. Mothers were beginning to steer their children as far away from the quarreling pair as was possible amid the crowded street. Before Naruto could utter another word, the Sannin clamped one hand around the Genin's mouth and dragged him kicking and flailing into a nearby alleyway.

"Oi, oi!" Naruto exclaimed when Jiraiya had finally released him. "Ero-sennin---what's going on?"

"Hush!" Jiraiya admonished, more sternly this time. "I don't want all of Konoha to know I'm here."

"Really?" Naruto immediately quieted down, regarding the Sannin with wide, curious eyes. "Then why are you here?"

"Ah . . ." Jiraiya's frown eased, and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I came to see you, actually. I heard an interesting rumor from a frog about what happened while I was away . . . something about the Sand ninja Gaara and a giant demon?"

"Ehh . . . oh, that." Naruto looked mildly bemused. "I always thought tanuki were supposed to be cute, but he had an evil one inside him."

"A tanuki demon? Inside him?" Jiraiya smiled, but he wore an expression of uncharacteristic puzzlement. "Ah. . . that's interesting . . ."

"What? What?" Naruto peered up at him, curious because he had never seen the Sannin wear such a face.

Jiraiya stroked his chin, looking thoughtful.

"What can you tell me about this 'Gaara'?" he asked. "What sort of techniques does he use?"

Naruto cast a furtive glance down the alleyway, but the nearest people were walking past it along the main road, well beyond earshot. When he turned back toward the white-haired Sannin his face was very solemn.

"Gaara is like me," he said simply. Slowly, Jiraiya nodded understanding. "But he uses sand, like a shield. No one gets near him because of it."

'Except you,' the Sannin thought, 'because you're like him.'

But he didn't say this out loud. Instead he patted Naruto on the head in an absent sort of way, which made the yellow-haired Genin scowl. "Thanks," he said. "I think it's becoming clearer to me . . ."

Naruto cocked his head to one side, squinting up at the hermit in confusion.

"Ehh? What is?"

Jiraiya flashed him a conspiratorial grin and a thumbs-up.

"Secret business," he declared cryptically. Then, in a rush of wind, the Sannin was gone, no doubt navigating the rooftops to pursue some mysterious errand.

Naruto blinked in bemusement.

'Ehh? He asked about Gaara, so it can't have to do with peeping . . .' Naruto grimaced. 'At least, I hope it doesn't have to do with peeping . . . With Ero-sennin you never know.'

Still shaking his head, Naruto wandered back onto the main thoroughfare, earning a few suspicious looks as he emerged from the dark alley. Then he remembered . . .

"Shit!" he exclaimed, causing several women with shopping bags to jump. "Sakura-chan!" Then he took off at a dead run.

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Kakashi sat on the balcony outside his room, which overlooked one of Konoha's quieter streets. The moon shone down over the village, casting blue shadows across the streets wherever there weren't lanterns strung to hold them at bay. Shadows, of course, were no real threat to a shinobi---it was the ones who moved in them that inspired caution.

'I don't like this,' Kakashi thought, gazing off into the distance and frowning. A cold wind ruffled his hair, blowing westward.

He had promised to explain the nature of the pending mission in greater detail once his team was clear of Konoha, but there were still some secrets that he had no intention of divulging. He had been quite surprised when the village elders---some of whom were close relatives of the late Third Hokage---summoned him personally to meet with the messenger from the Water Country. It was not standard procedure, and it was also extremely unusual for the elders to concern themselves with a mission when Konoha was still ungoverned and in shambles.

They met in the ANBU Council Room in the Hokage's headquarters, which served to unnerve Kakashi even further. Going to this extent to preserve a mission's secrecy had seemed unduly excessive . . . until the elders explained the nature of this particular mission.

Kakashi's first impression of the Water-Lord's messenger was that this was a ninja whose enemies would underestimate him and then immediately come to regret it. He was introduced to the Jounin as Arashi Shikyo---a short, slender man from the Hidden Village of Rain with a quiet, unassuming manner and an easy way of moving that belied lightning-fast reflexes. Once the situation in Mizutou was explained, Kakashi understood why such a man had been dispatched. Shikyo was apparently one of Lord Garyu's personal bodyguards, and was the candidate most likely to survive a journey past the Hidden Village of Mist---where the assassins after Garyu purportedly had their base.

"But why choose me?" Kakashi had asked, frowning beneath his mask. "There are others . . . perhaps even ANBU would be more ideal in this situation." There were no ANBU members attending the meeting.

"The Water-Lord was one of the attending guests at your Chuunin Exam," Shikyo told Kakashi. "He witnessed your students' trials, and has complete faith in those you place your faith in." The Rain ninja nodded toward the chamber's one open window, which revealed a panoramic view of the Leaf Village. "My instructions are clear. You are invited to bring anyone from Konoha that you wish. However, Garyu-sama requested that you not bring ANBU into this. The Mist Ninja already have fingers pointing to them in accusation; they would no doubt interpret it as a threat to their Village if they learned that Konoha was involved. That is why Garyu-sama requested a small company of Leaf Ninja---so that Konoha's presence there would not be intrusive." Shikyo's sharp gaze turned back toward Kakashi. "And my lord will only provide funding for you and your team. All others will come only at your behest."

Kakashi's eyes narrowed.

'He's trapped me---forcing me to undertake this mission with only myself and my team, because Konoha can't afford to send shinobi on missions for which they won't be paid. But why? Why my team?'

Aloud, he asked, "Which still leaves me to wonder: why was I chosen in particular?"

Shikyo's smooth expression turned grim.

"There is a special technique used by the assassins each time they make an attempt on Garyu-sama's life," he murmured. "According to the dossiers my lord acquired on his last visit to Konoha---during the Chuunin Exam---there are only two living in your village able to use this technique. Your name was listed, as was your profile, and the profile of the other man."

Kakashi was so shocked that he took an involuntary step backward.

"Then . . . you mean . . . ?" The Jounin glanced at the attending Leaf elders for confirmation. To his horror, they nodded gravely.

That night, seated cross-legged on his balcony, Kakashi whispered the accursed name.

"Shinkuhana no Jutsu---the Crimson Blossom Technique."

It was an assassin's technique---one Kakashi had spent nearly thirteen years praying he would never need to use.

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Despite the haste with which he traversed the streets, Naruto was still the last to arrive at Sakura's house.

"Damn that Ero-sennin, making me late," he muttered as he wrapped on her door.

From inside he heard a brief exchange between several people, followed by someone's footsteps as they approached the door. Suddenly feeling a bit nervous, he straightened his jacket-collar and readied the bunch of flowers he'd bought on the way. They were pink, like Sakura's hair.

The door swung open, and Naruto swallowed hard, holding the bouquet out in front of him.

What he got was an eyeful of Sasuke, who had been elected to let him in because the rest of Sakura's family was busy in the kitchen. The two Genin stared silently at each other for a minute beneath the glow of the porch light. Then Sasuke turned a cool eye down toward the proffered flowers.

"Those had better not be for me," he said, backing up and opening the door further to allow Naruto passage.

Naruto, whose flesh was crawling at the very thought, grumbled, "Hell no," and brushed past his fellow Genin. Once inside, however, he stopped in his tracks and took to gazing intently at his surroundings. Sakura's house was much neater than his own apartment, and much larger. The walls in the dining room were painted yellow and everywhere he looked there was evidence of a woman's touch, from the d├ęcor to the arrangement of the framed photos on the shelves. Though he couldn't quite pinpoint why, Naruto decided he liked it.

"Stop grinning like that; you're making me nervous."

Sakura had just entered the room, wearing an apron over her red jumper and carrying a ladle in one hand.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto greeted her excitedly, turning and offering her the bouquet.

Caught off-guard, she accepted it and bent to breathe in the scent. Naruto beamed; Sasuke merely folded his arms and looked bored.

"Erm---thanks," Sakura finally responded, returning his smile for once. Then she disappeared back into the kitchen with them, presumably to find a vase.

While Sasuke seated himself at the table, Naruto took to examining the photos on the shelves. Having never had one of his own, he was curious to see what sort of family Sakura had.

"Hey, hey, Sasuke, you should see this!" he called, picking one of them up and waving it in the air. "Sakura-chan as a baby, butt naked!"

"Naruto! Don't be looking at that!" Sakura shouted, hurtling back into the room and looking so outraged she seemed possessed.

Sasuke watched with folded arms as Naruto received a fist in the jaw for his troubles, wearing a slight smile. At that moment, Sakura's mother emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of dumplings.

"May I help you with anything else, Mother?" Sakura asked sweetly. Both Sasuke and Naruto stared at her in amazement.

'Her---her personality just did a full one-eighty,' Naruto thought, gaping in wonderment and rubbing his chin. 'So scary . . .'

"Ehh, it's all right, Sakura," her mother replied, eyeing the two boys speculatively. "You can keep your friends company while your father finishes cooking the yakisoba."

She was a rather pretty woman, with dark hair and eyes and a very fine oval-shaped face. She looked more like she could have given birth to Sasuke than Sakura. Sasuke favored her with one of his rare genuine smiles and bowed respectfully. Sakura's mother returned the smile briefly, but her eyes were on Naruto. Her expression was wary, as if he were a stray dog her daughter had let into the house that might possibly be rabid. Still rubbing his jaw, Naruto grinned at her, which unfortunately made him look every bit as impish as his reputation suggested.

Without another word, she turned briskly and strode back into the kitchen. Sakura turned toward Naruto with her fists on her hips.

"You didn't break anything yet, did you?"

"No," Naruto replied somewhat indignantly. "See?" He held up the picture to show that it was still intact and then replaced it on the shelf with exaggerated carefulness.

Sakura scowled at it.

"It'd be okay if you broke that," she muttered.

"Hey, Sakura, let's go to your room," Naruto suggested, his mind already jumping to the next impulse to flash through his brain.

Sakura laid a finger to her lower lip, looking somewhat uneasy. Then, without warning, she took off down the hall, shouting, "Wait there a sec!" over her shoulder. Presently several banging and scraping noises echoed down the hall. Naruto and Sasuke exchanged bemused glances, and then looked up when Sakura came hurtling back into the room.

"All clean now," she panted, and the two of them followed her to her bedroom.

Naruto, who had never seen the inside of a girl's bedroom, immediately began making a case study of it. Sakura immediately found her hands full with keeping him out of the drawers containing her underwear; he was rampantly curious about every bit of jewelry lying around and every poster on the wall, and most of all the framed pictures of her family that she had on display. "Sakura's clan" he called them, which seemed to embarrass her because she didn't understand his enthusiasm.

'Of course not,' Naruto thought to himself. 'She has a family.'

This made him feel a bit odd, so he turned his attention to the enormous mirror mounted into a stand near Sakura's dresser.

"I bet Sakura-chan primps in front of it every morning," he remarked, casting an impish eye toward Sasuke. Then he formed a quick seal, shouted "Henge!" and abruptly another Sakura stood in front of the mirror.

"Naruto!" Sakura protested, "what are you---?"

"I can't wear this; it makes me look fat," Naruto simpered in Sakura's voice. "Oh, Sasuke, will you ever notice my lovely white legs?" Sakura's double struck a pose in front of the mirror, lifting one corner of his/her red jumper to expose more of his/her thigh.

Sakura, who did primp every morning, rewarded his prank with a fist in the gut.

"Oi!" Naruto wheezed, staggering backward and clutching at his belly. "You shouldn't hit a girl." Then the transformation vanished in a puff of smoke, and he landed on his rear end on the floor. While Sakura glanced nervously at Sasuke, who was sitting on her bed, Naruto doubled over with laughter. However, he still hadn't quite recovered from having the wind knocked out of him, and so it sounded more like he was choking.

Sasuke had been watching the proceedings with folded arms and his perpetually bored expression.

"What an idiot, eh?" Sakura remarked, laughing a bit nervously. It was a bit hard to think clearly when the Inner Sakura was shouting, "YES! Sasuke is in MY bedroom, on MY bed!" and other such impure thoughts. Then she turned back toward Naruto, who was rolling around on the floor. 'It would be perfect if HE weren't here . . .'

"Kakashi seems awfully close-mouthed about this mission," Sasuke said unexpectedly. His friends abandoned their previous engagements to turn and stare at him.

The dark-haired Genin was gazing absently at his own reflection in the mirror.

"What do you mean?" Naruto asked, sitting up and drawing his knees into a cross-legged position. "He seemed pretty straight-forward about it to me. . ."

Sasuke leaned forward, steepling his fingers in front of his chin.

"Think about it. He admitted that he isn't going to tell us everything until we've left Konoha." His sharp black eyes switched from the mirror to Naruto's face. "That's like saying there's some sort of danger in Konoha itself---danger that might put the mission at risk."

Sakura shook her head.

"But why would someone in the Leaf Village care about some feudal lord in the Water Country?"

"Precisely," Sasuke agreed, nodding to himself.

'What a freak,' Naruto thought, staring at the other boy with one eye squinted and the opposite eyebrow raised. 'Worrying about all that stuff now . . . Kakashi-sensei's just going to tell us anyway tomorrow morning.'

Sakura, on the other hand, looked starry-eyed and impressed.

"You're right," she breathed. "There has to be more to this. After all, it is an A-Class mission." Her last modicum of misgivings about the danger level seemed to have evaporated in the presence of her object of desire. "And if the Mist Ninja are involved, then---"

"Sakura!" her mother called from the kitchen. "Dinner is ready!"

"Coming!" Sakura shouted. Her two friends followed her back down the hall to the dining room, where everything had already been served and was now steaming gently on their plates.

"All right!" Naruto exulted as he seated himself across from Sakura. "Itadakimasu!"

"Itadakimasu," Sasuke said, taking hold of a dumpling between his chopsticks in a far more dignified manner.

"Itadakimasu," Sakura echoed. She had seated herself next to Sasuke so that their hands could "accidentally" brush every time he passed a dish around. She fully intended to eat her fill tonight.

Sakura's mother was still giving Naruto the evil eye. Naruto, who was quite accustomed to people giving him the evil eye, grinned at her and said, "Delicious!" before popping an entire rice-ball into his mouth. The woman's scowl deepened, and she turned away to avoid looking at him at all.

"So your mission this time is to act as bodyguards for a foreign lord, is it?" Sakura's father asked them, helping himself to the yakisoba. "And you're meeting Kakashi-san early tomorrow morning?"

"That's right," Sakura replied, forcing a smile, as if fending off skilled assassins were something she looked forward to.

"It's so odd, though, that Kakashi-san feels your mission could last as long as a month," her mother remarked.

The three Genin exchanged bemused glances. In the end, none of them replied.

"Well, Sasuke-kun, I saw your fight at the Chuunin Exam, and it was quite impressive," Sakura's father said, leaning forward to gaze down the table at the dark-haired boy. He was a somewhat homely man, but he had a wide, honest face and an engaging smile. Naruto could see where Sakura inherited her forehead from, but her father's hair was brown. Somehow he felt that a black-haired mother and a brown-haired father should not have been able to produce a daughter with light pink hair.

'Or maybe genetics don't apply to anime heroines,' he decided, nodding to himself while chewing soba.

At the mention of the Chuunin Exam Sasuke's black eyes narrowed, and his mood visibly soured.

"Ah . . . Sasuke-kun, can you please pass the gyoza?" Sakura asked, seeking to distract him before he could lapse into silent brooding. For some reason, any mention of his fight with Gaara seemed to instantly darken his mood.

Oblivious to the delicacy of the situation, Naruto warmed to the topic.

"Yeah. It's too bad Orochimaru attacked, or Sasuke would have really kicked that creepy guy's ass."

Sakura shot him a glare while piling gyoza on her plate, completely missing the fact that Sasuke's hand brushed hers in the process. Sakura's father nodded seriously.

"I was amazed at how strong you were against him," he remarked. "Gaara was dangerous---dangerous even to his own comrades. One of the men placing bets told me that even the Sand Ninja were afraid of him, and that he killed people in his own village."

Sakura's mother's lips pursed, giving her face a rather pinched, fierce look to it.

"The rumor was going around the stadium that he had a demon beast inside him," she said distastefully. "Sealed into him, and then they gave him a shield of sand to protect him! Who would want to protect such a monster?" As she spoke, her gaze slid sideways toward Naruto, who paused mid-chew in surprise.

"They only kept him to use against Konoha," Sakura's father suggested. "But he was definitely what I'd call a dangerous tool."

Naruto swallowed hurriedly.

"Gaara was strong, but he used his strength in a bad way," he told them. "He was alone, and it made him angry because he didn't trust or rely on anyone." He shrugged. "He's creepy, but I don't think he's the sort of guy who can't change."

Sakura blinked, unsure what to make of this strange little speech. Her parents, on the other hand, seemed to be radiating disapproval in Naruto's direction.

"You sympathize with him?" Sakura's father asked. Suddenly his smile was no longer engaging. "But, then, you of all---"

His wife cut him off sharply.

"Gaara may be able to change on the outside," she agreed with Naruto, but her tone was frosty. "And maybe the Sand may come to see him as a hero . . ."

With a jolt, realization hit Naruto like one of Sakura's left-hooks: Sakura's parents knew that the Nine-Tails demon had been sealed inside himOf course they knew. How could he have forgotten? All the adults knew . . . And just now, if Sakura's mother had not interrupted what her husband was about to say, he might have blurted out the secret, right in front of Sasuke and Sakura.

"However," Sakura's mother went on, "inside he will always be a monster." Delicately, she captured a dumpling between her chopsticks. "Regardless of whom he fools."

Naruto tried to swallow, but the piece of tofu stuck in his throat. Every instinct in his brain was telling him to leave Right Now, before the conversation got any uglier. It had been a while since he'd come across people like this. He had no way of knowing if Sakura's parents had lost an uncle; a sister; a friend---but it was all the same. They blamed him because he was like a living symbol of their pain---a living legacy of their grief for those killed by the Nine-Tails. It never stopped hurting him because he was the sort of boy who understood the pain of others, and this nearly defied his understanding. He didn't think he could bear it if his friends found out.

Sakura stared back and forth between her parents in confusion. The Inner Sakura was demanding, "WHAT THE HELL?" Sasuke merely folded his hands in front of his mouth and studied Sakura's mother intently. He had been listening to the entire conversation with keen interest, because he had no idea what was going on either and his sharp mind liked to wrap itself around things that puzzled him.

Naruto laid his chopsticks across his plate and wiped his fingers on the front of his pant legs beneath the table.

"Thank you for the meal," he told Sakura's mother, who was chewing her dumpling idly as if she hadn't just delivered such a stinging veiled insult. "It was delicious." Then he shoved his chair back from the table and stood up to leave.

Sakura finally recovered from her confusion enough to be surprised at the abruptness of his leave-taking.

"Eh---Naruto? Why are---?" she began, but her father interrupted her.

"I'm sure he wants to turn in early so he's well rested for the start of the mission tomorrow."

"Right." Naruto nodded, and with a forced grin he turned quickly and headed for the door. "See you in the morning, then."

There was an unnatural spring in his step so obviously false that Sakura and Sasuke merely stared at him in silence. Then the door swung shut behind him, and he stood alone on the porch. It was later now, and the streets had grown quiet. Most of the people who had been out before had either arrived home, could be found sitting in bars and restaurants with friends and family. Naruto took a deep breath, and then stepped beyond the light of Sakura's porch and onto the road.

He took his time going home; the truth was he wasn't the least bit tired, or inclined to turn in early for the sake of the mission. He was still hungry as well, and as he walked alone he had his stomach's growling to keep him company. Because of the noise and his hurt feelings, it took Naruto quite some time before he noticed that he was being trailed.

At first he thought it was just his imagination---that he was seeing the shadow of someone passing by him on the main road, but then he realized that the shadow had no accompanying person to cast it.

"Ero-sennin?" he muttered, a bit uncertainly, wondering if the old frog-hermit were trying to get him alone to talk. However, from the fleeting glimpses of it that he caught he could see that it was someone much shorter and thinner around the shoulders. 'It's not Konohamaru,' he thought with a grimace. 'That kid couldn't hide his ass with both hands and a camouflage technique.'

Naruto scratched his head, squinting at the surrounding buildings and trying to catch another glimpse. None came. Whoever it was, they apparently didn't want to talk to him; they wanted to followhim. Naruto jammed his hands in his pockets, adopting a casual swagger and whistling as he moved down the street.

'I hope it's not Sakura's mother, coming to kill me,' he thought, a bit worriedly.

After about fifteen minutes of pretending to be unaware of his stalker, Naruto turned and ducked abruptly into a narrow side-street. He was about to take off at a dead run using shinobi speed, but curiosity got the better of him and he hesitated, peering back the way he'd come to see if the shadow moved again.

Nothing moved; the street was empty.

Slowly, Naruto backed up, preparing to turn and run like hell for home. Instead he found himself backing into someone standing behind him. An arm swathed in white cloth clamped around his neck, immediately trapping him in a choke-hold. In the other hand his captor held a kunai, with the blade pressed against Naruto's throat.

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Within the privacy of the ANBU Council Room, where just seven hours earlier Hatake Kakashi had met with Konoha's Elders, the Elders now presided over the report of an ANBU squad that had recently returned to the village. The squad was large---composed of ten people---but this wasn't unusual given the nature of their previous mission. They had been sent out onto the public roads in groups of two and three, posing as ordinary wayfarers in order to trail the Sand Ninja as they made their way home. Or, more specifically, they had been sent to follow Gaara, the leader of the Sand's only representing team. A full report on what had transpired in the Forest of Death during the chaos after the Chuunin Exam had been made, composed of the accounts of several eye-witnesses. What concerned ANBU the most was the fact that Gaara, like Uzumaki Naruto, had a demon sealed inside him, and thus they'd elected to begin immediate investigation of the boy. The investigation was mainly to determine what precautions the Sand were taking to keep him under control.

The investigation took a sudden dark turn when the corpses began turning up along the road. Only one ANBU team trailed Gaara all the way to the Sand Village; the rest ended up investigating the strange deaths. It was obvious that Gaara was the killer, but what puzzled the Leaf ninja was the fact that the "victims" were apparently anything but innocent. Some of the bodies were mangled beyond recognition, for Gaara had apparently employed his "Desert Coffin" technique against them, but ANBU found discarded weapons lying near them, indicating that they had died because they dared to attack the Sand boy. Those attackers that he had not used Desert Coffin on were usually to be found lying with their mouths grotesquely open and their lungs filled with sand. Upon investigating thesegruesome sites ANBU found that all of the attackers had at least two things in common: they were all shinobi, and all of them were exiles from their various villages. This was evident from their forehead protectors, upon which there was always a slantwise slash across the village emblems.

The matter had been brought before the Leaf Elders because ANBU was at a loss. Their first intuitive guess was that some of the feudal lords attending the Chuunin Exam had bet against Sasuke and lost a great deal of money, and that these lords were sending assassins to get their revenge against Gaara himself. However, this didn't seem entirely plausible because of the sheer numberof assassins that had been sent. Shinobi assassins didn't come cheap, and exiled shinobi living as mercenaries were oftentimes even more expensive. It seemed unlikely that feudal lords who had just lost enough money to make them seek vengeance against Gaara would be able to afford hiring this many killers.

The Leaf Elders ruled that it was far more likely that the assassins had all come from one group, which implied that there was some form of hidden organization built up somewhere. After the havoc that Orochimaru had wreaked with his forces from the Hidden Village of Sound, such an investigation was well worth pursuing. Konoha had learned its lesson, and wasn't going to be taking any more chances.

In the shadows on the rooftop just above the Council Room, Jiraiya was seated cross-legged, eavesdropping. "Another secret organization, like Orochimaru's?" he murmured softly to himself, stroking his chin with his thick fingers. "Or maybe it is Orochimaru's."

The Sannin had missed the aftermath of the Chuunin Exam fiasco, having spent that weekend carousing in a civilian village some thirty miles away after staying just long enough to attend the Third Hokage's funeral. However, en route back to Konoha, he happened to cross paths with one of the ANBU squads trailing Gaara, and had incidentally developed in interest in the strange nature of the murders. What little Naruto told him about Gaara had been enough to arouse his concern, and thus when he'd caught wind of the place and time for the ANBU meeting---namely, by getting one of the ANBU members roaring drunk and plying her for information---he'd decided to listen in.

"The real question," one of the Leaf Elders told the assembled squad, "is not whom but why. From the report, it almost seems as if someone is testing this Sand boy---pitting him against assassins of varied skills, perhaps to see if he is truly invulnerable."

Jiraiya frowned, shadows pooling in the deepening creases of his face. Gaara's innate uniqueness stemmed from the demon contained within him. Whoever was sending the assassins could just as easily send them after Naruto . . .

Abruptly, the Sannin rose to his feet and leaped from the roof. He moved swiftly and silently through the village, never once slowing until he had arrived at Naruto's apartment. When his knocking went unanswered, Jiraiya simply let himself in. The apartment was dark and empty, and from the looks of things Naruto had left recently and with great haste. His regular orange jumpsuit lay in a crumpled heap across the bed, but Naruto seemed to have taken everything else with him that wasn't nailed down. Perhaps it had merely been carelessness, but the boy had also left his door unlocked.

Jiraiya was beginning to be alarmed. Standing in his student's abandoned apartment, he found himself giving serious consideration to revealing his presence here to the Leaf Elders. He sighed.

Sadly, some things were more important than having the freedom to drink and womanize in complete anonymity. There weren't many, but this was one of them.

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Two Hours Earlier

"If I were an assassin," Naruto's captor murmured in his ear, "I could have killed you by now."

Then the arm across Naruto's neck loosened, and Naruto sprang away from his attacker.

"What the hell?" Naruto bellowed indignantly, standing splay-legged and brandishing his fists. "What are you doing here?"

Calmly, Sasuke reinserted the kunai into his pouch and folded his arms in front of him, regarding Naruto coolly.

"On my way home, I met Kakashi," he informed his fellow Genin. "He sent me to find you. Really, if you're going to let yourself be caughtthiseasily you shouldn't bother with A-Class missions."

Naruto squinted at him suspiciously.

"If you had something to tell me, why didn't you just tell me, instead of following me all this way? Creepy guy . . ."

Sasuke's faint look of amusement darkened into a frown.

"I wasn't" he said, casting a brief, bemused glance at the street behind Naruto. "You must be imagining things. But anyway, Kakashi sent me to fetch you and your supplies."

Naruto blinked.

"Eh? Now?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

"It seems he's changed his mind about the mission. We're leaving tonight."

o---O---o o---O---o o---O---o

Twenty minutes later, Kakashi's Team Seven had regrouped outside the village gates. After Kakashi had taken a swift inventory of what his young charges were bringing with them---doubtlessly suspecting that Naruto's favorite orange jumpsuit might be stowing away in his pack---they took off through the forest beyond at a dead run. Kakashi's expression---what they could see of it, at any rate---seemed unusually grim. The three Genin exchanged puzzled glances as they ran.

Finally, Sakura broke the silence.

"Uh, Kakashi-sensei, is something wrong?" she asked, a bit nervously because Kakashi looked a bit pale.

"I will answer when we've reached the place where the road forks and veers to the east," the Jounin replied quietly. "But not before. The mission's danger may have begun before we even left the village, and I won't risk the possibility of anyone overtaking us."

"But I don't understand, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto insisted. "Why would the road going east be any safer?"

Kakashi's one visible eye narrowed.

"We'll be meeting Garyu's personal guard there. He knows the enemy better than we do." The Jounin paused, and went silent for a moment as they flew from tree to tree. "I want you all to be prepared," he went on, ducking his head to avoid a low-hanging branch. "That is where our Mizutou ally comes in. If you go into this without knowing exactly what to expect, I can guarantee you that this mission will cost at least one of our lives."

END OF CHAPTER 1